She’d slipped unnoticed from the confines of home, while the rest of the house (save a few servants) slept heavily. She welcomed the skeletal trees that reached for her, thick morning fog rolling across the ground in a duet with mist. A crow called out a warning.
She tiptoed silently to the lake’s edge, nimbly dropping small white stones behind her as she went. They would guide her back, or else she risked letting the woods try to swallow her.
Breath from her lungs became small white clouds in the crisp air, hanging in suspension, waiting to be excused. A melody slipped past her lips. She dared not sing her song louder than a whisper, for fear of waking the people of the lake before their own time.
She sat upon the wet moss that crept slowly into the lake’s depth, toes reaching to break the surface. A ripple went dancing away, disturbing the marble-like water.
In her small lap sat a stack of papers: Stars on bluish midnight, gold and bronze, a rose garden, silver moonlight, snowy white. She sang a song while she fashioned them. Crease here, fold there, unfurl a wing, let loose a tail feather. Her sister had patiently shown her, after learning it herself from a man of China. Don’t bend them too much, she’d told her, or else they will not float as naturally as if they were real.
She set her paper swans on the lake and slowly they drifted away. They felt like children to her- though she was but a young child herself.
They joined the people of the lake, as they had awakened. That’s what her sister had called the swans, the lake people. The swans watched her, commanding respect and awe over their elegance. They floated beside the paper swans as if they’re their own.
She observed quietly with knees tucked under her chin, hidden in the reeds along the lake.
When she watched, she’d always imagine her swans unfolding into reality, ready to fly away when they needed to. Perhaps she was simply envious of it. Swans were adored, she was not. Swans were thought of as beautiful, graceful things. She was a wild, untamed creature that ran around the woods without clothes and made paper swans. Swans were respected. She was laughed at, ridiculed and ignored.
She thought it was rain falling down her cheeks, not her young child heart crying as it broke.
But this day, they didn’t become real to her. Everything folded into paper. Paper trees, paper clouds, paper swans. She let out a shriek of insanity. Falling back, fearing she too would become paper. She would dissolve into the lake or burn up by fire. But maybe she already was paper, a delicate thing easily destroyed.
She ran after her white stones, a wild brightness shining in her eyes. Far off she could hear her name called by a servant dressed in black, a white apron around their waist ready to smother her screams when they found her. Prepared to hide her mad existence from the world.
Her calloused feet padded against the soft earth, numb to the pain of sticks and stones from her days of fleeing.Hot tears burned at her eyes, blurring the world together. A root reached up to stop her, and she tripped. The veins of her hand dripped with scarlet liquid. How pretty, she laughed.
At the lake, paper swans floated away.