Far away across the water,
Where swans migrate in winter,
A king had eleven sons,
Elisa was his only daughter,
And they lived happily together
Until he married an evil queen.
During the wonderful wedding feast,
She gave the royal children sand to eat
And the very next day,
She sent Elisa away
To live with peasants.
To the eleven princes she said:
‘Fly into the world
Never be found!
Fly like great birds
Without a sound!’
The princes shed their royal wear,
Spread snowy wings
And rose into the air
As eleven wild swans.
Out of the castle window they flew.
It was early in the morning
When they descended
To the secluded cottage
Where Elisa was sleeping.
No one saw them hovering,
Twisting their necks,
Beating their wings,
So they rose
Towards the clouds
And a dark forest
All the way
Down to the sea.
The Wild Swans by Anton Lomaev found on www.pinterest.com
Elisa thought of her brothers’ eyes
As she searched for swans in the changing skies.
When the warmth of the sun touched her cheeks,
She was reminded of their kisses. Days turned into weeks,
Each the same as the one before, and then into years,
But time could not quell the princess’s tears.
When the wind ruffled the roses on the farm,
It whispered: ‘Who could be more beautiful than you?’
And the roses replied: ‘Elisa is.’
When the wind turned the pages of a book of psalms,
It asked: ‘Who could be more pious than you?’
And the hymn book replied: ‘Elisa is.’
When she was fifteen years old, good and fair,
Elisa returned to her father’s castle. The hateful queen
Raged and wished to make her a swan flying in the air
But had to wait her time, until the king had seen her.
Early the next morning, before she had risen from her bed,
The queen placed three toads in Elisa’s bath and said
To the first one: ‘When she gets in, sit on Elisa’s head
And she will grow as sluggish as you.’
The second toad she commanded to sit on Elisa’s forehead
So that she would become unrecognisably ugly.
To the third she whispered: ‘Rest on her heart and give her an evil soul.’
The wicked queen called for her step-daughter,
Removed her gown and helped her into the water,
Where the toads took their places:
One on her head,
One on her forehead
And the third on her breast.
As Elisa arose from the bath, the toads became floating poppies:
She was too innocent and pious to be overpowered by sorcery.
The queen rubbed her stepdaughter with the juice of walnuts
Until she was no longer fair;
Smeared her face with stinking ointment;
And tangled her lovely hair.
When she brought Elisa before her father,
The king, with a horrified shout,
Refused to believe she was his daughter
And cast her out.
Image found on Pinterest
Elisa wept and sadly crept
Out of her father’s castle.
Not knowing whether to turn left or right,
She wandered over marsh and field,
Into the forest and the night,
Where she found soft moss to lay her head,
Said her prayers and went to bed.
She watched the glow worms shimmering
Like shooting stars until she was dreaming
That she was playing
With her eleven brothers.
The next morning, already high
In the sky,
The sun’s rays pierced the forest’s canopy
And woke Elisa.
She was surrounded by nature
And the sound of splashing
From a nearby spring.
The ragamuffin princess found a pond
As still and clear as a mirror;
A frightening face stared back at her
But once she had immersed her body and face,
Her beauty and grace
Elisa drank from the bubbling spring,
Ate wild crab apples and continued walking
Into the depths of the forest
Image found on Pinterest
After the darkest night,
Without even the light
Of a glow worm to ease her loneliness,
Elisa set off through the vast forest
And soon came upon
A kindly old woman.
Elisa asked if she had seen
Eleven princes on their horses.
She replied no, but eleven swans with golden crowns
Had been swimming in nearby watercourses.
With thanks and farewell,
Elisa followed a silver stream
Until she came to the open sea,
And there, in the sand,
She found eleven white feathers,
Which she gathered in her hand,
Covered with droplets of water –
The tears of the king’s only daughter.
She stood on the lonely beach,
Watching the clouds pass by
And the changing colours in the sky
Until, just before the sun started to set,
Eleven wild swans flew towards the shore,
All wearing golden crowns, gliding in a long white ribbon.
Elisa hid behind a shrub and saw
The swans ascend, flapping their great white wings.
As soon as the sun sank below the horizon,
They shed their feathers
Into Elisa’s eleven brothers.
Image found on Pinterest
Elisa embraced each of her brothers,
Calling out their names, laughing and crying,
While they told her about their wicked stepmother:
How she had turned them into swans
Only as long
As the sun shone;
At night they returned to human form,
Finding firm ground
Or they would fall from the sky
She had found them that night,
Resting before a long flight
To a beautiful land
On the other side of the sea.
Once a year they were allowed
To visit their father’s castle,
Where they were born,
And the towers of the church
Where they would mourn
Their mother, who was buried there,
And could watch over their sister.
The next day, Elisa woke to the whirr of wings:
Her brother swans were flying
In circles and then they were gone,
All except the youngest one,
Who would not leave
While she stroked his snowy down.
In the evening,
When the sunset burned,
The ten brothers returned.
All night they plaited
Reeds and willow bark.
At the sound of the lark,
The sun rose
And so did the eleven swans,
Carrying the sleeping Elisa
Up to the clouds
On her own magic carpet.
Image found on wild-swans.com
When Elisa awoke, they were far from land
And so high in the air she thought she was dreaming,
Until she found berries and roots in her hand,
Gathered by her youngest brother.
Far below them, a sailing ship floated,
A white gull on the waves.
They flew all day
Ahead of a storm
And, at the approach of evening,
Elisa watched the sun sinking
Into the sea
With still no sign of a place to land.
The storm arrived
With lightning and cloud,
Wind and thunder,
Menacing and loud;
And the sun had reached the rim of the sea.
The eleven swans dived suddenly,
Falling like stones
And, as the sun was halfway
Under the water,
Elisa’s feet touched solid ground
With her brothers in a circle all around
Protecting her from the sea and storm
Pounding the rock.
