“Animal Wife”

The swans follow the restless wind. It fattens in spring, rolls over fields and between mountains, and fasts in winter until it is lean and snapping. When the wind flies into a rage, the swans shield one another with their wings. Clouds cling to their feathers and trail like ghosts behind them. They drift with the river deep into the forest, spinning around patches of ice, content to go where the wind takes them—except the youngest, for whom drifting isn’t enough.

She longs to race in a sled and sleep cloaked in furs by a fire. Longs to ride the wheel on the pier, its lights sparking against the night sky. She watches the children clambering stone to stone on the jetty, collecting crabs with shining backs. Dreams of the person she would be: a little girl with wild hair and greedy eyes.

Her sisters say no good can come of longing. They move on, their wings like billowing sails. But longing draws the youngest swan from her sisters at night. She ventures farther and father from them, returning with the sun. The wind tries to face her down. She grows tired and heavy, but still she pushes on.

Across deserts where men travel on strange beasts. The wind casts sand in her eyes, but still she pushes on. Above a town choked with trees. Wedding guests gather in a churchyard. Stonewalls stitch the land together. She longs to join the children playing on the riverbank, but when she opens her wings to them, they run from her.

She returns to her sisters with dirty feet, her long neck drooping. The wind strums her feathers, but she digs into the brush and tucks her head. She sighs so bitterly that her sisters defy the wind and lead her to a pond sheltered by trees tall as masts. The morning smells like pine, rainwater, musk of bears. They will give her one day only, until the sun sets.

How will one day be enough, she laments, as the swans strip their feathered robes. The sun mocks her from the treetops, turning the forest gold. She wades into the pond with human legs that are too long and shapely. She has missed childhood.

As the sun licks her bare shoulders, she shivers with the knowledge that she will never again feel its weight on her skin. She flinches as the pond laps at her breasts, thinking already of night.

The forest burns from gold to red, silent but for her sisters’ laughter. Red to blue between black branches, and she closes her eyes against the creeping night.

Her skin blazes, drawing the water to steam. In her eagerness, she had flung her feathers over a branch. A man stands at the pond’s edge, clutching them to his chest. She can feel his hands on her skin. Her sisters pull their feathers around their shoulders. The man’s arms tighten.

The sun ducks behind the trees. Her sisters cry for her to join them, beating the man with their wings, but still he holds tight to her feathers. The wind churns the forest into frenzy as her sisters leave her behind.

She follows the man, clothed in nothing but darkness. She has no choice; he holds her soul in his hands. His house is bare, though he has lived here all his life, he says. He wraps a blanket around her shoulders. He is handsome and kind, and she cannot refuse him. She asks for her feathers, and he kisses her instead.

Every morning she asks for her feathers, and every morning he kisses her. Until she stops asking. The house has hardwood floors and gleaming appliances. She has a little room for sewing or painting or spinning flax into gold. She stands at the window instead, palms pressed to her belly.

Her husband brings home flowers and she listens as he talks about his day. He unrolls blueprints for new houses. He builds a cradle. When the baby is born with feathers, the man lies awake at night worrying she will fly away. He hides her feathers, too.

The mother holds her up to things. Books, she says, running her daughter’s hands along their spines. Sky, pointing out the window of her little room. Hot, holding the baby over boiling water until her cheeks are red. When she runs out of things to name, she tells her daughter why she loves her. She starts with the way she knots her fingers before her face. The rim of gray around her blue irises. Her joyful shriek upon glimpsing her reflection.

Happiness has sharp edges. At night, she rests her hand on the baby’s chest. Its rise and fall is so faint she presses harder, until the baby thumps her legs in protest. The nights are long and quiet. She often wakes searching for her daughter among the pillows.

On the first day of kindergarten, she rediscovers herself in the empty house and finds there is nothing left. She does the dishes and the laundry. When the dishes and the laundry are done, she mops the floor. She dirties dishes just so she can wash them again.

She does not leave the house. Her skin turns so pale her veins shine through it like rivers.

The girl does homework at the kitchen table and talks of things the mother doesn’t understand. Writes in her journal, shielding the page with one hand. Dodges the mother’s lips. She is a fine girl with wild hair and greedy eyes.

The mother sits at the table, waiting for the oven timer to go off. Her daughter gusts through the door, tracking mud across the kitchen. She will need to mop again. The girl places a box between her hands. It has no latch, no key. The mother recognizes the handiwork. The oven timer buzzes. Her fingers shake as she lifts the box. The oven timer buzzes. The wind batters the windows, trying to reach her.

About Lara Ehrlich

Lara Ehrlich lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, River Styx, The Columbia Review, the minnesota review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Paper Darts, among others, and she is working on a short story collection. www.LaraEhrlichWrites.com