The Blue Men Stories
The Smith and the Water Horse
by S. J. McKenzie
part 1 of 2
One November day on the Isle of Raasay, a smith called John Cullen went to see the local minister. He said he was having trouble with a water horse, or some other creature of the sea that was taking his sheep at night, and he wanted some advice.
“Well,” said the minister, “perhaps it is one of the neighbours, whose season with the lambs was not as good as your own.” They spoke in the front room of his neat white house at Inverarish.
Cullen had walked all morning to get there and then sat patiently while the priest ate his oatcakes and drank his tea, before finally beginning to answer his concerns. “Or perhaps it was a dog let loose in a fit of jealousy?” he said. “Much as we would wish it otherwise, evil often lies closest to the human heart.” He wiped away a crumb from his mouth with a handkerchief.
“No, I am certain it is one of the sea creatures,” said Cullen in reply. “Which of my neighbours would put a dog among my sheep? And if there were a poacher by Loch Arnish, I am sure I would know something of it.”
Cullen was a widower, his wife lost to the sea seven years before, and on Raasay he was more of a subject of pity than envy; there were none on the island that would begrudge him any success, and if there was anything that he needed to know, it was sure that someone would have taken time to tell him.
“These things may be so, but you’ve still no proof it was a monster,” said the minister. “Tell me, have you laid eyes on the beast yourself?” The Church on Raasay was very strict at that time, and the minister wished to discourage his flock from the old ways, which might lead them to damnation in one form or another.
“No, but I have heard him,” said Cullen. “The night before last, when it was clear and the stars were bright, I set up watch behind some rocks. In the dead of night I heard something splashing about in the still water near the shore, and a bellowing, snorting noise, as well.”
“And...?” asked the old priest, as though this were not enough. But as soon as Cullen began again, he interrupted. “Could not that have been the bellow of an otter, or a seal, made to seem strange by the movement of the sound across the waves?”
“Well, it would be more normal for an otter to make such noises in the springtime, rather than November, Father,” said the smith with care, for he was a reserved man, and tried always to be a well-mannered one. But in truth, he knew full well the sound of a male otter in the mating season, and thought the minister’s question a foolish one. He was about to proceed, but once again the minister spoke over the top of him.
“Well, let us not quibble over this and that. There is still nothing in what you have told me to make me think it was a monster, as you say.” And he made to get up from the armchair, as though this were the end of the conversation.
“There is more, Father. All the sheep ran away from the sound at once, except one ewe, and she moved into the water, towards the place where the noise was coming from. In the cold of November! Why would she do such a thing?”
“Good heavens, why does a ewe do any of the things she does?” said the minister. “God did not make her to be understood. And you are her shepherd, are you not? Did you rescue her?”
“No, Father,” said Cullen, a hint of shame creeping into his voice. “I ran forward, but a wave came over her, and when it withdrew the wind came and blew the water to slivers of light, so I could not make her out. But I am sure the creature took her.”
“Nonsense!” said the old priest. “All I have heard is excuses, and all I see is a man who should pay less mind to old stories and more to looking after his flock. Now, that is enough.” And this time, he rose and bade the smith good day.
So Cullen went home without telling the priest one final thing. He told himself that this was in deference to the other man; but in truth, he was reluctant to put the thing into words, lest telling someone else would make it seem more real to himself.
As the ewe had entered the water and he had ran forward to save it, Cullen had heard a whinnying laugh from the thing in the bay, a noise that could only have come from a thinking creature. It was a low, uncanny sound, which stayed with him in his dreams that night, and for several after.
* * *
Two days later, in the morning, Cullen and his son Ian stood knee-deep in the loch by their property, and fretted over the remains of another dead ewe they had found floating there. She was the fourth taken in ten days, but the only one whose body had been found, and so here now was the first clear proof that a beast was responsible, for the poor thing had been ripped open, and many of her organs were missing.
“This was no dog, and not a poacher either,” said Ian. “The flesh on her has hardly been touched. What kind of animal would do this and not make a meal of her?”
“It is not a normal animal,” said the smith. “It’s a water-horse. I’ve said so before. Look at this now.”
He had rolled the carcass over to reveal that much of the dark fleece was gone from one side of the animal; but rather than having been torn away, it had been neatly removed, almost as though she had been shorn there.
And while he was puzzling over that, Ian called to him from further out in the loch, where he had found her liver, floating in the gentle current, white and smooth and entirely whole, but surrounded all about by strange black slime.
“This is the Devil’s work,” said Ian, making a warding sign, as his father came wading out.
“Well, the Devil or not, we are beyond God’s help. The minister cannot or will not hear us,” said Cullen. “We are on our own in this. We’ll have to move the sheep to the pasture closer to the house.”
“What shall they eat?” said Ian, for that was the summer pasture, and had been grazed almost bare.
“I will think of something. In the meantime, let’s get them away from the water.” And so they moved their flock, and settled in for a difficult winter.
