Myth Monday: Brewing Eggshells (Irish Folktale)
Myth Monday: Brewing Eggshells (Irish Folktale)
There are such things as fairies, you know. There are many of them, many different kinds, hailing from different kingdoms, but all of them are suffering. Their numbers are dwindling, and many of the elders take sick with a wasting disease that fairy magic cannot treat. Fearing for the loss of their race, many of the Fair Folk have sought for ways to build up their populations and to care for their ill.
It is common for fairies to kidnap humans, particularly beautiful human babies, which they then rear as their own in their realms, and when they reach adulthood, the children marry fairy ladies and lords, bringing new life to the bloodlines. When the fairies discovered that their sick members could receive some measure of healing by eating human food, it became customary for the Bright People to take a human infant, disguise a sick fairy as the baby, and then leave the fairy in the baby’s place. They felt it was the best course of action, as they were taking a healthy child away from its family without its parents’ blessing—by switching the baby with a sick fairy, called a changeling, the human parents would never know the difference.
Unfortunately, an ill fairy is one of the orneriest creatures on earth, short-tempered and vicious, taking delight in tormenting its horrified adopted family and devouring as much as it could lay its hands on.
This is what happened to Mrs. Sullivan.
Mrs. Sullivan had a beautiful, healthy baby boy, her firstborn, and she loved him more than words could describe. She showered affection on the infant, and he was the happiest baby in all of Ireland … until one morning when Mrs. Sullivan woke and found her boy sitting up in his cradle, fixing her with a look that made her blood curdle. That vile stare followed her around the house as she worked, filling the home with an eerie coldness. He did not smile or babble as he used to, never held his arms out to her.
The baby sat and glowered at Mrs. Sullivan and her husband until the couple sat down for dinner, and when he saw what they were eating—and that he wasn’t getting a taste of any of it—he threw such an unholy fit that the combined strength of Mrs. Sullivan and her husband couldn’t pin the infant down. The baby, who was a scant six-months-old and barely able to roll over, stood and leapt out of his cradle, tearing around the house, smashing crockery, flipping tables, kicking hot coals out of the fireplace, screaming devilishly at the top of his lungs, until the terrified Mrs. Sullivan gave him some food to eat.
This behavior went on for days, growing worse with each hour. The baby would sit in his cradle, giggling maliciously as windows mysteriously cracked and plates shattered, the rocking chair would gallop wildly by itself across the room, doors would lock Mr. Sullivan out and Mrs. Sullivan in. The baby would rock itself wildly in its crib, howling until Mrs. Sullivan fed it. It would snarl at Mr. Sullivan and raise an ungodly sound if the man received his dinner first. After Mr. Sullivan woke up one morning to find that clumps of his hair had been torn out, he bolted from the house, refusing to come back in until they found a way to get rid of this evil child.
Distraught, Mrs. Sullivan went to her neighbors, begging for help. Those that didn’t cross themselves and hurry away would cross themselves and recommend that she heat a pair of metal tongs in her fireplace and pinch the baby’s nose with them to drive the devil out. Others suggested that she throw the baby into a pot of boiling water. Some said she should just beat the lousy brat until it behaved.
Sickened, frightened, at a loss without her husband and unable to bring herself to harm this thing—for that’s what it was, a thing, not her beloved son, she knew it—because it looked too much like her child, Mrs. Sullivan sat out on her front stoop as the creature napped inside and buried her face in her hands, stifling sobs. She was at her wit’s end … and out of food. The thing had eaten everything in the house. She had nothing left to give it, and she was terrified of what it would do when it found out.
Oddly, something caused Mrs. Sullivan to look up. She hadn’t heard anything, but something drew her attention to her garden wall, as though her name had been called. Seeing who stood there, Mrs. Sullivan sat up with a jolt, choking on a gasp.
Just outside her garden gate stood Ellen Leah. Everyone said Ellen Leah was a witch … and secretly, Mrs. Sullivan believed it. Despite her silvery hair, Ellen looked to be no older than thirty, and she had looked that way since Mrs. Sullivan’s grandmother had been a child. No one knew where Ellen lived or how she traveled, always seeming to just … materialize … out of nowhere. Her clothing was strange, her black skirts high above her ankles, a wine-red corset wrapped around her torso, a soft black fringed shawl draped loosely over her bare shoulders. A long, slim dagger hung at her left hip, a bulging leather pouch at her right, and a silver triskelia hung on a fine chain around her neck.
Ellen nodded her head. “Good morning, Mrs. Sullivan,” she said. She smiled, bit it seemed tinged with … pity. “How are ye?”
