It was going to be one hell of a day.
Johnny walked to the edge of the clearing, case in hand, and looked around. No one. Not one thing could be seen. Good. It wasn’t like he was embarrassed; no sir, his daddy would’ve been mighty proud of him. Best there’s ever been in the state of Georgia. The problem was he was just too darn talented for his own good.
‘You best be putting that thing away, John boy, Lord knows what trouble you’ll stir up playin’ it in public,’ his mama begged. ‘Folks ‘round here be thinkin’ you made a deal with the Devil.’
But it wasn’t Devil magic, no sir, it was just pure talent. And a little bit of luck. His daddy, God rest his soul, had crafted the instrument from the ancient hickory tree 10 years ago. Johnny had never seen something so beautiful. Its slick body shone like a new moon in the spring time. And it fit perfect between his shoulder and his hand. The chinrest dimpled like his own and the edge of the peg box cupped the side of his calloused hand with ease. Maybe that was the magic part. His daddy couldn’t’ve possibly known every single dent his body had. But that’s what made it his. That’s why he could play so good.
That fiddle was the most precious thing on Earth to Johnny.
He walked over to the hickory stump in the middle of the clearing and set the fiddle case down next to it. One last glance over the shoulder. Still no one. He flicked the clasps and opened it up. The dark grey wood of the fiddle met his eyes. He pulled the instrument from the bag and gave it a quick tune. The strings tended to loosen more on hot days. After deciding the bow had enough rosin for today’s session, Johnny stood and began to play.
He played a little of this and a little of that. New stuff, old stuff, and stuff in between. The strings sung with each push and pull of the bow and the notes floated out from under his practiced fingers. Johnny closed his eyes and pictured the music. It rippled out from the fiddle, carrying the haunting melodies he had stood there and played for 10 years. 10 years in his favourite spot.
It wasn’t the acoustics that made this his spot, no sir. In fact, the trees made the sound duller than a widow at a wedding. It was the hickory stump. The old, cracked stump that was paler than Death. The stump that was once the ancient hickory tree. Playing here felt like letting the poor thing know that someone still appreciated it, that its death was not in vain.
Johnny quit tinkering on the tones for a minute. The breeze laced leaves between his legs as he breathed in the sweet smell of the country. God’s country. There wasn’t anything finer before and there wouldn’t be anything after. He took one last big breath in before starting up his playing again.
He ran that bow across the strings as fast as he could go. In that moment he had no intention of slowing down, the notes pouring out of him like rapids. Something possessed him to keep fiddling until his fingers were red raw.
A clap from behind got his attention. On the old hickory stump stood a fellow drenched in venomous flames. His eyes held Johnny’s stare and chilled him to the bone. There was only one being he knew capable of such opposites. The fellow opened his mouth and greeted him with a deep, dark voice.
‘You play that there fiddle pretty good boy, but I’m something of a fiddler myself,’ he gave Johnny a sly devil grin. ‘Tell you what, boy, let’s have ourselves a little competition to find out who’s the best. I’ll bet this fiddle of gold against your soul cause there’s no way you can out fiddle the Devil.’
Johnny eyed the Devil back. No sir, this cannot be. Satan doesn’t dare leave the crossroads. Why should he come here and demand this little competition? There’s plenty more desperate folk in town willing to make a deal within two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
But he thinks a bit more about the Devil’s offer. A fiddle of gold won’t even play well, so how good can this fellow be? Any old fool that’s ever played the strings knows that only wood’s ever to be used.
Perhaps it was this sudden pride of knowing something the Devil didn’t. Or perhaps it was just because he had someone else to play to. Whatever the reason, Johnny decided to take up the wild bet. He gave a coy smile as he spoke, for the Devil hadn’t seen nothing yet.
‘My name’s Johnny and I’ll take up your bet, though it’s definitely a sin. But I’ll win the gold from you ‘cause I’m the best Georgia’s ever seen.’
The Devil clapped his hands together and gave a twisted grin. He pulled his case out from behind and opened it wide up. Johnny could feel the air change around them as his opponent tuned up. The sky began to darken and the grass grew cold. He clutched his fiddle hard. The breeze dropped and the trees stopped whispering. They seemed to lean in, fencing off the clearing. Sparks flew and littered the ground as the great fellow drew his bow across his rosin bar. It sizzled when placed against the strings.
