“Changelings are the fish you’re supposed to throw back. A cuckoo raised by sparrows. They don’t quite fit anywhere.”
“Korina!” A bright, singsongy voice calls my name through the woods. My mother’s voice, as strange as it seems. Her voice always catches me off guard, like a baby bird chirping in the spring. It blends right into our surroundings as I run towards her, through the overgrown trails full of vines and wildflowers. I stumble on the path, tripping over a large root with saffron colored leaves popping out from under a tree.
I look up. The tree is large and beautiful, just like the root that tripped me. Its bright golden leaves growing out from its roots are exquisite sprouting out from the cool branches, a dark brown the same color as winter mud. The bark looks almost like scratches against the wood, so uniform that it could be a clothing pattern, yet so distinct that it almost looks like the inside of a flower.
I gasp. It’s wonderful.
“Korina!” She calls me again, and I continue running, my feet bouncing above the roots from the giant tree. It towers above us, above the entire forest. “Korina, there you are,” she says, as I pant at her feet. My long, brown hair reaches down to my arms, swinging about as I finally stop running. “I-” she starts, thinking about what to say. I know what she wants to let slip out of her mouth. I didn’t know where you were. I was worried about you.
I love you, Korina.
But alas, these are all lies, and therefore, she is invocal.
“I’m glad you’re back,” she finally settles on, something we both know to be true. She is glad I’m back, because I am her prize and joy. She may not love me, but she still wants me here, for some inexplicable reason. She hands me a sequined comb, the same one that causes the calluses on my imperfect hands. It’s ivory, a white so sickening you can see your reflection through it.
I look down into it, watching my own bright blue eyes burn. They are burning with power, as I hold the comb. Burning with the power I now have over my mother as we sit down.
“How was your day?” I ask her, my own voice sounding like a song. Not like a song of baby birds like hers. It’s a human song, a song expressing the pains of the world through music. It is beautiful, but it is human.
I know she hates it. But she cannot tell me so, and she cannot lie. So, she is silent, as we all are when we do not know what to say.
“This comb is very pretty,” I add, despite us both knowing about the calluses on my hands. “Ivory is a beautiful stone.”
She laughs, her heads rocking back and forth, the comb drifting through her flawless golden hair. “Silly child,” she says, a smile coming across her face. “It’s not ivory. It’s made from moonbeams. Why did you think it burns your hands?”
My cheeks turn a bright red. “I guess I never knew,” I say, pulling the comb through her hair once more. Her hair is the same saffron color as the leaves from the tree I tripped over earlier, so picturesque and beautiful. The comb slides right through it. I would barely have to make an effort to bring it through, if it didn’t burn. “I assumed it was from nature.”
“Are moonbeams not natural?” Her voice rises in a questioning tone. As if she’s testing me.
“Of course they are,” I say. “But not to humans. To us, they are magical.”
Yet again, I know what she wants to say. You are no human, Korina. You were raised by me. You should know where your loyalties lie.
But, of course, she cannot be too honest with me, and I cannot be too honest with her. But she cannot lie to me either, of course, so she must settle for something in between.
“Humans are elusive creatures,” she says. It’s not technically a lie, and so she can say it. But it isn’t quite the truth either, for it implies that humans are more elusive than the fae folk, and that, while an opinion, would be false.
We are not.
My hand grips the comb tighter as I feel the pain increase. I want to let it drop, but she has trained me not to, and so, I hold on as tight as I can. I feel the hair slipping, but I cannot stop it. I scream in pain, letting my unavoidable humanity show.
I let go of the moonbeam comb, as it falls and shatters into a million tiny pieces. My yelping stops, as I run as fast as I can to the lake.
She shouts after me, but I cannot hear her, not above my mind’s screeching sounds of pain. Yet, I stay silent, hoping she will not be able to follow me.
It’s a stupid hope, I know. I know that she can smell human from a mile away. But I have been around her for so long, my stench is of flowers and air, only with a tiny bitter tinge of humanity.
I continue to run. I run and I run, until I reach the lake. Quickly, I sink my burning hands into the water, as it extinguishes the bright sparks dancing off of my fingertips. I rushed so quickly, I couldn’t bask in the beauty of the fire. But I could feel it’s power, and I could see it rushing in the wind.
Sometimes the most beautiful things require you to be slow and bask in the beauty, I remember my mother saying to me back when I was a few years younger. So you must bear through the pain.
