by Cinzia DuBois
tw: the following story covers the issue of eating disorders.
History is full of stories of heroes failing where they should succeed; and when they fail, they usually do so spectacularly. Don’t get me wrong, heroes are all very good at their job; they’ve completed many masterful quests and epics which have enraptured and enchanted me throughout my life. There are tales, however, usually hidden amidst fragments of Greek and Roman poetry, Norse mythology and Middle-English scriptures, which reveal the kinks and holes in the legendary tapestries. These tales recall the mythological arrows which can pierce the unpierceable armour, and speak of storms which drown unsinkable ships, of illimitable stamina exhausted by reality and of undying love broken by death. Some of these tales are true, others complete fantasies; but the large majority tend to be elaborate exaggerations and imaginative twists on reality: contortions of the real, infected by the human imagination. What lore quietly reveals to us is that no one is invincible or infallible; everyone and everything is susceptible to err, damage, fault and weakness. There is always a way to defeat the invincible hero, just as there is always a way to destroy the invincible beast. No matter how powerful and frightening the enemy, or how heroic the hero, how kind the fairy, how loving the mother, how daring the daughter; lore has repeatedly told us that no one ever completely safe.
I’m an artist by nature, but a scientist at heart, and as such I’ve never believed in much. I’ve always enjoyed reading and drawing myths and legends; I even dedicated four years of my life to studying ancient mythology and its reverberations throughout literary history. But they were all just myths, shavings of creativity found in the dusty woodwork of millions of books written throughout history. I believed as much in their corporeal validity as I did werewolves, curses and the commercial marketing holiday guised as the “christmas spirit”. I had always been skeptical of mysticism, I knew all magic was technical trickery, that psychics talked to thin air, and that only some people felt some kind of divine presence in their life but that wasn’t a universally applicable experience, just in the same way that not everyone sees colour or hears sound. Someone’s experience of reality is legitimate to themselves as much as they know it to be, whether they have scientific evidence to support them or not. I didn’t believe in ghouls or legends, in gods or magic, and I still don’t. They’re not part of my experience in life, therefore to me they are not real. Like I said, I’ve always been a sceptic when it comes to most things, but I’m not as dismissive of the legitimacy of people’s beliefs and hypothesise as I once was. As I grew up I realised that myths were not much different from art which, as Plato explained in his theory of mimesis, is twice removed from truth. They may not be truth themselves, but their metaphysical existence in our world derived from a corporal being or experience. Whispers of poltergeists and ghouls emerge from the death of those who have been, superstitions derive from coincidental incidents, vampiric tales evolved from ignorance of the body’s decomposition cycle, and victims of congenital porphyria inspired the concept of werewolves.
Lore, it would seem, is assigned to aid the digestion and comprehension of the unexplainable and unfamiliar; which is why the vast majority of it seems to derive from psychosis and deformities. Those whose bodies, minds, beliefs, appearances, sexualities or behaviours were abnormal from societal standards and expectation were casted as other, and treated with suspicion, cruelty and injustice. It would seem, therefore, that there are witches, vampires, goblins and werewolves in the universe, but they aren’t born as such: they are manmade. They are existential productions, projections on unique canvasses, and were subsequently deemed “monstrous” by the minds that invented them. Projection has always been a dangerous characteristical flaw, though dangerous only to the muse of the perpetrator.
Most of us in the Western world would like to believe we have transgressed the susceptibility to folklorish stupidity; that rapidly advancing science and accessible, widespread education have eradicated these inhumane and ridiculous prejudices. But just because we don’t respond to irrational violence against the unconventional or resort to illogical and fantastical species classification doesn’t mean our attitudes and mental behaviour have adapted proportionally. I don’t say this out of unjustly embellished cynicism towards Western society, I promise you, I’m a fair and balanced individual. No I’m afraid I speak from facts, albeit somewhat anecdotally validated, though none the less organic and sincere. What possible anecdotal evidence do I have to support this claim, I hear you ask. Simple: I was once a changeling.
According to European folklore, a changeling is a kind of fairy which serves as a substitute for a kidnapped human, usually a baby. The legend cautions the listens of occasions when a changeling, whose life usually remained hidden in the realm of the fairy world, would bring their sickly fairy child and trade it for a healthy human one.
Come! O, human child!
To the woods and waters wild,
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping then
you can understand.
