Charles The Swan
By Cecil Hoge
For 20 years or so I have been trying to talk to swans. They seem very intelligent and it was natural to me to try and communicate in some manner. In the process of paddling several days a week for over 40 years, you see a lot of birds on the water and swans are the largest birds you see and the least disconcerted by humans.
Now, I never thought you could actually talk to swans. I began by simply talking to swans in English. I know this does not make sense, but I felt somehow swans were very intelligent creatures and they would like me to talk to them and I thought maybe they might even understand me.
So, the first thing I would say is, “Hello, Mr. Swan,” and then because I was never sure whether I was addressing a Mrs. Swan, I would go on to add, “And hello also if you are a Mrs. Swan.”
Sometimes, I would ask how he or she was doing, “I hope all is well Mr. or Mrs. Swan. I hope you are having a good day.”
I always had the sense the swans actually understood something of what I was trying to say. As the years went by, I added to my repertoire of one-sided conversation, telling them how good they looked, talking about what a good or bad weather day it was and sometimes giving them weather report that I thought might be of interest.
“It’s going to rain today,” I would tell them, “It might look beautiful to you now, but you wait, a little later, it is going to rain.”
The swans always seemed non-plussed about this, as if they already knew the information I was providing them with. That did not stop me. I went on providing them weather reports every day and since I paddle pretty much all year around that was a lot of weather reports. Little did I know that they really appreciated my efforts to provide them with this information, even though they already knew what kind of weather was on the way.
About ten years ago, I expanded my efforts to communicate and began to talk Swanese. Now, in truth, even to this day, I do not understand Swanese, but I did notice that swans make various kinds of noises, some of which were high-pitched screeches, others of which were low-throated squawks and quacks. So that is what I tried to do. At first my Swanese was pretty darn poor. Whatever sound I made did not sound remotely like the sounds that the swans nearby made.
But I kept at it and gradually I came to make sounds that I thought were a little closer to real Swanese. At first, the swans elegantly ignored me, cruising by as if I did not exist. But as time went by I got the feeling that they were warming up to me. Occasionally, one or two of the swans would give a schreech or a squawk or a quack in response. This made me feel my Swanese was getting better. Little did I know that my Swanese was really awful, but I did not find that out until years later.
Fifteen or twenty years went by with me saying hello in English, nodding, saluting the swans, squawking and schreeching and quacking in an effort to get to know swans better. I felt that I was making progress. I even felt that some of the local swans were coming to have some real respect for me. That turned out to be off the mark.
One day something strange and wonderful and truly unbelievable happened. I was paddling by a couple of swans when I heard not one, but two voices.
“I am tired of this charade, let’s speak to the stupid creature,” said one voice. It was a male voice, very assured and refined, not loud, but plainly audible.
“Charles, Mon Dieu,” said a female voice with a French accent, “You are not supposed to talk to zee humans.”
I turned towards the sound of the two voices and I saw nothing. Nothing, that is except two swans gliding quietly nearby Stone Bridge. Stone Bridge is a washed out bridge from the 1800s, the only remnants of which are left on the Strong’s Neck side of Little Bay.
Charles and Monique by Stone Bridge
Then I saw something, one the swans opened its mouth and began speaking to me…in English. You can only imagine my astonishment.
“Human creature,” it said in a deep authoritative voice, “we appreciate your efforts to speak to us, even if they are truly pathetic. I suggest you speak English to us so we can understand each other. God knows your “Swanese” is about as bad as it could be. My name is Charles and this is my bride of many years, Monique.”
I was quite surprised when this swan referred to “Swanese”. That was a term I thought I had coined and yet somehow this swan seemed familiar with my phrase.
“Really Charles,” said the other voice. This voice was female, lilting, sexy and somewhat sardonic, “I wonder why you bother. You know from experience how pathetic humans truly are.”
“Now, wait a minute, what do you mean humans are pathetic?” I said, already trying to defend my species, feeling particularly stupid because I was talking to two swans.
Monique was withering in her sultry way.
“Mon Dieu, zee imbecile speaks.”
“Don’t be so hard on him, my dear, you were human once.”
“That was in the court of Louis Quatorze,” I almost thought I could see a coy smile from the lady swan, “now that was a human worthy of the name.”
“My dear, that is enough of that…you do not have to go into your decadent past.”
I was beginning to feel I was some kind of a fifth wheel.
“Wait just a moment…what do you think is wrong with humans.”
I had never seen a swan giggle, but I swear that was what Monique was doing. She made a wierd movement and placed the tip of one of her wings in front of her mouth (or beak, as I should say), as if she was trying to hide something and then she kind of giggled and squeaked in delight.
“What is wrong with humans…the list is soo long the tide will go out before I finish it.”
I was outraged. I had to stand up and defend my species.
“Now, wait a minute. I have been paddling by swans on this bay for almost 50 years and after trying to speak to you swans for the last 20 years, the first thing that you say to me is how pathetic humans are.”
Charles spoke up first in his steady, patient voice, “Don’t be so dismayed, we were both humans at one time and we know of your many failings. They come with the species. You cannot help it.”
“My failings, what are talking about?” I said, thinking what a strange experience this was…first to speaking English to two swans…second, being lectured like a child.
Monique was the first to respond,
“First and foremost, little man, you are screwing zee planet up 6 ways to Sunday. Look at this bay, Moron, it is full of algae and empty of almost anything living. Almost no fish, no minnows, no crabs, no clams, no oysters…what the hell do expect us to eat. We used to be able to eat gloriously here. Fortunately, if you eat the algae before it turns brown it does have some nutritional value, even if it is full of pollutants.”
