Story - 02
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The Fiddler

 

When I was a little girl, I lived on a farm high on a hill. The soil was thin and full of stones. My father worked long hours to give us food and keep us warm during the long winters.

Most years, my father grew barley, to grind into cattle feed or sell to merchants for malting. Even though our land was poor, the buyer would come from the local brewery for our corn because he said that the grains malted quicker and gave a sweeter mash than many of the lower lying farms.

My father would smile and tell him the Romans knew a thing or two when they chose our hillside on which to grow their grapes. All the more reason for our farm to be called The Vineyard, in remembrance of those far off days.

At the beginning of the eighth month, we celebrated the first harvest. Bread would be baked from the first sheaves of corn. All the village would gather to give thanks for the grain and pray for fine weather in which to reap and store all the oats, wheat and barley standing like rows of burnished gold in the hot summer sun.

It must have been my third summer when my father decided to grow wheat in the topmost field. The thin soil and lack of rain that year meant our field was the first one ready to be cut. I could not tell you how proud I was when my mother took the ears to thresh them on the cool barn floor. Together we picked up every grain. I helped her by carefully pouring the golden nuggets into the hole at the centre of the quern while my mother turned the grinding stone until all that was left was coarse white flour.

Then she took the flour and made it into dough, kneading it this way and that until she was satisfied she could leave it to prove. When it rose, she pummeled it again, but this time she wove it into a giant plait, twisting the dough until it resembled the sheaf of corn from whence it came. Then she brushed it with beaten eggs before placing it in the bake oven to turn golden brown in the heat of the coals.

The smell when she pulled out the Lammas Loaf was something to bring everyone into the kitchen. My younger sister and brother wanted to touch and taste it, but I could only gaze at it in all its glory.

That evening everyone gathered in the village for the Lammas feast. Tables were set up under huge sycamore trees casting a pool of green shadow at the village heart. My mother's loaf was blessed, then torn into a hundred pieces for everyone to share.

As eldest girl in the family, it was my task to take the platter round, making sure no-one was left out. My mother hovered behind me, anxious I might spill the precious morsels, but I was determined not to bring shame on myself and my family. Carefully I passed between the tables, offering the bread to willing hands until only one piece remained. I found myself standing before the fiddler, who came to lead the music for the dancing.

He was young then and dressed in black from head to toe. Curly black hair framed his face and sparkling black eyes. His shirt was made from cotton, laced at his throat while his trousers were of supple leather that clung to him like a second skin.

He thanked me gravely as he took the piece of bread from the platter.

"But you have left none for yourself!" he said. I stood there, unsure what to do. I thought to share with the rest of my family, but I could see they had already eaten our portions so that only crumbs remained. He read the sadness in my face that I would not taste the loaf my mother baked, for he took his piece and slathered it with butter. Then he broke the bread in half and offered it to me, his whole face smiling.

In silence we chewed together, tasting the grain and the sunlight and the earth in which it grew. Then we washed it down with cool water from the well. I knew the harvest would be good and we would not go hungry that winter.

When the feast was over, the fiddler took his place under the chestnut tree at the top of the green and began the tunes to call the people to dance. Others in the village brought their drums and pipes and other strange instruments. Together they blew and wheezed their way through songs and dances, but it was the fiddler who kept the beat, who told them when to play loudly and when to stop. Never a word did he speak, but with the flick of an eye or a turn of his head, he made the music speak to them all.

At first he stood beneath the mighty tree, but as the night wore on and the moon shone down upon the dancers, he grew tired, but no-one would let him stop. Someone brought him a chair. He carried on, his back as straight as a ram rod, while his shoulders danced to call of the tune and his fingers ran along the strings. His bare feet danced upon the dry earth and, although the night was cooler now, I saw ribbons of sweat trickling down over his feet to greet the ground.

I do not know how long he played into the night, for I fell asleep on the grass watching men and women grow young again under the music's spell.

The next year the rain fell for months on end. The ground was so wet at sowing time the horses could hardly pull the plough. The farmers feared the grain would rot in the ground. Thankfully some grew and, by Lammastide, a field of oats on the sheltered side of the valley was ripe enough to cut.

Another girl served the Lammas bread, but this year the fiddler brought someone else to share his portion. She was dressed in white; some whispered he had stolen her from the fairies, so delicate her features and so slight her frame. She spoke in a foreign tongue, singing strange songs that made your heart long for sunshine on the hill.

The lads in the village vied for the chance to dance with her, but she shook her head and sang another song. When she faltered and grew tired, it was the fiddler who brought her water and found a dry spot for her to rest.

"Why do you always wear black?" one of the village girls asked the fiddler. "It is the colour of night and of death, not a colour to wear to be joyful."

The fiddler shrugged and flashed her one of his smiles. "I wear what I wear," he said, "that is enough."

"Then why does your woman wear white?" the girl persisted. "Should she not follow you in her choice of colours?"

"She follows her heart, "the fiddler replied. "Who am I, to try and change her?"

The crowd began to call for another tune, so the girl had to be content.

The following year they brought a child with them dressed in the blue of a summer sky. They trusted me to care for him while they played. I made pictures in the earth with sticks and kept him happy telling stories.

The next year came a daughter in the reds and oranges of the sun. She was entrusted to a woman sitting nearby, but the sky blue boy remembered my stories and sought me out where I sat amongst the leaves.

Years passed the fiddler's family grew as I did. As soon as their arms were long enough to hold a fiddle, they joined their father, backs straight and shoulders dancing, while the little ones shook their tambourines or beat sticks upon the trees in time to the music.

Each year they brought new songs and old. I would pester the blue boy until he taught me the new ones, singing him the songs from the previous year to show I had not forgotten them. He showed me the fiddle tunes too, but with nothing to practice on while they were away, my fingers stayed stiff, especially once I took over the milking and churning. In return, I told him stories that came to me as the milk hissed into the bucket or as my arms ached from turning the butter churn.

More years passed. I saw my brothers and sisters grow up and marry and leave the farm. My parents told the young men I was too useful to be lost as another's wife, but I knew it was because they could sing me no songs and my stories held no meaning for them.

Then came the years that no fiddler came to the Lammas feast and though the musicians played, the music did not have the heart in it that it had before.

I did not think to see the fiddler again. The next Lammastide it fell to me to bake the loaf. I fashioned it as my mother had and once more I served it to the village on the silver platter. It came as a shock to see the fiddler sitting in his familiar place at the end of the row. As I drew closer, I saw that it was not the fiddler dressed in black I knew as a child, but the sky blue boy, now grown to a man. He was dressed in a black cotton shirt laced to his throat and leather trousers that fitted him like a second skin. Black hair still framed his sparkling eyes, but he had not his father's curls, rather his mother's black hair he plaited behind him.

When I offered him the remaining piece of bread, he took it gravely and said, with his father's voice, "But you have left none for yourself."

I nodded, caring nothing that I would not share in the Lammas loaf. An emptiness had grown in my heart since my mother died and the sky blue boy played the lament over her grave.

The fiddler set the bread upon his plate.

"Can you tell me the reason I am dressed in black?" he asked.

I looked up into his blue/black eyes, seeing again the fiddler and his laughing wife with their rainbow children. Then I understood.

"You wear black because all colours come to you." I said. "As night comforts day, you bring peace to all things, for without light, no-one can see the true colours shining upon them all."

He smiled and nodded, pointing to a white dress lying draped across the stool at his side. He took the piece of bread, slathering yellow butter over it before he broke it in two and held one piece out to me.

"Will you share the Lammas bread with me?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, taking it from him.

Together we ate in silence, tasting the wheat and the sunshine and the soil in which it grew. He brought me cool water to drink and when the dancing began, he led the music as his father had done before. I stood under the chestnut tree wearing the white dress, singing the songs he taught me.

As I sang, the sun shone through the black clouds hanging over the village. A rainbow soared from the sky on a multi-coloured path to where I stood.

 

 THE END

 

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