Parting the Veil
by Phyllis Barber
The Fiddler and the Wolf
[p.65]If only Old Dowdy had been quicker with his chores, he wouldn’t be lost in this mucky fog and the twilight. But he’d dallied after milking his cow Hannah, hoping she’d talk back to him. He’d tickled her ear, fed her extra hay, even told tall tales, but all the cow said was “Feed me” and “Milk me” with the one sound that never failed her.
As he traipsed deeper into the less familiar territory beyond his fence line, Old Dowdy rehashed his theory that cows weren’t as dumb as everyone said. They had cow wisdom, he insisted to his friends and his wife, Estrella. “Even the prophet,” he told them, “gave a sermon saying animals had souls, just like humans.” Dowdy wasn’t just whistling up a crooked tree.
But, at this moment, he was lost in a porridge fog in his red and tightly buttoned lumberman’s jacket, his brown knitted gloves, and his sheepskin-lined cap pulled down to his eyebrows. At this moment he regretted his theories about cows and everything else. Carrying his fiddle under his arm and wearing snowshoes made from strips of deer hide and steam-bent aspen, he started one way, then another, trying to find something familiar in the soupy fog. But snowdrifts and mist buried the road into town. Try as he might, he couldn’t find his direction in the vast blanket of white turning blue in the last shadows of [p.66]day. Everything was hazy and skewed.
After assessing the options, Dowdy decided he’d best follow the water. He could listen his way to Windpipe Spring, which was close to the south end of Doc Bell’s pasture, then follow Turkey Gobbler Creek to town. That would be better than an invisible road leading nowhere. After all, the neighbors for miles around were waiting for him at Widener’s brown barn, anxious to grab a partner and whirl across the straw-covered floor to Dowdy’s lively music.
As his creaking snowshoes imprinted the virgin snow, he thought of the big barn swept clean and the plaid shirts and checkered dresses washed and ironed for tonight. He patted his violin case. It was wrapped in a special-order, sunset yellow blanket, which was his wife Estrella’s Christmas present to his fiddle—Old Warbler. It protected Warbler from extreme changes in temperature.
Humming a snippet of a fiddle tune as he found someone’s fence line, he groped his way past snapping branches and barely visible tree trunks. Dowdy could almost hear toes tapping in anticipation of his arrival. Everyone would be waiting for the breathtaking moment when he’d burst through the barn door. “Dowdy’s here,” they’d shout. Their feet would be itching while he opened his case and tuned his strings. They’d fidget until he sparked the air with lightning bug music.
His rising spirit of anticipation sang so loudly inside of him, it half obscured eerie howling in the distance. Dowdy almost took a fright, but then dismissed the thought. The sound was only music of the night. Music everywhere. “Ah-ooo,” he howled back. A clump of snow fell from a high branch and caked his cap and nose and the red-and- black-checked shoulders of his jacket. He laughed like an old geezer, which he wasn’t far from being. But then he reminded himself that sixty-two was still spry and respectable.
“Ladies to the center, gents promenade,” he sang out as he tried to read his way through the fog with the outstretched tips of his fingers. “If you get a little thirsty, drink lemonade. Kiss your partner, the next lady swing. Left hand around the purty little thing. Ah-ooo, ah-ooo,” he howled joyously at the echoing night. Everybody’d be dancing and whooping it up as soon as Old Dowdy arrived at the barn. It was Saturday night.
“There it is,” he shouted when he heard the sound of water bubbling [p.67]up out of the ground. “Windpipe Spring. I’m on course!” Now he knew for sure where he was, and, with a little luck, he could make it to the dance in forty minutes’ time, maybe less, not overly late.
As if to witness Dowdy’s joy, the fog separated. Dowdy could see the moon sitting between clouds like a thin old lady in a rocking chair. She didn’t rock; she just leaned back dreaming an old time dream. The knot of clouds that covered her up all too quickly probably meant more snow, but Dowdy humbugged the thought and listened for the spring’s stream which should lead him to Turkey Gobbler. Most of the water was hostage in clumps of blue ice, but there was a sliver of stream under the frozen surface that told Dowdy which way to go.
