(photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The wind slipped cold, cruel fingers down my collar and teased at the heavy scarf around my neck and it fluttered and danced around my face as I walked carefully down the slushy sidewalk. The afternoon sun was high and bright but the temperature was still bitingly cold.
I’d been wandering in and out of the shops that line the main street of Traverse City, Michigan, looking for some kind of token to bring home with me. Valentine’s Day was coming.
I picked up a few things as I shopped: jam made from Michigan cherries, a postcard, a pair of gloves. But nothing carried the true weight of what I wanted to say.
Finally, running out of time, I turned off the main street and walked toward the shore of the Lake.
As I navigated the path, I was careful to avoid the iciest patches. The deep snow formed a high white wall around the edge of the lake and I noticed there were no other footprints. A few cars were parked at the edge and the occupants were protected as they ate their lunches and gazed out at the water, but no one else was foolish enough to get out and face the relentless cold.
I stood there, open to the wind that poured across the lake freezing everything in it’s path. My face was numb, my eyes watered. My toes and fingers ached.
The deep azure color of the lake, rimmed by snowy beaches and green hills, flowed up toward the sky in bands of blue broken only by small clouds. There was a skim of ice on the water closest to the shore and for a few minutes I watched a pair of swans, side-by-side, floating languidly in the frigid water. I remembered reading that swans mate for life and wondered, again, if it is true.
Finally, surrendering, I pushed my hands deeply into my pockets and started to turn away but stopped when the pair of swans moved. As I watched, in a slow, subtle, water-ballet, the pair turned slightly toward one another, long necks gracefully arched, heads pointed down to the water, swimming breast to breast. And for a moment, at least from where I was standing, the space between them formed the shape of a perfect heart.
Swans live their lives the same way so many humans do, it’s just that our seasons are longer. We court in the spring, have our young in the summer and in the winter, after the young have left the nest, we are content to swim alone, close to our mate for comfort and company.
My fingers were cold and too slow to bring out my camera and by the time I pressed the shutter the swans had turned away. But I had found my Valentine.
I was looking for a card or a gift but it took a pair of wild winter swans to show me the way. This Valentine's Day, all I really want to say is that when we are winter birds, I will still be here. I will always be the other half of the heart.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org