Wednesday, October 28, 2020
On the third anniversary of Caro being taken by the sea, the rising sun woke Oona and she fought for a greater share of the blankets to cover her head. No one fought back. Her sister was not in bed. Oona found her in the living room, staring out the window at the vanishing darkness.
Caro said that she did not remember being taken by the sea. She shrugged off any mention of it, but she was marked by it. On that first year, when the same day came around, Caro would not leave the house. The next year, her spirits were high leading up to it, but on the day itself again she would not leave the house. She would not say why. Oona asked her if she was afraid of something and Caro said, "What do I have to be afraid of?"
But today, more than looking gloomy, Oona thought Caro actually looked ill. Oona asked if she was feeling all right and Caro said she was fine. Oona moved to feel her forehead and Caro slapped her hand away. The slap stung and in that sting Oona saw her sister in the dawn light for what she was. The fey look almost human. Very nearly human but there is a dark ugliness under the skin. That is what Oona saw and that is when she knew that this was not her sister. There was a changeling sitting where her sister should be. Caro moved and the spell was broken. She looked like Caro again, but Oona now knew.
That day, Oona dragged her friends into the woods to search for herbs. She was not clear which ones were used to identify a fey, but she felt certain that they had to be unusual herbs so that is what she instructed everyone to look for. Something odd.
Oona's friend Matilde complained. "This is stupid. The fey can only swap babies for changelings before Christening. You and Caro were christened years ago. They can't have done it."
Oona heaved with frustration for it was exhausting to have friends who believed every story that they were told. "They only say that so children won't be frightened all the time. The fey can take us at any time. It just gets harder as we get older."
Oona had been gathering clues to this truth for years. She just hadn't known it. She had observed how her sister slept differently now, fighting the blankets, snoring and mumbling. She used to listen to Caro recount her dreams every morning and now Caro claimed to never remember them. There were more things but the sleep things were so obvious. Oona should have spotted it sooner.
Ainsley called Oona over and pointed at a tall spike of purple flowers. "I've seen the witches picking these. They must be used in spells."
Oona wasn't sure. They looked like something you'd find in any garden. But it was true that the witches in town grew harmless things in their gardens and only came into the woods to look for wild and magical things. Everyone knew that. She peered into the purple bell shaped bulbs and they were full of spots on the inside. So they were deceptive. She thought they would probably do. She had a bag with her and her mother's gardening gloves. She put on the gloves and pulled off a few bulbs.
Ainsley suddenly became nervous. "What are you going to do exactly?"
Oona had a plan. She thought her sister was most clearly not her sister when she was asleep, which was part of why no one else ever saw it. Oona would put the herbs into her bed and in the morning the fey would be revealed.
When Oona got home that afternoon, Caro was curled up in a blanket by the fire. She was pretending to read. Oona's mother asked her where she had been and she simply said, "Playing in the woods."
Her mother came over and tugged on her ear. "My daughter, the woodland creature."
Oona waited until her mother was busy in the kitchen before she snuck into her and Caro's bedroom. First she rearranged the bed so that their pillows were on opposite ends. She didn't know what magic the herb would work on her if she was too close to it. Then she took Caro's pillow, which was stitched with green and yellow stars, and she tucked the flowers into the cotton of the pillow. Her mother called her for dinner and she arrived bouncing on her feet.
Tonight would reveal all. In the morning, the herbs would show her parents what the dawn had shown her. That this wasn't Caro. Then it would just be a matter of them all figuring a way to get her real sister back.
Dinner was a hearty beef stew, which was Caro's favorite and she only ate half her bowl. She said she was tired and wanted to sleep.
After dinner, the girls went to their room and Caro noticed that Oona had changed the bed.
"Why do you want to sleep like that? Our feet will be in each other's faces. I don't want to smell your feet all night."
Oona said, "Last night you were snoring like mad. It was hard to sleep. I thought maybe I wouldn't hear you on the other side."
Caro simply said, "Oh." Then she climbed into bed and buried her face in her pillow.
When their mother came to kiss them goodnight, she too noticed the new arrangement. "Whose idea was this?"
Caro kicked at Oona as she said, "Oona says I'm snoring."
Oona kicked back. "Well you are!"
Their mother told them to stop it and kissed first Caro and then Oona on the forehead. She whispered to Oona, "Tomorrow you are switching back. Don't be mean."
Oona had a hard time falling asleep, excited as she was to see how the transformation would take place, but eventually she did fall asleep and she slept soundly until the screaming woke her.