Then he heard the howling again. This time it was closer, just across the water in a cluster of pine trees whose tops jutted like arrows into the blue-black sky. Beneath the coat of new snow, the trees’ dark branches floated over the forest’s secrets, especially over the night creatures creeping closer to Dowdy.
“We drink lemonade and a little root beer,” Dowdy sang another verse. “Sons and daughters of the pioneer.” This time, though, he sang more softly. The howling was coming from not one, but from a pack. They were giving Dowdy fair warning, it seemed.
Ordinarily, he might have tried to strike up a conversation or leave a few crumbs of bread behind him, knowing wolves weren’t interested in his sour human flesh. But tonight Dowdy was one and they were many. He had no bread, and he knew about deep snow and hunger. After months of winter, even chicken-bone, lean, lank Dowdy himself might taste good. He’d best find a place to make himself scarce. But, as the stubborn fog covered his path again, every tree looked the same, every branch pointed in opposing directions, and the running water seemed only an imagined sound in Dowdy’s ears. He raised his eyes to the sky. “You there, God? Just in case, I want to say thanks for Old Warbler and music and Estrella. And, if you see fit, I wouldn’t mind playing at the barn dance tonight. Hope that isn’t too much to ask. Amen.”
The very moment he said “Amen,” Dowdy heard the rush of the spring as it joined with Turkey Gobbler right in front of his eyes, almost as if a guardian angel had moved it there like a stage prop. He closed his eyes and nodded yes to God. Yes and thank you. He could [p.68]follow this stream to the old McCune place, given over to mice and rat nests. Last summer when he was tracking a lost cow, Dowdy explored the empty house and marveled at the cupboards once trim. Their doors were warped and hanging from single hinges; their insides were stuffed with brown leaves, nests, torn rags and papers picked up from who-knew-where by who-knew-who.
After working his way through a tight stand of trees and untangling limbs of a riverbush from the lacing on his snowshoes, Dowdy saw the old house looming large in the moon’s light. The fog was behind him now, and he could see that much of the house’s wooden siding had split; the porches had given way to the weight of too many winters; piles of snow curved high into the cabin’s sides and sloped to the windowsills. As Dowdy came closer, he saw glittering swordtips of broken glass and a jagged hole where the window should have been. He’d been counting on a safe place. His heart sank.
Dowdy unlaced his snowshoes, stretched his legs over the porch’s broken boards, and hoisted himself up to the front door ledge. The door was barely a door anymore and yielded easily to his touch, for which he was thankful. The wolves weren’t far behind.
He looked for something to cover the broken window, but then noticed that the window on the opposite side of the room had no pane at all. Carefully, he rested his fiddle case on the floor covered with pine needles and dead leaves, and peered out first the paneless window, then the other. The snow sloping up against the house made an easy access for the wolves now at the edge of the clearing, though they seemed temporarily confused by the moonlight on the shattered glass.
Frantically Dowdy searched the room: the rotting stairway to the loft would be of no use; the wolves could climb stairs. He couldn’t hide in the closet; one of its door planks had crashed to the floor. Then he looked at the only sturdy part of the cabin—a massive mantle built of waterworn boulders.
Quickly, he took off his gloves, crushed them in his coat pockets, and crawled over the charred hearthstones. The uneven stones jabbed into his knees as he crawled. Inside the narrower-than-he-expected chimney, he gazed up at the blackened stones and the spot of sky above. He sat up against the walls to see if he could fit, then remembered he’d forgotten Old Warbler. He couldn’t play for the dance [p.69]that night without his fiddle. He couldn’t leave his best friend in a cold, empty house.
Crawling out from the chimney, Dowdy saw that the red squares of his coat were mostly black already-soot-covered, dark as dead and buried leaves. Leaving a trail of black handprints on the hearthstones, he quickly snatched his fiddle case. But the yellow blanket snagged on a splinter and pulled away from the rope securing the case. When he tried to fit it back in place with his blackened hands, Dowdy felt a pang of regret. Estrella was so proud of Old Warbler’s blanket. But then he looked up and saw the heads of three wolves peering through the jagged glass.
