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Fiction

Swans

My name is Emma Bear, and I am eleven years old. I live on Black Ankle Road beside the Licking River. I live in a palace. My father is a king. I have a fairy godfather. This summer I read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and learned how to make blue dye from a flower called woad. I have six brothers. My mother is dead. I’m in the seventh grade. My father remarried this summer. My favorite class is home ec. I love to sew. I make all my own clothes. My mother taught me how to sew. I can also knit, crochet, and quilt.

Yesterday my stepmother pointed her pinkie finger at my brothers and turned them all into swans. They were being too noisy. I’m never too noisy. I don’t talk at all.

This year I was failing choir. I opened my mouth to sing, and nothing came out. I hadn’t been able to say a word since my mother died. In my other classes, it was okay. Homework was okay. Math was okay, and English. Art was okay. I could write down answers on the black board. I carried around a pad of paper and a pen. You’d be surprised how often you don’t actually have to say anything. Mostly if I just nodded, it was okay. But choir doesn’t work that way. You can’t sing by writing on a pad of paper. But nothing came out of my mouth when I opened it.

Last year I had lots of friends. This year I didn’t have any. What happened in between? My mother died. I stopped talking. No more friends. Really, I’ve been too busy to have friends, I suppose.

When I first stopped talking, no one noticed. Not until Mom’s funeral, when we were all supposed to stand up and say something. I stood up, but nothing came out when I opened my mouth. First my father sent me to see a psychologist. I just sat on her couch. I looked at pictures, and wrote down what they looked like. They all looked like flowers, or birds, or schnauzers. Then my fairy godfather came to the palace.

My fairy godfather is a little man with red hair. His name is Rumpelstiltskin. He was a friend of my mother’s. He’d been away on business for a few months—he’d missed the funeral. His eyes were all red, and he cursed a lot. He’d loved my mother a lot. He sat with me for a long time, brushing my hair, and patting my hand.

Finally he said, “Well, you certainly don’t have to talk until you want to. Keffluffle. Excuse my French. What a mess this is, Emma.”

I nodded. I wrote down on my pad of paper, I miss her.

“Fudge, I do, too,” my godfather said. “Excuse the French.”

He tapped me on the nose gently. “You know your father is going to have to get married again.”

I wrote, I’ll have an evil stepmother?

“That evil stepmother stuff is just a pile of horsepucky,” he said, “excuse me. It’s just baloney. Whoever he marries will be just as afraid of you and your brothers as you are of her. You keep that in mind.”

To my father, he said, “Emma just needs a piece of time. When she needs to say something, she’ll open her mouth and say it.”

He hugged my father, and he hugged me. He said, “I have a commission for you, Emma. I have a godchild who is going to a ball. All she’s got to wear are rags. She needs a fancy dress. Not pink, I think. It wouldn’t match. She’s got lovely red hair, just like me. Maybe a nice sea-foam green. Right down to the ankles. Lots of lace.”

I wrote, When do you need it?

“When she turns seventeen,” he said. “That’s not for a bit. I’ll send you her measurements. Okay?”

Okay, I wrote and kissed him good-bye.

#

When my mother was young, she was famous. She could spin straw into gold. Her name was Cleanthea. A year ago, she went jogging in the rain, and then she caught cold, and then she died.

My mother’s quilts were famous. Famous quilts have their own names. She made crazy quilts, which are just bits of scraps sewn together, and then decorated and embroidered with fancy stitches—wheat stitches, briar stitches, flowers, birds, little frogs, and snowflakes. She made Log Cabin quilts and Wedding Ring quilts, and she also made up her own patterns. Her quilts had names like Going Down to the River and Snakes Fall in Love and Watering the Garden. People paid hundreds of dollars for them. Every bed in the castle has a quilt on it that my mother made.

Each of my brothers had a quilt that my mother made just for them. She made my brother Julian a Star Wars quilt, with X-Wing Fighters and Death Stars. She made my oldest brother an Elvis quilt. Up close it’s just strips and patches of purple cloth, all different patterns. But when you back away, you can see that all the bits of different colors of purple make up Elvis’s face—his eyes, his lips, his hair. For my youngest brother, she made a Cats Eat Birds quilt. She sewed real feathers into the cats’ mouths, and little red cloth-patch birds into their stomachs.

