The sky is full of fiddles
The sky is full of stars and fiddles”
I speak the familiar words, then fall silent and wait.
It's a clear night. Cold; really cold. Enough for my breath to fog the darkness. Translucent white clouds from my mouth gather against the black-blue sky. The sharp light of the full moon turns the frost on the ground an eerie white.
The sun was out earlier. These days it's warm enough to seduce people out of their jackets. God, how I've missed feeling that gentle glow on my cheeks; those first days in the spring when the sunlight is actually warming. There are still heavy patches of snow in the shades behind the houses, of course, but they are slowly being melted away by this newly-wakened sun.
Now, hours after sunset, the water dripping from the rooftops has formed icicles. I think my ears might just have done the same.
I'm standing on a porch so modest it's mostly a wooden plank wedged in the mud. The door before me is very small. Unassuming and thin, and yet a ruthless barrier between this cold night and the warm bed inside.
I move closer to the door and rest a hand lightly on the wood before I speak again.
“Twist yourself and turn yourself
and share a word with me
as I'm wandering on such a fair-weather-night
When all the sky-boys come out and dance
with blue shirts, sheep's hooves
The sky is full of fiddles”
Still not a sound from inside.
I jam my hands into the pockets of my trousers, then turn my back to the door and look out over the valley. The view from the Liss house must be the best of the entire village. From here I can see most of the village of Drömme spread out beneath me, the lake with its surface quietly smooth in the night, and the forest-clad mountains on the other side. I can spot the dance barn in the middle of the village where we dance every Saturday night, and the school house I went to every weekday as a child. I can see the village hall, and beside it the large pile of brushwood that will soon become a Valborg bonfire. In the middle of the village, the church towers grandly with the façade shining in a loud white.
With the trees still bare, I can even glimpse the red of my own house on the far left. I squint at it for a moment and wonder which of the boys will try to woo Harriet tonight.
I've been looking forward to this Sunday all winter, of course; we all have. It's the end of April, the Sunday before Valborg; the first night-wooing weekend of the year. Tonight the boys of Drömme are permitted to leave their houses after sunset and recite the traditional verses outside the girls' doors, hoping to be let inside. Wandering through the village I can feel it in the air; the buzzing anticipation of every unmarried boy and girl over sixteen.
I don't particularly believe in magic, but during night-wooing Sundays it's difficult not to notice the change of the ordinary into something blood-tingling. The night transforms the bushes and trees into supernatural creatures. The starlight seems sharper than during ordinary nights, prickling small dents into your skin.
This winter has been especially long and unforgiving. It was one of those winters that froze not only the earth but also the bones in your body and the thoughts in your mind. Between the never-ending nights and the cold days, there hasn't been room for much more than making sure that the fire in the stove kept burning and that the food supply would be enough.
I've spent some time in my father's workshop too, of course. Assisting him where needed and practising my own wood-carving techniques. The most exciting thing that happened all winter was when he let me start working on making my first fiddle from scratch. It's really not as easy as his competent hands make it seem.
I enjoy the precision of it, though. Paying attention to the wood and finding out how it wants to be shaped. The strength needed to mould the wood to my will, contrasted with the fine details of carving out an ornament pattern. Watching my father working on a fiddle is the closest I ever come to reverence; the way every elegant shape is designed for an acoustic purpose; the way every little adjustment you make will impact the sound once a good fiddler takes the instrument in their hands.
When the workshop was quiet apart from the rasp from sandpaper, when my hands were quietly talking to a piece of wood – in those rare instances when my mind was entirely at ease – I could steal a moment to dream. And what I dreamt of was the taste of raspberry caramels and the door to the Liss house opening for me again in the spring.
The last night-wooing Sunday of the year is always in October, around the harvest festival. It was a great success for me last year. I sat across from Liss Anna on her bed for as long as the night lasted, cross-legged on top of her blankets with the bag of sweets between us. The raspberry caramels had the enticing flavour of being let inside a girl's room twice.
