‘I love Christmas!’ Cyst was angrily untangling some tinsel.
‘The best!’ replied Footrot, although xe* was a bit uncertain; this would be xyr first time Upside. Xe made last-minute adjustments to xyr first-ever changeling: tweaked the smile, patted the skin back into place. It was a good changeling, and xe had a beginner’s pride in xyr handiwork. An arm—all twisted roots and rat’s tails—fell off; Footrot taped it back into place and, Cyst wasn’t watching, kissed it better.
‘How’s this?’ Cyst had tied the tinsel around some old turkey bones, and added a stale plum pudding for a head. ‘Well, anything’ll do. No fuss. Just grab the new human, leave your dummy, get back home lick-spit. Got it?’
‘Sure.’ Footrot smoothed xyr changeling’s moss hair into place. ‘And I get to keep the baby?’
‘No! Ugh! Babies must work; chop down the world for us. I told you this!’
‘Oh yeah. OK.’ Footrot smiled into xyr changeling’s pebble eyes.
‘Pfft!’ snorted Cyst.
Then they were off, climbing Chimneystair to Upside. Cyst’s changeling was in a sack; Footrot held xyr one up to see the stars as they burst into the night.
Baby smells were strongest at the hospital. By the—ugh— fairy-lights of a large Christmas tree in the courtyard, they searched the corridors, scruffling in cupboards and upsetting rubbish bins. They found a whole room of tiny new humans, asleep in the rainbow dusk of the tree lights that danced in the breeze outside. It reminded Footrot of marsh gas, will-o-the-wisps, oil spills.
‘Ohhh; pretty.’ Footrot whispered.
‘Pfft. Grab a pretty one if you like, it doesn’t matter.’
But it mattered to Footrot. Xe walked up and down the lines of bassinettes, prodding at the babies’ bellies. ‘They’re very soft.’
‘Yup. Almost mushy, innit.’
‘What happens to the changelings we leave?’ xe asked.
‘Ha, don’t you ever listen in class? That’s the best part! They’ll become brats. They’ll be so awfully bad Upside, their parents will cry, then beat their awful child. And they’ll all be miserable. Every Christmas will be the worst ever. It doesn’t matter though. Well, not to us…’
‘Beat them? Right…’ Footrot inspected the sleeping babies, sniffed their milky smells and dabbed a finger on their rosebud cheeks. ‘I dunno…’ Xe shifted xyr grip on xyr changeling; somewhere in its stick body a thorn was poking out, digging into xyr side and tickling him.
‘You done? Grab one, shove it in your sack, we gotta go.’
‘You’re the prettiest one,’ whispered Footrot, in the multi-coloured gloom. ‘Sure; I’m done’ xe called, and followed Cyst back out into the night, small things wriggling in the sacks under their arms. There was a low giggle.
‘You hear something?’ asked Cyst.
‘Nope!’ Footrot looked as innocent as a goblin face would allow. ‘Shhhh,’ xe whispered, looking down into the sack ‘You’re safe with me, prettiest baby.’
From the gloom of the sack, two pebble eyes blinked lovingly back at him.
*For a note on the gender-neutral pronouns in this piece, please click here