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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

The Seventh Day of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas
My true 
love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree 

On the second day of Christmas
true love gave to me
wo turtle-doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

On the third day of Christmas
true love gave to me
hree French hens
Two turtle-doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

On the fourth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Four calling birds
hree French hens
Two turtle-doves
And a partridge in a pear tree
On the fifth day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle-doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

On the sixth day of Christmas
y true love gave to me
ix geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle-doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

On the seventh day of Christmas
My true love…

…had some trouble acquiring seven swans a-swimming.

               She went back to the same source from which she’d acquired the partridge, the turtle-doves, the French hens, the calling birds, and the geese. The bird-supplier, Mr. Bander, had promised he’d have seven swans ready for her, each one fully capable of swimming, but when my true love knocked on his farmhouse door that seventh-day-of-Christmas morning, his answer was delayed and sheepish.

               “I’m ready for ‘em,” said my true love, directing a thumb over her shoulder at her truck parked in Mr. Bander’s driveway, seven swan-sized cages in back, the topper on the bed, and the tail-gate open.

               “There’s a problem,” said Mr. Bander. He had eyes that appeared hastily installed, but a big mouth full of enviable teeth. The ever-present scratches and peck-marks peeked out of his hoodie sleeves around his wrists. He supplied birds, but birds did not like him. But why would birds like a supplier of birds?

               “No, no,” said my true love. “There can’t be a problem. This is the seventh day of Christmas. We’re half-way home. The whole thing is ruined if one of the days doesn’t work. If I knew there was going to be a problem on the seventh day of Christmas, then I wouldn’t have bought all the birds from you for the first day of Christmas, the second day of Christmas, the third day of Christmas, the fourth day of Christmas, and the sixth day of Christmas. And there’s no birds after the seventh day of Christmas, I have everything else lined up. Like, the rest are just a bunch of actors, friends of mine from community theater. So not getting the swans is literally the only way this can go wrong.”

               “My son,” said Mr. Bander. “He’s eight years old.”

               My true love held a work-gloved hand over her mouth. Her eyebrows arched up inside the folded edge of her stocking cap. “Oh no,” she said. “He killed all the swans?”

               Mr. Bander recoiled from the suggestion. “Of course not. He loves them. Well, he loves six of them. He gave them names. Well, he gave the six of them he likes names.”

               “This is so unprofessional,” said my true love. “How could you let your son get attached to six of the seven swans you promised me?”

               “I didn’t let him,” said Mr. Bander. “I forbade him, but he did it anyway. When I wasn’t looking. It happened so fast, in a moment, in the blink of eyes. I say ‘blink of eyes’ instead of ‘blink of an eye’ because if it was an eye, as in one eye, then it would be a wink, not a blink.”

               My true love didn’t want to argue about that even though she did have some initial thoughts concerning the distinction between winking and blinking and how it had way more to do with intent than number of eyes involved. “So what am I going to do?” she asked.

               “I can let you have the one swan,” said Mr. Bander. “The one my son doesn’t like. The one without a name.”

               “But the whole point is that there’s supposed to be seven of them,” said my true love. “The conceit falls apart if there’s only one swan a-swimming.”

               Mr. Bander looked like he was about to say something he knew my true love wouldn’t like but needed to hear anyway. He looked like he was about dispense a difficult truth. He said, “The conceit is already compromised.”

               “How so?” asked my true love.

               “Because on each new day of the twelve days of Christmas, your true love is supposed to get something new and another round of everything he got the day before. For example, on the second day of Christmas, your true love is supposed to get two turtle-doves and another partridge in a pear tree. And then on the third day of Christmas, your true love is supposed to get three French hens, another two turtle-doves, and a third partridge in a pear tree. So by the twelfth day of Christmas, your true love should be receiving his twelfth partridge in a pear tree, his 21st and 22nd turtle-doves, his 28th, 29th, and 30th French hens, and so forth.”  

               “That’s ridiculous,” said my true love. “No one interprets it that way.”

               Mr. Bander shrugged. “Well, no one says ‘in the blink of eyes’ except me either. But they should. Do you want the one swan or not?”

               “What would I do with one swan?”

               Mr. Bander shrugged. His sheepishness was gone. He had gotten comfortable with his role in my true love’s disappointment. “You’d only need to come up with six more swans. That’s a little easier than coming up with seven more swans.”

