Crotchety Mrs. Stroud fixed her beady eyes on me as we walked by. I didnae have to look up to know she was glaring at me; I could feel it, burning through my skull. I knew better now than to match her glare. I kept my head down, watching my feet and mum’s skirts swish ahead of me, her freshly polished boots glinting whenever they peeked beneath the lace hem. I let her lead the way through toun.
We stopped at various shops, me holding the basket, and mum would drop in various parcels and guids. Mum would speak with the owners, coostomers, and other gossipers as we went through toun. I spoke very little and only when needed, with all the politeness I could muster. I kept my voice soft. A lady like mum would want. I donnae bother to remember anyone’s name. Some I knew through childhood, others I didnae care to learn. Connexions were mum’s concern. I knew she made most of them to help me appear better in standings—so the rumors would go away—but I cannae find myself to keep them. Others are strange to me. I cannae speak easily to most. I donnae have the patience or ability. It is as foreign to me as the seas. Besides, something always goes wrong when I try, when I look them in the eyes.
I donnae look anyone in the eye.
For some reason, mum is fine though, as is faither. I donnae ken why. But I am glad. They have raised me and given me strength. But even then, I donnae feel like I have ever fit in. That in part may be because of the rumors. Rumors that keep others away from me. Rumors that encircle my birth. Rumors that say I am a changeling.
Sometimes, I wonder if it is true.
I cannae remember who first told me about my birth; I imagine it came from Maggie. She was my wet-nurse and mum’s mid-wife. It seems each time I catch a wee whisper or rumor about my birth, the story changes and becomes larger than the last I knew. I wonder why people still talk aboot it.
From whit I do ken, mum’s labor was harsh. She was in great pain through each moon and was bed-ridden at the end. Maggie was there when she went into labor. It was hard and took hours. There were complications. Mum was bleeding out, and Maggie worried she could not save her and me. Maggie had to have the doctor’s help. They were lucky to save me, but mum was still in danger.
Maggie had to set me to the side so she could help stitch mum up in order to save her. Mum wouldnae stop calling for me. Maggie turned back to me to clean me and hand me to her. That was when she saw the caul. I do remember Maggie telling me she was frightened, but she couldnae ignore my wee cries any longer. She dressed me and placed me in mum’s arms as the doctor finished. Faither was there now, too. I donnae know if he was there the whole while or not; I cannae get that part of the story straight. He tried to soothe mum.
Mum kept asking about my hair. “It was dark.” She insisted, “It was dark like yours, Hughe.”
“Aileene, it was just the light. Just a trick of the light.” Though from whit I have ken, faither tried to cover my hair. I think he was trying to reassure himself along with mum.
Maggie was also scared. She reassured mum that it was the light and the caul had made it appear dark. This didnae help my mum. The conversation ended quickly. Maggie didnae want to think she was dealing with a changeling. But in all the confusion, it was clear something had happened. No one right knows whit, but that is where all the rumors started.
That’s whit they started saying.
People say I was replaced by fairy folk as a wee bairn. The caul tells I was a bairn of fae birth. There was also time for the elves to leave me in place of a stillborn. All this to be raised and nursed by humans until I could walk. The rumors died down once I took my first step, which took me longer than it should have. There was still mistrust. Mum did her best to dispel the whispers. In ways, I think she added to them. Faither feared she was over looking me, putting me further into the fairies’ power.
Faither took to asking many blessings for me. He would try to use different herbs, salves, and seeds to ward off the fairy-folk and their mischief. Mum took to asking blessings from Branwen. She wanted me to grow up in beauty and marry well. That would solve all of the problems. Mum also asked blessings of Angus of the Brugh. I donnae know if it helped much, but she was convinced I was bonnie. Others agreed, but not in a pleasant way.
Mum professed I was blessed by Branwen and Angus of the Brugh. She was fixated on my appearance. Yet sometimes . . . sometimes I find her gaze fixated on my hair. I cannae read her expression, but I am sure she is thinking about it being dark. Dark like faither’s. I asked her aboot it once, aboot when I was born and whit really happened. She cried. I never asked again. But that doesnae mean I didnae hear people talk. People talk too much.
