From the Ring on the Heath Part II

By: Stephanie Brown ’12

****

     Aggie was gently bouncing Tom on her knee as the stew broiled over the hearth. Tom cooed happily and waved his tiny hands, grabbing a loose strand of her hair.

     “Careful, careful,” Aggie said, smiling.

     She tickled his stomach, and Tom kicked his legs, giving a joyful squeal.

     “Who am I?” she asked.

     “Ma!” Tom gurgled, clapping his hand and grinning his toothless smile.

     The door opened at that point. Aggie looked up to see Giles, but her smile faded instantly. His brows were creased, his mouth in a thin line.

     “Da!” Tom laughed and made more nonsense sounds.

     “Giles, what is it? Is Duncan bickering again? I told you to just ignore—”

     “Where did you find it?” Giles snapped, his finger jabbing towards the baby giggling in her lap.

     “He’s not an ‘it.’ Besides, I told you, I found him on the doorstep.”

     “You’re lying. You’ve been lying from the start.” Giles paced along the room, running a bulky hand through his hair. “No one ever came by in the night, did they?”

     Aggie straightened her back. “Of course they did, how else would I have—”

     “Stop.”

     Something in his tone made Aggie’s stomach freeze. She stood, shifting Tom so that he clung to her shoulder. Giles eyed the baby for a few seconds.

     “I’ll ask you one last time. Where did you get it?” He turned his gaze on his wife.

     “Why won’t you listen to me?” Aggie snapped. Tom began to tug on her hair.

     Giles let out a bitter laugh. “God in Heaven, you did it. I can’t believe you. Was there not enough sense in your head to keep you from going to the ring on the heath?”

     Anger colored her cheeks as she said, “You should learn to count your blessings.”

     “Blessings?!” He exploded, the sudden shout startling Tom until he wailed. “You brought a changeling into our home! Did you want a babe that badly?”

     “Yes!” Aggie clutched the baby closer and stroked his tufts of hair. “I don’t regret what I did! Who cares what everyone else thinks? He’ll grow, he’s just slow, that’s all.”

     “Listen to yourself, woman. You’re in denial. What more evidence do you need that the thing is cursed? We should do as everyone says and leave it back in the ring.”

     Aggie gripped Tom tighter. He began to cry. “No! How dare you say that about our son!”

     “He is not our son! We never had a son!”

     The silence that followed hung heavy in the air, seemingly pressing down on them. Giles stood firm, chest heaving, face flushed with anger, while Aggie remained wide-eyed and pale.

     “I’m giving you a choice,” Giles said heavily. “Return…him to the ring, or leave here with him. If you do, you are no longer my wife.”

     Aggie was still, the only motion coming from the baby squirming in her arms. At long last, she slowly, nervously opened her mouth.

     “I…I’ll need to pack my things.”

     The look in Giles’ eyes nearly crushed her. But she held on, for Tom.

     “Aggie…please…it’s not human.”

     “I love him. He needs me.”

     Giles blinked his eyes a few times, and then turned towards the door. “You’ve made your choice. But you forget, Aggie, that I love you, too. It seems your want of a child means more to you than I ever could. Enjoy the life you’ve chosen.”

     He was gone, and the door’s closing held finality in its loud thud. Aggie winced, trembled, and looked down at her son, trying hard not to cry. “It’s just you and me now, Tommy. Come on, Mama needs to get some stuff together.”

     It was dark by the time she left the house, her bag of clothes and small possessions stuffed in the cradle that she pushed down the dirt road. Tom was wrapped up and tied snug to her chest, where he pressed against her for warmth. It was hard work, but she managed to cross the bridge to where the old abandoned mill cottage stood. The original mill had long since fallen into disrepair, causing another to be built, but the cottage still remained. It was in need of a new roof and shutters, but Aggie would make do. She was determined to, for her child.

****
      

     Aggie fixed everything up by herself. No one ever stopped by, not even Giles, though she sometimes thought that she caught sight of him lingering near the bridge, never crossing. After a few months he stopped coming. Aggie, too, never crossed the bridge, except for Sunday service, the only time she ever left Tom napping at the cottage. People avoided sitting beside her, oftentimes staring pointedly in the opposite direction.

     Five years later, Aggie went to church and saw Giles. He was with a woman, a pretty woman with one hand on a rosary and the other holding his own. Her belly was just beginning to fill with child. A bitter taste filled her mouth, but she focused her gaze on the altar. After that day, she only stopped by in the evenings to light a candle and pray.

