Changelings

A fox got into the twins’ nursery. It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, only it wasn’t.

*

The fox got into the twins’ nursery. It started on one of the babies. It took a hand, an ear, the skin from her cheek. But it switched mid-meal. Went for the other — face, neck, belly, bloated and sloshing with milk.

*

The babies had a mother. She turned off the television when their cries didn’t stop. She ran upstairs. The fox looked at her — disappointed, she would later think, annoyed to be interrupted. There was blood on its jowls; there was blood on the sheets. It leapt from the crib to the rocking chair, darted behind the dresser. The mother made to grab a broom or a fire poker, but there was nothing like that in the nursery. She kicked at the fox, her hands wielding an invisible pitchfork, and it slunk past her, slipped out the door, down the stairs, away.

*

The babies had a father. He was having a regular day.

*

The neighbors came out to see the ambulance. They stood on their stoops, their hands moving from their mouths to their hearts, their hearts to their mouths, as a single gurney, heavy with babies at both ends, was rolled out and loaded away.

*

There are fairy stories about babies that found themselves suddenly othered — changelings, fairy children, that were sometimes subbed out for healthy human babies because they were sickly or troublesome, or because the human babies were beautiful and even fairies could fall in love with beauty.

*

The doctors and nurses swarmed. They would not let the mother go with the babies, would not let her see, though she put up a fight — a narrow crescent of a black eye for an orderly who stood in her way; a scratch on the cheek for the intake nurse where the mother pushed the clipboard away; ping-pong-sized bruises along the torso for the security guard who held her from behind, holding her wrists to her chest but unable to prevent her elbows from driving into his ribs. He would look at himself in the mirror that night, see the round coins of living blood just below the surface of his skin, and cry.

*

One of the babies died somewhere along the hall, under the fluorescents. The other baby got quiet and scared everyone. They thought if she stopped crying she would start dying, so they pinched her arm (the one that still had a hand) to make her start again.

*

The baby who lived had a twin who died. All that meant to the baby was a warmth at her side, cooling. And getting pinched.

*

The father wouldn’t remember what he was doing when he got the phone call from the mother. When he tried, it seemed as though he had been banging at a plastic computer, talking into a disconnected phone, pretending to work in a pretend office, like a child’s playset but bigger. When he tried to remember what he had done after the phone call, it seemed as though everything in his office had become very hot, and he was scared to move in case he burned himself.

*

The mother sat in the waiting room, calmed but not calm. In her mind, she was still all action. In her mind, she calculated the distance between the couch and the nursery. She calculated how long it had taken her to get up the stairs. How many seconds would have made a difference? What was the fatal second? She played with variables — if it had not been so hot outside. If she had not left the back door open to let in a breeze. If it had been a raccoon instead of a fox. If she had decided to watch TV in her room, risked waking them from their nap, instead of downstairs.

*

The fox was caught in the field adjacent to the new development. Its stomach contents were tested to make sure it was, in fact, the guilty fox. He was in several magazines and newspapers, always the same picture: sulking behind cage bars, head angled up. There was something malicious about the angle, something that made him seem like a murderer, and unrepentant. But his coat was magnificent — sunset colors of rust red and orange, a splash of pure white on his chin, slippers of muddy white on his paws.

*

The babies had had names. But it was hard to remember what they were, and almost impossible to know with any certainty which one was the baby who lived.

*

The baby who lived lived in the hospital for a couple weeks. Everyone wanted to take her picture but no one was allowed. One of the physicians thought of the baby as Thing 2. He never said it out loud, but he thought it every time he walked in her room, checked her charts, looked in on what remained of her face — hello, thing 2! Sweet, sweet thing! — and didn’t feel bad because the baby burbled back at him, happily.

*

Sometimes a changeling baby was known as such because it sang or danced or played an instrument secretly, when it thought no one was looking. Sometimes it had wrinkles or a beard or seemed wise beyond its years. Sometimes the fairy babies weren’t babies at all, but rather the oldest amongst them, swapped out so that they could live their last years coddled with human love. Sometimes, they were merely sent to die in comfort.

*

The baby that died was cremated. The ashes were put in a decorative urn smaller than a soda can. The urn was put in a cardboard box, tied with a ribbon, like it was a present.

*

The fox was euthanized. A stockbroker quietly bought the corpse and had it stuffed. It sat in his library at the base of a bookcase — posed with one paw lifted, light-footed for the nursery, head cocked at the same unrepentant angle. A conversation piece.

*

When the baby who lived was well enough to leave the hospital, they brought her home to a new sixth floor apartment in a collection of high-rises. The buildings were large and impersonally grey. The apartment was carpeted and impersonally modern. The nearest vegetation was a private park. The only wildlife was pigeons and squirrels.