               “Do you know where I could get six more swans?” asked my true love. “Or any more swans?”

               Mr. Bander cleared his throat. “I have an idea,” he said. “I know someone. But she does things a little differently. She’s maybe not fully on the up-and-up.”

               My true love didn’t care. She knew that Mr. Bander himself was not fully on the up-and-up. She knew this whole bird-supplying operation was of questionable legality. Mr. Bander had urged her not to share details of his business with “goodies-two-shoes.” At the time, the precision of his pluralizing had seemed like a positive trait, a sign of trustworthiness. “I’ll take the one swan,” said my true love. “And your friend’s address.”


               This second bird-supplier’s house was farther out into the country, farther from home, but not as far from Mr. Bander’s house as Mr. Bander’s house was from my true love’s house. This bird-supplier’s name, according to Mr. Bander, was Miss Remo. Her house was tall and narrow as if it were trying to mimic the trees which populated its yard. But combined with a few other un-tree-like traits, its paint job ruined its impersonation. The house was brick red whereas all the trees were bark-colored.

               My true love parked her truck in the circle drive in front of the house. The swan trumpeted from within its cage in the back of the truck. My true love had not been able to discern why an eight-year-old boy would find this particular swan unlovable. It seemed, from her limited experience, like a normal swan, as lovable as any.

               Miss Remo’s front door opened before my true love could knock. “I’m the property-owner,” said the woman standing in the doorway. Her knee-length dress was not Christmasy, not wintry. It was printed with pastel wildflowers. Her face, neck, calves, and shins were all wrinkled, but were also all pecked and scratched. Her birds maybe hated her even more than Mr. Bander’s hated him, or else she just dressed less appropriately for handling them, which did seem likely.

               “Miss Remo?” asked my true love. “Mr. Bander sent me to you. He was unable to supply me with six of the seven swans I need and said you might be able to make up the difference.”

 “I can make up the difference and more,” said Miss Remo. Her voice was so much that of a smoker’s that it sounded like there might have been a whole, lit cigarette stuck in her throat.

“I don’t need more,” said my true love, relieved but wary. “I only need the six.”

“I only sell them by the bird-supplier’s dozen,” said Miss Remo. “No exceptions.”

“But I don’t need 12 of them,” said my true love. “I only want six.”

“A bird-supplier’s dozen isn’t twelve,” said Miss Remo. “It’s like a baker’s dozen.”

“Then that’s even worse,” said my true love. “That’s seven more than I need.”

“A bird-supplier’s dozen isn’t 13,” said Miss Remo. “It’s like a baker’s dozen only in that it’s more than a dozen. A bird-supplier’s dozen is 23.”

My true love gasped. That was nearly four times the amount of swans she wanted. “That’s insane,” she said. “How is a bird-supplier’s dozen one short of being two dozen? Mr. Bander’s a bird-supplier and he never said anything about a bird-supplier’s dozen.”

“Well, Mr. Bander isn’t exactly the most reputable bird-supplier,” said Miss Remo.

“That’s what he said about you,” said my true love.

Miss Remo scowled. “Do you want the swans or not? You could buy the bird-supplier’s dozen and then leave however many you don’t want here with me.”

“And how much would that cost?” asked my true love.

Miss Remo quoted her a preposterous figure.

“No way,” said my true love.

               “That’s for almost two dozen swans,” said Miss Remo.

               “When bakers do their special baker’s dozen, you pay for twelve and they throw in the extra one for free,” said my true love.

               “You’re impossibly naïve if you think that ‘extra’ one isn’t factored into the original price,” said Miss Remo.

               “Well, I can’t afford that,” said my true love.

               “Take it or leave it,” said Miss Remo. “Unless you want whatever I have in my clearance section.”

               “Do you have swans in your clearance section?”

               “I’ll have to check,” said Miss Remo. “But if I do, they’re probably old and run down.”

               “I don’t care,” said my true love. “Within reason, I don’t care. Can you check for me?”

               Miss Remo nodded, pivoted on her heels, and strode off down the hallway, leaving the front door open.

               “Should I follow you?” asked my true love.

               “No,” said Miss Remo. She turned a corner two-thirds of the way down the hall and a door creaked open and banged closed. A few moments later, another door creaked open and banged closed, although it was muffled by the first door. Then it happened a third time, but even fainter, muffled as it was by two doors, now. Then the opening and closing of the doors became progressively less muffled until Miss Remo reappeared in the hall and returned to the front door. “I’ve got one swan in clearance,” she said. She had fresh scratches and peck marks on her legs.

