The Lake of Swans, by Quenntis Ashby
Ah, to sleep with pointed feet aching for Pointe shoes once more, the feel of strong hands on the waist, as the sea of darkened faces whip by to the sound of Tchaikovsky, and applause. Thunder with the lighting of a hot spotlight follows her contortions around the stage to its inevitable climax and apotheosis.
That final bow on bended knee and blistered toes, bloody and numb and swollen tightly into shape.
That old limp back to the dressing room, holding flowers and smiling to cover the tears. A long shower to erase the makeup and ease the exhaustion caused by the last three hours of tiptoe torture.
The sudden interruption on the way home while nodding off at a red light. The stalkers she ignored before can no longer be ignored. They have planned everything according to her routine, a life revolving around the discipline of routine.
The post-performance hijacking, a series of brutal forced rapes in a cabin hidden in the bushes near a lake at gunpoint then knifepoint then fingerpoint, then pointless. She rattles weakly in her chains on her bloody knees, her feet broken by a hammer and forced into sealed lead pipes when she tried to escape again. They used a blowtorch to re-melt the lead into shape. Her once-delicate fingers stick out at odd angles, broken one at a time with each of her refusals to be broken and to submit. Her body bears the scars of terrible abuse over the months she refused to die. It’s been three days since their last visit. She’s hungry and thirsty since the bowl of water ran dry. She’s dying. A fever runs through her.
The rescue and the careless gunshot through the lower spine. A laugh. An end.
Ah, to heal a shattered spine with a magical transformation of flight and true love’s passionate kiss of life.
Two tongues intertwining to spark a spell to lift the curse to walk again to run to dance to fly away.
The prince looks down at the broken thing at the edge of the lake flapping the remains of a wing in fear. A boy no longer. He picks it up, and it’s heavier than it looks. It nips his hand and then looks at him when he talks softly, suddenly made quiet by his gentle voice and hot tears. She knows him. She remembers.
He walks into the lake with the dying swan, whose heart has stopped beating so fast. It’s calm.
The words he says are whispered now, meant for the swan alone, whose strong heart is slowing down to a dead stop slowly. Finding peace in a loving man’s hands.
When she’s truly dead, cradled limply in his arms, he slips the ring he bought her over a broken left finger, saying, “I love you forever. I do. I swear it. I swan, my love! Forgive me?”
After she sinks down out of sight and into memory and the horizon cracks and lightens with the coming of the morning sun, he exits the icy lake, marking well the place of rest his dead love has claimed at last. He will return until the spell of his life is broken for good. Until then he mourns with an empty gun in hand and regret in his cursed immortal heart at the edge of a new day.
A growing fever racks his body, bones cracking and shifting into a new feathered shape as the dawn sun touches him. He cries out in surprised fear. The kiss? The promise? The curse! His vision of their bullet ridden bodies around the cabin blurs. He turns back to the lake in sudden knowledge of who and what he is. He takes to the sky without applause or a bow, just a spotlight to warm his hollow bones.
The So White Woods byAlison Wells
The Huntsman takes the girl into the woods. The silver birch shivers, its lovely cascade of pale green leaves, spilling, wind in the ears, between rushes, in a conch shell. If she stood in a sea cave with that whoosh, whooshing in. This rush and abating, this swoosh and elating. Her clothes are tight, this bodice tied close to the chest. Her friends envied her for the natural rouge of her lips, plum stained, spilt blood. Her friend joked with her on the paleness of her skin, ‘total block’ they said. ‘Do you use that on the boys too?’ They crossed their legs in parody, then threw their arms around themselves and caressed in mock passion, this fashion to turn discomfort into fun.
Her hair was black, jet black. She had it cut severe, she was a Goth. Died at the hands of the Sisters of Mercy in the pitch of her teenage bedroom. The blackout blinds chosen by her parents extinguished cosy street lights.