To the father, the move meant a temporary change of scenery, a distraction.

To the mother, it was a game of odds: there are eight apartments per floor; there are eleven floors per building; there are four buildings. We are not by the stairwell. We are not by the elevator. We will keep our windows closed. If something is looking for us, it will get lost. If something is looking for us, it will be distracted. It will go for another, easier apartment. It will go for another child. It will not be able to find us, not again.

*

The baby who died was brought to the new apartment in her urn in her wrapped box. It was put on the top shelf of the hall closet by the father, the mother made hysterical by the ribbon, pink and curled, like the tail of a balloon.

*

The mother took up running. She liked long distances. Sometimes she was chasing after something quick and coppery. Sometimes she was being chased, a charcoal-colored cloud gathering speed over her shoulder.

*

The father went back to empty work, ordinary days. On weekends, he went back to their old house. He told the mother he was making changes for the realtor because it still hadn’t sold. The truth was, he hadn’t tried to sell it.

At first, he liked it because it was empty. He would lie on the floor where there were still indentations from the bed. He would look under the sinks and be surprised at their depth. He would walk around the nursery, where the carpet had been pulled up by a cleaning team and the furniture thrown out.

Then he liked it because it was his to fill. He bought some plastic furniture for the back porch. Then he bought a leather sofa — on sale — with dual recliners. Sometimes he felt sad, remembering. But he could be anywhere and sad. The sadness was not in the house, and eventually the house was just rooms again. Just space. His space. New and ready for new things.

One weekend when the mother was at a conference, the father took the baby, now a toddler, to the house. She laughed as he blew bubbles for her in the backyard. She tried to clap and ended up hugging herself. She was fine in the nursery. Didn’t feel a thing.

*

It was not always easy to trade the human baby back for the fairy. Sometimes they would have to be left in the woods for their fairy folk to hear their cries and find them. Sometimes a fire would be lit in the grate and the changeling hung above it; when it got too hot, the fairy would crawl up the chimney, and the human baby would find itself home again. Sometimes boiling an eggshell was involved, or iron scissors, or red ribbons, or abandoning that which was of greatest importance to you. And sometimes there was nothing that could be done.

*

The toddler grew into a happy child. She had a great personality and one empty mitten. Sometimes she filled it with little things: stones, buttons, flower petals, Barbie shoes. Her hair was glossy, golden brown, red in a certain light. Her hats had flaps that went around her cheeks and tied under her chin like a bonnet to cover the missing ear.

Neighbor children were scared of her. If she ran over to play at the park, they ran away. Their mothers would scold the other children and make them come back. Then the other children were curious: why is your face like that? Where is your hand? Can you still hear? They leaned into her, gently peeled back the flap of her bonnet, cupped their small hands around her missing ear and yelled: can you hear this? CAN! YOU! HEAR! THIS!?

Their breath was hot and tickled. When she laughed, the skin graft on her cheek pulled taut, looked like nylon with tiny runs. The other children got bored and ran away, but they let her chase them without being scared.

*

The happy child learned how to speak, and then learned how to ask questions.

We love you just the way you are, her parents would answer.

And sometimes, Everybody’s different.

And sometimes, There’s no telling why people look the way they look or how they’ll look when they grow up.

When the happy child stared at her empty wrist, she waited for her hand to grow. Like her second teeth. Like the hair her mother had between her legs. Like the big kids.

*

The mother got a job working from home, writing exam questions for test booklets. If a puppy climbs two stairs a second and there are sixteen stairs per floor, how long will it take him to get to the fourth floor? If the thumb is treated like a cylinder and the rest is treated like a rectangular prism, how many buttons will fit in the mitten shape?

*

The happy child asked more questions: why does my face have these stripes in it? Why don’t I have two hands? Why can’t I go into the closet?

A fox touched you when you were a baby — was what her mother started telling her about why she had one hand instead of two, why her skin looked stiff, why her ear was just little pieces of skin, wavy like the edges of pie crust.

You’re very special, her mother said.

Want to rollerblade? her father said.

*

When the happy child closed her eyes to dream, she dreamed of a glowing fox touching her again. It came up to her and put its paw on her forehead, like a priest, like a blessing. A jolt went through her — zing! Then things that were missing grew and she glowed, too. Special.

*

The happy child was about to start kindergarten. Her mother baked a pie and her father came home with the Pocahontas movie. They fed her, gave her the present, sat her down. She had had a sister, they explained, but she died.

The same fox that hurt you took her away.

