Leda and Zeus
by E. W. Dietrich
It was sixty-five degrees, it was February. My wife and I sat in Adirondack chairs by the pond and mused over the very real threat of global warning, indifferent to the fact it was a threadbare, even absurd, topic when handled by our supremely uninformed, albeit genuinely concerned, minds. We had been drinking since three; it was a Wednesday; we were in despair.
"I mean look at this," Elsie said pleadingly, holding the palms of her hands up to the sky. "There's something really wrong with this. And nobody's doing anything about it."
I said something about Kyoto, and she agreed with me, although neither of us has so much as a basic understanding of the protocol. But people said it on the news, the word "Kyoto," as if it were some fanciful antidote the whole world had swallowed except our self-deluded country. Oh, I believe in it- global warming and all; I'm just saying.
Across the pond, two mute swans fed among the reeds. They had been there for the past year, since we had moved to the town of Achilles, to the "Tidewater" (as people referred to it with much more stored meaning than simply a geographical area), the steadiest denizens on the pond. The ducks - the gadwalls and mallards, the exotic looking hooded mergansers, whether dabblers or divers - all came and went. The great white egrets flew south for the winter, the bald eagle, at least visibly, was gone in the summer. Turtles dropped to the loamy bottom when it got cold. But the swans were always here, and, on top of it all, they held special meaning for us. We even named them - Leda and Zeus. (I had remembered my limited Yeats, but when Elsie asked me for the story behind it I, not to turn her off with the r-word, said it was about mythological love.)
When we moved from cluttered northern Virginia, our realtor took us to see our present home, promising us, "Out of all the houses you'll see today, I think this one will offer you the most privacy." That was our primary condition - privacy - and despite his decidedly salesman-like approach (a table is a table, after all), he was right. The house was surrounded by mature trees, mostly beech and gum, on a "nice size" piece of land, and it offered a magnificent view of a freshwater pond. But it was smaller and newer than what we wanted. We had had dreams of a run-down, traditional farmhouse on ten acres of tillable land, like the ones we coveted in milky-soft paged decorator magazines. And we the sophisticated city couple, flush with equity, would dole out cash to sarcastic local tradesmen with more sense and more humor than us to turn the unlivable drafty place into, well, a livable drafty one. We would pick out paint colors and fabrics, stuff it full of stainless steel appliances, and then send off our own pictures to a magazine. Of course the article would include a two-page spread of us dressed in khaki and wool, confident and put-together, posing in front of other people's work. But we were diverted; mainly because I had to start my new job in a month, but in part because of the lure of waterfront, and in part because of the beauty of the swans.
"Do you believe in symbolism?" I asked in all seriousness, my favorite ale, la Fin du Monde, now squarely in my bloodstream. I hefted my legs from their outstretched position on the ottoman, put my feet on the ground, and rested my forearms on my knees.
"Hmm," said Elsie, equally reverential thanks to the second, and terminal, glass of Shiraz. "Well, yeah, I guess. People make symbols, but whether I believe in actual symbols… I don't know. I believe in omens."
"Omens- those are different. An omen portends something specific, usually evil. A symbol can be anything."
"If it can be anything, then, no, I don't believe in them. I just don't think anything can mean anything. And never say 'portends' to me again."
"Not anything. A symbol is only a symbol if the meaning is clearly relevant to you; it seems sent to teach a lesson."
"You mean, like… an omen."
I laughed, but I was intent on getting deep into the muck and she was going with me, whether she wanted to or not. "No, not omens. Symbols. The swans, for example."
"Okay, so you ridicule me- alright, don't get defensive, I know ridicule is not the word- but you smirk whenever I mention omens, angels, ghosts, things happening for a reason, and now you say the swans are a symbol sent to teach us a lesson. Sent from where? From whom? I know you don't mean God."
"Of course not." My wife is Catholic, I am not. When we got married I demanded we do so outside of a church of any kind. Her family was furious, but Elsie acquiesced. (Looking back I suppose I could say that's when it all started downhill, stealing her from her King like that, but I get ahead of myself.) "Naturally I don't mean they are symbols in themselves - nothing is - only that they can be taken that way. Just let me explain what I was thinking, will you?"
I was working on my fourth pint and the thoughts, the words, came out sloppily. And for the purposes of full disclosure: I was going somewhere. The alcohol made me fatalistic, or, not to blame innocent fermentation, I had been mulling our situation all day, turning over the refuse in my mind until it composted, and I was ready to dish some shit. Another warning: I am like Fox News, about as subtle as a hammer smack to the forehead in pursuit of an agenda. Elsie knows this about me, but, bless her heart, it always comes as a surprise when I go down these dark roads. Of course her naïveté made me feel worse afterward, but only afterward, and it obviously did not hold me back from multiple thrusts.
I embarked: "When we moved in, no, before that even - when we looked at this house and first walked down to the pond - the swans swam right up to the bank, right to where we stood. Remember how we ooh-ed and ah-ed, how large they were close up, how white, how strong their thick necks appeared, and yet they moved with so much grace? Remember that thing they did, as if on cue- intertwining their necks and putting on a show? We were absolutely amazed and it seemed like, well, an omen, a sign. Actually, I believe you used those exact words. That's when we knew we both were sold on the place."
"Yes, I remember. How could I not? They were - I mean I know I called them that - 'omens'. But not in the negative sense." Elsie was touched by the reminiscence, but I thought I detected a smidgen of regret, and this perception, accurate or not, bolstered me.
"Okay," I said, accepting her comments as agreement and an invitation to proceed. "And we move in and it's wonderful. That first snowfall, remember? The pond was covered in white. And the swans came to the bank whenever we walked down; they heard us clomping through the leaves and they'd be waiting. We fed them bread. Remember we named them Leda and Zeus? The male, Zeus, he would even waddle on shore and take the bread from my fingers, not without the occasional nip. But Leda, she stayed in the water and you flipped the pieces out to her. Every evening we'd see them from the house, just specks of white heading back to the cove for the night."
My designs were dishonest enough, but to make it worse I was actually becoming emotional by stringing it all out in chronological order, knowing all the time where I was going to end up. It takes a special kind of asshole to do that- to torture oneself unintentionally while intentionally torturing another. It's pathological really.
Elsie had the "Why are you telling me all this?" expression. She was suspicious, and rightfully so.
"Then the swans disappeared for weeks in the spring. And in the meantime, I lost my job. I got fired. I lost our security, your security, your trust, I…"
"Gerald, don't you dare. Not today, not now."
"And when the swans came back, there were four little signets - two white, two gray - following behind them. Remember that we would go down to the pond, usually to get away from one another, a break from the fighting, and take pictures? But the pictures were no good because the swans never came close; they had to protect the signets. Before we could get to the pond they were leading them away from us. Just weeks from eating from our hands, they wanted nothing to do with us. To keep us from their babies, to protect them."
"After the signets arrived, we saw them less often. Not only were they skittish, but the trees filled in and it was hard to see the pond. Whenever we did see them though, they were bigger each time. The gray ones gradually molted. Remember the swan feathers collecting on the water?"
I sniffled and it was difficult to go on, but the more I spoke the more I felt I had to finish it. You can't just peel off the shirt and stand there holding the lash. If you get to that point, you might as well do it - in some sense you already have.
"And in the fall when the leaves were gone again the six swans - now all of them white and practically the same size - were across the pond everyday, devouring the patches of duckweed. And then in winter, just before Christmas, they all started flying. Swans flying - they looked as big as hang-gliders. All six of them would fly from one end of the pond to the other."
"And now the babies are gone," Elsie said softly, filling in the gaps like a child does for the parent reciting a favorite story for comfort. She had slunk in her chair, recumbent and helpless.
"Yes, now the signets are gone. It's almost a year later and Leda and Zeus are still here. And even though their offspring are gone, they don't come to the bank anymore."
"And tell me your conclusion from all this, honey. Explain the meaning."
I wept openly - much to my discredit, I know. But then again, even though I was playing the rogue, the crying made me more vulnerable, right? It made the verbal assault somewhat excusable because I was hurting us both, not just her. It mitigated the act, didn't it?
"Almost a year has past. A year of nothing. A year of nothing neither of us has to spare. And we watch the swans and… and it's all my fault. It's all crumbling. And if I hadn't lost my job, if I hadn't been so disgustingly stupid, we'd be…"
"We'd be what, Gerald? We'd be pregnant? We'd be happy?"
"A whole year. A whole god damned year. You know we can't keep this up. You know… Fuck! In another couple of months we'll have to sell this house. We'll have to move."
"You stop this, Gerald. You stop. Remember what we said this morning? Remember? Positive fucking Peter and Positive fucking Polly, that's us. Now stop it!"
It was difficult, but I contained myself. "I was just telling you what I thought."
"Fine. I got it. The swans are here to mock us - not from God of course, because you don't believe in Him or in things happening for a reason, not good things or bad nasty things, but as symbols. They are symbols to you, Gerald. Fine, you've proved it. But they are swans to me, and they would have had their babies, they would have raised them until they flew away whether we were here or not, whether we had jobs or not, whether we had babies or not. They aren't symbols of our barrenness - not of our barren bodies, not our barren income, not our… what have you."
That "what have you" broke me, wrecked me. I deserved it. I had ambushed her, cornered her. I had forced out all the bile and made her see it, smell it, taste it, even though we both always knew that it was there. She merely completed the task, all the way to the end. They say criminals crave being caught, that the pleasure and pain in committing the act is not fully realized until they are punished for it. I can affirm that to be true.
Our dog bounded down the hill, having chased all the squirrels into the trees. He licked Elsie's hand, and mine, then sat on the moss-covered root nest by the water, panting and in his way smiling.
"Listen," Elsie said calmly, "Let's start over, okay? This is a beginning not an end, right?" She stuck out her hand, and I noticed for the first time she had been crying too. "I'm Positive Polly, pleased to meet you."
I took her hand, but lightly and only touching her fingers from the knuckles to the tips, like a royal deigning to shake the hand of a commoner. "Positive Peter, likewise."
Our dog barked; he had spotted the swans. His front legs were planted in the black muck and his rear haunches were up high and swaying independently as he wagged his tail, like he was hinged in the middle.
I came completely uncoiled, and I said with a contrived bitterness that I immediately was ashamed of, "You can't put your paws in the same pond twice, boy."
Elsie sighed a sigh to end all sighs and leveraged herself out of the concave seat. For an instant I thought she would pick up the chair and use it to open up my skull, or at the least smash it against a tree, but she only balled her fists and then spread out her tapered fingers.
"If a loss of sameness is the worst thing about all of this, if that's what you really think the problem is, then we are further apart than I would have even dared myself to imagine… I'm going in to drink some more wine."
Elsie trudged up the hill. Almost out of earshot, she called back, "And you're cleaning him off."
Suddenly aware she had gone, the dog barked in desperation once more across the water, but gave up and followed Elsie to the house.
The swans paddled toward the darkening cove rimmed with reeds; they glided together in and out of the phallic stumps, which rose just above the surface and were staggered in a line across the pond, the only remnants of a once sturdy bridge from this side to the other.