Last night he heard the swans, hooting as they flew in the night. He knew if he went to the window, he would see them, lit up by the moon, bright against the night sky. Winter chased them.
Last night he heard the swans and his heart called out to them. He flexed his wing and felt the night air against each barb. Winter was on its way and he needed to stay here and let the snow fall.
“It’s cold. Come back to bed,” she said. He turned from the window. She held open the quilt, showing him the empty place beside her. Her body, in the dark room, was lit up by the moon. It was cold. The hair on his body stood up. The feathers on his wing stood out. He slid under the quilt. His movements let out puffs of dry feather smell. The quilt was filled with down. The smell reminded him of home.
She put her warm body against his cold skin. He wrapped his wing around her because he knew that’s what she wanted. That’s what any of them wanted.
Last night he heard the swans.
The next night, he went to the roof. The moon was full now. He scanned the dark purple sky for swans. The guards on the parapets recognized him by his wing and let him be. Either people were attracted to his difference or they were afraid of it. He was a half-magic thing. The sight of him a constant reminder of the days magic twisted things.
His brother was already there. They were the two youngest. So much younger than the other four. Franz scanned the sky with a small telescope. “It smells like snow,” he said as Hans sat beside him. They dangled their feet over the edge. Hans looked down. Being this high up was close to flying. It didn’t scare him.
“Did you hear them? Last night?” Hans asked.
After hours of waiting, hours in which even their young joints grew stiff with cold, they heard the faint hoots. Stars stood out, a scattering of glitter against the sky. “Here,” Franz said and handed the telescope to Hans. The eyepiece was cold against his skin.
He could see their eyes, their wings. His heart beat in time with each flap. His heart broke as they left the two men on the roof behind.
“I can’t stay here,” Franz whispered.
“But what about your wife?” All the brothers, except Hans, had found wives. The king, their sister’s husband, had given them their choice of the finest daughters of his nobles. They were handsome young men with the allure of their story as an added attraction. None would agree to marry Hans. What if his children were born with wings? Or worse a beak?
Franz smiled. His face must have been stiffened by the chilly air because it was a small smile. A bitter smile.
“She’s gone. Went back to her mother’s.”
They didn’t speak. They looked up at the sky which was beginning to lighten at its eastern edge. The guards changed. The boys sat and watched for more swans. None came.
“Do you miss it?” Franz asked.
Hans couldn’t speak. His throat closed. He swallowed down the tears that rose up. But he couldn’t speak. It was as if he had forgotten how.
“I miss it,” Franz said. “I wish she’d never changed us back.” He looked down at his hands. He flexed his fingers. They were blue at the tips. “I don’t understand this body. I don’t want it anymore. I want to fly.”
Hans nodded. He wrapped his wing around his brother’s shoulders.
They’d been the youngest. When they’d been changed, they hadn’t been boys very long. They were so small. They’d been swans for so long, they’d forgotten they’d ever been boys. Every year, when their sister would meet them in the woods to speak with them for the fifteen minutes they were human again, they would be surprised at the changes in themselves.
The oldest four had remembered what it was to be human. They missed it. They had wanted back. They never spoke of their time as swans. The oldest, Wilhelm, had proposed that Hans let a surgeon remove his wing.
At the first snow, Franz climbed to the top of the highest parapet and leapt off.
Hans stood over his brother’s grave and after the others left their flowers, throwing them down on the coffin at the bottom of the hole, he plucked out one of his feathers. The pain cut bright and sharp through his grief. He watched the feather float down until it rested on top of all the roses.
Through the winter, nothing changed in Hans’s life. He thought often of his night on the roof with Franz. But he never went up on the roof to look at the moon and feel the night air ruffle the feathers of his wing.
All through the winter, the court was kept busy with dinners and dances and lavish spectacles. The king wanted everyone to be happy. He filled their days with a kind of manic joy to make up for the years he’d let his mother bring them all so much sorrow. As if they’d forget the sight of the queen, standing on her funeral pyre, throwing silk shirts to her brothers. Maybe people did forget. But Hans didn’t.
Still, when a woman, or a man for that matter, came up beside him and whispered in his ear and led him away from the party, he followed. They didn’t love him. They only wanted to know what it was like to be held in that wing. Was it like sleeping with an angel? They wanted a little taste of magic in their lives. He wanted to forget. He wanted to live in this body and not wish he was still in another.
Last night, he heard the swans as they flew back for the summer. He stood at his window and watched them pass by the light of the moon. His heart beat in time to their wings.
“Come back to bed,” the man in his bed said. And Hans ignored him.
“I’m leaving,” he said. He wasn’t speaking to the man. He spoke to himself. Maybe to Franz. The floor was cold under his feet. There was still snow in shaded spots and ditches, but he heard the swans and the air smelled like spring.
“Leave in the morning,” the man said. And Hans turned from the window. Why not? One last time before he left.
He remembered where the witch lived. Hans told no one that he was leaving. They all seemed to have forgotten that Franz existed. At least, his brother’s name was never spoken among them and his brother’s wife was gone. Their rooms had been emptied out and locked. It wasn’t happy to think of them.
“You heard them, didn’t you?” the witch said. She had not changed. It had been more than twenty years since he’d seen her last. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t old. She was herself. He couldn’t decide if she was beautiful. Sometimes, he thought yes. Beautiful like a crow in the sun. Sometimes, he thought no. The sweetish smell of death hung about her small castle.
“And you’ve come to ask me to change you back,” she said. She smiled. A chill blew through him. Again, he was on the roof with Franz, smelling snow in the wind. She ran a finger along his cheek. He closed his eyes. Her touch was warm. Warmer than he had expected.
“Please,” he whispered.
She ran her hand along his wing. She stretched it out to its full span and he shivered. “So beautiful,” she said. “Are you sure? Being different. Being a little bit frightening. That can be a powerful thing. But you know this. I bet your bed is never empty. I bet you can go wherever you want in your sister’s house.”
“Please,” he whispered.
She kissed him. He could feel her smile against his mouth. He kept his eyes closed. He couldn’t look into her eyes. If he did, he’d be lost in their black depths and he’d forget he’d ever known how to fly.
“Please,” he whispered.
“If I do this, I can’t turn you back you again,” she said. Her voice was dark. “And, you’ll always return here in the spring. You’ll swim in my moat. Maybe, I’ll give you a jeweled collar. And you’ll live as long as I will.”
“Please,” he whispered. He opened his eyes. She smiled at him.
“Yes,” she said. She ran her fingertips over his eyelids as if closing the eyes on a corpse. “Yes.”
She towered over him. He stretched out his wings and beat them against the air.
He was home.