Guest writer POLLYANNA JONES retells the Herefordshire folktale of The Fairy Changeling, recorded by Frederick Grive in “Folk Tales of the West Midlands” (1952)
Now who doesn’t love babies? Sweet little things with cheeky smiles and grabby hands, cheeks just ripe for kisses, and laughter like the tinkle of bells. The reality of caring for a small person is a lack of sleep, hours of screaming, and spending most of your day cleaning up their mess. Things were even more difficult for this poor mother from Herefordshire.
Her husband had died just after she had given birth to her second son, and soon after, her only other child, now grown up, went away to become a soldier. She was left on her own in her cottage with her infant boy and life was hard.
On top of her task of trying to make a living and keep a house whilst being a widow, she had a rather fussy baby to look after. Whenever she showed this child any kindness, he would scowl at her and clench his fists. His crying was a terrible screeching, and the infant seemed to take pleasure in his mother’s distress, wailing all the louder when she tried to sooth him with cuddles and lullabies.
But besides his bad temper, there was something very strange about this baby boy. He never appeared to grow. His body remained as that of an infant, his face was ugly and hateful, and he made no effort to sit up, walk, or even crawl. The mother had to carry him everywhere, and the spiteful little thing would pull her hair or poke her eyes, meeting any kindness from cooing old ladies with scowls and more of his screeching.
The poor widow had a sad time of it. Her only comfort was the letters that she would receive from her older son. She would read them to the baby, who would only babble back at her and make strange noises. Her misery seemed endless, until she received some wonderful news in one of her letters; her soldier boy was coming home!
She cleaned the house from top to bottom, baked cakes and bread, and pulled out some presents that she had been saving. All the while, her baby watched her with owl-like eyes, uttering not a sound as he lay in his cot. When the cottage was spotless, she sat down and waited, each minute feeling as long as a day.
At last, the oldest son came along and picked up his mother, swing her in a circle as he held her tight. There were tears and there was laughter as the mother saw that her soldier boy was now a fully grown man. He was handsome, like her dear husband was, and he was dressed finely in a scarlet tunic, cloak, and tight-fitting black trousers.
“Mother”, said he, “I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you again. You are not as beautiful as I had remembered, you are more so!” he joked merrily. “I would very much like to see my brother. Where is he?”
The smile dropped from his mother’s face like a stone, and she ushered him inside. “Here he is.” She said, gesturing to the scowling baby in the cot, who glared at the older son. The solder stepped close, and bent down to inspect the child.
“Mother, that is not my brother.”
As the baby looked with hatred at the soldier, his mother replied, “Oh, it is indeed.” The soldier shook his head and answered, “We’ll see about that!” as he strode to the pantry to fetch an egg.
He poked a small hole in the top of the egg and shook out all of the yolk and white, before stuffing the shell with malt and hops. The baby watched, quiet from its howling and babbling for once, but it seemed agitated. As the soldier worked, the infant began to shake the cradle anxiously.
Taking the egg to the fireplace, the older son raked out some hot ash and placed the egg over it on a grill to warm it up.
For the first time in its life, the baby laughed. But it wasn’t the tinkling of bells, oh no. It was a mockery of laughter itself, like the cawing of a crow, with a bit of donkey’s braying thrown in for good measure. It was a terrible noise, and mother and son stopped to see what the baby was doing. And then a miracle happened. The infant spoke.
“I am old,” it said, “I am old but I have never saw a soldier brewing beer in an egg-shell before.” Then the baby shrieked and leapt out of his cot.
“I have you now!” exclaimed the soldier, chasing the baby round and round the room, swinging at it with his leather belt.
“Open the door, mother!” screamed the child, and the poor woman threw the front door open letting the child race outside.
The mother and soldier ran outside after it, but there on the threshold stood a fair-faced boy, with a warm smile and kind eyes.
“Here is my true brother!” declared the soldier, hugging the child as if he dare not let him go. The mother wept with joy as they took him inside, and as they sat around the fireplace he told them how he had for years lived with the fairies.
The boy described how they had looked after him well, and he was allowed every liberty, except his freedom to return home. Then as if in a dream, he had escaped the fairy palace and found himself on his mother’s doorstep. The shooing of the changeling child had bought him his opportunity for escape, with the exchange made, he could remain here forever.
The poor widow got back her two sons that day, and never again was parted from them. Be wary though, reader. For the fairies do love a bonny baby, and they will quite happily swap it for one of their own. A changeling child is much harder to look after than a human one.
POLLYANNA JONES is a writer and illustrator who says: “My specialist interests include folklore and customs of Britain, Ireland, and western Europe, as well as local history and early and pre-Christian practices. I am a regular writer for the Celtic Guide, and have been featured on Medievalists.net. I also maintain a website on Norse and Germanic magical traditions.” Pollyanna’s website is here and you can follow her on Facebook here.