Summer of Faerie: “The Changeling” by Taryn Frazier

Yellow spots are spreading across parts of the tree canopy; two sumac leaves out of every seven blaze scarlet and orange. The turning is happening earlier than usual because it’s been so dry, and it’s breaking my heart. I’m not ready for summer to end, even with an exciting year ahead.

This week, I reread Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing (a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”) and Cybele’s Secret, its sequel. They’re enchanting tales of medieval Transylvania and Istanbul respectively. I read them as a young teenager, and they taught me about Faerie politics and rules like “don’t ever eat Faerie food.” However, they’re pretty dark in places – a few scenes in Wildwood Dancing almost gave me nightmares. I recommend them as good examples of fairy-tale retellings and historical fiction/fantasy, but they veer a little closer to horror than I usually like.

This week’s Summer of Faerie post is also an excellent example of entwining history, myth, and imagination – a tale from the green hills of Ireland. Taryn Frazier captures the musical speech and traditions of the Irish people with a prose as clear and lovely as raindrops. Enjoy!

The Changeling

by Taryn Frazier

Curtains at a window
Photo credit: Lucas Allman through Pexels

Mrs. Dixon, that old stickybeak, came early in the morning to see Bridget’s new boy. I’d heard the cries last night from the mother and then the wee baby, but I had my own little ones to tend to and the washing to do at sunup.

Imagine my surprise when I heard a scream from next door. I left the clothes in the kettle and ran out to the gate. I was just in time to see Mrs. Dixon hurry away down the lane as if the devil was after her, crossing herself with every step. Well, I gave my Deirdre a sweet and told her to mind little Tom a moment, and I fairly flew over to see what was amiss.

Saints and sinners, what a sight. Bridget lay keening on the bed, her face turned away from the cradle beside her—the cradle her man had made when Molly blessed their home not two years ago.

Molly had been a pretty baby, pink and round, with curls yellow as the shavings that fell from her da’s plane as he worked wood. She sat wide-eyed in the corner now as her ma cried and her da wrung his big hands. Bridget had always worn the trousers, as the saying goes, and the man was at his wits’ end.

I shooed him out the door. “Take Molly to my house. Go on, now.” Then I looked.

The baby in the cradle was as unlike Molly as could be. Thin and small, he was. A wispy bit of black hair came to a point over his brow. His eyes were almond-shaped, slanted like a cat’s, and little ears sat low on his head.
“Oh Mary, Mary,” Bridget wept, “They say he’s a changeling child.”

He looked like no human child I’d ever seen, but for all that, I felt no fear. His face was peaceful and round as the full moon. The little thing began to root and fuss for milk.

“Wait, you,” I told Bridget. She scarcely heard me for weeping. I ran away down the lane and up the hill to fetch Old Sarah. If she had a last name once, only she remembered it. Old Sarah could work small magics. With my own eyes I’d seen her call a lamb from a ewe when the farmer had given both up for dead.

All out of breath, I told Old Sarah of the changeling. She took up her rowan staff without a word. By the time we reached Bridget’s cottage, Mrs. Dixon had returned, armed with a hawthorne switch.

“Careless woman,” Mrs. Dixon was saying, shaking the switch over Bridget. “Did ye not put cold iron by the cradle? Sure, the fairies stole your baby and put that elf in its place!”

Bridget cowered on the bed. The little one writhed in the cradle, crying in earnest now. Seeing Old Sarah and myself, Mrs. Dixon darted forward and snatched him up.

“Look at this hellspawn!” She thrust the wailing bundle at me. “You know the cure as well as I, don’t you? We must whip the imp until it speaks!”

Troubled I was, but before I could speak up, there was a crack. Old Sarah’s cane had come down on the hearthstone.

“Still your foolish tongue, Tara Dixon.” She took the squalling child and bore it over to where Bridget lay.

“Hush,” she murmured to the pair of them. She put the boy to Bridget’s breast. The poor woman could hardly look at him, but he quieted and began to suckle. Bridget hiccoughed and quieted too.

Mrs. Dixon spat, “’Tis a misbegotten thing, I say.”

Old Sarah rounded on her.

“Your God may err, but my God makes no mistakes. This babe is an innocent, fairy or no. If you touch him again, may your God defend you from mine.”

Mrs. Dixon puffed and spluttered like a cornered cat, but Old Sarah picked up her cane.

“Get you gone, or I’ll not cross your threshold when lambing time comes.”

Well, Mrs. Dixon left in a trice. Bob Dixon’s flocks were his pride and joy.

~

I tell you, I went home and hugged my Deirdre so tight she cried out, and I put iron nails beside Tom’s cradle that night.

On the morrow I kept one ear cocked, but I heard nothing from next door save little Molly’s chatter in the yard and hammering from the shed. The day after was the same. On the third day, though, I heard Bridget singing. She’d gone mad, said I to myself.

I went by—to get a bit of flour, that’s all. There she stood with her back to me, rocking the changeling boy, kissing his little moon face. All the while she crooned the old lullaby she’d sung over her Molly. A pair of iron tongs lay before the empty cradle.

I was gone before she turned about. Yes, Bridget had gone stark mad. There was no use keeping the fairies away now, was there?

Taryn Frazier

Taryn Frazier loves reading beautiful stories, and she wants to write some too. Something that would make C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Tolkien, or Lloyd Alexander smile and nod. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four kids. She likes to spend time outdoors with the family, gardening, hiking, forest schooling, and swimming.