You just knew the old man in the heavy jacket wasn’t long for this world. He stumbled through the snow, his head bowed low against the wind, something small and delicate in his arms.
Boy it was cold that day, and it had grown colder still as evening drew on. By the time the old man reached the little wood house with the crooked door, you could have poured out your tea in that air and it would have landed as solid as a stone.
He got a hand free from whatever it was he clutched to his chest and thumped on the crooked door. There had been some music going on inside the house, one of those yearning fiddle tunes that makes you think sadness is beauty and beauty is sadness, but this cut off when the old man’s fist struck the door. A moment later, the door opened. A figure dressed all in black with a cowl shrouding its visage stood framed in the doorway. "Yes?" it said, and its voice was neither male nor female, neither old nor young.
"May I come in?" asked the wizard—for the old man was of course a wizard.
"No," said the figure, and shut the door. A moment later and the old man heard the fiddle music start up. He thought: I could fly if I jumped from a clifftop with wings made of such music.
The bundle in the wizard’s arms stuck out a small pink tongue and licked frost from the wizard’s beard.
The wizard banged on the door again. "Let me in," he said. "WE need to talk. Also, it’s quite cold out here. I can feel my blood getting thick as tar."
The door opened and there stood the black-clad figure. "You can come in," it said. "If you pay the price."
The wizard was expecting this. He was a master bargainer; all magic is haggling. He said, "You know I could teach you another song. If you’re interested. Once my fingers thaw out."
"I have only one song," said the figure, as if stating a fact of nature. "Only one song."
"That’s a shame, isn’t it," said the wizard. "There’s so many. You must get weary of playing the same one, all the time."
"The figure shrugged. "If you can show me songs as stirring as the one I play, then I will not make you pay the price."
"We have a deal," said the magician.
The black-cloaked figure stepped back to allow the wizard through the crooked door. Inside, the house was as small as a single room. There was a three-legged stool before the lit fire. A shelf held three books and a silver fiddle case containing the fiddle. There was no bed, no cooking pots or stacks of plates or knives and forks. The was a single cup and a single bottle.
"Have a drink?" asked the figure.
"Yes," said the wizard. "Thank you."
He set his bundle down on the hearth and unrolled it. Inside the blanket was a tiny black and white puppy. It licked the wizard’s hand, but he could not feel the tongue on his numb skin.
"What should I call you?" wondered the wizard.
"Me?" asked the figure, "or the pup?"
"You," said the wizard, straightening from the hearth. "My name is Marias."
"you can call me James," said the black figure.
"Good," said Marias. "I like that name."
He placed the three-legged stool closer to the fire then took a seat on it. "How about that drink, James?"
James nodded. He poured a rich amber liquor into the cup and handed it to Marias. Then he took a swig directly from the bottle.
Marias took a sip of his drink and smacked his lips appreciatively. "Good stuff," he said. He dipped two fingers into the cup then extended them down to let the puppy lick them. "Very satisfying."
"Are you warmed up yet?" asked James.
"Not just yet," Marias said, though he did unzip his jacket a ways. "My hands are still quite stiff."
"Hmm," said James. He gave off the impression of having deep regrets for having allowed Marias inside.
"Listen," Marias said, "while I’m here—"
"How did you find me? It is supposed to be impossible," James began to pace, though he had little room for it.
"Oh I just…you know…" Marias took another sip. "I asked Mother Jenkins what she did with all that fine aged apple brandy she makes. She pointed out the road…told me about where the moon should be in the sky…what the other planets should be up to…very helpful." Marias took another drink. "Very good apple brandy."
"I trusted her," said James sourly.
"Ah well," said Marias, "wasn’t nothing she could do about it but to tell me. I got her over a barrel, as they say."
"You blackmailed her?"
"Yes indeed. Chapter one stuff, blackmail."
"And why did you wish to find me?"
"Wanted to make another deal," Marias said. He leaned down and stroked the puppy. It wriggled and splayed its legs. It liked the heat.
"We have already made a deal," James said. "You will show me some new songs or else you will pay the price."
"Yes," said Marias, "about the price…My offer stands. I will show you three new songs, each as stirring as the one you already know. In return, I will never pay your price."
"No," said James. "Humans, even wizards, must always pay my price."
"How long have you been playing that song? “Marias asked. "Seems to me that stories about it go back as far as recorded history.” Marias deepened his voice and added a drawl. “Here comes…James. Here comes James playing that sad song. Isn’t it the most beautiful sound you ever heard? Like geese flying off in the autumn. Like lunes on a lake at midnight. Like a train distant across the prairie."
"I do not know what a train is," said James.
"Neither do I," said Marias, in his regular voice, "But apparently it sounds sad and lonely and beautiful."
"Beauty is in the ear of the listener," James said.
"And sadness is in their heart," Marias finished the line. "But what about fear? What about love? What about laughter? Wouldn’t it be grand to play a jolly song, for a change?"
"It would be ironic," James said. "Most don’t feel jolly when it comes time to pay my price."
"And why not? Why should it always be sad and beautiful? It isn’t always beautiful, either. Only sometimes, when it’s a very old person. Or a brave soldier.”
