By Taryn Miller
Something was wrong. It took Reilly a few seconds to recognize it, but then it hit her: Teagan wasn’t crying.
Teagan woke up crying every morning—it was how she let her mother know that she was awake. Reilly also suspected that she was afraid because she was all alone, but her father thought that was nonsense. “She’s fine,” he would say and her mother would nod, still uneasy. She would feel better if Teagan slept in the bed with them, but her father wouldn’t have it. “I built her that crib and she’s going to sleep in it.” Reilly didn’t want to start another argument she had no hope of winning, so she would leave her darling daughter in the crib every night, listening carefully for the sound of Teagan’s cries. The crying was her signal to run and immediately scoop up her daughter.
But this morning she wasn’t crying. Was she still asleep? Had she finally gotten used to sleeping by herself? Reilly got up and tried to decide if she should check on her. If she was still asleep she didn’t want to wake her up, but something was wrong.
Reilly stopped debating and ran into Teagan’s room and that’s when she saw it: the thing in the crib wasn’t her daughter. It was the same size and shape as Teagan, but it wasn’t her daughter. Its skin was grey and scaly and it was looking up at her with big, black eyes. Was that a grin on its hideous face? She supposed it could have passed for a child, albeit one near death, but it in no way resembled her daughter.
Reilly wanted to scream, but the sound wouldn’t come out. She couldn’t believe this was happening. She had heard the stories—everyone did—but she didn’t think they were real. After all, she had never personally known someone who had had their child kidnapped and a monster put in its place. But there it was: a changeling.
“Is she still asleep in there?” Reilly’s husband called. She couldn’t answer; her mouth still didn’t work. She heard footsteps and saw him enter her daughter’s room. “I asked you a question,” he said and walked over to the crib. Reilly held her breath.
“What’s wrong with her? Is she sick?” he asked.
Reilly shook her head. Can’t you see? she wanted to say. That’s not Teagan. That thing doesn’t look anything like Teagan. Her lips stayed shut.
“Should we get a doctor? What do we do?” Reilly couldn’t answer. “She looks a little pale, doesn’t she? Maybe you should take her out into the sun.”
After a moment, her husband gave up and left the room. Slowly, she sat down in the rocking chair, the chair she always sat in while she fed Teagan, feeling nauseated. What would she do? How could this have happened? Should she have demanded that Teagan sleep in the bed with them, despite how hard her husband had worked on building that crib? If Teagan had been in bed with Reilly, this could not have happened.
Sometime later— Reilly had no idea how much later— her husband came in, followed by a doctor. The doctor looked horrified when he looked into Teagan’s crib.
“Neither of you has the slightest idea what’s wrong with her?” he asked. Her husband answered no and Reilly still sat motionless. The doctor pursed his lips and shook his head. He lowered a shaking hand into the crib and started to poke and prod at the monster in there. Reilly expected the creature to bite his hand, or scream at least, but it did nothing. At last, the doctor withdrew his hand.
The doctor cleared his throat. “I don’t know what to tell you. As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with her. Her skin seems to have grown colder and lost its color for no apparent reason. There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing that anyone can do.”
The last phrase repeated itself over and over in Reilly’s head. There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing that anyone can do. There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing that anyone can do.
Reilly opened her mouth. “That’s not my child.”
“I’m sorry?” the doctor said.
“That isn’t my child. Have you ever seen Teagan before? That thing clearly isn’t her.”
Her husband blanched and walked over to Reilly. He looked puzzled for a minute, and then turned back to the doctor. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I think the shock is too much for her.”
Reilly took a step back. “No, it isn’t the shock. That isn’t a baby. I think you both know exactly what it is, but you’re not willing to say it. So I will: changeling. My daughter was taken and this changeling was left in her place.”
The doctor’s voice softened. “I’m sorry. Why don’t you go lie down? I’m sure you’ll feel better in a few hours.”
Reilly stood up. “Thank you for coming. I think you better go.”
