Julian K. Jarboe

Estranged Children of Storybook Houses


A dull yellow and gray print of a very small yellow house on cinderblocks overgrown with stylized vines, with the suggestion of green grass at the base of the house, all against a blank white field.

Image by Evangeline Gallagher.

My brother thought that he might burn the fairy out of me when we were children. He had learned about them in school. Common wisdom held that a fairy would reveal itself if held to flames or iron. Then it would cry out in its own wicked tongues, leave the home it had invaded, and return the rightful child from its realm. My brother tested for my sinister nature with the hot end of a fireplace poker.

He said that I did cry out, and that I cursed in a funny language. Not a curse like a swear word. A curse like a wish against him, a wish that came true. I don’t remember any magic words, or the shape of my mouth around them, or what they brought into being or unbeing for my brother, but there is a white welt on my chest where the skin curdled and rose up like cream.

“But you didn’t even go back,” he said. “You cheated.”

He was only ten months older than me. “Irish twins.” In most ways, I resembled the baby sister that our mother had delivered in the bathtub. Then at the age most children were eager to speak, I seldom did. While our classmates watched grown-ups intently, eager to imitate, eager to elicit reactions, my gaze wandered ever-elsewhere.

Briefly, our parents called me their little daydreamer, but at some point they stopped, and called my same behaviors inappropriate. They tried to help me understand when it was happening with a pinch on the arm, a slap across the ear, but I didn’t learn right. It was between “daydreamer” and “inappropriate” that my brother grew suspicious, and tried the more traditional method.

It all must have been frightening for him. I commanded more and more of our parents’ time, necessitating more severe correction, more sustained attention. He had to be tough and brave and perfectly free to get into trouble when no one was looking, and no one was ever looking. He could stretch out his whims within red-blooded boyishness. He could adapt to suit a situation, and to get whatever it was that he wanted. The sheer limitlessness could have been overwhelming.

I got shuttled back and forth between special kinds of teachers and expensive doctors who instructed parents on how best to approach their changelings. I remember visits to a famous one, who had written a best-selling book, Managing The Fairy In Your Family. He had a voice full of warmth and optimism when he spoke to my parents about me, as though I were not in the room beside them.

“It’s different in girls,” he said. “But I believe we’ll find the cure within her lifetime, and meanwhile!” He laughed like hot chocolate bubbles in a saucepot.

We were left alone for periods of time. I’m sure they were called therapeutic sessions, because I remember how seriously I was corrected when I once called them training. He squeezed my arms to my side and pulled my chin up towards his face.

“Look at me,” he said, and smiled. I hated his touch, even though he had a grandfatherly lightness to his grip. The mild, old-fashioned smell of his aftershave was enough to set off a dizziness and nausea that lingered for the rest of any day I saw him. I squirmed, and he held tighter, and adjusted me again. “Look me in the eye.”

By different experts, growing up, I was deemed gifted, disturbed, blessed, cursed, enlightened, feral, clairvoyant, and psychotic. My emotions were both stoic and oversized, my appearance both negligent and fussy, my body at once too bullish and too delicate. I have been a savant, a magician, and a mutant. I rarely knew which one it was until it shifted again.

Grief was the one constant around me. It was a grief that brought out my father’s shyness and my mother’s fear. They would call it other things, if they knew I’d named it grief. They would call it worry and love and looking-out-for and doing-right-by, but I understood how mourning folded into all of those. When I became an adult, it was decided for me that I was incapable of living on my own, and I understood that my needs were not needs like other adults, but tragedies to those around me.

I understood what they had worked so hard to teach me. A changeling was a devastating loss to bear for any parent. A changeling was a queer and sickly substitute for the good and healthy child they had planned for and expected, the child that had been stolen from them.

When our mother lost her mobility and our father lost his speech, my brother came out from his big house in the city to oversee them and the daytime aides he hired.

“We’re so lucky that he’s done so well for himself,” my mother said to me. “That he can take care of us all.”

