WARNING: Contains Disturbing Imagery. Discretion is advised.
art by Kim Holm (@denungeherrholm)
Liam’s chores were done and he was thrilled. Usually it took him until just before dinner due to his “wandering eye and curious temperament” as his grandmother often put it whenever Liam would complain about his lack of free time. But, by some Irish luck and determination, Liam finished everything he had to do before noon. He traipsed through the woods that ran along the south side of his grandparents’ farm. He loved it out there. On days like this, he’d play pretend - imagining himself as Sir Lancelot racing through the trees to save Guinevere from a venomous dragon, or as Robin Hood leading his band of Merry Men to overturn Prince John. Today, though, he was just himself enjoying the bright sunlight through the trees.
It was as he bent down by a fallen log and tried to break off a long slightly bent branch to use a possible sword or just something to swish around when he saw it. Quickly he crouched down behind the log, hoping it hadn’t seen him. Carefully, he peeked over. About 200 feet away was a beautiful white horse. The gap in the branches above it made a column of light hit the animal perfectly and made it seem like the horse was glowing. Liam stared. The horse was facing away from him, its head low as it grazed, so he couldn’t see its face, but he knew if it stood tall there would be a long spiraled horn rising from its forehead.
Liam slowly rose to his feet, his eyes fixed on the beast. He was about to lift a leg to step over the log when the branch he’d considered using as a toy and was now using as support snapped with a loud, dry CRACK. As if the sound was a gunshot, the unicorn bolted away and quickly disappeared back into the forest. Liam cursed at himself and checked the spots on his forearms where they’d scraped against the log’s bark when he’d fallen. They were pink and raw and stung painfully, but he wasn’t bleeding. Cursing again, he decided to turn back. The rest of the day he read on the farmhouse porch, but his mind couldn’t focus well as it dwelled on the unicorn.
“How was your day, Liam?” asked his grandmother as she ladeled hot stew into his bowl. “Got your chores done early I saw.”
“Yes, Gran. I had fun,” Liam said, his thoughts elsewhere.
“Could’ve used you today,” Liam’s grandfather said as he sat down and took his cap off and put it on the table beside his bowl. “Had two dozen fence posts needing cleaning and renailing. Could’ve used the help.”
“Now, Colin,” Liam’s grandmother snapped as she ladeled stew into his and her own bowls. “The lad is here visiting us to enjoy his summer with us. Not be a free laborer to you. Now get that hat off my table. I won’t be eating with your sweaty cap near my silverware.” Liam’s grandfather grunted but said nothing in reply as he put the hat on the floor by his feet. “Good,” Liam’s grandmother nodded, “who would like butter for their bread?”
After dinner, Liam’s grandparents sat in the living room. The old radio crackled with music as his grandmother embroidered bees and flowers on a piece of linen and his grandfather worked on his daily crossword puzzle. His grandfather kept an unlit pipe clenched in his teeth. Liam’s mother had told Liam that his grandfather quit smoking the day Liam was born but kept the pipe “for sentimental reasons”. The house and his grandfather still smelled like rich tobacco - albeit dulled only slightly from the ten years since the old man’s last puff on the old wooden pipe. While his grandparents sat in their armchairs, Liam sat on the floor with his back against the couch. He had a book open on his lap but as he stared at the pages, he only thought of the unicorn’s white mane and glowing body.
“Is everything alright, Liam?” his grandmother asked a couple hours later as she tucked him in.
“Yes, Gran,” he said, pulling out of his thoughts, “Why? I’m alright.”
“Now, lad. You’ve had a vacant pensive face on all evening. Thinking deep thoughts are you?” Liam shrugged.
“Just thinking about stuff,” his grandmother smiled and kissed his forehead. It was warm and Liam smiled.
“Very well. Don’t keep yourself up too late thinking about ‘stuff’, okay?”
“Yes, Gran,” Liam’s grandmother went to the bedroom door when he spoke up. “Gran? Do…do you believe in unicorns?” His grandmother turned, a little surprised, and smiled.
“Been reading fairy stories have you?” Liam smiled sheepishly. His grandmother chuckled. “Why do you ask?”
“Just…I think I saw one day.” Liam looked away embarrassed to admit it. His grandmother came back to the bed and sat on the edge of it.
“You did, did you?” She put her hand on his head and ruffled his hair. “Well, I’ll tell you a secret. I saw a unicorn once too.” Liam looked back and she nodded. “It’s true. She was a beautiful white thing with a glowing mane and silver specks on her rump. Skittish thing she was too. I got almost close enough to touch her when she ran away. I expect I was able to get close enough cause I’m a girl. Unicorns tend to like girls more.”
“Really?” Liam’s voice faltered, feeling disappointed. If that was true he’d never get close enough to it after all. His grandmother ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead again.
“Don’t be disappointed, lad. If you see our unicorn again, don’t be afraid to try. Just be careful, okay?”