The base electronica beat beat, trip down the stairs, down, down, that minor key heartbeat. Screams off the street on a Saturday night, what were you doing alone? Despair is the counterpoint to ecstasy, silence is the anti-twin of throb, and joyful isolation the antidote to the mob.
She would lie on her back in the evening, her fingers with each other entwined, no, not for anyone keening, both sets of these fingers are mine. She lifted them up and made castles, digits leaning cathedral-like, high, and the thumbs were the drawbridge for people, to exit that tower in the sky. She drummed on her chestbone the rhythm, the music was marrow in bones, sweated down to become like a treacle, but rolling together like stones, on the shore in the dawn with no coming, where the clouds hit the ground and then spew, and the waves run their bile on the long seafront mile, where we walked long before when we knew.
But the whish that you hear right now, darling, is the wind in the birch, can you see? That the sun threads it’s beams through the crosshatch and alights on first you and then me.
He is holding her hand as if she is cherished. She knows it all already. The panting in their eyes, dark orbs spinning, lost planets, desire at the event horizon. She loved one more than all the others. But she never told him. She has seen it all before, the physical arrow, no dalliance with romance. She laughed at all the boys because she could see through them. But it would have been the same whoever it was. She told her sister Vera she should never let a boy get the better of her and she only meant in the mind, their hands were another matter.
‘You were the one with all the dolls’ saidVera. ‘You were the one who cried when the boys tore off the limbs and stuck the heads on sticks. You think you stride, ride like a Valkerie, you are a little bewildered girl in the woods, you wanted everything to be right.’
There was one she loved more that all the others. He took her face in his hands. He kissed along the bone of her cheek very slowly, kiss by careful kiss, he kissed her eyelids and she felt his breath on her face and the press of his hands against her shoulders. She was spinning.
The Huntsman sits her down on a picnic mat by a tent. They bought the gear when they went to the Electric Picnic festival for two days in June. Electric Picnics. Victoriana Steampunk. Christopher Reeve with his fob watch helping him travel through time. He lays out a basket, a wicker one, the proper kind. She leans against the silver birch with her hand against the bleached bark watching him. He takes out a flagon of cider, some fig rolls and a plate of apples. The apples roll against each other.
The sun becomes hot. She removes her skirt. She is left with a black bodice, with white laces, leggings underneath and a pair of twelve hole Doc Martens.
Boots. She remembers the Carosel, being with her Dad. He set her on the yellow horse with the wide teeth and the great snarling mouth. And he took a photograph on his old Kodak as she spun round and round clinging on and her feet in her little black boots didn’t quite reach the pedestal.
She drinks the cider. It is what the afternoon sun tastes like. She likes the tangy residue on her tongue. She is feeling woozy. Sunstroke. He strokes her arms where she had the tattoos done one Sunday afternoon when there was nothing else to do. Make love not war, some four syllable sentence or other, every word a foray into torture. Or ‘My name is ? Fill in the blanks later.
So white, snow white this bark, and the sunlight turns it into metal shimmer, like Sol ski slopes against designer sun glasses.
The sun is so hot despite the shade, she feels woozy. She doesn’t know that he put rohipnol in her black Russian in the bar earlier. The taste of recent cider makes her tongue thick. She would have made love to him anyway she thinks as he takes hold of her and she passes out. He is blameless. When she wakes everything is just the same but there is a bite out of the apple. ‘Nipples, I mean nibbles’ she thinks. Was he the one she loved more than the rest. She can’t remember.
Only as she lies there under the softly moving canopy of birch swish swish does she notice the security cameras. ‘What are they doing there?’ she murmurs. The huntsman is having a sandwich, it looks like cucumber. He talks through mouthfuls.
‘You are a celebrity, You are everything’ he says. ‘I followed you into the wood because you are famous. It’s a reality show. Celebrity get me out of the White Woods. You have millions of viewers world wide all wondering what you are going to do next.’
‘What am I going to do next?’ she wonders.
She looks at the place where he caressed her tattoos.
‘So you don’t love me then?’ she says.
