Those woods were the quietest I'd ever been in.
Often enough, when you're travelling alone and night is coming on, you wish the country was quieter, no dark slithery-shapes hopping and trembling the leaves just off the road. But this was a sad, unnatural quiet, without air bird to sing or dog to bark. I reached back and touched the silver strings of my guitar, but I found that the quiet had gotten inside me already—all strange and lonesome. I didn't want to play.
I was relieved when I hove in sight of a cabin, simple but stout-made, with a man standing out front whittling, and humming at his work, almost too quiet to be heard. He was short, with powerful forearms and a red face. As I got close, he started and hushed. Then his eye fell on me, and he looked relieved.
"Evening," I said.
"Evening, stranger," he answered me back. "What can I do for you tonight?"
I could see he was polite in the old country ways, though I'd surprised him, and I made my manners.
"I'm passing through to Earl's Hollow. I was hoping I could find a place to stretch myself out tonight. The woods are awful desolate in these parts."
He snorted to himself grimly. "That they are. What do you call yourself, stranger?"
"John," I named myself.
"Pleased to meet you, John. I'm Frank. Do you play that guitar, John?"
"I do, sometimes," I allowed, "but maybe not here. The place doesn't seem to relish music somehow."
He snorted again, closer to a laugh this time. "You'd be surprised." He studied at me a minute, then said, "You seem like decent enough folk, John. I'd be proud to make you up a pallet on my floor."
"Thank you kindly."
"And tomorrow I'll direct you so you can reach Earl's Hollow without running into ary trouble on the way."
"Trouble? Is there trouble here?"
"You already felt it, John," he said, turning away. "Come and have some supper."
Frank had nothing but beans to his supper, so I was glad to offer him a bit of fatback I had in my bag. It wasn't long before we were tucking in.
Frank didn't say much until the end of supper. As he laid his knife down, he said to me, "You look like you're still wondering at what the trouble is here."
"That's so," I allowed. "I don't like to see good folk heavy-laden with sorrows."
"I don't know how good I am," he said, "but there are sorrows enough here."
"It all started when Buck Gillon went courting Emmeline Hallis many years ago. Emmeline was a pretty enough girl, but it was her singing that was prettiest. A preacher might be hard-put to come up with words at a service sweeter than her voice singing a hymn after would be. Her voice was so sweet that she could do things with it—ease sick folks' pain, conjure lost cattle home, keep dark things in the woods away."
"I've heard of such things," I said. "Many old charms are set to tunes."
He nodded. "Emmeline was no witch, though—she was kind-hearted, if a bit free in her ways. Always ready to help a neighbor. Well, Buck Gillon was the handsomest young man hereabouts, and he'd had his heart set on her since they were both little. He was moody and set in his ways, and she kept him off for a time, but finally he won her. Only he didn't have her long—she died only a few years later."
"That's a right shame," I said, and I meant it. Not just for the family, though that too, but because I was always interested to hear old magic-lore, and old music, and to miss them both together was a pity.
"More than you know," he answered me. "Old Buck was broken up. Stayed close to home after that, and kept their little girl, Dorothea, just as close. Didn't welcome visitors any more. Plenty of folks in these parts have never even laid eyes on her, though she must be near eighteen now. But they've heard her voice. When she would go out into the woods to forage, she'd sing, just as sweet as her mamma. Maybe sweeter, because it was sadder. Many's the fellow who lost time listening to that voice far away."
I frowned. "You're talking like that time is past."
He sighed. "Yes. You see, there was somewhat that followed her in the woods all the time, listening."
A chill passed over me. "Somewhat? Not someone?"
"Some kind of spirit, that wasn't scared of Buck Gillon's shotgun," he said. "Or was less scared of it than it was longing after her voice. I reckon Miss Dorothea knew of it, and wasn't troubled by it, so lonesome was she for company. I'm sure it spoke her fair enough. But one day Buck saw her talking with it. He flew into a rage and forbade her to go out into the woods anymore. Only she slipped out that night, to bid farewell to the spirit—and it took her. Buck found her shawl on the ground. We think the spirit still haunts the valley, but these woods have never heard music again. I reckon the birds are mourning after her, and everything else."
"Do you think she's dead?"
"No, I think that spirit's still keeping her, all for himself. Anything pretty--trinkets, ribbons, even shiny buttons, anything that it might pleasure a lady to have--that's left unwatched around here disappears. And there's no thief in these parts."
