Once in a small town in the south-western part of Ireland there was an inn. The inn was owned by a landlord and his wife, who were known for miles around for their generosity and hospitality. The town was situated by a bend in the main North-South road, and travelers coming down that road often stopped at the inn for the night. These were usually in groups of five to ten, but one autumn afternoon someone came down that road all by themselves, and walked into town all by themselves, and walked into the inn all by themselves.
The landlord, who was cleaning the bar, preparing for all the patrons who would come in that night, looked up to see a man walk in. He was tall, thin, and had a big bushy black beard that obscured most of his face. He wore a checked cap, glasses that reflected the sunlight so you couldn't see his eyes, and a long overcoat, covered with small metal objects for no apparent reason. They clinked as he walked up to the bar. Slung around his back was a fiddle case.
"I'd like a room for the night," said the stranger, in an accent the landlord could not quite identify.
"Certainly, sir", said the landlord. "You on your way to Dublin?"
"Got business there, 'ave ya?"
"Of a sort."
This piqued the landlord's interest, but the stranger did not seem to want to say more about it. The landlord gestured to the fiddle case around the stranger's back. "You play?" he asked. The stranger smiled, a queer expression that did not seem to fit well on his face. "Yes, a I play a bit."
"Is that yer business then? You play concerts?"
"No, not exactly."
Now the landlord was even more curious, and cocking an eyebrow he said, "Beggin' your pardon, sir, but what exactly is your business?"
"I'd rather not say," said the strange man, which only made the landlord more perplexed, and a bit suspicious. But he couldn't ask any more questions now, and he said sheepishly "Right, well, ah, you wanted a room, right? Well, follow me."
The landlord led the stranger to a room upstairs, and the stranger sat down on the bed and said that he would be coming out later, but would stay here for now. The landlord said that was fine, and went to tell his wife about the strange man who had come to stay for the night.
"Per'aps 'es a crook," she said. She was making their bed, even though she had made it twice already that day; she could never get the blanket to be quite smooth enough. "Yeah, that's it, he's a crook. Of course he is! Why else would he not tell you what his business is? The fiddle case is probably full o' stolen money. What in the world did ya let 'im in for? That's harborin' a fugitive, that's what that is!"
"Calm down dear, he'll hear you."
"Fine! Let 'im hear me. Maybe he'll run off to some other town, and not be bringin' his criminal ways into our house."
"He's not a crook, darling. If he was a crook he would have lied and told me was a shoe salesman or somethin'. He wouldn't have been so obvious."
"Well, remember you said that when we wake up tomorrow and everything is gone."
She turned her back, and continued smoothing the blanket. The landlord sighed, and went back downstairs to the bar, hoping his wife was slightly mad, instead of right.
Later that night, when all the patrons had come and gone, and one old man was left at the end of the bar sipping his drink, the stranger came down from his room. The landlord, who was cleaning the tables, greeted him.
"I'm going for a walk," said the stranger.
"Bit late, isn't it?" said the landlord.
"I won't be long."
"You better not, I'll be lockin' up in half an 'our or so."
"I'll be back before then. Also, I'll be leaving very early tomorrow, so I'll give you your pay now." He reached into some abyss within his overcoat, and retrieved a handful of coins. The landlord counted them, a bit self-consciously.
"That should cover it sir. I'll see you in a while, then?"
"Yes I..." The stranger trailed off, then turned, and walked through the door.
Right, that settles it, thought the landlord, as he went to get his hat and coat. He didn't know what the stranger was doing, but had made up his mind that it was certainly not a pleasant walk in the evening to take the air. Clearly the stranger was hiding something, and while he hated to pry into the affairs of a guest, this seemed too suspect to ignore. He threw a scarf around his neck--it was autumn--and began to follow the stranger.
