Thunder, wind, and waves. You in your cradle. You’ve never heard these noises before and they are making you cry.
Here, child. Let me wrap you in a blanket and my arms, take you to the big chair by the fire, and tell you a story. My father’s too old and deaf to hear and you too young to understand. If you were older or he younger, I couldn’t tell it, this story so dangerous that tomorrow, I must forget it entirely and make up another.
But a story never told is also a danger, particularly to the people in it. So here, tonight, while I remember.
It starts with a girl named Maura, which is my name, too.
In the winter, Maura lives by the sea. In the summer, she doesn’t. In the summer, she and her father rent two shabby rooms inland and she walks every morning to the coast, where she spends the day washing and changing bedding, sweeping the sand off the floors, scouring and dusting. She does this for many summer visitors, including the ones who live in her house. Her father works at a big hotel on the point. He wears a blue uniform, opens the heavy front door for guests and closes it behind them. At night, Maura and her father walk on tired feet back to their rooms. Sometimes it’s hard for Maura to remember that this was ever different.
But when she was little, she lived by the sea in all seasons. It was a lonely coast then, a place of rocky cliffs, forests, wild winds, and beaches of coarse sand. Maura could play from morning to night and never see another person, only gulls and dolphins and seals. Her father was a fisherman.
Then a doctor who lived in the capital began to recommend the sea air to his wealthy patients. A businessman built the hotel and shipped in finer sand. Pleasure boats with colored sails filled the fishing berths. The coast became fashionable, though nothing could be done about the winds.
One day the landlord came to tell Maura’s father that he’d rented out their home to a wealthy friend. It was just for two weeks and for so much money, he could only say yes. The landlord said it would happen this once, and they could move right back when the two weeks were over.
But the next year he took it for the entire summer and then for every summer after that. The winter rent was also raised.
Maura’s mother was still alive then. Maura’s mother loved their house by the ocean. The inland summers made her pale and thin. She sat for hours at the window watching the sky for the southward migrations, the turn of the season. Sometimes she cried and couldn’t say why.
Even when winter came, she was unhappy. She felt the lingering presence of the summer guests, their sorrows and troubles as chilled spaces she passed through in the halls and doorways. When she sat in her chair, the back of her neck was always cold; her fingers fretted and she couldn’t stay still.
But Maura liked the bits of clues the summer people left behind—a strange spoon in a drawer, a half-eaten jar of jam on a shelf, the ashes of papers in the fireplace. She made up stories from them of different lives in different places. Lives worthy of stories.
The summer people brought gossip from the court and tales from even farther away. A woman had grown a pumpkin as big as a carriage in her garden, hollowed it out, and slept there, which for some reason couldn’t be allowed so now there was a law against sleeping in pumpkins. A new country had been found where the people had hair all over their bodies and ran about on their hands and feet like dogs, but were very musical. A child had been born in the east who could look at anyone and know how they would die, which frightened his neighbors so much, they’d killed him, as he’d always known they would. A new island had risen in the south, made of something too solid to be water and too liquid to be earth. The king had a son.
The summer Maura turned nine years old, her mother was all bone and eyes and bloody coughing. One night, her mother came to her bed and kissed her. “Keep warm,” she whispered, in a voice so soft Maura was never certain she hadn’t dreamed it. Then Maura’s mother walked from the boarding house in her nightgown and was never seen again. Now it was Maura’s father who grew thin and pale.
One year later, he returned from the beach in great excitement. He’d heard her mother’s voice in the surf. She’d said she was happy now, repeated it in every wave. He began to tell Maura bedtime stories in which her mother lived in underwater palaces and ate off golden clamshells. Sometimes in these stories her mother was a fish. Sometimes a seal. Sometimes a woman. He watched Maura closely for signs of her mother’s afflictions. But Maura was her father’s daughter, able to travel in her mind and stay put in her body.
Years passed. One summer day, a group of young men arrived while Maura was still cleaning the seaside house. They stepped into the kitchen, threw their bags onto the floor, and raced each other down to the water. Maura didn’t know that one had stayed behind until he spoke. “Which is your room?” he asked her. He had hair the color of sand.
She took him to her bedroom with its whitewashed walls, feather-filled pillows, window of buckled glass. He put his arms around her, breath in her ear. “I’ll be in your bed tonight,” he said. And then he released her and she left, her blood passing though her veins so quickly, she was never sure which she had wanted more, to be held or let go.
More years. The capital became a place where books and heretics were burned. The king died and his son became king, but he was a young king and it was really the archbishop who ruled. The pleasure-loving summer people said little about this or anything else. Even on the coast, they feared the archbishop’s spies.
