Not Mine: A Scottish Changeling Story

In preparation for a field trip, I was browsing through the Statistical Accounts of Scotland to learn about some of the towns I would be passing through. On the whole, statistical accounts do not make the most exciting reading material. They’re mostly overviews of the state of each place in terms of things like population, education, local industries, public health, and climate. I soon gave up hope of finding any juicy folklore. But then I came across a small former fisher town on the Moray Coast. The old account was very short, but it included a story about a nearby stone marking the spot where a chief had been slain during an argument over a round of cheese. By far the most drama I had yet come across, so I was instantly invested and then had to look at the later account to see if the mysterious cheese fight was mentioned further. It was, and with a whole lot more besides…

Welcome to 18th century Ardersier, where the beaches are either flat and sandy or overgrown with ridges of heather. If you can clearly see the Ross-shire hills in the morning, rain will come later in the day. If they are hazy, it will remain dry. In winter, you can hear the cries of visiting seabirds, and there is a small loch where white water lilies grown in such abundance that you can barely see the surface of the water.

The stories of the elderly are heard, and savoured. Old words are always true, when the young are too young to know different. Maybe this is why the belief in faeries remains strong beyond credence. They are said to revel in the moonlight around a nearby knoll, and everyone knows that a sickly child is a changeling. Frayed, desperate parents, trying anything to get back their loves and their lives…

 

TRIGGER WARNING: Post-natal depression and child death

 

changeling illustration
Changeling image from Copenhagen National Museum. Image in the public domain – source

Not Mine

My love would not have loved this. It was the fae’s child, not hers. Her gentle smile would not have graced her lips if she had looked upon it, I am sure. Those lips which tasted of all the blood in the room when I last touched them. After her screams ceased, and the screams of this creature began. Screaming, screaming. The midwife took it away, and I held her, who had left me for this.

It screamed. Every day, and every night. I tried everything a father could. I bathed it, and kept it warm. I soaked rags in milk for it to suck on, and nestled it in my arms as I stumbled through delirious lullabies. Nothing soothed it. It refused sleep, and denied me the same. She wouldn’t have wanted to hold it, either. Nasty, writhing thing. Not a child, but a demon.

It was the midwife who said it first.

Changeling.

The word slithered through the village, house to house. Changeling, changeling, changeling.

“Oh, aye,” said my neighbours. They heard its screams as well as I did, in the night, keeping their own children awake.

I took it to the healer. She rubbed it with salves, and burned St John’s Wort. It screamed more. Back home, it was sick. Then it ate everything, so I stopped feeding it. All the milk in the village turned sour overnight. I laid mistletoe and iron shears in the cradle. It shrank away from them, glaring at me between unearthly shrieks, with brown eyes that were like her’s but also not. They held no warmth, and reflected none of the hearth’s soft light. Slitted, weepy things, all dark and empty.

Weeks passed. A cow died. A crop spoiled. It rained. Changeling, changeling.

When my neighbour’s daughter fell ill, a knock came at my door.

“Take it. You know where. Take it now, before anything happens to my Elspeth.” Other faces peered out of doorways, nodding and murmuring in agreement. “The knoll, only way…” I shut my door.

It was a bright autumn twilight. No clouds, just an endless, sharp sky, pale blue fringed with red and orange. A twilight before a frost, when a waning moon would rise, and ice and silver would leach all life from the countryside. A night to carry away what was no longer desired.

I swaddled it in a blanket and left the house. The faces watched me go. Some cast their eyes down as I passed, others bore into me to make sure that I went. I felt them on my back long after I was beyond their sight.

To the knoll. Where the fae gathered and revelled in the moonlight. Where the chime of bells could be heard, and our cattle refused to graze. Small and unassuming, but a portal to Elfhame if ever there was one. Everyone knew it, and pretended they didn’t.

As I crouched and laid it on the grass, I could almost feel their unseen eyes watching me. They were in the stirring breeze, tugging at the blanket as I settled it around the creature. I paused for a moment, gazing at it, wondering. Thoughts drifting, as they do when you have not slept for so long, and you cannot tell right from wrong. Holding her. Holding her body. Tears. My tears, falling on its skin. Faces, on thresholds. Only way. The fae were watching. They must want it back. It was their fault, not mine.

I left it there. I left it screaming. I walked home. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would hold my child. Her child. A real child. I slept.

In the morning, I buried a frosted corpse.

