Swans Ruined Girl’s Childhood

evil swan cartoon

By Lucy Telfer-Smollett

As seen in Pegasus Pages (December 2012).

How Swans Ruined My Childhood.

And why I would, therefore, prefer to see them with a side of mash and dripping in gravy.

A true story.

Baudelaire, Yeats, St. Vincent Millay. It would seem that poetry and swans are nigh on inseparable. Similarly, they appear in art, dance, fairy tales and mythology from around the world. In fact, there are more swans in culture than you could shake a stick at  (incidentally, we shall be discussing the turbulent union of swan and stick later).

Who doesn’t feel a certain awe upon observing the delicate serenity of a swan? You know, that stirring inside you that isn’t indigestion, so must be your inner poet just waiting to burst out and compose a ballad of some 800 pages about how perfect they are. And who wouldn’t pause while walking, to simply stand and admire the curvature of their necks, the subtle majesty of their movement across the water? Me. Because I would be running.

Picture the scene, if you will: a man and woman stand outside their farmhouse, tense. Those are my parents. This is the first anniversary that my dad has remembered in six years of marriage, and my mum doesn’t have a clue what she’s about to be presented with. In my dad’s head this is going to be perfect. What could possibly be a more romantic gesture than purchasing swans for your long-suffering wife? They mate for life, for goodness’ sake! Swans are the epitome of romance. And what could go wrong? Plenty of the neighbours kept chickens or even ducks, and it looked straightforward enough.

Next to them is a wide-eyed and fidgeting kid, high on Cartoon Network, Skittles and the infinite possibility of life. That’s me. And I have been given stern instructions not to tell Mummy about the swans. But, to be honest, I don’t care about Mummy at the moment anyway. I can only think about going back to school after half term so I can tell my class that I have pet swans. Ben Morris’ rabbit won’t be so impressive anymore.

“But the queen owns all the swans!” I hear you exclaim incredulously. Not quite. She owns all the mute swans. That leaves about seven other species of swan as fair game (excuse the pun) for bumbling husbands to romance their wives with. But I digress.

Rather in contrast to their regal image, our swans arrived with very little dignity. To be precise, they came on the back of a lorry in a giant cardboard box. The box was lowered onto the lawn.

It emitted a low hissing sound.

My father swelled with pride.

Gently, my perplexed mother nudged the box.

It hooted.

Slowly, as if revealing the result of a magic trick, my father drew back the cardboard flaps, savouring the moment.

Chaos ensued.

The box began to shake violently and a sound that can only be described as a roar burst from within. I saw a flash of red and someone screamed. A tornado-like mass of feathers erupted THROUGH the cardboard as if it were tissue paper and surged across the lawn, bellowing and hissing. Several metres away the thing stopped, turned, threw its great wings out to the sides, extended its neck and fixed us with a look of pure evil. This was not the snowy and angelic creature of my bedtime stories. Firstly, it was black, with a scarlet beak and eyes. Secondly, it exuded a formidable rage that seemed to have been sourced from the very pits of hell. All my hopes of tying a ribbon around its neck and teaching it to sit evaporated.

My dad was equally dejected.

“Happy anniversary?” he offered, half-heartedly.

My mum glared at him with nearly as much ferocity as the swan had.

“Is this a joke?”

“Darling, give them a minute. I’m sure they’re just distressed.”

“What do you mean ‘they’? Do you mean to tell me that there is more than one?”

As if on cue, the box gave a shudder, tipped onto its side and released three more black shapes that went lurching across the lawn, squawking.

My mother face-palmed.

Having read somewhere that swans are supposedly reincarnations of dead poets, my parents gave ours names, in the hope that the process might civilise them. The four terrifying, deranged beasts bent on the destruction of all creation became ‘Wallace Stevens’, ‘Emily Dickinson’, ‘Jonathan Swift’ and ‘Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle’. They were shown to their pond. They were thrown conveniently sized pieces of bread twice daily. Yet the insatiable need to murder remained.

It was soon discovered that coming within ten metres of the swans would result in them giving chase. This is a truly terrifying experience. They can run deceptively fast. As you flee in terror all you can hear is the SLAP SLAP SLAP of webbed feet in pursuit and the beating of wings. It is a sound that still haunts my nightmares.

