A Lamentation of Swans
A lamentation of swans.
‘What is lamentation?’ they ask her, and then, ‘What are swans?’
‘Lamentation means crying,’ she tells them. ‘Swans—swans were white and had long necks and orange beaks. No, they didn’t cry, they didn’t sing much except supposedly right when they—please just copy down the letters. Remember with cursive to go back and cross the ts.’
A host of sparrows.
Their bowed heads and thin brown hair remind her of sparrows. Her two oldest children started learning their letters in the winter, though sometimes Juliana wonders what good it will do as she sits them down at the kitchen table to learn this forgotten art. After Matthew was born with a shock of hair all over his body, she begged Father Alexi to let them stop having babies. He railed at her for denying her miracle. The doctors told them the children were sterile and that their various mutations were just what you’d expect drinking well water in this part of North Dakota. Didn’t she know this could happen?
She hadn’t. Her brother had gone off to the protests against government corruption and what was happening to the environment; Juliana had gone to the college in Billings for a while to be a poet. And so she knew the words for things, but feared she didn’t always see what they actually were.
A kettle of hawks.
That’s a good one, those are words they know. Jonas clutches his pencil between the two claw-like fingers of his hand and tries to mimic what his brother is doing. He smiles up at her. He’s a good boy. They’ll keep each other company someday, and that gives her comfort.
An exaltation of larks.
Exaltation is a church word, a word for holiness and joy. Lark would be a nice name for a baby, if she has another. Jameson has been away three weeks, down in the Bakken repairing the waste reservoirs damaged by the last quake. Probably the children are his fault, though it would be even more dangerous to say so aloud than to blame God for all this.
A parliament of owls.
‘Parliament was an old kind of government. They didn’t have one here, no. But the old Congress was a little bit like parliament, I think.’ She tries not to make up too much history, but sometimes she guesses. It’s too much power for one person, the way she governs their lives, the way Jameson governs hers. They’re on the very edge of civilization, right up against the fence that marks off no man’s land.
A charm of goldfinches.
She gets up to find their old picture dictionary, to show the children the picture of a goldfinch. Hawks they know, and vultures, a few other carrion birds that have survived the century. Her children will likely die without ever hearing a songbird. Carolina is talking in the other room as she wakes up from her nap, and she always rouses Eleanor and Joey before too long.
Matty has his lines ready when she gets back, and Juliana pauses to stroke his hair and correct him where the double r in sparrow has become an m or the f in goldfinches looks too much like a b. Her son has a fair hand for eight-years-old, and she’d send him to school if they hadn’t closed it.
A watch of nightingales.
‘Nightingales, nightingales, nightingales,’ Jonas whispers.
They are the only children for a hundred miles, and Juliana the only outsider in a land where radiation seeps into every crevice, every uterus, every cell. In a way her children are more like the other women in town than they are like her: the tilted set of Carolina’s shoulders and hips is the very mimicry of Mrs. Crawford who works in the grocery. In her worst, darkest moments when she forgets to love them, she imagines delivering each of her babies to the mothers they should have had and leaving, just leaving this wasteland behind.
A scold of jays.
‘Jay!’ Matty sings out, and earns her smile. He would have had Jameson’s name except for how odd he looked when he was born.
Oh how she loved him, back when he was breezing through Billings on his motorcycle and making her heart race. She still does, for better or worse. The only thing that keeps her sane sometimes when they’re alone here is remembering the way just his gaze can turn her body soft and welcoming the moment before he steps in the door and kisses her. All she wanted once was to have his babies and be his wife. The reality is different, but didn’t it have to be?
A murder of magpies.
‘Practice your ms carefully there,’ Juliana encourages them. Eleanor wakes with a wail and Juliana goes into the nursery, untucking her shirt as she walks. Joey is silent in his crib; something is wrong with his vocal chords but no one can tell her what. Once she’s hoisted Carolina and Eleanor to the floor she lifts him up and carries him back with her, offering him a breast as she sits again at the kitchen table. He nurses as urgently as any of them, and so she has faith he’ll be alright.
A chattering of starlings.
‘Did you ever see a starling, Mama? Does it look like a star?’
Juliana shakes her head. ‘Nope, I never did.’ She could write a poem about all the things she never saw. She never saw the last baby, after they took it out of her. The nurse said it was better not to look, and she didn’t ask why. Now Joey drinks that baby’s milk even though he’s more than a year old. He still doesn’t have teeth.
An unkindness of ravens.
Unkindness is something she won’t explain. She refuses to cry in front of her children. But she’s the master of their little universe, the mother tongue that’s all they’ll know. Let it be a kindness of ravens. Let everything be a kindness.