Alphabet of Swans
This week we are delighted to be present as E. Lily Yu’s startling, gorgeous “Alphabet of Swans” makes its revelations. ~ Julian and Fran, August 27, 2023
Alphabet of Swans
By E. Lily Yu
“No major issues, I’m happy to say. A little myopia in the left, some astigmatism in the right.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Very glad. I just thought there would be.”
“Why is that?”
“Because of how I’m seeing.”
“Not double. And I don’t mean the astigmatism. Funny how at night everything bright looks like stars, and we say, here, this will fix it. Maybe everything should look like stars at night.”
“Are vision issues ever contagious?”
“Not most of them. Conjunctivitis, blepharitis—viruses and bacteria that infect the eyes—why?”
“Oh, I used to work with this girl. Christine. The coffee shop was called Never Latte Me Go. First owner was a big fan of Ishiguro, and no one bothered to change it after Annalise took over. Anyway.
“Christine wasn’t the quickest at pulling shots—there’d be a line out to the parking lot if we left her on the espresso machine during a rush—so she handled the register, the drip coffee, tea, bathrooms, dishwashing. No one minded because she was usually willing to open. You’d never notice her if you saw her on the street. Messy, mousy hair. Small eyes. Crooked nose. Sensible shoes, good at math—we always let her split the tips. But the things she’d say on smoke breaks! Made me choke on my cigarette.”
“Like, she’d be leaning back against the milk crates, hair coming loose from her bun, every direction, and she’d look at me with serious eyes and say, ‘Hannah, do you think the world is conscious and stretching out its hands to us? Longing to speak, and be understood?’
“When I had coughed my cigarette up, I said, ‘The world doesn’t have hands.’
“She said, ‘It has millions and billions of hands.’ She waved hers. ‘These. Yours. What I mean is, do you ever have the sense that we’re so distracted that we’re missing something enormously important?’
“I said, ‘You have got to give me the number of your dealer.’
“She said, ‘I don’t have a dealer.’
“I said, ‘I don’t buy it.’
“Well, I was wrong. Turns out she doesn’t do drugs. No weed, nothing. Only smokes because it reminds her of her grandmother.”
“First time I’ve heard that one.”
“I said, ‘So where did all of that come from?’
“And she said, if you can believe it, that when she walks home from the bus stop, she passes white swans on the lake, and they’re what got her wondering. Trumpeter swans, she thinks, because they have a line of orange along their lower beak. Even if her feet are sore, even if she spilled coffee on her shirt or scalded herself, even if it’s raining, she stands there and watches them until it’s too dark to see. ‘There were twenty-six of them yesterday,’ she said. ‘There were only twenty-four last week. Two of them are gray, because they’re young. Their necks wind this way and that. One is standing. Three are floating. They make such bright shapes against the water. . . .’
“ ‘This does not explain,’ I said, ‘why you think the world has hands.’
“ ‘Sometimes when I’m staring at them,’ she said, ‘I’m sure they make an alphabet, in some language I don’t know. I think if I could understand it, if I could read the words they spell, I would know a secret. I would know something important about the world.’
“ ‘You’re weird, Christine,’ I said. At this point Annalise came out back. Annalise doesn’t smoke, so she doesn’t take breaks. She wasn’t happy. We’d left her alone up front.
“ ‘Break’s up,’ she said.
“ ‘Hey Annalise,” I said. “Christine’s mental.’
“ ‘I don’t care if she’s Leonardo da Vinci,’ Annalise said. ‘The 3 p.m. crowd is howling for their lattes, so get off your asses and help me.’ ”
“Well . . .”
“I know, I know, everything Christine said sounds like stoner shit. Sorry for my language. It would be less mysterious if that was the explanation.
“But next week Christine comes into work, and it’s fine, we deal with the morning rush together. It was a good day for tips. This older guy, lawyer type, briefcase, wingtips, you know, ordered for himself and his wife and dropped a twenty in the jar, and I was on top of the world. So, when the rush died down around eleven-thirty, after I cleaned the shower screens, I asked Christine how she was doing. She’d been on a date the previous night, some nobody she didn’t care for and won’t see again, but he took her to the zoo, and a keeper showed them a California king snake wrapped around her arm.
“Christine said, ‘It had just shed its skin, so its belly was iridescent and looked soft as a soap bubble. Its black forked tongue flicked in and out. But what I noticed was the patches and splotches on its back, a whole sequence of them, none of them alike. I thought, there’s something here. They mean something. I can’t read them, but someone could, once. Maybe we’ve forgotten the language. Maybe we can remember it.’
“ ‘What did your date say?’ I asked her.
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