"You're one of them," spat the crone. "I can tell by your eyes. Dark like swans. Except perhaps your eyes look less cruel."
"Where is my mother?" I had no time for prattle; I needed to find my mother and this old woman was taking up too much time with her incessant babbling.
"Fine, dear," she said. "Go straight into the forest and eventually you will come to a lake. It has been one of their haunts of late."
"That's it?" I was expecting either a journey through dark, towering mountains or a voyage across all the seven seas. The woman smiled. She knew this was not what I expected.
"It shouldn't be that hard a journey," she said. Her face softened and the smile melted away. "But sometimes it's the ends of journeys that are the hardest."
I turned to leave. I had already paid her by collecting wood for her fire. She would not accept any gold. She had said that at this point in her life gold was of no use to her.
"Haven't you got a family," she called out to me.
"I did." I said. "But at this point she is the only family that would accept me."
"Are you sure?" She cried. "I'll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes you have to make your own family."
I walked out the door of the little cabin and made my way to the forest. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a white feather. It sparkled with a silvery radiance in the twilight. I brushed it across my cheek pretending it was my mother's hand.
Ahead of me lay the end of a long, torturous road.
I always thought my mother looked sad. In the warmer months she used to sit by the pond and stare out towards the forests surrounding Father's manor. Her dark eyes never registered us children as we played beside her. It was almost like she was longing for a home far away. I always felt sorry for her.
We had a kinship it seemed. I looked more like her than my two sisters did. We both had pale, ivory skin and light hair. We also share a very long neck and dark eyes like a swan's. But even though we looked alike, there was always a gulf between us. Just like my two older sisters the only affection I ever received was from my nurse. Some days I never even saw my mother. She remained a beautiful gem always hanging out of reach.
But she was on my mind the day I found the feather mantle.
That day I was roaming the halls of our manor. The walls of the nursery always felt confining; I loved to wander the narrow corridors and dark rooms searching for relief from the constant boredom. Already, restlessness was beginning to grow in my soul.
This fateful day I was wandered into my father's suite. Mother, as usual, was by the pond. My sisters were busy being tutored and my father was away hunting. The servants were cooking the evening meal and my nurse was taking a nap. Technically, I was supposed to be napping as well but as soon as I heard the old nurse snoring I slipped out of bed and headed for the manor's West Wing.
Father's rooms were forbidden territory to all the females of the household. This struck me as terribly unfair so I felt justified in sneaking into his quarters. I never liked him much, even then. Every time he glanced at me I could see the fear in his eyes.
Of course, the other family members and servants seemed to fear me, too. My sisters kept their distance from me. And the servants often whispered when they saw me. Rumors swirled across the estate pertaining to my mother's true nature.
Witch. Some said. Demon, whispered others.
But that day the whispering and strange looks were far from my mind. I slipped quietly through the dark halls lined with the solemn portraits of my forebears. I had never explored this part of the manor and I was full of the anticipation explorers feel whilst traversing unknown territories.
Eventually I came to my father's study. Upon entering my heart sank. It was quite a boring room. Just shelves with books and more portraits, though these showed naked women lounging on river embankments. The room was dusty and I sneezed quite a few times. No excitement here, I thought, and turned to leave. That's when the statue caught my eye.
Standing atop a small column was a solid gold statue of a nude woman. For some reason the statue fascinated me. To be fair, it was not a terribly large statue; it was probably about a foot tall. But at the same time, with no nagging nurses around, I wanted to touch it.
I ran my fingers across the smooth skin. It was cold to the touch. Cold but beautiful, I thought. Like all children, the breasts and private area of the statue intrigued me. Immediately the statue's nakedness brought to mind my nurse's qualms with nudity. Once she had caught me exploring "that area" and slapped me viciously across the back of my hand.
I started to wonder why Father kept a statue of a naked lady. So I resolved to take her back to my quarters and put one of my doll dresses on her. I reached up to take her.
She wouldn't budge. I yanked harder at her.
Suddenly there was a loud thrang! Then slowly a section of the wall beside me opened up like a door. I closed my eyes and cowered, expecting someone to run in at any moment.
