Swan Song, a short story by Em Van Moore at Spillwords.com
Pauline Heidmets

Swan Song

Swan Song

written by: Em Van Moore

@EmVanMoore

 

When the new King and Queen ascended the thrones of the Stanley Park avian kingdom, the citizens of their lands rejoiced. Where the previous rulers had been cold and calculating, the new ones were a breath of fresh air–with their happy marriage, empathy, and modern tactics of management, they ruled kindly, with grace towards squirrels and water beetles alike. The lands flourished under their reign like a garden tended with the utmost care.
One day, King Cob and Queen Pen decided it was time to have children of their own. Cob teased his wife, “How many would you like? Five? Fifteen?”
She smiled. “I’d be happy with just one. A little cygnet, boy or girl, or something else, it doesn’t matter. And I’d love it as much as I love you.”
If it had been her father speaking to her mother, he would have scolded her for not wishing for a male heir. But Cob just nudged her neck with his wings and nibbled on her temple. “It’s settled then. A boy or girl, or something else. And we’ll love it as much as we love each other.”
They remained excited for the first year, building their nest and doing the courtship dances. When they weren’t successful by the time they migrated, they simply teased each other about having to try harder the next spring.
When they returned to Stanley Park in March, they built an even bigger, more beautiful nest. It was the envy of the entire flock. Cob danced gloriously, beat his wings with such robust, handsome charisma there was no way his wife could decline him (not that she ever would). But when the subjects of the kingdom began to lay their eggs, Pen’s nest remained empty.
They kept their spirits up by focusing on bettering their citizens’ lives further. Enhanced patrols to keep the eggs safe. Stockpiles of provisions for when heat waves made it too difficult to forage safely. A grand hall made of twigs and branches that bent and wove over each other, where the swans collected each night to sing and dance.
The next year, when faced with an empty nest once again, Cob and Pen finally admitted their concerns–in private, of course. Publicly, they put on a brave face. But the kingdom gossiped: “The Swan King and Queen are barren…”
That fall, when migrating to warmer climates, Cob and Pen spoke privately when it was their turn to go to the back of the formation. “Three years,” Pen said with a quiet honk, “and not even a single egg.”
“Don’t despair,” Cob replied. “We shall overcome. I believe in us.”
She smiled at him, flew a little closer, and caressed his beating wing with her own. A look of concern crossed her white face, and she said, “We may have to consider other options. Perhaps adoption? Or…” She knew he wanted children of his own, but she didn’t mind if they weren’t. Children were children, and she’d love them just the same.
“Or what?”
“Or the humans. I’ve heard they have witches and scientists. They may be able to help.”
Cob honked indignantly. “Humans? Witches and scientists? I’ll be an unwebbed chickadee before I consider asking them for help!”
Pen nodded and turned her eyes away. “You’re right. We don’t need their help.”
Two more years passed before Cob brought up Pen’s suggestion. She didn’t gloat, she just ruffled her feathers and agreed.
Back when the lands were young and the people were local, it had been easy to find humans to help: women with keen eyes for herbs and dances; men with strong arms for sacrifices and deep voices for chanting. But though Pen and Cob searched, they didn’t find anyone who seemed to have the ability to communicate with them, let alone work strong, healing magic.
Cob became obsessed, practically mad with the idea of having his own brood of flappers. Pen kept trying to reason with him, “We can adopt.”
He wouldn’t be reasoned with.
One day, a woman sat at the edge of the pond, watching the flock closely.
Cob swam back and forth, feeling discouraged. For Pen’s sake, he’d been keeping his spirits up, not trying to let on about his frustration, but of course, she knew. She always knew. She could see it in the curve of his neck, the paddle of his feet.
“You there!” the human woman called, her blue eyes keen. “You’re the King and Queen, aren’t you?”
Pen and Cob looked up at the same time, their heads turning in unison. They paddled around in circles until they faced the same way and swam near the woman; not so close she could catch them, but close enough they could hear her better.
“It’s been a long time since a human tried to talk to us,” King Cob honked.
“If we speak to them they just pull out their black rocks and chatter on to each other,” Pen added quietly.
“Them’s are common folk,” the woman replied, her eyes following the swans’ every move. “Modern. Technichological. Me? I’m old school. Very old school.” She pulled a piece of bread from her pocket and tossed it into the water. “So old I know what you are. And who you are. And I’ve been coming to this park long enough to know what you two really want.”