               “I’ll take the clearance swan,” said my true love. “Do you know how I might be able to get my hands on five more? Any other bird-suppliers in the area other than you and Mr. Bander?”

               “I know one,” said Miss Remo. “But if I send you to him, you’d better watch yourself.”

               “Let me guess,” said my true love. “He isn’t reputable either?”

               “He scares me,” said Miss Remo. “Let me fetch your clearance swan and I’ll meet you at your truck.”


               Into an even less familiar region of the countryside my true love traveled in pursuit of five more swans. She managed her truck along poorly-plowed county roads dividing the landscape into squares of dormant nature. She headed for a bird-supplier named Mr. Hargrove, a man about whom Miss Remo would provide very little detail. He had “strayed,” that’s how Miss Remo put it. She would not specify how he had strayed nor from what he had strayed.

               Mr. Hargrove’s house huddled within a circle of outbuildings at the end of a quarter-mile gravel driveway on which none of the gravel remained. It was a gravel driveway in spirit only. Mr. Hargrove leaned against a long, low pole-barn and ate a green apple while watching the approach of my true love. “Hail,” he said once my true love had parked and exited her truck. “I hear swans.” His stomach bulge strained his well-worn coveralls. He wore a hunter’s orange stocking cap which protected only the top fifth of his ears from the cold. His face was fleshy, and within that fleshiness lay friendliness.

               “Yeah, two swans,” said my true love. “But I need five more. Miss Remo said you might be able to help me.”

               Mr. Hargrove frowned. “You’re a friend of Miss Remo’s?”

               “Not at all,” said my true love. She almost launched into the whole explanation, but decided to see if “not at all” would suffice.

               And it did, apparently, because Mr. Hargrove’s frown undid itself and he took a final bite of apple before turning and hurling the core over the pole-barn. “I don’t supply birds anymore,” he said. “Not real ones. All that pecking. All that scratching. I’ve got scars that would turn a stomach. A weak stomach, anyway.”

               “So coming here was a waste of time,” said my true love. Her discouragement was plain.

               “Not at all!” said Mr. Hargrove. “I’ve got something better than birds for you, young lady. I’ve got robotic birds. I make them myself, and they’re better than real birds in every way. You say you need swans? I’ve got 20 of them on hand ready to go. They can even descend stairs!”

               “I was hoping for real swans,” said my true love.

               “My robotic swans look real!” said Mr. Hargrove. “Almost, anyway.”

               “I admit that I’m desperate,” said my true love. “But I doubt I can afford one robotic swan, much less five.”

               “I’ll give you a deal,” said Mr. Hargrove. “As long as you tell everyone where you got them. I’m still trying to build a customer base. You’ll be my first customer.” He quoted her a price per swan. It was very affordable.

               Still, my true love wanted to see the robotic swans. She wasn’t going to buy them unseen. If they looked good, she could mix in five robotic swans with the two real swans. Or she could just get seven robotic swans and return the real swans so there would be a more cohesive presentation. It wasn’t ideal, but her options were diminishing rapidly and time was running out.

               Mr. Hargrove motioned for my true love to follow and set off at an ambling pace. My true love noticed the daintiness of the boot prints he left in the snow-mud. After a walk that felt circuitous, Mr. Hargrove stopped in front of a squat pole-barn, unlocked its sliding door with a key on a ring made of bent wire, and threw it open. Late morning light fell upon four columns of robotic swans, five in each column. They didn't look like real swans, but they were cute, cartoonishly rounded, fun. These could work!

               “They can swim?” asked my true love.

               “Of course,” said Mr. Hargrove. “On all but the roughest seas.”

               “It’ll just be in my true love’s hot tub,” said my true love.

               “I can’t imagine that being a problem,” said Mr. Hargrove. “Want to see them in action?”

               “Sure!” said my true love. Things were looking up.

               “Great,” said Mr. Hargrove. He scurried among the robotic swans, switching them on. Each robotic swan emitted a trumpet of reasonable volume to indicate its readiness to act. My true love responded well to the reasonableness of those trumpet volumes. At the back of the pole-barn, Mr. Hargrove pawed through a metal cabinet and produced a transmitter the size of a deck of cards. Grinning, he waded through the waiting robotic swans to show my true love the simplicity of the transmitter, the ease of use, the intuitive controls. He showed her the tiny black-and-white screen that displayed the view through one robotic swan’s eyes at a time, the switch that toggled between the different swans.

