The ferryman’d had a poor, cold day, is how it starts. There’s other ways to start this one, but this time, we’ll start with the ferryman.
It was shadows-eve, the coldest, longest night of the year, when the blackbird breathes all over the world. He’d made two trips across that day, in in a current so wide and misted that the sharpest-eyed steamboat pilot couldn’t read it, each pole-stroke like stirring Death’s dinner. Now at last, the ferryman jammed his hat down low on his head, his thoughts on a corn-cake, hot buttermilk and a fire.
A hard man, a fella with the bearing of a soldier, was marching down the road. The lantern caught his red armband, sign of a freedman, and a black face marred by a wide scar. “Hundred-farthing to cross, if you go right now!”
The ferryman shook his head. “A fortune ain’t worth my neck, serviceman. As like to be sunk by ice or froze up out there.”
“I must cross.” The man put a hand to his waist, where steel glinted in the lantern light.
“You ain’t the first to show me a fine new pistol, ‘specially since the war started,” the ferryman said, “but you ain’t got the rivercraft to go yourself.”
A stout root-doctoring woman rushed down the path heedless of ice patches, her head and shoulders wrapped in a thick shawl. She carried a huge bag, sewn with pockets. More pockets had been sewn on the broadcloth of her skirt, spreading wide like a bell, and even some on the breast of her dress and her shoulders. “God save, I have silver,” she said, voice muffled through the scarf, digging in one pocket and coming up with a packet of herbs and some coin. “Iberian queenshead, none of your Continental nonsense. And should you need a purging, I’d be happy—”
“Nothing but wrath out there, root-doctor, ma’am.”
“Laudanum,” she interrupted, digging in another pocket, producing a vial of brown liquid. “Whole half-gallon, put away by my own self. The governor’s an opium eater. This is worth twenty acres of good black earth to him.”
The ferryman looked between the one, a former soldier, and the other, a wise woman under any other circumstance, and tried to think if there were some other manner in which to say no, and just then a thin dark figure came rushing down the path.
“Good ferryman!” the new figure shouted. “On behalf of all Common Men, thee art surely able to ferry a servant of God across this evening? Thine eternal salvation depends on it!”
The ferryman burst out laughing. “What are you jacks up to?”
The three, soldier, root-doctor, and preacher, exchanged grim looks. The soldier said, “We got but moments. Be quick.”
The preacher put down his kit bag, undid the knots, and immediately the three lit up with golden light. Not the pale, dim light of the ferryman’s lantern but light warm and buttery.
It came from a golden fiddle.
Up he held it, and that fiddle shone blinding bright. At that golden light, winter night fled for just a minute, and summer sun tickled the ferryman’s ears and the smell of roasting corn teased his nose.
“Lordy,” the ferryman said, voice full of wonder. “Lordy, look at that. That’s magic, that is.”
“Thee knows, ferryman, what this is,” the preacher said. “Not any trinket, not some seer stone or dowsing rod or other fakery but true magic, a song blessed by God. Long has it lain hidden, and now it comes forth again, to give men hope.”
The ferryman put a hand out, gingerly, like he feared him a burn, and brushed the warm golden surface of the fiddle. “Children’s stories,” he said, half in wonder.
“And as Scripture tells, unto children is given a greater measure of wisdom,” the preacher put in.
“You seen the fiddle, ferryman, do you doubt the fiddler’s out there?” the soldier said. “The blackbird’s having him a mighty feast on this war. Last days are upon us, and she’s the only one they say has ever overcome him.”
“That would be a fine thing, to hear that fiddle played as it should be,” the ferryman said, mostly to hisself. He cast an eye over the dark expanse of river, dotted with white ice cakes. “You sure, jacks? A trip like this, it rarely takes you where you’re planning.”
“You think we got a choice?” the root-doctor said.
The ferryman nodded. “With the fiddle goes the fiddler.” He headed back to the river. “We’ll push off ‘gainst the ice, pray all this weather ain’t shifted too much of what’s below the surface.”
The mooring line had near frozen just in the time it’d been tied up, and the soldier pried it away with a great crackling. The preacher and the root-doctor kept an eye up the road while the soldier took out his pistol and whacked away at the crust of ice already forming around the ferry’s beams and floats. The ferryman poured new oil into his other lamp and lit it, the fiddle having gone back where it come from, and the dull yellow light flickered off the black water and the white ice cakes floating in it.
Hooves thundered from up above, on the road down the bluff.
“Haste, ferryman! Haste!”
The preacher and root-doctor leapt onto the ferry, and the soldier shoved off from the shore. The ferryman pointed to where a thick tar-stained rope came up out of the water to pass through iron pulleys along the ferry’s rail at bow and stern, not that a ferryboat could be said to have either. “Heave on that line like you mean it,” the ferryman said, and they set to.
The ferryman poled through the shallows steady and sure, and on his twelfth stroke felt the deck surge beneath him as the Mizeny’s flow caught the ferry’s bottom, swinging it out into the river. The pulleys squeaked and squealed, the current pushing the ferry ahead along the rope. All four watched the riverbank, eyes fixed until the dock vanished into the darkness. The creak of ice, the slosh of water, and the squeak of the wet ferry-rope through the pulleys were the only sounds in the world.
Till gunfire rang out.
“Couldn’t hit a legless rabbit in an open field, not with this light,” the root-doctor said.
Freezing water exploded not a foot off the ferry’s bow, and the three pulled the rope like they was pulling their souls from the talons of Scratch himself. More shots rang out, then quieted.
And then they were in the dark cold river current, no sound but the rush of water.
After a long moment in the silence, the ferryman said, “Well, I reckon we’re far enough out for a gay tune on that fiddle.”
The preacher drew a gasping breath. “I dare not.”
The ferryman turned to the root-doctor, but she pulled her gloves away to show swollen hands dark with dirt stains. “I don’t play. My hands are built for digging.”
“I did,” the soldier said, “but not since Archsburg.” He held up a left hand, missing three fingers. “And I can’t presume to play that. May as well borrow a harp from the angels.”
“Well,” the ferryman said, pushing the pole against the muddy bottom, keeping an eye on a thick chunk of ice not three paces away, “we best pass the time or I’ll work myself into a right fret. How’d you find this fiddle?’
The preacher broke in. “Ferryman, thee are worthy of thy hire, and thee need not know all. Know only that we took from the old, wealthy, and wicked, those who hoard such things.”
“Those who hoard everything,” the soldier said, spitting into the icy water. “I seen all five of my brothers dead on the battlefield, and nearly gone to the blackbird myself, yet their wives ain’t seen a dime of the pensions, and they gotta take in washing just to eat. But somehow the governor’s new mansion is twice the size of the old.”
“Ain’t that so,” the root-doctor agreed. “Last three villages where I done healing work, there were folk near dead of hunger, barely a few ears of corn left after the army requisitioned their crop.”
The ferryman nodded along with each squeak of the rope sliding through the pulleys. “All right then, if our story tonight don’t concern your finding of it, how about finding the fiddle the first time, then. You know that one? Come on now. It’s a good tale, with the seven-fingered, two-tongued man and the contest fooling the blackbird hisself. Will put me in mind of better times.”