She never finished my quilt. We were working on it together. I’m still working on it now. I don’t really want to finish it. In fact, it’s gotten a little bit big for my bed. When I spread it out, it’s almost as big as a swimming pool. Eventually, it will fill up my whole room, I guess. Every night now I sleep on a different bed in the castle, under a different quilt. I pretend that each quilt is a quilt that I have never seen before, that she has just finished making, just for me.

#

I should tell you about my father and my brothers. I should also tell you about my stepmother. My father is very tall and handsome, and also very busy with things like affairs of state and cutting ribbons at the grand openings of grocery stores and presenting awards to writers and musicians and artists and also going to soccer games and football games so that photographers can take his picture. That was how he met my stepmother. He was at the zoo, which had just been given a rare species of bird. He was supposed to be photographed with the bird on his shoulder.

When he arrived, however, the keepers were distraught. The bird had disappeared. Even worse, a naked woman had been found wandering around the grounds. She wouldn’t say who she was, or where she came from. No one could find her clothes. The keepers were afraid that she might be a terrorist, or an anarchist, come to blow up the zoo, or kill my father. It would be bad publicity for everyone.

“Nonsense,” my father said. He asked to meet the woman. The zookeepers protested, saying that this was a bad idea. My father insisted. And so my father’s picture appeared in the papers, holding out his hand to a woman dressed in a long white T-shirt and a pair of flip-flops that one of the keepers got out of the lost and found. The picture in the paper was blurry, but if you looked closely you could see the look in my father’s eyes. He looked like he’d been hit on the head. He looked like he was falling in love, which he was.

The woman, my stepmother, looked small and fragile in the photograph, like a Christmas tree ornament. She had long, feathered hair. The T-shirt hung on her like a tent, and the flip-flops were too big for her.

We still don’t know much about my stepmother. She was from a faraway country, we thought, because she had a slight but unrecognizable accent. She was a little bit cross-eyed, like a Siamese cat. She never brushed her hair. It stuck up in points behind her ears, like horns. She was very beautiful, but she hated noise. My brothers made too much noise. That’s why she turned them into swans.

They came and stood on the lawn this morning, and I fed them dried corn and bits of burnt buttered toast. They came back early, while my stepmother was still sleeping. They honked at me very quietly. I think they were afraid if they were loud, she’d turn them into something even worse. Snails, maybe, or toads.

Some of the other girls at school thought I was lucky to have so many brothers. Some of them said how handsome my brothers were. I never really thought so. My brothers used to pull my hair and short-sheet my bed, and they never helped with my homework unless I gave them my allowance. They liked to sit on top of me and tickle me until I cried. But when my mother died, they all cried. I couldn’t.

My brothers’ names are George, Theodore, Russell, Anthony, William, and Julian. George is the oldest. Theodore is the nicest. Anthony is the tallest. Russell has freckles, and he is allergic to milk. William and Julian are twins, and two years younger than me. They liked to wear each other’s clothes and pretend that Julian was William, and William was Julian. The thing is, all of them look alike now that they’re birds. They all look like twins.

#

My father told us that my stepmother didn’t like noise. They got married at the beginning of the summer. We got to throw rice. We’d only seen my stepmother twice before—once in the newspaper picture, and once when my father brought her home for dinner. There were a lot of important people at that dinner. We ate in the kitchen, but afterward we stood in the secret passageway and spied through the painting that has the eyes cut out.

My future stepmother didn’t eat much dinner, but she had three helpings of dessert. This is when I first became suspicious that she was magic—a witch, or else under an enchantment. Witches and people under spells, magic people, always have sweet tooths. My fairy godfather carries around sugar cubes in his pockets and stirs dozens of them in his coffee, or else just eats them plain, like a horse. And he never gets cavities.

When my father and stepmother came back from their honeymoon, we were all standing on the palace steps. We had all just had baths. The palace steps had just been washed.

My father and stepmother were holding hands. When they saw us, my stepmother let go of my father’s hand and slipped inside the palace. I was holding up a big sign that said, welcome home, dad. There wasn’t any room on the sign for stepmother.

“Hey,” my brother George said, “what did you bring me?”

