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The Unexpected Wings

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It was late March, and the swan (Cygnus olor, six years of age, excellent weight, immaculate feathers, sporting a band marked with a policeman's star around his neck to cover his scar) was restless. He marched around the bandstand, eating insects and spilled popcorn, occasionally grunting to himself. The duck (Anas strepera, lopsided due to his missing wing, but also in excellent flesh) floated in the water, half dozing, opening his eyes every time the swan grunted.

In the distance, in their own patch of lake, two swans were courting. They had mated in the morning and would mate again in the evening. In the grass, a pair of humans (Homo sapiens, dark coloring, nineteen years old) were also courting. They had mated the previous evening and would not mate again, due to the male human accidentally insulting the female's newly dyed hair.

Another human approached and began to film the swan with his camera. He walked around the swan, zooming in on the swan eating popcorn, and unknowingly walked between the swan and the duck. The swan spread his wings, which the human thought was brilliant; then the swan charged, hissing, and the human realized his mistake and dropped his camera as he dived to the side. The swan leaped into the water with such a splash that the duck was borne up on a wave and quacked in protest.

(The local magpies [Pica pica] attempted to steal the camera but found it was too heavy. They stayed in the area, though. It was generally profitable to monitor the swan.)

That afternoon, the swan began to build a nest. The duck helped by gathering nesting material. The swan picked over and rejected all the material he brought, using only what the swan had collected, but the duck continued regardless, because collecting material for the nest was the correct behaviour for a married duck.

Unfortunately, due to his lack of respect for human spaces in the park, the swan had decided to build his nest in the bandstand, and the beginning of the nest was swept away by a group preparing to perform. The swan returned to the missing nest and charged the group in fury, which brought the issue to Mrs Hudson. (Swans are protected by Her Majesty. Their nests cannot be disturbed once created. The two members of the singing group who swept up the swan's nest felt very nervous about this fact, but Mrs Hudson patted their hands and said they weren't to know.)

"Silly boy! Well, he can't have eggs with that duck, no matter how sweet they are," Mrs Hudson said to Donovan.

"God, I hope not," said Donovan, who found the swan trying.

"We shall have to make him a nest on the island," Mrs Hudson concluded. "A grand nest, so he'll leave off the bandstand."

Donovan rang Lestrade later that day. "I have to build your pet a nest now," she said. "Come help."

"Brilliant! Can I bring my daughter?" Lestrade asked. Mina (twenty-one kilos, blue eyes, dark hair, six years old) thought that having a zookeeper for a father was the most fantastic thing in the world.

Donovan was taken aback, because she had intended the task as a punishment for favoring the swan. "Yeah, all right," she said, though.

The following day, Greg Lestrade instructed Mina Lestrade that their task was to build an ENORMOUS mound, so the swan would immediately claim it as the best nesting site on the lake. (The swan, at this time, was still attempting to build a nest in the bandstand, but was thwarted by the preparation and performance of the a capella chorus, who faced the greatest challenge of their career as they kept time despite the grumbling of a cross swan behind them.) Mina took the instruction to heart and told her father and his friend to build the mound bigger. BIGGER. Mina herself carefully arranged the branches and reeds for their aesthetic appeal.

"Well, if he doesn't like that, I don't know what he'll like," Lestrade said. Mina nodded with satisfaction. "Let's get some chips and see if he comes round to inspect it." Lestrade had noticed the duck bobbing in the water watching them and knew the swan couldn't be far behind.

The duck swam over to where the swan was floating and glaring at the bandstand. He noticed a patch of ruffled feathers on the swan's neck and nibbled them back into place. The swan took his eyes off the bandstand and looked at the duck instead. "Nheck," the duck said.

Lestrade and his daughter watched from the bridge as the swan and duck swam over to the new nest. "They're always together," Lestrade said.

"Are they friends or are they married?" Mina asked.

"Married, I think, like Tony and Sam. They groom each other like married birds."

"But they don't have a dog, do they? Sam said they have a dog because they can't have a baby."

"Roadblock hates dogs. He chases them off, even the great big mean ones. They could have a caterpillar for a pet, though. Those are fuzzy."

