The Swan

Josephine Andre, age 13
The Swan Josephine is 13 years old and lives in San Francisco. She loves to read comics, adventure, and anything with dragons. When she’s not writing, you can find her drawing or playing video games.

“These were no ordinary pair of scissors. They were my mother’s sewing scissors. They were gold and delicately molded by some craftsman long ago into the shape of an elegant swan in flight.”

These were no ordinary pair of scissors. They were my mother’s sewing scissors. They were gold and delicately molded by some craftsman long ago into the shape of an elegant swan in flight. The swan’s wings curled up the round handles, and the long beak was the razor-sharp blade. My mother’s hands guided the shining bird in and out of the seas of many-colored fabrics. She used these scissors to make the most beautiful dresses anyone had ever seen. She worked so hard. We lived in a tiny, cramped cottage with the bed too close to the stove. My bed used to be covered in half-made dresses and silken ribbons. 

Ivo stole the swan. I was asleep on my too-small bed in the too-small house. My mother was at the market. It was late at night, far too late to be awake when the moon was shining above brighter than any candle. I hated Ivo. He was the butcher’s son and about three years older than me. I’d seen him with blood on his hands. He climbed through the too-small window and stepped with his dirty boots on my mother’s beautiful dresses. I didn’t see him take them – I was too busy watching the dreams in my head. I never could have stopped him anyway – I am small, and he is strong. 

When mother came back to see the little house in disarray, she didn’t cry. I think she wanted to, but she was too proud to let me see. She told me that Ivo wanted to melt down the swan and sell the gold. In the early morning of the next day, I saw her counting the coins left in her desk drawer. I peeked out from under my blankets to see her. She lifted each tiny disk from the drawer and held it into a ray of silvery light. I dreamed about the coins when I fell back asleep. 

My mother spent the next morning sewing faster than I’d ever seen her sew before. She used a dull pair of gray scissors that lacked all the grace of the diving swan. My mother’s hands flew over the fabric as she attached a long red cape to a brown dress. She said it was for a very important, noble lady who lived in the big house by the castle. 

“I am going to play in the pond,” I said as I pulled on my favorite dress. The cloth was soft and worn from use. 

“Be careful. And come back before noon – I need you to hang the laundry,” Mother said, pinning my hair back with a spirally iron clasp. 

“I will.”

The front door creaked open. I ran outside, my boots stomping on the wet, slimy grass. I didn’t run toward the pond, though. Instead, I ran into town. The ground changed from brownish green weeds to hoof-pounded dirt to cobblestone that clomped too much with the many feet landing on it. Men and women in fine clothing walked and chatted in huddles. A couple of girls who looked about my age were weaving in and out of the swarms of adults. They had long, blonde hair the color of wheat and fine red dresses splattered with brown mud. 

No one looked at me, but I kept my head down anyway. I cut through a narrow alley. The stairs were cracked and scratched, and the walls were close enough together that I had to stretch both my arms out to feel the rough stone. The wet smell of horses faded in the alley. 

Soon, I reached the landing where two alleys converged into a cross. I turned to the right. The walls were too far apart now. Only one of my hands could feel as the stone softened to worn wood. The second too-wide alley dumped me out into an open noisy street. Wonderful smells, fresh flowers, baked bread, and expensive spices from far away filled the market street. Too many people had shoved themselves in between the tall brown houses to get a look at the vendors’ wares.

I climbed over a tall stack of crates to avoid a cluster of haggling shoppers. A tall man with arms like twigs and a wrinkly nose yelled something at me, but I didn’t hear a word he said. I leaped off the crates and landed on all fours beside a table piled high with sticky sweet buns and bread braided like hair. I scooted along the wall until the sweet smells of the market were contaminated with the ugly, rotten stink of meat and blood. 

The butcher’s shop was a tiny replica of the castle. It had big wooden doors with round door knockers the size of my head. Its charcoal stone walls stretched up higher than all the others and were crenelated. An alley snaked around on both sides of the mini-castle. I swiveled on my heel into it and away from the chattering crowds. This sidewall of the butcher’s shop was old and crumbling. Spiky vines crawled up the bricks. I counted the windows. There were five in total, three shuttered and two open. The fourth window was the only one that mattered, though. 

A pile of crumbled stone formed a lumpy staircase to the fourth window. I carefully climbed upward, trying to keep my feet from getting trapped in a dark hole. The stones were wobbly, and I felt like I was walking across a tightrope in a windstorm. I’d seen Ivo climb up these rocks before. He made it look so easy. When I reached the windowsill, I peered through a slit in the blinds. The crunching sound they made at my touch was deafening. The small room was empty, as I had expected. Ivo was downstairs in the shop with his father. 

It wasn’t a bedroom like John had told me. He said that the butcher lived in luxury. I had imagined a huge, silk bed with embroidered drapes and velvet-smooth cushions like the fancy ladies in the castle. This was not that. The room was small. The threadbare, gray bed took up most of the space. The nails in the walls looked like they had been crying reddish rust. A white apron hung from the door. There was a stack of clothes in the corner with a book on top. I frowned. 

The scissors weren’t under the bed or the pile of clothes. They hadn’t been hidden behind the apron or under the loose floorboards. I made my search as quiet as possible. I picked up the little book and tucked it under my skirt. He didn’t deserve it. The scissors just weren’t here. I cautiously pushed the door open. Its hinges creaked horribly loud. This room was bigger than Ivo’s, with an animal skin carpet and a big writing desk. A woman sat in a nice chair beside the desk. She looked up from her sewing in surprise, but her expression soon softened to a welcoming smile. A red-brown tunic was draped over her knees. Her face was warm and round, freckles scattered like stars across her cheeks. Her long, dark hair hung loosely around her shoulders. 

“Are you one of Ivo’s friends?” she asked. Probably reading the horror on my face, she tilted her head to the side and a cascade of dark waves followed. 

“Yes…” I stammered. “Uh, no. I mean, yes.” I panicked. I scanned her up and down, looking for signs of anger. Instead, my eyes caught on something that glinted in the dusty light. A delicate, golden, shimmering thing was laced between her fingers. She had used them to snip the thread. The swan. Mother’s swan. Our swan. 

I pointed at her hands. She looked confused. 

“The – the scissors.”

She held them up. “These?” 

“Yes, yes!” 

“What about them?” 

I wrinkled my nose. 

“Ivo took them from our house!” I yelled, smashing my boot into the wooden boards. “He stole them!”

“Ivo?” She tilted her head some more. “He stole them from you?” 

“Yes!” I stomped again. “I came to get them back!” 

“He said he found them on the street, along with some coins in a little embroidered purse,” Ivo’s mother said. She fingered the tunic’s hem. 

“He is a liar!” I crumpled my hands into fists. 

“No. He lied. There is a difference.” Her tone had grown building-stone rough. Her smile straightened out into a disapproving line, cutting lines under her eyes. “Sit.” She motioned to the wooden bench by the hearth. I sat, but only because her face looked like my mother’s face when she was mad. 

“You don’t believe me, do you?” I crossed my arms into a stiff X.

“I believe you.” 

“Then give me back the scissors!”

“I want you to understand what Ivo must have been thinking when he stole.” 

“I don’t want to understand! I hate him!” 

“What he did was wrong, yes, and he will be punished, but I need you to understand why he did it.” 

“Why?!” I kicked the bench’s leg. 

“He was hurting. So he wanted to pass that hurting along to someone else.” She sucked a breath in through her freckled nose. “My mother, his grandmother, died last week. The plague.” I imagined the curved beak masks and the black cloaks and the smell of wounds and the screams from the tents. I winced. “You may have known her only as the flower seller.” I remembered a warm smile and fresh crimson blooms. “She and Ivo were very close. It, of course, hurt me, as well, to see her pass. I believe that Ivo thought the scissors would make me feel better.”

I was chewing on the pink insides of my cheek, tapping my toe on a loose nail.

“I’m – uh, I’m sorry.” I looked only down. The fiery anger was somehow nothing but thick smoke clogging up my throat. 

“Take them all back.” She handed me the swan and the little bag embroidered with sloppy roses from my unsteady needle. The coins inside jingled merrily. I took them back and clutched them tight under my arm. “You can go,” she said, pointing at the door. A little smile had come back over her round face. 

I walked with my head down to the door. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. 

“I never got your name.”

I turned. She had returned to her sewing in the nice chair, with a pair of dim, gray scissors. 

“Adelaide,” I said. 

“Jacquette.” 

The little book burned through my skirt with every clunk of boot on stone. I ignored the people chattering and didn’t run my hand along the walls of the alley. I helped my mother hang the laundry, clipping lines to the skinny trees. The book still burned. I put it under my too-small bed and tried to forget it was there. I could feel its smoldering warmth against my back at night. 

Ivo was crying. I ducked back into the market swarms, hiding. I felt the book under my bed burn the little cottage down in a blazing bonfire. It still burns me sometimes, but I don’t want to put it out. It will just sit under the too-small bed in the too-small house. I don’t think I could bear touching it. I want to forget it all.

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