The fairies, they said, sometimes came in secret, stole human children from their cradles, left their own babies in their places. Elfrida sometimes wonders if that could be what had happened with Elfwing. . . . But if so, the midwives were in on it.
A hard, rending labor. But still it is as if she remembers the birth. Emerging, from her dark battle, into long light from the window, surfacing, as the child slides from her, she glimpses a lifted leg, a pale scrotum dangling from the tiny, upside-down crotch. “You saw the umbilical cord,” they told her later; and seeing more births had convinced her this could be true.
But in this memory also they are saying “It’s a son!”, “It’s a son!”, “It’s a sunnn!” as the pain bursts again within her, and she is skimming toward a searing brightness . . . and through, into deep, black rest . . . leaving him in their loving old arms.
When she woke, her body was trembling. They built up the fire, covered her with more blankets, told her to let the trembling be. She had slept. And when she woke again they had put her to her breast. “A girl!” they had said. “A daughter!” . . . Who could have doubted the love, the trustworthiness, in those ancient eyes? “But,” she had said, “I thought you were saying ‘A son!’, ‘A son!'”
“Are you sure,” they had answered, “it was not that you saw a sun? In the midst of your pain, a blinding and joyous light? It can happen.”
“Oh, yes!” she had said, “I remember! And there was more. . .”
A girl. . . . This perfect being, sucking, and sighing, sleeping, and opening eyes to watch the world from . . . where? She smiled once that night: they all saw it. She wept. She slept on the sea of her mother.
Elfrida remembers how happy she had been to have a daughter. She had watched her for hours, asleep on her bosom. . . . She wonders now, for in her memory there lingers around that small head a glimmer that is not from the candlelight only. At the time, she had thought of the Christ-Child. Like that, the light ’round her daughter.
“So what does that make you, old girl? The Virgin Mary?” she had laughed to herself. But sometimes . . . they had looked at her . . . as if she could be.
Could they all the time have been deceiving her? Have stolen her baby and given her a child not her own?
“Not her own.” . . . But is any child our own? Do they not each and all belong to themselves, from before they are born?
Yet Elfwing had belonged most particularly to herself, never quite belonged among humans. . . . As if she came from somewhere where laughter, and singing, and seeing, were the work of a life. Had the old women deceived her? Or given her her heart’s desire?
Or had the fairy messenger simply been muddled, the message mixed up, and had he brought the wrong baby, and no time to fix it now? Had the women said, “Listen. She’d love a little girl. She won’t question her luck”? Was that something she had later imagined, or had she heard them talking, as she lay drowned in a golden river? Had the cottage door creaked? Was there silence? Later, was there singing?
Sometimes she wonders about the little boy. . . . Little no longer, she reminds herself. Does he have Baran’s mouth, her own eyes? . . . In the end, she finds she cannot wish him the life he would have lived here, becoming a warrior, a man. There are many fates worse than going to dance in the hollow hills, to sing in the hidden valleys.
Elfwing. The changeling child. A magic in the stories Elfrida could tell about her. . . . She had looked like Elfrida and the rest. In the web of family resemblances her features fit as finely as if breeding had made her. That had given Elfrida pause. Perhaps it was only her own fancy, and there were no changelings. . . . But then, she had thought, mightn’t it be that they fashioned children as they wished, the fairies? What if fairy children are not born, but made, as we make our dolls, made with more skill, even, than the painted statues of the saints? . . . But in that case, it was not by mistake that the messenger brought her. Does this make sense? She does not know.
For that matter, what makes her so certain she is not a changeling herself? It could happen. Her parents might never have noticed.
Elfwing, not her own? Was anyone ever more her own? Her eyes, to see the fresh world with. Her firstborn, drinking her. A changeling, changing like a magician from newborn to two-year-old, to five, to thirteen. . . . Changing sometimes, even, from maiden to youth, leaping boulders, as if to tell her she need not miss her son. Elfwing, in her beloved boots and her uncle’s leggings, striding, running in the sunshine. Then checking with a girl’s grace, shaking out her long mane. Bursting into tears.
Changing. . . . Elfrida, herself, now. Full, round, forty. Learning midwifery. It is night. She sits with the other apprentices around a fire. They are breathing, the deep, continuous breathing of the newborn . . . until they float upon the river of their breathing . . . until they drown.
Elfrida is remembering the night of Elfwing’s coming. She remembers the birth of the boy . . . and the pain . . . the sun . . . and then the bright drowning . . . and then . . . she remembers changing the world.
The Changeling: Questions and answers:
What happened? Well, they explained to her, the salamanders that live in the fire, that she had died giving birth to her first child. Even in the blessed realm, she had been disappointed. So they said, “Would you like to go back and change it?”
“Could I?” she exclaimed.
“It’s your life,” they said. “It’s your baby. What has been, has been; but the rest is yours.”
She considered. “Well, to start with, I’d rather have a daughter.”
“And then, well, while I’m saying what I dearly wish for, oh, let there really be fairies. And, oh, some great mystery.”
She was, indeed, the Mother of God, for she had brought them all to life. Did the midwives know that? Or were they just so happy to have her back from the edge of death?
Are they the same midwives who a few hours ago delivered her son, pre-death? Well, yes, but here the plot thickens. They are the same, but not. The world has, as it were, moved over two feet, with only the slightest jar. In this new spot, there are more possibilities. Did the midwives fool her? Yes. Did they divert her into forgetting? Yes: “Are you sure it was not that you saw a sun?” they asked, when they knew very well they had been exclaiming “A son!” Well, but Elfrida needed to forget, or Elfwing could not have been the gift she was.
And why did there seem to be a mixup about the sex of the fairy baby, when actually she was supposed to be a girl? Because above all Elfrida must forget that in the larger story she had ordered Elfwing. Even if and when she comes to suspect that she knows that she does remember the birth of the boy, she must still not yet remember that she is the dreamer dreaming, that she is the Mother of the God of her fathers and of everything else in the world, and, best of all, Elfwing’s mother.
Why must she not remember she is the creatrix? Because then the jig would be up.
. . . But then later she was allowed to remember all that? Just by sitting around the fire, breathing? Well, yes, but by then she was ready.
Is she dead again?
If not, what will she do with the rest of her life, now that she has Remembered? A) Forget again. B) Forget, but emerge with a new sense that many more things are possible than she might have imagined. C) Remember, but through a glass, palely. D) Other _________.
Who is the changeling? The world.