by Andrew Frew
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
That evening Kate filled a black iron pot and hung it beside the fire. That didn’t take long. To beat back her anxiety, she looked about for chores to fill in the hours. But she couldn’t concentrate on anything for long, and she was able to get nothing done. Finally she judged it to be an hour before midnight. She picked up her rough sack and shovel, threw her shawl around her shoulders, and went to fetch Alice.
Dark clouds drifted across the face of the moon, but at least the rain had stopped. Kate gave thanks for that.
She had to whistle for Alice five times and she wondered if Alice had forgotten. Kate heard a door open.
Alice hushed the goats as she looked for her. “Kate,” said Alice,” are you sure you want to do this?”
“It’s not a matter of what I want to do, but what I must. And Alice, I’m glad of your company whatever the time.”
Along the way black-fingered pines mingled in the wind. Alice shivered and asked, “Do you see yon trees trembling in the wind? What sort of evil do you suppose is hiding under their branches?”
They crossed a bridge over a wee stream and Kate whispered to Alice, “It’s but a few minutes more.”
“Kate, I know where we are.”
The old stone wall around the graveyard shone black and wet in the dim moonlight. Kate paused. Alice watched fretfully for the evil she was convinced was there. A gap where the stones had caved in allowed Kate to look into the burying ground. A hundred year-old oak tree, branches moving about in the wind, cast dark, swaying shadows. Kate looked to Alice, hoping she would come through.
Alice said, “This is as far as I go, Kate. I’ll be waiting here at the break in the wall.”
“If I need you and I call, will you come?”
“I should think not,” said Alice emphatically.
“Well, at least wish me luck.” Kate took a deep breath. “I shan’t be long. I hope.”
Inside the wall Kate found three headstones side by side. One had hardly any moss on it, the second had moss and lichen all around the bottom, and the third was covered with it. Kate said, “Lord, forgive me for what I am about to do.” She put her sack down and sank her shovel into the cool, damp earth.
It took more digging than she had expected, but in time she reached an old, pine coffin. The odor of freshly broken earth filled into the hole. Using the shovel to pry, she easily broke through the coffin lid. There, in the wavering glow of the faint, gloomy moonlight, shone the skull she needed. She opened her sack and lifted the skull from its resting place.
Instantly, its jaw clacked, a cold wind blew in her face, and a voice growled, “Leave my head where it lay.”
“Clootie’s beard!” Kate nearly dropped it rather rudely. It should have been enough to send her scrambling out of the hole and off home at a run, but she remembered that their cattle depended on her. She cautiously settled the head back in place as she stammered, “I’m very sorry, good sir.” Kate stumbled back against the dirt paying no mind to the crumbled soil that fell in her hair. She crossed herself, took a deep breath and held it waiting for something else to happen.
She forced herself to pick up her shovel and climb out of the grave. She felt better with something to do as she dug a hole under the second stone. She found another pine box, even more fragile than the first. Scraping about, Kate found another skull, though more stained and less preserved. She reached toward the skull, but again the voice bellowed, “Leave my father’s head where it lay.” Kate drew her hands back from the head and stepped back. A sizeable chunk of dirt gave way and fell at her feet.
Her head down, her breath coming quickly, Kate said, “As you please, good sir. I’m not a quarrelsome person, sir. I’ll leave your father’s head as it is, sir.” She hoped she had been respectful enough.
Kate closed her eyes and, setting her mind against her fear, she set to digging at the foot of the third headstone. This time she could barely tell there had been a coffin. She scraped the dirt away and found an old, brown, toothless skull. She hesitated. She bent to pick up the old head bone, and once again the voice spoke, this time in a roar. “Leave my grandfather’s head lay.”
Kate summoned all the courage she had. It was time she set her foot down. “Sir, this may be your grandfather’s head, but till I am done with it, neither you nor he shall have it back.”
“What do ye say, ye feckless wench?” snarled the skull. This time the entire skeleton sat up, its death-clothes all in ribbons. It raged at her, “By the great oath, ye had best give leave of my grandfather’s head.”
Eibhlin Cowan had told her to respect the dead, so she said, “Good Sir, I apologize for being so bold, but I’ve reason to be desperate.”
