Swans Will Be Swans

Elizabeth Zuckerman

Story image for Swans Will Be Swans by

T he weird thing is, as it was happening, I kept thinking how cold the floor felt. Like my brain had nothing better to do. Just picture it, okay? Me dripping shower water onto the locker room floor, that first-season-win glow fading real fast, arms crossed over my thin towel, trying to glare my clothes out of Trey Riley’s hands. And he’s grinning, the smug little bastard, because he knows our school won’t touch the principal’s son, and I’m yelling at him and my teammates with clothes on are coming at him and he’s laughing his way out of the locker room, and the whole time I keep thinking on loop, Gosh, Liv, your toes sure are chilly, why don’t you put your socks on?

It was shitty, is what I’m trying to say.

Amanda had a change of clothes, because duh, so at least I didn’t have to go home in the extra soccer uniform and pray the shorts’ loose drawstring stayed tied. I did have to ride the same bus as Trey Riley, and I did have to walk four blocks in the same direction as him, which sucked.

“I should do this again,” he said once we got off the bus. “You look good in Amanda’s clothes.”

Amanda had a body like Karlie Kloss. Nobody looked good in Amanda’s clothes but Amanda. I set my jaw and walked faster.

“Oh, come on.” He jogged to catch up, got a few steps ahead of me, and walked backward with this shit-eating grin on his face. “Can’t you take a joke?”

“Ha ha,” I said through gritted teeth. “Give me my clothes back, asshole.”

He pretended to think about it. “Trade you the shirt for the panties.”

I turned left so sharply you could have cut your finger on it. He didn’t follow, but he called down the block, “I think your nip’s hanging out!”

I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of checking. So I walked the extra block of my alternate route with fury boiling in my stomach, my jaw sore from clenching it too hard, and my shoulders stiff with irrational panic that the cutouts in Amanda’s black top might in fact show my tiny braless breasts.

Gramma took one look at me and poured a drink from the secret stash I wasn’t supposed to know about. “I’m seventeen,” I said, staring at the shot glass in her hand.

“If you’re old enough to hate, you’re old enough to drink. Salt first. No granddaughter of mine pussyfoots her way around tequila.”

I licked salt off my hand, downed the shot, and tried to gasp for air and bite the lime at the same time. Bad combination. Gramma thumped me on the back until I could breathe again. By then we were both laughing, and the barely-contained nuclear explosion of my rage didn’t burn quite so hot. Then we broke out the half-full bag of chocolate chips and put a terrible movie on for background noise while I told her what had happened.

“What a prick,” Gramma kept saying at just the right moments, when I paused for effect or for breath or just to stop and listen to the words coming out of my mouth, because saying them aloud made me even angrier. “What a prick. Keep going, hon.”

Mom got home around six-thirty. By that time Gramma and I had moved on to other topics, so my actual greeting to her was the news I’d wanted to come home with in the first place: “Mom, guess what? We won the first game of the season!”

“That’s my girl!” she said. She slid groaning out of her work heels and padded barefoot across the living room to the couch, where Gramma sat enthroned next to me in my round nest chair. Mom flopped onto the ottoman, smeared her mascara as she rubbed her eyes, and then paused to take in the clothes I’d never worn before, the crumpled yellow chocolate chip bag next to the lime rind, and the total lack of any dinner prep. “Everything okay?”

And here’s the worst part of it all. I was an hour removed from the bullshit, my stomach was warm with tequila instead of anger, and Gramma had made me laugh. These are the fully-formed sentences that crossed my mind: I shouldn’t worry her. It wasn’t that bad.

And then I got so mad all over again that I burst out crying.

I hiccupped the story out between sobs and wordless yells. When I got to the part about walking down the block with him, Mom got up and poured another tequila shot. In fairness, she offered it to me first. “I got her,” Gramma said. “That one’s yours, Katie.” Mom threw back the shot without salt or lime, grabbed a new box of tissues, and squeezed into the nest chair with me so I could get snot and tears all over her gray wool blazer. I could feel anger coiling under her skin as she held me, her arms getting tenser and her breath coming shallow.

But when I finished talking and blew my nose again and scrubbed at my itching eyes, she only asked, “What do you want to do about it, Olivia?”

That question means different things for us than for most people.

