Swan Daughter by J.C. Runolfson

It was the storks who told me
my mother’s kin
she flew from the southern land of endless sun
to this place
for her father’s sake
she stopped to rest
on the marsh
and that’s when it happened.

Her sisters stole her wings and flew away
a child’s game
they were all children
she would have given chase but she was tired
they would have come back but


the Marsh-King looked up in his darkness
and saw her shining
the Marsh-King looked up in his ugliness
and saw her beauty
the Marsh-King looked up in his coldness
and saw her heat
and he wanted

So he took.

He opened the marsh beneath her
swallowed her whole before she could scream
dragged her down to the bottom.

Her sisters returned
cried out for her
shed their feathers
sought her on foot
the winter came and still they sought
still they cried.

My mother could not cry
the Marsh-King had stopped her mouth
she could not look
the Marsh-King had stopped her eyes
but he could not stop her heart
and it beat for her sisters
who died in the cold
it grew lilies for her sisters
buried in the snow
it hoarded fury for her sisters
rotting in the mud
they joined her in the spring thaw
their bones and their feathers
her wings
fell to the bottom

Where I waited.

She fed me all her could nots
all her strength
her grief
her rage
fed me her heart
covered me in feathers and thrust me up
toward the surface
toward the sky
toward the sun

I opened my eyes
opened my mouth
and screamed.

The Marsh-King could do nothing to stop me
in the sunlight
I beat my wings furiously
hissed at any who came too near
kicked at water and mud
holding my mother down.

The pale lord came from his wooden lodge
at his men’s shouts
saw me there wild
thought me a fine pet
for his wife
but could not catch me.

He had only to wait for nightfall.

The Marsh-King reached up
and stole my feathers
the Marsh-King reached up
and stole my wings
the Marsh-King reached up
and stole my freedom
left me plucked and cold
on the shore in the mud

and that’s how the pale lord’s wife found me.

She took me to the wooden lodge
wrapped me in furs
a poor substitute
fed me and asked me my name
my tale
but I could not speak her language.

I could only open my eyes
open my mouth
and scream.

The pale lord’s wife did not startle
instead she sang
the words strange but


the cadence was rage
the cadence was grief
the cadence was strength
and when dawn brought back my feathers
she opened the doors and called out to the storks
my mother’s kin
who told her.

And then she screamed
the pale lord’s wife
and then she spat
the pale lord’s wife
and then she hissed
the pale lord’s wife
and fell down at the doors.

I thought she had died
like my mother
her sisters
I thought the Marsh-King
swallowed her heart
in the mud and the dark
I flew closer
touched her with one white wing
and that’s when it happened.

The pale lord’s wife shook and shivered
a sign of change
I knew well
and she shifted
and she became

and she rose up a black swan.

She flew out of the wooden lodge
my dark sister
to the thrushes
to the water
to the marsh
she flew straight into the center
churned it with her claws
her wings
her beak.

She opened her eyes
opened her mouth
and screamed.

The Marsh-King rose up from the thrushes
and bound her claws
the Marsh-King rose up from the water
and bound her wings
the Marsh-King rose up from the marsh
and bound her beak
but I was free

so I struck.

I drove my beak into his breast
twisted and pushed before he could fight
bloodied him beneath the furious sun.

The binding fell from the black swan
and my mother
rose up with her sisters’ bones
the bones of my sister’s mother
as the Marsh-King fell back wounded
as the Marsh-King fell back bleeding
as the Marsh-King fell back dying
and the black swan screamed.

No more wives will you take
no more mothers will you steal
no more sisters will you kill
no more daughters will you curse.

No more daughters.

The storks have enough tales of you.

The marsh swallowed up the Marsh-King
pulled him down into the mud and the dark
we stood on the shore
his daughters
my mother
and the bones.

We stood on the shore and shed our feathers
our wings
our tears
we were all screamed out
even my mother
who had forgotten how to speak.

It was the black swan who told me
my own kin
she wed the pale lord in the wooden lodge
and waited
for the sister
sure to come
from the marsh
and then it would happen.

We could take our wings and fly away.

J.C. Runolfson gets her inclination toward poetry from her father and her love of fairy tales from her mother. Her tendency to fracture both is purely her own. Her poetry has appeared previously in Lone Star Stories and her fiction in Reflection’s Edge. She’s also done short reviews of poetry and rewritten fairy tales for Strange Horizons. At the whim of the Navy, she currently resides in San Diego with her spouse.

Image © Warwick Goble