Swan Necks Like Swords – Autumn Christian
September 10, 2021
I stopped eating because I wanted hollow bones. I wanted to float above the furniture. I wanted doctors to take X-rays of my body and find nothing but empty space where the dense, dark honeycombs of fat and fluid and marrow used to be.
My husband Jules was a senior scientific researcher at Nan-Tech, which had spent the better part of two decades creating tiny invisible computers that would be able to devour pollution molecules in the air and eradicate cancerous cells. Since he was always out trying to save the world I had plenty of time to sit on the kitchen floor and scrape the mayonnaise off of sandwich bread.
He took me into the lab only once to show me his work.
“See those things that look like little metal octopuses?” he asked as I looked into a microscope. “Those are tiny computers. They’re self-replicating, self-replicating.”
“How do they work?”
“We modeled them after organic cells. The autonomous systems mimic the fractal reproduction of nature.”
“Oh. I think I get it,” I said, even though I didn’t understand.
“They can rearrange objects on the molecular level,” Jules said. “Extract oxygen from water. Turn water into ice. They could put out fires by pulling the molecules apart so that the heat escaped them.”
He came up behind me, and slipped his hands around my waist. I stiffened.
“They’re like little genies. A thousand could exist in a single drop of blood,” he said. “We’ve already got the interest of doctors, plastic surgeons, environmentalists. Hell, even the president. Imagine the possibilities. We can create a new world with this.”
I liked that idea. The world we had, with its homeless people dying under overpasses and miles of ocean trash, could probably use some improvements.
I still didn’t really understand nanotechnology, but I understood what it felt like to want to be something else so badly that I was sure I tainted every beach, restaurant, park, swimming pool that I touched.
The nights Jules spent sleeping at the office he promised me would one day be worth it. He sent me 4 A.M. text messages while I was throwing up in our downstairs bathroom, and my phone would buzz in-between my clenched thighs.
I’m sorry. I won’t be home tonight.
Close to a break-through. Funding came through.
We’ll be immortal. We’ll be gods. The times I’ve had to leave you alone will seem like nothing when we reach the shore of eternity. I’ll love you like no one has ever been loved before. I’ll love you in inhuman ways that will change history forever.
Please eat the sandwich I left in the fridge.
Once you start eating again we can try for a baby. I know you always wanted to be a mother.
I knew Jules felt guilty. He thought his absence was the reason I didn’t eat. There’s a price for marrying for genius, after all, and I tried to understand that.
Sometimes he’d look outside during his morning coffee and say, “The lawn really needs to be mowed.” As if he forgot he lived in the house we bought together.
I almost believed it was his fault, because for a long time I didn’t really know why either. I guess I could point to a lot of little reasons why starving seemed like a good idea. I used to be a dancer and my instructor, a short little man who’d once taught ballerinas at St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School, would shout at me “Lighter! Lighter!” until I willed myself to be helium instead of blood.
I once passed out at a high-school party and woke up in an unfamiliar bedroom, under sick-yellow lights, to a ghoulish boy leaning over me.
“Ugly whore,” he told me, before he spit in my mouth.
“Men only like women who leave food on their plates,” My aunt told me once. “They say they want a strong woman, but they’re lying. Like fragile wrists. Hip bones. They want to see your bare throat is small enough for their hand to wrap around.”
But none of those things seemed like the real answer as to why I felt the way I did. They were just rationalizations. Things I could tell the therapist Jules got for me as I sank into a plastic-wrapped couch. Explanations that maybe kind of sounded convincing in the staid darkness, but became silly when I walked out into the open air.
And Jules never really seemed to care about my bare throat anyway. He was much too nervous, too caught up in molecular theory and the things beneath things, to even notice the supposed beauty of my body’s thin geometry. Much less be interested in choking me when we had sex.
Several years ago I walked out of our house in a night robe, barefoot, into the swallowing fog. I wanted to kill myself but I was afraid of sudden pain, so I thought as a compromise maybe I could just walk away from home and never come back. I made it as far as the end of the street and collapsed on a swing in the park.