I took a long slow breath and let it sit straining in my chest for a few seconds. I thought about the risks, about everything I stood to lose if something went pear-shaped. I thought about the times when I was little and came running to Mom and Gramma squealing Do something, do something and they told me we had to be careful, we couldn’t just unleash ourselves whenever we felt like it. I thought about how we’d won the game today, how I’d scored the first goal, and how I had to remind myself of that and block out everything else if I wanted to feel any pride or warmth from that memory. I thought about how I’d belonged to me until he decided I didn’t.

I let out my breath and looked up at Mom. “I want to do something about it,” I told her.

On the couch, Gramma clapped her hands. “Damn right,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”

Orbit-sml ><

T hese are the things stories don’t tell you about a feather coat: They itch. They’re always too small, right up until the second they fit. And they’re fragile like you wouldn’t believe. A couple of crumpled feathers and the whole shebang won’t work right.

Putting one on is like trying to fit a grown adult into a two-year-old’s denim overalls. I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen Mom or Gramma in theirs, I definitely hadn’t worn mine ever since the coat stopped growing. I’d hopped in and out of it until I was four and the coat had hit adulthood. Then they’d weaned me off it, partly because our family can only spend so long at a time in our coats before we get the uncontrollable urge to abandon everything and fly off east of the sun and west of the moon, but also because, wow, can you imagine the awkwardness of trying to explain why you’d had a little girl there a minute ago, and now this big-ass swan was splashing in the fountain? Thank you, no.

So I hadn’t worn it in years, and the first time I stepped into the foot webbing I could feel my neck vertebrae pop painfully. “Careful!” Mom said, bracing my arm when I stumbled. “Don’t force it. Give yourself time to shift.”

“Your great-great-grandmother would jump in and out of her coat like it was nothing,” Gramma remarked from the kitchen, her hands wet and soapy as she scrubbed our dinner dishes. “Last generation who didn’t care about the call and spent as much time in her coat as out of it.” Mom and I paused, me teetering on one human foot and one whose bones had already shifted and diffused and reshaped to fit the swan-foot webbing. Gramma rinsed a plate and set it to dry. “Sanctimonious bitch,” she added. “Couldn’t stand her. You’re doing fine, Liv.”

I eased my left foot into the webbing and held still while my bones did their slow wincing change. “Good,” said Mom. “Nicely done. Ease it up a little now, let’s get your legs covered.”

Another thing a story won’t tell you: There’s a perfectly good reason why swan girls wear nothing under their coats, and it’s not because centuries of dudes got off on the image of a flock of tits and ass all soaking wet. It’s because cloth obeys no genetics. My bones and skin and muscles and organs know how to change and morph and reknit themselves into different shapes; I can’t unlearn something I was born with. But just try cramming underwire and jeans into a feather-skin that barely holds you. Once I forgot and left my underpants on, and only realized it when my legs had gone swan up to my knees. Gramma had to cut the underpants off me with embroidery scissors while I held so very still. I liked that pair; they were soft microfabric that never itched. Gramma tossed them in the trash and ordered two replacement pairs online.

It took me three weeks of daily practice to get in shape and make a full change in under five minutes. And three weeks of harassment from a boy who thinks he’s entitled to you sucks even harder than cramming your legs down into a handspan of tendons. Trey Riley shot me knowing looks so broad the whole hallway could see them. He grabbed my ass in the lunch line. He “forgot” his St. Christopher medal on my desk just so he could watch me flinch when he sauntered by to scoop it up. Once in history class, where he sat just behind me, he slid down far enough in his chair to run his foot down the back of my calf. He dropped into my daily routes anywhere, everywhere, and then he found my alternate routes and dive-bombed those too. He cut class to lounge against the wall of the girls’ locker room before our next game; when I saw him there, I almost didn’t go in to get changed.

Lauren Garrett, our captain, found me around the corner, flattened against the wall and trying not to hyperventilate. “Thomassen, what the hell—”

“Is he still there?” I hissed.

She paused and glanced back, her dark brown skin going darker when she spotted him. She’d been in the locker room when he’d stolen my clothes. “That asshole,” she said. “Stay here.”

Lauren stood six-foot-one with thighs that could crack walnuts. When she stomped over and told Trey Riley to fuck off, he actually did it. She didn’t even care if he pulled a Karen and called school security, and he didn’t have the balls anyway. I slunk into the locker room and changed as fast as I could with my hands still shaking. Lauren paced back and forth in front of the door, arms crossed, until I came out.