Whilst written about by renowned poet W. B. Yeats, the mythology of the changeling had a dark reasoning. You see, those identified as changelings were those who were disfigured, disabled or mentally unwell. Believed that their disabilities were otherly, thus requiring immediate treatment, these children, and sometimes adults, were forced to undergo the changeling cleansing ritual. The methods of this varied; some parents abandoned their infant children in wooded ‘fairy glens’ for a day to allow the changeling to undo the trade and return their child to them, but other methods involved feeding the child foxglove tea to burn the changeling out internally, whilst another was scooping the changeling child onto a shovel and holding it over a red hot fire in hope the changeling would be exhumed. Court records reveal how the changeling cleansing ritual defence exempted parents from child neglect and murder, but in the cases of adult cases of changeling suspicious, these heinous crimes, strangely, were not so forgivable. A famous account of this is the murder of Bridget Cleary by her husband Michael in 1895 who, believing she was a changeling due to changes in her personality leaving her cold, distant, and a strange illness which she was struck down with after she returned home having been gone a few days, immolated her whilst she was alive on her own kitchen floor, surrounded by her friends and family.
Whilst not every culture has moved on from this degree of barbaric treatment of others, superstition, and irrational, cruel responses to it, have vanished significantly in the western world; but the changeling mentality hasn’t died out entirely. People, it would seem, are still excessively judgemental, rude and dismissive of those who are physically and mentally different from them. Whilst I have heard numerous cruel and obnoxious tales of treatment towards friends and acquaintances of mine by strangers on the tube or in a shop just because they have some form of disfigurement, they are not my stories to tell, and therefore I shall not relay them. I can only speak of my experience when I was a changeling, or rather treated as such, and fortunately my experience was temporary. Those who would have been casted as changelings are less violently treated, but still mistreated and judged. They are still as otherlings of society. Changelings don’t have a universal identifying trait; each one is unique, though some overlap. My changeling infected me from within; it manifested my mind for years, unbeknown to those around me, but it was only when it began to show itself physically that I realised what I had become.
First the changeling stole my hair. It began to drop straight out my head. Tangled round the drain hole, gurgling up the soapy water clogging at my feet, my golden locks looked repulsive. The sight, whilst initially terrifying, disturbed me more for its putridity, which was precisely what my changeling had wanted. To feel fear would be to show concern for myself, and my changeling wouldn’t have prospered from that. Not all changeling experiences are the same, but mine was like a virus; it required a particular habitat of its host. A fearful mind would be too destructive for it; it needed the host to feel disgust. It needed the host to wish to flee its own body, to crawl out their own skin, to shrivel up into oblivion.
The changeling couldn’t stomach human foods, it was entirely carnivorous for human entity, and for that it needed me to stop digesting anything but myself. Every time I ingested something external of my own being I heard the changeling roar, deafening my senses with its burning shrieks of agony and violent, vomiting screams. It crawled at the inside of my skull with its fingernails until they were bloody and blunt before resorting to grinding its teeth against my bone. The torture was so horrifically distracting and painful that I began to retract from myself and dedicated my life to serving the needs and desires of the changeling. For years I had spent my life being eaten up by nothing. My facial features became too big for me, they barely fit on my face. They bulged as my head strunk. My arms and legs became so weak that they fought against each other to try and steal as much life and strength as they could from their counterpart; were one arm to lie across another in bed it cut off all blood circulation, shocking its rival into an agonising fit of paraesthesia that would keep the rest of me awake for hours, sobbing into the night. In order to mollify my warring limbs I resorted to gently tying my limbs with velvet ribbons to the legs of my bed whilst I slept, with one ribbon long enough for my mouth to reach in the morning, allowing me to undergo the process of releasing myself into another long and painful day. This worked for a while until my spine began to protrude from my back. I would feel the bone scraping against the springs of my mattress but that was ok, the changeling assured me, I could always buy more blankets with the little money I had. It wasn’t like I needed it for food anymore.
People are frightened and disturbed by changelings, many find them a threat. As though the virus is infectious, speak to a changeling like a normal or kind person and they’ll drain you of your soul and get you too. They’re embarrassing to be around. Changelings like myself were ironically ugly; I was cursed with a fairy chasing aesthetic perfection, but the public are ignorant. My changeling wasn’t interested in beauty. It would be wrong to associate the chase of changelings like myself to one undergone in the name of vanity, although some are. No my changeling was in the chase of undeniable strength. It had prayed on me, and chosen me as its host, because I was a pre-trampled and flattened environment, ideal for its growth. People had torn me down my whole life, my confidence and esteem were mythological ideals to me. My changeling felt the same way, my changeling was small, timid and mistreated all its life, so it decided to demonstrate its power through my impervious self-control. Everyone had treated me like dirt on their shoe, but now I was so strong I could defy the very calls of nature. I was a superhuman, entirely self-sufficient. I was such a magnificent creature that I fuelled myself, I was a self-powered entity. I was defying science, advice, strange looks, concerned friends: I was proving them all wrong, because every day I continued to wake up and study and work just as I always had done before.
