I’ve been telling people for years to stay away from the bogs outside the village. They rarely listen.
It’s not their fault, I suppose. We are a curious species by nature and when you hear a tale as unbelievable as that of Twelve Hands, you’re bound to want to try and see it for yourself.
Still, I try to convince them otherwise. I tell them about my first encounter with her, and that they should steer clear of the wetlands she calls home. I’ve spent a lot of nights down at the pub, retelling my story. The locals have heard it dozens of times, they know the legend as well as I. But it’s not for them. It’s the tourists that need it.
I often wandered the bog pathways when I was a child. My family wasn’t well off. Dad had fallen in with the drink when I was barely old enough to walk and could hardly pull himself out long enough to find steady work. Mum did what she could, taking odd jobs around the village to make ends meet. Laundry, cleaning, cooking, and when times got real tough, she’d put me to bed and disappear until late into the night. I’d wake sometimes to find her coming in with her hair and makeup a mess, her stockings bunched up in her handbag. I asked her once where she’d been.
Her smile was thin and her eyes watery and she just hugged me close. She smelled of booze, smoke, and sadness.
I didn’t have many mates. We were all skint, but me more than most, and the other kids knew it. They teased me, ran from me, called me names. They said if they got too close, they’d catch the MacQuarrie Curse and their families would become like mine.
I got into some proper rows as a lad, especially when they brought my mum into it. After a particularly nasty one on school grounds, the head teacher told me he’d kick me out of I “started” another one. To escape him and the other children, I started taking my walks in the bog.
They’re dangerous places, our bogs. What looks like solid ground will give way beneath you the moment you set foot on it. The shallow puddle breaking up the pathway will swallow you to your waist. And that’s if you’re lucky. Getting stuck in the mud and mire is one thing. Going under entirely is different.
It was the stuff that had given rise to the likes of will-o’-wisps and kelpies, created to keep people safely out of the bogs. And, in our village, to the myth of Twelve Hands.
I knew where to put my feet, though. And I didn’t believe in my granddad’s folk stories.
I built up an impressive little nest of sorts out there. I took books and what treats I could squirrel away in plastic bags and kept them in a broken basket I’d found. I even managed to nick a blanket from a clothes line to spread out on the ground. It made for a cozy little getaway, where I could forget about all the shite that had driven me out there in the first place.
It started with the creeping certainty that I was being watched.
I was stretched out on my stolen blanket, trying to make sense of my maths work, when the hairs along the back of my neck rose in a prickle. A quick glance around showed that I was still alone, so I tried to shake the feeling off, but it persisted until I sat up. I squinted and took a longer, slower look around. A ripple across a nearby patch of water caught my eye and I traced it back to its source.
A pair of pointed ears, greyed and long, had broken through the surface and swiveled towards me.
As I watched, they began to rise slowly, until I was staring out at the gaunt face of a horse. Its eyes were sunk deep into their sockets and clouded over. It whinnied softly, an exhausted, desperate sound of a dying animal begging for help. Like a horse that had become trapped in the bog. My grip had tightened on my pencil until it trembled in my white fist. A gnawing, frantic feeling sprouted in my belly and spread like slithering weeds throughout my body, until it had tangled around my heart and all I knew was fear.
It whined again, it’s head bobbing, barely above the water’s surface.
I knew about Twelve Hands, the monstrous, horse-like creature that was said to dwell beneath the peat. Of course I did. But it was only a made-up thing meant to keep kids out of trouble!
The water rippled again and the creature began to move. It was coming toward me.
I leapt up and legged it back to the village, screaming about Twelve Hands all the way. I nearly crashed into a group of my schoolmates playing in the street. They teased me and called me names while I shouted at them to listen to me. I’d seen Twelve Hands! It only made them push me harder. Finally, I grabbed Jimmy Farrow with both hands by the front of his shirt and shook him until his head snapped back forth.
“She’s out there! She’s real!”
Their jeering quieted and Jimmy recovered enough to punch me in the chin, knocking me back.