‘Yes I love you’ he says his mouth full of white bread. She would have preferred the love of her life to have table manners.. ‘We all love you’.
‘Oh no’, she says rememembering now – how did she remember the most unusual of details and then forget the names of her….? There was that movie with Jim Carrey where they had filmed his whole life, or his whole life was a reality show. What was that again?
Somehow the Huntsman has acquired ginger beer, he sups from a long bottle, a thick one that reminded her of the 1970s when you were paid for bringing your bottles back. They had the right idea back then….Ideas should be recycled.
‘The Truman Show’ answers the Huntsman.
‘Sometimes I feel like my life is a movie’ she says.
‘We all do’ says the Huntsman.
Was there never a sentiment in the singular?
The Huntsman takes off his cloak and with a few choice nimble steps climbs the tree and throws his coat over the camera.
‘Reality’s gone crazy’ he says. ‘They’re pushing it and pushing it. Some people even suggested I take you into the woods and pretend to kill you. That’s about the only thing that hasn’t happened on reality TV yet.’
She isn’t sure he’s right. Everything has already happened.
She puts his hand on his arm because she really wants to feel him, skin to skin, her bones ache.
‘You could have pretended. We would have come clean later.’ she says softly.
‘There were ethical considerations. Watersheds’ he tells her.
He looks at his fingernails. She wonders if there is another camera whirling in the undergrowth. Poignant scene of unrequited love.
‘At first it was just a job’, he says. ‘But after a while I couldn’t wait to get up in the mornings and come into work.’
The pristine girl just stares.
‘You don’t know how unusual that is for me’ he said. ‘I couldn’t wait to see you.’
‘What is it with fingernails?’ She wonders. ‘Are fingernails the window of the soul?’
‘I can’t do it’ he said. ‘I can’t kill you or pretend to kill you or whatever they want me to do.’
He goes silent. He swallows. She is tracing the hairs on his arm and the smooth skin on the inside of his wrist.
‘I know’ he says, ‘I’ll quit. I’ll just go home and watch you from there.’
‘Surely there isn’t much of the series left?’ she said.
‘Am I the only one or were there others?’ He doesn’t answer. He wants to be straight. He wants to be crooked, by hook or by crook, a crook, stealing her cherry.
‘Surely I’ve won by now?’ she said.
‘I don’t know’ he said, losing sense of time. He moves his arm away, replaces it with armour.
He remembers, finally ‘There’s two weeks left and there’s only you now. They do the whole thing, that ‘Mirror Mirror on the wall, don’t look now it’s Davina McCall.’
‘Well is it right now’ he says.
‘Do I have to eat live bugs?’ she says ‘or just gather berries and frolick about with rabbits?’
‘I’m not sure’ he said, searching his pockets. ‘I think there was a script somewhere.’
‘Improvise’ says a voice.
‘There must be other cameras’ says the girl.
‘Perhaps you are the bonus housemate’ she says. ‘They’ve planted you here. Perhaps we have to stay in here together for the next two weeks.’ Love’s young dream.
He cuts off his fingernails with his dagger.
Why is he the only one with a weapon?
She has no pockets, not in her bodice of course, not in her leggings. There is a black drawstring bag on the picnic mat. She picks it up and looks into it. There is a sewing kit. Great, she can needle him until his love dies.
‘It’s not all about me’ she says.
Aha! he says.
‘You’ve done it’, he says, you’ve won the prize!
They all come out then, camera operators, boom operators, the key grips and the producer.
‘You’ve said the magic words’ they tell her.
‘What’s the prize?’ she says, ‘What’s the prize?’
‘A red apple’ they say, ‘now you’re ready and cleared for takeoff.’
In the hubbub she loses the Huntsman, she thinks she sees him slinking out of the forest like a wolf.
She sits down among the picnic things, observes a wasp in the apple, takes a sip of the warm cider. It tastes of the Hunstman. Her tattoos itch.
A shadow fall over her; the evil stepmother straight from casting.
