The Six Swans
A Short Fairy Tale Retelling By Manelle Oliphant
Text and illustrations © 2014 by Manelle Oliphant
The morning sun warmed my face and I opened my eyes. Blinking, I waited for my mind to wake up. I still felt tired after my night’s sleep. I remembered my long labor and my baby. I pulled the beautiful white blankets closer to me. The baby made a noise. I unwrapped him to get a look at the little perfect face I remembered from last night.
It squealed and squirmed in my arms.
I almost cried out but stopped myself. My brothers counted on me. My breaths came quick and heavy like yesterday when I was in labor. I shook Albert awake.
He smiled up at me until he saw my face. He sat up. “What’s the matter?”
Still breathing heavy I shoved the blankets of pig at him. Where was my baby? I searched the bedding. He could still be here somewhere.
Albert glanced from the pig to me as I pulled the blankets onto the cold floor. No baby. My chubby baby boy wasn’t here. My strength failed and I knelt down. Silent tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t make a sound or my brothers would be swans all their lives.
Albert rang for the servants and gathered me into his arms. I felt warm and safe close to him.
The servants entered the room, followed by the Queen and her favorite advisor. “What’s wrong Albert dear?” Her voice smooth, with hard edges.
I pulled my face from Alberts now wet shirt and looked at her. A smile played at the edges of her mouth. This was her latest effort to be rid of me.
Albert let go of me and ran toward his mother. “Mother, our baby is gone! This pig was put in its place. We must punish whoever has done this.”
The queen put his hand around her arm, and patted it. “My dear. I warned you something like this might happen. I’m afraid your little mute wife doesn’t have all her wits about her. She’s done this herself.”
They both looked at me. I imagined myself through their eyes. I must have looked crazy with my tear stained face, crumpled night gown, and my worn out body. We stared at each other for a split second. I shook my head. No. No. No. Not me! I pointed at the queen. She did it. I looked at Albert and pointed again. Your mother. She’s the one to blame.
She smiled at me. “See what I mean? If you insist on bringing home waifs from the woods and marrying them you also have to face the consequences.”
Albert looked from me to his mother. Did he believe her? She’d poisoned his mind against me for the last two years. I knew he loved me. I knew it. Why couldn’t he see her sinister intentions?
The queen smiled and met his gaze. “Think about it my boy. If someone kidnapped the new prince why replace him with a pig? I’m afraid your little wife has done this herself.”
The color drained from Albert’s face. He looked at me and his shoulders slumped.
No! I climbed across the bed toward him. I reached out. He mustn’t believe this awful thing of me. He looked at me for a second before he took my hand.
I looked at the queen. She gave me a wry smile. “Albert my dear, you must do something about this. You owe the kingdom more than a crazy queen. What if your children were to inherit her mind? It’s for the best this baby is gone.”
Albert looked at me. I could see through his eyes to his breaking heart. He believed her. My shoulders slumped. How to defend myself without talking? I opened my mouth. I could speak, prove I’m not crazy, but all these years of silence would be in vain. I shut my mouth and slumped onto the bed.
The queen continued. “She has killed her own child and must be tried.” She made a motion with her hand. “Lock her up until we decide what to do with her.”
A guard came toward me. If they locked me up how would I finish the shirts that would break the spell on my brothers? I looked to my husband again and begged with my hands.
He only looked unsure.
The guard pulled me out and toward the the lower floors. No! I needed to finish my work. I yanked my arm out of his and ran the other direction. I heard the queen yell for him to go after me. I found more energy and ran faster. I ran, up, up, up, until I reached my tower room where my work waited. I hurried inside. I locked the door and stood panting. I heard the guard reach the door. He knocked.
“Princess, open the door.”
I wouldn’t of course. I heard the queen’s voice. “I don’t care if she’s locked up here or in the dungeon. Stand guard and don’t let her out. After the trial we’ll decide what is to be done.”
I heard her walk away. The guard shuffled around for a minute until he got comfortable outside the door. Then silence.
I leaned on the door, exhausted. I thought of my husband whom I loved. Would he stand up for me? Where was my baby? I put my head in my hands and cried.
I couldn’t allow myself to wallow for long. My work waited. If they sentenced me to death I wanted my brothers to live as men. I worked through my tears. By dusk I finished weaving cloth I’d need for the last shirt. The bell rang in the square. It echoed off the buildings so anyone nearby would hear. They were about to pronounce my sentence.
At the window I could see the crier far below and people gathered to listen.
