Here it is! It’s more fable than story….
Zella sold pillows. A simple housewife in a small village in the mountains, she’d lived with her family in the cozy cottage beside the swan pen since she was a child. Swans had provided down for mattresses, linings for warm winter coats, and food for the family for generations. The pillows, though, were Zella’s idea. Sewn from the finest linen, woven by herself, she filled them with the softest down harvested from her own swans. Not only were they beautiful, but each one was embroidered in the most intricate, colorful design. No two pillows were alike. As Zella stitched each one, Zella thought about the dreams that the pillow would give the sleeper. Happy thoughts, always. The swan down seemed to absorb Zella’s requests, and adding an extra layer of warmth, held the secrets Zella gave it with an amazing ability.
Zella never questioned this. For generations, the swans had had the ability to grant wishes, but no one knew this but the women in her family. And Zella was the last one.
Sometimes, a client requested a specific dream. Not sure about the ethics of fulfilling such a client request, she decided that if the dreams were to produce a harmless result, it would be within her power to do so. Experimenting upon herself and her family members, she quickly perfected her new craft, and joy and happiness were soon discarded as too vague a dream request. If the client didn’t know what she wanted, for only women found their way to Zella’s door set far down a country lane, Zella suggested she return when she knew. Each day she harvested more and more down from the swans until they grew bloody and tried to bite her when she appeared in the swan house with her basket.
She always put them in their place with a single glance.
For Zella’s powers were growing. The housewife who needed her son to stop his wild ways would receive a pillow for his bed that taught him, through dreams, that he should travel the path his parents chose for him or the consequences would be dire. Another woman desired her husband to leave his mistress, and sure enough, she’d have her husband’s love back within a fortnight. Zella’s reputation grew among the women of her county, and soon spread, through whispers and little notes sent to relatives, to surrounding counties and ultimately, to the entire kingdom.
She didn’t know how she did it exactly. She’d always had a knack with a needle and thread, and her swans were well fed and graceful, even though angry at all the loss of their down. Her weaving was exemplary, but the other part of her magic grew without her examining its source too carefully. To her husband, when he asked about her growing business, she explained that it was a gift from God. Since she tithed regularly and well, her priest was happy to say nothing to her in the confessional about the success of her pillow business. In fact, it never occurred to him that something rather unchristian was going on in his parish.
Zella’s clients were uniformly happy with their pillows. Even those who’d bought the older models weren’t complaining, for harmony and joy were generally the rule in their households. What more could a housewife ask for?
Until one did. Of course, she was a younger woman married to an older man who had already buried two wives. With long black hair and deep blue eyes, she looked like a prize for any man. Her husband certainly thought she was. Yet after two years of marriage, she had failed to conceive. Then she discovered her husband using means to prevent her from doing so. At first, she was hurt, which quickly became anger, for she wanted a child more than anything.
“Who will be my companion, my rock, when you die, my husband?” she demanded. “You are much older than I, and I will not be left a childless widow.”
“You will if you wish to stay my wife,” her grey-bearded husband barked.
And that was the end of the conversation. For she loved her rich apartments in his castle, and the servants who kept her from wifely drudgery, and the beautiful silks he brought home from his travels for her to make into stunning garments. Leaving him was out of the question, and she never really thought he would leave her, no matter what. For he was besotted with her, and she made sure he stayed that way.
She never breathed a word about a child to her small circle of friends. When her mother was visiting one day, she saw her daughter was unhappy and asked its source.
Never one to keep anything from her mother, she sighed. “My husband does not desire any children. He says he will never give me my heart’s truest wish. All he has put in my hands from his wealth is fine, but I want a child more than any silks or perfumes or jewels.” Then she began to weep.
“Stop that, you silly girl. There are ways,” her mother soothed.
“He says he will discard me if I become with child. Besides, he controls our beddings so I cannot conceive.”
“So, he must be made to believe he wants a child. That is the only way. Men can be so pig-headed. But I know just the woman to see to make him change his mind.”
With that, her mother whispered the name of the pillow-maker into her daughter’s ear and told her how to find her cottage. “I have used her pillows for years and they have never failed. In fact, I asked for dreams to give me a beautiful daughter who would find love with the richest man in the land, and look what happened!”
With that kind of guarantee, the daughter decided to give Zella a try. Gathering every coin she had, adding a few jewels she felt she could “lose” without punishment, she took the long journey to Zella’s door.
The young wife was surprised at how simple the pillow-maker lived. Her cottage was comfy but not opulent. Why didn’t a woman who had the power to make dreams come true live in wealth? However, her mother had assured her that Zella’s art was infallible. Thus, once there, the barren wife got right to the point.
“Come in, my lady,” Zella swept a low curtesy, for she’d never seen a woman dressed so richly.
“I desire a pillow that will give my husband dreams about children, the children he desires with me and only me. He is stubborn and old, but my mother tells me you can change any man’s mind with your dream pillows. I will pay you most handsomely.” Opening her purse, the wife displayed the small fortune she offered.
Thinking about the request and rationalizing that the Bible said mankind was to go forth and multiply, therefore the dreams would be in furtherance of this command from God, Zella decided she was on firm ground to accept the coins. The money could be used for a new church roof, for the priest had been dropping hints. She told the young wife when to return for her pillow, and as soon as she had departed, Zella got to work.
First, she harvested the down, making sure she had enough for a grand sized pillow. The swans were particularly vicious that day, but she beat sense into them and they gave up their down . All of it. Their hisses followed her from the covered pen where the swans lived, if it could be called that.
