Two streets south of mine is a little subdivision humbly named Castlewood. It’s one street, really. And while the homes are relatively new, castle is a stretch. The street dead-ends at a retention pond where a sign warns of deep water, and a dingy orange life vest hangs on the far side corroborating just how seriously deep. Retention ponds don’t usually have life vests hanging nearby, which makes the cynic/horror-writer in me wonder if a person drowned there. Retention ponds don’t usually have a pair of swans living in them, either.
I walk almost daily. It’s how I listen to podcasts or audiobooks or talk, whether in person or on Marco Polo. When grieving, my first inclination is to walk. If I need a reset on my thinking, I walk. I pray when I walk. My family has lived in our home for almost two years, and it didn’t take long to find our favorite walks. We even name our walks, as in “Want to do coach’s street? Or the Wil-lou loop?” The swan walk was the perfect distance, the halfway point being the retention pond where the two swans lived.
When I was down, I’d go see the swans. When the weather turned cold, I kept going, wanting to know exactly when they’d fly south for the winter. I felt a bit of ownership for the swans. As if in passing them, I was imbued with some of their beauty by osmosis, by my appreciation. Even late at night during the thick of COVID when no one, and I mean no one was out, I’d walk to the swans and be awed at their bright bodies reflecting the moonlight. I’d get a measure of comfort from their constant presence.
I tell my husband, “You struggle like a swan,” meaning he could be dying inside but all everybody sees is a glide. No one feels sorry for a swan. Only for the ugly duckling. Remember that, if you too struggle silently beneath the surface. I do a little of both: swan struggle and pathetic thrashing. Depends on the day, on how confessional I feel. But you can see why I felt a kinship and even a little love for “my” swans. They left when it got cold, and I still remember when they returned. I took a picture and sent it to my husband and son. I’d been coming regularly to the pond so I’d know almost to the day when they returned. Three mallard ducks were there, too, but what were they compared to swans?
A couple days ago my sister visited from Wisconsin. She’s six years younger than me and has literally traveled the world. Heather loves nature and wildlife as much as I do, so my first inclination was to show off my swans. It was a little longer than she intended to walk after we stuffed ourselves with grilled chicken and flan, but the swans would be worth it. We arrived and I pointed them out.
“Those aren’t real,” she said.
“Of course they are.”
“No. They’re not. Have you noticed their heads aren’t moving?” Heather started laughing.
I can’t write what I said back because of my youngish audience, but it is brown, smells bad, and comes from bulls.
She suggested (while still laughing) we get close enough to throw something and startle them. I don’t usually do that because it’s rude. On par with banging on the ape barrier at the zoo. Have you seen what happens when you do that? The monkey house brings out the inner bully in everyone. Anyway, through the poison ivy we went, Heather snorting and sniggering and me, remembering why I beat her up as a kid. The closer we got, the more my stomach clenched and I felt a sinking in my soul. It’s been a long time, but I imagine this is how kids feel when they’re told Santa doesn’t really exist. My son, Luke, adamantly refused to believe the Easter bunny wasn’t real, though we never told him it existed in the first place. Luke wanted to believe in something special. Or irrational. Maybe both. Now I feel bad for not letting the kid have his fantasy.
Because I have to tell you, I was not thrilled by the revelation. The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
I was happier when I thought the swans were real. They buoyed me, gave me joy. I thought there was something special in an ordinary retention pond. Yes. I was deceived. But it was sweet deception. I love my sister. She’s more relational than me. Translation: nicer. She’s funny, beautiful, and has a passion for Jesus and life in general. And her eyesight’s a whole lot better than mine, obviously. But it’s not just eyesight. Bob didn’t realize the swans were fake, either. We went back to the pond so Bob could look at them again, this time knowing the truth. We talked about ignorance is bliss. That saying comes from a poem by Thomas Gray. Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise. I’m an avid knowledge-gatherer. But I tell you, I want my swans back. I want my naivete.
There’s another street between ours and Castlewood. Willow. Willow is lined with older, smaller homes. Most could use a powerwash if I’m to be completely honest. The street has no sidewalk, and even the asphalt has been neglected. But you know something? I walked Willow the last time I had the choice. I know, I know. Petulant of me. Somebody’s just trying to keep the real geese away with a pair of fake plastic swans. We can’t have real geese dropping real poop on our little bit of earth. And I, I have lost some wonder. I feel a little, okay a LOT foolish. And sad. I was already asking myself (on walks especially): What is real? What can we trust in this world? I meant it in a philosophical sense, but then my sister came and made it specific. I’ll be chewing on the significance of decoy swans while I walk everyplace except Castlewood.