Swans in the Dark

FIREWOOD to gather. Jerusalem artichokes to pry from half-frozen soil, an old icy house to warm with an antique furnace, mice to displace temporarily, cracked corn to scatter on fields for geese, visiting babies to be fed and eventually bedded.... No time, arriving at the ramshackle farm mid-afternoon, to run to the beach. Nor is this a time for writing after fetching Charlie, a blond 2-year-old, and Ashley, a 4-year-old brunette, to give their mothers a rest. I'll spend the weekend reading - to them.

First, in the wintered garden, I pull six lavender turnips, then hear Charlie near the brief beach shouting ``Wands! Wands!'' I've read them ``Sleeping Beauty.'' Perhaps in collecting wood they've found sticks approximating the fairy godmother's equipment.

I hurry through stubbled fields and blackberry canes. Beyond, white wings flash against the icy blue river, disappear beyond the cove. I love summer, heat, and jungles, but swans' overflights make winter almost acceptable. I feel graced as by angels. If they land in another stretch of the river I feel cheated.

Nearly sunset. High time to bring the babies indoors. I'll slip down to the marsh where I can see the swans better, maybe haul out the canoe, as soon as chores are done....

Chores are never done. Cold and dark set in early.

Finally, driftwood catches in the hearth. We eat by the fire. Gradually babies are fed, read to, and stowed in bed at a later hour than their mothers would have liked; the moon is already high and white. But after country air and activity, they will sleep, like babies. And awaken rather earlier than we would like.

Dishes done, we curl by the fire to read, with excellent intentions of writing too. Manuscripts in progress and books are optimistically stashed in knapsacks. We are always too busy, and the pace is currently doubled by the two small and joyful whirlwinds. Three days since I've lifted a pencil. I seldom finish books any more. Either they inspire me to write, or to sleep.

Babies shift in the night, cry out at 2 a.m., fall asleep again. I do not. The grandfather clock chimes quarter-hours. From my bed I stare through the window at the trickle of lights on the far shore. Constellations rearrange the sky, the moon hangs low. Beautiful out there, sad no one else is awake to see. Or at least to give me company. Lonely, being the only person not asleep.

I am not upset or unhappy, at least not in the inner circle of my life, though events in the world beyond are enough to keep anyone from sleep. I just can't drop off again. Staying awake half the night also borrows from the morrow. And here I wasted what should have been a rich evening of reading and writing by falling asleep. No longer.

Sometimes, if several days pass without writing, I cannot sleep. But the house has cooled, uninviting to abandon bed now. I turn my face to the jumbled pillows and lie here, enumerating unwritten manuscripts, unfinished chores, good intentions.

Suddenly from the dark river: a cacophony. Not cacophony, a melodious oratorio. Swans, all whistling and murmuring their hoo whooo hoo in the night.

I pull on the warmest clothes at hand in the dark, grab boots, slip out the door. With the leftover moon, no need for a flashlight. Heading toward the beach I hide behind the walnut trees so the swans won't be scared. They float close to shore, bobbing on the dark waves like dabs of whipped cream. Must be 20, 30, 50 great white birds.

Finally I retreat indoors, switch on lights, find paper and pencil. These are God-given moments of rare and intense clarity. After the frosty beach, the chill of the house no longer matters. The babies might sleep late. I may catch up on sleep later. By morning, the swans could be gone. The sky is already lighter. Had I slept this night, I would have missed them.

Their whistling and trumpeting continue past sunrise. Then I doze off, honored, blessed.

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