SECOND HONORABLE MENTION, Fall 2015
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
BY KRISTIN J. COOPER
Based on an oral tale by the traveling Scottish storyteller, Stanley Robertson
When Sam stumbled upon the thing in the glen he screamed, and I laughed. But the thrill I felt at seeing my invincible older brother undone in a moment of pure fright ended as soon as I saw what he was staring at.
One minute we were racing each other through a copse of stunted pine trees, burning off the restless energy accumulated during the long drive, the next the sun was in my eyes as we burst into the open and stumbled down a steep slope. What lay before us must once have been farmland, but was now a withered stretch of weeds. Parts of it were scorched black, as though someone had tried to set fire to it. And there at the edge of the long grass, tilted to one side and looking for all the world like it was trying to lurch its way up towards the sound of our voices, was a scarecrow.
It wore a suit that had once been black but now was mottled grey, bulging and humped as though something living inside it struggled to burst out. The worst thing was its head. The turnip was rotten, caved in on one side and oozing a stream of decay. The hat jammed over its matted straw hair cast a shadow over eye sockets that were nothing more than roughly gouged holes. It had a mouth of sorts—a hole framed by a pair of shrivelled lips that looked like dried worms twisted in a vicious sneer. It was a nightmare in broad daylight, and my brother had run straight into it.
Sam’s limbs thrashed as he began crawling away from the thing. He quivered and twitched, gasping for breath. And so, although I was horrified, I let out another hysterical snort of laughter. His head snapped around.
I clamped my hands over my mouth but it was too late; he glared at me in a way that let me know there would be painful consequences. I was only nine but already I understood that according to Sam, the world belonged to him. He didn’t believe in monsters under the bed, or in the closet. Sam believed he was the thing to be afraid of, and was proud of it.
He scrambled to his feet and stumbled over to me.
“You think that’s funny, Jack?” he snarled. “Well, why don’t you come a little closer and see if you still feel like laughing?”
He grabbed me by the wrist and pulled. I struggled, trying to twist out of his grip, but he was too strong. He was twelve, after all.
“No Sam, please!” I begged. But his eyes were lit with determination and his fingers dug into my wrist. There was no escape.
“Come shake the scarecrow’s hand, Jack,” he said, dragging me closer.
Because that’s what we thought it was, in the beginning. Just a plain, old scarecrow.
After two steps I was hit by the stench of the thing, and I began to whimper.
“Please Sammy. I’m sorry I laughed. I didn’t mean to—”
“Shush Jack. I’ll forgive you, once you shake old Scarecrow’s hand. All you got to do is reach out . . . ”
The hand jutting from the dirty sleeve was a rotten green. A dried black substance was caked in half-moons under the fingernails, and I knew if I reached out those fingers would move faster than lightning to grip harder than Sam ever could. My arm strained in its socket. My hand was too close.
“Sam! Jack! Where have you got to?” The sound of Mum’s voice lifted the spell. Sam released me so suddenly I sat down with a thump.
“Not a word, okay?” he hissed. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
He started to walk past me, but suddenly whirled back to face the apparition.
“And as for you . . .” he whispered between gritted teeth.
Sam launched himself at the scarecrow. I didn’t see the pocketknife at first, the one he’d begged Dad for and finally got last birthday despite Mum’s disapproval. Then I saw it in his hand, and something dark was dripping from its point.
There came a low moan like a night wind in a chimney. A flock of black birds burst from the trees behind us, setting my heart to hammering my ribs all over again. The scarecrow’s severed hand lay on the ground for a moment before Sam kicked it into the trees and stalked away, teeth bared and knife clenched in his stained hand.
Mum was loading the last of the picnic gear into the car when I catapulted through the trees. She paused as she reached for the hatch door.
“Jack? What’s wrong?” A hand grasped my shoulder.
“I just gave him a little scare, Ma,” said Sam from behind me. His fingers tightened, and I hoped it wasn’t the hand that had held the knife. The hand covered in dark stuff.
“Leave your brother alone, Sam.” Dad’s voice was stern but distracted as he walked back to the car, head bent over the AA road map in his hands. He’d been comparing it to the tourist information board in the car park while Mum cleared away the remnants of our lunch.
“It looks like it’s no distance at all from here,” he said, glancing up at Mum.
