's 2017 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Felix Kalavera

They exchanged him. I knew right away. I could read it in the sorrowful face of my father and the lonely sobbing of my mother in the dark candlelit room of our old house even though they pretended that nothing had changed. That boy. That thing that lay in my brother's crib it wasn't meant to lie there. It wasn't even meant to be.

The babe that was clutching to my mother's breast had gone. Disappeared. Instead it was lying there. The eyes as black as night. A face as pale and beautiful as a waning moon.

When the villagers came to welcome the babe the old Lena knew as soon as she laid her eyes on him just like I did. Her huge gnarly hands grabbed me tenderly by the shoulders and a sharp sigh escaped from her mouth. A hiss escaping between her crooked yellow teeth. I saw fear crawling over her wrinkly, coarse face. Old Lena knew the old ways. The ways of the earth and the trees and the mountains. The people in the village despised her, shunned her but they came to her when illness befell them, when they needed advice or help that our good pastor couldn't give. I can still feel her breath reeking of wine close to my ear and her voice, like the trickling of sand: "He's not your brother, girl. The hidden folk took 'em."

He grew up fast. Unusually fast. A frail sickly boy. The people spoke of such matters but they said that the devil's children or the children of the 'little people'were malformed and ugly but he wasn't, his black eyes staring beneath long black eyelashes, glowing like rubies when the light fell upon them. The villagers turned their heads, when he walked through town holding my mother's hand greeting him with a strange veneration, unfit for a little boy. He never answered. He was as mute as a fish. As silent as a grave. When he sat in our yard the animals came to him like he called them to keep him company. He was especially fond of cats and spent hours stroking their fur. Even little birds, sparrows and finches landed on his shoulders and hands, twittering.

Unmoving like a stone he sat there. Peering into the dark woods, seeing things not meant to see. He grew mischievous. Things happened to me. Misfortunes. Small at first but getting worse. The milking stool collapsed when I sat on it. The hot pan that burned my hand. The horse kicking but missing me. The ice that cracked beneath me when we skated on the frozen lake. The accident with the sickle. I could feel his eyes on the back of my head every time those things happened and when I turned around I could see his smile as cold and sharp as a knife. He knew that I knew. He wanted me gone. Nobody believed me. I searched for old Lena and found her. Her voice like the trickling of sand answered me: "Girl, when you get home pretend to boil water in hollow eggshells. The changeling will reveal itself. But beware! Whatever it does, do not look into its eyes."

When I got home he was sitting there, expecting me. His black eyes staring right into mine. He hit the table with the palm of his little hand. Rhythmically. Like a slow drum but he never ceased staring. I pretended not to notice, cracking open the eggs. When I had laid the hollow eggshells in front of me the drumming stopped. Every muscle in my body was tense as I still felt his eyes peering at me. I made belief that there was water boiling in the eggshells and heard his steps approaching me. I turned around and with a feeble voice I told him to be careful, because the water was hot while trying not to look into his eyes. I could see his mouth though, twisting into a smile that somehow reminded me of a gutted cat I had seen years before. My heart pounded so hard that its beating drowned out all other sounds in the rooms. I noticed that his teeth were long and sharp. Made to tear bloody flesh from bones. Made to snap bones in two. A voice emerged from this mouth. A voice as old as trees. As old as wind. A murmur like an animal trying to sound like a human. Every hair on my body stood up as the voice spoke:

"Sister, I saw the egg before the hen. I saw the acorn before the oak. But never have I seen someone boiling water in eggshells."

With a shrill laugh that I can still hear in my dreams he was gone. Feeling sick, I lay unto the floor shaking and trembling until I heard a babe crying in the other room. I approached the crib and held my baby brother against me and sang to him to calm him, to calm us both.