The Rook, The Crow, The Raven – an excerpt

“What do you know about fairies?”

Whatever Rook had been expecting it had not been that. Of all the foster mothers he had been placed with, Mrs Mac was his favourite. So he resisted the urge to laugh or dismiss her question with a few words and decided instead to humour her. 

“You mean little creatures with wings?” 

Mrs Mac went over to the bookshelves. She unfolded the old wooden step ladder that stood by the back door. She placed the stepladder next to the nearest bookshelf and climbed up as far as she could. She reached up and pulled down a large, leather-bound volume, that had been lying flat on top of the bookshelf, out of sight. She dusted off the book with an old tea towel and laid it down on the kitchen table.
“Here, you take a look at this. I'll get ready.” 

Rook ran his hands over the bumpy surface of the tooled leather. As he traced the curving, swirling letters of the title with his fingers, he could not read them, yet there was something achingly familiar about them. He opened the book. The first few pages were very disappointing. They were filled with more of the unreadable script. He skipped ahead several pages. Black and white drawings began to appear. He was able to make out a word here and there, words like 'brownie', 'kelpie' and 'sprite'. Soon the pages were crammed with drawings. Little men with round tummies and pointed ears, smiled up at him. Children wearing hats made out of acorn tops peeped out from behind flower stems. When he realised that he was able to read not just a word here and there, but every word on every page he slammed the book shut and sat back in his chair.  He looked down and read out loud to the empty kitchen, “Fairies and Wee Folk: Their Classification and Habits”.

How was it possible that after looking at the book for a few minutes he was able to read the unfamiliar script? He looked up. The kitchen was not empty after all. Mrs Mac was standing by the door dressed to go out, an old haversack on her back. She handed him a pair of leather goggles. “Here, make sure these fit.” 

He pulled the goggles on. The lenses were a thick orange glass. They made everything in the kitchen look like it was covered in a thin film of marmalade. 

“They'll do,” Mrs Mac nodded. “Best give them back. I'll keep them hidden till we get there.”

“Get there? Where are we going? And that book, how could I read it?

“I heard. Well done. I knew you were bright and capable.” 

Rook was pleased with his accomplishment, although he had no idea how it had been possible. 
Mrs Mac set a brisk pace. She would not answer any of his questions, not even to tell him where they were going. So they walked in silence to the foot of Leith Walk. They arrived at the bus stop just in time to board a bus heading into town. When the bus reached London Road, Mrs Mac nudged Rook in the ribs. They jumped off, raced round the corner and jumped on another bus. Still Mrs Mac refused to tell him where they were going. She kept looking around at the other passengers. When they got to Meadowbank Stadium she nudged him in the ribs again. They hopped off the bus. Mrs Mac grabbed Rook's hand and headed out across the street. London Road was a wide busy road. Rook had been taught to always cross busy roads at traffic lights and to wait for the green man. He began to wonder if he was quite safe with Mrs Mac. 

Once across London Road they turned left and walked towards Holyrood Park. Rook loved coming to the park. Yet Mrs Mac's behaviour was so odd and the day had been so full of unsettling events that he began to wish he was back at home in the attic staring at raindrops on the skylight window. The park was deserted. When they came to St. Margaret's Loch Mrs Mac stopped, took off her haversack, opened it, pulled out the goggles and handed them to Rook.  

“Don't be nervous, dear. No one will notice, just pop them on.”

Rook thought he better humour Mrs Mac. He didn't think she was actually dangerous. He could always talk to his guidance teacher at school if she kept up the weird behaviour. He put the goggles on. At first all he saw were the trees and grass of the park, but with the same smeared marmalade appearance he had noticed in the kitchen. Then he turned to the Loch. The scene was transformed. Winged creatures zoomed across the surface of the water. Where the swans had been, young women splashed, laughed and called out to each other. Rook looked over towards the trees. A group of tiny men, dressed in red and green with large pointy hats, sat in a circle smoking pipes. There were children in acorn hats playing in the grass and gathering flowers. It was all true. The drawings in the book were all real. The goggles allowed him to see pixies and brownies and water sprites. 

When Rook looked at Mrs Mac, there in the exact spot where she had been stood a much younger woman. Her skin had a blue tint to it. There was a soft glow shining in her eyes.  She smiled at Rook and it was Mrs Mac's own kindly smile.
“It's all right, dear,” the stranger said in Mrs Mac's voice. “Just pop the goggles off. You'll see the old me.” Rook whipped the goggles off. There in front of him stood Mrs Mac. Rook felt suddenly dizzy and stumbled slightly. Mrs Mac, if it was really Mrs Mac, put out a hand to steady him. 
Rook said in a small voice, “The truth. I need the truth.”

