Beneath the Shadow of Swans

Hello everyone, it has been ages since I posted anything, but I wanted to share this short story with you all. On Facebook today, a photographer was giving away a beautiful download of a photo she took, one she would normally sell, but she wanted to do something nice for people in this chaotic time. Her only request was those of us who downloaded it, do something nice as well. So, here is a short story I wrote a few months ago for a contest. Today I found out it didn’t place in the contest, and as I started searching for other contests to enter it in I thought, no, this may be my opportunity. I hope this story will give some readers a little escape in their day, a sliver of peace in the madness.

P.S I live on a beautiful river in British Columbia, and ever winter we are visited by swans. As I thought about them one day, the story sort of came to me, and after a few hours, and then a few days of rewriting, here we are.

The swans visited the river yearly, heralding the coming winter and Darcy Blunt had come to watch them for as long as he could remember. He had missed only one winter, passing the days instead fighting fevered death.  The swans were not so precise as to arrive at the same date and time every year, but fate was kinder than swans. Fate took him by the hand and led him home to the river banks, somehow matching his arrival with theirs year after year. 

The fascination for the birds bloomed in Darcy early and never left him. With dimpled, restless fingers threaded through his mother’s thin ones, he would tug and pull until they reached the right spot. Then he would sit and wonder and watch. His mother would joke it was the only time he sat still all year. Even now, with his broken body aided by his crutch, and age starting to shadow his years, the wonder never left him. How could a body, so round, a neck so outrageously long, a bird who could make such a sound, be the epitome of grace? How did they alight upon the water with scarcely a rippled, and float suspended?

That day, the sun, such a rare company in the winter months, bounced off the river’s inky depths and left a glow behind Darcy’s lids when he blinked. With a grunt, eased his body down onto the worn stone bench and settled his overcoat around him before allowing the air to seep from his lungs. Peace and mist clung to the edges of the water, the later giving way inch by inch at the sun’s insistence. The occasional trumpet would echo through the flock as they dipped their heads below the surface and paddled. They would stay a day or two, but no more, and once they took to flight, the only thing left of their presence would be a white plume or two, kissing the river’s banks. Darcy had one such feather, pressed inside a book. He had made a gift of it once, and fate had returned it.

Memories pressed upon his shoulders, and Darcy shook himself from his thoughts, not trusting the path they took. His fingers plucked at the empty pleat of his trouser, and the shadow of gunpowder bittered his tongue. If he did not stop his mind, he would see the ocean of treetops rushing up to greet him. Hear the shriek of twisting metal.

A crunch of snow beneath boot soles startled him. He jerked in his seat and made to turn, but a voice spoke rendering him helpless.

“I don’t believe the swans would appreciate you glowering so.” A voice from his past, his dreams, rich as honey and fluttering at the edges. Darcy closed his eyes, fearing a trick, a jest by his wicked mind. What other explanation could there be?

The footsteps crunched closer. “I dreamed I’d find you here, yet I never imagined I would.” She lowered herself down beside him, assuming a spot that, though vacant for years, always belonged to her.  “Darcy, please look at me.”

He did, the pleading in her voice piercing his soul. She shimmered like a mirage, and he blinked against the fog

A trembling began in his belly and spread through his limbs. “Annie.” The word was a memory, the remnants of a life denied to him. “How can it be you?” 

Her heart-shaped face bore the etchings of time in a fashion that spoke of more smiles than frowns. A tear escaped her amber eyes and wove a trail off her jaw and down her long neck. “I’m not sure I know, but it is. I promise you, it is.”

“Your house. There was nothing left.” Nothing but a white feather, resting, pinned amongst the rocks. A last goodbye. Something by which to remember. He raised his shaking hands, displaying the scars bisecting his palms. “I dug through the rubble until they dragged me away. You’re dead, Annie. The feather—” His voice broke apart. 

