Orla squeezed her sister’s hand and let out another groan. She felt like she was being run through by hot knives. When the wave of pain subsided, it left Orla panting and shaking. The midwife looked under Orla’s night dress and frowned. Cara, Orla’s older sister, sat next to her.
“The baby is facing the wrong direction,” the midwife said. “Don’t push anymore, just breathe through the pain.”
Orla tried to do what she was told, but every bone in her body was screaming to get this baby out. She took in one deep, labored breath and finally she heard the midwife’s voice.
“Orla, push now! Hard!”
Every thought flew from Orla’s mind as she was overwhelmed by unspeakable agony. Then, all at once, the pain subsided. Orla opened her eyes to see Cara and the midwife standing with their backs to her. Orla realized that something was wrong.
“Where is my baby? Give me my baby,” Orla cried out in a hoarse voice.
The midwife turned around. She was holding an oblong, slimy object covered in blood. At first, Orla recoiled in disgust.
“I’ve heard this could happen, but have never seen this in person,” the midwife whispered to Cara in an odd voice. “The baby has been born with a veil.”
Orla watched, as the midwife peeled away the thin membrane, which struggled to emerge. The baby began to cry and Orla’s heart flooded with relief. As soon as the midwife handed her the infant, the cries subsided. Orla looked down in wonder at the delicate creature that she clutched to her breast.
Cara knelt by her side. “Orla, you must always watch over him. Make sure to never let him out of your sight,” Cara whispered in her ear. “This is no ordinary child. This baby has been marked by the “Faerie Folks”.
Orla leaned back against the sweat soaked pillow. Cara had called the child a ‘HE’.
“I have given birth to a baby boy,” Orla murmured with a smile.
Banshee, the queen of ‘Faerie Folk’ remained at the back of the party as they made their way towards the human realm. ‘Faerie Folk’ were dancing wildly through the misty marshland. Banshee did not feel like dancing. She held her child in her arms and gauged the coal black pits of his eyes.
“He is an ugly thing,” Banshee muttered. “His wrinkled skin is the yellow color of an infected wound. His teeth are long and sharp, and wiry hair has sprouted in random patches from his cheeks and chin.”
To most, he was seen as a monster, but to Banshee, he would always be her baby boy. For three hundred years she had nurtured this child. She knew he would never grow out of this strange state of infancy. But she loved him all the more for it.
I have to trade him for a human baby.
“Today I saw in the sacred fires that a gifted child with the power of sight is born,” Banshee whispered to her friend. “I will take him and raise him as my own. The boy would be of great use to our people once he comes of that age.”
One by one, the ‘Faerie Folks’ stepped through the watery door. Banshee looked at her reflection. She had pale green skin stretched tight over a skeleton frame. Her smile was the jumble of yellow fangs. Her eyes were hollow black pools. This was the face of a true woodland queen. As Banshee stepped through the door, the world around her shifted. She found herself stepping upward instead of forward. She came out through the surface of a weed-choked pond. The dancers whirled and twisted through the trees. Some had skin that was colored with the deep green of pine needles; others were covered in brown scales that resembled bark. Watching them dance was dizzying. It gave the impression of looking into a whirlpool of forest foliage being blown about by a violent wind. The dancing was done for their own amusement, but the strange trance-like music was necessary for them to remain completely invisible.
Anyone who heard the steady drum beat found themselves suddenly distracted. This allowed the fairies to do as they pleased. Banshee stood at the edge of the forest next to the field where peasants in tattered rags were gathering their hay into bundles.
A human mother had placed her plump baby in the hollow, between the roots of a hollow of an oak tree. The foolish woman had left him alone there while she worked in the field.
As the fairies approached, the baby looked up at them with his wide blue eyes and gave a happy gurgle. The fairies looked back at Banshee and waited for her to step forward. Banshee knelt down and placed her faerie child next to the human baby. She studied the baby for a moment, and placed her hands over the face of her own infant.
Banshee muttered a low incantation and began to shape her child’s face. She molded his features as though they were made of clay. First, she squished the bulbous wart covering his nose. Then she remade his leathery lips into a pleasant pink pout, and smoothed out the wrinkles on his face. By the time she was done, her own child looked almost identical to the human baby. There was only one thing left to do.