His pregnant wife would join us on weekends. Our little single-wide hardly fit the four, five, six, seven, or eight of us there at a given moment; the exterior encumbered with novelty patio decor, suncatchers, wind socks, bird houses, gingerbread trim; the interior over-full with dusty half-finished craft projects, collections of glass angels clutching glass infants, the accumulation of years of markdown bins at the checkout aisles of JoAnn’s Fabrics. Everyone stepped over and around it and buzzed about our mother, who directed like a queen bee. If I cooked lunch or emptied the sink, inevitably someone shooed me away to do it themselves, even my swollen-foot sister-in-law and my mute father.

“If you want to help,” my brother said. “Get out of the way.”

One cold weekend, I sat hatless on the back steps while my father surveyed the retractions of snow around his garden. A home aide opened the kitchen window above the stove. Steam curled out. Conversation carried clear as ice.

“Well, I’ve researched a lot online and talked to so many other moms about it over the years,” my mother whispered. “If it happens to yours, there’s a great community of support. Of course, you love them no matter what. They’re still your baby, in a way.”

“Oh, of course,” assured my brother. “I just wanted to know what you, personally, think causes it? It’s not that I’d love my child any less, it’s just, you know, if you could choose between one way or the other, if you could head it off… You’d want the easier path for your child, just as a parent.”

“Are you planning to vaccinate? One of the women on the online chat was saying she thinks they elevate the risk, that the, um, the ‘folk’ can smell the chemicals.”

“We’re vaccinating.” My sister-in-law interrupted her.

“Well, I suppose that’s your right, but I wouldn’t risk it, if I could do it again.”

I pulled at the laces of my jacket. A fat brown woodchuck darted from the woods and into the opening of a burrow along the bottom of the shed. My father stood still and watched for more.

“At least that got rid of the rabbits like you wanted,” I called to him. He turned to show me his frustration. If he heard the conversation from the kitchen, he was more focused on the burrows in the backyard.

My sister-in-law went back into the city for work in the morning. I went to my parents’ room where they ate their toast and juice on trays in bed. My brother sat in their recliner with his coffee.

“I’m leaving to find your real daughter,” I told them. “I’ll un-trade places with her, or bring her back with me. This is how I can help.”

My father blinked back tears. My mother reached for me and I went to her and received her embrace, cool and light as paper.

“I’m sorry,” I told them. “I’m sorry I didn’t think of it before.” The daytime aide arrived to strip the beds and start the laundry. I started to add, “I wish I could wish it right,” but my brother stood as if to intercept the words.

“Go on and go, then,” he said, and urged me from the bedroom as though the sight of soiled sheets was forbidden, as though the smell might compel me to stay.

Behind the garden and the shade-choked lawn ran the edge of the wild woods coming into bud. I’d played in the woods countless times. They descended to a swamp and a kettle pond where I’d caught many handsome frogs. At the opposite shore was a hill and a flat and a neighbor’s strawberry farm neatly outlined in low rock walls.

Common wisdom held that fairies were encountered at perimeters. I combined as many liminal conditions as I could, and crossed into the boundary of the woods at the sunrise between winter and spring while wearing a thick wool sweater and thin cotton shorts.

I pushed into tangled growth and hazy fog. Bushes and thorns scratched my legs. Something nipped at my knee and jolted away behind me. When I looked down and around, though, I was alone, and the path I’d cleared had regrown, replenished and green.

I followed. The trees blossomed around me as I moved, as though spring accelerated four and then six and then eight weeks further along than it was at home. I heard their music whistling from the flutes of ferns and the chimes of mushrooms. The moss sighed and the lichen hummed.

I followed. White crows fed tendrils of mist to their black-eyed hatchlings. The soft beaks of the baby birds gaped and gobbled at the slithering wisps. The light was not the sun’s, not the light of any time of day or tilt of the hemisphere that I knew. It was more like the light I’d seen in movie theaters, when it flickers across a room that shuts out all else to hold space for illusions.

I followed. Their summer court was a sprawl of festivities and makeshift structures. I saw a thousand faces like faces I’d glimpsed in passing before. Their outfits were exquisite or nonexistent. I caught my breath. No one accosted or questioned me. I moved among them with the flow of the crowd, where there, easy as dreaming, I found her.

