Foundling

Published in Aoife’s Kiss.

Fairy's Hand, by Christine E Schulze Chasmira

The faeries couldn’t agree on how to eat the child, and that became their downfall.

“Children are best after they’ve been boiled,” said winged Mayalee, twirling gracefully in the air inches above the child’s head.

“Nonsense,” said old Whiskatarn from beneath a leaf a, looking for all the world like a human-faced caterpillar. “Fire’s the only way to deal with foundlings. Burn ‘em till their bones are black, just like my old pap used to do.”

From inside his basket of reeds, the baby boy cooed happily. His chubby fingers grasped the night air, vainly chasing nimble Mayalee.

“Let him feel no pain,” interrupted slender Lidda, the tips of her pointed ears poking out from behind a tall blade of grass. “We shall strike his head, then feast as we choose.”

In the seclusion of the deep wood and under the light of a crescent moon, the faeries thought themselves safe and alone. They hadn’t heard the light footsteps of the old widow Rasha, following the beautiful voices as they discussed terrible things. Whiskatarn’s antennae straightened up as he heard a twig snap under a human foot, but by then it was too late.

“Be gone, you horrible little demon-flies!” shouted Rasha. She carried an iron pot and a wooden spoon in her hand, for she could not afford a sword but knew well the faeries’ aversion to wrought iron. Banging the spoon against the pot, she rushed into the forest clearing, shouting and kicking at the gathered faeries until they scattered, fleeing the horrible din.

Only when Rasha stopped beating the pot and the faeries abandoned their feast did the little boy begin to cry.

“Hush up, child,” said Rasha. She dropped the spoon to the ground, but tied the iron pot to a leather thong at her belt in case the faeries returned. With wooden shoes she trod over wet grass and dead autumn leaves to the lost babe in the basket.

The child, mere months old, had dark eyes and a downy growth of yellow hair on his head. His face looked like a wrinkled beet as he waved his arms and continued crying. When Rasha picked up the basket and began carrying him away, he paused long enough to take a deep breath. Then he choked out a series of ragged sobs, gasping every once in a while like a swimmer coming up for air.

“Sh-sh-sh-h-h-h,” hissed Rasha, rocking the basket a little as she kept her steady pace back to her cabin on the edge of the wood.

Most folk in town only saw Widow Rasha once or twice a season, and each time they greeted her as though it was a surprise she was still alive. Her husband had died years ago on a mission with the King’s army, and she barely looked capable of standing on her own, let alone tending a farm year-round. Short and slender with dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes, she looked as frail and unfit as the shadow that trailed behind her. Her clothes were smeared brown with the mud of her fields, and the combined forces of worry and loneliness had etched many lines on her brow. Her face and hands were a map of the trials she had faced over the years. They also served as meager badges of survival

Her home, fortunately, was everything she was not. Large and sturdy, it stood capable of enduring rain or drought, wind and war and hail. Thick and sturdy, the well-polished wood acted as castle walls against fey-infested wilds. Here she set the foundling, among the smell of potatoes and pine, as she further fortified her home. Shutters closed, doors locked, and at every entrance, exit, nook, and cranny soon hung a piece of iron, from rusted horseshoes to thimbles on strings. An hour before dawn, the home had become completely impenetrable to any stray carnivorous faeries. Yet still the foundling would not stop crying.

Like a red-faced goat, the child bleated and screamed despite Rasha swaddling him and offering all the soothing words she had. Of food he seemed to want none. Even when the widow held the wailing infant to her own barren breast as a vain experiment, he didn’t stop crying long enough to do anything but gasp for air. He needed no changing – in fact, he still smelled of earth and pine instead of the vague stink Rasha had expected from a babe.

The crying rose to a crescendo, and Rasha began to fear it would drive her mad. With little else to do, she joined the chorus of tears, adding her own ragged sobs to the baby’s inexperienced wails.

“For the love of all, be silent! I should have left you with…”

The words died in her throat, which went dry with the realization of what she had almost said. With a shout of anger, she slammed her hand down against the window sill, cutting herself on an old knife she had set out as one of her many charms against the faeries. Her tears became bitter with pain, but soon stopped as she noticed something else…

The child had finally stopped crying.

He now looked at Rasha with dark fox-like eyes, gazing intently at the thin stream of blood that ran down her fingertips and wrist. Then his lips curled and she started to make suckling noises.

Trembling, Rasha approached the washbin-turned-cradle and held out her hand. The babe pushed himself toward the widow, and his lips locked around her blood-soaked finger. He suckled there for a long while. When he pulled back, the wound had dried, leaving only a soft brown scar behind. Then the babe closed his eyes and slept peacefully through the night.

