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The Water Horse's Fireplace

a Scottish Halloween folk story, sort of

Published: 2012 October 31

The each-uisge of Scotland, pronounced echh-ush-guh, is one of the country's traditional monsters. While the relatively harmless kelpie lives in running water, the each-uisge ('water horse') lives in lochs. They eat meat, human for preference, and will use their shapeshifting powers to lure their prey down to the water's edge where they will be dragged under and consumed, leaving only their livers to float to the shore as a sign that the water horse has taken another victim. Water horses are vicious and terrifying, far more dangerous than many of the other Scottish supernatural creatures, and the locals would always treat the appearance of a lone animal or man near the water's edge with caution, for fear that the water horse might be hungry again. And rightly so.

In a small loch in north-west Scotland whose name I can't quite remember, there once lived a water horse and his wife. They preyed upon the local crofters, for of course there were no fishermen --- with a pair of water horses in the loch venturing into the water was far too dangerous. Luckily for the locals, water horses do not get hungry very often.

One morning in early October, one of the local crofters was at work in his tiny field when he spotted a black pony grazing aimlessly down near the water. Not being a fool, he realised immediately what it must be. But still --- a pony; vast riches to a poor farmer like him. If only he could find some way to catch it... and after all, he was a descendant of one of the old Celtic saints, a group of men so fearsome as to even put the uncanny to shame.

Running home, he found the most sacred item in his house, which was his wife's wedding shawl. Over her protests he cut it into strips and made a makeshift bridle out of it.

He walked nervously down the hill to the pony, which approached him and nuzzled him affectionately. Quickly, he cast the bridle over its head and blessed it in the name of his ancestors. And then he led it home in triumph.

The pony was a hard worker, if docile and a little confused, and with its help he began to transform his croft, preparing the land for the next year's crops. The work was easier than it had ever been before and he counted the day the water horse had tried to eat him as being the luckiest of his life. Each night he would lead it home, tie it up in a makeshift stable, and would tie on the bridle and bless it before retiring for the night, and each morning it would be standing placidly in the stable, blinking into the dawn sunlight.

But the nights moved on, and three weeks later All Hallows' Eve approached: that time of the year when the canny is at its weakest and the uncanny at its strongest. And whether it was that, or the strong drink that his neighbours had been plying him with (for he would never tell them how he had come across his beautiful new pony), or whether it was just that his wife's shawl was slowly unravelling, that evening when he led the pony into the stable and prepared to tie it up the bridle disintegrated in his hands. With a mighty whinny, the water horse grabbed the farmer by the scruff of the neck, and leapt into the loch.

The water horse pulled the hapless farmer deep down, to the bottom of the loch, a cold, dark place full of slimy things, and to the nasty little cave where the water horse and his wife lived. He threw the cringing farmer to the floor.

"Where have you been?" the water horse's wife demanded (the farmer discovering that, surrounded as he was by the water horses' magic, he could breathe the water and understand their speech). "Three weeks you've left me alone here!"

"This cowardly son of a Christian caught me and has been making me work on his farm," spat the water horse. "As a draught animal!"

"Oh, yes," said his wife. "I'm sure that was a hardship, spending all day out in the warm sunshine and clean air. And I was down here in the cold and the slime and the dark!"

As the two water horses continued to argue, the farmer realised that the mare had a point: the cave was quite horrible, full of mud and old bones and little wriggling worms. The only light was a pale green glimmer from above that merely made the dark seem darker and the cold colder. But he quickly realised that disagree though they might, the two water horses were unanimous on one point: that they were going to eat him, leaving only his liver to float ashore as a horrible warning to those who would disrespect the uncanny.

"Don't eat me!" he cried. "I'll do anything you want!"

"Oh, yes," snarled the water horse. "And what can you possibly do for me?"

"I can make you a fire!" the farmer blurted out. "To keep you warm!"

"At the bottom of the loch?" said the water horse. "Don't make me laugh."

But the water horse's wife put one hand on her husband's shoulder. "Wait," she said. And then, to the farmer: "Can you truly do this thing?"

The farmer swallowed, wondering what could have possessed him to suggest such an impossibility, but then thought that it was either that or be eaten, so he said: "Yes, I can."

The water horse's wife approached him. She was a beautiful creature, with a mane like a breaking wave and an eye as deep and dark as the ocean, but that just made her even more terrifying than her husband. "Swear it on your god," she said.

The farmer swallowed again. Breaking such an oath would be a terrible, terrible thing, but... it was that or be eaten, and besides, he was descended from one of the old Celtic saints, and surely God would forgive him? He closed his eyes, and swore.

So the water horses put him to work making a fire, watching him closely to prevent him escaping. And because he had not even the faintest idea how to do such a thing, he first said that he had to build a fireplace, which first needed him to clean out the cave. And that took days. And then he said the cave was not suitable, so he had to built a little house outside the cave out of lake-bottom rocks and mud, and that took more days, and then he had to make somewhere to store the firewood, and that put the moment off even longer.

And so the days turned into weeks, and after three weeks he ran out of things to do and the water horses ran out of patience. The water horse dragged him into the now quite large house he had built for them, and while his wife looked on, threw him down in front of the wide fireplace. "No more," she said. "Fulfil your oath, or will eat you up here and now."

The farmer knelt in front of the fireplace and realised he needed a miracle. So he began to pray.

"Oh Lord," he said, "Please, please send me a flame, or else the water horses will eat me up, all but my liver."

But nothing happened.

"Oh Lord," he said, "I am a descendant of one of the old Celtic saints, one of your great men of wrath. Will you not send me a flame in remembrance of them?"

Nothing happened.

"Oh Lord," he said, "I am sorry for taking your name in vain. I am a weak man and a sinner, and I am very terrified, but please, I need a flame."

Still nothing happened.

The farmer continued to pray and to beg for mercy until at last he realised that he was not going to get his miracle, and that it was his fate to be eaten here, by the water horses, all except his liver. And this was to be his punishment for his hubris and for taking his God's name in vain.

"Oh Lord," he said at last, "I am a weak and foolish man, but I have sinned and I must pay for my sins. If it is your will that I meet my end here at the hands of these creatures I will try to do so with dignity."

And then he added wistfully: "...and they were so looking forward to having a fire, too."

With those words an impossible flame appeared in the hearth, immersed in the water at the bottom of the lake. The farmer gaped at it for a moment, and then began to feed it with the waterlogged wood he had collected, and quickly a fire began to grow in the hearth. Working feverishly he continued to add wood until the fire roared and heat filled the room.

The farmer finally stepped back, and saw the two water horses gazing in rapture into the golden firelight which filled the little room with a warm glow. They were ignoring him completely, so he watched for a few more moments, and then jumped out the door and swam for his life.

When he finally came ashore and apologised to his wife for leaving her alone to work the croft for three weeks, he was laid up in bed for several days with a chill. But from then on he was a much more humble man, and his neighbours commented how much more pleasant he was to talk to; and whenever anyone asked him about the old Celtic saints, he would quickly change the subject.

And the water horses? From that moment on, they were never again seen on the shores of the loch, and the water became safe to fish and even swim in; because even the uncanny know the meaning of gratitude, and those who gaze into a miracle cannot help but be touched by it. But every winter, when the north wind would blow and freeze the loch, there would always be a little round opening in the middle, as if the ice was being melted from underneath.

Page last updated: 2012 November 5 © 2008-2013 David Given, unless specified otherwise