I stood up. "Then I think I'll pay her a call."
He rose quickly, too. "I was worried you might say that, John. No one who's gone looking for that spirit has come back with sense in his head. Buck Gillon promised that whoever brought her back could marry her, and a few brave young lads here have tried. They haven't fared well."
"Nonetheless," I said, "I'd like to speak to her. I'm a hearkener after old tunes, and her mother must have taught her a great many."
"At least wait til morning," he said, "so you won't have much to fear besides the spirit."
"That's a thought," I conceded.
Frank made me up a pallet on the floor, right comfortable to a man who'd slept on the ground for a week. And so we went to sleep, me by the threshold, guitar by my hand. It'd never seemed so lifeless in my fingers before.
I set out the next morning towards Buck Gillon's place. I figured the spirit couldn't be living too far from there.
"But how will you find him if he doesn't want to be found, John?" Frank asked me.
"I'll just see where the trail leads me," I said, not to worry him. But my plan was different. As soon as I was too far from Frank's cabin for him to hearken to me, I took down my guitar and began playing as I strolled. I started with "Vandy, Vandy," and right away I could feel a caution laid on my fingers and my lips. All I had to do was head in the direction I could feel the force coming from.
It was like walking into a strong wind. My throat choked up with sadness and my fingers got slow with despair. It cast my mind back to the war, the things I'd seen there, the way I'd felt when first I came home. But I kept playing, just the way I had in those days, "The Desrick on Yandro" and "The House Carpenter."
"'O what a black, dark hill is yon, That looks so dark to me?'" I sang as I pushed through some thick undergrowth, so low it was like whispering. "'O it is the hill—'"
My voice stopped dead as I stepped out into a clearing before a little house. It was solid enough made, but the wood was bleached pale as bones, and the windows all had glass to them, but glass that looked like it'd been shattered in place and glittered harshly even though there wasn't any sun. The house was surrounded by rambly flower-bushes, like roses gone to ruin. I laid my palm against the strings of my guitar, but they had already gone still.
"Hello, the house!" I said, and was surprised to realize that I hadn't really lost my voice, just the tune.
There was no reply, but I thought I saw something whisk quick past one of the windows.
"Hello!" I called again.
Still no reply. I moved closer, though I was likely overstepping my bounds. I didn't dare get much closer without a welcome.
"I'm looking for Emmeline Hallis's daughter!" I tried once more. "Is she there?"
The door swung open so fast I jumped. There was a girl in the doorway. She was hard to see in the shadows, but I could make out that she was pale, dark-haired, faded-looking. She wore a plain black dress with nair a ribbon or a jewel to it. "What's your business with Emmeline Hallis?" she demanded.
"I heard she was a right good singer," I said, "and knew many an old song. I spend my days wandering up and down, over hill and under dale, looking for such. If you're Miss Dorothea her daughter, ma'am, I thought she might have passed them down to you. They say you sing just like her."
She looked proud, like a person who won't tell her troubles no matter how hard they pinch her. "There's no singing in these parts."
"So I've noticed," I said. "That's a shame, if aught stopped it. Music's a comfort to every man—and lady."
"I stopped it," she said, abrupt. "I regret air note I ever sang."
"Oh." I studied her. "You witched it?"
She stood up straighter. "Men call it witching whenever a woman does something on her own they don't care for. But what do they know about whether there's good or ill in our hearts when we do it?"
"I do beg your pardon, ma'am," I said quickly. "And I'm sorry to have troubled you to no purpose. But could I ask you for a cup of water before I go?"
She shook her head. "It's not safe for you to be here. I haven't had a caller in years."
"Now, I can't believe you'd do any harm to a guest, ma'am, even if his tongue did run away with him."
"I never yet hurt ary guest," she said, still proud. "It's not me. It's…"
Her face grew dreamy and sad, and softer like that it was downright pretty. I didn't want to leave her there, witch or not.
"Just a draught. I'll take the risk."
I could see her decide something with a snap. I thought she must have made a lot of decisions that way. "All right. Wait there."
She disappeared from view, and returned a minute or two later with a little tin cup full of water. She didn't step past the threshold, so I drew closer to take it from her little hand. It was numbingly cold, and near took my breath away. I didn't want to study too hard as to where it came from. I coughed and handed it back to her. "Thank you kindly. I'll be taking my leave now."
