Swan Maiden

He sat down at the bar close enough that the toe of my shoe skimmed his calf. My legs were crossed at the knee, revealing more thigh than I was used to, and that, no doubt, was exactly what had attracted him.

I sighed internally and avoided looking at the martini-shaped clock to see just how badly Charlie had stood me up. My gin and tonic was gone, my arms were cold (silly strapless dress), and now I had to shift my legs so I didn’t keep kicking a guy who was going to start hitting on me any minute.

It didn’t even take that long. His shirt stretched a little too tightly over broad shoulders as he leaned his elbows on the bar and ordered ale. The bartender’s lips pinched sourly.

“Oh just give me your darkest on tap.” He rolled his eyes to me and said, “This is the problem with America.”

I didn’t answer, because one of his eyes was milky and blind. The other was steel gray, like storm clouds. Blond hair fringed around his face like he’d had a really shitty cut that was in the process of growing out.

“So, Margie, this doesn’t seem to be your kind of place,” he said.

I slid off the stool, catching myself on the bar as my ankles wavered in the unfamiliar heels. “I don’t even want to know how you know my name,” I said. It wasn’t like I was famous. I was a secretary, for crying out loud. And this guy was definitely not one of my boss’s clients.

He put a large hand under my elbow. “My name is Odin, and I’d like you to ride with my Valkyrie.”

Laughter fell out of my mouth before I could stop it. “That’s… amazing. Has that worked before?”

His smile was warm, and made the ghost-eye so much less disturbing. It was almost like the moon, shaded gray and pockmarked. “I thought a straightforward approach would be a nice change.”

“You call that straightforward?”

An elegant shrug moved through his shoulders like ocean waves. I worried that I was ascribing epic sensuality to his body. It didn’t bode well for leaving alone. Which was definitely the plan since Charlie was a no-show. Odin said, “Compared to the usual intricacy of my tricks.”

“Uh-huh. Well, going for a ‘ride’ with you isn’t on my list. Sorry.”

“Ah, my dear, I don’t want in your very fine panties. I’m not a Greek father-god.” He stood, and was so massive I had to tilt my head to keep staring into that moon-eye. So I stepped back, and bumped into a group of drinkers swaying to the band’s low bass. “Oh, sorry,” I murmured to them, though I’m sure they didn’t hear, and glanced back at my pursuer. “Maybe you should try the gym or something. You can pick up warrior-women there.”

“I know where to find warrior-women.” His clear eye ran down my body and returned to my face.

I curled my lip, flipped him off, and stalked my way through the crowd to the exit.

#

Waiting for me on the stoop of my building was a brown paper bag, folded into a bundle and tied with green ribbon. Margaret Wordsmith it said, in sweeping letters. My last name was Oxford. But I picked up the package and pushed into the stairwell. As I climbed the rickety steps to the third floor, I began to smell honey.

I kicked off my shoes the instant I was inside the apartment with the door closed and all three bolts locked. Padding silently into the kitchenette, I untied the ribbon and let it fall.

I left all the lights off, content with the city-glow shining through my narrow windows. When I got to the sink, I set the package on the tiny counter and got down a tin of tea. I put the kettle onto the stove and set it to boiling, then leaned my butt onto the back of the sofa (which acted as the only partition between kitchenette and living space), and stared at the name.

Wordsmith.

When I’d been in high school I’d dreamed of being a poet, of thrilling people with my verse, of drawing tears and laughter and sighs of love from everyone who heard the rhythms. But nobody really made a living as a poet these days. I got my degree in English and Creative Writing, and now I performed mail merges and edited contracts.

I didn’t move until the kettle wailed, and then I poured myself some chamomile tea. While it steeped, I unwrapped the brown paper. Inside was a pile of feathers. They were long and soft, mostly white with black and gray patterned in. It felt like silk and clouds under my fingers. I lifted it off the counter and realized it was sewn together: not a pile, but a cape. There was no additional information. No note, no clasp or maker’s tag or washing instructions. It appeared to hold together with magic.

Leaving it on the counter, I drank my tea, and went to bed.

#

In the morning, I called Kelly while I waited for my tea. “Charles stood me up, big time, Kell. Not even a phone call. But I did meet a really weird guy who told me his name was Odin.”

“Like the god? Norse, I think?”

“Yeah. Definitely.” I poked at the feather cape. In the dawn light, it glowed with tinges of gold and silver.

Kelly snorted. “He must have had psycho parents. Or really New Age-y ones. Is that the same thing?”

“You think his parents gave him that name? I think he was being an asshole.”

“I dunno. At least he was creative?”

I laughed, caressing the feathers. “Yeah, maybe. Listen, did you send me a gift?”

“No. Why? What’d you get?”

“A… a feather cape. It’s gorgeous.”

“Feathers? Weird. Maybe it’s from Charlie, as an apology.”

“Maybe.”

“Listen, let’s have dinner, ok? Stooglie’s?”

“Yeah. Seven. I have a contract to finish tonight, so might not get out at five.”

I hung up, and lifted the cape. I held it out so it hung from my hands in a diaphanous curtain. I couldn’t see any stitching. It was like the thread was invisible. Pulling it close to my nose, I searched hard for needle marks or little holes. There was nothing but an airy sweet smell, like honey on the wind. God, but it was gorgeous. I’d never had something so soft against my skin, and I wondered what it would feel like to wrap the cape around bare back and shoulders, to feel it on my cheeks and breasts.

“Probably as comfy as those two-hundred dollar heels were last night,” I muttered at the cape. “And as practical, too.”

I unceremoniously stuffed the cape into my closet and got ready for work.

