The great lake was surrounded on every side by upland moors and evergreen forests. Heather hills and craggy peaks rolled back as far as the legs could march, so that the fisherman’s people were much alone, often hidden even from each other by dense fogs. Those few who did dwell around the edges of the lake were fishermen and cowherds. When they were not plying their trades or stealing cows, they made war on each other. Like everyone else, the fisherman avoided anyone with the wrong name and only visited his neighbors to trade and swap stories.
One of these neighbors was a cowherd, who brought fresh milk or cheese in exchange for some of the fisherman’s catch, when there was a catch. Every day he spun the fisherman’s sons a yarn. And every day he expected to share a pint of the fisherman’s brew while he did so.
“Beware!” he told the boys one day as he warmed himself by the fisherman’s fire. “Old Cloot lives in your da’s lake, watchin’ and waitin’ for a boy ta stray too close ta the water’s edge or worse, drift inta the open water on one of them floatin’ islands.”
“What’s a cloot?” asked the youngest.
“What’s a cloot!?” demanded the man incredulously. “Your da’s never warned you about the clooties, boy?”
The fisherman scoffed under his breath.
“No, sir,” answered the child, his eyes wide.
“Clooties live down the wells, in the burns, anywhere there’s water deep enough to drown a boy. And clooties hanker after tender little boy for their supper,” he said, leering at the four-year-old.
The scrawny boy shrank away and bumped into his father’s knee.
“Nay, you old reiver,” interrupted the fisherman, “don’t be scaring the child out of his sleep. You’re not the one’ll be up half the night with an elbow in your ribs and a knee in your groin.” He pulled the boy onto his lap.
Hardly deterred, the fisherman’s sons asked about the clooties whenever the cattleman called.
“How ‘bout in the lake? There must be heaps of clooties in the lake if there’s one in every well,” asked the oldest of the three one day.
“Ah, the lake. Nay. There’s no room for heaps of clooties in the lake. There’s just one. A monster greater’n any horse you ever saw haul logs down the mountain. Old Cloot’s been stealing your da’s fish since long before your da or your da’s da was born, he has. And eatin’ boys who fall in, too.”
“That’s a hundred years,” answered the boy suspiciously. “There’s not really an old monster in the lake, is there?” He peered at the cattleman with all the sternness a lad of thirteen could muster.
“It’s more’n a hundred,” said the man, making his bushy eyebrows climb. “More’n five hundred!”
“Da?” asked the middle son, turning to his father.
“There’s a big, old sturgeon that’s two, maybe three hundred years old,” answered his father with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Five hundred years old?” persisted the older boy, unwilling to yield his point. “Where’d Cloot come from, then, before he was Old Cloot?”
“Dinna ken,” answered the cattleman. “The dove saint hi’self wrote the first story of Old Cloot,” he continued with a wise nod, “for them that can read it.”
Without waiting for an invitation, he launched into his story. “One day the saint and his followers was travelin’ along the lake—convertin’ the blue faces, my ancestors,” the cattle-reiver interrupted himself proudly. “He come on a group of villagers buryin’ a fisherman. He’d swum inta the lake ta fetch a boat that’d come loose of its moorin’s. Old Cloot was havin’ none of that and came up outta the water and savaged the fisherman—no doubt one of your da’s ancestors.”
“Oh-ho, no doubt,” interjected the fisherman.
His neighbor ignored him. “The saint asked one of his followers ta swim out and fetch the boat, and when he did, Old Cloot raised outta the lake with a mighty roar and went to attack the man. Well, the saint was havin’ none of that, not on his own man, so he held up his hand and shouted, ‘Stop! Go thou no farther. Dinna touch that man!’ And Old Cloot just turned around and dove back inta the deeps. He never roared again, and he’s none too pleased about it, neither.”
“Have you not seen Old Cloot, Da?” asked the elder boy eagerly, for now he was engaged in spite of his suspicions.
“Nay,” answered his father. “Eels. I’ve seen yellow eels.”
“Oh.” The boy’s face fell.
The cattleman caught the lad’s disappointed look. “Old Cloot never stopped growin’, eatin’ all them fish and boys. By now he must be greater even than this barn your da calls a house.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed, but he couldn’t help asking, “Have you seen him?”
“Nay. Me own da did though. Saw Old Cloot stickin’ up his head from the water eatin’ fish. Scooped them outta the water, threw back his head, and swallowed them whole. Told me his neck was as long as a man is tall, his tail twice that, and that’s not countin’ his middle. Has a great hump on his back, too.”
