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The Red Fiddle

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    Curiosity is a dangerous word, but such a pretty one. So very inviting. Always tempting. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to temptation. Seen it more than most folks, that’s for sure. Not only seen it, though, but heard it , and that’s where the danger truly lies, as anyone who’s ever listened to a really good song can tell you. Musicians are something else. They’ve got some magic on their fingers, that drives even the most sane person to do some foolishness they’d never dream of otherwise. But I’m not talking about some random guy, here, about Jack-nobody and his guitar. No. The musician I’m describing is much, much more than that. And the things he could do...

You see, one day, this man showed up at the bar, and no one could take their eyes off him. And then he took this bright red fiddle, and made everyone forget that we hadn’t had good crops or good business for months, forget how tired everyone felt from fixing the roofs after the latest wind, forget everything bad. We danced, and drank, and laughed for who knows how long - a song? An hour? A week? - and then we clapped, and cheered, and asked him his name.

“You can call me Hale”.

And his voice was as pretty as him, almost as pretty as that of the fiddle. I caught myself smiling along with him, and so did everyone else, as we welcomed Hale into our hearts. At the end of the night, he took one of the girls by the hand - a lovely twenty-something, all giggles and curves -, whispered into her ear, bowed to the room, and they left together, to collective delight.

Next morning, the town was back to normal. Hale and the girl, however, were nowhere to be seen. Two days went by, than three. I worked my shifts at the same bar, and tended to my tiny land and half a dozen animals. As I finally had some extra milk and could make cheese, on the sixth day I wrapped one in cloth, and made my way to the girl’s house - her family usually bought my products, and I wanted news as much as anyone. They were all very polite, of course, while I was there. No, there were no news. Yes, she was still gone, and they believed she’d ran away with that handsome musician. Yes, they wanted cheese, thank you, Helen, you’re always so good to bring it personally. Yes, they’d be sure to stop by if there were any news, of course. Thanks again. Good bye.

One week after the disappearance, as I worked my shift, Hale showed up again, by himself, and again everyone was taken by him. The scene repeated itself: he’d let us admire him for a bit, than get his beautiful red fiddle, and proceed to play for some unknown time, taking all our minds away from anything that wasn’t him, his beauty, his music and the happiness he brought us. This time, as dawn was drawing near, it was the seamstress’ middle son that he took away with him - in his twenties, just like the first time, and just as lovely. Once again, everyone cheered the lad for his luck.

And, once again, day after day we waited, but no one came back during the whole week. The boy’s father stopped by the bar to ask for news of the fiddler every day, eyes tearstained and swollen, but we knew nothing. The family of the girl who had gone before was now desperate, not knowing what had happened to their daughter. The entire town united to try and help them, to hang posters around, to ask relatives in nearby villages, or simply to be kind however possible.

It didn’t matter how gloomy or hopeless, how downstruck we all felt before, the second Hale entered the bar, the only thing in anyone’s mind was him. Even after he left, week after week, taking one by one the youths from town, it was hard for us to think of him as guilty of more than being beautiful, tempting , as the seamstress put it.

 

***/***/***

 

I was the first to dare accusing Hale of any wrongdoing. Maybe it was the work at the bar, which meant being present to every single performance. Maybe it was just plain old cynicism. But the day my cousin knocked on my front door, looking tired and drained, asking to stay with me for a while, because their wife was taken, and the emptied house was just too depressing, something inside me snapped.

“Come inside, hon. And of course you can stay here, for as long as you need.”

“Thanks, Helen”.

I hugged them, and felt the whisper more than said it.

“Curse you, Hale, and your magic”.

My cousin looked up at me, eyes huge in surprise, head moving first as if to deny it, but finally settling in a resolute anger, and a nod.

“Yep. Curse you, Hale, and your bloody fiddle”.

 

    ***/***/***

 

After that, it became a saying, a curse to be uttered every so often. “Curse you, Hale, and your bloody fiddle”, or simply “curse your bloody fiddle”. People tried blocking his path to the bar, once, but he talked to each of the guards, laughed, flirted, and, by the time he got to the inside, they were part of his captive audience. Someone attempted hiding outside to follow him, but his song spread through town equally. No earplugs worked either, or cotton, or wax.

Two months had gone by, when the first body was found.

A lad went further than usual into the woods looking for his boyfriend, searching for a clue where people usually stayed clear of. Like most everyone here, all muddied and disturbed, the first place he entered was the bar, trembling like a twig on the wind, and clutching something inside a coat on his arms. The half a dozen patrons rushed over, and so did I, putting warm clothes on his back and trying to pry away whatever it was that made him so weary. In the process of passing between eager helpful hands, however, the bundled coat opened, and its contents fell to the floor, soon followed by the boy himself, dropping to his knees as we all stared in shock at the rotten hand and twisting maggots at our feet, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably with the sobs he’d held all the way there.

