It was always the same in Manhattan. At sun-up, the traffic shuddered and the subways choked and the sidewalks seethed and everyone became animals.
My brothers were swans, because my step-mother said it was so, and no one disagrees with her, because she has all the money.
“You’ve ruined them,” I cried to her as soon as she had done it. When I said ‘them,’ really, I meant little Philip, the youngest of my seven older brothers. Even though he was a year older than me, I thought of him as my baby brother. He still collected insects from the back yard and chalked funny pictures on the old brick wall around the garden.
My cellophane stepmother had sighed and rolled her eyes from where one mahoghany-haired friend grew from a chair to where another friend in a brocade vest melted into a cushion. She said, “The dramatics are a bit much, aren’t they, Julie? There are worse things than swans.”
They didn’t have to be animals at all, though. They could’ve stayed boys forever. I knew she only preferred them as swans because she didn’t like them as boys, because all she’d ever known was swans, because my father was too dead to stop her. I screamed this at her while tiny lines appeared around the edge of her mouth, and then, the next morning, I ran away to New York. All my brothers flew after me. Julian, the eldest and most swan-like, every line of him an arc, found me crying in the subway on the first evening.
“Poor Julie,” he said, helping me up. He was wearing a tweed vest and looked very dapper with his frame of Broadway posters and graffiti. “This is where homeless people sleep.”
I tried not to sound pitiful, but I did anyway. “I am homeless.”
My second brother, Robert, who is the least swan-like creature you can imagine, panted down the stairs into the subway with a coat in his arms. He placed his hands on his knees and sucked in several long breaths. Julian gave him a long, arced look.
“That took you awhile,” he said.
“Some of us,” panted Robert, “Don’t take so easily to being swans. Here. Here, God, take this thing!”
Still bent over, he waved the coat in my direction. It still had the tag hanging from the wool collar. Julian helped me to put it on as a wild cat of some kind sprang from the subway behind us and up the stairs Robert had just come down. I stared after her. Back in the town that my stepmother owned, most everyone shed their animal skins at the same time. I didn’t yet know that there was no “normal” in New York City.
“You’d have a lot better time of it if you bothered to apply yourself,” Julian told Robert. “I don’t suppose I need to ask you if you kept the receipt. Where’s Teddy?”
Robert was still breathing hard, but now I thought he was making a show of it for Julian. “Doing what you told him to do. Maybe —” and this was with a sly look at me, all the subtlety of a landslide “—there will be bunk beds.”
“Good lord,” Julian said, twitching. “I should hope not. This is not the nineties.”
My brothers and I started up the stairs toward the street. All around us it smelled like a dirty, warm burrow. All sweat and pee and, far away, some sort of food I’d never tried before. It was nothing like what we’d left behind, a place of trees and clay slicked with rain.
Robert started to take the handrail, and then seemed to think better, examining his palm dubiously. “Jules, why New York?”
Because in New York, surely I’d be able to find a way to make my brothers human again.
+ + +
New York was hard for me. It took my hand and demanded to know me when I wasn’t ready to know anything, and even when I said I was done and wanted to be alone, it pranced around and around me. It was overwhelming during the day, when dogs howled from cabs and elephants simpered toward high rises shackled by scaffolding. And it was just as intimidating at night, when all of those animals reverted to human.
“Don’t go out without one of us,” my brother Simon told me. “You’ll get eaten.”
I wanted to find a way to cure my brothers, but I also didn’t want to get eaten, and so I stayed in our new apartment for the first two weeks. Much to Julian’s horror, it did have bunk beds, but only in two of the bedrooms, and since they were sleek, well-bred, Manhattan bunk beds, he couldn’t complain too much. In reality, they were not often filled to capacity, as Junior and Grant seemed to prefer to find other places to rest their heads and Teddy spent more and more hours as a swan. Evenings were punctuated by Julian’s silent arrival with a bag of strange vegetables that was meant to be dinner, Philip’s deliberately catastrophic progress up the stairs, and Robert’s crash landing on the balcony the moment he turned from swan to human.
