Ten for the Devil
"Are you sure you want off here?"
"Here" was in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt county road somewhere between Tyson and Highway 14. Driving along this twisty back road, Butch Crickman's pickup hadn't passed a single house for the last mile and a half. If he kept on going, he wouldn't pass another one for at least a mile or so, except for the ruin of the old Lindy farm and that didn't count, seeing as how no one had lived there since the place burned down ten years ago.
Staley smiled. "Don't you worry yourself, Butch."
Opening the passenger door, she jumped down onto the dirt, then leaned back inside to grab her fiddle case.
"This is perfect," she told him. "Really."
"I don't know. Kate's not going to be happy when she finds out I didn't take you all the way home."
Staley took a deep breath of the clean night air. On her side of the road it was all Kickaha land. She could smell the raspberry bushes choking the ditches close at hand, the weeds and scrub trees out in the field, the dark rich scent of the forest beyond it. Up above, the stars seemed so close you'd think they were leaning down to listen to her conversation with Butch. Somewhere off in the distance, she heard a long, mournful howl. Wolf. Maybe coyote.
"This is home," she said. Closing the door, she added through the window, "Thanks for the ride."
Butch hesitated a moment longer, then sighed and gave her a nod. Staley stepped back from the pickup. She waited until he'd turned the vehicle around and started back, waited until all she could see was the red glimmer of his taillights through a thinning cloud of dust, before she knelt down and took out her fiddle and bow. She slung the case over her shoulder by its strap so that it hung across her back. Hoisting the fiddle and bow up above her shoulders, she pushed her way through the raspberry bushes, moving slowly and patiently so that the thorns didn't snag on her denim overalls.
Once she got through the bushes, the field opened up before her, ghostly in the starlight. The weeds were waist high, but she liked the brush of stem and long leaf against her legs, and though the mosquitoes quickly found her, they didn't bite. She and the bugs had an understanding-something she'd learned from her grandmother. Like her music.
The fiddle went up, under her chin. Tightening the frog on the bow, she pulled it across the strings and woke a sweet melody.
Butch and Kate Crickman owned the roadhouse back out on the highway where Staley sat in with the house band from time to time, easily falling into whatever style they were playing that night. Honky-tonk. Western swing. Old-timey. Bluegrass. The Crickmans treated her like an errant daughter, always worried about how she was doing, and she let them fuss over her some. But she played coy when it came to her living accommodations. They wouldn't understand. Most people didn't.
Home was an old trailer that used to belong to her grandmother. After Grandma died, Staley had gotten a few of the boys from up on the rez to move it from her parents' property on the outskirts of Tyson down here where it was hidden away in the deep woods. Strictly speaking, it was parked on Indian land, but the Kickaha didn't mind either it or her being here. They had some understanding with her grandmother that went way back--Staley didn't know the details.
So it was a couple of the Creek boys and one of their cousins who transported the trailer for her that winter, hauling it in from the road on a makeshift sled across the snowy fields, then weaving in between the older growth, flattening saplings that would spring back upright by the time spring came around again. There were no trails leading to it now except for the one narrow path Staley had walked over the years, and forget about a road. Privacy was absolute. The area was too far off the beaten track for hikers or other weekend explorers, and come hunting season anyone with an ounce of sense stayed out of the rez. Those boys were partial to keeping their deer, partridge, ducks and the like to themselves, and weren't shy about explaining the way things were to trespassers.
Round about hunting season Staley closed up the trailer and headed south herself. She only summered in the deep woods. The other half of the year she was a traveling musician, a city girl, making do with what work her music could bring her, sometimes a desert girl, if she traveled far enough south.
But tonight the city and traveling was far from her mind. She drank in the tall night sky and meandered her way through the fields, fiddling herself home with a music she only played here, when she was on her own. Grandma called it a calling-on music, said it was the fiddle sending spirit tunes back into the otherworld from which it had first come. Staley didn't know from spirit music and otherworlds; she just fancied a good tune played from the heart, and if the fiddle called up anything here, it was that. Heart music.
When she got in under the trees, the music changed some, took on an older, more resonant sound, long low notes that spoke of hemlock roots growing deep in the earth, or needled boughs cathedraling between the earth and the stars. It changed again when she got near the bottle tree, harmonizing with the soft clink of the glass bottles hanging from its branches by leather thongs. Grandma taught her about the bottle tree.
"I don't rightly know that it keeps unwelcome spirits at bay," she said, "but it surely does discourage uninvited visitors."
Up in these hills everybody knew that only witches kept a bottle tree.
A little farther on Staley finally reached the meadow that held her trailer. The trailer itself was half hidden in a tangle of vines, bookended on either side by a pair of rain barrels that caught spill-off from the eaves. The grass and weeds were kept trimmed here, not quite short enough to be a lawn, but not wild like the fields along the county road.
Stepping out from under the relative darkness cast by the trees, the starlight seemed bright in contrast. Staley curtsied to the scarecrow keeping watch over her little vegetable patch, a tall, raggedy shape that sometimes seemed to dance to her music when the wind was right. She'd had it four years now, made it herself from apple boughs and old clothes. The second summer she'd noticed buds on what were supposed to be dead limbs. This spring, the boughs had actually blossomed and now bore small, tart fruit.
She stood in front of it for a long moment, tying off her tune with a complicated knot of sliding notes, and that was when she sensed the boy.
He'd made himself a nest in the underbrush that crowded close up against the north side of her clearing-a goosey, nervous presence where none should be. Staley walked over to her trailer to lay fiddle and bow on the steps, then carefully approached the boy's hiding place. She hummed under her breath, a soothing old modal tune that had first been born somewhere deeper in the hills than this clearing. When she got to the very edge of her meadow, she eased down until she was kneeling in the grass, then peered under the bush.
"Hey, there," she said. "Nobody's going to hurt you."
Only it wasn't a boy crouching there under the bushes.
She blinked at the gangly hare her gaze found. It was undernourished, one ear chewed up from a losing encounter with some predator, limbs trembling, big brown eyes wide with fear.
"Well, now," Staley said, sitting back on her haunches.
She studied the animal for a long moment before reaching carefully under the branches of the bush. The rabbit was too scared or worn out--probably both--to do much more than shake in her arms when she picked it up. Standing, she cradled the little animal against her breast.
Now what did she do with it?
