The Yarn of Old Man Cathal and His Carnivorous Flock


This is the third creative piece by Carraway Best.  It is inspired by Irish folklore.  

Nearly every day, the village’s children played and frolicked in the flourishing plains of rolling green. Save the bleating of livestock, they were not burdened by even the slightest irritant, not even the nuisance of shoes. For they were all sure not so much as a jagged rock would threaten them in the hills outside of town. As far as most of the younglings knew, there was nothing of concern in their beloved stomping ground. However, there were a few older kids who would glance over their shoulders amidst a round of cankers. These kids were a bit on edge because their mothers never seemed to premise the day’s jovial engagements when the weather was foul. 

Every so often when a storm was lurking, the sky would turn the ghostliest of grays, and fog would engulf the whole countryside. At each of the stone cottages, inhabitants would set cloth torches ablaze in hopes of fending off the ever-impending mist. Except for inside chores by the fire, like knitting or preparing hogget, very little work was done. The adults should have been pleased with an excuse to relax, but it still seemed they were troubled by the ghoulish weather. On these occasions, mams would advise their disappointed children that, “It is best if ye’ all chose not to doddle in mucky times like tis.” Parents understood that malevolent storms were a harbinger for an ill fate that may fall upon their young. Besides little boys and girls who wondered why they must be contained to their homes when rain was on the horizon, the people appeared to think nothing of these fleeting lapses in splendid climate.

Once in a while an amiable game would be interrupted by the malice of bigger boys retelling stories about such weather with the intent to scare the more credulous of the bunch. They spun legends of fairies, elves, serpents, and a handful of deranged priests, all wreaking havoc during such atmospheric events. Yet the one that stained the minds of their younger kin the greatest took place in their own hamlet.

This tale was originally and most brilliantly told by a young man who was once respected, but after an incident regarding a slew of ramblings which described some ravenous beast that terrorized shepherd’s herds, he resorted to spirits. His story initially intended to serve as a warning, but after being dismissed as a liar and later a drunkard, what he had to say was now only consumed by the adolescents of the village. He would belt out the fantasy again and again, usually with a grimy, greenish bottle sloshing about to accompany him, but his legend always rang more or less the same.  

Long ago when the young drunkard was just a lad, he, like the children before and after him, adored the pastures. There was much to love and enjoy in them: intermittent outcroppings of chestnut trees for shade and miles of wide open grass that were only ever trimmed by bleating sheep that littered the hillsides. Many of the children, having grown up around them, were accustomed to sheep and would even approach them here and there to pet their coats or feed them sprigs of alfalfa. A couple of fathers even labored as shepherds, and the children would be responsible for bringing them packed lunches every afternoon. Yet there was one shepard to whom no child ever brought a burlap enveloped meal. In fact, no one in the town could trace this shepherd as anyone’s blood relation. The simple dwellers of the quaint village merely referred to him as Cathal.

It was rumored that he had been tending to his flock before the town hall had been erected, proving him to be a relic from some adventitious time in which no commoner of the settlement could recall. He rarely frequented the market and was almost never seen except from a distance. When spotted, he was always eerily perched amongst a few shrubs or a stone outcropping watching over his livelihood. Because of his mysterious manner, the townsfolk assumed Cathal and his mutton-wares were consequently untrustworthy. With few coins to clink against one another in his worn leather purse, the herdsman’s humble lodge atop a slope, beyond town, fell into disrepair. The faded, emerald shudders began to rot away, and with each new rain straw thatching tore off in chunks like bits of a chicken leg being devoured by a hound. Cathal realized he was met with a dilemma that demanded his attention; he either began to sell more sheep products, or resided in squalor. For a stint of several days, the man was more reclusive than usual; the children did not even lay eyes upon him until the morn he came galivanting down the steppes with the sunrise at his back.

His flock must have been locked away in the pen, for he had with him but a handful of brown paper and twine-wrapped packages. As he grew nearer, it was clear how the dwindling income had affected him. His cheeks were gaunt, his shepherd’s crook tattered, and his clothes were paltry rags dragging the ground behind him. Despite his sobering appearance, Cathal held a sturdy wooden sign which in beautifully painted calligraphy read, “Ripe and Tender Lamb Chops For Purchase By Weight.”

That day, the soil-caked streets of town were buzzing with exclamations of satisfaction with Cathal’s cuts of meat. By the time the stores were near close, he sold out of every bit of lamb he had. His leather satchel was once again full of coins. On his journey back home, Cathal remedied his poor attire. He traded some of his recently acquired change for new trousers and a cloak with the rare attribute of a scarlet hibiscus dyed hue, for the more foggy days. 

People who ate Cathal’s sheep that night for dinner were amazed by the soft, delicate texture of the food, the likes of which their palates had never before experienced. In a place with plates nearly always filled with some sort of mutton spread, everyone agreed that the strange man’s herd must have some delicious quality others lacked. With this conclusion, came the routine patronage of Cathal’s slices of tender lamb. Every week the weathered sheep-keeper made the trek from the slight peaks into town, and every night the village would feast upon his fare. Whenever the children tramping in meadows would spot his distinct robe of deep red, they would run into the village urging parents to ready their funds. As this process continued, Cathal’s pockets grew heavy, but his herd grew smaller.

