Mom was tired looking—more tired looking even than the last two times she came home from the hospital, when she miscarried very early and there wasn’t even enough of a baby to bury, and I knew she must have made a deal with some otherworld elf or fairy or demon to keep this one alive. Dad was grinning a lot—too much, and he was nervous.
Ave was wrinkled and very small. His skin was grayish and he had no hair, and he didn’t open his eyes for three days, and when he did, he did nothing but squint like the world was too bright and there were no baby sunglasses small enough. We couldn’t tell what color his eyes were for two weeks, and when we finally saw them, they were a disappointing no color, a sort of light blue-gray mist that was so pale Dad worried he might be blind. Also, he had fur.
Not a lot—he wasn’t a satyr or a werewolf or anything like that—but his back and stomach were very fuzzy, and he took a long time to dry after a bath. The doctor said not to worry, that this happened to a lot of babies, but I had seen plenty of babies and I knew it wasn’t true.
The reason I had seen so many babies was because of Aunt Melanie. She was Mom’s sister and lived two blocks away and could not seem to stop having kids. It was like she wanted to rub it in Mom’s face, because Mom was better at literally everything else except for this one stupid unhappy thing. When Mom would pick me up there after school on Tuesdays, she would say things like “Sorry about the mess—you know how it is, well actually I guess you don’t, ha ha,” or “The triplets are such a handful. Seriously, Eva, you can take one if you want, ha ha.” And Mom would ha ha back, but I could see that glint in her eye like she would have taken one of them, or maybe all three, if Aunt Melanie would have really let her.
I wouldn’t have minded. Tuesday afternoons were filled with diaper changing and bottle heating and sometimes Aunt Melanie would have me run the vacuum while she had a lie down, and I would turn on the TV and run the cord around all those babies all over the floor and the couch and the overstuffed chair. Then I would make everyone toast and butter and they would follow me all over the kitchen like baby geese. When it was time for me to go home, someone always cried.
Back in our quiet house, I missed the noise of all those kids breathing and burping and falling over as they learned to walk. Our house was always neat because Mom kept having to go on medical leave and couldn’t find anything else to do with herself besides clean, and Dad was one of those mysterious people who seem to own no belongings and leave no trail. Even after Ave came home, the house was quiet. He didn’t really cry or make noises. Sometimes he grunted a little when he was hungry or needed to be changed, but mostly he just lay in his crib and squinted.
Maybe he didn’t have a chance to learn to cry because Mom and Dad checked on him about every five minutes, like they were making sure he wasn’t going to disappear like their other babies. They started checking on me every five minutes too, even though I was almost eight and I wasn’t going anywhere. They set up baby monitors all over the house, even though there was nothing to see. “Just in case,” they said, and I was pretty sure they meant just in case Ave’s other family came and wanted him back.
Ave didn’t walk until he was almost two. His legs were like little weak sticks, not chubby like Aunt Melanie’s kids. I still watched them all on Tuesday afternoons, even though Mom and Dad didn’t have anything to do on Tuesdays anymore. I guess they just wanted some time to hang around the house together with Ave. I was allowed to walk home by myself now, and sometimes I waited until after dark to leave because I liked the humidity better at night than in the day. At night it felt like a soft heavy blanket, but during the day it was like someone threw you in a sack and tied the top shut. Also, Aunt Melanie had just had twins, and they cried so much it was scary. Sometimes she cried along with them, and no amount of toast and butter could calm everybody down. My walk home was my solitude, the only time between school and little cousins and baby monitors listening to my every move.
Ave lost his fur and his gray skin grew browner, but his eyes were still weird. Mom and Dad took him to an eye doctor, but the eye doctor thought Ave was probably fine. “Just one of those things,” he said, which is what the regular doctor had said about Ave’s refusal to walk or talk. Dad got depressed and worried that he might have fathered a son who he would never be able to play ball with. As far as I knew, my father had never been interested in sports until this very moment, but I told him that if he really wanted to I would play catch with him in the back yard any night that week except Tuesday. I had pretty good aim. He told me, “That’s not the point Shayna,” and I knew he was worried about Ave’s other family, those ball playing, soul stealing, deal making whatever-they-weres, and thinking that maybe he should have kept the original, human Ave, even if he ended up dead.
Uncle Paul stopped being around so much and Aunt Melanie stopped having babies. I wasn’t sure if the babies stopped because Uncle Paul wasn’t there or if he left because there were either too many babies or no new ones. I was about to turn eleven and I knew how baby making worked, but I wasn’t quite sure how Uncle Paul and Aunt Melanie worked.
Melanie got a job and hired a full time nanny and didn’t need me anymore, but she forgot to tell me so I showed up anyway. The nanny was young with shiny skin and long ropy braids. She told me I was free to go but to make sure I watched out for the swamp witch on my way home.
A swamp witch! I was so excited I nearly ran. I didn’t know what a swamp witch looked like, but if I found her surely she would be able to give me some answers about Ave. No one was expecting me home so I slowed my jog to a crawling dawdle, peering through every hole in every fence all the way home. All those familiar houses suddenly looked scary and exciting. I saw a cat—a familiar?—a gnarly tree I used to climb with the girl that lived there before she moved away, an empty hornet’s nest, a scummed over garden pond breeding mosquitos. The swamp witch could be anywhere.
