The Six Swans
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
“Why shirts made of graveyard nettles by bleeding fingers and silence should disenchant men turned into birds by their step-mother is a question the story doesn't need to answer. It just needs to give us compelling images of exile, loneliness, affection, and metamorphosis.”
― Rebecca Solnit
There is something that I have learnt about stinging nettles.
The firmer the grip, the lesser the sting.
It seems counter intuitive, I know. My sister made that mistake at the beginning. She would grasp the nettle so gently, between the tips of her finger and thumb, attempting to limit the damage to just those points. It didn’t work, of course, and the pain made her clumsy, and slow. No matter how careful she was, she would always find herself brushing against other nettles in the patch, until angry red marks danced across her fingers and up her wrists, and tears of pained frustration bit at her eyes.
I could only watch.
We tried, in the beginning, my brothers and I. Would tear the nettles from their roots and fill whole baskets for her. But the yarn she managed to spin from them was brittle in her hands, and come morning all her progress turned to dust. Our stepmother was specific in her spite. Only our sister’s hands could do the work.
Each night, at moonrise, we would return to ourselves, wings giving way beneath arms, feathers into fingers, and our sister would smile at us in silence, still sewing, weaving, stripping nettles down to yarn.
My brothers and I may have been the ones beneath our stepmother’s curse, but was our sister suffered most in those years.
She would not eat if we did not bring her food, would not sleep if we did not make her. The hunter’s hut that she had found was bare and empty, cold beneath the winter’s chill, and she did little to shield herself from it. Her only thought was of the shirts. Of returning us to our natural form.
And so, our only thought was of her.
There was nothing we could do for ourselves anyway.
At the beginning our sister’s task was easier, though her hands had not yet grown blistered with the work and were not used to cold or nettle stings. The woods around our stolen home were bright and filled with giant swathes of the stinging plant.
Though it hurt her, my sister needed only to step outside to find the materials she needed.
Years on, the crops dwindled, and we found ourselves travelling further and further. My brothers and I would fly above, our sister walked below.
That is where he saw her.
Her husband. Her love.
Him. He saw her at her gathering, hands raw with stings, and beauty hidden underneath the wear of fear and lack of sleep. I do not know how he came to love her. My sister, who did not speak. Who would not stop her work to please a king. Who spared him nought but friendly smiles as she returned to her task.
Of course, none dared to ask how he came to marry my sister, my sister who would never speak a word, much less a marriage vow. She kept her silence, as we kept ours, trapped beyond the church. Trapped beyond our human forms with nothing but the wind and air to know us when we wept.
And yet, for all our worry. It seems, we worried for the wrong royalty.
Our family has no luck with mothers, nor with queens.
One mother dead, before our eldest was a man, before a youngest drew first breath.
One mother, witch-born and dangerous enough our father hid us from her grasp, until her sneaking ways had learnt where we were hidden and cursed us to this form.
One mother, mother-by-marriage. Bitter. Jealous. Unwilling to concede her power to a younger queen who came with nothing but this woman’s son’s regard.
So, she did not.
When my sister made no response to this woman’s taunt, the queen grew desperate. Took up more tricks to tar our sister’s name. Broke things in the palace, injured servants, drowned cats. All that she could say my sister’s weary hands had done the crime.
Each the king ignored, and yet with each our sister’s infamy grew louder.
Finally, the Queen did something that the king could not disregard.
She took my sister’s children.
All three. So young, so innocent. One with a golden grown of curls, one with my sister’s bright, loving eyes, and one still a babe in arms.
And my sister did not weep to find her children missing.
Not a sound. That wording of the curse was very clear.
And so, the whispers grew. What woman would not weep to lose her children? But one who was to blame for the children’s loss?
And the king did nothing. As he had done nothing before.
Oh, he mourned. No solemn vow kept his lips closed or stopped the tears pouring down his ruddy face as he knelt before our sister and begged her to tell the truth. Begged her to dispute the claims.
My sister does not speak.
And so, nor did he.
He was king. The choice was his. Oh, he claimed she had given him none, that her silence had forced him to do it. But he was king. One word from him could have stopped this. Could have saved her from the pyre.
In the end she saved herself. Or we saved her. Or she saved us.
Or all at once.
Our sister, loving sister, through the years of marriage, through the lost children, through the cell. She kept us in her heart, and in her fingertips. Even as they dragged her to the flames, she still stitched the final shirt into shape.
And, just before she burnt, she threw them high. My brothers and I swept down to claim them. Six years a swan, six seconds free, we dragged our sister from the fire. Held her close and wept.
They speak now of the evil of the queen.
Which one, I do not know. The one who cursed my brothers? The one who tormented my sister? Perhaps they are both the same, both wicked in your eyes.
I speak not of that. I know that evil well.
The evil I speak of is the evil of kings.
My sister’s husband and my father were the same.
They knew evil. My father did not send us far from our stepmother because he believed her to be kind. My sister’s husband did not send her to the flames because he believed in her guilt.
It was simply easy.
Our father did not hide us well enough. Her husband did not care to save her life.
And yet, they are to be thought innocent? What punishment is there for their crimes? Even if their crime was that they did nothing much at all.
There is something I have learnt about people.
The gentler they grip, the more it stings.
Insp. The Six Swans