Simon hated the swan, but Mom loved it, and so he tried to love it too. 

The mute swan, brought by Europeans as ornaments to elaborate gardens, generally had no reason to migrate, and so its disappearance two years ago wasn’t for migratory reasons. It had just left, and Dad said it wouldn’t return anymore. They lived in a suburban community, all of whose back porches faced a manmade pond, across which lay a row of trees and beyond that a golf course. Simon, an only child, made a game of waiting behind a row of bushes or trees and searching for stray balls that the golf players couldn’t find or were too lazy to look for. He had built up a collection, numbering them himself so that he could keep them all straight.

The swan, the meanwhile, would reside in the pond, swimming aimlessly and leaving a rippling trail of water behind it, a visual music fashioned for its admirers. 

At first, Simon had found it quite pleasant to be around the swan. It amused him to watch it waddle its way in and out of the pond while he waited for the golfers to walk or drive by. He enjoyed hiding from the golfers. He pretended he was a thief, like Sean Connery or Tom Cruise, stealthily hiding from sight, only to strike when all eyes were averted. He would slide around the tree or fall to his hands and knees to avoid being seen, while also scouring the ground for balls. Simon was a master thief, was full of flare and bravado, but most of all, secrecy. Who would dare pocket a golf ball, flown stray from the club of some wealthy sportsman? Simon, of course. He was the only one. 

He would bring some of the ones he most favored to school to compare with his buddies, Omar, Roberto, Tony, and would trade them at times for the exotic sweets he was unaccustomed to, pasteles de guayaba especially. Roberto always brought extra, knowing that Tony’s parents were vegan, and Simon often went without dessert to school. Dad would sometimes remember to put a Snickers mini for him, but not all the time. 

Mom always used to remember.

Mom used to do a lot of things with them before the swan disappeared. She was a soccer star in college, unlike Dad, who never played sports, and she and Simon would kick the ball back and forth, Mom always teaching or showing off her footwork, which was like magic to Simon. His eyes could not keep up with her feet, dancing about with the ball. Sometimes they played a mock game with their small net, Simon knowing Mom would let him win, but sometimes she would show off some marvelous spin move that dazzled him and score. 

Mom also used to try to cook tangines, full of spices, herbs, flavors, and ingredients Simon couldn’t pronounce, using her special tangine dishes, always having been fascinated with cultures far away in places that Simon was not yet studying in Social Studies. She’d dramatically whip off the conical top, laughing as the plume of steam filled their nostrils with desire and their stomachs with hunger. Mom used to attend Simon’s plays at school. He loved to act, and was often selected for the male lead thanks to his devotion and vibrant imagination. 

Simon did lots of things with Dad as well; but Mom seemed to be everywhere and in every part of Simon’s life. She even helped him create his own costumes for his plays from materials at home, teaching him how to use the hot glue and the stitching techniques she learned from her grandmother. 

Then there were the rainy days, the days when the house was a secure bubble, keeping away the rain and thunderstorms. Instead of looking out dreamily at the water running down the sides of the windows or becoming lost in some fantastical video game, Simon and Mom would craft feathers and crowns and put on their own play of their own making, writing the plot on a clipboard with pencil (so they could alter the lines mid-play), entirely ignorant of the time of day, but not anymore.

Mom didn’t do much, anymore. 

She slept a lot. Sometimes, Simon would witness her come out of her room to eat. She would grab a spoon of peanut butter and then return as quickly and silently as she came, a ghost more than a mother. She never touched him or said hello, unless he said hello first, and then it was only a mumble, as though she had not the energy to pretend to sincerely respond. He had read about hibernation in one of the nature books he took out at the school library, and thought she might be like those bears who rest during the winter to regain their energy for the spring and summer, but the warmer seasons came and went and then another and she still was not like she used to be. Sometimes she spoke to Grandma, but not often. When she did, it was usually in those same murmuring tones that he had become accustomed to. He had forgotten what her voice sounded like before. 

It all happened after the swan left. 

“We’re having hamburgers tonight, Simon, go wash up,” Dad said, the dark circles under his eyes indicating that he had managed a difficult client that day. He didn’t even have a chance to remove his tie, just loosen it. Simon, being alone with his father much more than he had before, noticed just such things. 

