Why can’t my mother be like everyone else? People look at her and shake their heads. “Touched,” I once heard Mr. Bergstrom whisper to his wife. She doesn’t even look like anyone we know. Everyone in Nordfjell has blonde hair like mine, or light brown hair like Papa’s; her hair is black and straight. Our eyes are blue or brown or green; hers are coal-black, like inky seas that have no bottom.
Sometimes in the summer, city folk come here, traveling all the way north to get the feel of grass under their feet. When I was ten, my cousins came from Oslo to visit us. They loved our cottage. Who wouldn’t? It sits at the westernmost rim of the village, far from all the other houses. The front of the cottage peers over the road to gaze at the blue mountains. A short hike through low brush takes you to the coast. Our backyard noses up against a lake, as if it belongs to us alone. It’s like being at the edge of the world.
But my cousins couldn’t wait to get home, to get away from her. One day Gudrun whispered to me, “Sofie, the city sees all kinds of foreigners from distant ports. Your mother isn’t even like any of them.” Peder and Gudrun went home full of gossip about their Uncle Kennet’s peculiar wife. That was four years ago. They’ve never visited again.
“Mama, where did you come from?” I used to ask when I was little.
Silence. That was her answer.
She never speaks about her childhood or her people. She doesn’t even own any keepsakes from her other life, unless you count the trunk under her bed that no one ever opens. Even Papa, who refuses me nothing, shrugs off my questions.
“She’s the treasure I brought home one day when I went hunting in the mountains,” he says with a laugh. No one from the village has ever traveled beyond them. And no one has come from there to Nordfjell. So why is my mother always gazing westward?
And if it isn’t the mountains, she’s staring at the sky, especially on a day like today, when a brisk breeze stirs the clouds into motion. She can spend an hour gaping at a flock of swans. Or else it’s the sunlight on the lake that sets her dreaming. In winter, it’s worse. I hate the way she studies the falling snow, as if every flake is a letter in a book only she can read.
This morning we were in the yard, taking the wash down from the line, when the wind blew a flurry of white apple-blossoms into the lake. I knew that would set her off. There she stood, stopped still like someone under a fairy-tale spell. She began moving toward the lake like a sleepwalker.
“Mother! Mind the eggs!” I hissed. She didn’t even notice she’d upset a basket. It was lucky she only broke one egg.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
Why do I always have to watch out for her? She’s my mother, not my child! I usually call her by her name, Kara, not “Mama”; she doesn’t deserve the title. She hardly ever speaks. It’s like she’s barely here. Sometimes I wish she’d disappear completely, just turn to fog and drift away.
Kara righted the basket and herself. It was a good thing, too, for there was Mrs. Pedersen, Marta’s mother, at the gate, looking to buy fresh eggs without having to walk all the way to town.
“Good morning!” Mrs. Pedersen sang out. “I’ve brought some honey cakes to fatten you up!” She always does thoughtful things like that, things my mother would never think to do. Besides, Kara usually burns whatever she’s baking, forgetting to remove the bread from the oven until I smell the smoke.
Sometimes I wish that Marta’s mother were mine. She’s always laughing. Her red cheeks grow rosier every year, and her waist rounder. She mother-hens it over all her children’s friends, as well as her own large brood. Even Else’s sharp-tongued mother would be better than Kara. No one likes her but at least they don’t avoid her because she’s different. No one whispers behind her back.
“Thank you,” I told Mrs. Pedersen, and took the cakes. “They look delicious.”
Just as Kara reached out to hand her a basket, the wind gusted. Our apple-tree shuddered. Apple-blossoms rained down on the grass. My mother froze and stared at them, her mouth twisted strangely, her arm still extended. Mrs. Pedersen gazed straight at me; as clearly as if she’d spoken, her look said, “What a shame about your mother.” She pitied me.
I gave her the basket of eggs. I smiled politely. I was the one who counted out the coins for change, made conversation, and said farewell.
“Good-bye,” Mrs. Pedersen said, clucking her tongue.
