What do you want? Speak up, when you've caught your breath.
Never mind. I know what you want. You want to hear about the bird marriage. Yes. I'll tell you, since you climbed all the way up here to ask. Not quite sure how you managed that, by the way.
Technically, it's bird marriages. There was more than one. No one seems to remember that.
Let me guess. You want the story of the swans. It's always swans, isn't it? Romantic. Mate for life, don't they? Just so.
The Swan Queen wasn't always the Swan Queen, but she became the Swan Queen, and searched for a mate. One day she found a secret pond in the midst of the darkest, most remote woods, all silver water and stillness. It was just after midwinter, and the thaw hadn't yet begun, and the fresh green of spring had yet to grow. The world was shadows and moss and new potential, waiting to burst from the earth.
So long, she'd been seeking, she was tired in her body, and tired in her heart. She floated on the silver water and wondered if she should simply find a place on the narrow bank, lie down, and allow death to take her.
Three days, she floated on the pond, and three nights she passed in loneliness.
On the third day, she woke up and there he was, a beautiful white swan, proud in his bearing and strong of wing, and he looked at her, and she looked at him, and it was love. In that moment she knew she'd found what she'd sought, and he was her Swan King, and they ruled the bird kingdom for the rest of their lives.
Next you're going to tell me that's too easy. Everyone says that. Oh, if only it could be so easy for me! As if it ever is. It wasn't easy for her. Or for them, in the end.
Let me tell you something about swans. They don't live as long as you'd think. Nor as long as you'd like.
Yes, they had their time, and that was beautiful. But you don't know how hard it was for her. This was just the end of her story, finding her King. Happily ever after.
I know what you want to hear. You want to know how she did it. How she made it all happen.
If you want to get really technical about it, yeah. There was a spell.
I'm not going to tell you the spell. Everyone asks and I never tell. I will say it involves items you would not expect. Candy hearts. Easter eggs, dyed in particular colors. Lots and lots of birdseed. But it's all in the incantation, and it's not very likely you'll find that.
Oh. You found it, did you? Well, before you use it, you should know it doesn't do what you think. Or at least, not in the way that you think.
First of all, she didn't become a swan right away. Before she was the Swan Queen, she was the Owl Wife, and believe me, you don't want to hear about that one, but I'll tell you anyway.
Owls are supposed to be wise. It seemed like a good idea to become one. That's all you need to know about why.
When the Owl Wife became the Owl Wife, she was really burned out on relationships. You'll understand when I tell you about the first bird marriage, which you really need to hear about if you're thinking of using that spell.
Before she was the Owl Wife, the Owl Wife thought that owls were largely solitary creatures, silent hunters in the night. She assumed that maybe they got together on a casual basis to make little owls, but she expected her life to be one of majestic night flights and not being bothered by anyone else.
At first, it seemed she was right. She flew through the dark each night, a hunting shadow. She ate and grew strong. She found a barn in which to roost. She kept herself to herself. She was whole. She was well.
The days spent sleeping in the barn were long and lonely, though. Soon, at night, the company of the moon was no longer enough.
One day she woke up and he was there. Another owl.
Let me tell you something about owls. They can be really loud. After a night of majestic gliding with the moon and majestic hunting, they fly back to their barns and in a dull stupor they cough and gag and regurgitate bones and fur all over the place.
And when they mate, well. It's out of some desperation that takes them over. The moon turned in the sky and the seasons changed and the next thing the Owl Wife knew, she was spinning off into some darkened field, except to her, with her owl vision, it wasn't dark at all. It was brilliant. It was a spectral rainbow landscape where she could hear every sound as if she were seeing it and feel every feather of her warm body caressed by the wind she generated as she glided and felt him beside her.
Or so I've been told.
Then she woke up in the morning and he was there, regurgitating onto the barn floor, and she thought about how she was going to have to listen to that sound for the rest of her life.
And so she left and later on became the Swan Queen. The end.
Oh, you heard different, did you?
Yes, okay. He disappeared. One night she came back from hunting and he was just gone.
Yeah, you're right. That isn't quite true either.
I don't know how you know as much as you do, but okay. She came back from hunting and there were feathers and blood all over the barn floor. A possum, probably. They do kill owls.
She wished, for a while, that it had killed her instead. But it didn't. So she mourned. She thought about the Owl Husband and she missed him. After a time, she was left with a kind of dull ache, and a need to do something else.
The thing she learned from being the Owl Wife was that she could love, and it could be wonderful. So you see, by the time she became the Swan Queen, she'd been through enough. Or I should say, a lot. There's always more you can go through.
But that explains some of it, doesn't it? You look at the Swan Queen and you think, what's the point of this story? It's too easy!
It's never easy.
Maybe you think love came to her because she used that spell. So it was always a guarantee, from the beginning. That spell, it's a funny one. I'm guessing you think it's a love spell, because it says "Valentinus" at the top? You think you're calling on some Roman martyr, who sacrificed it all in the name of uniting lovers?
There's more than one Saint Valentine. Some of them were never even human. You know how this goes. There's a tradition, a spirit, a shadow of the woods, a--what would they call it these days? an energy? It's been there since the beginning of time, and people have always known it. Then the church comes along, and people give it a new name.
You do that spell, that's what you're summoning. One of its names is Valentinus, but it surely has other ones. It makes the plants grow in the spring, or so they say. And it helps the birds find their mates.
You call that love? Well, I suppose it is a kind of love. Not exactly what the Owl Wife had in mind, before she was the Owl Wife.
