Now there were two things everybody knew about Jarvis Talbott. The first one was, he was a mean, raving drunk. When the fit was on him, he’d get likkered up and start fights with circle saws if that was all that was nearby to fight. More than once he beat men to a pulp, and walked right up the the penitentiary doors facing what should have been murder charges, but—since the Devil looks out for his own—his victims always recovered, and out of fear refused to prosecute.
The other thing about Jarvis Talbott was that he’d been brought up by two very pious parents who taught him that the fiddle—the sweetest singer, in a good musician’s hands, of all stringed instruments—was the Devil’s own temptation. Fiddle music, especially the old tunes that tempted a body first to tap their toes and then—God help us—to get up and dance, was evil, they told him.
Jarvis didn’t take their admonitions about the evils of wine and strong drink to heart, but he did hate fiddle music with a passion. That made his choice, when the time came, of a bride all the more curious. Sallie was a pretty girl from the red mud knobs, small and spunky, and she came from a family of fiddlers. Of them all she was the best. In her hands, a fiddle sang like a nightingale, a waterfall, wind in a pine thicket. Sallie heard tunes in her head that nobody had taught her; she just played them.
But she only played them when her husband wasn’t around. He hadn’t made her get rid of her fiddle—for a wonder—but he had told her about the devil that sang in his ears when she played. He had threatened to smash the fiddle to toothpicks if he ever caught her playing.
Jarvis, thanks to his drinking, wasn’t very “work brickle” as the old people in the knobs say. He would rather drink than work on his little farm, and he spent a lot of time away from home, drinking himself senseless and fighting. It was left up to Sallie to keep things going the best she could. She canned vegetables from her tiny garden, she dried fruit from her apple trees, she raised pigs for meat, she kept a milk cow, she hauled wheat to the grist mill, she kept bees, and, in the evenings, when her work was done, she’d sit on her little front porch, or in winter by the kitchen stove, and play her fiddle. Some nights she’d play until she got sleepy; other nights, when, though she was tired beyond mortal endurance, she couldn’t sleep, she’d play all night. She’d play slow tunes, and sad tunes, and old ballads, but her favorites were happy little dance tunes, many of them of her own composition.
It was on one of those nights, when she couldn’t sleep, that Jarvis came home and caught her playing, there by the stove.
Jarvis was, as usual, drunk, and mean with it. He didn’t say a word; he shambled over to Sallie, snatched the fiddle out of her hands, broke it and the bow across his knee, and then shoved the fragments into the stove to burn.
Sallie screamed at him, “You bastard—”
And he turned on her. As he had done to so many men in his drunken rages, he beat her unmercifully. Sallie was strong and muscular from her farm labors, but she stood no chance against the mountainous fists of her husband. She fought back until her strength gave out. And still he beat her.
She was mortally injured, and she knew it. Just before he landed the punch to her face that killed her, she looked at him, and said through the blood coming from her mouth, “You haven’t heard the last of me. This I swear, on my burnt fiddle.”
Her last breath whistled from her.
Jarvis abruptly sobered up. He knew that this time there was no way out of a murder charge. But he tried.
He buried her just beyond the garden plot, in the edge of the woods. He babbled a prayer over the grave, and hoped fervently that she would rest in peace.
As he turned to walk away, he heard fiddle music, coming from the front porch.
It couldn’t be.
But it was. It was not one of the pretty lilting tunes his parents had called the Devil’s temptation, either. This music was dark and angry and evil. But in a minute or two, it faded away.
In the days that followed, he cleaned the bloody kitchen as best he could, and he tried, in a desultory way, to take up Sallie’s farm chores. Mostly he brooded over her final words. But as time went on, and he didn’t hear the music again, he began to breathe easier. He even began going to his favorite watering holes, but he never stayed long, and he didn’t drink as much as before. And if anybody asked about Sallie, he’d say she was doing well, and leave it at that.
Then came a night when, feeling as if Sallie’s final curse had been ineffective, he got roaring drunk, just like the old days, and started a fight.
He was just about to take his opponent down with one last blow when, out of nowhere, a fiddle began to play—wild, angry, evil music.
Jarvis froze in place.
“What’s that?” one of his drinking buddies asked. “Ain’t no fiddle here.”
Jarvis blustered, “Ain’t nothin’. You just imaginin’ things.”
As if to spite him, the music became thunderously loud.
Jarvis led the charge out the front door.
Thereafter, every time he got drunk and started a fight, that ugly, wicked music would come from nowhere.
Finally, one night, someone shouted at him as they ran from the raging fiddle, “That’s Sallie! WHAT DID YOU DO TO SALLIE?”
That was when Jarvis’s bravado finally gave way, and he confessed he had killed his wife.
He did go to the penitentiary that time, but he didn’t last long. He was found dead one morning on his bunk with his hands over his ears, as if he were trying to shut out some sound.
He was buried in the prison grounds under a tombstone that bears no name, only a number. Some of the few who attended his burial swore that, as the last clods of dirt covered his plain coffin, they heard fiddle music that seemed to come from nowhere.
It was, they said, the prettiest, happiest little dance tune they’d ever heard.
There are stories from all over about ghostly fiddlers. This one was inspired by two such: one from Nancy Roberts’s 1978 book GHOSTS OF THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAINS AND APPALACHIA, the other a story from Lewes, Delaware, which appears in the 1994 edition of Dennis William Hauck’s THE NATIONAL DIRECTORY OF HAUNTED PLACES–but the rest came from my warped imagination.