Water Horse

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12th March 1898

To my darling wife Maggie,

Well, I’m arriving safely and settling into the new job down in Connacht. If all goes well, we’ll be having more than enough money to pay our debt. The local Lord seems a tight-fisted old miser, probably charges his own children for candlelight at dinner, but the two blokes working with me both seem right enough.

After being settled in at the steam pumping station, we get to having a good look at this watery bog. Don’t know if it has an official name on any map, I’m getting an idea it drains out of the River Moy. It’s about as big as our town square back home, so that ain’t saying much, but it is deep. Got a spongy peat up top; I’ve half a mind to cut it up for fuel but it’s so waterlogged it’s hardly worth the effort. Dark green, brown, and black it is, edged with reeds and fallen tree stumps. It’s got the fog rolling off it all day and night, so it’s a good thing we’re inside where it’s warm. I’m smelling it now as I write, and I tell you it’s like something crawled into the water and died. As for the men with me, Lachlan doesn’t smell much better, so I doubt he notices the stink much. Young bloke, from the farms down south. Seems a strange contradiction of a fellow; he’s constantly talking, singing, and muttering like a man possessed, but he’s never having much to say for himself. As for old Daniel, he’s one of them northsiders from Dublin. Keeps to himself but I reckon he’s gotten in the wrong end of the law more than once.

And as for me, my love? Your husband is looking forward to a nice, easy job for the next month or so, chopping wood for the fire and tending to the steam pump. Beautiful machine, so it is. Takes up most of the building that we’re stationed in. Big brick firebox at the bottom with the kettle above, feeding the steam into a tall metal cylinder that houses the piston. The piston is attached to a great wooden arm; sticks out of the building’s roof and waves at us while we work. Goes up and down like a fiddler’s elbow it does, steam leaking out of the roof of the little brick and timber building–the other end of it is attached to a chain and an enormous bucket sunk into the swamp. Down it goes, squelch into the watery mud. Then a whoosh of steam and up it rises, tipping the bucket out so the water gushes away. It’ll take weeks to drain the bog completely, but until then all me and the boys are doing is watching the engine, chopping firewood, and staying out of trouble. We’re having a devil of a time when the machinery clogs up though; if we leave it for more than a few hours, the bog will probably fill right back up. The little Lord says our role is to empty out the bog so that some work crews can build a proper headcut, which’ll be draining the whole area for new farmland.

Dan is fine, he’s got a few books and a little diary he’s writing in. Lachlan seems a bit put out, seeing as he’s the only one of us who can’t read or write, so when he’s free he’s either carving little figures with that belt knife of his or he’s off to the pub in town. He was after coming back the other night, muttering like he always does, tells us about the old nans in the pub were warning him against the bog. Reckoned the local Lord is making a mistake, and the bog is left alone for a reason. He’s telling us stories of pixies and spectres. Typical superstitious southerners, right? He’s giving us a laugh though.

I’ll be leaving this letter here, my darling. The mist is rolling in again so I’m off to bed. Give my love to our girls, tell them that Da will be home as soon as he can.

I’m missing you every minute, Eamon

19 March 1898

To my dear Maggie,

We’re suffering a tragedy.

It’s been getting colder and colder as me and boys are draining the bog. It’s an eerie feeling; outside it’s almost completely silent. The fog is a dark thick soup, clinging as a tax collector and cold as the nuns who taught me to read. Inside the pumping station you got good solid brick, a fire, shining metal pistons working with mechanical precision. The thump of the pump arm rising and falling has gotten right into my head. Gotten in all our heads, really.

Dan has been getting quieter and quieter. Barely said a word to us after we’re having our dinner. Been avoiding going into town and all that, instead just been giving it out to us whenever we make a mistake with the machine. Acting a right little Lord himself, that one. As for Lachlan, he’s turned fey. We’re getting the bog down by about three feet, got a black muddy ring round the edges now, but Lachlan is getting more and more twitchy, not eating his meals, kneeling by the bed praying, and through it all, this constant muttering and whispering in that high-pitched southern voice of his.

It all started when he’s out chopping wood for the boiler and sees hoofprints on the pathway by the door. He’s screaming, hopping about mad as a hare, he’s saying that we’ve disturbed the each-uisce, the water horse of the bog, and it’s coming for us. And all the while Dan and I are telling him, Lachlan, we’re saying, ain’t no such thing as these goblins and pixies the old folk in town are filling your head with.

