Swan Sister

Burning.

Burning, burning thirst.

Every breath felt like sandpaper. Even her blood was parched.

She whimpered soundlessly. Water. No one heard. It was like a nightmare. She couldn't even make tears.

Water. Please.

Please.

A hot, dry wind coursed through her body.

She tried to move. Even a fingertip. For water.

There was a fire outside her body as well as inside. The sound of it roaring and crackling filled her ears. There were voices, too. If only someone would notice her. If only someone would give her water.

She tried to move again, to whisper, to stick out her tongue. Anything for water.

The voices around her were blurred and confused. She tried to open her eyes but they were glued shut.

Something moist was being held against her lips and she sucked for all she was worth.

The moist thing was taken away and she reached for it blindly with her mouth. The voices around her got louder. There was shouting and crying. Her body was being lifted and handled.

Water!

The moist thing was brought back, wetter now, put to her lips, and dripping a thin trickle into her mouth. She clutched with her fingers, and met a pair of hands. The trickle increased, cool and wet and sweet, until it half-filled her mouth. She took it down in gulp after gulp until she fainted again from exhaustion. The shouting and crying followed her into unconsciousness.


Pain.

Not unbearable, but persistent, stinging, like nettles, high on her back between the tops of her shoulder blades. Someone was sponging the skin there with a warm, wet rag, and it hurt enough to wake her up.

She could open her eyes, but she was too lazy and tired to do it. She listened instead to the ghost voices that floated around her. They were familiar, as if she'd heard them before in dreams.

" … why …?"

" … what if … infected … ?"

" … blood … "

" … skin … until … heals … "

Some kind of gruel was being brought to her mouth. It was soft, but salty and savory and warm, and she pulled mouthful after mouthful from the spoon that was held to her lips.

" … keep her soul inside her body … "

She woke and slept like this many times.


Itching.

The pain had changed to itching.

Bella put her hand to the top of her back. The skin was bare under her shirt. It felt funny. Tender. Faintly rippled, in a pattern she couldn't figure out. Her skin had been changed there, and would never again be as it had been before.

She knew where she was. Auntie Sue's house. The voices, she knew. The feeling of the place around her. The smells. The temperature. People moving around in the next room.

Something cold and wet was pushing itself insistently at her face.

Bella opened her eyes. A shaggy dog grinned at her, then whined, and bumped its nose against her face again.

"Mom? Dad?"

She called for them because she missed them.

Edward.

She missed him, too.

Crushing sadness fell on her.

I will go down with this ship.

She'd been so sure, when she'd seen the slender, pale figures, waving to her from among the dark pines. When she'd heard the owl call her name.

Is. A bell. Ahhhh.

"Mom." And she started to cry.

Even before the dog barked, people were coming into the room.

"Bella! Oh, God, Bella!"

She was pulled into her mother's embrace.

"You're awake. Really awake!"


Her secret tattoo.

Just below the collar line of her shirts.

Though it would show if she ever wore a tank top. Or went to the beach.

Bella craned her neck to look over her shoulder into the mirror.

On her back, between the tops of her shoulder blades. Black tribal pattern on the pale of her skin. A salmon arched into a bow, mouth almost touching to tail.

It will keep her soul inside her body.

That's what she'd heard them saying.

They hadn't used a modern tattoo machine, but the old method. Sharp knives, awls, razor chisels, that cut deeper than electronically motorized needles. Tap, tap, tap. Tat, tat, tat. Why it was called tattoo. Onomatopoeia.

It will keep her soul inside her body.

She was back in Forks with her father. All kinds of weird to be in that house with both parents present. After several tries at different apportionments of the sleeping spaces, Renee had ended up bunking in Bella's room, on an air mattress that Charlie had gone and bought.

The shower was where they each did their secret crying.

The cruiser's engine hum, and the sound of tires on gravel, came up from the driveway.

Dad and Mom coming back from the diner. Because Charlie refused to let Bella cook since she'd gotten home. And Renee got silent and red-eyed in the kitchen. They couldn't be a family. Not any more. Not in this house. Not in any other.

Bella put her shirt back on and went downstairs. They all unpacked the food from the containers and set it out on the dining room table. The one that had never been used until these weeks. Charlie insisted on grace.

They made small talk, silverware scraping on the plates.

"Your Mom's flight heads out of Port Angeles tomorrow."

"I've got a ticket all bought for you, sweetie. Phil's cleaned out the spare room, got a bed and a desk, everything you need."

"Mom, no." She felt panic rising up inside her. She couldn't leave Forks. She had to stay. Even though her Dad had had to give up on the Cullens. Three months of digging hadn't turned up a single thing. Not a trace of the family. Nothing that could even begin to point to a suspect. The F.B.I. and the state investigators had packed up and left. There wasn't enough manpower in Forks to do more than put a tag on the file and throw it in the cold case bin. Without even a next of kin coming to lay claim, the hospital, the church, and the police station had gotten together a small memorial service, and that had been the end of it. Life went on.

"I just think a change of scenery would do you good, honey."

Bella hadn't told her Mom about Edward. Not the important stuff. About how her heart hurt day in and day out. How the thought that he was dead filled her with wild grief. How she couldn't bear to leave the places he had been. She didn't even know how to tell her mother such things. It was too late, now anyway. There was a gulf widening between her and … everyone.

