The Water Puppies of Sìthachulish

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“Aost places have magic, ‘n’ this is a sàr aost place.” The antiques merchant was staring at me intently across the counter when he said this. His sparkling green eyes, set deeply in the rough terrain of his crevassed face, reminded me of the Glittering Wood-moss dotting the hillside among the ancient Norse castle ruins behind his shop.

“Ok, well, can I put my flyer up for my missing dog?” I asked. I didn’t know if they called small posters flyers in the Scottish Highlands, so I held up the paper with Sid’s picture on it with the word “MISSING” scrawled across.

“Aye, balach. That’s a deagh dog.”

I took it as a “yes” and went about taping the flyer to the inside of the shop window, next to a flyer with the hand written words, “Fairy dus air sale.” I was impressed with myself that I had navigated so successfully in a land where I only understood about one in 50 words spoken to me.

Slipping my ear buds in, I walked outside to put up more flyers. I was playing a song by The Who that my cousin Jules (everyone else calls her Julia) and I used to go around singing all the time. It goes:

I’m a boy, I’m a boy

But my ma won’t admit it

I’m a boy, I’m a boy

But if I say I am I get it!

The song helped cheer me up, but I wished Jules were there with me in Sìthachulish. It would be a fun adventure to be on together. Instead, I was on my own, and I only had one more day to find Sid. With music from the carefree days of my past dancing in my head, I walked my bike to the telephone pole a block from the antiques shop and taped a flyer to it. Then, I taped one to the mossy stone wall in the alley by the convenience store. I figured it probably wouldn’t hold for long, but there wasn’t really any other place I could think of to put them up.

I biked back over the rutty road to the house my Uncle Elroy was renting. Thick green moss held the house to the Earth, reaching up and filling the cracks of the old stone walls. I had already spent two months with Uncle Elroy in Sìthachulish. My whole summer. In two days I’d be back in Ohio. Back in the Flatlands. Starting my first year of high school. I had to find Sid so at least I could get someone to take care of him when I left.

Uncle Elroy wasn’t home. There was a sandwich left for me on the kitchen table and underneath it, a note: ”Collecting lichens. Back by sundown.” Supposedly, Uncle Elroy was spending an entire year in Scotland studying moss. I thought that it was a little weird and unbelievable that moss held such power over him, so I always pretended that he was undercover, working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But the second part of the note was the good part: “You got a call about Sid: 885603.” That was fast. I had only put the flyers up about half an hour ago.

I thought I’d have a hard time communicating with whoever answered the phone. But her accent wasn’t that bad. She told me to come to her place downtown near the shop where I had just put up my flyer. I crammed the entire sandwich in my mouth, jumped on my bike, and was back in town in record time.

Nora introduced herself in the doorway. She was about as old as Uncle Elroy, which is even older than my father. I’m not good with knowing how old adults are. I always think they’re 30 when they’re 50 and 60 when they’re 25. I’m guessing she was 30. Or 40. Maybe 50. She let me in and I was hoping to see Sid. But instead, it was just a small, gloomy apartment cluttered with dusty books and scattered papers. There was a smell of old wooden furniture, permeated by a lingering odor of fish and chips.

She asked me to sit down on her moss green couch, which was completely covered with books. Under the books were a bunch of copies of that flyer that I saw in the old guy’s shop, the ones about fairy-something. She pushed the books and papers aside for me, and dragged over an old wooden rocking chair from across the room and sat down facing me. As she spoke, I was slowly sinking deeper into the couch cushions. I wondered if the couch would ever let me go, or if it would swallow me up and I would end up living inside her couch, perhaps with other children who had sunk into it over the years. I brought my attention back to what she was telling me.

“Your dog is doin’ an obair… a job,” Nora said. “”She’s taking care of the bùrn cuilean… the water puppies.” First of all, Sid was a boy, but I didn’t expect her to know that. Second of all, “water puppies”? Then the real weirdness.  Now, I’m a writer. That’s why I’m putting so much detail into this story for you. People are probably gong to tell you that it can’t be true, but it is, every word. I experienced it. I always write down everything that happens to me, exactly how I see and feel it.

Nora went over to a dark, wooden bookcase and pulled out a small, white cloth bag from between some old books. She showed me that the bag was half-filled with powder, like flour. “The fairies used to take care of the water puppies. We call those fairies Sìth. They left our village long ago, when I was a little girl. But the Sìth left fairy dust behind.” She handed me the bag and told me to sprinkle the contents onto the water at the edge of the loch, the lake a couple of miles from town.

*

I knew I would have a hard time convincing Uncle Elroy to let me bike to the loch that night. “You could come with me if you want. But I have to go tonight. It’s my last chance to find Sid!”

