Swan Song

By Joanne Merriam

Jack is fighting with the fax machine as usual when I arrive, but for once he isn't swearing. The machine clicks and whirs. The shadows of the office blinds waver across his dark arms, highlighting little white patches of dead skin. Probably the winter weather. "Jammed again?" I say, and he smiles at me and says, "Just like clockwork! It must be Monday," as though he's happy about it.

"You're in a good mood," I say, and then I grin because it had sounded like an accusation.

"I had a good weekend," he says.

I have about five thousand envelopes sitting on my desk waiting to be opened. I sort Medicare claims for a living. It's tedious, but it pays better than most data entry jobs, because of the need for strict confidentiality. I begin running stacks of envelopes through the machine we have that slits them open.

Jack comes over to show me his fax receipt. "Victory!" he says.

"So what did you do this weekend?" I notice one of the envelopes is too thick for the machine, and slit it open with my finger.

"Oh, nothing special," he says. "I saw the new Sandra Bullock movie with Karen." Karen is his girlfriend. "And afterwards, she took me out for ice cream at this little mom and pop place where they make their own."

"Where's that?"

"Corner of Maple and South Park."

"Maybe I'll check it out."

"How about your weekend?"

"It was all right. Richard was studying. Mostly I cleaned the house."

"Those can be nice weekends," he says, trying not to pity me.

The forms are institutional pink. They get sorted according to diagnosis. Each one has its own code, so—unless the doctor or hospital has left that box blank—I only have to look at one part of the page as I sort the forms into piles. Today I notice we have a lot of infectious diseases. Some weeks we'll get unusual numbers of cancer, and other weeks heart disease. It's just statistical variation: meaningless, but something to joke about when we run out of things to say to each other.

"I had the weirdest dream, though," Jack says from his desk.

Oh, God, I hate it when people tell me about their dreams. But I like Jack, and it's not like I have anything better to do, so I say, "What was it about?"

"I'm on an airplane, right?" he says. "I was flying to England or something, and we're over the water, and suddenly the plane is surrounded by swans. One of them is looking at me through the window, turning his head back and forth to look at me, you know how birds do that—"

"Do swans do that?" I ask. I don't remember the swans in the park shaking their heads at me. I can't say I pay much attention, though. I'm more interested in the ducks, with their self-entitlement and comical behinds, and in the children feeding them.

"I don't know. I'm pretty sure they don't fly over the ocean, either."

"So what happened next?"

"That's it. It just looked at me, and I felt really happy. It was like it knew me, you know? I mean really knew me, like you always hope somebody will."

I don't worry about things like that—Richard knows me, my Dad knew me, I'm not that hard to know—but I don't say so. Jack's sensitive.

"What?"

"You said it was the weirdest dream."

"Oh, right. Well, that's pretty peculiar behavior for a swan. I'm not even sure it really was a swan. And wouldn't they have gotten sucked into the engines?"

Jack is always overthinking everything. "It's a dream," I say. "It doesn't have to make sense."


That night Richard meets me at the door with flowers. White calla lilies, with the faintest blush of yellow in their centers. He's tied them, or more likely the florist has, with a wide blue ribbon. "They're lovely," I say, putting them in water. "What's the occasion?"

"Oh, I just love you," he says easily, and I grin at him, but I'm actually rather shocked. He never says things like that. He told me he loved me once, about two months after we first started dating, and he hasn't said it since. If I tell him I love him, he'll say, "You too," but that's it. He tells me he loves me by getting up early to warm up my car for me, by avoiding arguments with my mother, by listening when I talk about my dead-end career, and not telling me how to fix it.

"Besides," he says, "they reminded me of a dream I had last night."

"A dream?" I set the lilies on the kitchen table in front of the window. I slide the ribbon off of them, and they fall a little to rest against the porcelain sides of the vase. In the slanting evening light, their curled tops go pink with embarrassment. The hill outside fades into the sky. He puts his arms around me, pinning me at the hips to the table, and kisses the back of my neck. His hands slide down my upper arms and move to my stomach. We've been together for six years, and it still makes me giddy when he does this. I close my eyes and lean back.

He murmurs into my ear, "Yes, I dreamed about these white birds. The lilies reminded me of their feathers."

"That's funny. Jack dreamed about swans. He was telling me about it at work."