If I tell you that part, I might as well tell you about the first bird marriage. Yes, you'll have to hear the whole thing.
First, there was the spell, with the candy hearts and the colored eggs in their basket, nestled on real grass. And fire. And the incantation. The very one you have there.
And yes, she was expecting a thing shaped like a man. Why wouldn't she? A benevolent Saint figure, a midwinter Santa Claus.
But it was a shadow, like the shadows of trees shifting in the wild winds of spring, before the weather turns warm. Birds followed it. Yes, right into her room. They ate the candy hearts and they broke the eggs with their beaks and claws and they roosted in the curtains and they crapped all over the living room, which is when she realized she should have followed the directions and done the ritual outside.
The shadow asked her what she wanted, and she told it she was lonely. The next thing she knew, she was the Parakeet Girl.
When the woman, who was alone and tired of it, became a parakeet, she belonged to an elderly lady and lived in a cage. It was a really nice cage. Roomy. There was a bell and a mirror. She talked at the mirror. For a while, she thought maybe the image in the mirror was talking back. Parakeets are a bit limited in their cognitive powers.
Sometimes, the lady let her out of the cage. The Parakeet Girl flew around the room, exercising her wings, which were still strange to her. She pretended the woman was a tree. When she landed in her white hair, her feet got caught in it.
She had an idea, that it wasn't quite supposed to be that way. She remembered a shadow, and telling the shadow that she was lonely, and that she needed company. She needed love. A lot of it. Those memories were dull, and seemed far away.
One day, another parakeet appeared. He had beautiful blue feathers and a white face. He squawked at her and whistled. She bobbed her head and whistled back.
Sometimes he groomed her, combing her feathers with his beak. Sometimes, when the elderly lady wasn't there to spritz them with a spray bottle, they had very brief naughty fun times together.
The Parakeet Girl wasn't lonely.
Then another parakeet came. And another. And some more, until she couldn't count how many of them there were. They got a bigger cage. Everyone chattered and groomed and paired off and squabbled. Happy fun times abounded. There were nests and eggs and babies. Sometimes she was pretty certain she was making out with the mirror, but it didn't matter. It was fine.
Everyone groomed everyone and everyone was friendly and the cage was loud with boisterous voices and even the night hours were full of soft cheeping. It never stopped, the grooming and fun times and endless ritual greetings.
There was, in fact, no getting away from it. The Parakeet Girl took bad naps in the middle of the day. All her dreams were haunted by the sounds of screeching.
She began to realize that being alone wasn't the worst thing in the world. In fact, the dim part of her that still remembered being alone began to long for it. Not in the human world. She'd done that. And she really enjoyed flying. But the perpetual orgy of contact and social time and the constant need to chatter was way too much.
So she waited until it was her turn for exercise. The woman always let a few of them out at a time. The Parakeet Girl hid in the curtains. She waited until the woman left a window open, and out she flew.
The shadow was waiting for her, moving with a sound like the rustling of trees in the night. When she wanted to become an Owl Wife, it helped her do just that. Later, when she wanted to love again, it turned her into the Swan Queen.
The shadow always seemed to wait for her. When she needed it, it was there. Even through the last change, after the Swan King died.
She hasn't seen it since. Sometimes she wonders if she hears it, but since it sounds like the wind in the trees, it's easy to be mistaken.
You probably want to know what happened to her, in the end. After the Swan King, she thought she might have the strength to be human again. She isn't as afraid of being alone as she once was.
Yes, well, you could say it all worked out, after a fashion. Which is probably the best one can really expect.
Look, friend, I'm saying the spell is not what you think. It isn't entirely bad. If you do the incantation, you call something that isn't quite Saint Valentine, although that is one of its names. And I can tell you, its heart, because I know it has one, is generous.
Oh. You used the spell already? But you look just like a regular person, and not at all like a bird, so I'm guessing it didn't work for you. And somehow you found out who I was and where I am.
Yes well, it is a bit obvious that I'm her, isn't it? Who else would care about the bird marriages? Who else would know those stories?
What do you mean, look closer? All right. I'm looking.
Your eyes. I see now. The shadows haven't gone out of them. And there is a sound when you speak. Ah! Like the shifting of the wind in trees.
You came here for me. Well. After all this time. Oh. Those are strong words for someone who is just newly human. I didn't think you could feel things that way.
It's not that I'm not happy. And it isn't that I could never feel that way about you. It's just that people aren't birds. Our hearts take time. You'll see what I mean.
Oh no, please don't cry. If I know anything, I know about big changes and how hard they can be. You'll need time. Lots of it. And you'll need some help, and that's okay. You helped me. You were always there to help me. No don't say that. It was help. You didn't break me. See? I'm here.
Stay. There's plenty of room. There's tea. We can sit, and talk. Just like this.
Tell me about what happens when you summon yourself and ask yourself for a favor. I see. Anything you wish? Well, that sounds grand. I suppose becoming human is a fine choice, if that's your thing.
What will the birds do, if you're not there to find them mates? What will the plants of spring do, if you're not there to teach them how to grow?
You're right. They probably do know how to do those things on their own.
Elizabeth Twist is a speculative fiction writer living in Hamilton, Ontario. Her short fiction has appeared in Dark Faith: Invocations, Suction Cup Dreams, Enchanted Conversation, and is collected in Six by Twist, available on Amazon. A story by Elizabeth also appeared in the anthology Krampusnacht. She blogs about fiction and weirdness at elizabethtwist.com.