‘May I’ she says, taking one of the triangular cucumber sandwiches and demolishing it with one bite.
‘I found your performance really moving. It had us captivated for weeks’ she tells the girl ‘but all these things have their season I suppose. Reality is dead in the water now they say. This is the last series.’
The girl looks glum, her plum lips pouting.
‘What will you do now?’ the stepmother asks her
‘Whatever I was doing before’ she says
‘I doubt that very much’ says the stepmother, lending a touch of the soap opera to the script. All they need now is a teenage pregnancy, a misunderstanding, a murder and an explosion at the pub. She wonders when real life is really going to begin. She wishes the Huntsman had made love to her but she guesses there will be time for all of that in due course.
Do you think I will ever see him again? The girl asks the evil stepmother.
‘I doubt that very much’ she says again. Perhaps she’s only paid for the one line.
The stepmother steps away. She purloins the sewing kit. She plans to make a voodoo doll to use in conjunction with her 3D-HD 46 inch LCD screen mirror.
The girl eats the apple, all of it, even the wasp. She feels his sting inside her chest and his voice reverbates round the caverns of her lungs. ‘Revenge! Revenge! She is puzzled because she feels only love. Love with a bite.
The woods are empty now, soundless, soundbiteless. The TV crew have gone, late for a production meeting for the next big thing.
The girl-woman strides back out of the woods in her Doc Martens. Time too runs backwards, always nostalgia, like the discarded film strip kisses in Cinema Paradiso. The TV crew have gathered the real reel moments from the forest floor. She wonders if the Huntsman will remember, whether he will miss her. But he needn’t, she will search for him and put her lips on his so he can take away the sting. But she will miss the woods, now that she can never return. What she will remember most of all isn’t the rose red kisses, or the cider or the apples, it is the white bark, the stripped clean gleaming of the silver birch, the soft continual rustling of leaves.
The Mermaid’s Dream by Marija Fekete-Sullivan
At the bottom of the deepest ocean there lived a mother-shell with a precious stone in her mouth. When the time came for the mother-shell to open her mouth, a wonder was revealed.
The baby-stone inside was half-green, like an emerald and half-white, like a pearl.
The shells from the kingdom of pearls assembled and made a decision: „This baby is not one of us!“
The biggest shell in the kingdom remarked that the baby’s body was half-green, as though it belonged to the kingdom of emeralds.
The mother-shell explained that her husband lived in the neighbouring kingdom, where the emeralds were. A huge sea-storm had seized her and carried her far away.
The waves had swirled and swooshed around her every day, for three hundred years, until she found herself in the kindom of pearls.
Now, when the baby was born, it was half like mother and half like father. Half-pearl, half emerald.
The shells with pure white pearls didn’t like that.
„Why don’t you go to the neighbouring country? Surely, you will be happy to see your husband, especially now that your baby is born?“ they suggested.
„It will take me hundreds of years to get there. I am not sure if I could survive that, she
But after a few days, the mother-shell decided to go. She couldn’t stand the hostility of the pearl-shells any more. For, they asked the mother-shell to give away her baby to the sea. When she refused, nobody spoke to her.
„Better to die on a long journey than to watch dear friends turn against my baby,“ said the mother-shell, and went off.
She took a few grains of sand with her, so as not to forget the many nice years she had lived in the kingdom of pearls.
On her way, some fish were attracted by the shiny stone in her open mouth. The mother-shell could only pray that they would not take her baby away.
She tried to stay close to the bottom of the sea, encircled by sandy veils, and to be as unnoticeable as possible. The waves carried her too slowly in the sea. The mother-shell thought she would never arrive at the neighboring kingdom.
Then, one morning, she woke up realizing that she was travelling very fast, almost like a shark. It was a dolphin that took her and her baby-stone with it. Only five days passed and they arrived in the neighbouring kingdom of emeralds.
Oh, how happy her husband was! After three hundred lonely years, he was again with his wife, who had brought their child, too.
Mother-shell was cheerful as never before.