When Agnes heard the screaming, she ran straight for her daughters' room. She thought Caro must be having a nightmare. The poor thing had been so shaken by her near death at sea, no matter how bright and shiny she had seemed when they discovered her on the seaweed. She often crawled into her parents bed late in the night with bad dreams. They would soothe her and then she would sneak back into her own bed. She didn't want Oona to know. Agnes thought the anniversary must have brought on worse dreams than usual.
But when Agnes opened the door, she screamed herself. Caro's face was all over welts. A terrible rash covered the whole right side. Caro was weeping and screaming and Oona was just backed into a corner, frightened out of her mind. Agnes rushed to Caro and asked her what had happened. Caro howled that she just woke up and her face felt on fire. The girl's father stood in the doorway dumbfounded and Agnes told him to go fetch the doctor at once. He nodded and ran off, threw his coat over his pajamas, didn't even change out of his slippers.
Agnes told Caro to stay calm and took her to the bathroom. She filled a bowl with cold water and made a compress for Caro's face. When she applied it, Caro calmed a little and told her that felt good. Agnes saw Oona standing in the doorway, fretfully hopping from foot to foot. Then she saw Oona's left hand. It had the same rash on it, though not as bad as the ones on Caro's face. She told Caro to keep holding the washcloth to her face and promised her to be right back. She walked out, grabbed Oona by the wrist and dragged her down the hall. Oona protested but Agnes said nothing until they were well out of earshot of the bathroom. Then she knelt down and held Oona's hand up. Oona registered the rash for the first time and all the blood drained from her face.
"Oona, what have you done?"
"I've proven that's not Caro, that's what I've done."
Agnes was stunned. "What the hell does that mean?"
Oona spoke in a hushed voice. "It was when she was taken by the sea. That's when they switched them. Sent a changeling here in her place. So I got an herb to show her true face."
"What herb? Did someone give it to you?"
"No, I found it in the woods. It's one the witches use."
"Witches? What witches?"
"The old women in town. They're all witches. We all know."
Agnes squeezed Oona's wrist so tightly that Oona winced. "And what did you do with this herb after you found it?"
Oona stuck her chin out and said proudly, "Put it in her pillow."
Agnes raced into the bedroom and opened the pillow. It wasn't an herb at all. It was flowers and she did not have to touch them to know what they were. Foxglove. She dropped the pillow and grabbed Oona by the shoulders. "Did you feed her any of the berries?"
Oona shook her head.
Agnes gripped Oona tightly. "Damn you, tell me the truth, did you feed her any of the berries? Because if you did, that will kill her. It will kill her! Did you feed her any berries?"
Oona shouted in her face. "No!"
Agnes pushed Oona away from her and the child stumbled and landed with a thud on her backside. Agnes stared down at her without an ounce of affection. "She is my daughter. I don't recognize you."
Agnes went back to the bathroom and sat with Caro. When the doctor arrived, he told them it looked worse than it was. Caro must have very sensitive skin to have such a reaction but she would be fine. Agnes did not even tell him about Oona's hand.
As she and her husband laid in bed that night with Caro tucked between them, Agnes wondered aloud what sort of punishment would serve.
"Honey, it sounds like you scared the hell out of her already. And I'm not saying she didn't deserve it. But I think I take my belt to her and we call it a day."
Agnes shook her head. No, that wouldn't suffice. That would not suffice at all. "You didn't hear her. You didn't see her face when she told me. She was so proud of what she'd done. And she could have killed her, could have killed both of them if she had grabbed something else. Punishing her isn't enough. We have to convince her that she was wrong. Or she might try again."
"And how do we do that?"
Like her daughter, Agnes had a plan.
The next day, Caro and Oona stayed at home with their father while Agnes went out. She went to visit old Mrs. Tallach, a widow and the head of the local gardening club. When Mrs. Tallach opened the door, she smiled and said, "Oy, its the plum thief."
Mr. Tallach had been a great gardener himself and Agnes had been a regular pillager of his plums. As a child, she would crawl along the top of his stone wall and leave with two plums tucked into each cheek like a squirrel. He would catch her and yell insults at her, though he never told her parents and she never relented. At his funeral, she had gone up to his coffin and dropped a plum pit inside.
Mrs. Tallach offered her tea and said she had heard about the doctor's late night visit. "Foxglove. My Harris used to rage about people growing it because it looked so fine. I wish they would do a better job of teaching them about the local flora and fauna in school."
Agnes wasn't surprised that the old woman already knew. Probably the whole town did. The doctor was the worst gossip around. "Well, that's the thing. Even if she had known to stay clear of it in this case, I'm not sure it would have done any good."
Agnes told her the whole story and Mrs. Tallach gasped and sighed appropriately.
"How does a child get such notions?"
"I wish I could tell you. We don't go on about things like that."
