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The Swansong

It happens just a few times in a person’s whole life: you meet someone, and instantly feel like they could be your friend forever. If the two of you grew apart, you would eventually come back at the beginning, and start all over again. It is fate, and it cannot be controlled.

The Swansong was originally inspired by one of these rare people, one that is particularly dear to me, and to whom this short story is dedicated. One with a soul as pure as a child, and a voice as candid as a swan’s white mantle.

It features Evelyn: a young lady who, following a mystical encounter with a beautiful animal, struggles to find her place in the world. Evelyn will face the hard price we all pay for an endless love, and, through her sorrow, she will learn the value of sacrifice.

Please note that the featured image is just temporary, and will not be the final artwork.

All the short stories in the Cycle of Seven appear here in their first draft version. All formatting, spelling, and grammar mistakes were fixed in later versions of the stories, revised for self-publication. A link to the book will be provided when available.


0.

«They say that wild swans sing, right before exhaling their last breath. It’s their last grasp at life, one final hope of leaving something behind, a memory of themselves in a world filled with injustice. They never sing for anybody else, and, in all truthfulness, by simply watching them, we could safely assume that they cannot sing at all. However, when the time comes, and when their spirit is about to part from their body, they throw a last, desperate cry that will engrave their figure on Nature forever, eternalising their memory in the shadows of the wind, and in the life of every living being.

«They say a swan song is indescribable, second to nothing in the whole world. It’s a cry of pain, the last glimpse of a vital impulse about to be extinguished. And yet, as he sings, the swan doesn’t feel any pain: its chant is its most beautiful work, a gloomy legacy, able to enchant the most insatiable predators and touch the coldest of hearts. There is no living being capable of resisting its beauty. Perhaps, someday, we will hear one ourselves too.»

Small Evelyn let her eyes float on the golden reflexes of the shimmering water, on the lake’s surface. Her father’s voice was mellow and pleasant as a melody, and his words resembled one of the many poems she had read recently. Every evening, her father brought her by the lake. They both sat down on the moist grass, and there they stayed, quiet, observing the dancing waves moved by a soft breeze. From time to time, a snow-white swan came out of the far-away inlets, and swam towards them, as if he had no other interest in the world than being admired from the shoreline. When the sun went down and came close to touching the lake’s waters, her father always told her a new story; and Evelyn was the happiest child in the world.

Evelyn had never caressed a swan, before. Her father always told her that it was too dangerous, as swans are “proud and unpredictable animals”; but her wish was stronger than fear, and there had not been a single time when little Evelyn didn’t try to touch one, when a swan approached the lake’s shores. The white animal, however, fled every single time, way before she could even try to move close.

That day, however, the swan came so close to the shores that it could almost touch them, and there he stayed, carefully observing the two strange bipeds in front of it. They didn’t look hostile.

Evelyn bounced up on her feet, maybe too quickly — but the swan didn’t go away. Her father tried to stop her, in vain: in just a few seconds, little Evelyn was already bouncing jollily, getting closer to the beautiful animal.

«Quiet!», her father ordered. «He’ll go away!»

Evelyn stopped. She brought her hands behind her back and apologised, with an innocent smile on her face — as candid and pure as the swan’s mantle. Her father smiled back.

«You’re forgiven. Come on: why don’t you touch it?», he said, pointing at the swan, standing still in its position.

Little Evelyn opened her eyes wide in surprise and happiness. She slowly drew near to the animal, which was at least five times bigger than the little child. Surprisingly enough, the swan didn’t move a muscle; and, with small, careful steps, Evelyn was finally close enough to touch it. Her hand, cold from a Winter afternoon, found some brief relief in the warm mantle of the swan, that allowed her to cuddle it without resistance. It was almost like the two of them had known each other for a lifetime, or even more. The snow-white animal’s eyes met Evelyn’s, and the child felt a strange, warm feeling she never felt before. She felt loved, by someone other than her family.

The swan emitted a verse, then threw its eyes to the sun and started swimming in that direction. Evelyn felt like a part of her was going away, but she felt complete, for the first and only time of her life. She protested, she called for the swan, she was about to cry; but her father held her in his arms and, with the same voice that the child loved so much, he made her feel safe.

