Swan Mountain

A brave girl prepares to make a dangerous choice. With tradition and expectation weighing her decision she must follow her heart and trust in herself.

Today was the day. At sixteen years of age she could make the Choice. She’d always known which way she would go but tradition dictated she wait until her sixteenth year.

“That’s the age a girl really knows her mind!” she thought, her mother’s words echoing inside her head. She was dressed appropriately. The tight, black vest around her torso, cut accordingly to expose her upper back entirely. The long, white, billowy pantaloons, with cords pulled tight around her ankles to protect her modesty when she Dropped. Her feet were bare and her long, dark locks were tied simply with grey thread. She ventured a glance at herself in the polished glass on her bed stand and was pleased with what she saw. Her eyes reflected back at her, one a warm brown, the other a soft gold. The excitement bubbling within her was almost too much to contain and she breathed a heavy sigh of relief when she heard the summons.

The door of the house opened up directly onto the steep stone walkway which wound its way spirally to the top of the mountain, as did all the homes of the village

“Calliope! It’s time my dear,” her mother’s voice held tinges of the same excitement. She rushed to the door and thundered down the stairs. Her father stood in the doorway beckoning her outside.

“I thought she should eat something beforehand,” her mother directed towards the man.

“There’s no time now, she’ll be late if we don’t set off right now.”

Calli directed a thank you to her mother and presented a pained face at the thought of missing her meal but secretly her heart was leaping.

“We’re going now! This is it!” her thoughts obviously evident in her eyes as her mother gave her a knowing shake of the head and a kiss on the cheek.

“Enjoy yourself Calli, you will never feel anything like it again,” her mother assured her with a kind smile, the memories of her own Drop clearly returning to her.

She followed her father out of the door onto the walkway. The sky was empty of clouds, a fierce blue expanse stretching away into the distance. From this high up the mountain, the myriad varieties of landscape could be seen mingling below. Waves of thick green forests lapped at the edges of islands of dark brown farmlands and bright yellow cornfields. The Flower River could be seen carving its winding path through the terrain, a multitude of colours blooming along its banks.

The door of the house opened up directly onto the steep stone walkway which wound its way spirally to the top of the mountain, as did all the homes of the village. Calli smirked at the sturdy wooden fence curbing the edges of the path, preventing anyone from stumbling over the edge.

“I shall not need you any longer,” she thought happily. Her father brought her out of her reverie with a sharp instruction and together they began their ascent to the top.

***

The sun was at its highest point in the sky when they reached the overhang. Here the bones of the mountain stretched out away from the centre half as far as the base itself, casting a long, thin shadow down the mountainside. The trail along the rocky promenade was paved with smooth, white stone terminating at the lip with a single black tablet of even marble. The peak itself was completely flat, a product of manufacture. Around the origins of the white path

stood a small crowd of those who would perform the ceremony. Several ministers and the grand minister himself were present as well as the arch scribe and a few attendants. The wind blew fiercely around the plateau, ruffling the hair and clothes of all in attendance.

“This is where I leave you daughter. You have made me and your mother very proud with your wise decision. I know you’ll be successful and we will be waiting with food and wine when you return,” her father spoke loudly and kissed her softly on the forehead. He appraised his daughter once more and confirmed his satisfaction with a nod before taking his leave of the proceedings.

Calli stepped forward to greet the ministers. They all smiled and showered her with good wishes and reassurances. When the formalities of name and family had been recorded by the scribe and his assistants, the congregation left Calli to walk along the paved trail with the grand minister alone.

“You are making a brave decision today young one,” the minister spoke slowly and his voice was soft and kind. Calli looked into the grey and gold of the minister’s eyes and watched his short, snowy hair as it danced in the violent gusts.

“After today you will truly belong to our family. Please raise your hands.”

Calli lifted her hands towards the minister and he produced two bottles of black and white. First, he daubed the girl’s palms with a yellowish tincture before applying a mark of salt to one hand and a mark of ash to the other.

“As those before you, today you shall cast aside the salt of the earth and the ashes of death. Let neither anchor your soul to this world,” the minister spoke the blessing in practiced fashion. As was tradition Calli clasped her hands together mixing the elements with one another before flicking her hands aside scattering some of the application on the ground around her.

“You are ready. Please proceed,” the minister said with an air of finality whilst taking a step backwards.

