The Swan

May 26, 2012
The man reeled in the fish trap. It was empty – he would have to starve another day. Winter was quickly approaching, and provisions were low.

As he walked to his hut, a rustling in the bushes startled him. He eagerly parted the bushes – perhaps it was easy prey – and beheld a grey swan lying on the ground.

She was beautiful, with silky grey plumage and black-tipped wings. Her eyes were gentle and bright. Yet her foot was twisted, and it pained her.

The man tenderly carried her home and fed her, then sat back and admired her. She was beautiful. Her neck was slender and lovely, and she carried herself with grace.

A blast of wind rocked the house. The man shivered. He went to a nook in the wall and withdrew a jug of fermented grains. He drank, and was instantly warmed.

In his blurred vision, the swan’s beauty increased. The meager fire behind her became a silken robe that draped about her slender frame. She was his, and she was beautiful – perhaps even more so than the king’s wives. The king. Hah!! His Majesty was deprived – all of his possessions could not compare. So the man draped a shawl over the bird’s head and set out. He would go to the king, show off his prize, and prove himself superior.


A beggar stopped him on his way into town. She was dirty and wrinkled, and very short. An aroma of burning leaves followed her.

Please, she said, Have you anything to spare an old crone?

The man ignored her and walked on.

But she was persistent, clawing and wailing. Finally she said, If you’ve no coins to spare, then how about that bird? A fine supper it’d make.

Furious, he struck the crone and sent her flying. He roared that he was on his way to see the king and show off his lovely prize. He’d no time for an old fool whose eyes were blind to beauty.

The crone drew herself up; she suddenly seemed enormous. In a solemn voice she intoned, Fool. It is you who are blind. May your words fly back to scar you. And then she fled.

The man scoffed. The crone was clearly insane. Yet her words rang in his head. Nonetheless, he continued on his way.

But the townspeople rebuffed him and shut the wide wooden gate, slam-bang, in his face. Despite his begging, he was refused time with the king.

Desperate, the man ripped the shawl from the bird and hoisted her high. The people gasped – she was radiant!! Feathered gold!! She regarded them all with liquid eyes and warbled.

It was useless. The bird was respectable; the man was not. Rejected, the man fled home in shame. He barely noticed the absence of the old crone.

The man sped into his hut and crawled into bed, fuming. The swan floated serenely in a tub beside him.

Reassured by her beauty, the man faded into sleep. He was lulled by an odd scent of burning leaves.


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A pounding roused him. The man stood, opened the door.

It was a messenger from the king – or, at least, the man thought it was. The messenger’s clothes looked awry and wrinkled. They were baggy and a far cry from the polished youths in green that flowed in and out of the town.

A blast of wind entered the house; the man caught a scent of burning leaves coming in from the doorway where the messenger stood.

The messenger informed the man of the king’s desire to see him. But when the man made to fetch the swan, the messenger rasped, Journey empty-handed. And with that, the messenger trotted away.

The smell of burning leaves lingered.

Unnerved, the man looked around for the messenger’s horse; he saw none. Had they arrived on foot? That would explain the wrinkled clothes, but they were so ill-fitting. The man stroked the swan and departed, bolting shut the door.

But once again, he was stopped by the townspeople. They harassed him until his anger bubbled into hysteria, and he had to be confined.

As a warden moved to free him after several long hours, the man mumbled weakly about his audience with the king. The warden pitied him and said, But don’t you know? His Majesty has been gone for a month. A messenger was sent out this morn to fetch him home.

A gust carrying the scent of burning leaves roused the man. He ran for his cottage, following the odor. A moan stopped his sprint; the man found, lying in the bushes, a boy with the royal crest branded on his arm. The messenger!! He was feverish and bruised; claw marks raked across his chest. His clothes were missing. Scrawled across his abdomen was but one word. Fool.

The man stood. May your words fly back to scar you – the words rang in his head. He ran for home, accompanied by the scent of burning leaves.

His hut was eerily quiet; the door, so firmly locked, lay in fragments. White smoke curled from the chimney.

The smell of cooked flesh mingled with the scent of burning leaves.

The man crept in and instantly recoiled. Freshly-churned dirt lay in clumps on the floor; ruby blood dripped. The air was fetid, close.

A cauldron hung above a bed of fresh coals. A thick stew with rooty tubers bubbled within. Grey-brown chunks of flesh floated in the red liquid.

A single grey feather lay before the man’s foot. He picked it up, and his stomach constricted.

He ran to the tub beside his bed – empty!! Bloodred water dripped from its sides.

A pile of pristine white bones lay neatly upon his bed. The man recognized the slim skeleton and cried out.

It was the swan, laid bare.

The man clutched the rattling bones to his chest and wept for his lost love. The scent of burning leaves flourished vindictively and faded, replaced by the scent of the salt in his tears.

In all his sorrow, the man neglected the note carved into a stone at his foot.

It was but one word.

Fool.





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