She placed a tender kiss upon her baby’s forehead. She picked up the human baby and carefully laid her own child in his place. Finally, her work here was done. Banshee made her way back toward the wood, leaving the changeling child alone in the hollow. The moment Banshee left, the faerie infant began to wail.
Orla suspected that something was not quite right with her baby. She wiped a bead of sweat off her forehead as she leaned over to gather another sheaf of hay. She glanced over the tree where John was resting on a patch of soft green moss. He was still gurgling happily just where she had left him. Orla smiled.
Cara’s children screamed all day and night when they were babies. But John hardly ever cries. How cute!
“Never leave John alone,” Cara had explained to Orla. Cara feared that fairies would snatch John away and replace him with a changeling. At first, Orla had humored her.
I feel happy enough spending time resting and playing with my newborn baby. Why would I ever leave him alone?
In the months after Orla had given birth, she had barely left her one room cottage, but the time had passed far quicker than she had realized.
“I am a recent widow, and a new mother,” Orla pleaded with the tax collector.
“The Lord is not in the business of supporting women who use their children for excuses,” the tax collector laughed at Orla.
Orla was forced to go back to work with her infant, and months worth of rent hanging over head. Orla tried working with John strapped on her shoulder, but it was exhausting. Usually Orla worked faster than anyone, but with the baby, everything took her four times as long. She knew that if she put the child down for an hour, she would have the strength to make it through the rest of the day. She still glanced over at him every few minutes to make sure he was still there. She was reassured by the fact that she would be able to hear him crying if anything happened.
What can go wrong if Baby John is never out of my ear shot?
Without her baby weighing her down, Orla had just finished the last row of wheat when she heard a high pitched cry across the field. Orla’s heart jumped to her throat, she leaped over the stacked up hay, and ran towards the spot where she had left John.
When she arrived at the oak tree, she was relieved to see that the baby was still there. But his face was scrunched into a knot of fury and he was screaming with every bit of breath in his tiny lungs. Orla picked him up and began to bounce him up and down.
“Usually this is enough to calm him down,” Orla muttered.
Baby John continued to scream. Orla cooed and sang to him, but it seemed like she couldn’t do anything to stop his screaming.
Maybe something in the woods frightened him.
While peering into the dense greenery, Orla held her baby tight to her breast. It was time to head to her cottage.
Perhaps John will calm down once I take him there.
John’s crying did not let up, though. Orla tried everything she could think of to calm him down; she burped him, sang to him, bathed him, and swaddled him, but nothing helped. The only time he stopped crying was when she fed him. It was strange. John always had a normal appetite, but suddenly he was ravenous. No matter how much she fed him, he always wanted more. When Orla had no more of her own milk to give, she gave him goat’s milk. John drank and drank until she ran out of that too. Then she just sat with him, rocking him in her arms and pleading for him to be still.
As she looked down at the screaming infant, she thought about how different he looked when he was crying. Perhaps it was just the way his face was scrunched up, but at that moment he looked like an entirely different child. It was late in the night when John finally dozed off.
Orla was famished and exhausted. She was so busy with the baby that she hadn’t even had a moment to eat. She placed John into his cradle, then as quietly as she could, she crept outside to fetch some eggs for dinner. As Orla was returning to the house, she thought she heard something strange. It was a gravelly and altogether unhuman voice talking to itself. She stood to hear what the voice was saying, but caught only a few words.
Something about ‘older than the mountain’ and ‘travelling from the world beyond.’
A knot formed in the pit of Orla’s stomach. The voice seemed to be coming from inside. She threw open the door and stepped inside. Orla breathed a sigh of relief; there was no one in the cottage. Her eyes fell on John’s crib. The baby was standing up and looking directly at her. His skin looked slightly jaundiced in the firelight. There was something about his eyes that made a chill run up her spine.
They looked hollow.
Suddenly Orla had a strange thought. They weren’t eyes at all. She imagined they were made of glass and behind them were only empty black pits.
Orla shook her head; she was probably just tired. As she stared at John, he resumed his wailing. Orla put down the eggs and walked wearily back to the crib.
My dinner will have to wait.
When daybreak came, Orla’s head was pounding. Her whole body ached from lack of sleep. She was contemplating the unbearable idea of going to work in the fields when there was a knock at the door. Orla found her sister holding a freshly baked loaf of bread.
