HOW THE SWAN QUEEN CELEBRATED MOTHER’S DAY
by Kiel Stuart
Then she was in the basement, sorting through the things the mother had left behind.
The Mother. The Daughter. It was how they had referred to each other, as if they were actors in a play and not real.
But the daughter prayed that here in this familiar sanctuary, among the alchemy of laundry supplies, she would uncover some other form of identity, if only to move on with her life. First she must rid herself of the jumble of old clothes and papers.
It was Mother’s Day, and it seemed appropriate to be boxing up all that remained of The Mother. Milky light touched the daughter’s hands; hints of warm-laundry smell filled her nose—these things and not siblings had kept her company through the years.
I must begin somewhere, she told herself, picked up an old leather purse, opened it.
The stairs creaked. A voice spoke behind her: “What are you doing rummaging through my things?”
She whirled. “Mother! But the hospital said—” She had to draw a startled gasp. “They said you were, you had—”
“Me? Of course not.” The mother wafted forward, not angry, not sad, just insistent and ever-present.
The daughter stiffened. The mother’s mood could change in an eyeblink from effusive gaiety to shrieking rage.
Not Father. His hands always patted air, conjured soothing atmospheres. Everyone had liked him, except those he owed money.
The daughter cleared her throat. “How are you?”
“Oh, lovely, lovely, fine.” The mother wore a glassy blonde wig and a jewel-neck dress of black crepe. Looking fit and pink, she inspected the small, neat basement, touching everything, laying claim to all. Her smile glittered like a hunting knife.
“Come,” said the mother. “Show me around the rooms.”
Lowering her head, the daughter obliged. She led the way up the basement stairs, slipping into her old part like a pair of worn shoes.
It was an oddly constructed house, neither Colonial nor ranch nor bungalow. The daughter had heard the term Post Modern. Maybe that explained the odd way in which the house behaved, which had been problematical all along.
One bedroom would swell and enlarge, like a lung expanding to a deep breath, and she would step inside. Her soft footfall on the Berber carpet then caused it to exhale and become smaller than a broom closet.
Or it was like an octopus, this house, squirming to fit itself through impossibly small crevices, then swelling to jet away through the sea. Only the basement remained constant and unchanging.
Shivering against the ever-present damp, the daughter took the mother upstairs to the strange topography of the second floor. Today, one bedroom was wrapped around another: it was difficult to tell, as each time she moved, aspects shifted, and the bedrooms in turn both encompassed and fit into a bathroom. She was dizzy with change.
“I see,” the mother kept saying, “Yes, yes.” Nodding all the time. Placing her hand against a wall, a dresser, a shelf, which inched itself away from her.
“The basement is—”
“You must tell me what it’s like some day.” Now the mother bustled, as in the old days, the days before Father had vanished. Mouth greasy with fuchsia lipstick, skin reeking of perfume, the mother cluck-clucked, like someone busying herself for an important party, with a million things left to do.
Cold and unhappy, the daughter shut her eyes. When she opened them only the perfume remained, cloying.
And then she was in the street, walking until she left the house far behind. And that made her happy.
The air was warm and tender. She wore soft canvas shoes that would take her for miles. Perhaps she need never return.
She came to a winding avenue jammed with shops, kiosks, booths. A man in a gray morning coat wheeled a cart sizzling with the smells of sausage and peppers and fried dough. Among strangers, she felt safe.
One shop caught her eye—a bright glass-fronted edifice: House of Slippers. A girl was seated outside the shop, a girl with long dark curling hair and smooth bronze skin, a girl wearing the same ugly fuchsia lipstick as the mother.
The daughter wanted to say it was the wrong shade, that a clear red or a sunlit gold would be more becoming, but years of experience with the mother had taught her the value of keeping her mouth shut.
Besides, she liked the girl, liked the offhand way she wore her white cotton blouse with its little puffed sleeves, and the patent-leather pumps in the same fuchsia as her lipstick.
The shopgirl looked up and smiled. “I am from Puerto Rico,” she said, in Spanish.
“I know.” The daughter did not speak Spanish, but understood perfectly. “How do you like it here?”
“I miss San Juan. Here it’s okay, you understand, but not like home.”
