Feature: Issue No. 18, Autumn 2016

The Wild Swans
Laura C.J. Owen

The Museum preserves and makes vivid not only what constitutes the glory…it deals with our weaknesses, our mistakes and our crimes…Shouldn’t we think more often of this kind but truthful chronicler? Yes, to think about it in the fever of our work! We shall not escape the judgment of the Museum.

—Vl. Nemirovich-Danchenko

A Walking Tour of the Museum:

(1) The Green Room

The most famous room in the Museum, the Green Room provides a natural starting place for a walking tour.

The unusual furnishings of the Green Room are assembled from a variety of materials, including emeralds, marble, poplar wood, and glass.

According to one contemporary source, King P_____ the III ordered that the room was “to be made to resemble as closely as possible a cave in the woods—a dimly limit enclosure whose walls are thick with green vines, a solitary place into which only a small diffusion of sunlight would enter, like a thin golden mist.”

 

The Green Room’s Origins

No record remains of what the room looked like before it became Green.  However, we can tell from some of Archbishop B______’s correspondence

that a pre-existing veneer—believed to be amber—was removed to expose the dark stone underneath. This gives the room its characteristically earthy, wet smell.

After it was stripped, the room was hung with rich green tapestries. All the original furnishings—almost certainly made primarily from gold and silver and onyx and ruby—were removed. No one knows what became of them; presumably, they were destroyed.

Note: It is possible that Archbishop B_______ ordered the valuable furnishings taken to his personal residence. A persistent contemporary rumor alleged that the Archbishop—who oversaw the Greening process—secreted the original furnishings as a method of private payment for his services. No definitive proof of this exists, however.

As you can observe, the ceiling is covered with a dark green glass. The Green Room’s only illumination is provided by a solitary chandelier, so that the reflective ceiling creates a dim filigree of light, designed to mimic the effect of the sun filtering through greenery.

The centerpiece of the room is, of course, the pile of green nettles atop the table.

These are a traditional tribute to Queen E______ the Mad, also known as the Good.

The Queen was brought to the castle by King P_____ the III, who discovered her living all alone in the woods.

 

The Courtship Myth

According to legend, the King’s hunting party tracked a stag deep into the forest. When the hunting dogs surrounded a pile of moss-and-vine-covered rocks, the King at first believed his dogs had led him to a dead end. Coming closer, however, he saw that that a tapestry of vines concealed an entrance into the stone structure.

Concerned that perhaps they had cornered some violent creature, the King indicated that the rest of the party should stand back. He advanced upon the rock cave, cutting apart the vines with his sword.

At first, he could see nothing in the dim light of the cave’s interior. Gradually, however, he processed a blurry white movement. As the figure came into focus, he saw a pair of small human hands in motion: they belonged to a young girl in a dirty white shift.

When she sensed his presence, the girl looked up in fear and hid her hands behind her back.

The King held out his hand to her, assuring her that he did not mean any harm. The girl only retreated further into the recesses of the cave.

At a crunching sound under his feet, the King looked down and saw that the floor of the cave was covered in nettles, as well as animal droppings and thin animal bones and long, white feathers.

He reached down to touch a feather, but his hand brushed a nettle instead, and he drew back, shocked at the sting. The sharp feeling where the nettle touched his finger seemed to burrow inside him, increasing in intensity, and then bloomed up under his skin in an angry red blotch.

“Come with me,” he said to the girl, again holding out his hand. “Come out of this place.”

He grabbed her arm and began to drag her out of the cave. She screamed, but he managed to carry her outside and lift her onto his horse. The girl cried the entire way back to the hunting camp.

The King ordered the servants who had traveled with him to tend to the girl: clean her and find her fresh clothes to wear.

When he saw the girl again, her hair was no longer matted, her skin no longer dirty, but her hands were mummified in bandages. The servants told her that her hands were covered in deep sores, canyons of red and pus-shiny skin in her palms.

The girl would not speak to anyone or look anyone in the eye.

The King sent an order back to the Palace that a Green room was to be created, so the girl would have a place that reminded her of the woods. No expense was to be spared.

In fact, in order to pay for the room, a tax had to be levied on marble mining and exporting, which led to widespread unrest.

