Daughter of the Wildwood

I wrote this story for the Writer’s Weekly Fall 2013 24-Hour Writing Contest

Only one scream ever rivaled the one Madge gave during labor: the scream that came the next day when she discovered the child was not the one she had birthed.
Nobody believed her; both her baby and the impostor had a shock of bright red hair that matched her own. How many red-headed newborns could there be? But she knew her own daughter had been perfect and unblemished. The devil’s mark marred the cheek of the thing that took her place.
A birth mark, nothing more, Madge’s husband Joshua assured her. But Madge was convinced the child was a daughter of the Wildwood.
Autumn became a wicked child at a young age, terrorizing the townswfolk and destroying property. Madge convinced Joshua, who doted on the devil child, to search the Wildwood for their true daughter. He entered the forest but never returned.
The town shunned her as cursed after that. Now they lived in a tiny cabin at the edge of the Wildwood, the dark forest that any sane person avoided. Sightings of strange creatures and accounts of horrifying sounds kept most folk away. But the wood contained an abundance of herbs vital for the medicines for hundreds of ailments and injuries.
She propagated her image as a witch by harvesting goods from the Wood and learning to cure all manner of condition.
Autumn became her apprentice, helping Madge find ingredients for her remedies. Not even the Wildwood scared her. Every errand took her farther into the Wood, and Madge kept hoping she’d never return. But the Wood always spat her back out, as if giving birth to her nightmare all over again. Perhaps she was too wild for even the forest, or the forest was her home and would never harm her.
Madge didn’t know if Autumn suspected she was a changeling, but the child remained aloof. For awhile, Madge tried to love the child as her own. But she was wicked and wild and spurned Madge’s affections.
She had lost Joshua after that, and finally gave up trying to get her baby back.
They came to a truce one day when Autumn came home with a deadly spider bite and Madge cured her. Her first impulse was to let the child die, but the grimace of pain and imploring yet hopeless look caused Madge to make a choice. She couldn’t let the child die.
Autumn started calling her “ma” after that.
She let the child draw her into the wood that day because her eyes had been filled with wonder. Madge had only seen mischief or pain in them before. It would have been Autumn’s – the true Autumn’s – birthday. She didn’t know if the changeling shared that day. 
Dry leaves crunched under their feet as they made their way toward the Wood. As soon as they crossed the threshold, the atmosphere changed. Sounds were muted, and the warm moistness of the undergrowth chased away the chill air.
There, the roots of a rotting tree obscured a small crystal coffin. It had been cracked open by dead, fallen limbs.
Inside lay a delicate, red-headed little girl with Madge’s smattering of freckles. Her own dear Joseph’s nose graced her narrow face.
Her breath caught. Her long lost daughter.
Dead, or nearly: her life seeped away through the cracks in the coffin that had sustained her life.
“Ma?” The changeling’s voice was awed. The implied question, who is she, hung between them.
How could she answer in a way that wasn’t cruel? Although being faced with what she had lost eight years ago, she couldn’t help but be furious.
“I’m not your ma! I am this little girl’s ma! They took her away from me and left you in her place! And someday they will take you back and I will be left with nothing.”
She cradled the limp body of the child she had never known. Autumn watched, her eyes wild and intense.
She reached for her, and Madge jerked away. 
“Don’t touch her! You’ve done enough.” Madge sobbed. Autumn didn’t pull away. She touched her fingers to her own lips, then reach forward and placed her fingers to the dying girl’s mouth.
The girl in Madge’s arms twitched, and her eyes fluttered open. Madge gave a cry of joy and clutched her to her chest. She closed her eyes and tears streaked her face.
When she opened her eyes, she saw that Autumn lay stricken on the ground, barely breathing. 
Madge gently lay her daughter onto a mossy bed and knelt beside Autumn. “What have you done?”
“I’m sorry,” she changeling sighed. Her breath rattled in her chest.
“Your daughter. Have her back, now.” Her eyes fluttered closed.
She shook her head helplessly. “Please don’t. Don’t go.”
“I’ll always be here,” she said, touching her heart, then pointing to the inert girl.
Madge cried for Autumn, the daughter she had never thought hers, and gave back the daughter of the Wildwood.
She brought the girl home and lay her in Autumn’s bed. She jerked awake the next morning, fear in her eyes.
“Shhh, there now. It was all just a bad dream. You are safe now.”
Madge swore the girl’s face had been unmarked when they had found her, but as she soothed the girl back to sleep, she noticed in the half-light a faint outline of a devil’s mark on her cheek.

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

1 Comment

  • The children’s picture book Make Way for Ducklings , published in 1941 and winner of the 1942 Caldecott Medal for its illustrations, is the story of a pair of Mallards who decide to raise their family on an island in the lagoon in Boston Public Garden in Massachusetts .

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