But she had to think of an excuse that wouldn't make her mother worry.

"Bells … "

"Dad, no! Don't … don't make me go."

Her parents exchanged glances.

It had been well into June before she'd recovered her strength enough to walk around without help. No real point trying to catch up on half a semester of work in just the two weeks left of school. She'd moped at home. Aimless. Tired. Sad.

"School counselor says you've been traumatized by what happened. Says it'll help you to get away, some place you won't run into triggers."

The woods and the mists and the rain. The greens and the blacks. They weren't triggers. They were threads. Mementos. The dripping, misty, dark little one-horse town was all she had left of him. She wanted to hug it all to herself, curl herself around it, make an urn of herself to hold these last ashes of his memory, keep them sealed and safe from wind and time. She thought of his journal, the boy from 1917, the scrapbook she had made. All of it, burned to atoms. And it was all she could do not to collapse right in front of them.

Her father's face was drawn and sad. Nobody was eating any more.

"I can't take proper care of you Bells. I gotta be at the station every day."

"I won't be any trouble! I promise."

"I didn't mean – " "That's not what your father meant." Both parents chorused together.

"I don't want to change schools again. Please. I've only got one year left. I've only got one year."

And that's how she ended up taking summer school.

In Forks…


She felt like she was twelve again. Or ten. Or eight. Or seven.

But not.

Because hanging out with her Dad at the station, getting fed cookies and pot-pie, tying flies at a stream-side at dawn – those were see-through shadows on a photo negative that had been exposed too many times. Now was just make-up lessons with the kids who'd failed or been held back. Nothing to do and nowhere to go. Waiting for class to end. Waiting for her Dad to get home. Waiting for it to be morning again.

She felt empty.

Every afternoon, the truck kept heading toward the road that led to the Cullens' house. Her father would never know if she went there – so long as she got back in time – but she didn't want to cheat him like that again. So she turned back when she realized where she was headed.

But the red truck kept a mind of its own.

Like her red heart.

And the grey day.

Summer was old. In mid-July, summer was old. Not how the calendar reckoned it, but it felt old in her bones. In the pit of her stomach.

The road wound upward, like it always had. The woods on either side were thick with green, but dull. Summer was old. The thing between her shoulder blades, no more than a faint weight.

There'd been talk about what would happen with the house. Something about the town or the state repossessing it, since there hadn't been any mortgage. Her Dad had said that eventually it would have to be sold.

No one was going to make a park out of a crime scene.

But they'd still have to get rid of the foundation, fill everything in, smooth it all over.

She didn't even know when she had started sobbing.

The lawn was a meadow now. The gardens were mixed in like hidden puzzle pieces, and the gazebo was a floating island, heavy with its blooming wisteria.

Bella stood by the side of the truck. The driveway still held, but walking anywhere else would be wading knee deep.

The black of the burned foundation was harder to see. Only the tumbled chimney stood clear above. It was eerily quiet. The deer-scarer didn't working any more. The little brook trickled invisibly and with hardly any sound.

She didn't know how long she stood there. To her left were the trees.

She had been so sure.

So sure.

Those seven pale shapes among the pines.

Now, in the light of a grey summer's day, she could see that they were just a little stand of aspen. Nothing more.

One was cut down.

Her father had told her about that.

Is. A bell. Ahhhh.

"Edward!"

It wasn't him. It had never been him. Just a tree.

Nothing more.

But that couldn't stop her from wailing as she walked. Waded. Through the knee-high waves of green.

"Edward!"

The stump was too short for her to hug properly. It had been cut off below her armpits.

She didn't want to even look for where the remains had fallen.

The cut was rough and dry now. Nothing grew from it.

She collapsed around it. Threw her arms around. Held, and wept. No matter how hard she pressed her chest against the stump, it couldn't deaden the pain. If she could have clawed herself open, transplanted her heart into the trunk, make it live again, grow again, she would have.

She would have.


A flight of swans. White against the grey clouds. Silent except for the air whistling through their wing feathers. Below them the girl. Would have been invisible except for the gap left by the fallen tree crown. Exhausted and defeated, curled around the dead, pale stump, she slept.

The nettles grow in a dark place. Cut, and split, and fray, and spin, and weave. That was the young girl's task. To make the shirts, to throw over her brothers, to end the enchantment – wings to arms, feathers to skin, swans to human again.

In summer, the ground is not cold, but it is usually still a bit damp. That was what woke Bella. In time. In time to get home before her father would.

If there can be vampires, and shape-shifter wolves, and soul-trapper tattoos, why can't there be magic, too?

Nothing seems crazy to her any more. Dreams make perfect sense. Fairy tales read like decoder rings.

The shape of it forms in her mind, as she drags herself up from the ground and walks slowly back to the red truck. The Cullens are not swans, and nettles are impractical. She's not even sure where to find them or how to recognize, except that they sting. But a cloth, long enough and fine enough to catch ashes from the wind. That can be done. Does the craft store sell looms, she wonders. Maybe she'll have to make one. Or can she weave it like a friendship bracelet, only much, much bigger? She'll figure it out. All it takes is perseverance. And ingenuity. And silence.

And blood.