21: The Swan Man

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I know this way into the woods.

I heard the blacksmith’s daughter say that he lives here still, even after we all thought he had gone long ago. She had seen him once, the Swan Man, picking up wood for to make a fire.

“For why else would you need wood?” She asked, “and if there’s a fire there’s a hearth, and if there’s a hearth then he isn’t gone at all.”

When I was a child I thought about the stories told about him. Late at night when we were bold and wouldn’t sleep, and cried out to be up and running again, not laying in our beds, that’s when my grandmother would tell us these tales.

Afterwords I would still lie awake but pretend to be sleeping. I would stare at the ceiling and imagine him.

“The Swan Man is a sorcerer,” grandmother would say. “He got his powers from the dark one. He steals the girls and leaves the boys and no one knows what he does with them.”

“But when does he come?”

“At night dear, when the moon is hidden behind a wreath of cloud, or there is no moon at all to show him up. He swoops down and pecks at the window pane, tap tap, and you must not get up to let him in! Oh no. For he steals little girls who stay awake.”

“I don’t believe in magic” I told my grandmother one night. I ran outside and I shouted it at her from the gate. She clasped her hands as if in prayer and cried and it was only my sister who convinced me to come back, to apologise, to go without supper and not run off into the woods like the wild thing my grandmother said I was.

I grew up and thought no more about the Swan Man.

People sometimes spoke of him but sure don’t they always talk about those things when night falls and cups are filled and the long walk home needs company and company needs tales to entertain them.

Now here I am at the entrance to the woods. The Swan Man is real, and I know it. I too saw him because I waited, I waited in the spot where the blacksmith’s daughter told me to wait and I saw the thin figure of man flit by. It seemed he was nothing but a long shadow, he came and then was gone, but I know his way.

Now none of the others will so much as glance at me. My sister and her husband are gone and left the cottage gaping, empty.

“Why could you not have married?” My sister had called at me as the gate swung shut. But John pulled her away down the lane and he would not look back.

“Oh why did you have to interfere?” She had said to me when Wedlow’s boy got sick and died.

“He says you cursed his name! How could you be so foolish? Did we not take you in, and were we not kind to you? This is a poor way to repay your only family.”

It was Wedlow’s cottage and I couldn’t sit in it anymore on my own after they had gone. I knew he would come for it. I had been tired of his interfering, of complaining that we didn’t look after the land as we should. I told him what I thought of him and that might have been that, but his hag of a wife saw me. She saw me at the edge of the woods, waiting for the Swan Man. Soon after his boy died, everyone knew where I had been.

I have no option now but to let the Swan Man take me in. I have no money put by, but I am fit and can work. Perhaps he will find a use for me. The journey to the nearest town is too far, and no one will take me. I’ll press on then, and by nightfall I should reach him. I wonder will I know him? Will I see the Swan, or the Man? Or nothing?

The trees are closing in but I can still see a path. Faintly I can trace a way through these grasping branches, though my feet are caught by thorns, and mired in sodden leaves. Creatures scurry past my ankles and I can feel the wind at my back, and the air growing moist, and cold.

I see no light up ahead yet, no dwelling, but he if he needs wood then he must have a hearth…

There, a clearing, a hovel in the rock, a fire. There he is, the thin shape, dark as a shadow; his face is pale like the moon but he is no swan. What a sorrowful face! Such beautiful eyes! Why is he so young, still? He must truly be a magician.

We are watching each other now across the fire. He beckons me over to where the cages are; where he is standing there are many cages, many wings held up over faces. There are furs on the ground, and he has burrs in his hair.

“There are only sleeping,” he says, “I don’t harm them.”

But I don’t look down at the cages. I ask him if he will help me. He agrees.

“I’ll make you like the others,” he says, “if you have no other option.” I don’t know what he means, but I nod my head.

He makes me stand in a circle he has made with stones, and dead bird’s beaks. He goes into the cave and fetches things I cannot see.

“Put your arms up,” he says, “no higher, all the way up.” I comply and as I do, I say:

“They saw me at the edge of the woods,” he shakes his head.

“You should never have come looking for me,” he answers, scattering bones at my feet.

“They think I’m a witch, that I’m just like you.”

He stops what he is doing at this to look at me sideways.

“I thought you didn’t believe in magic?” He asks. He knows!

“I don’t.” I say,

“You’re lying,” he replies, and carries on about his work. “Open your mouth.”

I open my mouth, and in it he places a long, white feather.

“I never came for children,” he says as he stands outside the circle, now motionless, and yet so full of purpose.

“One day I will die, and you must tell them that. You’ll have no master then.” I nod my head again, and wait, afraid.

He was right, perhaps I always have believed in magic.

Now I turn my eyes to creatures in the cages slumbering. For an instant I think I can see faces flash underneath white feathers, but they are just the faces of birds. White swans; big beasts in bigger cages.

He says the words.

For a moment I remember being small and crawling up to see the moon peeking at my window, and hearing a tap tapping on the pane.

The world is ablaze with light and I am floating in white feathers. He must have let the birds out, I think for an instant. Then I am doubled over, the blaze is in my head and limbs. I cry out and extend my arms only to see wings before my eyes, and the voice of a bird calling.

“They’ll never catch you now,” the Swan Man says, as I arch and flap and ache and feel a joy to reach up for the sky.

He throws his hands to the air and I am aloft.

I am going to fly over the village. I’m flying to the old cottage, so I can watch them break down the door and find no one there.

Somewhere in the woods, the Swan Man is building me a new cage.

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