The Wild Swans

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Wild swans flying

Far away, in the land to which the swallows fly when it is winter, lived a king who had eleven sons, and one daughter, named Eliza.

The eleven brothers were princes, and each went to school with a star on his breast and a sword by his side. They wrote with diamond pencils on golden slates and learned their lessons so quickly and read so easily that every one knew they were princes. Their sister Eliza sat on a little stool of glass and had a book full of pictures, which had cost as much as half a kingdom.

These children were happy, but they were not long to remain so, for their father, the king, married a queen who did not love the children, and who proved to be a wicked witch.

The queen began to show her unkindness the very first day. While the great celebrations were taking place in the palace, the children played at greeting guests, but the queen, instead of sending them the cakes and apples that were left from the feast, as was usual, gave them some sand in a teacup and told them to pretend it was something good. The next week she sent the little Eliza into the country to a live with a poor man and his wife. Then she told the king so many untrue things about the young princes that he gave himself no more trouble about them.

“Go out into the world and look after yourselves,” said the queen. “Fly like great birds without a voice.” But she could not make it so bad for them as she would have liked, for they were turned into eleven beautiful wild swans.

With a strange cry, they flew through the windows of the palace, over the park, to the forest beyond. It was still early morning when they passed the cottage where their sister lay asleep in her room. They stopped over the roof, twisting their long necks and flapping their wings, but no one heard them or saw them, so they at last flew away, high up in the clouds, and over the wide world they sped till they came to a thick, dark wood, which stretched far away to the seashore.

Poor little Eliza was alone in the peasant’s room playing with a green leaf, for she had no other toys. She made a hole in the leaf, and when she looked through it at the sun she seemed to see her brothers’ clear eyes, and when the warm sun shone on her cheeks she thought of all the kisses they had given her.

One day passed just like another. Sometimes the winds rustled through the leaves of the rosebush and whispered to the roses, “Who can be more beautiful and kind than you?” And the roses would shake their heads and say, “Eliza is.” And the roses told the truth.

When she was fifteen she returned home, but because she was so beautiful the witch-queen became full of hatred toward her. Willingly would she have turned her into a swan like her brothers, but she did not dare to do so for fear of the king.

Early one morning the queen went into her bathroom, which was all marble and soft cushions. She took three toads with her, and kissed them, saying to the first, “When Eliza comes to take a bath seat yourself upon her head, that she may become as stupid as you are.” To the second toad she said, “Place yourself on her forehead, that she may become as ugly as you are, and that her friends may not know her.” “Rest on her heart,” she whispered to the third; “then she will have become evil and suffer.” So she put the toads into the clear water, which at once turned green. She next called Eliza and helped her undress and get into the bath.

As Eliza dipped her head under the water one of the toads sat on her hair, a second on her forehead, and a third on her breast. But she did not seem to notice them, and when she rose from the water there were three red poppies floating in it. They had become flowers, because they had rested on Eliza’s head and on her heart. She was too good and too innocent for magic to have any power over her.

When the wicked queen saw this, she rubbed Eliza’s face with a magic juice, then she tangled her beautiful hair and smeared it with disgusting oils until it was quite impossible to recognize her.

The king was shocked, and said she was not his daughter. No one but the dog and the swallows knew her, and they were only poor animals and could say nothing. Then poor Eliza wept and thought of her eleven brothers who were far away. With great sadness she left the palace and walked the whole day over fields and moors, till she came to the great forest. She didn’t know which direction to go, but she was so unhappy and missed her brothers so much, who, like herself, had been banished out into the world, that she was determined to look for them.

She had been in the wood only a short time when night came on and she quite lost the path, so she laid herself down on the soft moss, offered up her evening prayer, and leaned her head against the stump of a tree. All nature was silent, and the soft breeze cooled her forehead.

