By Heather Cline
As the screams drew nearer, Clara halted washing dishes, dried her trembling hands on her apron, then stood to face the door of her living quarters with a deep inhale. A minute later, Mrs. Probst burst into the room with her two-year-old daughter, Rosie, flung over her shoulder, kicking and squawking up a storm.
“Take her! Now! Evil, vile little creature! Useless, insolent burden–” Mrs. Probst screeched as she plucked the child from her body and thrust her into Clara’s ready, outstretched arms.
With Clara’s comforting sway and lullaby hum, the child relaxed, her screams dissipating into sniffles as she burrowed her face into the crook of Clara’s neck. Mrs. Probst left without a backwards glance, muttering insults and complaints as she returned upstairs to compose herself for another social visit.
Clara had been hired as a maid by the Probsts back in their homeland, but that all changed once Mr. Probst lost most of his fortune at the betting table. In a rush, they’d packed and left for the New World, looking for opportunity. A fresh start.
Clara was given a choice, along with the other servants, whether she wanted to take the journey. The rest decided to stay, afraid of moving so far away from home. But Clara never had a home. Not really. Her parents died when she was very young and so she’d made her home in the homes of others, but never felt as if she belonged. She thought a new land would change that.
Only a few months after arriving, Mr. Probst fell ill and passed within days, leaving Clara and a pregnant Mrs. Probst to fend for themselves. They survived well enough on the money which remained, but it wasn’t enough for Mrs. Probst. She was used to opulence and comfort, and widowhood, and motherhood she’d discovered, wasn’t for her. Especially with a child who wouldn’t–or couldn’t–speak. Mrs. Probst hadn’t time for understanding, patience, and love. Those were placed upon Clara’s shoulders, along with all the household duties.
Clara didn’t mind, though.
She loved the child as her own, and the little girl loved her. They shared a kinship of the heart, ever since she first held the babe in her arms.
That made all the strife worth it.
And that’s why she remained.
One day, with Rosie napping in a cot downstairs, Clara went upstairs to dust. She stopped in her tracks, however, when she heard a woman in the next room speaking of children and changelings. Clara resisted eavesdropping, but she couldn’t help it once Rosie’s name was mentioned.
“Midsummer Eve,” the woman declared, “is the day to do it. Worked for the Averys. Just one night in the forest and by morning he’d changed back. Poof! Fixed! Nary a fit thrown again. It’s the fae, I tell you.”
To Clara’s horror, Mrs. Probst agreed wholeheartedly.
She wanted to object, but knew Mrs. Probst would not listen to reason. Worse, she might dismiss her employment and then the child would surely be doomed.
Clara could only wait and see if common sense prevailed.
Common sense did not prevail.
With the bonfires lit and the townsfolk gathering for Midsummer festivities, Clara discovered Rosie gone from her cot. She knew where the child would be, and so with a lantern in hand and a knapsack packed on her back, into the forest she went.
She searched for what seemed like an eternity; the shadows chasing her.
As the last rays of sunlight trickled from the sky, Clara finally found the tot nestled asleep against the twisted trunk of a juniper tree. She flew to her side and noticed a thick rope tied the girl’s hands around the tree’s trunk. Luckily, she’d expected this. Using a paring knife, she cut the girl free and lifted her into her arms. A note fell to the ground, but Clara didn’t notice as they fled the encroaching darkness.
Safely away from the woods, they stayed along the open, moonlit road path that led out of town to a city.
Screams and laughter taunted from the surrounding trees as they passed.
From city to city, town to town, they made temporary homes, with Clara taking odd jobs to sustain them. They never had much, but had each other, and that was all that mattered. They never stayed in one place long, afraid of being discovered. Rosie was never allowed outside alone and kept away from the woods at all times.
At seven years old, Rosie still couldn’t speak, but they didn’t need words to understand each other. Clara knew the child was growing unhappy with their constant moving and confinement. She needed friends and freedom. So, while Rosie stared longingly out a window, Clara thought of a way out.
