Authors: A. Destiny
Mrs. Teagle thought hiding my anvil burn was the height of foolishness. I now realized that Coach might think otherwise. The code of the barn was all about being careful and methodical, making sure you did everything possible to avoid melting your face off. We had a saying that we called out like a battle cry whenever the forge ran too hot or too cold:
Respect the beast!
If you didn't respect the beast, the iron that you'd been carefully molding for hours could turn into a puddle. Or it wouldn't get molten enough and your next hammer stroke would land so hard, it would make your brain jangle.
But another rule of blacksmithing was this: no whining. It was bad form to grumble about scrapped work, sore muscles, or minor burns. For all I knew,
the guys were nursing blistered woundsâand they were as closemouthed about them as I was.
Maybe I wasn't so badly suited for blacksmithing after all.
I carried my spike over to the beat-up wooden table where we were supposed to leave our finished work. I scanned the other smiths' piecesâseveral really respectable horseshoes, a twisty fireplace poker, and some surprisingly delicate candlesticks. All these items were much more polished than my lowly spike, but I didn't care. My nubbly nail reminded me of the scruffiest puppy in a litter, the one you chose out of pity, then adored more fiercely than any perfect, pedigreed dog.
I put my spike on the table, gave it a little pat, then turned to head out. But Coach stopped me.
“You should take it with you,” he said, nodding at my spike. “It's your first one. There's nothing like it.”
I blushed, then laughed to cover up the blush.
“What am I gonna do, put it under my pillow?” I joked. “Or hang a really, really big picture on the wall?”
“Just hold it in your hand,” Coach said, not joining in on my laughter or even smiling. To him, even my overgrown thumbtack was a sacred thing.
“Just take in all those beautiful flaws,” Coach went on, “all those dents and scars that say, âA person made this.
Who knew Coach, who routinely spat on the floor, could be so poetic? I think he was almost more moved by my success than I was.
But I did take him up on his offer and carried my spike, cradled in both hands, out of the barn.
It was only then that I realized I'd been too successful at distracting people that day. While pounding out my ridiculously large nail, I'd truly forgotten about the fiddle lesson with Jacob.
And now, I was late.
There was no time to go back to my dorm and shower. No time to restraighten my hair or put on that perfectly imperfect outfit.
I rolled my eyes, shoved my spike into the back pocket of my cutoffs, and used the barnyard pump to splash some water on my face.
I sighed as I hurried away from the barn.
I guess that's another way to avoid obsessing about a boyâshow up at your romantic meeting place looking sooty, sweaty, and frizzy-haired. If there was a spark there, it's going to go out as soon as he lays eyes on me.
felt short of breath
as I hurried up the steepest but quickest trail on Sap Hill. The pine sap that gave this hill its name smelled uncomfortably sharp. My nose and throat were already a little dry and raw after my day hovering over the forge.
But the trail through the endless skinny pine trunks was so peaceful and pretty that I couldn't help but calm down.
Maybe this is for the best,
I thought, noting that my cuticles were ragged and black, rounding out my grimy appearance just perfectly.
If Jacob finds me not at all attractive, it takes the pressure off. I can be around him without feeling like a swoony spaz. I can breathe.
With every step through the woods, I felt more certain about this conclusion. More calm. More remote.
Endless iced coffees and ice cream cones with my friends,
bouncing from the city pool to impromptu backyard parties, then back to the pool. Clothes shopping in all my favorite thrift stores. Being allowed to spend entire days in the hammock because I'd be working my way through my school summer reading list.
I got so absorbed in my back-home reverie that I stopped seeing the golden sunlight beaming through the pines. I no longer heard the eerie echoes of birds and bugs, or the burble of the creek up ahead of me. I was lost in the rhythmic
crunch, crunch, crunch
of my boots on the pine needle path untilâ
“I worked in a cotton mill all of my life
Ain't got nothing but this barlow knife
It's hard times, Cotton Mill Girls,
It's hard times everywhere.”
That was Jacob's voice. Jacob's voice
one of Nanny's favorite songs.
I stopped in my tracks, just a few feet from the point where the trail and trees ended, opening up onto the sandy, sun-drenched riverbank.
Jacob was done singing now and was playing the same stanza on the fiddle. This was another technique I recognized from Nanny's class. She always made her students sing their songs before learning them, then continue “singing” in their heads as they played.
He sang again.
“Us kids worked fourteen hours a day
For thirteen cents of measly pay
It's hard times, Cotton Mill Girls,
It's hard times everywhere.”
My breath quickened. Hearing Jacob sing about being a put-upon mill worker should have been funny, right? Pathetically adorable, maybe. It definitely shouldn't have been hot.
But oh, it was.
I fisted my fingers and scrubbed my nails on my cutoffs, trying to buff the black off my cuticles. Then I smoothed and smoothed my hair back with sweaty palms before taking a gulp of piney air and stepping out of the trees.
“Sorry I'm late,” I called. It was supposed to come out all cheerful and breezy. It was supposed to say,
I didn't just hear you singing “Cotton Mill Girls
Instead it sounded more like a nervous bark.
Jacob had been facing the river. When he heard my voice, he spun around to look at me andÂ .Â .Â . well, his face lit up.
Like he'd been waiting all day to lay eyes on me.
