36 • The Wild Swans
“Oh?” Cameron smiled and sipped her wine. “And what fairy tales am I missing?”
Will thought a moment. “Do you know The Wild Swans?”
“The Wild Swans. Is that Grimm?”
“Well, it had a few dark spots, but overall I’ve always found it quite hopeful.”
“What?” Cameron frowned, her face puzzled. “Wait. No. I meant is it one by the Brothers Grimm.”
Will laughed. “No. Hans Christian Andersen. The Silver Skates guy.” He swished the wine around in his glass some more, still not convinced he would drink it. “I always find Andersen to have so much more nuance than the Grimm boys. They were all about warty witches in the woods and wolves with grandmothers in their bellies. A little ham-fisted if you ask me. But Andersen was always more cerebral. Complicated family dynamics, that sort of thing. Fewer monsters, more regular folks with monstrous hearts.”
“Is that right.” Cameron smirked at Will over her glass.
“You’re humoring me, ” Will said, lowering his eyes.
Cameron put a hand on his arm. “No, really I’m not. I’ve just never heard anybody break down the fairy tale guys like that. It’s actually sort of interesting.”
She noticed her hand on Will’s arm and gently slipped it back to her glass, which didn’t require two hands to hold but at the moment seemed like a good idea.
“You seem like a literature buff, ” she said. “Did you go to college for it?”
Will smiled and shook his head. “Nope. Studied the real trolls and monsters over in the political science department.”
“Serious? You don’t seem like a politician.”
“I’m not. Just found it an interesting way to study people. ‘By their politics ye shall know them, ’ as the Good Book says.”
“For a guy who keeps so much to himself, you sure seem curious about people.”
“Yeah?” Will raised his glass and took a sip of wine. His lips pursed as he swallowed. “What were we talking about before?”
“The wild swans. And how I’d never heard of them.”
“Ah. That’s right.” He stood up. “Sit tight, I’ll be right back.”
Will walked across the room to his bookshelf and scanned the titles. He pulled a thick gray book from the case and blew the dust off the top. “Here we go, ” he said. “This is the one.”
He sat back down across from Cameron and flipped through the pages. “I’ll read it to you.”
“You’re going to read to me, in a closet.”
“I can’t think of a better place to read.”
Will took his reading glasses from his shirt pocket and began.
Far away in the land to which the swallows fly when it’s winter, dwelt a king who had eleven sons, and one daughter named Eliza.
“Oh, gosh, ” Cameron interrupted. “The land to which the swallows fly when it’s winter. That sounds so majestic.”
Will chuckled. “Especially when you consider that a phrase like that could as easily refer to Broward County or Harlingen, since the birds around here all fly south to Florida or Texas in the winter. But Andersen makes it sound so ethereal.”
“Sorry, ” Cameron said. “Go on.”
The eleven brothers were princes, and each went to school with a star on his breast, and a sword by his side. They wrote with diamond pencils on gold slates, and learned their lessons so quickly and read so easily that everyone might know they were princes. Their sister Eliza sat on a little stool of plate-glass and had a book of pictures, which had cost as much as half a kingdom.
“You know, ” Cameron interjected again, “it’s really unfair that Eliza wasn’t given the opportunity for more of an education like the boys—she just got a picture book.”
“I don’t know if that’s a valid complaint or not, ” Will said, closing the book on his finger. “I mean, she’s clearly valued. She has a book that cost as much as half the kingdom for Pete’s sake. For just one book.”
“But why not put even a fraction of that into teaching her to read? Who knows what she could do to expand her father’s kingdom if he’d have been willing to invest in her brain and not just a fancy glass stool for her backside.”
Will crossed his arms, tucking the book under one. “So, are you going to let me read you the story, or are you going to go all feminist Princess Bride grandson the whole time?”
Cameron put up her hand, then made a zipper gesture across her lips and motioned to Will to keep reading.
Oh, these children were indeed happy, but it was not to remain so always.
“Ooh, ” Cameron said. “Foreshadowing.”
Will looked at Cameron over his glasses, his eyebrows raised.
“Go on, sorry.”
Their father, who was king of the country, married a very wicked queen, who did not like the poor children at all.
“Okay, come on. What is it with the misogynistic fairy tale writers who always create these benevolent, if a little clueless, men and couple them with utterly evil women (except for the perfect and saintly first wives and mothers of their children who are mysteriously dead)?”
Will lay the book open in his lap.
“You seem to have some capacity for fairy tale analysis yourself.” He smirked.
Cameron leaned forward. “I’m serious, ” she said. “They’re all like this. Full of evil women.”
She reached for the book and Will raised it up over his shoulder. “No, I’m reading it to you.”
Cameron lunged forward and grabbed the book from his hand. “I’m going to show you.” She started flipping through the pages. “Where were you reading from?”
Will reached out his hand for the book. “Let me have it. I’ll show you.”
Cameron kept flipping. She closed the old gray book and turned it.
“Leviathan, ” she said, running her finger along the spine. She looked up at Will, who cocked his head slightly. “Did Thomas Hobbes also write fairy tales?”
“In a manner of speaking, ” he said, easing the book from Cameron’s hand.
“What gives, Phillips?” she asked. “Were you making the story up?”
“No, I’d tell a different tale if I were making one up. It’s the real story but I don’t have a book with it in.”
“You were telling the story from memory?”
“It’s sort of a favorite, ” Will said quietly, rubbing his fingertips against the embossed linen of the cover. “Pretending to read it felt less odd than reciting it.”
Cameron looked into her wine glass, then looked up at Will. “Put the book down and tell me the rest?”
Will scooted next to Cameron and leaned his back against the wall. “Alright. Just never tell the guys downtown that I did.”
“Our secret, ” Cameron said, making the zipper gesture again.
