The male swan tilted his head to the left. The female swan tilted her head to the right.
"What do you mean, you didn't count them?" the male asked.
The female ruffled her feathers. "Well, I had only planned to be gone for a moment. It wasn't my idea to swim across the pond to see if the watercress was more tender on the other side."
"I see," said the male. "So it's my fault you can't remember if you laid three eggs or four?"
"Did I say it was your fault?" the female asked. "I believe it was three."
"But you're not sure."
"Correct." They looked at the eggs again. "Well," the female said after a moment, "what should we do?"
"Get rid of the intruder, of course," the male said. "I won't have you sitting an another bird's egg."
"Of course," the female repeated. "And which one would the 'intruder' be?" The male stretched out his neck and nudged each egg with his bill.
"This one," he said, and rolled it to one side of the nest. "No, wait ... This one looks darker than the others." He pushed a second egg apart. "Then again ..."
"You can't tell, either, can you?" she said.
He fluffed his feathers and stamped one webbed foot. "No, I can't. Damn my love for young watercress! We'll be the laughingstock of the pond, raising some inferior foul's hatchling--Oh! Do you suppose it's a duck? You know how they're always watching us and snickering."
"You're imagining that," his mate replied. She pushed the four eggs back together and settled herself down on top of them with a sigh.
"What are you doing?" the male asked. "We haven't decided upon a course of action yet."
"I just did," the female said. "I will sit upon these eggs until they hatch, and should one of them turn out to be not a cygnet, we will leave the worthless creature for the foxes."
The male nodded sagely. "Exactly what I was about to suggest," he said.
"Oh, you were not," the female said. "Go look for your watercress and leave me alone; I'm tired." She tucked her head under her wing. The male stood beside her for a moment, then turned and slipped into the water.
Still seated upon her nest, the female swan watched her mate and their three downy gray cygnets paddle up to the bank and climb out of the pond. She sighed and fluffed her feathers.
"Anything?" the male swan asked.
"Not a single peep," the female replied.
"Well, it's not for a lack of trying," the male said. "Come on, leave it. It's obviously not ours."
"Obviously," the female repeated, but she remained on the nest. She watched as one of her curious offspring plucked a long blade of grass and held it by one end in his bill. His sister caught the other end and they began to tug each other back and forth. Suddenly, the grass snapped and both of them tumbled over backward. She chuckled and glanced around for her third child. He was down at the edge of the water watching a pond-skater glide across the surface of the water.
"Something on your mind, dear?" the male asked, stretching out his neck to preen the feathers at his mate's throat.
"Oh," she said and then sighed again. "I was just thinking about this egg. It just doesn't feel right, abandoning it."
"Its mother didn't have a problem abandoning it."
"And do we really want to compare ourselves to her, whoever she is? And that's another thing. We don't know who left their egg here. Maybe she didn't have a choice. Did you think about that? What if she was young? What if her mate was killed? Maybe she thought laying her egg with ours would be best for her child. Did you consider that?"
"No," the male admitted. "I suppose under those circumstances, we would have a responsibility to care for the orphan. However, I suspect that egg is empty. Our young hatched three days ago. Why is this one taking so long?"
"Clearly, it's not a swan," she replied. "At least, not a trumpeter swan."
The male ruffled his feathers. "Well, I don't much like the thought of that," he said, "but I suppose if it's a mute, or a whooper, or even a damn snow goose, we can raise it as one of our own. As long as it's not a duckling, I don't care."
The female nuzzled his cheek. "Thank you, dear."
The egg was hatching. The male swan and his week-old cygnets stood on one side of the nest, the female on the other, watching as the large white egg rocked from side to side.
"What's it going to be, Mama?" their eldest son asked.
"We're not sure," the female replied.
"I bet it's a goose," their daughter said, stretching out her neck to poke at the egg.
"As long as it's not a duckling," the male said, "he or she will be treated no different than any other member of the family. Not everyone can be fortunate enough to be born a swan."
"Here he comes!" squeaked their youngest son as a tiny hole appeared in the side of the egg.
"It'll be some time yet," the female said. "It took you three most of the day to--" With a loud crack, the egg split in two and the newest member of the swan family flopped out onto the bottom of the nest.
"He's so cute!" squeaked the youngest. The male and female looked at each other, not quite sure what to say. Cute was not a word they'd have chosen. Its long, green body was covered in scales and its wet, leathery wings hung limp at its sides. It raised its head and looked at each of them, blinking bright, golden eyes, and then belched a puff of smoke.
"Well," the female said finally, "it's not a duckling."
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