«Don’t cry, my little child. We will come back tomorrow to meet Mr. Swan, and you will see him again!»

The following day, the two of them came back to the lake at the usual time. Her father told her a new story, as always, and Evelyn felt like the golden disk at the horizon was shining brighter than ever, and the waters were calmer than ever, and the grass was softer than ever. Although, this time, no swan ever appeared on the horizon.

And so for the following days, months, and years. The lake, once a tourist spot because of the chance of seeing a beautiful, white swan once in a while, lost every appeal: it was almost like the sun had captured and kidnapped the white animal, that last evening, among Evelyn’s tears and her father’s sweet words. He didn’t die, Evelyn was sure of that; and, however, no swan ever appeared on the horizon again.

1.

«Evelyn, are you listening to me?»

His father’s voice, now heavy and a little hoarser than in his best years, broke the young woman’s link with her memories. Evelyn sighed and nodded; although she said “Yes”, they both knew she had stopped listening a long time ago.

The young lady shifted her eyes from the big open window to a mirror, dominating the dressing table she was sitting at. Time was a gentleman to her, and one of the best: Evelyn had grown fast and beautiful, with long, wavy black hair falling on her shoulders and behind her back — apparently with neither order nor logic, and still enchanting on her face like on nobody else’s. Unlike the rest of her body, her eyes would never grow up: light-brown, innocent and childish, flourishing on extremely delicate features, living part of a face that would never be the same without them. But she didn’t lose her smile, either: as candid and pure as moonlight, there was no man or woman who could resist its innocence, nor a heart incapable of melting at its sight. All of the above was framed by a delicate pair of lips, not too plump, so in harmony with each other that they could look like two halves of the same apple. As she was in the first flush of youth, Evelyn had a slim, proportioned and averagely tall body of a seventeen-years old lady, and the greatest of all gifts: a form of harmony in spirit and appearance that all of her was capable to emanate.

All but stranger to the needs and the excessive demands of her age, Evelyn still had low to no interest in everything concerning materialistic goods. Educated to understand cultures even as a child, she knew how to read, she loved writing and she adored everything that could expand her culture, whether a book or a music piece. Gifted with outstanding intelligence and uncommon sensitivity, Evelyn could have chosen to employ all of her talents and her beauty for selfish ends; she was well aware, however, that she would always miss that dose of opportunism and selfishness useful for hurting others… And she was perfectly fine like that. Evelyn knew no vanity, she didn’t like arrogance, and she loved indulging in her own thoughts for hours, even if that meant risking to be sucked in by her own self. Her father, promptly, provided for her comeback to harsh reality.

Still, her personality was controversial: sweet yet tough, strong yet sensitive, bright yet dark, Evelyn was often dealing with herself and with a form of loneliness that not even her father could ever erase. It was as if a portion of her soul had been torn away from her, and her only purpose was that of chasing her and following her until she could finally take her back.

For long she had tried to fill such emptiness, and, therefore, there was not a single art that she would not love, nor a hobby that she would hate: from painting to writing, nothing escaped her creative instinct or her rebellious and stubborn mind. Although such mind never prevented her from expressing respect and obedience to her beloved father and his precious advise, which she always followed firmly in every occasion.

That day, her father was showing her some accounting issues in their family’s estate, a majestic mansion dominating over the whole underlying village in the countryside. Contrary to the rest of society at her time, her family had a heartfelt disgust for conventions and moral vicissitudes typical of the Victorian Age. Their life was simple and full of selflessness, and there never was a person in the village who showed up at their doors asking for financial support, just to be kicked away in disgust — they always helped everyone, whenever they could. Such altruism, of course, was source of several small financial issues for the family, once in a while.

Evelyn picked up a comb from the marble desk of her dressing table, and she started brushing her hair, humming a mellow and pleasant melody. Her father stopped talking, and listened carefully. The young lady noticed almost straight away.

«Why did you stop?», she asked, knowing the answer to some extent already.

