((One of my two entries for the pfn Morbidity contest. It took fifth place!

Inspired by and with credit for lyrics to the Loreena McKennitt version of the song "Bonny Swans," except for the last three verses, which I adapted to fit the story.))


Swansong

Christine Persephone

Once long ago in a kingdom five stories beneath the earth, there was Erik. Night was his domain, and he prowled it like a wolf. Alone he dwelled amid his shadows, forever hidden behind a mask, for it was said that his face was the face of death itself.

Yet wherever Erik was, there was Christine, once a peasant's daughter and now his own songbird. She was a child of the day, with eyes the colour of the sky and hair the colour of the sun, but there was neither sun nor sky in Erik's kingdom beneath the earth; there was only Christine. Above the ground she was courted by her own prince, though it was rare that a prince should love a peasant's daughter, but she chose to stay below with Erik, for she loved him, and feared him, and sang only for him.

"A farmer there lived in the north country,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
And he had daughters one, two, three.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

These daughters they walked by the river's brim,
with a hey ho and a bonny o,
The eldest pushed the youngest in.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

When he let her, Christine wandered freely about his house as though she belonged in it, singing some old nonsense song about swans. Her voice, bright and lovely, tripped lightly through the melody like a dance. So charming, when she forgot to look on him in fear.

"'Sister, oh sister, pray lend me your hand,'
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
'And I will give you a house and land.'
The swans swim so bonny-o.

'I'll give you neither hand nor glove,'
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
'Unless you give me your own true love.'
The swans swim so bonny-o."

To Erik, nothing in Heaven or Earth was sweeter than the sound of Christine's voice. He left her to her games, and let her sing about the swans, which she did almost without cease. She feared the silence that was his solace, and was only quiet when she slept. Then he whispered the melody to her in her dreams.

So they lived, beneath the earth, in a tranquil harmony that was their own. He adored her and she obeyed him, gentle and docile as a lamb. She knew his rules; she was free to do as she pleased in his house, but she must not ask questions, and she must not go in the water.

There was a lake beside Erik's underground palace, and its waters were still and dark as night itself. Why they were forbidden to her, Christine never knew, being forbidden also to ask. Sometimes she would creep close and watch them, waiting to see their secret, but she never saw anything more than the reflection of her own face upon the water.

Yet one morning that was bright above ground and dark below, Christine drifted too close to the water's edge. She was wandering singing along the banks of the night-coloured lake alone, when she realised that somewhere far out on the water, a voice was singing with her.

"Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
Until she came to a miller's dam.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

There was a little boat tethered to the dock at the shore, and Christine gathered her white skirts up in her hands and climbed in. Taking the oar, she pushed away onto the lake. She promised herself she would not go far, just enough to find the voice of the singing.

"The miller's daughter, dressed in red,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
She went for some water to make her bread.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

Farther and farther out onto the lake she followed it, until she could no longer see the shore. Still water surrounded her like mirror-glass, and the singing voice, ever louder, ever closer. She leaned over the edge in search of the face of the voice, but met only with the reflection of her own pale face and her own fair hair, bright against the dark.

"'Father, oh Daddy, here swims a swan,'
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
'It's very like a gentle woman.'
The swans swim so bonny-o."

She sang to the water and it sang back. The voice drew nearer, Christine leaned closer, and then at last she saw it, the face of the voice that filled her ears and surrounded her mind. She saw the face of death in the black water, and after that, saw no more.


Erik carried the still, limp body of his dead love, lifeless as a doll and heavy with water, out of the lake and laid her on the cold shore. He spoke to her, implored her, wept for her and begged her forgiveness, but Christine was silent. Neither voice nor breath would pass between her pale lips again.

And yet the voice of the silence still seemed to echo with the faint, intangible strains of their last duet, which he had sung to her from below the water and she to him from above it.

"They laid her on the bank to dry,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
There came a harper passing by.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

He looked down at Christine, and with one skeletally long finger traced a mournful line along the edge of her hair, down her smooth, cold cheek to her throat. She had sung only for him, and only she had sung for him. Without Christine, there was no light beneath the earth, and without her voice, for him there was only silence.

There was really only one solution. Christine must sing again.

He laid her out on the table in his workroom and studied her critically for a long time. At length he decided that yes, it would be possible to hear her sing for him again, and set to work with certain determination.

"He made harp pins of her fingers fair,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
and made harp strings of her golden hair.
The swans swim so bonny-o.

He made a harp of her breastbone,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
and straight it began to play alone.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

Unlacing her dress, he eased her gently out of her bodice so that all that remained between them was her milk-white skin, still luminously damp with lakewater in the gaslight. Then he took a bright, sharp knife and slit her from the hollow of her throat to her diaphragm, over the heart that no longer beat and the lungs that no longer breathed, and freed her voice once more.

When he was finished with her, she made a beautiful harp. Her sternum, elegantly carved into the graceful neck of a swan, became its arch, her dainty finger-bones served as harp pegs, and shining strands of her golden hair as strings. When plucked by Erik's masterful hands, the harp produced a delicate, airy sound of a beauty not unlike her voice.

He named the harp Christine, and once more sang with her their duets, on the bank of the black lake where she had drowned.

"He brought it to her father's hall,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
and there was the court, assembled all.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

Far out on the water, a voice was singing with him. Erik looked out into the mist and saw the swan, ghost-white, tracing lazily intertwining circles upon the surface of the lake. It seemed to be singing as it swam, and its voice was Christine's own.

He brought the harp inside and closed the door, but her voice would not leave him. At night when he slept with the harp beside his bed, she whispered the melody to him in his dreams. Alone, in the stillest hour of the night, the gold and white harp he had named Christine began to play by itself, and somewhere close, he could hear her singing.

"He laid the harp upon a stone,
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
and straight it began to play alone.
The swans swim so bonny-o."


After three nights without sleep, Erik had come to the decision that the harp had to be returned to the lake with the rest of Christine. He put it in the boat and rowed out onto the water to the place where she had died, and later where he had let sink her weighted body, burying her in the liquid black depths.

As he rowed, he saw that the swan had appeared out of the mist and was gliding serenely alongside him. He stopped and she turned her head on her long neck and regarded him with eyes that were an unusual shade of sky blue, then began swimming in slow circles around the boat. When he tried to row the vessel away, she followed, paddling silently along beside him.

He knew what she had come for, and, raising the gold and white harp, he bade her to take it and cast it into the water. The swan watched it sink, then turned back to him and appeared to smile. Then she began to sing, in Christine's voice, but this time her song was her own.

"Have you forgotten the sound of the night?
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
in harp strings plucked with the voice of the light.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

Turning the boat, he tried to row back to shore, but the swan followed him, still singing.

"Have you forgotten the tears that I cried?
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
alone in the watery lake where I died.
the swans swim so bonny-o."

The mist had grown strangely heavier, closing around him like wet gauze, and he was no longer sure which direction led to the house on the lake. He tried to turn again, but the swan was right beside him, singing.

"And have you forgotten the man that I loved?
with a hey ho and a bonny-o,
who dragged me down from the world above.
The swans swim so bonny-o."

The swan smiled, and suddenly it was not the swan but Christine that lunged up out of the lake, with water streaming from her sodden gown and her golden hair, and her bright blue eyes open wide. Clasping him in bone-white arms, she drew him close and kissed him with her cold lips, then returned to the water with Erik still locked in her embrace.

Ever after there were two swans, one black as night and one white as day, gliding about each other in interlaced circles like a dance upon the surface of the lake, forever singing their swansong.