“Coach and I reported it the day after it happened,” she told me, once we got out on the field. “Don’t know if they’ll do anything to him, but it’s on file.”

I tried to thank her, but my throat had unexpectedly clogged. She nudged my shoulder anyway before jogging to her starting position.

After that, the team closed ranks around me like my own personal bodyguards. The Kroner twins took turns walking me to classes; Amanda waved me over to her lunch table of intimidatingly popular people; Lauren made a point of walking me to the bus stop and waiting with me until I boarded. But I still had to ride the damn thing with him.

Mom drove me to school now, but her douchebag boss wouldn’t let her rearrange her afternoon hours, and Gramma’s long-distance eyesight made driving too dangerous for her, so the bus it was. Gramma met me at the stop every day, glaring like Medusa, but those fifteen-minute rides belonged to Trey Riley.

It didn’t matter how much I ignored him, how motionless I sat, how white my knuckles clenched in my lap. He’d sit just behind me and hover at the edge of my vision to remind me he was there. I hated every flinch and sharp breath that betrayed my fake indifference. He didn’t even have to touch me to frighten me. He’d already won that much of me.

Orbit-sml ><

“S ay the word and we’ll destroy him for you,” Lauren said halfway through the third week. “Just so you know.”

She’d gone with me during lunch period to see the vice principal, who had smiled stiffly and told us that the administration had reviewed the complaint and couldn’t take action at this time. Lauren had nearly thrown his “#1 Dad” mug at his head. She stalked through the empty hallway, back toward the cafeteria. I had to jog to keep up.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“No, it’s not!” She stopped outside the girls’ bathroom, her jaw set hard. “I don’t mind hanging with you, okay? I’m glad to do it. We’re all glad to. But this can’t just go on until it becomes normal. Someone’s got to do something about it.”

I reminded myself I could change in three minutes now, but bit my tongue. No one’s actually tried to steal our feather coats in generations. That doesn’t mean we talk about it to outsiders. For your own safety, Mom had told me when I was four and asked why I couldn’t change in public. If people knew, they might try to hurt you.

She was right. Because most people sucked. But Lauren had had my back this whole time. I thought, Maybe that east-of-the-sun thing gets to us because we don’t trust anyone with the truth.

I took a deep breath and asked, “How much do you know about swan lore?”

“Swan what?”

Not everyone has your context, Liv. “Like, fairy tales.”

Lauren blinked, then frowned. “Uh. I saw that movie Black Swan once? She was pretty white though.”

Close enough. “I’ve got a plan,” I said. “But I really super need you not to freak out.”

Orbit-sml ><

H e came to the game that Friday. All according to plan, but I still felt hunted every time I chased the ball past the section where Trey Riley sat. The team tried to be thoughtful and didn’t pass to me on that part of the field. I gritted my teeth and did the best I could.

We tied, 2-2. “If we don’t make finals this season, I’m blaming him,” Lauren grumbled as we headed off the field. “You ready?”

I swallowed down the nerves roiling in my stomach. “Enough,” I said. “Could someone else text him? I don’t want him having my number.”

Lauren did it herself. I watched over her shoulder as she typed. Olivia says meet her in the locker room in ten minutes. I nodded, palms sweating, and she hit send.

Nobody liked the idea of leaving me alone with him, but Lauren didn’t budge. “We do this Liv’s way,” she kept saying. And eventually, despite the yelling and the offered taser, and the time crunch, everyone left the locker room.

Lauren was the last one out. “If anything goes wrong, I’ll be just around the corner,” she said. I nodded; speaking felt impossible. She hugged me, then ducked out of sight.

I heard his footsteps just after I’d grabbed my waterproof duffel and pulled the shower curtain across the stall. I left my socks on the damp floor and turned the spigot on. “Oliiiiiiivia,” he called. God, I could hear the grin on his face. I felt proud that my hands didn’t shake as I unzipped the duffel. “Is that you in the shower?”

I didn’t say anything. I was kind of busy.

Cloth rustled. “32B, hey, nice job. I think you went up a cup size since last month.”

Just for that, I’m gonna break your bones.

“So listen, I don’t have all day. Either you come out of the shower, or I come in. Your call. Countdown ends in ten, nine, eight, sev— holy shit!”

Here’s another thing that no story ever tells you.

Swans are vicious bastards, and they will fuck you up.