I know their talking hurts mum and faither. That’s why they try so hard to keep everything normal for me. They try to make connextions, give me an education, and make a lady out of me. And I do try as well. I do. I just cannae ever seem to get it right. Any of it. I suppose I am guid at needlework and gardening. Mum says they’re gifts. I like art and nature. They calm me down. I would rather be alone with my thoughts in the garden than out with people or lasses my age. I think mum worries I donnae have friends, but it doesnae ever end guid. It had to have been aboot a year ago now. For some reason, I remembered it too well, even though I tried to block it from my mind.
The lasses were teasing me, pulling on my braids mum had just pleated.
“It’s too long,” One of the girls tugged, “And it’s not really bonnie. No one really thinks so.” Her name was Gaira. Her hair was mousy.
“Why should we be compared to you? You arenae fair. You’re dirty.” Darbie had freckles.
“No. Rhona’s not human.” Andra’s eyes were wide, her lip trembling, her brows knit ‘til they were almost crossing like swords. She was afraid of me. I knew it. “It’s not fair the lads only look at you! You cast spells on them! Trickster!”
Gaira and Darbie stepped behind Andra. They were scared, too. Andra reached out and grabbed one of my braids, tugging me to the ground. I sprawled in the dirt and mud. “Leave us alone, and go back to where you came from! Nobody wants you, fairy.” She spat.
“Bauchle!” The breeze howled my hurt and anger. My eyes blazed into hers. “No lad will ever want a hackit numpty like you.”
Andra ran. Tears carved rivers down her cheeks. It was like she had been the one thrown to the mud. Gaira and Darbie followed. I didnae ken why she cried. I still donnae know.
Andra was sick for aboot a month after that. No one knew whit was wrong. She and the other lasses never approached me again, or any other lass for that matter. It seemed it was my fault she got sick. No lad would go near her. They also stopped coming near me, which I didnae mind, but I still see some of them gazing after me.
I’m not bonnie. I didnae feel bonnie walking home covered in mud with my braids hanging loose. Mum still says I am bonnie. She said that’s why the lasses were mean. They were jealous. I donae understand this. I donae understand the difference.
“Rohna.” Mum’s voice pulled me from my thoughts. She had a dozen or so ribbons in her hands that she had just pulled down from the shop’s rack. She flashed them ‘fore me. “Whit do you think of these ribbons? They would look so lovely in your fair hair!” She was all aglow.
I smiled at her, “They’re lovely, Mum.” And I meant it. I could tell she had caught me mulling with a hing-oot expression. She wanted me to be happy, but she didnae say so out loud. She talked to me instead aboot the ribbons. We bought them, of course. She chatted to me all the way back through the toun to home, the silk ribbons glistening in the light all the way back.
I stayed in the garden for a while ‘fore supper. I walked into the house carrying flowers from the garden in my arms when Mum called. I smiled at her and handed her the flowers then went over to the basin to wash the dirt from my hands.
“Rhododendrons are my favorite.” The corners of her mouth softly lit up. She found a small pitcher to place them in. She sat them by the window. “I saw you looking at the lily-of-the-valley. You seem to like them. Why donnae you pick them?”
I took the towel Isla handed me. She was one of our kitchen maids. She was soft-spoken and sweet. I liked her. She was always nice to me. Isla went back to setting the places while I thought aboot how to answer Mum’s question.
“Ah’ll go fetch Laird Johnstone,” Isla nodded and left.
I broke the silence. “I do like it. It’s my favorite. It always comes in spring, so it makes me think of new things. It always comes back with happiness.” I shrugged. “I just suppose it knows whit it is. It’s confident. I donnae yet know who I am. That’s why I donnae pick it.”
Faither walked in at that moment. “Och, you will.”
“You should always know you are ours.” Mum placed her hand on mine.