The swans drifted a bit closer, their movements in sync, like athletes who’d trained for years.
“What do you think we want, woman?” Cob honked. Normally he would have asked her about children, and whether she had any magic, as this is what he asked humans when appealing to them for help. But her cold gaze set his feathers ruffling.
“Eggs,” she said, the last syllable stretching into a hiss.
Pen gasped. “Cob…”
“Pen…” he whispered, not noticing the distressed look on her face. To the woman, he said, “What are you talking about?”
“I can help you have a nest full of eggs. In one or two moons you’d have chicks hatching. They will grow into healthy children.”
Pen eyed the witch, her tail tucked low with unease. “We don’t need your help.” They’d spent so long trying to find a human to assist them, but this woman didn’t feel right. Pen didn’t know how, or why, but she just didn’t.
He glanced from Pen to the human, and back, his face open and excited. “Pen…cygnets! Of our own.”
“Come on,” the woman crooned. “Don’t you want a baby? Or three?”
“At what cost?” Pen replied, her honk so loud it startled the flock across the pond.
“Oh, nothing you can’t afford…” said the woman, her eyes on Cob. “I can bless you with three fertilized eggs, each from his seed and your body. They’ll hatch, perfect and healthy in every way. You’ll be happier than you could ever imagine,” she paused, “and in four years, when they come of age, you will pick one to give to me.”
Cob’s head snapped back as if he’d been struck. “Give you one?”
“She’s mad, Cob. My King. This is a monstrous offer,” Pen whispered. Her wings were tight against her body, her legs tucked up as if to protect them from something below.
“Come on, King,” the woman said in a low, soothing voice. “You want babes of your own, hmm? Someone to carry on the bloodline? Boys? Girls? Or perhaps one of each. I can do that, you know…” The Swan King’s eyes met hers and widened. His neck stiffened like he smelled something dangerous. But instead of turning and fleeing, he began to swim towards the shore.
“Cob, stop,” Pen hissed under her breath, avoiding the woman’s penetrating gaze. “My King…my love, stop.”
“Come on, King,” the woman said, her arm outstretched. In the palm a piece of bread sat, smelling like freshly baked seeds, and something foul, evil. “Eat this, and the deal will be done.”
“It’s a good deal,” he murmured, paddling nearer her hand.
“Cob!” Pen chirped, louder this time. “Stop! Now!”
He didn’t seem to hear her. He had eyes only for the bread in the old woman’s hand.
Pen burst forward to put herself between the witch and Cob. “We don’t want your magic!” she shouted, and beat her wings fiercely, knocking the bread into the water. “Be gone from our lands!”
Cob fluttered back, startled, and seemed to realize what was happening. “Wait…” he sputtered, “Give you a child? One of our offspring? No. No. Nothing is worth doing that to a brood, not even getting to keep the other two.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. She hissed between her gritted teeth, low and menacing. “Come on, King Cob. You want cygnets of your own. You’ll still have two-thirds of them left. It’s a very good deal. It’s the only deal you’ll ever be offered. The only chance you’ll ever have to father children of your own.”
The Swan King circled, his eyes locked on the witch’s. For a moment Pen thought he was falling under her spell again, and moved to intervene. But then he let out an ear-piercing shriek and darted forward as if to attack. The woman fell backward onto her bottom and scuttled away. “You can’t have any of our children, not in four years, not now, not ever!”
She retreated towards the paved path bordering the water. “You’ll regret this. King and Queen of Swans? More like King and Queen of fools!” She clapped her hands and a concussion swept before her, like ripples on a pond. The pressure smacked the swans head-on and pushed them back with startled cries. “Tell you what, hmm?” she whispered, “I’ll let you walk a day in my shoes. See how you like it.” She pressed her fingers together, and the ripples intensified, shaking the water and bowing the reeds.
To Cob and Pen, the world seemed to shrink smaller, while the water rose up over their bodies to swallow them whole. They splashed, flailing with wings suddenly missing their feathers and feet suddenly missing their webbing.
“And if you can find each other by midnight then I will turn you all back into swans and leave you alone forever. If you can’t, you’ll be stuck as humans until the day you die.”
“Wait!” Pen tried to say, but her beak had turned to lips and all that came out was a garbled cry.
“But if either of you chose to, you can come to me alone, without your mate, and I will honor the original offer. Three cygnets. Babies. All yours, for four years.” Her voice was difficult to hear over the rushing of the water, and neither swan was sure of what she said last. “Choose wisely. Each other, or children. You have until midnight.”
Then, darkness.

