Her face betrayed her every emotion: blotchy skin, chapped with salty tears, her pale blue eyes rimmed in red, her hair matted and disheveled. She reached out for me with trembling hands and emitted a small sharp cry, the kind a rabbit makes when in the distress of the snare. She wiped her eyes on her shirtsleeve and wrapped me in the wracking shudder of a woman in love. Then she began laughing in that deep coloratura.
"Henry? Henry?" She pushed me away and held on to my shoulders at arms length. "Let me look at you. Is it really you?"
"Im sorry, Mom."
She brushed away the bangs hiding my eyes and then pulled me against her breast. Her heart beat against the side of my face, and I felt hot and un-comfortable.
"You neednt worry, my little treasure. Youre home and safe and sound, and thats all that matters. Youve come back to me."
Dad cupped the back of my head with his large hand, and I thought this homecoming tableau might go on forever. I squirmed free and dug out the handkerchief from Henrys pocket, crumbs spilling to the floor.
"Im sorry I stole the biscuit, Mom."
She laughed, and a shadow passed behind her eyes. Maybe she had been wondering up to that point if I was indeed her flesh and blood, but mention-ing the biscuit did the trick. Henry had stolen one from the table when he ran away from home, and while the others took him to the river, I stole and pock-eted it. The crumbs proved that I was hers.
Well after midnight, they put me to bed, and such a comfort may be the greatest invention of mankind. In any case, it tops sleeping in a hole in the cold ground, a moldy rabbit skin for your pillow, and the grunts and sighs of a dozen changelings anxious in their dreams. I stretched out like a stick be-tween the crisp sheets and pondered my good fortune. Many tales exist of failed changelings who are uncovered by their presumptive families. One child who showed up in a Nova Scotia fishing village so frightened his poor parents that they fled their own home in the middle of a snowstorm and were later found frozen and bobbing in the frigid harbor. A changeling girl, age six, so shocked her new parents when she opened her mouth to speak that, thus frightened, they poured hot wax into each others ears and never heard an-other sound. Other parents, upon learning that their child had been replaced by changelings, had their hair turn white overnight, were stunned into cata-tonia, heart attacks, or sudden death. Worse yet, though rare, other families drive out the creature through exorcism, banishment, abandonment, murder. Seventy years ago, I lost a good friend after he forgot to make himself look older as he aged. Convinced he was a devil, his parents tied him up like an unwanted kitten in a gunnysack and threw him down a well. Most of the time, though, the parents are confounded by the sudden change of their son or daughter, or one spouse blames the other for their queer fortune. It is a risky endeavor and not for the fainthearted.
That I had come this far undetected caused me no small satisfaction, but I was not completely at ease. A half hour after I had gone to bed, the door to my room swung open slowly. Framed against the hallway light, Mr. and Mrs. Day stuck their heads through the opening. I shut my eyes to mere slits and pretended to be sleeping. Softly, but persistently, she was sobbing. None could cry with such dexterity as Ruth Day. "We have to mend our ways, Billy. You have to make sure this never happens again."
"I know, I promise," he whispered. "Look at him sleeping, though. The innocent sleep that knits up the ravelld sleeve of care."