Her husband stepped in front of the doctor. “Reilly—“
“He already said there was nothing he could do. There’s no reason to keep him here.”
“And you want to get a second opinion? I don’t think I can find another doctor.”
“We don’t need a doctor. That isn’t what’s going to help her.” The doctor nodded and left them alone.
Her husband opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Perhaps he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, but Reilly suspected that he just didn’t want her to bring up the changeling again. He was handling this even worse than she was and she was a mess. But at least she was trying to do something. Her husband was only asking stupid questions, but she was determined to get Teagan back. But it felt like she would fall apart any second now.
No, don’t think about that. Falling apart won’t help Teagan. I’m going to find a way to get her back and I can do it on my own. She walked over to the crib and looked at the monster. Its grin seemed to be even wider.
“What will you do now?” her husband asked. Was that fear in his voice? Reilly couldn’t quite tell.
“I’ll think of something,” she vowed. And she would. She turned around and walked over to her bookshelf. She knew she had a book that mentioned changelings somewhere.
“Are you just going to leave her in there?” he asked. She noticed that he didn’t seem too eager to touch the monster.
“What else do you want me to do?” Where is that book?
“Shouldn’t you feed her or…?” He let the question hang, probably because he had no idea what to do with a baby. Reilly often thought that if she died somehow, her husband wouldn’t be able to manage Teagan on his own. “Shouldn’t you do something?”
She found the book she was looking for and started to flick through the pages, scanning for the word “changeling”. She found one story about a changeling who had taken a child’s place. The mother threw the changeling into the fire and suddenly her child was returned. But what if that didn’t work? Surely the fairies didn’t want their child to be killed? If they did, they could do that themselves. Why would they want humans to dispose of their children for them? She looked at the changeling again and longed to throw it into the fire, but if it didn’t work she would lose Teagan forever. She wasn’t willing to risk that.
“Shouldn’t you do something?” her husband repeated.
“I am doing something,” she replied as she furiously turned the pages. Were there no stories about how a mother could get her child back?
“How is reading a story going to help?” he said.
“I’m going to find out how to return the changeling and get Teagan back.” Wasn’t it obvious?
Apparently her husband didn’t think it was, because he left the house and didn’t come back. Reilly assumed that he went to plant potatoes like he did every day. He couldn’t afford to drop everything because her daughter was missing.
Reilly kept looking through the book, but eventually had to shut it in despair. There was no information in there that could help her.
“Well, if I can’t find out how to get Teagan back by looking in a book, I’ll have to go out and find out how to do it myself,” she said. Maybe she could offer gifts to the Fey in exchange for Teagan? The thought of giving gifts to the people who had stolen her daughter filled her mouth with bile. She had no wish to reward this behavior. She would much rather rip their throats out with her bare teeth for even touching Teagan, and her imagination could not supply a violent enough fantasy for what she wished to do to them for kidnapping her. But Reilly knew that even if she could hurt the Fey that it would not help her get Teagan back. And she would do anything to get Teagan back, so Reilly struggled to think of what gifts the Fey would want in exchange for her child.
She grabbed a bag and put some food in it that they offered to the Fey every Midsummer, and then placed the bag on her back. And she put a piece of bread in her pocket. She walked over to the crib and hesitantly looked down at the monster inside it. She hoped that it would just go away, that it would be like in the story where the creature vanished and suddenly her little girl was back in its place.
When she saw it in there, her heart broke all over again. I can’t blame the Fay for trying to get rid of it, she thought. I’m desperate to get rid of it, too. I only wish they hadn’t taken my Teagan in its place. She took a deep breath and picked the changeling up—shuddering as she did so—and did her best to avoid touching its skin. Its cheek brushed against her arm, and she jumped. The terrible grin was still on its face. She turned it around so it wouldn’t be facing her and held it at arms’ length, but then decided that she didn’t want anyone else to see its face either; she didn’t think she would be able to take the stares or the gasps of horror. So she covered it in a blanket, only leaving a small bit of its face uncovered so it could breathe.
