The man struggled for only a short time under the water as Nora held his head in place. His arms ceased their wild flailing, and the muffled gurgling stopped altogether. Sweating and panting, she kept his lifeless body under turbulent waves for a little longer than was comfortable, just to be sure that he was in fact, dead.
She pulled him out of the water onto the sandy shore. His body was heavier than it looked. With her bare hands, Nora dug a hole in the sand, not too deep but enough so that it would sufficiently cover the corpse.
Dirt and sand covered her skin up to the elbows. She heaved and pulled until it flipped over into the shallow tomb. The sight of his face, now purple and sopping, made her uneasy. Palming a handful of sand, she flung it onto his face, masking its dead gaze.
Once finished with the burial, she collapsed onto her back and stared at the stars. Twilight had set upon the world. She could have sworn that only a moments earlier the sun flew high. In the corner of her eye, she caught a congregation of fireflies marching toward the treeline, not a few paces from the grave.
Still dirty and thick with grime, her hands wouldn’t come clean no matter how much she scraped and scrubbed; it clung to her like gloves of filth, and smelled of death. Waves crashed like thunder, startling her. When she approached the water and submerged her hands, the surface illuminated with a pale blue glow and burned.
Nora pulled her hands away and loosed a shrill cry. The water was like a boiling pot. More unnerving, the surface was unnatural and still, despite the thunderous sound of waves nearby. She caught her reflection, but it wasn’t the face she was expecting. Instead, staring back at her was the man she just buried in the sand. The sight was enough to make her recoil and, still on her hands and knees, she retreated from the shore.
Too afraid to be near water, Nora decided to return to her camp to settle in for the night. She tripped over her feet and fell, cursing her long, awkward legs as she tumbled to the ground. Regaining her balance, she noted that the fireflies had grown tenfold in number, leading a trail into the dark chasm which sat between the gnarled ash trees and willows. The light, however faint, was welcome as she navigated from the beach and into the woods.
A well-used fire pit was set a short walk ahead. The site was mostly bare, aside from a small tent, a worn bow with dull broadhead arrows, a satchel and a gelding that she called Beetle hitched to a tree. Nora wiped her hands on her grey, roughspun tunic, but still, it was useless, the dirt remained. An unexpected chill washed over the forest. The horse whinnied into the encroaching darkness as she rummaged around in its leather saddlebags for flint and tinder. Lighting the fire was a painless process, and for that she was thankful.
Several of the fireflies swirled around her, some perched on her shoulders, others hovered directly in front of her face. She raised her hand to swat them away but paused when she noticed that they weren’t really insects at all, but tiny floating people without legs. Each was unique in one way or another. Long, fat, wide, big-headed, bearded, and some even wore clothes. They all appeared to be disemboweled with their guts flailing about.
“What are… hello?” Nora said as she gently poked at one in front of her.
They floated without wings, as if by magic. When they spoke, it was a choir of small otherworldly voices. “Shh… he’s coming for you. We’ve come to warn of the trial. There’s nothing you can do. He’s here to judge, and it won’t be time for denial.”
Strained neighing from the chestnut gelding grew more frantic.
“Are you all some kind of Faeries?” asked Nora. “The old maids in town… I always just thought they were superstitious, and yet–”
“Please don’t insult us. Though you must know, neither is he. We’re called by many names; some say we’re just Wisps in the Willows. But he is not far, and you’ve much to fear. So, flee!”
A voice boomed through the woods, so deep and so loud that it pierced through Nora’s consciousness, directly into her mind. The wisps scattered up above the camp in a torrent.
“My, my. What a terrible sin you’ve committed,” said the voice. And the gelding stepped in front of the fire. It was Nora’s Beetle, only different somehow. The rope that had bound him to the tree came undone and fell to the dirt. The horse’s lips shifted and morphed, forming words around teeth that were too white, too human. “Do you feel no shame for what you’ve done? No remorse? Not even a tear to shed?”