It was round about then she realized that she and the rabbit weren't alone, here in the clearing. Calling-on music, she thought and looked around. Called up the rabbit, and then something else, though what, she couldn't say. All she got was the sense that it was something old. And dangerous. And it was hungry for the trembling bundle of fur and bone she held cradled in her arms.
It wasn't quite all the way here yet, hadn't quite managed to cross over the way its prey had. But it was worrying at the fabric of distance that kept it at bay.
Staley had played her fiddle tunes a thousand times, here in her meadow. What made tonight different from any other?
"You be careful with this music," Grandma had told her more than once. "What that fiddle can wake in your chest and set you to playing has lived over there behind the hills and trees forever. Some of it's safe and pretty. Some of it's old and connects a straight line between you and a million years ago. And some of it's just plain dangerous."
"How do you know the difference?" she'd asked.
Grandma could only shake her head. "You don't till you call it up. That's why you need be careful, girl."
* * *
Staley Cross is about the last person I expect to find knocking on my apartment door at six A.M. I haven't seen her since Malicorne and Jake went away--and that's maybe three, four years ago now--but she looks about the same. Straw-colored hair cut short like a boy's, the heart-shaped face and those big green eyes. Still fancies those denim overalls, though the ones she's wearing over a white T-shirt tonight are a better fit than those she had on the last time I saw her. Her slight frame used to swim in that pair.
I see she's still got that old army surplus knapsack, hanging on her back, and her fiddle case is standing on the floor by her feet. What's new is the raggedy-ass rabbit she's carrying around in a cloth shopping bag, but I don't see that straightaway.
"Hey, William," she says when I open the door on her, my eyes still thick with sleep. "Remember me?"
I have to smile at that. She's not easy to forget, not her nor that blue fiddle of hers.
"Let's see," I say. "Are you the one who went skinny-dipping in the mayor's pool the night he won the election, or the one who could call up blackbirds with her fiddle?"
I guess it was Malicorne who told me about that, how where ravens or crows gather, a door to the otherworld stands ajar. Told me how Staley's blue spirit fiddle can play a calling-on music. It can call up the blackbirds and open that door, and it can call us to cross over into the otherworld. Or call something back to us from over there.
"Looks like it's not just blackbirds anymore," she tells me.
That's when she opens the top of her shopping bag and shows me the rabbit she's got hidden away inside. It looks up at me with its mournful brown eyes, one ear all chewed up, ribs showing.
"Sorry looking thing," I say.
"Where'd you find it?"
"Up yonder," she says. "In the hills. I kind of called him to me, though I wasn't trying to or anything." She gives me a little smile. "'Course I don't try to call up the crows either, and they still come with no nevermind."
I nod like I understand what's going on here.
"Anyway," she goes on. "The thing is, there's a boy trapped in there, under that fur and--"
"A boy?" I have to ask.
"Well, I'm thinking he's young. All I know for sure is he's scared and wore out and he's male."
"When you say boy …?"
"I mean a human boy who's wearing the shape of a hare. Like a skinwalker." She pauses, looks over her shoulder. "Did I mention that there's something after him?"
There's something in the studied casualness of how she puts it that sends a quick chill scooting up my spine. I don't see anything out of the ordinary on the street behind her. Crowsea tenements. Parked cars. Dawn pinking the horizon. But something doesn't set right all the same.
"Maybe you better come inside," I say.
I don't have much, just a basement apartment in this Kelly Street tenement. I get it rent-free in exchange for my custodian duties on it and a couple of other buildings the landlord owns in the area. Seems I don't ever have any folding money, but I manage to get by with odd jobs and tips from the tenants when I do a little work for them. It's not much, but it's a sight better than living on the street like I was doing when Staley and I first met.
I send her on ahead of me, down the stairs and through the door into my place, and lock the door behind us. I use the term "lock" loosely. Mostly it's the idea of a lock. I mean I'm pushing the tail end of fifty and I could easily kick it open. But I still feel a sight better with the night shut out and that flimsy lock doing its best.
"You said there's something after him?" I say once we're inside.
Staley sits down in my sorry excuse of an armchair--picked it out of the trash before the truck came one morning. It's amazing the things people will throw away, though I'll be honest, this chair's had its day. Still I figured maybe a used-up old man and a used-up old chair could find some use for each other and so far it's been holding up its end of the bargain. I pull up a kitchen chair for myself. As for the rabbit, he sticks his head out of the cloth folds of the shopping bag and then sits there on the floor looking from me to Staley, like he's following the conversation. Hell, the way Staley tells it, he probably can.
"Something," Staley says.
"What kind of something?"
She shakes her head. "I don't rightly know."
Then she tells me about the roadhouse and her friend dropping her off near home. Tells me about her walk through the fields that night and finding the rabbit hiding in the underbrush near her trailer.
"See, this calling-on's not something I do on purpose," she explains when she's taken the story so far. "But I got to thinking, if I opened some door to who knows where, well, maybe I can close it again, shut out whatever's chasing Mr. Rabbitskin here."
I raise my eyebrows.
"Well, I've got to call him something," she says. "Anyway, so I got back to playing my fiddle, concentrating on this whole business like I've never done before. You know, being purposeful about this opening doors business."
"And?" I ask when she falls silent.
"I think I made it worse. I think I let that something right out."
"You keep saying 'you think.' Are you just going on feelings here, or did you actually see something?"
"Oh, I saw something, no question there. Don't know what it was, but it came sliding out of nowhere, like there was a door I couldn't see standing smack in the middle of the meadow and it could just step through, easy as you please. It looked like some cross between a big cat and a wolf, I guess."
"What happened to it?" I ask.
She shakes her head. "I don't know that either. It ran off into the forest. I guess maybe it was confused about how it got to be here, and maybe even where here is and all. But I don't think it's going to stay confused. I got only the one look at its eyes and what I saw there was smart, you know? Not just human smart, but college professor smart."
"And so you came here," I say.
She nods. "I didn't know what else to do. I just packed my knapsack and stuck old Mr. Rabbitskin here in a bag. Grabbed my fiddle and we lit a shuck. I kept expecting that thing to come out of the woods while we were making our way down to the highway, but it left us alone. Then, when we got to the blacktop, we were lucky and hitched a ride with a trucker all the way down to the city."
She falls quiet again. I nod slowly as I look from her to the rabbit.
"Now don't get me wrong," I say, "because I'm willing to help, but I can't help but wonder why you picked me to come to."
