by Jonathan Frey
We first saw them that spring. Great, white birds moving across the sky. We did not know what they were, but we tried to follow. Across the mud and remnant snow, we trekked through the wheat fields to see where they would alight, to hear what news they brought.
We didn’t find them. It would be another year before we learned they were swans—tundra swans, straight-necked and unpretentious, migrating from the high desert to the tundra where they would nest. My wife and I were living on a thousand-acre wheat farm in the Palouse that year. It had been a hard year, a long winter. We moved to the Northwest for grad school and chose the farmhouse rental for sheer aesthetics. We knew few people in this place, our closest companions a pack of feral barn cats. It was a mile to the nearest neighbor and ten to the nearest town. We lived there, all winter, adrift on rolling hills of wheat whited by drifted snow. That January, a snowstorm took down the power lines leading to the farmhouse, and after several days without heat or running water—melting snow on the camp stove for drinking while the thermostat dropped toward freezing—we decamped for an Econolodge in downtown Spokane.
So, in March, when the spring melt-off made a hundred ephemeral ponds in the fields, we were ready. We saw ducks in those ponds and geese, pintails and phalaropes, a parade of new life after the long and lonesome winter. And the swans. They made our breath catch, those strange messengers awash in dusklight. We saw them again that fall, and the next spring, and each spring and fall since.
On their migration, tundra swans overnight in the vernal ponds, lakes, and riverflats of Eastern Washington. They do not stay, but are reliable in their passage, and in that reliability, there is a sort of liturgy.
Three years on, we were at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge on one of the last days of September. Our lives had changed and were changing. We had moved from the farm to the city. I had finished grad school and taken a teaching job. My wife was a day shy of forty weeks pregnant. We walked the paved path around the pond there, dusk drawing slowly across the day, the late summer blaze of blue draining out of the sky. The reeds were full- green, ripe and bending. A few of the early aspens washed gold.
We sat on a bench there and looked out across the water. We were still, happy. The sun fell toward the horizon, and we sat in the coming cool, the air off the water sweet and bright. Redwings trilled. A coyote yipped in the hills. Then we heard them, the whistle of their wings and their guttural voices. They came, a line of them, white blazing with the last of the sunlight. They circled above us, a great arc, considered the glassy flat of the pond, circled again and then landed right in front of us, a great and graceless cacophony.
We watched. We remembered that long winter on the farm, the solitude of hill after hill rolling white toward some faint horizon, beautiful and bare. And then—at that very moment, inside my wife’s body: a change, a contraction, the first sounding of this small life that would now enter ours, complicate, exalt, and render.
Jonathan Frey teaches writing at North Idaho College, and is currently at work on a novel. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and daughters.