“Anthony stole my rocket launcher,” Russell said. “It wasn’t me,” Anthony said, “it was Theodore.”

“It was NOT me,” Theodore said, and William and Julian said, “Emma made us brush our teeth every night.”

Everyone began yelling. My father yelled loudest of all.

“I’d really appreciate it if you all tried to be quiet and didn’t yell all at once. Your stepmother has a bad headache, and besides, she’s very shy, and not at all used to loud children,” he said, looking at my brothers. Then he looked at me. “Emma,” he said, “are you still not talking?”

I took out my notepad and wrote yes on it. He sighed. “Does that mean ‘yes, you are talking now,’ or ‘yes, you still aren’t talking’?”

I didn’t say anything. I just smiled and nodded. “Maybe you’d like to show your new stepmother around the castle,” he said.

#

My stepmother was in the library, reclining on a sofa with a damp cloth over her eyes. I stood there for a bit, and then I tapped my foot some. She didn’t move. Finally I reached down and touched her shoulder. Her eyelids fluttered.

I held up my pad of paper. I wrote, I’m Emma. I don’t talk.

She sat up and looked at me. She wasn’t very big. When she stood up, I bet that we would have been the same height, almost, except she was wearing pointy black shoes with tall heels to make her look taller.

I wrote, Dad asked me to show you the castle.

I showed her around the castle. I showed her the kitchen with the roasting spit that the dogs turn, and the microwave, and the coffeemaker. I showed her the ballroom, which is haunted, and the dungeon, which my father had converted into an indoor swimming pool and squash court, and I showed her the bowling alley, which is also haunted, and the stables, and the upstairs bathroom, which has modern plumbing. Then I took her to my mother’s room. The quilt on the bed was Roses and Cabbages Growing Up Together, all pieced together from old green velvet hunting coats and rose-colored satin gloves.

My new stepmother sat down on the bed. She bounced experimentally, holding her head. She stared at me with her slightly crossed eyes. “A nice bed,” she said in a soft, gravelly voice. “Thanks, Emma.”

My mother made this quilt, I wrote. Her quilts are very valuable. Please be careful when you are sleeping. Then I left her there on my mother’s bed. The next day she turned George into a swan. He was practicing his saxophone.

George is my father’s heir. George doesn’t want to be king. George wants to be a saxophonist in a heavy metal band. I was listening to him in the ballroom. He isn’t very good yet, but he likes to have an audience. I sit and listen to him, and he pays me five dollars. He says someday it will be the other way round.

I was embroidering the back of a blouse with blue silk thread. I was trying to embroider a horse, but it looked more like a crocodile, or maybe a dachshund.

My stepmother had been swimming in the pool. She was still in her bathing suit. She came into the ballroom and left puddly footprints all over the waxed and polished black walnut floor. “Excuse me,” she said. George ignored her. He kept on honking and tootling. He smirked at me. “Excuse me,” our stepmother said, a little bit louder, and then she pointed her pinkie finger at him. She flicked her pinkie up at him, and he turned into a swan. The swan—George—honked. He sounded surprised. Then he spread out his wings and flew away through an open window.

I opened my mouth, but of course nothing came out. I stared at my stepmother, and she shrugged apologetically. Then she turned and left, still dripping. Later that afternoon when Anthony set off Russell’s rocket over the frog pond, my stepmother turned him into a swan, too. I was up in the tree house watching.

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t tell someone. My dad, for instance. Well, for one thing, it was kind of fun. My brothers looked so surprised. Besides, at dinner no one missed Anthony or George. My brothers are always off somewhere, camping with friends, or else sleeping over at someone else’s house, or else keeping vigil in the haunted bowling alley. The ghost always shows up in the bowling alley at midnight, with his head in his hand. The pins scream when he throws his head down the lane.

My stepmother had three helpings of pineapple upside-down cake. After dinner, she turned Theodore and Russell into swans. They were banging down the grand staircase on tin trays. I have to admit this is a lot of fun. I’ve done it myself. Not turning people into swans, I mean, sliding down on trays.

I had to open up a window for Theodore and Russell. They honked reproachfully at me as I pushed them out over the windowsill. But once they opened up their wings, they looked so graceful, so strong. They flew up into the sky, curving and diving and hanging on a current of air, dipping their long necks.

