Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Christmas Fiddle

Patrick Shields

The town Christmas lights had been up since before Thanksgiving. She always thought everyone in small towns rushed Christmas. The Town Council and Chamber of Commerce seemed to insist Christmas lights, store fronts, etc. be decorated before the Thanksgiving turkey was even dead. Her familial experience was to put a tree up on December 20th and take it down the 26th.

“I’m getting out of town this Christmas. I’m not buying into this small town Christmas thing this year”, she said to herself.

She had accepted a teaching position at a middle school in a small northeast Pennsylvania town seven years ago. Financial embarrassment was the prime motive… college loans and no other options.

Looking back, it seemed more like 10 years. The town had a class and family structure that excluded outsiders. Anyone not born and raised to die in this town was politely shunned. Sons took over their father’s businesses, girls married family names, and children grew up trapped in the small town by all the above. Some managed to run as fast as they could… never to return.

The day before school let out for the Christmas holidays, she pulled out and old map of the Southeastern US and pinned it to the wall in her apartment. She found the old red and black stripped dart she and her roommate had relieved from a local pub years ago. Facing the opposite wall, she threw the dart over her shoulder striking the map. It stuck Christmas Creek, in the State of Georgia. Actually, it divided Big Cumberland island from Little Cumberland Island.

She and her roommates had used this same map many times. Wherever the dart hit on the map became a class-skipping long weekend road trip. These were carefree hilarious romps to “see what was on the other side of the mountain”, so to speak. They ate in roadside diners, drank beer in local bars, spent nights in $20.00 motels or camped. They took every blue road on the map to “the great and mysterious where ever”, and a different route on the way home, skipping class on Monday if need be. These jaunts were great fun!

Packing for her Christmas Creek road trip took an hour. She had to dig out some appropriate Georgia clothes, having already packed fall stuff away for the season. She had no pets, family or relationships to keep her in town. Her latest local male interest had dumped her for the secretary at the local insurance agency some six months ago, at his Mothers’ pleading, not doubt. She showered before bed, looked in the mirror and commented, “What a miserable, stringy haired mess I am. I do SO need a trip to the mysterious where ever.”

Excusing herself from the annual teacher’s holiday pot luck at the end of the school day, she was on the road by two o’clock. Her plan was to take the slow road to nowhere once she got out of the Baltimore/ D.C. madness. Her dart throw had provided the ticket to warmer climes.

Baltimore brought cheaper gas; she stopped to eat and thought about spending the night in a motel, but she still felt like driving. The thought of D.C. traffic made her reach for the map. She headed west into the Maryland countryside and found a Bed and Breakfast in a small town near Harper’s Ferry, WV just after dark.

She signed the register and was shown a pleasant room by a Santa hat wearing host. He invited her to join the festivities in the living room where a group of local musicians were playing.

Settling into her room, she came downstairs to join a small gathering of musicians; four young men, two fiddlers, a banjo player, and a guitar player. They sat in a loose circle, playing tunes. A fire warmed the room and a well decorated tree sat in the corner casting colored light over the musicians. The host offered a glass of red wine which she gratefully accepted and found a chair near the fire.

She enjoyed the tunes, a few old songs and a carol or two. It was a wonderful end to a long fall semester of teaching. A tall man played one tune in particular that struck her; something about the tone of the fiddle, the modal key, and the fiddler’s intensity put goose bumps on her arms. She asked for the name of the tune. He said he had written it a few years ago and as yet it had no name.

The next morning at breakfast that very fiddler walked into the dining room.

“Oh, are you staying here, too?” She asked.

“Well, after a fashion. My father owns this place. He’s busy this time of year so, I’m here helping out for a few days. I actually live in Baltimore… I’m a chef.  I came down to give dad a hand with breakfasts and the laundry.”

“I’m also here to pack up my tools to take to North Carolina to work on a violin I’m finishing, can’t keep ‘em in the apartment, not enough room to kick a cat in there”, he laughed.

“You’re birthing a violin?” She had no idea why she had phrased the question that way.

“Well, I guess it could be considered a birth”, he laughed. “I’m going to string this one up for a trial run. It’s based on a fiddle I played a few years ago by a little known American maker. Most people build from European designs. This guy was not well known, but his fiddles are great. I’ve played a couple and decided to try to make an instrument based on his design, as near as I could, anyway. It’s been a challenge.”

“I must say I was impressed with the sound of that fiddle. It’s a dark sounding instrument, but with great tone.”