Mrs. Tallach did not mention that as a child Agnes had always been going on and on about the faeries. That she had frequently dressed as a fey herself and stolen the dolls from other children. Mrs. Tallach knew perfectly well where the girls got such notions from, but she just shook her head with what she hoped read as pity.
Agnes drained her tea and set the cup down dramatically. "No matter where this idea came from, I need to convince Oona that her sister is not a fey or I will worry every time I have to turn my back on them. And I think only something magical will convince her of that. That's why I've come to you."
Mrs. Tallach was confused. "To me?"
Agnes leaned in and whispered, "Mrs. Tallach, would it shock you to hear that the children in town think that you're a witch?"
Oona sat outside and stuck her hand in the mud. Neither of her parents had lifted a finger to help her with the itching and it was clear that no one wanted her in the house so she sat in the yard and buried her fist in the cool earth.
This fey was a clever one. It had revealed just enough to Oona so that Oona would do something foolish and now it had convinced her parents that Oona could never be trusted again. Oona might as well just bury her head in the mud while she was at it.
Her father came outside and stood over her. "Your sister is sleeping. Don't go making noise out here."
Oona didn't say anything. Her father knelt down beside her.
"I've never taken my belt to you but last night I wanted to for the first time. That's how much you upset me by doing that. Your mother talked me out of it."
Oona remembered that he had taken his belt to her before but she didn't say anything.
"I understand you might think your sister has been acting strange since she had her accident. I think she is too. She's lost in her head half the time. But that's just what happens to people sometimes when they nearly die. I know you want her to be back to herself again, but the only thing that can do that is time. You hear me?"
Oona thought about how much time had already passed but she didn't say anything.
Her father stood up, brushing off his pants. "If I ever hear you talking this fey foolishness again, you'll wish for me to grab my belt."
Oona watched him walk away. Her poor father. He couldn't see what was right in front of him.
The next day, Agnes announced over breakfast that she was taking Oona into town with her and Caro was to stay behind. Oona did not protest. Caro had no desire to go into town until her face had healed so she said that was fine with her.
Agnes did not say a word to Oona until they came to Mrs. Tallach's house. She stopped at the gate and turned to Oona. "When we go inside, you are not to say a word unless you are spoken to. Do you understand me?"
Oona nodded. She looked wary but curious. Agnes held open the gate for her and Oona walked up the path to the door. Before they could knock, the door opened. Mrs. Tallach stood there in a black dress. "Come in. We've been expecting you."
Oona entered and followed Mrs. Tallach's direction inside the house. Agnes stayed on the doorstep and whispered, "We?"
Mrs. Tallach winked and ushered her inside. All the curtains had been drawn. The only light was coming from the sitting room and Mrs. Tallach beckoned them that way. The room was lit by candles and three women stood in a semi-circle facing them. Agnes recognized Mrs. Bannatyne and Mrs. Quiller from church. Ms. MacCombie stood in the center. She was a famous spinster and probably the best candidate in the room for an actual witch, but Agnes only knew her to say hello. She had to admit that the image of them all together was striking. Indeed, Oona seemed struck. She stood wide-eyed and silent on the edge of the room.
Mrs. Tallach passed between Oona and Agnes and joined the circle. The four women clasped hands and said a few words in Gaelic. Agnes' Gaelic was never very good, but she was pretty sure that at one point they said A 'nighean mar a mathair. "Such a mother, such a daughter."
After a minute of this, Mrs. Tallach turned to Agnes. "Why have you come?"
Agnes took a deep breath. "I am worried that my child has been taken by the fey and replaced with a changeling."
Agnes saw Oona's head snap up to look at her though Agnes did not meet her eye. Oona seemed to shake with excitement.
Mrs. Tallach only nodded. "I told you that to make such an inquiry of the spirits you must bring something precious belonging to the child."
Agnes nodded and reached into her bag. She pulled out a blue ribbon. It was Oona's ribbon.
Oona was so confused. That ribbon was her favorite. Her mother must have made a mistake.
"No, that's mine!"
Her mother hissed at her. "Be quiet."
Mrs. Tallach took the ribbon and looked at Oona. "And you are sure you wish the child to be here as we ask his question?"
Her mother insisted that she did. Mrs. Tallach turned back to her circle. She wound the ribbon around her hand. She said a few words in Gaelic and then unwound the ribbon, passing it to the next woman who repeated the gesture and said a few more words.
Oona did not know any Gaelic but it was the language of the faeries, that she knew, and so she imagined that the witches must be asking them whether Oona was one of them. But what if they lied? The faeries were obviously keen to disrupt Oona's life. They had already replaced her sister and turned her parents against her. What was a little lie after that?