How do you do that? I wrote down on my pad. My stepmother was sitting down on the staircase, looking almost ashamed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It just seems to happen. It’s just so noisy.”

Can you turn them back? I wrote.

“What an excellent inquiry,” she said. “I do not know. Perhaps and we shall see.”

#

William and Julian refused, as usual, to brush their teeth before bedtime. Loudly. I told them, Be quiet, or else.

“Or else what?” Julian screamed at me, his face red with temper.

New stepmother will turn you into a swan.

“Liar,” William said loudly. He said it again, even louder, experimentally. My stepmother, wearing pink flannel pajamas, was standing there, just outside the bathroom door. She stuck her head in, looking pained. Julian and William pretended to be afraid. They screamed and giggled. Then they pretended to be swans, flapping their arms. My stepmother waved her finger at them, and they sprouted wings. They sprouted feathers and beaks, and blinked their black beady eyes at her.

I filled up the bathtub with water, and put them in it. It was the first time they ever seemed to enjoy a bath. Even better, they didn’t have any teeth to brush.

Then I put them outside, because I wasn’t sure if they were house-trained.

The next morning I woke under my favorite quilt, the Rapunzel quilt, with the gray tower, and the witch, and the prince climbing up the long yellow braids. I ate breakfast and then I went outside and fed my brothers. I’d never had pets before. Now I had six. I tried to decide what I liked better, birds or brothers.

When I went back to get more toast, my father was sitting in the kitchen, reading the morning paper. He was wearing the striped purple bathrobe I’d made him for Christmas three years ago. Mom had helped with the cuffs. The hem was a little bit frayed. “Good morning, Emma,” he said. “Still not speaking? Where are the rest of you, anyway?”

I wrote down, New stepmom turned them into swans.

“Ha,” he said. “You’re a funny girl, Emma. Don’t forget. Today I’m dedicating the new school gymnasium. We’ll see you about two-ish.”

#

First there were speeches. I sat with the rest of my grade, in the bleachers, and looked at my new stepmother. I was thinking that the smart thing would have been to buy her earplugs. Whenever my principal, Mr. Wolf, put his mouth too close to the microphone, there was a squeal of feedback. My stepmother was looking pale. Her lips were pressed tightly together. She sat behind Mr. Wolf on the stage, beside my father.

Sorley Meadows, who wears colored lip gloss, was sitting next to me. She dug her pointy elbow into my side. “Your stepmother is, like, tiny,” she said. “She looks like a little kid.”

I ignored her. My father sat with his back straight, and his mouth fixed in a dignified, royal smile. My father can sleep with his eyes open. That’s what my mother used to say. She used to poke him at state occasions, just to see if he was still awake.

Mr. Wolf finished his speech, and we all clapped. Then the marching band came in. My father woke up. My stepmother put her hand out, as if she were going to conduct them.

Really, the band isn’t very good. But they are enthusiastic. My stepmother stood up. She stuck out her pinkie finger, and instead of a marching band there was suddenly a lot of large white hissing swans.

I jumped down out of the bleachers. How mortifying. Students and teachers all began to stand up. “She turned them into birds,” someone said.

My father looked at my stepmother with a new sort of look. It was still a sort of being hit on the head sort of look, but a different sort of being hit on the head. Mr. Wolf turned toward my father and my stepmother. “Your Royal Majesty, my dear mademoiselle,” he said, “please do not be alarmed. This is, no doubt, some student prank.”

He lifted the little silver whistle around his neck and blew on it. “Everyone,” he said. “Please be quiet! Please sit back down.”

My stepmother did not sit back down. She pointed at Mr. Wolf. Mrs. Heliotrope, the French teacher, screamed suddenly. Mr. Wolf was a swan. So was Mrs. Heliotrope. And as I watched, suddenly the new gymnasium was full of birds. Sorley Meadows was a swan. John Riley, who is someone I once had a crush on until I saw him picking his nose in the cloakroom, was a swan. Emma Valerie Snope, who used to be my best friend because we had the same name, was a swan. Marisa Valdez, the prettiest girl in the seventh grade, was a swan.

My father grabbed my stepmother’s arm. “What is going on here?” he said to her. She turned him into a swan.

