Authors: Keith Donohue
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
For Dorothy and Thomas, wish you were here
“We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.”
“NOSTOS” BY LOUISE GLÜCK
• CHAPTER 1 •
on’t call me a fairy. We don’t like to be called fairies anymore. Once upon a time,
was a perfectly acceptable catchall for a variety of creatures, but now it has taken on too many associations. Etymologically speaking, a fairy is something quite particular, related in kind to the naiads, or water nymphs, and while of the genus, we are sui generis. The word
is drawn from
), which itself comes from the Latin
the goddess of fate. The fay lived in groups called the faerie, between the heavenly and earthly realms.
There exist in this world a range of sublunary spirits that
carminibus coelo possunt deducere lunam
, and they have been divided since ancient times into six kinds: fiery, aerial, terrestrial, watery, subterranean, and the whole class of fairies and nymphs. Of the sprites of fire, water, and air, I know next to nothing. But the terrestrial and underground devils I know all too well, and of these, there is infinite variety and attendant myth about their behavior, custom, and culture. Known around the world by many different names—Lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, foliots, Robin Goodfellows, pucks, leprechauns, pukas,
, trolls—the few that remain live hidden in the woods and are rarely seen or encountered by human beings. If you must give me a name, call me hobgoblin.
Or better yet, I am a changeling—a word that describes within its own name what we are bound and intended to do. We kidnap a human child and replace him or her with one of our own. The hobgoblin becomes the child, and the child becomes a hobgoblin. Not any boy or girl will do, but only those rare souls baffled by their young lives or attuned to the weeping troubles of this world. The changelings select carefully, for such opportunities might come along only once a decade or so. A child who becomes part of our society might have to wait a century before his turn in the cycle arrives, when he can become a changeling and reenter the human world.
Preparation is tedious, involving close surveillance of the child, and of his friends and family. This must be done unobserved, of course, and it’s best to select the child before he begins school, because it becomes more complicated by then, having to memorize and process a great deal of information beyond the intimate family, and being able to mimic his personality and history as clearly as mirroring his physique and features. Infants are the easiest, but caring for them is a problem for the changelings. Age six or seven is best. Anyone much older is bound to have a more highly developed sense of self. No matter how old or young, the object is to deceive the parents into thinking that this changeling is actually their child. More easily done than most people imagine.
No, the difficulty lies not in assuming a child’s history but in the painful physical act of the change itself. First, start with the bones and skin, stretching until one shudders and nearly snaps into the right size and body shape. Then the others begin work on one’s new head and face, which require the skills of a sculptor. There’s considerable pushing and pulling at the cartilage, as if the skull were a soft wad of clay or taffy, and then the malicious business with the teeth, the removal of the hair, and the tedious re-weaving. The entire process occurs without a gram of painkiller, although a few imbibe a noxious alcohol made from the fermented mash of acorns. A nasty undertaking, but well worth it, although I could do without the rather complicated rearrangement of the genitals. In the end, one is an exact copy of a child. Thirty years ago, in 1949, I was a changeling who became a human again.
I changed lives with Henry Day, a boy born on a farm outside of town. On a late summer’s afternoon, when he was seven, Henry ran away from home and hid in a hollow chestnut tree. Our changeling spies followed him and raised the alarm, and I transformed myself into his perfect facsimile. We grabbed him, and I slipped into the hollowed space to switch my life for his. When the search party found me that night, they were happy, relieved, and proud—not angry, as I had expected. “Henry,” a red-haired man in a fireman’s suit said to me as I pretended to sleep in the hiding place. I opened my eyes and gave him a bright smile. The man wrapped me in a thin blanket and carried me out of the woods to a paved road, where a fire truck stood waiting, its red light pulsing like a heartbeat. The firemen took me home to Henry’s parents, to my new father and mother. As we drove along the road that night, I kept thinking that if that first test could be passed, the world would once again be mine.
It is a commonly held myth that, among the birds and the beasts, the mother recognizes her young as her own and will refuse a stranger thrust into the den or the nest. This is not so. In fact, the cuckoo commonly lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, and despite its extraordinary size and voracious appetite, the cuckoo chick receives as much, indeed more, maternal care, often to the point of driving the other chicks from their lofty home. Sometimes the mother bird starves her own offspring because of the cuckoo’s incessant demands. My first task was to create the fiction that I was the real Henry Day. Unfortunately, humans are more suspicious and less tolerant of intruders in the nest.