The old bones sat without moving, waiting for her to explain herself. Kate shivered and said, “The cattle hereabouts are suffering a wasting disease, and nothing we’ve tried has cured even one of them. Eibhlin Cowan told me there’s an evil at work, and the only cure that will do the job is a bone brew, and I need your grandfather’s old head to make it.”
The skeleton’s bones clacked, and in a raspy in voice it rattled, “Eibhlin Cowan can be trusted, but what of you? I’ll not see my grandfather’s remains mistreated.”
“I’ve nothing but respect for your grandfather. I promise you sir, his head will be returned whole and cleaner than it’s ever been these many years.”
Following a long, tense silence the skeleton said, “I herded cattle myself and I know the hardships, but ye must show me ye’ll stand good to your word.”
“Then a trustworthy pledge you’ll have, for I’m an honest girl of good family.”
“Easily said. Ye must lay something of substance with me.”
Kate thought about what few possessions she had. She looked thoughtfully at the ring on her finger. “To seal my pledge I’ll leave the golden ring my mother left me when she left us for heaven.” She carefully placed it next to the oldest skeleton.
The bony spirit stayed silent for a long time before saying, “Be sure the sun does not shine on that old bone. Ye must return my grandfather’s head before the cock crows.”
“That I can do,” said Kate. She slipped the skull into her sack, climbed out of the hole, and placed her shovel to the side for when she returned. Stepping through the gap in the stone wall, Kate whispered, “Alice, are you there?”
Kate panicked. “Alice. Alice, where are you?”
Still she heard nothing but the sound of a lone cricket.
Searching along the stone wall, Kate was relieved to find Alice curled up and shivering near a bush next to the wall. She rushed to shake Alice’s shoulders. “Alice, please. My nerves are completely worn from talking to a skeleton. I can’t go on by myself.”
Alice hugged herself. “Oh. My. Kate. I hid behind the bush when I heard a terrible roar. I ran to this bush and curled up, and the next thing I knew you were shaking my shoulders.” She looked around cautiously. “Wait. What did you say? You were talking to a skeleton? Are we dead?”
“No, Alice, now get up. I need you to be clear-headed.”
Alice got to her feet. “What a great, horrid sound. It came from inside the walls. I thought it said something like, ‘I’ll take your head along,’ but I can’t be sure. Did you hear it?”
Kate smiled. “I love you, Alice, but I’m afraid you faint too easily.” Kate raised the bag and said, “We must hurry, now. This skull must be back in the grave before the cock crows.”
“You’ve a skull in there? How did you come by such a thing? Have you struck a bargain with Auld Clootie then?”
“Alice, I’ve had no dealing with the devil, nor shall I ever. My agreement is with a simple farmer.”
Kate hustled back to the bridge over the wee stream, Alice following along behind muttering about it not being proper to carry dead skulls around the countryside.
At the bridge they were hammered by a sudden heavy rain. It was like walking into a waterfall driven by a merciless, moaning wind. Kate thought it must be the evil coming to prevent them from making the bone brew. She and Alice pulled their wet shawls over their heads and leaned into the storm.
They were wet through when they reached Kate’s cottage. Kate gave Alice a blanket and wrapped a housecoat around herself. They pulled two chairs over to the hearth and draped their clothes over them, and together they stood warming themselves at the fire.
The water in the iron pot simmering over the fire. Kate added the herbs from Eibhlin Cowan, and slipped the skull into the pot. She let it bubble till the brew was a dark brown, the color of soil. “Alice, bring me a wide-mouth jug from the shelf.
Alice nervously held the jar close to her chest. “Kate, what if this doesn’t work?”
“I know what you’re thinking, but after the skeleton told me...”
“Please don’t say that again.” Alice interrupted. “I don’t want to hear you were talking with a dead thing. And you say you had a conversation with it? What are you doing? Have you begun learning witchery?”
“Alice, calm down. It only said that Eibhlin Cowan could be trusted.” And I intend to carry through with making this potion.” She pulled the skull out of the pot. It was an ivory white. She gave a quick nod. “Hold the jug over here so I can ladle my bone brew into it.”
Alice, still skeptical, asked, “What do you do with this stuff?”