“Beetle? Have I gone mad? I’m seeing tiny glowing people, and now my horse is speaking to me.” Nora Pinched her cheeks, slapped her face lightly, and shook her head. When she opened her eyes, to her disappointment, the horse was still in front of her. “Alright, what’s it to you then, horse? Who… or better yet, what are you, devil?”
“I’m called by many names. Your people call me Kelpie and that will do if you must refer to me at all. I’ve come a long way to meet you.” Kelpie chuckled to himself as if no one else were around. “Why do you wear a man’s clothes? Would a dress not better suit you? Those breeches are unflattering, and that tunic is tattered and ill-fitting.” The horse smiled a grisly smile which bared his teeth. It made Nora uneasy.
“I prefer these clothes, I feel more like myself than when I wear a dress. I never much liked them, too exposed… vulnerable. Not that I need to explain myself to a horse.” She began to circle the campfire towards her satchel and the tree where the horse had once been hitched.
Kelpie sat down in front of the fire pit, but not in the way a horse should. Instead, it was all too human-like, almost cross-legged. With his front legs raised, he rested them on the knees of his hind legs. The sight was disconcerting.
“Ho ho ho. You’ll soon learn that I’m no mere horse, child.”
“I’ll ask you again, what are you? A devil? An evil spirit? A possessed faerie? Maybe you are just a horse, and I really am losing my mind. A delusion would likely try and convince me otherwise.” Nora casually stood in front of the bow resting next to her belongings.
“Something like that,” he laughed, “something like that. Though, I’m not here to convince you.”
“So what, you’re here to punish me? If so, get on with it then, I’m very impatient.”
“Oh child, I’m not here to punish you. You’ve already punished yourself enough. No, I’m simply here to judge you,” said the horse. His demeanour shifted dramatically, as though the time for pleasantries had ended.
Nora was not interested in whatever hallucination she was experiencing. From behind her back, she fingered the wood of the bow for a moment before grasping it and notching an arrow in one motion.
The twang of the string being plucked was followed by the whizzing sound of an arrow cutting through the quiet of night. It pierced clean through Kelpie’s neck. In the same span of time, the projectile dissolved into dust and dissipated in the wind. The wound, which was a black hole inside the horse’s green coloured coat, healed before her eyes.
“That was quite rude, now wasn’t it,” Kelpie said, his voice biting and cold. He clenched his teeth and took a deep breath. Smoke poured from his nose.
Nora turned on her heels and ran directly into the woods, away from the camp and the awful demonic horse which had taken it over. Inside the thicket, it was pitch black. Right as she picked up speed, she tripped over an errant branch diving face first into the dirt. It was wet and all around smelled of rot and mould. Unwavering, she picked herself up and pushed forward, blind in the darkness of the forest.
Once she’d cleared some distance, she slowed to a manageable pace. Just ahead, she spotted a faint light. Another hunter camping for the night? She thought, optimistic. Stalking through the trees, she approached carefully, hoping to not cause a scene or startle the unwary woodsman. One step at a time, a camp came into view.
There he was, the devil horse, sitting with a smug expression on his face as she stepped in through the trees she’d set out from. “You can’t run from fate, child — ”
“Stop calling me a child, horse!”
“Oh, but you are a child, to me. I am very old, much older than you can imagine.”
The horse rambled on, but Nora was more interested in getting away from him. It had only been a short time since she moved in from the shore, so, she made her way back into the blackness between the trees, listening for the sound of waves. It was only then that the distinct and utter silence struck her. Not only were there no sounds coming from the ocean, but none from the forest. The wind ruffled no leaves. There was no distant cracking of branches or the swaying of trees. Even the crackle of flames was absent. It was as though she was underwater and her senses had left her.
“Hey. Wispsies. Or whatever you’re called,” she whispered, “can you help me find my way, like before, on the beach?”
There was no answer.
“You told me to run, and I’ve tried that. He’s cast some curse on me that’s twisting up my head.”
