Stolen Child

by Nicole M. Taylor

Rosalie’s moth­er used to have a rou­tine for when­ev­er Ros­alie or one of her sis­ters informed her that anoth­er baby was soon on its way. She would sit down slow­ly, as though her ar-thri­tis pained her more than it actu­al­ly did and lean her head on her hand. “Another mouth to feed,” she would sigh.

Ros­alie would then tell her the name she had picked for her off­spring, Ariel or Jami­son or Sonya. Names that sound­ed like they belonged to kings or queens or even peo­ple who had nev­er real­ly lived at all except in fairy tales. 

But now her moth­er was dead. And deep in the woods where the sun­light nev­er seemed to reach with Alec unable to find work once again and this new stir­ring in her bel­ly; when Ros­alie looked at her sev­en chil­dren she had begun to see just huge, hun­gry mouths where their faces used to be. Some­day Ros­alie was sure they would eat up her and Alec and one anoth­er and the world entire. Who could want so much? 

By the time her sev­enth baby (Ariel) was born, Ros­alie had tak­en to her bed most hours of the day. When she rose (if she rose) it was late in the night, and she wan­dered through the lit­tle house in her flan­nel night­gown, stop­ping to stare out each win­dow. Glo­ri­anne, at twelve, was the old­est of the girl-chil­dren and the only one with Rosalie’s yel­low hair. She slept in a lit­tle room, a lit­tle bed with two of her sis­ters. She often heard her moth­er get up and the creak of her feet on the wood­en floor. 

“Mama,” she would say. It was like a cry. 

The wind hissed and sput­tered through the dark cracks of the house that Glorianne’s father had built in a hur­ry three springs past. Glorianne’s old­er broth­er Derek was four­teen and that was old enough to do the work of a man, rais­ing barns and build­ing oth­er lit­tle hous­es about the town. He had told Glo­ri­anne that their house would not sur­vive anoth­er win­ter. He had start­ed putting away part of his pay for tools (Papa’s had all but rust­ed, lying out in the yard through a sea­son of rain) to fix the roof up, at least. Glo­ri­anne picked sweet, wild cher­ries from deep in the for­est where folks didn’t like to go and sold lit­tle buck­ets of them out­side the mer­can­tile. Togeth­er, they had raised almost thir­ty-sev­en dollars. 

Some­times Glo­ri­anne thought about the lit­tle glass can­ning jar filled up with change and crum­pled paper notes, almost thir­ty-sev­en dol­lars worth, under­neath Derek’s bed. Some­times she thought about snaking her hand into that jar and tak­ing some of it. Not all. Just what was her share. And then she would run out of the house before anyone’d ever even knew she had gone. It kept her up nights, sometimes. 

“Mama,” she would say, stand­ing in front of the win­dow that didn’t have any glass in it. It did have, once, but Papa and Derek had got­ten in a bad fight and Derek’s elbow had gone clear through it, shat­tered the whole pane. It was the only time Glo­ri­anne had ever seen her moth­er cry, crouched there on the floor with a bright scat­ter­ing of glass all around her feet. She nev­er could fig­ure out if it was rough fight­ing that got her sad, or the loss of the win­dow. They all knew, of course, that they would not have anoth­er one.

Ros­alie would shake her head at her daugh­ter and point out through the sight­less win­dow. In the win­ter, they had to stop up the emp­ty space with butch­er paper and boards. “The fairies are danc­ing tonight,” she’d say. 

“Mama,” Glo­ri­anne would say again, sound­ing del­i­cate and awful­ly weary, “there’s no fairies out there.”

Ros­alie traced her name in the dust on the win­dowsill, “there’s fairies every­where. My moth­er always said that. They like to be where peo­ple are, but you’ve got to be good to them, or else they can be dread­ful cruel.” Every full moon night, as reg­u­lar as clock­work, Ros­alie would leave a loaf of fresh brown bread on the back door step for the fairies. It was just about the only thing she would cook these days, though they could scarce afford the flour. It galled Glo­ri­anne to see it in the morn­ing, just a pile of crumbs and the rest van­ished into the hun­gry mouths of wild animals. 

Even­tu­al­ly, Ros­alie would allow her­self to be guid­ed back to her bed, where Papa slept on obliv­i­ous­ly. Glo­ri­anne would tuck her back in and pull the quilt up under­neath her chin. “Thank you, baby,” Ros­alie would say, and pat the girl’s hand. “I’m just so tired right now,” she would add, in apolo­getic tones. Glo­ri­anne nod­ded, Glo­ri­anne did not under­stand, but she had an idea that some things weren’t to be under­stood. Espe­cial­ly the things inside her mother’s head. 

“I know, Mama,” she would say. And then she would leave her par­ents in the dark­ness and go back to her own bed, where she didn’t sleep and instead thought about a glass jar near­ly half-full of change and paper money. 

