Two Swans

Content Warning: portrayals of domestic violence may be triggering for some readers.

My cheek presses into the cold hexagonal tile. With a few heavy blinks my vision clears and the suitcase comes into focus. It sits open by the locked door, winter clothes spilling out of it in a frantic way. I stroke my gold wedding band with my thumb, pressing my stiff muscles into a sitting position. I lean against the porcelain tub, the rim falling just short of my neck, and my head droops backwards, staring at the bubbling paint on the ceiling. The whole room begins to spin. I hurl forward and grasp the toilet seat, vomiting. Yellow bile and old blood dangling from my lips. I spit the remains into the water, staring at the ring of black mold that surrounds the waterline, the smell of stale urine filling my lungs. I use the toilet to hoist myself up, steadying myself, gazing at the painting that hangs above—two swans, their necks entwined in a lush spring pond. I flick the toilet seat down and flush, shuffling over to the sink. Last night stares back at me. My underarms dampen, I lean over the sink, getting closer to the fragmented mirror to examine my lip and swollen nose. I see the suitcase again behind me. My skin flushes red and spreads down my neck, like a rash but something older. I close my eyes and exhale, hanging my head over the sink, my temples throbbing. Opening my eyes, I see the scissors next to my concealer on the sink’s ledge. I pick them up and turn years of history over in my hands, opening them, running the blade along my thumb. I watch myself in the mirror and run it over the faded scar on my neck. I run it across my tongue and taste the cool carbon steel—the same dull metallic taste of the barrel of that hand gun.

It was the summer before I went to college. I held it in my mouth, my hands trembling, drenched in sweat. The cool barrel on the inside of my cheeks, drool seeping from my lips and running down my chin. I stared at my room from behind the slit wood doors of my closet, my clothes brushing the top of my head and falling around my shoulders. I kept adjusting my position, my arms growing tired. Aim it just right. My tentative fingers stroked the trigger. I could smell the sweat drenching my upper lip, snot seeped downward and joined the drool that rolled down my arms. My mouth grew sore. I fought the gagging. From between the wood slits, my messy bed looked normal. My shins pressed into the old carpet. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. I readjusted the gun—abrupt long bows of cello notes. They cried in my ear. My heart switched from a rapid flutter to an all-knowing deep thump that vibrated my throat. The sorrowful song of the Swan by Saint-Saens greeted me in the closet from the radio. My mouth, still strained around the gun, began to quiver. I closed my eyes, an image of my father pushing me on a swing in our old backyard. The gun scraped against my teeth. I bent over in pain and hugged myself, shuddering, shaking, finally releasing the trigger from my grip. I was surprised at myself to have thought of him in that moment.

He spat his whiskey rotten breath and threw me into the bathroom. I could still feel his friend’s hands beneath my nightgown. He flung open the medicine cabinet, and orange bottles of pills fell into the sink. I cowered in the corner and watched him clobber around the cabinet, emerging with steel scissors. My heart dropped into my gut, my tongue withered in my dry mouth. I couldn’t swallow, I stammered. My father’s large farmer’s frame began to barrel toward me. I glared at my mother, who stood behind him in the doorway. Her image disappeared when his grip yanked my arm and he placed his rough palm to the top of my head, forcing my knees to the bathroom floor. I pleaded. With him, with anyone listening. I could smell the liquor seep from his pores. He steadied my head with his one hand and pulled a strand of my hair with the other. My blonde locks fell to the dirty grouted floor. I cried for my mother, a deep moan ripping from my gut. I listened to the scissors slice away. My father’s grip grew fiercer. I jerked away from him and yelped. The room went still and silent. The scissors had nicked my throat. I felt along my neck with my fingers, then looked down at my blood-stained hands, then looked up at my father. The scissors fell from his hands onto the floor. He looked down at his hands, the blonde hair falling through his fingers. His hands began to wobble. He clasped them together and stumbled backwards out of the bathroom, drowning himself in his room for two days. My mother’s shadow trembled from the hallway, then disappeared like a ghost. I wanted her to hug me. I placed one foot in front of the other toward the sink, the strands of hair sticking to the sweat of my bare feet. I stood on the balls of my feet to stare at my new reflection. A reflection much different than the one staring back at me now.