***

Queen Pen awoke on soft green grass in a city park, with tall old trees and joggers passing nearby.
A child stood a few feet away, staring, her mouth agape.
“Cob?” Pen murmured. What if he was hurt? What if the witch had lied, and she’d killed him instead of transforming him into a human? She turned to the little girl, “Have you seen a swan? Or a man? Handsome, brave, loyal to his wife and his subjects. The best, most wonderful male to fly the sky or walk the earth.”
The girl shook her head, awe-struck. “No swans or men here, lady. Maybe he’s wherever your clothes are…”
Pen looked down at her human skin and body. “Oh, my flight…this can’t be.” She tried to cover her nearly flat chest with her hands, but the feel of her skin sent shivers down her back. Why were there no feathers? Why was this wispy hair atop her head? Humans were so impractically designed!
In an instant, the child was next to her, a large blue plastic sheet in her hands. She threw it over Pen’s shoulders and, impulsively, drew her in for a hug. Pen spread her long, human arms wide, and embraced her back. “Are you a princess?” the girl whispered. “A Swan Princess? Are you going to take me away from here?”
“I was, once,” Pen replied, her eyes filling with tears. “Many years ago. Now I am a Queen, and I have lost my king. A witch sent me here, and I must find my husband before midnight, or I’ll be trapped like this forever.”
The girl helped her to her feet to usher her into her family home, a collection of sturdy tree trunks leaning against a metal cart with plastic sheeting and blankets stretched across to make walls and a roof. Inside, it was littered with clothes, garbage, and the still form of a human woman. Strewn about were little pieces of plastic that smelled metallic, and Pen wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Just a second,” the girl said, searching, “I know there’s something for you to wear here…”
“Is this your mother?” Pen asked quietly, her eyes on the nearly motionless woman.
“Ah hah!” the girl held up a swath of patterned fabric that smelled like dirt and the burning sticks Pen knew humans liked to smoke. “Here’s a dress. It should fit you.” She helped the Swan Queen into the clothing. Though the bird’s arms became easily tangled and she squawked fearfully when ensnared, they eventually got it over her head and covering her body.
The human on the ground did not stir, except to breathe.
“Come on,” the girl said, ushering Pen from the home. “She won’t wake up till her hit wears off.” She led Pen away, and the Queen looked over her shoulder to stare at the other woman.
“Why does your mother not wake?”
The child pushed her along through the park towards the road beyond. “You’re looking for your husband? Where’s the last place you saw him?”
Pen gazed at the girl. She was so fast, so determined, like a cygnet who hadn’t yet learned to fear the deep water; or perhaps she’d learned too quickly and had decided to not be afraid. Either way, she reminded Pen of someone she once knew. Perhaps Cob, who was headstrong and filled with courage of conviction as a hatchling. “What is your name?”
“Yvette. What’s yours?”
“Egret? You’re a heron?”
The girl, Yvette, stopped, and reached up to pat Pen’s back kindly, her small hand barely reaching the queen’s shoulders. She couldn’t have been more than seven years old. “No, Yvette. Like a girlie night time, ‘Eve-ette’.”
Pen smiled at her. “Yvette. It is lovely to meet you. I am Pen, Queen of the Swans. Wife to Cob. Mother to none; and to all.”
“Nice t’meet you, Pen. Come on, let’s get you outta here. I dunno how you ended up in Central Park, but you’re just lucky it wasn’t Crab or Vanier.” She glanced around, her brown eyes furtive. “At least here you’re kinda hidden, that’s why me and mom can tuck away for a day or two…before the four-oh force us to move.”
They left the sprawling park behind to emerge onto the sidewalk, where the many people and the quick, angry movements of the city left Pen breathless. She turned to run and hide, escape the terrors of the human world, but Yvette’s little hand grabbed hers suddenly, and she froze. Images of Cob flashed through her mind. The child’s grip anchored her to the world, and thoughts of her husband grounded her completely. “I have to find Stanley Park.”
“Stanley Park? Oh geeze… Queen Pen, that’s far. Really far.”
Pen stepped back and placed her hands on Yvette’s shoulders. “You look small, but you are strong.” Yvette smiled wide in return. “I know your wings must be weak, but I will lift you when you tire. We will fly together. Take me to Stanley Park!”
Yvette’s face fell. “Oh geeze… I can’t fly.”
“You can’t?”
“No. Neither can you. You don’t got any wings.”
“Oh…yes…you’re right…” She sighed and looked up at the sky.
“Come on,” Yvette said brightly. She took Pen’s hand and tugged her down the sidewalk. “We’re gonna have to get you there the old-fashioned way…”

