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Excerpt: 'The Stolen Child'

by Keith Donohue
Jun 11, 2009

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Cover: 'The Stolen Child'

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Don't call me a fairy. We don't like to be called fairies anymore. Once upon a time, fairy 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 fairy is drawn from fay (Old French fee), which itself comes from the Latin Fata, 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, sídhe, 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 someone 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.

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