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Swan Song

[by Nikita Andester]

 

It wasn’t until they moved in together that he discovered the egg. Lee and Tammy each nursed a lukewarm beer as they sorted through boxes. Lee was working through one of Tammy’s boxes, in which she had  lumped things that, to Lee, had no evident connection. So far, he had found a soup ladle, two romance novels, her jewelry shoved into a plastic bag. And this. His hands closed around something dense and round, protected by several thick layers of newspaper and warm under his touch. He swallowed, then paused at the steady warmth radiating under his hands. Removing each sheet of paper like petals or onion skins, he uncovered a sphere. An egg. Roughly the size of a grapefruit, it looked like unpolished stone, its navy shell unyieldingly flat. If someone had asked Lee what he thought it might taste like (and eventually he would lick it during a consuming flood of restlessness and curiosity), he would have told them that it tasted like asphalt after a thunderstorm. The warmth rippled down his hands, starting at his fingertips toward the base of his palms in a patient rhythm.

He looked up at Tammy, who was hoisting books out of a box. “Hey, Tam. What is this?”

Tammy looked over her shoulder and paused before shoving books onto the shelf. “That?” Her voice sounded high, light, pushed out of her diaphragm. “Nothing. It’s gonna hatch one day.” She laughed before grabbing it out of Lee’s hands. “Here, let me take that. I’ll just put it …” She trailed off as she walked with it cradled in her arms to the bedroom.

That night he found himself cross-legged on the bed with Tammy, drinking whiskey and playing cards, a wooden pedestal cradling the egg on the dresser beside them. He asked her again.

“What’s the story with that sphere, really?”

She paused before continuing to shuffle the cards in her hand, reluctant to answer. Her smile was stiff when she said, “Oh, you mean the egg? Come on, Lee, I told you. It’s gonna hatch one day.”

Despite his gentle prying, she refused to answer anything more, peeling his questions off her like stray hairs on a sweater, and pouring him another drink from the bottle nestled between her legs.

That night, Lee dreamt of grey hands pressing the egg toward him, of a voice whispering so close that its warm breath hummed against his ear. Lee tried to understand the whispers, but the voice was too near, too urgent, and the dream gave way to morning, where Lee’s eyes were pinned to the egg. The navy whorled like a Jupiter storm before solidifying back into the unyielding flatness he had believed it to be.

“Tam,” he licked his lips, rubbing her shoulder to wake her.

She turned to him, a sleep-sodden smile pleating her eyes. “Yeah?”

“The egg. I saw it, its colors; they were swirling.”

Tammy’s face collapsed into a mask. “No, they weren’t.”

He propped himself up on one elbow. “They were! Isn’t that wild? I wonder why it did that, I wonder what it…”

“You must have been dreaming, Lee.” There was no whisper of sleep left on her face now. Her statement was an answer, an end, a fact. She swung out of the bed, grabbing the hairbrush from the dresser and attacking her hair in the vanity mirror. “Could you make us some coffee, angel?” Her tone belied the furrow between her brows.

Lee raked his hand over his face and to his neck. “Yeah. Yeah, sure.”

He watched Tammy in the mirror, watching him as he looked once more at the egg before shuffling out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. He knew what he had seen. He hadn’t been dreaming, not then, not after the whisper had coaxed him awake.

In the days that followed, Lee found that he couldn’t lie down in bed without opening his eyes to watch the egg in its hallowed pedestal on the dresser, hoping the colors would swirl again, hoping he could puzzle out why. Each night, the egg forced itself into his dreams, shattering his restfulness into slivers he couldn’t reassemble. Morning after morning, he ground his elbows into the table and pressed his coffee mug against his eye socket, hoping the heat would shock him back to the waking world.

One evening, Lee was rubbing lotion into his feet when Tammy brushed a “Good night” from her mouth to the egg with her fingertips. The navy sang green where her fingers had been. He blinked. The navy—solid, guileless—returned. Tammy and Lee’s eyes locked for a moment before he began rubbing the lotion into his feet with renewed vigor. Tammy knelt in front of him, grabbing his hand and kissing his knuckles.

“I love you, Lee,” she said, studying his knuckles as she rubbed them with her thumb. “Some things are just for me. Some things are just for you. Let this, you know, be for me. Okay?”

Chastened, Lee looked at her ears, her chin, her eyes. “Of course, love. Of course.”

They had sex that night, intimate and rough, clawing. As he came, a flash of grey hands shuddered across his eyes and down his spine. He fell asleep curled into Tammy’s side, praying for a night uninterrupted.

But he dreamt again.

Each day, the chasm between Lee and Tammy broadened. When Tammy asked him to play cards, he lost every round. When they went out for happy hour, he drank in jerking, marionette motions, checking his watch as if he were waiting for someone. At night, the gap between them was palpable, the space between their bodies in bed so vast their pinkies only grazed. If she did reach for him, he held her with the pain of the inarticulate, unable to tell her that the question threatened to swallow him whole.

His growing preoccupation fractured his work ethic. He was unable to read on the bus like he used to. Any progress his clients had been making faltered.

A receptionist knocked on his office door. “Your ten o’clock’s here to see you.”

Lee ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah. Okay. Right. I’ll call for her in just a minute.”

He looked at his desk, dismayed to discover that he had been drawing circles and filling them in with his ballpoint pen, covering papers he needed to file. Had he really spent the past half hour this way? Shoving them into his drawer, he called his client in. As expected, no breakthroughs were made.

On the bus home that afternoon, anger grew hot inside of him. Why should Tammy have a secret? He had shared everything—almost—with her about his life. Why this mystery act around a stupid sphere? What was she keeping from him? What else was she keeping from him? Lee’s anger rolled through him for the next thirty minutes, his teeth grinding tighter and tighter at the thought of her.

