The Changeling

 

There was not much that could be said to the mother whose newborn had just died in her arms. Yet the ancient, upright man visiting her had sparkling eyes that expressed more than words.

The small stranger lifted a slender hand.

Life returned to the frail infant. Her fair wisps of hair took on the colour of flame and an otherworldly beauty pervaded the baby’s features.

“How did you do that?” whispered Emma. “The doctors said there was no hope.”

“She will now be with you for 12 years and a day. Bring her to me before that birthday.”

Emma and Todd were so elated at having a child survive after so many stillbirths they did not worry about the implications of the pact they had just made. There was something of a holy man in this mysterious hospital visitor’s demeanour and honeyed tone of voice. They did not doubt him for one moment, let alone question how he had performed the miracle that flew in the face of medical diagnosis

“Do not lose this.” The small man held up a golden card. “On it is the address you must bring her to. Be sure that it is on the date inscribed on the reverse.”

Todd took the card and put it in his wallet, and then turned to hold the daughter he thought he would never have. “Hello Gingie.”

Neither he, nor Emma, noticed the diminutive magician leave as enigmatically as he had appeared.

 

There was a lawn on the roof. In fact, the roof was the lawn.

It had been freshly mown and its cut grass fragrance filled the sunken courtyard. The pond at its centre was alive with croaking frogs. The underground house was totally concealed from the road. No one would have known that it was there without directions. The conversation going on inside was also secret, apparently not for the ears of an inquisitive 12-year-old.

Gingie didn’t mind. That was the way with adults after all. As soon as something important cropped up, it had to be kept from you at all costs. It made her wonder why she was there. By the furtive glances at her from the nearby window she assumed it was something she would have been better off not knowing.

Gingie’s life had been like that - a complete mystery. Her indulgent, loving parents gave her everything but straightforward answers about her future, making her wonder if she actually had one.

Were they going to give her a sister or brother to play with?

Why should they do that when they had her?

Should she start saving up for her university fees?

She was far too young to start thinking about that. She should be enjoying life while she had the chance.

Why was there so little time to do that?

And so on…

Charlene, her closest friend, had her life plotted out for her before she was five. Gingie just needed to know what the future held for her as well. It sometimes felt as though she had been planted, from another dimension, into the home of Emma and Todd. She was glad about that. They were nice people, much nicer than Charlene’s obsessive, possessive parents.

There was something oddly familiar about the courtyard. The enamelled tiles on its walls told tales Gingie felt that she heard before, like other things she knew she should recall, but which just kept slipping away. Todd and Emma always reassured her that it happened to everyone and she should not to worry about it.

The feeling that a long lost friend was waiting for her drew Gingie to the half open door of the room at the far end of the courtyard.

Then she stopped, not quite ready to renew that acquaintance.

But it was too late.

The door opened wide. Inside, the room was filled with lights - the kaleidoscopic lanterns that frequently lit her way into a magical realm. It was so real, Gingie wanted to reach out for the remote control to make it go faster. The walls opened out into a purple heaven. It was always carnival time here. She wanted to dance through the bright lanterns and fly with the scintillating kites scything the sky filled with fireflies. Bizarre creatures in fantastic costumes tweaked her flame coloured hair and spun her around and around until she was giddy.

“Look!” exclaimed Emma. “She’s doing it again!”

“Don’t worry,” Todd said. “She can’t come to any harm.”

The diminutive old man with glittering eyes said nothing as he watched from the comfort of his patchwork armchair. He could see that Gingie was being swept up in the dancing throng, giggling as she was whirled round and round.

But Emma couldn’t. “Oh please, Todd, she’s having a fit!”

“No,” said the old man. “She’s just having fun. You should not disturb her. You know the rules.”

“But how long will this go on for?”

“For as long as you insist on keeping her. 12 years and a day - that was the agreement.”

“But we can’t give her up now,” Todd declared firmly.

Gingie continued to twirl about the courtyard, ecstatic in her dream dimension where revellers fluttered about her flaming ginger hair on gossamer wings and showered fairy dust. Gone was the courtyard filled with the fragrance of freshly mown grass and croaking frogs.

