The University of West Virginia holds a curious object in its collection. Many experts do not like to acknowledge that it exists; it would not do well for the public to know, they say. In the basement of the archives you can find it, if you know the right people and are persuasive and discrete. At the end of a long row of metal shelves, an attendant will remove a box bearing a label that reads: “Discovered in the vicinity of the Monongahela National Forest in 1911. Materials – human skin, feathers, silver. Anthropologists believe this to be a fetish object for a cult, perhaps used in the practice of witchcraft. Local tribes denies any indigenous origin to the object. Tentatively attributed to early 18th century Scotch-Irish settlers.”
More than this, no one at the University can tell. Only a handful of researchers have taken a professional interest in the object, and the University has never encouraged their endeavors. Those who have handled the object report that there is something unwholesome about it. Even those researchers who approach it with the most interest and zeal end by being thankful that the University is wise enough not to display it; some have expressed the wish that the University would simply incinerate the object.
History, however, is not merely that which is recorded in textbooks and acknowledged by universities. True history is etched into the land itself and broods in the memory of mountain and tree. And if a lust for true history brings you to the basement of the archives, you would be better off taking your curiosities to the Monongahela itself, at the rambling foothills of the Alleghenies. And again, if you were persuasive and discrete, this is the true story which nature might yield, borne to your ears on the wings of robins and crows.
The baby had a glass eye and it kept falling out.
Each time, the mother would pick it up, blow the dust from it, roll it between her palms, and pop it back in. The baby showed no interest in this routine, merely continuing its business of drooling and pawing at its mother’s dress and shawl with the calm indifference of an ascetic. The baby’s face did not appear to be injured or disfigured. When it looked up from the designs of sticky spit it had painted, one merely saw the crystal glitter of a blue glass eye. Even when the eye fell out, and the soft white flower petal of the eyelid wilted in on itself, one saw no raw red socket, nor the pucker of scarred flesh. It was merely as though the baby had left one eye in the womb, abandoned there to observe forever the inner cosmos – the scarlet placental sea, the moist sky of tessellated tissue, constellations of blood vessels – while the other eye was content with the small gray universe of the one-room cabin where the baby spent its days, crawling on the stone floor by the hearth or cocooned in its cradle while the mother cooked and cleaned.
When the baby was born, a curiously quiet and bloodless birth, the midwife was the first to notice the deformity. She was a dark-eyed old woman and the things she carried were many and mossy with memories of the old country. The talismans in her apron were dusty with old meanings that a people Christianized and removed to a new land, clung to without remembering why. She carried them still, for it was the midwife’s duty to guard against the unseen and unexpected, and new beginnings of all kinds were her territory. As the mother had slept in her bed of sweat and the baby wriggled silently in its wrappings, the father and midwife had exchanged sorrowful looks. Before leaving, she’d whispered to him that this was a bad sign, that there was no good in store for such a child – it was best disposed of before it became a sorrow to all. But at that moment, the mother awoke and demanded her baby. The midwife shook her head, pulled the glass eye from the pocket of her apron, breathed what benedictions she knew onto it, and pressed it into the father’s palm.
The glass eye was more alive than the real one. The eye of gelatinous tissue and delicate vessels revealed only an idiot baby-consciousness, groping clumsily through its small dusty world for food and attention, while the eye of tessellated aquamarine glass glimmered with an awareness and intelligence unsettling to observe in an infant. It followed the father about the room and glinted in the dark when the starlight rapped its brittle knuckles against the windowpanes.
Sometimes when the eye fell out the baby’s hands would scuttle across the floor, like some bloated spider that had crawled up from a sunless world, to snatch up the orb and put it in the wet greedy mouth. The fat lips puckered and make gibbering, sucking noises around the eye until the mother forced them open and returned the eye to the socket, shining with spittle.