‘Stand back boy, we don’t want you getting hurt,’ the Devil said.
And then he pulled those sizzling strings to create a mighty fine hiss. He moved that bow back and forth and opened up a rift. Out from the pits of Hell jumped four little demons, all ready to join their king. They pull out their little instruments and played along, sending panic through Johnny’s heart.
The Devil was unfair and wicked; he knew that much to be true. But even then, how could one be so cold to stoop so low in a friendly bet amongst friends? The band did play well, he was willing to admit.How was he to beat them when it was just him and his old hickory fiddle?
Rock and roll rhythms swam in his ears as the Devil raised the stakes. He set that fiddle ablaze with how skilled his fingers were. The quick beat of Johnny’s heart settled in his throat as he watched his opponent play the best he’d ever seen. A catchy tune and a little flair didn’t feel like much anymore. Perhaps the Devil was right to dare Johnny. Perhaps he was a fool after all.
But he still had to go and perform his best. He wasn’t about to give up, no sir, his daddy hadn’t raised a quitter. The boy rosined up his bow. He sent a silent prayer to his daddy in heaven to help him teach this son of a bitch a lesson. Confidence was all he needed. Confidence and a shit tonne of luck.
‘Listen hear Mr. Devil sir, you’re pretty good you know,’ said Johnny. ‘But sit right down on that there stump and get ready for a show.’
And he ran that bow across those strings for all that it was worth. The jumping rhythms of that Marshall Tucker Band song strung tight in the air. It hung on the horns of the devil and all his demon fiends. The trees broke from their stronghold and whispered once again. Johnny’s song had freed them from the silent, ghostly fence. He played that fiddle with all the might that he could muster. And he dared not peek from behind his eyes closed shut.
But if he did, for the urge was still there, little John boy would’ve seen the demon fiends dancing a dosey doe, hand-in-hand jumping to the heartbeat of his song. He would’ve seen the Devil tapping his hideous hooves, swinging his blazing arms to the catchy tune. And then he would’ve seen the Devil’s face fall down in defeat, for the king of Hell had accepted that ol’ John boy was the best.
Johnny finished off that golden tune and slowly opened his eyes. He breathed in and out. It could be his last time. The gold or the soul. The gold or the soul. Who would walk away with both the gold and the soul?
The Devil gave a gravel chuckle and jumped off the stump. He sauntered up to Johnny, a fire burning in his eyes. Johnny held his head high and cocked a coy smile. Inside though, he felt about to die. The Devil stopped just in front. He could feel his putrid breath about to strip skin from bone. Then the Devil placed the golden fiddle at Johnny’s feet. He gave a bow and congratulated his match. For it’s not often he meets someone as good on the fiddle as him.
Johnny felt his soul flip with joy. He couldn’t believe what he’d done. The fiddle of gold was nothing compared to the real prize of beating the Devil in a bet of his choosing. Then Johnny, like the good sport his daddy raised him to be, held out a hand of no hard feelings and joked around with him.
‘You gave it a red hot go; I was shaken’ there for a bit. But like I done told you before, you son of a bitch, I’m the best that’s ever been. Don’t be afraid to come back round if ya lookin’ to settle the score.’
The Devil clapped him on the back and gave one last chuckle. Then he set off for the edge of the shadows. Johnny watched as the glowing form was swallowed by the darkness. The horns and hooves left nothing save the scorch marks on the earth.
He stood there for a while, just breathing in and staring. He was staring at God’s country once more. Then he bent down and picked up that shiny, new gold fiddle and walked it over to the old hickory stump. He placed it on top then wondered. Wondered how the Devil lost in a competition he was judging. One answer came to mind, though, and it brought a smile to Johnny’s face. The Devil didn’t play with what Johnny had, no sir.
The Devil didn’t have no soul.
George C is an emerging Brisbane writer finishing her final year of their creative writing major at QUT. With a passion for the pessimistic, they enjoy taking a darker approach than typically recommended for a normal author. You can find George’s work all throughout ScratchThat.