The Twelve Brothers

The words of a girl who must mind twelve brothers

flow ceaselessly as a stream, skirting rocks and barriers,

leaping like frogs, with frogs, endlessly playing catch,

catch-up, chase this one, chastise that one.

The stepmother saw, and yes, she wanted the father’s love

all for herself, to catch his eye every time, but also

she pitied the girl, saw a ghost of herself in the child

who sewed and sang and scrabbled to civilize.

A curse fell from the sky and scooped up the twelve boys,

stinging their skin with feathers new-grown,

molding lips into beaks, toes into talons,

while the girl watched helplessly.

“You can be quiet now,” the stepmother said,

emerging from shadows, and the girl’s sobs stopped up

her throat like a violently shaken bottle.

Reading her fear, the stepmother tried again:

“You can be quiet now, you needn’t mind them

now that they’ve ravens. Keep silent for seven years,

and they will turn back into your brothers.

That time is your own.”

Understanding now, the girl faded into the forest.

The ravens brought her morsels;

she wove clothes out of their feathers

to stay warm, to pass the time.

She rested, no longer bound to torrents of words,

endless exclamations, the tug on her heart

for every moment managed, each brother soothed.

The moment the enchantment expired,

The birds folded into boys, reverse origami,

bones lengthening and filling in with a gurgle,

feathers evaporating and skin shining through,

and still she did not speak.

This witch, that godmother, none could say why:

was it another curse? A secondary enchantment triggered

by the release of the first? A potion, perhaps?

She eventually persuaded her brothers to stop inquiring.

Some of her brothers married; she played with the children,

a kind aunt to be pitied, taken in, never over-burdened.

Still she smiles, though only through closed lips.

Jeana Jorgensen earned her PhD in folklore from Indiana University, and since then has taught at universities around the Midwest as well as at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to publishing her academic research on gender and sexuality in fairy tales, she has had poems appear in Strange Horizons, Liminality,, Stone Telling, Glittershipand other publications.