Title: The Seventh Swan
Source: The Seven Swans from Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Genre: Original Dark Fairy Tale
Beta Reader: Nzomniac
Word Count: 3490
Summary: A post-modern, contemporary retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Seven Swans.
Witches always have their wars. Mona is placed under a curse by a rival witch, her seven brothers turned to swans. For the next seven years, Mona works in silence, weaving the magic shirts that will restore her brothers to human form.
When the seven years end, the final shirt is unfinished. Mona’s youngest brother Isaiah--who has spent half his life human, half enchanted--is left behind, alone in the bleak world of reality, one arm the wing of a swan.
Author’s Note: This is going to be my entry in the_bwg dark fairy tale contest.
The Seventh Swan
Isaiah had been living in
The year before, when he was fourteen, he’d been picked up wandering down the Magnificent Mile in a hailstorm wearing a tunic made of rags, one arm a great white wing, the wing of a swan, though no one seemed to see it.
Even without seeing the wing, Social Services couldn’t quite figure him out. It was weeks before he could tell them his name. When they plugged “Isaiah Lemphere” into their computer, all it showed were school records up to second grade from a dismal little village in
It came back to him quickly enough. Within a few months, he was speaking and reading at the level of a second grader. He remembered things, too, not that he shared them with his case workers. He kept his arm (the wing that only he could see) hidden in a sling, and he kept his mouth shut. He didn’t remember a lot, but he remembered the most important rule was “never tell outsiders our ways.”
He remembered things up till he was seven. He remembered the yellow school bus taking him and his brothers into the village. It was a long, nauseating ride up and down hills, around a lake, and through the woods. They lived deep in the woods in a house shaped like an origami sphere, a globe composed of geometric planes. There had been eight of them in all. Isaiah was the youngest. He had six brothers, and then there was Mona, the oldest, a decade older than Isaiah. Mona, who was the only girl. The witch of the family.
They had no parents. That was one of the main secrets to be kept from outsiders. One winter morning when Isaiah was still a baby, the others had found parts of their mother strewn across the snow, dangling from the trees. Bad magic. That was how witches ended. That was the only ending for a witch. Isaiah had always known that. He could not remember a time before he knew it. He could not remember a time before he looked at Mona’s crimson hair and thought of blood.
In the end, bad magic had gotten them all, not just Mona. He remembered the last afternoon as they sat beside the lake. It was gray. Early winter. Cold, though the lake would need months more to freeze. His brothers had built a fire, and they were all around the fire, their mad Lemphere hair, ranging from Mona’s crimson to purple to maroon, illuminated by the flames like strange flowers. Then she stepped from the gray twilight into the circle of firelight.
She was an angelic looking woman, white and blonde, but another important rule was “just because something is pretty doesn’t mean you should trust it.” The woman was pretty, but she smelled of vomit. Her eyes were surrounded by lashes, sticky thick and black as the legs of a tarantula.
When she appeared, the brothers rose and as a body moved between the strange woman with the spider eyes and their precious sister. As if they were the ones with the power, as if they were the ones who could protect her. The woman raised her hand, spoke a word and everything changed for Isaiah. After that, it was a world of wind and water. A world without words. A world without time, though time did pass. Seven years worth of time before Isaiah came back to earth in a strange city, fourteen years old and all alone with one arm turned into a wing that only he could see.
Isaiah had been a little boy when everything changed and not a witch, so he’d never known that much about magic. Still, he knew he was in trouble when the spiders started following him. Sticky, furry black spiders, legs like lashes skittering over his backpack, darting across the crackling ceiling of the room he shared in the group home. He saw them in the park, in the market, in the library.
He saw the spiders, but they didn’t know he saw them.
In the school resource room, Isaiah was taking a test. One of the endless tests required to document that his vocabulary was indeed seven years behind his age. One of the spiders came too close. He had a pencil in his hand, a sharpened number two pencil, and he stabbed the spider with it. Stabbed its fuzzy, dark body. Far away he heard someone screaming. The spiders disappeared. Bad magic.