Dowdy’s fingers seemed like toes as he tried to tie the blanket back in place. Each time he took a fast look at the window, he imagined the wolves’ fangs growing longer over the leathery curve of their lips. Finally securing the blanket, he realized it was only a matter of moments before the rest of the wolves discovered the easy way in. He crawled back over the hearthstones, his knees bruised from the first trip across, then hunched inside the chimney. He pulled his knees tight into his chest, placed his feet on one wall, rested the fiddle case on his lap, leveraged his back against the opposite wall, and inched up the layers of sooty bricks.
The fine powder of black carbon almost choked him as he climbed toward the oblong of sky where the rocking-chair-woman moon still tilted backwards. She languished in her eternal rocking while Dowdy battled with all his strength. She seemed so calm while, in the skinny, tight chimney, Dowdy’s calves and thighs cramped with fierce spasms. Every time he stopped climbing to ease the pain, he had greater doubts about making it to the top. His knees and ankles and shoulders were shaking. But he had no choice. Finally, he wormed close enough to the top to slide his fiddle case to safety on the chimney’s ledge. Then, groping for a handhold, he pulled himself onto his elbows, dragged the rest of his body over the capstones, and hung like an open jackknife. His breath vaporized the brisk air, and all he could hear was his own gasping.
After his chest stopped heaving, he pulled himself to a sitting position on top of the chimney. For a moment, Dowdy Kingsley, the old fiddler himself, was king of the mountain, enthroned above the pack of wolves circling below, all of them frustrated by Brother [p.70]Dowdy Kingsley.
Sooner than he would have liked, however, Dowdy realized his days as king of the mountain were numbered. The wolves were building a ladder up the side of the house—one standing still while the next climbed onto its back, then the next one climbing over them both. There were at least six wolves waiting for their turn to be a rung on the ladder. Never in his wildest dreams had Dowdy imagined wolves coming up with such a scheme.
Animals and music, he thought. He couldn’t figure either one of them completely. A man could know about an animal’s fur, its parts, or its habits, but he could only imagine what a human might do, not being privy to animal logic. And he might know about the notes on a page of music, but he never knew what made music talk or how a fiddle could capture the pulse of life with the stroke of a bow. These things were beyond knowing.
But the stack of hungry wolves was growing taller, and Dowdy decided he’d better stop philosophizing and do some quick thinking. This could be the end of Dowdy Kingsley, he suddenly realized. What about Estrella, though, the little star of his life, the one who held him in her arms and sang him to sleep, his patient helpmate who never had been able to bear a child? She wouldn’t have anybody to fuss over if the wolves got Dowdy. He imagined Estrella coming to him one last time with a bowl of steaming soup in her hands, dancing across the snow to his music, jumping weightlessly to the chimney top. “Oh, Dowd,” he thought he might hear her whispering in his ear. “You play like the stars sing in the heavens because they’re so happy to be near our Lord.” Music. God. Estrella. All the same to him.
Suddenly, he felt the brush of something like an angel wing near his face and then some powerful force pulling on his wrists. Something was making him reach for his fiddle. He untied the first rope around the blanket. Then the second and third. The very smudged blanket fell open. His fiddle case. Dowdy unfolded the blanket and put it around his shoulders, black handprints and all. He unlatched his case. There it was—its worn scroll and fingerboard, its rounded belly and curved ribs. With affection, he traced the F-hole with his near-blue finger, then lifted the fiddle from the case.
With his chilled, blackened fingers, Dowdy adjusted the pegs. [p.71]They were tight in this cold, but Dowdy had a practiced hand that could find the right pitch without any hesitation. He played two strings together, finessed them into perfect fifths, and then droned the A against the other strings. “Ladies to the center, gents promenade,” he sang as he prepared to play for God, Estrella, and the animals nearing the eaves of the house.