My mother started and looked at her as if she’d appeared out of nowhere. She fumbled with her apron.
“Good-bye,” she muttered. She resumed taking in the wash. I bit back all my bitter words until my lips bled.
Papa entered the yard. My mother rushed to meet him, her black eyes glistening. A smile leapt to life on her face. Papa took her in his arms and kissed her as if he hadn’t seen her for a year, though we’d all eaten breakfast together just an hour ago. I pretended to fold an already-folded shirt, slowly smoothing out the creases. My parents always act like young lovers—hug and kiss, hold hands, smile secret smiles, laugh for no reason. I don’t blame my father; it’s my mother who’s out of season.
“So beautiful,” he murmured into her hair.
She is beautiful, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. But that’s part of her strangeness, too, so how can I love it? She always seems so far away, so discontent with here and now. There are only two places where my mother is truly happy, as if finally living in her own skin. One is there, in her husband’s arms. The other is on the dance floor. No one dances like her. Her walking alone has a grace that looks like art, but you can tell she isn’t trying to impress anyone. It’s simply how she is. When she dances, even the villagers who mistrust her the most sigh in pleasure; even Else’s mother smiles her approval. Kara flies across the dance floor as if her skirts are wings.
No one has asked me to dance yet. I doubt they ever will. Who would want to dance with the odd one’s daughter?
“I’ll see my girls tonight,” Papa said, still holding Kara’s hand. “Be good,” he added to me, as if I was still little. I didn’t mind, though. He bent to kiss my forehead. I laughed when his beard tickled me. “Look after your mother, Sofie” he added quietly, as he always does. He shifted his bow and quiver more securely over his shoulders and went off to hunt.
Kara watched him till he faded from sight. She does this every day, as if she never quite believes she’ll reclaim him each night.
“Finish taking in the wash,” she said, facing me. “I will bring the eggs to market now.” She moved towards me. I think she wanted to kiss me good-bye, but I stepped away. Head bent toward the ground, she walked to town.
The wind resisted as I hauled in one of my mother’s grey dresses. It flapped as if with agitation, like a lost ghost, but then wasn’t Kara half-ghost herself? Vacancy where a living person ought to be. All my usual questions pestered me afresh. Where did Kara come from? Why didn’t she own anything from her past? No pictures or books or knick-knacks. Nothing. I once asked my father about the trunk under their bed. “It belongs to your mother,” he’d said abruptly. That meant not to ask further.
What was in that trunk of hers? Maybe the things inside revealed her secrets. I had a right to know. My throat closed tight the way it does sometimes at night, when I cry into my blanket so they won’t hear. What if I turned strange like her one day? What if it was in my blood?
No one would be home for hours; if I was ever going to look inside the trunk, now was the perfect time. I walked into my parents’ room, a trespasser, knelt beside their bed and dragged out the trunk. It was so light. You always think of secrets as heavy. The trunk was covered with so much dust I could tell no one had touched it for years. Surprisingly, it was unlocked. My heart beat so wildly I could feel the pulse in my fingertips. You always think secrets will be so difficult to pry open but the lid practically sprang up at my touch.
Only one thing was inside. A cloak of feathers, spotlessly white. A silver thread ran along the collar, ending in a loop meant to hook over a large shining pearl to clasp it.
I couldn’t imagine anything less like my mother. Her dresses are so plain—no lace or ribbons—and all as dull as the grey one I’d just pulled off the line. I like flowered prints and bright, red ribbons; I want to be noticed. Someday I’ll wear a ruby necklace. Kara owns no jewels except her gold wedding band. But this cloak was fine and fragile and unbelievably lovely. For all its great length, it weighed almost nothing—oh, it was as light as a wish!
I ached to try it on but I was afraid someone would catch me, so I bundled it into my arms—carefully, carefully. It looked as though a single torn thread, one lost feather, could destroy it. I covered it with my mother’s grey dress.
I knew exactly where I’d go: my cove, ringed round with large rocks the stories say were once giants. I go there every day to be alone with my thoughts, and try to forget that I’m the daughter of the odd one. The trip took only twenty minutes but it seemed like hours. The whole way I felt sure someone would demand to see what I was hiding wrapped up in the grey dress, but as usual I met no one.