At last the room was done. The King took the girl by the arm (careful not to touch her hands, which were still healing) and led her to the Green room.

The room smelled of stone and even the air seemed to be a dark green. Blobs of gold light from the chandelier reflected off the glass ceiling and crept across the tapestry-covered walls.

“I hope this room will remind of your home in the woods and that it will calm your spirits,” said the King. “Perhaps you can grow easier in your mind and begin to speak again.”

The Green Room was, however, not efficacious. The girl spent her days inside it, but she still refused to speak; she never smiled, and barely ate. She spent her days sitting at the green table, picking at the bandages on her hands.

The King developed a theory. He ordered some servants to return to the cave in the woods and bring back some of the nettles found there.

When the servants returned, they informed him that along with a pile of nettles, they had also found a curiosity in the cave.

They spread it out before the King: it was what looked like a shirt, stitched out of an odd, coarse fabric.

The King reached out to pick up the object and was warned away. “Do not touch it, your majesty,” said one of the servants. “It stings to the touch.”

The King ordered that the shirt, along with nettles from the forest, a quantity of needles, and a weaving loom, were to be taken to the Green Room and presented to the solitary, mad girl.

When he arrived at the Green room with these gifts, the stone face of the girl broke into a smile. The King smiled in return, certain that he had been right about her. A warm feeling spread through the King—excitement and gratitude at having partially unlocked the puzzle.

The King reached out his arms towards the girl, but instead she grabbed the green shirt and clutched it to her, oblivious to its burn. Eagerly, she assembled the loom and began the process of weaving fabric from the nettles.

Thereafter, the girl spent her days preoccupied with her task. The sores on her hands opened again, and her hands grew ever more cracked and swollen. When she had stitched a full suit of clothes out of the nettles, she started again on another. When that suit was completed, she began another. And then another.

The table of the Green Room was always covered in piles of nettles, and the room was always silent, except for the sound of the loom.

As she completed each new suit of nettles, the King arranged to have the finished product hung in the Armory Hall, displayed in a row next to the ceremonial suits of armor.

 

Tradition and Upheaval

After the Queen’s death, the Green Room remained preserved as a tribute to her. It became traditional to leave a nettle on the table as a gesture of respect towards the departed monarch. Over time, this tradition began to be more elaborate, and courtiers would leave nettles carved out of jade or emeralds, with ever more intricate designs.

During the Revolution, the Green Room was ransacked, and the nettles made of precious stones were lost or dispersed. When the castle was later converted to a Museum, museum staffers began the tradition of leaving nettles on the table again. However, it was found that Museum patrons could not resist the temptation to the touch the nettles, and it was deemed easier to leave false nettles made of cloth out on permanent display.

During the Great War, the entire Green room was ransacked and heavily damaged by fire and artillery. The current Green Room is a restoration, taken from contemporary accounts and paintings.

 

(2) The Cabinet of Curiosities

Down the hall from the Green Room, we find the former of study of King P_____ the III, dedicated during his lifetime to his scientific studies and converted after his death into a display room for his specimen collection. The unusual nature of much of his collection is how the room became familiarly known as the “The Curiosities Cabinet” or “The Cabinet of Curiosities.”

The King was a great reformer; he was profoundly interested in the latest scientific research, and dedicated to ridding the land of what he deemed the influence of a backward, superstitious peasant culture. He paid for a great many of the foremost thinkers of the time to come and live at the Castle, invested in the latest agricultural and shipping technologies, and contributed to scientific research himself.

The King had an interest in anomalies, biological deviations from the norm. His great concern was in preserving the strange workings of nature for the benefit of future study. For instance, he commanded that any woman who gave birth to a deformed child should after the child’s death send the body to the palace where it could be pickled in a then-newly-discovered formaldehyde solution.

So if you look around the room, you can see the preserved remains of several sets of conjoined twins, including those linked at the head and stomach; a stillborn baby who suffered from Sirenomelia, or Mermaid syndrome, in which the legs are fused together; a baby born with four legs, and other wonders of nature.

