Changeling

It is said that in days long ago there were hordes of the ‘Good People’ who travelled all over this island. They were regarded as being a proud people, somewhat conceited their attitudes, and they would ride their fairy horses while soft and enchanting music played around them. But on their travels the ‘Good People’ were renowned for their habit of changing the children of mortals with one of their own, and despite the great efforts of the mortal parents to raise these children to certain standard they never met with any success.

In those days a peaceful man called Nolan lived in a small cabin that stood on a piece of land just beyond the River Bann. He was fortunate enough to meet and marry a pretty and mild-mannered woman, who gave birth to a baby boy in the first year of their marriage. Their joy at this blessing was, however, short-lived for it quickly became apparent that there was something wrong with the child. From his earliest days the child could not be taught how to crawl, or stand upright, walk, or even speak. Many of the neighbours began to conclude that the baby boy had been born a fool, but they were confused by the fact that he was physically perfect except for his larger than normal head.

Whatever the cause of the child’s problems, his mother considered to be a great challenge taking care of him in the home. Even as the child grew, he could do nothing to help himself, depending on his mother to lift him out of bed in the morning and to carry him to a chair, where she would make every effort to ensure he was comfortable for the entire day. Sitting in his chair the boy would the fire burn in the hearth until the shadows of night began to fall, and all the while he appeared to be happy and content with his lot. But he did appear to have good observational skills and even if the slightest item went missing from its usual place, he would have an angry scowl on his face until it was restored to its proper setting. And yet, his main delight was the turf fire, and when a sod of turf would fall the sparks would fly up the chimney. On seeing this display of sparks the child’s eyes would light up and he would open his mouth wide as if to shout out his approval, but not a sound was emitted from the Nolan child.

There came a day when Nolan and his wife decided that they would go to the local market, leaving the care of their child in the hands of two servants, a boy and a girl. “Now, keep a good fire burning in the hearth so the child can keep himself amused by watching the sparks from the glowing sods fly up the chimney. There’s plenty of work to be done, so work just as if I was standing at your back and telling you what to do,” said Mrs. Nolan as she left the house through the front door. But the Nolans had not long left the house when the two servants ceased working and began playing.

It was the servant boy who suggested, “We should make ourselves a wee bit of a feast now that the mistress and Mr. Nolan have left. After all, the ‘wee man’ here is not the full shilling and won’t be able to tell on us!” So, they brought out the fresh butter, cream and flour to bake cakes, and they built up the fire, set the pot hooks into the ears of the roasting pan and let down the crook for it to hang upon.

All being well,” said the girl, “that will be well worth the wait!” Then she put the batter at the fire to bake. But all the time they were preparing their feast Nolan’s child watched their every move, not making a noise and hoping that he might be given a share of the food that his minders were preparing.

Meanwhile the cake was baking very satisfactorily, turning a beautiful golden colour and a really tempting smell began to rise from it. The two servants were now feeling very good, chatting with each other and laughing at each other’s jokes until the boy took a quick glance over the half-door to the cottage. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he exclaimed. “We’re going to be well caught now, for mister Nolan and the wife are almost upon us!

It was indeed the Noland back from the market, much earlier than expected. Shocked into action the servant girl quickly removed the cake from the fire and slipped it under the child’s chair to hide it from view. “He has a terrible look on his face,” she told the servant boy.

“That is no problem, for the idiot can’t tell them anything!”

No sooner was the cake hidden from view than the Nolans walked into the house. But all four of them nearly fainted with shock and fear, for as soon as the child saw its parents, he cried out loudly, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” The servants were frozen to the spot, dreading that their secret would be discovered, and they would be immediately dismissed from their positions. They could see the steam rising and the child continued to shout, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” No other words were uttered by the child, but the one constantly repeated phrase, “Hot, hot, under my chair.”

Still reeling from the shock of hearing their child speak out, Nolan and his wife just could not comprehend what he was saying. Trembling with excitement at the experience they never thought to take a moment to consider if his words were making any real sense at all. The child was still calling, “Hot, hot, under my chair!” and his parents never once thought to look around the room to see if anything wrong, and the two servants continued to look after their own interests by keeping silent. A sense of confusion continued to reign in the house until night began falling and everyone in the house was weary, and completely puzzled. Mrs. Nolan took hold of her son and carried him to his bed and tucked him in comfortably as she did every night. But there was not to be much rest for anyone in the house that night.

In the deep blackness of the night a powerful storm sprang up, which shook the house to its foundations with its strength. It was as if the winds blew in from every point on the compass at one time, fighting with each other in an unending effort to gain mastery. But within these winds could be heard strange noises, music and shouting voices that were evidence that the ‘Good People’ were out and about in the night playing or battling among themselves. Believing that the strange noises would frighten her child with their loudness, Mrs. Nolan took a light in her hand and went to her son’s bed. “Is everything alright, son?” she asked calmly and quietly, although she did expect him to answer. To her surprise, however, she found that the child was not in her bed, for he was already away with the fairy horsemen that had come to fetch him.

After the mother had discovered that the child had disappeared the entire disturbance about the house ceased just as quickly as it had started. The music that had accompanied the ‘Good People’ now faded into the distance and the strong winds had become like a soft breeze on a warm summer’s morning. It was now that the Nolans realised that the fierce storm had been a simple fairy diversion to cover their nightly antics.

The child was never returned to the heartbroken Nolans, but from that moment onward the ‘Good People’ left them in peace. Never again did they hear the enchanting music coming from the distant hills, nor experience the passage of the fairy host near their home. It was a sad and lonely time for the couple and often they would look forlornly at the chair where their child would sit, delightedly watching the turf glowing red in the hearth and the sparks fluttering up the chimney.

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