Once upon a time, there was a swan. And a rather famous one too. You probably know the story, everyone does. What you might not know is the aftermath. Because there always is one. Happily ever after is, at best, a finite place of being. Things change, and trouble comes back. That’s the way of the world.
This is what happened to Swan after the end. The one everyone called the most beautiful of them all.
Of course, he found a mate, as princes do. She was the one they called Beauty and for good reason. Her feathers were white as snowfall. Her neck was graceful as a ballerina’s and her eyes black as a moonless night. And deep as the sea. One could fall into them like the ocean and Swan did. Hard. She too fell in love with his graceful ways and soft voice. And so they swore themselves to each other, for swans mate for life. But there was always this nagging voice in Swan’s head. And it sounded like a duck’s call except with a touch of whine to it.
Ugly duckling, it said. Of course, she loves you now. But what of six months ago?
Six months ago, he told himself, she didn’t even know me. But surely, she would have recognized what I was. I was just among the wrong birds, and not my own kind. Calm yourself.
I’m telling you that if you remained ugly it would have been different.
Swan tried to put this voice out of his head. But one day Beauty noticed he was troubled and asked him about it. "Please, tell me," she said. "So that we may figure this out together. You've made me happy and I wish the same for you."
Finally, he told her about how he’d found himself in a duck’s nest, how he was ostracized, and eventually driven out. He had not even known enough to migrate and so had to survive a harsh winter. “I don’t know my real parents,” he said. “Or even how I came to be in that duck yard. Perhaps someone tried to steal from my parent’s nest. I will never find the answer.”
“Well I am sorry,” Beauty answered. “But where you started from doesn’t matter. You found us and most importantly, me. So-”
“It does matter!” he said. Then as Beauty backed away, he said. “I am sorry, but not knowing bothers me. All I do understand,” he finished softly, “is I was never loved until I became beautiful.”
"I would have loved you no matter what," Beauty said.
"Tell me," Swan answered. "Why do you?"
"Love you? Because what you've gone through has made you strong. By all rights, you should be cruel, but you're not. You're intelligent, kind, and considerate. That is why I love you."
But Swan, still upset, turned away from her, lifted into the air, and flew away. Eventually, he came to a nearby lake and landed in the water. At first, he thought he was alone but then heard a sweet voice. But within it was the sharpness of a blade. Beauty had followed him.
“My duck mother didn't know what I was," Swan said, without looking at her. "And probably was ashamed that she-"
"Who cares? Even if she didn't understand, she treated you cruelly. Who abandons a chick? We wouldn't have done that.” Then she called after him, “we are all born the same as you!”
But Swan just swam faster. And might not have turned back except for the gunshot.
Swan had heard the rumors. The land around the park was becoming unsafe; private or not didn’t matter. Hunters often poached deer and pheasants. The swans had figured they were safe, for who goes after them? But they didn’t account for stray bullets. Swan certainly didn’t or he wouldn’t have brought Beauty here in the first place. The thought he had nearly broke him.
At least she was still alive. A woman had found her and brought her to a small shack where she lived with her young daughter. She was wise and a healer, the daughter kind and loving. Together they cleaned and bandaged the wound.
“She’ll live, I hope.” Swan heard the woman say to the little girl. “The gunshot had only grazed her head. We just need to keep her still so she doesn’t lose too much blood.”
“Can we keep her?” the little girl asked.
I thank you for saving my love, Swan thought, but you’ll keep her over my dead body.
As if she somehow heard, the old woman answered. “No. Winter’s coming and they’ll have to migrate. Besides, it’s a wild bird and won’t be happy caged. See?" The woman pointed to the yard. Her mate waits for her." The woman called out to Swan. "Rest easy, my friend. We’ll get her well and then let her go.”
And so they hand-fed Beauty, got her strong and released her back to the garden. She was scared, trembling, and scarred. It was along the side of her head, raised and red. When once she enjoyed life, she became very quiet and sad. This bothered the other swans who began to avoid her. For swans are proud birds and who wants to be around someone who is afraid of shadows? Who jumps at the smallest noise? The only one who didn’t care was Swan, the prince of the pond. She was with him again and that was good enough for him. But there were other problems. Beauty had a hard time flying. She often crashed into trees, no longer landed gracefully in the water. She finally admitted to her people what Swan already realized. The gunshot had affected her sight. Fearing she would only slow them down, she told them to migrate without her. Her family sorrowfully agreed it was for the best. There was no sense in anyone getting hurt or dying on her account. Only one bird was of a different mind. Swan.
He watched the swans ready themselves to take off, thinking how once he'd be leading them. And now his best friend would be doing it. He had promised he'd be right behind. Then he watched them flying dark against the bright horizon. Remembering how he had watched them before he knew what he was. And how much he had been drawn to those beautiful birds.
Then he went back to Beauty. “I’m not going,” he said.
“I am not the same bird as before,” she said. “So I release you.”
“You can release me all you want,” Swan said. “But you can’t make me leave.”
Beauty felt his gaze and turned away. She looked out over the lake which now to her was as twilight. Swan was just a white blur among shadows. But she knew his voice and from it what he might be feeling. “If you’re feeling guilty about what happened, don’t. You didn’t pull the trigger.”
If he was being honest with himself Swan didn't know what he was feeling. It was not just one thing, that was the problem. “I know I didn’t pull it,” he said. “And that the fault is some stupid poacher. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc.” Swan waved a wing. “But it doesn’t change a thing.”