All night long she dreamed of her brothers. She thought they were all children again, playing together. She saw them writing with their diamond pencils on golden slates, while she looked at the beautiful picture book which had cost half a kingdom. They were not writing lines and letters, as they used to do, but descriptions of the great things they had done and of all that they had discovered and seen. In the picture book, too, everything was living. The birds sang, and the people came out of the book and spoke to Eliza and her brothers, but as the pages turned they jumped back into their place in it.

When she awoke, the sun was high in the sky. She could not see it, for the tall trees spread their branches thickly overhead, but its light here and there shone through the leaves like a golden mist. There was a sweet smell from the fresh green growth and the birds came near and almost landed on her shoulders. She heard water rippling from a number of streams, all flowing into a lake with golden sands. Bushes grew thickly round the lake, and at one spot, where an opening had been made by a deer, Eliza went down to the water, which was clear and reflected like a mirror.

When Eliza saw her own face and hair she was quite terrified at finding it so ugly, but after she had wet her little hand and rubbed her eyes and forehead, the normal skin showed once more. When she had undressed and dipped herself in the fresh water, a more beautiful king’s daughter could not have been found anywhere in the wide world.

As soon as she had dressed herself again and tied up her long hair, she went to the bubbling stream and drank some water out of her hand. Then she wandered far into the forest, not knowing where she was going. She thought of her brothers and of her father and mother and felt sure that something good would happen. Sure enough, she found a tree, which was so loaded with fruit that the branches bent beneath the weight. Here she ate her fill, and then went further into the forest.

It was so quiet that she could hear the sound of her own footsteps, as well as the rustling of every fallen leaf which she crushed under her feet. There wasn’t a bird to be seen and no light could find it’s way in through the thick trees all closely packed together.

The night was very dark. With great sorrow, Eliza lay down to sleep. After a while it seemed to her as if the branches of the trees parted over her head and the mild eyes of angels looked down from above.

In the morning, when she woke up, she knew not whether this had really been so or whether she had dreamed it. She continued her wandering, but she had not gone far when she met an old woman who had berries in her basket and who gave her a few to eat. Eliza asked her if she had not seen eleven princes riding through the forest.

“No,” replied the old woman, “but I saw yesterday eleven swans with gold crowns on their heads, swimming in the river close by.” Then she led Eliza a little distance to a river bank.

Eliza bade the old woman farewell and walked by the flowing river till she reached the shore of the open sea. And there, before her eyes, lay the glorious ocean, but not a sail appeared on its surface; not even a boat could be seen. How was she to go any further? She noticed how the countless pebbles on the shore had been smoothed and rounded by the the water. Glass, iron, stones, everything that lay there mingled together, had been shaped by the water also until they were as smooth as her own delicate hand.

“The water rolls on without getting tired,” she said, “until all that is hard becomes smooth, so I will never get tired of my task. Thanks for your lesson, bright rolling waves, my heart tells me you will one day lead me to my dear brothers.”

Eliza speaking to the old women in the forest

On the foam-covered seaweed lay eleven white swan feathers, which she picked up and carried with her. Drops of water lay upon them; whether they were dewdrops or tears no one could say. It was lonely on the seashore, but Eliza was distracted, as the ever-moving sea showed more changes in a few hours than any lake could in a whole year. When a black, heavy cloud rose up, it was as if the sea said, “I can look dark and angry too.” Then the wind blew, and the waves turned to white foam as they rolled. When the wind slept and the clouds glowed with the red sunset, the sea looked like a rose leaf. Sometimes it became green and sometimes white. But, however quietly it lay, the waves were always restless on the shore and rose and fell like the breathing of a sleeping child.

When the sun was about to set, Eliza saw eleven white swans, with golden crowns on their heads, flying toward the land, one behind the other, like a long white ribbon. She went down the slope from the shore and hid herself behind the bushes. The swans landed quite close to her, flapping their great white wings. As soon as the sun had disappeared under the water, the feathers of the swans fell off and eleven beautiful princes, Eliza’s brothers, stood near her.

