Simon the Fiddler Page 1

Author: Paulette Jiles

Genres: Historical , Fiction

Chapter One

Simon the fiddler had managed to evade the Confederate conscription men because he looked much younger than he was and he did everything he could to further that impression. His hair was reddish brown and curly; he was short and spare. He always shaved close so that he had no beard shadow. He could pass for fifteen years of age if not in direct sunlight. And often people protected him because they liked his music and did not care to see him dragged off for a soldier.

In an unseasonably hot October he had been engaged to play at a barbecue near Marshall in East Texas, in plantation country. Horses were tied at random in the shade of the tall loblolly pines, among the fires and the drifting layers of smoke. Black servants moved with pitchers of iced drinks and men and women sat with plates in their hands to listen to Simon play “Jock of Hazeldean”; light and poignant strains so different from the war news, the tattered letters arriving from the ruins of Atlanta with accounts of its burning and its dead.

Simon stood on a flatbed wagon and poured the notes out into the overheated air, unmoving, straight-backed, his hat cocked forward over his face. He had a high-boned face, bright hair, and light eyes and his music was enchanting.

A banjo player sat at the edge of the wagon. He was an old man who tipped his head carefully as if there were water in it and it might spill over. He was trying to hear where it was that Simon was going with the melody and to follow if he could. Simon drew out the last note with a strong vibrato and bowed to the applause, and when he raised his head he searched out the edges of the crowd like a hunted man.

After a moment he laid his bow tip on the old man’s shoulder to get his attention and smiled. “How are you doing?” he said in a loud voice. “Could be you want a cold drink. They have ice, I saw it in a pitcher.”

“All right.” The old man nodded. “Yessir, doing fine, but I think they done come.” The old man kept on nodding. He was cotton-headed and partially blind.

“Who done come?”

“The conscription people.”

Simon was still and silent for a heartbeat, two heartbeats. Then he said, “Well Goddamn them.”

He said this in a low voice because there were ladies present. He would have liked to fall backward into a water tank and sink, clothes and all, but it looked like he was going to be on the run again, abandoning this well-paid job and the lovely girl wearing a blue bonnet sitting in the front row with a rapt, appreciative face. He shoved his fiddle into the case, quickly snapped the bow into its groove, and slammed the case shut. He laid his hand on the old banjo player’s shoulder.

“I’m gone,” he said. “Take the money.”

“No, sir, that ain’t fair.” The old man’s banjo was crudely made and had no resonator, but he had done his best with it. He turned his head in Simon’s general direction. “That ain’t fair to you.”

“Yes, it is.” Simon grabbed his fiddle case by the handle and jumped off the flatbed. “I’m about done with those people. If I had a weapon I’d be loading it.”

“Son, listen, you don’t want to do that.”

Now the plantation owner came hurrying through the crowd, past elderly men, past women sitting carefully with their hoop skirts arranged over armless chairs. He took Simon by the arm.

“Come now,” he said. “Come with me right now.”

Several of the ladies half-stood. They wanted to know what was the matter. These laments so rudely interrupted and the child had not even eaten yet. Simon pressed through the crowd saying excuse me, excuse me and took off at a running walk behind the man.

“Conscription men. I didn’t invite them.” The man was dressed as the planters always dressed at these barbecues, in a cutaway and trousers with foot straps and a beaver hat big as a church bell. “They were not given an invitation. They are ruffians, these people.” Simon marched at his heels in a jerky, furious pace.

“Yes, but I’m not of age for a soldier,” Simon said.

It was a bald-faced lie. They were going at long strides away from the plantation grounds and toward a sawmill operation back in the pines. Past stumps, past Virginia creeper blazing green in the sun.

“The hell you are not,” the man said. He strode on down a red-dirt path and far above rain crows bent down to watch all they did and then spoke to one another with noises like clocks. “You’re lying like a dog trottin’.” And then, “I can tell by the backs of yo hains.”

Simon stormed along behind the planter, vines slapping at his face. “You know what, I’m about done running. Next they’re going to take that old man with the banjo. Jesus!”

“Hush,” the planter said. “We are losing this war hand over fist. It’s about done. Just keep your britches on.”

Simon didn’t hear him, partly because he was behind and partly because he was tangled in his own outrage. “If you had a weapon, I would borrow it from you.”

“Here we are.”

It was an icehouse, dug into the red East Texas dirt and roofed by a plank shed. Down in the pit were blocks of ice under deep layers of sawdust. “Find yoseff a spot down in there and cover up with that sawdust.” He held out an invitational hand.

Simon’s face had taken on a flat, smooth expression, his mouth in a stubborn straight line. “Wait. I’d just as soon get into a fight with them as run.” He looked back down the path among the pines with a determined glare. “If you have a pistol then give me the loan of it.”

“I will not.” The man picked up a bucket. He spoke like people spoke in Savannah or Mobile, coastal Southerners, dropping r’s like loose buttons. “We’ve got many a soldier but we are short on fiddlers. I don’t want shooting at random here at my wife’s musical event. Can you shoot anyhow?”

“No,” Simon admitted. “Not very well.”

“There you go. They’d take you one way or the other. They’d put you in the front rank and you’d take a ball in the head first off. Get down there. Your time is running short, here.”

Simon held on to the door frame, leaned his trim and limber body over the pit and looked down into the dark gaps between ice blocks. “Wait, wait, God, there’s a corpse down in there!”

“I heard you had a quick temper but you just hold on to it for now.” The planter stepped forward into the gloom of the low-ceilinged shack to see into the pit. “Pugnacious, hotheaded, and what? That wad of clothes? That’s Miss Lucy’s, she’s freezing out the lice.”

“There’s hair!”

“She’s freezing the lice out of her wig too. She was out administering to the poor. Now cover up. I’m going to get the hatchet and take some ice back for an excuse to come here.”

Simon stared at the wadded clothes half-buried in sawdust. It seemed rather intimate to get down among a woman’s unmentionables and her skirt and her wig. He said, “Ah, I don’t believe I am acquainted with Miss Lucy.”

“No normal man would want to be acquainted with Miss Lucy. Now get your behind down there.”

It was a drop of five feet or so. Simon jammed his hat down tight, held the fiddle case under one arm, and jumped. He landed in an explosion of sawdust, got to his feet, and kicked himself a hole in it. He spent a good hour in a gap between the ice blocks, covered over with sawdust and frozen lingerie. He listened intently to the noises from outside: mockingbirds, a mule clearing its long nose in a hoarse snort, a rattling noise in the brush. He held the fiddle case to his chest. That was in October of 1864 and the atmosphere outside was so hot it seemed the air was afire.