The daughter nodded. “Maybe I’ll walk there.”
“We have a frog called the coqui. You should hear it. It sings like a bird—a sound you would not forget. I miss that sound. And my brothers. They wait for me back home. They wait until I get enough money to send for them.”
She wondered what it would feel like, having brothers. “I hope it’s soon.”
“Miss, here we have shoes, many shoes, all colors, all sizes. Please, come in, try some.”
The long narrow shop was lined with boxes of shoes—high heels, sandals, running shoes, clogs.
More shoes hung from the wall like a still-life of satiny flowers. “Ballet slippers,” whispered the daughter, touching a sleek tip with one finger. “Pointe shoes.” Taking an armful, she kicked off her sneakers and sat.
“I like the black ones,” said the shopgirl. “So dramatic.”
The daughter selected a black shoe with a racy, low vamp and a narrow toe box. She had taken ballet lessons as a child, and still remembered how to lace the ribbons, how to knot the satin and tuck the knot away from the Achilles tendon, how to adjust the front drawstring so the shoe was secure.
The first black shoe made her feel light as an angel. Astounding! Even as a child she had trouble finding a good fit.
Taking the shoe off, she looked for the brand name. Freed, Gamba, Schachtner? None of those—a make she had never heard of before, Cygnus. She put the slipper back on.
“Ah!” said the shopgirl. “Just like the Black Swan.”
“You know that story?”
“Of course. She is a powerful figure, this Black Swan, daughter of a magician.”
“The shoe is wonderful. Cygnus, it must be new on the market. I’ll take a pair.”
The girl smiled. “Oh, but there is only the one.”
“Only one?” The daughter slumped under the weight of her disappointment. “But I’ve never had a shoe that fit so well.”
“Better one shoe that fits than none at all.”
“But what will I put on my right foot?”
“Here.” The girl grabbed a pair of Captivios. “This is your size, no? Four-and-a-half.”
The daughter hesitated. The Captivios looked slightly different from the Cygnus shoe: the color more of a dusty, muddy espresso than the blue-black sheen of the Cygnus. The vamp was higher, the toe box square and clumsy. And to take half a pair! “What about the person who wants the four-and-a-half black Captivios?”
“That will be her lookout, not yours.” The girl laughed. “I shall wrap them for you?”
“No, don’t bother.” The Cygnus shoe made the daughter’s left foot feel like it lived in another dimension. She did not want such joy to end. Tying her sneakers together, she paid for the slippers, then twirled out of the shop.
“Farewell,” called the shopgirl.
The daughter had always found pointe shoes difficult to walk in. And now there was the odd feeling of different shoes: one half of her mortal woman with aching feet, the other demi-goddess.
Perhaps she could not walk to San Juan, but merely the next town. She set off, limping a bit. It would not be far. She could see the roofs of houses in the distance.
But as she drew closer, she stopped, puzzled.
This was her house! A line of cars was parked in front, stretching in both directions. She sky had gone dark. Feet throbbing in their mismatched shoes, she ran the rest of the way and pushed the front door open.
Voices rushed at her, smells of cooking, liquor, cigarettes. Her breath caught on the smells; she shrank. All those people, all that food—just like the post-funeral gathering. Was she doomed to go through it again and again?
She shivered from the cold. Somewhere, she had dropped her sneakers.
Her drab attire was shamed by the formal dress, the glint of white and gold dishes, the air of celebration, perhaps even a coronation. Some of the people were familiar—friends of her mother’s, distant aunts and uncles, a cousin or two. Others were strangers in long dark cloaks, and they looked at her with dangerous, guarded eyes.
She felt like a stranger herself. “Excuse me,” she said to no one in particular. “Who are these people? What happened to my—”
“Ah! There you are, dear!” The mother came surging from the crowd, arms outstretched. “We are celebrating my return.” She wore a different dress, black satin with cap sleeves, immensely unflattering, with a Shelley Winters wig bobbing on her head and jewelry jangling everywhere. Her wide painted mouth made air-kisses near the daughter’s ear, the reek of her perfume killing all smells of food and smoke.
“What’s the idea,” whispered the mother. “Mismatched shoes? Can’t you see I’m having a dinner party?”
