Once, when I was naked, running around in the woods, I could have sworn I saw an old friend I used to play fiddle with. He'd been out there for months, the way I saw him, and had only the smallest notion that he'd been anywhere at all; covered in mud, naked too, and playing an instrument made out of sticks and half a log he'd gnawed into a bow of his own long hair. He ground his teeth at me and hissed like a snake, and I spent the next few minutes trying to convince him to play me a tune we used to pick called "Who Shit in Grandpa's Hat." "I'll dance," I kept telling him, laughing, but he responded by hissing and jerking his hair across the thing, batting it like that was a small curse budging me away, lifting his foot to do a big stomp like at the end of a deadly contra. Our encounter was prolonged but eventually I backed away, cautious that he might come at me with his long fingers or begin to play a whirlwind dance.
This was Old Pete, husband to Old Melinda, who played in the Ozarks' big expanse maybe two hundred tunes by ear and by memory, some said three hundred. They learned from the Stonekings, Lee and Buck and Whirly, down near Osage County, and used to put their big rafts into the White River for god knows what reason and just float in the sunshine. They grew carrots that came out purple instead of orange and knew the kinds of mushrooms that you could eat and which ones were magic. They had a chicken with three eyes they named Cooter who they shot instead of wringing its neck when the time came. Melinda wasn't quite blind, but used to tell us that when she looked at people their eyes were big black pits and their mouths looked like gaping assholes. "Purty close," Pete would say.
When I got back to my camp I put on some clothes and Noël was sitting there, still naked, long penis dangling obtrusively close to the only warm part of our tiny fire. I'd used my keys as a rattle and we'd done some dancing, and then found a few sticks that we admired. When I ran off, Pete emerged as if from the grave, but why did he refuse over and over? It was a fight, but what the hell he was doing, what tunes he was playing, where are they from, where did he learn them? In this thought I recalled I'd brought my own violin, and took care to play as sorrowful of an air as I knew at the fire, but then the fire went out, and I had no way to see my fingers, so it was as if I had no fingers at all. Noël and his knife-like penis disappeared, probably in disgust.
Melinda died while we were playing once on Old Pete's porch, the summer of 1995. We'd just come from the caves nearby on a backpacking trip, and were sore and all worn out. Melinda had been drinking moonshine and fell flat down on her own still, and I guess the pressure from all of her weight caused the still to rupture and blow. A bit of glass got lodged in her throat and she went into the bedroom and fell down with the cordless phone in her hand and bled out before we'd finished playing "Four and Twenty Blackbirds", a tune that Pete beat out so fast and with so much sliding and embellishment we sat on the roots and tried hard to follow. Somewhere there was an extra measure, a floating note, out of time, a swagger or a hold he made up or fucked his way through, but we could never find it. When we heard the tiny explosion faintly on our stumps, we figured it was just Melinda letting the pressure out of the still to speed up the binge, but when we came to shine ourselves, we saw a trail of blood leading to their pull-out bed, barely big enough for her. She'd shattered some things in either desperation or frustration. Her hair was tangled. 9−1−1 was on the line saying "Is someone there?" and "is someone there?" and "your number's not registered. Where are you located?"
At the funeral, if you can call it that, Pete lit her on fire with ethanol after a real preacher had come over to do some protestant things with the body, talk at it and talk to Pete. He left us the hell alone but we tried to listen. A bunch of relatives had come up from Springfield but we didn't know them and they didn't know us, and they had big belt buckles and very combed hair. The state was supposed to handle the body and she was supposed to get a death certificate, but if Pete kept her alive we figured he'd keep getting her welfare for at least a little. Before night fell we chopped a bunch of wood for him and left a bottle of whiskey under the moonlight by the well. He'd see it when he'd come-to and went to take a piss in the morning.