She uttered a loud cry, for, although they were very much changed, she knew them immediately. She sprang into their arms and called them each by name. The princes were very happy to see their little sister again. They knew her, although she had grown so tall and beautiful. They laughed and wept and told each other how cruelly they had been treated by their stepmother.

“We brothers,” said the eldest, “fly about as wild swans while the sun is in the sky, but as soon as it sinks behind the hills we turn human again. Therefore we must always be near a resting place before sunset, for if we were flying toward the clouds when we recovered our human form, we would drop into the sea.”

“We do not live here, but in a land just as lovely that lies far across the ocean. It’s a long way and there is no island where we can sleep the night—nothing but a little rock that we can barely stay on together. If the sea is rough, the waves crash over us, yet we are so thankful for this rock. We have spent whole nights upon it, or else we would never have reached our beloved home land, for our flight across the sea takes two of the longest days in the year.

“We have permission to visit our home once every year and to remain eleven days. Then we fly across the forest to look once more at the palace where our father lives and where we were born, and at the place where mother lies. The very trees and bushes here seem related to us. The wild horses leap over the plains as we have seen them in our childhood. The workers sing the old songs we danced to as children. This is our home and we love to come back here and here we have found you, our dear little sister. Two days longer we can remain here, and then we must fly away to a beautiful land which is not our home. How can we take you with us? We don’t have a ship nor boat.”

“How can I break this spell?” asked the sister. And they talked about it nearly the whole night, sleeping only a few hours.

Eliza was awakened by the rustling of the wings of swans rising above her. Her brothers were again changed to swans. They flew in circles, wider and wider, till they were far away, but one of them, the youngest, stayed behind and lay his head in his sister’s lap, while she stroked his wings. They remained together the whole day.

Towards evening the rest came back, and as the sun went down they turned human again. “To-morrow,” said one, “we shall fly away, not to return again till a whole year has passed. But we cannot leave you here. Are you brave enough to go with us? My arm is strong enough to carry you through the wood, and will not all our wings be strong enough to carry you over the sea?”

“Yes, take me with you,” said Eliza. They spent the whole night in weaving a large, strong net of willow and rushes. On this Eliza lay herself down to sleep, and when the sun rose and her brothers again became wild swans, they took up the net with their beaks, and flew up to the clouds with their dear sister, who still slept. When the sunbeams fell on her face, one of the swans soared over her head so that his wide wings might shade her.

They were far from the land when Eliza awoke. She thought she must still be dreaming, it seemed so strange to feel herself being carried high in the air over the sea. By her side lay a branch full of beautiful ripe berries and a bundle of delicious roots. The youngest of her brothers had gathered them and placed them there. She smiled her thanks to him, she knew it was the same one that was hovering over her to shade her with his wings. They were now so high that a large ship beneath them looked like a white sea gull skimming the waves. A great cloud floating behind them appeared like a huge mountain and on it Eliza saw her own shadow and those of the eleven swans, like gigantic flying things. Altogether it formed a more beautiful picture than she had ever before seen, but as the sun rose higher and the clouds were left behind, the picture vanished.

Onward the whole day they flew through the air, yet more slowly than usual, for they had their sister to carry. The weather grew threatening, and Eliza watched the sinking sun with great worry, for the little rock in the ocean was not yet in sight. It seemed to her as if the swans were working as hard as they could. She worried that she was the causing them to go slower than normal. When the sun set they would change to men, fall into the sea, and be drowned.

Then she offered a prayer from her inmost heart, but still no rock appeared. Dark clouds came nearer, the gusts of wind told of the coming storm, while from a thick, heavy mass of clouds the lightning burst forth, flash after flash. The sun had reached the edge of the sea, when the swans darted down so swiftly that Eliza’s heart trembled. She believed they were falling, but they again flew up and onwards.

