The swan wouldn’t go away. The windows rattle as she slams into it again, letting out an indignant squawk, her white feathers ruffling as she tilted her head to the side, staring at me as if trying to say, Come on!
I reach over, fumbling for the remote, throwing the blankets off me. The TV snaps off with a satisfying click as I walk toward the window. The swan is still perched on the fire escape, staring at me. Frost coats her wings and feathers in a glistening coat of silver. I look past her, into the alley illuminated by pale yellow streetlamps, snow thickly falling from the slate-colored sky. The swan looked at me again, shaking its wings out and I realize with a jolt that she must be freezing in the cold New York winter.
It takes me a few tries to unlock the window, with the latch nearly rusted shut. With a painful screech, it turns and I shove the window open, the cold melted snow dripping onto my hands. The swan lets out a honk and brushes past me, flying into my room. She lands on my bed, shaking the water off her wings and feathers.
“Wow, thanks,” I sigh as she glances up at me with the utmost innocence.
She hops off, her webbed feet slapping on the floor as she waddles over toward me.
“What are you supposed to do if a swan is in your bedroom?” I wonder out loud, stepping out of her way. “Do I call the police? Animal control?”
My eyes wander over to where the swan is examining my closet door. She takes a step back before hurtling into the door before bouncing off. She honks indignantly, stretching out her long slender neck to stare at it, before looking at me.
“Do you want to go in?” I can’t imagine why she would want to. The only things in there are my sweaty gym clothes and a pile of unworn sweatshirts. She looks at me with the same indignant expression. If swans could roll their eyes, I bet she would have already several times.
I delicately step around her as I yank open the closet door. As expected, a few sweatshirts tumble out onto my bedroom floor. But the blast of wind that shoots out is not at all what I anticipated. A world spreads out below us, a glittering blue ocean, choppy with white foam, a pristine snow-covered meadow, and glistening trees, branches frosted with snow. The swan honks at me, beckoning with her neck. When I take a step back, she waddles over and pecks me.
“Hey!” I jump back. She gives me the same look, then spreads her wings and diving through. The image wavers as she dives through, her form plummeting into the snow-covered land.
“Why not?” I grumble. Not like I had anything else planned for today. I take one last look around my bedroom before plunging into the image.
The cold air greets me as I land in a snow-covered meadow, my shoes covered in fine white powder. It’s daytime now, the sun shrouded by the gray clouds overhead. My breath comes in clouds of mist around me as my teeth chatter from the cold. A shimmering image hovers above me, the distorted view of my bedroom. I’m tempted to jump back through, but the swan appears in front of me, tilting her head toward the trees.
“Do you want me to follow you?” There it is again, the annoyed expression. She doesn’t wait for me before taking off and soaring through the trees.
“Not all of us can fly,” I call after her as I trudge through the snow toward the trees.
She guides me through the trees, farther and farther away from the image and my bedroom.
“Where are we going?” I call after her but only receive an exasperated honk in response. I stumble down the next hill, my sneakers skidding in the snow and ice. The swan waits ahead of me at the base of the hill, an amused expression on her face. She honks and waddles ahead again.
“Not again,” I groan, but I keep following her.
The trees get thinner and thinner, the trunks growing smaller and smaller until I stumble out onto the shores of a lake. It’s frozen over with a solid silvery layer of ice, dark water visible beneath the opaque surface.
The swan waddles out over the ice. When I hesitate, she turns back and honks again.
“It’s gonna break if I go.”
She makes another exasperated noise and keeps going. I sigh. No use turning back now.
I half expect my foot to go through when I gingerly step out onto the ice, but it surprisingly holds. The swan honks impatiently from the other side of the lake, flapping her wings.
“Coming,” I roll my eyes as I carefully walk out. Every creak makes me tense, expecting to be plunged into the freezing depth of the lake, but it holds as I reach the bank on the opposite side.
“Is there a point to this?” I call, but she ignores me, traveling deeper into the woods.
It’s almost sundown and I’m ready to call it a day. I begin lagging behind, my legs aching from the walk, cheeks stinging from the cold, fingers numb. I’m ready to turn around when I stop short, gawking at the sight in front of me. Rising in front of me is a glistening palace, sculpted out of ice and stone, turrets gleaming overhead. A flagstone path leads up to the entrance, where two heavy bronze doors stand ajar. Two colossal swans carved out of ice stand there, wings outstretched, necks curved up toward the sky.
The swan lands in front of me, waddling straight for the castle.
“I don’t think we-,” I’m stopped by the look she gives me as if she was trying to say, Quiet, please.
She strides through the door as if she owns it. I eye the ice sculptures warily, wondering if they might attack me, but luckily, they don’t move. I slip through the door and my jaw drops open as I stare at the sight in front of me.
“Oh my.” The ice ceilings arch high overhead, translucent blue and white letting in rays of light, illuminating the giant hall. Staircases stretch up the sides around me and ornately carved statues lead down the hall. The swan strides past it all, heading to a peculiar block of shaped ice in the back of the hall. I follow her as she hops up onto the platform, standing on the ice that I now realize is a throne.
She settles down, evidently comfortable, preening her feathers, then closing her eyes. The swan makes a low keening sound, almost sounding like a quiet melody.
“Whose castle is this?” I ask, staring around me at the elegant upholstery and towering statues.
“Mine.” A voice speaks up behind me and I whirl around, staring at the swan. But she isn’t a swan anymore. A girl sits in the swan’s place, long blond braids draped over her shoulders. She stands up, her long white feather cape drifting on the ground behind her. She brushes a few loose feathers off of her knit sweater. They float to the ground, settling around her beat-up sneakers.
“You-you were the swan?” I stare at her incredulously.
She shrugs. “I was the swan. That’s the curse.”
“I was brought here, same as you, led here by a graceful swan. But I was trapped and cursed to live this life. To be a swan.”
“Then why am I here?”
“I needed your help. I needed you to free me.”
“How am I going to do that?”
“Don’t worry, you already have.” She draws nearer, a smile emerging on her lips.
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow.” I take a step back.
“That’s part of the curse. I’m trapped here forever, or at least until I can ensnare the next person to come along. You are going to take my place.”
“I think I’d rather not,” I try to step back again, but I can’t. I’m frozen in place.
“I don’t think you have a choice. I’m sorry about this.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
She smiles sympathetically. “Find and trap another person. Then you can leave.”
“What if I choose not to trap another person?”
“I told myself that I wouldn’t too. But it got to be too much after a while.” She draws close until her lips brush against my cheek. “I’m really sorry.”
I grit my teeth, struggling to move away, but I still can’t.
“Thank you for my freedom.” she breathes against my ear.
Wait! I try to call out, but I feel myself shrinking. My jeans and sweatshirt melt into pure white feathers, my arms becoming long wings until I’m a gorgeous white swan. The girl smiles as she bows her head down in a gesture of gratitude. She winks at me and disappears in a whirl of smoke, leaving me alone in the beautiful ice castle, cursed to be a lovely swan.