But now it was completely dark, and there was no whiskey to console anyone over their losses. I started to want to go uphill to try to find some moonlight, but I was scared because then I'd never find our camp again. I checked my phone- it was all but dead, and Noël didn't have his up his ass probably. There was always 9−1−1 if something bad happened, I've always told myself. Chances were nothing would happen at all.
Of all the tunes she could've exploded the still during, "Four and Twenty Blackbirds Dancing on a Fawn Skin" as likely as any, but not likely at all. Every tune name comes somewhere out of the dark recesses of either memory, learnt from the Stonekings or the Leonards or Emmett or Possum, or some cruelly made-up joke. Some of the tunes go by a dozen different names. Some of them are made up by the person who has no idea what they're playing in a sort of good-ol-boy joke. Pete used to do this, gesturing wildly with his bow over his pigeon toes. Sometimes he would fuck with us for hours only to tell us he'd made a story or a tune up. Sometimes a whole conversation would be a big lie with a dirty joke at the end. Sometimes he'd just show us where the horse bit us, smacking our balls.
I realized suddenly, walking up that hill, that "Who Shit in Grandpa's Hat" is more of a ditty than a tune, and I don't know if Pete learned it from the Stonekings or made it up by his lonesome. It's not that catchy, and you couldn't dance to it, and it isn't very long. "Who did it", it goes, "Who did it," and then "Who dida shit in grandpa's hat?" I wouldn't dare to sing it unless I was someplace less than alone, entertaining people or trying to be funny. A minor provocation for vulgarity's sake. That kind of thing. No wonder Pete was pissed I asked for it. Suddenly I was worried about Noël. He liked to hang himself a bit, or choke himself to feel high, and in the woods it was possible I'd find him scrunched and pruny in the sogged-up morning in some ditch with a vine around his neck, horny Old Melinda messing with him. That would be serious among all this foolishness. That would ruin everything like an exploding still and the groundward march of an old house.
But I went uphill anyways, towards the moon, not full, not even half-not dark, peeking through the discernible ring of light it made at the edges of its pit. I breathed heavily and almost sang, but waited till I reached the peak, sodden-crotched, where maybe I could see an amenable highway light. But this is not like any other place where the highways are everywhere, not like the cornfields where the cell-phone towers blink like elephant skeletons. Here you go up one hill and you're gone for good in their muddle, and god isn't even looking for you because he knows you're already knee-deep up in it and you will either turn up somehow or you wont. "Who gives a shit," Pete would say, when we asked him almost anything.
Suddenly I remembered a dream that I'd had a long time ago while looking at the overcast sky, the hills in the distance invisibly black. I took my pants off and ran my ass across the grass to itch it. In the dream I was in a cave alone with no escape, and there was a massive pool of water trembling on the floor. A great whale emerged, breaching the water and filling the cave with such an enormous sound the whole place rattled and shook, and I had a fiddle in my hand and was playing it on my chest and singing the same note with the whale. I started to cry and the whale leapt up again and again in a massive duet. I sobbed and sobbed. When I woke I was late to where I was going, and couldn't even shave.
When I remembered this I wished it had been perfect to sing out again, as if the hills were whales, as if Pete was out there to teach me about what life is, about things that matter or at least pretend to matter. But these things weren't true. If I couldn't see, I could sing out and listen for the echo to return and give me a place, but, goddamn it, I wasn't lost, and maybe I never would be. I could hum a nameless tune in the dark if it would comfort me, and the joke might be remembered, even written down in the light of day. I'd come down going uphill, and every piece of reveling left in me was expended in being imperfect in that moment. Will I remember all the times I remembered a bunch of bullshit I desperately wanted to mean something? I'd rather listen to the air, I think, if the air could ever be like Pete's interminable squawk. But ah, Pete is probably dead, in his grave with all those tunes. I think that's all right. Soon I will be too.
Willi Goehring is a midwestern poet and banjoist pursing an MFA at the University of Arkansas, where he is a Walton Fellow. He enjoys studying folklore and teaching English almost as much as he enjoys homemade wine and square dances.