The Green Women Stories
The Cripple and the Brollochan
by S. J. McKenzie
In the Mill of the Glens in Sutherland lived a crippled boy, and he was a daydreamer. His mother warned him many times about the dangers of it, but he was lonely and would not listen, and in the end much harm came of it, as you will hear.
But before we get started, we must clear something up. You may have heard stories that begin like this one before, about a clever child who deludes a gullible fairy creature by saying that his name is “Myself.” Or perhaps it is the spirit who is clever and the child is deluded; but in either case, there is always a great deal of mischief caused when someone gets burned near a fireplace and one can’t rightly say who is to blame.
“Who burned you?” comes the question. “Myself!” comes the reply. “Well, you should be more careful then!” That part usually gets a laugh or two, especially if there are younger children listening.
It can’t be said for sure, but this story was probably the origin of them all. In most of the other accounts, nothing much happens after the “myself” part of the story is told. But in this story, that part is only the beginning.
* * *
One winter’s day in Sutherland, while the crippled boy was sitting by the fire, he imagined a creature that could be his friend, and could take any shape he wanted, depending on where it was. When it sat upon the woollen rug, it would be something like a sheep, but when it sat upon the stone floor, it was a much stronger thing, as though it too were made of stone. When it sat close to him, it had sad brown eyes, and was misshapen in form, and was about the same size as himself.
After some time, he asked the creature its name, and it replied “mi-fhein,” which means “myself.” The creature asked him for his own name in return, and he replied in the same way: “myself.” For he thought that he and the creature were really one and the same and that it was all make-believe. And so they took to playing together by the fire as the winter grew darker.
The boy’s mother, whose name was Elspeth Munroe, was very ill, and spent most of her days in her sickbed. The boy loved her dearly, and his fondest memories were of his younger days when she was well and they would play together in the grounds of the mill and down by the loch.
His father, whose name was Henry, was absent mostly, working hard at the Mill or in the town, for he was the sort to think that a child was nothing for its father to worry about, just provided that he put food on the table.
On one particular day when Elspeth was up and about, she came and chided the boy again about his daydreaming. “You should be out playing with some of the other boys, not shut up in here. It is not a bad day out there, Murray dear, not like last week. And it’s no good for you, being in here alone.”
Murray — for that was the boy’s name — responded as he always did, with the truth: “The other boys will not let me near. They say I bring bad luck. I got a beating last time they saw me out.”
His mother sighed, for she knew that this was true, but she had not the strength to do anything about it. “Well, at least you can keep warm, it is as cold as the devil in here!” She tossed more peat onto the embers and turned to go.
At this, there was a crack from the fire, and embers flew out and landed in the place where Murray imagined his friend to be. There was a terrible hissing sound and a scream that rang in his ears. His mother turned again in fright. “What is it, dear? Who was that screaming?” For it had not sounded like her son at all.
He answered “Mi-fhein,” which was as close as he could say to the truth, without telling her about the other creature. She came down to see his burns, but finding not a mark on him, she chided him again about his daydreaming and went back to her bed. And so in this way, the boy realised that the creature that sat with him was in some way real. But after it had been burned, it did not come to see him again, and he was as lonely as before.
Now, unbeknownst to Murray, his friend was really a fairy creature called a Brollachan, a shape-changer, and its mother was a spirit-woman of Loch Migdal, called the Fuath. (That word is pronounced “Voo-ah”). When her son the Brollachan returned to her that afternoon, he was crippled from the burning wound on his leg; far more than a normal child would have been from just a few embers, for at his essence, he was a creature of the water, and the fire was like the opposite of him.
She was furious, as any mother would be, but she knew only that he had been playing with a crippled boy somewhere about. Of course, when she asked her shapeless son who had injured him, he could only say “Myself,” as that was the only name he knew for the little boy in the Mill.
For a time she thought that he had injured himself, but after they had talked further, she realised that this was merely the name he gave for the other boy. She was determined to have revenge, and she took to haunting the country about Migdal and the Mill, attempting to uncover the true name of him who had lamed her only child.
There were several sightings of her in the lonely roads and laneways about Loch Migdal after that, but the first folk that saw her were quick enough to get away without coming to any harm. Sooner or later, though, she was bound to find her mark.
One night about two weeks after the burning, there was a woman called Bethune coming past the mill in the evening on her way to her home near Clashcoig. (Her relatives still live in the area today, near Inveran, and remember her tale well.)
Anyway, the Fuath must have seen her, and decided to put some fear into her, to see what she might say. One minute, Mrs Bethune saw nothing but the grey-green tangle of fir trees that grew by the roadside as she walked along. The next, the Fuath appeared from the trees and stood before her, no more than a few yards away.
She took the shape of a woman of middle age, in a green dress with sleeves that puffed out from the wrist. She had hair the colour of ripe corn, and from a distance, she could have been taken for a beautiful woman, but up close, no one would ever make such a mistake, for she had no nose, a yellow tail grew from her backside, and her feet bore webs and talons like those found on a drake or a lizard.
The Fuath chased poor Mrs Bethune half a mile down the road beyond the mill, the frightened woman just managing to stay a few yards ahead of her the whole way. And all the while, the Fuath was calling out in her strange and beautiful voice: “Who is the cripple who lamed my son? Tell me who it is or I’ll chase you for the rest of your days!”
But Mrs Bethune was too frightened and breathless to answer until she reached her door. It was only as she was going inside her house she said: “the only cripple hereabouts is Murray Munroe, the Miller’s son,” and she made to get inside and slam the door.