“We need not tempt evil now—” the preacher began, but the root-doctor broke in.
“Preacher, we done tempted evil. When Fox gets him a chicken, does he fuss about what farmer knows, or does he just light out? Come on, one of you tell it, to keep our minds a-hope.”
The soldier, not looking away from the river, said, “I will. Can’t forget it.” He took a deep breath, then went back to pushing away ice-cakes and spoke.
Preacher, I may do me some blaspheming, and root-doctor, I do apologize if I peg your skills wrong. Here it is, imperfectly told for sure, the first tale of how the fiddler fooled the blackbird.
Laila, she was a clever woman, known up and down the river as the best root-doctor, midwife, and purger since men set foot on this the continent of Asion. But everything she was, her husband was not. He was in pure fact a drunkard, a boor, who thrashed her, who couldn’t keep one friend.
One day Laila came home from gathering elderberries and he swore at her and exclaimed, “Woman, you’ve been out longer than my patience can stand!”
Well, she’d had enough. He’d been kind once, but that man was long gone into a whiskey bottle. “It’s just that these elderberries know their way around a woman better than you do,” she retorted.
He beat her, as cowards do when they face the truth.
Now, he’d struck her before, and just about convinced her afterward that he reformed. Tonight, she saw the truth clear as sun in a cloudless winter sky.
The story don’t say what she done to him exactly.
But she was a root-doctor. And hemlock don’t look no different than a white carrot.
I’ll tell you what the story does say: she crossed that very night, in dark cold water much like this, the black waters of this big old Mizeny River.
She didn’t dare bring the lawman on her parents, her sisters, or even her brothers. She took a raft down the Mizeny, and jumped a steamer up the Mia-Wasika. Up tributary streams she went, on foot through the water and into the hills. Always north and west, north and west, all the way to where redwoods tower between walls of rock and snow. She walked among the mammoths and the greatsloths, the picca people that ride black horses with empty white eyes and speak only in puffs of blue smoke.
She kept on going, until she walked across a dark windswept plateau between two towering mountains of ice.
And there, at the end of the world, where there ain’t a road for a thousand miles, where even the horse-folk won’t set a tipi, well, there she found a wide and clear path.
Then a crossroads, one road coming across t’other plain as day.
And standing to the side of the crossroad, a hut made just for travelers, stocked with firewood.
Now she was smart enough to know you didn’t just walk up to a house at the crossroads like that. Surely you didn’t. Even if woodsmoke trickled from the chimney and it was cold out as the shadow’s breath.
Laila stepped off the road, huddled down into the ditch that ran alongside it, watching that hut for any sign of life—and near trod on a bundle, a tight-wrapped thing just sitting in the mud. Out of one corner, golden light shone.
She peeled back one layer of oilcloth, then another, and saw strings, a fine curving body, neck and peghead carved to imitate a wave. ‘Twas a fiddle, bright as gold. A bow’d been tucked in tight next to it.
Anyone with a dab of sense would’a left it in the ditch, and Laila had more sense than most. She’d heard all the stories, in her root-doctoring up and down the rivers, of cursed musical instruments that’d dance your feet right to the blackbird.
But oh, how it shone when she looked on it. How it invited the hand! Those taut and well-sawed strings waited on a song, and didn’t it look just the right size for her?
Laila’d never played a lick of music, save to join in singing rounds and rondels at the bonfire. But there it was in her hand. And well, that was foolish enough, but she found herself tucking it under her chin natural as all the world. The bow fit her cold-numbed hand just fine and her fingers felt warm just touching it.
And she played.
She played the sunlight of a morning through the trees.
She played fingers in good dark earth, searching for roots.
She played the anger of a righteous woman against a foolish man.
When she could bring herself to stop, she stared at the thing in dumbstruck wonder.
Right then cold wind swept over all the world and chips of ice rained from the sky, and Laila, thinking only of saving her life with warmth, ran for the hut, fiddle and bow still in hand.
The hut was a traveler’s shelter, blessedly dry, holding only hearth, woodpile, and ledge to sleep on. She put the fiddle down on the ledge, got the fire a-roaring, and turned to thaw her near-frozen haunches. When she turned back round, a fella stood at the fire.
Laila near jumped right through the roof. “Hey now!” She put a hand to her belt knife. For half a second there, she thought her husband’d risen from the grave. Or a lawman come after her.
But no, this was no lawman.
This one was tall, with black orbs for eyes, not a speck of white in them. From under trailing hides emerged not boots but the curved edges of bird’s talons. This old jack’s hands, instead of being meaty and callused, were long and thin, like a scholar’s. ‘Cept no scholar Laila met ever had seven fingers on each hand.
And when he spoke to her, two black tongues like earthworms flickered at the edges of his mouth. “Cold, were you?” the tongues chorused together.
Laila was a root-doctor, and as such, she was wise to the ways of the woods, to the creatures that hide in the crook of an old oak and under the evergreen boughs, who watch from the heart of the fire. This weren’t Death, she knew, but one of his many children. “Well, hello there, son of the shadow. That your fiddle?”
“Son? All thousand and ten of my brothers, sisters, and cousins, we call the blackbird ‘Grandfather’.”
“You didn’t answer my question. That your fiddle?”
“Why I believe,” he said, picking the golden instrument up, “by finder’s rules on the road, it’s yours.”
She shook her head but found she couldn’t disagree with him. “No tricks. How came you here?”
“That’s a story,” them tongues chorused, “about my grandsire. I know your folk are wary of such things.”
“Go on, now,” Laila said. Now was not the time to fear Death.
He nodded as if to acknowledge her straightforward courage, and his two tongues came together to tell the story.
“One day Grandfather comes to visit, and my mother, she says I’m to wait on him, that he has a request of me.
“I held up a clay pot of dark water for him to dip his beak in, and I brought him the best bones to crack and suck out the marrow. And he says, indeed, you’re a good child. I got a task for you, boy. Nothing angers me so much as music, songs, and tales around a bonfire.”
She nodded along. It was plumb true that Death hates music, songs, and tales, for they’re the only things he can’t eat.
“Well, says Grandfather, there’s a fiddle, a fiddle of all fiddles. Gold and shining, and don’t it play exactly what’s in their little tasty hearts? Long it’s been in the keeping of a quick-fingered player, but I ate him up just today, and the cursed thing sits unclaimed! I want to take it to the darkest, quietest corner of my realm. Fetch it for me.
“So I did,” he went on to Laila. “I crept from the hearthfire, used all the cleverness in my tongues, and I talked my way into the fiddle owner’s wake, and ahead of hounds and hunters and hosts, I sneaked it out. Now Grandfather is coming here, to this crossroads on the edge of his realm, to meet me. But it seems...” The two black tongues disappeared into a flat-lipped smile. “Seems I lost it. And you picked it up.”
The hut seemed to grow darker, the shadows heavier. “What’s your game?”
“I do love music,” the seven-fingered, two-tongued man said. “Grandfather, he hates it. My kind, we can’t play it, not truly. But I can’t help listening, when I creep from the dying fire to take your bright and precious things.”
“That ain’t all of it,” Laila said.