It turned out the hand belonged not to the lad’s boyfriend, but to the first girl, her mostly decomposed body still somewhat recognizable. Heavy of heart and soul, we combed the nearby wooded areas, finding the remains of the others, each in a different place, sometimes mostly in one piece, sometimes torn to shreds by wild beasts. My cousin’s wife was found in the center of a clearing, right hand cut off like with all others, belly bitten into by something and discoloured entrails pooled around her, eyes eaten by some bird or another. That day, I took home a couple of bottles from the bar, and we drained them to the last drop.

Meeting Hale after that became an even grimmer experience. Having our will completely drained from us, and falling in love with our murderer for the evening, only to scream and cry in pain, anger and frustration the next day, looking for his victims. After week ten went by, we found a new kind of death from the fiddler’s visits, in the form of the seamstress’ husband, found hanging in his study. Fear was rampant, with relatives, friends and lovers urging anyone in the age group that had been so strongly victimized to simply leave, taking horses and carriages from whomever necessary. And some did. But there were still crops on the fields, and animals that couldn’t be moved. Most of us had just enough to get by in a good year, and this had not been one of those. Some people on their twenties had young kids, or elderly relatives. Hell, I might not have anyone other than my cousin, but with the money I’d saved, the chances here with a maniac were better than starving in a nearby city.

What I did realize, though, between the twelfth and thirteenth weeks with no solution, were two things: the first was that my cousin was probably, objectively speaking, the loveliest prospect victim currently in town. The second, that a very, very small part of me finally managed to think near Hale. Those realizations didn’t come all at once, of course. After the performance was finished at the bar, and Hale left with victim number twelve (her hair curly and full, moving ever so gracefully as she waved), I looked around, smiling and laughing with everyone, still gleeful, and spoted my cousin dancing near the corner, tall and freckled, their movements swift and attuned with the song, their eyes sparkling. And Hale would be crazy not to choose them soon , I tought, and raised my glass.

So I gathered all my savings, packed my only horse with every useful thing that it could take, and sold the younger of my two cows (if there were tears, no one other than her saw them), adding the money to the pile. All that I gave to my cousin, not accepting their protests or words on the contrary. Their house had been rented, their worldly possessions were even less substantial than mine. In the end, I simply held their hands, allowing them to see exactly how worried I was.

“You’re next, Will. I’m sure of it. So, you’re gonna take all that, and just go. Don’t look back, don’t worry about anything other than following the road, and getting to a place where you’re safe, and settled. Then - and only then! - you find someone to send me a message. Ok?”

Tears were now running free as they clutched my hands like a lifeline, trying to keep the words steady.

“But.. But Helen… And you? What will you do?”

I lifted the corner of my mouth, faking a confidence that I didn’t have, saying the words I knew would make Lou go, even if by saying it I was committing to my own demise, regardless of it being, then, nothing but a lie.

“Well, hon, it’s high time someone kills that bastard, don’t you think?”

 

    ***/***/***

 

The thirteenth night came two days after Lou went away. Part of me was scared that Hale wouldn’t show up, that he’d somehow found my cousin on the road and gotten them anyway. Like clockwork, however, there he was, glorious as always, smiling his blinding smile, flirting with the world. For a second, nothing was changed on the routine: he’d come, we’d admire him, than he’d play, and after we’d all party until he chose his victim.

Blame it on the relief, blame it on the sentence uttered as a goodbye but, this time, instead of being paralyzed, in awe and blank of mind, the moment I saw him, the first thing I could think was good, Hale actually came! . So, I did what anyone would do when seeing someone they’re happy to have around, and waved.

The fiddler’s eyes focused on me, and he tilted his head, appraisingly, as he waved back with an even bigger smile. I considered winking, or flirting with him, but thought better of it. If I did so, there was a good chance he’d take me along at the end of the evening and, as brilliant as that seemed, what I was happy was in having him there. So, I should help him feel comfortable there, instead. Maybe he’d even stay for good? That would be the best thing ever.

As a debated within myself, things went back to normal. The red fiddle made its appearance and, while it was played, nothing else mattered. The things I’d been thinking fizzled out of existence, unimportant again. Only a couple of hours after he’d stopped did I start thinking again, serving drinks with the same fixed idea of keeping him there. Part of me was screaming, saying something I couldn’t understand, begging me to keep him where he was. To keep him there, and maybe to take a look at his fiddle…?

Before I could investigate this line of thought, and anything else could come of it, however, he started getting up, holding the hand of my boss’ kid, their pristine white hair always contrasting prettily against the wooden surfaces around. Without thinking, I lifted my hand towards him, as if asking to be taken along as well. He laughed, and everyone else along (me, included; how not to, when it was Hale laughing?).

“Next time, maybe. Today, milady, I’m already spoken for”.

