by Andrew Frew
part 1 of 2
I’ve asked you to come out less than half an hour’s drive from Glasgow, and I can see you’re wondering why so close to the city. You shouldn’t be surprised. Supernatural events can happen anywhere. Back in the 1890s, a mysterious, dark epidemic afflicted the cattle here in Lanarkshire. They called it The Wasting. Most of the cattle lost weight, steadily and drastically, till many of them simply wasted away. Then came a young girl.
But I’m not the one to tell the story. This path will take you to that cottage on the side of Corse Hill. You’ll find a storyteller there called Mother Eileen. She tells the story as if she had seen The Wasting herself. Rap on her door, and she’ll no doubt ask you in for some refreshment.
* * *
Hello, Dearie. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Andrew said you’d be here. Come in, come in. I’ve a pot of hot water on. I have two kinds of tea to offer, Earl Grey and English Breakfast. Which will you have? There’s shortbread under the blue napkin on the table. Made it myself.
Here, take the rocking chair, put your feet up to the fire. Please. Sit, relax a bit, and I’ll tell the tale of The Wasting. Here’s your tea, and please, have some shortbread. Do you mind if I light my pipe? I know, it’s a terrible habit, but it’s a soothing one. And a story is best told when the teller is at ease.
’Twas a cool spring day, much like today. An early morning mist spilled down from the hills, and hung from the thatching of the Fergusons’ cottage. It collected in dewdrops on Kate Ferguson’s shawl and on her bronze hair tied up in braids.
Though only in her teens, she had taken an interest in the affairs of her father’s farm, their cattle being an important part. “Mind you now, Alice,” Kate said to her dearest friend, “it’s not from a lack of effort. We’ve tried changing the feed, but that didn’t work. Nor did anything else. Nor did the neighbours find a cure.
“Father even had the priest from town come by and bless each cow. The priest lit candles and incense and knelt to pray. He even came around a second time and sprinkled holy water on each cow. And still the cattle suffered The Wasting. Clearly, there was something not right, but no one knew what.” Kate folded her arms against a sudden chill. “A terrible mystery, it is. You should give thanks your father keeps goats and sheep.”
Now, Alice Brannan wasn’t exactly overweight, but she was rounder than most. She had come to visit Kate intending only to chat with her friend. But her blue-green eyes grew sad as she watched the pain on Kate’s face. “I wish I could help, Kate. I’ve seen the misery The Wasting brings, but I’ve no idea what’s to be done.”
Kate looked across the hills as if trying to see through the morning mist and quietly said, “I’ve an idea, Alice, something none have yet tried.”
The darkness in Kate’s voice made Alice nervous. “What are you thinking?”
Kate looked around. She didn’t want anyone to hear. “I mean to ask the advice of Eibhlin Cowan.”
“The old woman on Corse Hill? Aren’t you afraid of her? She follows the ways of the old ones, you know, talking with the spirits of the earth and casting spells.”
Kate leaned closer. “That’s just it. If anyone knows what’s to be done, it would be someone who could speak to the trees and rocks and hares and such.”
The cottage door creaked and banged shut. Kate whispered, “That will be Father. I can’t let him think I’d even dream such a thing, what with him being such a devout church-goer and all. He’d never allow it.” She gripped Alice’s hand and begged, “Will you go with me to see her?”
“To Corse Hill? When?”
“This afternoon. Father is going to town, so today is the best chance I’ll have.”
“You intend to walk all the way to Corse Hill in this weather?” Alice shook her head. “Well, I suppose you’ll need someone to look after you.”
“I need company more than I need looking after, but I would take my dearest friend as my companion any time for any reason.”
“Now you listen to me,” said Alice, “you can go up to her house if you’ve a mind to, but I shan’t set a foot off the path.”
“Oh, thank you, Alice,” Kate said and squeezed her friend’s hand. “Go now, and come back at mid-day. We’ll have a bite before we go.”
“Make it something warm,” said Alice.
“Katie,” roared her father. “Are ye about?”
“Over here,” Kate called back. People could read Alice’s face too easily, so Kate whispered, “Shoo, now, shoo. He mustn’t guess what I plan to do.” Alice hustled down the path.