A swirl of golden lights descended from the trees and circled her, speaking in unison. “Shh. Shh. You cannot run it is too late, this is no game. Where would you go without your steed? You’re trapped in his domain, our warning you did not heed. Go back, go back. Do as he asks and feel no shame.”
“Why should I feel shame?” The wisps flew behind Nora and pushed her back towards the camp. They weren’t strong, and so they did little to move her in any direction, but they managed to nudge her off balance, which was more than enough of a hint. The wisps escorted Nora to the camp, flitting around her like a shield.
The woods remained still and silent until she passed through the trees into the small clearing where the camp was set. Then, as though she’d passed through some kind of gate, time moved forward, the wind blew once more, and she could hear waves in the distance. Even the insects that crawled up her boots were a welcome sight if it marked a return to sanity. Still, she felt trepidation, and each step was a careful, calculated movement.
“I see you’ve finally decided to join me. And you’ve brought friends.” Kelpie flashed a wicked smile, and the fire in front of him roiled. “Shall we begin? Please, sit with me.”
“Before we do, I must know, how are you to judge me? Will you judge what I’ve done? I’ve only murdered once. You must know I’ve lived an honest life, I’m not some sort of a whore or witch.”
“You’re too ugly to be a harlot, and much too dull for a witch. You’re not even charming enough to be someone’s mistress, yet too feminine to be a hunter as you so like to masquerade. No. But you are a murderer.” The horse snarled and laughed to himself again. “At least, these are the things you tell yourself every day, am I mistaken? You’re going to make a cup of tea. You understand? I quite like tea, but it’s a little hard for me. Hooves, you see,” he raised his legs in front of the fire.
“Yes, a warm, hearty cup of herbal tea.”
“And how will that help me?”
“Well you see, I can always judge the purity of one’s character by the cup of tea they serve. You see, tea is a fine art. If you don’t let the leaves steep for long enough, you’re just drinking hot water. But too much time is worse, then it’s overpowering, and you’ve ruined the entire pot. If the water is too hot, then you’re likely to burn a tongue but too cold and… well, you get the idea. But see, the real test is the leaves themselves. The combination of herbs can tell a lot about an individual, and whether they’re honest. It can make the tea too sweet, too bitter, or too muddled and chaotic.”
“You take your tea quite seriously.”
“I do indeed. Tea is not something to be joked about. So, with that, gather some herbs around the camp and boil up a pot. I’ll be waiting,” The horse winked, “I’m very excited.”
The wisps had settled onto various stumps and trees, some even perched on Nora’s shoulders as she shuffled around the camp, picking and tasting many different herbs. She stayed mostly silent, focused on her task, realizing the weight of what had been asked and that Kelpie was no simple hallucination or dream. Though she wasn’t the best at tea making or cooking much of anything. But, she could make due on those long afternoons spent hunting alone in the woods to escape from the doldrums of domestic life.
In a tight bundle, she wrapped the herbs together with twine made from thin stems and pressed them into a piece of the roughspun cloth torn from her tunic as a makeshift filter. After preparing the herbs, she dug into the saddlebags fastened to Kelpie’s side and pulled a small earthenware pot, along with a heavy waterskin.
Nora filled and set the pot on a flat stone in the coals and sat across from the horse, who had been silent. Embers flickered and swirled between them. Shadows danced across his already unsettling face and made every small inflection seem somehow more severe.
“So then, horse devil, what comes next? You drink the tea, and then I’m judged? What’s my sentence? You already know that I’m a murderer, is this some sort of prison? Are you to execute me if I’m deemed unworthy? And what am I to be unworthy of? Is it life, love, and true happiness? Because I don’t experience much of that as it is,” said Nora.
“Do you really not know? This isn’t an old maid’s tale. You’ve already played the part of judge, jury and executioner, Nora. I’m merely the harbinger of what’s next. I’m here to either leave you to the darkness or take you to the next life. Either one is up to you, but there is no going back, you’ve already made your choice to move forward.”