She walked out of her home and began to walk down the road. Just when she began to feel proud of herself for keeping the changeling a secret from the rest of the village, a woman bumped into her, and the blanket fell to the ground. Before she could pick it up, she heard a scream from the woman in front of her. A few of the other women looked sympathetic—as if they had a small idea of what kind of pain she was going through—but most of them seemed terrified. Were they afraid that their children would be next?
Ignore them and just keep walking. She had to keep moving until she found somewhere to contact the Fey and demand that they take this thing back in exchange for her daughter. If she just kept moving, she could do it. If she stopped now, Reilly knew that she would fall apart and didn’t know if she’d ever be able to put herself back together. They would take the changeling away and try to console her though her grief and she’d never get Teagan back. Falling apart wasn’t an option and Reilly knew that she would keep walking until her feet fell off if she had to.
Reilly decided that the best place to go would be Grove’s Field, where everyone in the village always celebrated Midsummer. It was also a three day walk. It pained her to acknowledge this, but it was true. It would be at least three days before she saw her daughter again.
Was Teagan scared? What were the Fey doing to her? Why was it never mentioned in the stories what the fairies did with the children or even why they took them in the first place? Reilly couldn’t understand. And why did they have to take her daughter? Reilly couldn’t remember feeling so alone since she had first moved to the village she now called her home.
Maybe they just like causing trouble, Reilly thought. Maybe they don’t have any real motivation for stealing children. Maybe the mischief is reason enough. But why would they be willing to give their own children up? They’re not human, she reminded herself. Perhaps they don’t love their children like we do. She could come up with no other explanation.
Reilly looked up at the sun and saw that it was now afternoon. Had she really been walking that long? She took a deep breath and looked at the monster in her arms and saw that it was still wearing that ugly grin. While certainly unpleasant, Reilly was relieved that it didn’t seem to mind the walking or the hot sun. She didn’t want it to cry or wriggle around. If she had to carry the thing around, she preferred that it be content.
Her arms were sore from holding the thing so far from her and she reluctantly drew it closer. Its skin brushed against her arm and she shivered. I can do this. I can do this, she repeated to herself. She wished she wasn’t saving the food for the Fey.
Later that night, Reilly sat down and knew that it wouldn’t be wise to go any farther since it had gotten dark. She wished that she could stay in an inn for the night, but she didn’t think anyone would let her bring the changeling inside. This monster was making everything so difficult.
Her stomach grumbled and Reilly realized that she was starving. Had she eaten anything today? She couldn’t remember if she had or not. She looked around and saw some berries nearby. Those will have to do, she thought. It didn’t look like she had any other options. As she pulled the berries off of their bush, she realized that the changeling was looking at her with an expression that she couldn’t quite figure out. Did it look like it wanted something?
Maybe I’m supposed to feed it. It wasn’t an attractive idea, but it made sense. The Fey probably wouldn’t thank her if she tried to return it malnourished. Maybe they wouldn’t even take it back if it hadn’t been fed in days.
Reilly sighed and resigned herself: she was actually going to have to take care of this thing. She wanted to take care of Teagan, not the monster who had taken her place. Just do this for a few days and then you’ll be able to take care of Teagan again, she told herself. She took a berry and tried to put it in the changeling’s mouth, but it turned its head away. Maybe it isn’t hungry after all, she reasoned but the wanting expression on its face didn’t go away. Perhaps she should try again?
Again, she tried to feed the changeling a berry and it still didn’t take it. “What do you want me to do?” she asked. “Is there something else you would eat?” It didn’t answer. Reilly hadn’t expected it to, but she found it annoying nonetheless. It was dark and she wouldn’t be able to find any other food.
Just when Reilly wasn’t sure if she could become any more frustrated, the changeling began to cry. It was a horrid sound; the wailing reminded Reilly of the sound of wooden chairs being scraped against the floor. When a human child or an animal cries out the sound is high pitched, but the changeling’s was low and unearthly. It sounded positively demonic.