Two days later, he saw the man for the first time, standing on the platform of the El station, watching him on the street below. The man was maybe in his mid-twenties, tall and slender like a young tree. He was wearing a long overcoat of silvery, shimmery, pale blue brocade, silver gray fur at the sleeves and collar. His hair was a mousy, nearly colorless blondish-brown, fine as webs or a tattered old veil. There was a square of gauze taped over one of his eyes, and the other was framed in lashes sticky black as spider legs.
Isaiah saw the man several more times over the next week. He kept his distance. He watched. He was waiting on the opposite side of the street when Isaiah got out of school. From the window in his room, he spotted the man lingering outside the building.
“Do you see that guy?” he asked Claude, the boy who shared his room. Claude was a chubby black kid three years younger than Isaiah.
“There’s nobody out there, retard,” Claude said without looking. Isaiah didn’t mind that Claude called him a retard because Claude wasn’t any good at school either. He’d had a mean mother who smoked too much crack and messed him all up. He had brothers and sisters he never got to see because they were in gangs and jail.
Drugs, crime, magic. It all got you to the same places. If you were a kid and didn’t know anything, you got messed up. If you were smart and had powers, you could be rich … until you ran into someone who was smarter and had more power, then you could be dead.
“What’s wrong with your arm?”
When the man finally spoke, it took Isaiah by surprise. He hadn’t seen him this time, not till the voice intruded on his thoughts, his memories of gliding over water. He was down by the lake near the Lincoln Park Zoo watching the gray November waves toss the swan-shaped boats. He never knew the man was there till he asked, “What’s wrong with your arm?”
“I broke it,” Isaiah answered automatically because he was used to answering adults’ questions. Then he remembered this man wasn’t a teacher or a social worker or anyone, so he added, “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Your caseworker says there’s nothing wrong with your arm,” the man said. “She says you’ve been wearing that sling for almost a year.”
“Mrs. Cook isn’t supposed to talk about me unless you’re a teacher or another caseworker or something like that and you’re not,” Isaiah said.
“Still, she talked to me.”
“Because you’re magic?” It sounded stupid when he said it out loud. He’d been careful not to mention magic during the past year. It was bad enough that everyone thought he was stupid; he didn’t want them to think he was crazy, too (though the thing with the arm definitely convinced a few people he was). The man, though, knew just what he was talking about. He didn’t even bother pretending he didn’t. He only nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “Because I’m magic.”
It was easy enough to tell. Witches and people from magic families never looked quite like regular people. They tended to have faces like old photographs and weird touches. Magenta hair and a swan’s wing for an arm in Isaiah’s case. Attic veil, cobweb hair and tarantula eyes in the man’s.
“Who are you?” Isaiah asked. “What do you want?”
“My name’s Royal,” the man said. “I’m looking for Mona, for your sister. She was my wife.”
“Mona couldn’t get married. She was just a kid. I mean, she’s seventeen, but that’s too young.”
“Mona got older, just like you did,” Royal said. “She’s my age, twenty-five. She was twenty-one when we were married.”
“If you’re her husband, why isn’t she with you?”
“She disappeared the night you reappeared, you and your brothers. They flew away with her. Do you remember?”
“A little.” He remembered the jolt of returning to human consciousness after being away from it for so long. He remembered suddenly being in an unfamiliar body, his senses altered, no longer working as they ought. His brothers had been there, and Mona. They were high in the air. Mona was pointing, saying something, but he hadn’t understood language in so long that he didn’t know what she’d said…
“You might as well leave me alone,” Isaiah said. “If I knew where Mona was, I wouldn’t be hanging around here.”
Royal reached out a long, pale hand and touched the boy’s cheek. It felt odd. Isaiah couldn’t remember anyone touching him since before everything changed. “You look like Mona,” Royal said. “You look like your sister.”
Isaiah stepped away.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “It’s creepy.”
A swan boat glided by on the choppy, gray water. It had been a year, and Mona and his brothers hadn’t come to find him. Maybe they hadn’t come because of this man. After all, he had those spider eyes. Isaiah looked up at him and scowled.
“You look like her,” he said accusingly.