The beginning of the third week was no different, beginning with the thunder of the fire escape and then Robert’s form appearing in the open door of the balcony. The wicker chair tried to follow him in; he disentangled his leg from the chair before stepping in.
“Good evening, brother,” Julian said, rolling a foreign fruit from his palm to his fingers as an offering. “Skilled, as always.”
“Oh, you know where you can put that.” Robert’s eyes slid from where Grant foreaged in the fridge to where I stood in the doorway to the kitchenette. “Hi, Jules. Get into trouble today?”
“I stayed in.”
Robert winced, stripping off his sweat-spattered t-shirt. “I’d rather be an animal.”
“Simon says I’ll get eaten,” I protested.
Striding across the living room, Grant pressed a cold beer to the small of Robert’s naked back, making him emit a sound not unlike the cries of a swan. Grant replied, “Isn’t that the point?”
“Grant,” Julian said. He was holding a knife, which seemed to make his voice dangerous. Lowering his eyes to the counter, he used the blade to curiously plumb the innards of the fruit. Seeds burst across the marble, red and purple. He observed, “You are looking pale, though, Julie. Maybe take your lunch to the park tomorrow.”
“I need to make this day go away. Give me your beer,” Robert told Grant. As Grant swerved toward him, he yelped, “In my hand, you bastard.”
Julian guided me to the counter and put the knife in my hand. “Now you try.”
I accepted one of the small fruits and scored the skin experimentally. There was no point in doing this unless I could do a better job than Julian. I’d taken note of how the previous one had spattered my brother’s skin and shirt with a fine, beautiful spray, and so when I cut into it, I turned the fruit so that the cut-side was angled toward the cutting board. My cautious slice was rewarded; a perfect triangle of flesh dropped onto the board, a small pool of its own blood slipping from it.
“Oh, well done, Jules!” Robert said, raising his beer to me.
“That’s aptitude, there. I saw a raven working with that much precision yesterday,” Grant said. “Maybe she could —”
Robert, vehement, retorted, “Julia doesn’t need to be anything but Julia.”
Much later, when Julian had gone to bed and Grant had gone out and Philip was playing video games, I sat next to Robert on the well-fed couch as he flicked through the channels. He was probably quite drunk, but it was hard to tell. Robert was slow and amiable and funny when he was sober, and he was slow and amiable and funny when he was drunk, and it was hard to tell when he crossed the line from one to the other.
I curled against his soft shoulder, tucking my bare feet underneath me and resting my chin against his arm. “Is it terrible?” I whispered. I meant being a swan, but I didn’t want to say it.
Robert switched to a station where a young woman was changing into a donkey for the first time. When they interviewed her mother, she said, It’s not what I expected for her but I’m proud of her anyway. Her expression was stripped clean.
He took a drink of beer and said, “It’s hard to see the point, is all.”
+ + +
I took my lunch to the park the next day. I sat on a bench and watched the women who had never been animals push strollers around and men who had trained themselves to become animals at night tossing balls to small children. I knew what Julian had been trying to accomplish by sending me here. There was a warm, drowsy comfort to seeing these people being happy and busy in the middle of the day, co-existing happily with people who were also birds or big cats or reptiles. It was the first time I felt really at home here in New York, eating my sandwich and listening to shrieking children and kicking pigeons away before they could look up my skirt. It was the first time I wondered what Stepmother had been like when she was a young swan.
I was just standing up when something careened into my head; feathers and bones and hair tangled. My mouth was full of bird fluff and talons scratched lightly along my neck. In my shock, I wasn’t delicate; I tore the bird from my hair and and threw it away from myself. A heron, all legs and neck, tumbled over and over in the grass. I touched my neck, feeling the raised skin where the heron’s claw had grazed me and pulling the loosened strands of hair free from my head. My heart was thumping from the surprise, and by the time I thought to go see if the heron was all right, it had managed to climb to its feet, still looking dusty and unkempt. It looked right at me; one eye, and then the other. It reminded me a little of Robert’s clumsy flying. I wondered if this person had been made a heron by an air-tight and powerful step mother.