"Well," she says. "I figured rabbit-boy here's the only one can explain what's what. So first we've got to shift him back into his human skin."
"I'm no hoodoo man," I tell her.
"No, but you knew Malicorne maybe better than any of us."
"Malicorne," I say softly.
Staley's story notwithstanding, Malicorne had to be about the damnedest thing I ever ran across in this world. She used to squat in the Tombs with the rest of us, a tall horsey-faced woman with-and I swear this is true-a great big horn growing out of the center of her forehead. You've never seen such a thing. Fact is, most people didn't, even when she was standing right smack there in front of them. There was something about that horn that made your attention slide away from it.
"I haven't seen her in a long time," I tell Staley. "Not since we saw her and Jake walk off into the night."
Through one of those doors that Staley and the crows called up. And we didn't so much see them go, as hear them, their footsteps changing into the sounds of hoofbeats that slowly faded away. Which is what Staley's getting at here, I realize. Malicorne had some kind of healing magic about her, but she was also one of those skin-walkers, change from something mostly human into something not even close.
"I just thought maybe you'd heard from her," Staley said. "Or you'd know how to get a hold of her."
I shake my head. "There's nobody you can talk to about it out there on the rez?"
She looks a little embarrassed.
"I was hoping I could avoid that," she says. "See, I'm pretty much just a guest myself, living out there where I do. It doesn't seem polite to make a mess like I've done and not clean it up on my own."
I see through what she's saying pretty quick.
"You figure they'll be pissed," I say.
"Well, wouldn't you be? What if they kicked me off the rez? I love living up there in the deep woods. What would I do if I had to leave?"
I can see her point, though I'm thinking that friends might be more forgiving than she thinks they'll be. 'Course, I don't know how close she is to the folks living up there.
I look down at the rabbit, who still seems to be following the conversation like he understands what's going on. There's a nervous look in those big brown eyes of his, but something smarter than you'd expect of an animal, too. I lift my gaze back up to meet Staley's.
"I think I know someone we can talk to," I say.
* * *
The way William had talked him up, Staley expected Robert Lonnie to be about two hundred years old and, as Grandma used to describe one of those old hound dogs of hers, full of piss and vinegar. But Robert looked to be no older than twenty-one, twenty-two--a slender black man in a pin-striped suit, small-boned and handsome, with long delicate fingers and wavy hair brushed back from his forehead. It was only when you took a look into those dark eyes of his that you got the idea he'd been a place or two ordinary folks didn't visit. They weren't so much haunted, as haunting; when he looked at you, his gaze didn't stop at the skin, but went all the way through to the spirit held in there by your bones.
They tracked him down in a small bar off Palm Street, found him sitting at a booth in the back, playing a snaky blues tune on a battered old Gibson guitar. The bar was closed and, except for a bald-headed white man drying beer glasses behind the bar, he had the place to himself. He never looked up when she and William walked in, just played that guitar of his, picked it with a lazy ease that was all the more surprising since the music he pulled out of it sounded like it had to come from at least a couple of guitars. It was a soulful, hurting blues, but it filled you with hope, too.
Staley stood transfixed, listening to it, to him. She felt herself slipping away somewhere, she couldn't say where. Everything in the room gave the impression it was leaning closer to him, tables, chairs, the bottles of liquor behind the bar, listening, feeling that music.
When William touched her arm, she started, blinked, then followed him over to the booth.
William had described Robert Lonnie as an old hoodoo man and Staley decided that even if he didn't know a lick of the kind of mojo she was looking for, he still knew a thing or two about magic-the musical kind, that is. Lord, but he could play. Then he looked up, his gaze locking on hers. It was like a static charge, that dark gaze, sudden and unexpected in its intensity, and she almost dropped her fiddle case on the floor. She slipped slowly into the booth, took a seat across the table from him and not a moment too soon since her legs had suddenly lost their ability to hold her upright. William had to give her a nudge before she slid farther down the seat to make room for him. She hugged her fiddle case to her chest, only dimly aware of William beside her, the rabbit in its bag on his lap.
The guitarist kept his gaze on her, humming under his breath as he brought the tune to a close. His last chord hung in the air with an almost physical presence and for a long moment everything in the bar held its breath. Then he smiled, wide and easy, and the moment was gone.
"William," he said softly. "Miss."
"This is Staley," William said.
Robert gave her considering look, then turned to William. "You're early to be hitting the bars."
"It's not like you think," William said. "I'm still going to AA."
"Good for you."
"Well," William said. "Considering it's about the only thing I've done right with my life, I figured I might as well stick with it."
"Uh-huh." Robert returned his attention to Staley. "You've got the look of one who's been to the crossroads."
"I guess," Staley said, though she had no idea what he meant.
"But you don't know who you met there, do you?"
She shook her head.
Robert nodded. "That's the way it happens, all that spooky shit. You feel the wind rising and the leaves are trembling on the trees. Next thing you know, it's all falling down on you like hail, but you don't know what it is."
"Um…" Staley looked to William for guidance.
"You've just got to tell him like you told me," William said.
But Robert was looking at the shopping bag on William's lap now.
"Who've you got in there?" he asked.
Staley cleared her throat. "We were hoping you could tell us," she said.
William lowered the cloth sides of the bag. The rabbit poked its head up, raggedy ear hanging down on one side.
Robert laughed. "Well, now," he said, gaze lifting to meet Staley's again. "Why don't you tell me this story of yours."
So Staley did, started again with Butch dropping her off on the country road near her trailer late last night and took the tale all the way through to when she got to William's apartment earlier this morning. Somewhere in the middle of it the barman brought them a round of coffee, walking away before Staley could pay him, or even get out a thanks.
"I remember that Malicorne," Robert said when she was done. "Now she was a fine woman, big horn and all. You ever see her anymore?"
William shook his head. "Not since that night she went off with Jake."
"Can you help me?" Staley asked.
Robert leaned back on his side of the booth. Those long fingers of his left hand started walking up the neck of his guitar and he picked with his right, soft, a spidery twelve-bar.
"You ever hear the story of the two magicians?" he asked.
Staley shook her head.
"Don't know what the problem was between them, but the way I heard it is they got themselves into a long-time, serious altercation, went on for years. In the end, the only way they were willing to settle it was to duke it out the way those hoodoo men do, working magic. The one'd turn himself into a 'coon, the other'd become a coonhound, chase him up some tree. That treed 'coon'd come down, 'cept now he's wearing the skin of a wildcat." Robert grinned. "Only now that coonhound, he's a hornet, starts in on stinging the cat. And this just goes on.
"One's a salmon, the other's an otter. Salmon becomes the biggest, ugliest catfish you ever saw, big enough to swallow that otter whole, but now the otter's a giant eagle, slashing at the fish with its talons. Time passes and they just keep at it, changing skins-big changes, little changes. One's a flood, the other's a drought. One's human, the other's a devil. One's night, the other's day.…
"Damnedest thing you ever saw, like paper-scissors-rock, only hoodoo man style, you know what I'm saying? Damnedest thing."
The whole time he talked, he picked at his guitar, turned the story into a talking song with that lazy drawl of his, mesmerizing. When he fell silent, it took Staley a moment or two to realize that he'd stopped talking.
"So Mr. Rabbitskin here," she said, "and that other thing I only caught half a glimpse of--you're saying they're like those two magicians?"
"Got the smell of it to me."
"And they're only interested in hurting each other?"
"Well, now," Robert told her. "That'd be the big thought on their mind, but you've got to remember that hoodoo requires a powerful amount of nourishment, just to keep the body up to fighting strength. Those boys'll be hungry and needing to feed--and I'm guessing they won't be all that particular as to what they chow down on."
Great, Staley thought. She shot the rabbit a sour look, but it wouldn't meet her gaze.
"Mr. Rabbitskin here," she said, "won't eat a thing. I've tried carrots, greens, even bread soaked in warm milk."
Robert nodded. "That'd tempt a rabbit, right enough. Problem is, what you've got here are creatures that are living on pure energy. Hell, that's probably all they are at this point, nothing but energy gussied up into a shape that makes sense to our eyes. They won't be eating food like we do. So far as that goes, the way they'd be looking at it, we probably are food, considering the kind of energy we've got rolling through us."
The rabbit, docile up to now, suddenly lunged out of William's lap and went skidding across the smooth floor, heading for the back door of the bar. William started after it, but Robert just shook his head.
never catch it now," he said.
"Are you saying that rabbit was feeding on me somehow?" William asked.
"I figure he was building up to it."
Staley stared in the direction that the rabbit had gone, her heart sinking. This whole situation was getting worse by the minute.
"So these two things I called over," she said. "They're the hoodoo men from your story? "
Robert shrugged. "Oh, they're not the same pair, but it's an old story and old stories have a habit of repeating themselves."
"Who won that first duel?" William asked.
"One of 'em turned himself into a virus and got the other too sick to shape a spell in reply, but I don't know which one. Doesn't much matter anyway. By the time that happened, the one was as bad as the other. Get into that kind of a state of mind and after a while you start to forget things like kindness, decency … the fact that other people aren't put here in this world for you to feed on."
Staley's heart sank lower.
"We've got to do something about this," she said. "I've got to do something. I'm responsible for whatever hurt they cause, feeding on people and all."
"Who says it's your fault?" Robert wanted to know.
"Well, I called them over, didn't I? Though I don't understand how I did it. I've been playing my music for going on four years now in that meadow and nothing like this has ever happened before."
Robert nodded. "Maybe this time the devil was listening and you know what he's like. He purely hates anybody can play better than him--'specially if they aren't obliged to him in some way."
"Only person I owe anything to," Staley said, "is my grandma and she was no devil."
"But you've been at the crossroads."
Staley was starting to understand what he meant. There was always
always something waiting to take advantage of you, ghosts and devils sitting there at the edge of nowhere where the road to what is and what could be cross each other, spiteful creatures just waiting for the chance to step into your life and turn it all hurtful. That was the trouble with having something like her spirit fiddle. It called things to you, but unless you paid constant attention, you forgot that it can call the bad as well as the good.
"I've been at a lot of places," she said.
"You ever played that fiddle of yours in one?"
"Not so's I knew."
"Well, you've been someplace, done something to get his attention."
"That doesn't solve the problem I've got right now." Robert nodded. "No, we're just defining it." "So what can I do?"
"I don't know exactly. Thing I've learned is, if you call up something bad, you've got to take up the music and play it back out again or it'll never go away. I'd start there."
"I already tried that and it only made things worse."
"Yeah, but this time you've got to jump the groove."
Staley gave him a blank look.
"You remember phonograph records?" Robert asked.
"Well, sure, though back home we mostly played tapes."
Robert started to finger his guitar again, another spidery twelve-bar blues.
"Those old phonograph records," he said. "They had a one-
track groove that the needle followed from beginning to end--it's like the habits we develop, the way we look at the world, what we expect to find in it, that kind of thing. You get into a bad situation like we got here and it's time to jump the groove, get someplace new, see things different." He cut the tune short before it could resolve and abruptly switched into another key. "Change the music. What you hear, what you play. Maybe even who you are. Lets you fix things and the added bonus is it confuses the devil. Makes it hard for him to focus on you for a time."
"Jump the groove," Staley repeated slowly.
Robert nodded. "Why don't we take a turn out to where you've been living and see what we can do?"
* * *
I call in a favor from my friend Moth who owns a junkyard up in the Tombs and borrow a car to take us back up to Staley's trailer. "Take the Chevette," he tells me, pointing out an old two-door that's got more primer on it than it does original paint. "The plates are legit." Staley comes with me, fusses over Moth's junkyard dogs like they're old pals, wins Moth over with a smile and that good nature of hers, but mostly because she can run through instrumental versions of a couple of Boxcar Willie songs. After that, so far as Moth's concerned, she can do no wrong.
"This guy Robert," she says when we're driving back to the bar to pick him up. "How come he's so fixed on the devil?"
"Well," I tell her. "The way I heard it, a long time ago he met the devil at a crossroads, made a deal with him. Wanted to be the best player the world'd ever seen. 'No problem,' the devil tells him. 'Just sign here.'
"So Robert signs up. Trouble is, he already had it in him. If he hadn't been in such a hurry, with a little time and effort on his part, he would've got what he wanted and wouldn't have owed the devil a damn thing."
Staley's looking at me, a smile lifting one corner of her mouth.
"You believe that?" she says.
"Why not? I believed you when you told me there was a boy under the skin of that rabbit."
She gives me a slow nod.
"So what happened?" she asks.