Starvation wasted my muscles and made even walking short distances difficult. I broke out into a sweat in the cool weather, and nausea flushed through my stomach.
The fog cleared for a moment and on a small pond in the center of the park I saw two male mute swans.
They attacked each other. They were nearly silent except for the flutter and flare of their wings. Their necks collided with each other in the shape of a heart. Swan necks sharp as swords. They pulled out each other’s feathers with their beaks.
That’s when I saw the dead female curled up next to her nest underneath a nearby tree. The fighting swans didn’t notice as I crawled against the grass, the wetness seeping through my robe. I moved the dead female’s rump and found a single swan egg cradled in the nest. It was smooth and speckled gray like a stone.
My mouth watered.
I broke the top of the egg with my fingernails and scooped the raw liquid inside into my mouth. I gagged at the taste but forced myself to swallow.
I never mentioned it to anyone. Certainly not to Jules. He was saving the world. It didn’t seem important.
Jules came home one night while I was curled up behind the couch. It had become one of our maladaptive rituals. I’d collapse like a wounded animal in some new place in the house. When he got home from work he’d quietly call to me but I never answered. I pretended to be asleep. He pretended to not know that I was pretending. “You need to stop doing this,” he told me when he found me, but he still carried me up to the stairs into bed.
When he lay down to cuddle me, all his angles were wrong. My head didn’t fit into the space of his neck anymore. His feet extended out nearly past the edge of the bed.
He’d grown six inches taller.
“Do you like it?” he whispered.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Stand up. Let me look at you.”
He climbed out of bed and stood in inside a little slice of light from the hallway. He turned around, this way and that, to show me every angle of him.
“Being tall doesn’t suit you,” I said. “I mean, everything else about you would need to change too.”
This inspired him to kiss me in a deep, long way that I thought he didn’t know how to.
“It will,” he said, nearly breathless.
We had 6 A.M. sex, an inter-dimensional kind of sex. He touched the small of my back where the lanugo had grown.
When you don’t eat for long enough a kind of soft, downy hair called lanugo that was usually only present on the limbs of newborn children. And when he thrust into me I imagined the skin underneath the languo splitting, revealing something new and yet unborn.
I was beginning to understand more about what was wrong with me.
The next week Jules came home with blue eyes instead of brown. Then a deeper voice. Then one night he picked me up and his arms were strong and well defined, like he’d spent his entire life cutting down trees or laying power lines instead of atrophying while studying microscopes and writing research grants. His whole body was corded with new muscle.
When we had sex that night I found myself wrapping my legs around his waist, squeezing him with a gasp.
“You feel dangerous,” I said, admiring him.
He always had a kind of soft look to his face, baby-round, but that was beginning to change shape too. More angles. Darkness welling up in cheekbones that dipped concave. His thin hair ravaged by male pattern baldness was replaced by a dark vampire mane.
He made his cock bigger last. He presented it to me like a gift.
It went from five and a half inches to nine. Increased in girth. In direction. It’d always been a little curved and he sometimes had trouble getting hard because of his nervous disposition.”Do you like it?” he asked. A nervous disposition.
He placed my hand on it he become straight and erect almost instantly.
“Yes,” I said. “Why didn’t you change this first?”
Usually I couldn’t feel much of anything, much less pleasure from his cock inside me. Starving tended to numb out the world both inside and out. And I only liked sex in a kind of theoretical way. Jules had been my first and last.
But that changed when he put his brand new, nano-tech enhanced cock inside of me, and he loomed over me, with his body that had become big and monstrous. I widened my legs. Arched my back. Radiating pleasure came out from underneath circles of dead nothingness.
“I’ve never seen you so… enthusiastic,” he told me.
“Get on your back,” I told him, and I rode him until I orgasmed.
After he came inside me, I went down to the kitchen and binged on everything I could find. Crackers. Half a loaf of bread. A bagged roast chicken. Apples. A bag of croutons. I felt vibrant. Color began to exist in the world again. The feeling came back in my arms and legs.