And then the moment of truth faced him as the wolf at the top of the living ladder peered over the roof’s edge, sniffing, its pale eyes riveted on Dowdy’s. At first Dowdy was petrified by those orbs staring him down as if they were looking for signs of weakness in his character. But Dowdy had his fiddle. He squeezed it under his chin and neck and began his favorite lullaby. He stared back into the wolf’s eyes that seemed to have a flickering light inside. If this wolf had a soul, could it recognize his?
“Lullaby and good night” filled the air. The fiddler’s and the wolf’s eyes locked and became a circle like the moon when it was full. My life for yours; yours for mine. Which one?
The wolf sniffed Dowdy again and crouched low on its haunches. It stretched its neck until Dowdy could see faint speckles in its eyes and an empty, lean look near the jawline. The wolflicked its teeth with a pale tongue and took another step toward him.
Not flinching, Dowdy played boldly, even though his cold and nervous fingers struggled for a pure tone. His whole soul joined with the lullaby he’d heard his mother sing so many times.
Each hair on its body alert, the animal seemed aware of Dowdy’s every move—the curve of his hand above the bow and the bow gliding between the bridge and the fingerboard. Above the intense eyes, the wolf’s ears stood tall as if they could catch all things about Dowdy and his music. And the fiddler could feel the warm moisture of the wolf’s breath as it spiralled into the cold night. He felt it on a tender part of his neck, just above his wool scarf.
As he reached the last notes of the lullaby, the part where he could remember his mother’s voice singing “They will guard thee from harm, Thou shalt wake in my arms,” the wolf suddenly lifted its head and bared its throat. Dowdy could feel the hunger in the wolf’s belly. He felt the deepness of the snow and the way an animal’s legs sank when it tried to run after prey. He recognized something in the wolf like the water break-[p.72]ing from the ice in spring, something like ripe wheat blowing in wide fields, something like the sound of his fiddle. For one brief moment, he thought, “Why shouldn’t that wolf eat me?” But then he thought of Estrella all alone and the people waiting for him at Widener’s barn, lots of people waiting to top their troubles and ease their cares and find new reasons to live because their dancing feet could carry them through another week of hard work.
As the last note of the lullaby faded away to a vibrating string, the wolf’s ears perked up taller and straighter and it looked up at the stars. Suddenly its ears seemed as though they were nets catching the silvered fishes of a larger melody. Dowdy tilted his head backward and listened as he’d never listened before. He could hear the tops of the trees bending and the crisp air crackling and the ice crystals dancing through the sky. And then he heard a sound he’d never heard before—almost as if it came from the aurora borealis and places beyond the stars. Maybe the vibration of his last note had started a vibration up there. He and the wolf searched the sky, their mouths open, until silence returned and draped over them like a cloak.
The wolf looked at Dowdy. Dowdy looked at the wolf, whose eyes glittered with starlight instead of hunger. Before Dowdy could lift his bow to play another tune, the wolf backed away. Carefully. Respectfully, its black-tipped tail the last thing Dowdy saw as it sprang from the backs of the other wolves and leaped to the ground. The pack followed and scattered through the dark trunks of tall trees stark against the white snow and the moonlight.
Dowdy sat on the chimney for a minute or two, astounded at the turn of fortune, pondering the music he’d just heard. But time was growing short. He wriggled his icy fingers back into his gloves and tucked the ends of his wool scarf back into his coat. Then he slid off the tin roof into a deep bank of soft snow, re-wrapped his violin case, laced up his snowshoes, and followed Turkey Gobbler to the barn on Widener’s place.
As he slogged the last quarter-mile, he decided he’d play his fiddle for Hannah as soon as he got back home. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Maybe then they could listen to the other music together, and she’d let him in on some secret known only to cows.
[p.73]Lullaby and good night
With roses bedight
With lilies bespread
Is baby’s wee bed.
Lay thee down now and rest
May thy slumber be blest.
Lullaby and good night
Thy mother’s delight.
Bright angels around
My darling shall stand
They will guard thee from harm
Thou shalt wake in my arms.