«Why, I love listening to you. It makes me go back to thirty years ago, when this place didn’t even exist, and there was nothing all around but green grass and never-ending woods. There was peace, back then… A peace we seem to have forgotten.»

Her father remained silent for a few seconds, his eyes closed. Then, he resumed talking.

«You remind me of that peace, my child.»

Evelyn blushed. She knew her father was right, but she would never forgive herself for admitting so. And still, after all, that was maybe the most noticeable and natural talent that young Evelyn could showcase to the whole world: her voice.

As welcoming as Spring blooms, her voice surpassed in delicacy the most glorious bird’s song, and in warmth the bliss of the most tepid Summer afternoon. Nature itself bent in respect to Evelyn’s singing, and it was as if every living creature was born just to listen to those enchanting and melancholic melodies. Melodies that the young lady couldn’t help but sing, while walking for the fields or the roads of her small town. The grass shone after those notes, the wind stopped to listen, and stems bent towards the heavenly tune that those vocal cords emitted with such grace and delicacy. As if they weren’t made for any other purpose but singing, to gather all Nature by their side. And yet, whoever was lucky enough to listen to her song could find no words to describe its beauty, firmly affirming that “There are still no human words that would belong to Evelyn’s noble song”. It was now common belief that her voice was nothing other than a gift from the most virtuous deities, an immortal spirit that would survive even after Evelyn’s death, perhaps to move to another body as worthy as hers. Although no one, of course, would have lived long enough to see the truth with their own eyes.

Although Evelyn’s song pleased the small town and anyone lucky enough to hear it, she wouldn’t benefit at all from that. Lady Evelyn sang for her own relief, led by passion and love — but, most of all, she sang for loneliness and her own self. Singing was the only thing that could soothe the emptiness she had had inside since she could remember, and, still, every melody she sang would always lead, inevitably, to an even stronger kind of pain and sorrow.

2.

One day, during one of many lonely walks outside the village, Evelyn wound up on a tremendously familiar shoreline of a tremendously familiar lake. Sparse groups of weeds crowded the shore, caressed by almost still waters that didn’t seem to care about the steady blows of the wind. The sun was about to dive into the warm waves below, welcoming enough to make Evelyn feel as safe as she could never feel in her whole life. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t remember where she had seen that lake, those inlets, those waters, those plants on the shore, those quiet waves escorted by the wind, and that golden sunlight. Then, not far from her, she saw a shape that made her jump in surprise: a boy, down on his knees, a little older than her, using a stick to draw some concentric loops on the water, probably out of boredom. She ran to hide among the bushes, in shyness, but remained there to look at him from a safe distance. Even from there, she had the feeling he had something familiar in his look: a kind of disconfort and melancholy that she knew very well, a loneliness she learned to cope with several years earlier, an emptiness impossible to fill up. All of a sudden, she felt a little less alone, a little less in discomfort, more in peace with her own self: she had finally found someone alike.

But Evelyn had gone far from home for too long, already. She decided to return to the village; she would go back to the lake the very next day, just to watch that young boy from afar and, maybe, try to introduce herself to him.

Once home, she was invaded by negative thoughts, and by a subtle kind of regret for not talking to the young boy straight away. Not even her father’s attempt to breach the lady’s heart were successful: Evelyn either answered vaguely, or didn’t answer at all. Her extremely independent attitude allowed no exceptions: she felt perfectly able to make it on her own, proud as a feline and stubborn as a desert rose, flourishing on the most arid of soils.

It was not before several days passed, that she could find the strength and bravery to get back to the lake. It had been weeks since she first saw the mysterious boy, but she hoped that, for once, time would not change anything at all. Instead, time was totally unaware of her songs and hopes; and the young lady couldn’t find any trace of the boy at the lake, neither that day nor in the ones that followed. Her sorrow could do nothing but intensify her songs, echoing in far plains and hills, engaging the winds and all the wild animals. Slowly, all of Nature started to gather around her to attend to her songs, every time she went by the lake.

