Cold Patch by Sherry Morris

It always starts with something small. I’m in the kitchen, putting away the shopping, when a raspberry tumbles from its punnet. Rolls across the granite kitchen counter. Drops onto the parquet floor. A shiver travels up my spine. I don’t remember buying raspberries at all. As more fall and spill, my eyes flit to the window. The last of the light is fading from the sky. My bones tell me tonight will be a full moon. My gut says the second one this month. I stand quivering as if lost in winter-cold without a coat. The call will come. Float in feather-light through sealed-tight doors and double-glazed windows. That rasp of words will circle dangerous and delicate as a whisper. Wait for moonlight. Strike. 
     I’ve tried many things. Weatherproofing the windows. Closing the curtains and blinds. Wearing industrial earplugs. Switching on all the lights. Sometimes I take the car and drive for miles to thumping music. But the call always finds me. Pulls me in. Takes me back.

Huge cotton-ball clouds levitate in an azure sky. Loch Achilty lies before me, a placid black surface. Nana and Gramps are nearby — their smiling ruddy faces like cellar-stored apples. Summer stretches long and lazy like a cat. My brother, Henry, age six, is there — all wide-eyed inquisitive and puppy-energy play. The Golden Child. I’m thirteen, the wiser, sensible sister, edging towards awkward adolescence. Sometimes we’re picnicking near the loch-shore; sometimes we’re fishing. The sun is warm on our faces; everyone is laughing. 
     Maybe it’s Highland magic that brings out the mischief in me that summer. Makes me tell Henry I’ve spotted Nessie though we’re miles from Loch Ness. Maybe it’s the cycle of the moon. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ve grown tired of coming second after being first for so long. Whatever the reason, that day my playful tease turns into a taunt. A bad side I hardly recognise lurks just below the surface, rises. But when tears flow down Henry’s cherub cheeks — because of course he can’t see her for himself — my mind clears and my heart constricts to see his perfect face crumple. And I swear we’ll find a creature especially for him. 
     I try to shake myself free then, so the images don’t change to white glowing eyes or flashes of coarse black hair; so time doesn’t shift to dusk. But it always does. 

