Twelve Swans

by Jennifer Crow

1. Magic

Like war and love
Magic had its reasons
Beyond reason.
It pooled around her like dark water,
Secrets smelled of spice
And blood, and she whispered
Doom in a voice that fell
Around us, silk on stone.

Like love,
Like war,
Magic had its reasons
Beyond reason --
The honeyed stroke of lust,
Power's cold fist around a throat,
Longing that tastes like tears.
My brothers paid her no heed when
Storm-cloaked and furious
She swept into the hall. They knew
Too many mortal women to believe
Her, even when she raised
Her fists to the sky, even when the sky
Answered with lightning's quick stabs
And the crack of thunder.
Believe, she said, haughty neck bared,
Eyes a wild gold. I sank down
In my chair. The smell of wine
Will forever remind me of that moment,
When the youngest turned to me
In a flash of white, too startled
For pain, and became

2. Curse

coarse syllables flung
the dire word changes us all
curved necks, beating wings

3. Challenge

In magic, as in all things, there was balance:
The weight of spells borne up by nature's wrath
The finished task undone by human hands.
"There is a way to save your feathered kin -- "
she smiled as though she savored my defeat --
"Weave them coats of nettles; do not speak
or let another's hand fall on your work."
I saw a certain sympathy in her,
The bitter poison tasted by us all
That sank into a woman's bones and bled
Her thoughts to darkness and her hopes to dust.
She left, a swirl of smoke that dazzled eyes
And I alone remained, my tongue now bound.
Above, I heard the cries of brother-swans;
The winds they followed took them to the north,
To wilding shores and barren, stony earth.
I followed, just as caught by spells as they,
And gathered up the nettles as I passed.
Just like the witch, my fate was tied to theirs,
My choices bounded by a kindred knot.

4. Burden

They bring me nettles clutched in blackened beaks
And drop them at my feet -- a growing mound
Of green. I know the freedom that they seek --
Theirs the same cord by which I am bound.
The burning sting cannot unlock my tongue --
I bend each stem and twist it into thread
As I forget all songs I've ever sung,
The taste of honey that I once was fed.
I find the price is not too much to ask,
Though I cannot recall my brothers' lives
Before their fate had laid on me this task
And in this barren soil some doubts will thrive.
Their burden has been mine since that strange day:
The weight of all the words I will not say.

5. Pyre

The people's voices send me to the fire
The judges watch me from the highest seats
And I, in silence, weave before the pyre.

I do not speak; how can they call me 'liar'?
They do not know my heart and its defeats
And yet their voices send me to the fire.

A festival springs up around the mire
Of jostling bodies, churned-up earth, and meats
While I, in silence, weave before the pyre.

And though the fate that's promised me is dire
My fingers will not set aside their feats
Though all the voices send me to the fire.

The smoke of my destruction rises higher
Stretched to white wings overhead that beat
While I, in silence, weave before the pyre.

At last I turn away from heaven’s heat
And cast my coats, as magic’s doom repeats.
No judgment's voice can send me to the fire
While magic makes me weave before the pyre.

6. Coda

And after,
Drawn by the weight
Of my brothers' strong arms, borne up
By their jubilation, I find
The words still will not come.
My tongue, stuck
Like a rusty hinge, refuses
to form the old familiar sounds
that wait in my throat.
Some burn like nettles,
Some scrape like skin on stone,
Some linger like shadows
And some blaze like the pyre --
But none of them cross my lips.
They tell me --
Despite my age, and the worn fingers
And the weary soul --
My dowry and my silence
Make a prize of me.
I will not allow the bitterness to linger
on my tongue or in my heart:
I know a quiet place
In shadow, not far
From where the nettles grow.

Jennifer Crow

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