"Oh?" he says, but he's not interested in Jack. He starts nuzzling my neck again and I decide I'm not, either. We fall into the bedroom and ruin ourselves for work the next day.


The Medicare form has no code, so I read through it to figure out what it should be charged to. "High fever. Dehydration. Recurring dreams of swans," the doctor has noted in the description area. I go back through the infectious diseases that I've already processed but haven't filed. I hate filing, so there's about two weeks' worth of forms. There's a scant handful from the week before last. I key those patients into the computer. All but two are dead. I think, The incubation period is a week, and then I think, They're elderly. They didn't die from a dream. Get real.

"Jack," I say, "do you have any infectious diseases?"

"Piles of them," he answers absently, and then we both realize what he's said and laugh. "I'll cover my mouth when I cough," he promises with an exaggerated serious face.

"Can I see them?"

"Be my guest," he says.

He gives me a stack about an inch thick. I start flipping through them. Most of them are blank except for the code, the patient, the provider, and the amount owed. Most doctors spend as little time as possible filling out these forms, and who can blame them. But three other forms note something about dreams, and one of them mentions "white figures." Just a weird coincidence, I think. It's like when you learn a new word and suddenly everybody is saying it. I just have swans on the brain. I shake my head and give the forms back to Jack.


It's Tuesday night, which means supper at Mom's. For once, Richard doesn't find an excuse not to come. He's been so sweet lately, I almost want to give him the night off as a reward, but then I think about dealing with my mother alone.

"Angels will come for you," the TV is saying when we enter the house. "And everybody will go to heaven. The Lord has promised us life everlasting! Hallelujah!" My mother listens to this shit all the time, and sends the guy fifty dollars a month to do what he claims is the Lord's work. I suspect he spends it on boys or in Vegas, but I don't say anything to her about that. Richard switches the station, skipping past Jim McQuinn being smarmy on the local news and the President being only slightly less smarmy in a news conference about something to do with the World Health Organization, to a nature show about rabbits. A snake fixes a rabbit with its gaze, and the rabbit freezes. The soundtrack is a wild cacophony of horns. "The snake mesmerizes its prey," the narrator says in a plummy voice, and Richard flips the channel. The President again, from a slightly different angle, and then a Seinfeld rerun. Mom guffaws her approval.

Over dinner, I try to tell her about an interview I read with Bishop Wright, who said there was no Biblical support for the idea of heaven. He thinks that after we die, we're in a sort of dream state where we're aware of being in God's presence and not much else, and then we get resurrected and come back to a new Earth, to our physical bodies, and do God's work here. I like that idea. Mom wants to float on a cloud and play a harp. Richard mentions a baseball game he saw at Angel Stadium the year before, and I laugh, and Mom doesn't.

She thinks the Bishop of Durham is full of crap. "That's Anglicans for you," she says. "Always overthinking everything."

Richard is Episcopalian, but he just smiles. "This ham is delicious," he says, and she passes him the plate.

"Have as much as you want, dear," she says. She never calls him dear, and he and I exchange a look.

"You're happy tonight," I say later, as we're washing the dishes.

"I'm blessed," she says, "with a wonderful daughter and son-in-law. You know, even though you two haven't gotten married yet—"

"Or ever, mother. We don't believe in—"

"Yes, yes, dear. Well, Richard is as good as a son to me, is all I was going to say."

I stare at her. Last week, when I told her he couldn't come to dinner—he had an exam the next day and had to study—she had said she bet he wasn't even in school at all, but was just faking it so he could live off me. "Why the change of heart?"

"You know I've always liked Richard, dear."

"Okay," I say, puzzled, but not willing to get into an argument about it. "So how was your week?"

"Lovely, dear. Well, something happened, but you must promise not to laugh at me."

"I won't laugh at you, mother."

"I was visited—" and here she lowers her voice, conspiratorially, "by angels." She is leaning towards me, and I notice that her earlobes have escaped her aggressive lifelong campaign of moisturization, and are covered with a delicate spiderweb of dead skin. I look at the paleness of her skin and her watery eyes. She has liver spots on her neck and the backs of the hands rubbing a flowered teacup dry with a red-checked cloth. I never get used to it. My mother is seventy-three; in my mind, she's perpetually middle-aged and safe from decay. After Dad went, you'd think I'd have learned, but somehow I still think she's immortal.

