By my side, you'll never be
By my side, you'll never be
'Cause I'm fake at the seams
I'm lost in my dreams
And I want you to know
That I can't let you go
And you're never coming home again
And you're never coming home again...
- Swans, Unkle Bob
The waning late-afternoon sun bounced off the pond water, refracted light glimmering brightly. A warm summer breeze blew over the water, disturbing the surface and tangling through Brennan's hair. She combed her fingers through it and smiled when she heard someone call out her name.
"Mommy!" The child, six years old, beamed at her from where she stood barefooted in the mud, having discarded her shoes in the grass. She held a half-empty bag of bread in one hand, and a piece of it in the other. A large white bird, nearly the same size as the child herself, waded hesitantly in the shallow water, extending its graceful neck towards her outstretched hand.
"Christy, be careful," Brennan said out of sheer habit. When she had been a child she had rolled her eyes at her parents' constant reminders of safety, but now she realized it was a nearly uncontrollable compulsion, an almost Tourette's-like verbal tic. Be careful. Be careful. Watch out. Hold my hand. Be careful. It was a constant stream of warnings that the child generally ignored, grinning sheepishly in her father's ask-forgiveness-not-permission fashion in the aftermath of her actions.
The little girl brushed the chestnut curls out of her sweaty face impatiently, dark brown eyes focused intently on the bird. The large creature paddled right up to the edge of the water, finding its webbed feet and taking a careful step in the child's direction. Brennan worried her bottom lip between her teeth as she saw the girl stretch her arm further, chin tilted up slightly as she seemed to dare the bird, Come closer. Finally the swan took the bait, lunging towards the child's hand and snapping the bread out of it in a flash of white. The little girl screamed in delight, drawing her arms around her chest and jumping in place.
"Did you see? Did you see?" she called out, feet slapping through the mud as she charged around the edge of the pond to where her mother sat watching. Brennan laughed and nodded.
"I did," she said.
"He came right up to me!" Christy said, cheeks flushed. "Right up, I almost could touch him!"
"Don't touch them," Brennan said. "They're wild animals, they don't like that."
"I know that," Christy said matter-of-factly, hopping up on the wooden bench next to her mother and swinging her legs. Brennan looked out on the water, where the swan had taken the piece of bread over to a bunch of reeds by the shore. She squinted in the waning light—the sun beginning to dip behind the slope of the stone-dotted hill that rose just beyond the pond—and saw a number of fluffy grey objects emerge from hiding.
"Christy," she said, touching the little girl's shoulder and pointing. "Look." The little girl squinted into the distance, then clapped her hands over her mouth, eyes wide with excitement. She looked up at her mother expectantly, then back at the downy babies as they paddled around the large white bird.
"Swanlings?" Christy asked in a strained whisper, clearly trying to contain her enthrallment. The little girl practically bounced in her seat, her little-girl obsession with fuzzy baby animals kicking into overdrive. Even Brennan couldn't help but smile at the scene.
"Cygnets," she corrected. "Baby swans are called cygnets."
"Can we go see 'em?" she asked. Brennan shook her head.
"We can see from here," she said. "We might scare them if we get too close." Christy nodded her understanding, and mother and daughter sat on the bench some twenty yards away, watching the downy little birds zoom around the water's surface.
"Where's the daddy swan?" Christy asked. Brennan felt her stomach flop, the way it did every time she heard her child say the word 'daddy.'
"I'm sure he's here somewhere," she said. The small pond used to be overrun with ducks, until the larger, more aggressive Mute Swans had taken over the previous summer. Now several of the elegant white birds could be found preening and paddling in the water on any given day, sometimes in pairs, occasionally on their own. The cygnets were a recent addition to the pond family—they had not been there during their visit last week.
"Did you know," Christy began with an air of importance, "that when a boy swan and a girl swan make a family, they love each other forever?"
"That means they're monogamous," Brennan said. "Monogamous means they're together for life."
"Mo-no-ga-mous," Christy repeated slowly, nodding. "What else is monogamous?"
"Beavers," Brennan answered after a moment of thought. "And Emperor penguins."
"And people, right?"
"Well…" Brennan began, but then decided against it. As intelligent as she may be for a six year old, she was still only six. That particular conversation could wait a few years. "Yes, Christy. And people." The girl nodded in a way that suggested the answer satisfied her question.
"Honey, why don't you throw the last of the bread on the water so we can go home?" Brennan suggested. The child acquiesced wordlessly, hopping off the bench and skipping down towards the pond. She saw the girl eye the cygnets from a distance, but she did as she was told, giving them plenty of room. She pulled the last few slices of stale bread from the bag and flung them onto the water, where they were quickly gobbled. Brennan collected the child's shoes and carried them in one hand, knowing good and well Christy would not put them back on once she had escaped them.
She took a few steps in the direction of the car, parked on the edge of the paved road that cut through the acres of stone slabs, then turned back to the pond. She opened her mouth to call for the girl, but paused. The way Christy stood in the grass, long shadow stretched out behind her, legs set slightly apart and arms crossed, she looked just like Booth. She knew the girl's dark stare would be deep, endless, drinking in the moment. She had an almost unnerving ability to be one with the moment—one with the universe—at any given time. Like she could slip into a state beyond what Brennan could see, what she could feel, and just be. Sometimes the little girl could seem so lost in her own world, or so deeply experiencing this one, that Brennan irrationally feared that if she reached out to touch her, she would not be able to feel her. Like a ghost, her hand would pass right through.
The child suddenly turned in place, meeting her mother's eyes. Her face split into a gap-toothed grin and she ambled towards her, hair bouncing lightly on her back. She took Brennan's empty hand in hers, and together they passed through the gaps between grave markers, stretching out in long lines like ancient menhirs or rows of nubby, worn teeth.
"Hold on," Christy said, breaking loose from her mother's grasp and flouncing down one particularly familiar row. They were all familiar by now, but this one Brennan could see in her sleep, could recite from memory the inscriptions on the surrounding markers.
She watched as her daughter tapped the top of each marker with her hand as she passed them, until she located the desired white marble stone. She drew something from her shorts pocket, and from a distance Brennan could see that it was a downy cygnet feather, one she had probably picked up out of the grass by the pond. Christy set it on the grass in front of the grave marker, and Brennan saw her lips moving, though she couldn't make out the words.
She had kept her promise. Every other day or so she found herself beating the familiar trek through the cemetery, sometimes with flowers, usually empty-handed. She sat on the grass in front of his stone, using the one in the row in front of his as a backrest, and talked. At first it had been awkward, but after six months she could babble effortlessly about work, or their friends, or Christy and Parker, whatever happened to come to mind. She even found herself explaining things in layman's terms, as if he were there to question her vocabulary.
She suddenly realized that Christy was standing before her, staring patiently.
"All ready?" Brennan asked. The child nodded. She took her mother's hand again and they walked the rest of the way to the car in silence, eyes turned upward to the brilliant streaks of pink and tangerine that lit up the sunset sky.
"Otters," Christy said out of the blue.
"What about otters?" she asked.
"They love each other forever," she said. "Just like swans, and people." Brennan's brows knitted together as she looked down at the child.
"Who told you that?" she asked. Christy didn't say anything, but instead stopped abruptly and hugged her mother around the middle, grinning up at her. Brennan smiled and brushed the hair out of the little girl's freckled face, cupping her cheeks in her hands.
She stared down into her daughter's eyes, and for a fraction of a second she saw not her own reflection in the child's dark irises, but his.