“Don’t look at me.” She shrugged as she opened the passenger door. “I was ten the last time I was here. I don’t remember much.”
She glanced uneasily toward the pine trees as she got into the car. “You okay now, Jack? Ready to go meet Aunty Morag?”
I nodded and climbed into the backseat where Sam waited. He smiled at me—not in a good way.
“Right,” said Dad as he slid behind the wheel. “Let’s find this Broon Farm.”
It was the summer of 1985 and we were in Scotland because Aunty Morag had written to say she was not in the best of health, and wanted to see her only living relatives before she made the final move from Broon Farm into a retirement home. She couldn’t keep the farm going on her own, and couldn’t afford a farmhand. When we finally found the overgrown track leading to the dilapidated farmhouse that afternoon, it was clear the fields around it had been neglected for some time.
The sun stayed up long into the evening, lurking behind the hills in a sombre smudge. I’d never been a good sleeper. My mother blamed it on an active imagination. She said I got it from Dad, who was forever daydreaming about the next Big Opportunity. She said it like it wasn’t such a good thing, which must be why she looked so scandalised when Dad started eyeing up the property, pound signs sprouting like crops before his bespectacled eyes.
“Not so good for farming anymore,” he mused. “But residential property? We’re not that far from the A96.”
“I’m just thinking out loud,” he said when he caught my mother’s look. “You want to make sure the old girl is looked after, don’t you?”
Aunty Morag was the ugliest woman I had ever seen, but that wouldn’t have bothered me so much if I had detected a trace of warmth in her face, a hint of tenderness in her touch, or a genuine welcome in her smile. As she scuttled out the front door her muddy eyes shone with cold eagerness. Her long nails prodded and lingered over each of us in turn and her grin was that of a ghoul on an amusement park ghost train. She was utterly horrible. Even my father, a man who took everything in his stride, faltered as she clasped him about his waist.
“Here you are, at last,” she simpered. “I’ve been waitin’ an’ waitin’. But you found it okay, that’s the main thing. Come awa’ inside.”
Dad shot a look of bewilderment at my mother, but she just stood staring at the house.
“Mum?” I ventured, grabbing her hand. She didn’t respond.
“Well,” she said finally, looking at me with a brave smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “This is certainly a lot different to how I remember it.” She squeezed my hand.
Aunty Morag beckoned for us to follow Dad and Sam into the house.
We ate in a kitchen that had seen better days. The grey flagstones were stained; the curtains at the sagging casement windows were grimy and full of holes. Only the old oven seemed clean and maintained, roaring away in its arched stone alcove.
The meal was unappetising to say the least. Chunks of grey meat swam in a thin, greasy gruel, surrounded by blobs of disintegrating vegetables. It tasted gritty, somehow. The four of us ate in silence, pushing the food around our plates. Aunty Morag didn’t seem to notice. She ate with gusto despite her few teeth, gravy dribbling down her chin. When she caught me staring she grinned, displaying gobbets of half-chewed food. I was convinced I was going to be sick.
Dessert was worse.
“Just coffee for me, please,” Dad said quickly when he saw the curdled sludge that was, according to Aunty Morag, rice pudding being dished out.
“Ah, awa’ wi’ ye,” said Aunty Morag. “Ye need some meat on those bones. Eat up, eat up!” And she cackled. She honestly did.
Sam stirred in his chair. He’d been quiet during dinner, but I suppose given the circumstances no one thought that too unusual.
“No, you can’t,” interjected Dad grumpily as the bowls were dumped in front of us.
Aunty Morag squeezed Mum’s shoulder as she rounded the table.
“This was always your favourite, Katie, d’ye remember?”
Mum still looked kind of foggy. She shook her head.
“No, Aunty, I honestly don’t. It’s strange. I can’t remember much about our visits here at all.”
“Well, that’s no’ a surprise, considering a’ that unpleasant business wi’ your cousin George the last time ye stayed.”
“What happened to George?” asked Sam.
“I . . . I don’t know,” said Mum, confused. “I can’t remember that either.”
“It was a working farm back then, dear,” said Aunty Morag. “Accidents happen on farms, especially to curious bairns who wander aboot in sheds full o’ machinery an’ sharp tools.”
“Katie?” Dad sounded concerned. Mum had turned very pale.