               “Wow,” said my true love. “That’s great. Do you make other robotic birds too?”

               “Of course!” said Mr. Hargrove. “I can make any kind of robotic bird.”

               “I wish I’d come to you first,” said my true love.

               Mr. Hargrove gave an agreeable laugh. “Let’s go!” he cried. He was a man delighted to exhibit his robotic swans. He held the transmitter so that my true love could see the combination of buttons he pressed to make the swans walk, and walk they did, exiting the pole-barn in orderly ranks, their stride a charming toddle. The procession – 20 robotic swans, their creator, and my true love – made their way in and out among other assorted outbuildings, many of them pole-barns, around Mr. Hargrove’s house, and into his back yard where they encountered a peculiar structure. A long, wooden ramp covered in artificial turf led up to a disc-shaped platform 15 feet above the ground. On the other side of the platform was a narrow staircase returning to the earth. The staircase did not have a bannister on either side.

               “Are you watching?” called Mr. Hargrove. He nearly danced over to the base of the ramp as the swans began the trek to the top.

               “What is this?” asked my true love. “I thought you were going to show me how they can swim.”

               “Swim?” said Mr. Hargrove. “No, no, you already know they can swim. They’re swans! But my swans can descend stairs!” There was something in his voice more hopeful than confident.

               The swans had reached the top of the ramp, now, and had begun to mill about on the platform.

               “Are you watching?” asked Mr. Hargrove.

               “I don’t need the swans to descend stairs,” said my true love. “Just swim.”

               “Are you watching?” Mr. Hargrove asked again.

               My true love didn’t answer.

               Mr. Hargrove said, “Well, watch this!” He pushed a button on the transmitter.

               The swans began to move toward the stairs as a group. The first swan hesitated at the top step, tilted forward, and toppled tail over beak, pieces of its fragile robot body breaking off at every point of contact with the stairs. This robotic swan was followed closely by an avalanche of identical robotic swans descending the stairs in exactly the same manner. In the end, only one robot swan could be salvaged from the pile of wreckage at the foot of the stairs. Mr. Hargrove agreed to let my true love use the only surviving robotic swan for free as long as she didn’t tell anyone about what she’d seen happen on the stairs. She agreed, wearily, and asked if he knew of anyone else who might be able to supply her with four more swans. Mr. Hargrove whispered a name in her ear, but strongly advised that she not seek the name’s owner. My true love said she had to, and she asked for directions. Radiating reluctance, Mr. Hargrove gave them to her, and my true love, with one battered and heavier-than-expected robotic swan in her arms and the transmitter in her coat pocket, trudged back to the truck and resumed her mission.


               Mrs. Fendon’s house was less than two miles from Mr. Hargrove’s house. The diminishing distance between stops was my true love’s sole consolation. Mrs. Fendon’s property was barren but for a picturesque pond, which was not frozen. The house was situated so close to the pond that one could dive into it from the front porch if not for the likelihood of breaking one’s neck. My true love parked in the driveway and took the walk skirting the pond to the front porch, the two live swans in the back of her truck voicing their persistent displeasure with the robotic newcomer.

               Mrs. Fendon answered my true love’s knock with a smile. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Starla Fendon. I know it’s a strange surname, but it is my real surname, I assure you.” She wore an expensive red robe lined with black fur. Her hairdo was fresh, her makeup immaculate. It wasn’t possible for her to be any age other than 41.

               “Oh,” said my true love. “It doesn’t strike me as that strange of a name.”

               “It’s ‘Fendon’ with a ‘D,’” said Mrs. Fendon. “Not ‘Fenton’ with a ‘T.’”

               “Ah,” said my true love, feeling for the desired response. “That is strange.”

               Mrs. Fendon smiled, pleased. “How can I help you?”

               My true love explained her situation.

               Mrs. Fendon nodded in sympathy. “It sounds like you’re trying very hard to do something special for your true love,” she said. “And I can respect that. I admire that. But the fact is that I don’t usually prefer to summon swans in the winter unless it’s an emergency. Do you think this qualifies as an emergency?”