“Sid was doing fine on his own when you found him and he’ll be fine on his own when you’re back in the States.” He had that tone of voice that parents get when they have already made up their minds not to let you have your way.

“But Nora gave me the fairy dust. I have to use it tonight!”

“That’s enough, Cheryl.” He always called me “Cheryl” when he was angry. Most people I meet think I’m a boy, and I’m OK with that. In fact, I prefer it. My real name that I give myself is Charles. Usually when Uncle Elroy calls me Cheryl, I slowly say through clenched teeth, “My name… is… Charles!” But this time, for some reason, I thought I’d lighten the mood. Maybe it was because I’d be leaving soon and didn’t want to end my stay with an argument. So, I just said, “My name is Mr. Tibbs!” It was something my father says. He got it from a movie. I looked up at Uncle Elroy; he couldn’t hold back his smile.

I knew I was cracking his resolve. It wasn’t long before Uncle Elroy agreed to let me bike, alone, to the loch. He probably didn’t want an argument on my last night in Scotland any more than I did.

The winding road to the loch was paved with big, flat, uneven stones. The cracks bumped my bike up & down rhythmically, vibrating all my bones the whole way.  My bike was making a complaining sound like, “Cupperumbumtack, cupperumbumtack, cupperumbumtack….” It was like my bike was trying to tell me something that I couldn’t quite make out. It was a Scottish bike, so I probably didn’t understand its accent.

It was past sunset when I got to the loch. The flat, dark water looked endless in the eerie, dead light of the half moon. When I pulled the fairy dust pouch out of my pocket, I was still feeling all jittery from the bike ride. That’s probably why I dropped it. I watched it fall in slow motion. I thought, “Grab it!” but I couldn’t make by body move in time. The pouch chose to land by my feet, spilling its contents onto a moss-covered rock. I looked down at the scene, paralyzed. The dust was held by the moss, and I didn’t know if I would be able to scrape up enough of it to make it work. I didn’t even know what it was supposed to do, anyway. As I stood there with my mouth open, staring helplessly at this mess, I felt an unusually cool breeze, first on the back of my neck, then on the tiny hairs of my arms, and finally all through me. The moss released the dust and the wind blew it up a couple of feet in the air. It looked like the billowing mist that clings to the Highland hills early in the mornings, working its way up to dissipate into the clouds over Sìthachulish.

The soft cloud of dust gently blew over and into the water. Then, everything was still, quiet and dark. After a minute that lasted an eternity, I called out for Sid. Nothing. I looked down at the dark shadows of fish swimming in the shallow water about 20 feet from the shore. Only the water wasn’t shallow. And those weren’t fish.

Whatever those indistinct, shadowy shapes were in the water, they were swimming around in circles and figure eights. I wanted to get a closer look at them. About 10 feet to my left was a huge, dead tree that had fallen down into the water. I climbed up on the trunk and slowly walked out over the water toward those swimming shadows. Of course, all I could think about were stories of monsters in the Scottish lochs. Maybe some huge sea creature was about to thrust itself up out of the water and eat me. I could just hear them back in Ohio on the first day of school, calling attendance: “Cheryl Wilson? Cheryl Wilson?” And Jules would say, “Charley was eaten by a sea monster.”

I carefully walked as far as I could on the tree trunk, got on my hands and knees and peered into the murky water. Something popped up, just in front of me, and looked right at me. It was a puppy! It dove back under water, and soon there were lots of puppies swimming at the surface of the water. Some were dark brown, others were splotchy white and black, or light grey. They were close enough for me to reach out and touch them. Then I saw a bigger shape circling around all the puppies. It gracefully swam up to me. Sure enough, it was Sid, looking very happy and wet, his kind, green eyes holding the light of the moon.

Sid came to the shore with me, and the puppies followed, twelve of them, playing, jumping and kissing. I held Sid’s face and asked him how he knew he was meant to do this job, this “obair.” As soon as I asked, the answer came to me, “How do you know you’re supposed to be a writer?”

I knew Sid would be alright when I went back to Ohio. When the puppies started splashing back into the water, Sid followed. He gave me a big grin and dove under the water. Their shadows quickly disappeared in the cloudy depths of the loch. I sat back on my bike and watched the serene water for a minute. The empty cloth bag caught my eye and I reached down to pick it up. It wasn’t quite empty. There was a little dust in left in it. I decided to bring it back to Ohio with me.

I have a feeling that there’s a lot more to the world of fairies and water puppies in the Scottish Highlands. I want to go back back there sometime and explore. But tonight, I’m going to go on a little adventure closer to home. Jules and I are going to meet at the marshy lake behind our school. We are going to sprinkle the left-over fairy dust on the lake and see what comes up.

For an earlier exploration of the water puppy theme, look under this flower:

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