Just then, and by this time the sun was half hidden by the waves, she caught sight of the rock just below them. It did not look larger than a seal’s head stuck out of the water. The sun sank so rapidly that at the moment their feet touched the rock it shone only like a star, and at last disappeared like the dying spark in a piece of burnt paper. Her brothers stood close around her with arms linked together, for there was not the smallest space to spare. The sea dashed against the rock and covered them with spray. The sky lit up with flashes of lightning, and thunder rolled from the clouds. But the sister and brothers stood holding each other’s hands, and singing songs.

In the early dawn the air became calm and still, and at sunrise the swans flew away from the rock, carrying their sister with them. The sea was still rough, and from their great height the white foam on the dark-green waves looked like millions of swans swimming on the water. As the sun rose higher, Eliza saw before her, floating in the air, a range of mountains covered with ice and snow. In the center rose a castle that seemed a mile long, while around it palm trees waved and huge flowers bloomed. She asked if this was the land they were going to. The swans shook their heads, for what she saw were the beautiful, ever-changing cloud-palaces of Fata Morgana, into which no mortal can enter.

Eliza was still gazing at the scene, when the mountains, forests, and castles passed away behind them, and twenty churches rose in their place, with high towers and pointed windows. She even fancied she could hear organ music, but it was the music of the murmuring sea. As they drew nearer to the churches, these too were changed and became a fleet of ships, which seemed to be sailing beneath her, but when she looked again she saw only a sea mist gliding over the ocean.

One scene changed into another, until at last she saw the real land to which they were heading, with its blue mountains, its forests, and its cities and palaces. Long before the sun went down she was sitting on a rock in front of a large cave, the floor of which was overgrown with delicate green plants, like a carpet.

“Now we shall expect to hear what you dream of tonight,” said the youngest brother, as he showed his sister her bedroom.

“I hope I may dream how to release you from the spell!” she replied. And this thought took such hold upon her mind that she prayed for help, and even in her sleep she continued to pray. Then it seemed to her that she was flying high in the air toward the cloudy palace of Fata Morgana, and that a fairy came out to meet her, radiant and beautiful, yet much like the old woman who had given her berries in the wood, and who had told her of the swans with golden crowns on their heads.

“If you are brave and strong, your brothers can be released,” said she, “Water is softer than your own delicate hands and yet it polishes and shapes stones. But it feels no pain such as your fingers will feel. It has no soul and cannot suffer such agony and torment as you will have to endure. Do you see the stinging nettle which I hold in my hand? The same sort grow round the cave in which you sleep, but only these, and those that grow on the graves of a churchyard, will be of any use to you. These you must gather, even while they burn blisters on your hands. Break them to pieces with your hands and feet and they will become material for weaving. From this you must spin and weave eleven coats with long sleeves. If these are then thrown over the eleven swans, the spell will be broken. But remember well, that from the moment you start your task until it is finished, even though it occupy years of your life, you must not speak. If you speak then your brothers will immediately die. Their lives hang upon your tongue. Remember all that I have told you.”

And as she finished speaking, she touched Eliza’s hand lightly with the nettle, and a pain as of burning fire awoke her.

It was daylight, and near her lay a nettle like the one she had seen in her dream. She fell on her knees and offered thanks for the dream. Then she went forth from the cave to begin work with her delicate hands. She groped in amongst the ugly nettles, which burned great blisters on her hands and arms, but she determined to bear the pain gladly if she could only release her dear brothers. So she bruised the nettles with her bare feet and spun it into the material from the dream.

At sunset her brothers returned and very frightened when she did not speak. They believed her to be under the spell of some new witchcraft, but when they saw her hands they understood what she was doing in their behalf. The youngest brother wept, and where his tears touched her the pain stopped and the burning blisters vanished. Eliza kept to her work all night, for she could not rest till she had released her brothers. During the whole of the following day, while her brothers were absent, she sat alone, but never before had the time flown so quickly.