The two tallest rocks, my favorite giants, shelter a small space so private it’s like a cave. My very own cave. I took off my shoes, let my feet sink into the sand. That always makes me feel better. My giants would keep watch for me, and the gulls would never tell my secrets.
I unfurled the cloak. Placing it on my shoulders, I made my way to the tidal pool—the Enchanted Mirror I call it, though I know its only magic belongs to the tiny sea creatures that use it as their private ocean. The feathers quivered in the wind as if they yearned to fly. I hooked the silver loop over the pearl. The feathers are dancing, I thought, and spread my arms wide.
I peered into my Enchanted Mirror, as I’d done so often before. Down in the still waters I saw the white feathers, my head peeking out above them. A breeze rippled the image. The tidal pool turned white—a whirl of feathers, feathers, sea-foam, and feathers. When the image cleared, there was a swan reflected in the water.
What swan? My reflection wasn’t there at all. Impossible. I lifted my right arm. The swan in the water lifted its right wing. I looked down at my chest to find a dome of pure white feathers.
The swan was me.
How could this be? Before terror could take over, something else did—an intense desire I couldn’t ignore. My black webbed feet made their clumsy way to the sea. I stepped in and paddled beyond the waves to where the water was smooth as glass. My body knew what to do. Leaning forward, I beat my wings and lifted into the air. I was flying! Some place beyond the mountains called to me, willing me to find it.
Below I saw my house, our yard with the empty clothesline swaying in the wind, the curving road. I rose higher and all of Nordfjell shrank to just a smudge. Mist wreathed the mountains, turning them invisible. But I didn’t need to see them; my heart knew the way, my wings needed no instructions.
Sky. Sun. Wind. And the pumping of my wings—that’s all there was. I had no more thoughts for anything down on the ground. My troubles unraveled like threads of cloud.
A strange sound startled me. Out of the mist, six wild swans appeared; the sound was the movement of wind against their wings. They flew straight towards me. Did they know me for an imposter? Were they going to tear me to pieces? They swerved in mid-air. The leader took position ahead of me. They meant me to follow.
I aligned myself with the others. The mist swallowed up my fellow swans but their pumping wings still whirred loudly; mine beat along in harmony. Obeying something beyond the whims of my own heart, I had never felt more myself.
We emerged from the fog, past the mountain, to soar above a blue and green country, more water than land. Grassy islands wove through streams that glinted with sunlight. The cloak was my mother’s—was this the country she had come from? Was this the life she pined for? A knot formed in my long, white throat.
The swans set down on a narrow ribbon of stream. I joined them, water spraying in arcs around me. The birds glided to the largest islet and climbed up its banks. Each bird had a silver thread about its neck, from which dangled a single pearl, just like I did. With their beaks they unhooked the thread from the pearl. Down fell the feather cloaks.
Six women stood before me. They had long black hair, straight and smooth, and bright black eyes. They wore plain dresses, the kind my mother wore. There were no bright reds or pinks or golds, only the colors found in their world of lake and cloud, sand and grass.
I followed their example and used my beak to unloop the thread from the pearl. “Welcome home, sister!” one of the women cried, running towards me.
The cloak fell to the ground, tickling my ankles.
The woman halted.
“No, not our sister, but our sister’s child,” she said.
The women crowded around me. My aunts. One gently twined a curl of my hair about her finger. She marveled at its gold. Another woman traced her finger along my cheek, as if to touch what was familiar there. I’ve always hated the thought that I might be anything like my mother, but it’s true, despite the differences in our coloring, I look like her. For the first time I was proud of it. A third woman stepped closer and embraced me. Then they all did.
“Tell us of Kara. Is she happy?” said the woman in a reed-green dress. She looked the youngest.
How could I answer that? I didn’t want to hurt them with the truth.
“Of course she’s happy,” the one in white said. She was the oldest; at any rate, she had led the chevron in flight. “She must love him very much, the father of this girl. He’s a good man, isn’t he?” she asked me.
