I originally sumbitted this several Eisteddfodau (spelling?) ago, but after much consideration, I still think it's my best work-- at least, it's the piece that delights me the most. So, enjoy-- again!
The McQwethy family lived in a snug cottage on the edge of the village of Tye Grange. Mr McQwethy farmed a few acres between the meads and the old forest, and he kept a small herd of the prettiest black-and-white cows in the shire. Mrs McQwethy milked the cows, who gave the richest milk in three counties, and turned it into creamy-sweet butter and rich cheeses to sell in the market square. Her aged Old Forest, in particular, caught the fancy of gourmands throughout the country, and became a much-sought delicacy as far away as the capital. More than once, well-dressed businessmen, wearing fine suits with gold watches and chains, had appeared in the cottage door, offering the McQwethys anything they wanted for the cows, the land, or at least the secrets of the smooth, sweet butter or the creamy, tangy cheeses. But the McQwethys declined all these offers, telling the wealthy men that they would not part with so much as a straw from the thatch.
"But we can make you rich!" these men protested.
The McQwethys merely smiled and offered them a drink of new milk before showing them the easiest path through the meads back to the high road. They were far too happy in their cottage, whose roof leaked a bit, whose walls needed new paint, to ever think of leaving it, or selling the things that made them who they were.
At the time our story begins, the McQwethys had, in addition to the cows and a fine flock of glossy-feathered chickens, twelve children. Mrs McQwethy was a passionate gardener, and fascinated by the old herblore her grandmother (a well-known cunning woman still held in awe by the villagers) had taught her besides, so she had named her sons and daughters for her favorites. The McQwethy brood stair-stepped down from the eldest, a broad-shouldered lad of fifteen, to the youngest, a high-stepping toddler still finding his legs, and each was named for the plants described in the detailed herbal Granny had left Mrs McQwethy on her deathbed.
They were a matched set, all with blue eyes and blond hair whose shades ranged from straw yellow to warm honey. Basil was the eldest, a strapping boy already nearly as tall as his father. He was followed by Rosemary, a sharp-eyed girl of fourteen, who had for several years been her mother's strong right arm when it came to caring for the younger children, and whose special task it was besides to hand-print the labels for their different varieties of cheeses. Next came Coriander, spectacled and serious at thirteen, and his closest brother, Dill, a fun-loving and rambunctious lad of eleven. Lavender, ten, was a willowy girl who was most often to be found daydreaming over the churn, and Cinnamon, the nine-year-old prankster, tied knots in his sister's long hair as she lost herself in fantasies about heroic knights and beautiful maidens. The eight-year-old twins, Violet and Verbena, were as like as two peas in a pod— their mother said fondly of them that "there's nary a freckle's difference between them."
Anise, a tomboy of five, spent much of her time tearing after her next youngest brother, four-year-old Sage. Next came Poppy, a sunny little girl with golden ringlets, and finally, Thorn, a sturdy, snub-nosed boy who was halfway through his second year. All together, the McQwethy clan made quite a sight when they trooped through the village to the market square— almost, some said, as good as a parade come to town each Saturday.
The procession began with Basil, who led the patient old ploughhorse, Mustard, drawing the wagon full of butter, cheese, cream, and milk. Mr McQwethy and Dill carried the planks that fit together to form their market stall, while Coriander was entrusted with the basket of fresh eggs. Next came Mrs McQwethy and the twins, their arms full of cloths for the counter and signs proclaiming that week's wares. Rosemary and Lavender followed, herding the smallest ones, while Anise and Sage, delighted with their weekly chance to make mischief, brought up the rear.
Once Mr McQwethy, Basil, and Coriander had managed to assemble the stall, the girls went to work decorating it. In the spring they outdid themselves with flowers and greenery; in the fall, the counter was strewn with brilliantly colored leaves. By the time they had the stall set to their satisfaction, there was already a line of customers, locals and visitors alike, waiting to purchase the remarkable family's goods.
This particular year, Samhain fell on a Saturday, and as such, the family were preparing for market. Basil had old Mustard hitched and ready to go, and Dill and Coriander were loading the last crate of Old Forest cheese onto the wagon. Lavender was chasing the others into their accustomed places in line, and having difficult time of it— her younger siblings were all the more wound up for knowing it was All Hallows, and the faeries would be about that night.