“Well, I never really intended that to happen. I think my mood brought out  that quality out in that instrument. The wood had something to do with it. The building of that fiddle was the only thing that spoke reason to me in my life as I was building her.”


“Yeah, building that instrument grounded me though a hard time; the death of my fiancee.”

 “I’m sorry, not an easy time, I’m sure.”

“It was hard for a year or two. I stopped playing and began building fiddles instead.

He changed the subject. “And you, what brings you to the back roads of Maryland? Going home for the holidays?”

 “Nope, I’m road tripping south to settle an overworked mind and body.”

“Heading south to escape the cold and a busted love affair?” He said with a wry smile.

She shook her head.

“No, been there, done that, ticked it off. I find relationships mysteriously deceptive. They happen when they happen. That much I’ve learned.”

“I’m just a school teacher on Christmas Holiday looking for Christmas Creek”.

Feeling the need to explain, she went into the college road tripping with her college roommates routine: the map, the dart, and how it picked her destination of Christmas Creek at the end of Big Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia.

 “Well”, he said, “that’s a novel approach. I’m kind of road tripping myself; nothing as extravagant as your plan though. I’m heading to North Carolina to the home of my fiddle mentor to give #5 a preliminary “white wood” set up.

“That sounds fun and exciting.” she said.

“I try to go down every time I get a break. Jon and his wife have a boarding house for his fiddle school students. I’ve been a student for 8 years. Jon’s getting older and I pay room and board by helping out on the place. I’ filling the wood shed this time.”

“Sounds like fun, the fiddle part, I mean”, she said.

“Why not stop in on your way to Georgia if you want, you’ve got to travel through North Carolina anyway.”

“Sounds interesting, but I can’t even remember your name… I was tired and that glass of wine your dad gave me…”

He laughed, “My name is Scott Johnson. The musicians last night were cousins from around here. That wine is some thing my Dad calls IPB, ‘important person brew’. It’s wonderful, but it does pack a punch.”

“Well, your offer certainly sounds like an interesting way to spend a day or two, if you’re sure it’ll be alright with your friends…I've got to spend the night somewhere on the blue road to nowhere… and I can pay for a room.

“No, they’ll put you to work”, said Scott.

“I’m pretty good help in the kitchen.”

“When you get  your stuff together and you can follow me down. It’ll only take a couple hours to get there. I’ve got to pack a few things and say goodbye to Dad. You’re in for a real treat.”

She had no idea why she was doing this. She certainly was not expecting what came at the end of a three hour drive into the mountains of North Carolina.

In a clearing high above a valley on a blue road turned gravel, stood two timber framed structures that looked straight out of a Scandinavian village. One was a large two story structure; the other was a low building that had 5 or 6 doors.

“The dorm”, she thought.

Scott made the introductions.  After a light lunch, Jon and Scott headed out to split wood. Dory showed her an upstairs room and took her to the kitchen for a cup of tea.

Dory explained that Scott was like a son to Jon. They had opted not to have children. Scott came here to take a fiddle building class. He was a fine violinist, but the loss of his fiancee plunged him into what seemed  a profound depression. Somehow, Scott had read about the fiddle building school and made his way down here. He sold his restaurant and spent a year off and on with John, producing one fiddle. Jon seemed to think Scott had ‘the gift’ and has encouraged him in his building. They have spent many hours playing and working on violins. Scott is Jon’s his most promising student

She drank her tea, excused herself, and went upstairs to her room.  Looking out on the valley below she reflected of the past 24 hours; a lot had happened. She felt the need for a nap. She was on vacation. Laughter from downstairs awakened her.

Downstairs she quipped, “How nice to hear laughter from someone besides 8th graders.”

Scott and Dory were in the kitchen doing prep work for dinner. She playfully shooed Dory out of the kitchen, saying she was the kitchen apprentice for the evening.

Jon came in with wood and built a fire. He poured everyone a glass of wine and sat at the table near the kitchen fireplace. The conversation was about this and that. The meal was excellent. Scott really was a chef.

After dinner Jon and Scott sat by the wood stove in the great room and played fiddle. Scott accompanied Jon on guitar occasionally. Jon was a fine fiddler, playing tunes from Scandinavia that she had not heard. He told a story about each tune. The two men talked fiddle for a while. Then, preparing for a full day in the shop and woodpile on the morrow, the hosts begged off to bed.