It was becoming more and more to tell which world was real. One moment it was life with Emma and Todd, the next this exhilarating whirligig dimension, each time drawing her in deeper.

When the visitors had gone the old man waited until twilight until crossing the courtyard where the sound of mating frogs had grown louder.

“Quiet!” he ordered.

Their amorous croaking immediately stopped.

Cushioned from the noises of the outside world in his sunken home, he entered the room that Gingie had found so enticing. As he crossed its threshold silver cobwebs were illuminated by an eldritch light and, as a bright halo shimmered about his head, the silence was broken by the chatter of tiny voices.

“Well,” he said, “are you satisfied with the girl that should have never been?” There was stern disapproval in his tone.

The chattering increased.

“No! It is not possible for you to breathe our life into every stillborn child! This one is confused, no longer sure who she is and can never become an adult. I allowed this just once to prove to you how unwise it was.”

The tiny voices became angry.

The old man shrank to his true size and his halo of gold lit up the room.

“Your king has spoken! This will not happen again! Humans and our kind can never mix!”

The chattering died away and the firefly flashes of light skittered back to Nature’s realm.

 

Holidays with Emma and Todd were always enjoyable. Gingie loved their relaxed company; it made her feel secure. It was not like school where classmates were obsessed with appearance, smartphones and emotional politics. It never occurred to them to enjoy the wonders Nature offered. Had the choice been hers, Gingie would have lived in the woods, listening to birdsong and chattering squirrels, watching the windflowers open and close with the rising and setting of the sun, and piling up dry leaves for badgers to line their sets. She didn’t understand why her classmates called her crazy. The natural world seemed a quite sensible place to her.

Charlene was the only one to admire Gingie because she refused to be intimidated by classmates who lived to text, never watch where they were going, and had such tiny outlooks on life. Her existence was fraught in a different way by humourless, controlling parents. It was easy to empathise with the free spirits of Emma, Todd and Gingie. Charlene desperately wanted to accept the invitation to go to the Mediterranean with them on holiday, but her parents forbade it. Instead, she would be confined to that mobile holiday home parked in the dingiest corner they could find of an otherwise glorious countryside for two weeks, especially when it was likely to rain. They both had well-paid jobs and could have afforded to stay at the most expensive hotels with cabarets and saunas. The old saw that those with the most money hang onto it could have been invented for her parents. Oh to have wings and fly away...

The only part of going on holiday Gingie disliked was flying there. She hated being confined in a machine that slashed through the billowing clouds like a polluting spear, making untidy scribbles in the sky with its vapour trail. But then, Gingie hated all vehicles that pumped fumes into the air and overwhelmed Nature’s natural fragrances. Emma and Todd were well aware of how she felt and careful to choose a holiday home where everything was within walking distance.

There was something organic about the way the Mediterranean village they selected appeared to have grown from the hillside overlooking an azure blue sea. There were no jet skis or motorboats here. It was safe for fishermen to row out and bring in their nets. Even produce was brought to the local market by donkey and hand carts because the roads were too narrow for cars, and the only way up the hillside was by hundreds of steps.

Gingie felt sorry for the fish: Emma and Todd had given up trying to persuade her to eat animal protein years ago. As soon as they had accepted that, the daughter they never expected to survive bloomed into an extraordinary, beautiful child. Animals, wild and domesticated, recognised a kindred spirit and Emma was sure flowers would turn towards her daughter as she passed. Gingie might not have been an ordinary girl, but every atom of this precious, unworldly creature was theirs... until it had become time for her to leave.

Emma had accepted that she would eventually lose Gingie, but just longed to hold onto her daughter for a little longer. To Todd, it was more of a problem, despite the reassurances of the old man who had magicked her back to life that she would turn into something glorious. Despite everything, he was a realist and could not put his faith in miracles, especially ones beyond his control.

