The Shirt On My Back

by Lygeia Soulsinger, Furcadia's Storyteller

On an island stood a castle overlooking the ceaseless searching of the ocean waves; and in that castle stood a noble Furre mourning the loss of his wife. Never, he thought, would any replace her who he had loved more than the light of day, so he poured every bit of his love into his children.

They became for him as the sun and moon and stars above, and he was content in their joy. Fed by his love, the seven boys grew strong and gentle, and the youngest child, Pangaea, bloomed as merry and fair as the wild roses running along the castle walls. Devoted to each other, no shadow darkened the children’s’ hearts; though still there was a sadness in their father which not even their laughter could not heal.

Eventually, their father took a bride to share his life. She was beautiful and clever, but she was jealous beyond reason. The mere sight of the children of her husband’s first love was enough to make her hiss with fury. Most of all, she hated Pangaea, who grew into the very image of the Furre she wanted to replace in her husband’s heart. She devised a plan to do away with Pangaea, but first she had to be rid of the brothers who always protected her. The wife set about making seven shirts for the brothers, lined with the feathers of swans and laced with her witch’s curse. Then, catching them all together, she pulled the shirts over their heads. Instantly, the brothers became seven swans. They rose into the air with a clatter of wings and wild cries which echoed from the sea cliffs as they flew from sight.

Pangaea watched this from her window and cried in horror. She knew her stepmother meant her harm as well, though worse still, she feared her father would not listen to her for she had seen the looks and smiles that he gave his wife. For the first time, she doubted her father’s love and she fled from the her home, no longer a haven of safety. Down the shore she ran with the waves crashing ever at her feet as if pushing her onward, but there was nowhere to hide on the small island. Surely, her father would search her out and take her back to the castle.

At last Pangaea stopped to rest where several long, white feathers had blown against a log. She wept, thinking of her brothers as she twisted the feathers into her fur, until the weight of the world pulled the sun’s warmth and light beneath the waves. Suddenly, the sky was filled with the cries of birds and a breeze was stirred as seven wild swans settled about her. Then as the last ray of light sped into darkness, the swans transformed into her brothers. Such was their joy that they stood long in each other’s arms, laughing as tears flowed down their cheeks.

“Now you can come home with me,” Pangaea said at last, “I will walk with you and all will be well.”

The brothers sadly shook their heads, explaining that only when darkness filled the sky could they appear as themselves - and even then they could not sleep indoors, but that they must remain wild and never call a place home.

“We can never go back,” the oldest brother said. “With the morning light, we will become swans again. We must fly away and leave you all alone.”

“Oh, I wish I had wings too!” cried Pangaea. “I could fly with you and all would be well.”

Again the brothers shook their head, explaining that where they were bound there would be neither rest nor safety. They were going to where the wild swans wintered, and this was no life for maidens.

“You must seek a home and happiness,” the oldest brother said. All the others agreed and promised to take her off the island before they followed the winds and seasons south.

They spent the rest of the night twisting grasses into a net to hold Pangaea and braiding kelp into a harness for the swans. Dawn began to spill its light out across the earth, and Pangaea hugged the youngest brother in farewell.

“Must you be swans forever?” she pleaded. “There must be something I can do.”

“No, dear sister,” he replied. “It is too hard. The only way to break the spell is for you to pluck nettles from the cemetery of a church and spin them into flax. And from that flax you must make shirts and pull them onto us when you are done. And through all the time whilst you work, you must neither speak nor laugh, for if any sound should escape your lips, all the work will be for naught. No, little sister, it is too hard. Do not be sad, though, only think of us if you see the swans pass overhead.”

The sun broke above the horizon with those words. Pangaea’s brothers were wild swans once again, and they carried her away from their island home in the net they had made.

As they flew high above the ocean waves, Pangaea was frightened as she hung between cloudless expanse of the sky and fathomless gulf of the sea. The youngest brother stayed as near to her as possible, the shade from his left wing protecting her from the glaring sun and this somehow comforted her.

Swiftly they flew, and before evening they had set her down on the strange and distant shore. Then as the swans took to the sky without her, Pangaea’s went heart with them and she was content to witness the wonder and strength of her brothers’ flight and the beauty of their broad wings. She waved, and set her path towards the low hills which huddled at the foot of the western mountains.

Swallowed whole by her grief and lost in emptiness, Pangaea walked unseen and unseeing through the forests and valleys. She eventually came to a withered old church and paused, looking about her at last. A gnarled oak spread twisting limbs above the abandoned church, while weeds buried the headstones in its yard. Swallows darted into the shelter of its eaves and an owl gazed sleepily from the modest bell tower.

Remembering her brother’s words, a single sigh slipped from her, but it was the last sound to escape her lips. She went into the tiny cemetery and gathered the stinging nettles into her arms. Indeed, it was a hard task and Pangaea’s paws were soon swollen and blistered, the fur scratched away to leave raw skin exposed. At night the church was cold, and her stomach growled in hunger as the wild animals cried frightfully in the woods.

She did not weep. She never complained. Pangaea worked in silence until she was used to the life. In the summer when the flowers were blown and the sharp leaves stiff and dry, Pangaea would gather the nettles. In the fall when the acorns rattled hollowly across the roof and her fingers cracked and bled, Pangaea would spin the flax into shining threads. In the winter when the wind howled in the chimney and the ice snapped from the eaves, Pangaea would weave the thread into fine cloth. And in the spring when the thunder shook the floorboards and the rains dripped through the ceiling, Pangaea would sew the cloth into shirts of faded gold.

