A trick of the light

by Jenny

Bent and clawed into talons with age, my grandmother’s hands smooth the hair from my face in the candlelight. Her smile is haunted by the shadows that carve hollows from her cheeks and eyes and I do not know if I should be enchanted or afraid. She tells me both.

Outside in the midnight black the wind is howling and the flames in the stove leap and caper in a frenzied dance to its call. I am supine in my bed, the coverlet drawn up to my chin. Outside the night is wild, unhinged, but here I am warm. I am safe. My grandmother is telling me a bedtime story.

Though her face is lined and weathered, her hair falls in a thick glossy mane of black down the back of her dress and her nose is hooked like a witch’s. Though her brogue is musical and soft, her voice is thick with age and her tone is heavy with meaning.

She is speaking of the kelpies who haunt the waterways of this country, waiting for unwary folks to cross their path. They are seductive, alluring, corrupted creatures, appearing now as a powerful black horse, now as a withered old man, now as a beautiful woman with water weed tangled in her long dark hair. They drag their victims deep down beneath the water to drown and be devoured.

As horses they can bear many to the depths on their strong, broad backs never to be seen again. These wicked creatures, she tells me, cast your guts to the water’s edge and drag your soul to hell itself. There is no saving you then, she whispers.

I ask about the pond in my grandmother’s own garden. Do such monsters wait there for me? Surely not. And she replies with a wicked gleam in her eye and the ghost of a smile on her lips but of course they do and if you are so foolish as to wander too near, there is nothing I can do to save you.

I tell her that I am afraid and she does not speak. Then -

Perhaps they are just sad and lonely spirits, desperate for the breath of human kindness.

But the catch in her voice and the mocking curve the candlelight lends her smile betrays her words and I do not believe them. She is not trying to comfort me.

Outside the scattergun pelting of rain joins the wind’s howling voice to batter our windows with their rage and my grandmother stands to blow out the lamp, her shadow filling the tiny room, her long dark hair hanging heavy to her waist.

And in the second before the darkness swallows us up whole, a trick of the candlelight threads thick strands of damp green through the heavy black mane of her hair.