The rescuers knew only that they were looking for a young boy lost in the woods, and I could remain mute. After all, they had found
and were therefore content. As the fire truck lurched up the driveway to the Days’ home, I vomited against the bright red door, a vivid mess of acorn mash, watercress, and the exoskeletons of a number of small insects. The fireman patted me on the head and scooped me up, blanket and all, as if I were of no more consequence than a rescued kitten or an abandoned baby. Henry’s father leapt from the porch to gather me in his arms, and with a strong embrace and warm kisses reeking of smoke and alcohol, he welcomed me home as his only son. The mother would be much harder to fool.
Her face betrayed her every emotion: blotchy skin, chapped with salty tears, her pale blue eyes rimmed in red, her hair matted and disheveled. She reached out for me with trembling hands and emitted a small sharp cry, the kind a rabbit makes when in the distress of the snare. She wiped her eyes on her shirtsleeve and wrapped me in the wracking shudder of a woman in love. Then she began laughing in that deep coloratura.
“Henry? Henry?” She pushed me away and held on to my shoulders at arm’s length. “Let me look at you. Is it really you?”
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
She brushed away the bangs hiding my eyes and then pulled me against her breast. Her heart beat against the side of my face, and I felt hot and uncomfortable.
“You needn’t worry, my little treasure. You’re home and safe and sound, and that’s all that matters. You’ve come back to me.”
Dad cupped the back of my head with his large hand, and I thought this homecoming tableau might go on forever. I squirmed free and dug out the handkerchief from Henry’s pocket, crumbs spilling to the floor.
“I’m sorry I stole the biscuit, Mom.”
She laughed, and a shadow passed behind her eyes. Maybe she had been wondering up to that point if I was indeed her flesh and blood, but mentioning the biscuit did the trick. Henry had stolen one from the table when he ran away from home, and while the others took him to the river, I stole and pocketed it. The crumbs proved that I was hers.
ell after midnight, they put me to bed, and such a comfort may be the greatest invention of mankind. In any case, it tops sleeping in a hole in the cold ground, a moldy rabbit skin for your pillow, and the grunts and sighs of a dozen changelings anxious in their dreams. I stretched out like a stick between the crisp sheets and pondered my good fortune. Many tales exist of failed changelings who are uncovered by their presumptive families. One child who showed up in a Nova Scotia fishing village so frightened his poor parents that they fled their own home in the middle of a snowstorm and were later found frozen and bobbing in the frigid harbor. A changeling girl, age six, so shocked her new parents when she opened her mouth to speak that, thus frightened, they poured hot wax into each other’s ears and never heard another sound. Other parents, upon learning that their child had been replaced by changelings, had their hair turn white overnight, were stunned into catatonia, heart attacks, or sudden death. Worse yet, though rare, other families drive out the creature through exorcism, banishment, abandonment, murder. Seventy years ago, I lost a good friend after he forgot to make himself look older as he aged. Convinced he was a devil, his parents tied him up like an unwanted kitten in a gunnysack and threw him down a well. Most of the time, though, the parents are confounded by the sudden change of their son or daughter, or one spouse blames the other for their queer fortune. It is a risky endeavor and not for the fainthearted.
That I had come this far undetected caused me no small satisfaction, but I was not completely at ease. A half hour after I had gone to bed, the door to my room swung open slowly. Framed against the hallway light, Mr. and Mrs. Day stuck their heads through the opening. I shut my eyes to mere slits and pretended to be sleeping. Softly, but persistently, she was sobbing. None could cry with such dexterity as Ruth Day. “We have to mend our ways, Billy. You have to make sure this never happens again.”
“I know, I promise,” he whispered. “Look at him sleeping, though. ‘The innocent sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.’ ”
He pulled shut the door and left me in the darkness. My fellow changelings and I had been spying on the boy for months, so I knew the contours of my new home at the edge of the forest. Henry’s view of their few acres and the world beyond was magical. Outside, the stars shone through the window above a jagged row of firs. Through the open windows, a breeze blew across the top of the sheets, and moths beat their wings in retreat from their perches on the window screen. The nearly full moon reflected enough light into the space to reveal the dim pattern on the wallpaper, the crucifix above my head, pages torn from magazines and newspapers tacked along the wall. A baseball mitt and ball rested on top of the bureau, and on the washstand a pitcher and bowl glowed as white as phosphorous. A short stack of books lay propped against the bowl, and I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of reading come morning.
