This story is by George Balea and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ailsa liked her walks around the loch, especially in a cold and misty day like today. She enjoyed the solitude, interrupted only by the occasional snap of a twig under her feet and by the gentle ripples of the water against the shore. The harsh, gusting wind seemed fitting, matching the grief and guilt burdening her soul. It was her Golgotha, walked almost daily in a ritual of repentance.
The mist was so thick that she saw only a few feet ahead, so the sudden appearance of another human being startled her.
“Sorry if I gave ye a fright,” said the young man, emerging as a shadow, the dense haze drawing back like a veil around him.
“Who are you?” asked Ailsa. She studied him, noting his wet, dark hair and muddy clothes as though he emerged from the waters. His eyes were a deep, piercing blue, reminding her of the loch on a clear day. His face was handsome in an understated way, with high cheekbones and a strong jawline. It was an unusual sight for a day like this.
“Callum,” he whispered.
A faint smile broke Ailsa’s sorrowful face. She felt an unusual connection to this peculiar man, a potential key to finding what she sought.
Ailsa loved the loch for as long as she could remember. She lived here for most of her life. She was a happy and curious child. She spent many days fishing with her father, learning about powans and trouts. From her mom, she learned how to sew her own dresses and whip up an entire meal out of nothing. And it was from her aunt, Effie, that she learned to enjoy life fully. Her father’s sister lived in a small stone cottage full of books and magazines. Ailsa found comfort in them, especially reading about the history of the loch and the mysteries surrounding it.
The only time she was away from the village for more than a few days was during her studies. She became a teacher, and the love for the first man in her life drew her back to Ardendale. Everybody loved her at school. She put passion into everything she did. She taught the children things that went far beyond the school curriculum. Her dream was for everyone to find that spark of joy in life that she discovered as a child.
“I did not expect to see anyone here,” said Ailsa. “The loch is usually my solitary refuge at this time of the day.”
For the first time, Ailsa noticed a slight expression change on Callum’s face – a faint hint of a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Some of us are drawn to a place like this for reasons we cannae explain,” he said.
“You might be right. I always felt a deep connection with this place. It’s been a part of my happiest and saddest memories.”
Callum nodded in understanding.
“Water keeps memories alive, so they say. And the loch holds many secrets. Some find solace here, while others are forever bound in their search for peace.”
“And what about yourself, Callum?” asked Ailsa, getting more intrigued about the stranger before her.
He paused, a distant look in his eyes. He radiated a calm, magnetic energy that was as compelling as it was unsettling.
“I’m the one who’s seen the ebb and flow of many lives here.”
His words sent a shiver down Ailsa’s spine. “You speak as if you’ve been here forever, watching over it.”
A sad smile flickered across Callum’s face. “Time flows at a different pace for me. This loch is a part of my very being.”
Ailsa felt a realization dawning on her as the puzzle pieces began fitting together in her mind.
“I know what you are, Callum.”
Three times she loved in her life. Deep, passionate love. And three times, she watched them go. Ewan, her first, shared her passion for the loch. His disappearance in its waters – while swimming in a serene summer morning – left a void in her heart. Fergus, the brave one, brought back joy and a spirit of adventure into her life, but his heroism turned into tragedy when he vanished while saving a child from drowning. Lastly, Angus, with whom she shared an understanding for grief, was lost in the mysterious depths of the waters during a fishing trip.
People said that it was the spirit of the loch that took them all away. There were stories of water creatures showing themselves as beautiful horses or young, handsome men. Some called them Kelpies, and some called them Each-Uisage. The reason for these kidnaps was a mystery, but almost everyone agreed that a piece of cloth left behind was a sign that the victims found their peace. The only way to recognize them was the water weeds in their hair or muddy clothes. But she refused to believe those stories. She believed she carried a curse. Three lovers and all lost in the peaceful waters of the loch. She must be the reason for it.
“Then ye ken why I’m here,” said Callum.
Ailsa stood at water’s edge, her eyes locked with Callum’s. Hope and sorrow overwhelmed her. For the first time in years, she had reasons to believe she was not at the center of all the bad things happening in her life. Maybe the stories were true. Maybe it was not her curse. Maybe something else dragged Ewan, Fergus, and Angus into the waters. But at the same time, she understood the creature’s nature before her and the unavoidable fate that stood before her.
“Yes”, she replied.
She gave him her hand, and as they stepped into the cold waters, she felt a bittersweet peace. She freed herself from the guilt, but the loch demanded its due. It reclaimed her, just as it did to those she loved. As they moved deeper, the cold water enveloped her in a familiar embrace. While the dense haze was closing around them as a veil, Ailsa looked back, the silhouette of her world fading into the distance.
The following morning, as a faint sun pierced through the mist, a group of townsfolk found her scarf gently rocking on the ripples of the peaceful loch.