That was where we lost her.
Right there, in the woodlands a mile from our town. It was a swelteringly hot summer day. One of those days where the viscous heat suffocates you like a fleece, where the sunlight melts between the gaps in the trees, where that heady earthy scent sweetens the air. It was the perfect day for a picnic. We headed through the woods along the main trail, to the lush green meadow, where we spread our tartan picnic blanket – right on the fringes of the trees, so that we could easily escape the heat for the cooling swathe of shade. The kids were in their element, running, shouting, playing. Benjamin was teaching Ella how to play football, her stubby little 3-year-old legs chasing after her older brother, giggling.
“Don’t go too far!” I remember saying, as they raced off toward the woods.
“Oh don’t mind them. They’re having fun!” my husband said, “More prosecco?”
I turned away from my kids, and smiled at him.
“Oh go on then. One more.”
I held out my plastic flute for a top-up. The golden bubbles glittered in the bright sunshine.
“I can’t believe we’re the only ones out here on such a beautiful day,” I mused, taking a sip of fizz and admiring our countryside surroundings. Everything blazed emerald, white butterflies flitting between the delicate wildflowers. The sky was a brilliant blue, cloudless.
“I’m glad,” my husband grinned, and kissed me on the cheek. “It’s like we’re the only people in the world who matter.”
Unfortunately, my son interrupted our happy reverie.
“Can I have a biscuit yet?” Benjamin huffed, ball scooped up in his arms.
“Not until you’ve finished your apple,” I insisted. He scowled.
“But I don’t like apple.”
“Ah come on Lou. The biscuits will melt if we don’t eat them soon. I think we can relax the rules for one afternoon.”
My husband stretched and reclined on the soft grass, sun beaming down. His nose was already turning bright red.
I reluctantly fished around in the cool bag for the chocolate biscuits and handed one to Ben.
“Eat it quick, or you’ll get mushy chocolate everywhere,” I ordered, swivelling round to keep my face out of the sun.
Despite the heat, I felt a sudden icy coldness in the pit of my stomach.
“Where is she?”
The meadow was empty. Ella had disappeared.
“Where is Ella?” I said, panicked, voice tinged with new urgency. My husband sat up promptly, scanning the field in every direction.
“I’m sure she’s just wandered into the edge of the woods; she can’t be far. Come on.”
I grabbed Ben’s hand and we hurried to the place where I last saw her playing. As my husband had prophesised, I spotted one of her butterfly hair clips heading into the trees.
“Ella! Ella where are you!?” I shouted, my voice echoing back to me.
“Mummy!” I heard. Her voice was faint, scared. Somehow she had already wandered far, completely out-of-sight.
“Don’t move, Ella! Mummy and Daddy are coming!”
Without hesitating, my hand gripping Ben’s tightly, we headed towards the sound of Ella’s voice. I called for her repeatedly, but every time she shouted back, her voice seemed to be even more distant, more desperate. The woods were becoming denser and darker with every step. It was deathly quiet; even the crows on the boughs had stopped their cawing. The trees stood tall and intimidating. My heart was hammering in my chest, palms sweaty, veins flooded with ice. And then, we could hear her no more.
We were greeted with eerie silence. My stomach lurched. I dropped Ben’s hand and blundered through the bushes, frantically batting back branches, mouth dry. I couldn’t stop crying her name. My distressed eyes looked in every direction for a glimpse of her light blonde hair. In moments, I realised I was alone, my husband and son left in my wake. The depth of the woods was infested with shadows, not a single ray of sun breaching the thick canopy. I shivered. The hairs on the back of my neck were tingling, forged by a growing sensation that I was being watched. A few rustlings in the undergrowth. A squirrel? A rat? A fox perhaps? But nothing emerged from the foliage.
Just as I was about to give up hope and double-back to my husband and call the police, I stumbled out into a small clearing. Standing, statuesque, in the middle of the dusty glade, was Ella.
