I’ve agreed to this curse of seven years of silence.
And until those years are over, my six brothers remain swans.
I don’t have to seal up my lips with the strands of hair they left in their combs.
But all the same. Seven years. I might crack like some glass-made thing.
Spilling screams and curses of my own. What if my mind breaks?
After all, aren’t all sisters fragile? Or is that only what brothers think?
But my skin is still warm. My lips still part to breathe. And I am full of hope.
Tonight my heart sings with unspoken stories as I weave my hands through this cold northern wind.
I kiss the sky as my swan-brothers sleep indoors, snake-necks tucked into white duvet-wings.
Breathing and gasping and sighing all this moonlight into myself.
My hands pick thistledown from the edges of the road. What is it like, to fly?
An aeroplane passes over, and my mouth blows the thistledown away.
The swans go out all day and come home at night.
Seaweed scented, as if they’ve spent hours flying over salted oceans.
The swans nudge at the pots and frying pans with their wingtips.
The swans jerk their heads in the directions of the cooker and microwave.
They jump on the table, spread their wings and pretend to be tablecloths.
I don’t like the sounds they make. They hiss like anger, and there’s no rhythm to their stamping.
They want me to serve feasts to them, as if they still had the hunger of boys.
Out in the fields, it’s spring. A coil, a season, a jump?
I laugh about all the wrong words for things, and wonder where mine will go to, now.
I clunk chipped plates on the table and dish up our meal.
Boat-shaped birds are clumsy at mounting chairs, but once they’re up, they don’t tip.
Tonight, we eat flowers. Tomorrow, we’ll have moss. The next day, leaf mulch or frozen water.
Everything tastes vivid, now I can no longer describe it. I could eat the world whole.
My swan-brothers slide stamens and leaves and bulbs into their bills, wetly swallowing.
Their kohl-lined eyes watch my red-painted lips as we taste petal flavours: yellow, white.
I’m stronger, now no words are forced.
Strong as a swan.
For a long time, silence brings peace.
But after a while, my brothers’ eyes are constantly damp with expectation.
If I examine their eyes for long enough, I can see their thoughts about flight.
It is like being told a story, but with pictures instead of words.
Landscapes are patchwork maps and clouds are made of frozen breath.
Falling is fear, and fear is grey mist. These thoughts are beautiful, but they are not peaceful.
I wish I could tell my brothers that my agreement to be silent means that I love them beyond thought.
Beyond falling, beyond fear.
But to be clever enough to rescue them, I need to understand what I am rescuing them from.
I am becoming jealous that they can fly.
On cold nights, we all share the bed, and in the mornings I wake into a dream of warm feathered bodies.
As I’m gathering wild garlic from the roadside one day, there’s the sound of a horse.
On the horse, there’s a man. He’s tall, wears a red hunting jacket and is much older than me.
His eyes are oddly hungry as he asks, ‘Will you come away with me?’
I shake my head, gather up the garlic, and rush off down the road.
Though he spits foul words after me, I don’t look back.
Silence is a mute safety – I can’t say the wrong thing and curse someone without meaning to.
Being silent is easy. But the problem is, curses don’t come with definite instructions.
There are symbols and objects, sounds and smells.
There are ambiguous clues: hints of chance and prediction, fate and coincidence, premonitions.
But as these things can’t be talked about, the nonsense or sense of them becomes tangled.
The clues are: an empty wardrobe with a door that always creaks open no matter how often I close it.
A sewing machine that unthreads itself whenever I run cotton or nylon thread through its machinery.
A large glass bottle in the bathroom that is brim-full of yellow antiseptic.
What I interpret from these objects, is that to break the curse, I have to hurt and heal myself.
I have to force a sewing machine to grit its metal teeth around firmer threads than I’ve ever encountered.
Searching the fields for what will cause me pain, I strip bramble vines from the hedges.
As the thorns twist and the vines split, my hands become crimson.
Cuts slice through cuts.
I make a small crown from the coiled vines and place the crown on my youngest swan-brother’s head.
Through tears he gazes at me and I gaze back.
Even without language, without words, we feel this together. The crown hurts us both.
As I soak my hands in antiseptic, I consider other materials, other cloths, other kinds of pain.
