The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Swan Sky: A Bittersweet Vintage Japanese Meditation on Love, Loss, and the Eternal Consolations of Belonging

Swan Sky: A Bittersweet Vintage Japanese Meditation on Love, Loss, and the Eternal Consolations of Belonging

To me, what makes the majestic migration of birds so moving is that it is a living spell against abandonment. No one is leaving and no one is being left in this unison of movement along a vector of common purpose. It is the only instance I know of a transition that is not a rupture but an affirmation of a bond — an immense family of beings magnetized together by unassailable belonging, governed by the elemental life-force pulsating beneath every longing for connection and communion.

And yet no spell against abandonment can ever protect us from the most terrifying and most certain of losses. This, in fact, is why the relationship rupture is so psychologically painful — every abandonment is a miniature of death.

Japanese artist and storyteller Keizaburō Tejima brings uncommon tenderness to this bittersweet inevitability of life in his 1988 book Swan Sky (public library) — a soulful addition to the best children’s books about making sense of loss, lensed through the migration of swans.

Partway in time and sensibility between Hasui Kawase and Nikki McClure, Tejima’s woodcuts rise from the page stark and sensitive as a child’s experience of change.

The story begins in a faraway lake, where the swans winter “until the wind is laced with the first warmth of spring.” Year after year, when that moment comes, they lift off as one immense V to soar together toward their summer home in the north, filling the sky with their ancient cries.

For as long as they can remember, this is what they have done.

But this particular spring, one of the young swans remains curled up on the water’s edge, unable to fly away with the rest.

Her family stays with her long after the other swans have left. But no matter how they coax the little swan, she simply tucks her head into her soft, warm wings.

As the snow melts and the miniature suns of petal and pistil cover the land in bloom, the young swan keeps lying still and quiet. One night, looking at the Moon, her father faces the impossible decision of doing what is best for the family.

By morning, the remaining swans have risen into the sky, calling out to the little one with their sad sonorous cries, only to hear her cry back that she cannot go.

And so they do. (There is no sorrow for a child like the sorrow of being left.)

The young swan watches them fly away over the still, still water.

Soon the swans disappear beyond the mountains. The young swan’s last goodbye echoes across the empty lake. She is alone.

But then, suddenly, a white constellation emerges from behind the crest of the mountain — her family has returned for her.

As they gather around her in the moonlight that night, the little swan buries her head into her feathers and falls asleep.

By morning, she has died.

At daybreak, heavy with grief, the swans who loved her lift off into the sky. (There is no sorrow for a parent like the sorrow of losing a child.)

When they arrive in the north, all the other swans have begun nesting. But to the bereaved family, “the land feels empty.”

Then, as the cold morning light breaks through with the promise of summer warmth, they feel a presence take shape in the clouds — the shape of memory, the shape of love, an echo of Hemingway’s insistence, in consoling his friends who had lost their young son, that “no one you love is ever dead.”

Complement Swan Sky with The Blue Songbird — a tender Japanese-inspired picture-book about finding your way home — and a penguin’s antidote to abandonment, then revisit Emily Dickinson on love and loss.

Published June 7, 2024




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