No one came.
I opened my eyes after a bit. Before me the secret door had opened into a dark chamber. I could smell the stench of mildew and age. Clouds of dust poured on me. I sneezed a few times. But my curious nature was peaked and I had to enter.
The chamber was totally dark except for the light from Father's study. I could see cobwebs in the light and my legs started to itch as I walked through them. In my mind I imagined a multitude of tiny insects walking across my legs. But I felt an urge to check the chamber out. Hidden rooms and mysterious boxes containing the unknown have always appealed to me.
Then I walked into something hard and fell over. My knee hurt and I realized that I'd have to explain another mysterious bruise to my nurse. But still I wondered what I had bumped into.
I could see it was a large chest. The nurse had always told me stories about buried treasure. I pictured opening it and uncovering gold coins and precious jewels.
Instead I opened up the chest and pulled out a large white mantle. It was made entirely out of feathers and I knew they had to be swan feathers. Sometimes swans came to our pond and I thought there were no creatures more beautiful than swans. I held it against my face; it felt like silk. Sometimes when my mother wore a silk gown, I would press my face against it, enjoying the gentle feel of the fabric.
Pressing the mantle against my face, I thought I could faintly smell my mother. Then it seemed as if the mantle carried me out of the dank chamber, off into the skies where I flew with eagles across all the continents of the world. I passed through clouds and over seas. An image came to me of a clear lake in the midst of a wide green wood. I flew towards the water--
Right back to where I was. I snapped back to life. Holding the mantle I started to wonder why Father had spirited it away. Why would he want to hide something of such beauty? Surely, it belonged to my mother.
Father. He was even more distant than my mother, either off hunting or doing his duties as a lord. Sometimes he spent months away at distant cities. Still, my two sisters loved him. During the times he was actually around the manor they would sometimes come running up to him squealing and screaming. He would pick them up, one at a time and they would all laugh riotously. Then one would climb onto his back and the other would hold his hand so he could take them to his chair by the fire and tell them funny stories. Or he would play a song for them on his harp. It was always him and my sisters. There was no room for me.
And my mother would be there, her face staring off into the fire, impervious to the mirth around her. Occasionally Father might get up and run a finger across her cheek. She would merely close her eyes as if she wanted him to stop but couldn't tell him. He never did.
One time I saw her glance at him and give him a look of pure hatred. It was a glance that could have frozen entire oceans. I knew then that she hated him, thus I did too.
And it was mutual. At times he'd give me odd looks as if wondering how I could have been spawn. I was too much like her; too ethereal for the life of a country gentry woman. Did he wonder then if she had created me as some form of malice for the time in which she would have to leave? Looking back I know he must have seen it that way at times. Certainly he saw it that way afterwards.
My hands clenched holding onto the mantle. It was too beautiful an item to be locked away in an ancient musty chamber. In my heart I knew that it belonged to my mother. And thus, I resolved to give it to her. As the stories say, my fate--and hers--was sealed.
I found her as usual by the pond. It was late afternoon but there was no sun. The day had been overcast. Well at least that's how I remember it anyway. It was fast becoming fall and the air held a bite to it. Soon the harvests would come in and the manor would be our gilded prison for the winter.
She was sitting in her chair by the pond. Her back was towards me as she stared off into the sky. A flock of birds could be seen heading south. I'm sure she wished she could be with them. Her near-white hair was piled high but I could see wisps of it being lifted by a slight breeze. Never had she looked so beautiful than in that moment.
"Mama?" She turned towards me.
"I think this is yours." I held out the mantle and her eyes went open as her mouth opened in shock. She came towards me.
"Where did you get this?" She asked me. A long white finger touched it gently.
"Father had it and I thought it should be yours." I said.
She started to laugh. I had never seen her happy before and I knew that I had done the right thing. Her eyes showed a speck of light where before I had seen mostly icy blackness.
"Here, give me this pretty coat so that I might wrap myself up against the chill."
I held it out and she took it.
Father had come back from hunting and he was still upon his horse. He arrived just in time to see his wife take the mantle from me. He jumped off his horse and ran towards us.