Every­thing changed three months before Glorianne’s thir­teenth birth­day, when she was boil­ing a pot of split pea soup for din­ner. One of the ladies Derek had helped build a house for had giv­en him a five pound sack of dried peas, for free, in addi­tion to the mon­ey he got any­way. Glo­ri­anne had stretched it out, and she had been well-pleased with how long it had last­ed. She’d dumped the last of it into the pea soup and that they could reheat for a few days at least. Even a big ket­tle of soup didn’t last long with nine bel­lies to fill. 

It was very near to done, was bub­bling away just fine and she was just about to call the rest of the chil­dren in when she watched as the whole pot over­turned, dous­ing the fire and run­ning in sooty gray streaks across the wood floor towards her feet. For the rest of her life, Glo­ri­anne would feel a hot stick­er of guilt when she thought back on that day and how her first thought was for her bel­ly, and how emp­ty it was, and how she had count­ed on that soup so dear. It was sev­er­al long sec­onds before she even reg­is­tered the scream­ing of her sev­en year-old sis­ter, Sonya, who had over­turned the thing on her right arm. And when she went to the girl and com­fort­ed her, it was, at first, half-heart­ed and half-scolding. 

But Sonya did not cry. The lit­tle girl was a weep­er by nature, always fuss­ing when she scraped a knee or some­one brushed her hair too hard and now she just lay limp in Glorianne’s arms. That first sharp scream done with, she stared up at her sis­ter silent­ly and her whole body quaked and shivered. 

In her head, Glo­ri­anne reeled through the names of peo­ple who would be able to help. Derek was help­ing Mr. Par­rish har­vest his west field. Papa was on anoth­er of his hunts for work, which were always mys­te­ri­ous and fruit­less and days long. All the rest of the chil­dren were too young to be of use to her and they stood around her now in an urgent cir­cle. “Jamie,” she snapped. The boy (who was just nine years old) looked up at her with dazed eyes. “Go run into town and find Miss Amy Pritchard.” Amy Pritchard had come out to the lit­tle cab­in last win­ter, when baby Ariel was stuck inside Glorianne’s mama and she’d man­aged to save the both of them. She was not a doc­tor of course, she just helped out women in their time, but Glo­ri­anne couldn’t think of any­thing else to do. Jamie just stared up at her, uncom­pre­hend­ing. Glo­ri­anne snapped her fin­gers loud­ly. “What did I just say?”

“Go…go into town and find Miss Amy Pritchard,” Jamie answered, sound­ing small. 

Glo­ri­anne nod­ded, “get to it.” In her arms, Sonya was a limp weight. Heat radi­at­ed off her burnt skin and seeped in through the cloth of Glorianne’s dress. “Hey,” Glo­ri­anne said, jostling the girl, “hey, baby.” Her body moved with the motion of Glorianne’s and she stared up at the ceil­ing sightlessly. 

“Mama,” Glo­ri­anne said, burst­ing into her mother’s bedroom. 

“Mhm?” Ros­alie sat up and wrapped the warm blan­kets around her. She looked like a paint­ing of a woman, like her face was smeared or only glimpsed through dirty glass, like the bible sto­ry Glo­ri­anne had heard them read at funerals. 

“You got­ta get up, Mama.” Glo­ri­anne drew back the cor­ner of the bed­spread and deposit­ed Sonya under­neath it. The girl moaned once, a weak, hope­less sound, when the edge of the blan­ket scraped over her burned skin. “Sorry, baby, sorry,” Glo­ri­anne said, touch­ing her fever­ish fore­head. Ros­alie sat there for a moment, look­ing down at her lit­tle daugh­ter in a mis­ery. She stud­ied her, like she was a cat born with two noses or a strange flower found upspring­ing in the gar­den. She got out of bed, sway­ing on her feet. Stand­ing there in her stained night­dress with her hair snag­gled and rat­ted all around her head, Glo­ri­anne thought she was like a pic­ture in a hor­ror-book. The Mad Woman appears. 

Amy Pritchard arrived sweat­ing from the long run out to the cot­tage and she had fair ruined the brim of her white hat with it. The first thing she did was wash her hands at the pump, scrub­bing under­neath the fin­ger­nails with the clum­sy brown soap that Glo­ri­anne had made her­self. From her pock­ets she pro­duced small, squat bot­tles with no labels on them and reels of white ban­dag­ing. “Send word to your brother,” she told Glo­ri­anne. Then she shut her­self up in the room with Sonya and she didn’t come out all night. 

Ros­alie sat before the fire­place, still in her night­dress. She ran her fin­gers absent-mind­ed­ly over the bump­ing, coil­ing ter­rain of her yel­low hair. Ros­alie had nev­er told her chil­dren how, when she was younger, she used to have hair that went down past her feet. On wash­ing day, she had to lay out in the sun with it stretched out around her like a haze, like when the wheat pods explode in the sum­mer and send the yel­low-gold stuff out to inhab­it the air. She did not think her chil­dren would believe that once men used to come from miles around just to see her. 