One day, however, Evelyn did not sing. Wild animals ignored her, the winds blew relentlessly, and hills and plains shone of their natural colours under a golden dusk light. Evelyn walked for hours on the shoreline, to which she felt connected by an almost innate instinct. She felt home, more than ever, and she almost wouldn’t think of the mysterious boy anymore, playing with the waters several months away from her present memory. Then, Evelyn tripped on a small root, and tumbled on the ground. The grass gently welcomed her in a warm and caring embrace, and the young lady didn’t feel any pain; the ground had shaped under her body and softened, becoming a cushion for her unfortunate fall. As if the shoreline of that lake could recognise and love her, like you and I would love an old friend we haven’t seen for a long time.

Then, a calm, deep voice behind her back captured her attention. The mysterious boy of several months earlier approached Evelyn with a concerned look on his face; his eyes were like copper, his skin lightly tanned. He was a little taller than her, and had a kind of protective and caring attitude that would make any tramp animal feel safe.

«What happened?», he asked, his eyes fixed on Evelyn. The young lady was still lying on the ground, on the yellow grass of a mid-season afternoon. «Did you hurt yourself?»

Evelyn remained quiet for a few seconds. Then, she answered.

«No… No, don’t you worry. I just tripped», she said, instinctively unleashing her candid smile. She stood up; the young boy looked enchanted by her looks.

«What… What’s your name, m’lady? If I can dare to ask…», he started, stuttering in front of such marvellous beauty. The boy surely knew he was in front of a noble lady, and he surely knew how to show her some heartfelt respect.

«Call me Evelyn», the young lady answered, as noticeably embarrassed as he was. The girl tried to stay quiet, but didn’t succeed for long. «And you are…?»

«Nathan», he answered, lifting his eyes from the ground. «But everyone calls me “Nate”.»

Evelyn smiled again. Her face, brightened by a fleeting beam of sunlight, was like a memory of the brightest star in the night; her voice, the most delicate rose of all.

3.

Months went by. Evelyn rarely sang anymore, pleasing Nathan, the court or the entire town. Her pain was gone, she could not feel it anymore; and yet, once in a while, that feeling of emptiness knocked on her door again, creeping among the shadows of her heart, forcing her to a brief, melancholic song of nostalgia that was rationally impossible to explain. Having Nathan by her side gave her relief, but it was a vain relief nonetheless: her lonely spirit couldn’t find any fulfilment anywhere else but in her songs, where she would always look for something able to permanently fill up the emptiness of her heart. However, Nathan’s love would warm her heart every day a bit more, and she knew that she would never find any kind of bliss again, if he were to suddenly disappear from her life.

One day, exactly seven months after their first meetings by the lake, Nathan went to hunt in the woods around the court, with Evelyn’s father as a hunting partner. The two of them got on really well with each other, and it wasn’t the first time they would go together on a hunting trip. The sun shone high and bright in a luminous late-Spring sky, and the air was just starting to fill up with that summer warmth that usually encourages the most serious walkers, or the most affectionate romantics. As cheerful and lightheaded as ever, Evelyn walked around the whole town, getting lost in that almost magical harmony between the inhabitants and Mother Nature. Life, in that small village, looked gorgeous: anywhere she looked, she could see farm animals, travelling merchants or even just simple ladies of the court going to the market to attend some business. Evelyn would recognise them from their huge plumed hats, and the valuable silks they loved to wear — certainly not from their faces. She shook her head with a smile; not everyone loved simplicity, in her family’s court.

The surrounding countryside was green and flourishing, as if mirroring Evelyn’s own lightheadedness and serenity, on the edge of her eighteenth year of age. The wind caressed her face like an old friend, and the sounds of Nature were just a sweet murmuring attending to her songs, which were sons of Nature itself. Never Evelyn’s life had been so radiant, so rich of such harmony that only Nathan’s love could provide.

When she went back to the court, however, Evelyn found something unexpected waiting for her.

Several people from the whole town had crowded by the court’s main doors, apparently concerned about something. As Evelyn moved through the villagers, their eyes were fixed on her, showing both sadness and quiet compassion. Evelyn would have never imagined what was waiting for her in her father’s room, and the crowd outside thought not to say a single word about that.