* * *
Cullen had a daughter, called Megan, who reminded the smith of his lost wife by the smile in her eyes and by her gentle teasing laughter. He doted on her, and was more protective than he might have been, but he had little to say that entertained her, now she had gotten older and was a girl no more. There was not much joy for her in their life at the smithy, and as the years grew long, she became restless, and found herself longing for the company of other young people. “Not like Ian, who just wants to be grown-up like Father all at once,” she said to herself, “but a different kind of boy, with a bit more spirit to him.”
So she began to spend time at the town meeting place, where young men who worked on the farms sometimes went to chat, before going home later in the evening. And it wasn’t long before she found that they were as interested in her as she was in them.
“I wish there were more to our lives than this,” she found herself saying to a young lad named Emmet, who not been long on Raasay and who said he worked on one of the outlying farms.
“Oh, you can be sure that there is!” he said with a laugh. “There is a great deal to life, but it is not all to be found on this island. Sometime, you must come across the water with me, and see what lies in store away from Raasay.”
“My father would not allow it,” said the girl. “He tries to protect me from life, because of what happened to my mother, so that nothing will ever happen to me. But I do not want a life where nothing ever happens.”
“Your father is wrong to keep a fine girl like you away from the sea,” said the lad, who did not ask after her mother, as another kind of fellow would have done. “If I were you, I would talk it over with him, lest you waste away your life on this one island, as you say.”
“I can’t talk to him. I am too frightened of what he might say,” she said. And she told the boy all about her father, his moods and his loneliness, and his way of thinking the worst of any excitement that came into her life.
Emmet promised her that someday soon they could go together to her father and “have it out with him,” as he put it, so that she might see more of the world beyond her corner of Raasay. In this way, the lad quickly wooed her, and at the same time he turned her against her father, by making the small and familiar irritations of home seem in her mind like a gulf of bitterness and misunderstanding.
One day, after they had spent more time together in seclusion, and the lad knew she was truly under his spell, he suggested to her that now might be the right time to speak with the smith. “I can’t see the sense in waiting!” said he. “If we want to be together, he should allow it, if he loves you. I am sure he will see it our way.” And she agreed, and so they made their way back to her house to speak with him.
Cullen was seated at the table and was already a little angry with the girl for coming home late to supper again. He was about to scold her, when through the door behind her walked the young fellow, tall and slender, with a smooth face, a white smile and dark curls over his brow. “Good evening, sir,” he said. “Megan has told me much about you. Lamb for supper, is it? Oh, I hope you’ve a spare place, I could eat for two!”
Although he disliked the boy at once, Cullen tried his best to keep his temper, and asked what the pair had been doing. Megan began to tell her father that they had come to speak with him about an important matter, but the lad cut in, and said “I’ve been in the village, looking for more work, sir,” and then, fixing the smith with a smile and a laughing eye: “I hear you might need a lad here, what with all this trouble of yours in the winter pasture. Such a shame to lose your best ewes that way. Maybe you need someone to keep a closer eye on them?”
Cullen froze. The attacks had stopped as soon as the flock was moved, and few in the area knew about what had happened. In any case, it was certainly no business of this insolent boy, who had not yet even introduced himself. “That is no concern of yours,” he said stiffly, still trying to restrain himself.
Megan had sat down beside her father and was pulling on his sleeve, trying to find the space to speak, but he quickly went on. “I do not think we have a place for you at the table, either.” He glared at the boy.
“Well, I can see that we have come here in vain, Megan,” said Emmet, who was still standing. “So much for trying to be helpful.”
“No,” said the girl. “Father, there is something... we wanted to talk with you about, myself and Emmet...”
“Oh, don’t begin to say such things in this house, with your mother’s things still in it,” said Cullen, who was now fearing the worst. He stood up and turned to the boy. “Listen to me, whoever you are. If you have laid a hand on her where you should not, I will find you, and when I do that day will be your last. Is that clear, boy?”
“Perfectly, sir,” said the lad, although he did not look at all concerned. “It seems I must be going, Megan. We cannot change his mind.” And he turned and made his way out of the farmhouse, and she ran out after him.
The smith stood at the window in the main room of the cottage, and could hear them talking in low whispers as the lad made his way out the gate. Megan was pleading, but the boy would not be persuaded back into the house. Cullen heard his daughter speak of “tomorrow,” but could not make out what was being planned, and then there was a silence, during which he guessed they might be kissing. He was about to go out to confront them when the silence ended, and in its place was the boy’s laugh: a low, whinnying sound he knew at once, echoing in the road down towards the village.
He burst out into the yard, nearly knocking down his daughter, who had come back up the path and was almost at the door as he emerged. Running out into the roadway, he looked up and down for the lad, but there was no sign of him in the darkening evening.
Returning to Megan, he spoke roughly with her: “You will never see that boy again. He is not for you, nor any other girl on Raasay. You will not keep the tryst you made for tomorrow, nor will you leave this house until I see to it that he is gone from this island.”
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie