A Corpse from a Swan

by Erik Amundsen

The Fiddler came loping out of the forest and squared off against the Harper over the body on the shore. The two men moved left and right, picking up their feet and putting them down like vultures, like crabs.

“Move along,” said the Harper. “I was here first.”

No you weren’t,” said the Fiddler. “I was watching from the forest for most of an hour. You just happened to sidle up as the miller’s stupid daughter was leaving.”

Lucky me, my rival is a coward, afraid of a tiny black headed girl, too stupid to know a corpse from a swan.”

That’s what she was going on about?” The Fiddler asked.

The two men broke off glaring at one another to look down at the dead girl between them, spread out on the bank with clothes sopped against her and water still running in rivulets from the seams. 

Human beings do not look like this girl in death, not ones the river took, who tumbled down past the sleeping catfish like so much dirty laundry. Her skin was moon colored white, without a trace of blue, just a mortician’s brush of pink around the cheekbones. Her neck was long, the rest of her sleek, as though she were made for swimming or drowning; a body meant to move through water. 

Neither of them was going to say so, not after the Harper cast his scorn upon the notion, but she did look about as much like a swan as she did a corpse. A swan that had long hair to match the color of the gold ring on her middle finger. There was no swelling, no rot, no smell but for an odor only detectable to a certain class of sharp-nosed minstrel. 

An even dozen of those were likely converging on the spot as the first two spoke.

So, about you leaving,” said the Fiddler.

About your delusions,” said the Harper. “You can take that ring with you when you leave. Even if it’s brass, it’ll probably double your take for the month.”

What do you take me for, a piper?”

King Midas has the ears of an ass.”

The Fiddler roared, tucked in his talented hands and leaped over the body. The two men kicked and shoved and threw elbows until they ran out of breath. The Harper had a black eye, the Fiddler a split lip and a cut on his forehead. Neither of them could call the space between their knees and ankles shins so much as battlefields. They stood facing one another, panting, and unfolded their hands from their armpits. Just upstream, the mill-wheel creaked a revolution or two while they caught their breath.

We keep this up and the bank will be swarming with real pipers,” said the Fiddler. “While I’d pay good money to see you try that Apollonian bullshit on them, I intend to be off with my prize before they flutter in to roost. What about you?”

What were you going to make of her?” asked the Harper.

A fiddle with a voice that will melt a heart of stone,” said the Fiddler.

Taking the same circuit twice, then?” 

How’s your eye?”

You know it’s only ever going to play one song,” said the Harper. “That might be one more than you can play, but it’s bound to get old, even for you.”

What were you going to do with her?”

Make a harp that can play alone.”

Your honesty is refreshing,” said the Fiddler. “I can see where the ability to play itself would be an advantage for you. In love as well as music, I suspect.”

Funny. It’s going to solve the mystery of who murdered her.”

Like, perhaps, her fucking older sister?” the Fiddler said. “There, solved that one for you and saved you the trouble. Walk upstream for a day or so, look for a funeral and a smiling girl attached to the side of a grieving boy.”

The water sloshed over the wheel. The minstrels’ shins ached. They looked back at the body.

So what parts do you need?” asked the Fiddler.


Not all of it?”

No, just enough to make harp strings. You?”

Thirty strands.”

Hardly notice. There’s enough here for a dozen more of us.”

Let’s hope there aren’t a dozen more. I need her fingers for pegs.”

So do I.”

I only need four; you can use her toes, no one’s going to be able to tell the difference.”

I’m going to be able to tell the difference.”

While we’re at it, let’s discuss the resonant qualities of human bone. I’m sure the pipers will find that fascinating to listen to while they’re scratching at each others’ eyes for her femurs.”

Fine, I’m taking her breastbone.”

Not a chance.”

Listen, I need the shape, you just need something flat. No one’s going to know the difference if you have her breastbone or her scapulae.”

How is a breastbone remotely harp shaped?”

How is it fiddle shaped?”

Point. Actually, I do need the ring to make the strings for the fiddle.”

The two men lifted up their voices then, and the girl’s flesh fell away from her bones in a fine powder, like the first spring pollen on a late fallen bed of spring snow. They hunkered down together, side by side and got to work, fusing bone to bone, drawing them, softening them to ivory clay, letting them harden. Their shadows changed angle while they worked.

When they were finished, the miller’s daughter came around the millhouse and stove in the both of their skulls with a hammer. She traded the bills and coins in their pockets for stones, collected the instruments they had made and kicked their bodies into the river. 

She looked down at the bones of her little sister, there, what was left of them on the bank and considered kicking those in as well. Instead, she sang the minstrel’s song backwards and the powdered flesh reformed on the body. 

Her sister was lighter, this time around. The miller’s daughter dragged her sister back to the millpond. 

Look!” she called. “There swims a swan!” And she pulled the corpse from the water as the woods behind her crawled with pipers.

Erik Amundsen lives in central Connecticut. He is always Chaotic Evil.

2 Responses to "A Corpse from a Swan"

  • Delightful! I shall have to look for more of you.

    1 The Black-Eyed Cat said this (February 7, 2012 at 7:00 pm)

  • I thought this was an incredibly clever take on this folktale. I chuckled all the way through, but really loved the understated subtlety of it (ie., fighting with their hands tucked beneath their arms).

    2 Adam said this (February 9, 2012 at 7:52 am)