Kelpie – a tale of paying the price for love

Short story inspired by tales of mermaids and the legend of the kelpie.

“Holy Mother, bring me some fish. Okay, bring me one, that’s all I ask. One lousy fish.”

Peter Cruickshank cast his net one last time, breaking the moonlit waters of the loch in a gentle arc before drawing it in hand over hand, whilst the boat rocked gently under his weight.

At first he felt no resistance, until the net pulled him to his knees and the boat lurched over in answer to his prayer. He peered through the glassy surface into the dark blue world. Below was a pale curved ghost, dappled opal by moon beams. It flexed to and fro, fighting the imprisoning mesh. The dripping net coiled wetly amidst the clutter by his feet, until the thing he had caught bumped against the side of the boat, foaming the water in its efforts to escape.

He hissed fearfully, and without hesitation opened his clasp-knife to slash the net, allowing the abomination to slide into the depths. It flicked clear, glinting silver as it sped down to merge with the shadows.  Once ashore he called to the others.

“Come, help me pull her up.”

Michael and John clumped over the shingle bank to him, and the three men guided the Henrietta onto the battered old trailer and ran it up the beach until her scarred hull nestled alongside the dark bulk of the other fishing boats.

“No fish again? What’s causing your bad luck? Annie will be disappointed,” said Michael.

“Your luck will return, Peter. Please, take some of mine, I’ve too much,” John said gently.

Peter’s eyes were downcast, his weather-beaten face strangely pale. “I thank you. The favour will be repaid. I can’t bear to go home empty-handed.”

John held up the netting. “What was it?” he said suspiciously, with a trace of anger. “You said you caught nothing.”

Peter took the net from him, afraid. “I – I couldn’t see clearly – a seal perhaps.”

The others exchanged a glance. “It must’ve been difficult pulling it in, then. A mother of a seal. You should have called us over – now you’ve got to mend the net,” John replied, “and no fish tomorrow, either.”

In the morning Peter was shaken awake, hearing his name called as if from a great distance. When he opened his eyes, Annie had drawn the curtains and he could see the concern in her brown eyes. He pushed back the black curls that framed her elfin face.

“Peter, you were moaning and talking to someone,” she said. “You’re soaking, too.”

He wiped his brow. “It was just a bad dream, that’s all.”

“Tell me about it,” she persisted. “Then you will not dream it again.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he laughed.

“Satisfaction brought it back,” she finished. “Come on, who were you talking to in your sleep? It was a woman, wasn’t it?” He could tell she was anxious.

He closed his eyes, trying to reassemble the dream fragments into a story to tell her. As he did so, he saw the face again. Corpse-white, fish eyes and lank sea-ribbon hair. Full lips concealing a piranha mouth, and below the nightmare face, the perfect, slender body of a woman that made him shudder with a mixture of lust and revulsion. Even as he remembered, he heard a soft voice sighing to him from the water, and he wanted to go to her.

“I can’t remember who she was,” he answered defensively.

“Fine, then go and wash, before you make the sheets smell.” He knew she was irritated by his secrecy, but he could not tell her about the kelpie. He had convinced himself that it had been no more than a dream. As he was stumbling back to sleep, he thought he heard her say, “Peter, I want to have a baby.”   

He pretended not to hear.

When the sun was at half-mast and the air was crisp-chill, John came to the cottage and tapped on the window. “Are you ready? We’ve work to do, if you remember.”

The two men walked down the cobbled street between rows of stone cottages, each with a different coloured door. At the end of the street they jumped down the seawall onto the dry sand, enjoying the rich smell of salt and decaying seaweed. The sea was on its way in, spilling up the smooth tan in shallow cusps of foamy water, rubbing away the strange marks.

John ran towards them, his rubber boots pressing deep, and then stopped abruptly.  “Come over here,” he said quietly.

Peter walked across, experiencing both curiosity and an inexplicable sinking sensation that soon changed to nausea. “It looks like a seal’s track,” he said weakly.