Todd watched Gingie twirling her way across golden Mediterranean sands with Armando, her friend, and other local children happily joining them in the dance. They did not think she was crazy. They somehow knew that this flame-haired girl in the fluttering cotton skirt was special. Even the dolphins would call to her as she skipped along the rickety jetty.

That evening storm clouds rolled in from the sea. Fishermen pulled their boats up the beach and villagers brought in their livestock before going inside to secure the shutters.

Thunder held no terrors for Gingie who giggled excitedly at each lightning strike. Emma persuaded her to leave the porch and watch from the balcony window instead as the heavens released their deluge.

The sky filled with the storm’s fiery dragons, illuminating the turbulent sea. Some old houses in the small coastal village were often struck by the lightning.

Emma and Todd took their supper to the back room where the crashing of the storm was not so loud, but Gingie was too exhilarated by Nature’s pyrotechnics to eat anything.

The houses below were on a promontory and taking the full force of the battering wind and rain.

Then the unthinkable happened.

A bolt of lightning struck the roof of Armando’s house.

It exploded.

Tiles were scattered by the wind and the ancient rafters burst into flame.

Gingie was horrified. How could Nature be so cruel?

Armando and his family had no cellar to shelter in and dashed from the house as neighbours came out to help them. They all started to point at the balcony overhanging a sheer drop to the crashing waves a hundred metres below. Hanging from its railing was a small figure. Armando must have been fast asleep when the roof was struck and had taken the only way of escape.

But the balcony was starting to come away from the walls. The deluge had doused the fire, but the ancient bricks the railing was bolted to were crumbling.

Emma and Todd dashed out just in time to see Gingie throw open the doors of their balcony. For a second their daughter hesitated.

Then all the strange thoughts that had filled her young life suddenly made sense.

Before Emma and Todd could reach their daughter she raised her arms.

Gingie was engulfed by a brilliant light.

The old man had never told them to expect this.

Huge, opalescent wings unfurled from their daughter’s slender back.

With one downbeat she flew up into the storm. Buffeted like a butterfly in the turbulent wind, Gingie reached the petrified Armando just as the railing he was clinging to fell away from the wall.

Gingie caught him before he could fall into the roaring waves below.

His astounded family could not take it what was happening.

As soon as he was flown to their welcoming arms, the apparition that had rescued their son blinked out of sight, leaving a tiny globe of light to dart away into the wind and rain.

Losing Gingie was yet another bereavement for Emma and Todd. But this was different. Although life was going to be empty without the flame-haired child gifted to them by the strange man, the memory of Gingie would remain forever.

A few weeks later they returned to the address on his golden card. The grassy mound was covered with toadstools and mushrooms. Gone was the house with its sunken courtyard and croaking frogs.

The couple were still young enough to adopt a child. There were many they could have given a loving home to, but knew they would never find another Gingie. So they asked Charlene’s parents if they could become her godparents, hardly expecting those possessive people to agree.

As they had just lost their child in a tragic accident, and without the chance to bury the body taken by the sea, Charlene’s parents agreed. Their daughter would be allowed to spend the occasional weekend with Emma and Todd, which would give them the opportunity to help compensate for the oppressive home life the young teenager had to endure. She was free to play in their small orchard with a neighbour’s children, dash under the branches of the apple trees and watch minnows in the stream that ran through the small orchard in the way she had never been allowed to as a child. Charlene relished every moment. Emma and Todd could see why Gingie and her friend had been such kindred spirits.

Charlene’s parents became aware that she was changing. She was becoming dreamy and less anxious, so they stopped their daughter visiting her new godparents before she developed the confidence to defy them.

From then on Charlene was watched more closely than ever.

One day the teenager was sitting quietly on the patio that had been prepared for a visit by her father’s important business friends. Their daughter’s gaze was focused on a small dot of light, which they assumed to be a stray reflection from the cut glass on a nearby table.

Their daughter lifted a finger to touch it.

The light swelled and luminous, opalescent wings unfurled to envelope Charlene.

There was a tiny ‘pop’ like a bubble bursting as she disappeared.

Two small globes of light gleefully circled each other for a moment, before darting away into an evening sky filled with fireflies.