“Now, Monique, do not be so hard on the creature. He doesn’t know the bay is dying?”
“Wait just a minute, all this is too much. First, you speak English, then you immediately launch into a tirade against humans.”
“First of all,” I went on, “Monique tell me why you speak with a French accent.”
I know this was not really pertinent, but I was really curious.
“Because I am a French swan you idiot and because I was once a French human. French swans and French humans are the smartest, most intelligent creatures to walk the face of the earth, you moron. Mon Dieu, zee idiot is beyond education.”
Obviously, Monique had an attitude problem. Fortunately, Charles came to my rescue.
“Do not worry yourself about Monique. She tends to be a little bit, how do say, stuck up.”
Just then another swan came splashing down just a few feet in front of us. You could tell this swan was not fully grown because its coloring was still a faded gray brown and not yet fully white.
“Don’t be alarmed, it is only our son Albert. Albert, this is that weird human who keeps trying to talk to us. I decided to make his day and talk English.”
Albert came cruising right up to me. I was pretty sure he was going to attack, but at the last moment he slowed and made small circle around me, obviously checking me out.
“He doesn’t look that stupid,” was all Albert had to say.
“For a human, that is.”
I must say this was some strange introduction to the true world of swans.
And then Albert suddenly started flapping his wings and headed off in the direction of a lone swan a few hundred feet away. Albert made a tremendous amount of noise with his wings flapping over the water. He did not actually take off. Rather, he made a beeline for the lone swan. As soon as Albert got close, the other swan started to flap wings, apparently in a desperate attempt to avoid Albert.
“Mon Dieu, will zee boy ever learn? He is after Charlotte again. Charles, you really must do something. He is going to die if he does not get some nooky. Remember, my dear, love makes zee world go round.”
Charles gave a swan sigh which seemed to say “Do I have to”.
And then Charles cranked up his wings and began flapping in the direction of Albert and Charlotte.
In parting, he said, “We will take up this conversation at a later date.” And then off he went after Albert who he almost crashed into, forcing Albert to divert his course towards the swan who was apparently called Charlotte. It was all pretty weird.
Monique turned to me.
“The boy is incorrigible. We keep telling him, give love a chance, but Albert has no patience for chance, he wants it now and he wants it bad. He is worse than Charles was when he was a young swan…oh la la. I can tell you, there is nothing worse than a horny swan when you are not in the mood. Of course, zee lady always reserves the right to change her mind.”
I would swear she gave a sly smile, as if contemplating the joys of a lady changing her mind.
“That’s what Albert is hoping for.”
Well, I was outraged. This kind of attitude would never be allowed in the human world, except maybe at some High Tech Startups.
“So, you are lecturing me, while your son is trying to impose his ways on a lady swan.”
Monique looked perturbed.
“This conversation is over” she said and then cruised to Stone Bridge where a gang of several other swans were pruning themselves and relaxing.
The gang at Stone Bridge
I could take a hint and I continued my paddle, my head reeling by all the startling revelations. Swans could speak English. Who knew? Some swans had been humans before. Who knew? I continued to paddle into the next bay, pondering all that I had heard and learned. I needed to find out more about this.
After getting back home, I thought about telling my wife and perhaps some other close friends, but what would they say? The guy has gone off the deep end, the guy has lost his marbles? Dust in the attic has dimmed his bulb? So I kept my mouth shut and just kept thinking about this truly strange episode.
A couple of days later I was out again paddling. I had completely forgotten my swan encounters, but as I was passing stone bridge, I heard a familiar voice.
“I see you are out for another paddle. Perhaps, now we can continue our conversation.”
Almost immediately another voice chimed. It was coquettish with a now familiar French accent. It almost gay and happy.
“Oh, Merdehead is here again to defend the human race. As if it could be defended.”
Monique sounded curiously upbeat. I had the feeling that in spite of her harsh language she had taken a liking to me.
I decided to go on the attack.
“Look, white feathered lady, what do you have to boast about?” I said.
Charles immediately came in on my side, “You see my dear, I told you he might prove more alert than you thought.”
I am not sure I felt fully complimented by being called alert, but it was better than being called Merdehead.
“So tell me, what is it about swans that makes you so high and mighty?”
“I have seen clouds from both sides now.” Monique said mysteriously.
The reference seemed strange, remembering the Joni Mitchell song of that name.
“What are you talking about?”
“I am just saying this isn’t my first rodeo, dufus dear.”
She had an endearing way of insulting someone. You almost felt like it was a privilege to be scorned by her.
I must say I was particularly confused about her conversation referencing rodeos. How would a swan know about a rodeo? Especially a French swan who grew up as a human in the court of Versailles. I didn’t think they had rodeos back then. It was all too confusing. Fortunately, Charles came to my rescue.
“Do not be mislead by my lovely lady swan. She can’t help following everything humans do, even if it has been several hundred years since she has participated. Me, I take a longer view of these things, especially since I have not been human for over 1200 years.”
Information was coming at me so fast that I had a hard time comprehending all that Charles and Monique were saying. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued, so I had to ask.
“Just how do keep up on human events?” I asked.
“The internet, of course.” Monique butted in, “You would think the moron was born 200 years ago.”
“The internet…how could you know about the internet?”
“Mon Dieu,” Monique said in a gay, cheerful voice, “I begin to wonder how stupid humans have become. Maybe, we are just talking to an aberrant specimen.”