Once they had all completed the gesture, Mrs. Tallach handed the ribbon back and said, "This child has not been changed."
Her mother protested. "But are you sure? Are you sure because she--"
Mrs. Tallach clapped her hands together sharply and the other three women did the same.
"The spirits have spoken."
Oona felt triumphant. Whatever mischief the faeries may have wanted to perpetrate, they had failed. Mrs. Tallach looked at her sweetly and then turned to her mother.
"Now the other one."
Agnes tightened her grip on her bag. "No. I said there is no doubt there."
"But there is doubt." Mrs. Tallach looked at Oona again. "This one has doubt. And so we will ask the question."
Oona's mother hesitated and Oona wondered then if maybe her mother did have doubts about Caro. Maybe the changeling would be revealed after all. Her mother reached into her bag and pulled out a green ribbon. That was Caro's ribbon.
Mrs. Tallach took it and repeated the same ceremony. Passing the ribbon from one to the other, chanting as they went. Oona held her breath. It was coming.
They finished and Mrs. Tallach held out the ribbon. "It is true that this child was saved by the spirits, but they did not take her. She is still with you."
Oona felt her mother's eyes on her but she did not meet them. Oona only stared down at her feet. She felt so many things at once that she thought she would choke on them.
Her mother told her to go wait outside. Oona did so. She felt so stupid and so angry that she began picking up rocks and hurling them at the garden wall. She expected her mother to come out and yell at her for it. But no one came. She was wrong and she was alone in it.
Once the door shut behind little Oona, the four old women began laughing hysterically. Agnes shushed them.
"Quiet, if she hears you, the whole thing is ruined!" She took a deep breath, clutching her belly. "That was quite a show! I started to worry that you would be expecting payment."
Mrs. Tallach turned on a lamp. "Agnes, meet my gardening club. When I told them what you asked me to do, they insisted on joining."
Ms. MacCombie was absolutely shimmering with giggles. "I never thought I'd get to be a real witch! I've been called one often enough. I think I have a real knack for it."
Mrs. Quiller grabbed a bottle of sherry from the sideboard and said, "I think we all do. Let's have a toast then. To the coven!"
The women all laughed but Agnes demured. "No, no, my performance is still going. But thank you, ladies, so much. That was above and beyond."
Mrs. Balantyne raised her glass. "It was our pleasure."
Mrs. Tallach told the ladies to hush for one more moment as she walked Agnes to the door. When they opened the door, Oona was just standing there but she looked as if she had just been caught in the act of something dreadful. Both women looked around and saw no evidence of anything.
Agnes thanked Mrs. Tallach and then she took Oona's hand and pulled her down the lane. They walked a few minutes before Agnes stopped and looked down at Oona.
"I thought maybe it was you who had been changed. I couldn't believe that you would do that to your sister. But those women know more about this than I ever will. So if they say it's you, I have to believe it."
Oona stared at her blankly. Agnes narrowed her eyebrows.
"Do you understand what happened back there?"
Oona nodded gravely. "The witches said that I am me and that Caro is Caro."
Agnes nodded. "Yes. Now listen. I am never going to tell your sister what you did to her. She doesn't know and it would hurt her to know it. I am trusting that I don't need to tell her because you won't ever do anything like that again."
Oona exhaled. "I won't. I promise."
Agnes saw little Oona's face so shaken and she knew she had gotten through to her. She hated that she had had to resort to such theatrics. But she needed her daughter to know in her bones that she had been wrong.
Agnes touched Oona's face and Oona flinched.
"I am glad that you are you."
Oona did not look convinced. Agnes imagined it would take her a little time to recover from the embarrassment of it all. She would tell her husband when she got home that they should drop the matter and not speak of it again.
Oona walked with her mother back to the house.
So many things had been confirmed today. Witches were real. So were spirits and faeries. Changelings were real. It should feel good to know that all that was true, but it felt rotten.
What good was it? What good was any of it if it never actually touched her life? If faeries existed and they existed to cause mischief and strife, why hadn't they caused her any? All her strife had been caused by her own mind. They could have done it but they didn't bother with her.
They had saved Caro. She was worth bothering over. They had reached out and touched her life.
Oona knew now that her sister may not have been changed, but she was different. The spirits had changed Caro somehow, stirred something in her. And Oona had seen that, seen the distance that had sprung up between herself and her sister. The distance between someone who has had magic in her life and someone who only imagined that she did.
Oona and her mother approached the house. Caro was sitting on a bench in the garden with her father. Her face was looking better. She smiled when she saw them. She was almost Caro. She was still not quite Caro.
Oona did not smile back.
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