Swanskin Song

by An Owomoyela

for Tsu

Swanskin Song was written for Tsu, a swan-identified member of the otherkin community who requested a new take on the old swan maiden myth. In writing this, I also tried to touch on topics of dysphoria, euphoria, and yearning, fluidity of expression, and the use of dress, activities and prosthetics in order to feel closer to or better embody a nonhuman identity.

#

When she came back to the shore and found her swanskin,‭ ‬she knew someone had been there while she was away.‭ ‬The skin was folded,‭ ‬neatly,‭ ‬humanly,‭ ‬and while her human nose couldn’t detect the stranger’s scent,‭ ‬she knew that as soon as she pulled the skin on she would detect the alienness.‭ ‬It might even be inside her,‭ ‬like the strangeness inside‭ ‬the old grey one,‭ ‬whose skin was stolen and hidden among humans for years.
‎‏
She looked around,‭ ‬and scoured the land and the treeline,‭ ‬but saw nothing.‭ ‬Nothing and no one.‭ ‬No human man waiting to make her his husband,‭ ‬no curious dryad or naiad stepping out to look at another odd creature in the night.‭ ‬It was odd,‭ ‬she thought,‭ ‬as she pulled the skin on around her shoulders.‭ ‬But the next night,‭ ‬she would hide the skin among the reeds.

~

Even so,‎ ‏someone found it.
‎‏
After a long night of swimming the swan came back to find her skin folded again,‭ ‬set carefully next to the waterline without touching it.‭ ‬She looked around again,‭ ‬hunting for whoever had moved it,‭ ‬wondering at their purpose in doing so.
‎‏
The night,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬kept its secrets.

~

From then on,‎ ‏as she swam,‭ ‬she kept an eye out,‭ ‬or an ear out.‭ ‬It wasn’t long before she began to hear something:‭ ‬singing,‭ ‬from the bank,‭ ‬from where her swanskin lay.‭ ‬ Three nights in a row she caught songs drifting over the water,‭ ‬but by the time she swam to shore there was no one to be found‭ –‬ only the swanskin,‭ ‬immaculately folded.

~

On a cool night after a lazy rain,‎ ‏when the clouds had cloaked the setting of the sun and were only just revealing the stars,‭ ‬the swan shed her skin and hid her human body in the‭ ‬waving reeds.‭ ‬She watched.
‎‏
The water lapped up her thighs,‭ ‬whispered entreaties to her long arms.‭ ‬She ignored it as the clouds cleared and cleared above her,‭ ‬shedding light drop by drop onto the grass.‭ ‬Edging on toward dawn,‭ ‬her patience was rewarded.

The one who approached the swanskin was a human girl,‭ ‬perhaps as old as‭ ‬the swan‭ ‬was but still a girl,‭ ‬not a grown thing,‭ ‬trapped in that youth which in humans seemed so perpetual.‭ ‬She sang to herself as she stretched the skin out,‭ ‬hands going over every feather,‭ ‬studying the softness of every barb.
‎‏
The swan charged from the water,‭ ‬itching to arc her neck and threaten with tense white wings.‭ ‬She settled for a curdling hiss,‭ ‬forced up through a throat unaccustomed to such anger.
‎‏
The child‭ ‬leapt up,‭ ‬dropping the swanskin as she backed away.‭ “‬I’m sorry‭!” ‬she said,‭ ‬holding up both hands to ward off an attack,‭ ‬or to show her harmlessness.
‎‏
The swan didn’t attack‭ –‬ there was no need to.‭ ‬”Who are you‭?” ‬she asked.
‎‏
The girl fussed with her hands,‭ ‬running the fingertips over and over the skin.‭ ‬”Ange,‭” ‬she said,‭ ‬and wrinkled her nose.‭ “‬It’s a horrible name,‭ ‬isn’t it‭? ‬Like mange.‭”

The swan blinked.‎ ‏She hadn’t many opinions about human names.
“‏I would never steal your swanskin,‭” ‬the girl said.‭ ‬”I just wanted to study it,‭ ‬so I could maybe one day make my own.‭” ‬She opened her satchel and showed the swan bundles and bundles of feathers,‭ ‬carefully bound‭ –‬ discarded ones,‭ ‬mostly,‭ ‬some damaged,‭ ‬some exquisitely oiled and tended.‭ “‬I’m sorry.‭”
The swan turned her head to look at them‎ ‏from one eye,‭ ‬then the other.‭ ‬The apologies were uninteresting to her.‭

The little human was not a threat,‎ ‏she decided.‭ ‬A curious creature,‭ ‬but harmless.‭ ‬She took the swanskin back,‭ ‬and began to pull it on around her shoulders.
‎”‏Why do you take it off‭?” ‬the girl‭ ‬blurted out.
‎‏
The swan looked at her.

