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They Have Been Turned to Swans

And their bodies, slowly, painfully, shifted then from fingers and elbows, and biceps, turning into wings.  Their feet were webbed. Their necks grew long with weeping.

They were become as refugees. Beings seeking refuge from whatever storms battled their countries, their families, their hearts. They were refugees because of greed and fear and the wars held in the hearts of women and men.

And off they flew.

The land was dry. So dry. There was no food. Their houses were riddled with bullet holes and danger.

They walked many kilometers. They swam. They ran. They hid. They froze and burned. Their feet became so twisted with blisters and hard use that sometimes, some days, they wished that they had wings.

The land that they called home was burning. Crumbling. Disintegrating from its grief.

They flew across the sea. There was no place for them to land. No family but the wings that beat beside them.

The only homes they had were in the hands that gripped their own, pulling them across scorched earth. The only homes they had were in the arms that held them as they crossed choppy, gray-green waters, searching hopelessly for land.

The Children of Lir flew on, stopping only to rest upon the waves of the great sea.

While in Ireland, our first pilgrimage stop in Dublin was to the Garden of Remembrance, dedicated to “all who gave their lives for Irish Freedom.” A long pool holds mosaics of swords, spears, and shields thrown into the water. And at the end is a huge statue of the Children of Lir, shifting from human child bodies and into swans taking flight.

That statue, a statue of forced exile, is a stunning reminder of the cost of freedom. For the Irish, as for many people around the globe,  part of the cost of freedom is not just death, it is the inability to return home.

Standing on those grounds, with the faces of Syrian refugees in my mind, I couldn’t get over the pain and power of it all.

“There are 60 million refugees in the world right now,” he said. We paused in our circle, and breathed that in.

Their voices carried the timbre of the cries of swans. The songs they sang were human. Their father was bereft.

Each day on our pilgrimage, we read a poem. We sat in pubs come evening and listened and sang songs. Too many Irish songs and poems carry this sense of the loss of life and home. Every Irish song and poem carries a sense of longing.

Footsore and weeping, we call these forced exiles something other than human. We call them refugees, migrants, victims, emigres, immigrants, aliens, illegals, cowards. Yet, within their swan bodies live a humanity as large and small as ours. Hopes. Dreams. Fears. Ambition. The need for shelter for their children, and a place to work in safety. They are humans just like us. It is our own fear and greed that call them something other.

We want to think it was not greed or fear that cast them out and set them on their way, and yet, it is. We want to think we have nothing to do with their plight. And yet, we do.

And their weapons were thrown into deep pools. As offerings for whatever Gods might care. As prayers that peace would come into their land.

Their hearts shifted inside their feathered breasts, from human hearts to hearts best suited for the flight of swans.

Climate change and war. Outsourcing of jobs, and chaining children to factory machines. Burnt lands and bombs. We cause it all, whether by active force, by silence, or complicity.  Mostly, we cause it by the simple living of our lives in these towns and homes with our cars and refrigerators and air conditioning, and heating, and fracking, and mining, and blasting.

We cause their exile with every light we turn on because we cannot face the darkness. Or because sometimes it is just nice to have the option of more light.

She feared her new husband would not love her anymore. That she would lose her place, her power. And so she turned them with her witchery.

Corporate masters and government leaders live in greed and fear. Sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, their actions ripple out across the land and into water. They fear a loss of home and love. They fear a fall from grace. So they fill the void with cries of more. More money. A greater sense of power. More resources. Hoarding everything until, for the wandering children, everything is gone.

By taking up the Druid’s staff, she tapped their milky children’s shoulders, and turned them into swans.

There is an image of a man clutching his children, weeping from his ordeal and from the relief of finally getting his family back to land.

“He should go back home,” people have said, not thinking for one second that this planet is home to us all, and we have all had a hand in making large portions of it inhospitable for habitation. And this displacement of human life is only going to get worse. It is only going to increase.

She exiled them for 900 years.

We have sent arms and bombs to chase people from their homes. We have ensured that drought scourges their land, so the farmers can grow no more food. We have ensured all of this even as in our own cities, people are being displaced, turned into migratory birds searching for places to work and to name home.

We are both the fearful stepmother who turned her husband’s children into swans and we are the swans ourselves.

By the time they returned home, their home was long destroyed. Rubble. Crumbling back to earth. They would never know their father’s touch again.

Our group of pilgrims did ritual in the middle of the city that day. We held hands and prayed for all the migrants, the refugees, the expatriots, and immigrants. We sang for them, lengthening our necks and lifting our human faces to the gray Dublin sky. We let our voices rise.

Beside us, cast in bronze, the children’s bodies turned into swans and stretched out toward the sky.



Recommended reading:

Current estimates put global refugee population at 60 million, many of whom have been exiled for multiple years. Children are being born and raised in tent cities. These figures do not include those made homeless within their own countries. Read more.

On the US arms to Syria.

On human migration and climate change.

On tent cities in Los Angeles, US citizens as refugees.

“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”  The poem Home, by Warsan Shire.

On gentrification in my home area.


This essay was funded by Patreon. Each month, interested readers fund one essay and one piece of short fiction, to be released for free to the public.

I give thanks to Victoria, Greg, Ealasaid, Jennifer, Louise, Rose, Starr, Sinead, Lyssa, Aeptha, Cara, Crystal, Angela, Misha, Eridanus, Cheryl, David, Lori, Soli, Peter, Angela, Ambariel, Sonia, Jennifer, Ruth, Miranda, Jeremy, Jonah, Michelle, Jenny, Jen, Mir, Ruth, Emilie, Jonathan, Kate.

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