Jungle wasn’t a forest, she concluded, and the fae probably couldn’t cross oceans. Perhaps they could be outsmarted.
And so they voyaged to a whole new land.
A tropical paradise would be their new home.
Forever, Clara hoped.
She thought she’d triumphed, watching Rosie play amongst the jungle’s flora, chasing butterflies. A year had passed, and all seemed well. Clara thought their new home could be permanent.
She was wrong.
On another fateful Midsummer Eve, a day which slipped Clara’s mind, Rosie vanished right in front of her eyes. One second, she was skipping ahead – the next she was gone.
“You were very difficult to find,” said a voice full of whispers, screams, singing, and laughter all together, all at once. It gave Clara chills, despite the tropical summer heat. She whipped around and saw an otherworldly creature standing there – a faerie, both beautiful and terrible – eyes glowing, long hair billowing around like fire, with shimmering, horned wings extending from its back.
“Where is she?” Clara demanded. “She’s no changeling! She isn’t yours! You can’t have her!”
“Oh, but I can. She was given to us as a trade, by blood. Not a changeling, true. But her mother’s note said if she isn’t, we may have her in exchange for a successful boy. She received her wish. Died in childbirth, but the boy will be successful,” the faerie said, narrowing her eyes. “You took something that doesn’t belong to you.”
“Rosie is my daughter, blood be damned. Take me in her place, if you must. She’s only a child!”
“A deal is a deal. No harm will come to her, if that is your worry,” the faerie said. “We never harm innocents.”
“But she must be terrified! Please, return her to me! I’ll give anything, all I have!” Clara fell to her knees in tears. “I’ll do anything! Does love count for nothing? Have you no heart?”
The faerie sighed.
“If you find the girl by sundown, and she agrees to return, you both may leave as you were. Human again. If you don’t, you’ll both remain the same. Deal?”
“And how would I find her? She’s disappeared!”
“Oh, she’s still here. Somewhere. In the jungle. Just… changed. You’ll see – or perhaps not.”
“Do you agree to the deal, or no?”
Clara had no choice but to accept, so she nodded. As soon as she agreed, she felt… different. She realized, looking up at the grinning faerie, that she couldn’t stand. Looking down, she saw two thick, scaly legs, then felt two more behind – and a tail.
On her back was a shell, Clara discovered, as she accidentally retreated inside it from fear.
When she popped her head out again, the faerie had gone.
Wasting no time, Clara began searching, slow as it was, with no voice to call out.
Hours passed, and then she heard it – a familiar melody coming from above. The same lullaby she’d sung to Rosie since she was a babe. The same song her mother had once sung to her.
Clara found Rosie just as Rosie recognized her. Sometimes the heart just knows.
“Mama!” A beautiful, vibrant macaw with plumage like a rainbow landed in front of her. If tortoises could shed tears, Clara would have. Instead, she could only nod, stretching the corners of her tortoise beak into a smile, seeing her darling girl so happy and carefree – and not only speaking, but singing too!
“I love flying! Already made a few friends here!” Rosie squawked, doing a few loop-de-loops. “Can we stay here forever, Mama? Do we have to go back?”
Clara didn’t have time to reply. Seeing the shadows descending upon the jungle, she quickly retreated into her shell, indicating for Rosie to hide.
When the faerie returned, Clara stayed concealed inside her new home, and the faerie took her silence as an answer. If Clara giving up her voice was necessary to give Rosie her own, that was how it would be.
And so it was.
As the faerie had stipulated, they remained as they were, for the rest of their long lives together – forever a tortoise and a macaw.
And they were free.
They were home.
And they were happy.
* * *
Heather Cline is a Social Science graduate of Southeast Missouri University, is a caregiver by day, and resides in Missouri, USA. She has written since childhood, but has only now worked up the courage to submit to the publishing world. As of now, she has one accepted work which will be published by Five Minutes Lit in November, 2023.