“But you know you’re not supposed to smoke. Or eat this kind of food. The doctors said—”
“Nonsense, nonsense. You, over there!” The mother snapped her fingers at a boy standing behind a buffet table.
He was about fourteen, short but sturdily built, his brown hair in a Prince-Valiant cut. His clear gray eyes matched the color of the shabby velvet jerkin and close-fitting breeches.
And he looked quite overwhelmed with the whole scenario.
“Chop-chop,” said the mother. “Can’t you do anything right? You, stop staring and get her some food.” The mother jerked her head at the daughter. “And when you’re done, clean out the bathrooms. Then start on the kitchen.” She went back to her guests.
The boy and the daughter stood awkwardly, not looking at one another. Then the ballet shoes gave a little wriggle, and the daughter took the boy’s hand.
The mother might be able to cow her, to turn her into kitchen wench and frightened mouse, but she would not let the boy suffer the same humiliation. “Where do you live?”
“B-but—” stammered the boy. “I can’t leave! I have to serve food and clean toilets and start on the kitchen and draw the bath and—”
“It’s all right,” she soothed, patting the air. “Just tell me where you live.”
“The basement,” he whispered.
“Good. I’ll take you home.” With a quick look around to see whether the mother noticed, she tucked the boy’s hand in hers, found the basement door and descended.
“Except for the basement,” she apologized, “the house won’t stay still.” Then she stopped.
Gray stone walls stretched out into rooms dividing other rooms, enfolding still others. Torches smoked. The setting was like a story heard in infancy, before the understanding of words.
“What happened to my laundry room?” she wailed. “Now I’ll never get you back where you belong.”
“It’s all right,” said the boy, and gave her a shy grin. “I’ll show you where I sleep.” His hand still tucked into hers, he urged her forward. She winced. The flagstones were brutal to her feet.
“And now the basement is like the rest of the house,” she said, more to keep her mind off the pain than anything else.
“But that’s to be expected,” he said. “Powerful magicians leave evidence of their handiwork everywhere.”
As they walked, the boy’s garments shed their dirt. Their frayed edges sealed themselves. He shone like a prince; he had even grown taller. His voice deepened.
More change! She thought. Everything around me is shifting; only I remain the same.
“The mother,” she began. “How did she—”
“Oh, I was tending the ox and she reached through the slats of the stairs. Grabbed me right off my feet.”
“Ox?” The daughter was now thoroughly bewildered.
He threw back his splendid head and laughed. “Even a prince had to work!”
“But not like that, not the way she makes me. Kitchen drudge, bathroom scrubber. When the bathrooms stand still, that is. I was away buying shoes.”
“Ah, yes, the shoes. How can I hold that against you?”
If only he hadn’t mentioned them! She wondered whether her feet were bleeding. “At least it’s still dry,” she said. “You’d think the dungeon would be damp.”
“Because it’s the one place that doesn’t belong to her.” They rounded a corner lit by blazing torches. Now he towered over her, a strapping youth whose voice rang against the shifting stone walls. “When magic creates a place, the effects always linger. Same as when it creates a thing—or person.”
What was she to say to that? “But the basement was always so small, so safe.”
“The house is older than it looks.” He winked at her.
As old as the enormous flagstones, she wondered, or the smoking torches? From somewhere far away came the faint scent of roasting meat. Were they headed back to the party?
Now he tucked her arm through his. “Did you never wonder as to your father’s whereabouts?”
“She never told me. But today I met a shopgirl who misses her brothers. It makes me miss Father all the more.”
He gave a little shrug. “Powerful opposing forces seldom rest easy in the same space. Too much confinement.” Now the prince’s long strides had her struggling to keep up.
“She threw him out,” the daughter said, surprised at the bitterness in her voice.
“Don’t be too sure of that.” The young man’s sidewise glance was hard to read. “Nor that you are alone.”
“At least I might be able to hide in here again,” she said, stopping for a moment to rub a swollen ankle. It was the one foot, she realized, the one wearing the Captivio. That was the source of her pain.
“The time for hiding is past. Instead—well, for the moment, you may be content with your reward.”
“Reward?” She straightened to give him a blank stare.
“You brought me home,” he said.
