The Fairy Nurse
"The wind blows low and mournful Through the Strath of Dalnacreich Where once there lived a woman Who would a mother be For fifty years she rocked that babe It's said she rocks him still A mother of a changeling child from 'neath the fairy hill"
― Heather Dale
I knew it was a terrible idea from the start.
Well, maybe not the start. The job ad seemed normal. ‘Nanny wanted,’ one child, six hours a day while the dad was at work. Simple enough. It was on a proper job site and everything. Did I think it was kind of pretentious that they were calling for a Nanny rather than a babysitter? Sure. But it’s not like they were the only one doing it. Besides, it paid well, and I desperately needed the money. I wasn’t going to quibble over word choice with £20 an hour on the line. If rich people wanted to use old fashioned words that was their business, not mine.
The first signs that I should have gotten the hell out of dodge came during the interview. I’d known the house was out of the way, but stepping off the bus into an empty wood had been a shock. I’d been the only one on the bus, and the bus driver had barely glanced at me when I got on, hat pulled low over his eyes. It was a sunny day, or it had been before the bus had entered the woods, and when I stepped off the bus the wind blew straight through my blouse, curling frigid iron around my bones and whipping my hair out of its neat bun.
The email had said to take the path next to the bus stop down to the house and even though the path was more of mud track, and even though I was starting to get serious serial killer vibes from the silent woods, I won’t have it said that I’m a quitter.
…I should probably have quit.
The trek up to the house was long, and the path kept twisting back on itself, winding around thick tree trunks and tall walls of stinging nettle that I had to duck around. For all that I hated them, the bugs clearly adored the plant, dozens of midges and flying ants darting between the stems and buzzing around me. By the time I reached the house the chill had faded, replaced by the sticky warmth of sweat, the wisps of hair that the wind had pulled free now stuck to my face. It wasn’t exactly the professional look that I’d been going for.
I had almost decided that the whole thing was some poorly thought-out joke when I stumbled through the last tangle of weeds and found myself on a vast lawn, staring up at an even vaster house. It was modern. At least, it looked modern then. A face of sheer glass, glistening wetly beneath the sun, each window just barely separated from its siblings by a silver frame.
The door opened as I stumbled over the grass towards it. My ankles hadn’t quite gotten used to the feeling of not having to fight though three inches of weeds for every step and I would have tumbled straight over if it hadn’t been for the sudden appearance of a hand at my elbow.
I…don’t remember what he looked like. Not even now. Just his green eyes glittering with something that, at the time, I had not recognised as cruelty.
The interview went well. It must have. Because I got the job. I hadn’t met the child. The interview took place in the kitchen. My employer had given me a glass of water and taken a seat at the kitchen table, staring at me as though he could see into my soul.
He’d asked my name. I’d answered.
I don’t know why, but I gave him my real name. My birth name. I had been Katy since I was eight years old and had finally managed to convince my mother that the name she gave me didn’t fit my skin. I was Katy down to my bones and blood and sinew. But it was Katarina that spilled out of my lips when he looked at me, green eyes glinting in the flickering kitchen light.
At the very end of the interview, he placed a small jar on the table. ‘My child suffers a rare skin condition’ he had said. ‘Their face will need to be washed with the ointment three times a day.’
I had been quick to reassure him that I could manage just fine. My younger brother was diabetic, so keeping to a schedule would be no issue.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think I was ever really told that I had been given the job. One morning, I simply woke up and knew that I had to go back to the house. The urgency of it took my breath away, and I barely even noticed that it was still dark as I scrambled into the softest clothes that I owned and sprinted out the door. The bus was empty again, just the driver nodding at me beneath his hat, and this time, when I made my way through the woods, they opened before me; the nettles and weeds that had so hindered my progress the last time, nowhere to be seen. The house was empty when I arrived, the door left open, the warm light spilling through it and inviting me in.
My feet knew where I needed to go. They led me in a winding route through the house, to the very top of it where in an otherwise empty room, sat a woven cradle, rocking slowly side to side. It stopped when I walked in, and something inside it gave whimper of absolute devastation. I moved immediately, rushing into the room and scooping up the child before the poor darling could start crying in earnest.
I swayed back and forth, with the baby in my arms and, when it finally opened its glistening green eyes, I was lost.
The baby smiled a full-toothed grin and patted happily at my arm as though I had performed some clever trick. It cooed in delight at the feel of my cardigan beneath its chubby fingers. It shifted in its silk blankets, so that it could rub its cheek against the fabric, shrieking with the innocent delight of a child.
The child liked my hair long, so I grew it, the short crop that I’d had ever since I was fifteen lengthening into soft brunet curls that hung around my shoulders and tickled across the baby’s face when I rocked it, to its obvious delight. Whenever it managed to wriggle an arm free of the blanket, it would grab a great fistful and yank. Even though it was strong enough to bring sharp tears to my eyes and, on one memorable occasion, pull out a whole chunk, I never tried to get the child to stop.