“What is your problem, Monique? Why are you so impatient with me.”
“Perhaps, I can help explain.” Charles interrupted, “as you may have read, swans and many other birds have an internal radar system. This allows us to fly great distances…over barren land, over Arctic wastes…over wide seas without seeing land for long periods. Our internal radar allows to know where we are going.
“Not all birds are as intelligent as swans.”
“Swans are the most intelligent, most beautiful and most elegant birds in the world,” Monique put in.
“A lot of birds,” Charles continued, “are like some of your fellow human beings. Slow, fixed in their ways, unable to think about or consider different ways or new things. So most birds do not have the intelligence or understanding of swans. Swans have a very highly developed sense of radar. This not only helps us fly thousands of miles out of sight of land, it also enabled us to learn about human technological developments.
“In the 1930s, when radio transmission became widespread, swans learned how to listen in on radio frequencies. At first, this was all very confusing for us. All we heard was all this gibberish that was coming out of radios. We thought it was some kind of static caused by the atmosphere. We did notice that some of it was music and some of it was just people talking. Of course, when swans first heard all of this, it was not clear what was what. It all seemed like just a bunch of noise…some of it was musical…some of it was pleasing…and most of it was just noise.
“But because swans happened to be one of the bird species chosen for re-incarnation, some of the swans had been human and they recognized various voice patterns and, of course, they understood some of what they heard was music.
“Now humans that had been re-incarnated as swans did not at first recognize their human origins. They had been reborn as swans and that is what they thought they were. But over time, many of these swans had a strange sense of deja vu…they felt as if they had been there before. This led to a lively discussion in Swanese, as you call our language, of just what these sounds they were hearing were all about. Some swans said they could almost understand the words and the music. So that is when our great enlightenment began.”
I listened to Charles with a strong sense of disbelief. Surely, this could not be true…surely swans could not listen to radio shows…surely swans could not learn about our music and our languages. And yet, there were Charles and Monique floating not more than 6′ away from me, talking in English, telling me this incredible story.
“Well,” Charles continued, “You can imagine our surprise when certain swans began to fully understand the words and the music they heard on radios. Now a lot of this did not make sense…commercials advertising the benefits of hair tonics…Amos and Andy talking in Blackface…Guy Lombardo and his orchestra…Louis Armstrong and all that jazz…there were many things that seemed strange, but the swans that had been human began to remember their past and in some cases, they began to remember the very words they used when they were human. You can imagine the disruption all this caused, but in a way, we were beginning to understand life in a way that it had never been understood by swans.”
Now this was getting truly weird, but I was transfixed by Charles’ explanation which, as hard as it was to believe, did make sense.
“So by the time TV came along, all of these transmissions began to be understandable and we quickly found that we were capable of accessing any kind of TV program we wanted…Kukla, Fran and Ollie…Milton Berle…Captain Video… We saw it all and yes, we realized these programs were incredibly simple and crude and, of course, much of it was truly stupid, but those of us who had been humans, remembered that many stupid things happened during their human lives, so it was not so surprising. TV, it seemed, was a kind of chewing gum for the eyes…it was just something to do without much meaning.”
“By the time the 60s had rolled around, we were getting used to checking out TV a few times a day,” Monique piped in, “And Ooh La La, that Marilyn Monroe was some looker and Jackie Kennedy had some sense of style…that was a lady…but who knew those two beautiful women were both after the same man…and what a hunk he was…too bad the mafia shot him, he was my kind of President.”
Just then a seagull came crashing down on the water. The bird hit the water so hard my kayak was splashed.
“Dis da one?” The bird said in what sounded like a Brooklyn accent.
“Yes, this is the human I have chosen to speak to, Tommy” said Charles majestically. “Cecil, this is Tommy.”
I was surprised when Charles refered to me for the first time by my first name. “How did you know my name?”
Charles was very patient, if somewhat irritated, “We went through that…we can read minds…of course, we know your first name, as well as your last, as well as your Social Security number and the numbers and any expiration dates of your five separate credit cards you have in your wallet.”
“Ooh la la, I do miss zee beautiful clothes. When we first were an item, Louis used to give me the most beautiful ermines and diamonds.”
“Dear, do we have to keep reliving your human times…you know they are not going to end well.”
“Do ya got food?” The seagull asked as it began cruise around me in a circle.
Things were getting weirder. Talking swans was one thing, but a seagull with a Brooklyn accent was too much.
“Why do you talk with a Brooklyn accent?” I asked
“Whadda ya mean, I’m from Brooklyn, dodo head.” Apparently, birds do not have much respect for humans or perhaps it was just me.
“You are a seagull from Brooklyn?”
“Not even close. I am seagull from South Africa, but before that I was a human. I grew up in Brooklyn.”
“How did you get to Setauket from South Africa,” I asked.
“I flew across da sea, ya loser,” and then the seagull turned to Charles and started making screeching sounds like I had heard seagulls make when flying over a beach. Charles started squawking, chirping and quacking back in a high voice. Soon Monique was flapping her wings, clucking and squawking and quacking. I gather I must be the subject of their conversation.
“Just what are you birds talking about?” I asked.
“Well,” Charles replied in English, “we are talking about you, just as you were thinking.”
This diverted my train of thought, “What do mean, just as I was thinking?”
I forgotten that swans could read minds.
“Look Dimwit,” Monique injected in her sweet, but spiteful voice, “if we can listen to radio, watch TV and access the Internet, why don’t you believe us when we tell you we can scan you mind whenever we feel like.”