He tickled Mina's neck and she folded up, squealing. "Daddy!"

The swan ignored the humans and walked up onto land to examine the nest. He prodded the branches with his beak, then climbed on top of the massive mound. He folded his wings around him. The duck looked up at him and the swan grunted.

"Look, I think he likes it!" Lestrade said.

"Of course he likes it, it's a fabulous nest!" Mina said.

"He's quite a willful swan. But I think you've hit the nail on the head, sweetheart. Look how he's settling right in."

"But the duck isn't sitting on the nest. It's a big nest, they should both sit."

"No, they sit one at a time. It only takes one of them to incubate the eggs if they had any."

"So the swan is the swan is the wife bird?"

"They can both be husbands. Look at Tony and Sam."

"Sam says he's the wife," Mina said.

"Oh," Lestrade said. "Well, there doesn't have to be a wife."

"Okay, daddy," Mina said, humoring him.


Lestrade watched the swan nest for the next month. "You're well mad," he told the swan. The swan ignored him, because he was occupied; so occupied, in fact, that he ate only once a day during the course of the month.

At the end of the month, Lestrade saw something odd. He brought his daughter by to confirm his sighting. (Immature humans have better eyes than adult humans, as a rule.)

"Is that a baby in the nest?" Greg asked Mina.

Mina leaned over the railing. She squinted. "Yes," she said. "I can see a little beak under his wing. Did he have a baby with the duck?"

"No, sweetheart, I explained about how making a baby works."

"I thought it might be different for ducks," Mina said. She frowned at the baby. "Where did it come from, then?"

"I don't know. Let's go see Sally."

"Yes!" Mina cried. She adored Sally Donovan.

A little while later, Donovan peered at the swan through binoculars. "Oh, that blighter! He must have stolen an egg. I can see a little yellow face... Not a swan, for certain. Could be a gadwall duckling."

"How the hell did he steal an egg? There's no other nests around, he chases them off."

"Daddy! That was a swear!" Mina said.

"Sorry, dear. Well, I'd better be off. Good luck."

"All right. See you, Mina," Donovan said.

Donovan watched the duck and swan hop out of the nest with the little brown and yellow chick. Both adults were attentive to the baby as they shepherded it to the water.

At the edge of the water, though, the chick didn't want to jump in. It bent and drank, but even when the duck leaped into the water beside it, it didn't follow. That wasn't normal, Donovan thought.

The swan gave the chick a shove with his beak. It flopped into the water, where it floated on the surface but didn't swim. The swan and the duck both fussed over the chick, but it flapped its oversized wings and just bobbed like a cork.

"Mrs Hudson!" Donovan called. "Come look, quick!"

Mrs Hudson bustled over from her corn tally and took the binoculars from Donovan. "Oh, there's my lad and his little one! I did wonder what he'd laid his beak on."

"It's not a cygnet. I don't even think it's a duckling."

"Oh dear. It can't swim," Mrs Hudson said. She looked at Donovan. "It's not waterfowl. I don't know what it is."

"They're going to kill it treating it like a duckling," Donovan said.

"There isn't much we can do. They're wild birds, dear. They have to make their own way."

"Unless it isn't a wild chick. I'm going to investigate, all right?"

"Of course."

The duck nudged the baby up onto the back of the swan and started catching insects and bread crumbs for the baby to eat. The swan folded his wings carefully to hold the baby on his back. Donovan, on the shore, was relieved to see the baby out of harm's way.

The duck and the swan were very surprised at the end of the day when the chick hop-flapped off the swan's back onto land. The swan grunted and spread his wings to shoo the chick back into the nest. Neither cygnets nor ducklings are born with wings, so both birds entirely lacked any instinct for flying babies.

The chick settled down and they all curled up for the night, the chick nestled into the swan's down, the duck with his wounded side leaning against the swan's wing. The swan bent his neck to press his cheek against the duck's head.

On the next day and the next, they attempted the same procedure but the chick disliked the water and peeped disconsolately. The swan kicked up weeds and the duck fed the chick but it wasn't happy until it was back on land. The swan and the duck, therefore, began to take the chick up onto the busy pavement for bread, bugs, and chips.