One coat was already finished and she had begun the second, when she heard a huntsman’s horn and was taken with fear. As the sound came nearer and nearer, she also heard dogs barking, and fled into the cave. She hastily tied together all the nettles she had collected and sat on them. In a moment there came bouncing toward a big dog, and then another and another; they ran back and forth barking furiously, until in a few minutes all the huntsmen stood before the cave. The handsomest of them was the king of the country, who, when he saw the beautiful maiden, came toward her, saying, “How did you come here, my sweet child?”

Eliza shook her head. She dared not speak, for it would mean the spell would not be broken and cost her brothers their lives. And she hid her hands under her apron, so that the king might not see how she was suffering.

“Come with me,” he said; “you cannot stay here. If you are as good as you are beautiful, I will dress you in silk and velvet, I will place a golden crown on your head, and you shall rule and make your home in my richest castle.” Then he lifted her onto his horse. She wept and wrung her hands, but the king said: “I wish only your happiness. A time will come when you will thank me for this.”

He galloped away over the mountains, holding her in front of him on his horse, and the hunters followed behind. As the sun went down they came to a beautiful, royal city. On arriving at the castle, the king led her into marble halls, with large fountains and where the walls and the ceilings were covered with rich paintings. But she had no eyes for all these glorious sights, she could cry her eyes out. Patiently she allowed the women to dress her in royal clothes, to weave pearls in her hair, and to put soft gloves over her sore fingers. As she stood wearing her rich dress, she looked so amazingly beautiful that the court bowed down in her presence.

Then the king said he wanted to marry her, but the bishop shook his head and whispered that the fair young maiden was only a witch, who had blinded the king and trapped his heart. The king would not listen to him, however, and ordered the music to sound, the tastiest dishes to be served, and the loveliest maidens to dance for them.

Afterwards he led her through lovely-smelling gardens and high halls, but not a smile appeared on her lips or sparkled in her eyes. She looked the very picture of sadness. Then the king opened the door of a little bedroom where she was to sleep. It was decorated richly and was like the cave he had found her. On the floor lay the bundle she had spun from the nettles, and under the ceiling hung the coat she had made. These things had been brought away from the cave by one of the huntsmen.

“Here you can dream yourself back again in the old home in the cave,” said the king. “Here is the work with which you kept busy. It will amuse you now, living in the splendour of the palace, to think of that time.”

When Eliza saw all these things which lay so near her heart, she smiled and her cheeks turned red. The thought of her brothers and their release made her so joyful that she kissed the king’s hand. Then he pressed her to his heart.

Very soon the joyous church bells announced the marriage feast. The beautiful dumb girl of the woods was to be made queen of the country. A single word would cost her brothers their lives, but she loved the kind, handsome king, who did everything to make her happy, more and more each day. She loved him with her whole heart and her eyes beamed with the love she dared not speak. Oh! if she could only confide in him and tell him of her sadness. But she could not speak until her job was finished.

Therefore at night she crept away into her little bedroom chamber which had been made to look like the cave and quickly wove one coat after another. But when she began the seventh, she found she had run out of the nettle material. She knew that the nettles she wanted to use grew in the churchyard and that she must pluck them herself. How would she get out there? “Who cares about nettle stings compared to the pain in my heart?” she thought to herself. “I must try to do it.”

Then with a trembling heart, Eliza crept into the garden in the moonlight, and passed through the narrow walks and the deserted streets till she reached the churchyard. She prayed silently, gathered the burning nettles and carried them home with her to the castle.

One person only had seen her, and that was the bishop – he was awake while others slept. Now he felt sure that his suspicions were correct, all was not right with the queen. He thought she was a witch and had bewitched the king and all the people. Secretly he told the king what he had seen and what he feared.

Two tears rolled down the king’s cheeks. He went home with doubt in his heart, and at night pretended to sleep. But no real sleep came to his eyes, for every night he saw Eliza get up and disappear from her chamber. Day by day his brow became darker, and Eliza saw it, and although she did not understand the reason, it alarmed her and made her heart tremble for her brothers.

