MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Everyone has their own way of telling our story.
Some say it began generations ago, with a girl lured by the white birds in the woods. The moment she reached out a small hand toward their wind-fluffed feathers, a swan bit her, poisoning her blood.
Others say it started with a flock of swans gliding over our great-great-great-grandmother’s house. They flew overhead at just the right moment to hear her cursing her own family’s blood. So the swans cursed her, and all the daughters after her.
Some insist it was two sisters, squabbling for years over who was more beautiful. A bevy of swans in a nearby pond grew so weary of all the noise, and struck them with a spell that would take one of each of their daughters.
The worst one tells it this way: Once, a del Cisne woman—probably one of our great-great-great-grandmothers—stole a groom from his bride on their wedding day. The bride’s family hated our bisabuela and her name so deeply they cursed her brown skin and her dark hair to become white feathers, and for the same fate to befall a del Cisne daughter every generation after.
These are the stories they tell, tales of winter storms or spiteful witches. Because when there is a family in which one of every two daughters grows an ink-black bill and a pale-feathered neck and snow-bright wings, people like to think they know why.
Few think to ask us.
This is the story we believe to be true:
A mother once raised her daughter among swans, hoping they would teach her their grace and beauty. And this daughter, with the swans for her sisters, grew lovely in both appearance and manner. When she married, she bore only sons, three and then five and then ten sons. And though she loved her sons, she wanted a daughter, so that she, too, could raise a girl with the grace of swans.
So she went to the swans she had once called her sisters.
“Please,” she told them. “All I want is one daughter.”
“We will give you better than one. You will have two,” they said, with a magnanimous bow of their necks. “There will always be two daughters. But we will always take one back.”
“Which will you take?” the woman asked.
They lowered their wings. “That will be for us to decide.”
There may be as many versions of the story as there are daughters our family has lost to it. But this is the one my sister and I know. A woman wanting something so badly she did not understand the weight of the swans’ pronouncement.
There will always be two daughters. But we will always take one back. The swans would take not just one of the woman’s daughters, but one of her daughter’s daughters, and one of her daughters, and one of hers. There would always be one daughter taken, and one left watching the sky in winter, wondering if a far-off flick of white was a coming snow or her lost sister.
Even when there were sons, there were always daughters alongside them, two sisters, whether they had brothers or not. Always two, always enough that the swans could take one and leave behind the other. My bisabuela had already raised three sons, sure she was too old for more children, when her daughters arrived. My great-great-aunt, intent on having one child, delivered, to her surprise, twin daughters. My second cousin thought she had defied the swans by having a single son and a single daughter, until the child thought to be a boy declared herself as the girl she had always been.
The way our aunt and our great-aunts tell it, our family never knows which daughter the swans will take.
But I’ve always known it would be me.
If I wanted to, I could believe everything was decided when we were born.
But I’ve always known it was earlier than that. And not just because the colors of girls are decided before they’re born, though that’s something I know to be true.
What I believe instead is that, in the moments of my sister and me becoming our own little lives, it was already written into us.
In the wisp of blood and not-yet-breath that was Blanca before she was born, there were already the beginnings of how her hair would grow as gold as October leaves.
Her eyes would be brown, the same as the rest of us, and that was something our mother would consider a great misfortune. But they were a brown as light as acacia honey, like amber. A brown that could be forgiven.
A few months after Blanca was born, I was a new wisp of blood and not-yet-breath. My own colors were already waiting. By then, Blanca had grown a crown of hair as fine and blond as a duckling’s down. Her tiny hands patted the growing round of my mother’s belly, where I was, slowly, becoming.
While my sister had a face as fair as the almonds my mother blanched each fall, mine would turn out as brown as the almond’s skin, dark and delicate, that my mother swept off the counters. I would have eyes and hair as dark as the coffee grounds my father spread over his roses in winter.
My hair grew not only dark as those coffee grounds, but red. Not the copper or strawberry of green-eyed girls, but deep red, a red so dark it looked wet. It was a red that wouldn’t take dye, not even the black walnut the señoras gave my mother. “Blood-soaked hair,” they called it, my mother shuddering at the words, my father saying them back with as much pride as if they were a new knife, fine and just sharpened.
My father counted it as such a point of pride that he named me for it, setting his hand on my small forehead and declaring me Roja while my mother slept off a birth fever. The kind of birth fever, the señoras reminded me on my birthday every year, that Blanca hadn’t given her.
If I wanted to, I could believe it was our colors that decided Blanca would be the gentle sister, pure and obliging, and I would be the cruel one, wicked and difficult. She would be the blessed daughter, the one the swans would spare. And I would be the one the swans would take.
But my sister saw our story ending another way.
Copyright © 2018 by Anna-Marie McLemore