She presented her husband with the rare, colorful grains of sand she had carried from the bottom of the deepest sea, from the kingdom of pearls.
The parents enjoyed swimming together in the little waves so much with their baby, whom they named Lucky Stone.
Alas, the inhabitants of the kingdom of emeralds noticed that Lucky Stone was not only half-green, but also half-white.
„This baby is not like the others,“ they grumbled. „Take him back where you came from, and then you can live with us,“ the inhabitants of the kingdom of emeralds told mother-shell.
The mother did not want to listen. She could never travel back to the kingdom of pearls. And her husband supported her well. But Lucky Stone found it impossible to stay there any longer.
One night, when his parents were happily asleep, Lucky Stone loosened the tie which connected him to mother-shell. He jumped out onto the sea-grass and soon he was lost in the dense greenery. At that moment, a mermaid was passing by.
She stopped to take in her palm a beautiful star-fish. The sea-grass was also moved by her hand and she immediately spotted Lucky Stone.
She picked him up in disbelief. „Is it really half-pearl, half-emerald?“ she wondered. What a wonderful game of nature! She imagined Lucky Stone on her necklace.
I am a mermaid,
I am a mermaid,
I can do what I wish.
When she sang so, the underwater grass swayed with pleasure. Fishes danced with their fins and sailors on the sea above fell in love with her voice.
The mermaid was really happy. Now that she had found Lucky Stone, her greatest worry would disappear. She knew it. For she had dreamed long ago that a precious gem, called Lucky Stone, would help her out.
All her life the mermaid had only one big worry. She couldn’t decide where to settle, in the sea or on land.
She felt like a guest everywhere she went, and she couldn’t point out anywhere and say: „This is my real home!“
When she thought about that, the mermaid sang:
I am a mermaid.
Half of my heart
set on the sea
and half on the land.
I am a mermaid,
Belong to me
to neither of them.
The whales cried huge tears as she sang so. The sea rose up in horrendous waves and sailors died as they looked for the mermaid, hoping to save her.
Now, everything will be alright, the mermaid thought. „Lucky Stone will help me choose which home to stay in. It’s easy, really!“
The mermaid decided to throw Lucky Stone down to the bottom of the sea. If the green half landed upward, she would stay in the sea forever. If the white half turned up, she would choose the air and land for her final destination.
To her surprise the mermaid noticed that Lucky Stone was squirming around in
her hand. His squirming and twisting made small balloons of air in the water, and
the balloons formed words. The mermaid read his words:
„Don’t throw me away
I may be good for your necklace
But not for your gambling dice.“
The mermaid felt a little ashamed. „I didn’t want to throw you away. I only wanted you to help me,“ she said.
The small balloons above Lucky Stone again formed the words:
I may be good for your necklace
but not for your gambling dice.
The mermaid looked thoughtful for a while. Her pet, a sea-dragon, which had been passing by, seemed puzzled by her sad expression. But he sailed on silently.
Suddenly, the mermaid gently held Lucky Stone to her chest. Her blue eyes looked hopeful, vibrating from happiness. Her long, orange hair stroked the waves when she swam up and down in the water and she sang:
I don’t want to leave the sea
I don’t want to miss the land.
Richer I am
than men and fish together
for I am a mermaid.
The mermaid’s song filled the sea with peace and gave nice weather to the sailors on the ships.
The mermaid made a necklace from the corals and put Lucky Stone on it. She was the lady of two halves. And Lucky Stone – half emerald, half-pearl – suited her perfectly.
The mermaid realized that she didn’t belong to just one home. Two homes she could call her own. So, she was twice as lucky as others. She was richer, not poorer, for having two destinations.
Once a year, they visited the parents of Lucky Stone and all the inhabitants there greeted Lucky Stone with awe and honour.
The mermaid’s dream came true. Lucky Stone helped her to enjoy living in both homes. The mermaid wore Lucky Stone on all her travels in the sea and on land. They never parted. And the song can still be heard from the sea when the waves are calm: