From The Swan Suit
Squamish, B.C., author Katherine Fawcett knows her fairy tales. Not necessarily the specifics of Rumpelstiltskin or the nursery rhyme “The Three Little Pigs,” though Fawcett riffs on both of those in her sophomore collection. But the author is acutely aware of the tropes and allegorical elements of classic folk tales and fairy tales, including the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. In her short fiction, Fawcett uses aspects of traditional folk tales and reworks them from a feminist perspective – in this, she operates in the same mode as Angela Carter and Carmen Maria Machado, among others.
The title story in The Swan Suit is about a fisherman who lives with his mother. One day while fishing, he notices a swan land by the water; he watches as the swan unzips its feathery skin and removes it to reveal a beautiful, naked woman. Overwhelmed by attraction for this woman, the fisherman decides to make her his wife.
Fawcett’s approach to this material is interesting and works on several levels simultaneously. The refusal to give the fisherman a proper name is typical of fairy tales that substitute archetypes for individuals – the woodcarver in “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, or Prince Charming in “Snow White.” The fisherman lives with his mother, who is likewise not given a proper name; she is presented as a skilled archer and a former beauty queen who has lost her looks and become bitter and resentful. (Here, Fawcett at once subverts the traditional masculine role of the hunter and plays on an allusion to domineering female characters in fairy tales from “Snow White” to “Cinderella.”) She also wants her son to find someone to giver her a grandchild, so when he declares he has found his soulmate, she decides she will help him win her over.
The fisherman’s attempts to woo the maiden – note again the self-consciously classical folk tale designation – fail miserably, notwithstanding his training as a member of Toastmasters International. He proves socially awkward and unable to work up the nerve to approach the maiden. “He didn’t have much (any) experience with young women,” Fawcett writes. “He always felt uncomfortable in his own skin around them.”
This is a loaded line, although it appears like a throwaway on a first reading. The comment carries an element of irony: unlike the fisherman, the maiden appears so comfortable in her skin she is free to indulge herself by skinny dipping in the lake, though of course her nakedness is obscured by the swan suit when she is not bathing in the water. The fisherman’s discomfort in his own skin is also an instance of foreshadowing, anticipating as it does the final movement of the story.
Throughout “The Swan Suit,” Fawcett is concerned with the nature of identity and personality, and the ways we communicate (or fail to communicate) these things to others. Each main character in “The Swan Suit” wears a disguise of some sort, from the fisherman’s self-regard as a rugged masculine romantic figure to his tough-edged mother’s nostalgia for her days as a beauty queen. The notion of disguise is literalized in the maiden’s swan suit, itself hinting at the story of the ugly duckling.
It is also, more directly, a reference to the Celtic legend of the selkie, a mythological figure that takes the form of a seal with the ability to shed its skin and walk on land in human form. In one version of the myth, a fisherman steals the selkie’s sealskin and forces her to become his wife.
Here again, Fawcett undercuts the original story by having the fisherman, at his mother’s instigation, steal the swan suit as a means of compelling his intended to seek him out; when he sees her up close, he begins to notice flaws and imperfections that render her more like an actual woman and less like the idealized specimen of beauty that is characteristic of fairy tales. But even this does not represent the maiden’s true nature and by the end of the story, the reader realizes that Fawcett had pulled a bait-and-switch: the folk tale in question is less the ugly duckling and more Little Red Riding Hood, once again with a feminist twist.
“The Swan Suit” is highly playful: the fisherman speaks in elevated, chivalric tones – “My cowardice is a cloak around my heart. … My dark shroud could cost me my love” – though his attitudes toward the maiden and his feelings of entitlement more closely resemble a 21st-century incel than a classic Don Juan. The mother is woman of action, killing dinner when the her son comes home empty handed, and quick with an insult – “Moron!” “Idiot!” – when the fisherman proves incapable of attracting the object of his affection.
But the central character in the story turns out to be the maiden, who exposes the true nature of the fisherman and demonstrates that she is not what she has appeared to be all along. The maiden is mutable and fluid – “She is an adventurous soul,” writes Fawcett – and finally refuses to be reduced to an object of desire or a subservient matrimonial figure for the fisherman. She ends the story with her selfhood intact and her integrity unmolested. There is even a note of gender ambiguity that Fawcett inserts into the closing moments of the story.
But there is a final twist in the tale, which features the fisherman’s mother preparing a meal out of her latest kill. The moment is too delicious to ruin but it provides a macabre and satisfying coda to Fawcett’s modern, feminist update of a traditional folk tale.
*Note: This post has been updated to include reference to the selkie myth of Celtic and Scandinavian origins. My thanks to writer Zsuzsi Gartner for pointing me in the direction of this tale, which is the key to unlock Fawcett’s story.