"Hurry up!" she called irritably to Cinnamon and Anise, who were playing a spirited game of tig. "The sooner we're gone, the sooner we're back. We have to carve the lanterns yet!"
The smaller ones came at once. They would choose their turnips from the vegetable stand at market, and Papa had already promised to buy the biggest pumpkin in the village to carve that night. They argued about whether "nips or tatties" made better elf-lights, until Coriander pointed out that a carved tattie was useful mainly for frying.
Sage refused to believe him. "A tattie could be a lantern!" he protested. "Ask Mama!"
They all looked around... and realized, suddenly, that Mama was nowhere to be seen. For that matter, neither was Rosemary. Lavender frowned. "Where...?"
"It's all right, children!" Mr McQwethy's voice boomed from the cottage door. "Mama's staying in today, and Rosemary too. On the way to market, we'll stop off at Mrs Treadway's cottage, and ask her to come see to them."
The children exchanged glances. The older ones' eyes were knowing; they were well aware that when Mrs Treadway came to see Mama, it usually meant that another McQwethy was soon to follow.
Poppy and Thorn weren't satisfied with Mr McQwethy's explanation, and sat together on the ground, sobbing, until their small faces were streaked with tears and dirt. Their Papa cheerfully picked them both up and kissed them until they were giggling, then set them in the wagon. "Let's get on," he called. "There's pumpkins to be had!"
Lavender looked uncertainly back toward the cottage. "But what about Mama?”
"Mama will be fine," Coriander assured her. "Look at all of us. Don't we prove it?" He cuffed his younger sister amiably on the shoulder. "Just watch," he said. "We'll have a new baby when we get home— you'll see."
But Coriander's prediction proved wrong: when the family trooped home from the market, just before dusk, Rosemary did not meet them in the lane, nor was Mama to be found waiting in the old willow rocker before the hearth, a sleepily content newborn in her arms. Mr McQwethy's brow furrowed slightly, but his voice was calm as he told the children to go back outside into the garden.
While Basil unhitched Mustard and led him away to the barn, Mr McQwethy and Coriander lifted the great pumpkin—taller, almost, than little Thorn—down from the wagon, then set about unloading the empty milk pans, the cream jugs, and all the rest of their market things. The others milled about uncertainly, casting wistful glances back at the cottage.
Mr McQwethy looked down to see Lavender, wringing her hands and shifting anxiously from one foot to the other. "Yes, my love?"
"Is Mama— do you think— ?"
He smiled down at his second daughter. "I expect Mama is fine, and that our new little one is just more stubborn than most. But I give you leave to go see."
She flashed him a grateful look and dashed into the cottage while her younger siblings quarreled amiably over turnips. She returned only a little while later, her eyes round with excitement.
"She's very tired, Papa, but she smiled at me," Lavender reported. "Mrs Treadway is with her, and Rosemary is wiping her face with cool cloths. They've built the fire up high—it's ever so hot in there!"
"Ah, well," Mr McQwethy said easily, "then it's certain to be soon, eh?" He took Lavender by the hand and called out to the others. "Come, my dears! Time to sing Mama our strength, so she can birth our new babe-- what are we meant to call this one?"
All the children clustered around him and chorused the name their Mama had declared she would bestow on their next sibling: "Foxglove!" Mr McQwethy laughed and scooped Poppy into the crook of his arm, and Basil lifted his smallest brother to his shoulder. The family stood together— even the fidgety little ones— and, led by their Papa, began to sing the song that greeted every one of them at their own births.
Lu-lay, lu-lee, thou bonny wee thing,
bright be the morning, our welcome we sing.
As the sun rises we greet the new day,
And bless thee, wee babe, here with us to stay.
They sang as the sun dipped below the treetops. As the twilight gathered, Mr McQwethy set Poppy gently beside Sage, and went to light a fire in the great black cauldron that had stood in the cottage dooryard since at least his grandfather's time. As the flames rose and the night chill grew, the children gathered around it, watching and waiting.
Lavender went back into the cottage to procure three loaves of bread, a crock of sweet butter, and hunk of Old Forest cheese. As they shared the food around the fire, Mr McQwethy told them stories of other nights passed like this, waiting for another small McQwethy to emerge. They all giggled over the twins' tale in particular— Violet and Verbena had been so crowded and ready to come out and stretch, they hadn't seen fit to wait for Mrs Treadway, or even Papa.
