Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
I wasn’t very old when I first saw it. Maybe about five or six or so. It was a long time ago. But I remember it well.
For what feels like the longest time, the whole experience of it felt like…a dream. Like it never really happened, just a little image in my head. A half-forgotten memory.Maybe it didn’t. I can’t remember exactly where the place was, just what it looked like. As the same with the people there. No face or name I could say now. Maybe they weren’t even there. Just additions by time to the memory. Slowly changing the devils in the details. But they don’t matter much. They never did. What did matter, was the Kelpie.
It was summer. I was playing near the bayou not far from my grandmother’s house. I had been sent there to spend the duration of the warm season. My mother thought it was good to breathe fresh, humid air instead of the city smog. My summer that year was spent with my grandmother down south. She was a fierce old lady, second generation from Scotland. Often she would tell wonderful tales of the lochs and forests from her parent’s homeland. About all the creatures that lived within the waters, and all the ones that lived in the trees. One of my favorites was the Selkie. Beautiful seal-women who could change shape at will as they sunned on the rocks or swam in the sea. Another was the Each-Uisge, a more ferocious beast, but also quite interesting to me. My grandmother said that they could take the form of a singing woman, where they would lure sailors into the ocean, and drown them in the salt water when they got close, like sirens. The one I loved most though, was the Unicorn. Such a majestic, mysterious creature. I liked how pure it was told to be. I had always had a desire to see one. To touch its pure, white, coat. But I knew they weren’t real. Just stories. Just tales. But I liked to pretend.
One day I went down to the bayou to catch a fish. I was very proud of myself, having made a pole from a stick and some string. My grandmother laughed and said if I caught a fish, she would cook it for me. I became very determined to the task. I told her I would be back before sundown.
I waited at the banks of the water, legs crossed and pole in hand. There was a small bit of uncooked bacon on the end of the line. I knew I was going to catch a fish. I just knew it. My train of thought and concentration was broken, by music. Someone was playing a fiddle. The sound was enchanting. I looked around for the source. Not finding one, I tried to follow the sound. Abandoning the pole on the bank with the line still in the water, I quietly crept along the bank, walking until I found the source of the music. I found who was playing the fiddle. It was a young man, sitting on a branch of a large tree. The limb hung just above the water, and the young man lay against it, suspended over the mirror-like surface, playing a tune to his wooden fiddle. The white strings seemed to glow in the faint morning light. He stopped when he saw me, and smiled. No words came between us, but he beckoned for me with his hand to take a seat on the mossy bank and he continued to play. The music was wonderful. When the song ended, I asked for him to play another. He nodded, but only if I went into the water. My grandmother had been very keen with me to keep out of the water. I could not swim at the time, and she made me promise to stay on the bank. So I removed my shoes and let my legs dangle in the cool, calm, water. He played another song. When he finished, he beckoned with hand again for me to come closer, deeper into the water. Like he was going to tell me a secret and whisper it in my ear. I shook my head. I had made a promise. The young fiddler seemed sad. Dissapointed. I can’t quite remember the details of his face, but I can just remember his frown. He sighed and rolled off the branch and into the dark water without a splash. Just a few small ripples came from where he entered the bayou. He never came out of the water. After that, I went back to the house as my grandmother called my name. First, I ran to get my pole. A tiny minnow was at the end of the paper clip hook.
I almost told my grandmother about the young fiddler. But I didn’t. She would just think it strange and say it was nonsense.
