An excerpt from

Odette

Jessica Duchen

 Beyond the road and the river, something was flying in the wind – a curious triangle, pale as paper, expanding by the moment. A bird. A large bird, in trouble. Its wings, which must have been six foot from tip to tip, were offering no resistance; its black webbed feet were pressed back against its belly; its long neck was stretched, straining forward. Mitzi recognized the yellow and black beak of a Bewick’s swan, not the musty pink of the Mute swans that lived on the Cygn. It flailed, flapping – then, as she watched in disbelief, it turned its back on the wind, set its wings, pointed its beak and dived, in control and with phenomenal acceleration, straight towards her house.

Mitzi leapt up, shielding her face with her arms, as the swan struck. The window imploded, the wind roared in with a geyser of glass and rain, and the swan thudded onto the table, blood trailing crimson in the rainwater across its splayed wings. Its head lolled to one side. Unconscious? Dead?

Shaking, her legs like slush, Mitzi forced herself forward, step by step across the broken glass towards the creature. With one finger she reached out to touch the down on its neck, soft as fur. Crimson-stained whiteness filled her mind. Spots swam in front of her eyes and nausea gripped her – shock, she told herself, casting back for the sofa and slumping, head on her knees. Think, concentrate, remember: kitchen cupboard, scissors, broken window. Patch it up, fast. Fighting to control her breath, she pulled herself up. She had to hunt for packing tape and black bin-liners, opening them up along the folds. Rain lashed her while she forced the improvised sheets against the gaping mouth of the window frame and the invading elements it was spewing into her room. In her panic, she fancied the storm was pursuing the unfortunate swan. And, oh God, the landlord…what on earth could she say to Robert Winter or his agent about the front window?

The window, though, was not alive. The swan needed her attention faster. “A swan can break a man’s arm,” her father used to say when they watched them together. An injured bird might become frantic even if you were trying to help it. Other people said birds were flea-ridden. Mitzi risked the fleas and stroked the unconscious swan’s head. Was its eye following her? Watching, perhaps accepting her help? It had to be alive. She couldn’t bear it if it were dead.

If she’d found a wounded cat or dog in the street she’d have known what to do – but a swan?

There was a vet’s surgery further up Richardson Road, only a few minutes away. She looked up the number on the Internet. The receptionist sounded as confused as Mitzi felt. “A swan?” she echoed. “I’m sorry, I’m new here, I only started two days ago, and it’s lunch break now… but I suppose you’d better bring it in. Afternoon surgery starts at four.”

“Don’t you think Henry could fit us in earlier? I’d say this was an emergency.” Mitzi tried to keep her cool.

“Well… I can ask him. It doesn’t sound exactly – well – usual.”

“It’s not,” said Mitzi. “Thanks.”

That’s right, just bring it in. A wild swan with a six-foot wing span. Assuming it was alive, if it would let her touch it then it might let her pick it up; it would probably be too weak to resist. Mitzi pulled on her raincoat and gloves and prepared to lift the splayed out bird off the table.

She hadn’t expected its weight, or the flop of its wings to each side, dwarfing her. She managed to manoeuvre it out of her door and step by step down the stairs. The swan’s neck and head drooped over her shoulder, the wings spread across her body; it felt animal, living and warm, its heart beating in a way that seemed almost human. But in the hall she admitted defeat and put it down.

It lay, helpless, in front of her. She pushed gently at one wing, then the other, encouraging them to fold. Now she could tuck the creature under one arm, supporting its lolling head with her other hand.

Out in Richardson Road, bicycles and cars flung giant puddles over the curb; Mitzi caught vignettes of astounded faces as people spotted her swan.

“Couldn’t find a bigger pet?” a man muttered, walking past her too close. She pressed on, head bowed against the wind. She must look odd. A leggy blonde in a purple coat, hair and face drenched, carrying a swan. A trickle of blood was seeping from one of its cuts onto Mitzi’s sleeve, towards her hand; she felt a horror, as if the bird would be committing itself to her, becoming part of her, if its blood touched her skin. She averted her eyes; she didn’t want to feel faint again.