I exploded out of the shower stall, sweeping the curtain aside with one wing and running at Trey Riley as fast as my webbed feet would carry me. He slipped on the sweating tiles and went down hard. I clamped his ankle in my beak. By the time Lauren came around the corner, he was already crying as he scrabbled backward. I wrenched his foot to the side as he tried to get up. Something snapped under my grip, and Trey Riley screamed.

Lauren stepped back, eyes like saucers, hands raised. Trey staggered to his one good foot and fled the locker room. I gave him a two-second head start before I followed.

Swans can give you a hell of a bruise, but they aren’t actually strong enough to break human bone. Well. Not normal swans. But the kind of swan whose body mass is a human concentrated down, who spends most of her life in flesh rather than feathers, who knows about language and strategy and hate? Oh yeah. Watch your fucking back. Just when you think you’ve snared your prey, she’ll put on her fragile feathery armor and go for your throat.

He kept screaming as I chased him onto the field. He tried to shake me by climbing up in the stands. Hello, jackass, I have wings, you can’t get away. With his ankle fractured and panic shutting down whatever intelligence he had, he couldn’t strategize. I just had to swoop down, open my wings, and hiss like Satan had kids with a cat, and I could herd him anywhere. People were yelling all around the stands, getting out of my way, getting out their phones. I drove him toward a few of them, enough to make sure they got his face in close-up. By then, he looked so exhausted he couldn’t even cry anymore.

I thought for a second about being merciful.

Then I thought about the game I’d almost missed because he’d camped out waiting for me, and I ran him halfway up the field before I broke his arm. One good blow, swan wingspan plus soccer-playing human strength, and he dropped like the pit of my stomach did when I saw him holding all my clothes, just one short month ago. His stupid St. Christopher swung free of his shirt as he curled up on the ground. I snapped at the chain and broke it. My beak closed on the medal and I tasted sweat and copper. Then I gave him a last jab in the ribs and flew home.

Orbit-sml ><

M om kissed me and held me close and cleaned my feather coat herself. Gramma filled my groaning plate with mac and cheese, tacos, asparagus in hollandaise.

“You deserve it,” she said. “Tell me again about the ankle twist.”

Everyone at the game had posted some version of the video by midnight, usually with cackling emoji accompaniment. Trey Riley spent a month and a half making trips to the hospital and hobbling around on crutches, and the rest of junior year trying to pretend that he didn’t mind getting called Bird Bitch.

Nevertheless, when I headed for our very next practice there was Trey, propped up against the wall, though this time out of necessity instead of out of cool. “Uh, listen,” he said, “Olivia, that time in the locker room—”

“Which one?” I asked without stopping, one hand curled into a fist in my pocket. “The one where you stole my clothes? The one where you stalked me to a game? Remind me, was there another?”

He stuck one of his crutches across my path. “Come on, don’t be a bitch.”

I stopped dead and pulled my hand out of my pocket. His St. Christopher dangled from my fingertips. I’d never seen a face drain completely of blood before. He looked almost as white as my feather coat. “How the hell—” he rasped.

“If you ever come near me again,” I said, “you might lose more than this.”

I kicked his crutch out of the way and kept walking, my chest feeling like a balloon swelling bigger and bigger, and I grinned the whole way to the locker room door.

Lauren was waiting inside with my waterproof duffel in her hand. I could see the soles of my cleats pressing against the bag. “I’m trying not to freak out,” she said, “but all of that was extremely freaky.”

For your own safety. I swallowed hard. “If you want me off the team, I get it.”

She snorted. “You can’t get rid of us that easily, Thomassen. Look, I have questions. So many questions. But I definitely haven’t told anyone.”

“I kind of hoped not,” I said thickly, and took the duffel.

“Damn right.” Then she offered an uneven sideways grin that made me tear up. “I also definitely submitted a formal request to make the team’s mascot a swan. Just so you know.”


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Elizabeth Zuckerman

Author image of Elizabeth Zuckerman Elizabeth Zuckerman actually had an okay high school experience, which surprised no one more than it did her. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Haven Spec, and Timeless Tales. She lives in Philadelphia with a husband who quotes Shakespeare and Daria in roughly equal measure, and occasionally livetweets movies at @LizCanTweet.

© Elizabeth Zuckerman 2024 All Rights Reserved

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: Alex Lanting and Pranav.

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