But that night, Maggie, that very same night, he’s waking up screaming that a black horse is coming to take him away, to drag him into the bottom of the swamp unless we all stop pumping. Dan is there, he’s got a face like a thundercloud and he’s saying that Lachlan’s in for a beating unless he pulls himself together, and that he has no time for fanciful southern nonsense. God help me, I’m tired and overworked and I join in with Dan giving Lachlan a bit of stick. Hoofprints were just some stray stocks, we say. Or perhaps the little Lord of the Manor checking that we’re all still at work and not out drinking–like that farmer I used to work for up past Shannon, remember him, love?

We shouldn’t be pushing Lachlan so hard.

That night, it’s like he’s having a fit. He’s weeping, he’s crying, saying the beast is getting closer, how he sees it dragging itself up out of the bog and slowly coming for him. Dan is roaring at him something fierce, giving him a right smack across the face, saying to me that we should tie Lachlan up.

Then it happens.

It’s the damn steam pump. Was pumping like clockwork all say, but right when Lachie is having a fit, that’s the moment it chooses to stall. We hear this great kick from outside and the machine starts making a sound as if it’s about to cannonball out of the steam room. Dan rushes off to be seeing to the pump, but I can’t hold Lachlan still on my own–I just can’t.

Damn fool breaks my hold and kicks open the door, and runs off into the mist, and he’s whimpering and crying like a babe all the while. I’m chasing after him, I’m crying out, Lachie! Lachie! Come back here you damn fool! But it’s darker than a cellar at midnight and I’m lost in the mist. Finally, I’m seeing Lachlan, or at least the shape of Lachlan out in the fog, and the mud is squelching up to me ankles–I’m realising I’m out at the edge of the bog.

I saw him, Maggie, I’m certain of it.

And there’s just these shapes in the mist, broken dead trees playing tricks, almost look like they’re moving, I blink, and Lachlan is–gone. Just gone.

We were finally finding him the next morning. Floating in the bog, his face frozen and screaming like a gargoyle. After, we’re taking him down to the town, having the old doctor take a look at him. Heart attack, he’s saying, on account of his nervous disposition. Twern’t nothing any of us could do. After the hearing of it, Dan and I are back at the steam pumping station, we’re gathering up all of Lachlan’s belongings and wondering if he has a family to give it to. Not that there was much to be organising–a belt knife, a rosary, a change of clothes and some carvings.

Last one he was doing was a horse; head low, mane dripping and flattened back against its neck. Eerie, it is.

The little Lord comes out and is having a word with us, says he won’t spare any money for a new labourer, Dan and I are just going to finish the job ourselves. Doesn’t even give us time to attend the poor man’s funeral. Bastard.

Truth to tell though, I’m being glad he didn’t send us home. Heart attack or no, we need the money and I’m terrified the little Lord will get spooked by old wife’s tales.

Our plans are still on track, my love. I won’t let you down.

Tell Doreen that I say to her she must play nicely with her sister, and that if they’re good we might be able to take a quick trip to the big city to buy some new dresses.

I’m always thinking of you, my Maggie.

Love, Eamon.

26 March 1898

My dear Maggie,

Things are taking a turn for the worse. I don’t think I’m believing it all myself.

I’m being happy enough to put the mess with Lachlan behind me and be getting on with the work. I reckon Dan feels the same way–whatever he’s hiding from, he wants to stay out of sight up at the steam pump. The machine is still working, eating up wood and gushing out buckets of swampy water every other minute. It’s unyielding, it is. No matter what’s happening, we always keep coming back to it, cleaning out the pipes, stoking the fire, checking the valves. Every pump of that great arm is another slice off our debt.

But that’s all changing now.

This morning Dan and I are walking out the door and we see it; horse hoof tracks, still wet and glistening where they press into the spongy peat, and they’re leading right up to the steam pump door.

Dan is telling me it’s naught but a lost horse, nothing to worry about, but I can hear the quaver in his voice. I’m going about the work, Maggie, whistling to myself to fill up the silence in the mist. Twern’t nothing but a horse or donkey, I’m certain, but still–

I know something was watching me. The bog is now drained to about halfway, the sides are a black mess of roots and debris. I’m chopping wood nearby and checking the bucket chain, but I can hear just–the edge of a sound, something moving out in the fog. After I’m turning back to my work, I stand up with an arm load of wood for the fire and I feel a breath on my back.

Not the scream of a banshee or the cackle of a witch, or even the gutter threat of some vagrant.

Just a soft, low grunt, like an animal would make in its barn. So, I dropped the kindling, and I ran back to the shed. I’m running faster than I’ve ever managed in my life. Dan is giving it out to me, saying I’m acting like a wee bairn and there ain’t no such nonsense as magical horses living in bogs. Inside, with a bright warm fire and the constant thump of the piston, I can almost believe him.

