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.

 

Nowhere // Now Here: An Update

Two years ago, I returned home from work to my ancient, dust-ridden Japanese apartment. I shuffled out of my shoes and dropped my bags on the floor, & stepped out of the genkan into my kitchen. In front of me was the table. It was a good-sized rectangular dining table, pressed against the wall between the doors to my tatami rooms. It had a pale yellow cloth on it, which was always slipping. The left-hand side was occupied by my toaster oven, bought soon after I moved in in haste to experiment with baking Kit Kats. The right-hand side was covered by paper. At the bottom of the pile were important documents – payslips, city registration forms, the earthquake safety leaflet I never got around to filling out. The rest was all stories.

Amelia Starling Sanrio notepads

Half-finished journal entries, scribbled on post-it notes when I didn’t have my actual journal with me but needed to write. Torn pages with novel notes, story ideas, and snippets of song lyrics. Thin B5 notepads adorned with Sanrio characters, all full of garbled English and Japanese poetry, folktales, and musings about how the ocean looked whenever I sat beside it. Ink smudges, where I’d cried unexpectedly, when I hadn’t realised how upset I was until I’d picked up a pen and everything had come out. When I’d written about missing my family, and the wind running away from me, and things I’d lost. My stories, from both my life and my imagination, scattered.

I looked at them. For the first time in a while, I smiled for myself. It was like looking in a mirror, and reminding myself that I still existed. That after so much wondering who and where I was and should be, I finally got it.

“Words,” I said. “Words are my home.”

Here I am

Today I am writing this blog post whilst sitting on the floor of my room in Scotland. I am still surrounded by scattered paper. This time it’s on my yoga mat, which is annoying because I really want to stretch, but the squishy foam is so comfortable to spread my work out & flop onto.

I’ve moved around a lot over the past few years. Even before Japan, when I had papers all over the walls of my childhood bedroom, and in folders and on desks of various student houses in Winchester. I’ve loved and left many homes, and sometimes my heart feels heavy from it all. It took everything I had left to uproot myself and get here, to this grey city by the sea which sparkles in the sunlight and the rain. And I’m glad I did, because it is definitely the right place for me for now.

Amelia Starling

I’ve been thinking recently about where home is. Can I call this place home yet? When I am so happy here already, but have so little claim to it and it’s just another city on my list? And what is home, anyway? I always say it’s where you love, not where you live. But I’ve said ‘I’m home’ so many times in so many different houses and apartments, and it was true of all of them at the time. Now when I travel and people ask me where I’m from I say ‘Aberdeen’ because that’s where my journeys begin these days, but it’s not where I’m really from. And if they’d asked me a few years ago they would have received a different answer…

I look back at the papers on my yoga mat. Assignment drafts. Poems. Field notes. Journal scraps. I remember my Japanese kitchen table. I smile.

Over the years, I have changed. The Willow Web has changed with me, and doubtless we will change again. I’m not the same person I was in the past, and I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had to grow and become who I am now. Writing has always been the one constant thing, which I’ve been able to take everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I am, so long as I have a notepad and pen in my hands.

Amelia Starling polaroids

The past year or so has been difficult. I’ve been shy, and scared. I don’t like to say much about my personal life online, so I’ve hidden my words away; kept them for myself, in these messy piles. I’ve felt ashamed to call myself a writer, because I have so little credentials to show for it. It’s time to change that. I’m working on getting my words off of those pages and into the world, so they can find their own homes.

So far…

I have kept a journal for over a decade, and have started sharing snippets from them on here and on Twitter with the hashtag #ameliajournals. I may eventually post some longer excerpts, if I find some which I’d like to share. These are just for fun, and to remind me of all the madness which led me to where I am now. Hopefully they make you smile, or ponder something you might not have done before.

Recently I have also been writing quite a bit of poetry, which is a surprise. Not sure how that happened, but it keeps happening and I like it so I will continue to post my poems on here, too.

Stories will appear as and when they are finished and/or edited. I have so many stories to share, from so many places. Brave, withering stories, as much a part of me as my own skin. Some which I wrote to heal myself, or change things I cannot in real life, some just for fun. Maybe readers will never tell the difference. There are also new stories, beginning here, now. About the North Sea, and rowan berries, and feeling lost and found.

I will be keeping some stories back to use as parts of bigger projects or to submit to other places. I’d also like to put together some collections of stories and poems in booklets, too. Probably PDF or some other digital format to begin with, but hopefully some physical ones as well eventually.

Amelia Starling journals

Support Me

Thank you for staying with me. Over the years I’ve watched my followers grow, and it’s been a pleasure to meet so many lovely people and learn from and be inspired by them. I am so thankful for all the friends which writing, blogging, and folklore have brought into my life. You are what reminds me to not give up, and that what I’m doing is worth it.