But it was too late. She wrapped it around her self. As soon as it touched her body, it became a second skin. Her neck seemed to elongate even more as it wrapped around her. She lifted off the ground and with her arms outstretched until they became wings. Then in a matter of moments she had reduced her size and become... a swan.
Father attempted to grab her in his arms but he missed, falling to the ground. And my mother flew away into the sky leaving nothing but a pile of feathers to show where she had been.
I stood in shock for several moments. Father still lay upon the ground.
He started to sob. I had never heard a man cry before and it frightened me. And he made no effort to hide it. He held his face in his hands. As much as I hated him, I felt sorry for him in that moment. I walked over to comfort him but as I did, I picked up a feather and placed it in my pocket.
He looked up at me with a face red and marked by tears. No words came out of his mouth but I could see in his eyes that he wanted to know what happened. So I told him.
When I finished talking he nodded and pulled himself up. Maybe I should have apologized but I didn't. I don't think it would have helped. Besides it would not have undone the harm I caused.
We walked back to the manor in silence. Finally, the magnitude of what I had done hit me: I had taken away the woman he loved. A woman of such beauty and enchantment he had kept caged so that she might never leave him. But she was more than just his wife, she was also my mother.
Because of me, my mother was lost to us forever.
They still tell the story about how Father met my mother. Once upon a time he was but a lowly lordling hunting in a stretch of forest. He stopped by a magnificent lake to rest when he happened to see a beautiful swan fly over toward the water. Father was obscured from my mother's vision via a large boulder. I have no doubt that if she had not seen him she would not have flown down.
Father thought this was the most beautiful swan he had ever seen. Its feathers were white like heaven and seemed to sparkle with radiance. And its eyes were dark, mysterious, and cruel.
Then before his astonished eyes, the swan transformed into a beautiful woman. A woman with skin white like snow, hair as light as the moon, and eyes no less cruel than before. She raised her arms and cast away her feathered mantle to the shore. I am certain that at that moment Father plotted to steal it.
Stealthily he crept along the shore. At last he reached the mantle. At that moment she turned and saw him. She screamed and dashed across the lake.
But by the time she reached shore, Father had taken possession of it. She had been captured.
Sometimes I wonder if he took her then. Beneath the dark canopy of the forest did he bend her to his will? Was that where she learned to hate him?
And did she transfer that hate to the fruits of that ill-fated coupling?
I was now an even greater outcast in my family.
My two sisters had seen it all from a far off window. They barely looked at me. The servants continued to stare and whisper. The old nurse disappeared the day after it happened. And for a week afterwards Father stayed alone in his quarters.
I was alone.
At last the priest was called. I watched from the shadows as the dour figure in his solemn robes entered to speak with Father. Hours later he left and Father came out. His eyes were dark and hallowed. His face was pale and his walk was slow and uncertain.
It was a good thing that our mother had left the way she did, he told us in a small voice. She was one of Satan's servants now so we had to become even better Christians. And patting my sister's heads he promised to bring us a new mother who would be sanctioned by God. But as he said this, he looked away. His magical wife had flown away. All that was left was a life meant to be barely lived and trudged through as best one can.
Then he turned and gave me a look that bordered on fear. In the next few weeks he would destroy everything of my mother's existence. Everything but me. I was the mirror image of all that he had loved and feared.
In the summer our new mother came to the manor. She was a widowed baroness not yet thirty. Her face and figure were plump unlike the delicate swan figure of our mother. And she talked and laughed constantly. Immediately my sisters took to her and I would often watch as she chased them around the manor grounds until she caught them and they all fell into a laughing heap.
But she was not my mother. She took the place of what had once been a beautiful yet distant hole in my life. Yet she could never compete with the memory of my mother, the swan maiden, even though Father and the priest said I had to forget her.
To be fair I was cordial with her. And she to me. That was the extent of our relationship. She, too, stared at me much like Father did. But her glance held more fear than Father's did. As long as I remained at the manor she was competing with me. We both understood that, though it was unspoken.