A man Maura might have married wed a summer girl instead. Maura’s father grew old and hard of hearing, though if you looked him straight in the face when you spoke, he understood you well enough. If Maura minded seeing her former suitor walking along the cliffs with his wife and children, if her father minded no longer being able to hear her mother’s voice in the waves, they never said so to each other.
The hotel had let her father go at the end of the last summer. They were very sorry, they told Maura, since he’d worked there so long. But guests had been complaining that they had to shout to make him hear, and he seemed with age to have sunk into a general confusion. Addled, they said.
Without his earnings, Maura and her father wouldn’t make the winter rent. They had this one more winter and then would never live by the sea again. It was another thing they didn’t say to each other. Possibly her father didn’t know.
One morning, Maura realized that she was older than her mother had been on the night she’d disappeared. She realized that it had been many years since anyone had wondered aloud in her presence why such a pretty young girl wasn’t married.
To shake off the sadness of these thoughts, she went for a walk along the cliffs. The wind was bitter and whipped the ends of her hair against her cheeks so hard they stung. She was about to go back, when she saw a man wrapped in a great black cape. He stood without moving, staring down at the water and the rocks. He was so close to the cliff edge, Maura was afraid he meant to jump.
There now, child. This is the wrong time to go to sleep. Maura is about to fall in love.
Maura walked toward the man, carefully so as not to startle him. She reached out to touch him, then took hold of his arm through the thick cape. He didn’t respond. When she turned him from the cliff, his eyes were empty, his face like glass. He was younger than she’d thought. He was many years younger than she.
“Come away from the edge,” she told him and still he gave no sign of hearing, but allowed himself to be led, step by slow step, back to the house.
“Where did he come from?” her father asked. “How long will he stay? What is his name?” and then turned to address those same questions to the man himself. There was no answer.
Maura took the man’s cape from him. One of his arms was an arm. The other was a wing of white feathers.
Someday, little one, you’ll come to me with a wounded bird. It can’t fly, you’ll say, because it’s too little or someone threw a stone or a cat mauled it. We’ll bring it inside and put it in a warm corner, make a nest of old towels. We’ll feed it with our hands and protect it, if we can, if it lives, until it’s strong enough to leave us. As we do this, you’ll be thinking of the bird, but I’ll be thinking of how Maura once did all those things for a wounded man with a single wing.
Her father went to his room. Soon Maura heard him snoring. She made the young man tea and a bed by the fire. That first night, he couldn’t stop shaking. He shook so hard Maura could hear his upper teeth banging against his lower. He shivered and sweated until she lay down beside him, put her arms about him, and calmed him with stories, some of them true, about her mother, her life, the people who’d stayed in this house and drowsed through summer mornings in this room.
She felt the tension leave his body. As he slept, he turned onto his side, curled against her. His wing spread across her shoulder, her breasts. She listened all night, sometimes awake and sometimes in dreams, to his breathing. No woman in the world could sleep a night under that wing and not wake up in love.
He recovered slowly from his fevers and sweats. When he was strong enough, he found ways to make himself useful, though he seemed to know nothing about those tasks that keep a house running. One of the panes in the kitchen window had slipped its channel. If the wind blew east off the ocean, the kitchen smelled of salt and sang like a bell. Maura’s father couldn’t hear it, so he hadn’t fixed it. Maura showed the young man how to true it up, his one hand soft between her two.
Soon her father had forgotten how recently he’d arrived and began to call him my son and your brother. His name, he told Maura, was Sewell. “I wanted to call him Dillon,” her father said. “But your mother insisted on Sewell.”
Sewell remembered nothing of his life before, believing himself to be, as he’d been told, the old man’s son. He had such beautiful manners. He made Maura feel cared for, attended to in a way she’d never been before. He treated her with all the tenderness a boy could give his sister. Maura told herself it was enough.
She worried about the summer that was coming. Sewell fit into their winter life. She saw no place for him in summer. She was outside, putting laundry on the line, when a shadow passed over her, a great flock of white birds headed towards the sea. She heard them calling, the low-pitched, sonorous sound of horns. Sewell ran from the house, his face turned up, his wing open and beating like a heart. He remained there until the birds had vanished over the water. Then he turned to Maura. She saw his eyes and knew that he’d come back into himself. She could see it was a sorrowful place to be.
But he said nothing and neither did she, until that night, after her father had gone to bed. “What’s your name?” she asked.
He was silent awhile. “You’ve both been so kind to me,” he said finally. “I never imagined such kindness at the hands of strangers. I’d like to keep the name you gave me.”
“Can the spell be broken?” Maura asked then, and he looked at her in confusion. She gestured to his wing.
