The Cripple and the Brollochan
by S. J. McKenzie
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
A few days after that, there was quite a crowd gathered in the hall at Inveran. People in the area were still talking about Mrs Bethune and how her leg would not heal, no matter what was given for it. And they were talking about the Miller’s wife, and how the spirit woman in green had come and finally brought death to her, long overdue. And they talked about Murray, and many supposed that he too had been taken by the Fuath.
But most of all, they talked about the Miller himself, old Henry Munroe, and the weakness that he’d shown in letting it all happen and doing nothing about it. Unfortunately, while the Miller had a liking for hard work and its rewards, he was not brave about other things, and it was true that he had done nothing about the Fuath that haunted the lands about his property.
“Where is he now?” called out one young fellow, Peter Bethune, the nephew of the lamed woman. It was he that was getting the crowd up into a state of excitement about it. “Sitting there counting money, while his son is nowhere to be found? Or perhaps he is down by Tain, drinking whiskey and pretending nothing has occurred? Well, does anybody know for sure?”
In truth, Murray’s father had scoured the neighbourhood for two days without rest, looking for the boy, and was now at home sleeping. But everyone was forgetting about that part.
He went on: “What happened to my aunt was wrong. She’d no quarrel with the creature. She was just walking by there. And that could have happened to any of us!”
“Well, what’s to be done, Peter?” called an older man, and another said “Aye, there’s not much point in shouting words without some actions behind them, lad!” And they all looked to him for a solution, seeing as he was the one making so much noise about it. And now that he’d put himself forward like that, he could hardly be seen to back down, meek and gentle, so he stood upon the table and made a promise to all that were gathered there.
“I’ll go to the loch myself and get the Fuath that haunts the Mill of the Glens. And I’ll bring her back here, and she’ll tell us about the boy, and about how we might heal my aunt so she can walk again. I tell you, none of us are safe until someone takes it upon himself to do something about her!” And so of course they cheered and said what a brave fellow he was, with only a few winks at one another when he wasn’t looking.
So, Bethune went and got himself some rope, some sharp iron, a large brown horse and a fierce black dog that no-one in the area would normally come near. After struggling with the dog for a while and getting it on the back of the horse, with the other fellows watching on and encouraging him, he set off down to Migdal. That part is known for sure, because lots of folk in the area remember the great performance he went through, in getting the dog up onto the horse and tying it there. After that, there’s only his own word about what happened, until he came back to Inveran again.
According to him, he went down beside the loch shore and prowled about there for an hour or so, leaving the horse tethered and using the dog to track the creature down. And sure enough he found her, or she found him.
She came swimming over from the crannog, that is, the little island out in the loch, and met with him on the shore. There was a lengthy struggle, which even he admitted that he only won because of the fierce dog, who finally pinned the vicious creature down to the ground, with his teeth at her throat.
After that she was all pitiful and cried out for mercy, and he got out the rope as quick as he could while she was still in that frame of mind, and tied her up on the back of the horse behind him, leaving the dog to find its own way home.
Quite a journey they had back to the Stone of Inveran. She grew fierce again pretty soon, and began struggling around in a way that he knew would soon break the ropes for sure, and then he’d be back to fighting her again, and without the dog to help him win it this time. So he got out the iron he had brought, a shoemaker’s awl and an old rusted needle, and started jabbing them into her while she was wriggling around behind him.
She let out a terrible howl at that. “Please, keep that slave out of me!” she says, meaning the needle. “I’ll be still, I promise.” The feeling of the iron, used by a woman’s hand in honest labour, was more than she could bear.
After they’d been going a bit longer she started growing restless again, and this was as they were crossing the stream that powers the mill and runs down to the loch. She started wriggling around frantically and said she could bear no more.
“What is it that you want from me?” she said. “Take me no further, I cannot cross this burn!” Well, he had no sympathy for that, and he gave a few more jabs of the needle, right in her heel, just to make her feel the pain his aunt was feeling. She was quiet as a dead fish after that, so she was, all the way back to Inveran.
When he got back to the hall near the great stone, everyone came running out with lights, for it was pitch dark by then. “Come see the Fuath,” he called out in triumph. “I got the better of her, as I said I would.”
And he untied the rope and let her fall down upon the ground in front of them. But there was no longer a body left inside her green dress, which was made of fine silk no longer, but filthy rags. All they found inside it was a heap of white jelly, like the kind you used to find on the mountainside on a starry night sometimes. Her spirit had gone out crossing the burn, for she could go no further away from the loch than that.
* * *
They found the boy the next morning. The young Bethune had mentioned something about the crannog, and the creature coming in to shore from out that way, and so some fellows from Inveran went round to rouse old Munroe at the Mill and they took a boat and rowed out to have a look.
They just found him lying there half-dead on the cold ground of the little rocky island, on the only part which sits just above the line of the water. It took quite a few days in bed with a strong fire going to get the cold out of him. And when he was recovered, he told his story, about how the island had seemed much larger the day before, enough to hold the big wooden house where he’d stayed prisoner three days in a wicker cage.
Well, everyone in the area knew it was no more than a little hump of stones in the water now, which of course was why Munroe hadn’t thought to look there. Maybe once in the old days it had had a house there, but not in living memory. So there was much about his tale that was hard for folks to believe, and they thought part of his mind had gone at the death of his mother.
But the story got even stranger. When he was asked how he’d survived out there in the cold those three nights, he told them all at the Mill about how his friend “Mi-Fhien” had come to him, the night the Fuath fought Bethune on the shore, and had comforted him.
“When he first came into the little wicker hut, all I could see was a pair of eyes and a mouth, floating above the ground, and I was terrified and I thought one of the creatures had finally come to claim me,” he said. “But then he said he was sorry, sorry about my mother and everything else that had happened, and that the Fuath had made him do all of it, even pretending to be her.
“And as he sat near me he grew more and more like me, so eventually, it was as though there were two of me there in the cage, and we held each other to keep warm. That was early in the morning. After that I must have slept, and I remember nothing more until you came to wake me.”
We’ll never know how much of all that was true, or just something he dreamed up, out there in the cold, to give himself hope. What can be said for sure is that the Fuath of Sutherland was never seen again by anyone. As for her son the Brollochan, who rightly knows? Stories are still told about a strange misshapen creature, fearful and lonely, that comes in uninvited, when you have been sitting by yourself too long. So perhaps he is still with us.
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie