JOAN DEMPSEY was a finalist in both the 2007 Writers at Work Fellowship Competition for Fiction and the 2007 Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award Competition, and was a noted writer in the 2006 Boston Fiction Festival. She is the recipient of a grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and a scholarship to attend the 2008 Key West Literary Seminars. A graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, her work has been aired on NPR and she is currently writing her first novel.
by Joan Dempsey
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!
-Edna St.Vincent Millay
We’d never had such an enormous industrial crane come through Surry Village and when it rolled into town on Saturday morning it was even larger than we’d hoped. We had an enviable view from our usual table at Gaylie Mae’s, right close to the picture window. As the crane’s bulk moved between us and the morning sun, the whole diner got dark. Kids sitting with their folks clambered out of their booths and gathered behind us. Several young men sitting across the room at the counter swiveled around on their stools. At our table Burnett Porter and Heman Walker were nearest the window; the crane was so close and the rumbling so loud that they drew back a bit, like they’d left their reading glasses home and were trying to get proper distance from the paper. We saw the grease on the lug nuts and the rocks wedged into the tire treads. The kids got wound up, giggling and jostling each other, and the young men at the counter started talking about boom size and hydraulic capacity. The room brightened and we could tell how far down the main drag the crane had gone by how close Burnett and Heman moved towards the glass. When their heads pressed against the pane and they quit moving altogether we knew it was hunkered down and idling in the parking lot of the First Congregational Church.
“Thing must be fifty-ton,” said Burnett.
“More like seventy,” said Heman. “That boom has got to be two hundred feet.”
“At least,” said Burnett. “To get that steeple down without a hitch.”
We each nodded knowingly and then Edith Young, who was sitting at the next table, said she still didn’t see why they couldn’t just restore the thing. We fidgeted in our seats and respectfully shifted our gazes away from her husband Ray-Ray, who said nothing as he pushed his empty plate aside and leaned forward to retrieve his wallet from his back pocket. Ray-Ray usually sat with us, but sometimes Edith decided to come along, all too often, according to Ray-Ray. He liked to sit close by so he wouldn’t entirely miss out and we tried to speak up louder than normal, pretending Burnett’s hearing aids were acting up.
“Seriously,” said Edith. “How bad could it be?”
None of us wanted to answer her, not just because we’d hashed all that out at Town Meeting months ago, but because we secretly wondered if we’d arrived at the right decision. If Gilman Chase hadn’t passed on he’d have known exactly how bad it could be, he’d have known what to say to Edith. Some fifty years back he’d headed up the first church renovation, and we’d been his crew. For a time he’d been over to England, apprenticing to a master barn builder. He came home with a slew of new skills and a desire to build barns from scratch. We’d have settled for a decent patch-job on the steeple, but Gilman handed us the iron nails our grandfathers had forged.
“You really want to go to Aumand’s for stainless steel?” he said.
Now that he was gone, the only one of us likely to answer Edith was Heman, but he was shaking vinegar over the rest of his home fries. Heman’s a town selectman, and even he’d been out of his league when the preservationists from Boston came to make their assessment. They’d heard more about Gilman’s braced-frame timber barns than we had, and we were all a bit cowed by their expertise. We’d gone into that Town Meeting thinking we’d do almost anything to save the steeple, but the experts had compelling evidence to convince us it couldn’t be done again.
“Ach,” said Edith, slapping her hands flat on the table to push herself up from her chair. “Let’s go see the end of an era. Don’t blame me when our granddaddies start rolling around in their graves.”
Heman pushed back his chair and half-rose, even as he forked up the last of his potatoes. Burnett stood, stretched, and rubbed his hands back and forth over his crew-cut, which had just last year started going grey. For years we’d ribbed him about Grecian Formula but Burnett’s color didn’t come from a bottle. Abel Clark pitched his half-smoked Pall Mall into his coffee. He was the only one of us who hadn’t stopped smoking after Gilman passed. We’d figured if a strong old ticker like Gilman’s could quit, why not ours? But Abel figured nearly seventy years of cigarettes couldn’t be undone, so he smoked his pack a day like always.
We hustled to pay up, then, and tried not to think of our granddaddies in their graves. We left larger than usual tips for Gaylie Mae so we wouldn’t have to wait on her to ring us out. She was ahead of us anyway, calling out to Emory, who was scraping down the grill, to leave it till later and come watch the show. He just grunted without turning and she waved him off and shook her head. She untied her apron and flung it into a booth, flipped over the “Open” sign and shooed us out ahead. She closed the door, which jangled behind her. By the time we stepped onto the road it seemed the whole village was heading down to the church. Some folks – families with youngsters, mostly – had lawn chairs under their arms, ready to vie for preferred seating like it was July Fourth and Chief Wilson was ready to light the first fuse on the fireworks.
The crane was parked beside the church and the crew was arriving in a small fleet of pickups. We stood around at the back of the crowd, which had assembled on the slope of the broad lawn leading down to the church. The slender steeple – six-sided, white-shingled, and close to thirty feet high – was encased in a net made of metal, like a soldier’s old-fashioned chain mail. The weathervane hadn’t been netted, though – it crowned the steeple, a gilded swan in flight. Her broad wings were fully unfurled and her neck was stretched towards us, pointing north as always. She’d been stuck in that position for as long as we could remember. When we were boys Gilman always swore she’d moved, telling us each week after church that she’d “been and gone and come back.”
One Sunday she’d been to opening day at Fenway Park, another week she’d gone clear across the Atlantic. During the war she went all the way to Japan to see what was left of Hiroshima, something Gilman himself decided to do years later, after the peace park had been built.
“Can’t you see?” he’d always say. “She’s pointing farther west today.”
We didn’t see, but something about his conviction, and something about the way she was poised, made us feel a yearning we couldn’t name. After a time we wished she really could migrate and even though we knew better, we wanted to see her fly free. We’d race out to the parking lot after Sunday services to see if she had gone for good, hoping like hell she had. Even in our later years, if Gilman wasn’t off somewhere in the world renovating a barn or shipping home timbers, he’d goad us after church. We’d stand talking together in the parking lot, and he’d tilt his head to the steeple.
“Swan’s gone,” he’d say.
We couldn’t help but check.
Now the morning sun had risen higher behind us, warming our shoulders and casting our shadows towards the church. Edith and Ray-Ray unfolded a pair of lawn chairs a few steps down the slope and Edith lowered herself carefully into one of them. Ray-Ray lifted the other several times and pressed it hard into the lawn, trying to level it, before he gave up and simply stood behind it, fingers resting on the metal frame of the back.
“Sit down, Ray,” said Edith, not unkindly, but Ray-Ray just looked up at the steeple.
We weren’t used to being idle and it wasn’t easy standing around as observers. Heman walked down towards the church, doing his usual meet ‘n’ greet, as if the election for selectman were tomorrow. We knew he really just wanted to get a closer look at the crane. Abel lit up another Pall Mall and stuck his hands in the band of his pants. He could smoke the whole cigarette without ever taking it out of his mouth. Most of his shirts and coats had a grey smudge on the front.
“Nice clear day for it, anyway,” he said, talking around the cigarette.
Burnett lifted his head, sniffing the air like a bird dog.
“Still no sign of winter,” he said.
“Tell that to the joints,” said Ray-Ray. He lifted and lowered his forearms, as if he were curling weights.
Heman, at least, was in the center of the action, talking with the young workers. His wavy white hair stood a head above all of them, but he looked too thin, out of place amidst their strong backs and wide shoulders. The men nodded respectfully but they took small steps towards the church. Heman turned away then, shook hands with the crane operator, and climbed back up to join us. He stooped some, and pushed his hand off his left thigh with every step. Somewhere along the line we had become the town elders. This wasn’t particularly welcome knowledge. We were starting to understand that our wisdom was accompanied by a diminishing ability to put it to good use.
“Good man, that fellow on the crane,” said Heman. “Says he’s done a whole lot of steeples down south. Hurricanes took them down, and he put them back up.”
Edith hauled herself part-way around in her seat.
“What’re they doing with the swan again?” she said. “Town Hall?”
“It’d look foolish,” said Ray-Ray. “Roof’s flat.”
“We vetoed Town Hall,” said Heman.
“But she’s so pretty,” said Edith. “I’d rather see her on Town Hall than taken to the dump.” She turned back to face the church. Ray-Ray came to stand beside us.