“No, they leave flipper marks each side. Look at these.” John knelt down and pressed his hand into the sand, then stood up. Next to his large handprint, there was the handprint of a child, or a woman. “There are more. See how they are placed on each side, where a seal would have used its flippers. This creature pulled itself up the beach using its hands.”

He backed off. “Come away,” he said urgently, pulling at Peter’s arm, but he seemed to be frozen to the spot. He tugged harder and Peter let himself be led up the beach but his eyes were drawn back to the marks in the sand. About half-way up, they vanished, and the sand was disturbed as if something had writhed about in pain. A short distance further on was the single imprint of a small naked foot.  Fishing forgotten, the men tried to follow the faint marks, afterwards returning to the boats.

Peter leaned on the Henrietta’s warm hull. “What should we do?”  He kicked a sea-bleached branch.

“Go and see the Leckie. No-one else will know what to do. All you would get is folk tales from them.”

“What about you? Aren’t you coming with me?”

John shook his head and squinted out to sea. “No, I have fish to catch. Help me with the boat and you can use my net. It was a sea-witch in your net last night, wasn’t it? She saw you, and now she’s come back for you.”

Peter grabbed his friend roughly. “Don’t you say that. You take it back. Take it back now.”

John staggered, and pulled himself free. “I was joking. There’s obviously some other explanation. I’m sorry to have upset you.” He sounded hurt more than angry.

As they pulled the trailer down the beach, Peter laughed. “You’re right, I’m being foolish. A sea-witch? Have you ever seen one? Do you know anyone else who has? I think someone’s playing a joke on us.”

John pointed at the footprint. “Did they walk backwards down the beach, and sweep the other footprints away?”

“Or maybe they walked along the edge of the loch, then up the beach. That would be easier,” Peter said but his heart said different. Maybe the kelpie had been following him for weeks, scaring the fish away from his boat, until he netted it. Those fisheyes had not been expressionless; they were circles of fire. It – she – knew him.

The Leckie was a woman of such great age that she had been very old as long as anyone could remember. She lived in a dilapidated cottage beyond the end of the short street and everyone looked after her despite her bad temper, because she was wise and she was fey. Peter knocked on her door with trepidation.

After a long pause he heard shuffling feet approach and the door swung open.  “What?” The voice creaked.

“Leckie, I need to talk to you,” he said hesitantly to the hunched figure.

She moved into the light so he could see her face, baggy and seamed as an old tortoise, and she beckoned. She lowered herself carefully into a creaking cane chair and pointed to her bed, a bare, stained mattress.

He sat down, ignoring the stale smell, rubbing his rough hands on his jeans. “I caught something yesterday and it wasn’t a fish, or a seal-” he stopped, struggling to find the words.

The Leckie said nothing and waited.

“It was the size of a seal, but, well it had hair like ribbon-weed. And it had arms,” he paused, and licked his dry lips. “It had-”

“Tits?” The old dry voice made him jump. The word seemed somehow obscene the way she said it, heavy with meaning.

He nodded, and whispered, “It had. But it was so pale, and cold, like it was dead. Was it a sea-witch?”

She shrugged. “Do you think that’s likely? Maybe it was a dead body. They go white.”

“I don’t think so, it was moving a lot, trying to escape. When I cut it loose it swam to the bottom of the loch and I could see its tail, like a dolphin’s. I saw its scales flash.”

There was another long pause. “There you are then. It was a dolphin.”

She rocked the cane chair so that it complained, and Peter wondered how much longer it could survive before pitching her to the floor.

“The chair will outlast me,” she said, reading his thoughts.

“She looked at me. I saw her eyes. They were – burning.”

The rocking stopped and then she said, “You should have killed her when you had the chance.”

“What was it?” he asked.

“A kelpie. She’s looking for a mate. They come into the lochs for that and nothing else. Their home is in the deepest waters far out to sea, deeper than nets can go.”

Peter was curious about the sea-witch. It was quite small, after all; no bigger than Annie. “Are you saying that there are males in the loch as well? Why don’t we see them?”