               “Yes,” said my true love. “It’s starting to feel like an emergency, yes.”

               Mrs. Fendon put her hands on my true love’s shoulders. “All right,” she said. “But I can only summon one swan. Any more and I’ll risk hypothermia.”

               My true love was too exhausted to ask about anything except cost. The price wasn’t bad. Mrs. Fendon insisted on doing one of those spit-in-the-palm handshakes to seal the deal. Then she said, “Wait here on the porch. I’ll change into my bathing suit.”

               My true love accepted this. What else could she do? Why delay the process with questions when she was still going to need to get her hands on three more swans when she left this place? She surveyed the pond, its surface irked by winter’s wind, its reflective properties unimpressive.

               The door opened behind my true love and Mrs. Fendon joined her on the porch clad in a zebra-striped bikini. “Let’s get this over with,” she said. “I’m already freezing.” She trotted down the porch steps on bared feet and took up a shivering stance on the pond’s muddy bank. She lifted a gray plastic tube-shaped object to her lips and blew into its narrower end.

               My true love heard nothing. “Is that a swan call?” she asked.

               “No,” said Mrs. Fendon. “It doesn’t call a swan. It summons one.”

               “What’s the difference?” asked my true love.

               “Where they come from,” said Mrs. Fendon. She blew into the swan summoner again. Then she looked into the sky and held one hand above her eyes to shield them from the shabby daylight. “There it is,” she said, converting her hand-visor into a standard upward point. “Do you see it?” Her hand tracked downward, tracing the trajectory of the incoming swan.

               “I see it,” said my true love. “It’s flying down here fast.”

               “It isn’t flying,” said Mrs. Fendon. “It’s falling.”

               “Oh no,” said my true love. “Is it hurt? Will it survive?”

               “As long as it doesn’t miss the pond,” said Mrs. Fendon. “And I get to it in time.”

               Within the span of a few seconds, the plummeting swan was near enough for my true love to distinguish details: pedaling feet, wings more flopping than flapping, head flailing at the end of its slender neck like a morning star. It struck the pond with a tremendous smack. Mrs. Fendon sloshed into the water up to her thighs, then launched herself horizontally against the incoming ripples carrying feathers shoreward from the swan’s splashdown. She swam well, but to my true love’s astonishment and disappointment, she saw that the swan was sinking. It did not seem that Mrs. Fendon would get to the swan before it disappeared beneath the surface.

               But Mrs. Fendon did get to the swan in time, throwing one arm around its body and towing it to shore with powerful kicks. Ten yards out, Mrs. Fendon stood in water to her waist and carried the swan the rest of the way to the bank, dropping it at my true love’s feet. Mrs. Fendon bent at the waist, resting her elbows on her knees and panting. The swan writhed in the mud, stupefied by its ordeal.

               “And it’ll be able to swim once it gets over the shock?” asked my true love.

               “No,” said Mrs. Fendon. “But I’ll sell you a swan flotation device, a swan harness, and an elegant cable to connect them and you can have one of your other swans tow this one.”

               “And how much will that cost?” asked my true love.

               Mrs. Fendon gave her a price higher than the price of the summoning.

               But what could my true love do? Mrs. Fendon had her over a barrel. She loaded the summoned swan, which was beginning to come to its senses, into the truck with the other three while Mrs. Fendon went inside to dry off, get dressed, and gather the additional merchandise. When she returned, again in her fancy robe but with her hair still dripping on her shoulders and her lips chilled blue, my true love asked her if she knew of anyone else who could provide her with a swan or two or three.

               “Mr. Mellon and his brother, the other Mr. Mellon, are my nearest neighbors,” said Mrs. Fendon. “They deal in swans, in their own ways. You can see their house from here.” She pointed across her property at a house half a mile away across a crusty field, gray smoke billowing from its chimney. “But you couldn’t pay me any amount of money to go after swans there.”

               “But go there I must,” my true love said. It had been the kind of day that leads to that kind of speech.