The twins began bawling at the break of day. I padded down the hallway, past my new parents’ room, following the sound. The babies hushed the moment they saw me, and I am sure that had they the gifts of reason and speech, Mary and Elizabeth would have said “You’re not Henry” the moment I walked into the room. But they were mere tots, with more teeth than sentences, and could not articulate the mysteries of their young minds. With their clear wide eyes, they regarded my every move with quiet attentiveness. I tried smiling, but no smiles were returned. I tried making funny faces, tickling them under their fat chins, dancing like a puppet, and whistling like a mockingbird, but they simply watched, passive and inert as two dumb toads. Racking my brain to find a way to get through to them, I recalled other occasions when I had encountered something in the forest as helpless and dangerous as these two human children. Walking along in a lonesome glen, I had come across a bear cub separated from its mother. The frightened animal let out such a godforsaken scream that I half expected to be surrounded by every bear in the mountains. Despite my powers with animals, there was nothing to be done with a monster that could have ripped me open with a single swat. By crooning to the beast, I soothed it, and remembering this, I did so with my newfound sisters. They were enchanted by the sound of my voice and began at once to coo and clap their chubby hands while long strings of drool ran down their chins. “Twinkle, Twinkle” and “Bye, Baby Bunting” reassured or convinced them that I was close enough to be their brother, or preferable to their brother, but who knows for certain what thoughts flitted through their simple minds. They gurgled, and they gooed. In between songs, for counterpoint, I would talk to them in Henry’s voice, and gradually they came to believe—or abandon their sense of disbelief.
Mrs. Day bustled into the babies’ room, humming and tra-la-la-ing. Her general girth and amplitude amazed me; I had seen her many times before, but not quite at such close quarters. From the safety of the woods, she had seemed more or less the same as all adult humans, but in person, she assumed a singular tenderness, though she smelled faintly sour, a perfume of milk and yeast. She danced across the floor, throwing open curtains, dazzling the room with golden morning, and the girls, brightened by her presence, pulled themselves up by the slats of their cribs. I smiled at her, too. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into joyous laughter. She smiled back at me as if I were her only son.
“Help me with your sisters, would you, Henry?”
I picked up the nearest girl and announced very pointedly to my new mother, “I’ll take Elizabeth.” She was as heavy as a badger. It is a curious feeling to hold an infant one is not planning to steal; the very young convey a pleasant softness.
The girls’ mother stopped and stared at me, and for a beat, she looked puzzled and uncertain. “How did you know that was Elizabeth? You’ve never been able to tell them apart.”
“That’s easy, Mom. Elizabeth has two dimples when she smiles and her name’s longer, and Mary has just one.”
“Aren’t you the clever one?” She picked up Mary and headed off downstairs.
Elizabeth hid her face against my shoulder as we followed our mother. The kitchen table groaned with a huge feast—hotcakes and bacon, a jug of warm maple syrup, a gleaming pitcher of milk, and china bowls filled with sliced bananas. After a long life in the forest eating what-you-can-find, this simple fare appeared a smorgasbord of exotic delicacies, rich and ripe, the promise of fullness.
“Look, Henry, I made all your favorites.”
I could have kissed her right on the spot. If she was pleased with herself for taking the trouble to fix Henry’s favorite foods, she must have been extremely gratified by how I tucked in and enjoyed breakfast. After four hotcakes, eight strips of bacon, and all but two small glassfuls of the pitcher of milk, I complained of hunger, so she made me three eggs and a half loaf of toast from home-baked bread. My metabolism had changed, it seemed. Ruth Day saw my appetite as a sign of love for her, and for the next eleven years, until I left for college, she indulged me. In time, she sublimated her own anxieties and began to eat like me. Decades as a changeling had molded my appetites and energies, but she was all too human, growing heavier with each passing season. Over the years, I’ve often wondered if she would have changed so much with her real firstborn or whether she filled her gnawing suspicion with food.