Glo­ri­anne stood with her back against the back door. Peri­od­i­cal­ly, her stom­ach would cramp up, so hot and sud­den that she would gasp at the force of it. Out­side on the back step there was a fresh-baked loaf of bread and it seemed to her that she could smell it through the wood. Derek sat at the table in front of her, his head bowed over the lit­tle pile of bills he had retrieved from the glass jar. It would cost the lion’s share of it, pay­ing Amy Pritchard for her time. The clock that their papa had made for their mama back when they were court­ing ticked on and on and there was nowhere to go. 

Jaime and the rest of chil­dren were sleep­ing where they had dropped by the time Amy Pritchard emerged from the bed­room. Anoth­er night, Glo­ri­anne might have shook them awake and shooed them up to their beds, but tonight she only watched them curl up small in front of the fire’s yel­low glow. “She’s gonna live,” Amy Pritchard said, tuck­ing ten­drils of hair behind her ears. Her hair was slick and dark with sweat. “She’s gonna have some real bad scars, though.” Glo­ri­anne remem­bered oily red­ness of her skin, all down her arm and creep­ing urgent­ly onto her chest. 

Amy Pritchard laid some twist­ed scraps of fab­ric down on the wood­en table and Glo­ri­anne real­ized that they must be what was left of Claire’s dress. “You folks are awful lucky,” she said. The clock on the wall ticked. Still awake, Ros­alie stared into the fire as if she didn’t hear. 

If you asked her, even many years lat­er, Glo­ri­anne couldn’t prop­er­ly say exact­ly what it was that drove her from her bed that night. She would like to think that it was her right­eous anger, her bud­ding sense of jus­tice, but she often sus­pect­ed that it was mere­ly the great, ani­mal hunger that quaked her bel­ly and drove the sleep from her. 

She knew where all of the creak­ing places in the floor were and, unlike her moth­er, she moved across it with­out a sound. The door opened eas­i­ly and the night air rushed inside, cool and dark. It rus­tled at the skirt of her night­dress. For a moment, as her eyes adjust­ed to the dark, she did not even see the crea­ture crouched on the stone step. 

She had imag­ined that the fairies her moth­er talked about were…small things. Glow­ing things. Things like light­ning bugs; things with wings. The thing on the stoop was near­ly as tall as she was and it had thin, spin­dling limbs. She could see the move­ment of mus­cles under­neath its pale skin. The thing looked up at her. It had a clever, dan­ger­ous face and ragged dark hair. In its two hands, it held the as-yet unbro­ken loaf of bread. 

Glo­ri­anne did not know what made her do it. Any oth­er day, she would have screamed, run away, slammed the door and hid in her bed­room. But it seemed like her whole body had been hol­lowed out by fear and hunger and, almost before she real­ized it, she had reached out and snatched the bread right out of the thing’s fingers. 

How was it that the bread was still warm? She stared at it as though she had nev­er seen any­thing of its kind before. And then the fairy on the stoop tilt­ed back its sharp face and began to laugh at her. It opened its mouth and asked her what seemed to be a ques­tion in some slith­er­ing, chirrup­ing language. 

“I don’t understand,” Glo­ri­anne said qui­et­ly, so as not to wake the chil­dren still curled up on the floor inside. The fairy stud­ied her for a moment and then spoke again, this time in care­ful, unac­cent­ed human speech. 

“What is your age?” the thing asked. It was wrong, hear­ing human words out of its sharp, blue mouth. 

“Near thirteen,” Glo­ri­anne answered uncer­tain­ly, the over­whelm­ing strange­ness of all this dawn­ing on her. The fairy on the stoop stood up like some ter­ri­ble paper doll unfold­ing. It was taller than Glo­ri­anne. It cocked its head to one side and leaned for­ward until one long rope of cool hair touched the sweat­ing flesh of Glorianne’s cheeks. The fairy bent its face to look into Glorianne’s eyes. It smiled then, appar­ent­ly pleased by what it had seen. 

“Not too old,” the fairy said, lean­ing back. Glo­ri­anne was not sure what that meant. She stared down at the loaf of bread in her hands, it seemed small now. All the warmth had gone out of it and it was cold and heavy against her skin. 

The fairy stretched out one hand. Its fin­gers were so awful­ly, ter­ri­bly long. But that, for the first time, was some-thing Glo­ri­anne under­stood. Stand­ing there on the front stoop, she did not think about her sis­ter breath­ing fast and shal­low in the back bed­room, or her list­less, hol­low moth­er, or her broth­er with the scars on his hands like a man’s. She thought about the faintest breeze that had come up from the for­est. It shook the leaves on the trees and it smelled to her like cher­ries ready for pick­ing. The peo­ple were afraid of the for­est. But if you were brave, if you were des­per­ate, there were sweet things to be found there. 

Glo­ri­anne reached out and took the fairy’s offered hand. It felt slick and uncer­tain like a frog’s skin. They turned togeth­er and moved towards the for­est and far­ther and far­ther away from the yel­low light of the open door. Until the star­ry dark­ness ate the both of them, swal­lowed them whole. 

Nicole M. Tay­lor’s fic­tion has been pub­lished or is upcom­ing in Beneath Cease­less Skies, Androm­e­da Space­ways Inflight Mag­a­zine, Shim­mer Mag­a­zine and elsewhere. 

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