This amazing photo was taken by my friend and neighbor Taylor Ross, who always manages to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. I fell in love with this image when I saw it. It was taken here in Fairfield, Iowa, in winter—a swan running on the frozen surface of Bonnifield Lake before taking flight.
There are three projects taking shape. One is the children’s book Ealse & the Swan that I’ll be working on with Ealse’s granddaughter, Jitske Wadman. The second is chapbook-size: my essay “Oom Ealse & the Swan” that was a finalist in the Editor’s Prize of The Missouri Review a few years ago, plus a foreword with the original story told to me by Ealse’s wife, Janke, the beppe (grandmother in Frisian) of Jitske. The third is a braided memoir that weaves together all the unknowable strands of this mysterious narrative: my original essay; the account of the swan that Ealse’s wife, Janke, wrote down in Frisian and sent to me; research, myths, and fairy tales about swans; stories from the Wadman family that Jitske and I are digging up as we are working on the children’s book; memories of my own parents’ lives that mirror Ealse and Janke’s; stories of death and loss; musings about time, timelessness, and redemption.
Here I’ll start with an excerpt from the essay. It describes a moment when Ealse is digging for ancient pottery on his land not long after the sudden and tragic death of his eldest daughter, who was also named Jitske. It’s the first meeting of man and swan.
Excerpt from “Oom Ealse & the Swan”
by Nynke Passi
It was a few weeks after Jitske’s death. Ealse was working in a field a ways away from the house, at the edge of his land. It was a fall day, crisp and cold. Rust-red and yellow leaves scattered about the earth like fiery bouquets celebrating life while announcing death. He must have been struck by their momentary, frivolous splendor as he dug his shovel into a slightly frosted patch of earth looking for pieces of pottery.
Retrieving pieces of pottery was one of Ealse’s pas-times. It consoled him. There were small and large shards of antique Roman and Frisian ceramic and glass buried deep below the clods of earth on his land. He took time finding them, violently digging, then carefully nudging, pulling, and brushing away dirt to uncover potsherds with sharp edges but pretty colors and designs, remnants of lost and glorious civilizations. At night in the kitchen, seated at the table, he painstakingly glued these pieces together. They reconstructed into plates, pitchers, and bowls that filled the cupboard in the parlor. The former prime minister of the Netherlands had come to the Wadman family home once to see them; there was an article about it in the local paper. Oom Ealse untacked it from its honorary spot on the cupboard door and showed it to my father during our visit. He also showed us the green, worn chair by the big table in which the prime minister had sat.
On this particular day, shortly after Jitske’s death, Ealse was not thinking of his collection or the prime minister’s visit. One moment he was digging, using all of his muscle; the next he stood immobile, staring out over the earth. Perhaps he did not particularly mind the thought that one day his own heart would be scattered below the sod, quieted, one with the soil as the sunset gently brushed her cheek against the earth. Perhaps he longed to be with his first-born child, whom he loved, his mind and body at peace. Emotions lumped up deep in his throat behind his lips, inaccessible. I imagine that they were sharp and chipped like the pieces of pottery he was digging for.
What happened was this:
First there was a sound. A stirring. A flapping overhead, still far away, but coming nearer. Ealse took his eyes off of the cold earth as his shovel inched into dirt. He lifted his face.
Even then he probably did not notice how much the sky, darkening and clouded, seemed like his own eyes, which were really his soul. But maybe for a moment the still small, white thing that winged steadily closer to where he stood seemed something he made up in his mind—something that in the gray turmoil in his own irises managed to, for a moment, scoot to the surface, though it was certain to disappear again, quick as the fire of a lit match burning out.
He didn’t move as he watched the white speck grow larger. It reminded him of so much. Even as his mind comprehended that it was a wild swan flying overhead, his eyes saw only the white shape, a large body—spotless, fine and strong, wings on either side—and over its head a thin gleam of yellow light where a ray of sun broke through a cloud.
When he first saw it, he didn’t expect anything. He merely watched. Then he noticed he didn’t want the white shape to disappear.
The wild, stray swan flew over some elms at the edge of the field, its belly grazing the leafless branches on top; then it flew lower, its legs angling below like quick, black fish. The bird was so close, Ealse could hear the slow, monotonous whirring of wings readying themselves to fold, even the shivering wind on feathers. The swan landed, gliding down majestically onto the brown earth.
Then—no stir, no ripple.
This was a wild swan, a female. Ealse saw it plainly. He must not have been thinking when he walked toward her, laid his heavy hand on the swan’s back, and lifted the bird into his arms to carry her home. This is what he did, and the white swan let him.