by Kevin Convery
It is a curious fact of astronomy that the Moon travels around the Earth from west to east, and not in the opposite direction as it appears. The illusion is achieved by the Earth’s rotating on its axis in the same direction, but much, much faster.
James was as familiar with the glass-strewn asphalt path down to the lake as he was with the smell of his bedroom at night. There could be no mistake. He was aware of the fact that he was dreaming, but he was nervous. Sometimes his dreams were better than his waking life. Pretty soon now, he thought to himself, the details will start to get weird. All the squirrels will be green and the grass gray. Or hundreds of nude women with heavy beards will parachute out of the sky. Something to put the official stamp of dreamhood on the series of images he was seeing. Right about now, he concluded. Something will go screwy.
But nothing did. Everything stayed frighteningly normal. He tried to say “Hello?”, but it was as if the nerves to his mouth and to his throat had been cut; he couldn’t make a sound. The perspective continued to shift forward, just as if he were walking down to the lake. But that was ridiculous, of course. He was asleep. He’d been having a late supper when his father had come in and looked at him for a good long five seconds. If you counted three and the old bastard was still looking at you, you were in for it. After the usual pile of shit, the main thrust of which seemed to be that if your working hours weren’t eight in the morning to three-thirty, Monday to Friday, you were some kind of inexplicable morally degenerate lunatic. James had left his food where it lay, walked to his room, and cried himself to sleep. And now he was dreaming that he was going to the lake. He felt no particular emotion, he wanted neither to hurry up nor go back, he simply witnessed this view out the eyes of someone who was walking past the ballfield on the left, along the train tracks on the right, and under the ancient trestle bridge, through the mud puddles and finally down the grassy slope to the shore. He felt a blast of cold wind in his face, then realized it had been blowing all along. Why hadn’t he felt it before? He turned to leave, and found that he could turn. For a moment it seemed that he was no longer a spectator in his own body, but he did not leave. He started instead to make his way along the shore towards where the water-birds congregated. It was a long walk, half-way around the lake, and James found himself stopping several times along the way to look at the sky. It was gray, and the air smelled like rain. Why had he not smelled it until now?
As he approached the group of ducks, he thought, now I know I’m dreaming. Every las duck was looking at him silently with the most expectant look that a duck can have on its face. They had been waiting for him. There was a large concrete platform jutting out from the shore in such a way that it was possible to climb up onto it and be surrounded on three sides by water. It was coming closer. He performed a two-second experiment by trying to stay where he was, but in a moment he was standing out at the edge of the platform, with the ducks arranged around it like an orchestra. He was not in control. Suddenly all the ducks were quacking at once. He looked around to see what was causing the outburst, and realized that they had been clamoring all along. What had kept him from hearing it?
“I am here,” he heard himself say, and the noise subsided. His arm came up in a wide sweeping gesture, and some of the ducks swam a few feet over to the left. His other arm came up, and the rest of the ducks swam a few feet over to the right. There was now a wide aisle between the two groups and James wondered, an aisle for what?
The bells of the nearby church began to loudly toll, breaking the way a bullet breaks an egg. Oh, why now, James fumed. Bloody Catholic church, could he have no escape from it? There weren’t even any real bells in that tower, just a tape deck and loudspeakers. As phony as the priests who preached in them, why don’t they just–. He stopped. For the moment, hate seemed inappropriate.
At the moment he stopped, there appeared a shaft of sunlight on the water right in front of him. Either that or it had been there all along and he hadn’t seen it. Right at this moment his senses seemed pretty fallible. The light touched neither duck nor James, it occupied only a small circle in the middle of them all, and where it touched the water, there the water was utterly calm.
Three small dots at the far end of the water were enlarging as they began their stately approach. One was black, one was white, one was red. Swans, it occurred to James, and he suddenly knew what the aisle was for. The swans are coming! He felt a strange excitement.