One day the eye vanished. The mother thought the baby had finally swallowed it. Glass eyes were hard to come by, and the father insisted they could not beg the midwife for another, as likely that had been her only one. For a while they tried different things in place of the missing eye. They tried a smooth, round river rock, but it was too heavy and the baby’s head always listed to the right. There was a ripe scarlet cherry, but it gave the mother a fright one morning when she discovered it had burst in the night, covering the sleeping baby’s face in purple-red flesh and tiny maggots. The mother even tried the bell from the cat’s collar, but the father swore the noise drove him to distraction and the cat was jealous. The baby was not happy with any of the substitutes and would cry until its bloated face appeared ready to burst. Finally the mother took to covering the baby’s face with the yellow veil, and this seemed to calm it. Behind its mask of semi-transparent cloth the baby clucked and cooed to itself in the corner of the kitchen, the fanciful firelight on its chubby body casting a shadow on the whitewashed wall like a deformed troll king on its subterranean throne.
It was spring and the mother had washing to do. She set the baby in the grass beneath a gnarled rowan to amuse itself with bits of bugs and new flowers while she hung the quilts and dresses. A bird’s nest had fallen from the tree and the chubby groping fingers chanced upon the smooth domes of the little eggs, warmed by the sunlight. The clumsy tumult of the baby’s laughter whipped through the wind-tossed sheets on the line. Going over to the rowan, the mother saw the baby’s veil, crushed egg-yolk yellow, on the emerald grass. In the socket was one of the eggs – a robin’s, the same brilliant blue of the real eye. The baby laughed and flapped its doughy arms with pride and satisfaction. The egg was an improvement over the barren socket and it didn’t fall out like the glass eye used to, so the mother let the baby keep it.
Spring waxed green in the world outside. From its cradle by the lead-paned window the baby could watch the eastern constellations dance their slow waltz. The mother noticed how wakeful yet quiet the baby was on these nights, as though the new eye offered it visions of nature’s mysteries, almost as if the eye could read the hieroglyphics of the stars. The father watched the mother watching the baby watching the stars, and the nights were long for him.
There came a week of rain when the baby was confined to its corner in the kitchen, between the hearth and the storm-beaten window. The fire sputtered low and the streaming rain and warped glass turned the world outside into a phantasmagoric blur of grey sky and green leaves. The mother had soaked bits of bread in a bowl of milk for the baby. It sat on the floor, gumming the soggy bread and splashing bluish-white milk onto the stone-flagged floor. There was a sudden squeal of surprise and flakes of brilliant blue shell freckled the bowl of milk. Into the sulphurous gloom of the kitchen piped a song like wind-tossed leaves. Out of the fragments of shell that stuck in the socket, a baby robin peeped, its feathers new-grey and soft. The baby lifted a soaking hunk of bread to its face and laughed as the bird began to eat.
Before long they were forced to banish the cat to the barn. It had taken to perching on the windowsill above the cradle, all rigid muscle and unblinking gaze. As soon as the robin chirped or rustled in its fleshy nest, the cat would stalk the baby, its sinuous black shape pacing a tightening circle around the cradle. The baby was fond of its guest and began to cry whenever the cat drew near, tossing its wooden toys at the prowling feline. The father was no more pleased than the cat, but he kept his silence and his distance.
Summer broadened in the sky and bronzed the apples on the trees and the corn in the fields. The robin had grown into its colors – an orange breast and grey-brown body. It was now so large that it had to squeeze and wriggle its way into the baby’s eye socket when it returned at sundown from a day of hunting grubs. Bird feces ran down the baby’s cheeks and cracked and dried on its clothes. It was always puffing feathers out of its chubby wet lips and putting them in its wisps of golden hair, try as the mother would to keep it clean. The baby was only quiet and calm when the robin was nested in its eye socket, the black eyes and yellow beak peeping from beneath the gold-lashed lid. Only then did it stop its fidgeting and squawking and sit, content. In the evenings the mother tried to sponge off some of the feces while the baby and the bird cooed to each other, and the father and the cat sat on the opposite side of the room together, coolly indifferent, yet watching.