She tried to sooth it, but her attempts were in vain. “Alright, alright. Hush.” If it could hear her talking, it seemed to be ignoring her. As it continued to cry, Reilly became aware that her breasts were hurting. Then, the front of her dress was wet, and she sighed. What was she supposed to do? Would the noise attract anyone? She picked it up and the crying immediately stopped. Did it just want to be held? No, that wasn’t it. It started moving its head around with its mouth still open.
“What are you doing?” she asked as its head rested upon her breast. Oh, that’s what it wants. It seemed the changeling expected to eat the same food that Teagan did.
Reilly sighed. The thought of the changeling drinking her milk was an appalling thought. Its skin was always cold and clammy and what if it bit her? But what else am I going to use this milk for? she asked herself. If Teagan can’t drink it right now, I might as well give it to someone who can. That didn’t make the matter any more pleasant, but Reilly unbuttoned her dress with a grimace. The changeling quickly found her breast and began to suckle.
Reilly was surprised at how much she didn’t hate the experience of feeding it. In fact, the pain began to fade as soon as it began to eat. Was it terrible that all she could think about was the immense relief she felt? While its skin was cold and clammy, its mouth was astonishingly warm. In fact, it wasn’t all that different from feeding Teagan.
That thought terrified her. Of course the changeling was very different from Teagan is almost every possible way. Where Teagan was a beautiful, happy, sweet little human girl the changeling was hideous and had a cry that made Reilly want to rip her own ears off. While Teagan always wore a bright smile the changeling could only wear a frightening grin. This monster was nothing like Teagan, except that it felt nice to feed it the same way she often fed her baby daughter.
Was that wrong? Was it wrong for her to appreciate being needed, even if it was by a monster that she would get rid of in a few days? Was it wrong for her to successfully be able to take care of it? Was she betraying Teagan?
No. If I don’t take care of this thing, I’ll never get her back. I have to deliver a healthy changeling if I want the Fey to take it away and give my daughter back. But no matter how many times she repeated this to herself, she still felt uneasy.
Finally, the changeling seemed to be done eating and Reilly automatically put it over her shoulder and began to gently pat its back. I suppose this is why they always give these to mothers. Mothers are already used to taking care of things. The changeling burped softly and without meaning to, Reilly smiled.
Perhaps the next few days won’t be so bad. If I just have to take care of it the way I normally would Teagan until I can get her back, then I’ll be able to do this. It could be much worse.
Then the changeling fell asleep. Reilly was surprised at how easygoing the changeling was. It really didn’t require much to be happy. In fact, it hadn’t been fussy at all today. She hadn’t noticed it since she was battling a mental breakdown all day, but it suddenly occurred to her that it hadn’t caused any trouble. Maybe it wasn’t such a monster after all.
Reilly and the changeling woke up the next morning and she immediately began to start walking again. They had passed the night well enough, but she was anxious to reach Grove’s Field. Taking care of the changeling was nice enough, but she didn’t enjoy it the way she enjoyed caring for Teagan. Her body ached for her daughter. What if I don’t get her back? What if they laugh at me and say they don’t even want their changeling? She shook her head and reminded herself Don’t think about that. Worrying won’t do you any good. She walked all day and noticed that again, the changeling didn’t make so much as a sound. It seemed perfectly content to be carried in her arms. She doubted that Teagan would have been so calm.
As they laid down for the night, Reilly smiled to herself. I’ve already made it through day one. Just two more days until I get my daughter back.
Later, Reilly stirred. She couldn’t recall falling asleep, but she must have. What woke her up? Her question was answered when she heard a cry. She checked the changeling, but it was still asleep. Could it have cried out in its sleep? No, she remembered. Its cry was that low, unearthly sound. This was definitely a more high-pitched cry. She heard it again and recognized it: a howl, the howl of a wolf.
Wolves always hunted in packs, so Reilly was sure that there was more than one close by. Should she take the changeling and find somewhere safer or stay where she was?
Just then, the changeling started to squirm. Reilly prayed that it didn’t wake up, but it was no good. The wolf howled again and so did the changeling.
