The Wild Swans

Stave 1

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

That stretched

All the way

Down to the sea.

The Wild Swans Stave 1

The Wild Swans by Anton Lomaev found on  

Stave 2

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.

The Wild Swans Stave 2

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Stave 3

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

And falling

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

And loneliness.

The Wild Swans Stave 3

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Stave 4

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

And transformed

Into Elisa’s eleven brothers.

The Wild Swans Stave 4

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Stave 5

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

At sundown

Or they would fall from the sky

And die.

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.


The Wild Swans Stave 5

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Stave 6

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

Holding hands,

Protecting her from the sea and storm

Pounding the rock.

Day broke

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.

The Wild Swans Stave 6

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Stave 7

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.

The Wild Swans Stave 7 two

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Stave 8

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

By maidservants.

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.

The Wild Swans Stave 8 Two

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Stave 9

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,

The whirring

Of swans’ wings

And hope.

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

A sleeve.

The eldest brother told their tale,

The bells began to ring,

And Elisa was happy,

Reunited with her king.

The Wild Swans Stave 9

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© Kim M. Russell, 2016