Winter was building in the dense wooly clouds on the horizon, twining itself about the bare branches of the gnarled rowan in the yard. The wild birds took to the sky in great flocks and speckled the reaped fields with the chiaroscuro of their flight. The robin was restless and the baby was quiet. With all the bustle of preparing for winter, the reaping and slaughtering, preserving and canning, the mother had no time to combat the baby’s mess. It sat in its corner by the hearth, a little monster of filth, covered in feces and feathers and the bits of twigs and leaves the robin had collected for its nest. It was quieter than ever, as if it too sensed the approach of winter and the urge to migrate beyond the little gray world of the kitchen and yard. The father stroked the cat and brooded, unable to bear the thought of a whole winter spent confined to the one-room cabin with the creature that was his child and the guest that had become so much a part of it, until the one almost had no identity without the other.
On the last day of autumn, the father went to see the midwife. She’d chosen for her home the ruins of an old stone fort, and had constructed a lean-to against it. A stone wall as tall as the father rode the ridges of the south side of the mountain, the side that looked toward the new settlements. The local tribes said that one could see such fortifications on scattered mountains, that the mossy stones had kept watch since before any man, white or red, had walked the land. The Indians did not build near such ruins, fearing the orbs of light they claimed traversed the length of the fortifications. The new settlers, the images of fairy rings and standing stones and giants’ causeways still fresh in their memories, followed their example. But the midwife felt a great power from those old stones and she did not fear the old things. She chose for her lean-to a spot where the wall rose into a single finger of stone, a narrow tower with no door that reached toward the kaleidoscope of leaves in the summer and brooded on the patterns of stars in the winter.
When the father arrived at the door of her lean-to, snow on his hat and fear in his eyes, she knew why he’d come. She brewed them strong tea in little stone mugs and told him what she suspected. She told him stories of the little people, of mothers who awoke on fine mornings to discover their healthy pink babies replaced by the greenish-grey shriveled cubs of the little people. The hidden race sometimes stole human babies for their rituals and sacrifices, leaving their own to be raised by unwitting human parents. Sometimes they even impregnated a woman who found herself wandering alone across the moors after dark on nights of the full moon. Could this be the case with the father’s wife? There had been many days during the first settling of the land when he was clearing trees and brush, tilling the virgin soil, hauling stones from the old hilltop forts, aiding with the construction of cabins, when she’d been left alone in this wild new land. The little people, who were to be found anywhere wilderness still brooded, never suffered encroachment passively.
She gave the father instructions for the purging of the fairy child. He shuddered at the details but hardened his resolve at the memory of the robin squeezing its feathery bulk into the eye socket of the giggling baby. Returning home, he did not go to bed but rather to the barn, where he began to make a small noose out of a length of rope.
On the first full moon of winter, when the moon-shadows capered silver-blue across the acres of snow, the father brewed a strong tea of pungent roots the midwife had given him. A cup of it put the mother to sleep, and he began his work. He knotted one end of the noose around a branch of the rowan in the yard and passed the loop around the baby’s neck. The little body cast fantastic shadows on the snow as it writhed like a fat white grub at the end of a fishhook, yet it was silent but for a gurgle at the end that might have been a laugh. The father crushed the robin in his fist and threw it to the cat. Following the midwife’s instructions, he let the baby hang for the rest of the night so the moonlight could cure the corpse. As he lay beneath the scratchy quilt, his back to the frost-rimed windows, he could see the moon-gilded silhouette of the hanging baby on the stone floor. He turned his face to the wall and descended into abyssal dreams of tree roots and earthen walls and laughter in the dark.
In the morning he cut into the frozen body with his big slaughtering knife, scraped out the entrails, and buried them beneath the rowan tree. Crows watched his work from the branches and volleyed their calls across the frozen fields. He cleaned and stretched the skin over a fire banked with cedar and the bundles of dried herbs the midwife had given him. The mother awoke late and groggy, disturbed by the silence and the look the cat gave her as it sprawled in front of the fire licking its whiskers and claws. When the father came in, his hands ruddy and blackened from his work, she looked at his face and asked no questions. It was as though the eye that had remained inside of her had given her a second sight, a ghost vision, and somehow she’d known such a thing would come to pass. She neglected her work, the spinning and canning, and when a warm week came and the snows receded a bit, she packed her belongings in a basket and returned across the county to her own people. She told them nothing definite, but the hints she let slip during ever more frequent bouts of drinking disturbed her family and neighbors. Some talked of paying the farm a visit, but those older and wiser, with deeper memories of the old country, counseled patience.