“Okay, Dad,” Simon said, putting the golf ball he had recovered that day into his pocket. It was a Titleist, Roberto’s favorite, and he was eager to trade it for one of Roberto’s delectable family desserts. “Should I go get Mom?”

“No, Simon, she’s not eating with us tonight,” Dad said, sighing before turning away. Dad was never looking at Simon whenever Simon mentioned her. 

“It’s the swan, isn’t it?” 

“The swan?” Dad asked, confused. He had completely forgotten about the swan. Simon couldn’t believe he’d forget so easily, after how important it was to Mom. 

“The swan, Dad! It came every year! That’s what it is, isn’t it?”

“No, Mom is just—sick—ill, Simon. It’s not the swan.”

“Is it cancer?” Simon whispered. He didn’t want to think it could be, but despite choking on the thought, he had summoned up the courage to ask. 

“No, Simon—it’s like being sad. It just comes to some people. It’s like being ill. One day you’ll understand, but it’s hard when you’re young. Just let it alone and wash up, okay?”

“Maybe she’s sad because of the swan, though, Dad!” Simon insisted.

“Simon. Wash up.”

Dad didn’t want to see what was obvious. Mom used to spend hours outside on the porch watching the swan swim around the lake. Her cup of coffee would be cold by the time she finished it, she spent so long just watching. There was a mystic connection between her and the swan, Simon thought, noting that she would disappear for a moment when watching it, as though spellbound at the sight of it. He would find her on that back porch, sitting in the same metal outdoor chair, her eyes fixated on the same bird with its lush white plumes glowing in the summer light. She would sit there until Simon finished his homework so they could go play a game of soccer before dinner. 

The chair, coffee cup, and soccer net were all as empty as the pond. 

Simon would lean back in his chair to catch a glimpse of Mom’s room, watching as Dad entered the room, kissed her gently in her mess of brown hair, and then walk out, while she remained still as stone. He had started taking Simon to school before work, and then returning Simon home before working until seven. Then, he would come back, heat up dinner, check Simon’s homework, and go to bed. 

Grandma and Grandpa occasionally visited from out of state, bringing some fresh respite from the worrying daily routine. Simon and Grandpa would throw rocks into the pond or bring down the giant metal cards to play poker in the backyard while Grandma talked with Dad. Simon once tried to bring up the swan to Grandpa, but he was worse than Dad. 

“Swan?” he asked, his bony fingers twisting their way around the bulb of his chin. “There was a swan here? Yes! Right! Of course there was, wasn’t there?” 

He’d wink at Simon, as though the swan were a creation of Simon and Mom’s games, some myth summed up from a romantic time when every day was filled with beautiful memories. 

Dad couldn’t see it. Grandpa and Grandma couldn’t either. They barely remembered the swan. 

They barely remembered Mom. 

Simon spent hours scanning through the library’s books on birds, reading and writing down as much as he could about swans: what they ate, where they went, anything that was even mildly relevant to them. He even wrote down their official Latin name in his notes. If he couldn’t incentivize the same swan to come back, he would at least incentivize a different swan to live there. He was determined to bring the swan back. 

“You want to go take a golfing lesson today, Simon?” Dad asked one Saturday, noting that Simon was sitting on the ground with his fists in his cheeks reading about swans. Simon had been curious to learn the game and had even asked Grandpa to buy him a set of clubs for his upcoming birthday. He was determined, however, to spend that weekend seducing a swan, though he didn’t tell that to his father. 

“Thanks, Dad, maybe some other time. I’d rather just go play outside today,” he said, his neck twisted around to address his father. 

All week, Simon had been hard at work, designing a space to lay eggs, adding little plastic lily pads of his own making to the pond, which alone took a day or two. At last, Saturday had come and he would not waste it on the golf course. 

“Alright,” Dad said, nodding. “Maybe next week. I’m going to be in my office then, working, okay? If you’re hungry, I just got a bag of baby carrots.”

“Thanks,” Simon said, thumping the book shut and placing it on the coffee table before heading outside. The screen door always screeched when it opened, and it always bit at his ears. He tried to open the doors ever so carefully, but it still screeched.

When he reached the pond, he began by crumbling some whole wheat bread, hoping that passing swans would detect the scent of the bread and decide to make their living in his pond. Mom always used whole wheat. She said “he” (her swan, the swan) liked it. 

