The plans you make when your heart stops
It was a curious sensation…flying without being able to feel the weight of her own body. Margo flapped her big swan wings, and advanced over the lake, as easy as if she was air herself. Was she air? It was hard to tell what she was made of. There was no preparation for becoming a ghost swan, and no other ghost swans to discuss such matters with.
No human ghosts either, to advise her.
She seemed to be on a plane of her own, skimming below the clouds, and looking down at the lake that had been her home, that she had loved. That she still loved. You could still love with a ghost heart, that much she did know. She could feel it, warm, like liquid gold, inside the cave of her chest.
Today, on this bright Tuesday morning, six weeks since her death, she swerved lower and closer to each of the things she loved, like they would anchor her to the earth….
The clay banks – cracked and dry. It was an unusually dry summer.
The low bushes, that disguised the debris the students left behind; their brown bottles and shiny crips packets, and clear, plastic sandwich containers. All the souvenirs of picnics, and getaway lunches, and nights watching the moon as it shone on this lake – all just a short, winding path away from the cramped, blocky buildings of their campus.
Oh how Margo loved the students. The spitters and spatters of them that came to stretch out at the lakeside, while they ate their lunches. Or to sit quietly reading a book, or typing on their phone.
The organised clumps that would come at the end of each term, with metal grabbers, like beaks, picking the litter from the bushes, like Margo used to pick algae from the lakebed, when she dabbled for her breakfast. The students would stuff the term’s remnants into their bags, chatting and tutting and laughing and clucking as they went. A freshening end that marked the last days of the term. Margo’s ghost stomach twisted.
Judging by the angle of the sun, and the lengths of the days, this final picking day, for the end of the summer term, would be here worryingly soon. And then the students would leave for their long summer vacations, and no-one would come to the lake. Margo’s heart plummeted. Her wings stopped beating. Her ghost body sagged its way down to the water, and for a moment she felt as thought she were spread across its entire, cool surface.
Concentrate. She needed to concentrate.
She pulled herself together, and kicked until her webbed feet propelled her to the nearest bank, not a ripple around her. She stepped her way out and spread her wings out to dry, from habit, not necessity. She could no longer feeling the weight of water on her feathers, a sensation that once ruffled her, but now she missed.
Concentrate. She needed to concentrate.
She needed to turn her sharp eyes to look at what she loved the most of all. The one thing that, if truth be spoken, her gaze had been avoiding all morning. It hurt to look, like it hurts to look at the sun. Margo opened and closed her beak instinctively, a mute swan entirely silent now. Then slowly, oh so slowly, she turned on the spot until she was facing Len.
There he was, on his own little island, to the right side of the lake. Margo could make out the shape of him, his head tucked under his wing, a tight little parcel of sadness. She’d been unable to rouse him, no matter what she’d tried over the last six week. And she had tried all manner of loving disturbances – flying right over him, calling through the grasses right by his head. Thinking thoughts so hard that they should have worked their way into his Len brain. Stamping and stamping her webbed foot to try and leave a footprint beside him.
But no sound or movement of hers could snag his attention. She was invisible. Silent. And Len was so very hard to watch, in this stagnant slump. A few times he’d looked a little livelier, and swum his way over to the far side of the lake, closest to the woods. But then he’d just sat there on the bank, like he was waiting for a fox to come and take him.
It would be worse once the students left. Then there wouldn’t even be any sandwich crusts to tempt Len off his little island, and back into life.
Margo shifted from foot to foot, on the silty bank, as she considered her options…
It was true that, in theory, she could let Len wane away, like a tired moon. But that would be such a terrible waste. He might have as much as six good years left if he rallied? Six whole years. All those years of new students coming down to the lake – to read their books, and toss their crusts out, and lie on their backs, reminding you to look up at the sky. It would be such a shame to miss that. Such a shame.
Option two, she could just hope that Len would pull out of it, like a plane pulling out of a nosedive. He could right himself, and decide to…fly to Canada? She’d never heard of a mute swan migrating? But Len could be the first. At least he would die having an adventure, not just rotting in place.
Or perhaps, Margo could capture a student to love and care for Len. Love him so much that they would stay behind for the summer, together in their loneliness.
Was it wrong to wish for that? Was it wrong to wish? She’d seen a young student, with shiny black hair, laughing as she blew out the candles on a cake, while her gaggle of friends cheered, ‘Make a wish! Make a wish!’ It had seemed harmless to Margo. Lovely even.
Could she, Margo, the ghost swan, make one final wish?
She’d never wished for anything in her life before. Everything she’d wanted had been right here, before her eyes. So maybe, it wasn’t too much to ask? A wish of a prayer.
This might be her last wish. She would put all of her love into it, knotted together with all of her hope, and all of her damned determination.
Margo waded into the water and swam slowly, but purposefully, over to Len, until she was close enough to see a glint of his orange beak, still tucked down beneath his wing. Margo’s ghost heart twisted in her chest – what a life they had had together. She opened her beak for one last time.
Then she closed her eyes and used every cell of her strength to picture a wish that could work. One that wouldn’t backfire and burn anyone in the deal. She listened one last time to Len’s gruff snoring, then she committed, hard as she could, to her wish.
Margo pictured the red ride on mower that the groundsman rode to tidy up the grass, on either side of the winding path. But in her mind, Margo replaced the bitter groundsman, with Lewis – a second year student who came to the lake to nap, between his jobs. Margo loved all the students, but Lewis was one of the few who Len favoured – sure because he brought seed, not just bread. But seed was better for Len’s waistline and organs anyway. All the more reason that this was a match made in ghost heaven.
A mower hummed, far down below. Margo opened her eyes. She hadn’t realised how high she’d risen, until she looked down. Way, way down. She could just make out the little white figure of Len, stretching his neck out from his wing, and turning his head to look at Lewis.
Back in week 7, I wrote about a young journalist sent to the cover the story of a grieving swan (Len), who was attacking people in a local park.
I wanted to return to Len, to write a short story from the point of view of his counterpart – his dead partner, now a ghost swan.
(I shifted the location to a University campus, for a couple of practical and interest based reasons.)