I feel my grip return around the scissors like a hold on a trigger. I turn my swollen neck over my shoulder as far as it will go, straining to see the blurry outline of the suitcase. I release my neck forward and look at myself in the mirror and see the bag under my left eye budding into a deep purple. I release the scissors from my grip, and they clang into the sink. The blood flow returns to my white fingers. I grasp the bottom of my shirt and pull it up and over my head, my muscles aching. I walk to the shower and turn the water to hot, scolding, sterilizing. I step out of my underwear and toss it into the suitcase. I let the steam fog up the glass. I step into the shower and let the water drench my back and my hair. I roll my neck to massage the muscles with the beating water. I turn and wet my face, the dried blood moistens and turns into a burgundy watercolor. It washes off my face and blends into the shallow pond of a slow draining tub that wades around my ankles. My tender neck rests my head on the tile of the shower wall. I study the bubbling paint, the water damage that hides behind the walls, seeping through. I close my eyes and tap my bony fingers against the wall, padding the keys of an antique piano. The door rattles. “Eva?” His voice is muffled but clear in my mind. My adrenaline spikes. “Open the door.” I step out of the water’s stream and make myself flat against the tiled wall. He bangs on the door. I sink to my knees. His body thrusts into the door until it bursts open. A heavy silence flattens the air. I know he’s staring at the suitcase. The shower curtain whips open.

“Daniel.” He grabs my arm and hauls me out of the tub, his shirt soaked from the shower and my body. I trip and fall onto the floor, my shins ache.

“A suitcase?” he spits, kicking it with his boot. “Get up.”

I stand. There is a brief moment when he starts throwing the clothes out and I seize it. I run. Sprint. Into the living room. Heartbeat bobbing in my throat. My body dripping wet, leaving a trail of mushy footprints on the brown carpet. I can feel his body barreling toward me. He grasps my wet hair and yanks it toward him. He spins me toward him and wraps his hand around my throat, pinning me against the painting, swans caught between my back and the wall. Water drips from my face onto his hand. His green eyes break into me. I know they are broken too, I fell in love with them.

He showed me the letter his mother left him before he was too young to read the first time we made love. He smoked a joint while I read, the room searing with the smell of pot. Love, Mommy. I placed the letter down and sat beside him, stroking his hair. He nestled his head into my neck, and I pressed my lips into his brown hair. He looked up at me. I admired his green eyes; they were longing, lost, bottomless. I wanted to fill them. He tucked the hair behind my ear and pulled my chin toward his lips.

We both feel his wedding ring press into my throat. Tears tremble behind his eyes, and his grip loosens. I fall to the ground, gasping, sucking down air. The painted canvas falls on top of me. I hunch over, the strands of my wet hair create a curtain between us. He crouches down, leaning in closer, his hot breath on the tip of my ear, waiting to say something, but no words come. I listen for the door to slam shut and the car to start before I curl into a ball and lay on the soggy carpet, the yarn itching against my skin. I close my eyes and run my fingers over the vast ridges of the oil painting, as if I were blind and the paint were braille.

I wake early the next morning to the dog barking. I turn over and see the side of Daniel’s bed still made. The dog’s bark curls into long slow howls. I get up and stand on the bed to look out the window. The dog barks at the pond, the top of our green car barely visible, the rest submerged in water. I crouch back down on the bed, my stomach rolling, my heartbeat quickening, my throat swollen. The stench of restless sweat musks his pillow. My thumb shakily presses 9, then 1, then 1. A new silence hugs the house, undisturbed. I tie my robe around my waist and put my sunglasses on, just covering the rims of my eyes, my feet tucked into slippers. I listen to my ring slide down the banister as I go down the stairs. I gaze at the empty square on the wall where the painting hung, then I turn out toward the yard. The screen door shuts behind me. The dog runs toward me, vapor rolling off the pond behind him. He nuzzles the top of his head into my palm. The tire tracks, entrenched in grassy mud, lead into the water. My retina fixates on the center of the pond, the water lapping around the shallow green island, thick bushes of cattails swaying with the wind. Deep in the trees the dawn chorus of chirping birds joins the deep coo of an owl, their calls rippling across the hazy quiet pond. I tug my robe closer to my chest and step off the deck onto the grass, my breathing visible in the brisk air in fleeting gusts. The clouds cast a bleak blanket of grey over the blue hues of early morning. Soft rings blossom around the birds, drifting among the lily pads around the car, their necks tucked into their white wings, sleeping.

Julia Moncur is married to her high-school sweetheart and is a proud VIP Frenchie Mom to her 4-year-old French bulldog, Mambo. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and studies Creative Writing and Psychology at the University of Utah. At 21 years of age, she has dedicated her life to being an advocate for women and those affected by mental illness. Her career goal is to be both a writer and a psychiatrist. She draws inspiration from the stories of the survivors she works with, as well as stories from her own survival. She aims to shed light on dark topics and give a voice to the voiceless.