***

An entire city away, Cob woke with an aching head and screaming limbs. “Pen!” he honked before his eyes opened. She was nowhere to be seen. “Pen!” His voice was alien, his honk human. He lay on something hard and miserable; like warm, black ice. “My Queen!” He scrambled to find something to cover his body with, other than his own hands. A paper food tray, soaked with grease and ketchup, was the perfect size to hide his manhood. Then, he began to search. “Where are you, my love?”
“She’s gone,” a familiar voice said.
He spun, nearly falling from the sudden movement. “You!”
“Me,” the witch said with a grin. She sat upon a large rock amongst an ocean of concrete and cars. And beyond that: trees, and the faint sparkle of water. “Give up yet?”
“Never.” Cob spat at her feet. “I’ll find my Queen before midnight.”
People gawked at them. Parents covered their children’s eyes. A building stood nearby, and Cob thought he recognized it but it was hard to tell; he was much more accustomed to looking down at structures from the sky.
Loud noises shrieked in the distance. Red and blue flashing lights blinked amongst the forest, moving closer on a black river.
“Cops are coming,” the witch sneered. “They’ll take you away. Lock you up. You might as well just make the deal with me and I’ll bring your wife back. You’ll have a nest full of eggs in no time.”
His eyes flitted from her to the approaching lights, and then back. “Never, witch.” He took off running to the forest on the opposite side of the parking lot, as far from the police as possible…

***

The SkyTrain went up on tall tracks and looked very much like a disjointed centipede, as far as Pen was concerned.
Also, she did not like it. Not one little bit.
With hands clutched to a metal pole, and wobbly feet planted far apart, she rode public transit for the first time. They made it to Science World, but when the train dipped down and began to traverse subterranean tunnels, Pen felt like the world had closed in on her. “We must get out!” she cried and clambered for the door.
At the next station, she burst out of the train and fell onto the platform, panting.
“It’s just a tunnel,” Yvette said, trying to soothe the frantic woman.
“It is death! Nothing lives below the earth but dirt and worms and beetles! I am not a bug! I do not burrow!”
“Shh…” Yvette hushed, “We’ll get you out of here.” She ushered the Swan Queen up the concrete steps, knowing implicitly that it was futile to try to get her to take the escalator, or worse: the elevator.
They emerged from the station into the not-so-fresh air of the city above. Pen stopped to crane her neck back and stare up at the huge buildings. “I’ve seen them from above but from down here…your concrete forest is almost pretty.”
“I wish it was a forest,” Yvette said wistfully. “Then I could live in trees and talk to squirrels and everything would be okay.”
“Oh, you don’t want to talk to squirrels.” Pen wrinkled her nose. “They’re lovely folk, but oh boy do they chatter…”
“Would be a nice change from my mom. She doesn’t talk to me hardly at all anymore…”
Pen’s heart skipped a beat. Yvette’s face looked like Cob’s had for years as they failed to conceive: heartbreak. The thought of Cob, lost somewhere without her, made her heart ache anew. “Yvette…” she murmured, “why doesn’t your mother talk to you anymore? You must be so lonely.”
“She’s always nodding off. Or…other things…”
“Why does she sleep so much?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Pen didn’t press the matter further. As they set off through the thick of downtown, they passed countless humans; some in suits, some in dresses or casual clothes. And then there were the people who reminded Pen of Yvette’s mom, slumped over on the sidewalk, necks bent, eyes fluttering. They smelled faintly like her too, like the thin plastic things with the metal on the ends, and the stench of sleepy magic.
Pen hadn’t seen any of this up close before. The hustle and bustle of the human cities, all the different versions of its citizens. Or the scattered few who seemed sick or injured, sitting outside the flow, or sleeping on the ground. In her flock, if a bird was hurt they were cared for, protected until they healed. If they were ill, Pen would nurse them herself, bringing food and tinctures made from plants and herbs.
These humans seemed to be ignored.
Yvette kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation, sounding much like a cheerful, determined cygnet. Chirp chirp, buses, chirp, not enough fare, chirp, have to walk.
The sun had begun to set, casting pink light through the towers. “We must hurry,” Pen whispered.
“We got until midnight?”
“Yes.”
“We’ll make it.”