If you like my writing, then there are a few things you can do to help…

  • Follow me on Twitter @amyelize. This is the only public social media I use for writing and folklore-related things.
  • If you like my posts, please share them. I don’t mind how. Retweet, or share on other social media, or print them off & send them with a carrier pigeon to your faraway grandma in the forest (she’s a witch too, you know. She needs words to help her spell!)
  • Follow The Willow Web, either on WordPress or via email by filling in the box on the right-hand side.
  • If you have any feedback or comments, feel free to tweet or email me. I have disabled comments for old posts because of spam, and also because I am editing and adding to them. So please don’t let that deter you from getting in touch. I love chatting, and have met some beautiful people through the magic of the internet. Long may it continue!
  • I have also set up a Ko-fi page. No pressure, but if you like my writing, or find any of my articles useful, and you can donate something, I would be very grateful.

That’s all for now. On I go…

Love, light, & all brightest blessings ♥

Amelia.

 

Fairy Tales: An Evening with Kate Forsyth

Last year I encountered a novel called Bitter Greens (some of you may recall the review of it I posted on here). You know those books that you just cannot put down? Bitter Greens was one of those. So when I found out that the author, Kate Forsyth, was coming to the UK to do some events, it wasn’t a case of if I was going it was a case of choosing the easiest to attend. Even the 4-hour train journey to get there & back didn’t dissuade me!

The book club at Waterstone’s in Bluewater, Kent, had read Bitter Greens and Kate went to visit them to discuss it. The talk was open to the public, not just book club members, but it seems that I was the only gatecrasher!

Bitter Greens is a retelling of the fairy tale ‘Rapunzel.’ It has three narrative strands: One for a young girl named Margherita, who is the Rapunzel figure, one for Selena Leonelli, who is the witch who imprisons her, and one for Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the real-life author of a version of ‘Rapunzel’ entitled ‘Persinettte.’ Altogether, this novel is a unique blend of fantasy and historical fiction.

Kate talked about her process of writing Bitter Greens, from the initial desire to retell ‘Rapunzel’ to how the idea developed. As a child, she spent a lot of time in hospital due to an accident which damaged her eye. Her mother gave her a book of fairy tales to read, and being so shut away from the world she found it easy to identify with Rapunzel. However, she always wondered about the fate of the witch. Did she ever get out of the tower? If so, how? What did she do afterwards? It was this line of thought that led Kate to wanting to write her own version of the story.

As a children’s author, she initially tried retelling ‘Rapunzel’ for a YA audience as a fantasy novel. However, she realised that it was never meant to be a story for children, because when you stop and analyse it there are some dark themes present (such as violence, sexuality, and madness) which could only reach their full potential in an adult novel.

Kate explained how fairy tales can vary depending on the country they’re from. Italian fairy tales tend to be very bawdy and lively, with blatant sexual references. French fairy tales, on the other hand, are more sedate and less explicit. Many were told by aristocratic women, like Charlotte-Rose, in literary salons. Women were heavily restricted by society, having their marriages arranged which often led to miserable lives. To them, thoughts of charming princes and true love were daydreams; a welcome escape from their harsh realities. Fairy tales are constantly borrowing motifs from one another, making many of them similar no matter where they’re from. This makes them both recognisable and different, because not all retellings reuse the exact same set of motifs every time.

Fairy tales also lack what Kate called a ‘crystalised’ form. There are so many variations of the same stories, it’s impossible to pinpoint a definitive ‘original.’ Therefore, when working on a retelling, it’s possible to decide for yourself which version is going to be your source.

After the book club meeting, I got the chance to speak to Kate for awhile. I had emailed her a few days before explaining that I’m a fairy tale fanatic and currently writing my dissertation about them, and asking if we could have a chat. She agreed, which made me stupidly excited followed by nervous. What was I going to say? Where fairy tales are concerned, there’s always too much! But it turned out that I didn’t need to worry, because once I got to that moment everything I’d prepared fled from my brain. I just started mindlessly babbling about Sleeping Beauty and my degree. But Kate was lovely and reassuring, and gave me some fantastic advice.

I confessed that I’m struggling with my Sleeping Beauty retelling at the moment, mostly because I’m not sure what I want to keep from my crystal and how it will all fit together. She told me that there are two different types of retellings:

  • A pure retelling, which more or less follows the fairy tale exactly (like she did for Bitter Greens)
  • A new retelling, which takes themes and/or motifs from the fairy tale and reshapes them into something else

Whichever type you’re doing, the problem with any retelling is that readers already know the story. As a writer, it becomes your job to surprise them. Make it fresh, and make them feel that perhaps they don’t know what’s going to happen after all.

Kate Forsyth The Wild Girl signed

It never ceases to amaze me how versatile fairy tales are, and how many people they captivate for all kinds of reasons. I’m so new to all of this — writing, studying and retelling, and hearing/reading other people’s experiences with fairy tales is rather daunting. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just people with a common interest, and we all have our own opinions to bring to the fairy tale table. None are right, and none are wrong. And there lies their magic.

A massive thank you to Kate for agreeing to meet me, and for sharing so many writing tips and ideas. You can visit Kate’s blog to find out more about Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and her other projects here.

Also thank you to Bluewater Waterstone’s Book Club for being extremely welcoming, it was fun to meet you all!

