Alastair came early. He could have gone down into the belly of the beast and watched her from there, tracked by sonars and zoomed through high resolution cameras. But that was not what he wanted. He wanted the fantasy, the magic of her swirling above the surface, wanted to see her stretch skyward with swanlike grace. He needed to forget the cataclysm, the ash clouds, the barren land stretching miles away. He wanted to remember what the experience of waiting used to represent.
Every day, rain or shine, he sat in the lush grass and watched every ripple on the mirror-like surface with bulging hope in his chest. But on his luckiest day, only the clouds would dance.
His muse was full of sorrow, her tears lost at the bottom of the loch. For years, it made her rare appearances feel like a godsend to the privileged witness, her songs more bewitching than those of the mermaids and the whales, until she sank into misery.
Tomorrow, he would have to speak.
The commission’s disappointment with his former Professor, brought him to his fall and with it, came his promotion. Now her fate rested on his shoulders, and he thought if only he could see her, unhindered, away from the machinery, without the lenses and the screens, he would know what to say and his heart would not waver.
Black cars pulled into the courtyard of Urquhart Castle like a funeral procession. Alastair was among the eleven men lining up the front gate. He turned his gaze toward the pale crescent in the sky. The mist reflected its light above the water, the way fog clouded the eyes of the dead. The door rattled open and their host welcomed them.
Magnus had presided over the commission for twenty odd years. His views were radical, his nationalism fierce and his word unchallenged. His motto was simple: it works. And as long as it worked, there was no reason to change anything.
“Evening gentlemen.” He shook their hands with his wrench strong grasp. His storm-colored eyes sent jolts down Alastair’s spine and for a moment his legs felt like rubber.
He hadn’t seen his muse and maybe that was the bitter medicine he needed for his determination not to falter.
They walked down the alabaster corridors and into the parlor, where an oblong mahogany table dotted with twelve chairs waited for them to start. Each stiff grey suit took its seat in front of their names-carved shiny brass plates, and the presentations started.
Graphs, 3D photographs and stats of the snake-skin creature were displayed. Newspaper articles were quoted, and tables of infinite numbers were scrolled spanning the last ten years. The effect of our last myth was slowly fading, and to Alastair, it seemed barely enough to fuel the dream feeds and fantasies of our citizens.
Each of the eleven men presented their report. There was not an ounce of doubt, not a quaver of guilt in their voice, even their silence was timed and well-practiced. Most had followed and refined this performance for many years, while Alastair was new to the trade. When his turn came, he used cold facts to carry his opinion.
“The creature’s health is degrading. Her pulse has become weaker in the past months, her activity has reduced from nearly 600 km travelled last year to less than a hundred this year. She shows multiple signs of aging, and depression. She has not come once to the surface and-”
“That’s surprising,” cut Magnus. “Ewan how many sightings did you say we had?”
“Three sir, we had three reports over the past twelve months.”
“Mr. Shine, is it?” Asked Magnus pompously. Everyone knew this was a reminder of their relative positions more than a question.
“Yes sir. I'm replacing Pr. Gemmell.”
“I know who you replace. Three sightings and yet 4.2 billion of dreamstreams. It is not our best year we’ll admit to that, but it certainly isn’t as grim as you are implying.”
There was a mumble of approbation at the rebuke.
“It’s the scientific investigation I believe,” boasted a white-collar kind of guy, with hair the color of asphyxiated cinders. “People relish that. They want more science in their dreamstreams. It’s an initiative we ought to pursue next year, it always gets us attention.”
“But it’s true more sightings would help,” said another man, tiptoeing into the conversation. “It would boost the artist in residence program, and that is what she’s truly about, the arts. We need people to fantasize about her, muse or monster, only artists can whip that up.”
“She surfaced more often when she had the telly.” Ventured a man so old his skin looked like craft paper. “She seemed to enjoy that, maybe we could plug her back in?”
“The cable is broken, and we lost satellites with everything else, there is no budget for that. Best we could do is the radio.”
They discussed the details, the form, the business. They pretended not to see that Alastair did not sit. Maybe they wanted to give him time to fold back in the ranks, but their chatter stabbed his heart and freed his tongue.
“She found herself stranded here, sick, then stuck, trapped by men who exploited her image and deprived her the right to return home for thirteen hundred years.”
“Our predecessors made a pact, they promised to release her, help her get back if she danced and sung. She honored that, we honored nothing. It is time we let her go before she dies in our waters.”
They stared at his audacity, dumbstruck. Except for Magnus, rooted like a centenary oak-tree, he glared at him with eyes like daggers.
“Sit.” He hissed, and Alastair obeyed, but he did not shut up.
“You know those reports are fake. You know she hasn’t surfaced last year, nor the previous year, nor the one before that. People don’t buy into our fantasy anymore, she’s a hollowed soul, the dying epitome of delusion. Wouldn’t holding our promise inspire artists and dreams, and wouldn’t it bring back hope of a better world, of a healing world?”
A suffocating silence quashed his words.
Magnus stood; his shadow stretched to the edge of the table that had turned into a maroon river in the candlelight.
“She’s gone from monster to plesiosaur, to giant eel. She has inspired more theories and curiosity, spilled more ink, and fed more dreamstreams than the true myths of our lands. More than the Kelpies and the Wulver and The Bean Nighe combined, she is the only one that has survived. What we need is not to lose this last source of reverie. We don’t need hope, or truth. Look around you! The grim weather, the putrid air we breathe, the sterile land where nothing grows anymore.” He embraced the air around him as if they could see through the thick stonewalls, the terra nullius, the moorland bathed in a constant motley, subdued color.
“Our tales have gone musty and dry, our stories withered untold, unseen, unbought. I will tell you what people need. Entertainment! And she’s our best-selling mystery! Empathy sells no tales. The Unicorns and our mobs of faes have died, but she survived, at the bottom of the Loch. So, here she stays!”
They did not plug back the telly for her, they did not even get the radio to work. She laid hollow at the bottom of the loch. Her skin had lost its star born glimmer, but it took nothing away from the sensational investigations or live experiments that fed countless streams of daydreaming. They kept the myth alive the way it’s done nowadays, with photoshopped details, expensive VFX, and synthetic plushies. For as long as it would sell.
Jane G. Six was born in the south of France and took to travelling at 11. By day she writes for video games, by night she writes short stories. When not writing, she can be found in her studio painting or making new pots, with an audiobook in the background, and her dog at her feet.