After the Impact, Sarena Pollock
Walking up to the house had been strange, perhaps even suspicious. The building was a two-story monument to the cotton-picking genocide of days supposedly gone past, and the way the sunset had framed it did not bode well. Sure, it was pretty, but dawn and dusk are doorways, and Johnny had good reason to be wary of those.
Plus, the owner had decided that no she wouldn’t have anything as prosaic as cows–it was llamas or bust for this gal. So, a vast curtain of hooved flesh, with fluffy heads perched ludicrously upon necks and bodies recently sheared nude, passed judgment on him while he walked up to the gates.
“By ‘ell I hope this ain’t the Fair Folk again,” Johnny muttered as he shouldered past another llama. But when the beautiful white oak doors opened, he gave the lady on the other side his most courteous, lopsided grin and tipped his dark cowboy hat. “G’d evenin’ ma’am, heard you’d like to hear me play.”
The woman, Georgia Marthis, gave a short laugh that came from a life of chain smoking. “Well you certainly do live up to your reputation for good manners.”
“Why thank you.”
“Now, let’s see if you can fiddle as well as I’ve been told. Come on in Mr. Tagesanbruch.” Somewhere behind her at ankle level a deranged, asthmatic yip sounded. As Johnny stepped over the threshold, he was inspected by what was quite possibly the world’s ugliest dog. It was some sort of Chihuahua, half bred with a Mistake. The horrid thing trembled constantly from undying yet impotent rage. Between its bulging eyes and Georgia’s scarred voice, his nervousness melted away.
Once seated in plush, embroidered chairs Georgia bid him to play. As Johnny undid the clasps of his carrying case and gently brought the fiddle to his chin, Georgia’s eyes widened. The whole thing was white as bone except for the deep blue of inlaid sapphire and the cold grace of just enough gold leaf.
Then Johnny played. He chose an upbeat tune lost to almost all the world. It was considered too lowbrow and popish when recording was first invented, and then too dead when that sort of thing was considered worth remembering. Most think of songs that move to tears, but this moved to laughter. Light and careless, it spoke of a thousand childhood carnivals full of wonder, even while parents grumbled about scam artists. It spoke, really, of a world that isn’t: impossibly gentle and vibrant, and it asked those listening not to mourn for the fact it wasn’t real. Johnny took care to honor that wish and wound it down slow to end, so that the return didn’t jar. Still, Georgia found it far shorter than she wished.
A moment passed and joy lingered like a fog. “Well I’ll be damned, you’re the real deal.” Georgia breathed, and then added jokingly, “Though I hafta admit, I did expect the famous Golden Fiddle to have a bit more gold!”
Johnny gave a chuckle, “Yeah, I think folks just figured ‘Golden’ was a lot catchier than, ‘The extinct-critter-ivory fiddle with huge hunks a sapphire and tiny little bit a gold painted on.’ T’be honest, the first time I heard them singin’ that blasted thing I damn near had a heart attack. Thought Old Scratch was gonna come marchin’ back to snap me in two for makin’ fun!”
“I take it you weren’t consulted in its making then?” The sarcasm in her voice and smile were warm and without much bite.
He gave a snort. “Nope. Not that I ain’t flattered by it. Kinda blew it out of proportion, but at the same time it doesn’t do the tale justice.” He went a little introspective then. “I’m not sure anything could really do him justice.”
“I’d sure like to hear you try.”
Johnny smiled, and stared out into the middle distance with the dramatic flair of a small-town story teller. “I s’pose… well I guess I must have been about 25 at the time…
“I’ve been playing fiddle for as long as I can remember. Gran-Anne, the local midwife, used to joke that I came out of the womb clutching rosin. I’d just come home for summer after wandering the country, playing for bread and bed. I was standing on a stump, (mesquite rather than hickory), playing some tune that my baby sister always loved.
“And on that day The Devil really did go down to Georgia, or I suppose he went up to it, as North is generally considered the upwards direction. He didn’t have horns or claws when he came in to our little town square, but by the Lord did he cause a stir.
“The man is gorgeous, a literal work of art. See, his human looking form’s actually a statue he built back when the world was young. He made it out of chunks of obsidian held together by platinum, cuz he’s much too vain for something as dull as silver. His ‘hair’ is made from countless rows of long chains. They’re mostly ebony (don’t ask me how he got wood into chain links) but also precious gems and other metals, some of which I don’t rightly know the name of. Told me once that he adds a link to all the chains at the end of every century.
“There’s mor’en a dozen different components to the whole thing, each stranger and more valuable than the last. Doesn’t really matter since all anyone saw that day was a beautiful human man. He was clothed in an expensive suit, with skin like the night of a lightning storm and long, braided beard and hair. However, the fact he was pretty wasn’t what caused people to worry.
“You see, he was a rich black man, with a rifle slung over his saddle, riding into a white town surrounded by nothing but slave plantations for more than 40 miles. The scariest thing of all? There wasn’t a lick of fear on him.
“At the time I was a tone-deaf idiot who closed his eyes when he played (still am, sometimes). So, I just kept playing, happy as could be, while Satan himself got down from his horse, and practically the whole town reached for a gun. Finally, my good, brave, childhood friend Christian Smith (may he rest in blissful peace!) elbows me hard in the ribs, and I jerked back to the rest of the world.
“By that time the Devil was standing right in front of me, only two-three feet between us. I only came up to the bottom of his ample chest, so my gaze started there and traveled up. In that moment I felt like everything went to slow motion. It seemed that the man in front of me was so damn tall I’d be craning upwards forever and never reach his eyes.
“But reach them I did, and for a tense moment I just stared into brown eyes that looked like the fire of the sun reflecting off the most pristine of lakes.
“I was fuckin’ terrified.
