It is their shadows that make me look to the sky, black wings so wide that they block out the sun. I stop in midstroke, the cold lake water lapping around me, my lips part in awe until my jaw hangs slack.
As they land, the swans swoop so low that I could have reached up to stroke their downy bellies. The whirl of their powerful wing steal the breath from my lungs. I have never been this close to them.
Then a streak of white flashes through the air.
A sour taste in my mouth.
My throat seals around it. I flail in the deep water, no longer treading. There is no one there, except for me and the seven black swans. Without oxygen, the world goes purple-blue.
I remember a hand just under my ribs, fingers groping in my throat, pushing and pulling something free. My mouth is forced open wide, jaw practically dislodged. There is no noise, no voice of panic trying to call me back.
The hand withdraws, pulling out of me in one slow, steady movement. Just as I wonder it it has given up, my body is rolled over so that I am on my side. A sharp fist thwacks me between the shoulder blades.
Reflex rattles a cough out of me. Hot, vile liquid spews out of my mouth. There is so much of it. It tears me from the inside. Someone wipes me clean with their bare, calloused hand.
A sound like a dozen anxious rusty hinges worries at my ears. Warm, feathery bodies press to mine. My eyes flutter slightly, but I can’t keep them open. For a second, I see two large brown eyes scouring my face, but I can’t hang on to them.
I take a breath and I suddenly feel the cold.
The sound of thunder makes me open my eyes. I open my eyes and this time I can hold on to the big brown eyes.
The boy is long and wiry, with gold-streaked hair falling down to his shoulders. He smiles when he sees that I am awake, but he doesn’t say anything. I guess that maybe he is fourteen or fifteen. The cave we are in is dark and cramped, but warm and sheltered from the storm that seems so violent that we are pitched around as if we were on a tiny boat rather than a rock in the middle of the lake. My head is balanced on his lap, my legs pressed shoved against a rocky wall. One of those candles in a jar with a holy card shines down on us. I do not know who the saint is, but he holds up two fingers. A sign of peace. By it’s flickering light, the boy appears to be knitting.
“Hello,” I try to say, try to thank the boy for saving my life, try to ask him how he did it, but my throat is bruised beyond functioning. The word is barely a sound.
The boy lifts a hand from his knitting and places a hand over my mouth, shaking his head from side to side. His hand feels feverish on my face, cracked with dryness and uncomfortably warm. Then, he slowly shifts his hand to my eyes.
Don’t speak. Try to get some sleep.
But the thunder roars again and I jump under his touch.
The movement frees a cloud of black feathers. And I realize that this is why I am so warm—why the boy’s touch seems like fire on my skin: we are covered with black downy feathers. I grope around beneath them to make sure that I am still wearing my swimsuit, that this stranger didn’t undress me thinking to get me out of wet clothes or something crazy like that.
Then I feel it. My torso is covered in warm slimey wetness.
In the light of the single candle, I don’t know what it is immediately, but I put it to my nose and send a million more feathers flying through the air.
Between the storm, the cramped cave, being covered in swan poop and the boy, I do not sleep all night. I toss and turn, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and my own bed.
The boy doesn’t help. He is ominously silent, except when he takes a raspy rattling breath. I don’t know if he can’t talk or if he won’t. He does not say anything to me at all. I imagine that he is some kind of hermit who has taken a vow of silence. I want to ask him what he is knitting and who the saint on the candle is.
But I do understand this about him: he is ill, very ill. Pressed up against his body, I can hear every labored breath he takes. His eyes are glassy and he knits almost as if he were in a daze. Although his body feels like fire on my skin, his skin prickles with chills that I don’t feel.
The little hole where we hide is too small for me to move anywhere else. Unless I close my eyes, I have no choice but to stare up into his face. When I do this, I can’t help but notice the peculiar details of his face and compare them to the other guys I know. This makes me even more uncomfortable.
As the night passes, I obsess over how miserable the little cave is. Not only is it small and diseased and uncomfortable and full of feathers, but when lightening illuminates the walls, I swear that dried bird poop is dripping down the walls. I begin to believe that I am breathing it in, suffocating on it. The thought makes me vomit once, but I swallow it, because the thought of lying in it and smelling it all night seems worse than all the bird poop in the world.
When the night finally passes, the storm goes with it, leaving a dense fog on the silent glassy lake. I crawl out of the cave and realize that it is nothing but an old buoy, covered in rushes, black feathers and bird poop. A strangled noise escapes from my bruised throat and I dive down into the freezing water to distract myself from thoughts of vomiting again. The boy’s head emerges from the cave and he reaches a hand out to grab me. Shivering, I duck out of his grasp. It doesn’t matter that I am convulsing with cold, I run my hands all over my body, scrubbing every bit of poop off of me.
The boy makes wild gestures at the mouth of his poop-covered home. It seems that he wants me back inside. I shake my head. Nothing will ever make me go back inside the little hut. It does not matter that I can not see the shore through the fog, I have spent every summer on the shores of this lake. I know that it is not that large. Two summers ago, I swam all the way across. The boy makes his wild gestures again, holding his hands out as if to tell me that there is something big and terrible in the water. I try to mime back to him that I am going to swim to shore, but he dives in after me.
Only, he can not swim. His thin limbs flail around wildly, but he sinks like a stone. I do not realize what is happening until the water until several seconds after the water has closed over his head.
The fingernails driving into my skin are a good thing and a bad thing; a good thing because it means that he has not yet lost consciousness and a bad thing because he is pulling us both deeper under the water. In the end, I have to yank him up by his long golden hair and physically place both of this trembling hands firmly on his poop covered buoy. Coughing without sound and shaking so hard that he can barely hang on, he clambers on to the buoy and reaches out to me once more.
In the morning light, he is so pale that his skin appears to have a strange blue tinge. His cheeks are flushed a deep red. As he trembles from the water’s chill, I can see nothing but bones sticking out from his nearly transparent skin. What I took for boyishness the night before looks something closer to starvation now. He might be seventeen or eighteen for all I can tell.
Against my better judgment, I take his hand and let him pull me back into the unsanitary confines of his home. I cover him with the soft black feathers, holding him in my lap silently and chafing his bare arms. His brown eyes grow dim as if he can no longer see this world and the chill of water on his skin transforms back into a raging fever. But he takes the knitting in his hands and loops the rough yarn until he passes out cold. Even then a stitch or two continues blindly.
I hold his handiwork so that the light from the shack’s narrow opening might give me some hint as to what is going through the hermit’s mind.
The boy is knitting a dress? The fabric is rough as if it were knitted out of burlap and the dress is short like a kind of tunic and very, very wide. It looks like it would only fit a girl with a 40DDDD.
It is the most horrendous thing I have ever seen.
The strange thing is, when I looked into the boy’s eyes the night before, he didn’t seem crazy. He probably wasn’t crazy when he saved my live. But he’d obviously been knitting this—um—tent for days, maybe even weeks.
I am claustrophobic again. There is no food here, no medicine, no clean water. Nothing but horrendous knitting for a girl with a bra size gone rogue, feathers and poop. The idea of leaving him, makes me feel guilty, but I know that if I do not find help, he will die.
As the fog burns away, the fever escalates—the boy’s eyes roll back into his head and his limbs nd torso spasm out of control. The little shelter threatens to collapse around us. I hold his narrow limbs tight with my arms and try to remember the symptoms of bird flu.
Squinting at the horizon, I can just make out the shore. With the water so still, it will be easy to swim. I disentangle my body from his limbs, blow out the saint’s candle to save the wick, squeeze his limp dry hand—a promise to return.