All three boys looked to their father.
“I’ve seen eels, twice as long as a man is tall,” he said shaking his head. “And trout, the weight of thirty-five stone. And floating islands of peat. No Cloot.”
“Are you callin’ my da a liar?” roared the cattleman, banging down his mug. A little ale splashed the table, but he had already drunk most of the pint.
“And you a thief,” answered the fisherman, unconcerned.
“We all have our duties,” protested the cattleman, trying to look oppressed.
The boys grinned.
“But if Cloot’s that big, where does he get enough food to eat?” resumed the eldest, his arms folded across his chest.
“Ah, well. You’ve hit on it, haven’t you, Lad? There aren’t enough fish and eels, what with your da stealing them out from under Old Cloot’s nose. So whenever he’s hungry or his wife’s chased him outta their den at the bottom of the lake, he climbs outta the water and transforms inta a horse with a magic bridle. He wanders around the strand, waitin’ for a curious boy ta climb on his back. Then he gallops straight inta the lake, drowns his rider, and eats him. But,” the man paused and looked significantly at the boys, “if a boy recognizes Old Cloot for the monster he is and switches the magic bridle for one of his own before he drowns, then Old Cloot will have ta work for him instead of eatin’ him. For a while. If you work him too long, he curses your descendants. No doubt that’s how your da comes to be so ugly.”
“Drinks my ale and insults me, too!” shouted the fisherman. “Out. Out with you, you ungrateful lump of a cattle-raider!” And the boys chased the man down the path to the lane, where he turned and waved until another day.
“Is that why there aren’t any fish,” asked the small boy when they returned. “Does Cloot eat your catch, Da?”
The fisherman just shook his head and sighed.
Except for his sons, the fisherman trolled the dark waters alone, selling down the lake his catch of salmon, sturgeon, charr, or trout—when he caught them. This brought in enough money and goods to repair the boat and feed the boys, but no extra. He followed the spring migrations of salmon and trout, and he knew where the winter and summer charr spawned. But there were long days and weeks when his nets came up empty, in spite of his skill. Then his sons ate gruel for dinner as well as breakfast, and he had less to spare for milk and grain and the rope to mend his nets.
One day, after weeks without fish, he grew desperate enough to row deep into the lake. His nets dragged and creaked behind him, echoing in the fog. There was no wind for the sail that day and his neck and shoulders burned with the familiar ache of rowing. Yet he towed the rebellious net along, straining ever outward and hoping to feel it fall and resist with the added bulk of fishes.
Nothing happened. Through all the hours of the afternoon, he pulled until he could feel the sun sinking above the fog. He watched the steam around him darken into night. Finally, he turned the boat and began to head for the strand.
As he struck for land, he felt the jerk and twitch for which he had been waiting. The thought of fish filled him with a strength he had not felt for days. But the boat was not moving in the direction he pulled. He leaned over the side. Water skimmed the bark at an alarming rate. He scrambled to the stern, gazing into the dark water, but he could make out nothing definite, just a thin wake leading away from the craft.
His eyes followed the water trail to its source, a grey lump that looked like a hill of packed mud, twenty feet in length, and after that the longest, thickest eel-like neck he had ever seen. Towering above the lake, its head and neck were bare of scales. The monster swam for open water at a rate the wind had never carried his boat, its hind leg caught in the net underneath.
The fog had begun to thin and the moon was up, but it was not the sight of the monster that scared the fisherman into action. It was the distance the boat had traveled. He might be in the middle of the lake, and he had never rowed that far before. He thought about cutting the net loose, but he despaired of ever recovering enough to fashion another. Finally, he snatched up the trident at the bottom of the boat and flung it toward the monster’s head.
The central prong sank into the base of what the fisherman assumed was the monster’s skull. Black blood spurted from either side of its neck where the wing prongs had sliced open the leathery skin.
The beast flailed from side to side, its bulging eyes seizing on the man. It flung itself around, roaring in pain and fury. Jaws full of sharp pointed teeth loomed over the fisherman, but before the monster could strike, it collapsed into the lake. A wave of bloody water crashed over the fisherman, nearly swamping the boat. Horrified, the fisherman felt for his bucket. He bailed furiously, keeping one eye on the twitching foot in his net. No sooner had he relieved the boat of the putrid water than its nose began to pitch skyward. The dead weight of the motionless monster was dragging down the stern.