Nathan lay on the bed, with deep cuts on his ribs and some minor wounds on the rest of his body. His face was unharmed, but completely still. His breast barely moved to a regular breathing, and his eyelids were closed. He was at rest.

Evelyn’s father, hurt with way minor wounds, explained to his daughter that the two of them were attacked by a raging pack of wolf, and Nathan, in an attempt to save the man’s life, protected him from one of the beasts’ fiercest attacks. It was a miracle they could escape all in one piece. He told her that his wounds would definitely heal in a few days… But all of the thirty-seven doctors of the court agreed on Nathan’s condition. The young boy was about to die, slowly, and there was nothing they could do, apart from staying by his side and providing all the support he needed.

Evelyn felt a sharp knife stabbing her in her heart repeatedly, from one end to the other. All they had lived together, the joy they had felt, their memories together, everything passed in front of her eyes in a quick instant.

4.

The whole village cried, touched by Evelyn’s pain. They all brought gifts to the court, strongly hoping to be of some help to her, to soothe her sorrow. But the following days turned greyer, the wind struck more fiercely than ever on the palace’s walls, and the storms in Evelyn’s heart found no relief for days, darkened by her pain and strengthened by her love for Nathan – who was dying, helpless, on her father’s bed. The young lady quickly lost her smile, closing up in her own mind; useless were her father’s attempt to bring her back to reason. After some time, then, the doctors gave their last answer: Nathan’s wounds would force him to lose consciousness for the last time by the following twenty-four hours, and his heart would stop beating by the twelve hours following that event. Evelyn, shattered, made up her mind: she would spend those final hours with Nathan, her beloved.

And she did: the lady wouldn’t let Nathan alone, and she did all she could to make it easier for him. She sang cheerful, sad, melancholic and energetic songs, she sang all she ever knew because she knew that Nathan had always loved her voice, more than anybody else ever did. She had never sung for anyone but herself before, and now, for the first time in a lifetime, she felt like her songs had a real meaning to someone else, a purpose, an end. Together, Nathan and Evelyn remembered the first time they met, their first kiss, their first dinner at the court, their first trip on a horse, the first time she had sung in front of him. Together, Nathan and Evelyn cried nostalgic tears; tears filled with a past that would never come back, filled with a pain never felt before, filled with a joy that would never be forgotten. Then, amid Evelyn’s tears, Nathan closed his eyes, while whispering his last words to his beloved: «In your heart, you made me immortal. I was never worth of such honour; but I will live with you, now. Forever.»

And, then, Evelyn cried. 

5.

She cried like she never did before, she cried because she was alone again, and because life had emptied her once again. She cried, because life was never actually able to fill the emptiness in her heart.

She cried because the sun would never look bright to her anymore, she cried because the stars went off, because the wind had stopped and Mother Nature was listening. She cried because Nathan would never laugh again, dragged away by the waters of a stormy river, because such a sparrow like Death itself found him and took him away with it. She cried because she felt powerless, because she knew that nothing would change the way things went, no matter how hard she fought or sang or laughed or kept on living without him by her side.

Evelyn was left alone in the room with Nathan, now close to trespassing. The village had stopped crying, and all around the court was a dead silence never heard by the inhabitants before. Evelyn had been crying for a lot of time, now, but she felt like her tears could find no relief at all. Then, the light of the candle on Nathan’s night table started waving, and waving, until it went off completely; and the air turned colder, in that room and in the whole court.

A shape, entirely dressed in black, showed up in a corner of the room, wearing a shredded uniform and a dark hood on its head. A pair of wings, pitch-black, came out of its back. Evelyn was scared, but she recognised the Dark Angel from some of the iconographies she studied as a child. However, the Angel ignored her and approached Nathan, keeping his head down. To no avail she would make numerous attempts to stop it.