OK, but where? she asked. She licked the corners of her mouth where there were brown sugar crumbs waiting. Where did the fox take her?

Her mother suddenly needed to do the dishes. Her father blinked hard and leaned forward. He took her wrist where the hand was missing and cradled it tenderly.

Nobody knows that, love. Nobody knows what happens when we die.

Yeah, but did you look for her?

Look for her?

For my sister. And the fox. Did you look for them?

Her father stood and tugged at her to follow. They walked to the balcony overlooking the park.

I see her everyday out there. He leaned out and made a sweeping motion with his arm. Anytime you see something really beautiful, something that makes you smile, if you look really closely, you can see your sister, right there with you. Do you know what I mean? Can you see her?

She squinted at the tops of the trees, the empty jungle gym, the jogger circling the sidewalk with a big black dog.

Yeah, she said, focusing on the dog, which was not a fox but almost. Yeah, I see.

Good girl. He led her back inside by the empty wrist, her pulse cradled in his palm. Now let’s watch that movie!

Pocahontas has a raccoon friend, a bird friend, and a tree grandmother. It almost all made sense.

*

At recess, the happy child made dandelion chains by herself. She put clover behind her good ear and danced around a tree trunk, pretended she was dancing with her sister.

The other children came and danced around her. They screamed when she tried to join their circle. They darted forward and back, making a game of touching her. They ripped off her bonnet and stole her mitten. The glass beads she had been carrying in it clattered across the blacktop, popping explosively when the boys jumped on them.

*

The father held his daughter as she cried, the skin on her cheek lumpy and uneven like wet clay. Do you want some ice cream? Do you want a popsicle?

The mother waited until the father put the daughter to bed and fell asleep himself. Then she called everyone in the school’s directory. Yes, I know it’s late. Did you know your child hurt my child? Do you know what they did? Where did they learn to say things like that to another kid, a kid with disabilities? Well, they obviously learned it somewhere. Maybe if they were paying a bit more attention to their kids, you know, doing their job as parents, looking out for them, the way they were supposed to —

She would find these parents, as she had been found. She would hurt these parents, as she had been hurt. She would be the shadow that moved from child to child and punished whoever was too normal, too comfortable, too happy.

*

In one fairy story, a human baby and a troll baby are changed at birth, but this goes largely unnoticed until the two come of age and are set to be married. The human girl is repulsed by her prospective troll grooms, while the troll girl finds her human mates boring. They pass in the woods one night, the human ending up at a castle and being recognized by her mother, while the troll hears the raucous good time her troll mother is having and recognizes her place amongst them. They are wed to each other’s bridegrooms, and happily-ever-after ties a nice bow.

*

The happy child went to sleep and woke up and waited for the fox to come back for her. This, she decided, would be the best thing: that the fox come back and take her, too. It wasn’t fair. Why did the fox like her sister better?

She pictured her glowing priest fox and prayed each night before she went to sleep — dear you thank you for mama and daddy and please take me to be with my sister amen — but still woke up each morning.

*

The happy child grew older, taller, less happy. She went up inch by inch and it was slow until it was not. She got hips and smooth, tan legs under them. She got boobs, nice ones, and bought new clothes that hugged her new body. She refused to wear a hat. She strutted and flipped her hair, red in a certain light. On the street, she saw someone suppress a shiver when she passed, and knew it was because of her missing ear. She went home and cried. Standing in front of the mirror, she could imagine what she would have looked like. Unseam the skin. Untwist the mouth. Smooth the cheek. Add: one ear, half a nostril, one hand. She would have been beautiful. Which meant — she still thought, no matter how impossible it was — that somewhere her sister was beautiful.

*

If she couldn’t be beautiful, she decided she would be aggressively interesting. She dyed her hair black, with little feathers of neon pink peeking out in random strands. She put a spike through her the eyebrow on her good side. She scowled, she slumped, she made her good hand into a fist in her pocket and padded the other side with her unworn mitten. She would have played an instrument had there been a cool one to play with one hand. She would have started a band called The Leftovers. Or maybe The Regurgitants, with lead singer Fox Baby. But she couldn’t really sing, either.

*

The mother tried to love the daughter’s new look, made her pose for pictures beside the mantel. When she got low grades or test scores, her mother was quick to assure her that academics weren’t everything, that she was fine to take things at her own pace so long as she did her best. When she fought back with the people who called her names, her mother said she was proud her daughter could stand up for herself.

To the mother, this meant: I will love you no matter what. I will never not see you. I will never look away again.