“Ah, there you are my dear. Alice seems all a-hurry; didn’t even say hello.”
“It’s her bread,” Kate said quickly. “She just remembered it’s time to pull it out of the oven.” She glanced quickly at him to see if he was satisfied with her answer.
“Come to think, aren’t we out of flour? P’rhaps Alice will share half a loaf with ye while I’m in town. I’ll stop for flour at the mill tomorrow morning. The cattle farmers’ meeting at the pub tonight means a draught of whiskey or two and plenty of talking long past dark. There’s a farmer from the other side of town says he has a new idea for curing The Wasting. Something about a pool of water.” He lowered his voice and said, “Truth to tell, I don’t think he has an idea that will work. But I’ll listen.”
“Do that, Father. It’s only polite, and he may say something of interest yet. Now have a care on the road. Oh, and have you packed some cheese and the oatcakes I made?”
He waved his satchel for an answer and set his feet down the path through the mist.
* * *
Eibhlin Cowan pulled her old tartan shawl close against the cold mist before she opened the door and said, voice crackling like bacon in a fry-pan, “Ah, Caitlin.” (She used the old names.) “Will Ailis Brannan not come and warm herself by my fire?”
Kate gave a quick thought to how the old woman knew their names, then hurried to make an excuse. “Alice is waiting... well, she wouldn’t wish to intrude. Her father keeps goats and sheep anyway. I’m here about The Wasting, and my father is the one who keeps cattle.”
The old woman clucked her tongue. “No, child. I can see it’s simpler than that. But on your way home ye’ll be able to tell her I’m not so dreadful, now won’t ye?”
Kate looked back at Alice standing on the cold, wet, misty path and gave her an uneasy smile.
“Come in, my child.” Eibhlin Cowan waved with her crooked old hand. “Sit. I’ll tell ye what ye’ve come to hear. I know your father’s been frettin’ over his cattle like a hen with one chick. And with good reason. There’s an evil hand at work here, though I can’t say who or what is causing of it. Take my word, none but the strongest cure will do.” She paused and pulled her chin. “For such dire pestilence ye’ll need to make a batch of bone brew.”
“Is it dangerous? I’ve never done such.”
“Then listen well. Ye boil fresh spring water in a black iron pot, then drop this wee bag of herbs into the water along with a skull.
“An animal skull?”
“No, a human skull. And the brew will be strongest if the skull is collected from a humble grave at midnight. Tonight would be best for collecting one, what with your father in town. Go to the auld burying ground on the road to Caldermill. There ye’ll find what ye need. And be sure to show proper respect for any who’ve crossed over.”
* * *
The mist was heavier on the way home, turning almost to rain. But in spite of it, as soon as they were out of sight of the cottage, Alice stopped and asked, “Out with it Kate. What did the old carlin say?”
Kate shivered and pulled her shawl up on the back of her neck. “First, don’t call Eibhlin a carlin. She’s neither such an old nor unpleasant woman as that. Second, I’m about wet through. Can we walk on as I tell it?”
Alice gave a breathy sigh and said, “As you will.”
Kate snugged her shawl under her chin, and they walked down the path through the disappearing evening light. “I’m to cook up a batch of bone brew.”
Kate bit her lip. “It must be the strongest kind for there’s an evil hand at work here.”
Looking anxiously into the mist, Kate said, “I must go to the old Caldermill burying ground tonight at midnight to dig up a skull.”
“Oh... Kate. What did you say? Dig up a skull? At midnight?””
Kate whirled about and took her friend by the hand. “Alice, I need you to come with me.”
“Are ye daft?” howled Alice.
“I must go, for the sake of the cattle, but I can’t go by myself,” whispered Kate.
Alice stared wide-eyed at Kate. “Do you understand what you’re asking?”
“Aye, I do Alice. I’m asking my dearest friend for help when I need it most. Please come with me. I’ll come to your house and whistle at an hour before midnight. You needn’t do anything. Just be there so I’m not alone.”
“I’m going to regret this...” said Alice.
Kate took Alice by the hand. “Oh, thank you. I’m ever in your debt, Alice. I shan’t forget.”
“I don’t expect I shall either,” answered Alice.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Frew