It is told, on the underside of leaves and in the shadow of the winds, that once there was a queen who had been a swan. She had lived on old waters and kissed only the tremulous reflection of the moon, before love, sudden and enchanting, made her into a woman. A beautiful, ethereal woman who broke the heart of a king.
It happened like this: a prince went fishing. He had become weary of court life, of jewels and people always bowing, fawning. So he took his horse, his fishing pole, a lunch, and went into the woods for some quiet.
The prince did not really want to catch fish. He was a kind-hearted young man and ate no meat. His true purpose in fishing was to have an excuse for sitting alone in the leafy, shadowy quiet and dreaming. He had the usual dreams for princes: cutting wood out the back of a little cottage, watching fresh-baked bread come out of the oven, drinking beer on the front doorstep while sunset coloured the land like roses, going to bed with a gentle-hearted earth-scented wife who was also his friend.
While he was sitting and dreaming, the swan watched him. He had seen her, smiled at her, but his eyes had gone on looking for rougher things. The poetry in bark, and rocks, and toads. He'd already had enough elegant beauty for a lifetime. The swan, though, fell in love. And her love was transformative, as it always is. In a moment, in a wish, in a flash of determination, she became human.
Never before had there been a more exquisite woman. She could not speak, for she did not know the language, but her round white arms and long pale hair and her eyes filled with deep secrets spoke for her most eloquently. The prince, surprised out of his simple dreams, discovered that there was still room in his heart after all for a little more beauty. But he did not stare; rather, supposing she was some forester's daughter in trouble, he came at once to her rescue. He wrapped her in his cloak, put her on his horse, and took her back to the castle. So that he might help her, you know. Find her parents, that kind of thing. Learn her name. See her safely home.
The swan-woman was quite overcome. She had never ridden a horse, touched a man, been inside a building. She almost immediately missed the water, missed the winds and the quiet. She could not give the prince answers, having no words and, for that matter, no parents or home as he supposed. But it was too late now. She did not know how to become again a swan.
She learned, as women always do, to make the best of things. For at least she had the prince, and her love for him proved real. He came quickly to love her too of course. He loved her round white arms and the fledgling words that shivered from her mouth and took wing to his heart. Soon enough, they were married, and when the prince's father died, the prince became king. And the swan who changed herself to a woman for the sake of love became his enthralling queen.
She never did tell him what she had been. Even when she had the words, she did not know how to begin that conversation.
The prince was a good king, as kind as he'd ever been, but he was not entirely happy. He wished it was homebrewed beer he was drinking instead of the finest wines. He wished he had friends instead of courtiers. And the queen was an adoring wife and thoughtful aid, but she was not altogether happy either. She longed for the glide of water on wing, and the uncertain smile of the moon beneath the lake surface. She wished for song instead of hard-edged human language clattering against her teeth.
One day, after several happy years woven through with secret melancholy, the swan took her king by the hand and they walked to the waters. And at last she told him her story, her love, her sorrow. He kissed her and wished her free. In that moment arms became pinions and feet became webbed. In the next moment she was a bird again beneath his hand. She drifted away singing over the gentle water, and the young king walked home.
It's told in the same story that his heart was forever thereafter broken. He gave away his wines, his velvets and rings, and finally he passed his crown to his younger sister. She became a robust, sensible queen, and the realm flourished. And he went away into silence.
There is another story sometimes told by the foresters and their subtle wives. Down by the waters, a man built a house. Just a simple stone house, with a woodpile out the back and a chimney that smelled of smoke and bread. He lived a regular, hard, fulfilling life, and made friends amongst the forest folk who loved the taste of his beer and the charming kindness of his smile. No one ever met his wife, she was shy they said, but sometimes they glimpsed her in the night, white and graceful, like a wave in the moonlight as she walked into the little house. This man and this woman had a little daughter who sang as purely as the stars, and a little son who saved every hurt animal and every lost bird. They were ordinary people in love with each other and life. And they lived happily, truly happily, until their end.