*

She spent weekends with the father and his new girlfriend at the house. The first thing the father said about her knew look was, Whoa doggies! The first thing the girlfriend said was, Hi? as though the girlfriend might be confusing her with some other disabled daughter he had. Her father didn’t comment on the hair but tried to do the rock on hand sign as frequently as possible. When she told him her grades were low, he told her about the new fence he was trying to put in. When she told him she got in fights, he told her about scoring season tickets to his alma mater’s basketball games. To the father, this meant: I will love you no matter what. See, I won’t even notice.

*

She fell in love with a beautiful boy, and could almost forgive him for not loving her back because he was gay. She made friends with his group of gays. They all seemed to think that she was one of them, even though they were incredibly beautiful. They seemed to think that on the inside they were like her, wounded and warped, or that internally she was like them, with perfect hair and cheekbones.

They got high and she told them about the fox. She confessed that when she was a baby the doctors had used a chunk of skin from her ass to patch the hole on her cheek. An ass cheek cheek. This was insanely funny until it was not, and she started crying. The gays took turns kissing her ass cheek cheek, which made it better, and then trying to kiss her ass cheek, which made it funny again.

*

She got a tattoo to celebrate graduating high school — barely, like how she wanted to. The artist had looked at her with admiration when she told him what she wanted, called her a badass. She repeated it to herself as the needle vibrated into her skull.

*

When her daughter came in with a tattoo of a fox, one paw lifted, sniffing with interest at the bald spot where her ear should be, the mother said nothing, just stared until it was her daughter who looked away. The mother felt the blood rising to her cheeks, dark like a familiar cloud. She stood up, put her shoes on for a run, slammed the door.

*

When his daughter came home with a tattoo of a fox, the father asked her what she thought about getting a pool put in. He cried that night in the nursery he had turned into an office.

*

She heard her father crying in his office and got jealous. He was thinking of the other baby, her sister, the one that died. Her sister, the one the fox chose. But the fox had started on her — why did it switch? Did she scream? Did she fight? Was her skin harder to peel away? Did her sister’s taste better? Her sister would always be beautiful, the better reflection, what could have been. While she was just the other one.

*

She took a gap year, got a job, several jobs, one after the other. She did not like working in stores. She did not like working in restaurants. Kids were little shits who stared and asked too many questions. Adults were hypocrites who pretended not to notice, who swallowed their questions.

She got a job working as a desk receptionist in a hospital. She liked the bleach smell and the bright lights. She liked the graveyard shifts in the emergency room. She talked to men holding bellies with stab wounds and women holding babies with asthma. Everyone was too worried about something or someone else — their own sick people, their own freaks — to notice her. She liked doctors. They had always seen worse than her.

*

The mother helped her daughter prep applications and study for the specialty math and science tests she would need for pre-med. The questions were not like the questions the mother wrote. Which of the following reactions depicts the formation of the gas in example A? Which of the following accurately represents the chemical composition of a nonmetal? The letters and numbers sprawled out and promised to make things, promised there were new things left to be made.

*

Her mother had a lot of questions. Most of them were, Are you sure? Are you sure you want to do this?

I want to do this, she said at first.

After a couple weeks she started saying, I can do this.

*

She and her mother were rummaging through the closet, looking for the spare suitcase for her to take, when she came across a box with the ribbon. She opened it while her mother was distracted, sorting old free t-shirts into those to keep and those to donate. She pulled out the urn. It was the size and shape of a sugar bowl, could have held no more than a chalice of wine.

All this time? She turned to her mother, more shocked than angry. All this time, you’ve been keeping her in the closet?

We couldn’t decide, her mother said. Her face began working for some tears but none came. We didn’t know. We didn’t know what was right.

So you just left her in here?

For you. Her mother seemed to seize a new idea. For you to decide.

Her mother stepped toward her, her hands outstretched and cupped. She started reaching for the urn but then held her daughter’s face instead.

She’s yours, she said. You’ll find the right place for her.

*

Her father helped her heave her suitcase into the storage compartment, then held her for a long time. She waved to him and his new wife from her seat as the train pulled away.

She looked out the window at the passing fields and towns. The train went over a bridge and she leaned as far over as she could to see the water. There were two extremely obese people sitting below on lawn chairs. They waved at the train and she waved back. The obese man pointed at her to the obese woman, and for a moment she felt an old anger, an old hurt, filling her chest. But then she realized he was probably just pointing to insist that yes, someone had waved back, so she waved wider and wider, hoping they could still see her as the train moved past and they were out of sight.

*

Sometimes the human child was never returned, and the parents could only hope that they were happy, healthy, and being taken care of by their fairy family. Some of the changelings that had been left behind would forget they were once fairies. They lived a normal human life.