Part of me wanted to hover at the end of the riverbank, shadowed by the trees and far enough away from Jacob that he wouldn't be able to see what I looked like (and maybe smelled like) up close.
I didn't count on him coming over to me.
“I was worried you weren't coming,” he said. “You know, what
with your fiddle aversion and all. Speaking of, where is your fiddle?”
“Oh!” I said. “I was going to go back to my room and get reaâand get it. But I got waylaid in the barn, so I just came straight here.”
“Oh,” he said, nodding slowly.
“But I don't really need to play to explain the whole bendy bone thing to you,” I continued nervously. “It's really all a mind trick, since, you know, you can't
bend that bone.”
“Finally, the truth comes out!” Jacob said to the sky, pumping his bow in the air. Then he looked at me with a smile. “Your grandma totally won't admit that your forearm is not really bendable.”
“Nanny has a very active imagination,” I said with a giggle. “Promise you won't tell her the truth about the Easter Bunny.”
He laughed and gazed at me.
And I gazed back, momentarily forgetting about how gross I looked. Momentarily forgetting what we were even doing there untilâ
“Okay,” Jacob breathed. He took a step closer to me and seemed to lean down. He brought his face close enough to mine that I could see the tired shadows beneath his eyes. “Ready?”
My eyes widened.
Ready for what? Is he going to kiss me?
Still gazing at me, Jacob lifted his violin and began playing.
I thought drily.
Ready for that.
Gritting my teeth with the effort, I dragged my eyes from Jacob's face to his bowing arm. Even though his notes did sound clear and sweet, I could tell that something was off in his
movements. There was a stiffness there. A lack of bounce.
“I think it's your wrist,” I said. “Definitely your wrist. You have to loosen it. Make it
this side of limp, but in a strong way. Does that make sense?”
“No,” Jacob said, giving me a mock glare. “It doesn't.”
“Just try it,” I urged him.
He played a couple of not-quite-right phrases, and then we frowned at each other.
“Not the wrist?” he said.
“I think you need to bring your elbow into it,” I said with a definitive nod. “Probably your shoulder, too. They all have to work together, but also independently. Does
“Nell,” Jacob said seriously.
“Yeah?” I bit my lip. I was clearly making a mess of this.
“You know you're not getting out of this without just
me, don't you?”
Jacob held out his violin to me.
I stared at it, hesitant. A few months earlier, my oldest cousin, Lucy, had had a baby girl, and I'd gone to visit her. She'd held her firstborn out to me to hold. I'd been terrified that I'd squeeze too hard or drop her or otherwise do wrong by this tiny, fragile thing who was now the center of Lucy's world.
That's just about how it felt taking Jacob's fiddle.
I lifted it slowly to my shoulder. The chin rest was warm and so was the fiddle's neck. I let my eyes fall closed, and I started to play the same tune Jacob had.
At first I focused on making my arm do all the things I'd just described.
But only a couple of phrases in, my mind wandered. It's what always happened to me when I played something so familiar. I forgot myself. My technique went out the window, along with my counting. I even lost awareness of the fiddle. I simply made music.
When this happened at home, I'd usually emerge from my musical trance to find Nanny waiting for me on the other end, ready with a list of all the things I'd done wrong.
When the song ended and I opened my eyes, Jacob's mouth was hanging open.
“Oh my God, I'm sorry,” I said. “I forgot to focus on the bowing arm thing. I always do that.”
“Don't apologize!” Jacob said. “That wasÂ .Â .Â . amazing. I mean, at first you looked kind of stiff and gimpy, frankly.”
“Thanks a lot.” I laughed. “I can tell you've been learning from Nanny.”
“But thenÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” Jacob said, “you just, it was like the music was controlling you instead of the other way around. How did you
“I thought I knew,” I said. “I really thought I could tell you. ButÂ .Â .Â . I guess it just
“Yeah, if your last name is Finlayson and you've been playing since you were
Jacob looked crestfallen, and I had to fight the urge to thrust
his fiddle back into his arms and run away. But he was right. It wasn't fair that I could do this stupid bendy arm thing that I didn't give a hoot aboutâand he couldn't.
On the other hand, that gave me an idea.
“Jacob, tell me what you're thinking about when you play this song,” I said.
“Well, I'm thinking about the words to the song,” he said, ticking it off on his finger. “You know, like your grandma says. And I'm remembering to keep my left wrist dropped and those fingers curved. And on my bowing arm, it's all about trying to relax and loosen up.”
“Which is hard to do when you
about it,” I said, handing him the fiddle. “Play the song really fast and really sloppy.”
“Why?” he blurted.
“To see if it's in your bones,” I said.
He squinted at me like I'd just spoken a foreign language, but then he did it. His playing was squawky and offbeat, but every note
“All right,” I said when he'd finished. “Now I want you to play without thinking about any of that technique stuff you just told me.”
“But isn't working on my technique the whole point?”
a point,” I said. “But then I think you should just forget about it and
He frowned at me.
“Listen, there's a very good chance that it's a
thing I'm not Nanny's teaching assistant,” I said. “I've never exactly been a rule follower when it comes to music.”
“Or when it comes to burglarizing infirmaries,” Jacob added.
But as he said it, he smiled.
And then he started playing.
And just like I'd been, he was stiff and stilted at first. I could tell he couldn't bring himself to turn off his brain.