By Mary Daurio
My teacher says, “Fairy tales hardly ever come true for quiet girls.”
I don’t know, around here they say still waters run deep.
The morning sun, a crystal necromancer’s ball, casts its shine down on my dogs and me as light shimmers off the loch like new silver. Romulus is fetching a stick, and Remus is trying to take it from him.
I walk around Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater body in the British Isles, on the west coast of Scotland. Mum and I live alone on the only decent road along the Loch. We do have the dogs, though.
The scent of heather fills the air, and moss sponges under my bare feet. My only shoes are slung over my shoulder, as the ground near Loch Morar is damp. Can’t get those babies wet. Mom can’t afford a new pair. I keep back from the steep edges and throw the stick away for the dogs to quibble over. A voice calls out.
“Hey, you. Are you a Mage? With those wolf dogs around you and your hair a flame of copper, you must be.”
A splash, I look and see an undulating ripple around the grey, scaly neck of what I hitherto had thought of as a mythical creature. Lord thundering, it can’t be, but is it?
The Loch Ness Bureau of Investigation came to explore that summer of ’70 because a daft boater thought he hit a creature with three humps and an elongated neck. Loch Morar is only seventy miles from the famed Loch Ness. We don’t have Nessie but are famous for purportedly possessing her fabled cousin, Morag. The boater isn’t crazy, after all.
The famed Morag speaks to me!
“Well, if you are a Mage, you must be a rude one. Do you not have a tongue, woman? I risk talking to you because you are a Mage, so return the favour.”
I sit down before I fall, and the dogs bark up and down the heather, a respectable distance from the water's edge.
The creature’s neck reaches further out of the water, beckoning me near. “I’m waiting.” It growls. The dogs turn toward the sound but continue fighting over the stick.
“Hello, I’m not a Mage — only a girl. You’re Morag?” My voice squeaks, a bit out of practice. I’m not much of a talker at the best of times, never mind a conversation with the Loch Morar monster.
“Girl, surely you know me. They have only been looking for me up and down the length of this loch day and night until I despaired, they would find me. I am Morag, the great sea serpent, aeons old. It is good to talk with someone, not trying to locate me to do heaven knows what with me. I could use a chum.”
A sea beast wants me for a friend! Despite my trepidation, a smile blesses my lips— I could use a pal myself.
“I’d like to be your chum.”
“Good. We can meet here at our will. When you come, I will know.” Once Morag finishes speaking, she shifts sideways.
The dogs become eerily quiet and sit beside me, cuddling close, strange behaviour for big protective fellows like them. The loch unfurls, and charging up its steep bank toward us, gallops a shining black horse. The largest I’ve ever seen with a silver saddle and bridle encrusted in jewels, iridescent in multicoloured hues–the legendary Water Kelpie, it could be no other.
The beast never looks my way but proceeds to shake the wet from its hide and long black mane, flinging large drops at the dogs and me. The liquid is warm, almost hot, and my skin tingles at its touch. The loch is three hundred and ten metres deep of clear glacial water. Strange indeed.
The mighty animal turns, rears and plunges back into the foam. Its tail flies out behind, hitting the surface in a shower, as thunder echoes in the air. This black wonder vanishes beneath the water as if a phantom.
“Astonishing, isn’t it? The Water Kelpies were dormant for years until those scientists started their experiments in the water. Surely you know of the Water Kelpies, a Mage like you.”
Morag wades closer to the edge of the loch as she talks, but I’m not alarmed. She seems a benevolent creature, and somehow, I know she can’t leave Loch Morar. The Kelpies are a different matter. How many Kelpies live in the loch? Morag would know.
“All I know of the Kelpies, Morag, are fables. A land baron supposedly tricked a Water Kelpie into hauling rocks for his castle. The Kelpie later put a curse on him. Are they rideable?” I ask.
“The Mage wants to ride a Kelpie. Well, it can happen, but with great risk. Move closer, and I will tell, but it must remain our secret. Even the wolves must not hear.”
I move as close to the edge of the loch as possible. Morag ventures nearer yet, whispering her wisdom, all she knows about the Kelpies, and that’s considerable. We see a lone car travelling down the road, and she dips under the water leaving centrifugal waves, the only telltale sign of her presence.
She bobs up to say goodbye and hopes we meet again soon. I’m uncertain if this is a daydream, but looking at the loch water rippling and churning as she dives under, I know it’s true. The prints of large horse hooves in the soft ground are another signature of proof. Remarkable but real, and this secret is Morag’s and mine.
Walking home, I think of the horse race at the spring fair and winning on the Kelpie, an easy task. I know how to ride—well a bit, anyway, having gone on that family holiday where we rode horses. Winning on the Kelpie would be easy, not capturing a Kelpie. There would probably be no ease in that task. It’s a foolish idea, but Morag says I could do it. She’s the one to know. Then again, she thinks I’m a Mage.
The prize money would help at the house. We barely manage with Dad gone.
We yearn for my dad with an aching hunger yet never lose hope, but as each year passes, expectation wanes. It’s been two years since he clasped arms around us. Police located his car close to Loch Morar, but they never found his body. Most days, Mum and I go on with life and find joy in our close companionship. We don’t have much, but we have each other. I wish to earn money to help, and someday I will. Maybe someday soon.
I spend the next few weeks walking along the loch and talk to Morag several times. Twice I see a Kelpie, one copper coloured, and another one grey. Morag warns me not to touch them until their bridle is gone, or I’ll stick to the Kelpie and end up under the water. Not to die but to remain captive in their magical watery domain.