“Now, I wasn’t raised with no gentlemanly airs, but by Hell my mama taught me to be polite. So, I gulped, stuck out my hand, and said, ‘Hello, m’name’s Johnny. How d’ya do?’
“In the corner of my eye Chris just looked at me like I’d absolutely lost it.
“The Devil smiled. I think he was just amused now, but at the time all I could think of was wolves barin’ their teeth. He took my hand, shook it with perfect grace and told me this in a voice like ink, ‘A pleasure to meet you Johnny. My name is Lucifer.’
“At that my blood turned to ice, and I think someone screamed but he just kept talkin’, calm and smooth: ‘I suspect you’ve heard that I like to gamble, and I see that we both play excellent fiddle, so I’ll make you a wager. If I’m the better player, I get your soul. If you win, I’ll give you a fiddle worth more than this whole world’s weight in solid gold. Are you willing, Johnny?’
“If any of us had been breathing well before we were all holding our breath now. A second passed as I realized I’d just been asked a question. A second passed as I stared my own death and damnation in the face. (It looked back in the manner of a cat that has just lay’n in the sun and is waiting for something to move.) A second passed as the singular overwhelming thought of ‘FUCK IT!’ filled every part of me. My eyes turned to steel, my guts to iron, and my voice filled with delirious determination as I told the Devil, ‘Bring it on ya old bastard!’
“My mother fell to sobbing for the fate of her incurably stupid son, and she clutched my little sis who was really starting to panic at this point. I think poor, dear Christian Smith was yelling at me to run. Roger Blakey, who’d seen the death of war and the blood of birth in his time as town doctor, fainted. But I was only vaguely aware of them. I watched Lucifer’s face twist into a manic grin, and nothing else mattered. The world was on fire, and the only thing left to do was play ’til it all turned to ash.
“I took the first round. I couldn’t honestly tell you what I played, only that it was powerfully sorrowful and harsh. I did it flawless too, every note sang clear and perfect. I felt top of the world, there was no way he could go any higher than that.
“But then Satan pulled his bow across this fiddle’s strings and out pored the most achingly beautiful, pure, crystalline tones. My song had made the town choke on bitter tears, but he inspired them to weep.
“We went back and forth like this for hours, and my confidence cracked, slipping away to desperation towards the end. Lucifer’s music was romance wrapped in velvet, and it seemed that all my talent made was shrieks and hisses in comparison. By about the end of the twelfth song I was certain I was leaving this town tied to the back of Satan’s horse.
“Halfway through what must have been the 20th song I played that day (I actually remember this one it was ‘Chicken in the breadpan a picking out dough’), I glanced up and caught my competitor’s eyes. He had this look, gentle and sweet, full of honey, like he just wanted to hear me play for the rest of time. Startled me so bad I forgot what the Hell I was playing so I just improvised random shit for a while and then stopped cold. He raised his hand to show that it was done, and I willed myself not to cry, least not before my mom, but then he said,
“A tornado of emotion whirled through me then, confusion and relief chief among them with paranoia nipping at their heels. Satan then continued, ‘Johnny, you’re the world’s greatest fiddle player, and I’m the best at violin.’ He placed both promised fiddle and the bow in my hands but before he let go, he gave me a warning, his voice gone grave, ‘I advise you never to sell this, for there’s not a one on Earth that could give you even half of what this is really worth.’
“Truth be told I just nodded dumb, and damn near dropped the thing when the Devil let go. I think all that had really been holding me up till then was sheer terror, and the moment he was out of sight I collapsed right there in the dirt, crying and laughing and yellin’ that I’d won! By the Lord there were tears and whoops and shouts of joy all around. I don’t think we stopped celebrating the whole rest of the month, and somewhere in there is when The Devil Went Down to Georgia first got sung.”
There was a pause between Johnny and Georgia then, broken only by the dog as it twitched and muttered through its dreams. Then she spoke, “Wow, that… You’re right the song really does undersell it.”
Johnny sat a little straighter and smiled wide, “Yer too kind ma’am.” He glanced up at the clock, and saw that it was well past midnight, “Sadly, I can’t stay much longer, and please, don’t ask why.” He sighed, deep, heavy, but not without humor and Georgia thought she could hear a bit of his unnatural age around its edges. “It’s a long, and frankly embarrassing, story.”
“Oh, now I’m desperately curious, but a man has a right to his dignity. Go wait by the door, and I’ll get yer book.”
She returned shortly with a tome bound in vellum, layer after layer of it, to the point that one might mistake it for just a roll of fabric. He accepted it with a casual sort of reverence, “Much obliged Ms. Marthis.”
“Before you go, I’ve got one last question: Tagesanbruch, it’s an odd name, German I believe, and you don’t strike me as the type. How’d you come by it?”
Johnny showed her the back of his left hand where pale, intricate, and obviously deliberate scars circled his ring finger and traced a pattern to the rest of his hand, “When I married the Dawn, I took his name.” He flashed a sly smile at her and headed down to wade through the llamas.
About the Author
James Davis · Trinity University
James Davis attended Trinity University with an undeclared major. Zir short story “Johnny, Satan, and Various Georgias” was first published in the Trinity Review. Ze was inspired to write this by zir deep love of country music as a story telling medium and zir lifelong interest in all things occult and gothic.
About the Artist
Sarena Pollock · Susquehanna University
Sarena Pollock is a graduate of Susquehanna University with a BA in Creative Writing, where she was the recipient of the Gary and Elizabeth Fincke Outstanding Senior Portfolio Prize. Her debut chapbook “After the Impact” was published by Chrysalis Press of Susquehanna University in 2019, and her work appears in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Albion Review, Laurel Moon, and Kissing Dynamite, among others.