Calli began her walk towards the point of the promenade. She felt the space between her shoulder blades begin to tingle unbearably. The feelings she had trained her body to ignore for years were resurfacing. The wind guttered menacingly around her small form sending quivering ripples along her pantaloons. The white paving stones felt warm beneath her feet at each step as she continued forward. Like fulfilling a desperate need to relieve herself but stronger and more pleasurable she let go of her restraint. Almost immediately the sinews of her back twisted and groaned, her skin beginning to split apart in great, red gashes. She knew there was pain but the elation of the release was drowning her senses. Blood trickled freely along the line of her spine as the glowing tips of white feathers began to protrude from her skin. Each snowy stalk pushed feverishly at its membranous prison, slowly but surely blooming from the girl’s back. Calli began to walk faster and faster, lost in the wonderful ecstasy of her liberation.

As she passed the halfway point of the promenade she broke into a run. Her discarded skin lay in strips in her wake, the smooth, white stone marred with crimson splashes. The arches had broken free now, extending away from their origins at her shoulder blades. With several rows of glistening feathers already in place, more and more were sprouting from arch and back. The plumes were slick with bright blood, dulling the soft glow emanating from beneath.

She was sprinting now. The unforgiving wind blasted at her face, ripping the tears away from her streaming eyes. The black marble rushed towards her feet marking the point of the Drop. She knew she was close to the point of no return but she felt no fear. She could feel nothing but irrepressible joy. Her arms stung from the cold gusts buffeting her body and the grey thread binding her hair had been torn away. She ran as fast as her legs would allow, giving every ounce of energy in her body to the final step. Her left foot met cold black marble as her right foot met empty space. For less than a second her twisted form hung still above the void. Then she was gone.

***

She was falling.

“Oh no! No! I’ve failed!” her mind reeled in panic. The air surged around her body in a deafening roar, her arms and legs flailing weakly against the blustery onslaught. The base of the mountain seemed an eternity away but she knew that gravity would introduce them to one another soon enough.

“I mustn’t give up,” she thought steeling herself. Extending her arms to the side and widening the positions of her legs she settled into a fixed stance. She began to feel mindfully for muscles she had never used in all of her life.

“You are my body! My soul! I am in control!” Calli yelled at her herself from within. The ever-expanding ground seemed far too close now. Surely, she had only been falling for a minute. She sought feverishly for the bodily movement she so desperately needed to exercise. The turbulence screamed around her so loudly she thought her ears might burst. She closed her eyes as she searched.

There.

Enormous white wings burst forth from between the girl’s shoulder blades, scattering the remains of her tattered flesh into the empty space around her. The feelings of ecstasy she had lost at the Drop coursed back through her veins with ungodly speed, hundreds of times more potent than before. Her heart swelled within her chest and her body quivered uncontrollably with the intoxicating pleasure. She beat her wings for the first time in one powerful stroke and her descent ceased immediately. The thunderous roar of the air was gone and she was in control. She was no enemy to these elements any longer. She was home at last. Stretching away beneath her she saw once again the patchwork landscape which surrounded their lonely mountain.

“Those places were not meant for me,” she thought wistfully.

Calliope stretched her feathered limbs to their fullest, shaking free the remains of her transformation. She began to climb the steep face of the peak she had called home for so many years. What had taken minutes to fall through took her only seconds to master as she ascended swiftly back above the lip of the promenade. Applause and cheers broke free from the group of ministers and scribes as she twirled her now graceful form above them. The sun, still at its zenith, caught every feather along her wings as she turned, gifting the girl a fluttering cape of gleaming fire.

She knew she would return home soon and she and her mother would take their first flight together. Then there would be food and drink and stories of past Drops. Now she could tell hers with the other women. Her grandmother would be there with flowers from the river and their closest neighbours would bring gifts and good wishes. Perhaps the dark-haired boy from three doors along would come also. She smiled. She would never forget this day or the feelings she had felt as she had run towards the edge. She knew one day she would send her own daughter to the very same ritual and it would be she who waited at home nervously preparing the feast. But today was her day and she would be welcomed back with love and pride.

Yes, she would return home soon. But first she would fly a little longer.

***

As those before you, today you shall cast aside the salt of the earth and the ashes of death. Let neither anchor your soul to this world.