Summer arrives and I harvest millions of nettles from the edges of fields.
All autumn I strip nettles down into tight strands and spin them into threads.
All winter and spring, I weave these threads into loose cloth.
Through another summer I cut and sew edges and seams.
Throughout all the stretching and hunching, unpicking and sewing, the nettles sting my bare hands.
A nettle’s sting doesn’t die when the plant is torn from the earth.
The sting doesn’t die when the plant is stripped and transformed into threads.
It stays alive, and intensifies. My hands are dry, red-raw, splitting.
I dream of the softest pair of gloves. Is there such a thing as sky-silk?
Could I breathe my request to the clouds, and receive their softest fabric in return for breath?
The bath is full of dock leaves. Green juice rubbed on stings makes the pain subside.
Each evening I watch for my brothers flying home through the clouds.
I only ever see five of them: the ones without crowns.
My youngest brother must fly off alone. Perhaps he’s found a mate.
Finally, six shirts, green and woven, are ready. But for what?
I light a candle in the bedroom to create a sense of ritual. I lay the shirts on the bed.
Each shirt is unique because there is something wrong with it.
A missing button, an absent sleeve, a wonky seam. Pain rejects all notions of perfection.
Beckoning my brothers upstairs, I show them the shirts.
They look at them unblinkingly, and I wait, expecting them to want me to clothe them.
But they look at each other, and look at the shirts again. After a while, they go back downstairs.
I hang the shirts on the empty hangers in the always-open wardrobe.
As I am hanging the shirt that’s missing a sleeve, my youngest swan brother comes into the bedroom.
I wish I could tell him he and his brothers need to help me to know what to do next.
He flaps a wing, as if trying to alert me to something.
I examine his body more closely. He only has one wing.
Where the other should be is a lumpy mound of uneven feathers.
As he sees the realisation in my face, he dips his head and won’t meet my eyes.
He leaves the bedroom and jumps down the stairs in a mix of feather sounds and thumps.
The next time my swan brothers fly, I watch for them and again count only five.
I don’t know where my youngest brother goes when the others take to the sky.
I imagine him flying elsewhere, alone in his own circles and directions.
But my heart tells me that he’s hiding or sulking and he’s never flown at all.
One night my youngest swan brother is by the fire with me, his feathered cheek on my lap.
I touch the bramble vine crown on his head and shift it slightly.
There is a little blood in his white feathers. I move the crown a little more, and he glares at me.
As I stroke his neck, he looks up at me with bliss in his eyes.
Without thinking, I whisper to him, ‘you’ve always been my favourite.’
His hand suddenly covers my mouth. His human hand. His man’s hand.
He’s a swan with the arm of a man, but he’s been keeping it secret all this time.
Tentatively, I kiss his fingers, and they flex away from my mouth. Touch. How I’ve missed it.
Touch is like streams of words that communicate love or hate or comfort or pain.
Touch is another silence, another noise. Touch is a language, a conversation.
I wait, closing my eyes.
His fingertips return and place themselves against my lips. They taste of earth and lavender.
I whisper again, ‘you’ve always been my favourite.
Especially now you’re covered in white feathers.
And because I’ve spoken, you’ll always be a swan.’
His hand moves away from my lips.
He grips my wrist and turns it over. He places one fingertip against my pulse.
I wet my lips and sigh, hoping to feel his beautiful hand reading my heartbeat like braille.
Hoping to forget that this beautiful swan was ever my brother.
Hoping to feel language as touch, and touch as language.
But he is not reading my pulse. He is writing.
His fingertip moves carefully against the delicate skin of my wrist.
He makes the shape of a letter, ‘y’ and then ‘o’ and ‘u’.
Barely breathing, I whisper, ‘What about me?’
He spells out the words,
‘a’ ‘r’ ‘e’ ‘c’ ‘u’ ‘r’ ‘s’ ‘e’ ‘d’ ‘t’ ‘o’ ‘b’ ‘e’ ‘s’ ‘i’ ‘l’ ‘e’ ‘n’ ‘t’ ‘f’ ‘o’ ‘r’ ‘e’ ‘v’ ‘e’ ‘r.’
These are the last words I ever