Finest: Kate Garrett – “Changeling”

Kate Garrett Finest


a strange, ugly child
left in exchange for

a beautiful, wanted child.

My mother sings, mucking out the barn.
The melody reaches me, but
she can’t see her daughter.

I stare into our mare’s deep brown eyes;
nine-year-old thoughts forming:
“I like you, but I do not love you.”

She blows warm air across my cheek.
Her coarse mane frames
solid shoulders. Strong, even teeth

cracked-mirror a crooked smile, while
the scents of saddle polish and grain
swaddle the sunlit May morning.

She turns her head to nuzzle her foal.
My mother stops to gaze at them.
I stand alone, absently plaiting grass with hay.

“I love you, but I do not like you.”
I turn away in the space between,
and laugh at the empty pasture.

“This poem was written as part of my final BA Creative Writing portfolio in 2013/2014, appeared in my first pamphlet The names of things unseen (which was published as one of six collections in the book Caboodle from Prole in 2015), has been printed and reprinted in two magazines and an anthology, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize, before turning up again a few years later in my short pamphlet To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale] (published by Animal Heart Press, 2019).

“Though I’ve written dozens of poems in the years between then and now, this one will always represent an important personal turning point in my writing.

“Quite a lot of my poetry has been a way of processing upsetting and traumatic personal experiences and turning it into accessible art, but often even this was through a lens of folklore, horror, myth, and fairy tale. These days I mostly write fictional poetry in a horror, folkloric, and/or historical vein, because I’m really quite exhausted with revisiting my own trauma so blatantly. Funny then, that I would choose ‘Changeling’ as my poem for Finest, because it is the former – personal but seen through fairyland glasses – but it put me on the road to getting the worst things out into poems, so I would have more headspace to write the latter.

“The back story of the poem is an amalgamation of things. When I was just shy of ten years old, I was over an hour late for school one spring morning because my mother’s pregnant horse was in labour. Seeing to the horse was always my mother’s priority, and I was still her only child at the time, so I simply had to be there and stay quiet, getting me to school was something to deal with later. (‘Why are you late?’ ‘Because the horse had a baby.’) It happened to be the school day when we were taken out of class to learn about periods, and puberty, but I missed most of it for the miracle of mammalian birth in real time. That’s always struck me as beautifully ironic.

“As for the rest of it, my childhood wasn’t an easy one for a lot of reasons. I won’t go into most of the reasons here, but one reason was how strange I was to those around me – or from my perspective, which I now realise is very important, how strange and frightening the world seemed to child-me. The strangeness fed into itself: the more upset I got because of my sensory issues, and my near-constant confusion over crowds and social situations, the more I wanted to just be alone and focus on the things I enjoyed, so the weirder and more awkward I appeared to others. By others, I mean adults, and most of all I mean my mother.

“I wasn’t diagnosed autistic until the end of May 2020 – almost thirty years after the events of this poem, several years after writing it, and three weeks before my 40th birthday – but even so, when I wrote these lines, I obviously knew something else was at play. The easiest way to reconcile my upbringing was the idea of the changeling: a strange faery child who doesn’t quite understand life on earth, left in a beautiful, graceful human child’s place – the child that was supposed to exist, but they got me instead.

“In centuries past, a lot of those “changeling” children (often autistic, or with other disabilities) very sadly didn’t make it, because the belief that they were supernatural creatures was so strong it led to their deaths. In my case the way I did not fit simply led to abuse and neglect. There was, I’m sure, some kind of love there in the loosest sense, but no affection or gentleness, no parent-child bond, just a lot of exasperation and disgust stuffed in where nurturing should be. “I love you, but I do not like you” was a sentence I heard more than once growing up, and was what this poem was built around.

“I’ve reclaimed the changeling metaphor since then almost as a badge of honour – which is why I wrote To Feed My Woodland Bones. Sometimes the faery isn’t driven out or killed or beaten down, sometimes they make it, and whether or not they manage to fit in, they learn to live life well, and do what makes them happy. Suppose a lot of the time they even end up writing poems. I know I’m not the only one.”

Kate Garrett is a writer with witchy ways and a significant folklore, history, and horror obsession. Her work is widely published online and in print. Her most recent books are the historical, time-hopping verse novella Hart & Ha’penny (TwistiT Press, March 2021) and the full-length poetry collection Sunward/Moonwise (Impspired, June 2021). Born and raised in rural southern Ohio, USA, Kate moved to the UK in 1999, where she lives in Shropshire with her husband, five children, and an assortment of land and water pets. Find her on Instagram @thefolklorefaery and her website

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