Tag Archives: Stephanie Brown

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.”

From the Ring on the Heath Part I

By: Stephanie Brown ’12

     Aggie Breen longed for a child above all else. In twenty years of marriage to her Giles, she had not once conceived. She observed the other married women of Ballygowan as their bellies swelled over that nine-month period she had never known until the majority of the tiny town was gathered in the church for the newest baptism. She seethed and sobbed and prayed as the desire gnawed away at her heart. Finally, Aggie could take it no more. She waited until late at night when her husband was sleeping, wrapped herself in a shawl, grabbed a lantern, and crept out of the house into the empty streets.

     Her house being at the end of the lane, it did not take long for Aggie to reach the bridge over the brook. The shepherds and their flocks would pass over it each morning and evening to and from town, but now, in the gleam of her lantern, it all seemed foreboding. Aggie trembled, yet pushed on. Once over the bridge, Aggie strayed from the path and stepped into the cool, dew-laced grass. A light breeze scurried across the heath, tugging her hair from her neatly woven bun. She picked her way through the heather and gorse as the grass began to grow longer. The sheep didn’t graze in this part of the heath.

     After a few tense moments, Aggie could discern the sound of laughter above the breeze. It grew louder with each step she took. She crept toward a grassy knoll and cautiously peeked around it. Only then did she catch sight of them.

     They were tall and slender, dancing around in the circle of weathered stones, swaying like willow branches in the wind. The light from the torches reflected off their pale skin, and every now and then would sparkle in the jewels woven through the women’s hair. Aggie was certain that she had never seen anyone in the town dance with such grace.

     One of the women paused mid-step. Her head tilted ever so slightly before making a dismissive motion with her hand. The others stopped dancing, a hushed murmur bubbling around them. Some turned away from the woman, and Aggie saw some of the lights begin to wink out, though no one was touching them.

     A sudden fear gripped her heart, and Aggie leapt forward from her place behind the knoll. “Wait, please!” She called unthinkingly.

     The slender figures all froze and turned their heads as one, their bright eyes cutting through the darkness. Aggie stopped dead in her tracks, her lantern slipping from her now trembling fingers. For a long moment the group just stared at the intruder, not a single word passing their lips. Then, the woman who had stopped them lifted one hand and crooked her finger, beckoning Aggie closer. Shivering, Aggie stooped to retrieve her lantern. Each step brought her closer and closer to the ring of stones, until she was right at the edge. She stopped there, knowing better than to enter this type of circle alone.

     The woman regarded her carefully with those piercing eyes. When she spoke, her voice carried a certain musical quality in it.

     “Your kind knows better than to come here.” She smiled, almost pityingly. “You are not very bright.”

     Aggie drew her shoulders back, hoping to look intimidating. “I just… I wanted to ask a favor.”

     The woman arched her dark brow. “A favor? From us?” A sound shivered in her throat, and Aggie realized that the woman was chuckling. “Definitely not a wise one. You should have listened to your elders. But, I am curious. What is it you would like?”

     Aggie swallowed over the lump in her throat. “I want a human child. My husband and I can’t have any, you see. So, I was wondering if you’d give me one of yours.”

     That lovely mouth twisted the slightest bit. “Impossible. No humans dwell among us, therefore we have no human children.”

     “Then could you give me one of yours?”

     The woman inhaled sharply, her eyes flashing dangerously like fire. Aggie tried to take a step back, but the woman’s arm snaked out, her fingers coiling tightly around Aggie’s wrist.

     “How dare you! You have the gall to come to our land, the very boundaries of our realm, to ask for one of our kind, all for your own personal desire. You stupid, stupid woman.” Her lips curled into a feral snarl. “I should turn you into a slug for a year just for those words.”

     Aggie shook her head vigorously and attempted to pull her arm away. But the woman merely tightened her hold, dragging Aggie back to the border of the ring. Her fingers began to burn Aggie’s skin.

     “Tell me, woman, where should I pluck the child from, hm? A mother who has just given birth? Or did you wish for something older?”

     “I didn’t mean to offend you!” Aggie cried. “I want a baby more than anything. Surely there must be one you could give up, one that won’t be missed.”

     Those gleaming eyes narrowed to slits. “Do you think we are prone to relinquishing our offspring to your kind? Did it ever cross your simple little mind that we, too, love our children?” He voice dropped low as she all but hissed, “Feel shame.”

     With one hard thrust, the woman shoved Aggie to the ground and made to leave. But Aggie had come so far for this. She reached out and caught the woman by the edge of her flowing dress.

     “Please, you must know what it is like to desire a child, or anything, but to be unable to attain it for some petty reason. I just want a baby boy, that’s all. Any boy, be he human, your kind, or something else! I’ll leave you alone, I’ll give you whatever of mine that you desire! Just please, grant me this one request.”

     The woman was still, save for the wind rippling her hair and garments. The other ladies looked on with a mixture of curiosity and indignation. Finally, the woman tilted her head slightly towards Aggie.

     “Just a baby boy? Of any kind?”

