They called her a witch.
It was mixed with the other insults passersby threw at her.But when the word witch landed on the sidewalk, she snatched it up like a fallen coin, tucked its metallic shimmer into her pocket to save for later. It was sharp, but lovely in a way. She decided to make it her own.
If anyone asked her name, she would have told them Bird. She would have clarified that she was not, in fact, a bird, but the pigeons and sparrows told her things like she was one of them. They show me the future, she’d laugh, the patterns in the weave of the world. See the shapes swallows trace in the sky? The way robins hop over the tangles? And people would shake their heads and walk away.
This was not what happened when Changeling met Bird.
Changeling was a slippery word, Bird knew, honey dusted with pollen-- or maybe just dust, from centuries inside books about folklore. Yet when Changeling herself spoke it, it was like the honey crystallized. The sun shining through it cast an amber-hued shadow, but you wouldn’t want to put it in your mouth. A changeling was a faery child left to replace a kidnapped human, and the word, even reclaimed, tasted of otherness.
Changeling had been following the messages. She was the kind of person who read scrawlings on alley walls, found the cryptic phrases always in purple Sharpie. And these words connected to the shimmering threads she saw crisscrossing the world.
She hated these threads. Somehow, though, she couldn’t resist following the thread tied to the purple-Sharpie words. They were a mystery, one she had to solve.
On an autumn day that still felt like summer, Changeling caught up to Bird. Changeling had followed the thread to a bus stop, where a phrase on the sign in purple was still shiny.
“She will fall at midnight, under a star,” Changeling read.
“Exactly. The birds told me.”
Changeling turned to find Bird uncomfortably close behind her. “Who?”
“A pigeon outside the bakery on 16th.”
“No, who will fall?” Changeling could sense the taut thread between her and Bird. She could smell the uncapped Sharpie behind Bird’s ear. Wasn’t the answer to a mystery supposed to be an ending, not more questions?
“I don’t know. The birds showed me a fall, a time, a star. They don’t tell me where in the weave that pattern will fall.”
“I…” She realized Bird had mentioned a weave. A thousand fragments analyzing what she was about to say rushed through her brain. “I can see them too. The threads.” She hated herself for it. She hated the constant reminder that she was not normal; she saw more than anyone knew but would never be believed.
“Threads.” Bird repeated the word as she bent to pick something up. She showed it to Changeling— a stiff fiber as if from a rope, but strangely shiny. “Can you read the patterns from the birds?”
“Do you want me to teach you?”
The part of Changeling that could feel the scratch of the fiber on her tongue, that just wanted to pretend she was normal, wanted to say no. Summer heat and the scent of Sharpie hung in the air. Changeling wanted to know everything-- “Yes.”
Bird grinned. It made her look younger, and Changeling realized Bird wasn’t much older than herself. “I have a perfect spot for bird-watching.”
This spot was the rooftop of an abandoned building. The two girls leaned against a chimney, surrounded by purple-Sharpie scribblings, under a broken sign proclaiming “Five Stars.” In between lessons, Bird didn’t ask Changeling any of the normal questions-- how old are you (eighteen), are you in college (taking a gap year), what are you planning to do (...). She asked about Changeling’s dreams, her thoughts on fate, on whether birds were angels.
“That swoop, what did it mean?” Bird pointed out where a starling dived toward the ground.
“A fall? Or maybe a risk?”
“You were right the first time, a fall. Have confidence in yourself. He’s continuing… it’s the fall I wrote about before. Midnight, star… friend!”
“I saw it this time! He added the one that went like--” Changeling drew the pattern in the air with her finger. “Does that mean it’ll involve a friend?” Bird nodded. “But whose friend? Will someone get hurt? Shouldn’t we find them?”
“That’s where finding the pattern in the threads comes in.” Bird fidgeted with the cap of her Sharpie. “That’s why I write what I know around the city. Hoping the right person sees it.”
Changeling couldn’t think of anything to respond, though some emotion swelled within her. They sat there a long time, watching the silhouettes of birds against the sunset, and even after, when city lights pierced the night.
“Why the name Changeling?” Bird asked.
“You know the myth?”
“I knew people saw me as other. A shoddy imitation of a human. I didn’t talk the same, didn’t act the same, didn’t understand what they thought I should be. Sometimes I’m proud of being different, but sometimes--” Held-back tears blurred her vision. “They tell you it’s good to be different! But then when you are, they tell you to hide that part of yourself. I want to be proud of who I am but I also want to hide it and I’m not sure what I want!”
Bird pressed something metallic into Changeling’s hand. Its sharp edges shimmered in the faraway light. “Witch,” she explained. “You can choose to make words your own or brush them away. I understand. I can keep changeling for you, if you want. Till you decide whether you want it.”
“Changeling,” the girl whispered, and felt the sticky crystals drop from her lips. She closed her waterlogged eyes, but not before she saw the threads entwining around the two of them. Somewhere, a clock chimed midnight. And one girl fell into another’s arms underneath a star.
I only learned about this contest a few days ago and threw the story together in one evening, then had to get rid of about 250 words to fit the limit. A line I love but had to cut is "She touched a finger to the ink; it came away with a backwards letter a printed on her skin." Anyway, I'm very intrigued by the changeling mythos and what people choose to define themselves by. Thank you for reading my story!