“The Land of the Ever Young” by Stephen Wade

Beneath the eaves of the snow-covered roof, the fairy mother flitted and hovered. She wondered how they could accept such a wizened, hideous creature in their home. In her arms she held her own sleeping infant closer to her breast. A baby boy she’d named ‘Tipper’.

She inched closer to the window to see more clearly the room’s interior, poorly illuminated by a miserable fire. Above the hearth was a withered sprig of holly; its three or four berries blotched with black.

A year on since she had entered the farmhouse an hour before cock-crow, slipped the golden-haired newborn from its cradle, and deposited in its place that crooked-backed, dark-eyed fiend, this was the first time she’d returned. Her intuition had not failed her. Eleven months and a few days old, and there he sat, looking more like an ancient, emaciated dwarf than a child, wailing and screeching in a voice that could curdle even the blood of a banshee.

And yet the demon child’s surrogate parents tended to him with the devotion of a pair of hedge sparrows given charge of a cuckoo chick. Deaf they were to the hungry cries from their other children, ten famished mouths. And as blind as they were deaf to the upkeep of their small farm, the animals were neglected and the crops lay diseased and dying.

Now, with Christmas Eve already upon them, the good fairy was here to make amends to the family her ungodly offspring had brought to near ruin. At first she thought she would return Tipper, the stolen child, and take his replacement back to the realm of the fairies. But beholding before her the long-clawed, furry-faced changeling wailing to be fed from the large rocking chair, her heart quailed.

As though he sensed his fate, Tipper, the blonde-haired infant swaddled in cloths embroidered from butterfly scales, awoke in his fairy mother’s arms. The child’s eyes, bluer than a kingfisher’s wing, seemed filled with hurt greater than all the betrayal that ever was.
“There, there, mo chuisle,” she whispered. My pulse. “Mo chuisle mo chroi.” Pulse of my heart. She pressed her lips to Tipper’s cheek, the familiar scent of his skin crowding her with the sorrowful shame of what might have been. And with that she banished forever any thoughts of abandoning her precious child.

There were other ways to rid the family of its unwarranted curse. She could just leave. Changelings had a short lifespan. Two or three years and it would shrivel up and die. But this family didn’t have two years. Already the other ten children were starved and frozen. They lay curled up in corners of the room or sat about on their haunches like sickly rabbits resigned to their end.

That’s it. The good fairy would play upon the changeling’s greed. True to its nature, the demon-child’s incessant appetite meant that every morsel harvested and hoarded by the parents was fed to their newest child. The ageing mother and father took turns at keeping vigil over their fast depleting stocks in the larder. Even the little milk they managed to squeeze from the goat was his alone. But the nanny-goat had given birth to two kids around the same time as the changeling’s arrival last Christmas. The animal’s duds were almost shrunk and her udder nearly dried up. Soon the nanny-goat, the family pet, would go the same way as her offspring; as nourishment for the creature that had sucked from them their family wholesomeness the way a weasel sucks the lifeblood from a slain fowl.

Unfurling her wings, the good fairy clutched her baby to her bosom and flitted into the air, where she battled hard against the swirling snowflakes and the North Wind’s sharp teeth.

Back home in her fairy hollow beneath the roots of an Adler tree, she deposited her child in his cradle fashioned from mistletoe-saplings and lined with the down from a kingfisher’s breast. The boy, exhausted from their journey, gurgled his contentment and drifted off towards fairyland on Christmas morning. There he dreamed of riding a red dragonfly over a frozen stream along whose banks grew Christmas Fir trees wearing coats of snow. On the ice fairy children skated and laughed.

The good fairy then got to work.
From stocks gathered in autumn, she baked tiny cakes flavoured with honey and sweet cream, adding saffron, an ingredient irresistible to fairies. She then set about preparing a liquid with which to wash down this treat: lusmore tea, a deadly potion made from a flower known to mere mortals as foxglove. This, when taken by the changeling would burn away his human innards, whereupon he would sprout fairy wings and flee for his life back to the realm of the fairies. To ensure its strength, she sipped the potion, just enough to do her no harm. The liquid kicked like a startled rabbit. This she corrected by adding honey and saffron until the sourness mellowed and turned sweet. Perfect.

