Meggy’s babe died in her womb on a cool spring night. The mandrake appeared not two days later, in the misty early morning as Meggy went out to take a breath of air. She had not been looking at the ground as she walked and so almost tripped over the root, bundled as it was in green-brown fabric which blended into the earth. When she saw it, she stooped and picked it up, shaking off its covering and turning it over curiously in her hands.
“Husband,” she whispered, not wanting to wake the neighbours. “Look.”
Saulf, leaning against the open doorway, finished tying the straps on his leather shoes and straightened his back silently.
“Husband, someone left this for us.”
He grunted, sparing a glance at neither Meggy nor the mandrake.
“What do you think it means?”
Saulf kept his face turned from her and spoke stiffly. “There’s word that the the mesne lord will gift an extra halfpenny-per-day to the man who reaps the most by the end of the barley season. We’ll need it, to make up for what you’re losing us with each day you stay home.”
Since the start of their marriage, Meggy had felt vulnerable around Saulf. But after the death of her babe, nearly full term and born like a bluish stone, not even one of Saulf’s comments could make her feel much more than a passing sting. “I’ll be fit and fine next morning,” she said meekly. “I’ll not be idle today, either. There’s spinning for me to finish. And I’ll ask my mother about the mandrake.”
“Forget the mandrake. You’d sooner spin the day away in aimless stories, fairie woman, than do your share of work.”
Fairie woman, he had called her from the start. Not meant as a compliment, but out of all of Saulf’s insults this one had always stung the least. At night Meggy sometimes dreamt of being a fairie and flying away on a stem of ragwort, alongside her no-longer-bluish babe.
“Your mother––bah!” Saulf muttered. “It should have been her who died. What good can all her herbs and cunning do, if she could not save my son?”
Meggy waited until Saulf was far enough away before wrapping the mandrake in a corner of her skirt and walking the short distance to the even smaller wildflower-lined cottage which the mesne lord had allotted to her white-haired mother.
She found Albreda sitting on her packed-dirt cot, cleaning her herb-knife. In the shifting dim of indoors, the cunningwoman’s pale eyes with their luminous black pupils stood out like chips of melting ice. “Meggy,” Albreda said, tilting her chin up. “Come inside and shut the door.”
Meggy watched as Albreda stood and lifted a thin cloth on her table, inspected a set of dried red-and-white and began to methodically dice them. “Eda is in the family way and yet unmarried,” Albreda said conversationally, setting down her knife and bundling the pieces back together into their cloth. “She’s just begun to show, and nobody’s too pleased with how it’s proceeding. I believe I raised you well when I see the girls who come to me, all for the same thing.”
A fleeting ache like a yewberry popped in Meggy’s stomach, but she said nothing about how she had seen Eda only a few days past, and her friend had looked happy enough at the slight swelling in her belly even if her parents had not. Nor did she give voice to the resentment buried deep in her chest at the careless way in which Albreda spoke of snuffing out a pregnancy in the same way she might smother the weak flame of a rushlight.
“How are you faring, these past few days?”
Albreda’s tone was quiet and cool, and held the expectation that Meggy too would be cool and tearless in return.
Meggy untied the mandrake from her skirt and held it up. “I’m all right. I came to ask about this. I found it by our door.”
Albreda raised an eyebrow. “How did it get there?”
“Well, someone must have put it there. Mandrakes can’t crawl out of the ground on their own.”
A strange smile played on Albreda’s lips. “You wouldn’t think so. Perhaps it was meant as a blessing for fertility. Was anything else left with the mandrake?”
“No…” Meggy remembered. “Yes! It was swaddled in green cloth, as a babe might be.”
The black in Albreda’s eyes swelled and glittered. “Let me see that,” she said, holding her palms out.
Almost reluctantly, Meggy handed the mandrake to her mother.
“Do you remember what I taught you about mandrakes?” Albreda asked.
Meggy bit her lip. “Paste of mandrake puts you to sleep? That’s all.”
