Written by Elizabeth Ross.
‘Respect the old ones,’ my Granny used to tell me. ‘They’re far wiser than we could ever know, pet.’
I could hear her reminding me of this every day, her voice crisp and clear like morning air, just like when I was a little girl. Even though Granny had been gone for a few years now, I still had the loch, with its thick mist and black depths.
I still had Nessie too.
I don’t know what Nessie’s real name used to be, there were probably several. There were books, impossibly old and fragile that held Nessie’s true name, but they were written in Gaelic so old it was unrecognisable from the Gaelic we knew now. All I knew was what Granny had taught me, which she had learned from her own mother and her mother before that, all the way back since we painted ourselves blue. I was the most recent in a long legacy: guardians of Loch Ness.
For the women in my family, it has always been our job to champion for the loch, but more importantly, to protect Nessie. Through invasions from the Vikings to the Romans and eventually, the English, it was our family’s duty to protect Nessie’s home. These days the Loch is not just protected by our family; it’s a legally protected area, which makes it easier on me, but the one thing I make sure is done every year is The Offering.
It’s my favourite moment of the year, even though it only lasts for a few minutes. The Offering is when I get to see Nessie. Every November, an offering of fish is given. This is to renew our mutually beneficial relationship: we protect the loch and Nessie, and our family and our town continues to prosper. The only time I ever considered not going was when I was fourteen; the year my parents died in a car crash. I was so angry at Nessie for letting it happen. That’s when Granny tried to explain to me that prospering does not mean bad things never happen, it means being able to continue on, even in the face of hardship. To this day, I’m still glad that I went that year, even though I was aching to the bone. When I saw Nessie, it was the first time in months that I’d felt any sort of peace. I also felt grief—grief that wasn’t my own. It was Nessie’s grief at the missing presence of my mother. I haven’t considered skipping it since.
And today was the day, The Offering. My sole agenda was to meet Nessie on the bank of the loch. I had five kilos of fish, ready and waiting to be dragged to the beach below Urquhart Castle. Once upon a time our family had lived and served at the castle, but that was long ago, and now I had to stock the fridge and freezer in my little house with fish bought at the Inverness Farmers Market over the last couple of weeks. A nervous thrill jittered through me as I loaded Nessie’s fish into the trunk of my car. The sun was beginning to set and hopefully anyone visiting or working at the castle would be long gone.
I had half of the fish in my arms when I approached the bank and heard voices by the water. It was hard to see very far in the dusk, but I ducked behind some tall brush. I was surprised that there were still people lingering around, so I peeked through the plant shielding me and spied two men on the pier, a boat docked next to them. They seemed engrossed in the phone the older man was holding. Not sure what to do, I tried to slowly set down the box of fish I was holding. Not the greatest decision in hindsight as my attempt failed and the noise carried perfectly in the silent evening air.
‘Who’s there?’ I heard one of the men call out as I bobbed closer to the ground. I had to think quickly as my hopes of hiding and waiting them out were dashed when the men started to approach, their heavy boots clomping on the wooden pier.
My heart did double-time as Granny’s warnings raced through my head; Nessie might not come to shore if there were strangers about, or if strangers did see Nessie they could be hurt, or become a threat to Nessie and the loch. And worst of the worst: they could expose Nessie to the world.
Granny told me time and again of the ruckus a single photograph of Nessie caused when she was a small girl. It sent the town into an uproar, and has been brandished by monster hunters for over eighty years. My great-grandmother and Granny worked hard for many years to convince “the experts” that it was all a forgery. I couldn’t allow something like that to happen, especially in the age of the internet.
I was losing precious time in my panic and I needed both an excuse for being down here at this time of night and something dull enough that the men wouldn’t want to stick around to investigate further. In a panicked flurry, I wrenched off my scarf, ready to bluff my way out of the unexpected mess.
‘Oh, hello!’ I called, popping up from my hiding place. I took a couple of steps forward, away from the box of fish, leaving it obscured in the grass.
‘Hullo, Miss’, replied the younger man of the pair, both of them stopping in their tracks at the sight of me.
‘Bit late to be wand’ing doon here, luv,’ the older man said. I let out a laugh, slightly too hysterical from the adrenaline rush, I desperately needed this to be over. I raised my scarf in the air.
‘I lost my scarf down here earlier and I finally remembered where I’d put it,’ I lied hastily, hoping the men would be believe me. ‘I found it though, so not to worry. Good night!’ I turned and started to walk back up to the road without waiting for a response. I thought I would grab the other box out of my car and hoped the two men would be gone when I returned.
‘What a strange girl,’ I heard the younger man say to his friend as I retreated.
My hopes lifted when his friend replied, ‘Aye, doont worry about her. We best get back before it’s too dark.’
My plan had worked because by the time I had grabbed the second box of offerings and made my way down the hill to the bank again, the two men and their boat were gone. I dumped the contents of the boxes, all the fish I had collected, at the edge of the water and waited, keenly wringing my hands.
Despite the unexpected guests, Nessie didn’t make me wait too long. It started with tiny little bubbles. Little bubbles became big bubbles and then the water seemed to sway and shift to reveal Nessie herself, the moonlight shining on her skin and the seemingly weightless way she moved left me in awe, like she did every year.
‘Hi,’ was all I could say, struck breathless and dumb with her grandeur. Nessie cut through the water and reached the bank gracefully. She looked at me and dipped her head in acknowledgement of me and I felt her gaze reverberate in my bones. After that, she paid me no heed, turned to the pile of fish and began to eat. It only took a minute and a half for Nessie to eat the fish. Once it was all gone, Nessie returned to the water, looking back at me only once in farewell before diving into the depths where she spent the rest of her time.
I still felt breathless and shaken when I got back into my car. It would be another year before I saw Nessie again, but no matter what, just like my Gran, she would always be with me.
Elizabeth Ross’s work appears in the Taboo edition of WORDLY.