To transport the deadly liquid, she filled a dozen vials normally used by fairies for collecting nectar or pollen. One vial was dosage enough, but changelings were wise beyond their age. Better to fill a mortal-sized tumbler when they got to the farmhouse than to risk the changeling not touching the potion because it was in a glass container no bigger than his thumbnail.

Before departing, she kissed her sleeping child on his tender lips. “Gra mo chroi. Oiche Mhaith, codladh samh,” she whispered in the language spoken by fairies. Love of my heart. Good night, sleep well.

And with that she summoned a herd of fairies from the nearby hollows along the riverbank to come help her carry the feast to the room where the changeling slept.

At the farmhouse, the good fairy instructed the others to use the chimney. The entrance she initially used when she deposited the changeling and rescued baby Tipper from his misguided fate.

Inside the house the fairies flitted about, wary of the sleeping changeling. While the parents and their ten children slept on the cold stone floor of the main room, covered only in rags, they discovered the changeling snoring in what used to be the parents’ bed and bedroom.

What they didn’t notice was a second pair of devil’s eyes, not sleeping, watching them from the room’s darkest corner. The yellow eyes with rectangular slits for pupils watched them depositing the tiny cakes and vials on the dressing table. The fairies were about to transfer the liquid to a tumbler when the unseen, cloven demon bleated from the shadows. The goat.

There followed tiny shrieks from the fairy herd, the sound of shattering glass, where one of the vials had crashed to the floor, and a general sooty panic as the fairies all tried to escape back up the chimney at the same time.

Finally, after much bleating, together with panicked shouting from the awakened parents, they were free. The fairy herd fled back through the brightening forest for home – everyone except the good fairy. She remained in a small hollow of an Elder tree growing in the garden of the farmhouse. A tree long respected by the fairy folk as protection from evil night spirits.

The good fairy awoke chilled, but was quickly warmed by the sweetest music being played on a tin whistle. Lilting from the house, the tune was the sound that plays through the skies and waters following a fierce winter; a melody of relief and boundless joy.

A terrible surprise awaited the good fairy. Hovering at the window, her almond-shaped eyes became bigger than daisies as she beheld the ten lifeless children scattered about the stone floor. Next to each of them a tiny vial emptied of its lethal contents. An instant, invisible hand clasped her by the neck, constricting her breathing. But the sight of the smiling and laughing parents, dancing in time to the changeling’s reel sent her flitting and tumbling through the Ash forest for her home and Tipper.

But even before she made it beneath the Adler roots into her home, she sensed his absence.
“Tipper,” she called, the hoary Christmas morning momentarily freezing her words in a mocking cloud.
Her instincts were right. Inside her home Tipper was gone. In his place his little body, as lifeless as the ten children on the farmhouse floor. The kiss. Her mother’s deadly kiss on her infant’s mouth when she had sipped the lusmore tea.

She took Tipper in her arms and kissed him once more: a final kiss. “Mo Leanbh go deo,” she said. My baby forever.
When the good fairy returned to the farmhouse, the changeling’s tin-whistle playing seemed so brilliant as to be demonic. He continued to play when she flew across the threshold, moving only the black eyes in his head to point to the last vial resting on the mantelpiece over the open fireplace.

The good fairy nodded and, with quickened wing-beat, obeyed the command of the black-eyed fiend.

Biographical Note:
Steve Wade is an M.Litt graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. Recently returned to Ireland after a number of years living abroad on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, he divides his time between writing and teaching.
A prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, 2011, his novel ‘On Hikers’ Hill’ was awarded First Prize in the UK abook2read Literary Competition, December 2010 – among the final judging panel was the British lyricist sir Tim Rice. ‘On Hikers’ Hill’ is published as an eBook. He was shortlisted among five in the fiction section of the Wasafiri Short Story Prize 2011, and subsequently invited to attend the award ceremony in Bush House in London.
His stories have been published in numerous anthologies, such as Biscuit Prize Winners Anthology 2011, Boyne Berries Winning Stories, and the Aesthetica Creative Works Annual 2011, in which his story was a competition finalist.
www.stephenwade.ie

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