He ran into the area of the woods where he used to watch for golf balls, and instead turned towards his house, waiting and watching for the swan, or any swan, to come soaring down from above to take up new residence. 

He remembered, as he watched, how the old swan would honk hoarsely at him, once furiously flapping its wings and attacking him when he had approached too close. (Mom was not there when it happened or else perhaps she wouldn’t be so sad today, perhaps she wouldn’t care about the swan, or want the swan at all!) 

Dad knew. He had seen Simon fall on his backside while he was watching from the kitchen window. Dad had told Simon that he shouldn’t have approached so closely, even if it was to feed the swan. 

“Swans have their own environment. Environments they protect. Spaces where they feel safe and can keep their loved ones safe. There’s nothing you can do and nothing you should do to violate that,” Dad said, putting Simon’s muddy pants into the wash, and grabbing a cloth to wash Simon’s muddy face.

“It attacked me. It was just a piece of bread!” Simon insisted, his face being furiously scrubbed by his father.

“It could have been laying eggs or protecting its territory,” Dad replied. “Don’t do that again without me or your mother there. If you get too close to where it has its eggs, it could leave. Sometimes, they do that to protect themselves. They leave and don’t come back.”

“I was just trying to feed it.”

“Just leave things as they are, Simon,” Dad said, throwing the dirty cloth into the washing machine and turning it on, the obnoxious beeping and whooshing noises reminding Simon how much he hated to be indoors without Mom. “Just leave things as they are.”

He couldn’t leave things as they were though. Dad just didn’t want to fix things. He didn’t understand how important it was that the swan come back. How necessary it was for Mom.

A black shadow crossed his face, a wide wingspan and a long neck alerting Simon to the possibility that his patience and planning had paid off. Adrenaline rushed into his heart and raced as his neck snapped up to locate the position of the bird in the sky. It soared around the community in a wide circle, Simon unable to identify it between the glaring sun on one side and the canopy of trees on the other. He jumped out from the shrubs, pursuing it with all his speed as it came soaring down towards the pond where Simon had built the nest and thrown the bread cubes.

In the place of a white swan, however, was the grotesque pink head and charcoal body of a turkey vulture, its wings flapping as it slowed its descent and at last, grounded itself.

“Shoo! Go away!” Simon yelled. “Get away from my bread! It’s not for you!” 

Rage consumed him, almost putting him on the verge of tears, the vulture shattering the illusion of hope that Simon nurtured of the swan’s ever returning, or another taking its place. He picked up a rock from the bank of the pond and hurled it at the vulture, missing completely.

His anger still unsatisfied, he lifted and threw another rock and another, striking the vulture on the wing! The vulture jumped and flapped away from the edge of the pond, not realizing the full extent of the danger that Simon posed. 

The assailant lifted a larger one and launched it, screaming as he did so. The stone struck the vulture on the side of the head, the peculiar timbre of a thud and crack sounding out in unison as the bird collapsed limply headfirst into the pond.

It stopped moving, floating through the water. A thin line of red blood leaving behind a painful, but temporal, reminder of what had just transpired. Then the blood trail disappeared, being consumed by the water, and replaced by a broader and redder gush. 

Simon was panting heavily. He had never killed something before. The vulture no longer appeared real, floating through the water as it was. It resembled more of a black pillow or a strange lady’s hat from those old movies in black and white. It was no longer alive, and it was hard for Simon to imagine it ever could have been. 

His nest was rustling ever so slightly, despite the lack of winds, and woke him from his fixation on the vulture’s body. He approached it with tepid, quiet steps, still consumed with adrenaline and not entirely cognizant of his actions. Throwing the stone at the vulture, and the sound it had made when it split the bird’s head, replayed in his mind as he crept forward. 

A snake was caught in the coil he used for the frame of his homemade nest. It was a small, black rat snake, tangled so inextricably that the nest was now a bundled mess of plastic material, the snake hardly able to move at all, a trap rather than a place of rest and birth. The snake was to be prey for the vulture. It was still barely alive, but already dead, and impossible to save. 

“Simon!” Dad shouted, running down to him for the house. “Simon! What happened?”

Simon pointed at the vulture and the snake, taking short heaving breathes as though he could not fill his lungs fully enough with normal ones. He could not speak. 