The one with the face like mine, I thought, before I shamefully remembered that I was the imitator, that I had come here at all to reconcile a great wrong evidenced by my false life. Common wisdom held that fairies were made of pure madness. She was the human child made of reason. I was merely a shadow or delusion poured into her absence.

I approached her. “I’ve lived as you, in your place, with your family,” I said. “And you were so close this whole time?” My stomach turned. I could not have walked more than a mile or two, what would otherwise be square among the neighbor’s strawberries.

She looked pleased, but unsurprised. “Well here you are now. Look at us, two corners of the same circle, together at last!”

I was sure I’d misunderstood her. “You’re not upset?”

“Oh, that’s not the word I’d use.” She folded her arms across her bare chest. She was nude except for sunglasses and silver cowboy boots. “Do you really think all fairies and their people live just beyond your crab apples?”

She laughed and pointed across a courtyard, breaking into a stride and urging me to follow her through the revels.

“I guess there’s no way it’s that straightforward,” I said, and jogged to keep up. “Our—your—parents miss you, though. Will you leave with me? To see them?”

“How could they miss me if they’ve never met me?” There was an open innocence to the way she asked me this. Her puzzlement seemed sincere.

“They love you,” I said. “You’ve never wondered about them?”

We passed a scroll-legged table piled with pastries, and a fountain shaped like a laughing old woman. Bubbling wine sprayed out from the ends of her hanging stone breasts.

“Everyone here loves me, too.” She shrugged. “I was very special and lucky to be chosen.”

“You’re brainwashed, then,” I said.

“Nope! Just bragging. You know, you’re bigger than I pictured you.”

Even in boots, she was just a bit shorter than me. Otherwise, we appeared the same.

“I pictured you differently, too,” I said. I had pictured her prettier and rosier but not so decadent. Smiling but not grinning so wide. “With, um, with more clothes on.”

She laughed and continued to lead us out the other side of the crowds and festivities and toward a idyllic seclusion of huts, tents, trailers, and cabins that ran along a wide, misty cobblestone road leading out and onward. I thought she must be taking us a faster way home than I had come. My neck was hot in the sweater and my legs were cold in the shorts. My nose and throat itched from an unfamiliar pollen.

"You can borrow my sweater. For the visit, I mean. Or whatever you can to throw on. Your parents won’t be picky about how you look, it would make them so happy just to see you.”

“My parents, hm? Mother, father, brother, sister, family.” She over-enunciated the words, rolling and stretching each syllable in her mouth like it were taffy. “Seems like some kind of weird blood cult. Since you mention brainwashing and all.”

She stopped outside a single-room dwelling, and invited me inside. It was a cozy little cabin, flush with pillows and blankets and cushions, and long counter of snacks and stimulants.

“So you won’t go back with me?”

“I don’t see the point, really!” She pulled out bread and honey and cookies alongside fruit lozenges, colored powders, and a syrup that might just have been cough medicine. “Maybe another time. You’ve come a much longer way than you think. Why don’t you stay and rest a while here?”

Time vanished in the summer court. Stars fell like snow and fluttered through the windows with the lightning bugs. The moon was always full and red-gold. My memory flowed away from me as easy as their wine poured from carafes that never emptied. No one seemed rooted to any sort of grand or personal past. Pains and grudges and judgement lifted off from every heart as light as birds.

They had neither knowledge nor need of moderation, either. I spent most of my indistinguishable days and nights there overstimulated. I never did adapt to the pollen. I regressed to building blackout forts and quiet chambers out of the blankets, blowing my nose, and taking naps though I was never fully tired, either.

My memories of home faded and blurred, and with them, my sense of whatever it was I had come for. I had the loosest sense there was another, sharper place that I had come from, a place where many apologies were owed but everybody strutted around as though this ache were not their problem. I knew, however, that it was my problem. I forgot that I had ever lived anywhere else, but I remembered that somehow, somewhere, I’d failed.

