The Things They Say
This is what they say, the ones on the ground: swan maidens make the most beautiful wives.
When Micha would land, alighting in lush flowering meadows or on the banks of glistening turquoise lakes, she would feel herself on the surface of the world, as delicate as a water strider. The earth pushing against her feet, her weight pressing back in turn, and when she shed her skin, oh! The air prickling and heating her flesh like a lover’s touch, the lapping water caressing her. So glorious, to be both in her body and free of it. So glorious, to be in the world, to feel the world in herself.
They say: swan maidens make the most docile wives, for their strength lies solely in their skins.
Micha was born in a nest on a tiny island in the middle of a vast lake, so that her first view was that of a blue-grey world without end. Everywhere she looked was hers; everywhere she looked was possible. For her first flight she sailed in a great arc up to the edge of the sun, letting the heat graze her, and then plummeted back into the water’s depths singing mine mine mine. She was the world and the world was hers and anything was possible. So it was for them all, for the others calling from below and above, all of them singing, all of them free.
They, the ones on the ground, they whisper: of how the swan maiden’s feathers, discarded like a shawl, will coil instinctively around you, a hundred grasping fingers longing to find purchase. Longing to be worn again.
In the winter the swans fly south and in the summer they fly north, chasing the sun’s path. A game of flavors, to follow the taste of the heat in the air, the blossoming from the land beneath. There is no form to their transit save their whims: some fly together, some apart; some make straight for the next landing, some tarry and wander. For the world is theirs and they are the world.
This is what they say about swan maidens: they want to be wedded. That is why they land and expose themselves, hoping to catch a man’s eye. Who would choose to live like an animal, without clothes or shelter, language or love? You’re saving them by bringing them home.
This is what they whisper, after many drinks: how husbands, tiring of their docile, lovely wives, will sometimes sneak the skins into a dark corner and press and press, feeling those vigorous feathers grasping and raking in turn, not caring whether they were trying to cling more tightly, or claw themselves free.
The Story of Brea
Her name had been Brea, once.
Micha had not heard her approach. She had been swimming lazily in a spring-plumped river when she heard the rustling of her feathers; on the shore she found Brea frantically unbuttoning her blouse, button after tiny round button, a seemingly endless line bisecting her body. The feathers twining under her snug, upright collar and curling around her face. Her lips mouthing please oh please and when she saw Micha her expression turned ugly and she jerked upright, clutching the skin to her chest. I will return it, she cried, I will return it, only please … the sky …
Micha hesitated, the water pattering on the grass beneath her feet. When she did not move, Brea resumed her unbuttoning and finally wrenched the blouse open. She worked an arm out of her sleeve but when she drew the skin on it hung in loose folds. At the sight she burst into tears; when Micha made to comfort her she flung the skin between them and stood there, her bared chest pimpling in the air, the blouse hanging limp and wrinkled. Between them Micha’s skin lay in a little heap, its feathers curling impotently. Micha stepped forward, thinking to snatch it away, but then Brea spoke.
You cannot linger. Her voice harsh with sorrow. They will come, and steal your skin, and you will follow them because where else can you go, naked and without resource? She held out her bare arm and Micha saw the fading lines where once a skin had held firm. I found it, finally, but it no longer fit, as yours does not fit. We held each other but we could not fit, for I had changed too much.
She wept again, and Micha wept too, though she did not quite understand.
I love my son. Her voice thick with sorrow. And my husband is a better man than many. Only he tells our son, now, to find a woman as pretty and sweet as his mama, to search the lakes and rivers as he did. Do you see? Do you see why you must not linger?
Micha, weeping, nodded without understanding.
I love them, I tell them every day that I love them! I do all that he bids me and more! Only why then could I not fly? I would never leave my son, ever, I would always come back. Why couldn’t he let me fly?
Her voice stirred the birds from the trees, sending them up in sympathy, and Micha too wanted to fly, to flee Brea’s anger. But before she could move came the sound of wheels, a whinnying horse; Brea seized the skin and flung it over Micha’s shoulders. Quickly, she said. Quickly, before they see you.
Micha drew on her skin and hurried back to the river where she settled into herself, paddling serenely as she watched two men approach. One older, one young and lanky and looking like the older man and Brea both. The father spoke to Brea, making a gesture as if to pet her, but there was scolding in his voice; she heard Brea’s response in the same harsh sounds, so strange to Micha’s ears. Brea buttoning up her blouse, button after tiny round button, her fingers slipping and tangling in their haste.
As they spoke their son wandered to the to the river’s edge, his eyes following Micha and the other swans. The father came up behind him, and when he looked again at Brea she turned and walked away, back into the trees.
They spoke together, and the father ruffled the son’s hair and the young man laughed and then the two were seated on the riverbank, pulling off their heavy boots and thick socks and rolling up their trousers. Together they waded into the water, their lumbering movements sending ripples that clashed with the river’s easy currents and stirred the swans to nervousness. Micha called and snapped, urging them caution even as the men began lunging, their hands grazing feathers and their legs churning up the water. All became panic, a flurry of kicking feet and flapping wings, a cacophony of squawks and cries and grunts of pain as sharp beaks bit soft skin, but finally the two men seized a swan and wrestled her to the riverbank. Micha screeched fear and rage in time with the others, she kicked forward and bit at the air, and the young man was pale with terror until his father yelled, raising his voice above the fury. Delicate bones snapped beneath his white-knuckled grip as he dug into the feathers, feeling for seams that were not there. Down drifted on the air and caught on the water’s surface as the swan cried and cried.
The young man swallowed down his tears, and did not let go.
The Art of Gliding
She was awakened by the passage of men through the woods, crushing the shrubs in their path, their heavy voices laughing and shouting to one another. Halfway to her skin they broke through the edge of the clearing and stared in astonishment.
One man stepped carefully towards her. He spoke in slow, enunciated syllables that she understood without comprehension. Her heart hammering as she measured out the remaining distance, the men’s speed. When she bolted for the skin they yelped like hounds and ran at her. Sliding into her skin as the first rough palm grazed her leg, she was changing even as they tried to pull her back, her screams turning to calls and her neck elongating enough to bite and bite, going for their wild, rolling eyes. Only then did she see the nets they had brought.
She flies without ceasing, day and night and day again, searching for where there is only blue-grey above and below, the sweetness of empty space as far as the eye can see.
The trick, she learns, is to wait until the moment when her body first starts to slip downward, just the slightest dip in the air, and then flap her wings the once.
But no one can glide forever.
From below they watch, tracking her passage, ready to give chase. The most beautiful wives, the most docile. Their feathers clinging. Why couldn’t he let me fly.
Searching, searching, for a blue-grey world without end, a world that is hers and theirs alone, where everything is still possible. Ours, she sings, and beats her wings once. Ours, ours. Until.
BIO: L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. She is the author of the gothic novellas Harkworth Hall and Leviathan. Her first collection, Vacui Magia: Stories, won the North Street Book Prize and was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Find her online and sign up for her newsletter at www.traversingz.com.
Of this short story, L.S. Johnson says, “It is an elegy for swan maidens, and perhaps for others as well. Or at least that is what this aspires to be.”