#

After nine hours of computer issues and red-pen marks, I collapsed onto the bench in the subway car and closed my eyes for the ride home. The rumble and rush of the train soothed me and I felt the pinch in my temples fade. Soon, I’d be at dinner with Kelly, decompressing from the day.

“Do you know any of my old names?”

My eyes flew open and I stared at Odin, who was grinning at me. Even in the washed yellow light his ghost eye was beautiful. And wrong. I shoved away from him, pressing against the lady next to me. She grunted and nudged me with her elbow. I ignored her, except to shift back into my seat. It was the tail end of rush hour so the car was totally full, with hardly any room to maneuver. I had no idea how such a huge man had snuck up on me.

His smile widened. “I’ve been called the Spear-Shaker, Evil-Doer, Wise One, The Raven God, the Hanged One, Father of the Slain, Beloved, and many, many other things. But my favorite name is Poet. Beloved. Fire-of-Battle, Fire-of-Creation.”

I slid my tongue along the back of my teeth to disguise the sudden dryness of my throat. “So?” The train shuddered to a halt, and we were enveloped in the harried movement of commuters. Odin’s single, moon-white eye held all my attention.

“I told you I know a Valkyrie when I see one.”

“And I told you I’m not interested.”

“Not interested in poetry? In passion and fame and all those things you longed for as a girl?”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “How do you know these things? How long have you been stalking me?”

“Since you were seven, and you wrote a poem in the sand. It was in the shade under the elementary school slide.”

I remembered, and was cold all the way down to my toes. “Ok, Odin. Why now, then?”

“You’ll see.”

“Bullshit.” I stood, knees wobbling, to get off even though it wasn’t my exit.

He grabbed my arm and pulled me down onto his lap. I screamed.

My ass hit the hard seat as twenty faces turned to me, wary and worried, cell phones out. I turned my head this way and that, but Odin had simply vanished.

#

I walked as fast as I could from the station to my building. My fingers shook as they gripped the keys. I hurried up the stairs and managed to get inside without hyperventilating.

The entire apartment was covered with feathers.

I pressed my hands to my mouth and stared. White and black feathers floated from the ceiling, clung to bookshelves and lampshades, and carpeted the hardwood floor. I ran through them toward the closet, batting the soft down away from my face. I tore out the cape and gripped it. Spinning, I confronted my feather-filled apartment. But the feathers were all gone, except for the cape.

I closed my eyes, head pounding as the adrenaline slid away and left a gaping hole. The cape was so soft, and I put it against my face. I could sink into it, could fall into its shroud and sleep forever.

A slam shocked me out of my reverie. My front door.

I went out of the bedroom and saw the door hanging wide open. I hadn’t remembered to shut it, because of all the streaming feathers.

A woman stood there, her body shaking so hard her hair seemed to float. She had a gun. “Tell me where he is,” she demanded.

I shook my head, the cape shimmering with my slight motion. I wished it were a better weapon.

The gun aimed at me. “Bitch. I know you saw him, you slept with him! Where’s Charlie!”

“I haven’t seen him in days,” I said, as calmly as possible.

“You’re lying. I know it. He gave that to you. I saw the feathers in his pocket.” Her reddened eyes burned at the cape in my hands.

I wanted to drop it, but my shock held all my muscles rigid. “No.”

“You did it. He was here. You screwed him and…” her hiss trailed off and the barrel was a pin-prick aimed at my face.

I backed away, holding the cape up like a shield. I saw her eyes narrow and knew she was going to –

The crack echoed as I twisted and stumbled towards the bedroom. Another and another followed, and I was shoved forward by a slamming force. I hit the ground with my hands, feather cape under me. I couldn’t move my legs. I curled my fingers into the cape, clawing at it and the floor beneath. My diaphragm pressed, shuddered, and I couldn’t breath.

She was above me, behind me, and shot again. It hit my left shoulder and I collapsed onto the cape. My cheek against it, eyelashes fluttering in the silky down.

#

It didn’t hurt.

I was hot, but the feathers were cool and they gathered my blood up and wrapped around me like an angel’s wings.

The apartment was silent except for wind knocking the wide-swinging door against the wall again and again. Like my heart. The beat was irregular. Lonely.

My breath sounded like wet rain.

A hand touched my shoulder, turned me over. I couldn’t move but to blink my eyes.

Odin smiled. His ghost eye was as dark as the barrel of the gun. “Poor, dying Valkyrie.”

I moved my lips, and blood trickled down my throat. He held out his hand and pressed it into the blood coating the side of my face. I closed my eyes.

He chuckled. “Perhaps I wasn’t as straightforward as I said.” His fingers caressed my cheek as lightly as the feathers. “You’ll get used to my ways. Come, Margaret: fly with me.”

19 thoughts on “Swan Maiden

  1. The word that comes to mind is ‘sharp.’ This is great. Focused and very well-drawn. I cared about Margie so much that I got choked up at her death.

  2. Thanks! I’m glad you liked her. And that the story seemed focused – I’m trying to work on that these days. 😀

  3. I want to sink into those feathers…I can almost feel them! Feelings like that, feathers like that, might be worth dying for.

  4. Yeah, so yet another short that proves we both write waaaay better shorts when we’re doing nicely with our novels.

  5. I want to meet Odin, I want to turn into a Valkyrie! But I don’t want to get shot, so I will settle for living it vicariously through this acutely beautiful story.

  6. Wow… I love it. Good old Ginnarr. Really clever way that you brought it around there.

  7. Makes me wonder… there’s at least 50 feathers around my room and I’m a historical re-enactor… XD Should I be worried?

  8. Haha, keep me commenting on your writing, then! Just to be one the safe side. *eyes front door*

Comments are closed.