750 Words Competition - Runner Up

Hannah Faoileán

Runner Up
A Schoolgirl's Swansong
750 Words Competition


Hannah lives in Roslin, Edinburgh, and loves walking in wild places with her collie. Whenever she’s not walking or working as a pet behaviourist, you will find her reading or dreaming or writing. Hannah has had a poem and short story published in Dream Catcher literary magazine (Stairwell Books), has a YA fantasy out on the submission trail and is editing a new YA fantasy. She has had a novel shortlisted for Chimera Fantasy Awards and two poems shortlisted in WM competitions. This is her first second-place win.

A Schoolgirl's Swansong By Hannah Faoileán

“Uniform?” Miss Safiya says as I walk in to class.
I shrug in my hoodie. “Washing machine broke down.”
Classmate-sniggers answer me, but I don’t care. After today, I won’t be in the class.
“If you weren’t just back from being ill, I’d make you take it off,” Miss Safiya says.
I give her a thank-you smile as I slide into my seat.
“What’s with the leather gloves?” Piranha Perfect across the aisle whispers, scathing stare directed at my hands.
“Eczema,” I say. “Doctor’s prescription.”
“Let’s see.” Piranha-The-Second beside me makes a swipe for my hand.
I dodge her grab and push my laptop as far to the other side of the desk as I can without it clattering to the floor.
She pouts. “Who wants to see your ugly, flaky skin anyway?”
Flaky. Hah. Imagine the fit she’d have if she did see.
My back’s so itchy. Mustn’t scratch it.
I occupy my hands by leafing through my textbook and hitting a few keys. Might as well look like I’m working. The less attention on me the better.
“How are you getting on, Fionnuala?” Miss Safiya leans over my shoulder.
The bell rings. I close the screen.
“If you need help catching up, just ask.” She’s the only one who cares, my classmates already departed in their chattering huddles.
“Thanks, Miss Safiya, but I think I’ll be fine.” I’m going to miss her. That’s if I’ll be able to miss anything. Or will my mind empty itself?
I lock myself in the deputy’s office – the only window looking out onto the convent lawn. He’s on lunch-duty so won’t be back for ages.
I pull off a glove and wiggle the one digit I’ve got left on that hand. It is my hand but doesn’t look like it.
I prod my neck bones. There’s so many. And my breastbone feels like it’s going to burst through my skin. Oh, God. I hope my skin expands faster than my bones.
Shall I risk a glance at the mirror?
A glance was too long, and now I can’t unsee the white specks all over my face. How fast will they grow? How long have I got?
The window’s wooden sash-frame hardly budges. Window, lift up. Two long digits are nowhere near as useful as ten fingers.
At last. A gap. I squeeze through and waddle-run across the lawn, my school trousers wrinkling, the ends tripping me up.
My suede boots are squashing my feet to hell. Oh, feck-it. Who cares if anyone sees me? They’ll only gawp. I wrench my boots off . . . Ugh. I should have suffered the pain.
Don’t look anymore. Don’t think. It won’t be so heart-thumpingly scary if you just do.
Leaving trousers and boots behind, I duck into the middle of a hedge. Writhing and squirming gets me out of my hoodie.
My breastbone’s huge, my arms too long, my skin all goosebumps. And my breaths are really short. Are they supposed to be? And now my throat’s tightening. Look what I’ve done to myself.
The psychiatrist said, “If I was a witch, what would you ask of me?”
“To make me someone, something, anything else.”
“Your name suits this one.” She tapped a page then shut the Irish folklore book, laid it on a table and left the consulting room.
I opened it at the ribbon-marker. Children of Lir. I laughed, but she never came back, and when I asked, nobody knew her.
I’m shivering. And crying. Is this all that’s left of me? A shivering wreck with a few tears?
I push my way out of the hedge on the non-school side and sway-waddle to the lake. My reflection’s in its sun-glimmered surface. Oh, God. I need to make myself at least take a peek.
White face. Black eye-liner. Red beak. Quite a look. And one I’ll have to get used to. It’s the only me I’ve got now.
They’re swimming over. I should back away. They’re supposed to be vicious, aren’t they?
They stretch their long, white necks, swell their throats, and somehow, I know what they mean.
I wade in. Then paddle. Then float towards them.
They accept me. Like they always knew I’d come.

Judges Comments

Like the winning entry, Deborah Smth's 'Kieran', 'A Schoolgirl's Swansong', the runner up in WM's 750 Words Short Fiction Competition is bird-themed and a celebration of difference. In Hannah Faoileán's case, it's a piece of magic-realist YA where the narrator - bullied Fionnuala – transforms, painfully and inevitably, into a swan.

Hannah has taken the Irish myth of the Children of Lir, in which Fionnuala is transformed into a swan, and given a very contemporary twist to the Ugly Duckling trope, making the myth relevant to our own image-obsessed times. Fionnuala is the viewpoint character, picked on by her schoolmates because she has a visible skin condition. Fionnuala has internalised their perspective, doing everything she can to conceal her difference, hiding her body with gloves and a hoodie and trying not to draw attention to her body.

We're also told, before we know what it means, that this transformation isn't painless for Fionnuala. Hannah's narrative choices mean we encounter Fionnuala just before, during and immediately after her transformation, so we're shown as well as told that her condition is painful, and the transition scary. We're shown the graceless, awkward rush when her changing body is part bird, part human, not wholly either. Hannah doesn't shy from presenting how traumatic is is, with Fionnuala shivering and crying in the process of becoming her swan self.

Hannah makes us see Fionnula's fear, too, in what she is to become. They're supposed to be vicious, aren;t they? But not to their own. The ending, where Fionnuala has become who she's meant to be is accepted by her tribe, has a quiet rightness to it that's understated and really impressive.