The Swan and the Courtesan: An Original Story by Sarah Hall

By Sarah Hall

Ahead of the Erotic: Passion & Desire sale in London on 16 February, we commissioned Sarah Hall to write a short story inspired by the 19th century exceptional carved mahogany bed that features in the auction. Hall is one of Britain’s finest novelists and writers of short fiction, winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Portico Prize for Fiction, the BBC short story award and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2004.

My daughter wakes in the night. Mummy, she says, there’s a bird in my bed. It was on my pillow. It was on my face. That was just a dream, I tell her. Hush, go back to sleep. Mummy, she says, there’s a bird in my bed. It was on my back, here. That was just the rustling sheets, I say. No, Mummy, no. There’s a bird. It was round my neck.

Together we search beneath the blankets. We look through her hair, the colour of tarnish, wild from its double crown. We look under her feet. No bird. It was just a dream, I tell her. There’s a dream in my bed, she says, and a bird. She holds a finger to her lips. Shhh. The bird is sleeping. My daughter lies down and closes her eyes. She sleeps on her side, feet splayed like a mermaid’s tail, archer arms, her bow-finger touching the wood’s dark veneer. Some kind of creation, this myth of a girl; already pursued, already hunting, deep in the innocence of words. So the artists make us. So the stories go.

But I made her, in a womb once taken apart, stoned, and sewed. I made her bed - eight bolts, twelve screws, five panels of false mahogany – foolproof, for skill-less artisans, unbreakable when she jumps. In it, inside her old-gold head, she dreams of birds. They are coming for her. White feathers, beads of blood for eyes, long necks that wind around. They are coming on muscular, cracking wings, calling out across the skies. They will shoulder their load; lift her bed from the house. They will carry it as beautifully and steadily as undertakers. All through the night she will be towed. Up, over the great cold roof of Europe and the undecided moon. Over lands of men and commerce, where wars wax and wane, past stars ruthless as choices, coveted as jewels. Over the smoke of poor villages, where we are all the same, all longing, our bodies made obviously, our minds let out beyond the give of rope. Along the withers of mountains. Along rivers that lead to cities, through great falling doorways of water, past palaces and fountains, to the salons of borrowed time, where fate excuses no one, and we live that we might live.

They will land her anywhere, this daughter, coming down strongly on their black webbed feet, the hot engines of their breasts cooling. Blood-eyed. They will land her sheerly, in raised towers, or on the heather of the moor, the island reefs, the blown-glass courts, the forcing houses of the ones who want to make her theirs. They will land her into stiff schoolgirl shoes, into uncut pages, green gowns and slender heels, loaned from other women’s wardrobes, where mirrors show women showing women what to do. Into the soreness of each new knowledge. Into the theatre of desire, where she will learn the art; of painted faces, of lust’s brokerage, of holding fire inside the mouth and hand. They will land her in the arms of which un-hearted man, which sick and ardent sufferer, which abandoned chance. A place where queens are made, from murderous ends, from iron buckles, sacrifice, deceit, conceit, destructed elements, no materials known to man. Then they will lift her up, and on.


She will see worlds from bigger beds, beds of timber, silk, and silver, beds carved from the heart of forests, hardwoods that ballasted slaves, that glossed the emperor’s table, that built fortune’s ports, drew coins gently through their sap like patient lovers. Beds left empty, knelt by, bent over, fought over, in the game, for the name of love. Beds heavy as thrones, ordered to serve the wealth of love’s needs, lustrous, matchless, cut by desire’s machines, watched over by hungry crowds and the creatures of the sea, hired by the hour, by the year, lifetimes, in which she will choose every man, every one, in which she will conduct passions and suffering, ride lovers like falling trees, taste rivers of seed, be as bound, as known, as owned as she is free. She will be all her selves and none.

When they have gone, she will sleep naked under roofless stars, in ocean rooms, salted heavens, libraries, frozen doorways, moors, between the wet spilled hearts of women, on the great hot breasts of resting swans, inside the belly of the monster, the very eye of the moon. She will see light emptying and filling in the called-out skies, calling her own wishes to heel, dreaming of birds again. She will drink wine or milk or milkless pauper’s tea beside the fire, learn to count money, learn to seem unreal, learn to lie alone. She will mend torn hems, leave heavy suitcases on the road, and cross borders and cross borders and cross borders, she will take the name of saints, hope, sorrow, ruin. She will take titles, husbands, brides, collect rings, memories of peat and silt and hurt, carry coffins made of wicker. She will burn everything, forget the names of enemies, believe in every breath except the last, lie in one last bed, unbreakable as death, and she will live that she might live.


Mummy, she says, shhh, the bird is sleeping. Then she is. Hair like brass from its double crown. Finger pointing. Her little landed, darkwood bed, innocent of meaning. I draw the blanket up, and close the door. She is another story, not this story. Not the archer, not the mermaid’s foot, the queen, the consul’s wife, mistress, maker of clocks or peace or moons beyond moons, mother of children, siren, widow, sign. She is of what I cannot know. Graceless. Nameless. Unmade. Ready. Never theirs, not mine. They are coming soon. The birds will wind her forward, every night. I will be old, and wakeful, my body too weak to build anything, mother to the daughter of time. They are coming on white, definite wings.

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