Changeling short story by Iris Carden
In primary school, Amy’s best friend was Sioban. Most afternoons, after school, Sioban would come over, and they played together in Amy’s back yard. They would swing on the tyre swing Amy’s Dad had hung from the tree. They would skip with their skipping ropes. Sometimes they would just sit and talk.
One day, Sioban said, “My Dad says Eamon’s so different from the rest of the family, he must be a changeling.”
“What’s a changeling?” Amy was waiting for one of the amazing second-hand stories Sioban often told.
“Well, a changeling is a fairy child. Fairies steal a human child and put one of their own in its place.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Because they’re tricky, the fae. You can never trust them. That’s what Dad says.”
“But, aren’t fairies meant to be good? They are in my books. And the tooth fairy gave me a dollar when my tooth fell out.”
“Ah, but those are pretend fairies, my dad says. Real fairies are bad, thoroughly bad, and terrible tricksters.”
“What happens to the children they take?”
“Nobody knows, but it’s something nefarious, you mark my words.”
“What does ‘nefarious’ mean?”
“I don’t know, but Dad says it, and I think it’s bad.”
“Oh. Do you really think your brother’s a changeling?”
“Mum says no. She says Dad’s full of bull. I think Eamon’s just a mean bully.”
Amy walked into the paediatric oncology ward, carrying two new story books and a large pink teddy bear. Her daughter, Judy, and son-in-law, Marc, had already used up all of their leave and could now only come outside of work time. Now Amy spent her days here, so Katie wouldn’t face this awful treatment alone.
She looked into Katie’s room and saw another little girl in the bed. In the past three months she’d learned patients beds were shuffled constantly.
Amy went to the nurse’s station. A nurse she was familiar with looked up. “Amy, you’ve just missed Judy. She’s already gone for the day. Katie had a really great night. The doctor says she’s turned the corner. She’s going to be fine.”
“That’s wonderful news,” Amy said. “Where has she been moved to?”
“She’s still in bed 8.”
“No. I just looked in. There’s another little girl asleep in her bed.”
“That’s strange.” The nurse led the way back to bed eight. “No, look, it’s her. See. Must have been a trick of the light or something.”
The little girl, who Amy could see definitely was not Katie, woke up and said: “Grandma!” She threw her tiny arms around Amy’s neck.
As the tiny head pressed itself beside Amy’s a little voice whispered, “You’re the only one who can see. Make a fuss they’ll think you’ve gone crazy.”
The nurse left them alone.
Amy sat on the chair beside the bed and stared at the little girl. “But… what? What is happening?”
The girl smiled. “You know, already. Sioban told you about us all those years ago.”
“You’re a changeling? This is some horrible trick?”
“Trick yes. Horrible? Not really. We only take very sick children. Katie wouldn’t have lived if your medicine had continued to treat her. With ours, she’ll be fine. When she’s better, we’ll swap back.”
“You took her to heal her? And who are you? A fairy child?”
“Oh, I’m fae, but I’m not a child. My name’s Erin, and I’m your age. Since I was the only child in my village, I didn’t have any of my own kind to play with. Your house was right near my village, although no human would ever have been able to see it. So I was actually listening to you and Sioban that day. I hung around a lot and listened to you both. I liked her stories and I liked you always wanting to know more and more. I thought of you as my human friends, even though I didn’t really know you and you didn’t even know I was there.”
“So you’re helping Katie, because you feel I’m your friend?”
“If it were my choice I would have. It’s the Queen’s decision, though, and we’re helping Katie because the Queen has seen something important in her future.”
“What kind of important something?”
“The Queen doesn’t confide in me, but we hardly ever do this, so it had to be extremely important. Your granddaughter’s probably going to change the world.”
Amy tried to make sense of all the information she’d been given. Sioban had said fae were tricksters. Amy wasn’t entirely sure she believed everything she’d heard, but she had to go along with it. They had her granddaughter. “Erin, I don’t understand, but I guess I have to thank you and your Queen both for helping.”
“I won’t pass your thanks along. I’m not supposed to show myself to any human. But I missed you. Both of you. Sioban left because her family was going back to her father’s country. Then you didn’t play out in the yard so much, and then you and your family moved, and I never had the chance to see you again until today. Tell me everything that’s happened to you since then.”
Amy told her story, beginning when her best friend had moved away, through the rest of her school years, through career success and marriage failure, to her child and grandchild, to her working her own business in her home and setting her own hours, everything. Erin sat in rapt attention throughout.
Amy entered the paediatric oncology ward, fully expecting to see Erin in Katie’s bed once again. To her relief and joy, Katie was there.
“Grandma!” Katie yelled, as she jumped out of bed and ran to hug her.
“You seem so much better today!” Amy said.
“I feel better. Grandma, I had a really strange dream.”
In case Erin was nearby, Amy whispered, “Thank you” to the empty air.