Liss Anna is always a bit reserved during the Saturday dances. She's like that with everyone – except for her close friends, probably. She keeps her true colours hidden somewhere behind her ever-present smile. She was like that during the last night-wooing too, but I was patient and kind, talked to her all night. Tried to chase her spirit by finding a topic that would light a spark in her. And as the sky began to brighten and our bodies were heavy with lack of sleep, Anna leaned back against the headboard and relaxed. Her smile turned even nicer then. Soft dimples in her cheeks and subdued stars in her eyes.
I turn back to Liss Anna's door. She may have the best view in Drömme, but this also means that getting to her house on the hill is an actual effort. I've made it through the dark winter, made it over the slippery road to get to her door, and made it through the twists and turns of the old verses; I'd really hoped the door would have opened by now.
I sigh and recite another verse.
“Or do you have another in?
Or do you have another in,
as you don't want to answer me?
Can't you tell me as much
like the cheese to the cone
the snuff to the handle
pour the syrup into a cup, do!”
Finally there's an answer from inside.
“The berth is full!” Liss Anna calls out, voice sonorous and firm.
I groan under my breath.
She has another boy inside, then. If I'm being honest with myself it's probably Mura Bill, going by the number of dances they shared yesterday. I guess I just didn't want to admit it to myself; I didn't want to let go of the raspberry dreams that kept me sane this winter.
I turn my back to the Liss house and walk towards the gate. The frost crunches under my shoes. I tip my head back to look at the moon.
It's already late. I suppose I could try another house tonight and hope to find someone who's turned everyone else down. But I know most of the girls in Drömme, and I know fairly well which boy will be with which girl. By the time I've made it back to the heart of the village my chances of finding someone will not be very high.
I take a deep breath and hold it to let the icy air freeze my lungs for a second. As I let it out I watch the mist trickle up towards the stars.
I will just have to hope to be luckier at Midsummer.
It's Stambro Mikael's idea to begin with. Neither he nor Lestare Greger did much better than I did during the night-wooing, and they have spent two days whining about it. Mikael's intended girl had also shouted that dreaded phrase through the door – the berth is full – and he'd ended up wandering through the village for hours. Greger had at least been let inside, but he'd made the mistake of choosing a girl whose father hated him for no apparent reason. According to Greger's graphic retelling, the father had kept coming into the room to make sure nothing inappropriate was going on.
“He claimed to have heard rumours that I'd taken my shirt off in some other girl's bedroom during a night-wooing”, Greger said. “Does he think I'm stupid?”
“Well, at least you didn't have to freeze your nose off outside”, Mikael said.
“I didn't even have a good time with the girl. She obviously doesn't like me either – I don't know why she opened the door for me.”
“Maybe she thought you were someone else”, I suggested.
“Thanks, John, that makes me feel a lot better.”
I don't know why they're so upset about it. This is only our second year of night-wooing, and we get three more chances before the season is over. Mikael and Greger have both grown a great deal during the winter – grown into their bodies and become quite handsome – and I'm pretty sure I have too. Someone is bound to notice sooner or later.
I couldn't tell you why, exactly, because I was ditched last Sunday too; but I have a feeling that 1895 will be our year.
Maybe it's the palpable promise of spring in the air that makes me forgive just about anything. It's the day of Valborg and the sun is out, fooling everyone into leaving their houses without hats and gloves. As I walk towards the village hall in the evening, half a step behind Harriet and our parents, my fingers are already stiff with cold – and this might just be the only day of the year when I honestly don't mind it.
The trees are bare; greys and browns interspersed with the occasional dark green from a pine tree. But the naked branches tremble with hope, hiding their precious buds of new life. The ground is wet and muddy from the melting snow; spontaneous brooks flow along the road. The yellows and browns of the fields should look sad, but to me they just look alive.
I'm dragging our old Christmas tree behind me in the mud. It's been standing askew in our garden since Saint Knut's Day, when we threw Christmas out of our house. There is not a single needle left on the tree now.