“‏Why do you become human‭?” ‬the girl asked.‭ “‬It’s a terrible thing to be.‭”

“Not terrible,‎” ‏the swan said.‭ “‬Only strange.‭”

The girl shook her head.‎ “‏It’s terrible for me,‭” ‬she said,‭ ‬and the swan felt pity for this little thing that could never escape.‭ ‬There was no closure to her own skin that could be opened.
‎‏

She nodded to the motley collection of feathers.‭ “‬What kind of bird would you become out of all that‭?”

The girl shrugged,‎ ‏and closed up her satchel.‭ “‬Any bird would do.‭”

“A bird with the wings of a hawk and the pinions of a crow could never fly,‎” ‏the swan said,‭ ‬and saw the girl’s heart sink.‭ “‬You don’t know much about birds,‭ ‬do you‭?”

The girl looked at her feet,‎ ‏shuffling one against the rain-damp grass.‭ “‬I’m the fisherman’s daughter,‭” ‬she said.‭ “‬I know about fish.‭”

Now,‎ ‏that was interesting to the swan.
‎‏

She turned,‭ ‬showing the swanskin.‭ “‬You asked why I took this off‭?”

The girl looked up,‎ ‏face all confusion and hope.
‎‏

The swan considered a while,‭ ‬then said‭ ‬”When the morning comes I sail on this placid lake.‭” ‬She nodded to the darkened water.‭ ‬”And when the night comes and the stars shatter on the ripples of my wake,‭ ‬I shed my skin and dive.‭ ‬My swan body is too good at floating‭; ‬it cannot sail beneath the‭ ‬surface.‭ ‬This human form is not perfect,‭ ‬but it is better.‭ ‬Long legs and heavy bones.‭”

Understanding dawned on the child’s face.‎ “‏You want to be something else,‭ ‬too.‭”

“Not something else,‎” ‏the swan said.‭ “‬Something and.‭”

“I envy you,‎” ‏the girl admitted.

There was such sadness in her voice that the swan‭ ‬was moved.‭ “‬I’ll make a bargain with you,‭” ‬she said.‭ “‬You who knows fish.‭ ‬Make me a dress for a tail,‭ ‬and‭ ‬I’ll let you wear my skin for three nights and three days while I dance in the places all but the water have forgotten.‭”

The sun was languorous,‎ ‏rising above the horizon.‭ ‬It couldn’t match the radiance of the girl’s face as she thanked the swan and ran for home.

~

The swan didn’t see the girl for some time,‎ ‏after that.‭ ‬She thought that,‭ ‬as many humans did,‭ ‬she had wilted under the challenge.‭ ‬Or perhaps she’d been given away to a husband who didn’t approve of her dreaming ‭–‬ one who would hide her from the swanskins,‭ ‬having no swanskin to hide away from her.‭ ‬Human things.
‎‏
She did admit that sometimes,‭ ‬she missed the girl’s singing.
‎‏
A full year passed on the lake,‭ ‬and the flowers blossomed and died and returned.‭ ‬When the swan saw the girl again,‭ ‬she had changed‭ –‬ her body was showing the first flush of womanhood,‭ ‬the curve at her waist beginning to resemble the roundness of a swan.
‎‏
She came to the lake singing,‭ ‬something shimmering and dark in her arms.‭ ‬The swan shed her skin and went to the girl,‭ ‬who unfurled the dress before her.

The dress was marvelous.‭ ‬The swan touched it,‭ ‬let it cascade over her hands ‭–‬ the fins thin as gauze and strong as silk,‭ ‬the skins themselves soft and supple.‭ ‬The seams were joined with stitches so fine they looked like scales themselves,‭ ‬and the color of one fish ran into the color of‭ ‬the next like a cascade of moonlight over a waterfall.‭ ‬The swan leaned forward and smelled it.‭ ‬It didn’t smell like fish,‭ ‬any more.‭ ‬Nor did it smell,‭ ‬as she feared it might,‭ ‬of death.‭ ‬It smelled mostly of the girl and her clever fingers,‭ ‬piecing each part together,‭ ‬tending the skins through the year until it was perfect,‭ ‬it was beautiful.