She and Scott sat by the kitchen fire, drank tea and talked about violin making.

“Scott, is the magic in the fiddle, the maker, or the player?” she asked

 “All three are of equal importance in my mind. It’s a  the triangle. They all have to work together to produce a harmonious result. Almost impossible in a triangle. The choice of wood, the attention and skill of the maker, and ultimately player himself must fit. In reality, if very seldom happens immediately. Sometimes it takes years for the wood, the maker, and the player to come together. In my experience, there are many wonderful violins in unworthy hands, many deficient violins in worthy hands, and makers who are unsung. Good instruments, good makers, and good fiddlers seem to find each other.”

“What about your fiddles. Do you still have them all?”

“No, I’ve got # 3 still. I’m trying to get the most out of it. I’ve had offers to buy it, but Jon says it is a complex instrument. He won’t let me pass her on till I figure it out to his satisfaction. He won’t help…just makes vague suggestions. It’s very frustrating really. He says its work I need, and must to do, to bring out the best in her. Figure it out, make her better.

He continued. “I’m a bit anxious about this #5. I’ve done a few things to her that Jon and I have disagreed about, but I have stayed my course, despite his advice.  Stringing her up tomorrow will be proof of the pudding.”

She thought to herself she didn’t want him to be disappointed with the new fiddle. Why had she thought that?  Was this man beginning to grow on her? Was it the mystique of the fiddle… perhaps the quaint surroundings?

Next morning was bright and cold. She and Dory went to town to shop and to a few neighboring farms for sausage, eggs and fresh greens. “What a wonderful way to live.” she thought “I could get used to this life style. Maybe I could learn to do something more satisfying than trying to teach 8th grade hormonal teenagers the English language.”

Each day she tried to leave, but Jon, Dory and Scott convinced her the next few days would be interesting. She was an easy sell. Scott took her on long walks up the mountain to water falls. She and Dory baked, traveling around the neighborhood delivering treats. They attended a contra dance and pot luck. There were musicians and students coming to share music and fiddles with Jon. No shortage of activity in this house.

She and Dory went to the early Christmas Eve service, leaving Jon and Scott in the shop fitting a bridge and stringing the white wood fiddle. Tonight this new fiddle would have a voice for the first time.

A couple hours later Scott came in with the newly strung fiddle under his arm. Jon instructed Scott to stand to the right of the fire place, just below the highest part of the ceiling. He went into the other end of the room.

“Play”, said Jon.

 Scott put the fiddle to his chin. He looked down the fingerboard and pulled the bow across the strings. Sound filled the room. Scott pulled the bow across each string, letting the bow do the work. The lows were vibrant and mellow, the high E and A were light and airy, or so it seemed to her untrained ear.

A reel leapt from the fiddle. She was surprised to hear the same tune he played at the B and B. Scott closed his eyes and let the tune flow, moving his foot in time to the music. Jon stood still, his back to the music, listening.

Scott played the tune five or six times through… then let the violin fall away from his chin.

Jon turned. The two men looked at one another for a long minute.

“Well”, asked Scott?

“Well indeed”, exclaimed Jon. “It’s got real promise, bright, growly under pressure and not near as dark as some you’ve made. I think this is your best effort, despite my misgivings. With finish and proper set up, I think you’ve just made your first real violin, and, come to think of it, born on Christmas Eve night. A tree gives forth a voice for all to hear. Congratulations, Scott.”

Over a light supper Jon asked Scott, “What is the name of that tune you played? I’ve heard you play it, but I’ve never heard a name for it.”

Scott looked directly across the table at her, and said, without hesitation. Ashley’s Reel.

“So, you named the tune for Ashley?” asked Dory.

“Something like that, do you mind, Ashley?”

She did not mind at all.

Ashley and Scott sat by the fire in the kitchen, after Jon and Dory had retired. She listened and he played.

A clock struck midnight.

“Merry Christmas, Scott”, said Ashley. “Thanks for the tune, and the adventure; you’ve made my life a lot brighter in a very short time.

“And to you as well, it’s been great fun so far, Ashley”, replied Scott. “It’s been a big day and a good week. I’m glad we shared it.”

He put the fiddle in its case saying, “A fiddle born on Christmas Day, sorta’ poetic, isn’t it.” Jon said, under his breath.

Ashley had a feeling she might not make it to the coast of Georgia. She liked it here just fine with her new friends… one of them especially.

Things were looking up!

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