"By angels?"

"In my dreams, but still. It's obviously a sign."

"A sign of what?"

"Well, I haven't decided," she says, and I manage not to laugh. "I think I might be meant to go to the Promised Land. You know Mrs. Feinstein has always wanted to go—"

"I thought you hated Mrs. Feinstein." Mrs. Feinstein lives next door, and they complain about each other to the landlady roughly monthly, mother because Mrs. Feinstein is making her apartment smell like "that weird food they eat," and Mrs. Feinstein because my mother keeps her television on too loud. I have always thought they were just alike.

"You know I've never hated anybody in my life. Mrs. Feinstein is a perfectly lovely woman. And since I'm on a plane in the dream—"

"Where you saw the angels?" I press my lips together a little to keep from snickering.

"They were on the wing," she says, and I turn cold. She must see something in my face, because she says, "I knew you would take it like that, Samantha Jean. Never you never mind. I'm not telling you a word more. I'll send you a postcard from Jerusalem and that's the end of it."


Jack's out sick the next day, so I have to sort his claims as well as my own, and I'm so busy I don't hear about the epidemic until I get home. "Hospitals are overwhelmed," the local news says. "The Red Cross is asking for donations."

One anchor says to the other, smiling, "It's like everybody got sick at once, Stacey!" and Stacey gives her a look before the screen shifts to pictures of the waiting room at Sacred Heart. People are filling every chair and leaning against the wall and sitting on the tables. They're obviously sick—their skin is pale, their eyes bloodshot, and they droop as though they're at the end of their energy—but they're all smiling for the camera. Nurses, who are not smiling, are going from person to person, murmuring questions and setting up IVs.

"What are you injecting these patients with?" the reporter asks a nurse, and the nurse says, "Interferon. Excuse me," pushing past him to reach another patient.

I call my mother, but she's not answering the phone. I call Mrs. Feinstein and she says she'll check on her and drops the phone with a thunk. I sit to wait. In the bedroom, Richard starts coughing.

"I'm not afraid to die," somebody says, and I turn to look at the television. It's Karen, Jack's girlfriend. Her black skin has patchy white stuff everywhere, as though it's peeling from a sunburn. Her eyes look yellow. "I dreamed that angels took me to heaven on a jetplane," she tells the reporter. He nods, his professional smile a little fixed. Karen is practically glowing, she looks so happy. "I'm going home," she says. The reporter says, "Back to you, Stacey," and Karen is replaced by a bouffant brunette. I wonder what happened to Jim McQuinn.

Richard coughs again, harder this time, and I get him a glass of water, the phone cradled against my shoulder. He scratches his face, and flakes of dead skin come away on his hands. "I think I should go to the hospital," he says.

"Drink this," I say, and he does. "I'm just waiting for Mrs. Feinstein to come back."

He lies back down on the bed. When he closes his eyes, his veins stand out in stark relief against his lily-pale skin. I think about the Medicare form that talked about white figures, and I wonder if they were dreaming of Richard. He starts coughing again, and I hang up on Mrs. Feinstein. "I'll check on Mom later," I tell him. "I think we should get you to the hospital right away."

The ER is twice as packed as it had looked on TV. A few grim-looking men in green scrubs wheel sheet-covered figures onto an elevator. The triage nurse takes one look at Richard and says, "He's got what everybody's got." She turns away to talk to another nurse behind her, who puts Richard in a wheelchair and takes him away. "She'll give him an IV. Our beds are full, I don't know where we're going to put him." She pinches the bridge of her nose. "Fill these out, and then go to 208. They'll give you something to boost your immunity. Any drug allergies?"

"No," I say, and she nods and writes something on one of the forms she hands me. It has my name on it. All of the other forms have Richard's name on them.

"What is he sick with?"

She looks at me straight-on and says, "We don't know."

"Did they all dream of swans?" I ask, but she's waving me away for the next person. The television in the ER says fatality has reached 23%, and a nurse turns it off. I fill out the forms. I don't know Richard's insurance information, and leave that blank.

In room 208, they don't look at the form she gave me. They don't even look at me. They find a vein and stick a needle in it, and then move to the next person. I walk around the hospital looking for Richard, and listen to people coughing. The sick people are almost all smiling. I see a payphone, and call my mother again. There's no answer, at her apartment or at Mrs. Feinstein's.