We’re on a mission. Gramps tires easily now so Nana lets us go rambling alone. Our buckets spill with ripe raspberries for her tasty cranachan, but we want more than fruit. I’m determined to show Henry a creature. It’s nearly dusk. We know this time is special from Gramps’s bedtime stories. The woods here are full of creatures we can only dream about from our London beds: Beira the Winter Queen, the hag healer Cailleach and impish faeries that love nothing better than stealing babies. We beg Gramps for this thrilling folklore, wishing with fingers crossed and eyes closed to meet one of these fanciful beings just once. Believe the rustle of leaves and creak of trees are their secret code for us to decipher. But we’ve seen nothing out of the ordinary this evening. Henry is fractious, awake well past his bedtime even for the summer holidays. He whines, sulks. Drags his feet. I should take him back to the cottage where Nana, Gramps and our beds wait. I’m not ready, though, to give up. ‘Let’s stop at the loch,’ I say with fresh enthusiasm. ‘It’s dusk. We might see something.’ Henry harrumphs, blows his lips like a horse. Follows. We leave the path and walk to the shale shore. Sit cemetery-silent on this clear night. Watch the sky turn shades of pink to nearly match our berries as the sun sinks to sleep. In the gloaming, tawny owls screech, water rail chuk-chuk and toads croak. The loch remains calm, the woods still. As the pale shimmering disc creeps slowly up the sky, Gramps’s words come back to me. ‘It’s a special moon tonight,’ he said, though it looks the same to me. ‘Two full moons in one same month means the second is a Celtic Moon — though most folks call it Blue.’ He leans in and I smell coal tar soap. ‘Nights when the light of a Celtic Moon fall on loch and land are doubly special,’ he said, his voice trailing off. I try hard to remember why. A sound pulls my eyes from the sky. Henry is attempting to skim stones but picked fat round rocks that plop and sink fast, sending out large ripples that disturb the loch’s smooth surface. There’s a clear chill in the air now. Clouds roll in. I wonder how long we’ve been here. If Gramps and Nana worry. It must be very late now. ‘Time to go,’ I say. Struggle to rise. My feet feel cemented to the ground. A strange weariness has swept into me. My mouth stretches wide into a yawn. ‘We’ll look another time,’ I say. ‘Promise.’ Henry’s mouth puckers to a pout. ‘No!’ he shouts. ‘You promised before. I want a creature. Now!’ Without warning, he pulls back his leg. Kicks twice. Hard. Two full pails of raspberries sail. Splat across the shale. He plants his feet. Stares into my face. Dares me to retaliate. From somewhere deep, rage rises in me. My hands clench to fists. I exhale a wish: that Henry disappears. In an instant, my anger dissolves. I relax. I’m back to being too tired to argue, having no energy to coax. Tomorrow we can retrieve the bruised fruit and pails. ‘I’m going,’ I say and walk to the path. ‘Bye,’ I call, not looking back. This should be enough for him to follow. Then I hear, ‘Cassy, look!’ His tone makes me turn. I follow his finger. Near the edge of the loch, where it creeps close to the toothpick-thin trees, a horse stands in a shaft of moonlight. Gives a high-pitched whinny. ‘She’s beautiful,’ Henry whispers, talking more to himself than to me. At first, I think it’s tame. Someone’s pet that’s escaped and come to the loch for a drink. I squint to see it better in the overcast light. With its sleek black coat and lustrous mane, it’s magnificent. But there’s a strangeness about this horse. Its tail reaches the ground, coils behind it like a snake. A white glow surrounds its eyes. As it walks towards Henry the tail unwinds, the stench of rotting bog myrtle fills the air. I’m transfixed as it kneels on its front legs. ‘My creature!’ he squeals and runs to the impossible horse. ‘Henry, wait,’ I want to say, but the words catch in my throat. He darts forward. A trick of lunar light makes it look like the mane twists around his wrists. I blink twice and he’s straddling the creature. He grins. Gestures for me to join. There’s a pull in my gut. My feet twitch. I almost take a step. Then my ears catch a whispered caution riding on the breeze. I step back instead. The mare bares its teeth, rolls its cold glowing eyes at me. Stands. Turns and walks towards the loch with Henry. Its tail slithers through the undergrowth. I wonder if I’m dreaming. The breeze becomes stronger, a blustery gust that shakes me, wakes me to what is happening. I swallow hard to clear my throat. Find my bossy big sister voice. ‘Henry. That’s not your creature. Get down. Now!’ As he struggles to move, the mane wraps around his thin white legs. He looks back at me confused. ‘I-I can’t!’ he cries. ‘I’m stuck!’ Fully aware now I call, ‘Try to turn it.’ Know he won’t know how. The non-horse has started to trot. Maybe I can slow it by catching its tail. There’s a sudden crash of movement in the woods. An old man rushes from the trees. He could be a neighbour but I’m not sure. His face is contorted, distorted as he shouts, ‘Cold patch! Cold patch!’ I hear his fear as he calls these strange words. I want Henry to hear it too and find the strength to pull free. I run. Leap with all my might. Land feet-first on coarse black hair. In a parallel world, I wrench Henry free. We topple to the ground and it hurts, but I hold him in my arms. We hug and we’re dazed, but we make it back to the cottage safe. Instead, when I land on the tail, the beast surges forward. I pin-wheel my arms for balance as I tip. Feel strong hands grab my outstretched limbs and yank so hard my shoes remain snared in the tail. They continue their slide towards the loch. Barefoot and panting on the shore, I’m unable to shout. The strange old man keeps close, ready to grab me again if I give chase. He carries on with his Cold Patch call, urges me to call too, but I’m mute. His voice shrinks as the beast wades further in. I will Henry not to give up even as his twists and jerks weaken as he moves into the loch. When the water hits his knees, Henry turns. Looks at me. Smiles. His lips form words that the wind carries to my ears. ‘My Kelpie,’ I hear in his sweet little-boy lilt. But there’s something wrong with his eyes. They’re luminescent, glowing the same white as that crepuscular creature. He turns back around, places both arms around the monster’s dark neck in a tender embrace. Continues his own Kelpie call in an eerie sing-song that turns to a garbled gurgle as they move deeper, are swallowed whole. Wide coursing ripples still in an instant as the loch returns to its smooth deep self. I stare at the spot where Henry disappeared. Find my breath. Fill my lungs. Scream and scream and scream.
Back at the cottage, I’m placed next to the fire, wrapped in a woollen throw. Given a thimbleful of whisky to sip. Nana weeps nearby, shoulders shuddering. The old man’s hands tremble as he talks in solemn tones. He’d been sent to look for us, this neighbour, Iain. Gramps slumps in his chair, slack-jawed, staring into the fire at something only he can see. From time to time he mumbles sounds of remorse. Says it’s all his fault. He hadn’t warned us about Kelpies. How they become active at dusk. He hadn’t wanted to give us bad dreams, make us fear lochs. I sit silent and shocked. Say nothing about the wish I made. That I didn’t help the old man call. I know whose fault this really is. Remember Gramps’s words from that Celtic Moon day: They’re good for making wicked wishes. I learn later that dusk draws these malevolent water spirits from their sunken caverns to the surface where they lurk near loch-edges. That they thrive under a Celtic Moon. Irresistible to nearly all children, Kelpies use their magical hide and sticky hair as a trap to drown them. I also learn they eat their prey. And while calling out their Gaelic name, Colpach, usually stops them in their tracks, it hadn’t saved my Henry from a watery grave. How could it? Nothing beats the power of a wish made under a Celtic Moon. I haven’t been back to the Highlands and I don’t much care for horses or lakes. These things I can mostly avoid. But it’s harder to elude dusk and nights that are too long. There’s no escaping the old man’s call. Those haunting words always find a way in. I stare at the raspberries I don’t recall buying. Tremble as they continue to roll and spill along the counter. It doesn’t matter the words freely tumble from my lips now. It’s a Celtic Moon. I am pulled in. Taken back. Dragged down into my own private hell.

About the Author

Originally from Missouri, Sherry Morris is a windshield installer’s daughter. She writes prize-winning fiction from a farm in the Scottish Highlands where she pets cows, watches clouds and scribbles words. She participated in the BBC Scottish Voices writer programme and is supposedly finishing a script. Her first published story was about her Peace Corps experience in Ukraine. She is a Northwords Now board member and reads for the wonderfully wacky Taco Bell Quarterly.

Twitter: @Uksherka

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