***

The witch had caught up with Cob easily. The police tried to pursue them into the woods, but the woman and the naked man had seemed to disappear.
The Swan King burst from the woods and stumbled onto the paved pathway. The ocean sparkled before him, the waves reflecting a kaleidoscope of color from the setting sun. His breath caught, and he looked around, realizing he recognized the long, congested bridge across the water. He whirled to face the witch. “You didn’t send me anywhere at all! This is my home! This is Stanley Park!”
She emerged from a lush bush, her wicked smile wide. “I never said I’d send you away. Why would I do that? Then I wouldn’t have all this time to remind you how much you want eggs of your own. How good my offer is. How much you want it, need it, have to have it.”
“Where is Pen? Where is my Queen?”
“Oh, her?” the witch waved her hand dismissively. “She’s in another city entirely. Not so far that she couldn’t get here, I’m no monster. But far enough that she certainly won’t get here by midnight. Not on her own. Not as a human.”
Pen approached the witch, his arms wide like wings, his fingers shaking with fury. “Bring her back! I’d rather live my life with her, without children, than have to give any to you.”
“Don’t you wave your arms at me, Swan King,” the witch warned, her eyes narrowing…

***

Pen’s feet ached, then smarted, and began to bleed, leaving a trail of red blood on the concrete. Yvette offered her shoes, but they were too small.
They’d gone in the wrong direction a few times, getting turned around by the similar streets, the endless ebb and flow of people. It reminded Pen of water, how it moved and rippled. Through the masses she kept her eyes peeled, searching for an unfamiliar face she’d recognize: her husband.
The sun set, and still, Pen and Yvette continued. The girl led her, sometimes with her hand, sometimes with her words, ever forward.
The wide expanse of trees in the distance had first seemed a speck or two amongst the skyscrapers. Then it grew nearer and clearer, even through the night darkness, until Yvette led the Swan Queen to a bridge where loud cars passed too close. Pen recognized it. The water nearest it was often sheltered from the ocean by the inlet, and it had been her flock’s favorite place. “This is my home!” she cried. A burst of speed spurred her forward, and something better: hope. “He’s here, I know it!”
“How’dya you know that?”
“A Queen always knows. He’s like a limb I’ve lost. I can feel him.” She was at once delighted and dismayed to turn the corner onto the pedestrian walkway that bordered the park and see two black figures in the distance. Though it was full dark now, and they’d been walking for many hours, her weary legs felt brand new, her bloody feet forgotten.
There he was: her King.
But he wasn’t as she’d hoped. He lay on the ground at the witch’s feet, his eyes fixed on the sky. He twitched as she shouted for him, but he did not rise.
“Cob! Cob!”
“It’s nearly midnight,” the witch cackled. Her voice betrayed the distance Pen must cross to get to him in time. “Better hurry, birdie!”
Pen moved to sprint forward, her eyes on Cob, before realizing Yvette had fallen behind. The thought made her heart ache as if she was leaving behind her own cygnet.
“Go!” Yvette shouted. “Go without me!”
Something deep inside the Swan Queen told her not to abandon the child. It wasn’t just that she’d been her stalwart guide through the city and its perils. It wasn’t just that the girl was essentially alone, her poor mother barely a parent. It wasn’t just that she’d grown to appreciate Yvette. It was that she’d grown to love her. She turned and raced back, grabbing her up in her arms. “Come on, my cygnet. We go together.” Yvette clung to her, little arms around her neck, her face pressed to her cheek, warm and wet. “Shh, don’t cry,” she cooed. With the additional weight, her feet felt like fire again, scraped and torn to shreds. “If we are to stay humans, then we will stay with you, little Yvette. And you will be ours.”