But that night, Dan has the dream.

Nay, he has the nightmare.

He wakes up, screaming and shivering, arms flailing about and upsetting his neat little stack of books by the bed. I’m saying to him, Dan, Dan tells what happened, but he can’t barely muster a word. After having collected himself a bit, he reaches beneath his bunk and pulls out a bottle, takes more than a drop. Gulps it down like mother’s milk ‘til he’s stopping the shakes.

Dan’s looking up at me with these bloodshot eyes, telling me he was seeing it. He dreams he’s standing alone in the alleyways of North Dublin, and this mist comes over everything. He’s feeling something wet beneath his feet and the whole alleyway starts sinking, sinking into the mud of the bog. Then out of the mists stalks the beast, a horse black and dripping wet, walking towards Dan to drag him back into the bog.

I try to calm him down, but the northerner is getting more and more wild, he starts waving the bottle around like a sword, pointing at shadows cast by the boiler and screaming. All the while, the steam piston is pumping, pumping, pumping, and the sound is getting louder and louder. Then we’re hearing a bang on the back wall of the shack. Dan screams and struggles, says no blighter in a back-alley pub ever beat him yet, that if he can escape the coppers, he can escape this. Maggie, I swear I’m trying to hold him back, but he lands a right wallop on my ear and he’s out the door like a rabbit.

I run out into the night, and he’s already vanished into the mist. It’s quiet. The only sound is the occasional slosh of the steam bucket. I’m waiting, my skin is tingling like I’m a naked babe, but I can’t move. I walk forward into the mist, too scared to do more than whisper, Dan? Dan? I’m begging you, please come back.

I hear a scream. It’s so loud. It’s so loud. It’s Dan, he’s shrieking like a wee girl, and I catch the sight of him in the fog, just the edge of his face and shoulder. He’s struggling with something; the mist is swirling round him while he thrashes about. He reaches out to me, Maggie, and his eyes are wide, and he’s gibbering, Eamon, my hand is stuck to it! Get the axe! Get the axe, I’ll cut off me fingers if need be!

There’s a terrible deep groan of some large beast, and Dan is yanked away into the mist. He’s screaming at me to save him, but as I move forward, I think I see the edge of it. Black haunches, glistening with mud. A wet tail, moving back to the bog. The outline of a horse’s head, rising and falling as Dan is dragged away.

I ran. Jesus helps me, Maggie, I turn tail and I run like a frightened child.

I barricade the door of the shack and stoke the fire until the piston is shivering. I don’t know if it’ll keep the beast out, but it makes me feel a little safer. But what do I do, my love? I wish you were here to tell me. Whatever is out there, if it’s some kind of horse or no, it’s dangerous.

But running away will naught pay our debts.

I don’t know if this is the right road to walk, my love. I’m always telling myself that I’d do whatever it takes for you and the girls. Looking up at the piston arm, I think I can see what to do.

Finish the job. Drain the bastard’s swamp and they’ll be nothing it can do to me.

One more week should do it. I’ll be barricading myself in at night, be hanging charms like my old gran used to round the doors and windows–I don’t care if it makes me look like a superstitious southerner. I just need to be lasting a week, and I’ll still win.

I can do this. I will do this.

Trust me, love. Eamon

Maggie,

I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

I’m being careful for days, honestly, I am. This last week I’m acting the plague victim, barricading myself in the steam shack at night, hanging every cross, Saint, and charm I can think of across the windows and doors, and only going out to fetch wood when the sun is at its highest.

I’m feeling a wee hope as I’m watching the bog drain away.

The nights are being the worst. The local guard still can’t find Dan’s body. Been having a word to the constables in Dublin. Decide that he’s probably on the run again and won’t do naught to chase him. City matters, they say. Let the city guard handle it. The little Lord gives all a tinker’s dam. He’s saying the work is almost done, and so long as the bog is drained and ready for the head-cutting crew I can take Dan’s pay and all. Thankee Sir, I’m saying to him. Our debt gone and a handsome little sum to put away for the girls. I start to think that perhaps this whole situation is turning out green after all.

But that night I hear the beast by the window. Grunting, sniffling about like it’s hungry. You don’t know what it’s like, my love. Hiding under the table in the middle of the room and feeling the horse knocking up against the walls, circling the building till dawn.

Yesterday the steam pump is almost finished draining the bog. When I’m feeling it’s safe, I go outside to take a look at the tangle of roots and mud at the bottom. Tis a mistake.