Maybe everything would be okay.
But in the morning I felt sick and bloated, and I looked at my heaving belly in the mirror, and the cracked lines underneath my eyes. My dry skin and wicker arms and ring of frayed, black hair that was slowly falling out.
Last night had been a mistake. I couldn’t wait to get back to being hungry.
Jules heard me crying and came to meet me in the hallway.
“What’s wrong, baby?” he asked.
“I’m hideous,” I said.
“Oh, sweet baby.”
He kissed my forehead. He cradled me in his heaving, strange arms.
“We can fix that.”
When Jules left for work I went back into the mirror and tried to imagine a different me. I’d seen how much the little nanotech computers changed Jules. I could be every woman who ever walked down a catwalk in haute couture made out of feathers and glass. I could have a severe Polish body like Marie Curie, made sharp and difficult enough to burn radium instead of the other way around. Or I could be as beautiful as Anna Pavlova, who famously danced the Dying Swan, eyes dark like occult paintings, black hair slicked back.
But the more I tried to imagine all the possibilities, the more I realized I didn’t really want to be a woman at all.
Nanotechnology wouldn’t be available to the public for several years, but because I was Jules’ wife I could go through one of the lab’s doctors and get an experimental prescription. All I had to do was sign a series of waivers, undergo a half-hearted psychological evaluation, get a series of blood tests,
Really I should’ve been in the hospital. I weighed in at 92 lbs and had dry cracks in my skin from severe dehydration. Most of the times I could barely form a coherent thought. They came out of me like a thick, dribbling line of drool. But the scientists were willing to overlook my sickness in the name of progress.
I sat in a little white room in a paper gown and waited for my first injection.
“There’s an observation period of 45 minutes. And you need to clear your schedule for the rest of the day,” he said. “Drink plenty of fluids. Take some time to lay down if you need to. It’ll work fast, but it can be a little disorienting.”
“All I do is lay down,” I said.
“Lucky,” he said, “Want to trade?”
“Sure,” I said, and he laughed.
He was trying to maintain professionalism but I could tell he was excited. So excited that he kept tapping his leg, and could barely keep the syringe still. I could tell he was the kind of person who’d become a mad scientist if he wasn’t terrified of prison.
When he pulled my hair from my collarbones to get to the injection point a chunk of it came out in his fingers.
It was a pinch but I imagined it was a light. An obliterating light. I held my breath until he said, “Okay. Done.”
In the 45 minutes I waited in the room the stubborn fat on my thighs and hips melted from my bones. The stretch marks on my stomach melted away. The rough sun damage on my shoulders and underneath my eyes disappeared, freckles given up into ghosts. My cellulite shrank. When the scientist came to check in on me he did a double take.
“Your husband is going to be very happy,” he said. “You should think about doing your hair next session.”
“All men love redheads.”
I thought I was cleared to go, and I took an auto-cab home just to be safe. But by the time I got home and undressed in front of the mirror I realized something unexpected occurred.
The lanugo had grown all over my body. It had gone from baby fuzz to a thick down, all the way from the top of my collarbone down to my pubic area. It’d turned from white to gray. It looked like the new feathers on a baby bird.
Maybe I should’ve been horrified. That’d be the normal thing to do.
But I found myself rubbing my fingers over the growth. Warmth flushed through me. I turned this way and that in the mirror. My reflection seemed to grow new dimensions. The ugliest parts of me seemed to have split open, piercing my skin, to allow the down to grow through.
I collapsed into my bed, still holding myself, running my fingers through the down. Up and down. I imagined half a dozen strangers touching me. Foreign mothers and nannies with golden beaks, half parent, half storybook characters, trilling and cooing at my new beautiful growth.
And I imagined the bed to be a nest. I saw myself gathering sticks outside, everything soaked in moonlight, tearing the linen into strips with my teeth, twisting them into crowned latticework. A new birthplace, for a new thing to be fed, soft-mouthed, resurrected hungry into a fresh body.