 “You found it?” She took his hand from the air and settled it in hers. Their fingers settled together like puzzle pieces. 

“I thought it meant you were gone,” Darcy whispered. The wind touched caressed his face and chilled his own tears.

“They evacuated us an hour before the bombs. There was no time to leave word, but I left it, praying you would know,” Annie shook her head, a soft laugh escaping, “I meant it to be a signal, Darcy. Free, like the swans.” Annie expelled a breath, the whole of her form slumping in on itself. “It took us days, on foot, to reach my aunt’s farm.” 

“I sent you letters,” she said, “Hundreds of them.”

“I never received them.”

A dark curl, threaded with silver, brushed her cheek as she nodded. “Some came back, eventually, tied in a packet with a note that read ‘Pilot Blunt is MIA and presumed dead’ and nothing more. I thought the unknowing would kill me. I had to keep going, I had my sisters and mother to look after.”

“My plane went down and I was captured. A POW until ‘45” 

They sat, buffeted by memories and winter air. 

“I’m sorry, Darcy. I’m sorry I didn’t wait longer.”

Darcy shook his head, “Do not apologize for surviving, Annie. For doing what you had too. It was all anyone could do. It was what I did.”

“Is that where it happened?” she asked, inclining her head in the direction of his folded pant leg.

“Yes, shattered in the crash. I lost it a week later to the caring hands of a German physician.”

Annie’s swallow was audible. “Better a leg than you,” she said after a moment.

Darcy thumbed the metal around her finger. “You’re married.”

Her eyes rested on their joined hands, “He passed two years ago. Sudden and massive pulmonary embolism.”

“I’m sorry.”

She inclined her head but said nothing.

“Do you have children?” 

“No,” she said. “You?”

“No. I never married. Women aren’t so keen on a broken man who can’t provide for them.”

“I work,” Annie said matter-of-factly. They sat, the years tugging at them. Darcy allowed her words to sink in. Her presence there at his side, to become real.

When he could wait no longer, Darcy asked, “What made you search for me?”

She turned her face to him, and her smile was the one he remembered, the one that haunted his dreams and comforted his broken heart. It reminded him of picnics and rainy day kisses, before the world turned ugly. 

“The salon was running behind. While I waited I read the back issues of the newspapers. There was an article about an anniversary celebration for pilots who received their DFC medals after the war. I thought my heart would stop when I saw your picture. I blubbered so hard one of the other ladies forced a swallow from her flask and her handkerchief on me.” She blinked, but her eyes continued to shine. “I had no idea how to find you, not a clue where you were living. But my heart demanded I find you, and I had to listen.” 

Wrapping her other hand around their clasped ones, she studied the knot the digits made.

“That was in the spring. I was a mess of nerves, longing to fly to your side but having no destination. One day I was sat on a park bench.” Annie closed her eyes, “I heard a noise and a pair of swans waddled past. I remembered how you told me they mate for life. Then I knew.” 

They turned their gazes to the flock bobbing like clouds on the ice-crusted waters. “It’s been torture waiting for winter to fall. I’ve visited this spot every day for the last two weeks. I was so scared I would miss you, or you wouldn’t come at all.”

“I only brought you once,” Darcy said.

“You gave me a feather. You spoke of flying with such passion; it was part of you. How could I forget?”

Darcy squeezed her hand, so fine-boned. Calluses marked the bases of her fingers. Years of words too long stored, sought escape, but ended up clogging his throat. The wind teased Annie’s hair and carried her perfume to his nose. Then, as if by some wordless cue, the swans unfurled their wings and exploded with a thunderous flap into the air. Darcy and Annie watched as they faded into the horizon, swallowed, eventually by the afternoon sun. “Do you still love tea and scones?” Darcy asked once the birds were no longer visible. Annie flashed him a dimpled smile, and for a moment she was the girl he met on a London street so many years ago. “There are many things that change in this life, Darcy, but some things always have and always will remain the same.”

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