“What is all this?” Dad asked, until he saw a mushed piece of bread soaking up the diluted vulture’s blood in the pond. 

Dad was now breathing heavily as well, and he grabbed Simon by both shoulders and shouted at him, eye to eye, red in the face, and seething with agony: “You can’t bring the swan back! It’s gone! You can’t ever bring it back! You can’t! Stop trying! Just stop!” 

Simon nodded, his panting slowly succumbing to a symmetrical trickle of tears sliding down both the sides of his face. Dad did not cry, even if his eyes were as crimson as Simon’s.

After a moment in which Dad’s eyes were closed, his anger abated. He patted Simon on the cheek and kissed his forehead, asking if he was hurt. 

Simon shook his head. 

Dad gently took him by the hand and escorted him back to the house, Simon unable to watch where he was stepping, his head hanging limp from his neck in shame. Nor did he turn around to see once more the result of his crime. 

He only lifted his eyes once when they were close to the house to look at Mom’s window, imagining, for just a moment, that she was looking through the curtains at them. 

She wasn’t.

Simon dreamt that Mom had come into his room and lay down behind him, her arms slowly wrapping around him and comforting him as he cried. It was only a dream though, and when he woke from it, he contemplated long and hard on the events of the passing day. 

Dad didn’t understand. Neither did he, at first. He had erroneously believed that the swan was something recoverable, something that required effort, a great amount of effort, to bring back. 

But he couldn’t rely on the swan, or any swan, to fill the empty pond. He could only rely on himself. 

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Simon said, his head peeking around the corner of the door to Dad’s study, the following evening. 

Dad removed his glasses and looked over at Simon. He wiped his tired eyes and told his son that it was okay, he wasn’t mad. He just wanted Simon to understand. 

Simon said he understood and left Dad to pore over his papers, a lonely lamplight to illuminate them, his black and white contracts his only company. 

Simon, the meanwhile, climbed up into the attic, pausing briefly to let his eyes rest on the closed door to his Mom’s room. He could feel her presence inside physically, as if the whole room were breathing in its sleep, a puzzle box with an intangible key. 

Once in the attic, he flipped through the craft materials Mom had accumulated over the years and began to work. He measured his arms and the length of material he’d need to build a wing from the small bits of felt he had. Did he need wire? Yes, he did. He rummaged about, organized, with his pen and pad in hand where he had written down the materials he needed to remember. Dad was always showing him how to keep his things organized, especially when working with materials. “It’s good to be prepared in advance so that you don’t fall behind,” he’d say. It was useful advice for Simon, especially now. 

The white paint he had was a garish, hospitalized color. Too clean and without the same charm as the swan’s white. Simon was good with color; he could tell a used golf ball from a new golf ball just by picking it up. The color of the white on the ball was a dead giveaway, and he knew the mute swan was more of a creamy white, with an almost French-vanilla neck. He scrounged for some yellow paint and mixed it in with the white paint. Soon, it was swan-white and ready for application.

It took about two weeks of continuous work to complete the costume. After trying it on, it took another week or so to iron out the kinks and pinches in the costume. Simon had accidentally torn the left wing and had to repair it, setting him back some time. Time wasn’t a major concern, as he had almost all his summer remaining, and he had to remind himself of that constantly, as his eagerness sometimes got the better of him. 

When the costume was finally complete, he had to become patient again. Grandpa and Grandma would come over to play with Simon and watch him while Dad worked, but they couldn’t always be over. They informed Dad that they wanted to visit a friend in Annapolis and were unable watch Simon for a day or two. Dad replied that he’d take a half day those days and that Simon would be fine in the morning. 

The opportunity was manifest.

Simon hadn’t let on to Dad what he had built in the attic at night, pretending to play forts or solitaire with the big, metal lawn cards. Dad just let things be, and that was what Simon needed. 

Dad only stopped off in Mom’s room to tell her she was alone with Simon, which garnered no response. Dad sighed and told Simon not to leave the house and to just play in his room. Simon consented. 

As soon as Dad’s car pulled out of the driveway, Simon was in the attic. He dragged the costume down, careful not to tear anything else and miss his chance. It was perfect, the costume, white and feathery. Even the mask of a swan, with its vibrant orange and black nose, captured the visage of a swan exactly.

