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The Swan's Warning
Small waves cascaded onto the rocky shore, sending pebbles and shells tumbling down into the ocean. Clear but dark, the water mirrored the black velvet sky, lit only by the tiny reservoirs of light that were the stars. It was a chilly night, one of the first of March, and the last remnants of winter lingered upon the cold sand.
A man crouched by the shore and dipped his trembling hands into the icy water. My eyebrows contracted as I surveyed his movements, perplexed by his strange actions. It was beyond rare for someone to meander around this area so late at night and so early in the season. By evening, the shore became so frigid that no one ever dared venture by the water. There was no need, anyway. No one in their right minds would stray from the warmth of their homes into a cold, March night.
Only I enjoyed the peace of the water at midnight. My tense, constricted mind could finally relax here while I watched the waves crash up onto the rocks and then ease back down into the ocean. I sat there, every night, even in the dead of winter, relaxing on the rocks and watching the water roll back and forth as if the world itself were breathing deeply, inhaling and exhaling in the most unbreakable of rhythms. It was the only place that I could be free, escape and find peace in being alone.
Slightly further out from the shore a lone swan drifted along serenely. Its pale and elegant figure reflected a bright white ray of light like a flash of lightning in the black water. I watched its progress as the small ripples waning behind it patterned the rhythm of my breathing. It was a beautiful animal, but each quiver of the water in its movements conveyed a palpable sense of sadness. It swam alone, braving the cold night without a partner, and the sight of its solitude touched me with a pang of despondency. As I watched, the graceful creature slowly turned its elongated neck in my direction. Its black eyes seemed to pervade through the air frozen solid before reaching my own. A deep sense of unease seeped through my veins. The swan’s gaze felt rather unnatural and quite disconcerting as it watched me, tilting its angular head this way and that without ever fully turning its beak away from my direction. My body rooted itself in place, and I sat there, unnervingly on edge and unsure of why the swan had targeted me with its warning.
Before I could adjust to its penetrating and discerning gaze, the swan turned and abruptly absconded into the shadows of the night. The brusque movements of the strange man moving deeper into the water had startled the creature and banished it before I could understand it. Although the man could not see me, I glared at him for ruining the moment. I had never seen him before, and suddenly he was intruding in on my haven. Why would he even put his hands in the water; did he want to freeze them off? My own hands clenched the rocks below me as I watched him, irked by his intrusion. The harsh movements of his arms staggered the usually steady rhythm of the water, the pattern to which I had become accustomed. They interrupted the flow, creating irregular undulations and in turn, jolting my relaxation. I inhaled deeply, attempted to enjoy the fresh ocean air, and tried to ignore his strange presence. My eyes closed, and I rested my face on the cool, smooth stone. When they opened again, the man was gone.
Intrigued by the unusual appearance, both his and that of the swan, I slowly stood up and cast wary eyes around me to ensure that I remained alone. The only other movement was the rustle of the leaves and the rippling water as it licked the edge of the rocks. It was safe. Leaping down from the rock, I strolled across the shore, digging my toes through the sand and sidestepping sharp shells. I did not know for what I was looking but I had an urge to stand where the man had before the swan had taken off. When I reached the edge, I let the water lap onto my bare feet, caressing my toes with a chilled but not unpleasant feel. I looked down, expecting to see a reflection of stars, the moon, and the velvety sky, but instead, an unusual sight greeted me with unexpected jolt rushing through my body.
I could not see any reflections because a small pool of the water had become thick and murky, and the water that seeped between my bare toes felt unusually warm. At a second glance, I thought I recognized a contorted reflection of my own face in the water, until I realized that the features were much too masculine to be my own. It was not a reflection but a colorless face bobbing in and out of the swelling water. His blank, unengaged eyes mirrored the starry sky, the view that had no doubt been his last.
The sand and rocks at my feet stained deeper red with every pulse of the water.
An unusually fierce undulation of the water washed something smooth and sharp onto my feet that instantly captured the moon’s light, glinted, and reflected its luster into my eyes. A glance down confirmed the sight of the glistening silver knife, now mockingly clean and sparkling with the reflection of a new image. The face of the swan mirrored itself in the silver of the knife, utterly still and staring straight at me. Whirling around, I gazed up at the sky. No swan flew above me. The sky remained as empty and black as ever. Slowly, I turned back to the water, where the body of the broken man rolled back and forth amongst the waves. The knife and its eerie reflection had washed back into water.
Sensing the danger, I whirled about to sprint back to my safe zone behind the rocks. Mid-twirl, my peripheral vision sparked upon a shadow that had not been there before; the tall, lurking silhouette of a man paced relentlessly by nearby tree. Undoubtedly, I knew it was he who I had seen by the shore. An audible gasp involuntarily rippled through my lungs as I darted behind a huge stone jutting out of the ground. There I sat, gripping the rock so firmly that my knuckles grew whiter with every passing minute.
He paced back and forth, anxiously wiping at his shirt and wringing his hands. In the pitch-black night, I could just barely distinguish a few of his defined features. His pale, angular face seemed to absorb light from the moon the way none of the surrounding shadows could. He looked young, maybe just a few years older than I. A part of me disbelieved what I had seen before he had lowered his hands into the water, but I knew I could not deny it. I had seen his pale hands marred with the stolen life of another; I had seen the pearly white of his skin contrast starkly with the deep burgundy of blood that was not his.
Growing uncomfortable with my legs cramped in an awkward position, I shifted my weight slightly. The resulting crunch of leaves and twigs might as well have been thunder with an additional streak of lightning in my direction as to instantly alert the man of my presence. He twirled around, eyes wide in confusion and fear, and I choked back another gasp. For a split second, we sat there in hesitation, staring straight into each other’s eyes with no inkling of what to do. The next moment, wind rushed through my hair and into my lungs as I fled through the darkness. My throat felt too stifled to allow a good scream to escape, so I ran in silence, ducking under tree leaves and leaping over rocks. For a moment, I thought I recognized a stark white flash of something familiar, vivid under the moon’s light, but the next second, it vanished, and I had already reached the road. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a small voice chastised me for not wearing shoes.
“Wait!” a voice croaked out behind me.
As if. I wasn’t ready to die today.
My bare feet pounded the stone in tune with my throbbing heartbeat, ringing in my ears as I returned into civilization, flying by house after house. With one last turn, I reached my own. Fleeing into the backyard, I scrambled up the tree that had become the scratching post of my climbing in the past few months as I used it for an inconspicuous way in and out of the house. I scrambled through the window to reach safety at last. In my bedroom, I crawled into my bed, feeling as alone and insignificant as ever.
Outside, a lone swan circled the air outside my window.