“Show us then, you freak,” he snarled.
I begged them not to make me. I’d managed to get away once, but who was to say I’d be so lucky a second time? Jimmy gave me an ultimatum: prove my words or he’d make me eat my teeth. The others crowed in agreement. I could already taste iron where he’d split my lip. I briefly thought that taking the beating would be preferable to going back out on to the bog, but Jimmy shoved me forward.
“Go on, then!”
Reluctantly, I dragged my feet down the same path I’d just come up with the gaggle of kids trailing close behind. When we reached my little camp, Jimmy and his friends kicked up my blanket and knocked my books into the water.
“She’s not under here,” one said, tossing my maths book carelessly over his shoulder. It splashed in the water behind him.
“Is that my mum’s bedsheet?”
“He’s probably been having a wank on it!”
While they tore through my things, I looked past them, to the filmy eyes boring into us from just above the bog’s surface. She was silent as she drew closer to the shore, where the other children were digging through my stash of sweets. I took a stiff step back and tried to croak out a warning.
It was drowned out by the explosion of water as Twelve Hands pulled herself up beside them.
Her upper half was that of a starved horse, withered away to a boney frame. But instead of legs, she scuttled, spider like, on six pairs of thin, humanoid arms.
Before any of the others could so much as scream, Twelve Hands pounced. She caught Jimmy in two of her hands. Her skeletal fingers closed tight around him, until they dug like talons into his flesh, and she quickly enveloped him in a crushing embrace. He vanished from sight among her many limbs, but his screams lingered.
The other children scattered with terrified cries. In their rush, they shoved me aside and I fell on my bottom, where I remained, rooted with fear.
Twelve Hands pulled Jimmy closer.
A cloying, rotten odor filled the air and Jimmy’s screams turned to shrieks. There was a crunch. Jimmy howled. A wet, smacking sound followed. Gradually, Jimmy’s struggles lessened, until Twelve Hands’ grip relaxed enough for me to see her horse-belly open into a gaping maw lined with rows of tiny, jagged teeth.
Red stains ran down her hands.
Jimmy was gone.
I stared up at Twelve Hands, and there was no power in heaven or on earth that could make me move while her milky eyes were fixed on me.
She lowered herself into a crouch with a toss of her head and slowly lowered herself back into the bog. She stayed at the water’s surface, only her ears and eyes visible, and I could feel her watching me as I finally found my feet and ran.
This is the same story I tell to any outsiders who will listen.
“Don’t go out there,” I warn. “She’s waiting.”
It’s what I told the American couple who were in the pub a few nights back. They’d had a few and become loud, belligerent. Before they got anyone too riled, I managed to pull them aside and tried to talk to them. They made fun of my accent, forgetting it was them that had the funny way of talking here, and pushed the glasses of water I requested for them to the floor. When they’d finished having their go at me, they switched to complaining about how dull our village, a stopover between their tour of cities, was.
I gave them a few good spots to visit, but told them to stay out of the bog and why. They laughed at me, like so many others had before.
Now, almost the whole village is out looking for them. They were last seen heading out on a trail leading to the bog. They won’t find them. They never do. Another couple of tourists, lost in unfamiliar terrain, they’ll say. Same as they do every time this happens.
I joined the search party, as is my custom, and walked the familiar trails with my torch, calling their names. As the others gave up, complaining of the late hour and the settling cold, I let myself fall behind, until I was alone.
I sat down, more stiffly now than that first time I came to this spot, and I stared out over the bog.
They had had a fair chance. I told them exactly what was out there.
But we humans are curious by nature. You tell us not to do something and it makes us want to do it all the more. You tell us something unbelievable, we want to see it for ourselves.
I learned that a long time ago.
I kicked the bloodied shoe that had been tangled in the peat into the water.
The surface rippled once where it went in, and again from further out.
I also learned how much easier life could be with one less arsehole in it.
A pair of long and pointed ears appeared against the black water, followed by pale eyes.
A soft whinny broke the night’s silence.
“They never listen, do they, old friend?”