"What? With Robert? Well, when he figured out he'd been duped, he paid the devil back in kind. You can't take a man's soul unless he dies, and Robert, he's figured out a way to live forever."
I watch Staley's mouth open, but then she shakes her head and leaves whatever she was going to say unsaid.
" s;Course," I go on, "it helps to stay out of the devil's way, so Robert, he keeps himself a low profile."
Staley shakes her head. "Now that I can't believe. Anybody hears him play is going to remember it forever."
"Well, sure. That's why he doesn't play out."
"I'm not saying he keeps his music to himself. You'll find him sitting in on a session from time to time, but mostly he just plays in places like that bar we found him in today. Sits in a corner during the day when the joint's half empty and makes music those drunks can't ever forget-though they're unlikely to remember exactly where it was that they heard it."
"That's so sad."
I shrug. "Maybe. But it keeps the devil at bay."
Staley's quiet for a while, doesn't say much until we pull into the alley behind the bar.
"Do you believe in the devil?" she asks before we get out of the car.
"Everybody's got devils."
"No, I mean a real devil-like in the Bible."
I sit for a moment and think on that.
"I believe there's good in the world," I tell her finally, "so yeah. I guess I've got to believe there's evil, too. Don't know if it's the devil, exactly--you know, pointy horns, hooves and tail and all--but I figure that's as good a name as any other."
"You afraid of him?"
"Hell Staley. Some days I'm afraid of everything. Why do you think I spent half my life looking for oblivion in a bottle?" "What made you change?"
I don't even have to think about that.
"Malicorne," I tell her. "Nothing she said or did--just that she was. I guess her going away made me realize that I had a choice: I could either keep living in the bottom of a bottle, and that's not living at all. Or I could try to experience ordinary life as something filled with beauty and wonder--you know, the way she did. Make everyday something special."
Staley nods. "That's not so easy."
"Hell, no. But it's surely worth aiming for."
* * *
William drove, with Staley riding shotgun and Robert lounging in the back, playing that old Gibson of his. He worked up a song about their trip, a sleepy blues, cataloguing the sights, tying them together with walking bass lines and bottleneck solos. Staley had made this drive more times than she could count, but all those past trips were getting swallowed by this one. The soundtrack Robert was putting to it would forever be the memory she carried whenever she thought about leaving the city core and driving north up Highway 14, into the hills.
It took them a couple of hours after picking Robert up at the bar to reach that stretch of county road closest to Staley's trailer. The late afternoon sun was in the west, but still high in the summer sky when Staley had William pull the Chevette over to the side of the road and park.
"Can we just leave the car like this?" William asked.
Staley nodded. "I doubt anybody's going to mess with it sitting here on the edge of Indian land."
She got out and stretched, then held the front seat up against the dash so that Robert could climb out of the rear. He kicked at the dirt road with his shoe and smiled as a thin coat of dust settled over the shiny patent leather. Leaning on the hood of the car, he cradled his guitar against his chest and looked out across the fields, gaze tracking the slow circle of a hawk in the distance.
"Lord, but it's peaceful out here," he said. "I could listen to this quiet forever."
"I know what you mean," Staley said. "I love to travel, but there's nowhere else I could call home."
William wasn't as content. As soon as he got out of the car, a half-dozen deerflies dive-bombed him, buzzing round and round his head. He waved them off, but all his frantic movement did was make them more frenzied.
"What's the matter with these things?" he asked.
"Stop egging them on--all it does is aggravate them."
"Yeah, right. How come they aren't in your face?"
"I've got an arrangement with them," Staley told him.
They weren't bothering Robert either. He gave the ones troubling William a baleful stare.
"'Predate it if you'd leave him alone," he told them.
They gave a last angry buzz around William's head, then zoomed off down the road, flying like a fighter squadron in perfect formation. William followed their retreat before turning back to his companions.
"Nice to see some useful hoodoo for a change," he said.
Robert grinned. "It's all useful--depending on which side of the spell you're standing. But that wasn't hoodoo so much as politeness. Me asking, them deciding to do what I asked."
Robert ignored him. "So where's this trailer of yours?" he asked Staley.
"Back in the woods--over yonder."
she led them through the raspberry bushes and into the field. Robert started up playing again and for the first time since they'd met, Staley got the itch to join him on her fiddle. She understood this music he was playing. It talked about the dirt and crushed stone on the county road, the sun warm on the fields, the rasp of the tall grass and weeds against their clothes as they walked in single file towards the trees. Under the hemlocks, the music became all bass and treble, roots and high boughs, the midrange set aside. But only temporarily.
When they reached the bottle tree, Staley glanced back. William gave the hanging bottles a puzzled look, but Robert nodded in apparent approval. His bottleneck slide replied to the clink of glass from the bottle tree, a slightly discordant slur of notes pulled off the middle strings of the Gibson.
The bluesman and Grandma would've got along just fine, she decided.
Once they came out from under the trees, they could walk abreast on the shorter grass. Robert broke off playing when Staley gave her scarecrow a little curtsey by way of greeting.
"How well do you know that fellow?" he asked.
Staley smiled. "About four years--ever since I put him up."
"The clothes were yours?"
"And you collected the wood for his limbs?"
She nodded again. "Why are you asking all these questions?"
"Because he's halfway alive."
"You mean the branches sprouting?"
"No, I mean he's got the start of an individual spirit, growing there in the straw and applewood."
Staley regarded the scarecrow in a new light. Now that it had been pointed out, she could feel the faint pulse of life in its straw breast. Sentient life, not quite fully formed, but hidden there as surely as there'd been a boy hidden in the raggedy hare she'd lost in the city.
"But, how…?" she began, her voice trailing off.
Robert turned in a slow circle, taking in the whole of the meadow. Her trailer, the vegetable garden.
"You've played a lot of music in here," he said. "Paid a lot of attention to the rhythms of the meadow, the forest, how you and your belongings fit into it. It's got so's you've put so much hoodoo in this place I'm surprised you only ever called over those two feuding spirits."
William nodded. "Hell, even I feel something."
Staley did, too, except it was what she always felt when she was here.
"I thought it was home I was feeling," she said.
"It is," Robert said. "But you've played it up so powerful it's no wonder the devil took notice."
Staley shot a glance at her scarecrow, which made Robert smile.
"Oh, he's more subtle than that," he told her. "He's going to come up at you from the backside, like pushing through a couple of feuding spirits to wreck a little havoc with the things you love." He gave her fiddle case a considering look. "You know what you've got to do."