As we get closer to the centre, we meet other families dragging Christmas trees behind them. The village green is brimming with people this Tuesday night. On Valborg almost everyone gathers, pulled in towards the promise of a bonfire and the need of a ritual to welcome the spring. Everyone is wearing their best coats and friendliest smiles.
I make my way through the crowd to throw the tree onto the unlit bonfire. There is a kind of wordless satisfaction in letting go of this symbol of the darkest time of the year. To gather all the winter debris together to burn. The pile is impressively tall; there's brushwood, broken furniture and naked Christmas trees.
I've lost track of my family and instead go looking for my friends. Mikael and Greger wait for me at the corner of the village hall.
“John!” Mikael calls out, waving at me.
“Hey”, I call back as I dodge a child who has barely learned to walk but insists on doing it anyway. “Any idea when they will light the fire?”
“Should be any moment now”, Greger says. “You're lucky you didn't miss it!”
“Yeah, sorry. Harriet couldn't find her shoes.” I roll my eyes.
We make our way back into the crowd for a better view. On the small hill behind the pile of wood the choir is taking their positions. Their black suit jackets and white caps are so inherently Valborg that they're a sign of spring just as much as the white wood anemones in the moss.
Two young men with burning torches approach the bonfire as the choir bursts out in the first, grand words of Winter Stormed. People respectfully back away from the spreading flames; the fire is rapidly creating a wall of heat several metres thick. Everyone quiets, listening to the traditional songs of the spring and staring at the building inferno, delight mingled with something akin to terror.
The mighty flames embed themselves in my chest. They roar and dance and declare beyond a shadow of doubt that spring has come. The choir sings Fresh Winds of Spring and, as always, the song stirs an ache inside me. I think it must be a remnant from when I was a child, because I can't explain why it tugs on my heart the way it does.
It's their last song for the evening, and when they silence they are immediately replaced by Drömme spelmanslag. They play a variation of the song in triple time; a polska. I wish that the mud beneath my feet were hardwood and that I had a girl to lead through a dance.
This is when Mikael brings up the failed night-wooing again. I listen absently to his and Greger's complaints over the Drömme girls. “I've met them all, and I don't like any of them.”
“You mean they don't like you.”
“Of course they don't – all they see is the little kid who always had a running nose!”
But this time, Mikael has a plan. We need to meet new people if we want to successfully woo someone at Midsummer, he says. The idea is that the three of us go to the neighbouring village for a few Saturday dances during the spring. Once Midsummer comes we'll have introduced ourselves to the girls there and have a chance to be let inside their rooms.
I have been in Sidensjö a few times, of course – it's barely an hour's walk from Drömme – but I've never seen their dance barn. I've also never heard their old fiddler play, though I've heard he's good.
This turns out to be a severe understatement.
I take one step into Sidensjö's dance barn the following Saturday and already I ask myself why in God's name I've never come here to dance before. The air is alive with gleaming cascades of notes from one lone fiddle. The dance floor is whirling in a wild polska. Men stomp their feet into the wooden floor hard enough to send up sparks from the soles of their shoes; women's skirts stand out like bluebells.
The dancing couples twirl past me in an anti-clockwise circle, and in the centre of the dance floor stands the fiddler himself. He's an old man, probably in his sixties, with white hair and a thick beard. He's not much taller than I am – which is pretty damn short, to be frank – but when he plays the fiddle like that he has no trouble demanding attention from everyone in the room. His polska is as powerful as an entire spelmanslag playing together.
It's impossible not to be pulled in by the music. I forget everything about introducing myself to a few people before I dance, instead leaving Mikael and Greger at the door to go straight to the bench along the wall. I hold out my hand to the first girl I see, barely having time to look her in the eye properly before she's next to me on the dance floor with her hand on my shoulder. I secure my arm around her waist and we flow effortlessly into the circle of dancing couples.
