This story available on Jul 04, 2020
“Go away,” Olivia Stewart whispers into the darkness of her bedroom, but the thing in the crib refuses to oblige.
It’s not fair that it should be sleeping there, milk-drunk and serene in a house where it has no right to be. Olivia imagines slipping her hand into the crib and taking a roll of its doughy flesh between her fingers and pinching it, digging her nails in hard enough to leave a mark, hard enough to see if it even has blood to draw. She knows that if she makes it cry, her mother will come running, barge Olivia brusquely to one side and snatch up the wailing thing to comfort it, so instead, she curls her fists around the hem of her pyjama top and squeezes half-moons into her palms with her fingernails.
The bedroom door is open just a crack, and the hallway outside is a black ocean. If she strains her eyes she can just make out the silhouette of the big bed in her parents’ room. In five steps she could be across the hall — five more and she could be at the foot of the bed, ready to wriggle beneath the covers. Olivia imagines the warmth of her parents’ sleeping bodies and the soft cocoon of the valley between them with a longing so intense she feels it as hunger, but she knows these things are not hers any more. Now if she dares creep between them she will be greeted only with grunts of frustration, a drowsy squabble over whose turn it is to get up and put her back in bed — no kiss, no Goodnight Moon, no milk – just the blue glare of the nightlight and the rattle of branches against the window. At least with the thing asleep – or pretending to be, at least – her bedroom and her thoughts are her own.
The branches tap the window again, staccato punctuation against the steady drone of the wind. She used to like the tree outside in the garden, the one that huddles against the wall like it was blown there and decided to stay pressed as close to the house as it could. Last summer it was covered with leaves so thick and waxy they might have been drawn with green crayon, but now its branches are a bare brown scribble, swaying back and forward, shredding the moon into tiny pieces.
Olivia wonders if she could run away. Granny’s house isn’t far — not the sprawling old building that Olivia only just remembers, but the modern flat that Granny bought when she moved south to be closer to the rest of the family. Olivia could go and stay there again, like when her mother was in hospital. Granny had bought her a new book and a long-legged fashion doll of the kind she wasn’t allowed to have at home. They had eaten ice cream and watched cartoons and read stories, and Granny had taken her on the bus to meet the new baby for the first time, expecting something pink and soft, with curly red hair like her own.
Instead, she got the thing: scrawny and bloated all at once, its face squashed, eyes screwed shut, covered in a colourless downy fluff more animal than human. She had recoiled from it, burying her face in Granny’s shoulder, refusing even to look, screaming that she didn’t want it until Granny had had no choice but to remove her from the maternity ward. And when she glanced back, both of her parents were gazing down at the swaddled, malevolent thing, their faces wearing an expression of tenderness that for five years she had thought belonged only to her.
For just an instant, Olivia thinks how easy it would be to put her hand over the slack, pudgy face and hold the mouth and nose closed, but the idea of its lips opening and the clammy tongue thrusting against her palm is enough to make her shudder. The red gums are toothless, but she knows it is no less dangerous for that. When its eyes are open — she checks again: closed, for now — the look in them is cold and ancient and hateful.
The voice at the window is soft — so soft she might have mistaken it for the rustle of branches or the hiss of the wind but for the quick, almost nervous rattling knock that accompanies it. When she turns there is only her own reflection, pale blue in the nightlight’s glow, and then a shape uncoils out in the dark. Long fingers, gnarled and knotted and possessed of far too many joints to be human curl and uncurl as they tap-tap-tap delicately across the glass. She catches sight of a face that seems to be made of knots of bark and gall, where two deep, heavy-lidded, glittering golden eyes are shining.
Olivia looks back at the thing in the crib then to the window again. Nothing moves outside, and for a moment she thinks she must have conjured the creature from her own imagination, until she hears a coarse rustle like a collapsing bundle of dry sticks and the cracked face and reaching hands resolve out of the tree bark again. The eyes are tiny sulphur lamps, like far-away streetlights. A third, then a fourth winks into being; what she had taken for one creature is two, three, more. Long fingers tease around the panes, delicately tapping, probing, insinuating themselves into the tiniest gaps, looking for a way inside.
“What do you want?” she whispers in a voice so tiny that the creatures cannot possibly have heard, but the face beneath the two closest eyes splits horizontally into a wide and hungry smile.
“What you want,” it hisses, its inflection half-way between question and answer. The lamp-eyes blink again. Their pupils are vertical slits, like her cat’s, and hold the same predatory curiosity. “The changechild. The thing that does not belong. We will take it away, back to its own kind.” One long finger crooks in the unmistakeable gesture of beckoning. “Open the window, and it will be gone.”
The windows are old fashioned made of two frames each divided criss-cross into four panes, held in place by a catch on the windowsill. She has seen her mother unlatch it many times, before lifting the lower part of the window upwards to let in fresh air. But if she opens it now, it will not only be air that comes inside.
The thing would be happier with its own kind, Olivia thinks, and is almost proud of her own selflessness. It can go home, and she will have her parents back, the spell it cast over them broken. She knows from Granny’s stories — so different from the anaemic fables her English Grandma tells — that the changechild is a replacement for the real human baby, stolen away at birth. If the creatures outside — hobs, Granny would call them, or ferlies — bring back her real baby brother, she knows she will be a good sister. A real baby would be easy to love. Everyone will be happier if she only opens the window.
Her hand is on the latch when the light goes on and strikes her blind.
“Olivia! What are you doing?”
Olivia’s mother, bleary with sleep, her dressing gown pulled hurriedly over pyjamas that bear a distinctive smell of spoiled milk, is standing in the doorway of her room. Instantly the thing’s eyes open, and it begins to wail.