She had been watching me as I drank, wondering at my guitar. As I turned away, she said, "Wait."
I paused. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Are those strings silver? They must have a powerful sound."
"Yes, ma'am. I'd be happy to play for you, only…" I shrugged.
She started to say something, then cut herself off. "Why did you really come here?" she demanded instead. "Like the others, so that my father would give you my hand?"
"On the Bible," I said, "I came to hear music from one I heard was worth listening to."
"Music was the ruin of me," she said. "I nair want to hear it again, from brook or bird or man."
I felt a great throb of sorrow for her, standing in her doorway, not twenty years old and sounding a hundred. I knew how sick and sorry you'd have to be, to cut out a part of yourself like that.
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "There's not so much beauty in the world that it's not a loss when it's cast away."
"That's as may be."
She stepped back inside and I turned back to the path, heart heavy. I didn't think I'd done any good there, though I supposed her father might be glad to hear for certain that she was alive. Or maybe he wouldn't be. He didn't sound a kindly man. I wondered whether the spirit had even had to take her up by force.
But a sound—not a musical sound at all, harsh and low—woke me from my thoughts. I looked about, but couldn't see anything. I reached for my guitar, but I remembered even as my fingers closed on it that it wouldn't help me here. The next second, there was a blow to my head that dropped me where I stood.
I never rightly saw the spirit, only got an impression of grey, like thick storm clouds, and glittering ice blue. I'd been hit so hard it was like I was sinking down into a fog of my own. I tried to call a charm to mind, but all my thoughts were scattered. The spirit didn't speak. He just rained down blows on me, and all I could do was put my arms up to protect my head. My guitar had fallen a few feet away, but it wouldn't help me.
As I was fading out, I heard, "Stop it! He's my guest! Stop it!"
It was Dorothea. The old country ways stood strong; that cup of water meant everything to her. The spirit answered her, and I wish I'd never heard it. "No," it gritted out, in a voice that was bleaker than any wind in winter, heavy with all the sounds of death I'd heard in war. But the blows paused. I thought that was good, until I realized he'd gotten hold of my guitar, and was fixing to bring it down on my head.
And then Dorothea began to sing.
I didn't recognize the tune, high and lonesome as it was, and I couldn't rightly make out the words. But though it was sad, it was the finest singing I ever hope to hear, gentlemen, from man or woman, and there was power enough in it. The spirit froze, and dropped the guitar. I just stopped it from falling to the ground.
"Dorothea," that awful voice said, full of all the yearning that dark has for light, cold for warmth. "Beloved—don't stop—"
I cracked him across the ankles with the strings, and he shrieked and staggered and fell—slap into the ground, into nothing.
Dorothea stopped singing. There was a pause, and then it was like the whole world burst out into song after her: birds twittered and trilled, the trees swaying in the wind made their soft shushing noises, and somewhere in the distance I could hear a spring splashing. All God's music. Almost as pretty as Dorothea's voice, but that was God's music, too, when you thought on it.
"Thank you," I said, when I could get my breath. "That was fine singing."
"I wasn't sure I could do it," she said, half to herself. "It's been so long."
I got up. "I sure reckon you could."
She looked different in the natural light, with the color slowly warming into her cheeks. I could see how her mother could have been the prettiest woman for miles around. She smiled for a minute, but when she saw me studying her, the smile faded. "I suppose you'll be taking my father up on his promise now," she said.
"Not I," I answered at once. "You've had enough company you don't care for. Besides, it wasn't I who saved you."
Her face softened again. "You're a good man, John."
"Perhaps," I said. I was thinking that if she didn't care to live with Buck Gillon anymore, she might get on with Miss Tully, in the valley near Yandro, but I would wait til I was bid before speaking of it. "But I would like to ask you one favor."
"Teach me that song you just sang."
She looked at me, direct. "You conjure, too. I knew it."
"Oh, I'm interested in ary thing that happens in these mountains," I said.
I knew I wasn't fooling her, but she only shook her head. "Come on then," she said. "And bring your guitar. I couldn't have stood to see it wrecked."
I followed her, and I was glad to. I'd also rather have seen myself lost than that guitar, and I reckoned that two people who thought that way would have to be friends.