On a twilight like every other dayless, nightless twilight in the court, my double readied for another wonderful ball or orgy or feast.

“I’m sorry I’m a wet blanket,” I sniffled from under a pile of pillows.

“What a weird thing to apologize for!” she said.

“I don’t do anything. All of you are so creative and fun, or just busy… happy…”

“Just you living and being here is so great.” She wrapped herself in a cape of white crow feathers and snapped a glittering party hat onto her head, then blew me a kiss. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

I clenched everywhere. My body remembered what my mind forgot.

“How could you say that?”

I told her that I was a parasite. I said: shadow, double, broken, fake, trick, broken, defect, mutant, broken. I said nobody wished for this, to be this. I said nobody wished for me. She asked me what, then, did they wish for?

I heaved. I told her that I had to go back home, wherever that was, and that I couldn’t go back without her, but that I couldn’t go back with her. I thought that she would be whole where I was deficient, but instead, she was all too much where I was too little. The child that our parents mourned resembled neither one of us. We were like orphans. I could only invert one grief into another grief. I failed them either way.

“Maybe they’re enchanted!” she said and clapped her hands. “And that’s why they miss and expect and think they’re owed this mysterious person who doesn’t exist! You can’t undo such a powerful spell for them, unfortunately. They’ll have to take three jars of honey from the August Bees to the troll that they’ve offended, and then–”

I threw up inside the blanket fort.

“Uh-oh!” She laughed and rubbed my back, and it felt like being touched by my own hands. Safe. Not too much at all, not for me. We cleaned up the vomit together, and then she left me to wash up and wallow alone, and she continued out and onward, doing exactly as she pleased.

I ventured home alone. I thought I might have been away a week or two, but it had been years. The grass was high and wild. The golden heads of the dandelions had turned to clouds of seeded down that swayed in the breeze, ripe to burst in the next gust of wind.

I never understood why they had to get cut. I would ask my father, why not just let them grow? He’d point out a patch overtaking some corner of the lawn or the garden.

“Do you see all the other plants doing so well beside them?” He would say. There were none, of course. The dandelions choked them out to proliferate. “See, they’re only weeds.” Then he would push out the lawn mower.

I threw tantrums about this. I hated the grinding sound of the motor and the way the cut scent of the lawn that everyone else found so pleasant was, to me, so clearly an odor of distress. The grass and the dandelions screamed in their own way, so I screamed in mine. Most times my father ignored this.

“I’ve already explained it to you,” he would say. Once in a while, though, I would later discover a bouquet in my room. A clean jelly jar stuffed with yellow dandelions, cut as though they were roses.

I knocked at the back garden door. The curtains were drawn over the windows but I heard the old floor groan beneath the long steps of my brother. Then a pause and a muffled voice, another smaller voice, smaller steps, the lock unlatching.

My brother invites me into the house that we grew up in. He has me sit at the kitchen table, while he stands and his toddler clings to his leg. She runs in and out of the room. When I look at her, she hides behind him.

“Say hello,” he tells her, but she shakes her head. He looks at me directly for the first time in the years that have passed. “It’s still you, isn’t it?” he says, and lowers his voice. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. She doesn’t know who either of you are.”

He’s only ever told his daughter, in simple terms, that he used to have a sister, someone who would have been her auntie, but that this sister died when she was very little, and it was very sad. He tells me that his daughter barely remembers our mother and father, either, and this is how I learn that our parents have died.

“Not that you were around to notice either way,” he adds.

The information settles into my mind and throughout my body. I feel light and heavy at the same time.

My brother continues. He says how mom went first, and how after she was gone, dad cast off his routines and retreated to a manic sort of entropy. How dad let the grass get flush with ticks and spiders, and gave the house over to ants and field mice, the back steps over to hornets, the garden over to the weeds. How he tossed his spoiled vegetables to the woodchucks and rabbits under the shed.

“We’ll hire someone to deal with the landscaping in the fall,” my brother says. He checks on a pot of coffee steaming on a kitchen burner. “We’ve got our hands full right now.” He pours it into a single cup, and places it aside on the counter for himself.