There isn’t much time left for rounding up an enchanted horse, the fair, fast approaches. The next Kelpie I see is the one for me. Once the bridle is gone, it will follow me and become domestic. I will give its headstall back and let the horse go as soon as the race finishes. Hopefully, the magical horse will forgive me.
Morag’s sure there has never been an incident in all-time when a captor freed the Kelpie, and that should make the difference between being blessed or cursed.
On the bank stands a copper-coloured Water Kelpie, its flanks shimmering in the sun. It doesn’t see me. Morag nods for me to go ahead. I have honed Dad’s pocketknife on the whetstone until its blade is razor-sharp. My only chance is the sharpness of the blade to cut the supple leather.
I crawl up on the grass, knife in hand, silent and stealthy. The horse is shaking water from its mane. I reach up, slip the knife in under the leather, keeping my hand safely down on the handle. The blade slices the soft leather in one swift tug, sending the harness to the ground. The Water Kelpie whinnies and falls to its knees, looking at me for the first time. I lay my hand on its forehead, and somehow, we communicate.
His name, Ryson, comes to my mind. The poor animal is trembling.
In my thoughts, I say to him, “Don’t be afraid. In a few days, I hope we can run in a race. After that, I will return you to your herd.”
I stroke his neck, he calms and nudges with his nose while into my mind, comes his thought, “I will race. You keep your promise.”
“Dear Mage, you have done well, good luck,” Morag says.
The now quiet horse follows me home. Secreted and safe, Ryson is in the garden shed with a blanket for a bed. The dogs look but don’t bark. The horse can only eat the grass from around the loch, so I carry some home for him. Only two days to nervously wait until the fair.
I leave a note, on the table to Mum, that I am helping at the fair.
I drape an old shirt over the top of the seat so that people won’t see the silver and jewels. They would wonder where a girl like me got the horse, never mind an expensive saddle.
Riding the glorious Water Kelpie horse isn’t that hard. The saddle must have magical properties because I’m safe even when he runs like the wind, my seat remains glued in place.
Hope it isn’t permanent. Too late for second thoughts now.
Ryson is big and beautiful, as red as my hair, but deep magic shields his true nature from others’ eyes. People are laughing about me bringing a pony to a race.
“Oh, sweet Mage, never doubt my magic. I can taste my freedom in the wind. The lock calls, but this I will do for you.” Ryson transmits his thoughts to me without a sound.
We stand flank to flank at the start. Ryson dances nervously around the other horses. We risk disqualification as horses must all stay behind the chalk mark on the track until the starter fires his pistol, and the race begins. I lay my hand along Ryson’s neck and convey to him that he is safe. We settle each other.
Everyone is behind the start line. My heart is racing in time with Ryson’s, my stomach-churning molten lava. He starts to shift around again, but I keep him behind the mark. We are way back with a good view of all the horse's tails. He dances but is facing the right direction. Kaboom—the gun goes off.
The sound scares Ryson, who bolts, but I’m safe in the saddle. How could he be scared of the shot? His tail booming on the loch, and the thunder that follows is a seismic sound. Ryson strikes off furious and free. He runs so fast I close my eyes as the wind wildly caresses my face. He knows where to go and gallops at bullet speed. We are way out in front, no other horses around us. It’s like the other competitors are standing still. We leave our opponents in the dust and fly on to win. It takes him some time to slow down and walk to the winner's circle. He wants to go back to the loch. I tell him soon.
“She wasn’t at the fair start line.” The fellow who finishes second hollers and stomps his feet. “She was way back.”
“She didn’t have to be up at the line just as long as she was behind it, and she was,” the judge said. “ Go have a beer and lick your wounds. Your impressive horse, beaten by a pony.”
The judge sidles up to Ryson, smiling. “Don’t mind him. His horse usually wins.” He hands me a little pouch that has the prize money in it. “Not today, though.”
The spectators look on. Everyone’s face is a study in stupefied wonder, eyes bugging out, mouths gaping open. I leave before anyone can change their mind or ask questions.
We ride to the loch, and Ryson thanks me for keeping my promise. I remove his bridle from the horn of the saddle and my shoddy repairs made with fishing line and darning needles tattoo around the jewels. I’m uncertain how to put it back on him without being stuck and taken under Loch Morar. Ryson tells me to keep the headstall. He has no use for jewels and will never be trapped again if he doesn’t wear one. The power lies in taking the harness from the horse’s head.
The water of the loch separates like the Red Sea, and hundreds of Water Kelpies lope onshore. They bow to me, their front legs bent, and their heads hung low.
My father appears in the distance and strides toward me through the mist.
I sprint to him, and he hugs me close while salty tears stream down our faces. Romulus and Remus bound down the road in our direction. I fear for my father, our dogs are dangerous to men they don’t know, vicious indeed, but they embrace him, licking his hands like old friends. Mother in her tartan skirt bounces along the Loch Morar road, closing the ground between us.
Ryson turns to the loch but says to my mind as he leaves, “Your father has been with us for these long years. I was on the road, lame from stepping on a sharp rock, and he stopped to help. Holding on to my bridle to lead me, he was unable to let go. I took him to the deep. Now he returns to you for your kindness to me, your captive.”
Morag is amid the Kelpies whirling in the water. “You are a Mage, my dear friend. You do not believe, but Mage you are. Till we meet again.”
In a spiralling eddy, she departs, as the Kelpies all whinny and dive to the depths. Still waters do run deep, and quiet girls have the most astounding fairy tales. Hardly ever is not never. Not hardly.