“I …” Swallowing hard, Mrs. Sullivan nervously glanced over her shoulder to the closed door of her house, hiding the monstrosity inside. “I …”
Ellen nodded again. “Aye. I’ve heard.”
A shock of disbelief bolted through Mrs. Sullivan. “Ye have …?”
“Aye.” Ellen leaned over the wall. “I know what it is,” she whispered.
Her eyes flying open, Mrs. Sullivan shot to her feet and raced to the garden gate. “Ye do? Ye know about it? What it is?”
Her flawless brow furrowing, Ellen held up a hand, motioning for Mrs. Sullivan to lower her voice. “I heard all the talk. ‘Tis a changeling ye have there, dear. The Bright People took yer son and left a sick fairy in his place for ye to care for ‘til it recovers or dies.”
Feeling her knees buckle, Mrs. Sullivan dug her fingernails into the wood slats of the garden gate. “What will they do to me child?”
“They’ll raise ‘im to manhood and marry ‘im to a fairy lass.” Seeing the question in Mrs. Sullivan’s huge eyes, Ellen sadly shook her head. “Ye’ll nay see ‘im again. The fairies never let their captives go freely … unless ye can expose the changeling.”
Confusion and horror tearing through her, Mrs. Sullivan stared at the witch. “Expose it? How?”
A mischievous smile spread slowly over Ellen’s face. “Ye’ve got to trick ‘im into revealin’ who he really is. Once he’s shown himself to be a fairy, he has to return yer baby.”
“W-what if he won’t?”
“Oh, I have a plan for that. Listen carefully …”
As soon as Ellen Leah finished whispering the instructions to Mrs. Sullivan, the woman thanked and blessed the witch for her kindness, then ran to her chicken coop, gathering up what few eggs she was able to find in her apron. Rushing back into her house, Mrs. Sullivan set the eggs down next to the hearth, built up the fire, and stuck an iron poker in the embers. As the iron grew red hot, Mrs. Sullivan then took her copper kettle, filled it with water, and placed it on the hook next to the flames. Finally, taking a bowl, she knelt down beside the fire and began cracking the eggs, tapping them on the hearth stones, emptying the yolks into the bowl, and dropping into the shells into the boiling kettle.
With all the noise she made, Mrs. Sullivan woke the creature up, and it peered blearily over the edge of the cradle at her. Seeing the woman toss the egg shells into the water, the thing blinked, then sat up straighter.
After a moment of watching, it said, “What are ye doin’, Mammy?”
The voice that spoke to her was not the voice of a child. No, it was the haggard voice of an old man, and Mrs. Sullivan nearly froze in terror. Resisting the urge to turn and look at the beast, she instead dumped the yolk out of another egg and tossed the shell in. “I’m brewin’, me son.”
“Brewin’ what, Mammy?”
“Ale, me son.”
“What are ye usin’ for the ale, Mammy?”
Drawing in a steadying breath, Mrs. Sullivan reached down and wrapped her hand around the handle of the iron poker, drawing it out a span. It was glowing red hot.
She swallowed hard. “I’m brewin’ eggshells for the ale, me son.”
“WHAT?!?!” Outraged, the changeling leapt to his feet. “Never in me five thousand years of existence have I heard of a woman brewin’ eggshells for ale! Why, I …! I … uh … I mean …”
His secret revealed, Mrs. Sullivan instantly clamped down on the poker and ripped it free of the fire, spinning around and leaping to her feet, facing the petrified changeling. “Give me back me son, ye horrid—!”
Horrified at the sight of the poker—iron alone was enough to kill a fairy, and a red hot one wouldn’t have made the death any easier—the changeling screeched and threw out his hands. Something at Mrs. Sullivan’s feet moved—the bowl of egg yolks, sliding across the hearth—and the poor woman planted her heel in it. Her foot shot out from under her and Mrs. Sullivan slipped, falling to her knees with a cry of pain, the iron poker flying from her hand and clattering thunderously to the floor beside the cradle.
Seeing the changeling duck back into the cradle, Mrs. Sullivan bared her teeth and lunged, grabbing up the poker again, catching the side of the cradle and jerking it towards her. She rose up sharply on her knees, raising the smoking iron over her head—
Surprised, her sweet baby boy stared up at her. Blinking once, he smiled and cooed, reaching his soft arms out for her. Overjoyed to have her child back, Mrs. Sullivan threw the iron back into the fireplace and gathered her baby to her.
Soon word spread of how Mrs. Sullivan outwitted a changeling. Her husband returned, and their lives returned to normal … and the fairies thought twice about stealing any more babies.