“Quoh, quoh,” call the swans to one another in Keizaburo Tejima’s Swan Sky; I wonder how that sounds in Japanese. A skip and a jump through Amazon’s selection reveals this author has been translated into several languages, probably without losing a thing: from the German Swan Sky (Schwanenwinter) to the Spanish Fox’s Dream (El Sueno Del Zorro), to a French approximation of Ho-Limlim: A Rabbit’s Tale from Japan (Hop La! Of course). Which makes sense. The text by itself is pretty elemental, even blunt. At least in Swan Sky, Tejima sounds like one of those nature show narrators in the days before Alec Baldwin started chewing it up.
Because the scenery here is already sufficiently transfixing: woodcut panoramas of a lake surrounded by snowy mountains where the springtime is just beginning to peek through. Also the animals don’t speak. This comes as a relief, not that talking animals aren’t kind of hilarious sometimes, though usually they’re not, and anyway isn’t there plenty to find interesting about animals without foisting our human projections? Nice to take a break from ourselves once in a while, isn’t it? No wisecracks then from these swans. Or pantsuits, or shopping for groceries.
Instead this is simply the story of a flock beginning their journey back north because “as long as they can remember, this is what they have done.” Still, one younger swan does not mysteriously seem up for the trip. Her family coaxes and waits until well after the rest of the flock is on its way, when Tejima’s icy blues and blacks have surrendered to the orange warmth of a sunrise, with green and yellow blossoms momentously spreading. It’s time. One morning the family circles and honks and dips its wings north across the mountains, abandoning the young swan to her end.
But wait. There they are again, suddenly reappearing over the horizon for one last chance to say goodbye. All of this quiet back and forth is heartbreaking in a way that much chattier exposition rarely accomplishes. These birds are apparently just as unknowable to themselves as they are to us. Maybe pure animal instinct isn’t as easy as it looks.
There is peace in the end, resplendent, a little mystical maybe for some; both of my children reacted in opposite ways to the story, one fascinated, one repelled, but who knows what they were really thinking?
We like animals in my family, and are possibly hyper-attentive to the few whom we regularly meet. Turtles, frogs, raccoons; once in a while a coyote may madly wander across the radar. Some time ago there were even two swans who stopped here on the way between places, and they were a surly pair generally, hissing at children and drowning small dogs, all (it was solicitously explained by the Parks Department) to protect their nests full of eggs. This went on for years. One spring five cygnets would appear, one spring seven, one spring four, and signs would go up asking you not to feed the swans, and not to let your dogs chase after them, and not to look them in the eye, indeed not to engage in any interaction with them at all beyond observing the celestial miracle of their blessing this as their home.
It was kind of a miracle too. In five city months those grubby little chicks would grow almost as big as their regal parents on all of the bread crumbs and pampering. Every so often one would disappear, and more signs would go up, and the father swan would look more pissed than ever, then every October he would turn that hostility on each of his offspring, chasing them out of the park, and usually out of the city – that is the way with urban swans, I am told. One fall there was a cygnet – a male, someone said – who took quite a lot of chasing and harassing, and kept coming back, until his father threatened to probably kill him, I guess, and he went and finally settled in a puny little reservoir about half a mile away. I used to see him there when I went running, huddled through the winter with the ducks along the edges of the ice, like maybe nobody would notice if he acted like he’d been there all along.