“I heard from some of the other villagers how your baby was screaming in the fields,” Cara said. “I came to ask if you needed any help caring for the baby.”
Orla breathed in the smell of the warm bread. Her eyes brimmed with tears of relief. She fell sobbing into her sister’s arms.
The next few months passed in an exhausting blur. Everyday Orla walked three miles towards Cara’s house to drop off John. She toiled in the field until the sun went down, before retrieving the howling baby. The nights were the worst. Most of the time Orla barely slept. She sat awake in a chair next to her baby’s cradle, rocking the screaming child and watching as the night turned slowly into dawn. There were times when Orla got so tired that she started to see things.
One night, she was busy chopping carrots. She looked at the baby beside her and saw that his mouth was full of long, yellow fangs. Orla shrieked. The knife in her hand slipped. The cold steel sliced across her palm, spraying blood over the chopping block. Orla felt sick. She turned away and took a deep breath.
Though John ate constantly, he never seemed to grow any bigger. If anything, he was shrinking.
“Cara, is John not eating enough?” Orla inquired the next day. “He has become more wrinkled than anyone with each passing day.”
“Oh, no. He eats constantly,” Cara replied. “Thinking of it, I can hardly believe he is the same child.”
“I know!” Orla looked concerned.
“For some time now I have been suspecting that the baby is a changeling.” Cara was upfront. “He’s gone from a happy baby to a shriveled little thing, who cries constantly and can drink an entire pail of milk in twenty minutes.”
Deep under the muddy bogs of the other world, Banshee was sitting in front of the mirror of black glass. She ran a comb through the tangle of weeds that grew from her scalp. The human baby gurgled pleasantly beside her. He had been with her for two months now. As she stared down at the plump human infant, Banshee could not help thinking of her own child, who she had left with the human mother in exchange for this one.
Is she treating him well? Would the human mother know to feed him with her milk in order to satiate his constant hunger?”
For so long Banshee had kept herself from checking in on him, but now the urge grew too strong to resist; she ran a hand over the black mirror and murmured a low incantation. As she did, a scene appeared before her; it was a low ceilinged room where a fire roared in a hearth of gray stone. A woman stood with her child in one hand and a shovel in the other. Banshee watched perplexed. As she understood what was happening, she howled in grief and rage.
“That is my son, the baby I have birthed!” Banshee let out a scream. “The child has belonged to me for more than three hundred years!” She glared at the image in the mirror. “If this mortal woman harmed my child, I will make her pay.”
Orla trudged wearily towards Cara’s home, shivering in the bitter autumn wind. Through the window of Cara’s cottage, Orla could see that her sister had built a blazing fire in the hearth. She had made this trip everyday for the past two months. Orla was grateful to her sister for looking after John while she worked in the field.
At least I will be able to warm up before the long journey home, Orla thought. Nonetheless, if I have to defend one more discussion of Cara thinking the baby is a changeling, I will scream! Just because the baby isn’t growing properly and has started crying through the night doesn’t make him a changeling!
As soon as the door swung open, Orla sensed that something was amiss.
Cara turned towards Orla while holding an iron shovel in the fire. The end of it was glowing red. In her other hand she had something that Orla couldn’t quite see.
“I am sorry it has to be like this. It’s the only way that I could prove it to you,” Cara stated, turning to Orla.
“He is my baby, watch out!” Orla shook her head. “Any strange changes you may have seen in him were just figments of your exhausted imagination.”
“Is it?” Cara muttered with a questioning face.
Orla realized with growing horror, what Cara intended to do.
“Why are you holding John under your other arm?” Orla asked, walking forward and calling out for Cara to stop, but it was too late.
Cara set the struggling infant on the red hot shovel. Orla shrieked at the sound of sizzling flesh. She ran to the baby and pulled him from the shovel. As Orla held him close, the smell of burning skin filled her nostrils.
She glared at Cara and spat, “How could you do this to your own nephew?”
Cara looked back defiantly and said, “Look at the thing that you call your son, Orla.”
Orla looked at the boy in front of her and screamed. The baby she had been hugging was the same size and shape as John, but it was clearly not human. Its puss colored yellow skin hung in loose flaps over a bony frame. As Orla lifted it up, its eyes revealed deep black sockets. Orla tossed the thing across the room and crawled to Cara. The two women clung to each other as the faerie baby picked itself up and began to laugh.