“I told you he was a moron,” Monique said cheerfully, “it’s just like having our personal court jester. C’est magnifique!”
And then she added, “Of course we can access the Internet, how else would I keep track of today’s celebs?”
“You keep track of today’s celebs?”
“Mais oui, zee dimwit does not know I like zee gossip. How you say, gossip makes zee world go round. Ooh la, la…I like zee Brad Pitt. I cannot wait to find out who he will hook up with after ditching zee Angelina.”
“Really, my dear,” interjected Charles, “must you always chitchat about those awful Hollywood people…they are truly below you.”
“But my darling they are so interesting…I just love their weaknesses.”
Charles seemed to be disgusted by the turn in the conversation and began to cruise off.
All this getting too much for me when a gang of Canada geese came in for a landing not twenty feet from where we were conversing. The Canada geese immediately formed a line and started to cruise around my kayak. There must have been twenty or more geese.
I felt like I was at a bird convention. Normally Canada geese are very shy, flying away at the slightest paddle motion as I would paddle by. And when they did fly, they always would make a giant racket, first by clucking and squawking and then flying off in cacophonous roar of flapping wings and splashing water.
But at this moment they did not show the slightest fear of me. Rather they seemed to want to confront me. The geese cruised around me in a wide, menacing circle. Monique and the seagull were inside the circle. The geese began squawking and quacking and clucking. Monique and the seagull began making different bird noises in response.
The seagull turned to me and said, “Geez, they think you are some kinda genius. A human who talks to swans. Monique, da broad, is settin’ them straight…it’s a case of swans and a seagull talkin’ to a dumbass human. You sure you’re not carryin’ any food?”
Trying to keep up with all the bird goings on, I responded, “No, I did not know I going to meet a seagull from Brooklyn.”
“I’m a seagull from South Africa, dumbass. Or I was for a while. Yeah, I did work in Brooklyn when I was a human. I worked in a shipyard.”
That piqued my curiosity.
“When did you work in that shipyard?”
“1906 to 1917…I met my maker in France during World War I. After that it was off to bird world in South Africa. I was a seagull the first few times, then I became an Albatross, crossed the great Atlantic and settled in Brooklyn again. That didn’t last long…a poacher got me, da bastad, but I had the last laugh…I came back as a seagull and moved out on an island to where all the tree huggers hang out…that way I could be pretty sure I would not get blown away again.”
And while the story of the seagull living different lives at different times was fascinating, I was more interested in his seagull story of having worked in a shipyard.
“Which shipyard did you work in?” I asked.
“Shewan Shipyards, we did the repairs for the Atlantic fleet.”
“I know, my grandfather owned it.”
“Da bastad, he was a hard-ass.”
“If his name was Edwin Shewan…he almost got me killed about 5 times. Lifting battleships is not for ninnies. It was tough work and you could get killed in them days.”
Now I was getting really interested. This was a part of my family history that I knew something about, but not much.
“Tell me more. What was the shipyard like?”
“They was 40 acres right on the harbor, just as you come in to New York Harbor. It was a choice spot right where 26th, 25th and 24th streets come down to da water. We was 2,000 guys and your grandfather Edwin and James. They was big drinkers and high rollers for them days. They both had several yachts moored out on Long Island. Your grandfather was a real boozer. You could tell da time of day by his whiskey bottle behind his big mahogany desk.”
“I still have his desk,” I put in. “It’s about all that is left from his shipyard.”
“Good for you, bozo. Anyway, your Grandpa was a gnarly old bastard, especially after a half a bottle of whiskey. But I will give him this. He was always straight with me, even if he was always giving me jobs I couldn’t finish. And they was dangerous jobs. You had to be on your toes or you was apt to lose your toes.”
“Anyway, he was straight with me. He advised me to stay on the job and said he could get me a draft deferment. I wouldn’t hear of it and off I went to France. 6 months later I was splatted into 50 pieces and I went to seagull land in South Africa. Never regretted it though. I liked being seagulls and an albatross. It’s much easier than being a stupid human. Life is simple as a bird, complicated as a human.”
With that, the seagull flew away…the conversation apparently over. This left me with Monique and about 25 Canada geese. The geese were still cruising around me in a big circle giving me the once over.
“Don’t be worried about Tommy,” Charles said sympathetically as he came gliding up to us, “he tends to be rough sort, but he tells you like it is.”
A seagull who knew my grandfather in another life. Talk about a small world! Not to mention a weird world.
“Tommy c’est magnifique,” echoed Monique.
By this time, I was on bird overload, so I said goodbye to Charles, Monique and the 25 Canada geese.
“Au Revoir, fair feathered friends,” we’re my actual words, as I paddled away.
“Au Revoir, mon Cheri.” Monique sang out gaily. Maybe Monique was going soft on me.
A week later I went down to my dock, intending to paddle. I was getting ready to put my kayak in the water when I heard this crashing, flapping, splashing sound behind me. I looked over to where the sounds came from and saw that Albert had just come in for a hard landing and was cruising right up to my dock.
“Can we talk?” which is a pretty strange statement coming from a young swan. I noticed that Albert’s coloring had become a little more white since I had seen him. I surmised he was coming into his full swan hood – if that is the correct phrase.
“What do want to talk about?” I asked.
“I am having girl problems. I really like Margaret and then there is Sally and Susan. I really like all of them, but I can’t make up mind. And worse than that, none of them want to let me have my way with them.”
I pondered Albert’s problems.