"Mama was in the kitchen, putting up strawberry preserves," Mr McQwethy recounted, "and she knelt to reach the big bag of sugar."
"She got Violet instead!" Dill crowed.
"No, Verbena!" Cinnamon argued. "I remember— "
"No you don't, you were just a baby," Coriander put in. "And it was Violet."
"How did anyone know?" Anise wondered.
"Mama knew," Mr McQwethy said firmly. "It was Violet. And Verbena came right after, before Mama could even stand up."
"They couldn't bear to be apart five minutes!" Dill laughed.
"When we came into the kitchen, Mama already had the pair of them wrapped in tea towels," Lavender remembered, "and we all had scones and strawberries for tea!"
"Stwabewwies," Poppy echoed sleepily, and Basil, who was holding her in his lap, ruffled her blonde curls affectionately.
"Now, when Cinnamon came— " Mr McQwethy began, but just then, the cottage door banged open. Mrs Treadway appeared, mopping her brow with a crumpled kerchief.
"Tis done," she announced, and all the McQwethys leapt to their feet. "You've an obstinate babe there, and no mistake. Ah, but he's a darling, to be sure."
"He?" Mr McQwethy grinned broadly at his brood. "Did you say he, Mrs Treadway?"
"Oh, aye," the old woman answered, her eyes twinkling. "Another strapping laddie to add to your count." She put a companionable arm around Lavender's shoulders for a moment, then shook at the kerchief and laid it over her iron-grey hair. "Now, if you'll pardon me," she continued, tying the cloth beneath her chin, "I'm off for my supper, then to bed. I'll leave you to it." She winked at Dill and Coriander.
"I'll send the boys around later with eggs and cheese," Mr McQwethy called as the midwife set off down the path. "And some of that whiskey my da put away!"
"Save the whiskey for your children's weddings," Mrs Treadway laughed back at him. "You'll need to start saving now!" She paused at the hedge. "Mind you care for her," she said more seriously, referring to Mrs McQwethy. "If there's trouble, send for me." She glanced at the rising moon. "Don't forget the faeries!" she added, and vanished up the lane.
Mr McQwethy turned back to his expectant children, rubbing his hands together excitedly. “Well, my dears? Shall we go meet your newest brother?”
The entire family crept carefully into the great room. The fire had burned low now, and shadows leapt high on the walls. Rosemary was pushing the shutters back to let in the night breeze when she heard them enter.
“Oh, Papa!” she cried softly, and fell into his arms, face flushed but smiling gladly. “Wait till you see him, he’s just perfect—“
“How’s your mother?”
“Well, she’s well,” Rosemary assured him, drawing him toward the bedroom door. “It was the baby’s stubbornness that made it go so long—but once he made up his mind to come out, Mrs Treadway said she’d rarely seen as smooth a birth.” She looked up at her father, eyes shining. “I’m to be her apprentice,” she said shyly, and Mr McQwethy beamed at her.
“That’s my lass,” he said approvingly. “We’ve long thought you might go that way, your Mama and I.”
Together they entered the small bedroom where Mama lay, tucked up in the big bed, cooing to the small sleeping infant in her arms. She met her husband’s gaze with maternal pride. “The biggest yet,” she said in a satisfied tone. “Have a look, dear, here’s your Papa.”
He took the babe from her, unable to contain his delighted grin. “A bonny lad, isn’t he?” he laughed. “Those golden curls, like Poppy’s… there’s many will think you’re a little girl!”
“No, they won’t,” Rosemary said stoutly. “He’s all boy.”
“It wouldn’t matter if they did.” Mrs McQwethy reached out for her eldest daughter’s hand. “Lass or lad, I love you all the same. You’re all my joy.”
Mr McQwethy admired his son a moment longer, then carefully replaced him in his mother’s arms. “I’ll bring the others in, shall I? They won’t sleep till they’ve seen him.”
“Of course, of course, let them come meet our Foxglove.”
As soon as Papa opened the door, the children crowded in, eager to see their smallest sibling. There was a chorus of oohs and aahs as they jostled each other and tried to squeeze closer to Mrs McQwethy. The little ones climbed up onto the bed—except Thorn, who hung back, his fist clenched doggedly in Lavender’s skirt, wailing plaintively until Coriander picked him up and patted his back soothingly.