“What do you mean? I’m not sure I understand.”
“Who was your victim Nora? Really think about it. Do you not remember coming to the woods alone; you’ve always felt at peace near the ocean. Have you never asked yourself why that is? Why you haven’t felt like you belong, even with your family, with your husband, with your child? Did you forget slipping under the surface, the air rushing out from your lungs and replaced by the sea? Did you forget it all?”
The water came to a boil.
The horse made a gesture to the pot and Nora placed the bundle of leaves into it. Events from her life flashed before her eyes. As a child, she preferred hunting with her father to spinning alongside her sisters. Her wedding night, which terrified her more than she was willing to say. The wailing and whining of a child all through the night. The smell of ale on her husband’s breath in the mornings. The countless broken plates, cuts, and bruises caused by burnt meals. That soothing sound of the surf crashing against rocks and the receding tide. The feel of the ocean spray at her feet, and the cool breeze. The calming sound of leaves touched by the wind.
Often, she wondered what life might be like as a fish, living under the sea. The freedom of all that open space, not trapped between four walls and a roof. Trapped in an awkward, useless body, that she hated and longed to be free from.
“So, I… that’s it then,” Nora said.
“If you would be so kind, it’s hard to pour tea with these hooves, you know. You wouldn’t think it’s a problem, but fingers really do make all the difference.”
She reached for the pot and poured the fresh brew carefully into the cup. The smell of mint and elderberry mingled in her nostrils as she lifted it to the horse’s mouth. To her surprise, he grasped the mug with a tendril-like tongue and twisted it back into his mouth, cup and all. Nora noticed that he was dripping wet and Beetle’s once well-groomed mane was now sopping wet strands of kelp. She laughed, thinking about how silly the name Kelpiesounded.
“Mmm. Hmm… Interesting.” He smacked his horse lips together and closed his eyes while pointing his snout to the sky. “Watermint. Mmm, pleasant. Yarrow and is that elderberry? Bittersweet and reserved yet uncomfortable. Like someone we know?” Kelpie rose and walked to the edge of the camp. “If you would, Wisps, show me the Ocean.”
The tiny little creatures moved on his command, lighting a path out of the clearing and through the ash trees and willows.
“Where are you going? Did I pass your test?” Asked Nora.
The horse never answered and disappeared into the brush. The wisps fluttered ahead through the trees. Nora chased after, and they walked in the dark for only a short time before they reached the shore and the unmarked grave. She plunged her hands into the sand and scooped out handfuls of it. A sinking feeling fell into her gut. It was the fear of what, or who she would find in the grave.
Swiping away the last chunks of dirt from the face of the corpse, Nora was met with a grisly sight.
“He’s me, isn’t he? How is this possible?” Asked Nora.
“This body you inhabit, it was never meant for you. I’m giving you a chance. Follow me and let me show you. You’ll want to stay here, on the surface, but I ask that you don’t hesitate. If you do, that will be the end and all you’ll know is darkness. Come home with me, child.”
Kelpie clopped into the ocean, one hoof at a time. She remembered the way the water burned the last time it touched her skin. Nora followed slowly, doing as the horse asked of her. It wasn’t easy to forget her dirty, grime-covered hands. As he feet met the shore, something inside told her to trust Kelpie and follow him into the water. The alternative of staying in the darkness with that corpse did not appeal to her.
Removing her boots first, she stripped off the rest of her clothes and entered. The pain was excruciating at first, but she pressed on. The water brushed against her hands, burned away the dirt and skin and blood and bones. Further in, waist deep, the sensation changed from searing pain to euphoria.
Nora inhaled a single, deep breath and dove, following behind the Kelpie who was now completely submerged. Her body took on a glow as bright as the sun. The rest of her skin, flesh, and bones melted, revealing something — someone new. Her lungs filled, accepted the water like oxygen. That uncomfortable and awkward body had burned away. It was in its death that, for the first time in her life, she felt free.