Beast Fiction: Lea Carpenter’s ‘Swan’
In the latest installment in our series of original fiction, previous contributor Lea Carpenter delivers a story that’s part fairy tale, part dream, part nightmare.
It was a coping mechanism, the letters. In the evenings, after everything was settled and when she was alone, she would take her old papers, the ones too chic to bear a monogram. She would handwrite them, in blue pen. Dreamt up during the day, perhaps while taking her run, or perhaps while having her nails painted, they might expand from a simple text’s length to a thousand words. Or more. They weren’t editorial in tone though, more stream-of-consciousness, more feminine; at least she liked to think so. They bore the mark of her English First in Greats at Oxford, in one sense; of an adulthood circumscribed by power, in another. These weren’t the letters of a child, said another way, though she often adopted a child-like voice in her prose—lots of “like”s and exclamation points, couplets of pink hearts inserted for emphasis here and there. It was a way of undercutting the seriousness of her station, of trying on cool. Nor were these the letters of a queen, which at least would have been nearer the mark. Rather, she took up whatever tone struck her at the time. The dramatic monologue as survival mechanism. Cheaper than champagne, she believed, which was anyhow verboten.
It had started as a trick to pass days, to avert the elevations of her anxiety. The letters were explication du texte of her cause and her choices, sometimes touching on “the Situation,” as her husband called it, or on her purchases, Persian caviar to Legos. On the latter she had quite a collection; the children had meticulously miniaturized international icons from the Guggenheim to the Sistine Chapel in the Playroom. The Playroom was the size of a football pitch. Its walls were lined with Old Masters.
Sometimes the letters touched on history, how she saw her place in it. Sometimes they touched on the intimacy she felt towards ones who had taken her side through it all. Anyhow, writing them eventually became habit, one allowing her to absorb the affect of a narcissist, not having been born one. She was born an ordinary girl. Every step she’d taken in life had led seamlessly to the next, each one consistently praised by the chorus as “rational,” or “correct.” Only what happens when an ordinary girl finds herself in an extraordinary place? At what point had she learned How To Be along the way of all this. Chicken, egg.
She’d backed into letters, actually. She’d ceased email, which she’d once loved; too risky. Only letters, especially ones not yet (or never) sent, afforded levels—or perhaps promises—of privacy. Recently, she’d been forced to use an alias even to go online.
The evolution of her place in things was not under her control. Nothing was, was it? She could select sheets for the guest rooms from Spain. She could make a call here and there. But increasingly, she was a prisoner. A prisoner in a palace: just like in the fairy tales.
Dear X, one might begin, When did the word “revolution” acquire its aura of glamour? I suppose we might all want to be revolutionaries rushing to fronts in our youth, risking who we think we are for what we think we believe. Though shouldn’t the lure of all that dull when we grow up. Is thirty grown up. Is forty?
That one would fit into a genre perhaps called Pity.
Dear Y, I’ve had an extraordinary ring made. Listen to this: it’s a string of stones in this order: diamond, amethyst, ruby, lapis, iolite, nephrite, garnet. You see the code: D, A, R, L, I, N, G. And the designer’s so reasonable I might have several made. I’ve tried a dummy version and I think if sized correctly, it will work. Otherwise, what about a necklace. What about woven into a belt.
This one, Spoiled.
Pity and Spoiled weren’t words that circled around her once. She’d gone to University, after all. She’d spent time in the City, worn suits. She’d been raised for Sloane Square, and Davos, which is to say for Things and Ideas, the latter cutting the shallowness of the former. She was going to be like other double degree-d girls of her generation—proper while soaring; ferocity and compliance in equipoise. She’d even cut her hair in that ambitious era, trimming the time of her beauty routine. She would wash it then wear it wet to work. People—mainly female colleagues—received this as reckless, something she’d never felt or intended. And that hair had been an accidental game-changer: it highlighted her face, what her future mother-in-law would call her “cut-glass bones.” It would lead to a promotion and, later, profiles in fashion magazines. In fact, now it was always on and on about the hair, as well versed as she was in the other things. They never sent her the journalists who talk about the other things, and so she became a connoisseur of hair, which led to becoming a connoisseur of clothes and, eventually, jewels. Somewhere, she had a crown.
She’d met her husband at school. They shared so many things, especially a love for London, neither one of them native to it—runs on the Thames, sneaking late into pubs for pints, even the rain—though when it was time to leave, after the first assassination attempt, they didn’t mourn it. She believed in him, and would continue to believe in him long after it became more difficult to do so. People don’t understand the complexity of making the choices he has to make. She looked at a man who was fighting hard for what he believed in, so you tell me (she would say to friends) what makes one belief system better than another. That argument was for philosophers—or diplomats—well above her pay grade, she would say. That argument was one in which she was never invited to participate, she would think. When they left London, and everything that went with it, he’d said, “You will never have to answer a question.” She didn’t realize that might mean she’d never be allowed to open her mouth.