“It’s just a baby,” Coriander told him. “You may as well get used to them.”
“Baby,” Poppy repeated, and patted her Mama’s arm appreciatively. “Baby bruvver.”
“Yes, love,” Mrs McQwethy confirmed. “He looks like you when you were born.”
“He’s so cute!” Sage declared, and there was agreement all around.
“He is,” Papa said at last, “but he and Mama need to rest. Come, loves, let’s go light the lanterns—then it’s off to bed!”
They all trooped out, chattering happily. Mr McQwethy leaned over to give both infant and wife a kiss, then followed them from the bedroom. It took quite awhile to settle them all down, but eventually the jack-o-lanterns were lit, the turnips were carved and prominently displayed, and all the young McQwethys were yawning.
“Good night!” Papa called, tucking the twins into their trundle. “Sleep well, my dears!”
“Good night, Papa!” they called back. “Good night, Mama! And little Foxglove! Good night!”
The last lamps were extinguished, and a hush began to fall. Suddenly, in the girls’ room, Lavender gasped and sat up. “The faeries!” she cried.
“What?” Rosemary murmured sleepily—and a little crankily, but she had had a long and tiring day. “What about them?”
“We forgot to put out bread and milk!” Lavender exclaimed, and pushed back her duvet. Rosemary, who shared her bed, groaned and pulled the cover back up.
“Go to sleep,” she urged. “The faeries will wait.”
“But it’s Samhain night—“
“So what?” her sister mumbled. “They’ll understand…” And then she was asleep, unable to keep her eyes open a moment longer.
Lavender was tired too, and the bed was too soft, too inviting. She lay back down, murmuring something to herself about waking up early to put a dish of cream out, and then she too was lost to dreams.
The morning dawned clear and crisp. A low mist hung beneath the eaves and the forest canopy, and frost traced each leaf and blade of grass. Mr McQwethy, who had risen with his oldest sons to milk the cows long before daybreak, was sitting at the scarred oak dining table, sipping thoughtfully from a mug of fragrant tea. In the kitchen, Cinnamon and the twins were giggling as they stirred up oatcakes for breakfast.
“Where’s the honey?” Violet wanted to know.
“Mama hid it from Anise and Sage,” her sister replied. “Maybe the high cabinet?”
“Cinnamon, help, you’re taller than I am—”
“Can’t, I’m up to my elbows in batter.”
“Verbena, you’ll fall!”
“Hey! Mind the flour—“
Mr McQwethy smiled to himself, wrapping his hands round the steaming mug to ward off the morning chill. He was just about to go assist his wayward children when the door to his bedroom burst open, and Rosemary emerged, panic-stricken.
“Papa!” she cried, on the verge of tears. “Oh, Papa, Papa—the baby—“
Mr McQwethy was on his feet in an instant. “What’s wrong?” He crossed the room in three great strides and caught the girl by the elbows. He had left his wife and infant safely sleeping only a few hours earlier. “What is it?”
Rosemary broke down, tears pouring down her cheeks. “Mama—“ It was all she could manage. Her father let her go and dashed into the bedroom.
Mrs McQwethy was sitting up in bed, gazing blankly into the cradle. She looked up when her husband came to her side, but she could not speak. He reached into the cradle and drew back the crocheted blanket to find—
The baby, sleeping peacefully. He turned confusedly to his wife.
“Rosemary heard him cry,” she said at last. “His nappy was wet, so she picked him up to change him, and—“ She stopped, shaking her head. “I just don’t understand.”
“Understand what?” Mr McQwethy, thoroughly puzzled, lifted the babe from the cradle and laid him on the bed. Then he blinked. “His hair…?”
Like all the McQwethy children, Foxglove had golden curls—or had them at birth. The infant on the quilt had a fuzz of dark, fine hair.
Curious, Mr McQwethy undid the pin that held the baby’s nappy closed. He opened the cloth, and stared.
His wife nodded, her face drawn and anxious. “Just as Rosemary found it,” she whispered. “A girl!”
But her husband shook his head. “This can’t be right. Someone’s played us a prank. Rosemary!”
The frightened adolescent crept into the room. “Yes, Papa?”