I was in the lab two days later, back in that little white room. A parade of scientists came in to study my new thick hair. They took more blood samples. Checked my temperature. My blood pressure. They plugged my blood into a slide that was then ran through a computer to check to see how the nanite code had mutated inside of me. They ran test after test in incomprehensible programs that spit out even less cogent graphs and charts of data. Even Jules came by, although I’m sure that was violating some kind of ethics law, and ran his fingers up and down my down-covered back.
“We’ve never seen a reaction like this,” Jules said.
“That bad?” I asked, feeling kind of bored. It must’ve been hours of tests.
“Of course it’s nothing to be worried about,” Jules said. “It’s a simple error. We can simply inject you again. Change it back. New nanite code will replicate itself. Communicate to the others and add to their patterns.”
I brushed my fingers against my chin. It had been our code for years for him to get me away from other people. He caught it right away.
“Can I have a few minutes alone with my wife?” he asked the other scientists.
They left the room. I turned to Jules.
“I don’t want to get rid of it,” I said. “I like it.”
I raised my hands in my paper gown. Turned around. Arms outstretched.
“I’d like you to give me wings. White wings.”
“Like an angel?” he asked.
I swallowed. I’d never been vulnerable with him. Not really. Sure, I’d collapsed in front of him, my weak rib cage feeling like it was ready to peel. I’d mewled that I loved him.
But I’d never told him a truth that could reach its head back around its own neck, to tear out my skin.
I shook my head. “No. Not like an angel. Like a swan.”
I held my arms out so long waiting for his response that I began to shake. But when I went to lower them he grabbed my arms and propped them up. I still didn’t recognize the way he held me, towering over me, a new silhouette, with arms almost three times the size they used to be.
“They would fire me if they knew I did that to you,” he said.
“Keep it a secret, then,” I said. “I know you can.”
My mouth watered like it did when I’d pressed my fingers into the swan egg.
“I… I need this, Jules.”
He regarded me. His eyes trembled inside his head.
“If I do this for you,” he said. “I want you to eat.”
I nodded. “Yes, I will.”
“Promise me,” he said. “Promise me that if I make you a swan, you’ll do this for me.”
“I promise,” I said, and at the time I wanted to believe it.
When my wings grew in, the gray down across my body burst into white feathers. The bones in my legs shrank and became brittle like porcelain full of holes. I couldn’t fly, but I had to walk with delicate steps or the bones in my feet would break.
Jules brought me sandwiches. I pretended to pick at them, and then hid them in napkins. I’d dispose of them later in the nearby trash, shredded to unrecognizable pieces.
Then it came I could no longer hold a spoon. I had to eat soup by pressing the bowl between my elbows and taking long, careful sips. The soup always grew cold before I finished.
I was ecstatic.
I imagined this was what saints used to feel like, after starving for years, pressing their emaciated bodies against crucifix icons and begging for a miracle with dry lipped kisses. God would let them continue to kneel, but he’d show them a single light of heaven through a pinhole in the corner of their eyes.
Jules drew my blood one night at home and performed tests on his little computer. He sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, rubbing his chin, muttering to himself.
“There’s an aberration in the code,” he said. “A little mutation. It’s manifesting across your bloodstream.”
“What does that mean?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“Bite me,” I whispered. “Hold me down and bite me.”
He stopped, fingers poised across his keyboard.
I’d never told him that I needed him, but that’s what those words meant. Bite me. Bite. Me. I need you to impose your will on me. Burn it into me. Sear it into me. Warp my gravity until I can’t be me anymore without your teeth on me.
He put the computer away and loomed over me in the bed. For a moment he hovered over me, thinking, as if deciding something.
“Please, Jules,” I said.
That seemed to be wanted to hear. He wrapped his fingers gently around my throat.
“Say it again,” he commanded me. In a way I’d never heard him speak before. “Tell me what you want me to do to you.”
“Bite me,” I said. “Please.”
“You haven’t been eating like you promised me,” he said. “I’m not stupid. I see how long it takes you to eat.”
I said nothing.