My feet barely touch the floorboards. The beat of the polska lifts me up and drives me forward, and it feels as though I'm springing on top of the exuberant fiddle tones. When I throw us into a spin we might as well have been flying. I don't know how he does it, but this fiddler does all the work for us; all we have to do is let ourselves be lifted into the air.
I'm already damp with sweat, but I never want the tune to end. When it finally does, my heart is pounding hard. I finally turn to my dance partner.
“I'm Wattbacka John”, I say, my voice sounding breathless and carefree. “Nice to meet you.”
The girl laughs at my belated introduction. Her breath, too, is short and her cheeks have bright red spots. She introduces herself as Klockar Ida, and then the fiddler starts another tune; a polska just as fierce and vivaciously joyful as the last one. We glide back into the dance without another word.
There's something so tremendously freeing in this. Those rare times when you don't have to speak at all to be able to play eloquently with each other on a dance floor.
After four dances we sail off the floor and out of the barn. To have a fifth dance in a row with the same person is inappropriate if you aren't trying to actually woo them; it's the unspoken rule, just as it would be rude to dance less than two dances with any partner. It's just as well, really, because right now I need some air.
I lean back against the red-painted wood of the outer wall. Klockar Ida laughs at my no doubt dazed expression.
“So you don't get fiddlers like this in Drömme, then?” she teases.
We don't. They're decent enough, but they'll never be legends like Roligs Per or Dalfors Hans. Or indeed Soling Jacob, as the girl tells me this fiddler is called. He's dedicated his life to the music; doesn't have a family, apparently, but lives with his friend Soling Alfred, the church gardener. Keeps a few animals and lives a quiet life, except for every Saturday when he plays life into the floorboards of Sidensjö's dance barn.
When I come back inside I can feel how hot and humid the air has turned from the horde of dancing bodies. Dust from the floor is whipped into the air by the tireless feet; my black dance shoes are already stained with it. I'm nearly run over by Lestare Greger and his dance partner before I find myself a new girl and walk back onto the dance floor.
We dance one polska and one waltz before there is a pause in the music. The girl thanks me and leaves. I crane my neck to see what's going on.
In the centre of the room, Soling Jacob stands with his fiddle tucked under his arm. He's looking at someone, and when I follow his gaze I see a young man standing by the wall with his back turned to the room.
I can't see much of him other than the mop of dark curls. He's bent over an instrument case on the bench along the wall, lifting a fiddle out of it. He bows his head to pluck the strings and check the tuning. Then he straightens and turns around, and I see that it's actually a teenage boy, no older than me. He's tall, and his height is emphasised by the slim, black trousers and the braces hoisted on top of his purple shirt; but his face is young and he's wearing a boyishly self-conscious expression.
The boy walks into the centre of the dance floor, fiddle held before him like a shield. He carries himself proudly, but the effect is lessened by the way he hurries his steps as though praying he'll soon be out of sight. To my great surprise, Soling Jacob remains in place. He's waiting for the boy to join him. After hearing his otherworldly performance, I can't help but wonder what on earth this boy is doing here, stepping forward to play with God himself at the golden hour on a Saturday night.
Soling Jacob peers up at the boy and smiles behind his beard. The boy doesn't smile back, only gives the man a grave nod. When he tucks his fiddle under his chin he accidentally touches the E-string with his finger. The sound of it rings awkwardly above the hum of the audience before he quells it with his fist. He shuffles his feet, and I almost feel embarrassed for him before he's even begun playing.
The old man and the young boy are facing each other, fiddles on their shoulders and bows in their hands, staring at each other intently. Soling Jacob stomps his foot for a few beats in triple time, and the boy gives another nod. They lift their bows.
At once, there is an explosion of blazing tones.
The young boy, with all his boyish awkwardness, is gone. In his place is a fiddler completely in control of his instrument. I've seen many fiddlers play; when they come into my father's workshop to try out his fiddles, they work until they sweat to get the instrument to show its whole potential. Still I've heard none of them coax out every bit of sound a fiddle is capable of the way this boy does. I've seen none of them use the entire length of the bow with any kind of smoothness. This boy bows with large, sweeping gestures as though it's no effort at all.
