“Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade. Almost everyone

Actually…

…there were eleven fully intact princes and one, the twelfth, restored save for a single detail—his right arm remained a swan’s wing, because his sister, interrupted at her work, had had to leave one coat with a missing sleeve.

It seemed a small-enough price to pay.

Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls. Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.

End of story. “Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade.

Almost everyone.

It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings.

The king’s court made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were meant only in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries. His brothers’ wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner (he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall). The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.

Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could get only the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.

He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn’t manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset. Which wasn’t all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling mutation, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing.

Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.

Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?

Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.

He couldn’t seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin.

Michael Cunningham, A Wild Swan: And Other Tales, 2015.

Biel

Tyler zamyka okno nie bez wysiłku. Wszystko w tym mieszkaniu jest wypaczone. Kulka upuszczona pośrodku salonu przeturlałaby się prosto do drzwi frontowych. Gdy mocuje się z ramą przesuwnego okna, do pokoju wpada jeszcze jeden wściekły podmuch, jak gdyby śnieżyca chciała wykorzystać ostatnią szansę, żeby… co?… znaleźć się w unicestwiającym cieple sypialni Tylera i Beth, zaznać na chwilę żaru, który ją roztapia?… Gdy owiewa go miniaturowy tuman śniegu, coś drobnego wpada mu do oka; może mikroskopijny kryształek lodu niczym najmniejszy odłamek szkła, jaki można sobie wyobrazić. Tyler pociera oko, najwyraźniej nie może wydobyć tej drobinki, która w nim utkwiła. Zupełnie jak gdyby poddany został nieznacznej mutacji; jak gdyby ta szklista kruszyna przytwierdziła się do rogówki – stoi więc z jednym okiem czystym, a drugim załzawionym i zaczerwienionym, patrząc, jak szybę omiatają płatki śniegu. Minęła dopiero szósta rano. Na dworze jest biało – wszędzie. Starsze sterty śniegu, który zgarnia się dzień po dniu na obrzeża sąsiedniego parkingu i który skrzepł w miniaturowe szare góry, toksycznie maźnięte tu i tam cekinami sadzy, nabrały teraz, chwilowo, alpejskości, jak widoczek z bożonarodzeniowej kartki; a raczej jak widok z bożonarodzeniowej kartki, jeśli skupić się tylko na stertach śniegu, wycinając kakaową betonową fasadę pustego magazynu (na której wciąż widnieje widmo słowa „beton”, choć tak już wyblakłe, jak gdyby sam budynek, od dawna zaniedbywany, nadal uparcie głosił swoje imię) i pogrążoną jeszcze we śnie ulicę, gdzie litera K w neonie ALKOHOL miga i brzęczy niczym flara sygnalizacyjna. Ale nawet w tym nędznym miejskim pejzażu – w tej smętnej, na wpół opustoszałej okolicy, gdzie pod oknem Tylera cały rok stoi wypalony szkielet starego buicka (dziwnie szlachetny w swej przerdzewiałej, wybebeszonej i pomazanej graffiti bezużyteczności) – przedświt wyczarował swego rodzaju surowe piękno; poczucie ułomnej, ale wciąż żywej nadziei. Nawet w Bushwick. Oto świeży opad śniegu, poważnego śniegu, nieskazitelnego, dającego obietnicę błogosławieństwa, jak gdyby jakaś firma, która dostarcza spokój i harmonię do lepszych dzielnic, pomyliła adres.

Michael Cunningham, Królowa Śniegu, tłum. Jerzy Kozłowski, Poznań 2014.