She hoped that they might be rid of the crippled boy, who was known to bring bad luck upon them. But her deed came back upon her: the hag reached out a slender mossy arm and tore at her heel just as she was nearly inside, and from that day on, Mrs Bethune herself was lame, and no doctor could ever mend the wound.
* * *
Soon after Mrs Bethune’s encounter, Murray’s mother grew worse in her sickness, and she had to be taken down to see the doctor, near to Castle Skibo. Her husband ordered that a coach come to the Mill to collect Elspeth and take her there while he remained behind, for he was so preoccupied that he had no time, even for that.
The coach duly came, and Murray stood and waved his mother goodbye as she climbed inside, wondering if he would ever see her again. By that stage she was pale and shaking terribly, and every movement seemed to cause her distress.
The doctor at Skibo gave her something for her pain, but said there was little he could do other than that. Whatever medication was provided, it did no good other than to send her drifting in and out of a delirious sleep. This was according to the coach driver, who had to lift her body aboard for the return journey, for she could not move herself.
As they were coming back again past the Loch in the late afternoon, the coach driver heard a horrible scream, coming from inside the carriage. He said later he had no idea that a woman in her condition could make such a sound, for it was almost enough to wake the dead. But when he got down to have a look, she was whimpering and delirious, as before. It took a few hours to get a straight story out of her, by which time they were all safely back at the Mill.
She said she had come out of a dream and seen the Fuath sitting there all in her green finery, staring at her, with an evil glint in her eye. “Lame my only child with your bright-fire, will you?” she said, while the poor old woman nearly died of fright. Her voice was lilting, old-fashioned, but full of menace. “I’ll have your son away from you, you’ll see! You can’t treat a boy of mine like that and have your own come to no harm! I’ll have him, you can be sure of it!” And then she screamed, like the wail of a baobahn sith, and poor Mrs Munroe fell back into her stupor once again.
Well, Lord only knows how she got in there, for the coach driver said later that he’d seen nothing on the road, and the coach was moving along the whole time, in any case. So it’s probably the case that the Fuath only appeared there in Mrs Munroe’s mind. But to see a spirit woman in green is to see your own death, or the death of someone you love, that much is well known.
No-one was too surprised that Elspeth Munroe died later that night, for she had been ill for a very long time. There were many people in the village present there to see her go, for she had been well-liked in her day. But not one of them could console Murray, who loved her most of all, and felt now as though the whole world had died with her.
A few days later, the Brollachan’s mother made her move against the boy, now that the mother was taken care of. In her eyes, Murray was also to blame for the burning of her son. She knew how he grieved, for she could hear his crying coming from the Mill at night, and she realised that his heart’s greatest desire would be to see his lost mother again. “Well, let’s see if we can’t help him to see her one last time,” she said to herself.
So one day when Murray was sitting by the fire, with no-one at all to comfort him now, he heard a familiar voice calling to him from the wood outside the house, and his heart leaped at the thought it might be his mother. Looking out the door, he saw her there, dressed in black just as she had been the day she had gone to Skibo, and beckoning for him to come out there into the snow. Her voice was distant but gentle.
She looked pale, as she had done in her last days, but the sadness was gone from her eyes, and he wanted nothing more than to go out and be with her. Even although he knew it could not be real, he hobbled out, not even stopping for his coat and shoes, and forgetting his crutch entirely, for it seemed that he did not need it.
She led him down to the shores of the loch, to the place where the stone rings are, left behind by the Pech in the long days before people came to Scotland. They’d played hide and seek there many times in the years before she took sick. A favourite game was to pretend that one of them was a bogle, who’d hide from the other until they were close by, and then emerge suddenly, wailing and cursing, only to run off to hide once more.
And it seemed to Murray that they were playing this game again, for his mother did duck and weave in and out of the stones as he followed her down to the shore. But all of a sudden, she was no longer there at all. She’d been hiding behind a mound of earth near the stones, but when he ran around it she had vanished, and in her place was nothing but a whirly-gig in the snow.
All of a sudden the cold hit him, and he realised that it had all been imagined, a waking dream of his mother that had come to him like the strange illusion of his fireside friend had come before. He was turning to go home when up from behind him unseen came the Fuath.
She grabbed him by the ear, and dragged him barefoot down to the shores of the loch, cursing at him the whole time for burning her son. Murray thought his life was over, and he was not as troubled by that as you might imagine, so great was his grief.
Nonetheless, he did as she said rather than risk any more of her anger, and she bundled him aboard a coracle boat and rowed him out to the fairy island out in the Loch, across from where the old stones are.
There she took him inside a strange wooden house, completely round, with a roof of thatch and reeds. It was large enough to fit a village inside, Murray thought, but she was the only other person he saw there. He could smell that she had a fire going and longed to sit near it, but there was no fire to warm him in the place where she had put him, and nothing to eat did she give him, either. She just tied him up inside a cage shaped like a dome, made of green wicker and covered over with reeds, and she left him all alone there.
As Murray lay there imagining himself home at the Mill, keeping his bones warm by the fire in his mind, he heard the sound of crying. At first he thought that it might be his own, and that he might have been so lost in a dream that he could not tell what his own self was doing. But he put his hands up to his face and there were no tears there, and after that he was fully awake, and he realised the crying was coming not from himself at all, but from another part of the big round house where he was being held prisoner.
The crying continued for a little while longer, and he imagined there must be another child, that the Fuath had imprisoned in the house before him. But then he heard her shouting angrily at the child, and the crying subsided. After that, it came to him only as the faintest whimper, and although he didn’t understand the reason for it, the sound gave him some comfort as he lay there shivering until the morning came. “At least there is someone else who knows what it is like to be out here, all alone,” he thought.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie