Here is a story I wrote. It is inspired by an old West Virginia tale in which a fiddler cuts off his own fingers for religious reasons. I got the original tale from the excellent book “Play of a Fiddle” by Gerry Milnes. Feel free to enter your own comments at the end. –Stu
Soundtrack: THE DEVIL’S BOX by Stuart Mason, with Gilles Apap on fiddle.
‘Wherefore the wrath of the Lord was upon Judah and Jerusalem, and He hath delivered to them a horror, an astonishment, and a hissing. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the everlasting death. Hallelujah!’
A cold, sharp winter’s morning, with low sun slanting in, and pot-bellied stove aglow in the corner. Beads of sweat glistened on the upper lip of the preacher, a short balding man of clean-shaven neck. Clad in black, he paced hither and forth across the front of the rustic one-room church, Bible in hand. Fresh pine casket laid out behind him, chestnut cross looking down.
‘When I look out across the congregation of Laurel Branch Holiness Church this Sunday morning, I see the red shot of blood that marks the eye of the intemperate. I smell the reek of alkyhol and the stench of smoke. The sinners in Zion are afraid! Fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites! Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’
Sobbing could be heard. Handkerchiefs were raised to faces, on the women’s side. Across the middle aisle, the men wore masks of stone.
‘For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many are they that enter in thereby! In sadness and grief do we mourn today, for one of our number lies before us, never to rise again. Never to work the land of his father, Joseph Miller, who kneels and prays at my feet even now.’
‘Noooo!’ the kneeling one wailed. A man of plain clothing, skinny as a rail, with graying hair slick to his head, and mud on his worn boot-soles. Off to the side, women held his tearful wife.
‘And how did this happen? For it was Satan himself who moved among the sinners last eve! Who was invited into our midst by the consumption of alkyhol, by the illicit debauchery of dancing and smoking and carousing. Invited in by the terrible manipulations of his evil tool: the infernal fiddle!’
Shouts of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’ were heard then, the voices of women who raised their arms toward the open rafters of the ceiling.
‘And was this young man ready for the afterlife? Had his sins been washed away by the blood of the Lamb? Had he accepted the salvation of Jesus Christ our Lord?’
The trembling farmer fell to his elbows and knees.
‘Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee! It is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.’
Someone commenced to droning on a hand-organ and the women broke out in song: ‘The Old Crossroads.’ The prostrate farmer mumbled into his beard, face against the floor. Eagerly the preacher leaned down.
“Speak up now, Joseph. Are you ready to renounce your evil ways for good? To forever abandon the instrument of your own son’s destruction?’
Joseph stared at his hands. ‘God’s will be done.’
The humble hall reverberated with song. ‘Oh my brother take this warning: don’t let old Satan hold your hand.’ Slow and plodding, old and sad. The preacher turned to the casket, laid his milk-white hands upon it, and bowed his head.
Joseph crawled. Slowly he labored over to the wood stove, and took up the kindling axe in his right hand. On the chopping block he laid flat the offending fingers of his left, and the axe fell.
In October, the maples turned orange along Laurel Branch, as they always do. People gathered to shuck walnuts and churn apple butter. The preacher was off and away tending to a sick woman from over on Elk River, for he was a circuit rider, and his other church was there. Up from Charleston came a poor fiddler. Traveling back from the war, he carried nothing but his blue buttoned coat and an old gourd fiddle from Georgia. Not much to look at, almost a toy. But the young soldier had fire in his fingers when he laid the bow to the strings. The people came from miles around, bringing cider and the local liquor they called white dog.
That fiddler sawed all night long, with a banjo player from Addison Courthouse and the hand-organ player from church, in a half-built barn down by the creek that made a perfect dance floor. Four walls up but no roof yet. Just the rafters with stars overhead and later on, the harvest moon shone in. What happened that night was magic. The people moved in time: circle dances, longways, squares, and rounds. The fiddler played all the old tunes, from down south and back east: jigs, hornpipes, hoedowns. The pattern dances went on until the wee hours. Earthen jugs of cider and Mason jars of clear madness went around.
Later yet, they built a big fire from the barn scraps. Well maybe some of it wasn’t scraps, but nobody cared. They threw an old chair on at one point. Between that and the great big moon, it was plenty light and nobody wanted to go home. A woman sat on a stump and sang ‘I Wish the Wars Were All Over.’ She was lean and plain, gray hair pulled back, with a voice that could split limestone. Strummed a hog-harp in her lap, with a turkey quill. Stillness followed her singing, just the cracking of the fire, and a poor-will calling from the ridge. Another answered, next ridge over, high and lonesome.