“I’m sorry, Aunty,” she said. “We’re very tired from the drive today. Would you mind us getting an early night?”
“An excellent idea,” said Dad, almost leaping from his chair. “We can talk tomorrow, can’t we? Plenty of time.”
Considering the kind of day it had been so far, I was not surprised to learn I had to share a room with Sam. We followed each other up the creaking staircase.
“Sorry aboot the lights, dear,” apologised Aunty Morag as my Dad flicked at several unresponsive switches. “Some just need their bulbs replacin’, but the wire’s gone in most. Mebbe you could have a wee look at them tomorrow?” She patted Dad’s arm and he tried not to flinch.
Our metal-framed beds squatted on bare wooden floorboards. A rocking chair sat in a corner next to a small table with a lamp perched on top, its weak light illuminating the mouldy wallpaper. A large window looked out on a huddle of oak trees and beyond to an overgrown field and mountains in the distance. I stared out at the unfamiliar view, absently picking at the curls of paint peeling from the window frame. Mum pulled the frayed curtains closed.
“I know it’s hard for you to sleep when it’s so light, but try to get some rest,” she said, stroking my cheek.
She looked over at Sam, already in bed and flicking through his latest comic book. “You okay, little man?” Sam frowned.
“So long as Toe Rag here doesn’t keep me awake being a baby and crying all night.”
“I’m not a baby!” I shouted. “I’m not the one who—”
“Enough!” said Mum abruptly, closing her eyes and rubbing her forehead with one hand. “It’s been a long day, and I know Aunty Morag’s house is a little . . . well, not what we’re used to, but please try to get along. There’ll be plenty for you to see and do tomorrow.”
“Okay Mum,” said Sam with a smug smile. “Good night.”
“Good night, Mum,” I managed to say.
Sometimes I really hated my brother.
I couldn’t sleep. Strange shadows hovered in the corners of the ceiling and the room smelled damp. And every time I closed my eyes I saw the thing with its dead hands reaching for me, the black holes in its head growing larger as its head swayed this way and that.
Sam was restless too. He tossed and turned, moaning in his sleep. Then I heard scratching, like sharp nails running down the other side of the bedroom door. Rhythmic, insistent . . . sly. Someone was muttering, eager and high-pitched.
Sam suddenly sat up, eyes bulging. “Get away from me,” he screamed.
The door creaked open and a shadow crept inside. I knew it was her before the dim light reluctantly gave up her features. Aunty Morag hovered between our beds, her eyes glittering.
“Dear wee bairns,” she crooned. “I heard your restless dreams, an’ these being unfamiliar beds in a strange house, I thought, mebbe a wee story will help ye to sleep?”
Sam recovered some of his composure. “No thanks, Aunty,” he said, scorn evident on his face. “Stories are for babies.” He glared pointedly at me.
“I’d like to hear one, Aunty,” I said. I looked Sam straight in the eye. “I’d like to hear a story about a scarecrow.”
I don’t know why I said it; it was the last thing I wanted to hear. Sam’s face was a thundercloud, so I guess that’s the reaction I was after. But daft old Aunty Morag practically danced a jig on the spot.
“Ah loons, you’ll no’ be wanting a story aboot silly old scarecrows and their like; they’re nae good for much in this part of the world.” She giggled as she dragged the rocking chair closer. “The corbies are like vultures, ye ken,” she said as she scrambled into the chair. “Tak ye eyes oot as soon as look at ye. No, ye want to scare the birds awa’ from your crops ‘round here, ye need a tattibogle.”
Outside the wind picked up and rattled the windowpane. I looked at Sam, and saw the colour drain from his face.
“What’s a . . . a—”
“Tattiebogle? Well . . . it’s a special kind of scarecrow.” Her voice dropped to a low whisper as her head jutted forward, weaving between us like a snake. “A scarecrow brought to life by the de’il himself.”
Shadows crawled across the walls and pooled at Aunty Morag’s feet. My body felt heavy, pinned to the bed. I couldn’t lift my head from the pillow.
“There was once a farmer called Akey Broon, and he owned this very farm many, many years ago,” she began. “I guess ye could say he was a distant relative. When he bought the farm it was cattle most people raised, but a fearsome band o’ cattle thieves plagued the district. The leader was a MacGregor, of course.”
