The folkloric changeling is a creature that is left in exchange for a human child. As the name implies, a changeling alters its appearance to resemble the stolen child; the parents are—ideally—none the wiser.
It’s cheerful stuff.
I’m reading The Stolen Child, by Keith Donohue. The story is told by each child: he who is lost, and he who is left behind. The father suspects.
‘A feathery mist rose from the lawn and he stood, his back to me, in the middle of the wet grass, calling out my name as he faced a stand of firs. A dark trail of footsteps led into the woods ten feet in front of him. He was stuck to the spot, as if he had startled a wild animal that fled away in fear. But I saw no creature. By the time I drew near, the dimenuendo of a few raspy calls of “Henry” lingered in the air. Then he fell to his knees, bent his head to the ground, and quietly wept.’From The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
The story is a ‘modern fairy tale’. Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, praises the book as being ‘unsentimental’, which means the characters have sex.
The father commits suicide four blocks from his not-son’s college dorm.
Which is my beef with contemporary fiction. I haven’t finished the book, but I’m fairly certain that the suffering of this man will serve no purpose other than itself. His death will, finally, become a character’s memory and regret, and will further nothing except the sense that life is pain.
This seems to be the mantra of modern fiction: life is pain. In the guise of realism, contemporary fiction is steeped in alcoholism, infidelity, and abuse. Morality is a shattered remnant of itself. Which is, of course, all true. Is there anyone reading this whose life is unscathed, and who doesn’t see the world as broken? Pain is nothing new. Ask Job.
But the realism of contemporary fiction is unrealistic. For the rest of us, suffering has its point. I think people criticize sentimentality because they see it as ignoring the murkier pools of life. I disagree. Sentimentality accepts pain, and moves on.
What’s this to do with fatherhood? I’ve no idea. I only know that I was moved by this father’s pain. There’s a fair amount of pain in fatherhood; much of it self-inflicted. Ian isn’t a changeling—who would choose me as a father?—but there’s a distance between us, between all parents and their children. Between the Father and His children.
And a purpose of that pain is the joy, the hope, of reconciliation.