“Run to Mrs Treadway’s cottage. Tell her to come quickly. Don’t tell her why—just say we have need of her. Hurry, girl!”
It was only about half an hour, but time stretched much longer while the anxious parents waited for the midwife. They said nothing to each other; they could only stare helplessly at the small and unmistakably female child between them. Mrs Treadway finally arrived, pink in the face and out of breath.
“Whatever is the matter?” she asked. “Poor Rosemary looked scared out of her wits!”
Mutely, Mr McQwethy handed her the naked baby, who now lay awake and quiet—almost unnaturally so. The midwife scrutinized the infant from head to toe, clucking and murmuring to herself. Then she looked Mr McQwethy straight in the eye.
“Did you set gifts out for the faeries last night, as I bid you?”
He looked taken aback. “No… no, I don’t suppose we did,” he admitted. “Usually we do, of course, but after all the excitement… “
“I thought so.” Mrs Treadway tutted and replaced the baby’s nappy. Then she wrapped her in a warm woolen blanket and gazed into her solemn little face. “Welcome, then, small one,” she said, and tucked the baby firmly into Mrs McQwethy’s arms. “May you be a blessing on this house, and not a bane.” She sketched a small sign on the child’s forehead, then turned to leave.
“Wait—“ Mr McQwethy caught her arm. “Where are you going? Where is my son? Is this the child you delivered, or not?”
Mrs Treadway looked pityingly at him. “Of course she isn’t. But she’s a good healthy girl—tis lucky, that, she seems hale enough. Usually they’re puling, sickly things. “
Mrs McQwethy gasped. “Oh, no— oh, surely not!”
Mrs Treadway nodded. “It appears so,” she said sympathetically.
“But we’ve always done them honour!” Mrs McQwethy protested. “Granny said they smiled on us!”
“And so they may still,” the midwife told her. “The ways of Faery are a mystery—your Granny knew that, and so should you.” She laid a hand on Mrs McQwethy’s shoulder. “Keep to what you know, my girl,” she said. “It will all be well. Love this little one as you would another flax-headed boy. You won’t be sorry.”
“The old way was to put them out on a hillside,” Mrs McQwethy said bitterly, and she started to lift the child toward the midwife.
“None of that!” Mrs Treadway said sharply. “That’s sure to anger them, and what will become of your fine cows and dairy then? They’ve a reason for what they’ve done. Maybe your forgetting the proper gifts riled them, maybe not. Maybe they’ve a need for a baby boy. Maybe he’ll only be gone for a time, and they’ve left this one for your keeping till he comes back. It doesn’t matter now. You’re bound to them, dearie—it was your Granny’s doing, though I told her not to go interfering in things beyond the ken of mortals. Now you must bear the cost of her meddling.”
“What are you talking about?” Mr McQwethy demanded, looking frantically from his wife to the old woman and back again. “Where is Foxglove?”
Mrs Treadway raised an eyebrow. “Here. And not here. I can’t tell you more.” She gestured toward the baby, who was making small noises and rooting for Mrs McQwethy’s warm breast. “This is your Foxglove now. Make your peace with it. I tell you, it’s all for the best in the end.”
She bustled from the room, paused in doorway long enough to pat Sage on the head, and was gone. Mr McQwethy started to follow her, but got no further than the front stoop. He returned to the bedroom, where his wife was gazing down at the infant, her expression a mixture of grief, bewilderment, and wonder.
“Do you know what she’s talking about?” he queried, utterly confused.
She nodded wordlessly. The baby—uncommonly patient for a newborn—patted gently at the neck of her nightgown, and she hesitated only a moment before helping her latch on to nurse. As the infant suckled, she raised one shaking hand and began to gently stroke the small downy head.
By now all the McQwethy children had crept into the room, silent, watchful as mice from the corners. Mr McQwethy cleared his throat, uncertain what to say.
“Well, my dears,” he said with forced jocularity. “Come greet your new baby—uh—sister.”
The older ones shared apprehensive glances, but stepped slowly forward to look. Anise was not so diplomatic. “What sister? Mama had a boy!”
It was Lavender who spoke up, surprising everyone but her mother. “Yes, she did,” she said clearly, “but we forgot the Samhain gift for the faeries. They’ve taken the baby and brought us… a Changeling.”