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Ugly Duckling

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It's just after sundown and there is a soft knock. For a second, I think it's someone knocking at a neighbor's door, but I get up to check the peep hole and it's Clesp.

Interesting. I unbar the door and the diminutive brainer glides into the room, red robe trailing on the floor. After I secure the door, she lifts her hood, letting it fall to her back. The movement is careful, like lifting gauze from a wound.

Clesp is a mutant. Her face is featureless above the mouth, round and pale like an egg. She has no hair. There is something uncomfortably exposed about her, about her skin, translucent like the palid underbelly of something poisonous. She doesn't make up, but her lips are too red. Seeing her is almost painful.

"May... May I sit?" Her voice is breathy and high and cracks a little as if she is unused to speaking aloud.

"Please." I pull a chair out for her but of course she doesn't need help to find it. No one knows how Clesp sees. She's just aware of her surroundings. She often doesn't face the person she is talking to — there's no eye contact to make.

Seated across the tea table she reaches toward me, palms up, forearms brushing the boxwood inlay. Her right hand is pale, delicate, the fingertips round and smooth, lacking nails, prints. Her left hand is not entirely there, a shifting, sliding swarm of charcoal grey plates with hazy gaps, an exoskeletal glove ghosting in and out.

I take her hands. The right is fever-hot and damp. The left is cool and dry and feels as if it is vibrating, though it is still. I do not flinch.

"My childhood was... hard. I want to tell you a story."

OK. This is weird.

"Please," I say.

"There was a baby duck. You know, a duck?"

I nod and smile my warm smile.

"Only ugly, bald and pale. The other ducklings were afraid of it and threw sticks and rocks at it and called it Egg. They made up cruel songs."

"OK." I am listening. Much of what I do comes down to listening.

"But she grew and grew and after the ducks stopped growing, brown and green heads, orange, orange feet, she kept growing until she was a giant, massing ten ducks, and was all white feathers and beautiful black, black feet."

"Yes."

"You think you know what this story is about," half shouting, she sounds as if she might cry. "But it's not about the swan. It's not about you."

Her grip is suprisingly strong.

"It's about the fish," she hisses. "It's about the fish that hatched from an egg alone at the bottom of the pond when the swan was already huge and beautiful, far above on the mirrored surface. She loved the swan, her grace, her power, the sun. She never saw the ducks."

"Oh." Oh no.

"But to a fish," she leans forward, low now, almost a snarl, "to a fish there is no difference between love and hunger."

She seems to catch herself, to notice our clenched hands, to force herself back down to her seat. There are thin slits on either side of her neck, flaring. She is breathing through them, her lips pressed closed, struggling to rein in her breath.

She recovers herself, looses her grip.

She is breathing deeply, slowly now.

We sit silent for a while.

"What is love like for a swan?" she says in a small voice.

"I... I don't know how to explain it."

"Show me."

"All right."

I stand and start to pull my dress off one shoulder.

"No." She is standing, shouting, hoarse. "I didn't come here for a pity fuck. I don't want that." She rounds the table, a dangerous animal. Her black hand rattles like a snake.

"I want you," her voice is tight, controlled, "to show me how to do what you do."

She's standing right in front of me and she's a head shorter and it's like she's looking up into my eyes, but her face is blank. I feel her breath on my neck.

"I want you to go out in front of those people and take your clothes off how no one can do anything but watch and I want to watch you from inside. I want to be inside you and watch you do it and I want you to show me how."

Her finger plates flutter cool against my breastbone.

"Please," she says.

I know that she could make me, but she is asking. I could send her away.

"I... " I could keep her. I swallow. "I don't know how to show you. I want to." There is a buzzing filling my chest, thrumming around my heart. My throat, my lips feel like they are vibrating. "Come into me." I feel myself say it. "Please. I want to show you. I want you to see."

I step into my shoes with her and unbar the door.