My dad decided that he would try to domesticate the swans by earning their trust. To do this he would teach them to eat from his hand. I wasn’t allowed to accompany him on this mission, lest I see my own father mauled to death by a gang of giant satanic birds. I simply remember him leaving the house with grim determination, and returning ten minutes later clutching his arm and deep breathing. It had to be splinted. A quick Internet search told us that swans have a special bone in their wing that they use to hit their prey and that it can in fact break human bones. There had been six swan-induced deaths in England in the last 100 years. This had just gotten serious.

My mother spent many years tirelessly trying to reduce my fear of various animals through the medium of novels by E. B. White. Daughter is afraid of spiders? Forcibly read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to her until she snaps out of it. She doesn’t like rats? ‘Stuart Little’ should do the trick! What’s that, you’ve acquired four physco-killer-mutant swans? ‘The Trumpet of the Swan’ is what you need. Incidentally, none of these books ever made me even remotely less terrified of the animals that they concern.

I did tell my friends at school about my pet swans. My friend count then declined swiftly when they came to my house to see the swans, were severely traumatised, and decided that they didn’t want to play with me anymore. Imagine my parents’ alarm upon regarding someone else’s child running wildly across the lawn and screaming like a victim in a mediocre horror film pursued by four bloodthirsty swans. Then, having to risk life and limb to rescue the aforementioned child from the Rhododendrons among which it had foolishly sought safety- being naively unaware of the swans’ ability to turn Rhododendrons into sawdust with one swipe of a webbed foot.

It transpired that as well as being unnecessarily violent swans are also deeply stupid. Stupid enough to (sometimes literally) bite the hand that feeds them. Everyday after school, I would throw hunks of bread like carbohydrate missiles at the swans while both my parents held them back with sticks. After a few minutes of frenzy while the swans flailed and writhed, trying to simultaneously eat the bread and slaughter my family, the area would resemble the aftermath of some dreadful battle. On one particularly horrific occasion, mid feeding session, Emily Dickinson (Probably. I won’t lie- they all looked the same) decided that she had had quite enough of this, took the stick that was restraining her in her beak, and snapped it like a toothpick. The look in her eyes said: This is how I will crush your skulls, puny humans. Then I will eat your kidneys.

We legged it.

Between the ages of nine and ten, I was late for school almost everyday. This was the fault of Wallace Stevens. One morning, my Mum and I walked toward where the car was parked, as normal, only to find Wallace Stevens fiercely guarding it. An elaborate manoeuvre was employed- I acted as bait to draw the swan away while my Mum freed the car. She flung open the door, whilst pulling away, and I dived into the moving vehicle just before the snapping beak could reach me. It was like something out of an action film. And it happened almost every day FOR A YEAR.

A swan behaviour specialist (Yes, they exist) had to be called. His diagnosis? Love. Wallace Stevens had fallen in love with the Land Rover. He would stand next to it all day, wailing and stroking it with his wings. He even built a nest for it to lay its eggs in. It was almost pitiful. Almost. Because love for the Land Rover, if possible, increased Wallace Stevens’ aggression. It seemed that his urge to mate was second only to his urge to maim.

It was actually the swans that were responsible for introducing me to the concept of death. I was five when I watched in horror as Jonathan Swift systematically murdered each of the nine cygnets that Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle had hatched. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle wasn’t bothered. I’m not even sure if she noticed.

Fast-forward a few years and the swans themselves began dying, usually when careless enough to meet a fox at night. As if in a final malicious act, they always managed to leave their mutilated remains right where I would trip over them while playing in the garden. Jonathan Swift went first, then Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle, then Emily Dickinson. We waited for Wallace Stevens to die. He didn’t. In fact, he didn’t die until I was fourteen. And until that day he didn’t stop trying to obliterate everything in sight.

So, what with terrorising me, driving my friends away from me, stretching my parents’ marriage to breaking point, introducing me to the harsh reality of death, and giving me a shocking attendance record, oh yeah, and being EVIL INCARNATE – is it really surprising that I would rather we were eating swans than glorifying them? I don’t care if they’re pretty. So is fruit.

In Elizabethan times it was not uncommon to be served swan. I propose a revival. According to one recipe from 1672, all you need is rye-paste, salt, lard and the swan itself. And I bet they taste as good as they look. So, let’s all work together to prevent the mental scarring of children from eccentric families everywhere, and instead give them some lovely roast swan to eat. With swan gravy, of course.

Photography: hpeguk on Flickr (CC BY 2.0); cartoon by Naomi Morris Omori.

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