“Yes, Gran,” Liam said and his grandmother got up and left, shutting off the light behind her. In the darkness, Liam thought of the unicorn, trying to remember if it had any silver on its white body. Then his thoughts drifted back to his fantasies about what it would be like to touch it. He bet its body was like silk and its mane was gossamer fine. He imagined a horn twisted with a tight spiral extending a good two feet from his forehead and how sharp it must be. If he could find it or lead it near something he could try to climb on its back. And mounted on his magical beast, he could ride and possibly tame it. What a thrill that would be.
In the middle of his fantasy of the wind on his face as he and the unicorn raced through the countryside, the radio in the living room switched off. Liam then focused on the sounds of his grandparents talking and shuffling off to bed. He waited until their bedroom door closed and their bedsprings creaked, then he got out of bed. Putting on his robe and slippers, he snuck through the house and onto the yard. As he headed into the woods on the south side of the farm, he kept thinking, I have to know. I have to try.
The forest felt like a completely different place at night. The cooler air made the smells of wet earth, decaying leaves, and the not to distant swamplands heavier and more pungent. Moonlight from the crescent moon shone through the trees, giving them eerie highlights. Liam thought they looked like ghosts of children were playing hide-and-seek just out of sight behind the trees. Liam wandered, trying to retrace his steps from that day, but with so little light and the fact he hadn’t been paying much attention before, it was seemingly hopeless.
After several hours of searching, venturing farther into the forest than he knew was wise, Liam stopped and sat on a large fallen log. All around him the chorus of frogs and crickets filled the air. It almost made his ears ring and he let out a deep sign.
“Crap,” he whispered dejectedly. “I was so close…”
Suddenly there came a rustling of dry leaves and snapping of twigs to his right. He looked over with a mix of hope for the unicorn and fear of hungry wolves. His breath caught in his throat as he watched it approach. It truly was glowing, as if made of pure light. The horse got closer and Liam realized it wasn’t actually a unicorn. It didn’t have a horn. His surprise was only momentary though. He was still in awe at this still magical beast, unicorn or not. It walked right up to him, stopping about ten feet away.
The horse was enormous - as big as the Clydesdale that Liam had seen in the traveling fair earlier in the summer. Its body was pure white except for its hooves which were a glossy black. Its mane and tail were pearlescent and as Liam carefully stepped forward, the mane and gently twitching tail shimmered with a rainbow of colors. As he drew closer - standing less than an arm’s length away, the horse looked away. Emboldened by this seeming sense of trust, Liam gingerly reached out a hand. As he did, he tried to calm his racing mind. His past thoughts of riding and taming the animal flitted through his head. He’d read about beliefs of unicorns saying they could read minds and would run at any hint of greed or cruelty. This may not be a true unicorn, but Liam didn’t want to risk it. Instead he tried to focus on comforting it.
That’s it, he thought, I’m not going to hurt you. You’re so beautiful. I just want to pet you. Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to –. His thoughts stopped short as his hand made contact with the horse’s flank. Instantly the creature changed and Liam realized his mistake.
The horse turned black, the color appeared like ink spreading on a page. The darkness snuffed out the mystical glow and it instead glistened wetly. A stench of rancid, stagnant water, rotting mud, and swamp grass rose from the beast and as Liam tried to pull his hand away, the flesh of the beast was like tar, keeping him stuck to it. He let out a cry, only able to say “help” when the horse whipped around and ran off, dragging Liam with it.
The beast was as fast as any racehorse, almost flying through the trees. Dangling by his arm, Liam slammed into a large rock and felt his arm dislocate from his shoulder. Pain filled him and his shoulder flared up like fire as the ligaments and tendons strained to remain attached. Liam was dragged, crashing into every rock, fallen branch, and thorny bush. Still, the beast galloped on without slowing. Liam’s clothes and robe tore and were caked in mud. His slippers flew off his feet as he slammed into another large rock.
They reached the swamp in the heart of the forest after what seemed like miles and the horse slowed to a calm trot. The stench of the horse was multiplied tenfold by the swamp’s own stink. Either from the smell or however many concussions he’d sustained on the trip, he vomited and got dragged through. Liam just hung limply from the horse, his hand still attached firmly to it. He let out a weary moan and his eyesight flickered like a lightbulb about to short out. A gash on his forehead bled freely and blood dribbled into his eye. When he heard the splashing of water, he thought maybe his eardrums had ruptured. He looked up abd realized the horse was walking into the swamp waters.
Liam hoped, prayed, for something to surge from the depths and attack the horse. But as he began to sink into the water as well, his hope faded.
Liam didn’t know how deep a swamp could get, but thought it could never get deep enough for a beast this size to need to swim. But as he was submerged into the waters, the horse went down with him. The water was so deep it seemed bottomless and the light that shone through the muddy water gave everything a sickly green-ish glow. Liam’s eyes stung as he tried to look through the murky water. His hand finally detached from the horse’s flank as his lungs filled with water.
The kelpie turned to the child as the boy sank to the bottom. Its eyes glowed a dull white. Curved fangs flashed in the murky light as the creature unhinged its jaw - opening like a hungry wolf. It let out a deep growl of satisfaction and the water fogged up with blood as the kelpie took its first bite.