The tall cob looked down the river. The sky was drawing down, black, and his Pen and cygnets huddled in the reeds.
‘Take them upstream,’ he commanded.
She unfurled and moved on the fluffy grey cygnets behind her, their curiosity gaining weight. The swan king remembered this storm from the previous year and this time, he was determined not to let it take any living creature, either on the water or from the banks, This year it would be a battle for which he had prepared.
As he flew over the reed beds and bustling waters he could see once again, the fall and pull of the river, taking him deeper until there was no one to rescue; just an empty space on the bank where once a boy had sat playing, throwing sticks in front of the bank to watch them speed away down stream. The stream now a river, the cruel life blood of his existence. The swan king was glad to be airborne.
Still unravelling, barely floating bundles of angel feathers, the six cygnets were the colour of the clouds tumbling fast in the sky. He passed over them in the reed beds hearing his Pen reach out,
‘Come back to me’.
The sound of her plea bit into his sense of duty. He landed on the bank, stretching out his wings. The storm would break over them soon.
Nearby, Jono was fishing. Eight and a half years old with golden hair which caught on the collar of his red and blue plaid shirt. His gumboots were patterned with camouflage blue and his bare knees were scabbed from falling out of trees. Beside him lay an open green plastic mini-toolbox with some fish-hooks, scissors, and a bag of live maggots as bait, He did not notice the approaching storm. His head was full of the cygnets he’d seen during the afternoon and the concentration required for catching a perch. He could identify a perch.
Jono did not notice the lightning crack across the sky but as the wind pulled in, Jono pulled on a sweater, hand knitted by his grandmother with a dog’s head at the front and body which continued round to the back. A knitted tail hung from the back as an added bonus.
At eight and a half, his dexterity was not yet developed and he quickly found himself tangled in the line of his fishing rod. The hook and maggot were embedded somewhere in this sweater. He found it, but snagged his hand on the barbed hook, he began to cry.
The swan king swept up to the sky on hearing this tender heart’s plight, Powerfully balanced and flying barely above the surface of the water, he arrived in front of Jono who promptly stopped crying in the shock of seeing such a magnificent bird in front of him.
’Be brave,’ the swan king spoke.
It doesn’t occur to an eight and a half year old that swans don’t speak and in that moment the boy replied.
‘It got my hand,’ and he held up his left hand for inspection.
The hook was buried in the webbing between his middle and first finger.
‘That appears sore.’
The deep voice of the bird soothed the boy as if he’d been able to stroke the boy’s hair. Tears and smears of river dirt washed the body’s cherubic face, His eyes, deep glistening sapphires followed the bird as it walked awkwardly behind him. The swan was head to head, the same height as the boy.
‘Put down your fishing rod and with your right hand, you are going to cut the line. Leave the hook in your hand’.
At this Jono sobbed.
‘Do as I say. Do this, do this now.’
The rain could be heard in the distance. Jono was so focused on getting to grips with the scissors and cutting the line that he forgot about the mobile phone his mother had put into the outside pocket of his backpack for emergencies.
‘My name is Jono,’ said the boy as he put down the scissors.
‘I am the King of Swans,’ replied the cob.
‘And this is my river.’
The skin on the boy’s legs turned to goosebumps. Wearing shorts no longer seemed like a good choice and he wished he was wearing his jeans.
‘It’s time to turn for home.’
The swan king nudged him away from the river bank.
‘It’s time to go home. Now.’
Jono stood up and in the confusion and drama of the tumultuous weather, he couldn’t remember the way home. The sky darkened and the little grass trodden track leading to his fishing spot had disappeared in the wind’s attention. Anxious not to disobey the swan king, Jono walked inland, his little plastic toolbox in one hand, the other hand, held out at an awkward angle to his side like a broken wing. Jono sat beneath a grandfather tree, its labyrinthian branches offering some small relief from the now present rain. He was lost. The swan flew across the paddock and landed in front of him.
‘Climb on my back.’
Jono stared at him.
‘Leave your box and climb on my back. Let your legs hang down behind my wings and carefully wrap your arms around my neck and body.’
The bird backed towards the boy who entranced, did as he was told.
Lightning split the black sky and illuminated the magical image of a boy clumsily holding onto a large swanThe boy’s flaxen curls pushed back off his face. He noticed a group of ducks who bowed beneath the awe of the signs of the bird and boy as they passed overhead.
Before long and now thoroughly soaked, the swan king swooped down behind the old barn by Jono’s family home..
‘Climb down. You are safe here.’
But Jono was careless and in his haste, he caught the hook in his left hand on the swan king’s chest and tore though flesh and feathers. The swan pulled away, hissing at Jono who quickly ran to his house, suddenly afraid of this powerful creature.
In the reed beds a proud pen protected her cygnets from the storm, holding them on her back, using her wings as barriers against the elements. She raised her head to see her love, her king arrive beside her. She could taste his blood in the air as he flew towards her.
His voice rumbled like the thunder, waking some of the balls of fluff and feathers.
‘You did what you had to do. The boy wasn’t safe.’
The pen looked at him, her own heart aching full of love and protection for their six hungry mouths.
‘You saved this one, she continued gently.
The swan king could remember the storm from before. He remembered a slightly older boy, falling into the rushes and being swept away, too afraid to reach out to the swan who had flown down to help him stay afloat.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ she said, reading his mind.
‘It’s my river.’
She picked at some moss and stripped it from the rocks by the rocks above the waterline. She placed it in the small hole in his chest damaged by the fishing hook.
‘This is no penalty you need to pay,' her soothing tones reminded him his home was beside her.
‘It’s my river, I can make sure it never happens again,’ and he sank down beside her, grateful for her eyes, her attentions and her strengths.
‘The boy is safe now,’ and he rested his head in amongst the bundles of angel feathers nestling on her back. The excitement of this cob’s head nuzzling its way into their erstwhile nursery woke them all and their excited squeals brought comfort to him.
Text: A short story River Storm by JL Nash
Images: Antique French swan, hand carved wood, 18th century.