Joseph Miller sat next to her. Had water in his eye, a faraway look, seeing something in the flames. She offered him the hog-harp, her two hands flat and palms-up under the graceful walnut hourglass, like it was a plate of green beans. He looked at her in the face, and took it in his hands, with his seven fingers. Started strumming with his good right hand. Fretting with his pinky and thumb on the left. Pretty bad at first, but it wasn’t long before he lifted a fiddle tune right out of that hog-harp. Forked Deer, and people knew it too. Heads nodded.
But before he finished, a big man spoke loudly from across the circle. ‘Some people never learn!’
The music stopped. The big man stood up, belched and took a stumble forward, as if pushed by someone, but no one had. He looked drunk as a miner and mean as a pit bull.
‘Your son would have been alive today,’ he said.
Joseph stood too. ‘How’s that?’
‘Your fiddlin that night.’
‘Aint no fiddle ever killed no man.’
‘Fiddlin. Drinkin. And then brawlin, every time.’
‘Tiny, yer sauced. You wanna back off right now.’
‘You’ll hear what I say.’
‘All I hear is the shine talkin, and I heard enough already.’
Tiny jumped right across that fire and threw a roundhouse that caught old Joseph high in the cheek. He might have dodged it, but he took care, handing off that hog-harp. Someone behind caught him and said, ‘Don’t fight Tiny tonight.’
‘The Hell I won’t,’ said Joseph, and pulled his big skinning blade. Held it low and close, as an angry lump swelled his eye. That faraway look was gone.
People backed off right away, and the two men circled, eyeing each other for the best light. Joseph looked steady and cautious. Like he’d grown attached to his seven fingers, and intended to keep them.
‘Josie, ye two can quarrel without knives, for Heaven’s sake!’ The quavering voice of a woman at the edge of darkness. Tiny feinted forward just as Joseph looked away. Moved awful fast for his size and condition. Joseph tripped on a loose log of firewood. Now the big man kneeled on top of Joseph and raised his knife.
In that instant, one single clear note rang out from the old gourd fiddle. One note that held the hopes and dreams of the defeated father, the fearful wife, the lost son… all of the Laurel Branch congregation. It seemed to hang there for minutes, for an eternity, and yet it was just a bit, as the bluecoat fiddler found the tune that was called for by that very moment. Called for by the murmur of the stream and the silver light of the moon and the reaching of the poplars for the purple heavens. A slow melody brought over from the old country: ‘Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies.’
The soldier fiddler played, in his blue buttoned coat, and the quarrel ended. Some say the big man even helped the elder to his feet and they shared a jar, but that is a matter for some debate, since the scene was interrupted just as the fiddler finished his playing of the ancient air. Hoof beats thudded up the cove. Three riders with torches pushed roughly into the center of the circle. In a blink, the magic evaporated, like the hummingbird that vanishes and leaves a brief shimmer in its own wake.
‘The Lord trieth the righteous, but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth!’ The preacher used his Sunday-morning voice, and people backed off a step.
Quietly the soldier fiddler ducked back into the shadows. The preacher nodded to his two men and they nabbed him by his blue buttoned coat, barely. They forced him into the circle of firelight, twisted away his fiddle, and held him between them.
‘Drinkin, dancin, fisticuffs and debauchery, and once again we find the insidious work of Satan’s strings!’ The preacher held high the simple fiddle for all to see, his horse prancing and steaming.
‘What have you to say for yourself, foreign soldier in your blue buttoned coat, who have brought the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah into the peaceful parish of Laurel Branch?’
The young man wrestled himself away from his captors by displaying a shiny black Army Colt. The other two drew their own sidearms, and people pulled back another step.
‘I say this: if you take my fiddle from me, you take food, friendship, and shelter. I am far from home and winter advances as we speak.’
‘Young man, I take sin from you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost!’ And he smashed the soldier’s fiddle against the sturdy chestnut framing of the half-built barn. The pieces dropped to the mud.
The soldier cried in anguish and fell forward as if to catch the shards, to salvage and repair the instrument. But its complete and utter destruction was plain for all to see, there in the stuttering torchlight. Darkness descended as clouds swam across the moon.
‘And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world. He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’
‘I have nothing,’ said the man on the ground. And the battered old man Joseph reached out a
hand to him. His right, the one with all five fingers.
A morning of cold drizzle, low skies of lead pressing down, West Virginia hills disappearing into the drifting mist. Indian summer chased away by the season of darkness, as ever and always.
