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Fiddler by Michelle Simkins
Becky Jo Halstead had a bite of birthday cake halfway to her mouth the first time the traveling fiddler came knocking. He wore a summer-yellow coat, and his eyes sparkled green as grass from under the brim of his fancy hat. When he heard she was the birthday girl, he played a song just for her. Beside the bonfire that night he let her hold his honey-colored fiddle and showed her how to drag the bow across the strings. Her mama said it sounded like a litter o’ cats gettin’ eaten alive, but the traveling fiddler said Becky Jo Halstead had potential. Becky Jo felt like she finally knew what her hands were for. She went to sleep with music in her ears and a pair of gleaming green eyes on her mind.
When the fiddler went on his way the next morning, he left his second-best fiddle with a note: “For the birthday girl. I expect you’ll know how to play some songs by the time I come back ’round. Your friend, Nick.”
The note made her heart flutter like it did when she almost fell climbing a tree. But she liked that fluttering, and she liked thinking Nick would come back for her.
Becky Jo Halstead took to fiddle playing like a mouse takes to cheese, and before six months had passed she knew four songs and was half way to learning a fifth. Within a year she could charm coons and foxes out of the woods with her music, and by the time she was twelve she could call the shades from the graveyard just practicing scales.
A boy from down the river came courting, even wrote poems to Becky Jo’s chestnut hair and freckled nose. Another boy brought her flowers and candy from the city. But none of the boys could compare to Nick the traveling fiddler. Her mama said she was too stubborn for her own good, but Becky Jo Halstead knew he’d come back. She didn’t mind waiting.
And sure enough, on her 18th birthday, when she had her first bite of birthday cake halfway to her mouth, the traveling fiddler knocked on the door. He came into the shack like he’d left just yesterday. He hadn’t changed a bit, but Becky Jo Halstead surely had, and the fiddler made no bones about noticing the difference and liking what he saw. He invited her out for a walk, and she grabbed her fiddle and went along before her mama could say a word. They played together til the moon went to sleep, all manner of creature from this world and the next dancing to the music they made.
When the moon tucked down behind the mountain, Nick looked at her and said, “I been lookin’ for a woman could play that good for more years than I can count, Becky Jo Halstead. You can bet I’m not lettin’ you get away.”
He kissed her on the mouth right there in the graveyard. Then he took her hand, and she thought he’d walk her home, and wouldn’t her mama pitch a fit when she found out about them. Becky Jo didn’t care; she was too happy to care about anything at all.
Until he locked her down in that dark cellar and went off whistling into the shining morning.
Becky Jo Halstead paced in the dark. She was mad as a bee-stung hound dog, and wasn’t she gonna give it to him good when he came back? If he came back.
She wouldn’t think about that. She still had her fiddle, so she played.
When the light faded from the crack between the cellar doors, her fiddler came in carrying a pot of beans in one hand and a plate of cornbread in the other. She wanted to glare at him and turn her back, but she was mighty hungry; and she could smell bacon mixed in with those beans. She decided she better keep her head for once. Losing it was what got her here in the first place.
“Glad you came back,” she said. “But what’d you lock me down here for?”
He smiled and handed over the food. She couldn’t help it: She ate, fast, while he sat down on the pile of straw in the corner.
“I told you. I been lookin’ for a woman could play the fiddle as good as I can, and now I found you. I’m gonna keep you forever.”
“I ain’t gonna live forever,” she said.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said. “This here is my place, and in my place you won’t never die.”
She swallowed down her last bite of beans.
“Who are you, Nick?” she asked, and wondered why she never thought to ask before.
“Well now, plenty of people call me Nick,” he said. “But they put ol’ in front of my name.”
Nick looked straight into her eyes with his green ones, and sure enough, Becky Jo Halstead saw the fires of hell flickering down in the depths of his gaze.
She sat real still and thought about that.
“Well,” she said after a while, “I always knew you were a handsome devil. I just always thought you were more handsome than devil. Guess I had that wrong.”
She was glad to hear her voice was steady, though she was shaking all over.
Nick laughed, and put her fiddle in her hands.
“Let’s play,” he said, and they did.
Over the weeks that followed, Becky Jo Halstead tried without success to find a way out of the cellar. She watched real close, and one day she finally caught Ol’ Nick slipping a little key into the pocket of his yellow coat. After that she came up with a plan.
She’d already learned how to fiddle to make the stars dance, to make the birds sing, to make the sprites show themselves. Now she meant to out-fiddle the devil.
She played that fiddle every day, and every night, every minute she wasn’t sleeping or eating she played. And she started making up a lullaby that put even the flame on the candle to sleep. And when the wind through the cellar door tasted like autumn, she knew she had it down. When Nick brought her bowl of beans and plate of cornbread, she could hardly eat for hoping.
She told him, “I have a surprise for you.”
“You do?” he asked.
“I wrote a song just for you,” she said. “Will you hear it?”
“Why Becky Jo Halstead, here I thought you were plottin’ to leave me,” he said, “and you been writin’ me a song.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I can’t believe you wouldn’t trust me.”
So the devil sat himself down in the straw, and Becky Jo Halstead played the stars wheeling over the mountains, and the devil leaned back on his elbows and smiled. She played the baby at his mama’s breast, and the devil lay down with his head pillowed on his arms. She played the down-filled quilt on grandma’s feather bed, and the devil closed his eyes. And when she played the candle flickering on a winter night, the devil snored like a hive of bees. She played the moon on the snow at midnight, and the devil slept so deep he didn’t stir when she kicked him. Then she played a little more.
When his snores were like to split her ears, she finally set the fiddle down, slipped her hand into the pocket of his yellow coat, and eased out the key to her freedom.
* * * * *
Ol’ Nick slept through the winter, and didn’t wake up until the birds were singing spring into the trees. He looked around and knew Becky Jo Halstead had bested him fair and square, and wasn’t he just mad at himself for letting her get away. He jumped up outta that cellar and called down a mighty storm to tear off after the girl who got away.
But Becky Jo Halstead was ready. She’d found herself a place out in the deep green wood, and she’d spent the winter playing for the ghosts and the faeries, the goblins and the wild things. They were keeping watch for trouble, and when the storm came seeking her they kept her safe. Then they chased Old Nick off, and gave him such a scare he swore he’d never come back again.
When Becky Jo Halstead had babies, she hung Rowan crosses around their cradles and said prayers over them morning and night. She lived a good, long life, and told her kids and grandkids about the time she beat the devil at his own game.
And she was mighty happy none of her babies ever wanted to touch that fiddle.
copyright Michelle Simkins, 2011
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
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About the Author:
Michelle Simkins runs Hagstone Publishing from her home office in Portland, Oregon, where she writes obsessively about herbs, trees, and encounters with the numinious, creates quirky knitting patterns, gardens haphazardly, reads voraciously, clumsily attempts to learn the Irish language, and watches too many reruns on Hulu with her wife.