I used to think she was lying. That was before I learned that she couldn’t lie. Before I had ever really known what she was, and how different we were. All I knew was the sky, the woods, and the lake in the distance where I was now. The lake I would run to to extinguish my burns from her combs, each one shattering against the ground after a few months.
The first was gold. I assume now that it was truly sunbeams, which is why it burned. The rest were always gold as well, just slightly darker than her hair. They each had different adornments, but they all stung the same. They stung like a bee, if a bee had fire that ignited on it’s stinger.
But the same bee that stings also makes honey, so there had to be something sweet about the burns, like her mother would say. There was always something sweet about being a faerie, and each time I demonstrated my understanding of that, I was rewarded. Each time I shattered the comb or did anything else remotely human, I would have to live with the regret of not being truly fae.
I lift my hands out of the icy waters, my burns leaving more and more scars over the surface of my skin. I wasn’t lying before when I said my hands were imperfect - they were covered with burns from my palms to the tips of my fingers, despite the rest of me being styled to look as charming as my mother. I had to look fae, just like her darling little child she had replaced with me.
She had never named her, just gave her one look and determined her sickly. And, as they say, when we are sick we become changelings. But I know she regrets it. She has an ounce of humanity in her, somehow, enough to choose me over all the others despite my appearance not being quite ideal. My hands had not yet been covered in burns, but they were still larger than normal. She fashioned me hands of wood, but they burned immediately at the touch of the combs, so I kept my imperfect hands. Her faerie child’s hand wouldn’t burn, and I know she regrets replacing her with me.
She never named her, but she named me. She named me Korina, after the Greek goddess Kore. I was a xanino, after all, so why not add the ina? I don’t know what my real name is, but I know that it’s not Korina. My real mother would never name me the greek word for maiden, just like she wouldn’t make me hold the combs.
And she would always lie to me.
My whole life, I have never heard another person utter a lie. My mother can’t tell when I lie. It’s yet another reason why I know she wishes she kept her sickly child. She would be able to trust her, unlike me.
She never named her child, but I call her Persephone, because she would have been Kore. Persephone was Kore later in her life, after she married Hades and became the queen of the underworld. She then became the bringer of death, as her name states.
My mother’s fae child is probably dead already, in her human home. And so, she had become the bringer of death to me and my mother. I wonder if she ever calls her Persephone in her head, too. I bet she does. I bet in that head of hers lies circulate, lies she can never tell me.
I run away from the lake, my hands still freezing from the cold, the burns slowly healing. I run through the woods, back to the tree I basked in the beauty of only about an hour ago, though time means very little to faeries.
Still, I keep track of time, as best I can.
I continue to run, jumping over the roots of neighboring trees. The tree with the saffron leaves is still there. Slowly, I grab the trunk with my recovering hands.
It hurts. But if there’s one thing my mother taught me, it would be to smile through the pain.
I try to scooch myself upwards, but I keep falling down. Gravity hits me over and over, like a flower in the wind.
I keep trying.
Eventually, I get far enough to swing my legs up onto the nearest branch. I sit there for a moment, the leaves twinkling like stars in the sunlight. I watch them, basking in their glory, like my mother always taught me to. The burns on my hands still hurt, but I ignore them. Slowly, I start to climb again, taking short breaths in between each branch I climb. I want to get as far away as possible. I want to fly away.
I forget that I am human sometimes.
Still, I continue to climb, until I reach the top branch. I can hear my mother below me, scouting for my scent. I know she will not find me. She is faerie.
Faeries never look up. They look down at what is directly in front of them, determining the future from the present. Humans look up. They try to grasp the future before it’s there for them to reach.
I am hiding, but I cannot hide for long. I know she will find me eventually, even if she doesn’t look up. She will ask the tree with the golden leaves to find me, and there is no way it will protect me. It has no allegiance to humanity.
I look down at my hands again. The burns have begun to blister, leaving large welts covering my large palms. On top of them are splinters from the wood. I flinch. I wonder what my hands looked like when I was younger, before my mother exchanged Persephone for me. I know they were larger than normal, because I remember the wooden hands my mother gave me, but I wonder what my hands would look like without all the scars.
I watch the saffron leaves fall. When I squint, it looks just like my mother’s luscious locks of hair, the hair that causes all of these blisters. I wonder when she’ll find me.
Silently, I sit, my eyes gazing back and forth from up at the sky like a human and down at the golden leaves like the fae.