Ghost Stories and Tall Tales of the American South

Changeling Mother

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Creature story of two Tennessee mountain kids who are convinced their mother has been kidnapped by evil trolls, and embark on a great adventure to bring her back. Written by Harris Tobias

Once there were two little children, a boy, Jules, and his twin sister, Julia. They lived in a cabin in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee with their father, a wood cutter, and their beautiful but cruel mother. They were a happy family until one day a change came over the mother. Overnight it seemed, at least to the children, that their mother changed from kind and loving to mean and cruel. One day the nice mother went out and a mean mother came back. She wasn’t cruel to the father, only to the children. She yelled at them and nagged them about every little thing and worst of all, she made them work hard from the minute their father went off to work in the morning until the minute he came home again at night.

Mountain Cabin

Needless to say, the children were unhappy about this change in their mother, but if they tried to ask her about it, or anything else for that matter, she flew into a rage and shut them up in the woodshed, spanked their bottoms and called them names. She made the twins’ lives very hard. The children didn’t understand what was wrong and they were too young to do anything about it being only 9 years old.

The only joy the children had was when their father came home from work. Even though he was hot and tired he scooped them up in his arms and carried them on his shoulders. He kissed them and hugged them, then he kissed his wife and never suspected that anything was wrong. The children looked forward to their father’s homecoming, for it meant the end of their labors. They loved his piney, sawdusty smell and his big smile and he loved them, but their time together was short. He would eat some dinner, take a bath and go right to bed, for wood cutting was particularly hard work. Their mother would draw their father’s bath and often she would wash herself at the same time. Then the parents would retire for the night.

On a typical morning, after father had left for work, mother would gather up the empty buckets and send the children off to fetch water from the spring two miles away. “Your father will have his bath. Go, you little pests, and fill these buckets then hurry back, there’s wood to chop.” The children never understood why they had to walk to the spring when there was a perfectly good well right there in the front yard. “Why can’t we get the water from the well like we used to?” asked Jules.

When she heard this, the mother grew angry and picked Jules up and held him over the well saying, “Because this well has gone dry, you prying worm. Would you like to see for yourself?”

The children never mentioned the well again. Instead, they picked up their buckets and went down the path to the spring.


Going to the spring was not all bad. The woods were beautiful, alive with birds and wild flowers and the empty buckets were easy to carry. Coming home was another story, the buckets were filled with water, and the children struggled under their weight. It was difficult to get them back without spilling too much. They would have to carry one bucket a little way and then go back and carry another; going back and forth until all the buckets were delivered. Even then their work wasn’t over nor were their efforts appreciated. Their mother had a long list of other chores for them to do.

Troll Springs

The spring was in a cool dark hollow filled with ferns and mystery. It was little more than a trickle of water dripping from the rock, so it took quite a while to fill each bucket. While the buckets filled, the children were free to play and be themselves. Jules liked to sit under a tree and nap while Julia liked to catch frogs and chase butterflies. It was on such a butterfly chasing day that Julia came upon a small wooden door in the side of the cliff. She immediately ran off to get Jules.

Together they stood before the small door and wondered whether to knock or not when the door opened and man, no bigger than Julia, with a dark bushy beard and a green suit and pointy hat, greeted them by name and beckoned them inside. “Come in, come in, I’m just taking a pie out of the oven. We can play a game while its cooling.”

Truly the smell of strawberry rhubarb pie, Julia’s favorite, filled the air with its delicious smell. So the kids stepped inside. The little man introduced himself . His name was Orb and he was a Gnome. “I live alone and keep an eye on the spring and this here dell,” he said. “How about a game of checkers while we wait? I love checkers, don’t you?” And he produced a checker board and tokens onto the table in a flash.

“Do you live here alone?’ asked Julia who was bursting with questions. “What do you eat?” “Are you really a gnome?” “Can I look around?”

Orb shook his head, “After each game, I’ll answer one question. No more and no less.” He sat down and Jules sat down opposite him— the game began. Jules was a fair checker player but Orb was better. He should be better being 309 years older than them. Next he played Julia, and beat her too. When the games were over, Orb served them the warm pie and glasses of fresh milk. The children finished every bite. “Now I will answer one question for each game played,” announced the gnome. “Ask me anything.”

Julia was about to explode with one of her thousand questions, but Jules put his finger on her lips and hushed her. He turned to the little man and asked, “Why is our mother acting so mean?”