He cackled in chorus. “You are clever, for only one tongue. My brothers, sisters and cousins, we had a bit of a brag on who was the cleverest, and I bet, thousand and ten to one, that I’d hold this fiddle under Grandfather’s nose and snatch it away.”
Laila had to admire such gumption, foolish as it was. “Well then, jack, can you?”
“This is the edge of Grandfather’s realm, where all things pass under his wings. If you can make him fly away from here empty-clawed, you’ll walk out free and clear with the fiddle.”
“Oh no,” she said. “No, no, I had me enough playing with Scratch. This is your business, jack.”
“Oh well, I’ll just hand this over to you, and you play one last reel before Grandfather gets here. It’d be a real shame, for it not to squeak one more.” Seven-fingered hands, more nimbly and quick than a raccoon’s, turned the fiddle so it was just ready for her to take hold of it.
Laila, remembering years of hedge-wisdom, just managed to keep herself from seizing it. This was all a trick, she thought. She was gonna stand real firm.
And she did.
For a count of three.
And then it was in her hands, and she was playing, and she couldn’t stop, because the music, it was purely hers, it was everything she’d held deep in her quiet soul for so many years putting up with that damnable man.
By the time she put down the bow, she knew she couldn’t give up this fiddle, not even for Death.
“All right, then,” Laila said, and she put her mind to work, same as she often did for treating a fever or colic or sores. “I got me a plan to fool your grandfather, if you’re keen.”
He licked his lips, black tongues slithering one after the other like worms crawling in hard rain. “Go on, little one-tongue.”
Just a few minutes later, Laila laid herself out on the ledge, closing her eyes and locking her arms around the fiddle. Just as she did so, the hut shook, and the fire dimmed of its own, and three knocks came at the door, each one like the sound of old bones rattling.
The two-tongued man opened the door. There weren’t no light beyond it, only a whole mountain of dark.
“Grandfather,” he said. “How lovely to see you! There is not enough praise on my poor tongues for your greatness, your darkness, your hunger.”
“Where is it, grandson?” came the voice, like a cold wind over a dead plain.
Laila cracked an eye and saw Death his own self. An enormous raven, dark as starless night in the deep woods, shoving a mess of hackles, feathers and beak through the door, his cold breath scattering the coals to ash. The head was round and downy but bore no eyes, only a black expanse of feathers above the beak. Closer and closer the shadow hisself come, squawking, “I want that fiddle!”
“You won’t believe it, Grandfather,” said the seven-fingered man, “but I set it down for just a minute, and this little human snatched it up! She says she needs to have words with you.”
And Scratch the blackbird, who eats all things in time, stood over Laila. Then she knew the cold of the grave, the lightless space of an empty place under the earth that only the righteous could hope to escape.
“Give me that fiddle, little human,” he squawked.
“Oh shadow,” she said. “I’ve seen such sorrow. I crave your gullet, don’t you worry. I just got me one request.”
He took a big sniff, tasted the air with his beak. “I know you. You sent a man to me, a big strong man. I ate his thick muscle and his fat head and I pecked at his eyes.” Laila’s heart ran at a gallop, kicking at her ribs, when Scratch squawked, “But I cannot cheat your little life, not even here, not till your time.”
“That’s all right there, Scratch,” Laila said. “Hand me my bag; I got me a draught that’ll send me right into your hands.” Laila motioned for her bag, said, “Vial in the front pocket. It’s the tincture of a wicked black flower that can only be watered by blood.”
The shadow, well, he ain’t stupid, but he’s always hungry. Here was a fine meal, and humans were prone to despair after all.
So it was that he pulled out a little black vial and had his grandson unstopper it with them clever fingers, and never did he notice that it smelled more of molasses, rum, and coffee than any bloody flower.
“Any minute now, shadow,” Laila whispered. “All I ask is that you administer.”
Those vast black claws held the tincture out to her lips.
Laila drank deep, and the shadow’s hackles rose. “Come into my gullet!” he screeched.
“Just about there, shadow,” she said weakly. Rolling on her side to face the wall, she slipped the fiddle under her chin best she could. “I want you to come in, real close, wrap your wings all ‘round me and take me from his hateful life.”
He leaned right in.
Laila set bow to strings.
The fiddle let out an awful screeching right into the shadow’s ear.
It weren’t a pig at slaughter, weren’t a boiler exploding. See now Laila, thinking on the music, how it sprang up from the roots of her soul, took a mind to play the worst sound ever touched her ears.
She played her crying nephew, colicky enough to lay low a moose. He’d screamed into the wee hours for a fortnight after he was born. On them long nights, Laila and her sister both had reckoned those screams were liable to wake the dead right out of their graves or drive off the shadow.
Turned out, they was right.
The shadow screamed and flapped his wings, knocking out the walls and blowing away the roof of the little hut. His claws scraped at the ground as the cold wind caught him, and he reared up, raising his hackles. “That’s mine!” he squawked. “That’s—”
Laila played on, putting every wail and squall through that bow onto them strings.
The shadow’s grandson sank to his knees moaning and covering his ears. The fierce wind caught Scratch by the pinfeathers, battered him with hail, and he tumbled up into the sky like a rag doll, squawking, “You cheated me! I’ll have it, and I’ll eat your gristle!”
Laila, when she finally took bow from string, stood in the sunrise by that little wrecked hut, smiled at the two-tongued fella who’d just won his wager, and knew that at last, she had something that was hers.
“Can’t forget the time I heard that,” the soldier said. “I was sick of the ague and they’d pulled me off the line.” He laughed in time with the gurgle of the water and the squeak of the rope. “My brothers and I, we lit out from our owners in the Provinces right ahead of the hounds. I watched men get blasted to shreds on my right and left in the field. But it was the ague near done me in. I remember that smell of the battlefield drifting in, that gunpowder, and I feverish, and the nurse telling me tales when she spooned quinine down my throat.” His voice fell. “She talked, she did, all through changing my dressings and feeding me, and I held tight to her voice, and at last I heard Scratch’s wings flap away. I reckon that nurse, that was her, wandering among men, looking for the lost fiddle.”
“Well told,” the ferryman said. “Watch the ice!”
The soldier spun and jabbed the pole at a wide spear of ice, a frozen chunk bearing down, shoved it off just in time to avoid it hitting the ferry.
Pellets of broken ice clattered against the side of the ferry.
“God’s Gaze preserves us,” the preacher said.
“Shadow working up an appetite,” the ferryman said.
The others didn’t speak to that.
“Well, then,” the ferryman said. “Way I heard it, she fooled that blackbird three times. Tell me the second time.”
In that cold darkness, among the soft rushing of water, squeak of the pulleys, and the clatter of ice-cakes, the soldier, the root-doctor, and the preacher all caught one another’s lamplit eye, and didn’t each one have a question there? A question that might could be, what’s this ferryman know?
“I heard that one,” the root-doctor said. “My mother told it. And her mother before her. But it ain’t a story for the faint-hearted.”
“I seem faint-hearted to you?” the ferryman said. “You go on.”
The root-doctor spoke.
Laila the fiddler, at this time of the second story—I tell you what, she was plumb legendary.
She’d been up and down the Mizeny, the Mia-Wasika, the Walash, the Hiawa, played in fine governors’ mansions, in low doggeries, on rafts full of b’hoys who would take your eyes soon as look at you, and at every husking bee at every harvest. All over the Asionshan Free States, when she played, their eyes turned to tears and their hearts to summer sun.
It takes a special talent to hold onto coin in a world of river-rats. Laila clung to every penny, squirreled them away in hiding spots only she knew. She knew a place that the Kei-wala, the mammoth walkers, had showed her, a secret vale off a little Mia-Wasika tributary, and they’d told her she was fine to settle there long as she played a tune for the mammoths when they came through. Why, it was as lovely a spot as you could ask for. Shady cottonwoods and willows for the hot summers, a nice bluff keeping out the wind for the winters.
But she knew she’d have to order a powerful lot of goods steamed up the river to build her little house in secret. It would take a fortune to buy and another fortune to boat. She was just pondering on such a thing on a dock at Prester John’s Town when an Asionshan army scout pulled her aside at the dock. “Come looking for you!” he said, and when Laila wondered whether she’d corked off this whole Free State, he clarified, “Army captain needs a singer real bad. Pays in gold. No National Bank nonsense. Just half-day’s march up to the plateau.”
“Why, I’m your fiddler, sir!” she said.
Sure enough, half a day brought her up to a wide, grassy plateau, sort of place run wild with buffalo and mammoth and great sloth, cave lions and dire wolves. And there she met this army captain, a haggard fellow what looked like he hadn’t slept in a week.
“You that fiddler we heard so much about?” The army captain didn’t even wait for her to answer. “I got here a whole platoon don’t want to shift a jint, won’t march one step. They’re back there—” he pointed toward a splash of green, a watercourse wending through the flats “—just sitting. Play them a few merry jigs, get the fellas on their feet.” He opened a chest, not a big one but one packed with gold bars, and Laila couldn’t believe her eyes. Why, that was enough to build her little cabin, bring in fine tempered glass windows and the best steel stove could be smelted.
“Surely will,” she said.
Her head was so full of that gold, on the path to the watercourse, that she failed to smell anything other than a bit of smoke and failed to see the blood staining the path she walked on.
And that’s how she didn’t look up till she was in what remained of a picca village.
This picca tribe was of no particular fame. Ain’t no one even sure of what they called themselves. They lived by the river, they fished, and they didn’t ever do anyone a bit of harm. But they’d set roots in good deep black earth, well-watered. White men will kill to farm that kind of land, and when it comes to Red John, white men will kill him ten times over.
The men in the blue cotton coats and silver buttons, the proud soldiers of the Asionshan Free States, they sat on rocks and stumps, on bundles of hides and on dead horses, staring into the center of the village. The village center had once been a longhouse, with pine-poles for ribs and walls woven with elm branches, the roof of thick strong hickory. Now it was ash, and in the ash, she saw bodies.
Laila dropped her fiddle, left it there, gold light marred by mud.
“You the singer? Cap’n told us you were coming,” the nearest man said. In the wreck of the longhouse, Laila saw now that not all the bodies in that fire were the bodies of adults. “Go on! Give us a sprightly tune! These grown folks didn’t have a musket between them, nor more than a couple of bows and arrows! And the children...”
“We had to,” another one said. “We told them to move. I seen the treaty! I seen the paper! This is Free State land.”
“Just Red John,” another man said, spitting. “Nits make lice.”
I know you heard folk say that. Every monster who ever killed a child, killed all that promise and joy and innocence, that’s what they say. Nits make lice.
Laila just sat there.
She couldn’t sing for this. Hell, she couldn’t even curse for this.
She sat there when the captain came along and railed at her and collected his soldiers by the whip. She sat there with the fiddle clutched tight in her whitened knuckles, even after the captain fired a couple of warning shots into the sky to make the others shift.
Laila’d never seen such a thing as this slaughter, not in her born days.
And yet, it happened all the time, didn’t it? The army rolled back into town from their jaunts west. Then the farmers went out west.
Then the army went further west, and the farmers dogged their heels, to fill what’d just been cleared.
Hadn’t this happened on the ground of every town where she ever sat and played, in all the Free States?
She kept on there, watching till the flames burnt down and midnight stole over the world, and the cold wind came down from the northern ice walls.
And Laila got a notion in her head.
It was a wild notion, the maddest sort of idea. But Laila weren’t the sort to shirk. Those folk had songs, stories, names. She set herself to hear them.
“Shadow,” she called out. “This is your hour, and you’re fat and sleepy, ain’t you? Been eating real well. Come, chat with me.”
She heard the rustling of wings.
And turning, she looked on the blackbird.
When she’d seen him before, he’d been like a great raven, a vast bird of prey who spun up whirlwinds. But this time, swollen and overfed, his eyeless head sunk into his hackles, he resembled nothing so much as a chicken too long at the corn.
“Little fiddler, who tricked me,” he squawked. “Give it to me.” His claws twitched. He opened his beak and belched.
When his mouth opened, she distinctly saw eyes, little eyes in pairs peeping out of that gullet.
She tucked the fiddle under her chin. “I got a song for you,” she said. “All I ask is that you open up and sing along.”
“I hate music,” the blackbird said. “Your squeaking and sawing most of all.”
“If you dislike this song,” Laila said, “the fiddle’s all yours. But this ain’t no typical song. I need you to get right into it. I’m gonna ask you to help me out in a minute, so you be ready.”
“I won’t,” the blackbird said, but if he’d had eyes, Laila knew they’d’ve been fixed on the fiddle, on the little thing she’d cheated him of. He shook himself, pecked at his hackles, and finally said, “Very well. I will put up with your squawking and sawing, to have the fiddle in my bone hoard beneath the earth.”
In her time, Laila’d sang to governors in their mansions, mayors and jumped-up sheriffs, wealthy planters and army captains. They wanted to hear about how smart they was, how powerful they was. A puffed-up man loved nothing so much as his own name.
She took every one of those songs those popinjays loved and made something more of them:
Who’s got the throat of both rich man and poor
Who comes in so hungry, a-rattling your door
Who gets your nanny goat, mother and child
His beak in your eyes, down his gullet to bile
She praised the blackbird up and down for what he done. Every last battle fought was, after all, for him in the end. And every last trickle of blood that was shed went to him. She went on singing, till she come back around to the first verse, and then she shouted, “Got to get a round going here, blackbird! I sing and you’ll answer, you hear?” She sawed away at the fiddle. “I’m gonna call out the verse, like this:
Who’s got the throat of both rich man and poor
“And you’re gonna come back and squawk, ‘Me!’ Real proud. Just like that.”
“I don’t sing,” the blackbird said.
“It’s part of the deal,” Laila said. “You want the fiddle or not?”
Well, the blackbird didn’t like to admit it, because normally he hated music and tales, but he was enjoying this. No one’d ever made a song to him. And wasn’t he the mightiest thing that ever was, sucking down every great lord and peasant?
So he opened up wide and croaked, “Me!”
Now it happened how Laila reckoned it would. After singing the round through a good number of verses—and damn, she had a lot of verses about him—it happened that all that food didn’t sit well with the vigorous singing, or so he thought, and the blackbird’s belly was mighty roiled now, aching and flip-flopping.
“What’s this?” he said, raising hackles at Laila. “What’s my belly about?”
“I ain’t done a thing but praise you, Scratch,” she said. “You can’t say you weren’t pleased by the song.”
The blackbird didn’t want to admit it, but he had liked the song well enough. At least up until his stomach started roiling. Every time he’d opened up his gullet, it felt like something small jumped out of his maw. But that was damn foolishness, he reckoned. Nothing escaped him. He always kept his food down.
“It’s been a good while since I did a purging, shadow,” Laila said. “But I could try you, if you can take it.”
“Don’t you touch me! I’ll be back for you,” he groaned, and hopped three steps off, rising to the sky, a darker patch against the starry sky, getting smaller and smaller. “I will!”
Come morning, Laila, she had a talk with the Sun, an old friend from the day when the fur trappers made a bet they could catch Her and Laila’d been the only one to hear Her cry in the night and had to charm them into opening the cage.
That don’t come into this story. But I tell you this for sure, in gratitude the Sun caught the shapes of seventy-six little ghosts following on Laila, up the Mia-Wasika, up another tributary, and up another, to a little glade under the cottonwoods. Sun, she took some of her light, for she had so much, and gave them ghosts shape and form, bodies made anew. Seventy-six picca children played, free and alive, in that glade under the cottonwoods, to the sound of a sawing fiddle.
And they sang their people’s songs, and danced their people’s dances, and spoke their names.
“My mother told me that one. She was picca, of some tribe, but what exactly, she kept close to her chest,” the root-doctor said. “Wouldn’t tell us what people she came from, wouldn’t tell us what happened to them, but every time she ended that story, she’d say one of those children was her mother, and the others was her uncles and aunts.” The root-doctor said a few words, and it was a language none of the others knew, except maybe the ferryman, who reckoned he’d heard it many a year back. “Neh, sqel, teh-ah-sqel. I been up and down every river in this country, purging and spreading poultices. I looked all the while for she who played my mother out of the shadow’s gullet.”
“Mighty fine telling—” the ferryman started to say, but the soldier interrupted.
“The rope’s caught.” Grimacing, he yanked at it, stretched taut where it emerged from the westwardly water to the now-still pulleys. That made about as much difference as kicking an oak.
“Sleeping sawyer,” the ferryman said. “Big old tree down there, stuck in the mud. She can get mightily tangled, with them snags hiding under the surface. Let me use the pole—”
Like a snake slithering up to strike, soon as the ferryman turned his back, there came the ice.
Big as a man and hard as tempered steel, the ice chunk hit the boat with a hammer-blow, knocking all four flat to the deck. Soldier, root-doctor and ferryman each managed to grab the rail; the preacher tumbled into the black water with a yip. Only the soldier’s quick arm, grasping that black sleeve, kept him from going under. The lamp rattled and shattered against the hook where it’d been set, then went out, leaving only the stink of burnt oil.
“Oh Lord, I give thee my hope, my great desire is but to pass beyond the shadow’s wings and stand beneath thy Tower, oh forgive me a sinner, oh Lord,” the preacher babbled through chattering teeth as the soldier pulled him out.
The ferryman found his feet. “Quiet down now,” he said over the preacher’s fevered prayer, “and be useful. Root-doctor, get you that fiddle out. Give me some light. Soldier, you make yourself fast to the lamppost and I’ll make fast to you.”
The root-doctor unwrapped the fiddle, and the warm golden light spread over them. The soldier knotted his belt around his left wrist and fixed himself to the lamppost, and the ferryman fixed himself in turn to the soldier’s right arm.
He leaned far out off the bow, so low to the water the cold spray wet his cheek.
One breath from the black water he perched, where a-body might mistake the flow of the Mizeny for the sound of rushing wings.
Water gurgled through splintered wood. If his ears didn’t deceive him, the ice had punched right through four of the empty, wax-and-tar-sealed firkins that kept the ferry afloat.
The ferryman felt his way along the rope with his pole till he caught the tip of the old wicked driftwood pinning it. He set the pole till it was good and braced and gave the snag a shove. The taut rope twanged like a banjo string, unmoved.
“Preacher,” he said, “you take the sculling oar and you watch for any chunks of ice. Soldier, you be ready, for I’ll give you a powerful jolt when I lever this deadfall off the rope. Root-doctor...” He looked on the fiddle, on that warm light. “You keep on holding that up as high as you can.”
The ferryman leaned into his pole. The snag shifted, the rope thrummed, and the whole ferry shuddered. “Keep ready now.” Again he shoved, and again, his skin steaming with the effort, working the pole back and forth like levering a stubborn stone out of a new-cut field. Finally the rope eased as slowly the snag rolled off, one wet frozen inch at a time. The thick hard hickory pole bowed at the weight, but it held its purchase ‘gainst the snag.
A little more.
Then the root-doctor’s hand must’ve shook, because there was a little rattle and that fiddle let out a soft ping, clear and bright.
The ferry lurched in the water, and the rope went slack. Too slack. Quick as lightning, no one able to do a thing but watch, the pulleys sucked up a frayed severed end of rope, circled it through, and shot it out toward the east bank they’d come from.
Next instant the current seized them, the river’s grasping hands at last feeling prey in their grip. They were tossed like a juggling ball, spun round on a boat now listing hard into the water. The ferryman made a dash to seize the rope as it vanished into the darkness. He stepped too far, right on the planks above the broken floats, and plunged into the water. Down he went, into the silence and ice and shadows.
Only the belt he’d made fast to the soldier saved him. He came up spluttering, seized his hat just before the current took it, and wriggled his way up the deck as the soldier pulled.
“Hang on, now!” the ferryman shouted as he got his balance. “You grab anything that comes to hand, and you row!”
They did so, every soul there scrabbling for any thing they could reach and frantically backing water to cross the current toward the dark line of trees to the west. The ferryman seized a broken plank and pushed, pushed, trying to get control of the spin.
“Oh, Watchman’s Gaze preserve us!” the preacher called through chattering teeth. On and on he went, a good long prayer, and the soldier and root-doctor joined him, as if to drown out the crackles and roars of the wicked current. The ferryman jabbed his broken plank at ice and debris bearing down on them from upstream. Every so often he jammed his hat down harder on his head, to make sure it weren’t lost. “Keep at it. I intend to get you ‘cross!”
They didn’t ever get closer to the western bank, though they rowed and rowed till their arms burned like roast joints. All the world was the dark rushing river, the haze of ice and the cold.
“I could use the third story,” the ferryman said after what seemed like half the night.
“You mad?” the soldier said. “Now ain’t the time! Anyhow, there ain’t no third!”
“Don’t they say she tricked the blackbird three times?” the ferryman asked. “Like I said, we’ll work up a real fret without something to occupy the mind.”
“You ain’t in a fret now?” the root-doctor said. “This is just a lark? ‘Sides, he’s right. My mother only told me the two.”
The preacher, though, didn’t answer, other than his frantic grunts as he paddled.
“Preacher?” the ferryman asked.
“I know a third tale, aye,” the preacher said, his breath ragged and rasping, “but thee were foolish, to tell the first two, and now the shadow, curse his name, he has us. Oh, how I have sinned. I only craved the purest of music, from these strings—”
“You ain’t sinned none, ‘cept going on about it. Tell it, preacher,” the ferryman said again. “I got a notion that we’re not getting off this river till you do.”
