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)