It liked me to wear soft, comfortable clothes, wool or cotton and hated any kind of blend, so I found myself wearing the softest and gentlest clothing I owned. And gradually, the habit spread outside of work. Until I had replaced the bright colours, garish prints and stiff shirts that I enjoyed, in favour of muted grey jumpers, and cardigans layered over baggy t-shirts. My friends commented on the change, but I brushed them off. What did it matter if I wanted to be more comfortable?
I could only have worked at the house for a few months – of course it could not be longer – in all the time that I had worked there the baby did not change. It did not grow. What did it matter what story the new-grey threading through my hair told? The way my joints began to ache when I lifted the child, or got to my knees? I had only intended to take the job for a year or so, until I had saved enough money to move back down South. And though the money in my bank account had steadily risen, it couldn’t have been any longer than a year that I worked there. I would have noticed.
In the time that I had worked there, I was always very diligent about the instructions that father had given me. Every second hour, without fail, I retrieved the jar from where it was kept and measured a careful spoonful of the ointment into a quartz bowl, filled with spring water. The water shimmered with oil-slick silver when the ointment had finished dissolving, and it always smelt different – sometimes lavender, sometimes apple, sometimes beautiful flowers that I could not identify at all.
The child hated it. I couldn't blame it. The water was frigid as a winter lake and numbed my fingertips blue. The baby wept bitter tears, wiggling and whining as I washed their face and rinsed their eyes in the liquid. It would try to kick out, knocking the bowl over and granting itself a moments reprieve as I refilled and re-measured.
The father always knew on days when the child had managed to spill the bowl, and he was always displeased. I do not remember what form his displeasure took. Only the burn of my legs, the barking of dogs and the taste of my desperation in my throat.
On this day, my fingers ached so much with the cold, that the child managed to wriggle free of them, kicking the basin up into the air with a triumphant cry. I don’t think the child meant it. But this time, when the bowl flew, the water splashed out and into my eyes.
It burnt like nothing I had ever felt before. And, when it stopped, I was free.
I am not, by my nature, a cruel woman.
I placed the child back into the cradle, bundled him tight beneath blankets that I had once thought to be silk and now saw as soft rabbit skin. The baby looked up at me, pointed ears and cats-eyes and human, shining teeth. I believe it knew, then, that its hold on me was over. I even believe it was sorry for it. Sorry to see me go. It whimpered, just once, as it looked at me, eyes still as green as they had ever been.
I made it out of the house, no longer sleek and modern but stone and wood and winding halls that would have tripped me up and trapped me forever, if I hadn’t walked this route so often that I could have done so in my sleep. I spilled out through the kitchen door and across the lawn, heading for the small path that would take me out of there.
Behind me the kitchen door swung back open, light spilling out after me, a shadow stood in the doorway.
‘Katarina’, he commanded, and my body lurched to obey his unspoken order to return. But. I had not been Katarina since I was eight years old and had finally managed to convince my mother that the name she gave me didn’t fit my skin. And I had never told him about Katy.
I turned and ran.
I cannot describe what I saw in those woods. How the insects danced through the air on tiny slippers, faces pointed and sharp toothed as I ran through them. Cannot describe the relief I felt to breach the trees and see the bus, already there, waiting for me.
The driver nodded as I got on, eyes hidden beneath his cap which glistened wetly beneath the scarlet blood that coated it. His grin grew wider as I hesitated, and I knew like I had never known anything before, that if I did not pretend to see nothing, I would die. I nodded back, staggered to my usual seat, ignoring the many, many passengers who stared at me, ignored their twisting shadows, the fox-whiskers, the unsettling chattering growls.
I sweated the whole journey, staring fixedly out of the window, and watching the reflections in the glass but never meeting their eyes. When the bus finally stopped outside my house it felt like a dream. I stepped off. It drove away.
That afternoon I took the large sum of money in my bank account, and I moved back home, down South. My mother had passed away at some point in the years I spent watching over the other child. An unremarkable event that had faded like cobwebs beneath the needs of the child and now returned to lance through my heart. I spent months grieving. Repairing the relationships that I had lost. Those that I could, anyway. My brother never forgave me for not coming to the funeral.
I have a new job now. I nanny, for three incredible children. Children who grow, every week, it seems, and are too large for me to carry. Children whose parents do not mind that I won’t take the children to the park. Won’t take them anywhere with too many trees. Sometimes, I will wear a bright yellow sweater, made of a jagged and scratchy wool that itches my skin and makes the children wrinkle up their noses when I hug them.
And sometimes, in the very early morning that is almost still night, I hear a bus stop outside my house and wait for me to board it. I never do.
My eyes still burn. Especially when I look upon the shadow of something that cannot be real. A man at the market, with glistening wings. A child, in the schoolyard, trading gleaming red candies for names. A door, green, wooden, only ever on the bridge on Thursday afternoons. I’ve learned to look away. To not notice.
I still miss the child though. Sometimes.
I wonder if it misses me.
Insp. The Fairy Nurse