“I could kill you, you know,” he said, his voice darker than I’d ever heard it. “Crush you. Break every little piece of you. And I’d do it slowly, too. For every time you made me feel like your sickness was my fault. For every time you starved yourself to spite me.”
Jules pressed his forehead into mine. His breath hissed between clenched teeth. My heart raced when I felt the way his fingers twitched across my throat. He was deciding if he should clamp down or not. Deciding if he should squeeze until my lungs burned. I’d never been more turned on in my life.
“I will never starve again,” I said. “I will do anything you want.”
“That’ll be a start.”
He flipped me over easily. He clamped his teeth into the back of my neck and bit down. He thrust his huge cock, which he’d grown three more inches, into me so deep I thought I’d split apart.
Jules administered my nanite treatments privately, at night after work. My treatments had progressed enough that he couldn’t risk taking me to the office anymore. Even after everybody else had gone home.
But nanites were self-replicating, after all, and proprietary code and delimiters hadn’t been added to the experimental version. He could simply draw my blood, enter it into the slide, reprogram, then inject it back into me. Easy.
I shrank. My bones shifting in me sounded like the ocean.
I preferred it that way. I didn’t want to go back to the white rooms. I didn’t want to risk being overseen by a fussing scientist. They would’ve been horrified by what I’d become. They’d want me to talk to a therapist, want to reverse the treatments, get medical help, probably a visit to the psych ward.
Jules would probably be fired for misconduct and they’d take away his height and his huge cock. I couldn’t have that.
And I could not go back to being the woman with sagging knees and liver-spotted skin. I couldn’t go back to the death wish. Numbed out. A slow coward’s death. To walking down the aisle at my wedding and looking down at my feet the entire time. To gagging on the taste of dry toast and salad smothered in hot sauce.
And I couldn’t go back to quiet Jules. Nerdy Jules. Jules who walked with his shoulders slumped and quietly deferred to me until I began to despise him for his weakness.
The nanotech had saved us. I realized that now. Before the nanite treatments we’d just been disintegrating into each other’s arms.
I stopped being able to walk, but I could flap my wings so that my feet floated above the ground for a couple of seconds. Jules opened the window for me and warm summer came into the room, lifted the edges of the bed-sheet.
I ate whatever Jules brought to me. I sucked his cock as long as he wanted, submitted myself to every sex act, as long as he hurt me while he did it. He shattered my thighs. He fucked me in the ass until my skin tore. Then he’d repair me. Make my cells stitch back together as he cleaned the blood from my feathers.
I never gained any weight. I simply became more beautiful. My feathers whiter and sleeker. My eyes shinier. My limbs more delicate. I stared at myself naked in the mirror. It used to be a punishment. Now I preened.
And all the while Jules became bigger. Darker. Crueler. His chin was sharp enough to be a cliff. The huge span of his chest barely fit across the length of the bed. He could easily lift me in one hand. His thumb was bigger than my entire foot.
Error messages slid down his computer every night when he tested the nanites in the slide.
But I was dreaming of a second wedding. He’d carry me up the side of a cliff, crushing white flowers underneath his hulking feet. After the vows were said he’d release me and I’d fly over the edge of the cliff.
For a moment I’d be free, weightless, my body a mirror for the sun and ocean.
Then with with a thrust of casual cruelty, he’d reach out across the water and pull me right back to him.
One day I awoke and my my eyes were too far apart.
My face looked like a rotten peach. My feathers seemed dull, fringe-tipped at the edges. My bones felt too heavy despite being hollow.
The nanite readout told me that I was currently at 8% body-fat, less than any normal human woman’s body could have. I swore I could see a pouch of fat underneath the feathers in my belly. It pooled underneath my skin. I felt it when I moved, greasy and incumbent, like oil on the top of water.
Even sunlight seemed to fall wrong against my body.
I called out for Jules, but he’d already left for work. He likely wouldn’t be back home until early in the morning. He’d left my water and thermos of cold soup next to the bed.