He pulled shut the door and left me in the darkness. My fellow changelings and I had been spying on the boy for months, so I knew the contours of my new home at the edge of the forest. Henrys view of their few acres and the world beyond was magical. Outside, the stars shone through the window above a jagged row of firs. Through the open windows, a breeze blew across the top of the sheets, and moths beat their wings in retreat from their perches on the window screen. The nearly full moon reflected enough light into the space to reveal the dim pattern on the wallpaper, the crucifix above my head, pages torn from magazines and newspapers tacked along the wall. A baseball mitt and ball rested on top of the bureau, and on the washstand a pitcher and bowl glowed as white as phosphorous. A short stack of books lay propped against the bowl, and I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of reading come morning。
The twins began bawling at the break of day. I padded down the hallway, past my new parents room, following the sound. The babies hushed the mo-ment they saw me, and I am sure that had they the gifts of reason and speech, Mary and Elizabeth would have said "Youre not Henry" the moment I walked into the room. But they were mere tots, with more teeth than sentences, and could not articulate the mysteries of their young minds. With their clear wide eyes, they regarded my every move with quiet attentiveness. I tried smiling, but no smiles were returned. I tried making funny faces, tickling them under their fat chins, dancing like a puppet, and whistling like a mockingbird, but they simply watched, passive and inert as two dumb toads. Racking my brain to find a way to get through to them, I recalled other occasions when I had encountered something in the forest as helpless and dangerous as these two human children. Walking along in a lonesome glen, I had come across a bear cub separated from its mother. The frightened animal let out such a godforsaken scream that I half expected to be surrounded by every bear in the mountains. Despite my powers with animals, there was nothing to be done with a monster that could have ripped me open with a single swat. By croon-ing to the beast, I soothed it, and remembering this, I did so with my new-found sisters. They were enchanted by the sound of my voice and began at once to coo and clap their chubby hands while long strings of drool ran down their chins. "Twinkle, Twinkle" and "Bye, Baby Bunting" reassured or con-vinced them that I was close enough to be their brother, or preferable to their brother, but who knows for certain what thoughts flitted through their simple minds. They gurgled, and they gooed. In between songs, for counterpoint, I would talk to them in Henrys voice, and gradually they came to believe—or abandon their sense of disbelief.
Mrs. Day bustled into the babies room, humming and tra-la-la-ing. Her general girth and amplitude amazed me; I had seen her many times before, but not quite at such close quarters. From the safety of the woods, she had seemed more or less the same as all adult humans, but in person, she assumed a singu-lar tenderness, though she smelled faintly sour, a perfume of milk and yeast. She danced across the floor, throwing open curtains, dazzling the room with golden morning, and the girls, brightened by her presence, pulled themselves up by the slats of their cribs. I smiled at her, too. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into joyous laughter. She smiled back at me as if I were her only son.
"Help me with your sisters, would you, Henry?"
I picked up the nearest girl and announced very pointedly to my new mother, "Ill take Elizabeth." She was as heavy as a badger. It is a curious feel-ing to hold an infant one is not planning to steal; the very young convey a pleasant softness.
The girls mother stopped and stared at me, and for a beat, she looked puzzled and uncertain. "How did you know that was Elizabeth? Youve never been able to tell them apart."
"Thats easy, Mom. Elizabeth has two dimples when she smiles and her names longer, and Mary has just one."
"Arent you the clever one?" She picked up Mary and headed off down-stairs.
Elizabeth hid her face against my shoulder as we followed our mother. The kitchen table groaned with a huge feast—hotcakes and bacon, a jug of warm maple syrup, a gleaming pitcher of milk, and china bowls filled with sliced bananas. After a long life in the forest eating what-you-can-find, this simple fare appeared a smorgasbord of exotic delicacies, rich and ripe, the promise of fullness.
"Look, Henry, I made all your favorites."
I could have kissed her right on the spot. If she was pleased with herself for taking the trouble to fix Henrys favorite foods, she must have been ex-tremely gratified by how I tucked in and enjoyed breakfast. After four hot-cakes, eight strips of bacon, and all but two small glassfuls of the pitcher of milk, I complained of hunger, so she made me three eggs and a half loaf of toast from home-baked bread. My metabolism had changed, it seemed. Ruth Day saw my appetite as a sign of love for her, and for the next eleven years, until I left for college, she indulged me. In time, she sublimated her own anxieties and began to eat like me. Decades as a changeling had molded my appetites and energies, but she was all too human, growing heavier with each passing season. Over the years, Ive often wondered if she would have changed so much with her real firstborn or whether she filled her gnawing suspicion with food.