Staley sighed. "Jump the groove."
"That's right. Break the pattern. Don't give the devil something he can hold on to. Nothing's easier to trip a body up than habits and patterns. Why do you think the Gypsy people consider settling down to be so stressful? Only way they can rest is by traveling."
"You're saying I should go? That I've got to leave this place?"
Robert raised an eyebrow. "You a Romany girl now?"
"Then find your own groove to jump."
Staley sighed again. Intellectually, she understood what Robert was getting at. But how to put it into practice? She played the way she played because…well, that was the way she played. Especially here, in this place. She took the music from her surroundings, digging deep and deeper into the relationships between earth and sky, forest and meadow, her trailer and the garden and the tattered figure of the scarecrow watching over it all. Where was she supposed to find a music still true to all of this, but different enough to break the pattern of four summers immersed in its quiet joys and mysteries?
"I don't know if I can do it," she said.
"You can try," Robert told her.
"I suppose. But what if I call something worse over?"
"You didn't call anything over. Those spirits were sent."
Staley shook her head. "This fiddle of Grandma's plays a calling-on music--I can hear it whenever I play."
"I don't deny that," Robert said. "But you've got to put some intent into that call, and from what you've been telling me, you didn't intend to bring anything over last night."
"So when those blackbirds gather to her fiddling," William said, "it's because she's invited them?"
Robert shrugged. "Crows and ravens are a whole different circumstance. They live on the outside of where we are and they learned a long time ago how to take advantage of the things we do, making their own hoodoo with the bits and pieces we leave behind."
That made sense to Staley. She'd never deliberately called up the blackbirds, but they came all the same. Only not here. That was why she'd always thought it was safe to play whatever she wanted around the trailer. She'd see them from time to time, mostly going after her garden, or sneaking off with a bit of this or that for their nests, but they didn't gather here. The closest roost was out by the highway.
She glanced at Robert to find his gaze on her, steady but mild. She wanted to say, How do I know the devil's not being so subtle that he's persuading me through you? But they'd been talking long enough. And whatever else Robert was, she doubted he was the devil.
Kneeling on the grass, she cracked open her fiddle case. Took out her bow, tightened the frog, rosined the hairs. Finally she picked up the blue spirit fiddle her grandmother had given her and stood up again. She ran a finger across the strings. The E was a touch flat. She gave its fine-tuner a twist, and tried again. This time all four strings rang true.
"Here goes nothing," she said, bringing the fiddle up under her chin.
"Not like that," Robert told her. "Dig a little with your heart before you start in on playing. You can't jump the groove until you know where it's at."
True, she thought.
William gave her an encouraging nod, then walked over to the trailer and sat down on the steps. After a moment Robert joined him, one hand closed around the neck of his guitar, damping the strings.
Staley took a breath and let it out, slow. She held the fiddle in the crook of her arm, bow dangling from her index finger, and closed her eyes, trying to get a feel of where the meadow was today, how she fit into it. She swayed slightly where she stood. Toe on heel, she removed one shoe, then the other, digging through the blades of grass with her bare toes until she was in direct contact with the earth.
What do I hear? she thought. What do I feel?
Woodpecker hammering a dead tree limb, deeper in the woods. The smell of grass rising up from by her feet. Herbs from the garden, mint, basil, thyme. The flutter and sweet chirps of chickadees and finches. A faint breeze on her cheek. The soft helicopter approach of a hummingbird, feeding on the purple bergamot that grew along the edge of the vegetable and herb beds. The sudden chatter of a red squirrel out by the woodpile. Something crawling across her foot. An ant, maybe. Or a small beetle. The hoarse croak of a crow, off in the fields somewhere. The sun, warm on her face and arms. The fat buzz of a bee.
She knew instinctively how she could make a music of it all, catch it with notes drawn from her fiddle and send it spiraling off into the late afternoon air. That was the groove Robert kept talking about. So where did she go to jump it?
The first thing she heard was what Robert would do, bottleneck slides and bass lines, complicated chord patterns that were both melody and rhythm and sounded far simpler than they were to play. But while she could relate to what his take would be--could certainly appreciate it and even harmonize with it--that music wasn't hers. Following that route wouldn't be so much jumping her own groove as becoming someone else, being who they were, playing the music they would play.
She had to be herself, but still play with a stranger's hand. How did a person even begin to do that?
She concentrated again on what this place meant to her, distilling the input of sounds and smells and all to their essence. What, she asked herself, was the first thing she thought of when she came back here in the spring from her winter wanderings? She called up the fields in her mind's eye, the forest and her meadow, hidden away in it, and it came to her.
Buds on the trees and new growth pushing up through the browned grasses and weeds that had died off during the winter. The first shoots of crocuses and daffodils, fiddlehead ferns and trilliums growing in the forest shade.
She came here to immerse herself in a green world. Starting in April when the color was but a vague hue brushing the landscape through to deep summer when the fields and forest ran riot with verdant growth. Come September when the meadows browned and the deciduous trees began to turn red and gold and yellow, that was when she started to pack up the trailer, put things away, ready her knapsack, feet itchy to hit the road once more.
Eyes still closed, she lifted her fiddle back up under her chin. Pulling her bow across the strings, she called up an autumn music. She put into it deer foraging in the cedars. Her scarecrow standing alone, guarding the empty vegetable and herb beds. Geese flying in formation overhead. Frosts and naked tree limbs. Milkweed pods bursting open and a thousand seeds parachuting across the fields. Brambles that stuck to the legs of your overalls.
She played music that was brown and yellow, faded colors and grays. It was still this place. It was still her. But it was a groove she didn't normally explore with her music. Certainly not here. This was her green home. A green world. But all you had to do was look under the green to see memories of the winter past. A fallen tree stretched out along the forest floor, moss-covered and rotting. A dead limb poking through the leaves of a tree, the one branch that didn't make it through the winter. The browned grass of last autumn, covered over by new growth, but not mulch yet.
And it wasn't simply memories. There were shadowings of the winter to come, too, even in this swelter of summer and green. She wasn't alone in her annual migrations south, but those that remained were already beginning their preparations. Foraging, gathering. The sunflowers were going to seed. There were fruits on the apple trees, still green and hard, but they would ripen. The berry bushes were beginning to put forth their crop. Seeds were forming, nuts hardening.
