The Black Swan

by Cassie Ingaben

Münster was cold and damp, and its zoo even drearier than zoos usually are. Dorian waded through the slimy, mucky path as fastidiously as possible. At least he'd lost the schoolchildren now, who'd stampeded forward to jeer and be jeered at by the monkeys—which was where they belonged, as far as he was concerned. His hair tangled with a bare-branched bush, dark twigs swollen with soggy rainwater. Dorian tried to ban his dispiriting surroundings and focus on the reason why he'd come here. The black swan.

As he grew older, he'd found himself remembering more and more long-forgotten poems, school hours spent daydreaming over the wrong books. Yeats' swans were now flying inside his mind, wheeling in great broken rings, nine-and-fifty from nineteen autumns before. More like 17, actually.

Another time, one Indian summer day flaming with warm liquid light, also in the past, he'd quoted the poem to Colin. He had laughed, told him he was being morbid, he should "lighten up." Yet he'd been light that day, heart not grown old, nor body; unwearied still, lover by lover.

Dorian almost slipped on the uneven path, and shivered, torn back to the present. Colin had gone—and good riddance, he warned himself—so had the October light. It was February, and darkening already. He'd better hurry, before the black swan flew away. The pond could not be that far.

The path twisted once more, and Dorian was surprised by the white plastic boat, pure Neuschwanstein kitsch. It was bigger than he'd imagined, much bigger than any swan, floating unbending and severe on the dun pool, staring at some far-away horizon from the dark eyebrow shading its invisible eyes. A bell-beat of wings announced the black swan, descending honking and shrunken by its unresponsive mate. Next to the boat's streamlined profile, the real swan looked scruffy and moist, ridiculously small, moulting wings mangy and old. Spotting Dorian, the animal hissed and spluttered, pathetically trying to defend its white, fearless mate. The pond rippled and splashed, splattering his boots. They were already ruined anyway—stupid idea to wear suede—so Dorian stood still, until the swan quietened down, paddling to stay in place. The plastic swan bobbed its head gently, approvingly. Loyalty was appreciated, it seemed.

Abruptly, Dorian turned and left without looking back. He had not been loyal—but then, he'd never had Klaus; not really. He'd just paddled along, honking and preening; and then, tired of being beaked and hissed at, flown south. The voice in his head switched to the other poem, as it always did when Dorian got closer to his February pilgrimage. He hated it, but he could not stop it. And maybe he deserved it. He quickly retraced his steps, out of the dreadful zoo, away from the swan's doomed love. Stupid bird, really—summer flings over, forever returning to its unresponding, hopelessly ill-fitting boat. Looking for what? Resting their wings.

It started to snow, sleet actually, grey and slushy, destined to melt in icy puddles. No deep snow piled above thee. Yet, it would slow down his southward drive; he'd get to Eberbach late into the night. Well, the gasthaus knew him by now, and they would not mind. Last year he'd been so late, he'd almost missed it. Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee? Dorian threw himself into his car—a rented Mercedes, he was stupid that way—fumbling for the keys with frozen fingers. Cold in the earth.

The drive was long, icy roads mercifully treacherous, requiring all his concentration, almost drowning out the obsessive repetition of lines in his mind. He finally stopped the car and got out. The graveyard's gate was ridiculously easy to open—but then, who would get in or out in a sleety February night? It was dark, but Dorian knew his way.

The stone was solid white, plain and streamlined. Iron-black letters spelled out a name and two dates. It was always strangely jarring to realise how Dorian, who had been five years younger, was now the older by almost a decade. He knelt, and laid his single red rose on the cold marble. Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee.

Far away, a church bell rang midnight. Another year he'd made it just in time. How long again? How long before he'd wake up one day and realise he'd missed it? And how old would it feel, then? How forlorn?

21 June, 2007

In memoriam M.C.

7 July 1967-21 June 1992


You can read the story of Petra the black swan here.

Here is a picture of Neuschwanstein, the swan-themed Bavarian Schloss built by Ludwig II.

In the story, Dorian refers to the following poems:

The Wild Swans at Coole

William Butler Yeats

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?


Emily Bronte

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,

Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!

Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,

Sever'd at last by Time's all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover

Over the mountains, on that northern shore,

Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover

Thy noble heart for ever, ever more?

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers

From those brown hills have melted into spring:

Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers

After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,

While the world's tide is bearing me along;

Other desires and other hopes beset me,

Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lighten'd up my heaven,

No second morn has ever shone for me;

All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given,

All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.

But when the days of golden dreams had perish'd,

And even Despair was powerless to destroy;

Then did I learn how existence could be cherish'd,

Strengthen'd and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—

Wean'd my young soul from yearning after thine;

Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten

Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,

Dare not indulge in memory's rapturous pain;

Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,

How could I seek the empty world again?