When the sun was about to set, Eliza saw eleven white swans with golden crowns on their heads, flying towards the land, one behind the other, like a long white ribbon. … The swans alighted quite close to her and flapped their great white wings. As soon as the sun had disappeared under the water, the feathers of the swans fell off, and eleven beautiful princes, Eliza’s brothers, stood near her.
–Hans Christian Andersen
There was no stepmother. There was her real mother, and her real father. These parents, though not king and queen, occupied positions of responsibility and authority in their North Carolina town, and were loved by many people who knew them through their public personalities.
It was one of those days in December between Christmas and New Year’s. The girl found herself alone in the home of her parents, the home of her past and of her present. She was a high school student, but of course this was during the holidays. After his usual fashion, her father had departed before breakfast to begin his mysterious and important day at the office.
Her many brothers, all older than she and all beloved, had by ten o’clock left the house for the day, after a breakfast punctuated by the sounds of boots stamping on the kitchen doormat, loud-voiced jokes, exclamations of pleasure and disdain, beeps from the microwave, the slamming of doors. Boy smells, boy noises.
One brother had gone to play ice hockey with his college friends. Another had gone to practice in the band where he played bass guitar. A third, after donning heavy boots caked with red mud, left for his construction job. Another took their mother to her office in City Hall so he could use her car to visit his girlfriend in the next town. And the last, the youngest and the one she loved the most, had gone to his volunteer work at the animal shelter where he would spend the day taking one or two dogs at a time for walks up and down the weedy, littered sidewalks that flanked the shelter’s busy street.
The washing machine was broken, the repairman was expected. Also expected was that she was the one who would stay home to wait for him. During the holidays, each of her brothers had brought her their clothing that needed mending. There were trousers with knees to be patched and legs to be lengthened. There were missing buttons, torn cuffs, hopelessly frozen zippers, sweaters with moth holes, an overcoat with a large tear under one arm. Their mother was not a seamstress; rather, she was proud that she lacked patience with the tiny eyes of needles.
During the grayish morning, the girl who was not a princess worked on one garment and then another in the dining room. For company, she had the view from the french doors that lined the back of the large brick house. The lawn and then the marsh grasses gave way to one of the large inland lakes of the North Carolina coastal plain, a muted green and brown palette under the low winter sky.
She had learned sewing in home economics class, but she was no expert. It had taken her a whole year to make a shirtwaist dress with a lopsided collar that she seldom wore. Today, as she worked, the fabrics and implements seemed to conspire against her. The needles jabbed her fingers or snapped in half when she pushed them into the heavy folds of denim or corduroy. The thimble she used in sewing on buttons had a tiny hole that her needle found frequently; she rose several times to rinse bright drops of blood from a white shirt on which she was working. Soon the tips of her fingers were sore. Yet the sewing machine, old and neglected, was no better. It snarled the thread into unsightly wads and its seams could not be counted on.
Solitude had brought silence. At noon she went to the kitchen and cut rough slices from a loaf of brown bread and spread them with stewed cranberries from a lidded crock. She sat alone at the large wooden table and ate, using neither plate nor napkin. Then she found a pencil and paper and wrote in a large, careful script: “I will soon return. Please wait for me.” These were the first words she had used that day.
She walked a short distance through the neighborhood to borrow some navy blue thread from a neighbor friend of her mother’s whom she believed would be home during the day. The afternoon air was thin and cold over the placid rows of comfortable homes. Only the camellias were in bloom, and spent blossoms left bright red and pink blotches on neatly mulched borders. On the curbs lay Christmas trees whose brief splendid days had passed.
She rang the doorbell of the house she was seeking. Voices rose inside, and there was the briefest delay before the door opened. The neighbor seemed surprised to see her, and her words of greeting were delayed as she took in her caller’s appearance. Over her shoulder, the girl saw several other women seated together at a card table in the living room. The girl voiced the reason for her visit.
“Of course. Come in, dear,” the neighbor said, yet a smirk robbed the words of kindness. The girl stepped into the foyer and put a hand to her hair. It was rough and uncombed. Her sweater was stained and she wore a pair of her brother’s outgrown trousers. The women at the table glanced at each other. One of them asked her what grade she was in. She replied briefly then waited beside the front door until the hostess reappeared with the thread.
“No need to return it, honey,” the woman said. “I’m sure you need it more than I do.”
The girl hastened home, fearing she had missed the repairman, but as she approached the house, she saw the white patch of her note still on the front door. Hours passed while she repaired and rebound the buttonholes on a navy pea jacket. They emerged reluctant and lumpy on the thick wool, but at least the thread was the right color.
The light was beginning to fade before she heard the repairman’s truck in the driveway. She watched the man emerge and approach the house, leaning to one side as he carried a large wooden toolbox in one hand.
He removed his cap when she answered the door, and called her “ma’am” in greeting. His face had a steady yet lighthearted look, with the soft mouth of a boy.
Silently she led him through the dining room, past the clothes scattered on the furniture, the broken strands of thread in many colors on the carpet. The washing machine lived in a little room next to the kitchen. She stood aside to let him pass, and a distinct fragrance followed him, an outdoor smell, clean and freshly gathered. The girl watched him maneuver the washer away from the wall and remove its back, disclosing the secret system of wheels and gears that gave the machine its life and usefulness. He picked up his flashlight, which lay near the toe of her shoe. His hands were large, with long, strong-looking fingers.
In a few minutes he had identified the problem. It would require a new part, he said, but the machine was well made and had many years still in it. He would order the part and return next week. The girl nodded and picked at the lint on her sweater while he collected his tools.
At the door, he gave her his card and said he would telephone when it was time to return. She was turning to set the card on the front hall table when he spoke again.
“Ma’am?” It was a question, and she raised her gaze to his face. “Your name?” His eyes were dark and watchful. In one iris a triangular patch of lighter brown gave the small surprise that renders beauty.
She held out her hand for his pen, wrote her name on the back of the card and showed it to him. He nodded and closed the door behind him.
The girl moved to the french doors and stood looking east. It was near dusk, and the live oaks stretched their long shadows across the lawn. In the distance were faint, familiar notes – the clear, high-pitched woo-hoo of the tundra swans that made the mid-Atlantic waterways their winter home. Where the marsh met the open water, a fluid, wedge-shaped flock approached and settled.
The girl watched the wavering white line of swans, ghost-like on the gray horizon. Far out, there would be the rustling of great wings, throaty swan mutterings of settling and recognition, strong webbed feet at work in the cold water, the search for roots and stems that gave nourishment. At length she turned back to the house darkening behind her. She turned on every lamp in the living and dining rooms. She chose a needle and carefully threaded it, then reached for the overcoat with the hole in one arm. Her youngest brother’s. She slipped her hand inside the sleeve to discover the extent of the tear. It was large; her hand came easily through to the outside. The lining was badly frayed along the seam, and the outer wool showed signs of earlier failed repairs. Work for hands more skilled than hers. Or perhaps for no one’s.
She set the coat aside and returned to the foyer to find the repairman’s card. The outdoor scent she had noticed before lingered there. She held the card to her face and drew a deep breath, taking in the fragrance of pine needles and marsh grass and the open water where the swans had gathered to take their well-earned rest.
Author’s Comment: Since childhood, I have been drawn to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen with their rich layers of symbolism and dark psychological implications. In this retelling of the “The Wild Swans,” my purpose was to cast the themes of domestic and familial oppression in a way that would make them resound in a more modern landscape. In both stories, there is the hope of redemption through the presence of the beautiful wild birds, as well as an onlooker who beholds and affirms the quiet faith of the protagonist.