He had seen him turn left going out, but had no idea where he could have gone after that. When he got to the end of the block he heard footsteps ahead, and quickly went in their direction. Through the little village they went, toward the road the stranger had come down. Soon they left the village entirely, and the landlord could see the stranger, walking towards the graveyard that stood about a quarter of a mile away from town. He fell back a little, partly from a desire to escape detection, and partly from an involuntary reluctance to see what was about to happen. What could he possibly want here?
When they reached the graveyard, the landlord crouched behind a bush just outside, while the stranger continued to the center of the small cluster of headstones. He sat down on the stump of a tree, then removed the fiddle box from his back. The landlord looked on in bewilderment, having only just noticed the instrument's presence. Setting the case on the ground, the stranger opened it, and removed it's contents. It was a fiddle, made of dark brown wood, and the stranger handled it very carefully as he removed it and it's bow from the case. Raising it to his chin, he paused for a moment, then began to play.
The music began slowly and sweetly, some ancient melody composed before time was counted, and the landlord was almost moved to tears, forgetting for a moment his fear, and the utter absurdity of the situation. He quietly peered out from behind the bush.
Then, as the landlord looked on, he saw a flash of light, on the other side of the cemetery. Then another one, this time not very far to the right. Then another, and another. The music became more rhythmic, swaying back and forth, as the lights appeared in more and more places, and some stopped flashing, but drifted slowly towards the fiddler. In terror, the landlord realized that every light appeared over a grave, and every light was not just a light, but a pale, gleaming orb that hovered in the air like a will-o'-the-wisp.
Then he saw other things. Faces, somehow behind and within the lights, would appear for a moment. Sometimes a light would flash and a man or a woman would be standing behind it, but when another would flash in the same place they would be gone, or it would be someone else. That's old Harry Meadows, the landlord thought, with surprising clarity. And he's been dead since last spring.
The music began to speed up. The lights gathered into a circle around the fiddler, so that his face was illuminated; his eyes were shining, but his face was twisted by passion. The lights spun around him faster and faster, as the music broke into a wild jig. Soon the landlord could no longer pick out the individual lights, but could only see a blur, with the fiddler on the other side. Sometimes he thought he could see figures dancing with the lights, and sometimes those figures were skeletons.
The music played, and the ghosts danced. All night long.
When the landlord woke up, the stranger was carefully placing the fiddle back in its box. It was just beginning to dawn, and the specters had vanished. Trying not to make a sound in his groggy state, he watched the stranger close the box, put it back on his back, and then, without a backward glance, begin to walk south down the road towards Dublin.
Slowly the landlord trudged back to the inn. He decided that the stranger must have planned to get far away before anyone realized he was gone, and his only reason for stopping at the inn was to put off suspicion as long as he could. The landlord let himself back inside, and quietly got back into bed. His wife was still asleep.
Later, while they were having breakfast, his wife said "Where were you last night? I was waiting for you to come up and I fell asleep."
"I took a walk," The landlord said.
"Well, don't stay out that late again. You never know what could happen."
The landlord nodded. He was exhausted, and was glad there had not been much to the interrogation. He didn't want to lie to his wife, but he didn't want to upset her either.
"Is that queer man gone? The one with the fiddle 'round his back?"
"He should be. He told me he'd leave early, so he paid me last night."
"Well at least he was honest. Maybe he wasn't a crook after all."
Later, when the landlord was at the bar talking to friends, his wife was going through the rooms, getting them ready for any guests that might come in that night. When she came to the stranger's room she was slightly apprehensive, but found it remarkably clean, and the bed hardly looked like anyone had slept in it recently. While she was sweeping, she brushed a piece of paper out from under the bed, which she picked up. It was a list of towns in Ireland , in order from north to south. Each one had a check mark next to it, except the one at the bottom of the list. The one at the bottom of the list was the town she was in.
That night, when the owner of the list discovered that it was missing, a duplicate was made, with a new town added. The next morning a check was made next to that one.
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Another recording. This is an old, old Irish march, apparently written for soldiers marching to the Battle of Clontarf, which took place in 1014. So in two years, it will be a thousand years old. I am playing Fiddle, Tin Whistle, and Bodhran.