“Well it should,” she answered. “You know I can’t see well enough to go south. Might as well not starve with me, my love. If you die, I will never forgive myself.”
Swan decided not to explain if he died in the cold, she probably would too and therefore could not forgive or despise herself. Neither of them would exist after death, he assumed. After all, it was said animals didn’t have souls. He was no philosopher and not even sure what a soul was. Swan decided on a practical approach. “We can get through the winter,” he said. “I’ve done it once. It was horrible, but I survived.”
“How?” she asked.
“Honestly?” Swan lowered his proud head. He had not explained what happened after he had left the cat and the hen. That was another time and he had been a different bird back then. Now he was a prince and didn't want to relive his past. Well like it or not he was going to. That's what always happens. The past catches up, doesn’t it, he thought. Ugly duckling.
“Yes,” Beauty answered. “I do want to know. There are no worms to eat and the fish are frozen in ice. How did you survive the-”
“I stole, all right?”
Beauty said nothing. Swan continued, with a flutter of his wings that meant a shrug. “Not all the time. Usually, I picked up garbage the farm wives tossed out. But I admit to stealing a loaf or two if the door was ajar.” He shook his head at a memory. “Got into a scrape or two with the farm dogs. Lucky to escape with my-”
Beauty shivered. “Swan, listen.”
But he wasn’t. “At night I’d slip into barns and burrow into the hay. The mules saw but usually let me be.” Swan looked at her, knowing what she was thinking. The one they called the Prince of the Garden resorting to such. “I am not proud of any of this. But I’ll do it again." When she didn't answer, Swan pressed on. "And you called me beautiful, didn't you?"
"Idiot is more like it."
"The ones who healed you would likely take us in.”
“They have little enough to get themselves through the winter, never mind us.”
“Then,” Swan swam around his mate. “We’ll take a piece of twine and each holds an end in our beaks. In that manner, I can guide you. Perhaps we can find a place where we can remain year-round.”
“Why not? The black swans don't migrate, or so it's said."
“How trustworthy is that source, Swan?”
Swan shrugged again. He knew he was taking a gamble but what other option did he have? He'd barely survived that winter and feared this one would be worse. He didn't know how he knew. It was just something he felt in his bones. “I don't know if we have a choice but to try. We can make short trips until we find somewhere suitable. There we can raise a family. I don’t know why our people haven’t done this before.”
Beauty hadn’t thought about this. Usually, the drive to migrate was so strong she and her family just obeyed it. The only swan she knew that didn’t have the instinct was her mate. She assumed that was his upbringing. He certainly had issues that needed addressing.
But then again so did she.
For example, is he right? If he had remained ugly, would you have fallen in love with him? And is that why you really want to send him away?
Beauty pushed away that voice. “Why are you doing this?”
“You’re my mate,” Swan said.
“I know what it is to be left alone,” he said. “Unwanted. I would not wish that on anyone. If nothing else you know at least one being wants you. And thinks you’re still beautiful.”
Beauty slapped at him with her wings and he cried out. For once, she was glad. How dare he lie to her? “I am not that anymore!” she cried back at him. “I am scarred and-”
“That makes you beautiful.”
“You said it to me,” Swan said, softly. “I could’ve given up long ago. The same applies to you, my dear. Just surviving that gunshot was amazing."
"It was nothing."
"Not nothing. You could have hidden away or let that little girl keep you safe. But you didn't. You kept flying even if you crashed. You bore the pain of watching our people leave you, one by one. And you still carried on. You’re stronger and braver than anyone I know. And that makes you beautiful. Now,” and he stretched his neck out to her. Swan was pleased when Beauty let him caress her with his beak. “Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this trip work. I really don’t want to go through another winter here.”
It was cold, but not like back home. At least here the ground was free of snow and the lakes were not frozen. They would have food. Swan didn’t know how long that would last but at least they'd gotten this far. He dropped the twine he had been holding as Beauty laid her head against his back. Soon, she slept as Swan looked out over a new horizon. The moon was full and shone a silver path on the rippling water.
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I like the "twist" sequel to the old child's tale. You give it psychological depth both when you have Swan working to resolve issues from his upbringing and have Beauty need to learn to live with a new reality.
Thank you for reading it and the comments!
i think it was good
I think it was a very nice story with a good message
Glad you enjoyed it.
Nice story. Happily ever after always nagged at me as well. It should be ‘happily ever after until the sequel’. I like the doubts he had, no one just gets over trauma and is perfectly fine, you captured the impact of the scars.
I loved this so much! What a great message. This is a very creative and well written story :)
I really liked this story about what happens after happily ever after. The swan still had to deal with the psychological side of himself and what he was missing in his life. Just because you are beautiful when you used to be ugly you wonder why people suddenly adore you. Great story!
I agree. Thank you for reading it!
Would you mind taking a look at my story Yellow Town? Thanks!
this was a wonderful continuation of the story! getting to see Swan's struggle AFTER the transformation is important. Just because others have accepted him doesn't mean he is at peace with what took place. I really enjoy this kind of writing, because it makes me think about some of my favorite childhood tales in a different way. great job!
Thank you. Lately I've been thinking about characters in fairy tales, favorite stories, and what happens later. I've always done it but just now started writing about them. I'm glad you liked the story.
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Thank you for your comments and reading! I'm glad you liked it.