After a long, cold silence, broken only by the huffs of their breath, the constant dip of the makeshift oars, and the soft rattle of ice cakes against their precarious craft, the preacher began to speak.
Laila had gotten on in years, when this the third tale picks up. More years than the Watchman sees many a man or woman through. Busy she was indeed, as thee can guess.
Many a picca came through and claimed the babes who’d escaped the shadow’s maw as kin, but times were hard and the Asionshan States had a thirst for Red John’s blood. Those who belonged to the rivers, they looked westward, to the mountains like daggers cutting the sky, the mammoth herds and bison and the wide pine woods full of wolves. On they went now, hoping their songs could ring out free again.
Full thirty-five of the babes chose to go with their distant kin who moved westward. But forty and one, forty big and strong and one little runt, they figured to stay, make their songs, and remake their people right there with Laila.
Thus she gained forty-one little mouths to feed.
Quite the task for one woman.
She was busier than the angels on Sunday, downriver every week, playing that fiddle at every groggery and every husking bee that would pay. She’d hearken to home and share out the goods and pick the garden clean, and always the forty would eat heartily and she’d manage to get the little runt to take a portion by playing the poor thing one song. A’times her mother and sisters gave food, and her nephew—now the size of a good ox—would load her up with corn-pone and coffee from the lumber-yard.
Always she saved one crumb of cake to toss at the heart of her fire, for he who’d helped her gain the fiddle.
And all the while, she kept quiet as a mouse in the choir loft about where she come from and where she went to.
The shadow, or the blackbird if thee will, he keeps a grudge, Watchman witness, but after years without the wings passing over her, she figured he’d given up. He had wars to follow around, generals with big heads and bright sabers and an endless thirst for blood.
Laila found herself needful of a homestead. She and the babes had been building huts and tents of hide, striking them in summer, and she was about ready for that proper house she’d dreamed of, but she couldn’t count on a raising with the neighbors. She couldn’t even trust her nephew with her location, for his mouth ran now with all the news as surely it’d once bellowed from colic.
She put out word that she needed a builder. A man who could keep his mouth shut.
She went downriver to meet her candidates, in a little doggery dim and rank. First fellow, he was drunk and leered at her like she was dry goods in a store window and then pronounced, “I’ll break a redwood plank over my head, and be none the worse!”
He did, though ‘none the worse’ was open to interpretation.
The second fellow was tall and pale and looked rather sickly to be a builder. “Ma’am, before we begin I must know if you gave your soul to Systra, who bleeds for all of us. I have been fasting these four days to find a soul in need of repentance.”
She recommended him to the local root-doctor.
(I need not tell thee that Systranism is nonsense and fiddle-faddle blood magic, and the Watchman is the way.)
The third man was mercifully quiet. He nodded hello and reached in his bag, pulled out a thing she mistook for a pile of scrap wood—and then realized all the scrap bits had been carefully woven together, in places glued with horse-hoof jelly, in places cunningly jointed, tiny tenon to tiny mortise. In other spots, wood fiber had been woven like a basket, one thread through the other.
The little house was shaped in a peculiar octagon, wide and broad. Truly it would be a tricky shape to get right, but he’d managed the scraps for an eight-beam roof, and the whole thing was tight as a drum. Magnified a hundredfold, it would fit all the children, with even some space by the fire for the runt.
This man spoke carefully, like every word had to bake in his mind first. “Lost my wife, my five babes, twenty year back to a plague. This here was our plan.”
“I’m mighty sorry ‘bout your family,” Laila said.
“No coin pays for fate,” he said, and Laila allowed there were few truer words in the world.
“You like music, sir? Perhaps a bit of music to go with what you’ll lay by?”
He only smiled as she picked up the fiddle.
She had found her builder. Sworn to secrecy, and there was little difficulty there, as he said one word for every other man’s thousand. His favorite thing to do end of a day was to knock on one side of a half-complete wall and drop a birch bark sweet over for the first child to rush over and knock back. ‘Round the fire while she played, he’d hold each child while they sang, all forty taking turns for a bearlike embrace from those weathered hands, twice for the poor runt.
One night, after the children were abed and he packing up, Laila walked to the other side of a near-complete wall and knocked.
He, answering only with a smile, walked to the other side.
And she gave him a treat. A kiss from her weathered lips to his.
Much love have I seen, thee knows, but the best sort is seasoned in years of experience. They planned to be married and hold a special festive time just for them and the children.
Thee knows how time gets away from a man hard at work, and he was weaving thatch onto the roof, making one last touch the day before the wedding. Just as he made to lower himself down, right then, a bird flew on by and brushed his ankle and sent him flying to the ground.
His neck snapped like a plank breaking.
Laila run out into the night, and she saw him lying there dead, and she heard the wings go flapping off.
“Oh no you don’t, blackbird,” she said. “You can’t take folk outside their time! You broke the rules!”
She picked up her fiddle, and when the Sun came up she put her husband-to-be’s still-warm body under the shade of the cottonwoods to rest. She told the older children to keep the others well and refresh her husband’s pillow and clean his face every so often, that he only looked dead but he’d be well soon enough. She took the runt aside and gave special instructions, told him to sing to the poor man.
Then she got a fresh chicken, wrung and bled and plucked that hen fast as you please, and cooked it up, for she knew her fellow would be hungry when she fetched him from the shadow.
Finally, she headed out on a road only she knew.
It wasn’t long before she came to a high cold plateau.
There, beyond any and all roads and houses, she found a familiar path, leading to a familiar crossroad and a traveler’s hut still as vivid as it was in her dreams. She built a fire in there, and this time, she turned her back a’purpose.
“Why, it’s the traveler,” came a familiar voice in chorus.
She turned to see the seven-fingered, two-tongued man. Now his strange face was lined and old. All fourteen fingers trembled on a knotty cane, and when he opened his mouth, his two tongues were spotted and palsied.
“My old friend. Always I’ve given cake and played a reel for you. Let’s be square with each other. You tell me where Grandfather carried his latest meal.”
Long he looked on that fiddle, and even in those otherworldly black eyes, Laila saw sorrow. “Grandfather flew overhead, up to the highest place in his realm, the crag where he keeps his nest, saying he’d stored away his best meal of all, and you wouldn’t ever find it, no you wouldn’t. And he’s not wrong,” he said, in hissing chorus. “You cannot beat Grandfather in his own realm.”
“Blackbird needs to watch his boasting,” she said. “Mighty obliged.” She handed him a crust of bread for his trouble and played him a quick reel.
And on she walked, through the crossroads.
Her path turned to pale, cold sand, a path that kept on going even farther and farther. Just to her left, a sea of darkness spread out, like thee can’t imagine. Darker than fog-shrouded pinewoods at midnight. Darker than the cellar in a moonless storm.
Fear gripped even her brave heart, but she bellowed, “Tidy up, Scratch! I’ll be in your lair soon enough.”
On and on into the dark she went, to the far side of that sea, under bare black crags. She played on that fiddle, golden light showing her the path one step at a time.