               Only one Mr. Mellon answered the front door. His sweater was bulky, predominantly gold. Even in the sweater, my true love could sense his skinniness, all the empty air between flesh and fabric. He wore glasses which diminished his eyes. The teeth of a comb had left severe lines in his glossy brown hair; they looked like furrows in rich earth. His sweater sleeves were bunched around his forearms and my true love eyed those forearms for the marks of a more traditional bird-supplier. She saw none. She’d never seen Mr. Hargrove’s arms, and he had claimed to have scars from earlier bird-supplying days, but she doubted his robotic birds pecked or scratched him much. Mrs. Fendon’s body, of which my true love had seen a lot, had also been unscathed aside from a few surgical scars here and there, and my true love doubted that foul-tempered birds had caused whatever issues necessitated those surgeries. She had hoped that spotting pecks and scratches on the arms of Mr. Mellon would signal a return to more traditional means of supplying birds, but no. Unless maybe he handled the business and his brother handled the birds themselves?

               After an unpleasant exchange of pleasantries, my true love told Mr. Mellon the saga of her day in detail, as if the more detail she provided, the more likely he would be to provide her with three normal swans as opposed to a single bad or strange swan.

               When she finished, Mr. Mellon said, “I don’t sell swans. But I can turn your existing swans into two swans a piece. But it won’t work with Hargrove’s swan because that’s not a real swan, and it won’t work with Fendon’s swan because that’s not exactly a swan either. But I can turn Bander’s swan into two swans, and I can turn Remo’s swan into two swans.”

               “Will they be normal swans?” asked my true love, wise enough to not hope.

               “They’ll be lesser,” said Mr. Mellon. “Two-thirds the size of a normal swan, duller in color, not as smart, shorter lifespan.”

               “Does the process hurt them?” asked my true love.

               “I don’t know,” said Mr. Mellon. He smiled at his own ignorance, blessed by it.

               Mr. Mellon helped my true love carry the swans inside his house one at a time. The front doorway was barely wide enough to admit the cages. My true loved scraped her knuckles on both trips. Mr. Mellon did not, but it was his doorway, he’d had more practice navigating through it bearing wide things. The rooms of the house were dark and not properly proportioned, the atmosphere was weighty with brotherly co-enabling of unhealthy routines.

               Mr. Mellon’s workshop was also a spacious laundry room. He and my true love set one swan cage on top of the washing machine and one swan cage on top of the dryer. The dryer had a load in; it vibrated the swan my true love had gotten from Miss Remo in its cage. The middle of the room was dominated by a tall steel table overhung by three unique light fixtures, each casting a different shade of white light. Both swans were quiet. They faced their fate with resignation.

               “All right,” said Mr. Mellon. “This’ll take about 15 minutes each. You can wait in the next room over. Out the door and to your right. There’s a couch and a TV, but the TV doesn’t work, so don’t waste your time trying to turn it on. And if you encounter my brother, don’t accept any swan offers from him.”

               “Where will I get the last swan?” asked my true love.

               “I don’t know,” said Mr. Mellon.

               “We haven’t discussed how much you charge for your work,” said my true love.

               Mr. Mellon waved his hand. “No charge. I love doing it.”

               “You love making two worse swans out of one normal swan?” asked my true love.

               “Yes,” said Mr. Mellon.

               Feeling queasy, my true loved followed Mr. Mellon’s directions into the adjacent room. A switch by the door turned on a floor lamp in the far corner. My true love sat on the front edge of the couch, picked up the TV remote from a tray on the ottoman, and pressed the power button. The TV turned on. The picture was sharp. It had many channels. My true love leaned back and put her feet up on the ottoman. She tried not to think about the overall state of the Christmas gift she had prepared for her true love, of the steepness of the decline between yesterday’s six beautiful geese and today’s motley and as-yet-incomplete assortment of swans. She tried not to think about the following days of Christmas, about how she wouldn’t really be giving the maids a-milking and lords a-leaping and so on to her true love because it was not legal for someone to possess people. Nor did she think it should be! Still, it nagged at her that her true love would just be seeing her actor friends portraying those roles, not really receiving anything in the same sense as the previous days of Christmas. My true love had lost her enthusiasm for the project. She was carried by inertia, now, or the sunk-cost fallacy.

               “Ho, there. A swan short, are you?”

               My true love turned to see another man standing in the doorway, the other Mr. Mellon. He looked like his brother but less groomed. Had no father taught him how? Had he gleaned his grooming knowledge from observation driven awry by faulty preconceptions? And the insolence in the way his mouth rested after speaking. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him shrunken down, aged eight or nine years, and the attendant desire one would have to spank him for concealed wrongs.