The two men sat in Joseph’s home, a simple one-room cabin, as the wife worked to prepare a breakfast. The younger man had bits of hay in his hair. The older wore a swollen eye and skinned cheekbone. Drips pinged into a pan in the middle of the floor: leaky roof.
Joseph looked into his tin cup of coffee. ‘We hain’t much here in our larder. But what we have is yourn.’
‘Much obliged. I ain’t had no biscuits and bacon in the longest time.’
‘You can’t stay here. He won’t allow it.’
‘Don’t I know it.’
‘Where will ye go?’
‘Back up home is where I’m headed: Pennsylvania. Hard road to travel. Bad season and now, no fiddle.’ He hung his head.
The pinging sound became a wet dripping, and slowed. The wife moved to her husband, wiping hands on her apron, as bacon sizzled. She placed her hands on his shoulders, standing behind him. The elder raised his eyes and looked hard at the soldier. Their gaze held across the table.
‘You’re a fiddler too.’ said the younger man. ‘Shoulda known.’
Joseph’s left hand came up, with first three fingers halfway gone. ‘I was at one time.’
“Jesus in Heaven. Preacher?’
“Done it myself. Or the grief done it, maybe. We had a son.’
‘Damn war. So many good men gone.’
‘War never took him. Fell against a plowshare in the Pickens barn, night before his weddin. Pushed in a drunken row, and me in the kitchen, just fiddlin away like nobody’s business. Left Maggie Pickens all alone in a family way. She miscarried last week. Her papa Tiny, he’s right about me and my fiddlin. Just never come to no good.’
‘Hold on. You been around. You know that thing’s got a magic in it, older than God.’
‘The magic is in the fingers.’ Joseph stood and faced his woman. A loaded look.
She spoke quietly. ‘We got no more use for it now.’
He nodded. Moved to the cookstove, reached behind for the kindling axe. Took it out the back door.
‘Go on,’ said the wife, gently, and the soldier followed.
They went out into the damp gray morning, behind the smokehouse. Directly the old man tore a big salted buckskin from the back wall, and commenced to chopping at the poplar siding. Then he reached down into the hollow wall and pulled out a fiddle. Rain drops marked its dusty surface, the broken strings, the lovely German curves. A church bell rang, way down the valley. Faint and measured, over and over.
‘To Hell with him,’ said the old man, with a glance toward the sound. He sheltered the fiddle under his shirt and they went back inside, to the heady aroma of bacon and biscuits, and pine logs popping. He faced the young man and held out the instrument.
‘I can’t take your fiddle. Like takin yer soul.’
‘You can and you will. My father played it. His father brung it over.’ Joseph touched the pegs, still holding it out. ‘My son played it.’
‘By God, this thing needs work.’ The soldier turned it over, blew off the dust, inspecting fingerboard and scroll and soundboard. When he looked up, the wife was extending to him a fiddle bow, a decent one.
He sat down to the table, tying strings, turning pegs, twisting the bow. The woman moved food to the warming shelf above the stove: biscuits, back bacon, fried apples.
Then the music came: hesitant at first, halting and scratching, tuneless and timid. But it became strong. It became fluid. It flowed from that fiddle like the cold clear waters of Laurel Branch. Like fireflies blinking over a June pasture. Like mockingbirds and katydids, laughter and dancing. And yet, it was just a common fiddle tune, one they had often heard before.
It came to an end. Then the woman sang.
‘Farewell my friends, I’m bound for Canaan
I’m traveling through the wilderness
Your company has been delightful
You do not leave my mind distressed.
I go away, behind to leave you,
Perhaps never to meet again,
But if we never have the pleasure,
I hope we’ll meet on Canaan’s land.’
Water beaded on the blue buttoned coat of the traveling soldier, dripped from his wide oiled hat. He paused at the top of the first hill out of town, on the Weston Road. Looked back down the rocky track. There came the preacher on his big black horse. He too stopped at the top of the hill, reigned in and touched his cap.
‘Mornin son. What’s under that bulging blue buttoned coat?’
‘None of your business.’
‘Well then.’ He patted his saddle bag. ‘I got somethin here for you, it’s one of them hog-harps. If you wanted to come and worship with us today.’
‘I’d just as soon eat nails as take it from you.’
‘Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God!’
The soldier spat, and held his tongue.
‘Joseph Miller is a good man, and so was his son, rest his soul.’
‘You got nerve sayin that. Give him the Goddamn hog-diddle.’
The sound of the church bell rang up from below.
‘Time for service. You’re welcome to partake of the Lord’s blessins.’
‘I believe I’ll just keep on walkin.’
And so he did.