“First of all, Albert, I thought swans were monogamous. How come you going after 3 different lady swans?”
“Hey, I am a young guy swan and mother has always said that I should not make up mind too soon. Besides, young male swans play the field just like humans. It’s true later on swans become monogamous, but that does not mean we don’t get to play around when we are young.”
“OK, I understand that, but maybe going after 3 girl swans at the same time is not very diplomatic. Maybe, you should concentrate on one of the three. I don’t think girls like to think they are just one of many.”
Albert thought this over as he cruised back and forth next to my dock.
“The trouble is none of them are giving out.”
I thought this over for a while.
“Well, I do not know how swans feel about this, but in the human world, ladies like you to take some time. They don’t like to be rushed. And they don’t like thinking it’s just about sex. They like to think there is a lot more to the relationship. So in the human world, we have to establish a relationship, we have to do nice little things, like bring little gifts or flowers, go for walks on the beach, see a movie. Girls like to think you are not just interested in there bodies. Later, when you’ve got their trust and interest, the tables might turn and they might become very interested in sex, but with humans it often takes time.
“I don’t know what you have to do with your lady swan friends, maybe you need to cruise around with them, talk with them and try to do things they are interested in.”
All of this seemed very foreign to Albert and I could almost see a frown coming over his swan face. Then something seemed to click, as if the information had just been down-loaded. Almost immediately, he nodded his head, said thanks and flew off, taking about 75 feet of frantically flapping his wings and splashing water until he finally got airborne.
I did not think much of my encounter with Albert. Several days later I was out paddling when Charles and Monique cruised up to me. I was just passing the outer Setauket Bay, paddling along the scenic shore. It was quite beautiful there and almost looks as it must have before Europeans came to this country. Most of the houses were hidden by summer growth of trees and vegetation and the beach had a lonely, pristine appearance. It was only the muddy brown appearance of the water that reminded you that the clarity of the water was indeed different.
“Mon Cheri, I know I have often called you a dimwit and that is fair because after all you are human and all humans are dimwits, but I want to thank you for talking to Albert. He is a changed swan, much more assured and the lady swans are noticing. Ooh la la, the Sally swan is all over him now…they are a real item. All that boy needed was a little nooky.”
It was a strange rambling conversation, especially coming from a lady swan, but I took it as a compliment.
“I am glad if I was able to be of assistance.” I said, feeling closer to Monique even if I was a little surprised by her brash slang.
Almost immediately 7 terns came swooping down from nowhere and began to hover in front of me.
“Mon Dieu, zee 7 Female Furies are here, ooh la la.” Monique said.
“They always want to have their say, my dear,” put in Charles.
I did not know what she and Charles were talking about until I put 2 and 2 together, or perhaps, I should say until I put 7 and 7 together. I saw the 7 terns who were hovering in front of me. Now, my normal name for terns is helicopter birds because they like to hover about 15 or 20 feet above the water flapping their wings frantically and then dive down and snag an unsuspecting minnow. It was only after realizing that there were 7 terns flapping their wings directly in front of me, hovering in the air not thirty feet away, that they must be the 7 Female Furies.
The 7 female furies appeared.
“Honey do!” Said one with the minnow in her mouth.
“Whatever,” said another.
“Melancholy is the woman,” said a third.
“Love is the answer,” said a fourth.
“Stand by your male,” said a fifth.
“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” said a sixth.
“Never sign a prenup,” said the seventh.
And then as quickly as they came and hovered, they ascended up a few hundred feet and flew away.
“What was that?” I asked Charles.
“Monique just told you, they were the 7 Female Furies.”
“What bird ever signed a prenup or got a diamond?” I asked.
“You foolish boy, birds are not so different than zee humans. I love zee pearls and when I was with Louis Quatorze I loved zee rubies and zee ermines. And besides a lot of those birds were ladies in an earlier life…some were sexy ladies too.”
It did not make sense to me. It was a topsy, turvy world that I had stumbled upon. I could not understand the meaning of talking swans and hovering terns – aka, the 7 Female Furies.
“All this is too much for me,” I said to Charles and Monique and I paddled off to ponder the meaning of it all.
When I got home, I thought about all that I had heard and learned from Charles and Monique. I really wanted to tell someone and ask them what they thought, but every time I came close to telling the truth to my wife or a good friend or my brother, I backed off because I knew they would think that I lost my mind. So I kept quiet and I thought about all the I had and seen. What did it all mean? Talking swans, a seagull from Brooklyn via South Africa, hovering terns giving advice against signing prenups. What did it all mean?
KongMing comes to say hello.
Two days later something even stranger occurred. I went down to go for a paddle when I heard this voice.
“The human has always been a failure. In my life I tried to bring together the Han, but despite many battles, despite the victory at Red Cliffs, despite my magic, despite the 8 fold maneuver, despite winning many a battle, despite killing hundreds of thousands by fire, I was not able to unite the empire. Such was my fate that my body gave out before my task could be accomplished.”
Now here was the strange part. I heard these words in my head, but I could not understand from where they came. I looked around and the only thing I saw was a great white heron in a tree opposite my dock.
“Yes, I am KongMing and I am a great white heron.”
“But you are not moving your beak,” I wanted to say mouth, but beak seemed more technically correct.
“I have no need to move my beak, human. I can communicate by thought.”
These were strange words, but only by hearing them in your head and realizing that they did not exist outside of your head was far stranger. It seemed that the bird was right, he could communicate simply by implanting thoughts in my brain, I heard it loud and clear. But why was he talking to me?