To my disgust, Aunty Morag spat a meaty wad of phlegm straight onto the floorboards. “He got his come-uppance in the end. Swung by his neck, along with the rest o’ his band. But Akey—this farm is named for him even now, ye ken—he thought it was safer to plant crops. He didn’t count on the corbies, mind; you’ve probably no’ seen many on ye way here today, am I right?”
Sam and I both nodded. There weren’t many birds at all, except for the ones I saw when . . .
“That’s because a tattiebogle walked this land.”
There was a long pause as these words chased each other around the room. I curled up into a ball under the covers, but couldn’t resist peeking out at Sam.
He was full of contempt, despite his pale face. “Oh yeah?” he said. “I think you’re full of crap, lady.”
Aunty Morag stared at Sam for a long moment while I held my breath. “D’ye want tae hear this story or no’?” Aunty Morag barked. Her eyes grew dark and her features sharpened. Sam was silent.
“Now, where was I?” Her tone lightened.
“Oh aye. Akey Broon couldnae keep the corbies awa’ from his crops. For every seed he sowed, two birds would fly doon tae fight over it, quick as he could tak a step. So Akey decided to visit the Warlock Stane at midnight, for he had heard that the dark spirits o’ dead witches gathered at that place. And the night he went, old Akey called up none other than the spirit o’ the great Warlock himself, Colin Massie.”
Aunty Morag paused, still as a statue. I counted my heartbeats in the silence before she began to repeat the Warlock’s words:
“This is the spell for the most powerful o’ tattiebogles, Akey Broon.” Her voice had changed; it was deeper, filling the corners of the room.
“First ye must pull a turnip from the field, an’ gouge oot sockets for its eyes an’ mouth. Ye must cut the yellow eyes from a barn owl, stoned to death, an’ cut the mouth from a child dead o’ the smallpox. Place those in the turnip, and they will take root.
“Now dig out an eye from seven carcasses: a rabbit, a cow, a deer, a snake, a salmon, a badger, a wildcat, and sew them on as buttons for the jacket. Press the turnip onto a pole and add on the jacket, trousers an’ boots, all stuffed with straw. Then ye must cut a pair o’ hands from a corpse on the gibbet, and pull oot its rotten heart to place inside the coat. To make it come alive, repeat the words o’ this magic spell.”
Despite myself, I leaned forward. So did Sam.
“A laird, a lord, a lily, a leaf, a piper, a drummer, a hummer, a thief.”
Aunty Morag looked at me. I could see the cold light of her eyes.
“Say it with me, children.”
I didn’t want to, but she held me trapped in her gaze.
“A laird . . . a lord . . .” I began, trembling. “A . . . a . . . ”
She nodded encouragingly.
“ . . . A lily, a leaf,” I gasped.
She turned to Sam. He lifted his chin defiantly, determined to keep his composure.
“A piper,” he said. “A drummer, a hummer, a thief.”
She made us say it again, together this time. Then we stared at each other while around the room the shadows sighed.
“Sam? Is that you, honey?”
Mum’s sleepy voice called from the far end of the hallway. Quick as a flash Aunty Morag pushed the rocking chair back into position and made for the door.
“Wait!’ said Sam. “What happened next?”
“It came alive, o’ course,” she snapped. She was about to disappear through the door.
“What happened to Akey Broon?” I asked. She paused, then looked back over her shoulder.
“That’s a tale for another night,” she said. Then she was gone, and Mum’s footsteps were outside the room.
“Sam? Jack? Are you awake?”
Mum’s silhouette stood in the open doorway. Sam feigned sleep, but I couldn’t lie still.
“It was just a bad dream, Mum,” I whispered into the dark.
“Try and get some rest, kiddo,” she said.
It was only her calm, reassuring presence that allowed me to drop off to sleep.
Much later, in the darkest part of the night, I woke, wondering what could have disturbed me. When my sight adjusted to the gloom I saw it sitting in the rocking chair, motionless but for the slow blink of lamp-like yellow eyes in its misshapen head. The tattiebogle was looking at me.
I froze. It’s a dream, just a very bad dream, I told myself while it sat there, watching me. After a long, long time it leaned forward, and the lips around the gaping hole of its mouth writhed into a sickening semblance of a smile.