A famous nineteenth-century visitor described this room as “a strange scientific museum of ghosts; the grotesque babies, bleached of all color, float horribly suspended in liquid, every detail preserved with a power that is frightening and uncanny.”

At the time, the arrival of such children was seen as an evil omen or sign of the devil; the King was committed to uncovering the underlying causes of such abnormalities. The King saw magic as natural phenomena that had yet to be named or categorized.

 

The Continuing Story of the Specimens

The contents of this specimen room remained untouched during the Revolution. During the Great War, the fetus jars were hidden in the basement of the museum to protect them from harm.

Several specimen jars were lost during the Second Great Siege of the War; according to legend, several of the Museum curators, who were trapped inside the Museum with no source of food, broke into a jar and ate the pickled fetus of a two-headed calf, only to die later of poisoning from the chemical solution.

 

(3) The Coronation Room

Here we see faithful reproductions of a number of items traditionally associated with the coronation of Kings and Queens, including a medieval-style throne, several types of scepters, and a selection of royal jewelry from the P______ reign.

The slim golden crown, studded with rubies, which sits in the center of the collection, is reputed to be the coronation crown of Queen E______ the Mad, also known as the Good. According to legend, the Archbishop of B______, angered at the wedding of the King to a mad girl of unknown origins, pressed her coronation crown down so tightly around her head that blood was drawn. Supposedly, after the fact, the drops of blood transformed into rubies, coagulating into jagged, scab-shaped gems.

In the nineteenth century, a crown covered in rough rubies was discovered in a previously unknown room of the palace and popular legend attributed it as the Mad Queen’s coronation crown. This crown was later lost, however, and the current crown on display is a twentieth-century reproduction.

 

(4) The Armory Hall

In this hallway, visitors can admire the Museum’s substantial collection of arms and armor. In pride of place are the eleven suits of green armor, created in the eighteenth-century as a tribute the legend of the Queen E_____’s eleven brothers. The eleventh suit is missing its right arm, in acknowledgement of the physical deformity suffered by Queen E______’s youngest brother.

The elaborate nature of this armor makes it unsuitable for real combat, and these suits were created for ceremonial purposes only.

 

(5) The Portrait Hall

Past the Armory, we come to the hall where originally portraits of the Royal Family were hung, as well as other valuable paintings acquired by the P______ or R_____ or B______ dynasties over time. Sadly, most of these paintings have been lost or sold over the course of time.

The Museum has managed to acquire a splendid painting by nineteenth-century British artist John William Waterhouse, entitled Demands for the Execution of Queen E_____, which while not strictly historically accurate, illustrates the mythically famous moment at which a mob stormed the Palace, demanding that Queen E______ be burned as a witch.

 

Demands for the Execution of Queen E_______

According to most versions of the story, the Archbishop of B______ was behind the original rumors of witchcraft; when word spread through the land that the Queen spent her days weaving clothing from nettles, it took very little for the lands’ residents—distressed already over the levying of new taxes and trade restrictions—to become convinced that the Mad Queen—who had still never uttered a word to anyone—was indeed guilty of witchcraft.

Wild rumors abounded that each night the Queen was carried away in a net of rushes by a group of wild swans, only to be returned to the castle in the morning, hands full of more nettles for the weaving. Sightings of the Queen transported from the castle at night became more and more frequent, with fresh elaborations at every telling.

According to one version of events, a mob surrounded the castle, chanting that the witch had cast a spell over the King, and that only her death would bring back balance and prosperity. Waterhouse skillfully depicts the moment of the crowd arriving through Queen E_____’s point of view: she leans out of a castle window, her strangely serene face illuminated by the unseen mob’s torches from down below. Her loom, still hung about with green material, is partially visible the in background.

Indeed, although much regarding the events of Queen E_____’s life remains disputed, it is true that there was a great deal of civil unrest shortly after her coronation: King P____  had strained his subjects’ loyalties through his frequent travels, his study with foreigners, his lavish lifestyle, and his levying of taxes.

According to legend, Queen E_____  remained seemingly deaf to the shouts of the mob outside and continued weaving a nettle-suit. She had already completed ten full suits by this time, and was at work on another. This last was almost complete, expect for the right sleeve.

