Free. I'm free.
Giddiness rose up from her belly, erupted from her mouth in a hysterical laugh. Fear quickly replaced the feeling. The Other Kin had sent the infant to her. They had dogged her steps, placing the infant in her path no matter how she tried to escape them.
They must be watching me, even now.
She whipped her head about, searching for any sign of the Other Kin. She saw nothing of them. No one ever did. But she could sense them, in the heaviness of the air. The woman found it difficult to breathe in such heavy atmosphere. With a clumsy lurch, she raced from the well, back to the village.
The Other Kin did nothing to hinder her. When she left the clearing of the well, her breath came easier, and another wave of giddiness hit her, making her steps light. She choked off the laughter that rose in her throat. Once she had crossed the boundaries of the village, she allowed herself to slow to a reasonable walk. Heading for her home, she happened to catch sight of the Blessed Brother's home. A small candle shed light through his window.
She hurried past.
With her home in sight, she realized she had forgotten her bucket.
No use anyhow, now, what with a corpse in the well water.
At that thought, her knees buckled beneath her. Pebbles in the dirt dug painfully into her legs and hands as she grasped at the earth in a vain attempt to steady herself.
What have I done?
What will happen now?
What should I tell the villagers?
A backward glance brought the Blessed Brother's home back into view. Shakily, the woman regained her feet and stumbled to his doorstep.
"Blessed Brother," she whispered. She fell against his door with a sob. "Blessed Brother!"
He must have heard her quiet cry, for soft footsteps came toward the door. He pulled it open with a gentle hand. Surprised recognition widened his eyes.
"My dear, what is it?"
She shook her head. "Blessed Brother, I have done something very rash
Seeing the frantic look in her eye, the Blessed Brother nodded and invited her into his home. They sat together in his front room, the candle warmly lighting them.
The woman told him about the infant that had appeared on her doorstep, how it reappeared every morning no matter how she tried to be rid of it. She told him of her headlong venture into the forest of the Other Kin, the wall of stones she had found, and her return to the village. She told him of the infant's reappearance that morning, and her decision to place it in the village's center, for all to decide what to do with it. At last, she told him of her impulsive action of pushing the infant into the well.
The Blessed Brother's expression changed as her story continuedsurprise, sympathy, fear, gravity, and at last, deep sorrow. He dropped his head into his hands.
"Blessed Brother?" the woman queried, voice tremulous. "Blessed Brother, please help me. Have I done something terrible? Will the Other Kin punish me? Will their infant return?"
He raised his head, and his sorrowful eyes met hers. "You have taken a life, my dear. I cannot say what the Other Kin will do, but the changeling will not return. It is dead."
Relief washed through the woman at his assurance that the infant could not reappear. But worry and guilt tainted her relief.
"Blessed Brother, I could not possibly have done it any different. I could not keep such a thing. Why, oh why, would the Other Kin even bring it to me in the first place? Surely they understand. What happened is ultimately their fault. I tried to tell them, to return it, but they insisted on leaving it with me despite it."
"And you made your decision on what to do with the changeling."
"Yes, Blessed Brother, exactly. They gave it to me, and I decided what to do with it. They cannot be angry with me for that, can they? After all, they gave it to me. It should have been my choice what to do with it. I should not have to be fearful of repercussions when they left it in my hands to do with as I saw fit." She lifted her worried eyes to meet those of the Blessed Brother. Desperate, she sought agreement in his expression, but she found only grief.
"Who are you trying to convince, my dear?"
Her mouth opened, took in a breath, and closed. Releasing the breath, she said, "Myself, Blessed Brother. No one more than myself."
She studied the wooden planks of the Blessed Brother's floor. They had been worn smooth by the passing of many feet over many years, but they did not creak or groan beneath their burden, even in their old age. Stolid, sturdy, they bore up under every weight that came upon them in quiet acceptance.
"Blessed Brother," she said, turning back to face his sad eyes. "Do you think the Other Kin will punish me?"
"If your own conscience does not, then they might," he returned.
"Will they put another changeling on my doorstep?"
He shook his head firmly. "No. They cannot trust you to care for one."
The woman was glad for that. She never wished to face such a trial again. At the same time, however, a twinge of regret twisted inside her.
"It is a bitter irony," the Blessed Brother said after a long pause.
"What is, Blessed Brother?"
"That you should kill one like yourself."
myself? I don't understand, Blessed Brother."
"Don't you?" The Blessed Brother studied her. He must have seen the fear in the woman's heart, the knowledge of the truth she did not wish to face. "You have no parents, no family, yet always you have been sensitive to the presence of the Other Kin. Though like all the other villagers, you cannot see the Other Kin, you know when they are present. You are able to traverse their Forest, discover its secrets, and leave their Forest in safety. They chose you, out of all the other villagers, to care for a changeling, much as they chose me for such a duty some twenty years ago."
"Blessed Brother, please say no more." The woman rose to her feet, and shivering, hugged herself. She crossed the silent planks of the floor to stand before the window. The candle's flame flickered weakly, but the rising sun lit the sky and village with a lovely, terrifying rose red. It streamed across the village, over the woman's home, through the forest. "I will go into the forest of the Other Kin. I will find a ring, and I will leave them an offering."
"To what end, my dear?"
She spun about to face him. "To appease them! To keep their anger from falling upon me! I do not wish to die, Blessed Brother!"
"Few live that wish for death," the Blessed Brother replied, a touch of reproach in his voice.
"I should go now," the woman said.
As she reached the door, his voice called out to her, halted her. "An offering will not sway them, my dear. But they would not kill one that they worked so hard to save. Just do not expect them to do so again, Blessed Sister."
A cold wind blew at the woman's back as she left the house of the man who had raised her. When the sun reached its zenith, she took an offering of milk and honey into the forest of the Other Kin. She traveled as deeply into the forest as she could, but she could not find the wall of stones again. She settled upon a ring of toadstools. There, she laid her offering.
Words would not come to her, though she desperately wished to speak to the Other Kin that she sensed watching her. Instead, she sat in silence, with sweat running down her back. Her twiddling fingers stumbled across the blessed cloth tucked into her pocket. Pulling it forth for scrutiny, she realized it no longer held a blessing. Its purity had been sullied. Crushing the useless cloth in her fist, she pushed herself to her feet. The afternoon had slipped into evening while she sat in the forest of the Other Kin. It was time she returned to her home, her chores, her life. She dropped the useless cloth to the forest floor, outside the ring of toadstools, and left the forest.
Though I cannot speak the words, surely the Other Kin understand.
She thought she would sleep peacefully that night, knowing that the changeling could not possibly return. Return it didin her dreams. Throughout the night, she heard over in her memory the splashes and splutters of the drowning changeling. In her dreams, it was herself that drowned, killed by one that might have loved her.