Yet she proved an asset, back to the hair. She was beloved, a kind of sui generis glamour having been artfully and, eventually, obsessively sprinkled on her like fairy dust by critical observers. She’d hired a PR firm and they’d played up this Jackie thing, Jackie for the Middle East, Jackie who would lead us into Eden. How absurd. She adores sports, they’d say. She loves children. She believes in clean water and assists famine victims. Headlines were always about her being “down to earth,” noting that without make-up she possessed a sort of anonymity. Like a blank canvas, perfect for projection. And the crux of so many projections was about choice: she could have been anything she wanted, they would say, and she chose this. So this must be something. When she saw that first press release, she remembered circling the word “chose.”
Once, she wrote a letter about her empathy for the people who hate her. She had seen some of their letters. She had tried to respond.
Would you believe me if I said I do feel what you feel. Would you believe me if I said I can’t read the news anymore, that I do think all of this has to end. This is not to say I’ve altered my view, only that let’s be logical: as in an affair so with a nation—two people can want two different things, and yet both still be good inside. I have nostalgia for stories where everything is clear, for fairy tales. That’s why they’re for children, isn’t it.
That one had been written at a time where the volume of her production had expanded, and with the expansion came a decrease in quality. She began producing letters like flower petals down a bridal aisle, which is to say, carelessly. She wanted to answer her critics. Everyone around her believed in and encouraged this initiative. When she ran out of cousins, she wrote to friends. When she ran out of friends, she wrote to people she didn’t know, people who had written to her, people who had taken an interest.
Once she finished a letter, she sealed it. Someone had given her these remarkable wax seals as a wedding present, which she used. They were sort of outrageously regal, but anyhow. They were navy—“This Midnight” was the name of the color, as she recalled it. After sealing the letters she’d hand them to one of her people. That person would walk down a long hall and over to a wide, white marble staircase. There, he would hand it off to one, or maybe two, more people who would walk down the stairs then along other halls before entering a black Mercedes, which would be waiting in the front gravel courtyard. The car’s driver would hand deliver the letter to the recipients, or to the post. If to the post the letter would be slipped into a special diplomatic pouch, she was assured. She’d never seen the post place. She was told about it, as she’d asked. She was told it was surrounded by palm trees, and that children played in the plaza behind it, soccer and hopscotch.
In that first year she started writing, she’d written four hundred letters. In the second, a thousand. They simply spilled out of her. And always after writing, she felt clear. She’d read that Thomas Jefferson kept copies of the letters he wrote, using that extraordinary machine she’d seen at Monticello. “It’s called a polygraph,” her husband had remarked, when they were there. That amused him. As did the contradictions inherent in Jefferson—the noble ideas; the slave mistress. He’d spent hours walking the terraced edges of those Virginian planted fields. And later, he bought up an entire library of Jeffersoniana, and moved it to their home. “I am like Jefferson,” he’d said, one night, as they ate off of china plates bought from the gift shop. “Misunderstood,” he’d qualified. She’d tried to deflect, and she’d brought up the polygraph. He told her he’d been polygraphed once: by his own government—in fact, by his own father. She asked carefully what that was like. “Boring?” he’d said, channeling arrogance.
“Did you pass it?” she’d asked.
And he’d laughed. “Passing is a euphemism for survival.”
He wouldn’t let go of Jefferson. He kept bringing him up, reasonably, or slant. One night he told her that Jefferson wrote to Adams that he “suffered under the persecution of letters,” that there were always so many arriving, and as a result he felt he couldn’t leave his desk. “He couldn’t not respond to something,” her husband said. “A will to do what’s correct evolved over time into an obsession.” And then, “One cannot become obsessed,” he’d said, definitively.
“Is it an obsession or is it a sentence?” was her response.
“I don’t understand,” he’d said.
And so she’d tried again. “Is it what’s right or is it what’s expected?”
And eventually he came back with, “The only thing that’s right is what’s expected.”
The concept of saving one’s writing was anathema to her. The whole point was letting go. The whole point was putting something down to get rid of it. Refusing to see her ideas as meaningful rendered them obsolete the minute she had them, like confessions to an acquaintance you knew you’d never see again. What a thrill to send something with absolutely no assurance of response. Though this was a deceptive thrill. It inevitably evolved into worry when responses didn’t come.
