In the early evening of a hot summer day I sat at the end of a wooden dock, my feet skimming the tepid water, watching a mother swan. Her coat was so white it shone vaguely blue, particularly as she floated atop the turquoise lake water.
What struck me most, however, was not her spectacular beauty but her calm demeanor. She floated, almost rested on top of the water. Her head shifted from left to right above her long, graceful neck. Her movements were calculated and secure.
Behind her floated three cygnets, looking like puffy cotton balls with beaks. I recognized them as her offspring, not simply by their coal beaks, but by her commanding demeanor. She was silent. They squeaked. And when they spoke to her she neither stopped or acknowledged their presence. She just kept paddling along. Neither mother nor cygnets seemed to pay any attention to each other. Always she kept her paddle feet pulling back the water beneath her breast.
As she passed by, I decided to show her beauty off to my three-year old niece. Quietly I went to the house, grabbed a handful of bread and my niece, and together we padded back to the end of the dock.
When we returned, the mother swan was still floating by, but her triplets had drifted a ways behind. Feeling sorry for them, my niece threw a handful of smashed bread pieces towards them and they scurried over to get them before they dissolved. By the time the bread hit the water, the mother swan had darted like a shot between them and interrupted their eating. Then, the elegant beauty did something frightening.
She didn’t stop when she reached the bread. She raced to the shore and stood up on the sand. Being an inexperienced ornithologist, I suddenly learned that swans not only walk on sand–they can run.
I was stunned by her boldness while my niece simply squealed. Quickly, I pushed my niece behind me. At that moment the mother swan menacingly stretched out her wings in our direction, creating an enormous span of white. I watched her run across the yard, then turn and start, wondering where in the world she was intent on going.
I wondered if she was mad–perhaps she had rabies. No, no; I knew swans couldn’t get rabies. Then the swan turned toward me and started racing down the dock. Her feet slapped the boards furiously. “This can’t be happening,” I thought. “I’m about to be attacked by a bird.” I wanted to laugh at the sight of the big white thing running and squawking at me, but I screamed instead.
The swan kept running right at us. I grabbed my little niece and we jumped into the water. Too afraid to turn my back on this mad animal, I jumped backwards, trying to jump high enough and far enough not to land on my little niece who was glued to my back. When we bobbed to the surface, I saw her again. She stopped. For a moment in mid-air, I had reached to the back of my mind for Plan B just in case the swan followed me into the water. Fortunately, I never needed Plan B. The gigantic bird stopped and perched on the end of the dock, puffy and gloating.
She paused for a moment to enjoy her victory. Then almost as quickly as she had run at us, she turned and flew off the side of the dock to rejoin her cygnets. Neither my niece nor I suffered any physical injury, but the trauma I harbored in my gut took days to clear. Never before had I been on the receiving end of an animal or human so venomously enraged.
But I knew that was a mother’s instinct. What is true for mother swans is true for the mothers of boys. I’ve never been chased down a dock by one, but mothers are invariably their sons’ greatest advocates and defenders.