On the weekend, Lestrade brought his daughter back to the lake for a mission. "This is chick feed," he told her. "Go up, put it near the nest, and come away fast as you can so Roadblock doesn't attack you. He might come running over, but that's why I have this umbrella, okay?"

"Aye aye, Daddy!" Mina said. She jumped off the boat and ran up the shore to plant the cup in the ground, where the swan did indeed see her and take wing. She shrieked and bolted back to the boat, where her father caught her and rowed away as fast as he could.

The swan ran up the bank and stood on top of his nest and hissed. On the pavement, the chick ran and hid under the duck's wing for protection.

The swan stomped all over the nest until the duck and the chick returned. The chick fluttered up off the duck's back and found the cup of feed. Lestrade circled around with his daughter in the boat, watching the chick as it flung itself bodily into the cup.

Mina had learned patience from her father. She was quiet for half an hour, watching all three birds graze. The swan stayed on the nest by the chick, flapping his wings occasionally to show his strength, while the duck swam by the bank and ate waterweed.

When the chick was full, it stood up and strutted around near the swan. Lestrade leaned forward, and so did Mina, straining to see. The chick lifted its head on its little neck and raised its tiny tail and Lestrade laughed.

The swan hissed. Lestrade picked up the oars and rowed them out of range. "What did you see, Daddy?" Mina asked.

"It's a peachick," Lestrade said. "A baby peacock. Did you see the way he lifted his tail upright? When he's older and grows his fancy tailfeathers, that's how he shows them off."

He told Mrs Hudson. She shook her head. "Silly boys," she said. "Well, the peachick must have come from the zoo, so he's all yours."

Mina looked up at him. "You're not going to take the peacock away from Johnny and Roadblock, are you?" she asked.


The peahen's nest was in a part of the park open to the public but well back beneath a bush. Lestrade saw--maybe--how the swan could have flown in and stolen the egg. In his...beak. He frowned at the nest.

(In fact, a young human zoo visitor [Grace Poole, thirteen years old, who adorned all her schoolwork with peacocks] had crept in and stolen the egg from the nest, then lost her nerve and left the egg in a bush in the park, where the swan had found it moments later [the young human had been acting furtive in his territory, and he was suspicious that she was trying to steal his majestic nest] and carried it to the nest with the help of the duck.)

The peahen in the nest (Pavo cristatus, an Indian peafowl, named Effie) frowned back and Lestrade backed up before she went for his shins. Her chicks huddled under her broad wings. They were identical to the chick in the swan's nest.

"I think we should let them have it," Lestrade told his boss. "Effie has seven chicks; they're not endangered, they're commercially bred; and it might be good publicity. Roadblock is popular. Swan Detective adopts a son with his duck husband, that's a good headline. I'll keep an eye on them and rescue the chick if it's not doing well."

That was how the swan and the duck were allowed to keep the peachick.


Lestrade was right, it was good publicity, once the chick's neck and legs began to grow. The swan and duck tended the chick near the pavement at the water's edge where tourist meals were easy to come by. Lestrade left proper food by the nest so the chick could fill up on goodness instead of stale bread.

Mina took half a hundred photographs and her mother Sophie helped her start a blog about the swan and the peachick (and one shot of the duck to explain his story). Greg's quote of "Roadblock isn't confused, he's fabulous" got him a dozen flirtatious emails from young men across the country. Sophie found this hilarious.

The swan and the duck didn't mind the attention as long as the humans kept themselves away and their food near. The chick thrived. He began to truly fly two weeks after hatching, emulating the magpies that flew down to steal his grain. The magpies chattered at him but fled when he flew at them, respecting his father's hisses if not the chick's baby threats.

(The magpies were fascinated by the swan. They especially liked the starred band around his neck and dearly hoped it would shed in his moult. It didn't, but they collected a large number of long white feathers as a consolation prize.)

The chick grew a crest of feathers on his head and outweighed the duck by two months, which pleased the duck. It was proof they were raising the chick well. (The duck weighed under a kilogram. He was a modest duck. The peachick would be five kilograms at full size, over half the swan's weight.)

