Fisher Girl had never before been away from the group at night. Everyone slept close together, huddled near the firelight, for protection. There were wolves and bears in those days, as well as other groups of people who might be hostile. The fire created a circle of light and warmth, safety, and in the light Fisher Girl’s family slept. But Fisher Girl did not. She stayed awake until everyone else had slowly, gently, drifted to sleep. Until all she could hear was the sound of their breathing, deep and even, and the sound of the night beyond, and under it, close enough that she could run to it, the water lapping at the lakeside.
Quietly, as quietly as she could, Fisher Girl got up. She crept out of the firelight. For a moment, she expected a wolf to swoop and gobble her up. She could hear her own heartbeat clamouring in her chest so loudly she felt sure it would wake somebody else. Slowly, slowly, she breathed until it settled. She reached for her spear, so that she would have something to protect herself with. And Fisher Girl left the firelight and her family behind and walked into the darkness.
Only it wasn’t really dark. The moon shone down so brightly from the clear sky above that she could see her way almost as easily as during the day. The paths she knew so well to the lake looked strange in the moonlight, but her feet knew the
way. She gripped her spear tight for courage. She walked, the ground sucking and bouncing damply beneath her bare feet.
And there it was, before her, the lake, spread out below the moon, shining with the same silvery light. She’d been right: it was magical at night. She sank down on the bank. She had hours. She could be here for as long as she wanted to.
Fisher Girl sat by the lake as the moon rose to its highest point in the sky, as the stars came out one by one, and she watched the water and the moonlight and that would have been enough for her. But then she heard it – slow and steady – at first just a whisper on the wind, but growing stronger and stronger – the sound of wingbeats on the air. And when she looked up towards the sky, she saw them outlined against the moon, a wedge of swans in flight, pure white and lit with some unearthly glow by the moonlight, and they came down to land on the water, skidding on the surface and throwing up great waves that lapped the bank where Fisher Girl sat.
She watched them until the final swan had landed and then she raised her spear above her head. It would be a fine thing to take down a swan. If she got her aim right, she could take one down, and swim out to it, and take it back to her family. No one would ask where she’d been if she took a swan back with her. It would make a fine meal.
But as she drew back her arm, her muscles tightening ready to throw, the swans did something very strange. Each of them, as if responding to the same message, turned and began to swim towards the far shore. As they reached the shore, they climbed from the water. And as they did, the strangest thing happened.
Each of the swans began to shed her feathers, until they lay in gleaming piles on the lakeshore. And below the feathers, they were women, and they danced together on the lakeshore in the moonlight. They had long white hair that shone with the same glow as the feathers they wore. They danced with a joy that Fisher Girl had never seen before, and as they danced, she crept closer and closer, hardly daring to breathe, longing both to run from fear and also to be a part of that joyful dance, because she had never seen happiness like it.
She did not know how long the dance lasted. It might have been a night, or it might have been hundreds of nights, because watching the swan-women dance was like being in a dream you never want to end. But it did end, just as the first rays of sun began to appear to the east and the moon had completed her night’s journey and was sinking in the sky. The swan-women went to their discarded feathers, and each pulled them on again, and as they did, they laughed and chattered, and finally, they were swans once more and they took off and flew into the rising sun, their steady wingbeats getting softer and softer.
Fisher Girl went back to her family, her heart filled with sorrow that she was not among them. She knew she would come back to the lake, to watch for the swans, every night for as long as her family stayed in this place.