“Shh, shh, shh,” she said as she picked the changeling up. It didn’t hush, but began to wail even louder. Reilly rocked it back and forth. How was she supposed to decide what to do when it was screaming too loud for her to think?
She got up and decided that she had to keep moving. It would do no good for them to remain where they were while the changeling was making so much noise. She kept rocking and trying to hush it, but it wouldn’t stop. The other wolves began howling with their leader.
She had only minutes before the wolves would arrive. She had no hope of outrunning a pack of wolves. The next town was still several miles away. She looked around for a place to hide and that’s when she saw it: a tree.
It didn’t look as if it would be too hard to climb. All she needed was to be high enough so the wolves couldn’t reach them. She put the bag back on her back, ran over to the tree and began to climb.
The changeling was terrified. She kept trying to calm it, saying “We’re just going up in this tree. You’ll be fine,” but it refused to be soothed. Reilly couldn’t find it in herself to be too angry at it. If she were being held in one hand while some woman tried to climb a tree with the other, she would be frightened as well. And it isn’t as if the changeling could understand her explanations.
Holding onto the changeling with one hand, she used all of her strength to pull herself up with the other. She also had to push herself up with her legs, something that was much more difficult than expected.
She looked down and saw that she had to be at least ten feet above the ground, maybe twelve. Surely that would be enough? “We’re okay,” she muttered to the changeling and set it on the nearest branch. While keeping one hand on it, she tried to climb a little higher, but the branch underneath her feet snapped off. She grabbed the branch with her free hand and held on for dear life, her feet dangling underneath her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to get onto the branch with only one hand and she couldn’t take her other hand off of the changeling for fear that it would fall. Reilly took a deep breath and moved her feet up the trunk of the tree and soon found herself gasping and panting on the branch, holding the changeling for dear life. When did I start hugging it? She wondered. She couldn’t remember when that had happened and she was surprised to find that she didn’t mind the experience. What was equally surprising was that the changeling had stopped crying. Maybe the poor thing just needed to be held or maybe he was so afraid because I was. Teagan always gets upset when I am. Maybe the changeling does the same thing.
High pitched whining filled her ears—the wolves were close. She looked down to see the entire pack surrounding the tree. “Go on,” she said. “You won’t be able to get us up here. You better go on to find something else for your supper.” She knew it wouldn’t do any good to try to talk to the wolves, but she enjoyed it anyway.
They spent the rest of the night in the tree and when she awoke the next morning, the wolves were gone. She found that she was still clutching the changeling and that it was still asleep. It slept better than any human child she had ever known. Were all baby changelings like this or was this one just very well behaved?
She found that climbing down from the tree was much easier than climbing up had been. She had been worried since some of the branches had snapped off on her way up, but she was able to stretch enough to land on other branches.
On the way down, the changeling woke up and began to cry. She took a few deep breaths and said, without a touch of fear in her voice, “It’s alright. I’m just getting us down. It’s alright.” Miraculously, the crying stopped.
After eating some more berries and feeding the changeling again, she decided that its diaper probably needed changing. She had never noticed before, but it was wearing the same type of clothing that Teagan wore. She wondered if fairies always dressed their children like that, or if the changeling’s clothing was meant to mirror that of the human child it replaced. She gathered some moss off of the tree and thought it would probably have to wear that for the time being. It was when she was changing him that she noticed something: it was a boy changeling.
It had never occurred to her that he might have a sex. Ever since it had arrived the other day (had it only been there for two days?) she thought of him as a monster at worst, and an “it” at best. Now she knew it was a boy. Did it have a name, too?
Suddenly Reilly felt ashamed of herself. She had spent the last two days hating this child and only caring for him grudgingly. What if whatever fairy that was Teagan’s caretaker had the same attitude towards her? That was something she didn’t want to think about.
All the same, it was bothering her that she only thought of the changeling as an “it”. A nameless, faceless monster that actually didn’t do anything wrong—he was only a victim of circumstance. It didn’t seem right for him not to have some kind of name. As soon as that thought entered her head, the name Orrin flashed through her mind. There was no other choice. The changeling was Orrin now.
