by Judy Darley

Whenever she came back to me, I fretted that the next time she might fail to return. I lifted her out of her crib and lay her beside me, watching her fingers twitch as she dreamt. Yesterday I’d fallen asleep despite myself and woke to discover a blue-backed beetle in her place. It had seemed to vibrate gently on the pillow, shyly unsheathing one shining wing. This morning, it was an earthworm, fleshy and pale, curled into a shape like a shepherd’s crook.

Sometimes it wasn’t even a creature that breathed – last week my daughter had been usurped by an acorn.

No item that appeared in her cradle was capable of solving riddles any more than she herself was. 

All were things that could be found in the forest at the end of our garden, so that was where I began my search. With my daughter on my back, I strode the leaf-littered paths and then strayed off the walkways, taking care not to stumble against the mud-puckered, twig-strewn ground. I sought answers in wind-blown branches, gritted puddles and scattered birdsong. Sheep had meandered here; clots of fleece hung cloudlike from thorns.

At last my daughter began to cry from hunger. I sat down on a fallen log and held her to my breast. Sweet child, stay wild, love the earth of your blessed birth . . . I hummed the tune, barely taking in the words of the lullaby my own mother had sung to me.

A ray of sunlight dappled where our seams met. I lay her down and bared her flesh to the forest air. 

Where a cleft had lain between her kicking legs, there was now a knoll. I gaped as understanding struck. All my life, I’d been warned of the changeling’s curse through folktales and ballads, but I’d misinterpreted the words. My infant stirred, lifting their milk-dazed gaze to mine. In the flecks of their iris I glimpsed the shapes they would shrug on whenever I looked away; identities they’d try until they found the one that fitted.

Judy Darley | @JudyDarley |
Judy Darley is a British fiction writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her second collection of short fiction, Sky Light Rain, is out now from Valley Press.

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