“Well, as things go, the king’s evil new wife sends Eliza off to live with some peasant couple in the country, and then feeds the princes sand in their teacups. She tells the king all sorts of lies about them until finally he just doesn’t care about any of his kids anymore.”
“Those had to be some whopper lies, or the queen must have been some kind of beautiful, ” Cameron said.
“Yeah, Andersen didn’t give the king much credit for thinking outside his pants, as best as I can tell.” Will shifted, then slowly floated one hand upward as he continued, “Anyway, then she puts a curse on the brothers, trying to make them into ugly birds that will fly away from the palace. But she only manages to turn them into beautiful, voiceless swans.”
Will leaned his head back against the wall. “So the swan brothers fly from the palace to the hovel where Eliza lives and see her playing with the only toy she had: a single green leaf. But because they can’t speak, they can’t do anything for her so they fly away.”
“That’s very sad, ” Cameron said softly.
“Yeah, and it gets worse. When Eliza turns 15, her father wants to see her so the queen summons her from the peasants. She enchants three toads and puts them in her bath. One is supposed to sit on Eliza’s head and make her stupid, one is to sit on her forehead and make her ugly, and one is to sit on her heart and make her evil. Eliza gets in the bath and the toads do their thing, but because Eliza is so beautiful and pure, the curses don’t work so all that happens is that the toads turn to red poppies on the bath water, instead of turning to roses, which is what would have happened to frogs in the bath with Eliza if they hadn’t been enchanted.”
“Red poppies, huh?” Cameron asked.
“Red poppies. Thinking that maybe Andersen and Neruda used to go out for beers after work.” Will chuckled. “Since the magic wasn’t working for the evil queen, she takes some walnut juice and smears it all over Eliza’s face, and then messes up her hair pretty bad, and then presents her to the king, who doesn’t even recognize her because she looks so awful, so Eliza runs away from the palace. She meets up with an old woman who tells her about seeing eleven swans and takes her to a place where she can find them. Well, around sunset, she sees the eleven swans flying toward her over the ocean, and when they land and it becomes dark, they turn back into her brothers.”
“Wait. What? They suddenly are her brothers again?”
“Well, they are for a moment, ” Will explained. “But when the sun comes up, they turn into swans again. It’s a day-night kind of curse.”
“Oh, okay. Gotcha.”
“Listen, I’m leaving big parts of it out. It’s a pretty long story. She flies around with her brothers for a while and then she has a dream and a fairy in the dream tells her that she can save her brothers if she will take the stinging nettles—only the ones she can find in a graveyard—and break them into pieces that will become flax, and then spin and weave eleven coats with long sleeves. And if she puts the coats on the swans, the spell will be broken. But if she speaks even one word, the whole deal is off and the brothers cannot be saved. So she sets off to make the coats, and this king finds her. Of course, the king falls in love with her—“
“Oh, gosh, ” Cameron said. “Is this going to get weird?”
“Well, the whole thing is already pretty weird, don’t you think?”
“The archbishop gets a little freaked out about the king’s new sweetie and tells him she’s a witch. Eliza gets thrown into the dungeon, and she keeps on making the coats for her brothers, thanks to some very helpful little mice. When the people haul her off to be burned as a witch, she’s still wildly spinning these coats from nettles, and her brothers come swooping in and she throws the coats on them as they go by. But the problem is that one of the coats doesn’t get quite done. As her youngest brother flies by, she throws the partial coat on him, and he turns back into a young man, but because the coat was missing a sleeve, one arm was left as the wing of the swan. And that’s the story of The Wild Swans.”
“That’s it?” asked Cameron. “It ends there? What about Eliza? Is she killed? Do they burn her to death?”
“Oh, yeah. Eliza.” Will took a drink. “No, no, she’s fine. Once the brothers aren’t swans anymore, she gets her voice back and says she’s not a witch and everyone just believes her—which is wild since she just turned eleven swans into men which sounds totally like something a witch could do—and she marries the king.
“Why did you leave that part out? You were just going to leave me hanging?”
“Well, I didn’t mean to. I just really like the part about the youngest brother and his swan wing. I figure, it’s a fairy tale. It goes without saying that the beautiful girl is going to marry the king that was just about to have her killed.”
“The girl saved everybody. She couldn’t speak, she was sent to the dungeon, she knitted eleven coats with bloody hands and was on her way to be burned alive, the king is useless, and she’s the one that saves them all.”
“Yeah. Go figure, those damned misogynist fairy tale writers.”
Cameron punched Will lightly on the arm.
“Easy there, you’ll bruise my feathers.”
“Oh?” Cameron raised her eyebrows. “You’re hiding the wing of a swan under your shirt?”
“Why else do you suppose I always wear long sleeves?” Will asked. He stared back into his glass and twisted the button on his cuff.
Cameron leaned back and tipped her glass to finish her wine.
Will looked up at the ceiling above Pearl’s old dresses. “Sometimes I come in here to think. Once—” Will paused, looking at his hands. He looked back up. “Once I imagined the ceiling opened to a starry sky and a white feather floated down into my hands.”
Cameron tipped her head.
“I should say, I may also have been drunk at the time, ” Will chuckled.
Cameron punched him on the arm again. “I’ll bet you bring all the pretty girls in her and tell them that story.”
Will laughed with unease. “Well, I haven’t told all the pretty girls.” He took a drink. “Just one.”
“Hmm.” Cameron straightened.
“Of course, there was only one other pretty girl.”
“And the not-so-pretty ones?” Cameron asked.
“There weren’t any.” Will ran a hand through his wavy hair.
“Oh.” Cameron said, working a smudge on her glass with her thumb. “And did this pretty girl like the story?”
“She did not.”
(to be continued)