Then, my success began to slip. Something wasn’t quite right. I found it harder to focus on the words in books, remember people’s names or even the tasks I was mid-way through doing. My work began to slow down, as did I. So did my heart. I stopped being able to walk as much, perhaps only for an hour a day. One day my eyes, whilst open, went entirely black. I smashed my face against a marble floor, I tasted blood in my mouth as I crawled around, dragging my body, my chest throbbing against the cold stone. My eyes were open but I couldn’t see a thing. It took a while for my vision to return. My perfectionism was slipping, so a change had to be made. My changeling advised me that it was my skeleton that was getting in the way. My ribcage was too big, it warned me, I didn’t need all the space; the bones overestimated the size of my lungs, and now I had proven I could live off barely any food, I certainly didn’t need as much air. I read somewhere that there were corsets still in production, some designed specifically to change the shape of your ribcage. I found them online. There were warnings that they could break your ribs so I researched how many rib bones I needed and assured myself I could easily have a few removed without much damage to my overall health.
Aye, there’s the rub. I leant back in my chair, slowly drew the laptop lid to a close and allowed that final thought to sink in. If I regarded the breaking and removal of rib bones as a healthy, what on earth was my conception of health? I scratched feebly at the bald patches on my head with my dumpy, finger nail-less fingers, tracing the fine stubbles of hair poking from my scalp before getting up from my bed and undressed myself down to my knickers which, too big for me, were pinned by a safety pin. I then set my camera on a timer on the desk, taking a step away and allowed the flash to blink away rapidly for ten seconds before confronting the image I saw in the preview finder. I didn’t own mirrors in my flat, except for the one in the bathroom which was too high on the wall for me to even see my face. What I saw on the screen was some kind of ugly Dryad, though rather than a tree she was a weed. My spindly legs and arms, the skin drawn so close to the muscle, looked purple, whilst the skin around my chest bones and huge ribcage were translucent. For just a woman of twenty-one I looked like an old hag, crippled and worn down. The dark circles under my eyes looked green, as though I had rubbed my eyes with filthy swamp mud, and my skin on my face was deeply inset with wrinkles. This is what everyone saw when they looked at me. This was why men turned me away, why girls felt uncomfortable when I sat down beside them. Why strangers on the street would look at me and point, why others would pass cruel comments under their breath thinking they passed me unacknowledged. This is why children looked frighteningly at me, why polite shopkeepers pulled uneasy smiles. This is why I was alone; because I looked like this.
Though despite the disgusting horror I saw in the image, the saddest, most tragic part of the photograph was that I had put on a smile. My smile. My big, cheesy grin I was so renowned for having. There it was, smiling back at me in all her pitiful ignorance. That was the only part of me the changeling hadn’t erased yet. It had gnawed away at nearly every ounce of protein my body had, sucked the marrow from my bones, boiled down and rendered my fat, even drained even my period blood: but my smile was still untouched. It was the only bit of me left.
It took a long time to rid myself from my changeling state. Many years in fact; it is always hard to feed a self-digesting corpse. The changeling’s screaming and curses never eased, if anything they loudened. Some days were worse than others, some days I found myself collapsing on the floor, screaming and wailing alone in my room to try and drown out its horrific caterwauling. On these days I felt guilty; I could hear and feel its fear. It was afraid of dying as much as I was of living and for that I was sorry. I wanted to hold it in my arms and tell it it was going to be ok, that I would go back to the way I was so that it could continue to thrive as it did before. I nurtured it like a child, I spoilt it, I loved it in a way I never had anything before. I nurtured, cared and loved it more than I did myself. Though whilst I foolishly allowed it back into my life, catering to its every will, it would be but a few days later I felt the brutal effects of its existence on my body. I slowly recognised I had developed a form of Stockholm syndrome for my changeling, and therefore the greatest fight I had to undergo was that against myself. It was only when I realised that no one was going to come and save me that I began to make progress. I had to become my own knight in shining armour, my own hero, my own saviour.
I continued to scream against the Charybdis in my mind, and as it drowned me I merely held my breath until my screaming became a hum, a song inside my head, a stream of consciousness that flowed through me. I drowned my own mind over and over again, dunking my head in pools of mercury, trying to outswim the insanity of it all. My face, most days, was crusted with salt, my body jittered and throbbed, my mind was smashing itself against edges of my thoughts. I drove myself down to the centre of the earth, I scratched away at the edges of the known universe, all to prove to myself there was something more. To prove to myself I wasn’t supposed to live a life as prisoner to my own body, my own skeleton, by own perceptions. I would be limitless, my mind was my source of infinity, my power, my strength, my potential. No changeling could tame me, torture me, and bully me. I would not allow myself to be trampled on anymore. I was determined that no one would make me weak, not even myself, so I screamed back, and I continued to scream. I screamed and screamed until my throat went red and bled, that my vocal chords altered in pitch and my own ears couldn’t pick up my soundwaves anymore, but even then I didn’t stop. I continued to scream and scream until finally, after many years, I stopped. It was then, in that very moment, that I finally heard silence for the first time in years.
In fact, I could hear something greater than silence. I could hear myself.