One day as Pangaea stood outside straining her eyes for a glimpse of swans in the sky, hunters crashed through the underbrush and into the churchyard. Pangaea leapt into the oak tree and clambered high into the branches. The hunters shouted to her and pleaded for her to come down, but she only shook her head. Still they persisted. Pangaea threw down her golden necklace, hoping they would take it and leave. The hunters called for her again. Piece by piece, Pangaea dropped what was left of her finery… her silver rings… her silken purse… her mother-of-pearl comb… until she had nothing left but the nettle-torn rags that she wore. Still the hunters urged her down, and eventually they climbed the tree and took her down.

The hunters carried her away from the little church and brought her to a nearby town. There a gentlefurre, Drake, wrapped his cloak about her shoulders and asked her who she was. Pangaea uttered not a word, but glanced up as a shadow passing south crossed the sky. Drake took her swollen paws and bent to kiss them gently. Then as he rose, he looked on her beautiful face and was enchanted. In that instant he knew he could not rest until she became his bride.

He showed her every kindness he could think of and gave her gifts and combed her fur. Promises and pleas he laid before her if only she would be his wife. But she would not say a word, neither yes or no, and only gazed out the window at the forest.

Then as fall turned to winter, Drake led her to a tower room where he quietly stepped aside as he opened the door. There on the floor and on the window sills was all her work from the little church - the piles of nettles and flaxen thread, the bolts of cloth and half-sewn shirts.

“Will you not smile, Pangaea?” asked Drake. “Your happiness is all that I wish for.”

Pangaea took Drake’s paw and, laying it against her cheek, she smiled. Then looking clear and deep into his eyes, Pangaea nodded once and by that Drake knew she would be his wife. They were wed the following day and though Pangaea would still not speak, they settled into a full and happy life.

In the summer when the sun embraced the earth and Drake danced playfully at her heels, Pangaea would gather nettles from the town’s churchyard. In the fall when the leaves gave their joy to the world and the moon swelled full of life low over the horizon, Pangaea would spin the flax into shining threads. In the winter when the fire laughed in the hearth and the wind whispered words of peace, Pangaea would weave the thread into fine cloth. And in the spring when rains freed the musky ground and Drake sat braiding flowers into her fur, Pangaea would sew the cloth into shirts of faded gold.

There came a day, though, when Pangaea’s stepmother appeared in town. Bitter from the loss of her husband, she told the townsfolk that Pangaea was a witch who had cursed her husband and sent him his death on the wings of swans.

The townsfolk were greatly surprised. But then they recalled how Pangaea had been found wild in the forest. A creature fey, they whispered amongst themselves. They wondered at her silence and the long hours she spent laboring in her tower; and they remembered how she would forget her meal to race from the house at the sound of flocking swans. “A curse she’s worked,” they said aloud. They noted too how she plucked nettles from the church cemetery and felt no pain. “A witch forsooth!” the townsfolk boldly cried.

But Pangaea did not hear their words as she wept silent tears for her father’s death.

“Speak just this once,” cried Drake. “Tell them you are innocent!”

But Pangaea sadly shook her head as she thought of the shirts so near to being finished. Drake threatened and argued with the townsfolk to set her free. He begged and pleaded. The townsfolk shook their heads and would listen to none of it.

“She is a witch” they said. “If she has not confessed in three days time, she will burn.”

With that pronouncement, they locked Drake in the tavern’s cellar so he could not try to save her, and they threw Pangaea in her tower room. She had no thoughts for her own fate as she rushed to complete the shirts. Never stopping to eat or sleep, Pangaea was startled when the door was thrown wide and her time was up.

She grabbed the shirts and held them to her breast as they drug her to the street. In the cart, she sewed with fevered haste as they trundled through the town. Finally, they came to a stop in the clearing at the edge of town and Pangaea paused in her sewing to look up. There in front of her was the stake with kindling piled high. Next to it stood a grim Furre, torch in hand.

Suddenly the clearing was flooded with swirling white shapes and the air was filled with the thunderous pounding of wings as seven swans drove back the townsfolk. Pangaea leapt from the cart and threw the shirts over the swans’ heads. Lo! Before them all stood seven tall Furres in place of the swans.

“See, I have done no harm!” Pangaea cried out at last. “You must set me free!”

And indeed, the townsfolk saw Pangaea’s innocence. Drake was set free as well, and he heard Pangaea’s sweet voice for the first time as she told him of the love she felt. Her brothers gathered close, and the joy from Pangaea’s reunion with them spread its fingers through the crowd like a mother’s paw through her cubs fur.

Soon every face was lit with goofy smiles and not a Furre among them could imagine ever being angry or sad. Even Pangaea’s stepmother smiled as she stepped forward, placing around Pangaea’s neck a heart-shaped pendant which held a lock of her father’s fur.

Despite her joy, though, a sadness still tugged at Pangaea’s heart for she had been unable to finish a sleeve of the last shirt. So instead of an arm, a swan’s wing now hung from her youngest brother’s left shoulder.

“Little sister,” he said, laughing merrily as he embraced her with his wing. “Do not be sad. It is a small enough price to pay. We are together again, and all that could be healed, is now healed.”

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