Short story XV
The sea stretched into the distance, dully reflecting the low cloud. The tops of the high ridgeline behind her was obscured by the same low cloud. The low outline of the next island sat like a cowering dog in the near distance, its one low hill standing out like a hat. In the far distance, the edge of the cloud began to move up, and it did not long for the sun to come out. The wind dropped, and it promised to be a very nice afternoon. Or would it.
Nobody wanted to stay inside that afternoon, not after that dreich start to the day. The chores were done, the animals tended to and the villagers decided on an impromptu picnic, a little way down the track to the west. The mountains on the neighbouring island peeked over the ridge, and they were still strangely dark, in spite of the cloudless skies. All were enjoying the food shared by the various households, and by mid afternoon, the sunshine sent most of them into a snooze for a while. Dougal was no exception, but his teenage daughter, always a live wire, could not sit still. With a few pals, she ventured a little way off to the north, where another cliff face cut off the valley. Some of the boys followed them, but nobody noticed another youth, not of the township, who appeared among the bracken.
The afternoon wore on, and some cloud was beginning to drift in from the ocean. The sun was slowly dipping away to the west, and the villagers began to drift in from where they had spent the afternoon. Dougal finally returned to his cottage near the cliff edge, and waited for his offspring to return. She did not.
Nobody had seen her. Dougal was beside himself when all the villagers had returned from their impromptu party, except for his daughter. The westering sun now threw shadows, and a veil of cloud was drawing in from the west. Eventually, it was agreed to send search parties out across the area where the afternoon had been spent in so much jollity. One man was despatched to the pier, some miles to the east, and a boat went out to sea to check the bottom of the cliffs below. Nothing was found. The sun had set and darkness was falling when the villagers congregated outside Dougal's house. Nobody had seen her. Or so they thought.
Slowly the fire died to a slumber, leaving just the pulsating glow of embers. Nobody had seen her. But how can you see? The question echoed through Dougal's mind in his dreams. Eyes. Of course, in the name of the wee man, don't ask such a stupid question. You use your eyes for seeing, daftie. The thought kept nagging him as he sank further into sleep and the events of the afternoon drifted in front of his mind. Where did they not look?
The hills to the northeast, where the island's highest pinnacle reared up. They were dotted with small lakes. Like...
Hey, how are you? Aren't you Dougal's daughter? I heard all about you from the other guys, and they haven't exaggerated. Nothing to worry about, I live on the other side of the island, and it's my first time here. Have you ever been - no? Oh you must...
The girl was gently wrapped into the tendrils of sweet words and gentle persuasion. She did not notice what might otherwise have been observed. He positioned himself in such a way that minimised the visibility of the tell-tale signs. His feet were always hidden in the grass. He was quite a tall lad and took care to keep his handsome features turned towards her. And so it was that she allowed herself to be lured away from the other girls. Away from the valley. Up into the hills. The sun did not shine so brightly up there. And empty, featureless eyes looked up at her from amongst the surrounding hills.
The sunlight appeared to fade among the dark hills, and a chilly wind blew up there. Temporarily free of the spell from the handsome youth, the girl glanced around, but could see no escape. Another lochan loomed ahead, with the brown, lumpy hills appearing to close in around it. A sudden movement caused her to sharply turn round, and she now had an unimpeded view of her companion. His hair, which had appeared a dull fair colour was in fact full of sand, with fronds of seaweed. Were those two horns on his head? Surely not - except his feet, as they raced towards her, were unmistakably hooved. The girl made to run, but she tripped over the first tussock of heather and went face down into the growth. He was on top of her in a flash.
Dougal threaded his way into the hills behind the village, and came across the first of the lochans. Not a sign. Gingerly, he made his way through the area, which lay under a thick cover of heather. Sheep had made narrow trails, but it took him time, as he knew by experience, to make his way eastward. One lochan after another passed by, staring blankly at the overcast morning sky. The largest of the lochs presently loomed up ahead, and something caught his attention. Something that should not have been there. The gloomy bulk of one of the hills stood watch over the scene, and as Dougal approached he realised he had found what he came to look for. The lochan rippled under the breeze, and bobbing on its surface appeared to be garments. The man bounded to the bank, and was able to pull them towards him. Something floated underneath. And as he drew it all onto dry land, it was his daughter. Her lifeless eyes stared up at the sky. A sudden movement caught Dougal's eye. Some seaweed hung in the heather. A rapid thudding of hooves made him think it was a sheep, but there were no sheep on the hills at this time of year. A high-pitched cackle drifted in on the wind, just about perceptible. A heavy silence ensued.
The Loch of Dougal's Daughter in fact does exist, in the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The story I told in these episodes is part of the island's folklore.