Past the crags, the fiddle lit up whole forests of bone, all the shadow’s meals piled up. Spines made tree trunks, and little fingers and toes and ribs drifted in fronds like the weeping arms of willows. Little creatures of bone, attracted by the presence of life, picked themselves up and followed her, rattling along on legs made from clean-stripped bison ribs, clacking long-unused jaws at her. She went on, playing enough notes to light her way through the hanging bone fronds.
The little creatures encircled her. Laila played harder, but they just closed in, snapping at her fingers, trying to bite away what played her songs. Plucking with one hand, Laila reached into her cookpot and pulled the bones from the roast chicken, held them between her fingers so each creature that snapped at her mistook the cold chicken bone for the finger it wanted.
When she near ran out of chicken bones, she played a mighty furious jig, her bow sawing away at the fiddle, the notes a bright golden storm.
The creatures backed away, but then in the distance, the bone forest shuddered, like a moving mountain. Laila couldn’t help but stop and stare as it piled all up, one bone atop the other, until a great construct of bones rose up, forming the shape of the blackbird, all his feather pinions the ribs of great whales, all his downy undercoat thousands upon thousands of arm-and-leg bones of men dead in battle.
“I’m coming, fiddler,” he hissed. “I’m coming back to my nest, on the wing now. I been far from here, at the walls of ice that rim the northern part of the world, but I come. All over the world, folk wait on their deathbeds, lie in their final pain, unable to pass, because I come for your fiddle.” The eyeless head, made of breastbone and rib, of hands and feet all piled together, swiveled, and the beak, made of the broken tusks of mammoth, gaped wide. “Give it to me.”
“Can’t do, but here’s another bone.” Laila fished the wishbone, last piece left, out of the pot, held it up. “Catch!”
She tossed her little wishbone up and up and up, till it came down right on the head of the enormous bone construct the shadow’d made. A-body gets an eye for structure, after months of building, and if Laila judged right, ‘twas just a little too rickety.
When the wishbone landed, the bone mountain overtoppled and crashed to the ground.
“And there’s the wishbone that broke the shadow’s back, eh?” Laila said. “More where that came from.”
On she went, till she made the center of the shadow’s realm, and there it stood: a high black tower, rising from the plain like a defiant finger.
“Just a crag, Master Two-Tongued?” she said, and shook her head. “A little crag?”
But Laila, she weren’t one to be deterred; she’d climbed all over the house helping to roof it, she’d climbed many a cliff to find a sleeping spot away from tricky water, and she’d especially climbed the trees, to keep her dear little forty-first runt company when the poor thing couldn’t take any more teasing.
She found the handholds one nubbin at a time, grabbed with her fingertips and jammed her feet into the crannies and up and over, up and over she went. She fixed the fiddle behind her neck with a few kerchiefs, and its golden light showed her the next set of handholds, and the next.
At last, she came to the top of the pillar, looking out over all that dark realm beneath the earth.
And there, in a nest made of rib bones the size of houses, of skulls from fire serpents and quicksilver birds who have not been seen on earth since the Watchmen put his Gaze on mankind, laid in the center of that nest, sat an egg, shining dully like half-burnished steel.
She took one step and crumpled to the bottom of the nest. She was so tired, and she didn’t want to admit it, but she’d been all sparked out by this dark road.
When she lifted up her bloody, bruised hand, and she made a fist, it was near as tough as it might be for a dying man to stand and say his last words.
She knocked on the shell.
A long time later, a little crack came from inside the shell. Right up at the top, right where a hatchling head might come popping.
She knocked again.
And a little while later, the top bulged, and the crack spread.
And her husband-to-be poked his head out.
He didn’t look much like himself. All wrinkly and crusty, his head like a bird’s but with a drooping snout like a little trumpet, and his rheumy eyes shining silver. He nodded hello, and sneezed.
A blast of white fire lit up the nest.
From not too far, Laila heard the sweeping of great wings through the air, cutting the darkness, plunging toward her. The shadow was mighty close now.
“Oh, my quicksilver bird,” Laila said, “you best get fed, or we’re going to have ourselves a situation.” She, with bloody, tired hands, nevertheless set to. She gave him the chicken she’d brought, but he shook his head no, indicated the fiddle.
So Laila played all his favorite rags and reels, and then she played the sweetest most wistful, aching songs she could. He gulped down each golden note, feeding on thick sweet music like dollops of cream. So it went until he was a swan the size of a sailing ship, neck like the fire-quick salamander, and he raised his head up.
Scratch, he was near on his tower when that brilliant white fire came pouring out of her husband-to-be’s maw. The blackbird can’t be confused by light, given he has no eyes, but the heat, the flame, the roar of it all threw him back.
Laila, she climbed on her husband’s downy silver back and said, “Get on now. Quick as you can!”
Up they went, into a fierce storm, and the wind caught them and blew them ‘round and round, but that quicksilver bird beat his wings, harder, harder, all while the blackbird came hot on their tailfeathers, and up, and up, and up they went—
Ice cracked under their paddles, the wounded boat listing low in the water.
“And?” The soldier said. “Come on now. They fly right on back to the house, don’t they? Tell me they do, now.”
“Neh, neh,” the root-doctor said, “now I know the end of this story, for my mother used to say that every once in a while, in bright daylight, Laila passes before the sun on the great silver swan and dims the whole world, and a-body’ll hear the sweetest of music float on a sudden cold breeze. Then every so often, the shadow passes across the moon, chasing her and turns it red.”
“That is merely the phenomenon of the eclipse,” the preacher said. He didn’t offer his opinion but merely coughed into his elbow and his dark eyes flickered toward the ferryman. “But I will tell thee what I have seen, and the Watchmen witness me. As a poor child, I was caught out alone in the mother of storms, lost in a wood in a torrent of wind and hail and lightning, I looked up, and among the bruised clouds I saw a great silver bird, winging hard, chased by one black as night.
“The birds flew high in that raging wind, and they went at each other like fighting cocks, once, twice, thrice. And in the fury, I saw one speck of gold fall, out of the reach of both.” He coughed again, a deep, wracking thing that rattled his chest. “The tales tell true that she returned home, and raised her babes, but no more song was heard, for the fiddle was lost in the journey out of the shadow’s realm. The day I saw such, I dedicated my life to the Watchman, in hopes that His Gaze would light the way to the fiddle. Up and down the rivers I have gone, preaching, yes, but also searching. But I would not use an hireling, and thee I brought with me because of the desire of thine own hearts.”
Silence then, save for the water.
Till the ferryman whooped with joy. “I touched bottom! I knew this ice was getting a bit too thick! Keep breaking it out now, we ain’t far from the western bank.”
Sure enough, smashing apart the ice that crowded the bank, they finally came to a halt, on a muddy islet thick with frosted trees joined to the mainland by solid ice they could walk over. The four, lit now only by the warm golden fiddle, made their way up the western bank, through snags and drifts of old snow, till they hit upon a footpath.
The footpath led right to a little traveler’s hut. The gray light of dawn lit the place up as they opened the snug door and found it well-stocked with good dry wood and kindling. The root-doctor wasted no time getting a fire roaring with a bit of the lamp-oil she kept in a pocket, and they stuck the preacher in front of the fire, being as his whole bottom half was ice. She wrestled his shirt off and spread camphor and cottonwood oil on his bared chest against his wheezing protest.