I must have fainted from fear because the next thing I knew daylight was streaming in the window and Sam was smashing me in the face with his pillow. I pushed him off, looking wildly towards the empty rocking chair.
“Come on, Toe Rag,” said Sam, back to his old annoying self. “Time for breakfast. Let’s see if Aunty Morag’s serving snails on toast with booger jam.”
He launched himself off my bed and out the door. I followed more slowly, trying to decide if what I’d seen had really been a dream. I glanced toward the window—it was open, a soft breeze making the curtain billow. It had been closed when we went to bed. Then I saw it. A smear of mud stained the window ledge and on the floor beneath it lay three strands of dirty straw.
I didn’t say anything. The bright morning sunshine dried up any words I had, and there wasn’t a shadow in the world for a tattiebogle to hide in. Thoughts of the night before disappeared completely after breakfast when Dad eased an ancient tractor out of the enormous barn behind the house. It threatened to shake itself to pieces as it wheezed into the light. Sam and I were both excited by the prospect of riding in it.
“You be careful in that thing,” said Mum.
“Get in, boys,” said Dad, grinning like a big kid himself. “Let’s go see this farm.”
It was a tight fit in the tractor’s cab, but after some good-natured elbowing and squirming we settled ourselves in and were off to see the sights. There weren’t many. Brown grass, nettles and wildflowers appeared over each horizon. A stream bordered by hogweed and the occasional willow tree snaked across our path. We trundled over an arched stone bridge. There were rabbits and a couple of highland cows that had strayed from a nearby field, but no sign of birds. Not even a crow.
There was, however, the sensation of being watched. The frown on Dad’s face deepened. Our excited chatter petered out, and we were all silent when the tractor rumbled to a halt not far from a group of standing stones.
“That’s strange,” said Dad. “It just stopped.” He tried the ignition a few times, but the engine didn’t so much as cough. “We’ll give it some time to cool down. Want to go look at the stones?”
There were five of them, one darker and taller than the rest. They were creepy, but I was curious. I darted in and out of their shadows, my hands tingling as I explored their rough surfaces with my fingers.
Sam hung back. He scowled, pacing back and forth in front of the tractor.
“Sam,” called Dad, “What’s wrong? Come and have a look.”
But Sam just shook his head and turned his back to us, muttering. Something glinted in his hand, and I saw him run the pocketknife blade back and forth across the cracked surface of the tractor wheel.
The sense of being watched got stronger, and for a moment it was as if someone had turned down the colour on the whole world. Blackness edged my vision, and the stones appeared to rear up before us. Dad staggered away from them.
“Jack!” he called urgently, but I was staring at Sam. The pocketknife had slipped from his fingers and bounced under the tractor, and he was on his belly reaching for it, cheek pressed up against the wheel. Suddenly the tractor roared to life.
Dad stumbled toward Sam as I felt the breath leave my body. He looked as though he were moving in slow motion, shouting as the tractor lurched forward and Sam drew back, but not quickly enough. The back wheel rolled over his hand and stopped, pinning him in place. Sam began to scream. The blackness closed in and the world fell away.
Something was scratching at my cheek. A trembling, crooning sound brought me up from the darkness and, when my eyes cracked open, a dark and blurry shape hovered before me. After a moment of confusion I realised it was Aunty Morag, singing to me and stroking my face with her long, dark nails. I tensed.
“Now then, now then, young Jack,” she murmured.
I opened my mouth to protest, but not a sound came out.
“Dinna worry,” she said. “Ye Mam and ye Da have taken Sam awa’ to the hospital in Aberdeen, but you’re safe with me, loon.” She smiled, and all the dread of that awful moment by the standing stones came rushing back. I strained to speak, to ask the questions I needed answered.
“Cat got ye tongue?” Aunty Morag laughed, but it was not her high-pitched titter. It was a deep, throaty chuckle.
“Or somethin’ worse, I wonder?”
She leaned in close. “I ken how tae tak ye mind off things. How aboot I tell ye what happened to Akey Broon after he brought the tattiebogle to life?”
I shook my head, tears starting in my eyes.
“Come now, Jack. I think ye like a good tale. Be brave now. Because things get much worse for Akey before they get better.”
She pulled back a little, and I could see the night breeze playing in the curtain by the open window of my room in the farmhouse. It must have been late because outside the last glow of golden dusk was ebbing from the sky.