She was already home when he got there, humming to herself and hanging a painting of a naked woman. She smiled at him as she stepped back, checking that the painting was straight.

“Why are you hanging that there? Above the couch.” He was still in his shoes, still clenching the strap of his messenger bag in his tight fist.

“What? I guess it just seemed like a good spot. I’m not married to it here though; I could take it down.” She moved to take it from the wall.

“That easy? You don’t care where it goes? You’re really that fickle?”

“The hell are you talking about, Lee? I got off early and thought I’d work on things around here.” She gestured to the boxes on the floor and the paintings stacked against the wall. “What’s up with you?” She walked over to him, taking the bag out of his hand and setting it by the door. “Bad day?”

Lee pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry. Something like that.”

That night in bed, eyes half-lidded—still watching the egg through the darkness—he wondered if Tammy would notice if he punctured it with just one thin nail on the underside. He traced his memory through the past two weeks of their new life together. He had never seen her lift it from the pedestal. No, he thought, Tammy wouldn’t know if the egg were punctured. It would be so easy for him to…

Tammy shifted in her sleep, turning to face him. Her features softened in the moonlight, her bare shoulder seemed luminescent in the dark. Of course he would never puncture Tammy’s egg. Of course not. He curled against her, kissing her shoulder until she opened her sleeping arms to hold him. He felt sickened and relieved by Tammy’s unquestioning welcome back into the familiar jigsaw puzzle of their sleeping bodies. When he finally drifted into sleep, he remained there through the night, undreaming.

The next morning, he whistled as he tied his shoes on the way out to work, and fell dreamless that night into Tammy’s arms. The week passed quiet, rested. When Lee reflected on his obsession, it felt like a fever dream, seen through a camera lens that wasn’t his own.

Saturday came. Their apartment was mostly unpacked, the painting of the woman had been hung back above the couch, and Tammy and Lee had decided to reward themselves with a brunch that had meandered across three mimosas apiece before ambling to the farmers market, where they were sampling their way from booth to booth. Tammy stopped in front of a vendor selling eggs.

“Oh, Lee, look! They’re so beautiful, let’s get them!” She was pointing to a dozen pale blue eggs.

The vendor looked proud. “Aren’t they beautiful? They’re from Araucana chickens.” She pointed to a glossy photo in a plastic frame beside the eggs. “Real rare.”

Tammy looked at Lee, open and expectant for these eggs that probably tasted like every other egg. Did she not see that they were blue? Lee thought about the egg at home in its pedestal, so navy and large next to these delicate, watery ones in front of him. How did Tammy not see the connection, this slap in his face? Lee smiled back at her, tight. “Yeah, love, let’s get them.”

For dinner, Tammy scrambled them for sandwiches, delighting in the pale shells. “We can plant some seedlings in them.”

Lee nodded and sipped his whiskey in silence.

That night he dreamt. He looked down to see the navy egg nearly black against the grey hands that were pushing it deep into his stomach. He was filled with dark blue light, and began warbling a monochromatic swan song. His song turned into a deep cough that rattled his lungs and tasted of blood. He doubled over with the spasms until he coughed out a single, shining, bloodied nail into his palm.

The next morning, Lee waded through an egg-laden dream fog into the kitchen, kissing Tammy on her temple and helping himself to some coffee. Taking a tentative and scalding sip, he watched Tammy already at the table, blowing on the steam rising from her mug and poring over The New Yorker, which she would be lost in for the next hour. Urgency rose in Lee like vapor, and he understood that this was his moment, that he had to see what was inside that egg, that if he waited any longer, he would explode. He looked at Tammy reading, silent. He felt certain that the hunch of his shoulders, the mug in his hand, even his bedhead, somehow incriminated him, and if Tammy so much as grazed her eyes over him, she would know what he was considering.

Taking one large swallow of still-burning coffee, he ran his hand through her hair, and walked toward the bedroom, grabbing a nail and small hammer from the utility closet before shutting the bedroom door with a click and a sigh.

He eyed the egg, so innocuous on the dresser. The egg eyed him, conspicuous by the door. If Tammy called for him, he thought, he would take it as a sign and never think about the egg again. But Lee didn’t hear any call, and so he closed the space that separated him from the dresser. Tossing the hammer and nail onto the bed, he carefully—reverently—lifted the egg from its pedestal, touching it for the first time since he had unwrapped it several weeks ago. The egg sang green—neon, luminescent green, the brightest green Lee had ever seen!—where his fingertips touched it. Lee sat on the edge of the bed, his eyes never leaving the egg, and cradled it in his lap. He plucked up the nail and hammer. Lee inhaled.

A single tap to lighten the weight of his dreams. A single tap to answer the question he had unearthed. A single tap to shatter the upper corner of the egg, to slake his frenzied curiosity. Squaring his shoulders, opening his eyes, Lee peered through the hole. Inside stood the smallest bird that Lee had ever seen—the size of a flower petal, a bottle cap, Lee’s wide spade thumbnail, but all the same a complete bird—with opaline blue feathers and a grey beak. The bird stood at the bottom of the egg, warbled one drowning note, and collapsed onto the hollowed bottom.

The floorboards groaned. Lee looked up. Tammy stood in the doorway. “See?” Her chin trembled. “It was gonna hatch one day.”

 


Nikita Andester‘s nonfiction work can be found in Loam Magazine, an environmental activist publication, and The Shapes We Make. Currently a graduate student at the University of Denver for creative writing, she lives in her van around the greater Denver area. When not writing, Nikita can be found covered in glitter, reading fantasy novels, drinking coffee from her French press, or making art from trash.

2 thoughts on “Swan Song

  1. A tight, well-written short story. Wonderful!

  2. Nikki that was lovely. I enjoyed evry word. L

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