Short Stories, Stories

A Swan Glides Past

3rd place at Writer’s Retreat Competition (October 2020)

Barry sat on a lichen ridden boulder on the shore of Dreamere lake. 

‘Another wasted day,’ he said to himself. 

He looked at his canvas bag, stained with acrylics and ink, round tipped brushes sticking out of it through tears in the fabric. 

‘No one buys paintings anymore. Or is it just my paintings?’ 

He stretched, his spine and legs cracking with relief all the way down to his blistered toes. Barry placed a greasy box of cod and chips gingerly in his lap. His stomach rumbled under his paisley shirt. His eyes squinted with the light of the setting sun as it descended behind blue mountain crests. Their cool hues sank into the depths of the lake as Barry’s thirsty gaze rolled over it.

He scooped some cod with a couple of groggy fingers. 

‘I should have asked for a fork,’ he thought. 

A duck glided past, with three ducklings close to her tail. Barry smiled and tried to remember if ducks liked fish. He was too hungry to share, however. 

‘Sorry mama duck,’ he pleaded, ‘this is for me.’ 

The ducklings nibbled at a small rock, covered in moss, at the brim of the lake. Their mother watched over them, keeping an eye on Barry as she swam around her babies.

‘What a gentle mother!’ Barry said with a teary eye. 

He remembered his own mother’s frown as his seven year old self stretched out a drawing of the neighbour’s cat. 

‘Anyone can draw a cat,’ she would say. ‘How is that going to get you any money?’ 

Barry bit a soggy chip. He sighed as if his whole body had been filled with air and was now deflating. It was quiet as the sun descended over the stillness of the lake. Contorted oak branches quenched their thirst on either side of the pebbled shore. 

Three yards away, a white swan glided past, as if pulled by a silk thread from one side of the lake to the other. Barry watched in awe as it swayed its neck with every gentle stroke of its webbed feet. 

‘Such beauty,’ Barry whispered, ‘look how it glides past, as life slips through my fingers.’ 

The swan stopped to look at the stars as dusk turned into night. Its eyes glistened with wonder. A pair of white wings stretched out to catch the moonlight as it seeped through the clouds. In haste, Barry wiped his oily fingers on his trousers. He rummaged through the bag, his eyes fixed on the swan. A spotted sketchbook and a soft tipped pencil emerged.

Barry managed a few strokes before the swan resumed its swim. It soon disappeared behind the oak tree branches on the side of the lake. Barry stretched to look beyond the trees, but only managed to knock over his dinner.

‘Oh no,’ he grumbled and jumped off the boulder to salvage what he could. The ducks came to the pebbly shore to investigate. 

‘It’s not for you,’ Barry dismissed them with a bitter grimace. Mama duck nibbled at the pencil, which was now oily like the hand holding it. Barry pushed the duck away.

‘Anyone can draw a duck,’ Barry scoffed. ‘You ducks all look the same anyway.’

The duck looked at Barry sideways, but didn’t seem to mind his comment. Her beak kept a subtle smile. She then waddled back towards the water, her ducklings close behind. The ducks sat in the lake, as small ripples rocked them from side to side. They watched Barry fumbling through the pebbles as he refilled his ‘Chippie’ box.

‘Come on,’ Barry sighed, ‘have some. It’s mostly muddy anyway.’ He then flung a chip in the water. The ducks rushed to peck at it. 

Barry sat on the pebbly stretch for the rest of the evening. He would fling a chip in the water from time to time and the ducks would nibble it joyfully. He looked up at the sky, his heart aflame with a silent, but desperate prayer. Doubt gnawed at him, but he kept his eyes towards the distant Heaven. The ducks came to rest at Barry’s feet as he laid a heavy head on the canvas bag. He remembered his trousers. ‘The stains will never come off,’ he grumbled. He closed his eyes and rest soon found him.

Barry dreamt the white swan had come to him. Its velvet feet pressed the pebbles into the earth as it stepped on land. It stretched out a pair of moonlit wings and flapped them with vigour. Barry felt the warmth of the swan’s breast against his cheeks. It then turned around to look at the sky, its wings still wide open. It bugled to the Heavens and other swans answered from across the lake. The waters trembled and the trees rustled with awe. With its body still facing the lake, the swan’s head turned to look at Barry. Starlight glimmered in its eyes. 

A strange hope grasped Barry’s heart as he awoke. The feeble light of the morning sun fought to open his glazed eyelids. Mama duck was just entering the water with her ducklings. Barry stretched his back and ruffled his hair, with a small smile. He then searched through his bag for the sketchbook and pencil.

‘The sunlight suits you,’ he smiled at the duck. ‘You really stayed here all night?’ The duck quaked soothingly. 

Barry lifted up the canvas bag to rummage through it better. A white feather lay on the pebbles underneath. He picked it up in wonder, but his heart was more composed than the night before. Barry sighed as if a burden had become lighter. 

‘One feather at a time,’ he whispered and started sketching the ducks. 

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