“Why don’t they write back,” she would ask one of the girls who hovered around her, helping with things. The answer was always a variation on the theme: “It’s not you; no one writes letters anymore.” Well, Jefferson wouldn’t agree, she felt like saying. She had written down a line of his, about letters being “the only full and genuine journal of a life.”
It’s fitting then that she began the journal of her life the day after the shots were fired at that motorcade. A Molotov cocktail, or perhaps a grenade, was thrown, too, or so she’d heard. At least three groups had claimed credit, this being a place and a time when people rushed to claim credit for such things, rather than professing innocence. Being suspect in her place/time endowed notoriety, and everyone wanted to be notorious now. “Après Facebook, le deluge,” as he’d put it. Only he had survived, as had his father before him. All motorcades now were dummies, lures. They had been safe at home that night eating newly shot dove, sent from a friend in England. He’d gone to pray later, though, for the cameras.
“A catastrophe by definition is something you can’t see coming,” he said on arriving home, holding her. “A black swan.” He let go in order to remove his clothes, carefully, to prepare for bed. It was a time at which he was often prone to reflection, or fancy—after prayer. Sometimes he would return and without saying anything just take her, tell her things he was otherwise too reserved to say. It was as if the praying opened him, not simply to self-reflection but to her. They always had their most intimate experiences then. Often he would talk on a topic for a long time, while she listened. This was one of those times.
“Our experience of a black swan, and our response to it, depends,” he’d gone on, lying down, pulling her again into him. When she’d said she didn’t understand he’d said firmly, “If you are not the swan, you must stand in careful relation to it when it appears. If the swan is a rifle you don’t want to be the roe deer.”
What she thought about all this swan business went into her very first letter. It was the only letter she never mailed. She realized later, on re-reading it, that she’d really been writing it to herself, as one often does.
Dear Z, Do you know about black swans? No one thought they existed. They were like unicorns. Only then somebody saw one, and they ceased to be mythical beasts. “Black swan” in some circles is code for “catastrophe,” the thing you never expect or anticipate, the thing you think is mythical—or don’t think about at all. A virus from a foreign land, a misplaced trade causing markets to skew. The thing you cannot conceive of until it occurs, rendering your understanding of things irrelevant.
We had plans to attend a party last night, only at the last minute plans changed. We stayed home and ate dove. And then we heard the news and were shown the evidence, which is to say a platter of stones and shells.
She was proud of that letter, which is perhaps why she’d saved it. She’d slipped it in a drawer once, though never checked to insure it was still there.
The letters let her say what she wanted. She could own the swan for her purpose. She could address bullets found in her car. She could be Joan of Arc, why not. And as the story of her life unspooled and became increasingly unsettling, and controlled, the letters served an urgent purpose, like oxygen. Sometimes his censors would split open her notes for approval; she knew this. Sometimes they would return one with comments. Though that was very rare. And so she trusted them. She trusted what she knew to be true.
Only the man walking down the long hallway wasn’t walking to another man. And there was no black Mercedes. There never had been. And though there had once been a post place, it was no longer standing. The man walking down the long hallway was walking to an office off the hall’s corner, one filled with books but also with elaborately framed architectural renderings, giving it the feeling of a fine museum in miniature. The renderings told the story of another era when this city was more central, and august. In the office was a man seated at a desk, her husband. And he would receive her letter, and break open its bright blue seal with a silver knife he kept placed by his mobile phones. He would unfold her blue papers, and read them. And if on occasion he found something that amused him, he would recall how deeply he loved her, all that was owed to her grace and skillful forbearance. And if he found something upsetting he would usually let it go—the reveal of how much had been spent on those rings, for example. Or the empathy aria. He wasn’t emotional, he never had been. He was devout, passionate, cautious. He simply needed to know. It was in the national interest, and so in hers.
And then he would then hand the letter back to the man who had handed it to him, who would have been waiting while he read. And that man then walked down that hall though in a different direction, to an elevator that opened onto a kitchen. It was all white and pine and stainless, impeccable and uncannily new. There were large violet and white Chinese export bowls everywhere filled with cantaloupe, lemons, and limes. And in the kitchen the man would light the letter and the envelope on fire at the stove, admiring their light as they turned to ash in a little bin. He would carry the bin out broad glass doors and for a moment, stop, and wonder what the contents of the letter had been, and what she was truly like, and whether her letters were in any way an attempt to change things, or explain them. He would wonder whether the letters were her way of warding off loneliness, of handling a certain absurdity. Then he would walk a quarter mile to the hyacinths and tulips, past the asters and cedar, until he reached the central part of the garden, a swimming pool sized sea of white jasmine. This was the place he would empty the ashes. It had been built for her.