“Mandrake has developed many a way to send you to the grave,” Albreda said grimly. “Too much paste is poison, and its scream can fell those who come too close as easily as a man cuts down grain. Meggy, my girl, sit beside me. There’s something I neglected to tell you.”
She sat and Albreda handed her the mandrake. Meggy clutched it almost maternally while Albreda put a thin twisted hand on her shoulder. “Ken this,” she said softly. “You are not my daughter.”
Meggy sat numb, processing this latest in a stream of petty cruelties.
“I birthed a babe of my own once. He came out dead, just as your son did.” For a moment Meggy thought she saw a flash of something cross Albreda’s face, a brief glint of the sort of emotion she had always discouraged Meggy herself from showing. “Not two nights after we buried him, we found you laid at the foot of the door. There was ragwort placed in your hand, and you cried bitter until we took down the iron horseshoe from the top of the door.”
Meggy found her voice. “You call me an auf?” she said hoarsely. An impossibility. Meggy, for all her little oddities, had never felt anything of the weird in herself. Even Albreda, with her cunning-magic, her talent for creating potions and cures out of herbs, would make a more believable auf than Meggy.
“Not quite,” said Albreda. “Not the sort which the Hidden Folk charm from rocks or sticks of kindling, anyhow. You are flesh enough––you have your father’s hands and jaw, and I’m sure there’s something of your mother in your face too, though I’ve never met her myself.”
“He told me the story, when I asked. A week before we were to be married, as he was crossing the fields back to his own home one night, he heard the ring of laughter on a knowe nearby.” Albreda’s eyes grew distant, flickered with the light of a hilltop fire. “Foolish that he was, so sure of his own invincibility, he did not heed the old stories. Instead he climbed the knowe’s gentle slope and joined the merry party. When a lady caught him by the hand and bade him lie with her he did not object. He didn’t think much of it when she was gone the next morning, and he found himself alone, on flat ground, with grass-stains on his good shirt. But I’ve found that men seldom spend much time on thought.”
“I’m not yours,” Meggy said quietly, processing this.
Albreda did not voice any denial. “This mandrake must be from your own mother’s folk,” she said instead.
“A gift of sorts?”
“The Hidden Folk give no gifts.” Albreda’s voice was sharp. “I know their ways, as any cunning-woman would. They have no concept of generosity, or pity, or sympathy. If you must ask my advice, bury it in the churchyard, where it can do naught to harm anyone.”
Meggy stumbled out her mother’s door and back through her own in a haze, the mandrake held tight in her arms. On the way she bent and picked up the cloth she had found the mandrake in, still lying on the dirt at the foot of her doorway.
A dried stem of ragwort fell from it.
The Hidden Folk give no gifts?
Well, perhaps not to humans.
Meggy thought about Albreda’s story and tried to picture the fairie mother who had rolled with her father on the grassy knoll. A willowy woman, for surely weren’t the Hidden Folk always thin and tall? Pale-haired, most likely. Meggy’s father had been a redhead himself, and so too had Albreda as a younger woman. Meggy’s locks, though, had always been blinding yellow, barely darker than Albreda’s now snow-white hair. Dark eyes––the fairie mother would have dark eyes, of course, for Meggy’s father’s eyes had been light like Albreda’s. She tried to envision the rest of the fairie mother’s features but could only come up with blurred approximations, black eyes blinking from a smooth white oval of a face.
It was, by contrast, so easy to picture the mother of her youth. Albreda, heavy-faced and lined with ropy muscle even at her age. Albreda, sculpted from ice and smoke and pungent herbs. Albreda, who taught her that every woman is tied together by the pain she carries inside her, threads made of the things she must never speak aloud. Albreda, who slapped her out of childhood crying fits, then held her tight and close to her chest.
Her bare foot brushed against the ragwort stem. She laid her palm on the mandrake’s stiff wooden bulb of a head, and she chose what to believe.