Writing With Trichotillomania

Image you’re doing something you love. A project, hobby, reading a book, playing a game, anything. But then there’s something in your eye. Or, you think there is. Your hand automatically tries to remove it, prodding around in the sticky tear duct. You blink and find that it’s gone. But you can’t move your hand away. Your brain screams ‘no! no! no!’ But you can’t hear it. You stand up, pace the room, hands shaking. Tell yourself to calm down, that everything is fine, that you’re strong, and you can beat this. Sometimes you do.

The other times…

The merciless desire to grab your hair becomes uncontrollable. You have no choice. Just one. One won’t make a difference. The sharp tug and twinge of pain is satisfying. The eyelash falls to the ground. You don’t make a wish on it; you spent your allowance many years ago. You watch it land and feel better, but now there’s another. Next to the space created by one you pulled out. It feels odd now; exposed. Two won’t make a difference… Oh, oops. You missed it, got a different one instead. Better try again…

Trichotillomania
A rare kind of selfie. Image my own.

Later, you drag yourself over to a mirror and force yourself to look at the damage. The ugly, swollen gap on your eyelid. Feeling that you’re a disappointment, and that everyone will notice and think so as well. You look back at the thing you were doing and don’t have the courage to carry on, in case another attack comes. What once brought you joy, now you hate. You’re a failure. You feel sick. And you know that tomorrow you will have to steel yourself to face this same fight.

This is my reality.

I have a compulsive behaviour disorder known as Trichotillomania. I’ve struggled with it for as long as I can remember; hair pulling is just something I’ve always done. I don’t know when or why it started happening. I didn’t even discover the name ‘Trichotillomania’ until I was 17. When I was a child, my parents didn’t think of it as anything more than a habit I would grow out of. As a teenager, I grew weary of everyone telling me to ‘just stop it!’ or ‘you really need to grow some eyelashes’ as though lacking them was an immense flaw in my character. Like I needed them to be normal and accepted. No-one, myself included, understood why I pulled my hair out in the first place and why I couldn’t stop doing it. Reaching my wit’s end and turning to Google, it didn’t take me long to discover that I wasn’t alone and that I had an genuine medical condition. I burst into tears of relief. I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t the only person in the world who suffered like this. I could FINALLY give people a reason. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, I just had Trichotillomania.

Trichotillomania
Artwork by Sharp Pencil Studio, for the Trichotillomania awareness campaign HelpMe2Stop.

The liberation which came with learning this improved my confidence. I began to talk more about my hair pulling, and slowly become less ashamed of it. Even so, many people still didn’t understand it. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to recognise situations which may trigger an attack. I can go for days, sometimes weeks, without pulling, as opposed to when I was younger and would pull every day. But the urge always returns eventually, and all the progress I’ve made can be destroyed in an instant. I’ve accepted that I will never be free of it. Trich is so integral to my life, I can almost get defensive about it. I hate it, but at the same time, it’s a defining part of who I am. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have hair pulling attacks.

Of course I was bullied at school. Other kids would ask me why I didn’t have eyelashes, and I’d shrug and pretend I didn’t know. If they caught me pulling they would laugh and whisper behind my back. One time in class I heard a boy behind me murmuring to a new pupil about the girl over there who pulls out her own hair. The new guy sneered in disbelief, but then later on he saw the evidence. Another face watching me like I was a circus attraction. Those bullies used to upset me, but now I pity them. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so narrow-minded. To not even think to ask someone if they’re okay, to just automatically decide to taunt them because they’re different.

Trichotillomania notebook
Messages I write to myself on the inside covers of my notebooks. Image my own.

When writing, if I pause I’m always courting an imminent attack. Sometimes Trich makes me feel worthless, like I’m never going to get anywhere because I physically do anything. By its very nature, Trichotillomania erodes your self confidence. Its makes you believe you’re ugly and that no-one will want you. On bad days, I find myself avoiding peoples’ eyes during conversations for fear that they will notice. I can’t bear to look into someone else’s eyes, because then I can see them seeing me. But I love writing, and I will keep fighting for it no matter how many times I lose. Eyelashes are now my currency. They’re the price I pay for each article I complete, all the positive feedback I get on this blog, and all the stories I tell. All of those things are worth the cost. At university, I steeled myself enough to walk into seminars after Trich-y days and share my work with my classmates. None of them laughed or judged me—they just wanted to see what I had brought to workshop! Those wonderful people taught me that what I have to say, my words I continue to write, are more important than how much hair I have. Every. Single. Time.

Trichotillomania
Another note. Image my own.

If you have just discovered Trichotillomania, then I’m going to ask you a favour. If you notice someone you know pulling out their hair, go up to them. Speak kind words. Ask them how they are. Compliment them. There is enough pain in this world. We do not need to create more by judging each other, or feeding the misery our own minds can already give us.

If you also have Trichotillomania, then fair greetings to you, my fellow comrade. Look in the mirror. Smile. Write ‘don’t pull!’ on your hand every morning to remind yourself. Be brave. Keep fighting. Keep being you.