Sandra Benedetto: The Indigo Swan

Among the black swans living in the wetlands of Australia’s Avon River was a cygnet whose feathers had yet to darken. She lived with her family in a large herd along a quiet bend in the river. It was an idyllic home but she felt restless and incomplete. She wanted to be more than just a common swan. She wondered at how the other swans and the toads and the pygmy possums could be so content with the way they were. Since birth she had heard tales of an elusive indigo swan, the most beautiful swan in the whole country. She fervently hoped that one day she would awaken and her feathers would have deepened into the same rare and celebrated color.

Each day she spent hours searching her greyish-brown feathers for glints of violet-blue. Her self-examinations became more desperate as she realized that her feathers were blackening like all of the other swans. Her mother and father and sisters and brothers tried to tell her that she was beautiful exactly the way she was. It made them sad that she hated her appearance so much. She didn’t listen to what they had to say, and in fact resented them for being so ordinary. She vowed to do whatever it took to transform herself.

One day she went in search of the indigo plant and used its flowers to tint her feathers. When she revealed herself to the other swans her age they showered her with attention and compliments. They all asked how they, too, could make their feathers such a lovely hue. She explained how she had used the flowers of the plant as dye and showed everyone where she had found them. Soon all of the cygnets in the Avon Valley were indigo. Even some of the older swans tried it, but their feathers were so dark that they just looked blacker as a result.

The only problem was that the process needed to be repeated frequently because the dye washed off quickly. After a while, the swans were spending so much time looking for indigo plants, which were becoming scarce, that there was little time for anything else.  Not only that, but the cygnet who had started it all didn’t feel very special anymore.

She decided she must do something dramatic to set herself apart. She would remove her feathers and use the flowers to dye her skin; then she would certainly be brighter than all the others. She hid in an inlet for hours and plucked her feathers one by one. She didn’t mind the pain because she knew that when it was all over she’d be the most beautiful swan in the Avon Valley. She rubbed the flowers over her skin and when she was done she craned her neck all around to study her work. She was now a vibrant blue, yes, but for some reason she didn’t feel beautiful at all. In fact, she felt uglier than ever.

She didn’t want to go home, so she sat in the inlet until it grew dark. After a while a quoll approached. She froze in fear because she knew the spotted creature was a natural enemy of swans. He approached her, sniffing with his little pink nose. “What are you?” he asked, and she told him that she was a swan. “I’ve never seen a swan like you before,” he replied. She burst into tears and told him what she’d done. “That’s dumb”, he said. She didn’t know how to respond. He continued, “Black swans are glorious, to look at and to eat. If I could be anything but a quoll I’d be a swan. But I like being a quoll.” She asked him why. “We’ve been around for millions of years because we’re smart and quick. Humans love our cousin, the kangaroo, so that means they leave us alone. I’m free to do as I please. I love it here, don’t you?” The swan nodded through her sniffles. Suddenly she was eager to get home. She thanked him and set off down the river.

Her family had been looking for her. Her mother’s trumpet of joy turned into a whistle of dismay when she saw her daughter’s naked blue skin. The swan hung her neck because she was ashamed of how she had acted towards them. Her family gathered round and told her that they loved her no matter what she looked like. The following day when the sun came up, the other swans weren’t as kind. The same swans who had begged her to help them color their feathers whispered and laughed when they saw her.

Fortunately, it didn’t take very long for her feathers to grow back in. In the meantime her father taught her how to build a sturdy nest and find stoneworts to eat if the water were to rise. Her mother taught her how to elude golden-bellied rats. She was too busy to think much about her feathers. When they did reappear they grew in black, as she was now a bit older. By then the indigo plants had revived and some swans in the valley continued to dye their feathers, but she never did again.

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