The mayor of Pézens sadly surveyed the mangled mess of white feathers, flesh, bones and blood lying at his feet.
‘Mon Dieu, who could have done this?’ he said, addressing no-one in particular. The small crowd shook their heads sorrowfully, muttering amongst themselves and darting furtive glances the Roux brothers who were perched further along the quayside, legs dangling over the water as they dragged exaggeratedly on their hand-rolled cigarettes. If there was mischief to be had, those two youths would be in the midst of it, no doubt.
The mayor signalled to a couple of the men, who came forward and started dragging the remains of the swan into a large black sack.
This was a sad end to an idea that had engaged the minds (and, he’d hoped, the votes) of the villagers, uniting them in support of a project that had gained maximum publicity in the regional newspapers.
For three years, a solitary swan had cruised the canal through the village, her mate having perished when some careless fisherman had abandoned a line in the water. Watching the villagers regularly feeding the abject remaining swan, the mayor had experienced one of his periodic inspirational visions.
At his request, his secretary had spent weeks contacting other municipalities to attempt to locate a male swan without a mate. She had worked tirelessly on his behalf, but then women generally did so, once he had communicated his vision to them. A gift, his mother had said, and one that had served him well throughout his life.
Eventually a swan had been found, and one spring evening, in front of a small crowd, the two creatures had been introduced to another, just as the sun was setting.
In pride of place on his desk at le mairie, stood a framed copy of the photograph that the newspapers had printed, showing the two swans, forehead to forehead, their graceful curved necks describing a heart shaped space between them, the pair framed beneath the bridge opening. It had been a crowning moment of his term of office and had been timed perfectly for the run-up to the mayoral elections.
A master stroke; yet now it had come to this.
He stood dejectedly at the waterside, surrounded by purple petunias, deep orange nasturtiums and variegated ivy tumbling luxuriously out of hanging baskets suspended from the lamp-posts and dripping in colourful tendrils from the bridge spanning the canal. Yet another of his visionary initiatives, designed to bring visitors and revenue to the village. And to win votes.
A hundred metres or so upstream beneath the stone bridge that spanned the canal, a lone swan regarded the scene gravely, her wings curved into a soft cradle along her back. She flitted slowly this way and that, occasionally puffing out her wings above her ample body. The mayor’s heart went out to her.
He wondered whether it had been cruel to enable her to sample a few pleasurable, albeit brief moments of intimacy and companionship. Perhaps it might have been kinder to leave her to continue her life alone, cutting a solitary, brooding figure as she meandered up and down the canal.
Would she, he wondered, be capable of surviving the loss of this, her second mate?
“I’m sorry, Madame Le Cygne,” he whispered, “I did my best for you.”
The swan stretched her neck, hissed abruptly and then drifted slowly upstream, periodically ducking her head to immerse her beak in the murky waters of the canal.
As he turned away, he caught sight of Madame Lafitte, leaning against the arch of the bridge, arms folded across her magnificent bosom. How blessed her late husband had been, he thought, to savour the delights of a woman so obviously in the prime of her life.
The mayor sighed, and felt his cheeks redden the way they always did when he regarded the object of his affections. This was one woman, he reflected, who seemed unable to comprehend or support his visions, in particular the one he had long held regarding a union between the two of them.
Pulse quickening, he strolled across to her, conscious that she was appraising him from head to toe. His colour deepened further.
She shook her head ruefully as he approached.
“I told you, Monsieur le Maire,” she said scornfully, “it would never work.”
He recalled, not without some discomfort, that she had been unimpressed when he had first raised his plans to introduce a second swan. She had advised leaving well alone; it seemed she had been right.
“You cannot blame me for trying, Madame Lafitte,” he said, “the swan was lonely, she needed a mate. And now I suppose the Roux brothers will be satisfied with their deeds.”
“This was never the work of those two,” she laughed shortly, and turned to walk up the canal back to her cottage by the lock. He trailed behind her, like a scolded schoolboy, hoping she might invite him in for a glass or two of absinthe, as she had on memorable but sadly infrequent occasions.
As Madame Lafitte drew level with the swan, she planted her hands on her hips and regarded the swan carefully for a moment or two. Then she threw back her head and started to laugh, a great throaty chuckle that stirred the mayor’s loins pleasurably.
He dragged his eyes from her long, smooth neck and heaving bosom, following her gaze.
Now that he was closer, he could see that the swan’s razored yellow beak and delicately curved neck was heavily stained with blood. A few white feathers, similarly sullied, were still drifting in the water around her, whilst others clung to the reeds close to the bank.
“Ah, ma petite,” Madame Lafitte sighed, still gazing at the swan, “a woman becomes accustomed to her own company, n’est ce pas? These men, will they never understand that?”