The Solitary Swan
A Christmas StoryEugene Schwartz
The following story is contained in Eugene's new book of children's stories Why the Setting Sun Turns Red and Other Stories for Children and is reprinted here by kind permission of the publisher. The book will be available in December 1997 from
Long ago, swans were not the graceful,
long-necked and white-feathered birds that we know today.
They were small and squat and scrawny,
and their feathers were an unruly mixture of
grey and brown and black and white.
Until one day, it came to pass...
Year after year, a solitary swan swam in her pond. When the waters were calm, she would gaze at her reflection and turn away in distress. Every other bird that came to drink and bathe in her pond was so much lovelier than she! Eagles had their powerful wings and formidable beaks, hawks had their flashing eyes, geese had their soft, warm down and even the clamorous crows had such sleek, black coats! Why, the swan wondered, had she alone been given the castaway colors and forsaken feathers of the bird kingdom?
Year after year, the other birds came and went, stopping by the pond long enough only to refresh themselves and then embark for warmer or cooler climes. Others came and went as well: colorful caravans of camels and the merchants who loaded them up with silks and spices, rare woods and precious stones; troops of boisterous soldiers, setting off bound for conquest and pillage, returning weak and wounded and strangely quiet; lonely wanderers, timorous beggars, and tense thieves who traveled silently by night. All these came and went, while the solitary swan swam in her pond and bemoaned her homely fate.
It happened that for one year little rain fell. The next year, even less rain fell, and by the third year, no rain fell at all. The countryside grew withered and brown, and the pond, whose waters once extended as far as the swan could see, shrank so that it stretched barely further than her wingspan. The other birds now flew over and did not bother to stop, and the caravans and troops, the wanderers, beggars and thieves, choked on the brackish water that remained and set off to search for a better source.
The swan was all alone. Every day the pond shrank yet again, until all that remained were a few drops upon which the swan sat, guarding them as jealously as she would have guarded her eggs. In those precious drops of water lay the little life that was left to the swan; she feared what would come when they were gone.
One day a cloud of dust arose on the heavy horizon. The swan knew this was a sign of travelers, yet who would come to the dried-up pond? The cloud grew larger as the visitors approached, and in the oppressively bright and wavering air the swan could discern three figures: a white-bearded old man, walking slowly alongside a donkey, upon which sat a young woman in a long blue cloak. As they came closer, the swan saw a fourth figure, as well. Nestled in the woman's arms was a little baby.
The old man walked up to what had once been the shoreline of the pond, and stood but a few paces from the swan. Ordinarily, the swan would have withdrawn for safety, approaching the visitors only when she sensed that they meant her no harm. But now she remained where she was, guarding the treasured drops of water that rested under her breast.
"Yet another parched pond, dear Mary," the old man whispered, in a voice as dry as the shriveled grass below his feet, "We must travel on still further."
"Oh, Joseph," the woman sighed,
"Where will we find the strength to go on?
Without some water - some cooling drops of water -
I fear that we will perish before we reach Egypt."
The swan listened to their words, and pressed herself even harder against the few drops that remained of the once full pond. These were her drops, the thin liquid line separating her life from her death. She turned away from the old man and his wife and child.
The young woman Mary dismounted from the donkey and walked up to Joseph. Slowly, she approached the swan, whose heart pounded in fear. She held her baby out, so that he might see the swan and touch its feathers. The infant gently ruffled the swan's feathers and gurgled with delight. Tired and thirsty though she was, the young mother smiled, and kissed her child's forehead.
In spite of herself, the swan looked into the woman's laughing eyes. They were two blue pools, more cooling and soothing than all of the water in the world. "Drink of this water," her eyes seemed to say, "And you will never thirst again." The swan then knew what she had to do. She fluttered her wings ever so gently, rose up, and revealed the little pool of water that, but moments ago, she had so fiercely guarded.
The young woman tried to bend down to gather the water in her cupped hands, but she was faint with thirst, and stumbled. The swan sucked the drops into her bill and stretched her short neck as best she could until it reached Mary's hands. The swan released the water into the woman's dry palms. The baby drank first, then his mother, and then the old man Joseph. Mary then returned to the donkey, who gratefully licked the remaining drops from her hands.
Mary remounted, and Joseph began to lead the donkey away as they set out once more on their long journey. Mary turned to the swan and said simply,
"You will always remember this day."
The swan watched the family and their donkey until the dust they raised on the dry ground obscured their forms completely. Suddenly the sky grew dark. Moments later, a warm, gentle drizzle began to fall. The drizzle turned into rain, and then the sky began to pour. The swan lifted her bill gratefully to the heavens and drank and drank of the refreshing water that cascaded down upon her.
It rained for many days. The dry ground on which the swan had been resting became a puddle, which grew into a pool of water, and finally the pond returned, surrounded by lush green grasses and leaf-heavy trees. The rain stopped, and the sun came out, beaming with a gentler light.
The stormy wind had died down, and the swan could once again gaze upon her reflection in the pond. But she could not recognize what she saw there. The feathers that the little Child had ruffled had become as white as a cloud, and as smooth as the waters of the pond. And the neck that she had stretched out so far that Mary's hand could receive the precious drops of water was now as long and graceful as a willow tree's trunk.
And that is how the swan became the lithe and regal bird that we know today.
But, so that every swan can recall how she appeared before
she helped Mother Mary and her Son, young
swans still look like "ugly ducklings."
Then, all at once, they shed their homely raiment and
are blessed for that sacrifice rendered so long ago.
They grow to be long and powerful, their necks extend gracefully,
and their feathers become as white as the snow that falls on Christmas Day.
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Last update: November 30, 1997