The next day, I went again back to the bayou banks, fishing pole in hand. I said to my grandmother I would catch a bigger fish. I told her I would be back before sundown. I went back to my spot and sat cross legged, pole in hand. There was a small cut of deer on the hook. I sat, and waited for a fish to bite, my thoughts trailing off about my grandmother’s stories. They were stopped by the sound of laughter. It was a girlish laughter, light and soft. I was curious. Usually the bayou was so lonely, just the call of far away birds and the hum of cicadas. But the laughter broke though it. Right into my head. I followed the sound, leaving my pole on the bank and the line in the water. Moving silently, I walked along the bank. In the same place with the low hanging tree limb was where I found the source of the laughter. That small, watery grove seemed just a little different. A large grey rock sat in the middle of the water, emerging from the deep. I hadn’t noticed it before. Possibly I just hadn’t remember it from when I met the young fiddler. Sitting on the rocks, were three young girls. They looked a few years older than me. All of them had long, dark, hair that swayed around them like thousands of waved silk strings. Hearing them laugh made me…happy. I don’t really know why. I got closer and sat on the bank to watch them. The girls were as beautiful as the Selkies in the tales my grandmother told me. They all had fair skin seemed to glow in the dimmed bayou light. One of them met her dark eyes with mine. She beckoned with a finger towards me. She wanted me to come and play. I wanted to, they seemed as though they were having so much fun up on the rock there! I took off my shoes and rolled up my pant legs. I waded in up to my knees and my feet sunk slightly in the silty mud, but, looking down into the water, I remembered. I couldn’t swim. I sadly stood there, sorrowful that I could not join these new friends. One by one they slid effortlessly into the water and swam towards me, only their eyes visible above the water with their hair flowing behind them. They swum around my legs, barely disturbing the water. One pulled gently at my leg, another at my hand. A shook my head. I couldn’t. Disappointed, they sighed dismally and let go of my hand and left, slipping away like the water they swam in. Their sighs were almost musical, as melodic as they were. I didn’t want them to go. I almost swam in after them. But I heard my grandmother call my name. I went to get my pole. A small fry was at the end of my line.
I almost told my grandmother about the bayou Selkie girls. But I didn’t. I felt like they were…mine, somehow. Like a secret that only I would know.
The following day, I set out again. I was going to get a bigger fish. I had to. This was my last day in the bayou. I was going home the next day. I told my grandmother I would be back before sundown and went to the bank to fish, with the pole in my hands and my legs crossed over one another. There was a small strip of gator meat at the end of my makeshift hook. I gazed out into the dark, still, water. It seemed almost dead. Lovely, but dead. A metallic blue dragonfly landed on the water, took a sip, and flew off. I watched it go. My attention was then turned to most unusual noise. Hooves. And a neigh. There were no horses in the bayou, so I started to wonder. I put my pole down on the bank and let the line sit in the water. I followed the sounds of the braying horse. Yet again I came to that same place. The willows hung low, the tree limb sat just above the water, and the rock was empty of any Selkie girls. Standing by the tree on a small island bank in the middle of the water…was a unicorn. It didn’t have a horn, much to my disappointment, but there it was. A pure, white horse. It pawed at the ground with long furred hooves. Its mane was elegant and shiny. It seemed to glow. Just like the Selkie girl’s skin, and the young man’s fiddle strings. It was beautiful, even if it may not have been a unicorn as the bayou girls were not Selkies, and the young fiddler not the singing Each-Uisge. It looked towards me and waved its head up and down, up and down. It was calling me to it. Without hesitation, I got into the water. I didn’t even take off my shoes. I stood knee deep. The white horse trotted into the water and began to swim to me. I hoped it would play with me on the banks, or at least in the shallows. It stopped though, just a little further out from where I was. It could stand there, but then again, it was much bigger than me. The water couldn’t be too deep over there. Could it? It looked towards its back. It was offering me a ride. In my excitement, I forgot all about my grandmother’s words and went deeper into the water. Up to my chest. Then my shoulders. The water felt suffocating as it went higher and higher. I felt like my lungs were being crushed under the pressure of it. I held my hand out to the white horse. It was still just out of reach. I took another step and the water was to my chin. My fingers brushed over its silky mane. Water weeds had collected in it, giving it green flecks here and there. I went to touch it again. This time though, it felt more…sticky. Like tape, or glue. Looking down into the water, the white horse had lost its glow. It seemed more…grey. Darkening the further down it went until it was almost black. Maybe it was just the water.
My foot slipped.
I went down under the water. Opening my eyes in panic, I was horrified at what I saw in front of me.Where the white horse’s belly and legs would have been, I only saw smooth, black, decaying flesh. Water weeds strewn in and out of it. The back legs fused together in a slowly fanning tail. It was like something out of a nightmare. I immediately stepped back, my movements slowed by the water. I turned around and my head broke the surface as I reached the shallows. I scrambled onto the bank and looked back. The white horse was gone. I felt a relief, although I deeply missed the white horse. Where had it gone? I heard my grandmother call my name. In my soaked and muddy clothes, I ran by my fishing pole. A large catfish was at the end of the hook. I left both and hurried back to my grandmother’s house.
