Steve Wade’s fiction has been published and anthologised in over fifty print publications. He has had stories shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Competition and the Hennessy Award. He has won first prize in the Delvin Garradrimna Short Story Competition on four occasions. Winner of the Short Story category in the Write By the Sea writing Competition 2019. First Prize Winner of the Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Writing Competition 2020. www.stephenwade.ie
Compiling and editing a second short story collection. Also working on a novel.
“The Land of the Ever Young” by Stephen Wade
Beneath the eaves of the snow-covered roof, the fairy mother flitted and hovered. She wondered how they could accept such a wizened, hideous creature in their home. In her arms she held her own sleeping infant closer to her breast. A baby boy she’d named ‘Tipper’.
She inched closer to the window to see more clearly the room’s interior, poorly illuminated by a miserable fire. Above the hearth was a withered sprig of holly; its three or four berries blotched with black.
A year on since she had entered the farmhouse an hour before cock-crow, slipped the golden-haired new-born from its cradle, and deposited in its place that crooked-backed, dark-eyed fiend, this was the first time she’d returned. Her intuition had not failed her. Eleven months and a few days old, and there he sat, looking more like an ancient, emaciated dwarf than a child, wailing and screeching in a voice that could curdle even the blood of a banshee.
And yet the demon child’s surrogate parents tended to him with the devotion of a pair of hedge sparrows given charge of a cuckoo chick. Deaf they were to the hungry cries from their other children, ten famished mouths. And as blind as they were deaf to the upkeep of their small farm, the animals were neglected and the crops lay diseased and dying.
Now, with Christmas Eve already upon them, the good fairy was here to make amends to the family her ungodly offspring had brought to near ruin. At first she thought she would return Tipper, the stolen child, and take his replacement back to the realm of the fairies. But beholding before her the long-clawed, furry-faced changeling wailing to be fed from the large rocking chair, her heart quailed.
As though he sensed his fate, Tipper, the blonde-haired infant swaddled in cloths embroidered from butterfly scales, awoke in his fairy mother’s arms. The child’s eyes, bluer than a kingfisher’s wing, seemed filled with hurt greater than all the betrayal that ever was.
“There, there, mo chuisle,” she whispered. My pulse. “Mo chuisle mo chroi.” Pulse of my heart. She pressed her lips to Tipper’s cheek, the familiar scent of his skin crowding her with the sorrowful shame of what might have been. And with that she banished forever any thoughts of abandoning her precious child.
There were other ways to rid the family of its unwarranted curse. She could just leave. Changelings had a short lifespan. Two or three years and it would shrivel up and die. But this family didn’t have two years. Already the other ten children were starved and frozen. They lay curled up in corners of the room or sat about on their haunches like sickly rabbits resigned to their end.
That’s it. The good fairy would play upon the changeling’s greed. True to its nature, the demon-child’s incessant appetite meant that every morsel harvested and hoarded by the parents was fed to their newest child. The ageing mother and father took turns at keeping vigil over their fast depleting stocks in the larder. Even the little milk they managed to squeeze from the goat was his alone. But the nanny-goat had given birth to two kids around the same time as the changeling’s arrival last Christmas. The animal’s duds were almost shrunk and her udder nearly dried up. Soon the nanny-goat, the family pet, would go the same way as her offspring; as nourishment for the creature that had sucked from them their family wholesomeness the way a weasel sucks the lifeblood from a slain fowl.
Unfurling her wings, the good fairy clutched her baby to her bosom and flitted into the air, where she battled hard against the swirling snowflakes and the North Wind’s sharp teeth.
Back home in her fairy hollow beneath the roots of an Adler tree, she deposited her child in his cradle fashioned from mistletoe-saplings and lined with the down from a kingfisher’s breast. The boy, exhausted from their journey, gurgled his contentment and drifted off towards fairyland on Christmas morning. There he dreamed of riding a red dragonfly over a frozen stream along whose banks grew Christmas Fir trees wearing coats of snow. On the ice fairy children skated and laughed.
The good fairy then got to work.
From stocks gathered in autumn, she baked tiny cakes flavoured with honey and sweet cream, adding saffron, an ingredient irresistible to fairies. She then set about preparing a liquid with which to wash down this treat: lusmore tea, a deadly potion made from a flower known to mere mortals as foxglove. This, when taken by the changeling would burn away his human innards, whereupon he would sprout fairy wings and flee for his life back to the realm of the fairies. To ensure its strength, she sipped the potion, just enough to do her no harm. The liquid kicked like a startled rabbit. This she corrected by adding honey and saffron until the sourness mellowed and turned sweet. Perfect.
To transport the deadly liquid, she filled a dozen vials normally used by fairies for collecting nectar or pollen. One vial was dosage enough, but changelings were wise beyond their age. Better to fill a mortal-sized tumbler when they got to the farmhouse than to risk the changeling not touching the potion because it was in a glass container no bigger than his thumbnail.
Before departing, she kissed her sleeping child on his tender lips. “Gra mo chroi. Oiche Mhaith, codladh samh,” she whispered in the language spoken by fairies. Love of my heart. Good night, sleep well.
And with that she summoned a herd of fairies from the nearby hollows along the riverbank to come help her carry the feast to the room where the changeling slept.
At the farmhouse, the good fairy instructed the others to use the chimney. The entrance she initially used when she deposited the changeling and rescued baby Tipper from his misguided fate.
Inside the house the fairies flitted about, wary of the sleeping changeling. While the parents and their ten children slept on the cold stone floor of the main room, covered only in rags, they discovered the changeling snoring in what used to be the parents’ bed and bedroom.