The Leckie laughed, an unpleasant grating sound like rough stones being ground together. “Kelpies are all female. That is the reason they need men.”

He tried to decipher her expression, but he could not read the sloe-black eyes. “Where did it go to, when it left the water?”

She smiled unpleasantly. “How should I know? They always disappear. No-one knows where they go, but we can guess what they do.”

Peter knew the old woman was hiding something from him and he began to feel frightened. “People who see them drown, don’t they? That’s what everyone says. Don’t you know that? Will I drown?”

She struggled out of the ancient chair and shuffled to the door. “Looks like you more about them than I do. Stay away from the loch if you are scared.”

He hung his head. “I’m a fisherman.”

“Then do something else. You’re not much good at fishing.” She opened the door and waited for him to leave and Peter pushed past her, frustrated. The door slammed behind him.

He went back to his house, angry and confused. Annie was hard at work in the small back yard, mending the net that she had hung from the washing-line. She did not pause in her work when she saw him. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

He sat against the wall in the shade, knees drawn up so that only his brown feet were in the sun.  “I don’t think I was meant to be a fisherman,” he said sadly.

Annie laughed. “What else would you do? You have been catching fish since you were able to walk. What did you catch last night? A shark?”

He picked up a pebble and rubbed it between his hands. “It was a seal. I could go to the town and labour. There are new houses being built all the time. Or I could get work on a ferry. That sort of thing.” He threw the pebble away. “I cannot catch fish anymore and we need the money.”

She continued to mend the net. “You heard what I said this morning, when you pretended to be asleep.”

He got up then and put his arms around her. “I might have. If you want a baby – if we want a baby then we’ll need money.”

He made his mind up. “I’m going to the town today. Maybe I will have more luck with jobs than fish.” He kissed her.

As he was leaving she said, “I may not be here when you get back, for I’m visiting John’s sister. She has had a baby.”

Peter went to the town, and entered the employment agency. When he sat behind the desk, the man asked, “What’re you able to do?”

Peter shrugged. “All I know about are boats and fish.”

He arrived back late but exultant, and threw open the door triumphantly but Annie held a finger to his mouth. “Wait until we’re eating.”

She had laid the table with their best things; their only tablecloth, new candles. As he waited, she brought in tuna, roasted with garlic and rosemary, potatoes and shellfish, and she was wearing clothes that he liked the best.

He stared at the food. “Where did you get this?”

She smiled. “Friends gave them to me. Now, tell me everything.”

Then he told her that he had found a job even before arriving at the town. The ferryman had known his father, and needed someone to jump ashore and tie-up since his own son had fallen, injuring his back.

“I don’t know how long I can work for, but its money and we can save. I start tomorrow.”

When the meal was ended, Annie led Peter down to the beach. As they reached the water’s edge, he heard a woman calling his name and laughed. “She sounds just like you, Annie,” he said. “Look, she’s walking along the sea wall.”  He felt a strange misgiving deep inside and stared at the woman, trying to see who she was.

“Annie?” he whispered.

He looked again at the woman next to him, staring into her eyes. “Who are you?” he asked, grabbing her arm. “Tell me who you are.” 

But he already knew.

“I’ll show you,” she said, laughing. She drew his head down and kissed him deeply and he felt as if he would drown in her, fears driven away by a mad lust. They made love under the stars and the cold waters ran over their feet. Peter felt as if he was falling into a long tunnel towards a bright light, and the light was as water, soft and flowing and he was floating within it. Below, he could see the beach, and a man and a woman were making love as the tide flowed up around them. The woman that looked like Annie was not. She was an insatiable beast, devouring the man she was straddling.

At the top of the beach, Annie stood watching, hands over her mouth, tears running down her face, before she turned away in anger and misery and ran to the cottage.

Peter fought desperately for his life but the kelpie was too strong. She threw him down and both their heads were under the red-stained sea. She pulled him ever deeper, his struggles weakening and the last thing he saw before darkness took him was one burning eye.

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