“No, the other witch. She was a pretty witch; her hair was long and blonde. She had spider eyes just like you do. She came after Mona, and when we tried to stop her--my brothers and I--she put a spell on us. She changed us. We stopped being ourselves and were something else. We forgot Mona; we forgot everything and flew away,” he said, then softly, almost a whisper, “I think she changed us into swans.”
“That was Joyce,” Royal said. “My sister.”
“That’s your sister?”
“That was my sister,” the man said. “She’s dead now. She died on the rooftop the night you and your brothers came back and Mona disappeared. Let me tell you what happened as far as I know it. What happened when you were a swan.
”Joyce was the witch of my family, like Mona was of yours. I couldn’t do magic, but I knew a lot about it. Our parents were dead like most. Witches don’t live long. Joyce and I lived in a penthouse in the John Hancock Building.” Isaiah nodded. It made sense. The
“I lead a normal life,” Royal said. “Or as close to normal as life can be for a witch’s brother. I’m sure you know something about that. I was a student, and then I managed the companies our parents had left us.
“Joyce was away a lot, sometimes for months at a time. Witches are territorial--they go after each other. Joyce was aggressive. She was always going out, looking for others, going after them. She was greedy; she wanted power on top of power. I was just as greedy with my companies, so I never saw anything wrong with it. Joyce never told me about the things she did when she was away. I never knew about how she transformed you and your brothers. When I met Mona, I didn’t know my sister had cursed her.
“I found her on the street. There are boxes where you can drop off donations for thrift stores. Sometimes they get too full and people pile up old clothes around them. There was one near my office. That’s where I first saw your sister. She was sitting on the sidewalk in a heap of old clothes, ripping them into long strips and knotting them together. It was the middle of winter, twenty degrees and windy. Her hands were blue and cracked and bloody. I saw her there, day after day.
“I was… magnetically attracted to her, though at first it disgusted me. She was a street person, a homeless woman, mad, filthy. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, looking at her. Finally, I had to touch her. I took her hand and she bit me because I’d interrupted her weaving. She bit me, but her eyes explained it all. I knew she was magic or at least special. I took her home with me.
“I could tell she understood me when I spoke,” Royal said, “but she never said a word. Never spoke. She didn’t write or use any kind of sign language either. Maybe she could have, but her hands were always occupied weaving and knotting cloth into shirts or tunics. I didn’t understand what she was doing or why she was doing it, but I knew she had to do it so I tried to make it easy for her.
“She wouldn’t stop to eat so I fed her myself, spoonful by spoonful. I combed her hair. I bathed her, talked to her, and held her when she cried. I stopped wanting anything except to be with her, to care for her. I was in love with her.” He twisted a platinum band on his slender finger. “We were married. She stopped weaving long enough to write her name on the register. It was the first time I knew her name was Mona Lemphere. A few months after we were married, she got pregnant. She had a baby, a little girl…”
“You got my sister pregnant without even talking to her?” Isaiah interrupted. “That’s really creepy.” The older man’s waxen, pale face flushed.
“It wasn’t like that,” he insisted. “I never forced her to do anything. She cared about me. I could see it in her eyes. She wanted to marry me, or she wouldn’t have signed her name. She wanted to be with me.”
“Whatever you say.”
“I’m not like my sister,” Royal said sharply. “I’m not like Joyce.”
“Yeah, where was she all this time? What did Aunt Joyce think of the baby?”
“Joyce was sweet when I first introduced her to Mona,” Royal answered. “Too sweet. I should have known something was wrong for Joyce to tolerate another witch so close, in her own home. I was stupid. I loved your sister. I thought that meant something to Joyce. I thought my happiness was more important to her than her struggles for power.
“Mona was wary of Joyce. I think she was horrified, but too proud to show it. Whenever Joyce was around, Mona would glare at her like she was daring Joyce. I didn’t realize that she was daring Joyce. I didn’t know till a lot later that they knew each other, or that Mona was under Joyce’s curse.
