Swan Songs are Just Human Songs with Feathers

It was the off-season and we were left to the rain that mourned the tourists. Paddleboats masquerading as swans. Swans masquerading as boats. Gone were the slushies and sunblock and hey mom, can we ride these?! Gone were the city stalwarts and country obese that made us brace with their heft. Gone was the summer.

Except yesterday, a man and son came around. Knocked at the Waterfront Activity Center, but no one answered. The boy couldn’t have been more than six. The dad, no more than forty, though his baldness shone brightly even under the clouds.

“Sorry Max,” the dad said, “they’re all closed up.”

“But I want to… ” The boy began a wind up that we were all familiar with. It would end in an alarm, and we would be captive, tied up like this. The father kneeled, placed his forehead to his son’s. Said nothing. Then the father hiked up his son, put him on his shoulders and walked down the beach, leaving one set of footprints in the sepia sand. We could hear the suck of the water, the beach wanting to claim the last of life before winter. But the man wouldn’t be taken in.  

We watched as the two figures grew smaller and smaller. We felt relief but also sadness.

One of us might have sung out.

Then the man placed Max down. Hand in hand, they walked back in our direction. As they approached, the boy tugged off his sneakers and tromped towards the water.

“It’s cold!” he hollered back.

“It is,” the father said.

“You promised,” Max said.

“I know,” he said, “but these things happen.” As he said that, the winter ferry boat emerged from behind the cove. It trundled slowly, but created large waves that formed whitecaps that bent into the beach where the boy stood. At first he giggled. But on the fourth wave, he was soaked to the knees and he tried to turn and run back to his father.

He yelled out. Fell. His father had been gazing into the distance and was unaware of the danger. Even shallow waters hold monsters.

We could hear the boy call. For his father. For his mother. But it was only after he swallowed quarts of water that his father responded.

The man ran in, the water roiling but shallow, and pulled his boy up, who sputtered. And cried. And called again for his mother.

“I’m sorry,” the father said into his son’s neck, tasting the salty tang of grief.

We bowed our necks in sympathy. We too knew what it was like to be alone, in this vast watery world.

We pushed each other toward the shore, towards the abridged family, nudging our plastic feathered bodies into each other. Finally one of us beached. And the son saw us, pulled his father. We invited them. We showed them our small piece of lake, of summer, or days that were better and not on the steady parade to winter.

Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, Hobart, PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,

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