I recently discovered Sue Vincent’s Thursday Photo Prompt Challenge, and was inspired by this week’s photo to produce this piece!
Note: Dubh agus Bán is Irish for Black and White
Dubh Agus Bán
“Things were never as black and white as the old stories would have you believe,” Fionnula’s step-mother Aoife told her as they climbed out her bedroom window and up onto the roof. “People are so much more complex than simply being just good or evil, victim or perpetrator, light or dark. Everyone is born with the potential for both, and everyone will make choices that will fall on both sides of the scales, and some that will fall on neither. History is written by those that would see themselves in the best light, those that would have our story twisted so that the truth of it is lost.”
“I see,” Fionnula replied, not really seeing at all.
She perched on top of the roof, leaned back on her arms and tilted her face up to revel in the first warming rays of the dawning sun, all the while ignoring the churning in her gut and the sweat pumping out of her armpits in time with her rapid heartbeat.
“The thing is though, you did turn us into swans,” she pointed out, making sure to keep her voice calm.
Aoife hesitated and then nodded. “Aye, I did. However, t’was not me that cursed you to live all those years –”
“Don’t forget about my brothers,” Fionnula interjected, unable to help the anger seeping into her voice. “They were turned too.”
Aoife sent her a sad, sympathetic smile before she replied, “You know you didn’t have any brothers sweetheart.”
“How do you know?”
“Because while your curse is to remember only the twisted version created by it, my curse is to remember the truth in very painful detail.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?” Fionnula asked, a petulant look on her face as she crossed her arms.
Aoife shrugged. “I hope that you would trust me enough to know that I would never do that. Not to you.”
Fionnula crossed her arms tighter, hugging herself as she rocked slightly. “I know you wouldn’t. It’s just…the memories in my head are so clear, and they feel so real…”
“I know they do sweetheart,” Aoife said sympathetically. “The closer it gets, the more real they will become to you. Which is why I need you to have faith in me and in what I am telling you because when it gets here, the only way we will be able to defeat it and lift the curse for good is together.”
Fionnula bit her lip as she stared into her step-mother’s eyes. Aoife took her hands and squeezed them as she smiled and waited. Eventually Fionnula nodded, squeezing Aoife’s hands back. Aoife beamed and then stood up, pulling Fionnula to her feet. The two women stood side by side, looking out to the horizon where the sun was starting to peak above the clouds.
There was a sudden shift in the air, and Fionnula felt every hair on her body rise in response to the change in temperature and pressure. It wasn’t just a physical change she could feel, no, but also a…psychic wasn’t the right word but it was the closest thing she could think of. There was a psychic change around them, a change that affected her mind and soul. Her heart grew cold, and visions of her old life flashed through her head; of being forced to fly hundreds and hundreds of miles, of having to drag her aching body around the lakes, of doing her best to keep her brothers warm and dry as they huddled under her wings, of the agony of becoming human after nine hundred years as a swan, and the sweet release of death that swiftly followed. It wasn’t until hands had grasped her face that she realised she was curled up in a ball, screaming. The hands pulled her forwards, and Fionnula instinctively reached out and wrapped her arms around Aoife’s shoulders as she wailed into her chest.
“It’s okay, it’s okay sweetheart,” Aoife said soothingly, rubbing her back. “You’re here with me, you’re not on that lake. Listen to me speak, listen to the birds singing around us, feel the sun on your back and the wind blowing through your hair. Focus on everything around you and not on what’s in your head. Come back to me sweetheart.”
Little by little, the world around her came back into focus, becoming more and more real with every word that Aoife spoke. Eventually the visions faded, and Fionnula found herself back on the roof in her step-mother’s arms, the memories surprisingly less real and more dream-like than they had ever felt. For the first time since those memories of her past life had come back to her she felt clear-headed, ready to take on the beast that was coming.
“It’s here,” she said calmly, and Aoife nodded and looked over her shoulder.
Fionnula turned and saw the clouds twisting and turning, revealing the shape of the great cloud dragon that had plagued the land during her first lifetime, and which had returned once more.
She took a deep breath, and then said, “Promise you won’t leave me?”
“Oh sweetheart,” Aoife sighed sadly. “I never did.”
Aoife stretched her arms up, looked at Fionnula, and when her step-daughter nodded, recited the incantation. Fionnula closed her eyes, feeling instantly at ease at the feeling of her body shifting and stretching; her neck elongating, her bones hollowing, feathers sprouting from her skin. When the feeling faded, she opened her eyes and looked over at the large black swan that was standing where Aoife had been moments ago, knowing that she herself was a perfect copy in white.
A new memory from her first life bloomed in the back of her head, feeling warm and soft and so much more real than any other memory she’d ever had: the curse of the swan had been placed upon her, and she had taken shelter in the reeds of Lough Derravaragh. She’d huddled as the rain beat down on her, shivering in the cold. Only then she wasn’t alone; a large black wing covered her body, and she looked over in surprise at Aoife who was huddled beside her. It seemed that her step-mother had been struck by the curse as well in the cloud dragon’s dying moments. Tears fells from Fionnula’s eyes, and Aoife pulled her close, opened her beak and sang her a comforting lullabye.
There was a roar from above, and Fionnula looked up to see the cloud dragon bearing down on them, steam pouring from its nostrils and its mouth stretched grotesquely. She looked back at Aoife. They shared a look that communicated more than words ever could, and then took to the sky, ready to fight.
This is sort of my take on a modern sequel to “The Children of Lir” which you can read here.