In the meantime she had almost finished the job, only one of her brothers’ coats was left, but she had no nettle material left. Once more only, and for the last time, she had to go back to the churchyard and pick a few handfuls. She went, and the king and the bishop followed her. The king turned away his head and said, “The bishop must be right, she must be a witch. Let the people decide her punishment.” They quickly decided she was to come to her end at the stake.

Away from the royal halls she was led to a dark cell, where the wind whistled through the iron bars. Instead of the velvet and silk dresses, they gave her the ten coats which she had made, to cover her, and the bundle of nettles for a pillow. But they could have given her nothing that would have pleased her more. She continued her task with joy and prayed for help, while the street boys sang jeering songs about her and nobody comforted her with a kind word.

Toward evening she heard at the bars of her prison the flutter of a swan’s wing, it was her youngest brother. He had found his sister, and she cried for joy, although she knew that probably this was the last night she had to live. Still, she had hope, for her job was almost finished and her brothers had come.

Then the bishop arrived, to be with her during her last hours as he had promised the king. She shook her head and begged him, by looks and gestures, not to stay, for in this night she knew she must finish her job, otherwise all her pain and tears and sleepless nights would have been no use. The bishop withdrew, complaining about her, but she knew that she was innocent and continued her work through the night.

Little mice ran about the floor, dragging the nettles to her feet, to help as much as they could. A bird, sitting outside the bars of the window, sang to her the whole night long as sweetly as possible, to keep up her spirits.

It was still at least an hour before sunrise, when the eleven brothers stood at the castle gate and demanded to be brought before the king. They were told it could not be allowed,  it was still night, the king was asleep and could not be disturbed. They made lots of noise and complained and kept shouting until the guard appeared, and even the king himself, came asking what all the noise was about. But it was too late. At this moment the sun rose and the eleven brothers were seen no more, but eleven wild swans flew away over the castle.

Now all the people came from the city to see the witch burned. They put her on a cart pulled by an old horse and she was dressed in an old sack. Her lovely hair hung loose on her shoulders, her cheeks were white, her lips moved silently while her fingers still worked at the weaving. Even on the way to death she would not give up her task. The ten finished coats lay at her feet; she was working hard at the eleventh, while the crowd jeered her and said: “See the witch, how she speaks to herself! She doesn’t even pray, she sits there doing evil witchcraft with whatever she is making. Let’s tear it all up!”

Eliza works on the last coat in executioner's cart

They came toward her and no doubt would have destroyed the coats had not, at that moment, eleven wild swans flown over her and landed on the cart. They flapped their large wings, and the crowd pulled back in alarm.

“It is a sign from Heaven that she is innocent,” whispered many of them, but they did not say it out loud.

As the executioner grabbed her by the hand to lift her out of the cart, she quickly threw the eleven coats over the eleven swans, and they immediately became eleven handsome princes, but the youngest had a swan’s wing instead of an arm, for she had not been able to finish the last sleeve of the coat.

“Now I can speak,” she shouted. “I am innocent.”

Then the people, who saw what had happened, bowed to her like she was a saint, but she sank unconscious in her brothers’ arms, so exhausted she was from all the pain and worry.

“Yes, she is innocent,” said the eldest brother, and told everyone everything that had taken place. While he spoke, the beautiful smell of a million roses appeared. Every branch in the pile made to burn her had taken root, and grew branches until it became a thick hedge, large and high, covered with roses, while on top of it bloomed a white, shining flower that glittered like a star. This flower the king plucked, and when he placed on Eliza she woke up with peace and happiness in her heart. Then all the church bells rang of themselves, and the birds came in great flocks. And then a marriage parade, such as nobody had ever before seen, returned to the castle, where the king and Eliza lived in happiness for the rest of their lives.

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- Total nr. of readings: 32,241 Copyright © The author [2020] All Rights Reserved. This story may not be reproduced without the express written permission of the author except for personal use.

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