“Come on, this has to work,” Simon muttered to himself, as he began to fit himself into the costume, hoping that the wax-based paint would hold up against the water. Either way, he had to commit to the task and hope for the best. On went the costume. 

It was hot and sticky inside, the summer heat unbearably strong that day. Simon was determined, nonetheless.

He waddled towards the water, practicing his swan walk for authenticity, and his feet reaching deep into the webbed-toe ends to help with his footing. He entered the water, which was surprisingly cool in spite of the constant, blistering sunlight, but then again, the pond stretched itself wide enough that most of the other residents considered it a fulfilling walk just to circle it once. 

Simon noted that he was floating, the costume having been constructed to create a waterproof air pocket that prevented him from sinking. He found that he could very comfortably lean forward and paddle with his feet. He couldn’t see, but that was immaterial for the present. He only needed to swim around a bit, hoping Mom would come out and think the swan was back, and then disappear out of the costume when it was dark or Mom went back inside. 

The moment was taking shape in his imagination, starting from when he would pull himself up the coils of the neck of the swan to peer through at the screen door. He would listen to it screech as it opened, and watch as Mom emerged from the dark, curtain-drawn house, her eyes squinting in the sun as her eyes searched for the bright swan glowing in the pond, with the light dancing on the surface of the water. 

Then she would be as she was, the Mom he had always loved. 

Dad, too, would see that he was right.

His legs were cold and wet. Simon broke out of his imagination when he felt his pants sticking to his legs like they were glued on. Pond water was seeping in through a seam in the costume where the glue had not properly adhered. Simon tried to pull himself up into the neck to avoid the water and keep his head up, but just as his fingers wrapped around the coil, his knee buckled to aid him and broke the hole open even wider. Water rushed in, drenching him up to his stomach, accompanied by panic. 

He was breathing heavily now, his breath in the claustrophobic costume bouncing back at him. He tried to wrangle his way out of the costume or back to shore, but he couldn’t see and wasn’t sure which way to swim. He didn’t want to swim in circles, but always knew that with exception of the outer edge, the pond could be deep. Even Mom had warned him of how deceptively deep it was.

The water was filling up the costume too quickly. Even pulling himself up into the neck wouldn’t help. The entire ensemble, Simon and the swan, was beginning to sink into the pond. He didn’t want to shout and alert Mom that he was in the swan costume, but he realized it was too late and he needed help:

“Help! Help!”

His voice muffled from the outside by the costume’s head. He did not hear a response.

His hand slipped and he turned over in the costume, the head and body now on their side! Water rushed through the swan’s mouth and straight into Simon’s, choking him and leaving him unable to cough it out. He tried to reach up and breathe, but the air holes he had made in the beak were submerged. 

He punched at the edges of his costume, desperate to break free, but with the wiring frame Mom had taught him to use for large costumes was too small. It was impossible he would fit through a hole wide enough for him to escape. He continued to gurgle out his cry for help, but the swan sank deeper into the pond, his voice dimming. 

The sound of Mom calling his name filled his ears. “Simon! Simon!”

He felt a lurch, as though something had violently grabbed a hold of his costume and was dragging it across the water. Simon was incapable of resisting or even thinking, he only started breathing the air that was coming in from the very tight air holes, holding himself up by the sides and bringing his coughing mouth as close to the holes as possible.

The costume landed ashore with a hard thump, a welcome relief to Simon. He heard someone struggling to help him out of the costume but was too delirious to move or help. He could hardly see from the blinding light as he was pulled out by his legs, coughing and shivering even as he was even in the hot sun. Mom? he wondered.

“Simon! Are you okay?” Dad said, pulling him close, his lips trembling as he kissed Simon on the forehead.

He felt the warmth of Dad’s embrace, despite the mutual coolness of having been drenched in the cool pond water. The sun was already doing its summer work. They were warm and moist. Simon was still coughing, so Dad pulled him apart and asked Simon if he could breathe. 

He nodded in reply and Dad brought him close for a hug again. Simon looked up through the murky veil of his tears towards the back porch to see if Mom might have come out to see the commotion. 

She hadn’t. 

She wouldn’t.

Dad held Simon close, Simon holding Dad closer, and they remained that way until they returned to the house to dry off and share a cookie, leaving the swan costume behind by the edge of the water.

Nickolas Urpí