“Because Charles told me he had begun conversation with you, human.”
Again, I made the strange realization that this bird was answering a thought of mine that I had not spoken. This was scary.
“You need not fear, human, I am but a bird and I will pass away just like you.”
And then without further adieu, the bird continued to speak in my head.
“Life is but a brief period of transition from one state to another. Death is what we all do. We come, we go. The greatest weapon is fire. The greatest gift wisdom. The greatest strength understanding. The greatest strategy deception.”
That was all the bird said and then he flew off. As he flew away he issued a strange squawk and released a white stream of defecation. What did that mean?
A few days later I was paddling by Stone Bridge and saw Charles, Monique and several other swans. In truth, I was not able to recognize Charles and Monique individually. All swans look alike to me. But when Charles spoke up, I recognized him immediately.
“Human, we hope you are enjoying your paddle. We prefer to see humans paddling. We hate to see humans motor around in their great speedboats, towing their young behind them.”
“That’s knee-boarding,” I said.
“Whatever it is, it’s loud and we don’t like it. And we especially do not like JetSkis. Why must you burn fossil fuels to churn up water and make noise?”
“Humans have to have their fun. Besides, I’m a paddler.”
“We would prefer it if all humans would just paddle.”
I decided to paddle on, figuring that I had defended the Mastercrafts folks as much as I could and had not implemented myself in further blame.
A few days later and I saw Charles, Monique and Albert all gliding along quietly.
“Hello Charles, hello Monique, hello Albert…how’s the love life going?”
I heard a huff from Charles, a giggle from Monique and saw Albert sneak a smirk.
“Pretty well, actually,” Albert.
“Son, you know what I have told you about boasting…we do not approve it in this family.”
I could tell by the earnestness and firmness in Charles voice that he was not pleased by his son’s enthusiasm.
“No bluster in this family,” Monique said, “Not like your president.”
This immediately led to another line of thought.
“What do you mean not like my president?” I asked.
“Well, your president does have a tendency to boast.” Charles added, “in my day, I never believed in bluster. Maybe, firm words followed by firm action, but never bluster followed by more bluster.”
“Charles, call a spade a spade, his president is an asshole.” Monique added. I wish you could have been there to hear this lady swan pronounce the word asshole. She deliberately extended the vulgar word. It sounded more like ace-hoole.
“My president is an asshole?” I repeated in disbelief.
“I kind of like him,” said Albert. “He says what he means, he uses Twitter and he likes to go after the ladies…he can’t be all bad.”
I can only say that I felt like a distant traveler who had fallen into a strange new world.
“So what do you think of your president?” Charles asked me.
I was on the spot and felt I had to answer.
“Well, I am a little bit afraid. He makes a lot of promises, but I do not see how he can keep them all. And I worry sometimes that his talk might get us into a war.”
“You see, my dear, the human sometimes thinks.”
Monique turned her head and beak toward me. I thought I detected a sly smile.
“Yes, it may be possible there is something in that head. But take it from me, your president is zee ace-hoole!”
“I still like him,” said Albert.
“We shall see…his term has not run out.” said Charles.
I was getting uncomfortable by this turn to politics.
“Let’s talk about this later,” I said.
Just before I was about to renew my paddling, 7 Crows came flying in for a landing on the lone tree on Stone Bridge. It was a strange sight.
The 7 male furies gathering on Stone Bridge.
“Cecil, I think the 7 Male Furies have something to say to you,” said Charles.
“Me first,” said the first crow.
“The boy with the biggest toys wins,” said the second crow.
“God is great,” said the third.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” said the fourth.
“My country right or wrong,” said the fifth.
“Better right than compromise,” said the sixth.
“Better to die rich and lose your soul,” said the 7th.
And just as suddenly as they came, the seven crows flew off, creating seven shadows on the water below before flapping away.
“Pay them no mind,” said Monique, “That’s the way they roll.”
It was all getting too weird for me. I paddled off, trying to comprehend as I glided by familiar waters and familiar scenery. The stranger these events got and the more I heard from Charles, Monique and other birds, the more it seemed impossible to relate my experiences to my wife or other friends.
In talking to Charles and Monique I found that I had many questions to ask. And perhaps, quite understandably, it seemed that Charles and Monique also had many questions to ask me. This led to a series of long conversations over the next months. Almost every time I would go for a paddle, about four or five times a week, I would run into Charles and Monique, usually in the back bay or by Stone Bridge or out in Setauket Bay on my way to Port Jefferson Harbor.
It seemed that Charles was most interested to know what I thought about the present period of time and politics. Monique, on the other hand, seemed more fixated on what I thought of present fashions and customs.
In truth, we talked of many things, current events, past history, the state of the environment, the health of the waterways. For me, I had a lot of questions on how it was that swans seemed to have lived previous lives. I explained that humans generally do not remember or think they had previous lives.
Charles was quite adamant of the subject.
“Of course, humans have previous lives,” said Charles, “they just don’t remember them. And if they get to live other lives as animals or birds, they remember it, but they cannot tell about it. We do not know why, but humans seem to be the only creatures that do not remember their previous lives…and yet they are they are able to talk to words each other. Birds and animals have always been able to talk to one another, but they never could speak words. Some birds, because of their internal radar, learned English and other languages, first from Radio and TV, then from the Internet…it was that knowledge that allows us to speak and be aware of humans and understand what they were up to. We were surprised and then concerned.”
That made me curious, “What were you concerned about?”