“I’m going away now,” I told it. I tried not to sound pitiful, but I was sure I did. “I’m sorry I threw you.”
I went back to the apartment, my lunch unfinished, and found a note on the fridge. Julian and the others were staying out late to have a “talk” with Robert. To think it was Philip I’d been so worried about! I spent the rest of the day on Philip’s computer, looking on forums for people unhappy in their animal skins. There was one exchange that stuck with me. The first commentor, prettygirl203, said: it’s not that I mind being an animal, it’s that I mind being an ocicat. The second commentor apollos_limit said: I used to be an ocicat, but I managed to work my way up to jaguar. You just need the right connections! Keep heart!
Just after the sun set, there was a knock on the door. It was the shave-and-a-hair-cut-two-bits knock, which seemed strange, because my brothers would’ve merely unlocked the door if it was them, and I didn’t know anyone well enough to justify a shave-and-a-hair-cut knock. So I warily went to the door. The peep hole provided an egg-shaped portrait of a young man in a very yellow shirt. I kept the chain on the door and opened it an inch.
“No one is here,” I said. It was practically true. I barely counted.
“That seems like an exaggeration,” the young man said. “Did you have lunch in the park today?”
I was so surprised to hear that anyone knew of my whereabouts, much less a stranger, that I slammed the door shut and threw the deadbolt before I’d thought it through. Against my ear, the knock came again. Shake-and-a-haircut.
I shouted, “You can’t use that! I don’t know you!”
“YOU THREW ME EARLIER TODAY!”
I undid the deadbolt and opened the door an inch again. “You’re the heron?”
“Not anymore,” he said ruefully.
“Why do you know where I live? Wait, what do you mean ‘not anymore’?”
“I mean I made a terrible heron. I fly like a brick.” He sounded so glum about this that I undid the chain and opened the door all the way. He was shorter than I’d thought, with curly black hair. I thought he looked Italian. I had never seen someone properly Italian before, but I heard there were loads of them in New York.
“Are you Italian?”
“Serbian. Or something. Are you Italian?” He squinted at me.
“No!” I cried. “Do you want a . . . fruit?”
He followed me into the kitchen and allowed me to slice one of Julian’s odd fruits for him. Speaking around a mouthful, he managed, “I’m sorry about your neck. It looks awful.”
“It’s not so bad,” I said. “It could’ve been my eye.”
He rubbed a juice-sticky hand through his curls and then regarded his hand with consternation. “I know. It’s why I just can’t do something that flies. My father thinks that maybe I can try being a horse or something. I was a horrible alligator. Kept getting my tail shut in bus doors. What are you?”
“Well, I see that!” he blushed deeply and shoved another piece of fruit into his mouth. “Are you waiting to decide, or what?”
The idea filled me with a warm horror. “I’m not going to be anything but a girl! I’m here to stop my brothers from being swans.”
He stuffed a few more pieces of fruit in his mouth. He seemed to need fruit in his mouth in order to speak. “Oh yeah? What have you done so far?”
The truth, of course, was that I had done nearly nothing. That ordinarily I would have made a lot of noise and fuss and my brothers would’ve sorted something out for themselves at the same time, and it would’ve looked like I’d had a role in it. I said, “Research, mostly.”
“I totally dig research,” he said. “Is that what you were doing in the park? Have you been here long? So they all hate being animals? Like you?”
I opened my mouth and then closed it. Because I’d been about to say “yes,” but that wouldn’t have been quite true. Because Julian didn’t seem to mind being a swan. Nor did Grant or even Philip. And I couldn’t even say “yes” that Robert hated being a swan, because the ex-heron-boy had said “like you?” at the end. And I’d never tried it. I hadn’t tried much of anything at all.
“I don’t hate being an animal,” I said. I tried not to sound pitiful, but I was sure that I did.
The boy who’d been a heron felt around the cutting board, but there wasn’t any more of the strange fruit left. We’d eaten it all, down to the last seed. He sighed sadly, reminding me a little of Robert, but then he brightened and said, “You know, though, you’d make a great gazelle.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Anything but a swan.”
Photo by FurLined
Our prompt this month is The Wild Swans