Second Place Winner of the 2023 Writes of Summer Short Story Challenge
than I thought so I dig into my dry bag and pull out a pair of earmuffs. I could go back into the cabin and get warmer clothes, but I choose instead the serenity of the lake over the sulk of an angry teen.
I push away from the dock, my travel mug secure in the cup holder. An amorphous mist hovers over the water, marking the temperature difference between the still summer-warm lake and the nip of fall air. Paddling through the grey fog, I picture Viviane, Lady of the Lake, rising through the mist to give Arthur his Excalibur. Sounds are muted: wavelets breaking against the hull, the splash of unseen fish leaping at insects hovering at the surface.
Last night I woke to the plaintive honks of Canada Geese migrating high overhead. I wanted to share the experience, but suspected my teenager would not find the faintest rush of wings or the flickering of stars as geese blocked their light as magical as I did. She already resents spending part of the summer without her friends and reminds me frequently that she hates this place.
Every morning I’ve traversed the lake in my kayak to check the birds. The Grebes, Loons, Golden Eye, and Mallard have all successfully hatched chicks. Those tiny balls of fluff are now independent, soon to be flying to Mexico, Texas, even to South America.
What I look for most anxiously, though, are the Trumpeter Swans. The breeding pair has made this small lake their home for at least ten summers. They viciously guard their territory, but this year have allowed two other swans to share the lake. I hypothesize these two are grown chicks from years past and will be tolerated until they reach breeding age. I smile when I think of adult children returning home to live in parents’ basements, just as these swans have returned to crash at the parental lake.
I scan the shallows where the enormous snowy birds tend to feed. On clear mornings, they appear like mounds of freshly fallen snow against the rich greens of the forest. This morning, they will be hidden behind the mist until they periscope their heads above the grey.
On the far side of the lake, I rest my paddle on the cockpit, searching the paths woven through the mats of cattails for the wakes of beaver and the Western Painted Turtle. I listen for the dry rustle of dragon fly wings and snapping twigs of predators. This is the fox’s favored ambush spot. Many geese have fallen prey along this stretch and last year, a pile of swan feathers told the story of a well-fed fox family. Though the swans guard their cygnets fiercely, between the fluctuating waters of spring storms, the wily fox and black bear, and opportunist osprey and bald eagles, there are many years when no cygnets survive.
I scour the banks and shoreline for the parents and their four progeny. I’ve watched these chicks grow from adorable downy babies in late May, to ungainly cygnets in July, and to adolescents capable of leaving the nest for the long flight to winter havens and adulthood. The parallels to my wilful stepdaughter are undeniable.
The sun warms the air and the mist fades away. The lake reflects pyramid-shaped evergreens, gold and russet aspens. On the return stroke of my paddle, silvery droplets of water trace an arc on the dark surface.
From my vantage point, I look up and down the lake to all the places where the swans spend their days. I don’t see them, and wonder if they’ve slept in, as the teenager back in the cabin prefers to do.
I’m close now to the nesting site. Although the circular pile of sticks and twigs is no longer used, the birds rest in these rushes after their morning forage. I paddle stealthily, knowing that if I glide without a sound, they will return my voyeurism, instead of lumbering to flight.
All six were here yesterday, preening in the sunlight. I let my kayak float too close to them, and the cob and pen hissed, still protective of their young who are almost the size of an adult. The cygnets now have their flight feathers, the color of an overcast sky. It will take a few years before they moult out to the breathtaking white of a mature adult.
I let the kayak coast to a stop. The boat drifts subtly with the current while I reach for the mug in front of me. This morning, the swans are gone and I will be drinking my coffee alone here in the sheltered reeds. Beside me, caught in the backwash of my wake, a single white feather swirls in the water. Is this all that’s left of their season on the lake? Sometime during the night, perhaps when the great migration of geese passed under the stars, did this family stretch their wings and follow, up over the Rockies and south toward the desert warmth?
I’m sorry I didn’t see them go, but I breathe a sigh of relief. Beauvais Lake has cradled the swan family, and mine, over the summer. We will wait now until next April to see who returns.