“Eibhlin Cowan told me to dip a handful of clover in the liquid and feed it to a cow. It should take effect after two or three hours. Come, let’s go out to the cow shed and try it. I’ll take the potion, you collect some clover. If it works we’ll fill at the jugs we can find.”
Kate covered the jar and they dove out of the cottage into the driving rain. In the shelter of the shed, she quietly approached old Wauchtie who had been feeble for almost a week. Alice gave Kate the handful of clover she had torn out of the ground. She dipped the clover in the brew, and put it under the cow’s nose. Wauchtie sniffed, took it between her lips, and chewed. Kate said, “Well, Alice, now we wait.”
“Do you think it will work, Kate?”
Kate hesitated just a bit too much to comfort Alice. When she finally spoke, Kate answered, “Yes, I do. But now we must return the skull.”
“Kate Ferguson. Do you mean go back to the burying ground?”
“It’s no more than what I promised. Come with me, Alice. The weather has cleared, and we’re dry enough from standing by the fire.” Kate hoped she was telling the truth when she said, “I promise you, there’s no reason to worry.” Kate slipped the skull back into her bag, took Alice’s arm, and set off to the Caldermill burying ground.
Once more, Alice refused to go inside the wall.
Clutching the bag with the skull, Kate slid down into the hole. A ghostly voice greeted her. “Kate Ferguson, yer word is a worthy bond. Ye’ve earned the respect of the old ones.”
Kate retrieved her mother’s ring, slipped it on her finger, and picked up her shovel. A gentle mist rolled in as she shoveled the dirt back into the holes.
On the way home Alice asked, “Kate, What if this works? You’ll have to cure all the cattle in the valley, but your father will be against it because of where your brew came from.”
“You’re right, Alice. We’ll need a plan for getting it done without my father knowing the truth of it. Even Father Adair mustn’t know, or even guess.” She smiled. “But come along. I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
Alice looked at her friend and said, “We? I want to know what you mean when you say, ‘we’?”
Kate wasn’t listening. Plans were already bubbling in her head. “First we need to check on Wauchtie, then we ask Father Adair to bless some water, and you’ll go about wiping it on the cattle, making a big show of wiping the Father’s Holy Water on the face of every cow.”
Alice eagerly said, “And while everyone’s watching me, you feed some brew-soaked clover to the other cattle.”
Kate put her arm around Alice’s shoulders. “What a fine plan, Alice. You’re brilliant.”
Alice smiled proudly. “Why, yes, I guess I am.”
They reached Kate’s home and Wauchtie looked fit as ever. The girls hugged each other.
In the morning the girls skipped down to see the priest. Kate said, “Father Adair, we think we can help the cattle, but we need some Holy Water.”
The father said he had already tried that.
“The first two times there was no result,” said Kate. “We might need to use it a third time; once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Ghost. We’ve a plan, Father. Alice and I will take the Holy Water and visit each farm. We’ll wipe the forehead of the cow and sing a verse of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.”
“That’s a fine choice,” said Father Adair. “But you’ll probably need to sing the hymn for each cow, not for the whole herd at once.”
“What excellent advice,” said Kate.
Following their plan, Kate and Alice went out to the farms after Father Adair’s had blessed them. If it looked like the church had a hand in the curing of the cattle, the girls would be welcomed at every farm. Kate’s father, on seeing Wauchtie, smiled at seeing his daughter doing the Lord’s work.
Alice caught the spirit of the scheme and thoroughly enjoyed herself. She was at the center of attention and she loved it. Usually it was Kate that got all the recognition, but this time Alice prayed and crossed herself and sang a verse of the hymn for each cow. Meanwhile, Kate secretly dipped clover into the bone brew and fed it to the cattle. Each herd received their treatment, and they headed for the next farm.
“Kate,” said Alice after they were returning from the last farm, “what’s Eibhlin Cowan really like?”
“She’s a lovely old woman, Alice, and she wishes none but the best for her neighbours. It’s a pity that no one understands that. I’ll take you up to meet her sometime.”
Alice stopped. “You must be joking.”
As they had gone around to all the farms, Kate had been thinking about being able to speak to the old trees and rocks and hares and such. She thought she might even be able to talk Alice into learning the same. Kate took Alice’s arm and said, “In truth, Alice. You’ll like her.”
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Frew