By the time she reached the surgery, the swan felt as heavy as a box of encyclopaedias. But thank goodness, Mitzi said to it, pushing the door open with one foot, thank heavens you’re not dead.

The receptionist gasped. “Oh, wow! Oh my God!”

“It’s a big bird.” Mitzi made for the nearest waiting-room chair.

“Oh my God, you’re soaked through… Wait, I’ll find something to put it down in – gosh, it is poorly, isn’t it?” The girl disappeared into the offices while Mitzi waited in the warmth, thankful, stroking the swan, a rush of love for the unfortunate bird taking hold of her. She glanced at her wrist where a smudge of blood was beginning to dry.

“Here you go.” The receptionist placed a broad cardboard box at Mitzi’s feet and fussed about, arranging a paw-mark patterned blanket for the swan to sit on. “Henry will see you in a minute.”

Mitzi lowered the bird onto the fleecy softness. It was regaining consciousness at last, but showed no sign of panic; instead, it adjusted its wings, then kept still. She backed away, fearing it might lash out.

“A swan can break a man’s arm, you know,” the receptionist remarked.

“This one broke my front window.”

The receptionist’s mouth formed into a perfect O. The swan sat, impassive.

“Ah, the lady with the swan.” Henry emerged, striding over to shake her hand. Mitzi recognised him: a couple of years ago he’d had to put her cat down after its encounter with a car, and the memory still smarted. He had a kind face, though, and a touch that animals seemed to trust by instinct. She’d seen an injured pit bull terrier grow meek and compliant when he handled it.

“Let’s get her in here, shall we?” Henry lifted the swan in its box and led the way into the surgery.

“It’s a girl, is it?”

“Let’s say so for convenience.” He set the box on the surgery table. “The females tend to be slightly larger than the males, in which case this one would be no exception... All right, let’s have a look.” He took a gentle hold of each of the wings in turn, extending them while closing his other hand firmly around the beak. “Good, nothing’s broken. Remarkable, really. We’ll give the wounds a good clean, make sure there’s no splinters of glass in there. Did you notice anything else when it came in?”

“Concussion?”

“That’ll sort itself out.” Henry took some cotton wool and dabbed antiseptic onto it to swab the gashes in the swan’s neck and shoulders. At the first stinging touch the bird flinched; but perhaps Henry’s vet magic was working. Apparently understanding that it was being cared for, it settled back, cross yet accepting.

“Now, Mitzi, what are you going to do with this young lady?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. What do you suggest?”

“Tricky. Sometimes parks tag them for identification, but this is a wild girl. She must have been blown off course in the storm.”

“I certainly hope my front window wasn’t on her scheduled flight path.”

“Unusual, though.” Henry sized up the bird. “She’s a Bewick’s Swan and you don’t see many around here. They’re more common in eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia. So, what to do… she’s been concussed, but she’s quite conscious now and, if I may say so, remarkably compliant.”

“I do get the feeling she knows exactly what’s going on,” Mitzi remarked.

“Several possibilities. I’d offer to keep her here, but our residential facility’s full up right now – people do push off for Christmas and we get to look after the kitties and doggies, plus the odd parrot. We could call the RSPB, which might be able to look after her til she’s better. Or, if you can bear to, you could keep her at your place overnight; make sure she’s safe until she’s over the shock, then just pop her over the road to the river. I’ll run you home with her if you like, and we’ll give you some bird feed that should sort out her breakfast.” He filled a syringe and injected the swan. “This is a tranquillizer so hopefully she’ll sleep it off…”

As the drug kicked in, the swan tucked its head under its wing to go to sleep. Mitzi followed Henry out to his car; loading the box into the back, she glimpsed the scared eyes of the receptionist peering after them.