“You'll have to wait. Too dangerous to speak in the open.”

Rook took one last look around the park. The loch was once again packed with swans. The air above the loch was full some kind of fast flying birds, swallows or swifts perhaps. The little old men with their pipes were gone, in their place stood nothing more than a ring of red and white toadstools. The wildflowers were still there, but the tiny children were all gone.
          * * *

Mrs Mac headed into the kitchen. Rook loved spending time in here, in the alcove, drinking mugs of tea from the brown teapot that always sat in the middle of the wooden table, or staring at the row of mismatched bookshelves that lined one long wall.  On the lower shelves were an odd assortment of children's books with titles like  “What a Canary Girl Needs to Know”, and “A Fly-Boy's Adventures”. Slightly higher up were what looked like school books that covered topics like “Practical Day-Dreaming”, “How To Tell If You Are Lost”, and “Advanced Nonsense”. Rook could not read the titles of the books on the highest shelves. They were written in the same curving script as the large leather bound volume of  “Fairies and Wee Folk: Their Classification and Habits” that Mrs Mac had shown him earlier. He still could not read them. Yet he longed to take them down and look at them. Whenever he asked Mrs Mac if he might do so always replied. “Not time for that yet, dear.” 

“I am very, very proud of you. You did incredibly well.” 

Rook was pleased. Again, he didn't know what he had done well.

“It's all true, then? The stuff in that book.”

“Yes and no. It's a translation of a book written by an ordinary mortal. Full of inaccuracies, but a good starting point for a changeling.”

“A changeling. Is that what I am?” 

“Yes, dear. Fairy folk have always changed their babies with human babies. Oh, fads come and go. When times were hard fairy folk swapped their babies hoping to give them a better start in life. Then it became fashionable to have your child grow up amongst ordinary mortals. All that stopped once the Changeling Act outlawed the practice.”

“How can I be a changeling? If it's been outlawed.”

“Technically, you're not. More of a foundling. The act outlawed the taking of human children.”

“So why call me a changeling if I'm not?”

“Words often stick around. Fairies still think of them children left here to be taken in by human families as changelings.”

“But I wasn't taken in by a family. I was placed in a home.”

“Yes, I know, dear. Fairy children aren't often adopted. Fairy babies are always so sickly, at least at first, nothing major, just not very attractive to prospective parents. As they get older, they never settle long, never quite fit in.”

Had Rook been ill as a baby? He did not remember being ill, but he did not remember anything from that time, so how could he know? He had been found, as a baby, behind the Kirkgate Shopping Centre outside the Maritime Museum, in a wicker basket with a carefully wrapped package containing a squashed silver thimble. Tied to the basket was a hand-written label giving his name but no other information. He had certainly never fit in at the home or with any of his foster families.

“Why would they send us here if we are going to get sick and never find a family?”

Mrs Mac sighed. “Fairies don't really keep up with changes in the human world. The important thing is you know who you are, what you are.”

“But what am I? There are so many different kinds, sprites, pixies, brownies. I saw them in the park.”

“We are all just fairies. Oh, there are lifestyle choices, and sub-cultures, but we are all the same, we are all fairies.”

“We? I can't be a 'fairy'.” As Rook said the word 'fairy' his nose wrinkled.

“It's just a word. We've been called worse.” 

“But it's just so babyish.”

“Try 'elemental', that has a nice grown-up ring to it. Look it's my job to locate changelings and prepare them for a return to fairyland. If I don't catch them when they're young enough, they get stuck here.”

“Where is 'fairyland'?” 

“It's here and there, all around us, but hidden. Fairyland exists alongside the human world. Getting between the two worlds is hard. The more the human world expands, the more fairyland contracts.” Mr Mac took the empty tea mugs and set them by the sink. “Now you best get upstairs and get your homework started, school-day tomorrow.”

Rook wanted to ask about the things he had seen in the park, yet he knew from his trip to Holyrood Park that there was no point in arguing with Mrs Mac, so he went very reluctantly up the stairs to the attic. As he lay on his bed, unable to concentrate on his homework, he wondered if it had all been a dream or if today really was the day his life changed forever.     

Author’s Notes
1. This is an excerpt from the first chapter of a children’s book that I am currently writing.

Copyright © 2015 Lindsay Oliver

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