               “I’ve got a premium swan down in the cellar,” said the other Mr. Mellon. “I’ll let you have it if you’ll go down and get it.”

               “Why can’t you bring it up?” asked my true love.

               The other Mr. Mellon pulled up the sleeves of his bulky sweater, which was green rather than gold. His forearms were a mess, a mass of wounds and scars that seemed beyond the abilities of even the most dedicated pecker, the most intense scratcher. “Swans hate me,” he said.

               “How’d you get it down there?” asked my true love.

               “These fresh ones here,” he said, pointing out the most recent-looking lacerations. “I can’t take another round. Not for a few days, anyway. I’m in agony as it is.”

               “It’s a normal swan?” asked my true love.

               “Better than normal,” said the other Mr. Mellon. “It’s premium, as I said.”

               “How much?” asked my true love.

               “Make me an offer,” said the other Mr. Mellon.

               “I’ll give you everything I have left on me,” said my true love. She pulled her remaining cash from the front pocket of her jeans and counted it onto the ottoman.

               “Good enough,” said the other Mr. Mellon. “In fact, keep 15 for something to eat on the way home.”

               The entrance to the cellar was outside, around the back of the house, and down a flight of wet, wooden stairs dug into the ground and walled with cinder blocks. Light flickered through the crack under the closed door at the bottom of the stairs. My true love’s seventh swan cage lay on the ground next to her feet where the other Mr. Mellon had helped her carry it. She surveyed the cellar entrance with gloved hands on her hips.

               Mr. Mellon had warned her against accepting swan offers from his brother, but every other person she’d spoken to that day had warned against dealing with the next person and they’d all been wrong. Or rather, they’d all been right, but not in the ways they’d implied. Was going down into a stranger’s cellar to retrieve a swan more ridiculous than many other things she’d done so far? Hadn’t she been at the mercy of all the bird-suppliers if they’d wanted to harm her?

               “Go ahead,” said the other Mr. Mellon. “The door is unlocked. I’m staying up here. Far away from that bird. It’s convinced I’m its worst enemy!”

               “All right,” said my true love, her acquiescent shrug stiff. She went down the stairs. Each step flexed under her boots. At the bottom of the stairs, she opened the door and peered into the cellar. It had a dirt floor and its walls were lined with shelves holding jars bound together by spider webs. Against the far wall, standing with defiant posture, was a gorgeous swan, its beak flecked with blood. Despite its imposing bearing, my true love sensed that the swan bore her no ill will, that its ire was reserved for the other Mr. Mellon only. She removed her gloves and stuffed them into her coat pockets. She approached the swan with both hands outstretched, palms raised. The swan was calm. It did not feel threatened by my true love. When she was close enough, she reached out to caress the top of the swan’s head, to get it used to her touch so she could lead it out of the cellar, even carry it if the need arose. She didn’t think she would need the cage. She couldn’t imagine this swan riding anywhere but next to her on the front seat of her truck.

               The cellar door slammed shut. My true love whirled and ran back to it, rattling the handle, kicking it with one foot, then the other. “Open up!” she shouted. “What’s going on?”

               “You have to kill it,” said the other Mr. Mellon from the other side of the door. “I won’t let you out until you kill the swan.”

               “Kill it?” asked my true love. “Why?”

               “You see what it’s done to me,” said the other Mr. Mellon. “It’s been after me for years. I tricked it and trapped it, but I can’t get close enough to finish it. You have to kill it, then you can leave.”

               My true loved drove her shoulder against the door. It opened an inch, then banged closed again. It wasn’t locked. The other Mr. Mellon was leaning against it, probably with his feet braced against the bottom step. She could wait him out. She knew she could. But how long would it take? How psychotically dedicated to this scheme was he? And if she didn’t start heading back to her true love’s place with the swans soon, she wouldn’t be able to present him with them all a-swimming in his hot tub before midnight, and this would all be for naught. So, she needed to act.

