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The Changeling

Some works of fantasy make you feel that they are not ornamenting reality so much as unearthing one of its most elemental components. Such is the case with “The Changeling.” It was at the story’s halfway point, with the appearance of the thread-people, that I found myself thinking, however implausibly, “Oh! This story is actually telling the truth.” Its emotional timbre is gently achieved, as a result of which I never resisted it, and whether or not it sought to move me, it did. I was impressed by how complete a narrative of the changeling’s life Sarah Boudreau manages to create and how saturated the story’s pages are in the way that life feels to him, expressing the sadness of a boy who begins his journey through the world by failing to belong to it and ages into a man who never does. From judge Kevin Brockmeier.

The little boy takes apart radios, old cameras, lawnmowers—whatever he can find that his parents won’t immediately miss—and he does so with the precision and ferocity of a crow picking at carrion. By the time he puts his puzzles back together again, hours have whisked past him. He won’t remember that his parents or his sisters have checked on him, opening the door to his bedroom to see him sitting hunched, tiny shoulder blades knitting together as he works.

Often, the metal stings his hands, irritating them pink before layers of skin turn hard and dry, then fall off. The doctor says he is allergic to iron alloys. In fact, he is allergic to many things, and he is resistant to many more. He rarely eats what his mother makes him, and his frequent headaches make him throw up what little nutrition he retains. Sometimes, he sits with his parents as they watch television in the evenings, and that is his way of telling them he loves them. The boy is not charismatic in the way that sick children are sometimes charismatic—he is a scurrying creature whose eyes will not meet yours.

His mother tries to be concerned, but, as she says, he is such a difficult child. His illnesses make him miss school so often that his teachers are unhappy, and they blame her. She is tired of him, but she will only admit this to her husband late at night when she is sure the boy is fast asleep.

The boy, however, rarely sleeps well. Some nights, it feels like his bedroom walls are humming around him and a current flows through his bones until they ache. His body moves without asking his mind first: he drags his blanket and pillow out of the house, and he makes a nest in his backyard, at the edge of the woods. Some nights, he makes it back inside before anyone notices. Some nights, his parents find the boy curled in the dewy grass. He tells them it’s quieter out there.

Once, when he is nine, he drops his blanket and pillow at the treeline, and his body walks him into the woods. A bloated moon lights a deer path, and he steps over fallen boughs and crisp leaves until he sees a small clearing. Here, a dozen figures sit around a ten-foot-tall pile of gold thread. It is stiff metal, thin and glinting in the moonlight, snarled into a heap. The people sort through it with long, elegant fingers, slowly untangling it and winding it around a giant wooden spool.

One of the thread-people smiles at him and beckons him to help. The boy joins their circle and they sit, working wordlessly, until morning. Unlike the metal of the machines, the thread does not hurt his hands. The untangling weighs down the parts of his brain that always feel like they are floating out of his grasp. When the sky begins to brighten, he walks back to his house, stiff from sitting for so long, but smiling.

He discovers that the thread-people work only by the full moon, and he keeps a calendar so he knows when to visit them. They make progress on the knotted mess, winding it several times around the spool, and though they rarely speak, the boy knows that the other thread-people enjoy their task as much as he does. Some of them he sees every month: the antlered man, the woman who can only whisper, the tattooed child, the man with birds in his hair.

One night, when he is eleven, he sees a boy who could be his mirror, but taller, with the hollows of his cheeks filled in. He doesn’t dare look at him for long, busies himself with the wire in his hands. He hears the whisper-woman hiss at the other boy, calling him rude for trying to meet his eye. His double never returns to the clearing to fumble his way through loops of gleaming wire, and the boy forgets about him.

The boy grows up. His mother hopes he will learn to converse with people, to look them in the eye, to smile warmly, but he never does. When he is a teenager, his classmates ask him if he is going to shoot up the school. When he is an adult, he becomes a mechanic and wears thick gloves to keep the steel from burning his hands. Here, he tends to machines in solitude and waits until he can join the good, quiet people in the moon-soaked clearing.

Every full moon, he slides out of bed. He opens the door left scorched from the time he drank too much and tried to burn down his house with himself inside. Everything is so loud, he had said to the whiskey. My brain is so loud I can feel it.

 He makes his way through the trees behind his own house—though he is miles from the deer path, he knows he will reach the clearing if he walks long enough. He helps spool the ever-tangled thread, as he has always done. The other thread-people look at him sadly now, at his fast-greying hair and his tense, arthritic gait, as their bodies do not decay in this place. They welcome him back with pity and guilt.

In the morning, because it is all he knows, he will put down the gold thread and walk back to the loud, iron-studded world not made for him.

Sarah Boudreau lives in southwestern Virginia. Her work has been published in journals such as Little Fiction, Columbia Journal Online, and Longleaf Review, and her short story ‘The Birdhunter’ was a finalist for a Best of the Net in 2018. Find her @alesserwriter

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