“Let’s get a move on, Orrin,” she said, testing it out. Orrin didn’t seem to care one way or the other. It’s probably better that way, she reasoned. I’m sure his mother has given him a different name. She wasn’t sure why, but the thought stung her.
After several hours, they finally reached Grove’s Field. I thought we’d never make it. I’ll finally get to see Teagan again. Reilly picked the all the flowers that were traditionally gathered for Midsummer and began to sing songs that were usually reserved for the celebration. She hoped the fairies would come to see her. Would they really just leave Orrin there forever? Did his mother not miss him just as much as she missed Teagan?
Reilly did not have to worry for long, because suddenly there was an odd looking man in front of her who could only be a fairy. Green hair was sprouting from his ears, and his clothes looked as if hundreds of different fabrics had been clumsily stitched together. “Why have you made such a pathetic attempt to summon us?” he asked.
It can’t have been too pathetic, because it worked, she thought. “I’m here for my daughter.” She was surprised at how confident she sounded. Had going through all the challenges with Orrin really changed her that much? If she had this conversation three days ago she would have been a blubbering mess.
“Why would we give you your child back?”
“Because I am prepared to give yours back. I’ve taken very good care of him in the last few days and I’m sure he’s very anxious to get back home.”
“He isn’t mine. What happens to him doesn’t concern me.”
“But what about his mother? Doesn’t she want him back?” This can’t be happening.
“What difference does it make to me what his mother wants? I’ve never spoken to the woman and can’t say how she feels.” He turned to go.
“Wait!” He paused and she took the chance to place herself directly in front of him. “I didn’t come with nothing! I have a piece of bread in my pocket and some more food in my bag. I didn’t eat any of it!” She removed the bag from her back and handed it to him. “We always provide you with food, ever Midsummer. You wouldn’t want to walk away from a free meal now.” With a curious gleam in his eye, he took it. She gave him the bread too.
“Do you have anything else for me?”
Reilly fumbled around, trying to keep a tight enough grip on Orrin so he wouldn’t fall. “I have a necklace—here,” she shoved it into his greedy little hands.
“Hmm,” he said as he examined it. At least he hadn’t thrown it in her face.
“And here’s my ring. It was my grandmother’s.” He eagerly took it and was silent for what Reilly thought was an eternity. She was surprised to find that hugging Orrin calmed her.
“It’s a deal,” he said and held out one arm. “Give me the child.”
“Be careful with him,” she said. She noticed that only one of his hands was extended, and she held him back.
“Aren’t you going to hand me the child?” he asked.
She wished he would use both hands to hold Orrin, instead of using the other hand to hold the gifts. As he left her arms, Orrin started to scream.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she assured the fairy. “He was fine a second ago, I promise.” Why was she doing this? He probably wouldn’t give her Teagan anyway, and she would lose Orrin for nothing.
“It is no matter,” he said and waved his hand. Before her was Teagan and before she could remember deciding to do so, she reached out and took her daughter. She thought Teagan might have been making some kind of sound, but she couldn’t hear over Orrin’s screaming.
“He’ll be taken care of, won’t he?” she asked the fairy. What is wrong with you? You just got Teagan back! This moment is all you’ve been able to think about for days and now you’re worried about the changeling? No matter how she berated herself she couldn’t help worrying about him.
“I’ll find something to do with him,” was her only answer. Then they were both gone and she was alone with Teagan. The baby girl in her arms started to coo and Reilly hugged her tight. She couldn’t believe it. She had her daughter back! She had never heard of anyone getting their child back after it had been taken by the Fey before.
But why wasn’t she happy? What would happen to Orrin now?
Taryn Miller works with kids in Colorado for her day job. When she’s not creating, she likes to geek out and cuddle with her dog. She holds an MFA from Stetson University. A member of the Colorado Poets Center, her work has appeared in Second Chance Lit, The Keeping Room, Germ Magazine, and other publications.