The swan was puzzled by the crest when it sprung up. He gripped it with his beak firmly in case it was a bit of sticky ice cream wrapper, but let go when the chick peeped in protest. The swan also puzzled as the chick scratched for insects in the dirt. When the swan emulated the action, he fell forward onto his neck and had to flap his wings to get back up, which in turn knocked over the chick. The chick peeped in distress and ran under the swan's wing for protection. After that, the swan stopped experimenting.

Spring turned into summer, then autumn, and the peachick grew and grew. Lestrade kept feeding him, slowly coming closer and closer to the nest until the swan tolerated him delivering breakfast right under his beak. The chick was always pleased to see him and dove into the feed joyfully.

The peachick began to turn a bright, shining blue and the magpies took intense interest. The zoo had peafowl, true, but that was in the zoo and this was in the park by the lake. They hid in the shrubbery and watched the tantalizing crest bob atop the baby's head.

When the swan slipped into the water, leaving the chick unprotected, the magpies saw their chance and flanked the chick to strip him of his plumage. They had, however, made the mistake of ignoring the duck, who ran in, single wing outstretched, and bit the male magpie on the head. The magpie reeled and retreated into the shrubbery, the female magpie following him. The duck, wing still extended, stood between the magpies and his enormous chick and hissed.

After that incident the magpies went back to stealing magazines from college students. It was safer.

In late autumn, the peachick began to roam. The swan and the duck didn't know why he wanted to go out to see the cars--they were noisy, smelly things--but the peachick was fascinated. He flew up on top of parked cars to look around.

One day, Lestrade left some feed by the nest and the peachick followed him across the lake, watching as he tied up the boat and fluttering from perch to perch as Lestrade started the walk across the park to work. The swan followed the peachick and the duck followed the swan, first swimming across the lake and then walking up onto land.

Lestrade noticed the parade behind him eventually. He made no move to dissuade the peachick; he had hoped to be able to bring him into the zoo. The peacock, father of the chick, was an elderly bird named Hebron. Lestrade didn't think he was going to last more than another year or two, and then the peachick could take over his territory.

As well, he rather fancied coming to work at the head of a parade. He smiled to himself and walked slower.

The swan hissed at the peachick for going so far outside the swan's territory. The peachick flapped ahead of Lestrade and watched him walk. The duck quacked at them both for walking so fast, but still followed as best he could.

At the zoo gates, the swan stopped. He hissed at the peachick. The peachick stopped and fluttered his wings at the swan. He returned to the swan and ducked his head into the swan's breast, where the swan groomed his neck. Then the peachick turned and ran into the zoo. The chick looked expectantly at Lestrade.

The swan stayed outside. Lestrade swallowed, feeling a bit of a heel for a moment, then gave the chick a crust of bread from his pocket, and that was that. The swan wheeled, got a good run-up, and flew off. "You can call me Uncle Greg," Lestrade said to the chick. The chick ate the crust.

Lestrade felt like an idiot a moment later and said, "And if you can talk, speak up now, so we can contract with Disney."

The swan landed a moment after taking off when he saw the duck sitting by the path. The duck's feet ached from the rough pavement. The swan stayed with him, grazing the dying grass, until the duck stood up and began to walk again.


"What did you name the peacock?" Donovan asked.

"Oh, we put him up with his story on the adopt-an-animal site, right? Norbury Primary School bought him for the kids. I think it was part of a blended family program. He's a poster child now."

"Huh," Donovan said. She found that rather pleasing. "And his name?"

"Norbury," Lestrade repeated.


"Why not? It's a perfectly fine name for a bird."


(The magpies ransacked the nest while the swan and the duck were away and came up annoyingly empty: Broken eggshell, moulted brown and white feathers, and a crazy straw. They still ached for the swan's starred band. They took the crazy straw as a consolation prize.)

Further down the shore, a dog (Canis familaris, a five-year-old female named Conker) barked at the duck, and the swan took wing, propelling himself across the surface of the water straight at the dog. The dog ran, pulling her human right off her feet, and the swan chased the dog all the way to the Clarence Gate.

The swan strutted back to the water under the duck's admiring gaze. He jumped into the lake with perfect elegance. "Nheck," said the duck, and swam by the swan's side.

the end.