The loathing came all at once. I needed to get out of my body. It was only 9:45 A.M. I couldn’t wait for Jules. I couldn’t stand another single second in this ugly, bloated, heinous ruin.
I swung my feet off the side of the bed. I tried to put pressure on them and they shattered. I screamed, but my vocal chords had mutated in my throat so that it came out like a rasp.
I dragged myself to Jules’s computer, one frenzied arm pushing the other. Several of my fingers broke before I reached the keyboard. I broke another one typing in his password. Another scream trapped itself in my body.
I’d seen Jules work with the code enough. I could fix myself. Simple as changing a few numbers. I’d erase the rest of the fat from my body. Let my blood pool out of me in a new shape.
It was while scrolling through the list of changes Jules had enacted on me in the last few months that I’d discovered I’d been pregnant.
I slid down off the chair and broke my hip. I felt the bones sort of fold inside of me. Like if someone had crushed a flower in their fist so that the petals pushed inward.
He’d erased the baby inside me.
Erased it with those little magic genie computers. As simple as pressing a button.
I couldn’t even cry. My tear ducts had been removed. I’d used up all of my screams. There was nobody to call. I wouldn’t have been able to use a phone anyway. Nobody to hear my grief, even with a window open into warm summer.
I rasped. I slammed my face against the ground. Several remaining teeth broke in my mouth. I didn’t have the strength to spit them out, so I just stuck my tongue out and the fragments rolled out.
A bubble of bloody snot streamed down my face.
I felt myself overheating. Something in me was shifting, groaning, like a tiny tree limb being crushed underneath a stone.
I dragged myself underneath Jules’s computer desk and curled around the wheels of the chair.
And I thought my days of hiding behind furniture, my body contorted like a wounded animal, were over. But I had been wrong about so many things, that was the least of them.
Something in me buzzed. The edges of my body became distorted with a living blackness. Like the borders of me were glitching. The air shimmered.
I knew right away what it was.
It was the nanite computers. They’d come out of my body, eaten their way into the air around me. They didn’t just move through blood. They could move through existence itself, molecule by molecule, grappling from one. Grabbing.
They were dancing with my pain.
Jules found me at four in the morning. I had become a fragmented wound, black buzzing at my edges. I was almost too delirious to know whether Jules was real or was part of the extended nightmare I’d been having for the last twelve hours. I awoke as he carried me to the bed, calling my name. My throat was cracked and dry from dehydration. My stomach was a fissure. I could feel almost nothing but pain.
“My god,” he said, and a little bit of his old nervousness crept back into his voice. “What happened? Baby. Tell me what happened.”
I wanted to tell him:
I don’t think I wanted to be a bird. I just wanted to disappear.
And for a moment, a single moment, before I realized that you’d erased the child in me I thought that maybe I could reverse all this. I didn’t have to starve. I didn’t have to be crippled.
I could be a beautiful woman with mahogany hair, shining eyes, skin flushed with healthy fat, stomach soft and round. I saw us holding hands with our child, conjoined forever. All of our monstrous parts gone. It was the eternal love you always talked about in your messages that you left me when you worked late at the office. The kind I never believed in until that instant.
For one single moment I thought I carried the sun inside me.
But you took that from me, and now there’s nothing left in me. I’m a vacuum. A mirror that reflects nothing. An empty closet in a hidden room in a house that’s sinking into the ground.
But I couldn’t speak, so I said none of those things.
When Jules leaned over to kiss me I bit him with what little strength I had and broke my jaw. I felt the nanites gush out of the holes in my bones. Like a mechanical twist, reality itself changing. They swarmed through the air, turning it black and dense. I couldn’t breathe. My body disappeared out from underneath me.
The nanites flew into Jules. Into every piece of him. He didn’t even have time to pull away. To blink. To think. Angry little magic machines. Machines infused with the scream that couldn’t escape me. They breached his blood and bones and he unraveled in front of me as they took him over completely. In the end, all I heard was the wet sound of him being torn apart and our nerves touching in the open air.
And then they erased both of us from reality.