“Yes, she loves him with all her heart,” I answered. “And he loves her more than anything. If you saw them together for a minute, you would know.”
“We have all heard the stories,” the oldest continued, “of the women ensnared by men. If a man takes a swan maiden’s cloak, she must be his and remain in human form. Always the man destroys the cloak, making the maiden his prisoner. But here stands Kara’s daughter in her cloak, without a single feather damaged. So her cloak remains her own, and staying with him remains—her choice.” Her voice broke.
“But why has she never come back to us?” the youngest cried.
“My people distrust things that are strange to them,” I said. “To stay with my father, she had to give up the cloak.” I had only flown once and knew how hard that sacrifice would be. How much it must have cost my mother to renounce who she was every single day! Oh, now I knew why she so often stared at the clouds, why she seemed so distant and sad. “My father is a good man. The trunk that holds the cloak is never locked. She can leave at any time. She never will.”
“You must complete her happiness,” the eldest said.
How those words stung, words my aunt had said to make me happy instead of hurt me! I could barely remember a time I hadn’t been cross and impatient with my mother. When I was very little, before what other people thought mattered so much, I would let her bend her head close to mine and kiss me. She would sing a quiet lullaby, holding me with a feather-light touch. I no longer let her touch me. How long had it been?
Kara did her best, no matter how clumsy that was. She had renounced the sky for my father. And for me. I thought of her watching the snow fall like so many swan feathers and knowing she’d never see her sisters again. I felt ashamed. For years I’d done nothing but increase my mother’s pain.
“I need to get home,” I said. The swan-women nodded their understanding. But they couldn’t understand. They thought Kara had given me the feather cloak and sent me to them with her love. They didn’t know I was a thief and perhaps the meanest girl in the world.
“Tell us your name, niece,” the woman in the cloud-grey dress said.
“I’m Sofie,” I was just able to say.
My aunts wept silently. That’s how my mother cries, without making a sound. I’ve seen her do it but I’ve always pretended that I didn’t.
“Come to us again, Sofie,” said the one in the dress blue as the sky in spring. “Tell your mother that we miss her.” They pressed close and kissed me softly.
I took up the cloak, hooked the thread over the pearl, and became a swan again. It felt so natural, as if I’d been doing it all my life. I took to the air. Below me, the swan maidens danced in a circle, singing a song that reminded me of my mother’s lullaby. I wished I could have joined the circle but I didn’t belong with them, at least not yet. I needed to go home to tell my mother I knew her secret, to beg her forgiveness.
I flew back across the mountains, to my cove, where I could remove the feather cloak without being seen. It sank into the sand, brushing my heels. Sofie’s heels. Sofie’s girl-hands picked it up, shook the sand from it, and bundled it inside the grey dress. Sofie’s girl-feet headed home. It took so long—flying would have brought me there in an instant.
My mother waited for me in the yard, grim and silent. She had every right to be angry. It must be the most terrible crime to steal such a thing from someone else, like you were stealing who they were.
She came straight at me. Expecting a slap, I flinched and closed my eyes.
An eider-down kiss brushed my cheek.
I opened my eyes, which filled with tears. How could she forgive me?
“So now you know who you are,” Mama said. Her hand felt warm on my shoulder.
“You mean, now I know who you are,” I answered.
“You are my daughter, so you are one of Us. Come,” she said and led me to the shore of the lake. It wasn’t as blue as the waters in the swans’ country, but now I understood why Papa had built our cottage way out here. “Look.” She pointed down at our reflections.
My eyes were black now, as black as my mother’s, black as the swan maidens’.
“I’m sorry I took it,” I told my mother, holding the feather cloak out to her. “I know I was wrong.”
“It is yours now,” Mama said, refusing to accept it. “Your heritage and your right. You belong to both worlds. May your wings spread wide.”
I opened my arms to hold my mother close. The feather cloak fell to the grass, but we kept hugging each other, tightly, till Papa came home and hugged us both.