“It seemed you were doing the bringing.”
“Nevertheless, something good awaits.” They had reached a waist-high partition of stone. Behind this, a vast hearth blazed, with a juice-dripping ox turning on a spit.
The prince sat on a three-legged wooden stool next to the hearth. “I’ve got to tend the ox now,” he said. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
Wasn’t he going to offer her some? She had eaten nothing all day. The smell of the roasting ox made her ravenous, and she longed to rejoin the dinner party upstairs. “How will I find my way back?”
“Look for the stairs. And then for your reward.” He made a casual gesture with one hand, and there was a flash of hot light, and she looked down.
“The shoes match!” she cried.
“That’s not all.”
“Oh, yes! The pain is gone. It’s wonderful!”
He gave her another wink, and sent her on her way.
The return journey took her through twisting flagstone halls, through cavernous rooms that suddenly closed in on themselves, and just as suddenly opened up again.
She had been traveling a long time, yet she must not have gone far, because the roast-ox smell was so strong it was a weight of meat on her tongue.
She gulped down saliva. What sort of food would be at the dinner party? Salads, vegetables, potatoes, perhaps saffron rice. And desserts: big blue grapes, peaches, melons, pastries.
Was this the reward? Look for the stairs, the princeling had said. Something good awaits. Food for the hungry? With the mother, there could never be the love a daughter longed for, but possibly respect?
Then the smell of roasting ox vanished. The girl took two steps forward. The checkerboard floor reappeared under her feet and there was the small, safe, dry basement, with its comforting scent of warm laundry. There were the stairs. She climbed.
And she was in the living room, and it was damp and crowded with guests cloaked and gowned, and an aura of old liquor left too long in melting ice.
“Oh, there you are.” The mother trotted over. The liquor stench was her breath; her cheeks looked too pink, too shiny, like an infection. “Come get some food, dear.”
“Food?” Was this the reward? The daughter looked around. But there was none to be had—only burnt bits in chafing dishes; stale bread curled in baskets; spilled bottles of wine; salads turning brown.
“Here! Look what I have for you!” The mother handed her a plate. Upon it lay blackened scrapings, husks of bread, salads swimming in exhausted vinaigrettes. Someone had put out a cigarette in the middle of it all.
The daughter lowered her eyes. She felt herself curling up like the stale dark bread.
The bottom of the plate pressed cold against her palm. Its vitreous touch seeped through her skin, ran aching up her arm, and exploded into her throat.
“You call this food?”
The mother shrugged. “I didn’t realize you disliked boeuf bourgignon.”
“This isn’t beef burgundy,” she said, refusing to employ the mother’s foreign terminology. “It’s garbage.” A spasm of rage jerked her arm forward like a discus thrower; she flung the plate to shatter against the wall. The effort drained her of anger.
Guests stopped in mid-bite, mid-sip, to stare at her.
“Well, you don’t need to throw a tantrum,” huffed the mother. “If it’s boeuf bourgignon you want I’m sure we can find some in one of the—”
“I don’t want your beef burgundy.”
The mother turned her back and apologized to her guests. “Normally she behaves herself quite well! You don’t hear a peep from her.” She turned back and hissed, “This is so unlike you.”
“It is?” She thought of the shopgirl, who, in spite of her ugly lipstick, at least knew who she was.
She knew who I was, too. And so did that boy…. But he said there would be a reward—
Of course. The boy, the princeling, my half-brother. Whom I brought home, whom I can find again, whenever I wish.
Slowly, a bit stiffly, she rose en pointe, not The Daughter, not that frightened creature, but the Swan, regal in her black feathers, powerful, dangerous and not quite human.
“I don’t want beef burgundy. I don’t want old scrapings from an abandoned dish, I don’t want cigarettes in my food.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve gone vegetarian. But there was salad on your plate, I know there was. Or I could get you some fish, how would that be?”
The Black Swan shook her head.
“Well, then, what do you want?”
I want you to stay dead. I want all these revelers to leave. I want you to know who I am.
But she said none of those things. Instead the magician’s daughter spread her wings in a storm of black feathers.
The mother gasped.
“You really should have saved me something,” said the Swan Queen, and flew out the door.