The Swan Queen ran towards her husband, racing with the purpose of a mother protecting her child.
“Five!” the witch shouted.
A bell tolled somewhere.
“Four!”
“Pen…” Yvette whispered. “You won’t make it in time.”
“Three!”
Pen’s lungs burned for air. She wished she could fly, or swim, or do anything other than run on her stupid, useless human legs.
“Two!”
Yvette squeezed her tightly. Pen leapt the last few feet to her husband, and collapsed on top of him as the witch counted: “One!”
They lay quietly for a moment, Pen and Yvette breathless as if they’d both been sprinting instead of just one of them. She gently released her grip on Yvette to put the child next to them. She embraced Cob and he kissed her face, whispering how proud he was of her. She ran her fingers through his hair and gazed into his eyes. “My King…”
“My Queen…” He’d tried to reach up and hug her, but only his arms squeezed her sides. And then she saw it: stumps where his hands should be.
She gasped. “What did you do, witch?” she demanded.
The witch sat a safe distance away, scowling. “I thought it’d be easy to get him to turn on you. But he’s a stubborn beast, isn’t he?”
“You’re flocking right he is!” Pen hissed proudly. “He’d never agree to your heinous trade!”
“Well, he kept waving his hands at me so,” she shook something that jangled from strings, “I took them away.”
Pen deflated. She threw herself upon her husband. “I love you no matter what,” she cried. “You’ll always be my Cob.”
The witch sneered, her eyes on Yvette. “Since he wouldn’t take my trade, I’ll offer you another one.” She turned her gaze to Pen. “His hands, for the girl. And then we’ll be even.”
“Pen…” Cob whispered weakly. “Don’t do it.”
Pen didn’t even have to consider. “Never,” she spat and sat up to draw Yvette closer.
“Fine,” the witch sneered. “Have it your way. Stay a human forever. Your kingdom will fall and your people will perish. But that’s your choice. I hope you’re happy.”
“I’m very happy,” Pen replied resolutely. “I have my husband and my cygnet. Now, go. And don’t return.”
But it wasn’t up to the witch. She’d made a deal with the swans, and the Queen and King had been reunited before midnight. The crone’s magic didn’t care that she wanted to rescind the agreement.
Warmth spread through Pen and Cob’s bodies, and a blinding flash of light enveloped the park. Pen clutched Yvette tightly and whispered in her ear, “Don’t let go.”
The world stopped for a moment. The trees ceased their waving, the water didn’t ripple, the traffic ground to a halt, and the whole of the city seemed to take a deep breath in at once.
And then everyone exhaled, and the metropolis woke again.
So too did the Swan King and Queen, who awoke on the soft grass where they’d been reunited. Where once there were human limbs and faces, now there were swan wings and beaks.
Beside them, tucked under Pen’s wing, was a young bird. She had a long, graceful neck, dusky gray feathers, and bill, with wide brown eyes. When she opened her mouth a honk came out, and she looked at once delighted and mystified.
The witch howled angrily, but her shrieks did no damage. She’d said in her original spell that if they found each other she’d turn them back into swans and leave them alone forever. Now, she was bound by her own magic, and in a cloud of shrieking dust, she disappeared, never to be seen again.
King Cob embraced them both with his wings, though the tips had been shorn clean off. “A small price to pay,” he murmured and kissed Pen’s head. “Who’s this?” he said, smelling Yvette gently.
Queen Pen nuzzled Yvette’s head. “This is our daughter, Yvette.”
“Egret?”
“No,” she replied with a smile. “Yvette, our Swan Princess.”
“Ahh…at last, a cygnet of our own,” he trumpeted and beat his mutilated wings with excitement. “Welcome home!”
The King and Queen of Swans held their new child and loved her as if she was their flesh and blood.
And they were never separated again.

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