Richard is on a gurney pushed up against a wall, with an IV in his arm and his jacket bunched up under his head. Somebody in blue scrubs is injecting something into his IV. He smiles at me, and coughs into a Kleenex, which is spotted with blood. "You're going to be fine," I say, even though I know he's dying.

"I need a pillow," he says. "They were all out."

"I'll get you one," I say, but there are guards at all the entrances, now, and they won't let me leave, saying I've been exposed. "Everybody's been exposed," I tell them, and they don't say anything. Nobody has an extra pillow. I go back to Richard, who is asleep. It's after midnight, according to a clock on the wall. I hold Richard's burning hand for awhile. He coughs in his sleep, and I wipe his mouth. Some of his blood gets on my hand, but I've already been exposed. It doesn't matter.

I need some sleep or I'll be no good to him tomorrow. I lie down under his cot at around three a.m. and suddenly I'm on an airplane, flying over an ocean which I somehow know to be the Atlantic. Little white wrinkles form on its surface and then fade away. A whole flock of white birds surrounds the plane, keeping pace with us. They look like swans, but they aren't swans. Mom would say they were angels, but I think not. One of them lands on the wing of the plane and walks over to my window to look in at me, turning its head so it stares at me with first one eye, and then the other. By the time it reaches my window, it looks like a man with wings instead of a bird. Its long hair whips sideways in the wind, curling and tangled like the tips of calla lilies.

"Why are you doing this?" I shout at it, and the other passengers all turn to stare at me. "Who are you?"

The white figure smiles at me. Its eyes are white, flecked with gold, with the narrowest possible rim of green. Then it blinks, and an inner eyelid slithers closed horizontally under its human-shaped outer eyelids. It takes less than a second, a briefer time than it takes to describe it, but it's important. Angels, I'm pretty sure, don't have eyes like that. I try to think what does have eyes like that. The figure's mouth has a funny shape, as though under its closed lips hide thick, long fangs.

"You have to stop this!" I tell it. "You're killing us!"

The creature smiles and smiles and turns its head from side to side. I know it can see right into my soul, and I remember Jack saying it really knew him. Jack, who is probably dead by now. I remember his arms in the sunlight, my mother's earlobes, a blue ribbon unwinding from green stems. I remember Sunday school drawings of blondes with wings and haloes, the television preacher screaming about redemption, my father's blue skin while he was dying of lung cancer. I remember snakes mesmerizing rabbits.

I want to stroke its feathers. I can almost feel their rasp and slide against my fingertips. I put my hand on the glass, and the creature mirrors me, its wing tips feathering against the glass. Despite myself, I feel my mouth smiling back. The creature, whatever it is, understands me the way I've always wanted to be understood, and never was. My palm burns with the heat of its touch.

"Miss, you'll have to quiet down." It's the stewardess, in a white uniform. I blink and realize she's a nurse and I'm awake.

"I'm sorry," I tell her. My lips curve apologetically, but she doesn't return my smile. "I was having a dream."

"On an airplane," she says flatly. "We've heard all about it. It's a symptom."

Richard is awake, and coughing again. "See if you can get him to drink this," the nurse says, and she hands me a glass of what looks like orange juice. Richard makes a face, but he drinks it. "Salty," he says, and then he goes back to sleep. He doesn't wake up. He's smiling in his sleep, and then he sort of sighs, and then he's not breathing anymore. I hold his hand until they take him away. I should be sad, I know, but I can't help thinking he's in their presence now forever, and that's nothing to be sad about. I can't stop smiling.

They still won't let me leave the hospital. Mom and Mrs. Feinstein still aren't answering their phones. I realize that they've probably joined the angels, too.

I hear one of the nurses mutter to another one, "What are they all so damn happy about?" I know I should be helping them. They're overwhelmed, and half of them are patients by now. Instead I float around the hospital, warm and smiling and waiting, just waiting, to be tired enough to dream.


Joanne Merriam photo

Joanne Merriam briefly sorted Medicare claim forms for a living. Her writing has recently appeared in Asimov's, On Spec and The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, and previously in Strange Horizons. You can find her at www.joannemerriam.com.