This past week Instagram has been full of fantastic stories and illustrations as part of Folktale Week. This was my first year joining and I wrote my own story called The Boy and The Swan. Here it is in full.
The Boy and The Swan
A long time ago in a small fishing village at the edge of the mountains, there lived a boy and a swan. Born on the same day, they grew up together. Best friends, they would be lost without each other.
Their village was a sleepy place and both swan and boy longed for excitement. The boy dreamed of becoming a sailor. Not to fish like his father and brothers, but to travel beyond the horizon. The boy promised that they would sail together and see the world outside their tiny village. They would often talk of the amazing adventures that awaited them.
But swans do not live as long as boys, and as the boy approached manhood and prepared to sail, the swan was feeling old.
“I will not survive the journey” said the swan, “you should leave without me.”
“I made a promise” said the boy, “You will see the world. We will find a way.”
As the boy’s day of departure drew nearer, the swan grew sicker. Her mind and soul were as sharp as ever, but her body was failing.
The boy had an idea.
It was tradition for a sailor to have a special tattoo before his first long voyage. Often this would be an anchor, but he chose something else. At the instant the ink dried the swan drew her final breath. There was a moment of still silence as the boy held her limp body to his heart and wept. A moment later the swan tattoo began to move.
“When do we leave?” she asked, with a twinkle in her ink-black eye.
Together they sailed across all the oceans and seas of the world. They had many adventures, just as they had dreamed.
As the years went by the boy worked his way up to Sailing Master, in charge of navigation and directing the course of the ship. It was a prestigious but difficult job and he started to think of leaving his life at sea behind.
“We have been travelling many years my dearest swan.” Said the boy “I would like to retire and put down some roots in a sleepy village by the mountains.”
But the swan was not ready to end her adventures.
“There will be plenty of time for that later. ” Said the swan. “We should sail the world for one more year, while you are still young.”
The Boy could never say no to the swan, and so they soon set off on their final journey.
Three months into their voyage, the boy made a simple mistake in navigation. An accident that could happen to even the most experienced sailor when the stars are dim and coastline unfamiliar. In trying to avoid an area of dangerous rocks he led the ship straight into the heart of an epic storm.
Wind and water danced in dizzying violence, disorienting and overwhelming the senses. The sky boiled as the sea churned and a deafening roar drowned all attempts to steady the ship.
Scrambling on deck, the boy fought with the ropes and sails as the wind and rain ravaged the crew. They had just begun to regain control when lightning struck. As the rigging burst into flame no one noticed the boy knocked unconscious and overboard by the splintered mainmast. He plunged deep into the water, his eyes closed as if peacefully asleep.
As the water rushed by, the boy would not wake and the swan began to panic.
Her mind screamed that she must act to save them but she had never felt so helpless. She had insisted on a final journey across the sea, and now they would both be consumed by it. The guilt and water swirled around her in equal measure.
And then, through increasing fear and delirium, as the swan pointlessly twisted and turned, she felt the boy’s arm move. Just a fraction. Had she done that? Not knowing if this was madness or miracle, but certain it was her only hope, the swan stretched her neck and kicked her legs with every shred of concentration she had. They began to move! Adrenaline surged and with all her strength she slowly dragged the boy upwards.
When finally she broke the surface, the fire had been quashed and the ship’s crew were looking for those who went overboard. They were swiftly pulled on deck.
Alas, it was too late. They had been under too long and the boy had drowned.
That evening, as the crew began to bury those that had died, the swan wrapped herself around the boy’s heart and wept.
Lying in the dark overcome with grief and regret, the swan could feel her spirit sever from the boy. Without him to sustain the illusion, it broke down and she was truly alone for the first time in her life.
She could not bring the boy back, but perhaps she could use the last of his magic to create some good from tragedy.
The swan stretched her wings and for the first time in many years, began to fly.
She was determined that the boy’s story should not be forgotten, as so many other nameless drowned sailors.
With effortless grace in her ghostly form she flew high into the night sky and found a place among the stars.
She channelled the the boy’s magic into her heart star, willing it to shine bright enough for ships to navigate by. As the star grew brighter her spirit faded to nothing.
Looking down, the swan saw the whole of the world for the last time, and it was beautiful.
She remains there still, as the constellation of Cygnus, the swan, eternally diving to save the boy. Deneb is the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus and one of 57 stars given special status for celestial navigation.
After deciding on the idea of the soul of animals captured as tattoos I was loosely inspired by the myth of Phaethon.
When Phaethon lost control of the sun god Helios’ chariot, Zeus destroyed it with a bolt of lighting to protect the Earth. Phaethon was killed and plunged into the river Eridanus. His lover Cygnus repeatedly dived to the bottom of the river to try and retrieve Phaethon’s body but could not reach it. Touched by Cygnus’ devotion, the gods transformed him into a swan so that he would be able to dive deep enough. He then lived the rest of his life as a swan and was placed among the stars when he died.
For the illustrations, I created a limited colour palette from photos of old faded tattoos (the blue tones) on weathered skin (the brown / peach tones) plus white and orange (for the swan). They were drawn digitally in Affinity Photo using True Grit alcohol marker brushes. Because of the very short timescale I decided to simplify and concentrate on the characters. No fussy backgrounds, no extra characters, no crazy lighting, no twiddly bits. I’m really proud of how it turned out. It was about five weeks from starting to think of an idea, through writing and editing the story and then creating the seven illustrations.
So many great stories
I also loved seeing all the other great stories being created. These are three of my favourites (though there were many!). Here I’m linking to the first part of each story. Click through and check out their grids to read the rest. Did you join? Do drop a link in the comments so I can see – I’m sure there was so much that I missed!