Cara looked at Orla and whispered, “See, I told you it wasn’t human.”
In a hushed voice, Orla asked, “What should we do?”
Cara gave the baby a look of steely resolve and said, “We will do what we have to.”
Cara stood up and walked towards the changeling baby. As she did, it opened its mouth and clamped down hard on Cara’s arm. Cara gave a yelp of pain. She dropped the shovel and tried to pry the child off, but he clung to her like a leech.
Orla picked up the shovel and whacked the baby off Cara’s arm. The baby fell in the big bucket of water lying on the floor.
Cara turned to her sister and asked, “Will you take my advice now?”
Orla nodded. “I now know that this baby is not mine.”
Just then, both sisters heard an unearthly shriek. They looked up and their blood froze. It was Banshee. She was standing at the edge of the cemetery, which was right next to Cara’s house. Banshee was skeletally thin with long tangled weeds for hair, and black holes, where her eyes should have been. The sisters had never seen anything like this before. But somehow, both knew exactly what it was.
“Don’t be afraid,” Cara whispered to Orla. “The “Faerie Folk” can’t cross over the boundary of the cemetery.”
Orla looked down at the bucket of water. The ugly wrinkled baby was up to his chin with water inside it.
Cara has been right about everything so far. I have no reason not to follow her advice, yet Banshee is a mother just like me, Orla thought. All she wants is her baby.
Orla took a deep breath and picked up the baby from drowning in a water bucket.
“Orla, stop!!” Cara screamed, but Orla was undeterred. She clambered out of the grave and approached Banshee.
Banshee hissed at her in a language Orla didn’t understand, but her face softened as Orla held out the baby to her. Banshee held out her arms and the infant climbed into them. For a moment, Orla watched as the two held each other.
Orla turned to go, but before she could Banshee hissed another incomprehensible string of words at her. Momentarily, Orla was certain it was going to kill her, but to her surprise, Banshee reached into her tattered leather apron and pulled out a plump human baby.
Orla’s heart leapt.
It couldn’t be!
Incredulously, she reached out to the infant. When she felt his weight in her arms, it was as though a missing piece had finally fallen into place. Orla held the child against her breast and began to weep. After all the wondering and uncertainty, all the glee and fear of the past two months, she finally had her child.
Orla stretched her hand out to Banshee, pointing at the changeling child, “He too, is mine. You abandoned him without regret when you stole my John. With my last breath, I kissed his brow and named him, with the first of my milk, I fed him. I will have them both, my blood and my heart. They are all that is left of my family and you have no claim.”
“Quiet,” Banshee said, and smiled. It was not a kind smile, but Orla thought uneasily, that there was some… respect, to it.
“Can I?” Orla asked, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Keep him, then,” Banshee said. “The changeling has no value to us, once corrupted with mortal milk.”
Orla crouched and carefully scooped the changeling in her arms. She walked out the room, exhausted and still mourning, but comforted by the two tiny heartbeats, one fast and one slow, held warm against her chest.
Author’s Note: In my attempt with this story, I have tried to emphasize the fact that we should have a bigger heart to accept children born with a congenital disease. It could happen to any of us for unexplained reasons. We need to embrace them, not abandon them.
According to Irish Mythology, the ‘Faerie Folk’ of Ireland sneak into a human home in the dead of night and steal their new-born child, replacing it with one of their own—a changeling.
Belief in changelings endured in parts of Ireland until as late as 1895, when Bridget Cleary was killed by her husband who believed her to be a changeling.
In medieval times, many poor families in Europe led a hand-to-mouth existence. They had very little time or resources to spare. Children were expected to help in any way they could as soon as they were able. For these families, the birth of a child with congenital disorder was seen as an untenable burden. Often the changelings have a voracious appetite, so much so that they eat until the family members themselves are starving.
If a family felt unable to care for a child, particularly one who they felt would be no use to them in the future—due to an undiagnosed condition or deformity—it was easier for them to lose the child, believing that they had been taken by a gang of fairies, than it was to believe they were going to let their child die. Infanticide was a horrible, yet very real aspect of rural living in the medieval world.
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