It was another world, another groove.
She played it out until she could almost feel a change in the air--a crispness, dry and bittersweet. Opening her eyes, she turned to look at the trailer. Is this what you meant? she wanted to ask Robert. But he wasn't there. She took bow from strings and stood there, silent, taking it all in.
Robert and William were gone, and so was the summer. The grass was browned underfoot. The fruit and leaves from her scarecrow's apple limbs were fallen away, the garden finished for the year.
What had she done now? Called up the autumn? Lost a few months of her life, standing here in her meadow, playing an unfamiliar music?
Or had she called herself away?
She knew nothing of the otherworld except for what people had told her about it. Grandma. Malicorne. A man named Rupert who lived in the desert, far to the south. Beyond the fact that spirits lived there who could cross over into our world, everything they had to say about the place was vague.
Right now, all she knew was that this didn't feel like her meadow so much as an echo of it. How it might appear in the other-world.
The place where the spirit people lived and her fiddle had come from.
Grandma had told her it was a place sensible people didn't go. Rupert had warned her that while it was easy to stray over into it, it wasn't so easy to leave behind once you were there.
How could this have happened? How--
Movement startled her. She took a step back as a hare came bounding out of the woods to take refuge under her trailer. A moment later a large dog burst into the meadow, chasing it. The dog rushed the trailer, bending low and growling deep in its chest as it tried to fit itself into the narrow space. Giving a sudden yelp, it scrabbled away as a rattler came sliding out from under the trailer. The snake took a shot at the dog, but the dog had changed into a mongoose, shifting so fast Staley never saw it happen. The mongoose's teeth clamped on the rattler, but it, too, transformed, becoming a boa constrictor, fattening, lengthening, forcing the mongoose's jaws open, wrapping its growing length around the smaller mammal's body, squeezing.
Staley didn't need a lot of considering time to work out what was going on here. Maybe she'd fiddled herself over into the other-world, but it was obvious that also she'd pulled those two hoodoo men along with her when she'd come.
"Hey, you!" she cried.
The animals froze, turned to look at her. She was a little surprised that they'd actually stopped to listen to her.
"Don't you have no sense?" she asked them. "What's any of this going to prove?"
She looked from one to the other, trapped by the dark malevolence in their eyes and suddenly wished she'd left well enough alone. What business of hers was it if they killed each other? She'd gotten them back here where they belonged. Best thing now was that they forgot she ever existed.
For a long moment she was sure that wasn't going to happen. It was like playing in a bar when a fight broke out at the edge of the stage. The smart musician didn't get involved. She just stepped back, kept her instrument safe, and let them work it out between themselves until the bouncer showed up. Trouble was, there was no bouncer here. It was just the three of them and she didn't even have a mike stand she could hit them with.
She didn't know what she'd have done if they'd broken off their own fight and come after her. Luckily, she didn't have to find out. The mongoose became a sparrow and slipped out of the snake's grip, darting away into the forest. A half second later a hawk was in pursuit and she was on her own again. At least she thought she was.
A low chuckle from behind her made her turn.
The newcomer looked like he'd just stepped down out of the hills, tall and lean, a raggedy hillbilly in jeans and a flannel shirt, cowboy boots on his feet. There were acne scars on his cheeks and he wore his dark hair slicked back in a ducktail. His eyes were the clearest blue she could ever remember seeing, filled with a curious mix of distant skies and good humor. He had one hand in his pocket, the other holding the handle of a battered, black guitar case.
"You ever see such foolishness?" he asked. "You think they'd learn, but I reckon they've been at it now for about as long as the day is wide."
Staley liked the sound of his voice. It held an easygoing lilt that reminded her of her daddy's cousins who lived up past Hazard, deep in the hills.
She laughed. "Long as the day is wide?" she asked.
"Well, you know. Start to finish, the day only holds so many hours, but you go sideways and it stretches on forever."
"I've never heard of time running sideways."
"I'm sure you must know a hundred things I've never heard of."
"You new around here?" he asked.
Staley glanced back at her trailer, then returned her gaze to him.
"In a manner of speaking," she said. "I'm not entirely sure how I got here and even less sure as to how I'll get back to where I come from."
"I can show you," he told her. "But maybe you'd favor me with a tune first? Been a long time since I got to pick with a fiddler."
The thing that no one told you about the otherworld, Staley realized, is how everything took on a dreamlike quality when you were here. She knew she should be focusing on getting back to the summer meadow where Robert and William were waiting for her, but there just didn't seem to be any hurry about it.
"So what do you say?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I guess.…"
* * *
I'm already feeling a little dozy from the sun and fresh air when Staley begins to play her fiddle. It doesn't sound a whole lot different from the kinds of things she usually plays, but then what do I really know about music? Don't ask me to discuss it. I either like it or I don't. But Robert seems pleased with what she's doing, nodding to himself, has a little smile starting up there in the corner of his mouth.
I can see his left hand shaping chords on the neck of his guitar, but he doesn't strum the strings. Just follows what she's doing in his head, I guess.
I look at Staley a little longer, smiling as well to see her standing there so straight-backed in her overalls, barefoot in the grass, the sun glowing golden on her short hair. After a while I lean back against the door of the trailer again and close my eyes. I'm drifting on the music, not really thinking much of anything, when I realize the sound of the fiddle's starting to fade away.
"Shit," I hear Robert say.
I open my eyes, but before I can turn to look at him, I see Staley's gone. It's the damnedest thing. I can still hear her fiddling, only it's getting fainter and fainter like she's walking away and I can't see a sign of her anywhere. I can't imagine a person could run as fast as she'd have to to disappear like this and still keep playing that sleepy music.
When Robert stands up, I scramble to my feet as well.
"What's going on?" I ask him.
"She let it take her away."
"What do you mean? Take her away where?"
But he doesn't answer. He's looking into the woods and then I see them, too. A rabbit being chased by some ugly old dog. Might be the same rabbit that ran off on us in the city, but I can't tell. It comes tearing out from under the trees, running straight across the meadow toward us, and then it just disappears.
I blink, not sure I actually saw what I just saw. But then the same thing happens to the dog. It's like it goes through some door I can't see. There one minute, gone the next.
"Well, she managed to pull them back across," Robert says. "But I don't like this. I don't like this at all."
Hearing him talk like that makes me real nervous.
"Why?" I ask him. "This is what we wanted, right? She was going to play some music to put things back the way they were. Wasn't that the plan?"