“Mon Dieu,” interjected Monique, “just when you think zee dimwit is beginning to understand something, he says something so stupid, you almost want to give up on zee human.”
“Well, what Monique is trying to say, we see you covering the earth, crowding out all other animals and birds, we see you dominating the land and the waterways and we see you despoiling it all. Frankly, that is why we choose to remain birds…we doubt the future of humans…at best you will make life intolerable for yourselves and all other living creatures, at worst you will destroy all life.”
“Zee humans do not have the ability to destroy all life, they can only destroy human life.”
You can gather from these comments that Charles and Monique were not optimistic about us humans.
“What do you expect?” I asked, “we are the dominant species.”
“Yes, for now, but not for long,” Charles answered, “there are many things we liked about being human. Being able to build things, being able to use tools, being able to talk to one another, writing poetry, novels, making films, these can be great achievements.”
“Don’t get me on the subject of films,” Monique injected, “only a few films are any good…of course, some French films…that is because French people are zee best humans, a few Indian and Chinese films and some old American and English films are good. The rest is zee crap. Especially the stuff from zee Hollywood. Mon Dieu, such pretty people making such crap…I don’t know why they do it.”
“Well, my dear, there some good films even today, but you are right. Mostly, it is fake explosions, stupid laughter and regurgitated boy meets girl stories. Yes, mostly, it just bad, not worth taking the time to see.”
Time and again I would cite films and novels that I thought worthy. Most of the time, Charles and Monique were not impressed, saying it had all been done several hundred years previously. How could a film have been done better several hundred years ago. I would ask. And they would counter, of course, films were not done better, but the plots for films had all been done several hundred years ago and they have been used and reused in today’s films.
The thing that seemed strange about what Charles and Monique were concerned about, were not the things I or most humans I knew were concerned about. Monique could, for example, go on for hours about the quality of the water in the bays.
“You’ve screwed it up,” she would say, “the bottom of the bays are all green with algae. The sand worms cannot do their good work because their sun is blocked by the algae, the waters are dark and murky and polluted. The shellfish are gone or dying. You have poisoned all the bays.”
“How did I poison the bays,” I would ask.
And then Monique would really let me have it.
“You wash your clothes with soap and detergent. Where do think that water goes? You build your houses on every piece of land surrounding the bays, you defecate and pee incredible amounts and all that waste goes into your so-called sewers which leak and seep into the bays. You fertilize farms and lawns and gardens with an incredible array of harmful chemicals. You spray insecticides on everything. All those chemicals run off into the bays. You drive cars that belch carbon monoxide that goes into the air before coming down into the bays as poisonous gas particles. You fly airplanes above that give off burn airplane fuel and rain down on us as chemical particles…there is no end to the damage and harm you cause. The very bays you paddle on are dead and diseased. They may look beautiful and healthy to you, but they are not. Yes, there are some birds and animals that survive that, but most life is being harmed by your actions.”
“My lady is quite correct on this issue…she may remember rubies and ermines and gay parties when she was human, but as a swan she knows the truth. And the truth is that humans are failing. When we were humans we had some very nice things, but that when the world was younger and there were a lot less people…but we do not want to go back to being humans…there is no future in it.”
“What do you mean? You said yourself that humans are the most successful animal species ever. We dominate the world. How can there be no future?”
“It is very simple,” continued Charles, “humans are taking up more and more space, over populating and over polluting the earth. Something must give…and when it does, life for humans will get worse. That is why Monique and I have no intentions of becoming human again. We do not want the stress.”
I was truly perplexed by Charles saying swans did not want the stress. I tried to counter Charles’s and Monique’s arguments…we live in the greatest period of history, we are surrounded by all sorts of marvels…central heating, central air, running hot and cold water, radio, TV, Internet, airplanes to fly on, cars to drive in, movies to see, restaurants, bars, theaters…truly humans have it all. But here were 2 nay-saying swans right in front of me disputing all that I had read and had been taught. I did not know to say.
“This is all too strange for me.”
Now I first met Charles and Monique and Albert in the spring. As time went on Albert’s feathers became pure white and he reached full male swan-hood. As far I could tell, Albert was still playing the field. The only way frankly I could tell Albert was playing around was that I noticed that some of the swans swimming along were different sizes…some small, some medium, some almost as large as Albert. And of course, I was not really able to tell the sex of the swans accompanying Albert, but often the ladies would speak to me directly.
They had heard that I had given Albert some advice…apparently Albert had told his lady friends of my advice and, all in all, I gather they appreciated me talking over Albert’s lady issues. One or two of these ladies were kind enough to say to me that they saw a real change in Albert. He was more patient, not so eager to attack and conquer, more likely to hang back and wait for the right moment. So, Albert and his ladies seemed very happy.
I gather young male swans are permitted a period of time to play the field and make up their mind. How long Albert got to play the field, I never did find out, because, as I am about to relate, my conversation with swans ended in October. It had begun in April and by October it came to a sudden and complete halt.
But before the end of My Swans Conversations, some other strange things happened. I met Bess the Hummingbird. She turned out to be a real romantic. She told me in a former life she had been a match-maker in the Court of Tsar Peter, so she was naturally inclined toward love and romance. Bess was an incredibly tiny bird. Charles introduced me one day when I happened to be near the cove in Setauket Bay that leads out into Port Jefferson Bay. We were near the shore, when I heard Charles say, “Hello, Bess.”