     “Nothing else. I swear.”

     A heavy sigh pushed past her lips. “You do realize that if I grant this request, you will come to regret it. There are few who have not rued asking my kind for favors, and you are not of their ilk.”

     Aggie shook her head, blinded by determination. “I won’t regret it. Just one baby boy, that’s all. I’ll love him like my own.”

     The woman gave her the slightest of nods, and Aggie’s heart soared. “Wait here,” she ordered, pulling her dress free from Aggie’s grasp. She glided over to her companions, motioning to them with her pale hands. The other women moved to follow. As they passed, each torch blinked out until only the glow from the lantern remained. Aggie could not see where they had gone. They just seemed to vanish into one of the knolls. Aggie tugged her shawl tighter around her shoulders and waited.

     It seemed like hours had passed before the woman returned, this time carrying a bundle in her arms. A smile spread across Aggie’s face.

     “Is-Is that…?”

     The woman nodded curtly. “A baby, of any kind, just as you requested. Nothing more.”

     She held out the bundle, and Aggie could see a small face with rosy cheeks and bright brown eyes. The baby gurgled happily upon seeing her and reached up with plump little hands.

     Aggie did not even hesitate. She wrapped her arms around the infant and cradled him against her breast.

     “Thank you, madam,” she murmured, one hand stroking the child’s soft tufts of hair. “What can I give you in return?”

     “A log from your wood pile and a bit of straw,” the woman said, and that strange, almost pitying smile bloomed again. “It is only fair. Leave it here tomorrow night. Now, take your baby and go.”

     Aggie nodded and hurried back over the heath with her new child. She could not help but feel a twinge of disdain for the woman as she left. After her impassioned speech about children, Aggie had not expected her to react so callously by relinquishing one, and to trade him for fire supplies! Well, her loss was Aggie’s gain.

****
      

     Giles awoke at dawn to an empty bed. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and sat up. He opened his mouth to call for Aggie, then stopped. He had heard a noise quite unfamiliar to their small home. A child’s cry.

     Giles quickly sprang out of bed and flung open the door to the main room. There sat Aggie at the kitchen table, a cup of milk in one hand and a baby in the other.

     “Aggie.”

     She looked up with a bright smile upon hearing him. “Giles, dear, look what someone left on our doorstep during the night. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold, or the poor boy might have frozen.”

     Giles stepped closer, frowning. “No one here was due to have a child,” he said.

     Aggie shrugged. “Some folks must have been passing through and saw this as an easy solution. Better than leaving him out in the wild. It’s a blessing, really.”

     Giles furrowed his brow. He wanted to believe his wife, truly he did. “This doesn’t seem right, Aggie. I don’t think—”

     Aggie rose from her chair, setting the cup aside, and crossed over to her husband.

     “There’s no need to be worried, love. Here. Hold our son. I’ve named him Tom.” And she placed the child in his arms.

     Giles stood there, his arms bent awkwardly as he did his best to hold the baby comfortably. The boy smiled up at him and giggled. His brown eyes reminded Giles of the bed of the brook under the bridge.

     Aggie watched her husband with a satisfied smile on her face. “Well?”

     Giles was silent. He gently laid his finger against the infant’s hand, so small and delicate in comparison. The baby’s own small fingers wound around his own and tugged.

     “I suppose he can stay.”

****
      

     The folk of Ballygowan were all astir over the mysterious child who Aggie claimed had been left on her doorstep. Of course, there was joy and congratulations on the couple’s good fortune in finally having a child to call their own. Yet there were a few naysayers, who claimed the child was a changeling, left by the Fair Folk for their own amusement. They refused to go anywhere near the house. But Aggie ignored them. She had what she wanted, and nothing could ruin that in her eyes.

****
      

     “Aggie, something is wrong.”

     “He’s just small for his age, that’s all.”

     “The child is ten months old and he still looks like a newborn!”

     “Hush, Giles. Damn it, man, look, you’ve woken him. It’s okay, darling, papa didn’t mean it.”

     “…Where did you find the child?”

     “On the doorstep. There’s no need to worry, really. Maybe he isn’t getting enough nutrition. He will grow, dear. All babies do.”

****
      

     He never did.

     It seemed the baby was content to remain in the shape of a newborn.

     There was no sign of him ever gaining any height or weight. Giles had even taken to measuring him.

     People become uncomfortable. The naysayers from before merely nodded sagely over their mugs of ale and muttered about the wiles of the Fair Folk. The priest even stopped by to bless the child, but that did nothing. The people grew nervous and avoided the house. No one spoke to Aggie when she took Tom out for air. Eventually the priest had to stop by, hat in hand, to ask her to keep the child away from everyone. But Aggie gritted her teeth and sent Giles out to do the shopping from then on, figuring that if no one wanted to see her child, then she had no need to see them. Soon, the general consensus became that the child should be abandoned on the overgrown heath near the circle of stones. But Aggie would have none of it. As much as the baby was unnatural, Aggie had grown to love him. He was her son, after all. But Giles was never able to look at the child with happiness.