 

University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society anthology 2019

‘Not Mine’ is based on events recorded in Ardersier’s 1845 Statistical Account. There was a father with a sick child, which he and his neighbours believed to be a changeling. To rectify this, he took them to Tom Eanraic (Henry’s Knoll), a local hill said to be where faeries gathered, and left them there overnight. It was believed that when he returned in the morning, he would find the faeries would have reclaimed the changeling and returned his real child. However, in actuality he returned to find the child had perished. The other characters and details given here are my own creation, speculating about how this tragic situation may have unfolded. ‘Not Mine’ was also published in Ex Libris, the University of Aberdeen’s Creative Writing Society Anthology 2019.

 

The One That Got Away

This story was the first assignment I wrote for my undergraduate degree in autumn 2012. It was published in Vortex, the University of Winchester’s creative writing journal, just before I graduated in 2015.

Yuki-Onna Toriyama Sekien
Yuki-Onna by Toriyama Sekien. Image in the public domain – source

The One That Got Away

Each day you can admire the moon, the snow and the flowers.

Yet, flowers seldom bloom when it snows, and what if it’s the time of the dark moon? There is no beauty in winter. Once the sunlight and sakura leave, the countryside is rendered drab and austere. I am sure the trees watch us as our car passes; glaring into our wake, envious of our freedom to move. Our tyres grind their amber-coloured leaves into the road, a forced burial without ceremony.

Ryota insisted that we visit his okaasan. Apparently we need some ‘family time,’ which only ever seems to happen when it suits him. If we were at home, I would be hanging omamori from the lamps and on the thresholds. Kaori would be watching, and pestering Hisao to lift her up to get a closer look. I would be standing by, envying the innocence of my children.

One omamori never gets hung up. It stays with me, in my purse, or tied onto my keys or the zip of my bag. Now it sits in my lap, and I twine the frayed string around my fingers as my head rolls towards the car window. This one is a yakuyoke, for protection. Yes, winter can be charming. And we all know to be afraid of charm. I learned that when I met her.

She has many names. Some say she is a goddess, or a spirit. Others describe her as a hag. Many names, many faces. It’s all the same. To me, she will always be a demon. Yuki-Onna, who brings death with the snowfall. I remember her pallid complexion, that seemed to be made of mist. There but also not, obsidian hair the only fully visible part in the white landscape. She hummed a lullaby as she scooped me up from the frozen ground. I can still hear it…

I don’t remember falling asleep, but then I am waking as tyres jolt over the ramp covering the little irrigation canal and the car stops on okaasan’s drive. I shove the omamori into my bag and climb out, steadying myself against the door as a wave of nausea overtakes me and my legs shake.

Breathe. Calm down.

I smile at Ryota over the roof in an attempt to hide my uneasiness. He will be displeased if he sees me like this; I am supposed to be getting better.

We all trudge into the house where okaasan fusses over Ryota and clicks her tongue at how much Kaori and Hisao have grown. If my own mother were still alive she would probably do the same. We sit around the kotatsu and share tea and senbei. I let Ryota do the talking.

The afternoon passes in this way, and when darkness arrives I rise to help okaasan arrange our futons. She waves me away.

“Spend some time with Ryota. Make the most of him, while he’s not at work.”

So I go back to the kotatsu and we sit there, the children between us. After a moment, Kaori rises and goes to the window; presses her chubby palms against the glass.

“Look!” she calls, so the rest of us get up and join her. Outside, the sky is growing dark both from dusk and the heavy clouds. The air has that translucent glow it gets before… before it snows. Then I see it. A speck of white floating down, down. Kaori watches it, enchanted.

When I see the first snowflake fall, I do not just see a snowflake. I see blood, and the stiff corpse of my father staring up at me with glassy eyes. My mother’s lips, cracked and rimmed with frost. I smell their blood as the wind stirred it, and see my messy footprints as I run away. I escaped. I am sure the demon has not forgotten. Back then, I was too young to be afraid of beautiful strangers. Now I know better. Watching that first feathery snowflake drift down from the portentous clouds and hit the windowsill, I turn to Ryota and tell him we have to leave. Irritation flutters across his eyes, eyes I once lost myself in.

“It’s just snow, Hanako.”

His tone is weary; he doesn’t believe in Yuki-Onna. I am shaking again.

Stop shaking!

I order the children to go with okaasan and get ready for bed. They obey, to my relief and regret. Okaasan frowns at me as she ushers them to the bedroom. She will probably tell me later what I already know, that I should look after them myself. But sometimes I just need them out of the way.

My hands flit between my scraggy ponytail and the omamori, now in my pocket, as I check the window locks. Two presses on each catch until I am satisfied. Curtains drawn, because too many times I have gazed out into the night and seen her face staring back.

