Swans Reflecting Elephants
Author's Note: Before reading this short story, please look up on Google the painting by Salvador Dali called, "Swans Reflecting Elephants." This will make the short story a little clearer to understand.
There once lived a family down yonder. The Hodgekins they were called, and they now live each day in their house. It's rare to see any of the three Hodgekins outside, and we say in these parts that their house is like a hermitage. Manny and I still look over at their small house, flanked with magnolia trees, and wonder how they stay cooped up, even during hot summer days.
Down here, it gets awful hot.
I remember a time when we used to play with the younger Hodgekin.
Her name was Lillian and we would play in the swamp behind the Gregory mansion. The swamp was, and still is, a tangle of mangrove trees. They are barely noticeable but for that one cluster of mangrove trees. Notice how they seem to rise out of the swamp, like the ghosts of the dead. Gnarled and twisted, the trees always seem to beckon. They can even speak when the wind blowing through the contorted forms give them enough voice to echo the long-extinguished cries of the dead.
See, things here changed a while back.
I close my eyes, to block the sun, and recall a time long ago…
Manny and I rowed our boat towards the solid edge of the swamp where Lillian waited. Sometimes I couldn't understand why Manny and I stayed friends with her – eccentric was the term typically applied to the Hodgekins in iced voices tucked behind silk and lace fans. That day, she kept calling me Marianne. I could scarcely stand it any longer. I can't stand people who persist on calling me Marianne – I will always prefer Annie. Though Mama had told me to act the part of a lady, I felt that Lillian could scare away the most proper of southern ladies.
The conversation began genially.
Manny was never much a talker, being downright taciturn, so he simply laid back as Lillian climbed into the boat. Moving her hands to smooth the layers of her skirt, her hands seemed to shift nervously. After settling into the boat, Manny sat up just enough so he could push us away from the shore before laying back down on the bottom of the small boat. Lillian then asked, "Why'd they put that man in jail?"
"He'd done us wrong. He's a Yankee – see, they don't think the way we do. He could easily have caused havoc in the town."
"But he looked gentle, Marianne."
"It doesn't matter. You just liked his looks. That's all. Looks can be deceiving, after all."
"No, no, he did look kind. Like Manny." Her voice trailed off, ending on a small note. I glowered at her as though she had lifted a hand against me. Knowing that anger tightened the lines on my face, I looked over at Manny. I could not help but think that there could not have been a greater difference between the two. Manny was simply a little boy – he was barely fifteen. I snapped, "Don't you dare compare that man to Manny. He doesn't do wrong – he's never killed anyone and he's never tried to take our damned property."
"Don't swear Marianne, it isn't ladylike."
"Damn all the words in the world," said Manny to the sky.
None of us could understand why Lillian was the way she was, sometimes. It was like she couldn't understand the cause.
A few weeks ago, we got news of the skirmish at Rich Mountain. Things were looking good for the cause, and Papa predicted a quick victory. Manny wanted to enlist with the local regiment, but Mama cried and pleaded with Manny that night. I tried to look away at dinner, but she was a' tearing and wrenching at his shirt… quenching the dusty floor with her tears.
He wanted to get a shot into a Yankee, but Mama would have none of it.
"A single shot, that's all it would take," he had said.
Drifting slowly back to the mangrove swamp, I watched the gnats catch in the sun like pieces of free-floating sawdust. The mangrove trees continued to sway, and I could almost hear the wind giving the trees a voice.
My eyes moved lazily over the surrounding area.
Then, I noticed the swans gliding towards us in the water.
"See those swans," I said pointing, "they don't look like they can cause harm, but they are right fierce."
Lillian fell silent, and I was suddenly sent into a strange, uncomfortable state… one part of it was vindication and another part was foreboding.
Manny spat into the water, and I could feel the hot sun beating my back. A breeze would be as infrequent, but welcome, as a lemon ice. I could feel my temper building, slowly, like the particles of cloud that rub and grind until the burst of lightning in a summer sky. There was silence.
Floating in the swamp, I stared up at the sky. Such a united blue… with a couple of thick, gray clouds darkening the southernmost part. I felt as though I could fall into that sky.
A moment passed, and the boding silence made me lift my head.
Lillian's gaze was upon the water.
I turned slightly to try to determine what had caught that girl's attention. I couldn't see it at first, so I looked back at Manny for a moment – our gazes caught as Lillian stared at the water. Then, I could see that the three swans were still in the center of the swamp. Mangrove trees curled overhead, and cast peculiar reflections in the water.
The shapes seemed vaguely defined.
Suddenly, Lillian murmured, "The swans reflect elephants."
I stared at her. "What in God's name do you mean?"
"See the swans? With the backing of the mangrove trees, part of their swamp, they cast reflections of elephants in the water. The water reveals the strength in the swans."
"That was the most foolish thing I ever heard you say," I scoffed, but still tried to look for the elephants.
I paused, after an unnecessarily long search, before saying, "Well, what of it? You're not making sense!"
"Don't you see Marianne? It's the North, they are the North, Marianne." The words came out like bursts from a gun. She was breathing heavily from emotion, as was I.
"You wretched girl! Stop calling me Marianne – stop it!"
Suddenly, I turned away, a flood of emotions rushing in to fill the void left by the outburst.
"I'm sorry, Lillian, I truly am."
She simply looked at me, and to this day, I don't know why I saw pity upon her face.