He bowed, and the couple left. As per usual, it took about thirty minutes for the screams of joy to become those of despair, time enough for him to leave the town and disappear as if by magic. This day, I didn’t yell, or curse, or run straight to the woods. Instead, I walked, calmly, slowly, home, and planed Hale’s next visit.

 

    ***/***/***

 

When he showed up for the fourteenth and, I hoped, last time, my head was even clearer than the previous time. As everyone stared, I raised a glass to him, and drank from it, staring into his eyes. He raised an eyebrow as the smile once again grew, blood-red fiddle going to his hands, song filling the air. My objective, today, was not to make him feel at home. I wanted to be taken, to go with Hale. I didn’t want to be left behind again. So, all through the night, I danced with him, and touched his hair, and sat as close as possible. We drank, and flirted, and I sang. Nearing dawn, he put his arm around my waist, and whispered on my ear.

“Well, milady, you’ve done it today. Come with me to where music is born.”

And I took hold of his other hand myself, as we walked to the exit, hearing the chorus behind. The city was silent, but we talked about songs we liked, and about the events of that evening’s party, giggling like teenagers. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the compulsion to take his fiddle away from him was growing again, but I reined in, not wanting to spoil our date.

As we stepped out of the outskirts of town, and into the woods proper, I looked behind, quickly and out of curiosity at the sudden change in the wind, and saw no sign of any buildings or roads: there were nothing there but trees. Grinning, I looked back at him.

“And how did you do that?”

He laughed again, running a hand through my hair.

“Well, my dear, don’t you know by now? It’s magic. But, you have a smart mouth on you, don’t you? Most people don’t ask anything of me.”

More of my head was clear now, enough so that I could actually start remembering that, yes, I definitely needed him not to play that fiddle near me again. Enough that I could, be it a little, remember Lou leaving. Still, Hale was touching me, and his face was so beautiful, that I couldn’t imagine making him mad. I leaned in, slowly, drawing him close all the while, and told him in a whisper:

“There’s a lot of things this smart mouth knows how to do, not only talk. Want me to show you?”

He chuckled, and all the amusement in the universe dripped from his voice as he stepped away - not a lot, just enough for us to stop touching and for him to have better mobility as he reached back.

“God, I wish I could keep you. You’re way too fun for just one use. But my fiddle needs its food, milady, and I’ve only got you here…”

He took the instrument. From close, I could see that the colour wasn’t as lively as before, as if by playing some of the red had been stripped away. With the hand that wasn’t busy with it and the bow, he reached inside an inner coat pocket, drawing a, impossibly long and sharp knife, decorated like a dagger. Every time he looked into my eyes, the clarity I felt lessened. Hale looked at me again, ant took my right hand in his, placing it on the fiddle.

“Well, no point in dragging things, dear, is there? Hold this. Let’s start.”

Before he could do anything, I wrapped my arms around his waist and kissed him. He went from startled to passionate in an instant, allowing me my small victory. I started tugging at his coat, trying to remove it, and he let me, letting go of the bow, that fell to the ground, forgotten. I made it so that my left hand found naturally the one that had his knife, even as, still clutching the fiddle with the other, I gestured with the instrument for him to remove his shirt. For a second he seemed conflicted, looking at the knife on his hand, but I pressed my body closer to his, drawing a goan from him even as I spoke again.

“I’ll hold it for a second. You don’t want to cut yourself and get blood on those clothes, do you?”

It was enough. He handed me the knife, and pulled the bottom of the shirt up, intending to remove it up his head. All the time with my eyes closed, combined with this brief barrier, though, were what I needed. Finally free from his spell, quicker than I’d ever moved before, I stabbed him with his knife one, two, three, four times. As his arms went limp, and he tried to act, I kept on stabbing, frantic now, even after he fell. Fourteen times I stabbed him, until finally I stopped, breathing hard, as I felt something different from the fear and relief and desperation.

In my mindless state, I kept on holding the fiddle. Now, its bottom rested against the mess that had once been Hale’s chest. I watched as the wood sucked in the blood, renewing its colour once again, feeding on the life force of its former master. And I could feel the power resonating from it, inviting me to play, to take it for me. After all, what did I have to lose? And, if I did, they’d all love me unconditionally. They’d worship me, if so I wanted. All I had to do was touch the bow to the strings, and feed the fiddle when it got hungry. It was so very easy. No more struggling to get by, no more thin months when I had to count my food oh-so-carefully. And I just had to…

In a swift movement, I smashed the fiddle against the ground, hitting it again and again until its voice didn’t talk anymore. Just to be on the safe side, I jumped on it a few more times, and broke the bow in two. Red blood drained from the wood, that became gray and old. I strapped the knife to my waist, using some of his coat as a makeshift sheath. Than, and only than, I turned and started to make my way through the woods, looking for the path home and murmuring under my breath:

“Curse Hale’s bloody fiddle and curse the fiddle's bloody tongue.”