As the crowd grew more and more restive, burning straw effigies of the Queen and throwing stones through the castle windows, the Castle Guards turned traitor and decided to hand the Queen over to the mob. When the Queen heard the Guards coming down the hall, she snatched her latest creation and fled to the Armory, where the complete ten suits were standing at attention, hung side by side along the wall.

As the Guards pursued her into the Hall, they fell back. The Hall’s windows were shattered as a bevy of giant white swans flew in, arriving in a crush of glass and blood and feathers. The swans were as large as men, and they hissed and snapped and flapped their wings at the Guards.

The terrified soldiers watched as the Queen threw a suit of nettles over the neck of each bird and, one by one, the birds transformed into men. Except, of course, for the last bird, the littlest bird, whose suit was not yet quite complete. His transformation was not whole, and he retained the wing of a swan instead of one arm.

At this point, the Queen was able to speak, and reveal the evil spell that had kept her brothers as swan creatures and doomed her to a vow of silence. Her true identity was revealed as the lost Princess of a large neighboring kingdom.

As for the rioting rabble, the arrival of the gigantic swans had either frightened or reassured them. Perhaps they took it as a sign of the Queen’s innocence—or they were cowed by what seemed an impressive display of her supernatural power.

 

The Historical Roots of Myth

Of course, this story is largely believed to be a fabrication, started in part by the enemies of Archbishop B______ and the B______ family. Some historical records seem to suggest that the King P______ the III did indeed marry the developmentally delayed child of the nearest neighboring kingdom, and that when the citizens revolted in protest of the Royal Family’s lavish lifestyle, an army from the neighboring kingdom, led by the Queen’s eleven brothers, quashed the revolt in a summary and brutal fashion.

It is true that the Queen’s youngest brother suffered from a congenital deformity—a weakened right arm, which was by all accounts shrunken and crooked, and lay limp as a folded wing by his side.

 

(6) The Swan Garden

Now we are outside the museum, we can see the eleven swan statues, standing next to the Museum in the front gardens, looking out at the Lake. They were constructed in the seventeenth century, in honor of The Wild Swans legend. They stand outside, to guard the Palace just as the Queen’s brothers guarded their sister.

During the Revolution, the statues were destroyed, their necks symbolically snapped and their wings broken, but the statues you see here today have been restored according to the original schematics.

After the Great War, when the Museum was in the process of restoration, an urban legend arose that the swan statues had healing power. Wounded veterans traveled from across the country to touch the Swans in hopes of a cure for their injuries.

 

(7) Fata Morgana

The last remaining sight on public display in the Museum Grounds is the beautiful lake. It is man-made, said to have been commissioned by Queen E______.

The name derives from the fact that the lake was so designed that, when the sun sets, the interaction of the light and the water of the lake produces an optical illusion. When atmospheric conditions are right, on the horizon of the lake, there appears to be a shimmering island, a peaceful-looking place where the towers of beautiful buildings seem to rise out of puffy pink clouds. This is a type of atmospheric disturbance, more commonly known as a mirage. This island appears so real, so much like a glimpse of heaven, that legend has that visitors have walked into the lake and drowned in pursuit of it.  Visitors are advised to avoid to lake at sunset in times of emotional distress.

 

You have now reached the end of your tour. Before you leave, we urge you to visit the gift shop and café. Please also consider making a donation towards our ongoing efforts of preservation and restoration. Perhaps you think it odd that our Nation should expend so much effort in the painstaking recreation of what are, after all, the relics of an oppressive monarchical system that ended with violent overthrow.  The Curators of the Museum would like to note that our efforts at historical preservation imply no political stance whatsoever; on a related note, we understand that historical truth is a difficult matter, subject to the vagaries of time and prejudice. We ask you to think instead of the miraculous efforts of the Curators of this Museum, who have recreated and preserved as much as they have, using only historical fragments as their guide. Think of everyone who has lived and died inside this Museum, in the interest of preserving what you see here today.


Laura C.J. Owen was born in England, lived in Minnesota for school, and keeps moving to back to Arizona, where she grew up. She has degrees from Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Annalemma Magazine, DIAGRAM, Litro, and other places. More information can be found at lauracjowen.com