And the air was calm
But the sea was rough;
As soon as the sun rose
The swans took off
Towards a castle among blue mountains,
With valleys, forests, flowers and fountains.
Long before the sun set,
They arrived at a vine-covered cave,
Where Elisa dreamed
Of how her brothers could be saved.
Image found on Pinterest
In her dream, Elisa flew high and airy
To the cloud castle of the beautiful fairy,
Fata Morgana, who was strangely familiar,
Resembling the old woman who told her
About the eleven swans with golden crowns.
Morgana said, to free her brothers from the spell,
Elisa must be strong and brave; to do it well,
Withstand agonising pain in fingers and hands
From picking nettles that grew on the land
In the churchyard and around the cave.
The stinging nettles would burn her skin,
But she must crush them under her feet
Until they turned to flax, which she must spin
And knit into eleven shirts, one for each swan,
And release them from the enchantment.
However, from the start
Until the last shirt was thrown
Elisa must not speak a word
Or it would stab her brothers
Like a dagger in their hearts.
Morgana took Elisa’s hands,
Touched them to the nettles,
Which burned like fire – and Elisa woke.
In the light of day she saw the spiteful weeds
And grasped them until they burned and blistered
Her soft, white hands
But she stamped each nettle and span them into flax.
At sundown her brothers feared for their sister
And her sinister silence; perhaps their evil stepmother
Had cast another spell.
Then they saw her blistered hands
Her youngest brother wept warm tears
That fell upon her skin,
Removing blisters and pain.
All through the night
And all the next day
She picked, crushed, span and knitted flax
Until one shirt was ready –
And then she started on the next.
Image found on Pinterest
Startled by an echo in the mountains,
Barking dogs, hunting horns and guns,
Elisa ran inside the cave and tied the nettles she had spun
Into a bundle, upon which she sat down.
The hunting hounds had sniffed her out,
Leaping and barking all about.
They were joined by hunters in a ring,
The most handsome of them was the king,
Who asked her how she came to be there.
Elisa, in fear of her brothers’ lives, could not reply,
Only shake her head and sigh,
And keep her blistered fingers out of sight.
The king promised her everything:
Dresses in silk and velvet, a golden ring,
A crown and the luxury of a palace.
But as he lifted her onto his horse,
And galloped through the mountains,
She wept and wrung her hands.
They arrived just as the sun began to set,
The city’s towers and domes were silhouettes.
Inside the royal palace’s marble halls
Were splashing fountains and waterfalls,
And sumptuous paintings filled the walls.
Elisa let herself be dressed
She had the very best
Pearls woven in her hair and silken gloves
To cover her blistered hands.
So dazzling was her beauty, the courtiers bowed
And the king decided to take her for his bride.
The archbishop shook his head and took him to one side,
Warning the king that Elisa was the spawn of witches,
Who had cast a spell on the king to steal his riches.
The king dismissed these words and called
For music, food and dancing in the halls
As the silent Elisa was led into her chamber.
It was decorated with green tapestry,
Depicting caves and forestry,
To make it seem like the place where she’d been found;
The bundle of flax was on the ground
Covered by the one shirt she had finished.
Image found on http://www.katrinahaney.com/wp/?cat=53
The nettle shirt reminded Elisa of the ten she must still knit
For her eleven brothers; and the promise to keep her lips
Sealed: the lips that smiled and kissed the hand of the king,
Who embraced her and ordered bells to ring,
Announcing a royal wedding: she was to be his queen.
The archbishop was dismayed
And, thinking he had the king’s ear,
He whispered in it evil words of fear,
But all in vain.
At the altar, on her wedding day,
He pressed the golden crown hard on Elisa’s forehead.
She felt no pain,
Only the sorrow in her heart, softened by a growing love
For the kind king,
Who did everything
To make her happy.
She longed to share with him her sad secret;
Instead, in the dead of night, she crept
Away from the royal marriage bed
To knit one shirt and then the next,
Until she started on the seventh
And there was no more flax.
Deep in the witching hours of night,
She stole into the moonlight,
On the path to the churchyard,
Followed in the shadows by the archbishop.
He watched her picking nettles,
And early the next morning
He denounced her to the king,
Who stayed awake each night
And followed his queen.
Frightened by what he’d seen,
He condemned her to die at the stake.
Elisa was led from the royal halls to a cold, damp dungeon,
With only the bundle of shirts to keep her warm
And the nettles to spin.
As evening drew in,
She heard a rushing,
Of swans’ wings
Elisa span and knitted through the night
Until it was an hour before dawn;
She heard her brothers calling at the palace gate,
But they were told they would have to wait.
Begging and threatening
Brought the guards and finally the king,
Just as the sun came up;
The eleven swans took wing.
The townspeople filled the streets,
Flooded out of the city gates;
They wanted to see the flames burn
And witness the witch’s fate.
She was brought to the stake
By horse and cart,
Wearing a sackcloth smock.
Despite her pale and beautiful face
The mob began to mock
The poor young queen,
Saying, ‘Behold the witch and her muttering!
She isn’t praying – she’s knitting.’
As the crowd surged forward
To tear the shirt from her hands,
Eleven swans began to land
And gather around Elisa,
Beating their wings.
The crowd drew back at heaven’s sign
And called out to the king,
‘She’s innocent and pure!’
As the executioner reached out
To take her by the arm,
Elisa threw the eleven shirts
Over the swans and broke the charm.
There stood eleven princes,
But the youngest had only one arm;
The other was a wing
Because his shirt was missing
The eldest brother told their tale,
The bells began to ring,
And Elisa was happy,
Reunited with her king.
Image found on Pinterest
© Kim M. Russell, 2016