Orb nodded his head, stroked his beard and sipped his tea. He was quiet for a long time as though he was listening to a voice only he could hear. Finally he looked at the twins and said, “Your mother is not mean. Your real mother that is. The woman who is mean to you is not your real mother, she is a troll who has stolen the likeness of your mother. Your real mother is kind and caring and loves you very much.”

“How did she come to be a prisoner of the Trolls? asked Julia unable to contain herself.

Again the old gnome stroked his beard and sipped his tea before answering. “Three weeks ago your real mother went to the well and the trolls pulled her in. They live down there you see. Your mother is very beautiful and ugly trolls covet beauty more than anything; so every night at midnight one of the trolls drinks a drop of your mother’s blood and takes on her likeness. Then she climbs out of the well and pretends to be human. It’s all a big joke to the trolls who are naturally mean and intensely curious about how humans live.”

“But, how can we get our real mother back?” Julia asked.

“Well,” said the gnome, “that is a question for another day. You’ve used up your questions for today. Come again tomorrow and I’ll answer more.”

“Oh dear the buckets,” cried Jules remembering they still had to fill the others and haul them home. “Mother will be furious if we’re late.”

“Don’t worry,” said Orb, “all your buckets are filled. Run along now.”

And the children not only found all the buckets filled to brimming, but they were already a mile and a half down the path.

The next day Jules and Julia couldn’t wait to go for the water. Their mother was suspicious that they weren’t complaining like they usually did but let them go anyway. They were out of water and father would need a bath when he came home tired and sweaty. The kids made a bee line for Orb’s house. He was waiting at the door and the checker board was waiting on the table. This time Jules almost beat him but Orb pulled off a triple jump at the last moment to win the game. Julia played her best but soon lost to a gleeful Orb. Winning put the old gnome in a good humor and he announced that he was ready to answer one question from each of them.

Jules was ready with his question and asked, “How can we find our mother?” Once again the gnome sat silent for a while sipping his tea. Then he fixed the children with his gaze and said, “Trolls live in tunnels under the ground. Their tunnels twist and turn and are known to no man. You will need a guide-stick to find your mother. A guide-stick is a branch of a dogwood tree as wide as your thumb and as old as you are. You must cut the branch as soon as the sun has set. If you have done all this, the stick will show you the way through the tunnels and back again.”

“How can we get our mother back?” asked Julia. This was the most important question of all. The old gnome though long and hard before replying. “You will need to get the key which is around your false mother’s neck. Every night at midnight your false mother goes into the well and through the tunnels to where your real mother is locked away. The key opens the lock to her cage. As I told you, the troll needs a drop of your mother’s blood each day in order to appear like her. You must steal the key and get your mother away before the troll can get her blood.”

“How do we do that?” asked the two children together. Orb just puffed on his pipe and smiled. “That’s a question for another day,” he said. “Your buckets are waiting down the road. Run along now and maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As the children walked back home they talked about what they had learned. “Mother and father planted a dogwood trees on the day we were born said Julia. I think we can cut guide-sticks easily enough.”

“It’s getting the key from around mother’s neck that I’m worried about,” said Jules.

“She’s not our mother,” muttered Julia. “I want our real mother back.”

“So do I. I suppose we could always ask Orb about it tomorrow,” said Jules.

”I suppose so,” sighed Julia clearly unhappy with the way things were unfolding.

But events have a will of their own and the children never got the chance to ask the gnome another question. When opportunity beckons, you must be ready to act.


That evening just as the sun was setting, the children were outside sweeping the yard and trimming the bushes waiting for their father to come home. Their mother was ordering them about and criticizing every little thing they did. When they saw their father coming, the mother went inside to prepare his dinner. Jules and Julia had a few minutes to run over to the dogwood tree their parents had planted on the day they were born and cut off a branch as thick as their thumbs just as the setting sun peeked behind a distant hill. They had just enough time to hide their sticks before running into their father’s waiting arms.

That night after supper father and mother retired early. The children could hear them laughing together in the bath. While they were thus engaged, Julia looked in on them through a crack in the door and saw the key sitting atop her mother’s clothing. Being as quiet as a mouse, Julia crept into the room and snatched the key from the pile. Then she ran down the stairs and proudly showed it to Jules.

