The following short story is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, a fairy tale about a princess who rescues her eleven brothers from a curse that transformed them into swans. Using stunning imagery and mythological allusions, Mal Sklar presents a creative account of the emotional journey the youngest brother goes through after being unable to return to his full human form. Read “The Swan Prince” below.
The Swan Prince
It’s been four years, three months, seventeen days since the end of the curse, since my sister tried to turn us back into people.
Sometimes I resent her for it. I can’t help it. When I stand in the shower in the mornings I wash my body with my left hand, shampoo my hair with my left hand, and sluice the oils and grime off the great white wing that hangs limp against my right side.
I don’t wash it as often as I ought to. I know I should ideally do it every day, but if I try to force it, I end up curled on the cold floor of the shower in a ball, feeling the water drum against my back, face hot and snotty with crying. What that means is I go around looking like half a dirty pigeon most of the time. What a prince. People forget we used to be princes.
Sometimes I can hardly stand to look at it, at the wing. Sometimes I can’t stop looking. When it’s both is the worst. I’ll stand in front of the mirror, smoothing the tiny feathers of my shoulder and ribs, the fuzzy white filaments, over and over, stroking where the skin gives way to pale, pale feathers.
A few times my sister has found me surrounded by tiny, bloody fragments of feather, the pocked skin of my shoulder raw, oozing. I don’t even realize I’m picking at it. Sometimes I catch myself before she can find me, which is always for the best. I generally don’t like to make her cry.
Even if I can’t help but blame her.
One sleeve, one more sleeve was all it would have taken. All of our brothers have two arms, whole and hale. They are whole-people.
I am a half-person. Maybe less.
My sister comes to visit me as often as she can, usually a few times a week. I sit in a chair before the window, stripped to the waist. Stripped to the skin. Stripped back to the bare soul. She grooms my wing with sweet-smelling oils and tiny combs and brushes. She is patient, working her way from the tiny feathers at the top down to the long, beautiful pinions.
She lives with her husband in their big Upper East Side house, with the blankets and pillows and curtains of green velvet that he bought her because they reminded her of moss, soft and vibrant. She runs the backs of her knuckles across her covers at night and when it doesn’t sting her she feels safe. Her husband absolutely dotes on her, and she looks at him with a certain fondness, but he’s so much older than her. He makes her happy and I guess I’m happy for her but I can’t help but think it’s weird.
She was silent for so long. I am constantly reminded of this. Her hands on me are scarred in raised ropes, white and hairless, but a mother’s rejection stings worse than nettles. At times she chatters, filling the enormous silence between us. Dust hangs in the light, settles on the scratched hardwood floors of my apartment, gets picked up by the tips of the pinions.
My pinions. Shit.
Sometimes my sister is quiet, and you’d think it would build a wall between us, all that silence, but it doesn’t. I feel closer to her when she doesn’t say a word. And maybe it’s terrible, but for nearly six years she was silent and maybe I’m part of the problem if I’m more used to that than her words. Because she talks in bursts, but if she feels like she’s being annoying she’ll shut up and be quiet and unreachable for days.
Maybe me being so quiet myself doesn’t help.
I know she feels guilty, and some part of me is meanly glad that she suffers. It’s terrible, I know, but sometimes when she’s quiet and combing through my feathers, I can feel her tears dropping, sliding across their surfaces and the salt smell reminds me of what flying over the ocean used to smell like, and I miss it so much.
Only my youngest brother remembers. He’s only a year older than me, so we’ve always been the closest. He tells me he still has dreams where he’s flying. Our other brothers have forgotten, are happy to forget, can hardly stand to see me. They’re whole people. But my youngest brother is an artist, and swans see more colors than people. He’s been praised for his wet wildernesses, for dreamlike landscapes where the only living things are a wedge of swans in the gray haziness above the horizon, sometimes five, sometimes six, depending on whether or not he’s including himself. Lately we haven’t been as close as we were when we were kids and I think it makes us both sad, but neither of us knows quite what to do to start to make it better.
My sister has asked me to move in with her and her husband dozens of times, but I always refuse.
I live with all of the other half-people, swept away from the center of the city and fetched up down here. Thrown away. Half-people like me: Changelings and hexed travellers and half-breeds. My landlady has gummy webbing that fuses some of her fingers together. Her ex-fiancé told her he didn’t want to marry a woman who couldn’t get his ring on her finger.
I shouldn’t complain. I work as a model, putting my wracked and boney body on display for artists and painters and fashion designers and photographers. It’s the wing they really like, and they’re always having me hold it half-unfurled, spread, and I feel so, so bare. The worst is when the photographers dump glitter in it, though. Takes weeks to get it all out.
Once and only once have I managed to get a girl to come home with me. “Managed.” It sounds so gross. She was a pixie with a punky haircut and an upturned nose. She ended up staying the night, but at some point while we were asleep she must have rolled on top of my wing. I woke up in a panic and nearly kicked her off the bed and onto the floor, my wing all pins and needles and numb. I guess I’m just lucky she didn’t break one of the pinions. You can’t fly without them. After that I stopped going out at night so much, stopped trying.
My first Halloween Post-Incident one of my older brothers was throwing a party. There were so many parties that first year: our first Halloween together since the Incident, our first Thanksgiving, our first Christmas, our first New Years. Eventually I stopped getting invitations to those things; my presence made everyone uncomfortable. It probably didn’t help that I would always get drunk on red wine to make it through them.
But that first Halloween my sister and youngest brother were over to help me dress up, to take pictures together. We were so tight knit, desperate to hold onto each other.
My sister did my makeup. Red paint and a devilish sneer for my left half, an angelic wide eye for the right. The wing spoke for itself. It always has. I sometimes think it speaks for me.
When she and my brother lead me to the mirror, I couldn’t help it. I broke down crying. It had been a few months at that point, but it was the first time I had really cried. I howled. I think I scared them.
My brother was quicker on the uptake. As my sister endlessly apologized, wiping my face clean, her own lashes wet with unshed tears, my bother went to work.
In less than an hour he had built me a mask, coat hanger framework, brown paper bag sheath.
It was a plague doctor mask, huge, birdlike, frightening, and as he tied the trailing ends of the laces behind my head, I felt myself immediately calm. Something about the heaviness at the front of my face seemed right, seemed to ease an ache I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying in my chest, as I stood before the mirror, turning my head one way and then the other to admire myself.
I missed being a swan more than being a person. That was the sad truth.
Last week my sister took me to the Met. The museum, not the opera. In the Egyptology exhibit they have this building that was moved block by block from Egypt all the way to New York. The Temple of Dendur. Imagine that, a whole temple deconstructed, hurtling across an ocean just to be put back together exactly as it was, piece by piece.
The temple is beautiful. It looms in the center of a huge dais, the windows letting in gray, living light. Around the dais is a reflecting pool, flat and black, with pennies and nickels and bus tokens glittering at the bottom. All the riches of the world. It’s a massive space, but when I step through the entrance to the temple itself and walk through the hallways, the tips of my wing brush the wall, even when I fold it tight against me. The inside winds, it rasps, it gloams. It’s such a small space, but I felt kept rather than restricted. Safe.
It’s dedicated to Osiris and Isis, lord of the dead and lady of magic.
Shit, do I know about magic.
It’s their son who fascinates me, though. Falcon-headed Horus, god of the sky.
God of the sky. I used to think that was me.
I found Horus, etched there more than two thousand years before I was born. Waiting for me. I gazed at him, devoured the sight, starving. Reached out to touch him.
A half-person. No, a whole-god.
On the way home that day I stopped by the library and got out a book on Egyptology. Maybe my brother can recommend a good course on art history.