Meggy milked the cow with the mandrake tied to her back. She spun piles of wool with the mandrake on her lap, sometimes reaching down to brush a caring hand across it. The thought occurred to her that she would not mind if Saulf came home with a babe from a dalliance with a fairie woman––not that she could picture him ever making such an outlandish confession.
As evening broke she swaddled the mandrake in its cloth and rocked it in her arms, humming a wordless lullaby. Why, she could not say––only that some buried natural instinct had guided her to hold it as she might a child. When the sky had faded to black, she gently lowered her swaddled mandrake into the cradle, hoping that Saulf would not notice it and decide to throw it in the cooking fire.
Saulf came home hungry, ate Meggy’s portion of stew and drank half the milk she had collected that day. Not once did he look at the cradle, and for that matter he barely looked at Meggy. “I have somewhere to be,” he said, once finished. “Your rest is over, fairie woman. You’ll be back in the field tomorrow morning.”
Meggy thumbed her frail ragwort stem and almost laughed at the sweet irony of Saulf’s intended insult, but stayed herself in time. “When will you be back?” she asked instead.
“Doesn’t concern you,” Saulf said brusquely, which Meggy took to mean he would be out all night drinking. She let out a tiny breath as he banged out again. He would not be at home, which meant that the mandrake would stay safe.
Meggy went to the corner of the room, opposite the cradle, and dipped a measure of ale from the barrel into her cup. She had just brewed it fresh, so the barrel was nearly full. She sat on the cot, kicked off her goatskin slippers, pulled her shawl around her, and took a pensive drink. Her reflection shimmered back at her from the sunset-gold liquid, and when she locked her gaze onto her own big black eyes––yes, she could believe Albreda’s story.
She held onto her ragwort stem as she drank, closing her eyes and letting herself fall into an airy dreamlike state, awake yet suspended in a hazy other world. In that world she could hold her babe close, and it was neither stone nor root, but a real and whole son of her own flesh.
The thought crept in that Albreda too must have yearned for her own dead son, even as she swaddled Meggy and rocked her and fed her.
Meggy’s eyes flew open just as Saulf entered, the door crashing shut behind him.
“Christ’s fingernails!” hissed Saulf, looking into the cradle. “What is this?”
She sprang to her feet. “You’re back early.”
“Not early enough, evidently.” Saulf plucked her off the bed and held her off the ground. “What in hell did you do while I was gone?”
Pain spread across her shoulders as she whimpered, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I only thought…”
Saulf shook Meggy. “Has the devil gotten into you? Do you think yourself a fairie, to carry away someone else’s child?”
Meggy’s mind went white and still. “A child?”
A soft babble, fragile as a twig of sallow, rose in the room. Saulf dragged Meggy to the cradle and placed his broad hand on the back of her neck, forcing her to look downward. “What do you call this?”
The mandrake had vanished. Inside the green swaddling cloth lay a newborn, button features screwed up in confusion. The fine tufts of hair on his head were whitish blonde like Meggy’s, and when his eyes opened they were the same startling cornflower blue as Saulf’s.
“The fairie mandrake!” Meggy exclaimed.
“I found a mandrake at our door, swaddled like a babe,” Meggy said. “Albreda told me the Hidden Folk might have put it there, and so I… I kept it, as a gift. Husband, look, he has your eyes!”
Saulf set her down, slowly. “A mandrake cannot become a child. You’re as mad as your mother.”
Meggy backed into a corner, holding her arms around herself. “Husband, my mother told me something else.” Her hand curled into a tight fist, the ragwort stem prickling her fingers. “She said I…”
“No,” Saulf said, striding toward her. “No, I don’t want to hear anything more of what she said. What do you think will happen when this babe’s parents come around looking for it? Did she say anything about that, Meggy?”
“Look at him,” Meggy said firmly. “He is the babe we lost, sprung from the mandrake. Look at him, Husband! See the selfsame birthmark on his cheek?” A surge of hot bravery coursed through her and she darted past him, lifting the now-quiet babe out of the cradle.