There was no time to waste; this was the perfect time to go. Their parents were distracted, the twins had their guide-sticks and they had the key. It was unlikely a better opportunity would present itself. They dug the guide-sticks out of hiding and tucked them into their pants. They ran to the well and looked into its dark interior. They could see the top of a ladder descending into the murky depths until it was lost to view. Jules went first, he hoisted himself over the edge. His feet found the top of the ladder and he climbed down into the darkness. Julia followed right behind.

Troll Cave

Down and down they climbed until the top of the well was no bigger than the full moon. At the bottom was a tunnel leading off into the earth. The twins pulled out their guide-sticks which glowed with a greenish light and twisted left or right whenever they came to a fork in the road. They moved along as quickly and quietly as they could trusting their sticks.

After a long and winding route, they came to place that looked like a kitchen. There was a stove against one wall and a table in the middle. On the table, a candle burned making the room almost bright. On the other wall, next to a cupboard, was a cage and in the cage was a woman asleep on the floor. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the room but they could hear voices nearby. As quietly as possible, they tip toed into the room and over to the cage. Their heart lept when they saw that the woman asleep inside was their mother. The voices from the other room were getting louder. Julia put the key into the lock. it turned and the lock popped open with a snap that sounded like a gunshot. All sounds from the other room stopped and a troll’s voice called out, “Who’s there? Gertrude, is that you?”

Mother was awake now and was astonished to see her precious children smiling at her. She must have thought she was dreaming until she felt Jules’ hand help her to her feet. There was no time for hugs, already trolls were entering the room.

“Hey you there, stop that,” one of them called. This was the signal to run and run they did. Back they ran as fast as their feet would carry them. Back the way they had come, the three of them racing down tunnels, twisting and turning this way and that, all the while the trolls hot on their heels.

Mother was weak from her long captivity but somehow found the strength to keep going. At one point, Julia tripped and fell and a troll almost caught her, but mother threw dirt in the troll’s eyes and they got away. They were near the well when they saw a figure coming down the ladder. It was the troll mother coming for her drop of blood. When she saw the twins she let out a howl and ran after them. Quickly they ducked down a side passage. Their guide-sticks twisted in their hands as if to say, “wrong way.” It didn’t matter if the way was wrong or not; as long as they could still run they had a chance. Left and right they turned heedless of where they were heading. Nearly out of breath and out of strength they finally came to a place where the tunnel ended up against a wall of stone. They could go no further, their way was blocked. Not too far away they could hear the trolls coming for them.

Frightened and desperate they looked around for something to fight with, but there was nothing they could see in the feeble light. Just when it seemed all was lost, a voice from above called out, “Hey, up here, hurry,” and a rope ladder fell from the ceiling. Looking up they could just make out a passage and at the top was Orb’s smiling face looking down on them. They scrambled up the ladder as fast as they could landing breathless into the gnome’s bright kitchen. Orb slammed the hatch shut with a bang seconds before the angry trolls could enter. “Ha,” Orb yelled, “I love doing that.” Then remembering his guests he asked, “Can I offer you some pie? Anyone care for a game of checkers?”

The rest of the story is just as you might imagine. With their true mother restored to her family, the children’s lives went back to the way they were. The old well was filled in with rocks and earth and a new one dug nearby. The children no longer had to travel to the spring for water. Even so, they still visited old Orb now and then. The old gnome was always glad to see them and somehow always managed to have a freshly baked pie ready when they came.

-THE END-

About The Author:

Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of several novels and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and several other obscure publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The Poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at: http://harristobias-fiction.blogspot.com




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7 Responses to “Changeling Mother”


Sky:

I loved this story. I’m from Texas and love the stories on this website.

Bob Marshall:

I love these stories. My grandmother was a McCall and she was born in the mountains of northeast Georgia in 1898. I have back packed and hiked in those beautiful mountains. I especially love the many beautiful waterfalls. According to my now deceased grandmother, she was born in a small cabin near where the three states met. She was so proud to have been on the Georgia side.

blythe:

make an audio version of this! its a wonderful story, and it would be a great story to make into a play, with different characters as different people. overall, i really enjoyed the story.

maddi:

i agree blythe…. i mean about the play 😉

theakston:

Nice one.

Your name:

I like this story

angie:

Loved it kept my attention the whole time. Almost kinda reminds me of some of my favorite fairytales.

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