The pillow was one of her best. Free of any flaws, the linen snowy and covered in bright embroidery, the pillow was waiting for the young wife when she returned. Pleased with the pillow’s beauty, the wife promised to return when she was happily with child to let Zella know that all was well.
The dreams the pillow sent worked their magic. Within a month, the wife was pleased to discover she was to become a mother, and that her husband was overjoyed at the news. Nine months later, the young wife died in childbed, and her child with her. The elderly husband sank into a grief so profound, his servants feared the worst.
When she heard the news from the mother of the young wife, Zella was distraught. Her pillow dreams had never caused any harm. Shaken, she stopped making pillows for a while, but her husband and family and the priest had become accustomed to the money she earned, and cajoled her into starting up once again.
But this time, something was different. The linen tangled in its spinning, the warp or the weft fell from the loom, and the dyes in her embroidery thread dulled to ugly colors. So many of her beautiful pillows were still out there, though, it took a while for news to spread that the pillows themselves were not the works of art they’d been in the past. And even worse, the dreams sold with each one didn’t work. In fact, nightmares became a regular occurrence for the new pillow-users. What was horrifying and baffling together, the pillows still in use began to falter and fail. Sad dreams, dreams that woke their sleepers with screams of terror emanated from the formerly wonderful pillows.
Her purchasers didn’t just grumble. They ranted and raved and cursed her name. Fearing they would one day stone her, Zella fled to the parish priest for help. Her husband and children had already distanced themselves, pretending they had no idea what Zella had promised with her pillows.
“Help me, Father. I can’t explain why my pillows cause more sorrow than joy, and I fear I will be stoned, or even worse! Burned for a witch!” Zella’s knees ached as she knelt before the priest.
“It would be a fitting punishment for a witch!” he roared. “Get thee gone, daughter of Satan. Never darken this church door again!” He added a kick to his rant, sending Zella sprawling on the stone floor.
“But Father, I have paid for the roof, the rebuilding of the altar, I have embroidered your vestments as well as the altar cloth! You know I am a faithful parishioner, how can you curse me?”
But her sobs had no effect, and she found herself at home, bruised and distraught, standing in the door of the swan house. Only they remained of her once content family. Everyone, all her children and her husband, had deserted her. They feared what was coming, she knew.
Sobbing, she sank to the ground in the swan house. “What have I done?” she wailed. “I only wanted to help people.”
The largest swan, a male cob, approached, wings aloft, head high, showing the red patches where his feathers hadn’t regrown, they’d been plucked so often. “What did you expect? That we would work our magic forever, with nary a word of thanks? You keep us penned in this cold place, and though you feed us, we are never free. Our children, our cygnets, have never known the freedom to cross the sky. We have done enough, more than enough, for you were a good woman and we wished to help the people you helped, but we are done.”
“How could I know this? You never spoke a word to me before today.” Wiping her eyes with her apron, Zella remained on the ground before the cob with his ten-foot wingspan.
“We did. You didn’t listen until today.”
Ceasing her crying, Zella realized what he said was true. “I was too busy listening to what others wanted. My customers, the priest, my family. My deepest apologies. What can I do to make it right, before the villagers come to tie me to the stake?”
“Set us free.” Only the swans knew that the curse that had held them in their prison was ancient and made by her great grands well before Zella’s birth. Only she could free them, since she commanded their flock by birthright.
“Of course. I am so sorry. But before you go, could you tell me why my relatives cursed you and kept you captive? I always assumed you were penned here to protect you, since you are so valuable.”
The eldest cob turned so he faced the flock. “We were not always so kind. Only recently have we rediscovered our true natures. Mankind has not been our friend. Look at how you have scarred us by taking our downy feathers!”
“Yet you still blessed so many of my pillows, until now?” Zella frowned, wiping tears from her face with her apron. “What changed?”
The large cob, all the pens and cygnets, opened their beaks. Serrated teeth, sharp as a shark’s, glistened. Snapping their beaks shut, then open, in a steady rhythm, the swans surrounded Zella until she barely had room to breathe.
“We grew our true beaks back,” the cob whispered in her ear. “The curse grew weaker, until we no longer had to give you, or anyone else, what was desired of us. Happiness, husbands, prosperity. None of it is left for us to give. Now, life for the pillows you bled us to fill shall be as it should. Uncertain and filled with danger.”
Only then did Zella understand that none of the evil her pillows had wrought was her fault. The curse that kept the wicked swans in check and forced goodness down their captive spirits had waned. Snapping beaks nipped at her head scarf, her skirts, her sleeves.
“Release us!” cried the largest swan. “Or you will die!”
She knew what she must do. Summoning all her courage, Zella shouted out a curse she didn’t know she possessed, one that would guarantee she burned at the stake if the village priest heard it.
“May you die in this pen if you do not help mankind and do only good as you are asked by humans! Every single one of you are hereby cursed. If you wish to live, obey me. If you do evil, your lives are forfeit!” Fingering the crucifix at her neck, Zella stared at the large cob, who shrieked and beat at her with his wings.
Only the first bites hurt, as the swans ripped open Zella’s throat and wrists, knowing exactly where to draw blood. As her life spread into the dirt of the pen, Zella felt at peace. No more would the swans curse or bless humans. Her words had condemned them the minute she felt them come to her mouth.
As Zella died, so did the swans. They could not serve kindness to the humans they hated a second longer. So the oppressed died with the oppressor, as has been the case for thousands of years. When the villagers came for Zella, they couldn’t find her body. No one thought to look in the swan enclosure, but they’d have found only the remains of the dead birds.