Her husband stared at it. “How?”
“The mandrake,” Meggy repeated.
“A root cannot become a child!” Saulf sounded desperate.
But if that root were left with the daughter of a fairie-woman?
Any last bits of disbelief sloughed away. She truly was a changeling, just like the mandrake child. Just as Albreda raised her as a daughter, she would raise this babe with care. She would be warmer than Albreda, too, kinder and more loving.
Time stretched as Meggy stared Saulf down, silent and defiant.
“That’s truly an auf?” Saulf said faintly. He had never believed in fairie stories. His eyes darted to the bare top of the doorframe, where so many others, people whom he had derided as superstitious halfwits, had nailed a horseshoe for protection from the Hidden Folk––Meggy’s folk.
“You let an auf into our home, with your witch mother’s blessing?” Saulf’s voice grew loud. He wheeled frenetically, clumsily around once, twice, before knocking the top off the ale-barrel. “Give it to me,” he said, holding out his arms for the babe.
“What are you doing?” Meggy demanded.
“We can’t keep it, woman! It’s a devilish thing. You can brew more of your second-rate ale tomorrow.”
A devilish thing, her mind echoed. In her arms, the babe hiccoughed gently. “But my mother kept me,” she said steadily.
He froze. “What?”
“My mother didn’t drown me in the ale-barrel when she found me laid outside.” A sudden boldness coursed through her as she clasped her no-longer-bluish babe to her chest. “Not even when she had to take down the horseshoe from her own doorway.”
“You always called me fairie woman,” she taunted, feeling a thrill of delight at the vulnerability spilling from him. He reeked of shock like rotted fruit, a new thing for her to see in him.
A choking sound emerged from his throat as his hands sprang forward, almost as if they were guided by an unseen spirit, and he began to stalk toward her. Meggy made an animal dash for the door, but Saulf caught up fast. His hands scrabbled for her neck and closed around it.
She writhed as her vision blurred into liquid dark, fighting to keep her arms from slackening their hold on her son.
“Changeling bitch,” Saulf growled. “You’re the reason I’ve been under a curse.” He pinned her against the wall with almost, not quite, enough force to break the cradle of her arms. “You are the reason I reap slower each year. You killed my son, and put this monster in his place. Devil take you both!”
A raw keening shriek filled her ears: her own death cry, Meggy realised dimly. The sound might bring her mother running, but by then she herself would be gone. Knowing how much Saulf hated Albreda even at the best of times, she hoped her mother wouldn’t investigate.
Yet Saulf dropped before she did, the pressure vanishing from her throat as he tipped heavily onto his back. He lay still, blood trickling from his open lips, as Meggy fell to her knees and sucked in ragged breaths as a babe would suck its mother’s milk.
The babe! She loosened the crush of her grip and felt her son’s wrist. His eyes were shut, but his heart beat even and strong. She kissed his soft cheek hungrily before glancing nervously at Saulf, prone on the packed-earth floor. He did not look unconscious. There was a greyish waxiness to his skin and his eyes were open.
Meggy’s thoughts screamed, I need Albreda, and she flung the door open and ran barefoot outside, hurling herself over her mother’s threshold just as a crowd of people, drawn by the din and illuminated by the pale flicker of rushlights, emerged from their own doorways blinking groggily in the night air.
Albreda had evidently just taken herself to bed, for a single rushlight was still burning softly in its holder on the floor, but as soon as the door slammed behind Meggy she sat bolt upright.
“Mother,” Meggy gasped.
Albreda’s dark silhouette slumped for a moment before moving clumsily to her feet. “Meggy? I dreamt that Saulf…”
“He’s dead,” Meggy cut her off. “He––he tried to kill my son, and nearly killed me, but there was such a scream, and I thought it was me until he… it must have been a demon dragging him away.” Lowering her voice further, she added, “The neighbours are on their way down to the cottage. They’ll find him and then––they’ll think I killed him! Mother, what can I do?”
