My grandmother had a distinct talent for storytelling. She would sit beside the open fire on a winter’s evening, her fingers busy knitting, her grandchildren gathered around her. We would beg to hear one of her captivating stories, and she usually relented.
Grandma had grown up in a small rural village in Connemara, Ireland. A place where myths and superstitions were closely woven into the fabric of everyday life. The mystical and the magical, she taught us, were all around in the natural world. I cannot recall any of her stories now, except for one. A tale so bizarre I have never forgotten it.
It was a cold evening, close to Christmas. I was spending a few days with her. I adored her cottage in the countryside, with its well-stuffed handmade cushions, crackling open fire, and smell of fresh baking. It was just Grandma and myself, the rest of my siblings did not accompany me on that occasion.
As we sat together, I was aware of the noise of my grandma’s clicking knitting needles, and the fizzling sounds of the open fire. Grandma looked at me and smiled. “Off you go to bed, Marion,” she said. “You are almost asleep!”
I enjoyed being with her so much, I didn’t want the day to end. “Tell me one of your stories, Grandma”, I begged. “Then I will go to bed.”
Grandma smiled at me and shook her head. “I will tell you a story I have never told anyone,” she said. “Do not repeat this, mind!. For no one will believe you. It is true, nevertheless.
“When I was growing up in Connemara, there was a strange child in my class at the village school. Kara O’Brien was curious looking. Very pale, with dark hair and eyes. Petite, with a little pointed nose and chin. I used to stare at her a lot.
“She didn’t just look odd. She sounded and acted peculiar. Her voice was soft and high pitched, and she didn’t interact with the other children. In fact, the other children left her to herself most of the time. She was just… different!” Grandma stared into the fire as if lost in thought.
“I asked my Aunt Josie about this girl.” Grandma continued. “Aunt Josie was known as a ‘Bean Feasa’ in our area.”
“What is a ‘Bean Feasa’, Grandma?” I asked.
“’Bean Feasa’ is gaelic for ‘Wise Woman’, Marion. Aunt Josie could blend plants and herbs into potions to heal people. Many of her neighbors would consult her if they were suffering from troubles of one kind or another.
“‘You must never repeat what I am going to tell you, child.” Aunt Josie told me. ‘Kara is not an ordinary girl. She is a changeling.’”
My eyes grew wide as I listened to my grandmother. “A changeling?”
“A changeling is a faery child, Marion. It sometimes happened in that rural place. A woman gave birth to a baby, and in the first months of the child’s life, the faery folk came and stole the child away. They would leave another child in the cradle in its place. A faery child, who would grow up and live with the family. That’s what happened in the case of Kara.”
I stared at Grandma. “Kara was a faery?”
“Yes. That’s why she looked and acted as she did. No one realized this, of course. They sensed a difference in Kara, and so she was left alone most of the time. But they didn’t understand why. Some of the older members of the community may have suspected, but only my aunt and I knew the truth.”
Grandma sighed. “I was fond of Kara. She didn’t have any friends, so I would sit close by and smile at her. She had a gentle presence, not at all frightening. I had sworn never to reveal Kara’s secret. And I never did.”
Grandma put her knitting down and smiled at me. The light from the fire cast a rosy glow on her features. She rose from her chair to put the kettle on the stove. I sat there, absorbing the details of the tale as she made herself a cup of tea, and some warm milk for me.
“What happened to the faery child, Grandma?” I asked when we were again seated by the fire holding our warm drinks.
“She grew older, Marion,” grandma continued. “As we all did. Such is the way of things. She remained outside our little group, always aloof, mysterious.
“Kara was an only child. It must have been a lonely existence for her, although she didn’t seem to mind. She spent most of her time with her Mam and Dad in their small farmhouse. Her mother was a delicate soul and was often bedridden with one sickness or another.
“When Kara was eleven years old, a crisis occurred in her family. Her mother was struck down with a serious illness, leaving her father inconsolable. My Aunt Josie called to their house many times in the following months, to treat Kara’s mother with her herbal medicine. Sadly, to no avail. Her illness progressed and she wasn’t expected to survive. Aunt Josie also treated Kara’s father for the terrible melancholy which befell him. Again, to no avail. My aunt despaired for both of them.”
I drank my warm milk. “How awful, grandma” I said. “What happened to them?”
“That’s where the story gets interesting.” My grandmother paused to drink from her teacup.
“One night, as Aunt Josie treated the mother with her remedies, the little girl came and laid her hands on her mother’s head. It was the oddest sight. The child’s pale skin appeared luminescent, she seemed to glow from within. My aunt got quite a fright and backed away.
“The child remained like that for about ten minutes. When she took her hands away, there was a change in the sick woman. Her appearance completely altered. The pale lifeless skin became plump and pink. Her eyes opened, and she smiled. ‘I feel so much better,’ the sick woman said. ‘Get me something to eat, I am hungry!‘
“The woman continued to improve and in a matter of days she was back on her feet. Kara’s mother went on to make a complete recovery. In time, her father’s depression also mended. It was a miraculous outcome for all of them.”
I stared at Grandma. “Did Kara make her Mam better?”
“Yes,” said Grandma. “Of course, it was Kara! The faery child had special powers. My aunt witnessed it. That was why the mother and father recovered and got their lives back.”
I was awestruck. “Gosh, grandma! It was lucky for them Kara was there.”
Grandma’s eyes twinkled. “It wasn’t luck, Marion. Aunt Josie explained it to me. There was a reason the fairy folk had left the changeling with the family. That reason was to heal the mother and father when the time was right.”
“What happened to Kara after that?” I asked.
Grandma sighed and stared into the fire. “Soon after that incident, a major transformation took place. When she was about twelve, almost overnight, Kara changed completely.”
“She began to interact with the other children at school. Soon Kara was laughing at jokes, playing school yard games, answering questions in class. Her gentle, aloof, otherworldly air disappeared. Before long, she was just like the other children, boisterous and full of energy.
“The children noticed the change in Kara, the teachers noticed. We had no explanation for it, and after a while we all just accepted it. When I told Aunt Josie about the shift in Kara’s personality, her eyes became wide. Her face took on that mysterious knowing look she sometimes had.
“‘Kara has indeed changed, child,’ said my wise aunt. ‘The faery child has gone back to her own folk. The girl who sits beside you at school is the real Kara. Back again where she belongs, with her Mam and Dad. All is well!’
“I stared at my aunt. It was unbelievable, but I knew it was true. I had witnessed the alteration in Kara. The faery changeling had gone. She had accomplished her mission to heal the family, and now the real daughter had returned.
“Kara O’Brien grew up strong and healthy. She became a happy popular member of the community and lived a full life. Her parents also remained healthy and contented. There was some whispering and suspicion amongst their neighbors, but no one knew the truth about Kara. Apart from my Aunt Josie and myself. And now you, Marion.”
After she stopped speaking, I stared at my beloved Grandma for several minutes. This was the best story she had ever told. I knew I would never forget it. And I never did.
This story was previously published in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, in 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Ursula O’Reilly is a writer/artist living in County Cavan, Ireland. She is the author of numerous poems and short stories. Other interests include painting, reading, and walking in nature.
Ursula’s work has appeared online and in various literary magazines including: ‘Dawntreader Magazine’, ‘Vita Brevis Press’, ‘The Literary Yard’, ‘Poetry Plus magazine’, ‘Woman’s Way magazine’, ‘Young Ravens Literary Review’, ‘Otherwise Engaged Literary and Arts Journal’, ‘Personal Bests Journal ’and by ‘Earlyworks Press’.