“Why are you out of bed?” The words snap out of her mother’s mouth in sharp contrast to the tenderness with which she reaches into the crib and cradles the thing against her breast.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Olivia mumbles. Bright afterimages dance in front of her eyes.
“Go back to bed.” When she hesitates, her mother takes a half-step towards her, as if to put her there by force. “Now.”
Skin burning, eyes prickling with hot tears, Olivia thumps down onto the mattress and turns away to face the wall. Her mother is crooning to the thing, her lips close to its downy scalp as she murmurs soft words of love and comfort, and slowly the awful keening subsides. When the crib creaks, Olivia knows the thing is back in its stolen place, the cuckoo returned to its nest.
She lies still, feigning sleep, but it seems her mother is not deceived. A warm hand strokes her hair, and the mattress sinks and buckles as an adult’s weight is lowered to perch on the edge.
“I’m sorry,” her mother says, and her voice is almost — almost — like it used to be. Olivia feels the hard tension in her shoulders ease at the familiar touch, her spine curving where before it was broomstick-straight. “I shouldn’t have snapped. Having a new baby is hard for us all. I know you’re upset. We’ll move the crib through to the big bedroom in the morning, all right? You’ll get a better sleep that way. And you and me, we’ll do something together. Something nice. All right?”
Olivia says nothing. The hand on her hair stops stroking and rests on her shoulder; her mother plants a soft kiss on the top of her head. “Love you, Livvie.”
It’s the name that does it, the old name, the diminutive that was hers before she became Big-Girl-Olivia, the honorific of an unwilling older sister. Olivia is hard and prickly; Livvie is soft and babyish and deserving of love. It is Livvie who rolls over and curls against her mother as she has done almost every night between her birth and that of her brother, Livvie who sobs into the sour-milk-smelling nightclothes until her face and the cloth are soaked in tears, Livvie who is tucked tightly in and kissed goodnight by the mother who creeps silently away across the hall, and all the house, from oldest to youngest, falls fast asleep at last.
But the window latch is open.
Slowly, so slowly, the old frame lifts. It is only the merest crack, but a wisp of cold night mist caresses Olivia’s sleeping face. The tip of a twig-finger emerges from beneath the white-painted-wood, then a second, a third and a fourth until the whole hand is across the windowsill, opening a gap for its arm, its misshapen head, its shoulders and tapering body to slither through.
Now there are many glowing eyes on the other side of the glass, all watching intently as the hunched figure drops into a crouch by the bedroom wall. With its hands on the floor its head comes barely higher than the windowsill, but there is a sense that if it were to unfold itself to its full height it would fill the room, its head pressed into the corner and its arms extended across the ceiling like an ancient tree forced to grow in a too small space. The hob creaks and rustles its way to the crib and leans across it, regarding its occupant with fascination. It traces one long twig-finger down the sleeping baby’s cheek, who lets out a single drowsy squawk before jerking his head away. And Olivia opens her eyes.
The creature is monstrous as it turns, suddenly vast and terrible, all jagged brambles, dead leaves and splintering wood. “The window was open,” it hisses, the mouth cracking impossibly wide. “The changechild must come home.”
Her mouth feels as though it has been stuffed with cotton wool. She tries to scream, but manages only a creak like a rotting floorboard. The thing towers over her, seizing her in a merciless grip, lashing vines wrapping around her and binding her fast from every angle despite her clumsy flailing. No, she thinks, desperate now, not me, it’s the thing in the crib you’re to take, not me! Not me!
“Silly creature,” the hob says as if it knows her thoughts, and its voice is full of a gentle, chiding amusement. “The baby in the crib, a changechild? So plump and sweet and round? No. The changechild is a twisted thing, a cruel thing. Unloved and unlovely, the thing that does not belong.”
She struggles in its grip, but the thorns hold her fast. If she could open her mouth she would shriek, but all she manages is a muffled, terrified moan through closed lips. She can feel the hard edge of the windowsill as she is squeezed through the narrow gap, then the cool night air settles around her like a mantle, nothing but a dizzying blur of stars and the fractured face of the moon.
“And there,” the hob says. “It is home. We are home.”
The grip that holds her eases, and she realises she can open her mouth.
“They’ll know I’m gone,” she whispers. Already her skin is prickling as bark begins to spread across it, a solitary stab of revulsion replaced almost immediately with a soft, despairing acceptance of something that she knows — perhaps has always known — to be inevitable.
“Will they know?” the other hob says, and there is a hiss from all sides that serve as sympathy from the rest of her kind, clustered tight in the tree, bereft of warmth or comfort beyond what they borrow from behind the glass. Her limbs are lengthening now, gnarling and twisting into twigs and branches. The blue glow of the nightlight is shining on the sleeping baby in his crib, so smooth and round and perfectly human that she wonders how she could ever have mistaken him for anything else.
“They wouldn’t forget me. They wouldn’t.”
The other hob points a long finger towards her bed, a bed that should be empty.
Beneath the patchwork quilt, her head on the pillow, is a second human child whose face she knows as if it were her own.
Olivia Stewart is sleeping — dreaming, perhaps, of hobs and ferlies — dreams that will slip away on waking until the life in the old house with her parents and little brother is all that she can remember.
Outside, the thing that once answered to her name wails and keens into the night, but the sound is only the cry of the wind and the tap-tap-tap of branches against the bedroom window.
Jude lives in Glasgow and is a full time doctor, full time parent and full time border collie wrangler. In her spare time she writes horror stories, climbs inadvisibly large mountains and drinks a powerful load of coffee.
Interview available on Jul 05, 2020