“Let it be known, this day, the princess Ingrid was found guilty of murder after killing her young son, the prince of this land! Her sentence is death. She will be burned in the morning!”
I wasn’t surprised. My mother-in-law needed to remove me before I could prove her guilt. I turned around and looked at my little room. My body cried out with pain and exhaustion, but if I didn’t finish by morning what would become of my brothers? I lit a candle and worked on.
Later I heard a knock at my door. I went over but didn’t open it. I heard my husband’s voice.
“Ingrid! I know you are awake. I hope you can hear me.”
I sat down and put my ear to the key hole.
“I’ve tried everything to save you, but we can’t find the baby. I have no power to stop things. Not until I come of age and the regency ends. Mother says I am bewitched by you and my word can’t be trusted. She has convinced everyone the kingdom’s future safety requires your death.”
My heart ached. I still loved him. If I could tell him everything maybe he could do something, but I couldn’t, not yet, not until my brothers stood beside me as humans again.
I heard him move and his voice got louder. “I don’t want to lose you, like I lost our son. I don’t know what to do.”
His voice sounded higher than normal. He was crying. I pushed my fingers under the door. This man, my husband, wasn’t perfect, but I loved him, and I wasn’t going to die angry. After a second his hand touched mine. We sat there for some time, but I needed to finish before daybreak. After a while I pulled my hand back and went to work.
The last shirt needed one more sleeve when the sun’s light shown through the window. I heard a commotion outside the door. Time for my execution. Maybe it would be okay without the sleeve. I gathered the shirts into my arms and unlocked the door. No point being difficult. The queen came in followed by three guards. Albert stood beside her with hair mashed up on one side. Did he sleep outside my door? Our eyes met as the they pulled me away.
Down, down, down to the courtyard where I faced my death. I wasn’t the only one who worked through the night. A thick wooden stake was surrounded by piles of wood and dry straw.
The guards pulled me forward. One tried to take the shirts but I fought him.
The queen stood on a balcony above the courtyard where she could watch. “Leave them. If the little witch wants to hold a bunch of ragged shirts while she burns what’s it to us?”
He let me keep them. I searched the sky. Where were my brothers? Ropes were looped around my legs and middle and were pulled tight.
A hooded man with a torch stepped forward.
They always flew here at sunrise. Why be late today?
He lowered the torch and the straw at my feet caught fire.
Here they were!
Two of my brothers swooped down and scattered the twigs, which had caught fire. They pecked at the man with a torch until he backed away.
The queen shook her fist at the executioner and her guards. “Shoot those birds!”
My other four brothers held a blanket in their beaks. They circled low in the courtyard. When they passed the balcony, where my husband stood behind his mother, they set the blanket at his feet. I saw him bend to pick it up but smoke, feathers, and people blocked my view. My brothers fought now except the two who pecked at my ropes.
Honk! Honk! Honk!
The queen leaned out and shouted more, “What’s the matter with you?” Shoot them! Shoot them!”
A guard ran by with swans pecking at his face. “There are too many, my queen!”
I felt the ropes loosen.
Albert moved in front of his mother. “Quiet!” His voice carried over the crowd. “Halt the execution!” The commotion stopped.
“My son, we have gone through this. She is a murderer.”
He held up the blanket. “If she is a murderer, Mother, explain to me how my son is still alive.”
The queen’s face drained of color. “Still alive?”
The ropes fell at my feet.
I threw a shirt over the swan closest to me and he turned from bird to man. I heard the crowd gasp but ignored them. Again, and again, shirt on swan, bird to man. Soon all six of my brothers stood before me, men during the day for the first time since my birth. I put my hands up to the sun and spoke my first words since I learned of their curse. “My brothers!”
I gathered my human brothers into a big circle hug. My youngest had a wing for his left arm but he smiled at me. “We saved your baby from drowning.” He pointed at the advisor. “That man threw him down a well.”
My husbands voice carried around the courtyard with the authority of a king. “Guards, arrest my mother the queen, and her advisor, for attempted murder of the crown prince, and the princess.” The queen shrunk into herself but she didn’t protest as she was led away.
Albert ran down and put his arm around me. I stroked my baby’s head and smiled at Albert. “Hello.” It was the first word I’d ever said to him.
He pulled me close. “I’m sorry I didn’t fight harder for you.”
“It is forgiven.” Happy tears formed in my eyes. Years of silent lonely work were at an end. I saved my brothers, I could speak, and I had my family close. This wasn’t the time for holding grudges.