by Theodora Goss
They are so lovely, the wild swan girls:
white wings and absence . . .
1. How to recognize a swan girl.
She will have delicate wrists.
You will be able to circle her wrists
with your hands. No, don’t try it:
you don’t hold swan girls, not like that.
Any suggestion of captivity sends them flying
off on white swan wings, or on high heels
across a street or continent.
They can’t bear to be caught.
No, look at her wrists: skin over bone, with faint
pinpricks where the pinions go.
2. How to catch a swan girl.
Feign lack of interest.
Stare off into the distance, at a tree perhaps
or a beach, or the New York skyline.
Turn to her. Be polite, almost too polite.
Ask a question to which she doesn’t know the answer.
(Will it snow tomorrow? What are clouds make of?
How do you say eternity in Norwegian?)
Interest her, and keep her interested,
or she will fly off.
3. How to keep a swan girl.
You can’t, not in a house or an apartment,
not in a city, sometimes not even a country.
When she telephones, you will ask, where are you?
When she laughs, it will sound
so far away, and in the background
you will hear waves, or a language you don’t understand.
4. How to marry a swan girl.
Steal her coat of feathers.
This part always goes badly.
5. How to lose a swan girl.
Wait. Eventually, she will go somewhere else.
If you hide her coat of feathers, she will leave without it.
Wait, you say, but I thought . . . Oh, those old stories?
You didn’t believe those, did you?
She knows where to get another, and anyway
she doesn’t need wings to fly.
6. How to mourn a swan girl.
Make a shrine, perhaps on a dresser or small table.
Three swan feathers, a candle, a stone smoothed
by ocean waves. That should do it.
Sit on the sofa. Hold one of the feathers. Cry.
Realize it was inevitable.
Swan girls fly. It’s just what they do.
It wasn’t you.
7. How to be a swan girl.
There are no rules the sky is infinite
the world is yours laid out in rivers and mountains
like a great quilt pieced by your grandmother.
She is older than they are.
Her hair is white as snow and covers them
her eyes are bright as stars and when she laughs
You take after her.
Swan girl where will you go?
Everywhere you say and then
(The image is The Wild Swans by Helen Stratton. This poem was originally published on Strange Horizons.)