Art by Chris Herron.
From the author: Beware the charming minstrel and his clever mechanical fiddle.
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The Wheel Fiddle
The melody drifted across the garden as she was picking fruit to make a summer pudding. She put down her basket, wiped the sweat from her forehead and walked around to the front of the cottage. The man stood waiting at her garden gate, he raised his cap. He had a strange stringed instrument tucked under his arm, there was a small metal handle sticking out of its base.
‘Can I help you?’ she asked.
‘I’ve a raging thirst, ma’am, been walking half the day, I’d be grateful for a cup a water.’
He was a down-at-heel looking character, his clothes were worn and dusty, he was probably a laborer seeking work, still strong, but lean and weather-beaten.
She turned and walked back up the path to the cottage and gestured him to follow.
‘Sit there on the garden bench while I get you a cup,’ she said.
In the kitchen she poured the water and cut a piece of the cake she’d baked for her husband, the day before. When she came out, he took the cup and plate from her with a sigh.
‘My name’s Tom,’ he said as he bit into the cake. ‘Tom Buckland.’
‘What’s that contraption at the side of you?’
‘It’s a wheel fiddle, ma’am, some call it a hurdy gurdy. I earn an extra shillin’ here and there with it.’
‘Well, you can sing for your supper, then.’
He smiled to himself, ‘I can do that for certain,’ he said.
He finished his cake and picked up the wheel fiddle.
‘Can I see it?’ Alice asked. She held the old instrument with its strings and levers, it was scratched and chipped, but its ivory inlays and brass fittings hinted at its once having been beautiful. She stroked the curve of its body and handed it back to him.
He settled it onto his lap, turned the crank and fingered the keys. A strange wailing melody sounded. He began to sing - in a higher voice than she was expecting - and in a language she didn’t recognize. Goose pimples rose on her arms and legs, the fine hairs on her spine stood up, and the feeling flowed up her back and on to the top of her head.
The traveler's dark brown eyes watched her unblinkingly as the song continued. Her knees turned to water, she sat down on the close-cropped lawn and lay back. The swifts and martins dipped and dived, racing and turning across the sky, she closed her eyes.
Waking suddenly as she heard her husband push open the garden gate, she could tell from the light that time had passed. There was no sign of the traveler, the plate and cup were neatly stacked on the bench.
‘I thought I heard music,’ said her man.
Alice stood up and brushed the creases from her dress. ‘Music?’ she asked.
The baby was born the next March, during lambing season, an inconvenient time for a shepherd’s wife to be birthing a child. Her mother used to say, ‘There’s no good time to be having a baby,’ and she was right.
A sensible shepherd stays away from his wife in July, and so her husband had, but he never spoke of the birth date, after all July was a long time back and it was hard to be sure. As the baby grew, it had his brown eyes and dark complexion. Alice called him Martin for the birds nesting under the eaves of the cottage last summer.
Martin grew to be ten years old. He went to the church school and had the adventures that country boys have. One day, he was running an errand for his mother to the village shop, when he heard music coming from round a bend in the road. He stood listening, presently a man appeared, his clothes were shabby, he was holding a strange device and cranking a handle as he walked, this was the source of the music. He stopped when he reached the boy and looked at him closely.
‘Would you like to try?’ he asked after a few moments.
They sat on the bank, and the man showed Martin how to press the keys and wind the handle.
‘What’s it called?’ he asked.
‘It’s a wheel fiddle, boy, and you’ve a fair talent for it, so keep it, I’ve no use for it no more.’ The traveler stood and continued on his way. The boy barely noticed him leave, the eerie music seemed to play itself as he walked slowly back to his parents’ cottage. His mother came to the front door, ashen-faced.
‘Where did you get that thing?’ she snapped.
‘A travelling man gave it to me, he said I have a talent for it,’ and he carried on playing.
She felt the magic of the music once again, but she was older now and the resonance was weaker, but still the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
‘We’ll have to see what your father says about it,’ she said sternly, but then softened after a moment when she realized that the boy’s father had already had his say.
This story originally appeared in Tall Tale TV and Short-Story Me.
Artificial Intelligences, Space Elevators, Time Travel, Robots, Fantasy, Horror and Romance. The stories in this book were published and podcast in various e-zines internationally during the years 2018 to 2020. A number were also broadcast and podcast.
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