Before each new meander into town, Cathal would corral his herd into the dirt floored fence and lock the gate behind him. With no vegetation to feed on, the sheep were left famished, and would remain starving until the elderly man returned to let them graze. Cathal would also replenish his stock of lamb prior to selling at the bizarre. This meant sitting on the stoop of his, now elegant, front porch sharpening his ax and eyeing the lambs he must forsake that given day. Although Cathal would never boast about such an unsavory practice, the key difference in his meat’s tenderness was the age of lamb. To achieve the sought after, fragile consistency of his cuts, Cathal butchered the youngest of the sheep. In order to maintain a full inventory, the shepherd would select lambs barely weeks, sometimes only days old for the chopping block. This ritual would almost always take place in view of the mature sheep’s prying eyes. Such oversight would lead to the demise of Cathal, for this bunch was not so apt for the slaughterhouse.

When Cathal would tear an infant lamb from the teat of a mother, he would rob the life from the baby with the horrified herd as his only witness. For months upon months, his flock would bear the eternal screams of their brood’s last gasps, until a rage began to fester behind their silent black eyes. They were consumed with a new hatred so primal it can only be conceived on the most animalistic levels. As they gnawed on weeds in the valleys, the sheep would watch the townspeople doddle about to and fro, with the burning knowledge that all the while they were preparing the ewes’ offspring for supper. With this, their vengeful animosity only swelled, until it built up to the point it reeked from their very hides, and revenge teemed in their minds.

With time, Cathal had become complacent. His stomach fattened and his chest of coin began to overflow. He habitually slept until late hours of the day and neglected to let the sheep roam free in the fields to eat. One day, well past afternoon, the man arose and stretched his decrepit bones. With a glance outside, he realized that the market would soon close. Ominous clouds of mist loomed in the atmosphere as Cathal hurried out of the house. With each evil embrace of wind, the scarlet cape encumbered his every movement as he quickly selected a victim for the butcher block. With town in view, he made as urgent a haste as a man of his ancient duration could muster. In the shepard’s rush, however, he had forgotten to properly secure the gate after having taken a lamb delivered barely a moon ago. Behind him Cathal, faintly discerned the stamping of a horrible many hoofs rushing towards him.

Children nearby played regardless of the wicked gale blowing in and saw the crimson coat and Cathal making his way down the hill at a previously unmatched pace. With no further observation, the kids turned their backs and hurried into town leaving Cathal. As they went to inform their parents that they must purchase food soon or miss out on many a scrumptious meal, the children heard strident bleating coming from the hillside. On that eerie, rainy night the townspeople waited until the heavens’ tears met the pitch of hell and were eventually let down when their vendor never arrived. No one fretted though since Cathal had been unreliable as of late. Any absence could be equated to his peculiar antics. 

On the next morning, the storm had not subsided much, but children had not yet been given any playtime weather constraints. Thus, the young leapt into the moist air of the early dawn and began their daily traversal of the foothills. To the naïve children that day was unlike any other, although they were curious as to why a flock was wandering about with no supervision and why some fleeces were ladened with a slight red hue. Maybe knowing better than to approach something out of the ordinary or possibly sensing something amiss, none of the children decided to risk going very close to the group of sheep.

When the younglings came home, tired from their adventures, they all filed into town in their usual juvenile way. There was a single, seemingly insignificant, observation to be made regarding the kids’ return. This detail instantly struck every passer-by’s heart with dread. A boy, no older than five or six, was wearing the typical mud-stained brown pants, an equally smeared white shirt, and a torn yet unmistakable hibiscus dyed cape. He ran back and forth with the blood-red cloth flowing behind him, embellishing his make- believe charades. As the boy ran by, onlookers noticed strangely familiar stains that resembled two semi-circles and a substantial sum of rips that had to be the result of a great thrashing.

Days passed and the townspeople went without the aging shepherd’s lamb chops. To their horror, Cathal was eventually determined to be missing.  A few people attempted in vain to venture as to where Cathal had gone or how exactly that little boy came across the crimson cape. Another boy, now known as the young drunkard, tried to give his most reasonable explanation for the disappearance of Old Man Cathal. He had a convincing argument based on panicked cries of sheep and blood-soaked meadows, but all the adults in town were eager to write him off, saying “Let ye not disturb our peace, and scream of wolves again here lad.” 

After hearing the drunkard’s fantastical myth, the children were quick to negate the blathering of a man plagued by an addled mind. Regardless, they were more than willing to heed their parents’ warnings and avoid the foreboding mist as much as possible. Despite the majority of children never hearing this tale, most stayed out of ghoulish weather merely out of obedience. As seasons passed the whispers of this lingering yarn have lived on in even the most fearless villager’s consciousness. If one is unfortunate enough to be caught in the pasture on an evening like that fateful night, when the time is dusk and rain turns everything pale, they are sure to flinch at even the faintest sound of bleating.