Twanged

By: Carol Higgins Clark

For Maureen Egen and Larry Kirshbaum,

my good friends.

And Regan Reilly’s too!

With love and thanks.





“Music oft have such a charm

To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.”

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure





1


SATURDAY, JUNE 21

BALLYFORD, IRELAND



The thick sweet scent of turf burning in the chimney of Malachy Sheerin’s one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old stone cottage, set back from the road yet not too far from the rugged coastline of the West of Ireland, always made him feel at peace. He lived in a little town called Ballyford, just south of the Ring of Kerry. It was practically the westernmost point in all of Europe.

Outside, the weather was deliciously foul. Even though the calendar said June, the cold rain and lashing wind made the inside feel that much cozier. It was the kind of night when a cup of hot tea or a slug of whiskey never tasted better.

Malachy’s one and only door didn’t quite meet the jamb. It probably never had. As a consequence the gusty wind whistled shrilly through it and under it, creating its own night music and causing the door to shudder and shake.

Malachy didn’t seem to notice. He was well into one of his lengthy oral discourses, expounding into his tape recorder. “. . . You can see why they used to call the fiddle the ‘dance of the devil’ or the ‘devil’s box.’ It associated with dancing and drinking. Actually, I see it as one of the first great stress relievers. It helped people let loose after a hard day’s work on the land.” He lit his pipe again. This was what he loved: sitting in his favorite chair by the fire, inhaling the pungent aroma he cherished, and hearing himself talk.

Old Grizzly, he took to calling himself. His weathered appearance made him look as though he’d done a lot of hard living in the midst of frequent inclement weather. At seventy-four years of age his face was deeply lined, his shaggy hair was gray with dark streaks running through it, and a protruding belly hung over his favorite turquoise belt buckle.

“Music is people’s release around here, even more than the rest of Ireland. Always has been. Out in the middle of nowhere like this, there’s nothing more brilliant than gathering in the evening in a neighbor’s parlor and telling tall tales around the fire. Nothing too small to hang your hat on, God knows. Anything at all that comes to mind is ripe for discussion. Talk of weather, ghosts. Old Granny McBride could talk the hind legs off a donkey with her stories of fairies and leprechauns. But then”— Malachy paused as if to savor the memory—“when the time was right, I’d bring out my magic fiddle and start to play. That moment was always grand. Before you knew it, toes were tapping, arms were raised, and the cares of the day were forgotten as even the most timid got out of their chairs and started to move to the music. Six days ago I bequeathed you the legendary fiddle, my pet, so now it’s your turn to let the magic come alive and play on! Play on, Brigid! Ignore what they’re saying about its curse. It’s a bunch of blarney.” He paused. “Now, this fiddle here . . .”

Malachy Sheerin, the former all-Ireland fiddle champion and notorious traveling storyteller, laid his pipe on the hearth next to his whiskey. After taking a hearty swig he leaned over to pick up the fiddle that was propped against the side of the chair, but the effort was great. With his arthritic fingers he grasped the bow and the fiddle and rested them in his lap.

“I’ll just close my eyes for a minute,” he said. A moment later he was asleep.

The tape recorder next to him whirred on.

Within seconds the door opened and the drenched stranger who had been observing him from the window quickly made his move. He stealthily extricated the fiddle and the bow from Malachy’s lap and placed them in the case he had noticed in the corner of the room. His eyes brightened when he saw the tape recorder. Hurriedly he took off his raincoat, grabbed the little machine, and wrapped the coat around his stash for further protection from the elements.

He didn’t notice the receipt that fell out of his pocket. It fluttered onto the floor, landing between the heap of Malachy’s old newspapers and the fireplace.

Malachy was now snoring gently, but the increasing momentum of the snores made the stranger nervous. One good snort and Malachy would wake himself up. The intruder stole a final glance around the room, grabbed the whiskey bottle for a quick gulp, and slipped out the shaky door to his waiting car. He wanted to make as quick an escape as possible on the dangerous and winding coastal roads. Roads that hugged magnificent cliffs and overlooked the angry roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the same body of water that lapped at shores nearly three thousand miles away on the South Fork of Long Island, on the famous beaches known simply as the Hamptons.

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