There were swans on the river, and I thought:
keep your distance, they bite. They’ll break your arm with their wings.
That last part isn’t true, but the thought came all the same.
Made me wary of the swans below, made me stick to the bridge path and stay off the lawn.
The swans, swimming quiet on the water, didn’t look up.
I once rode a swan on a shallow pond. Its fibreglass wings flared up and around me,
boat-shaped body gliding over water murky-green with algae.
I pet the swan gingerly, the smooth white body burning hot in the summer sun.
The swan made a hitching motion as it took the pond’s curving edge. The turn let me see the water behind me and I waved to my sister, leaning forward on her own swan, bucket hat shading her eyes.
Then her swan turned the bend and she was out of sight, blocked by wings and a long curving neck.
There once was a field full of swans, so white and unexpected that I thought they were an early snow.
They were a sign of autumn ending all the same.
I sat up straighter in the passenger seat but the moment passed with highway speed and they were gone.
I once rode a swan on a shallow pond, gave it a name that I shared with my sister afterwards.
We thanked our swans from the wooden exit platform, knew the swans liked us best.
The last time we rode the swans, we didn’t know it was the last time. I don’t even remember when that was. There’s no story to it.
The last time we rode the swans we didn’t know that sometimes you stop doing things for no specific reason, without ceremony or second thought, and you don’t know when that’s coming.
Watching swans on the river, I nearly remembered something about myself.
I lost it almost immediately, but the feel of it made me smile. Whatever it was, it was something I needed to hear.
Sometimes you don’t realize a swan will follow you everywhere, even when you aren’t looking for one.
White wings fanned open on the water below.
I make too many promises.
I mean them at the time—I really do. But life’s distracting and too short and my excuses have a knack for sounding reasonable. Or a knack for digging me out of shit well enough.
Funny thing is, I tried coming through on this one. I really did. That little witch in her willow-wood cottage had one shot at the magic working and instead of carrying her letter to town, I said I’d do it myself. We’d met enough times for her to know better, but I meant what I said, and she believed me.
Now there’s bits of broken eggshell all across the table and the only thing that came spilling out was a slice of red silk.
A slice of red silk and one, two, three, four… five pieces of a broken star.
I’ve got those pieces wrapped in the silk now. I could walk the other way, never go to the willow-wood cottage again—or give it a month at least. But I’m not ready for drastic measures and I’ll think of something on the way.
I’ll think of something.
I’ll think of something.
She’s seen me at the gate because she opens the door before I can knock. The silk’s all balled up in my fist and there are five little points inside and I’ve got nothing. Just a handful of shattered magic. I made her a promise and I’d meant it—really meant it—but failure turned it to lies all the same. And where’s the wormy wriggle out? The excuse? It’s not here, is it?
She’s seen the colour of the silk or the not-ready look on my face and her tears are falling. Just falling. All I’ve got is this silk and, clumsy fool that I am, I take that silk and try to dab her tears away. The attempt spots the fabric. I keep the star pieces awkwardly in my hand because I’m not ready to drop them just yet. And I tell the truth, the horrible truth: that I’m only sorry. I’m so sorry. Even though that’s not good enough.
And she smiles. You know, that smile breaks me.
An apology, she says, you know, that’s all I ever wanted.
And when she nods, I kiss a few salt-tears away.
And I think that’s all well and good. But my word will mean something better from now on. Something certain. More certain anyway. Something with less excuses.
brianne battye is a writer, poet, and narrative designer. She's the author of the chapbook wholehearted (845 Press, 2019) and has short stories in Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights (Tor, 2020). Her poetry has appeared in antilang, The Maynard, and The /temz/ Review, among others. A video game writer by day, she has contributed to multiple titles for BioWare. Her cat likes to sit on her arms as she writes.
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