In that whole gymnasium, it was just me and my stepmother and a lot of swans. There were feathers floating all over in the air. It looked like a henhouse. I pulled out my pad of paper. I jumped up on the stage and walked over to her. She had just turned my whole school into a bunch of birds. She had just turned my father into a bird. She put her hand down absentmindedly and patted him on the top of his white feathery head. He darted his head away, and snapped at her.

I was so angry, I stabbed right through the pad of paper with my ballpoint. The tip of the pen broke off. I threw the pad of paper down.

I opened my mouth. I wasn’t sure what was going to come out. Maybe a yell. Maybe a curse. Maybe a squawk. What if she turned me into a bird, too? “WHAT?” I said. “WHAT?”

It was the first word I had said in a whole year. I saw it hit her. Her eyes got so big. She threw her arm out, pointing her pinkie finger at me. I was pointing at her. “WHAT?” I said again. I saw her pinkie finger become a feather. Her arms got downy. Her nose got longer, and sharp. She flapped her wings at me.

She wasn’t a swan. She was some other kind of bird. I don’t know what kind. She was like an owl, but bigger, or maybe a great auk, or a kiwi. Her feathers looked fiery and metallic. She had a long tail, like a peacock. She fanned it out. She looked extremely relieved. She cocked her head to one side and looked at me, and then she flew out of the gymnasium.

“WHAT?” I screamed after her. “WAIT!” What a mess. She’d turned my family, my entire school into birds, and then she flew away? Was this fair? What was I supposed to do? “I want to be a swan, too! I want my mom!”

I sat down on the stage and cried. I really missed my mom.

Then I went to the school library and did a little research. A lot of the swans came with me. They don’t seem to be house-trained, so I spread out newspaper on the floor for them.

My fairy godfather is never around when you need him. This is why it’s important to develop good research skills, and know how to find your way around a library. If you can’t depend on your fairy godfather, at least you can depend on the card catalog. I found the section of books on enchantments, and read for a bit. The swans settled down in the library, honking softly. It was kind of pleasant.

#

It seems that to break my stepmother’s pinkie spell, I need to make shirts for all of the birds and throw the shirts over their necks. I need to sew these shirts out of nettle cloth, which doesn’t sound very pleasant. Nettles burn when you pick them. Really, I think linen, or cotton, is probably more practical. And I think I have a better idea than a bunch of silly shirts that no one is probably going to want to wear again, anyway. And how are you supposed to sew a shirt for a bird? Is there a pattern? Down in the castle storerooms, there are a lot of trunks filled with my mother’s quilting supplies.

I miss my mother.

Excuse me. I just can’t seem to stop talking. My voice is all hoarse and croaky. I sound like a crow. I probably wouldn’t have gotten a good grade in choir, anyway. Mrs. Orlovsky, the choir teacher, is the swan over there, on top of the librarian’s desk. Her head is tucked under her wing. At least I think it’s Mrs. Orlovsky. Maybe it’s Mr. Beatty, the librarian. My father is perched up on the windowsill. He’s looking out the window, but I can’t see anything out there. Just sky.

I think I’m going to finish the quilt that my mother and I started. It’s going to be a lot bigger than either of us was planning on making it. When I finish, it should be big enough even to cover the floor of the gymnasium.

It’s a blue quilt, a crazy quilt. Silk, corduroy, denim, satin, velvet. Sapphire, midnight blue, navy, marine, royal blue, sky blue. I’m going to patch in white birds with wide white wings on one side, and on the other side I’m going to patch in little white shirts. When I finish, I’m going to roll it up, and then throw it over all the swans I can find. I’m going to turn them back into people. This quilt is going to be as beautiful as sky. It’s going to be as soft as feathers. It’s going to be just like magic.

© 2000 by Kelly Link.
Originally published in A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales,
edited by Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Kelly Link

Kelly LinkKelly Link is the author of three collections, Pretty Monsters, Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen. Her short stories have won three Nebula awards, a Hugo, a Locus and a World Fantasy Award. She was born in Miami, Florida, and once won a free trip around the world by answering the question “Why do you want to go around the world?” (“Because you can’t go through it.”)

Link lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she and her husband, Gavin J. Grant, run Small Beer Press and play ping-pong. In 1996 they started the occasional zine Lady Churchill Rosebud’s Wristlet.