The fisherman threw himself toward the prow. He filled his bucket and doused himself with clean water, but no matter how much he scrubbed, he could not rid himself of the terrible sulfurous odor. He moved the oarlocks, seated himself forward, and set off to row home. He had no good idea how far he had come or how long it would take to get back, but he meant to arrive with something in his nets.
He was still rowing when the moon sank. By then fantasies of fame had disappeared, replaced by the tedious rhythm of stroke after stroke after stroke. Yet every time he considered cutting the monster loose, the thought of fashioning a new net and the memory of his sons’ hungry looks intervened. Surely the catch of Old Cloot would fetch some price.
He was still rowing when the sun began to rise, and then he pondered resting, but he did not fancy an encounter with the angry looks of Old Cloot’s wife. So he rowed until the sun was straight overhead. And he rowed until it began to wane, and he was crazy with hunger and lack of sleep.
He did not arrive home until night had fallen again with no moon at all. Then he dragged his boat onto the rocky strand. He lashed the monster’s netted leg to a tree, but left the bulk of it in the water until he could fetch the neighbors for help. Then he collapsed into the bed next to his children and fell into a deep sleep.
The following morning he woke to the screams of his sons. He bolted from the bedstead into the full blaze of the morning sun and nearly collapsed for the pain. His shoulders and neck, even his fingers, were stiff as boards.
“Da! Da!” Their voices were shrill with alarm. “Da!”
As he heaved the door of the house away, his youngest burst into him. “Da! He’s a cloot. He’s a cloot!”
“The monster’s dead, Lad,” he tried to assure the boy, but the child only tugged and yelled. His eyes were wild and his little frame shook.
The fisherman held the frantic child by the arm as he scanned the rocks. Old Cloot lay in the water as he had left him the night before. Nearby, the boys had lit a fire. Then he saw his middle son, backed against the upturned hull of the boat, his face contorted in horror.
In front of the lad, lay a twisting, writhing mass of what looked like grey mud. As the fisherman ran toward his terrified child, a long neck rose out of the mound and roared.
“Run,” the man shouted. “Run!” But the boy did not move.
The fisherman stooped and grabbed a rock as he sprinted toward them.
It was a cloot, not as great as the carcass that lay nearby, but larger than the boy by far. It reared back its head, like a great snake ready to strike. The boy finally screamed and lurched away just as the fisherman’s rock struck the cloot in the mouth.
The monster jerked and bellowed in pain, but instead of pursuing the boy, it turned and dove into the water. No sooner had it passed the shallows than it submerged, leaving only a thin wake, speeding toward the deeps.
The fisherman reached his son and scooped the boy into his arms. Forgetting his stiffness, he crushed the child to him.
The boy continued to squirm, “We didn’t mean to, Da. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We . . . I didn’t mean to.”
The fisherman lowered him gently to the ground and squatted in front of him. “‘Tis all right, Lad. ‘Tis all right.”
“No,” insisted the sobbing boy. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Lad, the cloot is gone,” answered his father, perplexed. “Look, Son. Look.” He turned the child around. “It swam away. I struck it with a rock and drove it away.”
The boy crouched to the ground and vomited, retching when there was nothing left to vomit. The fisherman held the boy’s head, but looked around.
“Where is your brother?” he asked the boy, when the child sat exhausted against his chest. His son pointed to the water.
“Your brother, Lad. Where is he?” he asked again.
“The cloot,” answered the boy wearily.
“Nay, Lad. The cloot didn’t take him. I saw it leave. It didn’t take your brother.”
A tremble shook the boy.
“Tell me where your brother is,” repeated the fisherman as gently as he could.
“The cloot,” said the boy again.
The fisherman got to his feet, carefully repositioning the boy against a boulder. He worked his way across the rocks to the fire. The children had rigged a small spit and a charred hunk of grey meat was skewered on the rod. Next to the fire, his eldest’s knife lay smeared in grease and blackened blood. A corner of the meat had been stabbed onto its point and, by the looks of it, a bite of it had been chewed away.
A sickening thought crept into the fisherman’s belly. He shouted his eldest son’s name, but the boy did not come. Away on the rock, his middle son began to cry quietly again, his knees drawn up under his chin. The fisherman shouted.
He ran to Old Cloot and stabbed into the flesh near its tether. The muscle gave no resistance, and the carcass lay dead as dead in the water.
Then he saw it. Further down Old Cloot’s leg, nearly in the water, a deep chunk of flesh had been removed.