“Things improved for Akey,” said Aunty Morag. “After the tattiebogle came to life the corbies flew off into his neighbours’ fields, and he harvested a plentiful crop that year. But the next season a blight appeared. Against that, the tattiebogle had nae power. That didn’t stop Akey blaming it, mind. One evening, drunk and full o’ rage, he stormed into the ruined field wi’ his scythe and wi’ one blow he severed its hand from its body. The tattiebogle screamed.”
I remembered the low moan that had risen up after Sam attacked the creature in the weeds and a sick horror came over me. How could she know what Sam—what we—had done? Why was she tormenting me with this story, especially now that Sam was . . . but I didn’t know how Sam was, and I still couldn’t speak. It was like my throat was sealed with cement.
Her dark eyes watched me, a smug smile twisting the corners of her mouth. Outside the wind was picking up and sighing under the eaves.
“Poor Akey stumbled back from the wounded creature but, as he turned to flee, he tripped over the scythe, and accidentally cut off his own hand.” Aunty Morag shook her head and tutted.
“There was nae means tae work his fields now. Filled with despair he resolved to finish the tattiebogle for good. The next night he crept up behind it and, just as its head swivelled ‘round tae stare at him, he swung the scythe wi’ his remaining hand and cut the head clean off.”
The wind grew more insistent. I thought of poor Sam lying in a hospital bed with his damaged hand and wished so much I was with him, with Mum and Dad. Anywhere but here. It was getting so dark.
“Poor Akey was found babbling an’ half dead the next day. They carried him off tae the madhouse, and it wasn’t long before he died there.”
Aunty Morag grinned at me. “I lied about things getting better for Akey,” she said. She turned her gaze to the gathering storm outside.
“Poor old tattiebogle. He’d done everything Akey Broon had asked him tae, an’ more. But he was a powerful creature now, wi’ powerful friends. Colin Massie an’ his witches didn’t forget him, and soon put him tae rights. Colin even set one of his most powerful witches to watch over him, an’ be his companion.”
She looked at me then. “Ye were at the Warlock Stane today, Jack. Did ye sense my Master’s presence, an’ the spirits o’ my sister witches?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head, not wanting to hear, not wanting to believe.
“O’ course, the tattibogle can only stay alive if one of Akey’s blood relatives remains on the farm, an’ repeats the spell for bringing him tae life. But that doesn’t mean he can’t get his own back if they turn mean, like Akey did. That’s only fair, isn’t it?” Aunty Morag leaned in close. “Sam will lose his hand, o’ that I’m sure,” she whispered. “But he’s lucky. Your mother’s cousin George, well . . . he knocked the tattiebogle’s head off with a rock and pulled awa’ his arms and legs. What a mess for me to clean up.” She shook her head at the memory, turned, and spat on the floor.
“George came to a very sticky end in the threshing machine. It was so bad I didn’t think the spell of forgetfulness I put on your mother would hold after all these years. I needn’t ha’ worried. My work is sound, and as strong as ever. I wonder if she’ll even remember tae come back for ye? It’s probably taken hold o’ ye Dad and Sam by now.”
A roll of thunder grumbled over the distant hills. Outside, I heard a dull thump against the wall.
“Ye see Jack, the tattiebogle is used tae folk like your brother, always lashing out in fear an’ anger. But he’s never heard anyone laugh at him before. He liked the sound o’ that.” One long nail traced its way down my face and lingered over my trembling lips.
“I’ve already taken your voice. But for him tae use it, he needs one more thing.” Her face loomed over me, blocking my view of the window, but I could still hear it scuttling up the wall.
“He just needs ye tongue,” said Aunty Morag. Then she sighed with pleasure. “T’will be fine to have a Broon in the house again, ken.”
That was more years ago than I care to remember now. My family never did come back. Aunty Morag’s spells were, indeed, very strong. She’s taught me many of them over years. The ones you don’t have to say out loud, of course. One night a few years back she disappeared, and I didn’t know she’d gone for good until I found the sixth standing stone, dark and gleaming beside its companions. And even though I often think of Sam, I’m not lonely. I have the tattiebogle for company. When the sun sinks behind the mountains and the night winds rise up around the eaves, I can always hear him laughing in the dark.