“This?” he said, raising it. “This is the spell broken.”
A log in the fire collapsed with a sound like a hiss. “You’ve heard of the king’s marriage? To the witch-queen?” he asked.
Maura knew only that the king had married.
“It happened this way,” he said, and told her how his sister had woven shirts of nettles and how the archbishop had accused her of witchcraft, and the people sent her to the fire. How the king, her husband, said he loved her, but did nothing to save her, and it was her brothers, all of them swans, who encircled her until she broke the spell, and they were men again, all except for his single wing.
So now she was wife to a king who would have let her burn, and queen of those who’d sent her to the fire. These were her people, this her life. There was little in it that he’d call love. “My brothers don’t mind the way I do,” he said. “They’re not as close to her. We were the youngest together, she and I.”
He said that his brothers had settled easily enough into life at court. He was the only one whose heart remained divided. “A halfway heart, unhappy to stay, unhappy to go,” he said, “a heart like your mother’s.” This took Maura by surprise. She’d thought he’d slept through her stories about her mother. Her breath grew thin and quick. He must also remember then how she’d slept beside him.
He said that in his dreams, he still flew. It hurt to wake in the morning, find himself with nothing but his clumsy feet. And at the change of seasons, the longing to be in the air, to be on the move was so intense, it overtook him. Maybe that was because the curse had never been completely lifted. Maybe it was because of the wing.
“You won’t be staying then,” Maura said. She said this carefully, no shaking in her voice. Staying in the house by the sea had long been the thing Maura most wanted. She would still have a mother if they’d only been able to stay in the house by the sea.
“There’s a woman I’ve loved all my life,” he answered. “We quarreled when I left; I can’t leave it like that. We don’t choose whom we love,” he told Maura, so gently that she knew he knew. If she wasn’t to be loved in return, she would have liked not to be pitied for it. She got neither of these wishes. “But people have this advantage over swans, to put their unwise loves aside and love another. Not me. I’m too much swan for that.”
He left the next morning. “Good-bye, father,” he said, kissing the old man. “I’m off to find my fortune.” He kissed Maura. “Thanks for your kindness and your stories. You’ve the gift of contentment,” he said, and as soon as he named it, he took it from her.
We come now to the final act. Keep your eyes shut tight, little one. The fire inside is dying and the wind outside. As I rock you, monsters are moving in the deep.
Maura’s heart froze in her chest. Summertime came and she said good-bye to the seaside house and felt nothing. The landlord had sold it. He went straight to the bars to drink to his good fortune. “For more than it’s worth,” he told everyone, a few cups in. “Triple its worth,” a few cups later.
The new owners took possession in the night. They kept to themselves, which made the curious locals more curious. A family of men, the baker told Maura. He’d seen them down at the docks. They asked more questions than they’d answer. They were looking for sailors off a ship called The Faucon Dieu. No one knew why they’d come or how long they’d stay, but they had the seaside house guarded as if it were a fort. Or a prison. You couldn’t take the road past without one or another of them stopping you.
Gossip arrived from the capital—the queen’s youngest brother had been banished and the queen, who loved him, was sick from it. She’d been sent into seclusion until her health and spirits returned. Maura overheard this in a kitchen as she was cleaning. There was more, but the sound of the ocean had filled Maura’s ears and she couldn’t hear the rest. Her heart shivered and her hands shook.
That night she couldn’t sleep. She got up, and like her mother before her, walked out the door in her nightgown. She walked the long distance to the sea, skirting the seaside house. The moonlight was a road on the water. She could imagine walking on it as, perhaps, her mother had done. Instead she climbed to the cliff where she’d first seen Sewell. And there he stood again, just as she remembered, wrapped in his cape. She called to him, her breath catching so his name was a stutter. The man in the cape turned and he resembled Sewell strongly, but he had two arms and all of Maura’s years. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were someone else.”
“Is it Maura?” he asked and the voice was very like Sewell’s voice. He walked toward her. “I meant to call on you,” he said, “to thank you for your kindness to my brother.”
The night wasn’t cold, but Maura’s nightgown was thin. The man took off his cape, put it around her shoulders as if she were a princess. It had been a long time since a man had treated her with such care. Sewell had been the last. But Sewell had been wrong about one thing. She would never trade her unwise love for another, even if offered by someone with Sewell’s same gentleness and sorrow. “Is he here?” Maura asked.
He’d been exiled, the man said, and the penalty for helping him was death. But they’d had warning. He’d run for the coast, with the archbishop’s men hard behind him, to a foreign ship where his brothers had arranged passage only hours before it became illegal to do so. The ship was to take him across the sea to the country where they’d lived as children. He was to send a pigeon to let them know he’d arrived, but no pigeon had come. “My sister, the queen,” the man said, “has suffered from the not-knowing. We all have.”