***

Mahir, as the boy was soon named, never knew about his bloodlust as the years went on. He nursed on cut fingers and broken skin. When he grew old enough to eat solid foods, he failed to notice the slight red tinge in the fish chowder from where his mother added her own special ingredient to his nightly meals. He grew up wearing an iron charm around his neck at all times, and quickly became so accustomed to it that he rarely noticed the weight. And all he knew in long years of childhood was that he grew quite cross whenever he was deprived of his mother’s delicious soups.

At the age of ten, Mahir had wild hair that looked like a wild porcupine had settled on his scalp. His eyes remained dark, wide and so brown as to almost be black. Slender and lean, he often eschewed clothes, preferring to feel the dirt and grass on his bare skin. He smelled always of moss and mud, only showing his true skin in the few days following his monthly bath. In many ways, he was merely a particularly active child. He had no friends of his own, though, for even after all these years, he had not found his voice. Rasha had learned to interpret his grunts and gestures, allowing her to talk with her adopted son where everybody else saw an animal in the skin of a child. Other children chided him, and adults guided their young away from the old widow and her simple son. And so, year after year, the two became more isolated on their farm. Their journeys into town became rarer and rarer as they purchased more supplies in advance. In time, they learned to rely only on one another, for no one else understood their needs.

Under autumn leaves, Rasha mixed a spicy chowder and watched her son roll through the dead foliage.

“He’s my good boy,” she said to herself. Then, humming, she cut her hand open with an iron knife and let the blood flow into their meal.

***

Fortnights turned into seasons, which turned into years. Rasha’s dark hair grew stringy and gray, while young Mahir grew strong and tan with the backbreaking work needed to maintain the farm. Stumbling in the field one day, Rasha sprained her ankle. Mahir heard her cry and ran to help her, lifting her like a sack of grain and carrying her into the house, the iron charm around his neck jangling all the while. With that simple smile on his face, he soaked some bandages and wrapped the wound carefully. Then he stared at her attentively, like a dog waiting for a treat.

“Thank you,” Rasha said, patting her son’s hand. “I’ll be okay now. Please, bring the plow in to make sure it doesn’t get stolen.”

Mahir nodded and dashed off immediately, eager to aid his wounded mother. As the soft clink of the iron charm faded to a murmur on the wind, Rasha felt tears on her face. Wiping the back of her hand across her face, she noticed the dry leathery smell of her wrinkled skin.

“The days are passing,” she murmured, “and I’m getting old. Pretty soon I’ll be needing him instead of him needing me.”

She dried her eyes and looked at the scars on the front of her hand. She smiled a little and forgot her tears. “But at least he still needs me for something.” Then she stood up and, leaning against the wall for support, hobbled off to make some soup for her hard-working son.

But war comes as easily as the change of seasons, and just as Rasha’s ankle began to heal, the king himself issued a call for rations and resources. The soldiers needed weapons, which meant they needed iron. One by one Rasha’s pots and needles and charms disappeared, taken by tax collectors to be melted down for swords and helms. Every night the house began feeling a little more bare. And while Mahir still slept as peacefully as ever (so long as there was enough blood in his stew), Rasha found herself pacing the length of the house at night despite her injury, constantly looking out the windows and wondering if the faint lights she saw on the horizon could be faeries preparing to dine on the foundling who had escaped them so long ago.

One night it finally happened. A screaming wind brought rain and carnage. The wind tore open the shutters, sending thimbles and pins scattered across the floor for shelter. A loud jangle outside snapped Rasha out of her light slumber, and she realized at once that the last of her charms had been torn away by the weather. Her body so tense that she could scarcely breathe, Rasha lifted a metal pot and stalked the house, calling for her son and keeping an eye out for tiny but deadly faeries.

Her calls went unanswered. By the time she got to her son’s bed, she found it empty. The sheets had been torn apart as though raked by a gigantic cat. Feathers from the boy’s pillow still drifted languidly in the air. On the coarse wooden floor lay an overturned thimble, still rolling from side to side as the wind outside the boy’s open window rustled through the home, bringing cold and damp and despair to everything inside.

The faeries had finally come for her. Hoisting her iron pot, Rasha left the house, braving savage wind and icy rain. In the harsh weather, she couldn’t know where Mahir had disappeared to, so she went to the one place where she had seen the bloodthirsty faeries before: the clearing where they had debated long and hard about how best to eat the boy. Rasha prayed that they would delay long enough again this time.

She found the clearing well enough, although her teeth chattered and her ankle wobbled in the cold, wet weather. The wind had begun to die down now, and the rain diminished to just a drizzle when Rasha approached the spot where she had become a mother. She noticed a dark stain on some leaves that the rain hadn’t been able to wash away. Leaning closer, she touched it and brought her fingers to her lips. Her limbs began to shake as she tasted the salty, sticky fluid. It was blood – a flavor she knew all too well by now.