She appeared unhurt. But she wasn’t crying. She didn’t seem lost or scared. She wasn’t screaming my name in panic. When she saw me, she didn’t come running over, wailing and clinging to my leg like a limpet, like I had expected. She simply stared back into my eyes, mute and sullen. It was not the reaction of a terrified three-year-old child. I held out my hand to her.
“Come here, Ella, sweetheart. Come to Mummy.”
She shuffled over to me like a tiny zombie, dour-faced, almost like she was reluctant to be near me. I gathered her up in my arms, cradled like a baby. She let out a small grunt of protest, but didn’t say a word. I carried her back the way I had come, following the trail I’d thrashed through the trees. Eventually, the woods started to thin, and pools of dappled sunlight broke through the leaves. The warmth was welcoming, but I couldn’t ignore the growing feeling of unease gnawing in my stomach.
Finally, I came back to the meadow, where my husband and son were standing haplessly on the picnic blanket, my husband on the phone, brow furrowed, sweat dripping down his burnt nose. I could see the huge relief in his eyes the moment he saw us.
“Oh thank God!”
He and Benjamin came running up. He kissed Ella’s forehead and stroked her silky blonde hair.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he whispered to her. Ella said nothing at all, limp in my arms. She did not even smile.
Of course, the police turned up; my husband had phoned them when I’d run off. We told them what had happened in brief, and they tried to coax Ella into retracing her steps, but she remained silent.
“She’s not usually so quiet,” my husband chuckled, ruffling her hair, “She must still be scared of the big dark woods! I’m sure she’ll be right as rain in no time.”
I looked at my daughter, saw her usually ruddy cheeks now ashen grey, her sparkling bright blue eyes now dim and sunken. I could not share in my husband’s blind optimism.
And so it continued, through the years. My baby girl, once a bundle of joy and laughter, a chatterbox, sociable and playful, became withdrawn and refused to spend time with her friends. Once loving and affectionate, now distant and indifferent, even towards her own family. And always mute. She never said another word after her experience in the woods. My husband was worried, Ben, a mixture of concerned and annoyed, but I was simply heartbroken. I felt as though I had failed her. We took her to a child psychologist, who diagnosed her with trauma; we took her to a child therapist, but the treatment was unsuccessful. Truth be told though, I have a feeling that more sinister forces are at work.
People don’t talk much about the faery folk much anymore. They’re just myth, the subject of bedtime stories to entertain the kids… or sometimes scare them. Until recently I didn’t know many of the tales myself. But I do know that I was being watched in those woods, and I know that the Ella I found there is not my daughter. What if it was the faery folk who lured Ella into their woodland and carried her away? What if they stole my daughter and took her to their world? What if the girl who came back with us is a faery substitute… a changeling?
Of course, neither my husband nor Ben, now a pre-teen, want to have anything to do with my “nonsense theories”. The more I try to convince them, the more they think I’ve gone mad, or that I’m traumatised too, or worse, that I’m a paranoid alcoholic. Their disbelief hurts me, and I can feel myself losing them too. My husband and I argue daily; Ben scarcely speaks to me. But I’ve done my research. I have read dozens and dozens of stories about faeries, about changelings, and, most importantly, how to identify them. So if the tales are accurate, I know that all I need is some fire…
My husband would never let me attempt anything so dangerous in our house, and he’s been watching me like a hawk recently. Besides, I would not want to risk hurting him or Ben. So I will have to smuggle this Ella puppet, this imposter, back to the woods from whence she came. I will demand the release and return of my beloved daughter from the faeries. And if they refuse… I shall light a bonfire. The fear of burning to death shall surely cause the changeling to speak and reveal her true identity, just like the folklore promises. If not, I will throw her on the flames and watch her skin crackle and her white blonde hair frazzle until the faeries relent.
Either way, I will get my Ella back.
Emma H, age 27, 29/01/2018
This one turned out longer than expected! “Changed” was written for Sue Vincent’s “Woodland” #writephoto prompt challenge. To take part or find out more, you can follow the link here:
I originally planned to make this a story of a missing child without the fantasy/supernatural element, but I couldn’t help myself 😀 Thanks to Sue for the lovely photo 🙂