After exhaustive research, I have come to the following conclusion: swans are creep-ass.
I think swans are physically weird. This is a totally personal bias based on me being terrified of geese as a small child. My preschool had a farm right next to it, and geese (and once, a cow) would sometimes escape into the school grounds. Those fuckers were mean and as tall as I was; no way in hell I was gonna get near them. Besides, one bit my teacher, and they don’t even have real teeth, just burning ire. So, I still don’t like long-necked birds of any kind; the way their necks go is creepy. There’s a specific deformity of the finger called the Swan’s Neck.
Other than being physically weird, birds are connected with the souls of the dead, which heads us into questionable territory. Specifically, stories with swans in them tend to take weird, weird turns.
First up: Swan Lake. Swan-obsessed magician makes beautiful girl into swan. Okay, fine. There’s an imprisonment and/or necrophilia metaphor going on there, whatever. (Really: in the ending variation where the princess in condemned to be a swan forever…isn’t that a kind of death?) But the prince? I know he fell in love with the Swan Queen when she turned back into a human. But I think he was a bit of a swan fancier to begin with. Suspicious.
Speaking of swan fanciers, Jove. As in the rehashed Greek Ovid’s Metamorphoses version of Zeus. Now, to begin with, he was a weird dude. He liked to have sex, willing or not, with more or less anything that moved. He had some very weird sex brags (“one time I fucked a pregnant chick so hard she set on fire”; “one time I seduced some hot girl in the form of a cow”). He was like a more heterosexual and less classy version of Jesse Canon from Tominda Adkin’s series Vessel. Anyway, Jove gets his eyes on this girl, Leda. He seduces her (the nice term for “rape”, usually) in the form of a swan, which is weird even by hentai standards. Then apparently they have kids, and some parody of a family life. Family life with birds. Like you do.
That brings us to my third piece of Swan Creepass evidence: the tale with many variations known as the Six Swans, the Twelve Brothers, and other titles. It’s about a girl whose brothers are turned into swans for various reasons (Dad wants her to inherit the kingdom; the bros are turned into swans to escape actual death). Her job is to rescue them; the condition is that she must not speak or laugh for seven years, and also make shirts for her brothers out of some odd or unpleasant material (nettles, starwort, depends who you ask). Usually she succeeds, often with the sleeve of one shirt unfinished, so that one brother is left with an arm and a wing for the rest of his life.
I was thinking about this during a workshop about metamorphosis at the Richard Hugo House, and I wrote the following:
Every Sunday, Laura would go to the shore of the lake to look for her brothers.
The swans at the lake had innate enough trust of her to swin right up, hop out of the water, and eat the chunks of bread she provided them out of a large plastic bag with a twist tie. Sometimes there would be a jogger or a dog and the swans would get spooked and flap out into the vast expanse of water, but most times they’d be bold enough to steal a piece of break right out of her hand.
She bided her time with the nettle shirts. You have to make sure a wild animal really trusts you before trying to wrestle a shirt meant for a human onto it. Besides, making cloth out of dried nettle was hard. The hippies down at the co-op must think she drank more nettle tea than any of several gods. They never said anything, even on weeks when her hands were still red and blotchy with stings. Baking soda was her #2 co-op purchase.
The day came when she had to put the shirts on or give up, be alone forever. The day marked by a red square on her calendar. She took the usual bag of bread and a backpack filled with the nettle shirts. She waited for the swans to come gliding over the water. She scattered bread and opened the sipper to the pack slowly, so as not to startle the birds.
The movement was quick, when she finally dared to do it. Woven nettle held in sweaty fingers, unable to feel the stings any more, a twist of the wrists, up and over the long struggling feathered neck. Wings beating, wind rushing past her face, her eyes, blinding her so that she never saw exactly what happened, if there was some moment that was half feathers and half skin, but in any case she was suddenly holding in her arms Richard, her eldest brother, naked except for the knit shirt made of strung-together dried leaves.
He was gasping for breath with a desperate look in his eyes, muscles under his skin still pulling against her, trying to escape. She released him, tried to not to glance down at his nakedness, and looked into his yees. For a moment her heart dropped; he wasn’t making eye contact and was breathing hard. What if he was still a swan inside his head? What if she’d revived him only to lose him to shock or insanity? She should have brought blankets. She should have brought real clothes. Richard knelt by the edge of the water and threw up noisily. The other swans had scattered.
And so. Swans. The ever-present reminder of death with weird-ass necks.