by Jackson Hassell
Bea walked out to the old pigsty, rusting buckets of water in each calloused hand. With each step she took, a few drops jumped out of the buckets like rain, freezing into hail before they hit the ground.
The sty looked more like a real house now. The fences along the sides had been filled in with mud and dung, the thatch roof was freshly repaired from a recent winter storm, and the door was carefully fitted into the frame and several inches thick. It took all of Bea’s strength to open it.
Inside, the changeling was sleeping on the old dog’s stomach, blond baby hair fusing with fading golden fur. The screech of the door woke it up. It rubbed its eyes, blinking in the shaft of daylight that was all it ever saw of the sky. Bea knelt down just inside the doorway, knee joints creaking. The changeling stood up and waddled over to her, arms outstretched. The picture of innocence. It grabbed onto her coarse dress, pulled down. Did it think she had come with food, she wondered. Bea fished a crudely carved wooden cup from one of her apron’s deep pockets. She had made it several months before, to save time, by smoking it in burning hemlock for several days.
The effect was instantaneous, as the changeling retreated back to the dog, twisting its hands deep into the scruff on the indifferent animal’s neck. Bea dunked the cup in one of the buckets, advanced on the changeling, and forced its mouth open, hard fingers digging into the gap wisdom teeth would later fill, if it could survive another decade of torture. If Bea’s baby didn’t come back.
Jai had hurried into town as soon as Bea went into labor, but there wasn’t enough time. Bea gave birth alone, writhing on the packed dirt on their dark home. Fading in and out of consciousness, she managed to cut the umbilical cord, wipe the fluid off her baby, and swaddle it in a blanket snatched off her bed. Through sleepy, closing eyes she finally saw the trolls, silhouettes against the full moon sky. Their humped, wretched figures filled the doorway, and they held a troll child in a green blanket. As she watched, the child morphed into a human baby, and the troll mother holding it took slow, stumbling steps toward her. Bea couldn’t stop the cascade of sleep sweeping through her, and managed only to make a brief sound of protest before falling asleep, now embracing a baby covered in the green blanket.
Bea poured the poisoned water into the changeling’s mouth. Here comes the part where it screams and stares at me with those betrayed eyes, Bea thought. But nothing happened. The changeling’s arms hung limp at its sides, and it drank the water without complaint. The bottom dropped out of Bea’s stomach. She flung the cup to the side and stumbled over to the door frame.
For a few days after its birth, Bea was confused. She remembered the trolls, but Jai was so happy every time he saw the baby, his great, scarred face seeming to physically lighten the room. But day after day, Bea felt distant from the changeling. This isn’t my child, she thought every time she held it. She looked down at it in her arms and saw nothing more than a small bundle of flesh, greedily feeding off of her.
Bea sat by the doorframe in the pigsty, rocking back and forth slightly with her hands around her knees. Her eyes never left the changeling, vomiting quietly in the shadowed corner.
“But are you sure? I know I’ve seen this green blanket before,” Jai said.
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Bea said, shaking her head, rope-like hair flinging around her, catching the mucus dripping from her nose and the salt water flowing from her eyes.
They consulted priests, the village shaman, friends and family. Everyone repeated the age-old wisdom: “Torture it. If you torture it enough, its parent will have to come for it, and it will swap it again with your real baby.” Originally Jai and Bea were almost gentle – denying meals, salting its water, withholding blankets. But months past, and no trolls showed up at their door. So they escalated the torture, forcing it to sleep, then live in the pigsty. Every day, before church, Jai would hold it under the river for half a minute, each week adding another second. Once, Bea put it in the oven, kneeling in the corner of the bedroom with her hands over her ears to black out its screams. Jai had managed to rescue it before it got too hot, though it had blisters over its body that didn’t fade for weeks.
“You mustn’t kill it, however. The trolls will kill your child in revenge.” Never give it the release of death.
The changeling finished vomiting, lay on the ground in exhaustion. Bea hadn’t moved.
The changeling roused itself off the ground, and laboriously waddled over to her, pulled on her dress again, opened its mouth. “Aa – mmmm – mmmmmaa –” it wailed.
Several times, Bea found Jai rocking the changeling back and forth on the riverside, cooing it lullabies. Bea watched, wide-eyed and helpless, as the baby struggled with its tongue. “Mmmma! Mmmmmmmaaaaaaa…” She looked the changeling in the face for the first time in years, saw the delicate rearrangement of Jai’s features, the hay-colored hair, the uncannily curving lips, the low and heavy cheek bones.
Jai had killed himself on the baby’s first birthday, drowned himself in the river.
“Mmmmmmaaaaammmm –” Bea pushed the changeling away. It stumbled back, collapsed on the unmoved old dog. Neither Bea nor the changeling could see the other through a blurry, wet chaos of a world. She ran out of the shelter, bruising her hands as she strained to shut the heavy door. Gasping, she made her way back to her empty house and curled up in the alcove they had meant to be a crib, clutching the green blanket her mother had given her as a wedding gift.
Author Biography: Jackson Hassell is a junior at The High School for
the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, where he studies creative
writing. He likes to read science fiction in his free time and plans to
major in the natural sciences or engineering in college.