I nodded. I did know. I knew they loved me, and I loved them. I was a tangled mess most of the time. I couldnae find my niche. But I would. I just didnae know how or when. Faither sat down at the table, and we took our respective places. Faither led the discussion with mother that night, as always. It was normal. I hardly spoke, and when I did, they often found it profound, but it didnae seem to matter people thought I was different to them.
Being different only mattered to me because I wanted to know how I fit into the world. I knew how I fit into my family, but I was missing some other connexion. I had always been missing it. I wanted to find it.
I couldnae focus on embroidery the next day. Mum kept giving me worried glances. I stared out the window. Something needed to change, I just didnae know whit. “Och!” I realized I had made another mistake in my embroidery. I began to unpick it, brow knit as tightly as the knot in my stitching.
“Rohna,” I turned to her, “Whit’s the matter, lass?”
I held up the piece I was working on. “I’m stuck.”
“You know how to un-stick yerself,” she smiled encouragingly.
My gaze sharpened at the knot; it practically came undone by itself. I looked back to her. “I am still stuck.” She set her needle down. “I donna kin, but I am stuck. I always have been. I donnae know how to un-stick myself.”
A frown twitched at the corners of mum’s mouth. I knew she worried for me. She wanted me to be happy. I had seen that expression on her face many times. It read she was worried I couldnae be happy here—truly happy—because I hadnae found myself yet. She was worried one day I would vanish ‘fore her eyes and knew she couldnae do anything aboot it. Yet she wanted me to find my place. She would support me, like she always had. She would always love me. I would always love her and faither. I had no answers for her, and she had none for me, for the questions we all held deep within the crevasses of our hearts.
But I needed answers.
Mum tucked her pouting lower lip beneath her teeth. Her eyes lit up a moment later. She suggested gently, “Would a walk outside help? In the garden?”
I thought aboot it, smiled, and nodded. She had seen me looking out the window enough. Interesting she knew ‘fore I did whit I needed.
The weather was balmy. The sun traced its fingers along my skin, leaving a light tingling sensation. I donnae know how long I was in the garden ‘fore I looked up. I cannae remember whit even caught my attention. I looked around, coming out of a daze of my gardening. I clapped my hands together, dirt flaking and crumbling off the dainty shapes. I cast my gaze aboot again, wondering whit had pulled me back to the present.
I saw a lapwing light to a tree, calling its ‘Pee-wit! Pee-wit!’ The field was wide, open, and covered in thistle, the purple tufts made a patchwork over the hillsides. I was glad we lived on the outskirts of Galloway where I could look out over the hills and forests. I was close to nature; that was guid enough for me. Yet today was different. The fairy hills looked unassuming, but something had caught my attention, and I had to find out whit it was.
I abandoned the heather I was tending. My garden tools lay in the dirt. I walked out of the garden and away from home to the hills.
The grass met well above my knees. That wasn’t surprising considering how short I am, but whit was teckle was how the grass moved with each step I took. The thistle grew like a trail, guiding me higher into the fairy hills. Trees started appearing in small clusters along the way; it wasnae long ‘fore the invisible path I was following became overrun with shrubbery and undergrowth. The trees grew so close they knotted together, their gnarled trunks ever embracing other trees too close to each other and still reaching for the skies beyond. The forest took on a new light for me. It was warm and full of life I had never noticed ‘fore.
The sun filtered through the leaves in patches. I heard birds singing somewhere above me. Small forest creatures stirred just out of sight, but I was aware of them. I was aware of the forest breathing. It was breathing ever-so-softly, as if it was aware of my presence as a stranger. Even though I was intruding upon its sacred ground and walked under its chapeled canopy, I was welcome. For one of the first time in the forest, I didnae feel out of place. I felt I knew whit the forest was saying, whit every motion meant.
It was waiting, and watching.
But not necessarily for me. There was something else here, something that lured me deeper into the thick of the trees. I had wandered far from home, but I didnae feel lost. My steps faltered only for a moment, but the whispering leaves above urged me on. Come see. Come see whit treasure we hold this day. Come see. The world felt different than ‘fore. Now, I was watching along with it.
