“Flo said to watch out for White Slavers.” The opening line.
She also warns Rose about the retired undertaker, with his also-retired hearse, about the the way that he trawls the countryside, “looking for women”.
“All nonsense, Rose thought. Who could believe it, of a man that age?”
But the world is imperfect, and Rose does see that. Things are not always as they appear.
For instance, now boarding the train to travel to Toronto on her own for the first time, she remembers having travelled there once before with Flo, a few years earlier.
Rose had discovered that the milk bought from the vendor was sour. “Rose kept taking tiny sips, unwilling to admit that something so much desired could fail her.”
Flo makes a fuss, suggests that the vendor smell the milk, enlists the support of passengers who are affronted by the carelessness.
But Rose just kept taking small sips. Wanting something different to happen.
Is it that Rose is optimistic, thinking always that the best will out? Or is it that she simply must hold a view contrary to Flo’s?
Either way, there is an element of her disbelieving Flo, whether that swells from an inherently different outlook or an adopted opposition.
But when the train gets to Brantford, a man asks if she would mind if he sat beside her. In casual conversation, she learns that he is a minister though he doesn’t have his collar on.
Immediately Rose recalls Flo’s warning that the White Slavers often disguise themselves as members of a religious organization, to engender trust in their victims.
But, at least at first, there is nothing alarming about the man (well, that’s just how Flo said it would be).
It seems Rose might believe some portion of what Flo has said, but not enough of it to be fearful, though perhaps curiosity outweighs her anxiety.
He talks about his parishioners, he tells the story of spotting a flock of swans in some water that was lying in a field, with a flock of Canada Geese.
(Why is the story not named for the geese? Are readers meant to note the extraordinary amongst the ordinary?)
“Just by luck. They come in at the east end of Lake Erie, I think. But I never was lucky enough to see them before.”
Is it luck? Or is it really something ordinary, but the act of telling it transforms it into something pseudo-miraculous?
Whatever is it, is the fact that this man boards this train and sits down next to Rose any different? Is it luck? Or is it at the other end of the spectrum, far away from luck?
Shortly after the man seems to have fallen asleep, his hand is on Rose’s knee. “She was careful of her breathing. She could not believe this.”
The narrative slows, although the pace of the journey does not outwardly slow. It’s significant that Rose’s experience unfolds not in Hanratty, but on the train.
She is In motion, moving between destinations. The train is ferrying people between a place they know well and someplace relatively unfamiliar. When Rose disembarks, she is changed.
She did not object, not as Flo did with that chocolate milk some years ago. She is both victim and accomplice, she believes. Not as Flo would have expected, even insisted, that Rose do or be.
“A stranger’s hand, or root vegetables or humble kitchen tools that people tell jokes about; the world is tumbling with innocent-seeming objects ready to declare themselves, slippery and obliging.”
This is a relatively short story (just over 10 pages, whereas “The Beggar Maid” is 40 pages long), which suits the transitory nature of the events.
Nonetheless, it is a tale of transformation, but one which leaves a stain in the telling, for all that it is named for the graceful swans.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s story collection Who Do You Think You Are?, which will continue on subsequent Thursdays. Please feel free to join in, for the series, or for a single story. Next week: “The Beggar Maid”. My Alice Munro reading project began with Dance of the Happy Shades, followed by Lives of Girls and Women, and Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and I aim to read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors.
Next week’s story is “The Beggar Maid”. Care to join in?