“Our daughter died,” he went on. “She was only a few months old. Joyce tried to convince me that Mona was responsible, but I wouldn’t believe her. Mona never said anything … she just kept weaving, making shirts. We had another child: this one was a boy. When he was three months old, I found Mona asleep with his dead body in her arms. His throat was torn out, and there was blood on her mouth. This time I believed my sister. She said I should kill Mona, and I agreed.”
“You tried to kill Mona?” Isaiah moved further away. He might have run, but Royal’s hand encircled the bicep of his good arm.
“Do you want to understand?” the man demanded. “Do you want to know what happened to seven years of your life?”
“Then listen. Let me finish. I thought she had killed our children. She didn’t seem to care. She just kept knitting like it didn’t matter. I took her out to the roof. Joyce went with me. Witches deal in death every hour of their lives, but Joyce was excited, like this was special. I should have known something was strange. Mona just kept knitting, faster and faster. I lifted her up to the railing. It was just as the clock struck midnight and all the church bells below started ringing and Joyce was screaming at me, ‘Do it, kill her,’ but it was too late because there were swans all around us, seven huge swans separating Joyce and me from Mona.
“Mona always carried her basket--her basket of rags and the shirts she’d made. She’d even carried it to the roof. She started putting the shirts on the swans and, one by one, they turned into boys and men with hair like hers, purple red. There was only one shirt she hadn’t finished; the sleeve wasn’t done, so the smallest of them had a wing instead of an arm. That was you.”
“I remember a little,” Isaiah said, dazed. “Mona climbed up on the railing. She was saying something. What did she say?”
“She pointed at Joyce and told me how Joyce had turned her brothers into swans and placed her under a curse seven years before,” Royal said. “That if she could be silent for seven years, even on peril of death, and weave seven shirts from rags, she would have her brothers back, and they would have the power to become swans again at will. If she had failed, you would have always been swans, and Joyce would have commanded you. Mona also told me that Joyce had killed the babies. Suffocated the little girl … cut the boy’s throat, then painted Mona’s mouth with blood.”
“Mona would never have hurt little babies,” Isaiah said.
“No,” Royal agreed. “She wouldn’t have. I should have believed that she wouldn’t. Joyce wanted me to kill her. She couldn’t kill Mona herself during the span of the seven years, but if I had done it for her, she would have owned you and your brothers. But she lost. Your brothers all turned back to swans. They flew away with Mona. You ran and somehow found your way outside. I’ve been looking for you since.”
Isaiah looked up at the spider eye.
“And Joyce is dead?” he asked.
“Yes. She went over the edge,” Royal answered.
He’d killed his sister, Isaiah realized. He’d killed Joyce. That was why he had her spiders. That was why he had her eyes. The only way you can take a witch’s power is to kill her. If she’d gone over the edge, he was the reason why.
“I have to go,” Isaiah said. “I have to be back at the group home by six. I have school tomorrow.”
“You’re done with that.” Royal said simply. He took hold of Isaiah and started untying the sling in which Isaiah kept his wing concealed.
“Don’t,” the boy protested. “Stop it.”
Royal ignored him, ignored his struggling and pulled away the cloth and laid bare the folded up wing. It opened from the boy’s body, snowy white against the gray sky and water. Royal ran a hand over the feathers.
“Beautiful,” he whispered.
“You can see it?” Of course he could. Those spider eyes had made it, so of course they could see their handiwork. “What do you want from me?” Isaiah asked him.
“I want you to stay with me. She’ll come eventually for one of us. I don’t think it will be me. I doubted her, but you never did. She has to come for you.”
He didn’t trust the man. Even dead, was Joyce wholly gone from those eyes? What kind of person married a woman who’d never given them a word? What kind of person killed their own sister--even if she was an evil baby eater? Still, what was the alternative? To go on being the dumbest dummy in
Again, Royal’s fingers caressed the boy’s cheek.
“You do look so like Mona,” he said. Isaiah’s human hand tightened its grip around his sharp pencil. He would go with the man. He would live in a penthouse of the Hancock building and learn as much as he could about magic while he waited for Mona, but he would never let down his guard and, if need be, he would wear those eyes himself.