It was then that the trees spread out into a glen. Sunlight streamed through the opening. The forest quivered with tension, but it was not foreboding for there, in the center of the glen, stood a man. He was tall, draped in deerskin with antlers atop his head, crowning him forest king. The black serpent coiled tighter aboot his arm and looked at me. The deerhound at his side looked at me, then back to his master. He was tending to a broken sapling. I couldnae have moved, even if I had wanted to. I couldnae breathe. I was stilled.
This was Cernenus. God of the forest.
I shivered as he reset the sapling’s limb and watched it grow back together, greener than ‘fore. The deerhound trotted up to me and licked the back of my hand. With a start, I could move again. My breathing was rapid and shallow. Cernenus turned slowly to me. My knees were shaking as his gaze fixated on mine. His eyes were as deep as the forest. I feared I would get lost in those woods and never return.
His voice was the oak tree when he spoke. “Fae wain, ye socht me?”
I shivered again, his voice alighting in me something new and something old as the tales of the earth. My brows knitted together. “I am no fae wain,” my voice was a whisper at first, “And I didnae seek you. I just . . . found you.”
I thought I almost saw him smile, “Then ye socht me.” I let that sink in, filling the space and silence between us. “Why?” he prompted.
I bit my bottom lip, “Because I am stuck. I donnae know whit to do. I donnae fit in.” I looked up at him, “You called me a fairy wain.”
“Is it true then? All the rumors? Am I a changeling?” My voice was higher than I wanted it to be.
He shook his head, “A changeling? Rhona, ye ‘re whit ye mak yerself.”
I was stunned. Whit was I then? I didnae understand. I shook my head back at him.
Cernenus stepped close enough that I could have reached out and touched him. He smelled of pine. “Ye have fae bluid. Yer a doughetë of fairys, but ye’ve been raised by man. Ye’ve more peths ‘fore ye than ye ken.”
I am a fairy. I was stunned, but a part of me was relieved, partly because I think I had always suspected something. I knew more of who I was. I knew whit I was. But the trouble with knowing is figuring out whit to do with that knowledge. “So whit do I do? Where do I belong?” I pleaded an answer from him. I think I already knew it, but sometimes it is easier to be told whit to do than find out.
Cernenus placed a hand on my shoulder. My knees buckled at the power that swam through me from his touch. If he hadnae been holding me, I would’ve fallen. He gave me a knowing look and made sure I was steady on my feet ‘fore he spoke. “Yer the ae wha can decide whit to do nou. Ye said ye were stickit. Un-stickit yerself.”
Whit did I want? Whit was I willing to do to kin? I looked up at him, uncertain, but longing. “Then can I learn more? I want to see everything.”
“Will ye lat aback aa ither thin?”
I shook my head fervently. “No. It’s part of who I am. I willnae forget anything. Maybe . . . maybe I’ll even come back.” I looked down the path I came. I knew home was still back waiting for me. I smiled, it would always be waiting for me. For now, I knew whit I wanted and whit I needed to do for the first time. “I want to find out whit more there is to me.” Just knowing I was of fae birth now wasnae enough. I wanted to reach beyond that knowledge, and I would. I was ready to.
The god placed his hand on my forehead. A thrill ran through me, and an image came to my mind of green grass, rolling hills and dales, and fairy folk. Cernenus had shown me where I had to go for answers, and I had questions. I bowed my head in thanks.
“Ye will find yerself as ye foond me.” Cernenus’ tone was confident.
I nodded, “In part, I already have.”
This time, I knew he smiled. A final blessing. I blinked once, and Cernenus had vanished. The only sign he had been there at all was the sapling that had been made whole. I thought I caught a glimpse of the deerhound trotting away, but I couldnae be sure. It was now my turn to leave. The forest returned to its normal going-aboots, but I was now a part of it. I had the distinct impression the forest and Cernenus knew that. I felt he would always be watching over me now, guiding me to white’er was waiting for me.
The last thing I did was place lily-of-the-valley on mum’s window.