The Angel put down his hood and moved under a soft light at the window’s shade, unveiling his true aspect: his face was a skull rich in cracks and deformities, one that, although candid, would never suggest pureness or innocence to any observer. His eyes were shimmering of a ruby-red reflection that suggested evil and darkness equally, while his hands, expert in the craft of trespassing souls, moved with such expertise and speed that Evelyn could barely see them, while they were setting up Nathan and his soul for the eternal slumber. Almost as tall as the ceiling, the Angel looked at Evelyn from time to time, like a parent would look at a disobedient child; then, he went back to work, without whispering a sole word. The air all around him was freezing, utterly unaware of the room’s temperature; an icy wind capable of freezing Evelyn up to the bones.

All of a sudden, the old Evelyn, formerly suffocated by her pain and her tears, came back to reason. The Evelyn that knew the value of life, the Evelyn that knew no arrogance nor vanity, the Evelyn that would never be selfish and that would have given anything to help someone else. The Evelyn who loved, and whose love would always overcome obstacles. She understood: there was only one thing to do.

Evelyn dodged the Angel of Death and ran towards one of the wardrobes in the room. She knew that house well enough to know exactly what her father would keep in every single drawer of his own room, and she didn’t waste too much time looking for what she was after.

The Angel looked at her, curious, emitting some feral and infernal sentences in a lost and ancient language, a language that a pair of mortal ears would never recognise. It wasn’t the first time he witnessed something similar; and yet, that day, he felt a difference in the air. He almost felt fear for it. The young lady looked at her beloved one last time, holding a sharp and shimmering item in her hands.

Evelyn stabbed herself thrice, straight to her heart, with her father’s knife. As life was drifting away and the Dark Angel moved towards her, Nathan was slowly regaining vigour and his wounds healed by the second. With her death, Evelyn broke the link between the Angel and Nathan’s life; with her death, Evelyn gave herself and her soul to save her beloved. With her death, Evelyn brought Nathan back to life.

6.

Evelyn sang one last time. The whole village heard a song that nobody ever heard before, and yet everyone was able to sing it along. Linked by the same pain, moved by the same tears, the villagers accompanied the saddest and most sorrowful song that Evelyn had ever intoned. One, unique voice rose up to the sky; and anger, and pain, and sadness, and gloom all came together for a last, heartbreaking farewell to little Evelyn.

Her chant was so strong that it shook the court’s foundations, so sorrowful to be heard in every part of the globe, so beautiful and harmonious that it could not be described by whoever heard it or sang it. Over those notes of pain, meadows and fields around the village wilted, animals fled, woods went dark, plants died. The sky became grey, the wind stopped caressing the confining lands, and the sun would never be able to shine again on the region. After a few months, the village was deserted, careless, and the court crumbled to ruins; all the vivid colours disappeared from the region, and the skies cried, cried ceaselessly for Evelyn’s death, whose chant would bend Nature itself and please the most rigid heart.

«Evelyn!», young Nathan screamed, when he saw his beloved’s body lying on the ground of the empty and dark room, over a puddle of dark blood. And, in the arms of the man resurrected by her song and sacrifice, Evelyn exhaled her last breath, with a candid smile brightening her face.

Drifting on the waters of a lake, not far, a snow-white swan made a long-waited appearance, among the quiet waves moved by the evening breeze.

7.

They say that wild swans sing, right before exhaling their last breath. It’s their last grasp at life, one final hope of leaving something behind, a memory of themselves in a world filled with injustice. They never sing for anybody else, and, in all truthfulness, by simply watching them, we could safely assume that they cannot sing at all. However, when the time comes, and when their spirit is about to part from their body, they throw a last, desperate cry that will engrave their figure on Nature forever, eternalising their memory in the shadows of the wind, and in the life of every living being.

They say a swan song is indescribable, second to nothing in the whole world. It’s a cry of pain, the last glimpse of a vital impulse about to be extinguished. And yet, as he sings, the swan doesn’t feel pain: his chant is his most beautiful work, a gloomy legacy, able to enchant the most insatiable predators and touch the coldest of hearts. There is no living being capable of resisting its beauty.

And they also say that, once in a while, when a swan dies, we can still spot the sorrowful shape of a young man, listening to his song from the horizon.

Copyright © 2018, Anthony Wolf – All Rights Reserved

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