“Damn thing has been stuck forever,” he muttered.
Only Heman didn’t nod.
“Worked for Gilman,” he said.
That shut us up. Why should we suddenly care now that the swan couldn’t tell wind? Edith was right, she was pretty, neck extended, wings stretched wide, as if she’d just flapped her way off the surface of the lake and hit her stride. We knew from fifty years ago when we’d been up on that steeple and had reached out to touch her wings that the gilding might be burnished back to a nice shine. She’d look good on one of our barns.
Heman carefully shook out each of his legs, working them to keep his knees limber. We wondered if he was getting ready to tromp back down the hill and demand the swan be kept, but he made no move. Neither did we.
The crane’s engine began to rev and the hydraulic action revealed bright silver shafts that eased the crane’s legs to the ground. As the feet hit dirt the crane shuddered and rose off its wheels, just enough to keep it from rolling. One of the workers stepped into the bucket at the end of the boom. As soon as he’d swung the gate closed behind him the boom extended. He moved more quickly than we’d expected to the steeple’s apex. After a couple minutes of fiddling with some levers to jerk the bucket into position, the worker reached out with a wrench, gave a few strong twists, and lifted the swan off her perch, too easily, we thought. At first he held her with her neck pointing straight down and she looked like she was about to spiral, the way she would if she’d been shot. But then he shifted his hold, righted her, and held her away from his body as the crane’s arm whisked them down to the ground. She looked regal, then, as if she’d finally taken flight and was soaring at last, heading south on the jet stream before the cold set in.
Late one winter, when we were teenagers, we were fishing at Surry Dam, sitting in our canvas camp chairs around a hole Abel had augured in the ice. Normally we’d drill more than one so we’d have a better chance at a good catch, but we’d gone out much farther on the ice than usual and didn’t trust its stability. Gilman had wanted to sit in the moonlight, though, and we couldn’t convince him we’d be safer near the shore. He jogged out a few feet and then leaned sideways like he was about to skip a stone across the water – he heaved his chair, which spun and skidded out onto the ice. He jogged back and made a grab for Heman’s chair, but Heman saw him coming and beat him to it. His chair went nearly as far as Gilman’s. We all followed suit, then, and ended up with one hole and one rod, but we didn’t care. We knew at some level that the fishing was just an excuse to be out together, making our way through a case of Budweiser. Gilman was taking his turn with the rod when he stiffened, then looked around.
“Is that the ice?” he said.
We cocked our heads like dogs, listening hard, and suddenly a pair of wild swans were upon us. They passed above us more closely than we might have expected, slowly enough to make their flight seem improbable, and we heard what Gilman had already made out. The rise and fall of their wide wings made a surprisingly clear creaking in an otherwise silent night. We felt a breeze from their wings and their broad bodies cast us briefly into shadow as they passed between us and the moon. We weren’t sure if it was the sudden darkness or the chill of the night or something else altogether that made us tremble. We were more used to Canada geese, which we had in abundance; they flap faster and honk while flying. We listened until the creaking diminished and then disappeared altogether. The swans flew to the horizon, silently ascended over the trees, and passed from our sight. We turned back to the hole in the ice. For a long moment we didn’t speak, or even sip our beers, and then the fishing rod dipped and Gilman stood to hold tight to the spinning reel.
The crowd in front of the church had quieted now, and it felt as hushed as if we’d bowed our heads to pray. Two men were waiting to receive the swan from the man in the bucket and they each took hold of a wing where it joined the broad body. They set it well away from the crane.
And then we saw something that none of us expected: chugging down the lane beside the church, heading for the parking lot, was Gilman’s old John Deere with Millie Chase at the wheel. A hay trailer was hitched to the rear with a pile of cargo straps at the back of the empty bed.
“What the devil?” said Burnett. He rubbed his hands over his crew-cut.
“God knows,” said Heman, standing a bit taller.
Millie swung the tractor around and parked at the far end of the lot. The crew smiled warily as Millie backed herself down to the ground.
“She always been that small?” said Burnett.
“Looks like she’s lost her starch,” said Ray-Ray.
“She’s spry as ever,” said Edith. “Not that you lot would know.”