Rasha felt her eyes grow hot. She shouted and banged her pot against the tree, shaking its branches and causing another downpour from the leaves above as she lamented her lost son. But then something struck her head that caused her to stop. Light and limp, it could have been a fallen chick or chipmunk. Rasha might not have noticed it at all had she not spotted a soft green glow from it as it bounced off her head and fell to the ground. Raising her pot to strike, she knelt down to investigate the fallen creature.

As she suspected, it was a faerie…or part of one, at least. Much of its torso had been torn off, leaving only a pair of legs and half of a wing. Fresh blood still ran from the half-body. Rasha touched the blood and rubbed it between her fingers, noticing the familiar stickiness and comparing it to the blood she had just seen.

Faeries bled red, too, it seemed. But one alone couldn’t possibly have enough blood to create the mess Rasha had just seen. There must have been more out there – bleeding, dying. A trail leading…to where? To her boy?

Her eyes wide and her nose twitching like that of a bloodhound, Rasha continued down the path. She stopped here and there, finding her suspicions confirmed. A tiny arm here, a broken pair of wings there…the forest had become a faerie gravesite, as each of the tiny creatures had been torn apart. Perhaps they had been devoured – a fitting end for their kind, considering the danger they posed to Rasha’s lost child.

Winding her way through trees and overgrown bushes, the old widow almost didn’t hear a faint, pitiful cry, mistaking it at first for just a trick played by the breeze. But when she paused to regain her bearings again, she heard the high-pitched whine. Following the noise beneath the shroud of a fern, she saw a small, graceful creature that had once had wings. It was Mayalee, one of the faeries who had nearly feasted on the boy those long years ago…or rather, it was Mayalee’s torso and head. Her wings and legs had been torn off. The moss beneath the fern ran thick with more blood than her tiny faerie body seemed like it should have been able to hold.

“Please…please…” she moaned, staring into space with glassy eyes. She turned her head slightly and coughed, then focused on Rasha. A look of recognition dawned on the faerie’s dying face. “You…why didn’t you keep your charms up?”

“It…it was the war,” stammered Rasha, surprised that she felt the need to defend herself at all from the accusations of the carnivorous creature. “And the wind.” Regaining herself, she glared at the bleeding faerie. “What have you done with my boy?”

“What have we done?” The faerie tried to laugh bitterly, but instead coughed, spewing forth black phlegmy bile. “We could do nothing…could do nothing from the day we failed to eat him.”

At the mere mention of that day, Rasha raised her hand, getting ready to squash Mayalee like a spider and put her out of her misery. The faerie saw the hostility in the woman’s face but continued, knowing that her time was short regardless.

“The boy was a predator. We had to…had to devour him…before he devoured us. But we failed, and your charms were the only thing keeping him in check. Now we…now we are…”

Mayalee’s head dropped backwards. Her breathing stopped, and her eyes stared into a darkness that no living creature may ever see. Rasha stood above the dead faerie awkwardly, wondering what the strange knot in her stomach was. Then she shook her head and continued her path through the forest.

It was past midnight by the time the trail of dead faeries finally ended and Rasha found her son. He lay asleep in a clearing by a babbling stream. Despite the events of the night, Rasha smiled upon seeing her young Mahir. He slept so peacefully that, had it not been for the blood smeared on his clothes and the broken wing between his lips, he would have been as peaceful as an angel.

Rasha nudged her son’s shoulder. The boy open his eyes and smacked his lips. Then, much to both their surprise, he spoke.

“Mother? Mother, have I been dreaming?”

Mother and son stared at one another for a long while, mouths hanging open. Rasha was the first one to recover from the surprise. With a smile, she helped her son to his feet and dabbed at the faerie dust on his chin with her apron.

“You’ve been sleepwalking, young one. But don’t worry…I’ll take you home.”

Mahir hugged her. “I love you, mother.”

All the way back home, Rasha quietly wept with joy.

***

And so the days passed, and Mahir grew and spoke and lived like an ordinary boy. No longer mute, he shared stories and laughed with his mother, never seeming to remember anything about faeries or iron charms or one hungry night. Neither one of them saw any hint of faeries in the area, and what few iron charms remained eventually grew rusted and forgotten.

Rasha watched the years passed and saw her hair grow thin and gray, while Mahir grew into a strong, capable young man. When she had become too infirm to plow the fields, it was Mahir’s turn to look after her. Rasha watched from the window as she cooked soup, a frown upon her face as she realized that soon she would be a burden to her son. But at least she could earn her keep by preparing his meals.

“He still needs me,” she assured herself.

Only she knew how to spice a meal just the way he liked it, after all.

She began humming and took a knife to her wrist. As she cut, her frown became a smile, and her blood drained into the soup.

“He’s still my good boy,” she said to herself

 

Image: Fairy’s Hand, by Christine E Schulze Chasmira

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