I told my grandmother about the white horse. I did this time. I left out the Selkie girls and the young fiddler from my story, and I did not mention the nature of me falling into the water, but I asked her about a white horse in the water. She told me a tale about a Kelpie. It was water demon, that often took the shape of a beautiful white horse, among others such as a handsome man playing a violin, or a young maiden. It would offer a ride to anyone willing, then take them into the water and drown them. Nothing would ever be found of them. That night, I forced myself to go back there. I needed to see if it was real. By the light of my torch, I followed the path I had taken as I had searched for the source of sound. But after hours of searching, I could not find it. No green willows, no low hanging tree limb, no rock.
I went back home the next day, happy to be away, yet desperate to go back. I never did.
My grandmother had died about a month before. It had been years since I had seen her, in fact, she had visited only once since the time I spent a summer with her. I traveled down back to the bayou, back to her home to pack up her things and sell the house. I had nearly forgotten those three days down at the banks of the bayou. The whole summer had been a blur that year, but going there brought those memories back. For so long I had dismissed it as a dream, or some dull event of meeting other people. A man playing an instrument. Some girls swimming in the water. An animal on another bank. A deer perhaps. Or a white goat that had lost its way. Nothing out of the ordinary for the south. Maybe it was just my imagination that I saw a white horse and pet its mane. But to reassure myself of this childhood nonsense, I decided to go and take just one little look that morning. I would be back before sundown.
I found my old fishing spot. My pole was still there somehow, as if I had just left it. I found the fresh carcass of the catfish I had left there years before. I tossed it into the water. Curious. Then I heard the music. Fiddle music. And laughter. And the sound of… a horse. I followed it, and I found that same place. The place with the willows and low hanging tree limb and the rock and the opposite bank with the tree. Once I got there though, all the music and laughter was gone. The tree limb sat empty over the water, the rock isolated and alone. On the opposite bank, was the white horse. The Kelpie. It shook its head and beckoned me over. Something seemed…strange, not quite right. Out of place. But against my better judgement, I took off my shoes and stepped into the water. Faintly, I could hear hissing, and a quiet screeching noise. It sounded like it was coming from the water. I ignored the sounds and went deeper into the bayou. Finally, it was getting too deep to stand. As I kicked off the bottom, my foot hit something sharp. I don’t think it bled though, so I continued across the water without a thought. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was…under me. Swimming. Maybe even multiple somethings.
I climbed onto the bank. As I got close, the Kelpie kneeled. It was offering me a ride. I remembered what my grandmother had said about these ‘offered rides’. I took a box knife from my back pocket and held it behind my back. Just in case. Opening the blade, I stepped closer and hesitantly put a hand on the magnificent beast. Its white fur was soft, and felt like water in my hands. I told myself I shouldn’t. I had one of those feelings that you get going into a dark tunnel or alley. You know it could be dangerous, and most likely is, but…you still go. I sheathed the knife and sat atop the white horse. It stood and pranced in a circle. I laughed. Oh, how I wished I had done this years ago! Looking up, I saw the young fiddler, laying on the low hanging tree limb. He plucked a string and began to play. He had a handsome face, with shaggy blonde hair hidden under a hat. His clothes looked old, like he was from the wild west. The three bayou Selkie girls came out of the water and lay atop the rock, laughing and brushing out the water weeds with their fingers. I noticed their faces this time. Soft, delicate features with shining dark eyes and smiling mouths. They all seemed so happy. I started to feel the same. A large grin was stuck on my face.
Though after a moment, that was replaced with a feeling of sickness. Worriment. I had a deep ache in my stomach. I was scared. But of what? I tried to lift my hand from the white horse’s neck. I wanted to get off. I wanted to swim to the other bank and run away from this place. My hand wouldn’t move. I pulled at it with my free hand, but it was stuck. Like it had been glued. I watched in horror as the white horse’s coat began to grey before my eyes, becoming darker, and darker. Finally, it became an oily black. Light shined off of it in different colors. It turned its head towards me. No longer was this the beautiful creature I had seen across the bank. It was a monster. The Kelpie.
It’s eyes were blue and clouded, and I could see its jagged teeth through a decayed mouth. A long, greenish-black tongue lapped out of its jaws. The Kelpie’s skin started to become a sticky black goo, engulfing my hand and surrounding my legs. I called for help from the young fiddler and the Selkie girls. It was like they did notice me shouting at them. When they did finally look at me, I realized that they too were not as they seemed. No longer were the Selkie girls beautiful and young. Their skins were green, and rotting. One of them was missing an eye. They gazed lazily at me with tilted heads, as if they were frowning at me with disappointment from their retracted lips and bare teeth, at my fateful decision to ride the Kelpie. The young fiddler, his clothes torn and half of his face peeled away, plucked a few sad notes before his skin began to bubble and turn black. The Selkie girls did the same. Slowly, they all dissolved, bone and flesh, into the same black goo of which the Selkie was made. Gradually they dripped into the water and dissipated like ink, becoming underwater smoke. As soon as they were gone, the Kelpie leapt into the water with me on its back.
As it dove deeper, I tried to pull away. The melting black Kelpie skin was slowly crawling up my legs and chest. I was running out of air. I snatched the box cutter from my pocket and cut at the Selkie’s decaying flesh. It screeched and looked at me with its dead eyes. I saw my own reflection in them. It was angry. It was in pain. And it looked ready to bite. I slashed at it again, and it bit at me, just inches from my face. I had freed my legs. As I tried to cut away the black flesh around my arm and hand, the Kelpie jerked and changed direction, causing the box cutter to dig into my arm. Silently screaming, I watched in horror as the last of my air escaped towards the surface. I cut at it again, and I was free. At a small glimpse, I noticed I was at the bottom. There were bones down there. Human ones. In that short look, I counted at least four skulls. The Kelpie screamed and swam off into the dark water as I pulled myself to the surface.
I gasped and coughed as my face was touched by the warm and humid bayou air. I looked around. Nothing was moving. Dead silent. I noticed a small ripple a few meters away. It got closer and closer, then it disappeared. Only a second passed before I felt something grab my ankle and yank me back under the water. I was being dragged back down. The Kelpie seemed insistent that I never make it back to the banks. I opened my eyes to see myself face to face with the Kelpie. Its black mane flowed around it. Below me, the Selkie girls were grasping at my ankle. I jabbed the knife forward into the Kelpie’s eye. It screamed again, such an inhuman noise that made my ears feel as though they were about to bleed. I no longer felt the hands grasping at my legs. The grip around my ankle was gone. The Kelpie, screaming, swam away, the box cutter still in its eye. I swam back to the water surface.
Quickly paddling my way back to the bank, I hoped that the Kelpie would not come after me for revenge. As I reached the silty shallows, I slowly walked forward, holding my freely bleeding arm. Blood dripped into the water from my fingertips. I crawled up onto the mossy bank and lay on my back for a moment, catching my breath. I sat up and tore away the water weeds that had wrapped around me on my way to the bottom of the bayou. My legs were covered in mud up to my knees, blackening the ends of my rolled up jeans. I looked around. It was nearly night somehow. The sun was gone and the first few stars had begun to shine in the darkening sky. The quiet and beautiful lagoon had changed in appearance. Just like creatures that inhabited it. The rock was mossy, crumbling, cracked. The low hanging tree limb sat broken and sticking up out of the water. All the willows were dead, their leaves decaying upon the ground in clumps. The rest of the trees looked sickly as well. Nothing here was healthy or alive. I backed further away from the water. My hand touched something smooth. Looking behind me, I saw the remnants of a polished fiddle. It looked broken, untouched for years. Further away, I saw the remnants of three colorful beach towels. They were just threads now. The skeletons of fish were around every discarded item. Looking closer in the weeds, I noticed more. Dozens of things, left behind by those who rode the Kelpie.
I never went back to the bayou. As I sold my grandmother’s house to a happy family from upstate New York and handed them the keys, I warned them not to get too close to the waters. There might be gators. As I got in my car and started to drive away, I watched as a little boy tugged at his mother’s sleeve, saying, “I’m going to the bayou, just to have a look. I’ll be back before sundown.”
I drove away, my heart giving an empty ache for the mother of that little boy. Yes, I told myself. He’ll be back before sundown.