Short Story: Change

Tree Line

I’ve started writing some short stories on the side while I work on my novel. Some for posting here, some for submissions elsewhere (fingers crossed?). It’s a great way to share some writing and explore small ideas. Without further ado:

Change, by Ashe Mocaw

Mother says I was born without a sense of caution. I don’t disagree—she’s right about most things, this included. My earliest memory is climbing the rotting oak tree in our front yard, heedless of the broken branches and deadwood. I didn’t care that it was dying, or that its death could result in mine. I only cared about getting a better look at the world. Mother nearly fainted when she came outside. The blood drained from her face, leaving her fair skin ashen pale, her lips grey with worry.

That was ten years ago. Now, as I hit fifteen, the tree has been reduced to a stump that I’ve claimed as my favourite spot to sit. Mother always intended to remove it, but keeps making excuses about the time and effort it will take. I think she’s fond of it, too, now that she doesn’t have to worry about it causing me an early death.

This morning I’m there again, my feet firm on the ground, my thoughts high in the air. The spring wind still has a chill, but the knitted shawl wrapped around my shoulders keeps the worst at bay. Occasionally, a piece of my dark brown hair escapes its bun and fly into my face, and I push it back behind my ear. Mother says she has no idea why my hair is so dark. Hers is a fiery red, full of bright oranges and tangled yellows. She tells me my father’s hair was so blonde it seemed to glow white, a beacon in the dark. I bet they made quite the pair.

He died—disappeared, as my mother says—before I was born. He entered the woods, and never returned. No one ever does.

Mother and I live right by the edge of the woods, but we never go in. We’re the last landmark before the road closes into darkness, before the free winds are stifled by ancient branches. The occasional townsfolk come down for various reasons: to marvel at the trees, to search for clues of a loved one, to purchase some of Mother’s honey or compliment her on the bees she raises so well. We see the occasional traveller, with a wagon or horse, brave enough—Mother calls them foolish—to head into the woods. Otherwise, we’re alone.

Well. Not alone, exactly. I guess it’s better to say: otherwise, we’re the only humans around.

There is something Mother is wrong about. A truth she resists, one that, if acknowledged, would shatter her world. It’s why I come to the oak tree to think. It’s the only thing I know that she doesn’t.

I am not her daughter.

Not by blood, I mean—it would be cruel to say the hardworking woman who taught me to hunt deer and charm bees is not my mother at all. She is. But I am not the child she gave birth to fifteen years ago. I am not the child of the red-haired beekeeper who lives off the land and the tall, blonde traveller who disappeared into the woods. I know because I can whisper to the flowers and have them reply. I can listen to the trees and hear their stories. I can tell because, ten years ago at the top of a dying oak tree, the world itself told me so. A secret born on the wind for me and me alone.

There is a word for people like me—those of another world, traded at birth with a human child. Fae. Fairy. Demon.

Changeling.

Sometimes I see my kin, such as they are, in between the trees. Only quick flashes, and only at night. Bright eyes in blues and reds, cat-like, reflecting the moon. Shifting shadows with lanky limbs, just a bit too long. Just like mine. The glimpses of skin I’ve spotted range from the palest white to the deepest ebony brown. There is another world in the woods.

And I think it took Mother’s child.

Any human would be sensible enough to consider this a lost cause. It’s been fifteen years—the human child is probably dead, just like our father. But I’m not sensible, no matter how many lessons Mother gives me, no matter how many times she warns me against sticking my hands in fire. I always rush in without measuring the risks. Sometimes, I get hurt. But never enough to stop.

A question haunts me, like the buzzing of our bees, a constant in the air: what use would they have for a human child, when so many wander in by their own will? Why steal, when humans are foolish enough to play into their hands?

Most of all—why leave me in their place?

I’ve been waiting for spring to get my answers. It’s the time I feel the strongest, as if I, too, am being reborn. If my sibling (and I do consider Mother’s other child my sibling) is in there, I want to find them, to speak to them, introduce them to their birth mother, the wonderful lady that she is. I want to ask them if they’d ever met Father, or knew who my other parents are. I want to find out who switched us at birth. Then I want to go home to Mother.

The cold breeze tousles my hair, but it cannot dim my determination. I have on my favourite boots, worn and fitted to my feet. I have a satchel of food and water just by my feet, ready to last me days in the woods. I have on Mother’s necklace, the one she calls her symbol of protection, an oak leaf covered in gold.

Mother is still asleep in the house, and I will be gone before she wakes. I know she’ll fret, her skin turning sallow as she reads the note I left on the table, as I confess my brashness and my unending love. I know just how her brows will furrow and what wrinkles will crease her forehead. When I return, sibling or no sibling, I know I’ll be in for a well-deserved scolding. And then Mother will wrap me in her arms and welcome me back, as she always has. How she always will.

The wind stops, and I stand up. I’ve never hesitated before in my life, and I don’t hesitate now. I shift my shawl across my shoulders, hauling the satchel off the ground. My feet work, one before the other, and like so many before me, I go into the woods.

Whether I’m the first to come out is yet to be seen.

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