À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
This book was the source work for Jennifer Higdon's first opera of the same name, reviewed at Santa Fe Opera last week. Most critics liked the opera a lot better than I did, but my admiration for the book is another matter. The wonderful Collected Works Bookstore, on Galisteo St. in Santa Fe, had a copy signed by the author, who was in town for the premiere, and it has been absorbing reading. The passage quoted here, where Ruby's father, Stobrod, plays on his rustic fiddle is only one of many memorable passages in the novel that completely fell flat on stage. Sometimes music imagined is better than music heard. How Stobrod acquires the tail end of a large rattlesnake is another story, too long to quote here.
When supper was done, Stobrod took his sack off the ground and drew from it a fiddle and set it across his knees. It was of novel design, for where the scroll would normally be was instead the whittled head of a great serpent curled back against the neck, detailed right down to the scales and the slit pupils of the eyes. It was clear Stobrod was proud as could be of it, and he had a right, for though the fiddle was far from perfect, he had fashioned it himself during the months of living fugitive. His previous instrument had been stolen from him during his trip home, and so, lacking a model, he had shaped the new one from memory of a fiddle's proportions, and it therefore looked like a rare artifact from some primitive period of instrument-making.
He turned it front and back so they could admire its faces, and he told them the story of its creation. He had spent weeks tramping the ridges to cut spruce and maple and boxwood, and when they were cured he sat for hours on end knifing out fiddle parts. He cut forms and clamps of his own devising. Boiled the wood of the side pieces soft and shaped them so that when they cooled and dried they set to the forms in smooth curves that would not come unsprung. He carved the tailpiece and bridge and fingerboard freehand. Boiled down deer hooves for glue. Augered out holes for the tuning pegs, pieced it all together, and let it dry. Then, he set the sound post with aid of a wire, dyed the boxwood fingerboard dark with the juice of poke berries, and sat for hours carving the viper's head curled over against its body. Finally, he stole a little tin of varnish from a man's toolshed in the dark of night and put the finish on it. Then he strung it up and tuned it. Even went out one night and trimmed a horse's tail to hair his bow.
He then looked upon his work and thought, I've almost got my music now, for he had but one job left, the killing of a snake. For some time, he had speculated that putting the tailpiece to a rattlesnake inside the instrument would work a vast improvement on the sound, would give it a sizz and knell like no other. The greater the number of rattles the better, was his thinking on the matter. He described it along the lines of a quest. The musical improvement he was seeking would come as likely from the mystic discipline of getting the rattles as from their actual function within the fiddle.
-- Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain, pp. 289-91