The dawn was long in coming, and when it did the sky was dull dirty white from one side of the river to other. So the four huddled in, laughed and joked as they finally got warm, and the fiddle lay, for the moment, forgotten on a bundle of dirty blankets.
The fire threw overlapping shadows against the wall, making the root-doctor look like a mountain, the preacher like a great pillar, the soldier like a rock, and...
“Ho now, ferryman,” the soldier said, “when you move, your own shadow there, why it looks funny, just like you got a big old pair of wings.”
The preacher and the root-doctor went silent.
And then the soldier stopped his smile.
The ferryman hadn’t answered. Only turned to look at them, and they all realized something. All the night, the ferryman’d worn that hat, jammed down so hard that none of them ever met his gaze. None of them got a good look at his face, not even when his hat came off in the water, though surely they’d felt him looking on them.
Now each one took a peek look at the space just under the brim of the hat.
Couldn’t rightly say what was in that emptiness under the hat’s brim.
But it weren’t eyes.
“We never left the river, did we?” the preacher gasped. “Oh, God save, we are at the bottom of the black water.”
“This was where we was coming eventually,” the root-doctor said. “With that fiddle, I knew he’d be after us. How I wanted to see her, to have her tell me of my people.”
“Oh God, I wanted to hear her voice again,” the soldier said.
“Peace,” the ferryman said, and his voice now was like the winter wind slipping through the planks of the shelter. “You’re exactly where you think you are, and your bodies warm and safe.”
“Shadow, you can’t take us outside our time—”
“Oh, I could argue with that,” the ferryman said. “I know what you did, on the far bank, to get that fiddle, you who speak of war as if you have no part in blood. You, soldier, put a load of buckshot through a window into the governor’s head. I ate his wicked heart right up. You, root-doctor, you were free with a potion that left the guards cold. I know, for those guards slid right down my throat. And you, preacher, you’re as guilty as they, for you made the distraction, preaching up a storm for fine folk while the others did the dark work. The river, she told me, when I leaned out. She whispered, come on now, they’ve earned their place in your belly, won’t you and I work together now, drag them down to an icy death?”
The hut rang with the shadow’s words, the fire not even daring to crackle.
“You... you saying you can take us, shadow?” the soldier said.
“Old stories, those you told.” The three moved not a muscle, but the ferryman, creaking and groaning, shifted his seat to get comfortable. “Those stories been told every which way folk can tell them. I heard them about a golden lyre, when men first made words in clay on the bare bank of a river. I heard them about a golden harp, from men who dressed in bright armor to go die for their sins. The men of this river, for thousands of years, would paddle canoes north to trade wild rice for mammoth hides and tell those stories about a hand-drum.” As he spoke, it seemed that each of them saw the fiddle a little differently, as though its light showed through water. It could have been any instrument. Anything alive.
“Always there’s a little goblin who makes the deal. Always there’s children made orphans by the hatred of men one to another. And always I make my big mistake and go after a man weren’t mine to take yet. But I tell you what, preacher, soldier, wise woman—that’s the best I heard those stories told, since the first days.” A strange fondness came into his tone. “I suppose that’s why I fought the river.”
Silence ruled the hut, until finally the preacher ventured a shaking sentence. “Shadow, thy belly is full of the war, and a new feast to come every day. Only let us go, to find the fiddler and give men some hope before they look down your gullet.”
The ferryman chuckled. “Oh right. I forgot, that was the end of finding the thing, weren’t it?” He sat, and for a moment, excepting the strange empty place where eyes should be, he still could’a passed for just another old river-man. “Let me tell you a story. It’s a quick one, and not one of the great three.
“When I was younger, I couldn’t see past how damned hungry I was. I went about stuffing my gobbet from disease and war and famine. I remember her, just enough, the real her. I remember how clever was her smile, and how quick her hand to play. And she, bless her, she denied me my hunger and she lived to a ripe old age, till her babes were all old themselves and she was a grandmother and great-grandmother many times over.
“Finally, I smell me a death I’d waited for, and I come winging as fast as I know how. She says shadow, my time’s come at last. And she steps out to meet me on a road of cold white sand... and her hands empty!
“Where’s my fiddle, says I? You didn’t bring me that fiddle? I been waiting on it, I says!
“She laughs at me again, like we’re old friends. Shadow, I kept it fine-tuned and the wood polished and it still sings, and my grandson—or maybe that’s my great-grandson, can’t keep ‘em straight no more, but I know he comes of my runt’s line—well, he plays even better than I did, going to husking bees and lord’s parties both.
“I fumed up a thunderhead. I hated that thing, I said, and I wanted it quiet forever, I wanted it in my lair, I want, I want, I says...
“Listen up, shadow, she says. This is my time, and I go to you gladly. But music, that’s a thing you can’t eat. Stories and songs, they push back the darkness. That’s the way of it.
“It’s been many long years since she and I had that talk.” He sighed, put his elbows on his knees and his chin on his fists like someone with a case of the melancholy. “I’m still hungry. I can eat a whole battlefield of dead and go for another helping. Tis my nature. But the truth is, I don’t hate that fiddle because I can’t eat its song, not no more. I found, much to my confoundation, once she was gone, I missed it.
“So when I can manage it, I run this ferryboat, and every passenger I take across, I ask for a song or a story.” He chuckled. “I ate every expiring body since old Sun sprouted the forests, and I’m still hungry. I can’t eat the songs and stories, yet they make me full. Ain’t that a thing?”
“She is really gone. We cannot hear her play that sweet song that saves the soul,” the preacher said, and started to weep.
“No hope,” the soldier said.
The root-doctor buried her head in her dirt-stained hands and wept.
“Now that’s right nonsense,” the ferryman said. “You want hope? You can sing and play as well as she. The fiddle molds to the hand, friends, and the songs to the singer. You just got to find a song about hope in you.” He reached for the root-doctor’s hands, and despite the cold of his spindly grasp, she let him hold her fingers. “Is it so far-fetched, to think that you could find a bit of hope in you? Why, what’s the point of going from birth to... to me, without a song of hope all your own?”
The three looked between each other, and the soldier wrinkled up his scarred face and said, “Preacher, I’m a sinner through and through, but you think the Lord will forgive me long enough to saw out one pure tune?” He held up his marred hand. “If it does mold to the hand...”
The preacher said, tears streaming down his cheeks. “I hope to hear thee try.”
“For my mother, and my mother’s mother,” the root-doctor said.
The soldier awkwardly tucked the fiddle under his chin and tuned it laborious with one hand, setting his one good left finger on the neck and the bow in his right hand. He cocked his head, made a dedication. “To filling you up, ferryman.”
The ferryman nearly squawked with joy, but he settled for resting back on his tailfeathers. Wouldn’t do to show his excitement at hearing the fiddle played again.
What the soldier played, how they parted from the ferryman, their long road to a castle of silver cloud where they could find forgiveness, and the ragged quest to make that fiddle heard in the hollows of the earth, that we could talk of, we surely could. Yes, there’s other ways to end this, but this time we’re going to end it here.