The man dropped the knife and hollered for his son. He ran into the house and yelled again, desperate for his child. His youngest crouched into a corner, cowering away from the man’s demands. The fisherman saw the fear on the boy’s face, and sat down abruptly.
“Come here, Lad,” he said quietly.
The boy shook his head.
“‘Tis all right. I’ll not hurt you,” assured the fisherman. “Come tell your da what happened.”
The boy crawled out of the corner and stood to his feet. He approached his father slowly.
“‘Tis all right, Lad. Tell me what happened.”
“We were hungry, Da,” pleaded the boy.
“I know, Lad. I know. What did your brother do?”
“He . . . he cut Old Cloot.”
The boy hung his head. The fisherman reached out and shook his son firmly. “Son,” he said sternly, “you must tell me what happened. He cut Old Cloot, and then what?”
“He . . . we made a fire. And we roasted the meat. We were going to ask you first. We were. But you were asleep.”
“You were going to ask me what?”
“To eat it.”
“Oh, Son,” the man grieved, “Don’t you know I would never give you anything so horrible to eat? Did it not smell foul to your brother?”
“Yes, but. . . .”
“But I dared him.” The fisherman’s middle son was standing in the door. He sank to the floor, his back to the doorpost. “He said we had to wait for you. I . . . I dared him. I said he was timid as a wood mouse. He didn’t like me to taunt him. So he ate some.” The boy sighed again, as though he had aged a thousand years since the sun rose. “Nothing happened at first, but then he went mad, itching and shaking. He ran down into the lake and threw water on himself, but it didn’t help. Or it melted him. Or . . . I don’t know. B-b-but then he turned into that other cloot.” The boy burst into tears again. “I’m sorry, Da. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry,” he sobbed.
The man sat staring at his son, until his youngest began to squirm in his grip. He released the boy’s arm and pulled him into his chest, holding him there for a long time.
Finally, the man got to his feet and held out his hand. “Go fetch the cattleman,” he told his middle son as he helped him to his feet.
“I’m sorry, Da,” said the boy again.
“I know, Lad. Go fetch the cattleman. Go on, now. And tell him to bring his butchering gear.”
When the boy returned with their neighbor, the fisherman was already dismantling Old Cloot’s leg. He had hacked through the grey leathery skin and down to the bone. Then he chopped the bone with his axe until it cracked.
The cattleman barked with shock when he saw the carcass and his friend, covered in grease and blood, hacking at it like a madman. When the lad had told his story, he thought the boy truly afraid, but he did not believe the details. He ran to the water’s edge and grabbed the man’s wrist.
“Not for a moment, I dinna think . . .” he muttered to the fisherman. “I swear I dinna ken that eatin’ a cloot would turn the lad inta a cloot.”
“Nor did I,” answered the man, twisting free. “But I caught it. And it ruined my boy. My oldest. What can I do for him? How can I get him back?” He plunged his knife into the flesh again.
The cattleman watched, for once unable to think of an answer. Then he tugged his own saw out of its leather and set to. “You lads build up that fire,” he told the shivering children as he drew the blade across the monster’s tough skin. “Build it as great and hot as you can make it.”
They worked for three days, butchering their way from the tail and the hind quarters up through the entrails and the neck to the head. At first the boys could not be persuaded to carry hunks of carcass up the rocks to the blaze. Having witnessed their brother’s fate, they were afraid even to touch the beast. But as the men reached further up the carcass, their father’s hard face threatened worse than their fears.
The four of them hardly stopped to eat their gruel. The oily stench of rotting cloot drove the men’s hunger from them, and the boys were too afraid of their scowling father to ask for anything else. At night, the older of the two dreamed of begging his father for fish and being forced to feed on cloot instead. The younger was simply too exhausted.
So the children kept silent and stoked the fire, while the men hacked and sawed and butchered. On the third day, they reached the head of the monster, and to their amazement found the beast bridled with a thick rope that was not in the least rotted or frayed.
“Dinna know how wise I was,” remarked the cattleman.
“Nay. ‘Twas luck,” answered the fisherman. “You said that Old Cloot lost his roar to the saint, but this one roared. And the little one, too.”
“I wonder,” mused the cattleman, “would that bridle turn the young cloot back?”
“Don’t know. Maybe,” answered his friend. “But how would I get it on him?” The fisherman sighed and laid aside the bridle, for he was thrifty and wasted nothing.
The cattleman shrugged.