“Hi Sweetie,” Monique said almost simultaneously. And I saw this little blur of a bird hover in front of Charles and then dart over to hover in front of Monique. Monique and Bess seemed to knock beaks together. It was strange…this large lady swan with this tiny bird hovering a few inches from Monique’s beak. I saw the little bird dip her tiny, needlelike beak and Monique raise her much larger, blunter beak. For a brief moment the little beak touched ever so lightly the big beak…that was their hello.
And Bess flew over me and that was quite disconcerting. You do not know how scary a 2″ bird can be until it is flapping its wings six inches from your nose. Happily, Bess did not choose to touch my nose with her beak.
For a tiny bird, she had a booming voice.
“What be this,” she asked.
“This be a human,” I answered.
I thought I was being pretty clever and it must have been the case because immediately the little 2″ bird giggled. I would like to note while Bess’s body was only 2″, her wingspan was a solid 4″, so she was more intimidating than you might think. And if you are still thinking there is nothing scary about 2″ bird with a 4″ wingspan, imagine those wings are flapping a mile a second and think of it as a giant bumblebee 6″ from your nose. I guarantee you would be scared.
It turned out that there was really nothing to be scared about. Bess turned out to be all mush. She was love and lace, peppering me with constant questions about me and my wife, asking all sorts of personal questions I will not repeat, telling me I immediately needed go out and buy my wife flowers every day. This little bird was convinced that all we need is love, sweet love and she never wasted a minute not recommending it.
I also got to meet Luigi and Isadora, two Kingfishers that hung out in my little cove where my dock is. So every time I either put in my kayak or took out my kayak they would zoom around squeaking all sorts of derogatory comments.
“Here comes the swan talker,” Luigi would say.
“Hey swan talker, why don’t you catch some minnows for us.”
Luigi and Isadora were not much interested in conversation. Food was their true love…anything that was live…minnows, tiny crabs, flies, beetles, grasshoppers…if it moved they munched it. I tried to interest them in some bread.
“We don’t want your bread, man.” said Luigi
“Bread don’t move…what’s the sense of that?” asked Isadora.
I tried to ply those Kingfishers with bread, bits of beacon, some artichoke hearts…everything was a failure, until I put some bread in my minnow trap. That attracted a bunch of minnows. When I dumped the wire basket filled with minnows, Luigi and Isadora swooped instantly down and wiped those minnows out before the minnows had a chance to expire from lack of air. There was nothing left but some minnow eyes and fin parts drying on the dock. The dock was speckled with blood and minnow bits in less than 30 seconds.
All summer long I would paddle out and have discussions and conversations with Charles and Monique. As time went on, I really do think that Monique took a shine to me. She began to greet me with “Mon Cheri,” each time we met. It was nice to get so close and friendly with the local sea birds. I was not to know how brief and how rare my conversations would be.
One day I was paddling in the back part of Setauket Bay and I came upon a big rock. Just then KongMing landed on the rock.
KongMing gives his sermon on a rock
“Still here human,” I heard in my head, “still talking with Charles and family I understand…that is not long to last…you shall soon learn.”
And then KongMing began a strange monologue.
“All things are in flux.
All life is the same.
Nothing will remain.
Nothing will disappear.
The Empire, long united, will divide.
The Empire, long divided, will unite.
Thus it has always been.”
And then KongMing the Great White Heron flew off.
A few days later Charles and Monique glided into my little cove while I was pulling out my kayak.
“We have something to tell you,” said Charles, “we had a meeting – a swan convention. It has been decided that we can no longer talk to you. The Great Swan Council has determined that it is unnatural for swans to talk English to you. I knew it was a breach of protocol, I just did not know how many swan feathers it would ruffle. The decision is immutable…we must never speak after today. We are sorry. We have come to like you, but from this day forth, we can never speak.”
“Mon Cheri Dimwit, I too am sorry for this. I enjoyed our conversations. I most appreciate your little talk with Albert. He really appreciated your words. It is strange that the human words helped a swan to change. Maybe, there is more hope for your species. Ces’t la Vie. Au Revoir.”
With that Charles and Monique turned and glided their way out of my little cove.
“Wait a minute,” I called out as they glided away, “you never told me who Charles was in his earlier life.”
“That’s easy Mon Cheri, what starts with Charles and rhymes with Champagne.”
With that, Charles and Monique glided elegantly and silently out of my little cove, leaving a little trail of disturbed water behind them where they had paddled.
Author’s Note: It was some time after the strange events described above that I decided to to set down the experiences above in a blog story. This seemed the best way to tell the story. Reading it now, it seems even more unbelievable. I cannot help that. I can only say that I have tried, as best I can, to describe my conversations with swans and other birds.
PostScript: Shortly after publishing this blog story I received a strange e-mail from KongMing. It read:
I have had chance to review your blog story which does tell things that actually transpired. I was little disappointed with your photography and thought that I should send you a better rendering of myself. This was done by the artist James Audubon some time ago. It shows me in the full maturity of my third life as a Great White Heron.
While the rendering much better captures my essence, I cannot say it was painless. That was due to the fact that the artist, James Audubon, who was a great artist, decided it was easier to paint me after he had shot me. This caused me physical pain and loss of face. A great general and premier should not get shot in life. I certainly would have preferred if Mr. Audubon had been a great photographer rather than a great hunter, but such is my fate that the artist worked before the advent of really excellent hi resolution cameras. I had to wait until my sixth life as a Great White Heron to see the portrait below – when I happened to find it on the Internet.
Sincerely, KongMing, now in my seventh life as a Great White Heron