“Your son?” The half-burnt rushlight cast a weird glow over Albreda’s drawn features as she held it up, moving closer to Meggy. When she saw the babe, miraculously still asleep in Meggy’s arms, she drew back as if burnt. “Where did he come from?”
“The fairie mandrake turned to a babe,” Meggy said.
“Why didn’t you didn’t bury it, as I told you to?” Albreda snapped.
Meggy ignored her question. “Hide us, Mother. I cannot lose my son again.”
“Ken this, girl,” Albreda said urgently, never once taking her eyes from the babe, “that’s not your son. That’s a devil taken his form. He must be what killed your husband!”
“He’s not a devil! He is a gift, from my mother’s people!”
“It cannot be.” Albreda looked as if she might faint as the rushlight fizzled out in her hands. “A root cannot take the form of a child!”
“This one did,” Meggy insisted. “I can feel it in my bones––it’s not a devil I’m holding, but my own lost son come back to me. Mother, please, hide us before they find Saulf!”
“No,” Albreda said, and Meggy’s breath fell away at her mother’s cold disregard before she realised that Albreda was not addressing her, but had instead fixed her eyes on the baby. “You will be gone!” She fumbled around and struck another rushlight ablaze. “I buried you myself. I put you in the ground and I made sure you would not rise.”
Meggy’s stomach churned at the strangeness of Albreda’s wording. “Mother?” she asked, shifting the babe into one arm and reaching toward Albreda with the other, meaning to stroke her hair gently.
Albreda jerked herself away as if Meggy’s touch might singe her. “God help me, take that babe away!”
“I thought you’d be happy to see us,” Meggy said, confused, grieving. “Your only grandchild––You were heartbroken when he was born dead.” Belatedly, she realised that Albreda had given no indication of heartbreak. Her face had been calm and set that night, as she had held Meggy’s sweaty head in her lap and rocked her. She had not cried when they put the babe into the ground. Had Meggy found that peculiar at the time, her mother’s unwillingness to shed a tear for her grandson?
She looked away, confused, and her eye fell on the cloth bundle still sitting on Albreda’s table, the mushrooms her mother had prepared for her friend Eda in the morning.
Eda’s belly just beginning to swell, Eda’s glowing smile…
Had Eda requested the mushrooms herself? Did she know about them at all, or had Eda’s sour-faced mother knocked on Albreda’s door and asked for something which only Albreda could provide, a way to save the honour of her unmarried daughter?
A memory hit her, from not four nights before. Albreda had brought her dinner, and pushed away Saulf’s hand when he reached for it first. Special for the mother-to-be, she had called it.
She had made mushroom stew.
Sweat pooled under Meggy’s arms as she thought about the stew, made so rich with root vegetables from Albreda’s garden and meat from Albreda’s freshly slaughtered chicken that she had not thought about it when she bit into a piece of something orange and dry.
Something clicked in her understanding, and all at once she saw the woman whom she called Mother in a new and terrible light.
As if she had read Meggy’s realisation reflected back at her, Albreda heaved a shaky breath. “It was the doing of a foolish and grief-mad woman,” she said. “I raised you as a daughter, and I gave you care, but I could not stop thinking about my own son who lies in the churchyard even now. Your father never understood that kind of pain. Men seldom do––and besides, you were his true babe.”
“You wanted someone else to know what it felt like,” Meggy said, and when she thought of her dead son laid in the churchyard she held the living one even tighter in her arms.
A silent minute passed.
“I always thought,” Albreda said slowly, “that your mother, the fairie-woman, must have cursed my womb.”
“And so you cursed mine!” Meggy snatched up the bundle from Albreda’s table and threw it hard onto the ground, letting the mushroom pieces scatter.