When he turned three, an out of state relative gifted Ave with a bike, a little three wheeled plastic hand me down, faded from sitting in the sun under some other child’s thighs. My parents protested, but Ave climbed on and rode away easily. With my allowance, I bought him a tiny vanity plate, but they didn’t have “Ave,” only “Abe,” so I sharpied out the B as best I could. He preferred riding the bike to walking and dinging the bell to talking, although he now knew how to do both. My parents, even my dad, accepted this. “Just one of those things,” they said.
I enlisted Ave to help me find the swamp witch. Like Aunt Melanie’s kids, he was happy to follow me around and especially happy when the journey ended in toast. We hunted all through the neighborhood, me walking and him riding. As long as I remembered to put sun-screen on his squinty little face and didn’t stay out after dusk, our parents decided it was okay. We didn’t find the swamp witch but I wore holes in the soles of both my sneakers. When Dad took me to buy new shoes, I told the salesperson I was hunting witches, and he recommended a sturdy pair of boots. They were shiny black matte and made me feel I could take on the world. I asked Dad to buy Ave a matching pair, but since his feet didn’t touch anything but the plastic pedals and his shoes still looked brand new, Dad said no.
My new boots had thick rubber soles and Ave had to learn to pedal faster to keep up with me. We started knocking on doors and pretending we needed a glass of water. It was exciting to see inside all those people’s homes even if it was just through the crack of the front door. We got really well-hydrated, but we didn’t find any witch. I didn’t think Mom and Dad would like Ave going into all these stranger’s houses, so I told him not to tell. He just dinged his bell in reply, and I knew our secret was safe.
Finally, I had no other option but to go back to Aunt Melanie’s nanny. It was an especially hot day, and Ave and I really did have to stop and get some water, but it was just Mrs. Gunderson, and she didn’t look at all like a witch. I thanked her profusely and even Ave said “Ta” to her. I was very proud of him. He didn’t usually talk to strangers, although we had stopped at Mrs. Gunderson’s so many times by then that I guess she wasn’t a stranger any more.
When we got to Aunt Melanie’s the nanny looked so tired and overwhelmed that I took pity on her and decided to help out. I could hear screaming over the TV talk shows, and besides, Ave had never met his cousins.
They were very interested in him, but he was wary and dinged his bell in warning every time someone got too close. In the presence of all those fat healthy babies, it was more obvious than ever that he was a changeling. All the babies looked pretty much alike, and I even looked a little like them, or at least what they might look like when they grew up. But Ave’s skin, which we all thought was more skin colored, looked gray once more next to his cousins’ healthy hue. Even though he spent every afternoon with me in the sun, apparently he hadn’t darkened up one bit. Maybe I put on too much sunscreen, or maybe his pallor was more suited to the damp underground world the rest of his people lived in.
When I was sure the cousins weren’t going to torment him too much, I followed the nanny into the kitchen. She was making toast six slices at a time in Aunt Melanie’s industrial sized toaster. I knew I only had seconds before the babies smelled the burning bread and came running, toddling, and crawling in.
“Where does the swamp witch live?” I asked. She pulled her braids up together in a great clump on the back of her head.
“I’m sure she lives in the swamp,” said the nanny. She got out the butter and a steak knife. I guess all the regular knives were dirty and she didn’t remember telling me about the swamp witch.
“When you first met me, and I was leaving, you told me to watch out for the swamp witch,” I said. She looked a little puzzled. Maybe bemused. Maybe Aunt Melanie no longer came home from work and she was stuck here with all these babies that weren’t hers.
“Oh that,” she said. “That’s just something my Grandma used to tell me. I think she just meant to not talk to strangers.”
This was silly, I thought. I had talked to every stranger on our block and now they weren’t strangers anymore, as Ave had proved mere minutes before.
“Are you sure?” I asked. She sighed at me, like every grownup ever.
“Do you want toast?” She asked. “Cause if you and your brother are staying to eat, I’m gonna have to open up a whole nother bag.”
The swamp witch wasn’t real then. I tried to hide my disappointment, but Ave knew something was wrong. He pedaled in tight little circles around me on our walk home, dinging his bell in a question. I wanted to dawdle but it was late and Ave was not allowed out after dark. I dropped him off and continued my sojourn alone. I walked to the bridge over what was left of the river—now a thick and muddy streak. If I were a swamp witch, this is where I would want to live.
I hung my head over the rail and looked at my reflection in the moonlight. My hair was tangled with sweat from the day’s exertions. In the wavery light my face was older and blurred. I was the swamp witch.
“Hello, Swamp Witch,” I said.
“Hello,” my reflection answered back, her voice gravelly, a lot like mine when I had a cold.
“You’re not real, are you?” I asked. “Are you?” She asked me.
“Where is Ave’s family?” I wanted to know.
“Right here,” she said, but was she talking about me, the real me, out here in the hot night, or her underwater witch-ness, buried under the mud? A frog jumped in and scattered my reflection before I could ask her.
I thought about catching the frog as a pet for Ave, but I didn’t want to muddy my boots or remind him too much of his swamp family, just in case. My swamp witch hair was making me hot. I decided I wanted to do my hair in braids like Aunt Melanie’s nanny. I picked my mother a bouquet of palmettos on my way back home.
—Hannah Lackoff’s work has been published in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Shoreline of Infinity, Flapperhouse, and more. Her short story collection After the World Ended was published in May 2016 by 18th Wall Productions. She lives in Boulder, CO with her supportive husband and dog who does not understand how writing can be more interesting than him.