“‏I didn’t think you’d return,‭” ‬the swan said.

“‏Try it on‭!” ‬said the girl.
‎‏

The swan did.‭ ‬She carried it to the water and slipped it over her hips,‭ ‬felt it become a part of her.‭ ‬The heaviness and buoyancy of muscle‭ ‬bound up her limbs and she laughed‭ –‬ and laughed again as gills sprouted up her sides,‭ ‬and took in the water like a breath of clear,‭ ‬high air.
‎‏

“I’ll honor my bargain,‎” ‏she said.‭ “‬Put on the skin,‭ ‬and come back here when three days and nights have passed.‭”

The girl made a noise of barely-constrained delight,‎ ‏and ran to the shed skin.

“‏There is one thing,‭” ‬the swan-mermaid said,‭ ‬and the girl looked up at her.‭ ‬Her fingers were still trembling on the feathers.‭ ‬”While you have the skin on,‭ ‬you must‭ ‬not sing.‭ ‬If you sing,‭ ‬then you will die.‭”

“I understand,‎” ‏the girl said,‭ ‬and pulled the skin around her.
‎‏

The swan-mermaid‭ ‬pushed out into the water as the girl-swan pushed into the sky,‭ ‬each of them set to explore a world denied them.

~

Three days and nights passed,‎ ‏and the swan-mermaid returned to the shore.‭ ‬The girl-swan did,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬and pulled the skin from her shoulders with tears in her eyes.
‎‏
As she shed the dress of scales,‭ ‬the swan watched the girl.‭ “‬It wasn’t what you wanted,‭” ‬she surmised.

“‏It was‭!” ‬The girl was quick to assure her.‭ “‬But it ended.‭ ‬I can’t tell you how much it hurt to come down‭ –‬to give you your skin again.‭”

The swan was silent.‎ ‏She didn’t know what to say.

“‏Thank you for your kindness,‭” ‬the girl said.‭ “‬But I envy you,‭ ‬still.‭ ‬I think I envy you more now,‭ ‬having flown once in my life‭ –‬ and more,‭ ‬still.‭ ‬You have two skins,‭ ‬and I have to go back to being the fisherman’s daughter.‭”

“It was what we agreed,‎” ‏the swan said.‭ “‬You knew,‭ ‬as you labored for a year at this dress,‭ ‬that you would have three days and three nights at the end.‭”

“I would work another year for another three,‎” ‏the girl said,‭ “‬but my heart would break when those were over.‭ ‬Please.‭” ‬She went to her knees.‭ “‬Let me have one last flight,‭ ‬as the sun is rising.‭”

The swan looked to the far horizon.‎ ‏The sun was heavy on the edge of the world,‭ ‬spilling light like an overturned cup.‭ ‬With the sun’s light so selfless,‭ ‬it was hard to deny that request.‭ “‬One more.‭”

The girl wrapped the skin around her and‎ ‏spread her wings,‭ ‬as though greeting the dawn.‭ ‬Then she ran and took off,‭ ‬white against the dawnlit sky,‭ ‬higher and higher.‭ ‬The swan watched her,‭ ‬saw her turn and caress the air,‭ ‬hold in both wings what held her aloft.
‎‏
The sun was rising.‭ ‬The shadow of the curve of the world was falling and falling away,‭ ‬and the girl-swan flapped higher and higher.
‎‏
Then,‭ ‬at the zenith of her flight,‭ ‬when the light caught her wings,‭ ‬she‭ ‬opened her beak and began to sing.
‎‏
The swan shouted something,‭ ‬without human words.‭ ‬The song was beautiful,‭ ‬winding and soaring,‭ ‬and over too soon‭ –‬ and one white body plummeted toward the lake.
‎‏
She dove in to meet it,‭ ‬long legs pushing through the surface,‭ ‬and‭ ‬leapt from the water to catch the girl against her chest.‭ ‬The swan-body was still,‭ ‬its eyes open wide,‭ ‬sunrise-orange beak still gaping from the song.
‎‏
The swan carried the body to the shore and‭ ‬carefully,‭ ‬gently,‭ ‬worked her fingers into the skin.‭ ‬She opened up the robe,‭ ‬ready to slide out the dead child.
‎‏
But there was no child.‭ ‬Only an egg,‭ ‬where the heart would be.

~

She carried the egg to the shore and built a nest around it.‎ ‏Then she settled in,‭ ‬and waited to see what‭ ‬might emerge.

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