There was a family of swans that suddenly appeared at the moment of deconfinement. Everyone gathered around in the recently unbarricaded Parc de La Villette to gawk at them, snapping photos with their phones: a gallant father and three tiny cygnets, huddling around their mother.
In what felt like a period of apocalyptic uncertainty, these innocent fledglings were a symbol of hope and renewal: here they were, here we were, pale, fragile things sprouting from the darkness into the light.
They appeared in May, and then, during the short summer lull of the pandemic, we watched them grow: three cygnets, now three adolescent swans, still faithfully scurrying behind their mother. It’s unusual to witness a wild bird’s full lifespan - in a time of so few preoccupations, everyone who lived on the canal came to know them as a constant, familiar presence - our one connection to the natural world.
In Paris, either in July or August, there is a moment of intense heat known as the canicule. This year was no exception: the meteorologists warned us of winds carrying the 40-degree heat from the North African desert, reminding us to “stay hydrated and avoid physical activity.” To ward off the heat, Parisians closed their shutters. They passed their days in darkness - never mind the cabin fever that we had to endure the months before - the collective suffering associated with the canicule is already well programmed in our systems.
Every year the canicule seems a little hotter and a little longer. Every year, when the heat pushes people to what they believe are their human limits, the temperature suddenly plummets. Like an arm wrestler losing their white-knuckled grip, autumn pushes summer out the door.
As the days grew shorter, the young Mute swans still stuck together, now nearly the size of their parents - though lacking the same pronounced black markings around their eyes. Assuming some air of adulthood, they mimicked their parents’ movements: plucking plant stuff out of the water, preening themselves under their wings. The moment one of them would get too carried away with its adult mimicry, it would come to its senses and reunite with the herd in a childish panic.
“Sarah, how does a bird know how to make a nest?”
“How does a spider know how to weave a web?”
My human instinct led me to believe that these swans could not remain a herd for much longer - I’ve seen displays of their territorialism in the past. As the nights started to grow longer, as the autumn winds shook the leaves off the trees, I wondered what would break them.
Everyone in Paris was bracing for another confinement: we knew that the virus was still among us or at least lurking somewhere in the periphery, plotting for winter. I found myself taking walks along the canal to breathe fresh air or to feel alive at all. One day, I heard a kind of repetitive squawking coming from under the bridge nearest my apartment building.
Approaching the noise, I noticed a lone swan without pronounced markings around its eyes. One of the offspring had either lost its way by accident or by force. With the herd nowhere in sight, the adolescent swan swam around in circles, its repetitive squawking a sign of distress.
I stood there watching the swan, hoping that through sheer telepathy, it would swim closer to me. Narrowly dodging the path of commuters racing home on their bicycles, I knelt into a squat over the water’s edge. The swan eventually approached me, and upon momentary eye contact, there was no energy I could transmit to relieve the panic in its eyes.
An older woman approached me, also looking at the swan, “That’s one of the young ones....”
A woman across the canal yelled at us, “It lost its family; we need to help it find its family!”
I said, “At a certain point in time, they must separate from their parents.” The woman was unstartled my American accent.
“That’s just nature at work,” she replied.
“Have you seen its family? We need to help it find its family!” the woman repeated across the canal.
I shrugged my shoulders and walked away.
That night when I tucked myself into bed, alone, surrounded by the stoic gaze of my four studio walls, I stopped pondering my own fate and I thought about that swan, hoping it somehow found its way.
The following day, I stepped outside after another monotonous sedentary day - I buttoned my collar and braced myself against the autumn wind. Off ahead, I saw a small conglomerate of people, a dog tugging on a leash towards something floating in the water.
I approached the scene and saw a dead swan, its long neck perched elegantly on its back and its head tucked gracefully under its wing as if it went to sleep and never awoke. Just under the water’s surface, one of its perfectly formed webbed feet splayed outward, frozen in mid-stride.
“Such a shame,” I overheard someone say in the small impromptu requiem, “I saw it yesterday, panicking under the bridge.”
“Moi aussi,” I muttered under my breath to no one.
I wondered how the swan died, whether it was of exhaustion or the cold. Something about its pose evoked a kind of peaceful resignation. Yesterday it was a wild thing circling in a state of panic; today it drifted effortlessly, white, pristine - not even a year old.