The bells stopped ringing and all the ducks turned as one to watch the procession of the swans. Closer and closer they swam, heads held high and perfectly still, though the white swan seemed to have to try harder; his head shook slightly, and sagged slightly to the right. They stopped just short of the group and looked at each other. Their beaks came together in a silent salute. When they touched, there came across the lake the resounding ring of steel on steel. The white swan then swam forward, down the aisle. As he swam forward, the cause of his discomfort was revealed to all. He was wounded in the breast. The blood trailed down his side and into the water, leaving a trail of blood behind him that stretched back across the lake, marking the way the swans had come. Why had he not seen it before?, James wondered. The white swan bowed his head slightly in James’ direction, and then looked away and sat there in the water bleeding.
The red swan now came forward. Quickly she came, down the aisle and into the circle of light without hesitation. Without looking at the ducks or at James, she swam over to the white swan. She wrapped her neck around his, and pressed his breast against her, staunching the flow of blood with her own breast. The white swan tried briefly to pull away, but the red swan held their two bodies together with the powerful muscles of her neck. The wound swan stopped struggling and collapsed against the red swan, letting her hold him up. James saw a tear from the eye of the red swan run down the neck of the white. The salty tear ran down into the wound, and the white swan gave out a long, low groan of pain.
But how long can she keep that up, thought James? Shell die of exhaustion herself. You can’t sacrifice yourself for another. You can’t ask that of anybody. What is somebody trying to tell me here? Whoever they are, I wish theyd just get to the point. I wish—
His wishing was interrupted by a single peal from the church tower, a peal that did not sound like a tape recording, nor like any bell James had ever heard. A single tone, so low and mournful that James felt it before he heard it, carried all the sadness in the universe on the cool, wet spring air. For a moment James was blinded and dizzied by the misery, and when his head cleared, he found himself down on his knees on the concrete platform. The black swan was swimming into the light.
The black swan swam once around the circle to the left, bowing to the ducks and to James as he circumnavigated the edge of the light. When he had come full circle, the red swan uncoiled her neck and moved away from the white swan, an air of desperation in her movement. The wound began again to slowly bleed. The black swan approached his wounded brother, stretched out his strong ebony wings, and touched his right wing to the wound. The light began to brighten, and flicker, and the light that fell on the wing and the wound refracted into dazzling green. The black swan swam back from the white swan, and James felt no surprise but only joy when he saw that the once-wounded swan was now whole, his injury healed, his feathers smoothed. There was a look of health and nobility in his eye.
Suddenly the stillness was broken, shattered as if it had never existed. All three swans flexed their wings and hurled themselves aloft, flying higher and higher, climbing toward the hole in the clouds whence came the shaft of light. The ducks followed, answering a silent call, their wings creating a great wind on the water and on James, and when they were high in the air, dancing on the light, James heard them begin to sing, and the sound of their song was like the trumpets of a victorious army. The swans, however, gave no song, but flew as straight as the light and as fast as the wind toward the hole in the clouds, and when they reached it, the hole rolled back and revealed a third of the sky. The swans kept flying, as if they would fly straight to the sun. James saw the full moon in the morning sky, and it slowed in its path, stopped, and began to move back the way it had come. The light was no longer white but every color that existed. James felt the impermanence of the stone beneath him, and the ancient stability of the wind. And when the three swans met in James’ eyes like parallel lines at infinity, the message came. He could have been hearing a voice, he could have been reading words written on the sky. All he was certain of was that he was receiving a Message, and it was this:
“This is the Day of Truth, when all illusions are revealed, when lies and hatred are lain bare in their impotence. This is the Day of Strength, when our resolve is renewed. To the end will we grapple with the suffering of the world, and we will be unvanquished.”
All at once James was high in the air, turning slowly around, and felt no fear. He wasn’t even aware of his altitude, so wrapped up was he in a single thought. We, James contemplated euphorically. The word used was We, and I am part of We.
Now he was flying over the trees, over the highway, over the church steeple, down over the parked cars, through the glass of his bedroom window, and onto his bed. For a long time, all was dark.
James awoke, completely exhausted but extraordinarily alert. He rolled out of bed and staggered across the room to where the calendar he had bought from the Asian woman on the subway hung on the wall. One shaft of sunlight came through the blinds and illuminated the calendar. It was Easter Sunday.