At dusk, as the last of Old Cloot burned on the pyre and the water began to clear of the monster’s blood and dirt, the men scrubbed themselves and their tools with sand. Then they joined the boys at the fire to watch the end of the beast.
The next day, the cattleman returned to his cows, and the fisherman and his two sons were left on their own. The man did not know how to comfort his children, and he was so lost in his own worries that he barely noticed more than their silent shadows watching him from the house. He picked his way back to the boat, gathered his tattered nets and having no better idea, began to mend the nets.
“Och,” he shouted at the house after a while. “Bring me that rope.”
One of the boys disappeared from the door and reemerged dragging the bridle that he had cut off the monster. His father took it from the lad’s outstretched hands without looking at the child.
“Thank you,” he muttered after a while.
He loosened the knots, stretched the rope its full length, and began to unravel it into thinner strands. The material was much finer and stronger than the reedy fibers he usually used.
“Da?” asked the boy timidly.
The man grunted without looking up.
“Who put the bridle on Old Cloot?”
The man’s hands paused. “Don’t know,” he answered after a few moments and returned to the plait he was weaving.
“Not the saint?”
“Nay, Lad. Someone greater, I think.”
“Greater than the saint?”
“Must be. The dove saint might have been powerful, but still, he was only a man.”
“Da?” said the boy again.
The man sighed. “What is it, Lad?”
“He must be greater than Old Cloot, too.”
The man said nothing, but when the boy continued to look at him expectantly, he asked, “Who, Lad?”
“The one who bridled Old Cloot.”
“Aye, Son. No doubt the one who bridled Old Cloot is greater and better than the old fiend.”
“Why what?” said the man somewhat impatiently.
“Why is he better than Old Cloot?”
“He’d have to be, wouldn’t he? To tame such an evil monster. To make it mind. I can’t think of anything worse than Cloot eating boys or turning boys into cloots. Can you?”
“No,” answered the boy. The child rolled a stone around with his bare toe for a while, clearly unsatisfied.
“If he was better than Cloot, why didn’t he save my brother?”
“Don’t know,” the man sighed. “Don’t know.”
“Did one of our ancestors work the Cloot horse too hard? Is that why Cloot cursed my brother?”
“Don’t know, Son. I never heard of my ancestors capturing Old Cloot.”
“Is my brother evil, now he’s a cloot?”
The man dropped his hands. “I hope not, Lad. . . . I hope not.”
When he had finished mending the nets, the fisherman righted the boat and loaded his gear. He barred the house door and took his sons with him.
They did not want to go, but they tried to act bravely, like their father. Gingerly they waded into the water, pushing the boat free of the rocks. Once inside, however, they did not trail their hands over the edge.
A fresh breeze blew, puffing up the sail so that the fisherman had only to steer the craft. He guided them to his favorite fishing pool, and they rested in the sunshine for a few moments before they threw the nets overboard and began to troll.
Immediately the craft jerked and twitched so that the boys looked to their father, wide-eyed.
“Nay,” he answered sadly. “Nay, Lads. ‘Tis no cloot. ‘Tis a school of fish.”
In fact, it was such a great school of fish that it weighed down the craft, tilting the prow toward the sun. The fisherman dove under the water to lighten the load. Again the boys feared the cloot would find him, but he surfaced and climbed back in, unharmed. Together they pulled the catch aboard, and for the rest of the afternoon, tacked back along the strand.
That night after the fisherman had sold the excess catch to their neighbors along the lake, they returned to the finest supper of fried fish they had eaten in weeks. The meat of the charr tasted delicate and sweet, and the children drank milk, while the fisherman took a pint of ale with his neighbor, the cattleman.
Indeed, every day thereafter, whenever the fisherman threw the bridle-mended nets into the water, his catch was quick and bountiful. The magic nets never frayed, nor rotted, but neither did the fisherman ever recapture his son. To this day, the fisherman’s descendants fish with that same net, and his children have never gone hungry again.
As for Young Cloot, it is rumored that he surfaces occasionally, but none has ever captured him to prove it. Nor have any little lake boys been lost to him. Perhaps he remembers, deep in his monster bones, that there is a magic net on the lake, trawling the waters, and perhaps he would rather have none of that.
© August, 2013 D.C. Harrell
DC Harrell edits history and philosophy, speaks on spirituality, and writes stories in Minnesota. Read more at dcharrell.com. And if you've seen any good Twitter fiction lately, tweet it to @DC_Harrell.