Then, just yesterday, for the price of a whiskey, a middle brother had gotten a story from a sailor at the docks. It was a story the sailor had heard recently in another harbor, not a story he’d lived. There was no way to know how much of it was true.
In this story there was a ship whose name the sailor didn’t remember, becalmed in a sea he couldn’t name. The food ran out and the crew lost their wits. There was a passenger on this ship, a man with a deformity, a wing where his arm should be. The crew decided he was the cause of their misfortunes. They’d seized him from his bed, dragged him up on deck, taken bets on how long he’d stay afloat. “Fly away,” they told him as they threw him overboard. “Fly away, little bird.”
And he did.
As he fell, his arm had become a second wing. For just one moment he’d been an angel. And then a moment later, a swan. He’d circled the ship three times and vanished into the horizon. “My brother had seen the face of the mob before,” the man said, “and it made him regret being human. If he’s a swan again, he’s glad.”
Maura closed her eyes. She pushed the picture of Sewell the angel, Sewell the swan away, made him a tiny figure in the distant sky. “Why was he exiled?” she asked.
“An unnatural intimacy with the queen. No proof, mind you. The king is a good man, but the archbishop calls the tune. And he’s always hated our poor sister. Eager to believe the most vile gossip,” said the man. “Our poor sister. Queen of a people who would have burned her and warmed their hands at the fire. Married to a man who’d let them.”
“He said you didn’t mind that,” Maura told him.
“He was wrong.”
The man walked Maura back to her rooms, his cape still around her. He said he’d see her again, but summer ended and winter came with no word. The weather turned bitter. Maura was bitter, too. She could taste her bitterness in the food she ate, the air she breathed.
Her father couldn’t understand why they were still in their rented rooms. “Do we go home today?” he asked every morning and often more than once. September became October. November became December. January became February.
Then late one night, Sewell’s brother knocked at Maura’s window. It was iced shut; she heard a crack when she forced it open. “We leave in the morning,” the man said. “I’m here to say good-bye. And to beg you and your father to go to the house as soon as you wake tomorrow, without speaking to anyone. We thank you for the use of it, but it was always yours.”
He was gone before Maura could find the thing that she should say; thank you or good-bye or please don’t go.
In the morning, she and her father did as directed. The coast was wrapped in a fog that grew thicker the farther they walked. As they neared the house, they saw shadows, the shapes of men in the mist. Ten men, clustered together around a smaller, slighter figure. The eldest brother waved Maura past him toward the house. Her father went to speak to him. Maura went inside.
Sometimes summer guests left cups and sometimes hairpins. These guests had left a letter, a cradle, and a baby.
The letter said: My brother told me you could be trusted with this child. I give him to you. My brother told me you would make up a story explaining how you’ve come to own this house and have this child, a story so good that people would believe it. This child’s life depends on you doing so. No one must ever know he exists. The truth is a danger none of us would survive.
Burn this letter, is how it ended. There was no signature. The writing was a woman’s.
Maura lifted the baby. She loosened the blanket in which he was wrapped. A boy. Two arms. Ten fingers. She wrapped him up again, rested her cheek on the curve of his scalp. He smelled of soap. And very faintly, beneath that, Maura smelled the sea. “This child will stay put,” Maura said aloud, as if she had the power to cast such a spell.
No child should have a mother with a frozen heart. Maura’s cracked and opened. All the love that she would someday have for this child was already there, inside her heart, waiting for him. But she couldn’t feel one thing and not another. She found herself weeping, half joyful, half undone with grief. Good-bye to her mother in her castle underwater. Good-bye to the summer life of drudgery and rented rooms. Good-bye to Sewell in his castle in the air.
Her father came into the house. “They gave me money,” he said wonderingly. His arms were full. Ten leather pouches. “So much money.”
When you’ve heard more of the old stories, little one, you’ll see that the usual return on a kindness to a stranger is three wishes. The usual wishes are for a fine house, fortune, and love. Maura was where she’d never thought to be, at the very center of one of the old stories, with a prince in her arms.
“Oh!” Her father saw the baby. He reached out and the pouches of money spilled to the floor. He stepped on them without noticing. “Oh!” He took the swaddled child from her. He, too, was crying. “I dreamed that Sewell was a grown man and left us,” he said. “But now I wake and he’s a baby. How wonderful to be at the beginning of his life with us instead of the end. Maura! How wonderful life is.”
© 2010 by Karen Joy Fowler.
Originally published in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,
edited by Kate Bernheimer.
Reprinted by permission of the author.