It got worse as I grew older. With each year I aged, I started to resemble my mother in greater measures. Sometimes I'd catch Father throwing me a longing glance in the halls. Soon my stepmother had noticed these glances as well. A rumor surfaced that she was planning to have me married off or thrown in a nunnery by my fifteenth year. I doubt that Father would have tried to stop her.
But I had already planned my escape. Since I was left on my own in the vast manor, I took to reading books. By the time I was eight I had read all the books of the Bible, though it were the epic myths of the ancients and tales of courtly romance I favored mostly. I was so thirsty for knowledge of the world outside the manor that I eagerly read old maps and eavesdropped on servants' stories.
And at night I'd finger the white feather, the only remnant I had of my mother besides a mirror's reflection. I had helped her escape the prison that was the manor. By this time I had come to feel the oppressiveness of the place. Lying in bed at night I began to dream of finding her again in the wilds of the world. Somewhere my mother was out there and I planned to find her.
One week before my fifteenth birthday I happened to glance in a mirror and see my mother. Or rather it was myself fully developed into a copy of my mother. I could not hide what I had become. And soon my stepmother would have me sent away. But I planned to be gone long before that would come to pass.
First, I stole the extra clothes of a kitchen boy. Then I snatched some food from the kitchen when the servants weren't around. Next I stole some gold from Father; my hatred of him now superseded any moral qualms I'd held against stealing. Finally, the night before my birthday I stood nude before the mirror in my room while everyone in the manor slept.
I pulled a razor. In the candlelight it glinted sharply.
Looking in the mirror I saw my beautiful pale body with the new full, round breasts crowned by my long, golden hair. This was to be my greatest sacrifice. I'll never forget how loud the sound of that first cutting seemed. But I managed and soon the floor around me was littered with the remains of my beautiful locks. Now, I looked like any number of poor village boys with badly cut hair.
I picked up all the pieces of hair and placed them in the fire. I'd rather leave everyone guessing what had become of me.
I then used some rope and cloths to tie down my breasts. This was an even bigger sacrifice than my hair. At first it hurt but after awhile I got used to it. After putting on the servant's clothing I then grabbed the bag of everything I had gathered. Stealthily, I walked through the dark hallways, occasionally feeling my way along the wall. Eventually I came to the kitchens and felt my way past tables and bars, baskets and cutting blocks. Soon I found the door leading to the outside.
Once outside I made my way to the pond. Immediately images of that fateful day ten years previous flashed through my mind. I reached inside my pants and felt the small pouch containing the feather, all that was left of her. I looked ahead into the woods.
The moon was large in the sky. It illuminated the mass of trees in silver. I could hear the tree frogs and the occasional scurrying noise of some small animal. The trees were large and looked like they might never end. For just a moment I was scared.
But in the end the resolve to find my mother won. I took a deep breath and walked forward through the trees.
I believe I spent a month walking in the woods.
My original weariness of the forest left me after a few days. The forest soon began to feel like home. The animals became like family and soon I was distinguishing the different calls of the birds. The grass I slept on felt as soft as the silken sheets I'd used back at the manor. Not that I did much sleeping; most of the time I spent walking for fear of being caught.
The fear of discovery and being sent back to the manor did not ease when I found my first village. I hung around long enough to listen for any rumor of a missing noblewoman. But I uncovered no such rumor. Still, I passed through three more villages before I felt safe enough to settle down for a few months.
It was only then that I realized my family was not searching for me. Traveling in the wilderness, I pictured Father and my stepmother sending out teams of villagers and huntsmen to seek me out. Surely the houses of the gentry and peasant alike were filled with the story of the nobleman's daughter who had vanished the eve of her fifteenth birthday? The daughter, who was born of a swan, gone out to seek her place in the world.
But this did not happen. Surprisingly, I found myself disappointed. I had wanted to believe that Father would have discovered how much I meant to him when he saw my empty bed. As much as I hated him, I wanted him to love me. Instead he had cast me out into the world with only a feather in memory of my heritage.