He nods. "But her going over wasn't."
"I don't get it."
Robert turns to look at me. "How's she going to get back?"
"Same way she went away--right?"
He answers with a shrug and then I get a bad feeling. It's like what happened with Malicorne and Jake, I realize. Stepped away, right out of the world, and they never came back. The only difference is, they meant to go.
"She won't know what to do," Robert says softly. "She'll be upset and maybe a little scared, and then he's going to show up, offer to show her the way back."
I don't have to ask who he's talking about.
"But she'll know better than to bargain with him," I say.
"We can hope."
"We've got to be able to do better than that," I tell him.
"I'm open to suggestions."
I look at that guitar in his hands.
"You could call her back," I say.
Robert shakes his head. "The devil, he's got himself a guitar, too."
"I don't know what that means."
"Think about it," Robert says. "Whose music is she going to know to follow?"
* * *
The stranger laid his guitar case on the grass and opened it up. The instrument he took out was an old Martin D-45 with the pearl inlaid CD MARTIN logo on the headstock--a classic, prewar picker's guitar.
"Don't see many of those anymore," Staley said.
"They didn't make all that many." He smiled. "Though I'll tell you, I've never seen me a blue fiddle like you've got, not ever."
"Got it from my grandma."
"Well, she had taste. Give me an A, would you?"
Staley ran her bow across the A string of her fiddle and the stranger quickly tuned up to it.
"You ever play any contests?" he asked as he finished tuning.
He ran his pick across the strings, fingering an A minor chord. The guitar had a big rich sound with lots of bottom end.
"I don't believe in contests," Staley said. "I think they take all the pleasure out of a music."
"Oh, I didn't mean nothing serious. More like swapping tunes, taking turns till one of you stumps the other player. Just for fun, like."
"'Course to make it interesting," he added, "we could put a small wager on the outcome."
"What kind of wager would we be talking about here?"
Staley didn't know why she was even asking that, why she hadn't just shut down this idea of a contest right from the get-go. It was like something in the air was turning her head all around.
"I don't know," he said. "How about if I win, you'll give me a kiss?"
He shrugged. "And if you enjoy it, maybe you'll give me something more."
"And if I win?"
"Well, what's the one thing you'd like most in the world?"
Staley smiled. "Tell you the truth, I don't want for much of anything. I keep my expectations low--makes for a simple life."
"I'm impressed," he said. "Most people have a hankering for something they can't have. You know, money, or fame, or a true love. Maybe living forever."
"Don't see much point in living forever," Staley told him. "Come a time when everybody you care about would be long gone, but there you'd be, still trudging along on your own."
"Well, sure. But--"
"And as for money and fame, I think they're pretty much overrated. I don't really need much to be happy and I surely don't need anybody nosing in on my business."
"So what about a true love?"
"Well, now," Staley said. "Seems to me true love's something that comes to you, not something you can take or arrange."
"And if it doesn't?"
"That'd be sad, but you make do. I don't know how other folks get by, but I've got my music. I've got my friends."
The stranger regarded her with an odd, frustrated look.
"You can't tell me there's nothing you don't have a yearning for," he said. "Everybody wants for something."
"You mean for myself, or in general, like for there to be no more hurt in the world or the like?"
"For yourself," he said.
Staley shook her head. "Nothing I can't wait for it to find me in its own good time." She put her fiddle up under her chin. "So what do you want to play?"
But the stranger pulled his string strap back over his head and started to put his guitar away.
"What's the matter?" Staley asked. "We don't need some silly contest just to play a few tunes."
The stranger wouldn't look at her.
"I've kind of lost my appetite for music," he said, snapping closed the clasps on his case.
He stood up, his gaze finally meeting hers, and she saw something else in those clear blue eyes of his, a dark storm of anger, but a hurting, too. A loneliness that seemed so out of place, given his easygoing manner. A man like him, he should be friends with everyone he met, she'd thought. Except…
"I know who you are," she said.
She didn't know how she knew, but it came to her, like a gauze slipping from in front of her eyes, like she'd suddenly shucked the dreamy quality of the otherworld and could see true once more.
"You don't look nothing like what I expected," she added.
"Yeah, well, you've had your fun. Now let me be."
But something her grandmother had told her once came back to her. "I tell you," she'd said. "If I was ever to meet the devil, I'd kill him with kindness. That's the one thing old Lucifer can't stand."
Staley grinned, remembering.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Don't go off all mad."
The devil glared at her.
"Or at least let me give you that kiss before you go."
He actually backed away from her at that.
"What?" Staley asked. "Suddenly you don't fancy me anymore?"
"You put up a good front," he said. "I didn't make you for such an accomplished liar."
Staley shook her head. "I never lied to you. I really am happy with things the way they are. And anything I don't have, I don't mind waiting on."
The devil spat on the grass at her feet, turned once around, and was gone, vanishing with a small whuft of displaced air.
That's your best parting shot? Staley wanted to ask, but decided to leave well enough alone. She gave her surroundings a last look, then started up fiddling again, playing herself back into the green of summer where she'd left her friends.
* * *
Robert's pretty impressed when Staley just steps out of that invisible door, calm as you please. We heard the fiddling first. It sounded like it was coming from someplace on the far side of forever, but getting closer by the moment, and then there she was, standing barefoot in the grass, smiling at us. Robert's even more impressed when she tells us about how she handled the devil.
After putting her fiddle away, she boils up some water on a Coleman stove and makes us up a pot of herbal tea. We take it out through the woods in porcelain mugs, heading up to the top of the field overlooking the county road. The car's still there. The sun's going down now, putting on quite a show, and the tea's better than I thought it would be. Got mint in it, some kind of fruit.
"So how do I stop this from happening again?" Staley asks.
"Figure out what your music's all about," Robert tells her. "And take responsibility for it. Dig deep and find what's hiding behind the trees--you know, in the shadows where you can't exactly see things, you can only sense them--and always pay attention. It's up to you what you let out into the light."
"Is that what you do?"
Robert nodded. "'Course it's different for me, because we're different people. My music's about enduring. Perseverance. That's all the blues is ever about."
"What about hope?"
Robert smiled. "What do you think keeps perseverance alive?"
"Amen," I say.
After a moment, Staley smiles. We all clink our porcelain mugs together and drink a toast to that.
Copyright © 2002 by Charles de Lint