from The Complete Works, special private edition, v. 1: Early Writings
This is not a tale of once upon a time. This is not a fairy tale of a forgotten enchanted era, long ago passed into dim dull reality; this is not a story about magic long since vanished, but about magic that is as true as it was when the first living thing drew its first breath—and that was the first magic, which is here yet, and may be for always.
In a valley there is a lake, a little lake of blue water. On calm days it reflects perfectly the cottage by the shore, the short dock where a writer sometimes sits with his pen and paper. On windy days it's all choppy shadows and sunlight flashes, and the pages get scattered by the breeze and the duck has to swim in circles to gather them up. He learned quickly to use waterproof ink. Not that he cares that the letters might blur and run—he's still learning his craft; the words he puts down more often than not aren't the ones he's looking for anyway. But the ink might stain her feathers.
Now, though, the pond is lost under a smooth layer of snow, and he writes inside by candlelight, all through the long cold nights, while she tends the fire, pushing the logs into the flames with her bill.
Until one dark night he wakes up to the faint steady sound of trickling water. Spring brings its own magic, the unbinding of winter. The freeze has broken, and the icicles on the cottage's eaves are slipping away, drop by drop. The fire has died, the last embers black, but moonlight shines palely through the curtains.
He is alone, but for a couple ruddy feathers on the pillow beside his head. He gets up, dresses—the cuffs of his shirt ride high on his wrists, and his boots are getting too tight to pull on. He's taller now than he was last autumn. Forgetting the boots, he puts on his slippers instead, opens the door and steps out into the silvered, snowbound world.
It's a darker night than the last full moon's; black bark is showing through the snow weighing down the trees, dark patches on the white mountainside. The lake is melting, a shimmering pool spreading over the ice.
That water must be freezing to her webbed orange feet, but she floats on it anyways, her swimming inscribing transient arrow patterns on the mirror surface. The white and russet twin below her curves its neck up to meet hers as she dips her head down to the water. Then she raises her head and pushes her bill forward, gliding faster over the water, racing her reflection, until finally both the bird above the surface and the one below together open their wings.
Seeing those wings against the snow and trees, he realizes how wide they are now, wider than they looked inside the white-washed walls of the cottage, long straight pinions beating the air. She can fly; she can soar up and away until she becomes only a black shadow against the round white moon.
It would be beautiful; it would be magic. His breath is gusting from his mouth in thin gray plumes, and his heart is breaking.
Except she doesn't soar away. Her beating wings lift her just above the water, to part a moment from her reflection, and then she settles once more, and turns towards him.
Over time he's learned to listen to her quacking, to understand it, after a fashion. But this silent invitation needs no words, as she extends a pointed wing to him. He bows, and together they begin to dance.
She was destined to be a princess, but in the end she's only a duck. He was destined to be a warrior, but in the end he's just a writer. But she'll always be a dancer, and so will he.
She's floating on mirror water; he's stepping on silver snow. The ice wouldn't be strong enough to bear his weight, but outside the water she wouldn't have such grace. But they're dancing the same dance, for all the space between them. When she dips, he bows; when he leaps, she glides to follow. He spins a tight circle in echo of her turning, and she raises her wings as his arms lift.
And maybe he hasn't practiced in too long, and maybe she never mastered the basic steps when she could have; but this night of coming spring no one can see him but her; and he can see no one but her. And her dance is beautiful. Is magic.
The ice is too thin, he knows, thin enough to crack and break under him. But still he slides one foot on it, then the other, and extends his hand to her.
And she reaches up—she stands up, and the feathers cloaking her are gilt in silver moonlight, and her hair spills over her shoulders in auburn waves. She takes his hand, slim cool fingers clasping his tightly. Light glows between them, a warm blood-red glimmering that casts rosy hues on her round cheeks and shimmers on the white snow.
She draws their joined hands to her breast, opens her fingers. The bright glow reflects in her large eyes. "No," she says, and her voice is the same. "No, I can't take this—it's yours, it's too precious ever to break, you know that—"
"Too late," he says. He wants to sound gentle, but it's hard to say anything. He can feel her pulse beating under his hand, that well-known rapid patter under the soft feathers. As fast as a bird's. But this is a girl's soft smooth skin; these are a girl's fingers, curled around his. "And you broke it," he says, swallowing, "so you might as well have this piece."
"Oh," she says, almost like she might cry. "Oh," and her arms are around him, and his around her, and he is crying, even if she's not.
For a long moment they stand together, there in the night of ending winter. Leaning against his shoulder, she finally says, softly, "But...what happened to my hair?"
"Er." He's blushing, even in the cold. "'Auburn waves,'" he admits. "It sounded better than 'a tangled knot of half-braided orange yarn.'"
"Hm." She touches her shining tresses thoughtfully, then sneezes.
He wraps his arms tighter around her, feels her shivering. He's shivering himself; it's still chill, for all the melting water. "We should go inside," she says.
"You could've written it later in spring," she points out, as they trudge through the slushy snow back to the cottage.
"I couldn't wait that long," he says.
"Qua—oh!" she says, catching herself just in time, and blushes, and squeezes his hand tighter, mumbling, "Me neither."
Then they go inside, and the story after that doesn't need to be written. Because this isn't a fairy tale, so it doesn't need an ever after.
And because it's late, nearing midnight, but it's warmer outside than it's been for months, and she's sleeping peacefully on the pillow, her head tucked under her wing. And the candle's almost burned out and my quill's tip needs trimming. And the sound of water won't awaken her until I'm sleeping. So here the story ends.
—But it is good. Very good. As good as anyone can imagine.
And maybe a little bit better than that.