The trinkets and projects have been cleared out with the dust and grease. Everything is shades lighter than it ever was, and the wood stove has been removed, along with the iron poker set that used to sit beside it.

My brother’s daughter steps out from behind her father and stares at me.

“Come on, honey, be polite,” he urges her. When she ignores him again, he kneels and whispers something sharply punctuated in her ear. He pinches her shoulder and twists until she squirms away and races from the room again. “She does talk,” he assures me. He chuckles like he’s told a joke.

“I didn’t speak either at her age,” I say.

“She can talk.”

“Maybe she’s a changeling, like me.” I force myself to meet his gaze. “There really is no way to tell. The switch is just like that, sometimes, no warning, no ceremony.”

“She’s ours,” he says. “I make sure of that.”

“Then I wish her well,” I say. I smile.

“That’s enough.” He is white around the lips and red around the eyes. “It’s time for you to go.”

He reopens the back door. He would have me take all my unwanted wishes back across the wild lawn and disappear with them into the dark, dark woods. I wonder if he has ever entered the woods himself, if his daughter has ever wandered playing there. If there has truly been no time to fix the lawn since our father died, or if it serves a useful barrier to keep the darkness beyond it out of sight from the kitchen window.

He must feel so alone against the horrors of the world, the things that come at twilight and pour their confusion and chaos into every shadow, until the shadows grow bigger and stronger than all his reason, all his money, all his control. Who in his position would not prefer some kind of certainty?

“They pay very close attention,” I lie. After all, common wisdom holds that fairies can tell lies that come true. “I’ll go now, but they know everything. They know when you mistreat her.”

I rise from the kitchen table slowly and take in as much of a view of the single-wide as I can.

“I don’t mistreat my family, I protect them. You must be thinking of yourself.” He crosses his arms. “Go. Now.”

I move close to him on my way towards the door.

“Never pinch her again.” My voice is soft as soil and clear as ice. “Don’t so much as threaten to. Don’t think you can get around it, either, by sending her to educated people who do it for you, and train her to accept it until she does it to herself without help. Don’t tell her it’s for her own good. Don’t for a second regret that she exists, or they’ll know.”

“Ah, right, because I should be so worried what they think of me while they spy on my family.” He’ll never admit that he’s afraid of me more now that our parents are not here to hold us all together like a bargain bin craft glue. “And then what will they do? Send someone to kidnap her?”

“No. They’ll send me. And I will press a hot iron poker over your heart and keep pressing until it’s out the other side.”

I leave. He calls me insane. A sad, stupid, useless afterthought, imitation, desperate for attention I don’t deserve. He shouts until I’m far, far away and gone, until I’m deep in the dark, dark woods, where even the trees can hear how his voice trembles. He believes everything I’ve told him, and so I have given him the certainty he so prefers. After all, common wisdom holds that fairies always keep their promises, and always collect their debts.

My double helps me build a cottage in a quiet place outside the summer court but not too long from it. Out my window in the morning I glimpse a little of their light interwoven with the cycle of the sun. She brings me one of her pillows as my house-warming gift.

“In case you need to hide or throw up again!”

I thank her. I kiss her. I come and go.

I visit winter courts and hypoallergenic climate-controlled courts and halls of lightning and rain. Their many and varied societies no more occupy the heart of any one forest than they do a given bathroom stall at an interstate rest stop, though they are there, as well.

I meet other changelings who went looking like I did and entered their realms through a penny fountain in a shopping mall food court or the the last gangway connection on a midnight train. Some of them I love and some of them I can’t stand. Some of them I show the scar on my chest and some of them have marks of their own. I tell them all that there is nothing wrong with them.

I clear a path to the door of my quiet place and let the rest of the ground fill with weeds and spiders. I make wishes on the dandelions when their flowers turn to seeded clouds. I wave them like wands. I blow them like candles.

I keep watch. I keep my promise.

Read more:

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Next: ghazal: a version of “Insomnia. Homer”

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