Abel coughed and spit discreetly behind us, then shook out another Pall Mall. Burnett pulled out one of his hearing aids and fiddled to adjust it. Despite what we’d promised, it’d been a long time since we’d checked in on Millie. For a long while the women had continued to take her food, and we’d made sure her wood was in for the winter. We were embarrassed to learn, though, that we didn’t have the first clue how to act around Millie without Gilman, so we made excuses to stay away.
Edith was right: Millie’s back was straight as ever as she stepped over to greet a worker, who’d jogged across the parking lot to meet her. Her white hair, normally braided and coiled on the back of her head, was now cropped short. She gestured towards the church, then back at the trailer. After a moment the worker began to smile at Millie and we began to wonder why we’d stayed away so long.
“Tractor looks good,” said Abel. “Gilman would be glad to see that.”
“Crane, too,” said Ray-Ray. “Could’ve hauled himself a whole lot of timber.”
The crane’s engine roared, climbed into a high whine and we turned our attention back to the church just as the steeple wrenched free. The crowd made involuntary oos and ahs, like there really were fireworks. The steeple, swinging from a steel hook at the end of the boom, tilted towards the church, bulging out the metal net. The boom extended even farther, the crane pivoted on its base, and the steeple started to swing out in our direction. It looked like it was going to fly right out over the crowd and even though we didn’t doubt the man running the crane, we couldn’t help but take a step back.
The crane completed its turn, and the steeple dangled just above the workers. They reached up to steady its swaying, then guided the base of it onto the ground. The boom retracted and lowered until the whole thing came down to rest. They made short work of removing the netting. Shingles clattered off the sides and we felt a bit relieved when we saw the darkness of the rotted wood beneath.
“Well,” said Edith, turning to look at Ray-Ray. “That’s that.”
Ray-Ray stepped forward, took hold of Edith’s elbow, and eased her to standing. They stood together for a moment, gazing down the hill, Ray-Ray holding onto Edith’s arm. One of the workers had taken the weathervane across the parking lot to Millie. He placed it on the trailer. The swan’s neck pointed towards the front of the tractor, due west. Millie reached out and touched the nearest wing.
“I’ll be damned,” said Heman.
Ray-Ray folded the lawn chairs and tucked one under each arm.
“Gaylie-Mae’s next Saturday,” he said. We nodded and they made their way out to the road.
“Let’s see what’s left,” said Heman. We headed down the hill.
The hydraulic legs retracted with a hiss, easing the crane back onto its wheels. It rocked briefly back and forth before the operator cut the engine to an idle. Millie’s tractor sputtered to life. The worker flung a couple of cargo straps over the swan and tied them down. We got up close to the crane, which loomed above even Heman. We smelled diesel and hot metal. A few others had already gathered around the steeple as we neared. It looked smaller than we remembered. Heman kicked at one side and a whole series of shingles clattered off. He stuck his toe into the frame, which was nearly black with rot, and the wood gave easily, crumbling into a damp pile of loam.
Millie’s tractor lurched forward. She made a wide turn, looking over her shoulder to make sure the weathervane was secured.
Abel picked up a shingle. A bent iron nail stuck through it and he worked the nail back and forth until he could pull it free. He turned it over and over in his hand, then passed it to Burnett, who took it silently. He ran his fingers over the square head, the uneven sides, and the crooked tip. Millie chugged towards us, heading for the lane next to the church. We remembered the clang of steel on steel as Gilman had hammered out the bends from those nails; we imagined the heat of our grandfather’s forges. Burnett passed the nail to Heman who closed his fist around it. Millie neared and lifted a hand to greet us, smiling through closed lips. We lifted our hands, too, and she passed by, heading for home. Had she been riding shotgun with Gilman we would have seen her standing tall behind him, holding onto his shoulders for support. As it was, we could only make out the top of her head, barely visible beyond the outstretched wings of the swan. Heman dropped the nail into the breast pocket of his coat. He tilted his head towards the church.
“Swan’s gone,” he murmured.
We couldn’t help but check. We wanted to see what we might have seen as boys if our dreams had come true; we wanted creaking wings and silent ascension. What we got was the steeple at our feet, and Millie driving away, and the clear blue sky, empty in the wake of the swan.