I know I'm probably staring, but I can't for the life of me tear my gaze away. How can seventeen years even be enough time to learn to play like that? On top of the sheer volume of it, the polska is played at a breakneck speed. It's the boy who plays the melody, and Soling Jacob adds harmonies like a grounding carpet underneath the sparkling tune. Both of their bows dig into the strings as though trying to pull in every soul in the room with them.
Between the two of them there is no gap for air, not a single break for breath.
The tune changes into another, this one in minor key. It's just as biting and fast, and the young fiddler's ornaments are precise and dramatic. It strikes me that it fits with his features; his sharp cheekbones, the stark contrast between his dark hair and fair skin, the delicate art of his curls.
He lifts his chin from the chin rest now, his long neck stretching when he looks out over the dancing couples rushing around him. He looks defiant. The focus of his gaze is shockingly intense; I've never seen anything like it – someone absorbing everything around him like that. Yet the music never falters; his fiddle almost plays itself in his hands while he surveys the room.
Then his eyes land on me. I feel a gasping breath in my throat at the immediacy of it. Two pale gemstones look straight at me without shame or hesitation, boring into me as if they could bend me open and look inside. For a moment I'm terrified, caught between wanting to hide and wanting him to see everything.
When the fiddlers soar back into the first tune, the young boy closes his eyes, something like a smile touching his lips. His posture is now prouder than ever and he barely moves his body at all, only his fingers a blur on top of the strings. He opens his eyes again, and now I can see that he does this on purpose. He's outright bragging about being able to stand unmoved, as though it requires no effort whatsoever for him to spit out the sixteenth notes with flawless precision.
They reach the end of the tune. The last tone rings out and it sounds like a laugh. For one dazzling moment, the young boy smiles at Soling Jacob, for the first time seeming at all moved by the magic that just took place on his strings. I blink and it's gone, his face once more composed. He barely acknowledges the applause before he throws himself into the next tune, eyes intent on Soling Jacob.
I finally become aware that my mouth is hanging open. I close it with an embarrassed glance around. I completely forgot to look for someone to dance with. It's a bit shocking that no one else seems to have had similar problems – do they see things like this every day?
Stambro Mikael stumbles off the dance floor just then. I grab his arm.
“What the hell just happened?!” I blurt. I'm desperate to know I'm not the only one who noticed.
Mikael looks from my no doubt dumbfounded face to the fiddlers on the dance floor, then smirks. “Holm William, apparently. He's Soling Jacob's apprentice.”
I look over Mikael's shoulder at the fiddlers. What my friend sees in my face in this moment I don't know, but he chuckles and leaves me standing there. Holm William looks back at me again from the dance floor. I might have imagined the raised eyebrow, but anyhow it finally spurs me into action. Straightening my spine and broadening my shoulders I go and look for someone to dance with.
The girl is a good dancer. I add a few tricks to the standard polska steps, slapping my heel and adding extra spins as she easily follows my slightest nudge.
I'm vain to believe it, but I imagine that I can feel Holm William's eyes on me the whole time. For some reason I want to show him everything I can do. I want to prove that I'm a dancer worthy of his music.
I barely leave the dance floor for the rest of the evening. My feet ache and my head is light, but I am unable to tear myself away from the spell the two fiddlers' music has on me. I keep dancing until I reach the sort of trance that only happens on a really good dance evening, where my tired mind seems to disconnect from my body, and my body just keeps dancing as though it's the easiest thing in the world. I could keep going forever. Once I've reached this state, I'd never need food or sleep ever again; only the hardwood beneath my feet and the music.
But the evening ends anyway, the way evenings always do, no matter how magical. Late at night, when I'm walking back towards Drömme with Mikael and Greger, I'm astonished by what neither of them mention. They go on endlessly about the new friends they've made, but neither of them talk about Holm William… when it's all I can think about.