The father continued the task the midwife had set him. When the skin had smoked and dried, he sewed it back together with hog sinew and a bone needle. He stuffed it with things displeasing to the little people – bits of iron, sweet herbs, root of mandrake and crows’ feathers. He gave it hair of dried sweetgrass and plugged lumps of iron under the puckered eyelids, weaved the midnight green feathers into a chain about its neck. There it sat, finally, by the hearth as it had in life, a little shriveled mummy doll of the creature that had been his son. With the doll acting as a kind of talisman, the spell of the little people would be broken this way, the midwife explained, and never would they be able to trouble his family or his property again. The cat curled up on the chair beside it and napped. As the embers burned low on the dark nights, the father saw the dull iron eyes of the doll eat up the last spark of light and welcome a gloom as of inner earth.
It was not the dark nights that troubled the father though, so much as the moonlit ones. When he awoke on nights when the moon sailed high and full, he would again see the black outline of the hanging baby cat on the stone floor, wriggling in the bone-bleached light. But always when he sprang from bed to the windowsill, there was nothing hanging from the rowan branches. Always an icy, sleepless spell awaited him when he returned to his already-cold bed, as the doll watched the dull iron hours of the night pass over him from its seat by the hearth.
Now the loneliness and isolation of winter are something to blame, as is a guilty conscience, but it is also the truth that a man who has once stepped a foot over the boundary into another world does not easily step back, not without the mysterious black mud of fairyland clinging to his boots and pants. Winter melted into a spring of clammy rains and rotting vegetation. The work of the farm was neglected; the fields were not planted that year and the animals began to go feral. The land, so lately and lightly wrested from the forest and brought under man’s dominion, fell wild again and nature began the work of reclamation. The ashes were not swept from the hearth, as the mother once had done, but crept into the corners of the cabin, into the cat’s whiskers and the father’s unkempt beard. He woke up scratching his face in the night to discover tiny bits of blue eggshell in the tangled roots of his beard. Still he did not shave it.
On a midwinter day, when the shadows of crows were frozen on the fields of crusted snow and a bitter mist crept down from the mountain to melt the hard clear corners of the sunlit world, the father set out to see the midwife. He’d left a fire of smoking rowan branches burning on the hearth and did not close the door behind him. The cat followed him down the slush-churned path that led from the cabin to the woods. The air was wooly and clammy with an approaching fog and the only color in the woods was the sharp poisonous red of the winterberries which grew in thickets as one approached the midwife’s dwelling.
The father’s feet dragged heavy in the snow in their leather-bound rags, his body sluggish with the weight of toxic dreams that came on sleepless nights, when his eyes lay open to the white goblin-moon. He carried the doll in a sack, wrapped in dried cornhusks fastened with iron nails. It seemed much heavier than it once was, as though it gained weight, brooded, grew as the baby never would. The mist darkened as he approached the cabin and it caught long dry fingers at his throat. It was only when the charred timbers and smoking logs emerged did he realize it was smoke. The cabin had been burned, the stone tower daubed with signs of banishment with charcoal from the fire. He could not understand why the midwife, whose ministrations had been tolerated for so long by a people superstitious and desirous of aid in a new land, could have suddenly met such a violent end. It was then for the first time in months that he remembered his wife, the dull look of knowing she had worn in the days after the purging, and knew that she must have talked enough for the villagers to make their own deductions.
So he was alone now. The cat slipped between the father’s legs and leapt atop one of the tallest stones, surveying the smoking ruins with cold yellow eyes. The father sunk against the base of the tower. He was alone with the silence of winter and death, and with the doll. Even the cat was still, curled atop the wall, and no birds called in the mist. Embers glowed in the remains of the fire, and among them the father saw long bones black with charred flesh and the white half moon of a shattered skull, the last clumps of hair burning with a dank stench that choked him. With a portion of the skull he scooped the glowing embers into a pile at the base of the tower, blowing on them and stoking them with the sweet-smelling cleansing grasses that were woven into his beard. The fire rose and licked the base of the tower and he fed it with the remaining wood from the lean-to. He would burn the doll, release the spirit of the changeling back to the little people of the hills. Maybe then he would leave these hills and his farm, make for one of the cities on the coast where he could grow old away from forests and mountains, stones and birds, and forget that he’d ever been a father.
