by K. A. Laity
Phoebe could not say when she first knew that the baby was not right. The strange little thing had been an unpleasant surprise when at last it appeared. What about before that? There was the excitement, the anticipation. There had been an inkling, surely.
Ralph had said it was only nerves. Any young mother might be nervous. But what if she knew? What if her body had tried to tell her?
Maybe if the hairs were not white things would be different. The uncanny blue eyes that seemed to look right through her were bad enough, but the little white hairs everywhere — they were not right.
The doctor and the doula both said not to worry. Ralph didn’t give it another thought. There was a word for it: lanugo, which sounded like a tropical disease. Babies were born with it all the time, hair over their back and arms mostly to keep them warm in the womb.
“Most infants shed it in utero,” her doula insisted. “It’s absorbed completely.”
“You mean they eat it?” Ralph said with a look of disgust. “Yecccch!”
But not white hair like this. And not all over their arms and legs and even the wee bum. Phoebe shivered the first time she touched it dry. During the messy anarchy of the birth itself she was too crazed and painful to think straight. It didn’t really sink in. No, it wasn’t until later that she had to feel those little hairs under her fingertips.
The doctor saw her face fall. “It’s all right. Despite what they say, it can take some getting used to, a new baby. Take your time. And don’t worry — the hair will fall out in a matter of days.”
The doula — whose briskness Phoebe had come to detest — balked at bottle feeding but let the mother have her way. “Breastfeeding’s completely natural and safe,” she kept repeating, but Phoebe insisted that she thought the bottle “more hygienic” and that was why she preferred it.
They didn’t ask why she always swaddled the thing in a blanket while feeding it. Phoebe prepared an argument that she felt more secure doing so. However, no one quizzed her about it. They all seemed happy to let her get on with it. At least they granted that much authority to the new mother. It was probably just as well her mother had passed the year before. She would have been at her constantly, softly criticizing everything Phoebe did as “not the best way” as she had with every other task she ever attempted, from baking a cake to failing her exams.
Yet Phoebe couldn’t help thinking if her mother had been there she might have taken more of the care into her hands. Instead it was there all the time, waiting for her. Ralph made some noises about sharing the work, but he was his father’s son: all talk.
“I just don’t know what to do. You’re so much better at all this,” he’d say with a helpless wave of his hands. Maybe he knew it too and didn’t want to be the one to say so.
She would have to get used to touching it. Every time she tried to tell herself it wasn’t as bad as she thought, but it was. Feeling those little hairs was almost audible, which sounded mental but it was true. That weird way those blue marble eyes followed her, staring at her like it knew something she did not.
It almost never cried.
The day the fairy tale book fell from the pile of baby shower gifts Phoebe at last understood. That was a sign. The thing wasn’t human. It was a changeling. The little folk having a laugh. If she got rid of it, then maybe they’d give the real child back that she was meant to have. The more she thought about it the more Phoebe became certain it was so.
It stared up at her as she ran the water for the bath. Phoebe smiled at it for the first time and realised she was humming a tune. It would be so very easy to do really. I only turned away for a moment, she would say. Only a moment.
K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White Rabbit, Dream Book, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, À la Mort Subite, The Claddagh Icon, Chastity Flame, and Pelzmantel, as well as editor of Weird Noir, Noir Carnival, and Drag Noir. She also writes historical fiction as Kit Marlowe and crime as Graham Wynd. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays, and essays, both scholarly and popular. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.