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Bread Babies

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold, cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Asimov's, and Clarkesworld, among other places (such as Daily Science Fiction, of course). For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.
Bread Babies
Anna could make a baby out of bread, well enough to fool the fey. After forty years of practice, she could bake bread babies practically in her sleep. Over the years she'd made rye babies and wheat babies and golden-crusted sourdoughs. She had a knack for getting the bread to rise just right--you wanted a baby that was plump and appealing, but not bloated beyond recognition.
It was a cool night, but Anna's kitchen was warm from the oven. Her freckled cheeks were flushed red, and sweat beaded on her brow. She divided the dough and shaped it into two adorable little loaves. She'd done as many as six at a time, but this month there were only two babies young enough to need protecting. The Whitman twins were three months old, and cute as buttons both of them. Anna made their bread babies with raisin eyes and fat doughy cheeks. Fairies only stole babies at midnight, on the night of the new moon, so if the details weren't perfect it didn't matter.
"It's been a long time," Damon said. "I think maybe the fairies aren't coming back."
He looked sad as he said it, even more so than usual, and he had always been a sullen sort of child. He was dark-haired and dark-skinned and looked nothing like Anna, though he did, reluctantly, call her "mother." Despite her best efforts, he had no interest in baking bread.
"Fourteen years," Anna admitted. "But it has not been nearly so long in the fairy realm. Perhaps only moments, certainly not more than a few months."
The last fairy to come to Edgewood had been Damon's mother. She'd tried to steal little Tommy Carter, but instead she'd stolen one of Anna's bread babies, warm from the oven. Time ran differently in the human realm, and a year here was but a moment for the fey. Damon's mother might be finding out, only now, that she had left behind her son in exchange for a loaf of bread. That was the trick of the bread babies. By the time a fairy realized what had happened, the child she sought to steal might be five or twelve or even fully grown.
Anna dusted the cheeks of one of the bread babies with cinnamon freckles, and Damon made a face at the smell. He liked garlic and hated cinnamon, which was the exact opposite of Anna. To the rest of the town, Damon was the downside of tricking the fairies with bread--since no human baby was stolen, there was no childless family to care for the fey child.
Instead, Anna was the one who took them in. There had only been two in the forty years she'd been baking: Damon from fourteen years ago, and Lizzy, who was all grown up and working as a teacher a few towns over. It wouldn't be long before Damon left to seek his fortune, too. Changelings were restless by nature, never quite happy where they were, as though they realized they had come from another world.
Anna put the bread babies in the oven. Cinnamon and baking bread made the house smell delicious, but Anna was tired from the long day and her back ached. What she needed was a changeling who would stay and learn to bake the bread. Or better yet, a human child. There were few who went to the fey realm and returned to tell the tale, so it was hard to say exactly how much time had passed. But even forty years later, she clung to the hope that the fairy that stole her son would change her mind, and bring her baby back to her. It had been decades for her, but for him--he might still remember her, tiny baby though he was. In her dreams, she knew him only by the wispy curls of his walnut-brown hair, and the freckles on his cheeks.
She pulled the twin bread babies from the oven. When they were still warm, but no longer burning hot, she wrapped them in swaddling blankets. She carried them to the Whitman place, and laid them together in the crib. The Whitman family paid her for the bread, and retreated to their neighbor's house, where all of them could keep a vigil over the babies, not that it would help. Anna had tried to stay awake the night her son was taken, but fey magic could lull even the most determined mother to sleep. It had to have been magic. If it had been mere exhaustion, then it would have been her fault.
Anna had timed her delivery well. The bread would still be warm at midnight, if a fairy happened into town. If not, well, the bread babies were delicious, and no one had ever complained about eating fresh-baked bread once a month while their babies were small.
After a long day of baking, Anna usually went home and straight to bed, but tonight she sat on her doorstep, three houses down the street from the Whitman place. By the faint light of the stars, she thought she saw someone approach the house and enter without knocking. It warmed her heart to see it.
Come morning, she would have another child, bought and paid for with all her years of baking bread. She hoped, as she always did, that it might be her own son, but even if it was another changeling, she would love the baby just the same. Perhaps this time, the child would stay, and help her bake the bread.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

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