****
      

     The years crept by. One by one, Aggie watched as everyone she knew died. Her hair grew grey, her skin weathered and wrinkled, and her back became bent from sitting beside the cradle for so long. Still, her baby remained the same.

     The younger generations avoided her. Some looked upon her with pity, others with scorn. They whispered behind her back, perhaps thinking that her hearing had deteriorated with her old age. No one came by her house anymore, save for a few curious children hoping to catch sight of the changeling child.

     Aggie was scared. She was going to die, but her baby would remain behind. She had heard the whispers; she knew what would happen when that day came. The fear gnawed at her heart, and she prayed and seethed and sobbed for a solution. In time, she realized that there was no other option.

     Aggie trembled, the veins in her withered hands bulging. Her limbs ached with arthritis as she lifted the baby from his cradle and wrapped him in her best shawl. She donned her cloak, picked up her walking stick, and carried the child outside.

****
      

     The wind gusted against her face. Tom began to cry and pressed his face to her breast. Aggie bounced him in her arm as she slowly followed the road out of town, up to where it curved past that all too familiar heath. Her cane sunk slightly into the damp earth as she stepped off the path. Every now and then she pause to catch her breath and wait for her knees to cease their shaking. Tom’s cries grew louder, his little hands clutching at her blouse. The wind caught his cry and carried it through the hills, a high-pitched trill of fear.

     Finally, they reached Aggie’s destination. The circle of stones was dark and empty. Aggie moved forward, only to have her cane catch in a rut. She stumbled, both cane and babe tumbling from her arms as she landed on her knees with a pained grunt. A low moan crawled from her throat as she reached for the baby. The hair tangled in her face as she lifted her gaze to the faerie ring.

     “Take him back! Please!”

     No one answered. No light, aside from the crescent moon appeared on the heath. Aggie dragged Tom closer and hugged him to her chest.

     “I’m dying! I don’t have much time! There’ll be no one to care for him! The town will not care for a changeling child!”

     Only the wind howled in response.

     Aggie shivered. “You must help! If not for your sake, then for his! He’s of your kind! Let him grow in your land if not in mine! Save our child!”

     She remained still for some time, waiting as the chill air froze her, made her joints ache with pain. Yet, no one came. Aggie bowed her head over her crying child, letting her fresh tears mingle with his. There would be no answer, no help from the Fair Folk or anyone else for that matter. She would die and be buried alone, while her Tom remained in his cradle. He would wait for someone to feed and coddle him, to kiss his face and soothe his cries. He would wait as the townsfolk boarded up the windows and doors of her small cottage, too afraid to take any other action. Her baby would cry, as hunger tore at his stomach. But his wails would be ignored, or passed off as the howl of the wind by the nervous townsfolk.

     Aggie could already picture it. He would scream and wail; his face soaked in a permanent sheen of tears. But there would be nothing except the dark solitude of empty rooms forcing itself upon him, forcing itself down his throat as it smothered him, smothered him until his cries ceased and his cold, still, fragile body was buried in the darkness.

     It would suffocate him, suffocate her child.

     Suffocate her child.

     The weeping mother’s movements were slow as she kissed her Tom and laid him on the wild grass. Her hands stroked his little tufts of hair, trailed down his face and delicately, hesitantly, wrapped gnarled fingers around his soft throat. Then she squeezed.

     Aggie kept her eyes closed, too afraid to look. She heard his cries shift to small guttural gurgles, and felt his feet kick and his hands wave frantically against her arms, those tiny fingers clutching onto her sleeve for a brief moment. Aggie felt his body buck and flail futilely against her hands, her breath shaky as she sobbed between clenched teeth. She tightened her grip, wanting it to just end, wanting everything to just stop.

     She almost missed the crack that cut through the air. Her eyes flew open and she gazed down at her still, silent baby, his neck now lying at an unnatural angle. Tearfully, Aggie lifted the baby into her arms, clutching to her breast as she swayed to and fro in the wind and the grass. She didn’t know how long she stayed like that before she noticed something strange. Her baby felt… odd. Not as soft as he should have been.

     Aggie drew him away to get a better look, and her eyes grew wide. Tom’s skin was darkening, growing stiff and rough. The fat of his arms withered and shrank, seemingly retracting into his body. He appeared to shrivel before her eyes, and all the familiar contours she had memorized melted away. The arms became impossibly thin and dropped onto the grass. But they were not arms anymore. They were twigs woven with straw. Aggie looked back at the body to find that it was a lump of wood she held in her arms, woven in a layer of straw, with two pebbles where the eyes used to be.

     Only then did Aggie realize the full meaning behind the woman’s words.

“A baby, of any kind, just as you requested. Nothing more.”

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