The flames grew brighter as the early winter night crept down from the eaves of the mountain to roost in the crevices of the wall. The fire crackled and the subtle things of the night began to chipper and moan and peep, the misty winter woods coming to sightless life beyond the enchanted circle of firelight. When the fire was strong, he removed the doll from his sack. It felt heavier yet again, and as he unfastened the iron nails he thought he detected movement through the cornhusks. The cat on its perch began to hiss and pounce, swiping at something unseen in the dark air that swooped and dove at it.
The father spread the cornhusks and the plump pink form of the baby wriggled in its papery cocoon, giggling at the play of firelight on its father’s wild beard.
A burning like rancid gorge rose in his throat as he looked into the creature’s face. In the socket which had held the glass eye and housed the robin there was a living eye, perhaps the eye it had left in the womb. Silver and round as the moon, it bulged from the socket, twice as large as the other eye. It did not blink. A cold silver light closed over the father, eclipsing the red glow of the fire. On the wall above he heard the cat let out a screech that descended into a gurgling whimper, then a sound as of wings and chirping, like a tree full of birds on a spring morning. From inside the tower came three knocks and the baby giggled in gleeful greeting.
Small squat shapes emerged over the lip of the wall, fat white bodies, plump as worms that feed on the rot and refuse of inner earth, and in their faces were silver eyes. Perhaps they were the architects of the old fortifications, and perhaps they were the true fathers of the baby, and then again perhaps they were merely the shapes of the father’s madness, specters of moonlight and smoke. Whatever their provenance, their ragged circle pulled tighter around the cowering man The father shut his eyes as the baby’s fingers squirmed into his beard.
In the clear light of a day without mist or snow, the villagers returned to the mountain. A few hunters, straying near to the old fortifications in pursuit of their quarry, had reported sounds from where the midwife’s lean-to had recently stood. Reluctantly, the whispered words and fears of the mother still echoing despite the cleansing they had performed, the old men of the village once again set out for the old fortifications. At the foot of the tower, where a fire more recent than theirs still smoked, they found a shrunken figure. Skin cured like leather, hair and beard stiff and dry as grass. Feathers and bird feces caked the face. Under the puckered eyelids were lumps of silver, reflecting a moon that was not visible in the sky above. A glass eye was in its mouth. They buried it at the foot of the tower and never went to the mountain again.
Decades passed, a century. The country lost something of its wildness. Cities grew like mushrooms where the early settlers had planted their villages. With the turn of another century the government began to preserve forests from the booming population, and the mountain with its mysterious fortifications was set aside for wildlife and archeological research. The object was discovered in the tower and was sent to the state university where it remains to this day, in a metal drawer in the archives bearing a placard with the bare antiseptic details and foggy attribution. It is as though the scientists and the anthropologists have intuited from it something of the old villagers’ fear, and that they too wish to forget, without knowing why, without knowing anything definite.
The excavators knew more. They could perhaps have told you of the unusual profusion of robins on that mountaintop, even in autumn, and how they could not keep any workers from the nearby reservation. And maybe some, who were descended from the Scotch-Irish settlers, would have told you of the nameless unease they felt at the site, like the prickling of old memories. And maybe the lead archeologist, who drank too much and was prone to unprofessional flights of fancy that many blamed on his study of Indian folklore, could have told you how, working late on a night of the full moon, he heard the giggle of a baby from deep within the ground beneath the tower, and asked to be taken off the project the next day.
And the stones and trees could tell you even more, but men have lost touch with them, and perhaps that is not to be mourned. The land folds her secrets and her strange children to her bosom.
Heather Rick is a native of Worcester, Massachusetts and a former student of the Fiction Writing Workshop at Columbia College Chicago. She received her B.A. in religion from Smith College and is pursuing a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in over a dozen publications including Steam Ticket, Fourteen Hills, Slipstream, and The Cape Rock.