It’s bodies, Maggie. The whole bottom of the bog was lined with bodies. Men, women, children, their forms twisted and bent where they’re lying up against each other. I don’t recognise them at first, their skin has been stained by the peat to a dark brown.

Every one of their mouths is still open in a silent scream.

I run back inside, barricade the door, and wait. One more day, I think. One more day and the bog will be empty. It’ll all be over–surely it will, right?

But last night I’m having the dream.

I’m back home in Connemara, with good honest rock beneath my feet. Tis night-time, I’m standing on a granite flat, looking out at the ridges and pathways around me. But I see the mist start crawling up through the trees, snaking this way and that. Aye, it’s looking for me, it is. I look down and see a trickle of black water scurrying between my feet. Not much at first, just a trickle. Then the trickle is becoming a steady stream, and then it’s up to my knees, and then it’s up to my waist. My body is trembling, I can barely move, and finally it comes. The black horse, the beast of the bog.

I don’t see all of it, just a black shadow moving through the mist. It gets close, and I’m flailing about, screaming, trying to get back. But my hand, Maggie. Where I try to push the shadow back, my fingers just – melt into the beast. It’s so cold. I try to yank my hand back, but it’s stuck fast, and the shadow starts to turn, dragging me like I’m a child’s toy. Deeper into the mist. Back into the bog.

After I’m waking up screaming, I know I’m done. The bog, the mist, the damn relentless noise of the steam pistons. I kick open the door and I’m running. The sun is past its peak but it’s still bright enough to see my way through the fog. I run till my veins are bursting and my lungs are hotter than the steam boiler. And I make it. Maggie, I’m never thinking I can be so happy to see cobblestones.

The town is quiet. The alleyways are echoing with me gasping for air, tis the only sound I can make out. The doors and windows are shut, the main street is empty save an old woman walking through the mist. She’s stumbling towards me, Maggie. All slow and shuddering, arms limp. She’s wearing a dark green dress but that’s not what I’m looking at, no. It’s her face. Tis completely frozen, her jaw hanging wide, and her head twisted to the side like she’s a madwoman. She’s wandering towards me with a strange familiar noise, I’m backing into the alley, screamin’ get away from me, devil woman! Then I recognise the sound. Looking down at the ragged hem of her dress, I see it.

Two black hooves, stepping towards me.

That’s when the fog thickens. That’s when the old hag dissolves into the mist. The beast, the black horse – it’s standing before me. A great head hanging low, ears up, nostrils flaring. Dead eyes, like silver marbles. Mud and slime are sliding of its body. Long, tangled mane, dribbling dirty water. The beast opens its mouth – a blood-red tongue, glistening white teeth.

It’s come. Come to drag me back the bog.

Well, it ain’t getting me so easily. I run. I don’t care about anything else, I’m just running home, home to you and the girls. The steam pump, the little Lord, and our debt – that can all be damned, for all I care. I run through the mist, away from it all, stumbling, cursing, kicking, and dragging my way through the mud.

And when I scrape the grime out of my eyes, I’m looking up at the steam pumping shed.

I scramble inside and throw everything in the room against the door. The pipes and gauges are screaming without anyone to mind them, steam leaking from every seal and joint, but that damn piston is still slowly thumping up and down. And with every thump I feel the beast banging against the door. Thump. The windows rattle. Thump. Something is knocking against the walls. Thump. The barricade shifts.

I don’t know how much longer I can hide in here, Maggie. I’m leaving this letter for you in case of the worst.

I’ve got a plan, my love. I know what it wants and what I can do. And if that’s not working – I still got what Lachlan left behind.

Pray for me, and know that through everything, my thoughts are with you and our daughters. Eamon.

5 April 1898

To Mrs Maggie Mac Donagh, Connemara,

We regret to inform you that last night we recovered the body of one Eamon Mac Donagh, labourer, from a peat bog in Connacht. We understand he had been employed at a local pumping station. Mr Mac Donagh appears to have suffered a fit of madness, destroying much of the steam pumping equipment, and his body was retrieved with some difficulty from the refilled bog. He was missing his left hand, and in his right was clutched a belt knife. We believe he died from exposure and self-inflicted blood loss. Given your position, we will not pursue criminal damages against your family, but we will be keeping Mr Mac Donagh’s pay to recompense for repair costs to the station.

We return you his belongings. We are sincerely sorry for your loss.

Yours, Charles Gilbraith, undersecretary to Lord Jones, County Mayo, Connacht

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