James stopped his pacing. He took another pull from the brandy bottle. "You’ll show me the songs," he said commandingly. "You’ll do it because I let you in out of the cold."
"I knew you’d be stubborn," Marias said. "So I came prepared to sweeten the deal."
"There’s no more deal," James said.
"What about if this little puppy pays the price for me? You promise that I never have to pay your price and in return I’ll teach you three new songs and this pup will pay your price. He’s very young, just born in fact."
James considered. He paced a bit more, drank a bit more brandy. Marias stroked the pup.
"Very well," James said. "I agree. Now, teach me these songs. Remember if they are not as stirring as the song I already know, none of this deal holds."
Marias nodded. "Of course of course," he said. He polished off his drink, set the cup upon the shelf and took up the fiddle from its silver case, settled it beneath his chin and lifted the bow. "This first one," he said, "it’s a march. Soldiers play it as they go off to war. There should be a drummer, but we’ll make do without."
He began to play. The music spooled out in ribbons. The ribbons wrapped themselves around the puppy. It clambered to its paws. There was a driving beat to the melody, a tug upon the ribbons. The puppy began to march, tailing waving in time.
When Marias had done. He set the fiddle down and helped himself to another drink. James was oblivious, head cocked as if still listening. Marias reached into his jacket pocket and pulled a lump of roast chicken out and fed it to the puppy, oh so sneakily.
"Was that really so stirring?" James asked. "I wasn’t that moved. Perhaps it needed the drums after all."
"Of course it was stirring," Marias exclaimed. "Do you really think this poor little chap would have got up and started to march along if it hadn’t been? He’s a stupid little puppy, barely a month into this world."
"Hmm," said James. "Let me hear another tune."
This time Marias played a drinking song. You’ve probably heard it. There a dime a dozen but they do the trick. They get people tapping their feet, mouthing the words, if they’re drunk enough, singing along, arms around each other’s shoulders.
The puppy, for his part, began to yip and bark with excitement. He yipped and barked in time with the tune and even James began to snap his fingers.
"That was quite a song," James said when Marias had done. James got down another bottle of brandy as the first had been emptied. "That little pup," James said. "He sure got involved."
"Remarkable, considering dog’s aren’t normally swayed by music as much as people," said Marias, who had slipped the pup another lump of roast chicken while James had been finding the second brandy bottle. "It’s a testament to the power of the tune."
"Yes," James said. "Very good. Let’s hear a third song."
For this last song, Marias strummed some very violent sounding chords. He really stretched is ability, playing fast and loud. It was an angry, zipping piece, using the full range of the fiddle, which because it was James’s fiddle, was a very big range. If you heard the tune, you’d probably not recognize it, although it would sound familiar. You might think Bach, but you’d be wrong.
It had a remarkable effect upon the puppy. The puppy curled itself into a ball and began to roll all across the floor like something possessed. It banged against the walls and against James’s feet and against the legs of the three-legged stool. Then it rolled into the fire.
Marias at once stopped playing. He dropped the fiddle and dove to grab the puppy. James caught him by the shirt collar. "The bargain," James said.
"Let me go."
"You said the pup would pay your price," James said.
"You made him roll into the fire?" Marias choked out. "Let me go."
"You made a bargain. I liked your songs. You can leave now. You are safe from me."
Marias smelled burning fur.
"I take it back," Marias said frantically. "The deal, I take it back."
"You can’t," James said. "WE made it fair and square. WE drank two bottles of apple brandy."
"I only taught the dog to do those tricks when I played the music. The songs aren’t really that good. They’re only common songs you can hear anywhere."
"You were trying to trick me?" James said.
"He’s not even a puppy," Marias pleaded. "He’s only a small breed of dog."
"How did you want him to die?" James said. "How did you want him to pay the price?"
"Not like this," Marias said, feeling the prick of tears around his eyes. "Not burning to death."
He still struggled against James’s grip. He could hear the pup’s squeals of pain. Or thought he could. Could he really?
No. No he was hearing the sounds of a fiddle. The fiddle was squealing and howling like an animal, like a puppy caught on fire.
If it was the fiddle and not Biscuit, not Biscuit is precious little dog. Then it was James. James? Death.
Something licked Marias’s face, although he couldn’t feel it through his numb skin. He was lying in the snow on his back. Something stood on his chest. Biscuit?
Beauty is in the ear of the listener and sadness is in their heart.
If Biscuit was on his chest, then he wasn’t burning to death in James’s fire. But that sound. It was the saddest song Marias had ever heard. It meant he was dying, paying James’s terrible price. And yet it was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard, because it meant Biscuit was safe. The little dog wasn’t burning to death. He’d been an old fool to bargain with the little dog’s life, a desperate old fool.
Biscuit looked up at James and wagged his tail hopefully.
“Not a chance,” James said. “I’ve already made one deal that went sour today. I won’t make a second.”
Biscuit whined and held up his little paws one after the other imploringly. James sighed. He knelt down and searched Marias’s pockets until he found the napkin with the lumps of roast chicken. Biscuit’s little nose went wild.
“All right. You get the chicken,” James said, “if you can do that funny little march again. I liked that little march.”
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