But after awhile I put those thoughts in the back of my mind. I was to busy surviving and discovering the real world. Everyday I opened my eye to new wonders. The people around me were not as rich as my family but they were certainly a lot more interesting. I loved to visit the taverns and hear the off-color stories told by packs of drunken laborers. And I loved how the women in these villages were loud and brazen, ready to drag their men home from the tavern like unruly children. It was all a new experience to me.
One day I bought a flute and discovered I could earn my keep playing music in the village square. Crowds flocked to hear me play. I began to make a decent living out here on my own. For the first time in my life I was popular.
After a few weeks in the village, I decided it was time to head on to the next one. I needed to continue to seek out my mother. Plus one or two of the village girls had fallen in love with me which added a certain impetus to my desire to leave.
The next two years I spent intermittently journeying through the wild or working in towns. Most of the time I was a musician. Sometimes I tutored merchant children in reading. Once I worked as a tavern boy. But all the time I kept an ear out for word of my mother. Sometimes I'd hear a young harpist play a song about the disastrous love between a mortal man and a swan maiden. Sometimes the folk around me would debate the validity of the story. And I'd wish I could pull out the pouch containing my proof.
But otherwise I could find no sign of her.
Then I heard about the old woman in the hut at the edge of the wood. They told me she knew all the secrets of the world. And I knew that she had to know where I might find my mother.
At last I reached the lake. It was vast and glistened red in the last few rays of sunlight. Beyond it I could see mountains, rocky and white, that seemed to hold the sky like Atlas. Around me the air seemed full of expectation though it was eerily still and quiet.
I crouched behind a small hill, which offered me a view of the whole lake. I pulled out the feather and held it against my breast. Closing my eyes I prayed that I might see my mother.
My wish was granted.
Upon opening my eyes I saw a single beautiful white swan fly down and land gracefully in the water. I held my breath.
At once the swan seemed to increase in size. I watched in awe as it transformed into a beautiful woman with ivory skin and light hair. Her eyes seemed no less dark and cruel than I remembered.
She cast her raiment to the shore. Laughing she sprinkled some water upon her body. It was my mother.
I wanted to run out then and embrace her. Here she was, the mother I had freed, I wanted to feel her touch upon my cheek. I wanted to feel her love.
But then a very curious--and unexpected--thing happened.
Another swan appeared. This one was ebony but no less graceful. Like my mother it landed into the lake. She ran to it giggling sensuously and ran her fingers across its back. This swan, too, began to change. It seemed to lengthen before my eyes, it's wings spread out like arms, it's head rolled back in ecstasy. Before my eyes it changed into... a man?
A man with dark hair and eyes, his back raiment covering a pale form leaving little to the imagination. My mother laughed and wrapped her arms around him. He held her to him then and kissed her passionately. Then she lifted the raiment, cast it off, and dragged him to shore.
I put my head down. In my heart I could not intrude. My mother had found happiness and I knew that I would only be a reminder of her captivity. Perhaps she even had children of her own with this strange swan man.
The idea of my mother having her own family had never occurred to me. My insides felt shaky. All my dreams of reunion were twelve years of wasted hopes. Once again I was alone in the world.
Sometimes you have to make your own family.
The old woman's words hit me then. I might not have my mother but at least I had myself. Thinking of all my experiences in villages and towns made me realize how much I'd enjoyed that lifestyle. I wanted to be a street musician again. I wanted to tutor children again. And I wanted to again listen to tavern tales told over a mug of ale.
In that moment I let it all go. The hurt. The ill-treatment. The hope. A sense of freedom hit me. I had let my mother go.
I had never been Father's daughter. But I also had never been my mother's daughter. The only person I belonged to was me. I could control my own destiny. And maybe someday I could even make my own family.
I got up and grabbed my bag. Then I picked up the feather and held it out. The wind snatched it from my hand and carried it away.
Turning back towards the woods, I made my way back into the world.
Ever since reading Neil Gaiman's short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, Rebecca has wanted to be a writer. Since then, she's been honing her craft by reading other great writers and of course, writing. Rebecca is currently a journalism student at George Mason University and an intern for USA Today.com. In a few months she will be entering the terrifying yet liberating "real world."
Visit Rebecca's blog, "Back to Babylon."
Published by permission of the author.