Ryota goes to retrieve our bags from the genkan. I want to help, but it’s so near the front door, and the front door is so near the snow… I cannot get the image of Yuki-Onna out of my head. A thread of the omamori comes loose. Ryota returns, as if he read my thoughts. I force another smile; it feels as worn and frayed as an old blanket. He drops the luggage and places a hand on my arm.

“You can get past this. You’ve been doing so well recently, even your therapist said so.”

“I know. I just… had a moment. I’m fine now.” I smile at him again, because it’s all I can think of to do.

“Good. Don’t push me away again, Hanako.”

I nod and pick up my bag.

*

Sleep evades me. I lie on my back, staring at the ceiling, whispering to the malignant shadows in the corners of the room. They don’t listen. They never listen. Eventually, I tumble into delirium. Of course, Yuki-Onna is there. Waiting. Always waiting.

When I find my way back to reality, it is morning. The bedroom is empty. Ghostly daylight creeps through the shoji, leeching all the colour from the room. I get up and go to the living room, where I find okaasan sitting.

“Hello, Hanako,” she says, handing me a cup of tea.

“He’s good with the children. You shouldn’t worry so much.” She sweeps her thin arm towards the window. “Take a look.”

Slowly, I turn to face the snowy world.

You’re okay, there’s nothing there.

Ryota, Hisao, and Kaori are outside, their booted feet making untidy dents in the white dusting on okaasan’s garden. I watch them scoop up handfuls of it and toss them at one another,  and try not to imagine an ivory-skinned woman watching them, too. Ryota laughs when a snowball catches his leg; a wondrous sound my ears cannot remember hearing for a long time. Kaori throws herself down on her back, moving her arms and legs from side to side to make the shape of an angel. Hisao beckons to me…

I don’t bother to put my coat on, or fully lace up my boots. This way I won’t be able to stay outside for too long. They all turn to look as I slip around the front door.

“Morning,” Ryota calls. I wave, and Hisao takes advantage of the distraction and tosses another snowball at his father. Kaori laughs and pushes herself to her feet to join in. I hover beside the house, arms folded, toes brushing against the snow but not quite touching it. The white ground makes the trees at the edge of okaasan’s garden look dark and insidious; a perfect hiding place for a demon…

“The children will get cold, I’m taking them inside,” I tell Ryota, lunging forward to grab Hisao. Kaori evades me, though. She is already running towards the trees, giggling. Before I know what I’m doing, I have let go of Hisao and I am running as well. With each step, my boots make a crunching noise that seems too loud. Kaori keeps running until the trees swallow her. By the time I reach them, my feet ache and my face and arms are numb. I call her name, a frantic warble and wisp of breath, which both dissipate immediately as if I have not spoken. Branches snag at my clothes, like frozen fingers. Leaves rustle like the swish of ebony hair.

She’ll catch you, keep going!

I part my lips to call again, but then I catch sight of Kaori’s purple coat bobbing around a tree trunk. I hurry towards it, and find her crouched in a small clearing, patting handfuls of snow into tiny balls. And there is Yuki-Onna. Every bit as wickedly beautiful as I remember. Standing over Kaori, my snow angel. I shake my head, trying to eliminate the demon. Maybe she’s not real. Ryota doesn’t think so. I trust Ryota.

Then why can you still see her?

Kaori remains huddled on the ground, unaware of the danger. Yuki-Onna bends towards her.

No, she’s not real!

“You’re not real!”

I throw myself at Kaori, crushing her pile of snowballs and encircling her in my arms.

“Leave us alone!” I scream. “Leave, leave…” I clutch Kaori tighter, burying my face in her coat as she wriggles in my arms. I know I must take my daughter indoors, get her warm, but I cannot move. If I close my eyes then maybe the demon will disappear. Failing that, I won’t see her strike. I begin to shake from the cold.

Frozen bodies, found in the woods. A young girl, found wandering…

“No! It’s okay, we’re safe. She’s not real.”

“Who’s not real, mama?”

“Shhhhh, my angel.”

Blood, and snow. A young girl, found wandering…

I barely notice when a warm figure presses against my back and a hand starts stroking my hair. Ryota. He pulls us close, and I lean against him.

“She’s not real,” I whisper.

“I know, Hanako. Come inside.”

He pulls me to my feet and keeps hold of my hand. I grab Kaori’s with my free one, and she reaches for Hisao who was watching from the edge of the trees. I glance over my shoulder; the woods are empty. As we cross the garden, we create four sets of footprints in neat lines.

I glance over my shoulder. I have admired the snow, but there are still no flowers and no moon. There is also no fifth set of footprints heading back into the trees. Only my own as I ran after Kaori. No flash of a porcelain face. Just my own skin, pale from the cold.