My true love reached into her coat pocket, pulled out the transmitter, and turned it on. On the transmitter’s screen, she was presented with the grainy image of the bed of her truck. This was the view from the eyes of the robotic swan she’d acquired from Mr. Hargrove. She was relieved she’d never switched the robotic swan off. The swan from Mrs. Fendon lay trembling in its cage, as unfit for this world as ever. My true love tried to remember the buttons she’d seen Mr. Hargrove use to guide the swans. She experimented. It didn’t take her long to get the swan up and moving toward her truck’s open tailgate. When it reached the edge, my true love paused. This was the first real challenge. It was only a few feet to the ground, but the robotic swans hadn’t fared well on the demonstration stairs. But this swan had survived, maybe it was tougher than the others? And the ground had to be softer than the stairs, at least by a little. Well, she had no choice. She moved the swan forward. The image on the transmitter screen blurred, shook, then steadied. The swan was on the ground and it was upright. Could it still move? My true love held her breath and gave it a try. The robotic swan walked forward, though slower than it had before. It had definitely taken some damage, but my true love only needed it to last a few minutes longer.

               “Well?” called the other Mr. Mellon through the door. “Do you understand our relative positions? Will you kill the swan? Or have you already done so?”

               My true love didn’t answer.

The swan waddled around the side of the house. The picture on the transmitter display jumped, fuzzed, blinked. The swan was around back now, but slowing with each step. There was my true love’s seventh swan cage. There was the top of the cellar stairs.

               The last image on the transmitter’s screen before it went black for good was that of the other Mr. Mellon looking up the stairs in horror at the robotic swan that had appeared there above him, the heavier-than-expected robotic swan that only knew one way to descend a staircase: destructively.

               The following sequence of events to a certain point was not visible to my true love, only audible. She heard the series of escalating crashes as the robotic swan bounced down the stairs, the cry from the other Mr. Mellon as he sought to avoid it and realized he could not, then the thud and cry of pain as the swan collided with him, rattling the door. My true love chose this moment to again drive her shoulder against the door, and this time it swung outward, propelling the other Mr. Mellon’s stricken form onto the stairs before stopping a third of the way open, caught on the broken remains of Mr. Hargrove’s last robotic swan.

               As my true love turned to coax the trapped swan to follow her, it raced past her, wings beating, squeezing itself out through the narrow opening, and then it was on the other Mr. Mellon in a frenzy. The carnage was appalling. The other Mr. Mellon, panicked out of his stupor, tried to scramble up the stairs on his hands and knees, but the swan was all over his back, his neck, his head, he kept slipping back down, howling, howling. At last, with the desperation of one who senses that death-by-swan is imminent, he gained his feet and staggered up the stairs, into the yard, and out of view. The swan let him go. It stood at the top of the stairs watching its despised nemesis flee. In its ruffled, murderous state it was at its most beautiful yet.

               Back inside the house, Mr. Mellon showed my true love his handiwork. There were now four swans: two swans stuffed into each of the two swan cages. They were paltry, pathetic swans.

               “I thought I heard a commotion,” said Mr. Mellon. “I gather you got a seventh swan from my brother? Against my advice, but it worked out for you? You have your seven swans a-swimming?”

               “My robotic swan was destroyed in the process,” said my true love. “So I’m still at six.”

               “I could turn the swan you got from my brother into two swans,” said Mr. Mellon. “In fact, I’d relish the opportunity. A swan like that, the two new swans would be almost as good as regular swans!”

               “Absolutely not,” said my true love. The suggestion was obscene.


               “Wow,” said my true love’s true love. “Seven swans a-swimming! Right here in my own hot tub!” From the pear tree came the call of a partridge. The turtle-doves cooed in their cage. The French hens clucked as they pecked at the seed my true love’s true love had scattered for them on the patio. The calling birds called back to the partridge from their cage. Five golden rings glinted on the fingers of my true love’s true love’s right hand. The geese were in their amateurish coop; whether or not they were a-laying right at that moment was hard to say. “But wait a minute,” said my true love’s true love. “I only count six.”

               “That one,” said my true love, pointing at the grandest of the swans, “counts for two.”

Discussion Questions

  • Will you take a lasting sense of incompletion with you to your grave if you don’t hear me finish singing the remaining verses of The 12 Day of Christmas? Sorry! It will NEVER happen.

  • I’ve long had the image in my mind of a mad scientist getting upset because his humanoid automatons keep falling down the stairs. Now that I’ve finally incorporated an adjusted version of that image into a story, how do you feel about its implementation? Should I still have some humanoid automatons fall down some stairs in a future story?

  • Which professions other than “baker” should have their own dozens?

  • How much would you charge to transform a normal swan into two lesser swans?

  • What’s the most elaborate gift idea you’ve abandoned part of the way to completion because of logistical complications?