“I never intended to harm you,” Albreda half-moaned. “I knew it would leave you alive, I did not want to kill you. I am fond of you, Meggy, you must understand… We both have lost our sons, but we will always have each other…”
“I have a son,” Meggy said, holding up her now-awake babe and noting with some surprise that his eyes were no longer blue like Saulf’s, but had become as soot-black as hers. “He is no devil. He is mine, a gift from my mother’s people. Perhaps they do not give you gifts, but I am one of them. You said so yourself. Perhaps,” she added thoughtfully, “perhaps I loved the mandrake-child so much it became real. I am the daughter of a fairie-woman, am I not? Perhaps I can do things even a cunningwoman cannot fathom.”
“Listen to me!” Albreda looked pale and ill. “Your mother was a fairie-woman, but your father was a man. You were born flesh-and-blood, not a devil-possessed root. I know this creature must be sent as punishment for what I have done. But for your sake, Meggy, don’t keep the cursed thing!” A great shout rose nearby. “They’ll have found Saulf’s body,” she continued. “God forgive me, girl, you can stay here, I’ll say you were with me all night, but you must throw that babe out the door. It’s not natural. It’s the work of devils––let it crawl back into the hellfire it came from!”
As if he understood Albreda’s words, the babe opened his mouth and began to cry quietly.
“No,” Meggy said simply.
“I cared for you all your life,” Albreda pleaded. “I fed you my milk and silenced you when you cried. I tied poultices for your wounds. I only made one mistake. It’s not too late…”
And what a mistake it was, Meggy thought, but stayed silent.
The baby’s sobbing grew more and more intense, soaring higher and louder and sharper. Meggy thought about the sound she had heard right before Saulf fell, and had a moment of sudden sharp clarity.
Albreda saw the resolve in Meggy’s face and shut her eyes, icy calm washing over her.
The mandrake child burst into a crackling lightning shriek which made the hairs on Meggy’s arms stand straight up.
When the sound died so had Albreda, the blood dotting her chin the only indication that she had not merely fallen asleep. The babe lay still and quiet again while Meggy knelt and wept briefly for the cunningwoman and all that she had done. Then she wiped her eyes on a corner of her shawl. “They’ll be drawn by your cry,” she said to the babe in her arms. “What shall we do? We have nowhere to go. If my mother’s people could help me, as they did when they gave you to me…”
There was a pounding on the door. “Was that you screaming, Albreda?” a man’s voice called.
“Saulf lies poisoned in ways only kenned by a cunningwoman like you, and his wife is gone missing!” another said. “You best come out now, or we’ll come in.” The pounding resumed, more vigorously this time.
Meggy leapt to her feet and looked around for a crack, a looseness in the wall. If she could slip away… A tugging distracted her and she cast her eyes down to meet her babe’s dark unblinking ones. One of his tiny hands lay open; there was a stem of ragwort inside.
She stared for a moment, and thought about her old daydreams of riding into the air with her babe by her side. Go on, the babe seemed to say, go on and take it.
The door broke down. “Hoy!” one of the men shouted, seeing Albreda’s corpse, but Meggy was already closing her hand around her babe’s, the ragwort held fast in their linked fingers.
And there was a lightness in her chest, like flight.
Aditi is an autistic software dev, author, aspiring chaos spirit, and avid consumer of both literature and baklava. As a teenager they devoured every Neil Gaiman book they could lay their hands on; thus began their deep love of irreverent creepy fantasy, which has never since died out. You can follow them on Twitter at @AditiRamaswamy.
J.E. Crum is a fantastical artist who creates vividly abstracted variations of self-portraits inspired by mythologies, including her own. Working intuitively, Crum creates personal narratives related to thoughts about fate, destiny and the meaning of dreams. J.E. also has an exciting career as an elementary and middle school art teacher of nearly one thousand students a week in central Pennsylvania. Crum believes in the power art possesses to bring happiness to others. Check out www.zhibit.org/jecrum to see more of her colorful works of art.