Come to the Fort, Fair Lady
For Lee Smith
That morning she’d swept the granite slab that served as her first front step, as if she’d known he was coming. When she heard the first clops of his horse she was playing the fife fashioned for her by the last man to come into her cove.
She imagined she looked quite old, and though she did not feel so, she allowed that perhaps she was old, for now, for here, in this place. She was not near to emptying her Biblical allotment, but since she could remember she’d known no one who got what the Bible had promised.
Now she knew no one at all. She stayed in her cove in her cabin her daddy’d built so long, long ago. She existed, she was—tucked up, passed by but not passed by the new paths hacked out, up the mountains, through the gaps, across the valleys, going west.
She kept playing her fife even as she listened to the horse’s clopping, each step stronger and clearer, and then to the click and jingle of the tack, and then to the creak of the saddle leather. At last she chose to look.
The little red horse was riderless.
She was well into pondering this mystery when the not-riding rider called out an apology.
“I am neither mean nor base,” he called, quite close, from the woods. “I am only careful. I did not know any soul to be here, and I did not know who you might be.”
He had stepped from the trees as he spoke, and he and she stared at each other a while.
“I say you do not know still,” she said.
First she thought to remember other such men who rode so: hunters and bounders and highwaymen she’d known and seen all the length of Virginia, as a small girl on the banks of the York, and through each mile of her daddy’s race—could it have been a retreat?—farther, farther, up the James, west, higher, west, west. Then she considered this particular man, this rider not riding. He was tall, spare but strong, with a long rifle in his hands and a sword at his side.
Then she thought of that man who’d fashioned her a fife, the last man to come into her cove.
Then she thought how this man could not be such as those others. He had already shown himself more clever and more careful by entering her cove as he had.
He bowed. “I am John Fiddler.” When he rose he stepped clear of the shadows of the mountain slope and the chestnut limbs and she could see his face. His face was horrible, twisted and drawn out of balance, partitioned by two long scars that ran crosswise down its length. The scars that crossed on the bridge of his nose were deep and puckered and stretched. His face had grown since he’d received them, which meant he’d received them as a child. She had not heard of him, neither his face nor his name, so long had she gone without visitor or news.
They contemplated one another some more, each so unexpected to the other, who’d thought to have learned all that could be found. John Fiddler half-turned and whistled to the little ruddy horse, who came then to his hand.
“I am come with warning,” he said, “of Chickamaugas on the war path. You must come with me back to Fort Caswell.”
She barely heard him, she was trying so hard to hear and sort and settle all the questions in her head.
“How came you to be in this place?” she asked him.
He shot a quick glance at her chimney, but he said, “The crow is my particular bird, and a pair of them told me of a beautiful lady hidden high atop Clinch Mountain. They led me here.”
She laughed, full-throated, for this was the funniest thing she’d heard in many a year. When she stopped she said, “How’d you get up the falls?”
A hint of a smile, was all, and the scarred man said, “I’d caught a trout for to eat for dinner, but let him go instead, he was so pretty and shiny to look upon. In return for this favor, he mustered a troop of his fellows, and they towed us up the stream.”
She’d only half-listened this time, and she looked troubled. “But how’d you get through the laurels and thickets that crowd around the run?”
He said, “My horse and I both are part salamander. It’s why he minds me so good. We’re like half-brothers. We just crept and twisted and darted right on through.”
“And then how’d you climb up the ridge first of all?”
John Fiddler sighed and said, “Well, I . . . I am blood brother to the . . . to the . . . Well, to tell you the truth, ma’am, it just wasn’t all that steep.”
She dropped her eyes, disappointed. “Oh.”
John Fiddler spoke, as gentle as his river-bottom voice could manage.
“I come with urgent purpose, my lady. Old Abram and a hundred warriors come north from Chota, and mean to wipe us out. Come with me to Fort Caswell, where the fighting men can protect you.”
She shook her head. “I thought we’d never get up here,” she said, “up the ridge, and through the laurel and the thickets, and around the rocks of the falls. I helped Daddy push and pull and wrestle the mule cart when the mule couldn’t make it, and me no more than a slip of a girl then.”
The man’s brows narrowed, and he looked again, and closer, at the cabin.
“The laurel liked to strip me naked, and then to flay me down to bone,” she said, “and come a night I’ll still wake up with a start, my foot reaching out for purchase on the mud and the glassy rocks of my dreams.”
“My lady, how long have you been here?”
“Forty years come August.”
“Forty years here. Forty-one since we left the county Gloucester and headed west and up, west and up.”
“You have kinfolks here about?”
“Oh, yes. Well . . . Yes. I converse with them still. You’ll find them in the dell over yonder.”
He knew the condition in which he’d find this kin, and felt no need to see their graves. “Forty years,” he said. “Seventeen and thirty-six. My God. May I look about?”
She swept the air with her left hand. She knew he’d find not chink nor crack, not a peg loose. Her daddy had built well, and she’d helped. John Fiddler would find not a weed in the garden, nor fly in the cistern. She raised her fife and commenced to play again.
Soon he stood before her, regarding the cabin, regarding her, regarding the south where the stream ran, then fell, down the ridge, under the laurels and thickets, over and between the rocks.
“I wish I could swear to you that your home will be safe,” he said, “but I cannot, in truth. I can only swear that you will be safe, if you come back with me to Fort Caswell. Pack your necessaries and mount up Deacon here, my lady.”
“Did you say your name is Fiddler?” she said.
“I did, my lady. John Fiddler, a ranger at your service.”
“Does that mean you fiddle?”
“I do, fair lady, when I have the chance. If you’ll come with me to the fort, I’ll fiddle any song you can name. I’ll fiddle up the sun for you.”
“I’ve had no accompaniment to my fife for an age,” she said. “Do you know this one?”
She began to play a rude tune; or, no, she began to play a fine tune rudely. She played neither jig nor reel nor ballad. She played a high-church psalm, a vestry hymn, stately and rigidly formed, never meant to be played on a hand-carved fife on a cabin porch in a cove of Clinch Mountain. John Fiddler could hear that and know that, and marvel some more.
She paused. “Won’t you give me accompaniment?”
“We do not have the time, my lady. Fort Caswell is far, and we must be away.”
She curled her lips and narrowed her eyes, like a child denied a second piece of candy, and went back to playing.
“My lady, who are you, and why and how did you come to be in this place?”
“Why, I am Virginia,” she said as if he should have known. “I am Virginia Roe, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance, John Fiddler. My daddy brought us here forty years ago come August. We came from the county Gloucester, with the river York on one hand and the great bay on the other. O, what we saw along the way. We traveled all the length of the land for which I am named.”
“And why did you travel all that length?”
“I . . . Daddy . . . I . . . I was to be a lady. I was to be a lady.”
“And a lady you are, and a mighty fair one, at that,” John Fiddler said. “So you must come with me now to the safety of Fort Caswell. We have no time to tarry.”
“How much will that cost me?” she said.
“Not a penny. Not an egg. It will be Deacon’s pleasure to carry you, and mine to escort you.”
“But the men at the fort? There will be a great many more men at the fort, men of all ranks and kinds?”
“It will be their pleasure to give you protection,” he said. “And should any fail or lag or grumble, I will set them straight myself. Now gather what you need and let us be off.”
“No,” she said, the way she’d have turned down an inferior bolt of cloth.
John Fiddler knelt before her; the ranger went down to one knee. “My lady, you must come with me.”
“I must do no such thing. I must do no thing you say to me.”
“My lady, Old Abram comes this way not to raid, to steal, to take captives. He comes to kill every single settler he can find. Each and ever’ single one.”
“Who says he’ll find me?”
“Who says he won’t?”
“He ain’t never found me before.”
“I found you this time, who ain’t never found you before.”
“Who gave you your scars?”
“Who gave you your scars, and why?”
“Come with me and I’ll tell you along the way.”
Her shoulders sagged. “No.”
“No one over the mountains knows the story of my scars,” he said. “You’ll own a great secret, and you’ll be safe from Old Abram. Such bargains you shouldn’t put lightly aside.”
“Yet I see it a bargain that you’d get the best of,” she said.
“I? How would I?”
“You seem to me to need my safety,” she said, “far more than I do.”
He shifted his grip on Deacon’s reins.
“Perhaps I do, my lady. I confess I do want your safety so bad it passes over into need. Now that I know you are here in this cove, the thought of you unprotected, Chickamaugas on the war path, galls me, and if I leave you here the ‘membrance of it will burn me up from the inside.”
“And why should that be so,” she said, “when it is my choice to stay here?”
He raised his face to her. “I have been weak,” he said, “and alone, undefended, and without the agency to defend myself. I am not, now, nor have I been since youth. I have made sure of it, every minute, every day. Yet I do not forget what it is to be, what it means and how it feels, and so I must do all that I can for those who are as I was.”
She smiled at him. “I like you, John Fiddler, or John Ranger I should call you, since you will not fiddle for me. And I like that word that you used, that word ‘agency.’ And I like the thing of it, the truth, the having of it, more than I like the word for it.
“You men have made quite a world for yourselves, have you not, and I reckon you have since Adam. I believe you, that you would want nothing from me for my rescue and protection, not even my gratitude, not even a thanks. But then others . . .” She shook her head.
“If any man tried to force so much as a look from you, I’d . . .”
“Prove my point, is what you’d do,” she said. “Set the fenced boundaries of someone else’s agency, by showing that you have more. You’d stop them from doing what they would, by doing what you would, over any objection or opposition they could muster.
“I have not seen your fort, but I know there to be no room in it for ought but you who are strongest, fastest, fiercest. That’s the price of your protection, whether you ask the payment of it or not.
“And I defy you to look me in the eye and say you’ve never once thought to snatch me up and tie me to your horse, and be off with me.”
The wind moved to come from the east, as if the cove were the fulcrum of the turning world, and John Fiddler looked sick.
“I cannot leave you here to die,” he said.
“You cannot make me go,” she said, “without you forswear yourself.”
She raised her fife and played again.
John Fiddler rode off, after while. He rode off, long-faced and grim, after trying and failing to think of further argument. He rode off after thinking again, and more clearly, about smacking her hard enough to stun her senseless, throwing her slender form across his shoulder, and tying her to Deacon’s back.
He rode off after begging her, one last time, to come with him to Fort Caswell. Her eyes smiled at him over her fife, and she gave no answer. He rode back down the ridge, by the stream and the run, through the laurels and thickets, over and around the rocks. He rode back into the world of men.