It was my job to feed the fires. It was my job to keep the fires hot for the pitch. That was what I was doing that day when Eddie come up to the house. I was tending them fires. I had watched him through the heat, watched him walking slow up the road. My step-daddy's place was a few miles south of town, so we didn't get us too many visitors from up the road that a way. Not many to come in the quavering heat on the road. Not many at all.
It was summertime. Not yet hot enough to fry spit, but hot enough to put a good slick of sweat on you just walking across the porch for a sip of water. My papa, he had passed away when I was a little baby. And my mama . . . well, she had got herself remarried to a man who ran a dry dock on the shore of the yellow Atchafalaya. Jake LeMoyne. The packet boats what came up the river pulled into Jake's dry dock at the landing whenever they needed repair. It was the only dry dock for miles around. My step-daddy, he was a fair man. He was a quiet man and hard. But he was fair. Mostly always Jake was fair. He worked like a dog to put food on the table and clothes on our backs, and he expected the same from us. I had just made ten that year, that year that Eddie come up from the road and into our yard.
“Eddie. That is my name, too,” I told him. “Eduard. Eduard Plauche. Only they call me `Ti Boy.”
“You don't say,” the stranger told me. And he commenced to playing on his fiddle.
It is hard to say how old Eddie was. Age had not yet bent him over nor slowed his walk, but there was enough summers gone to plow his face with furrows and ridge the tops of his hands with thin blue veins. Old enough to make my ten years seem a million shy of his.
I was taught a man should not be judged on how he looks. You don't have to go no further than me myself. I was born with one leg kindly turned in and crippled. Because of it I have walked with a crutch all my life. So I knew how it felt to be stared at and whispered over. I knew the sting of silence, too. But this man went beyond anything I had ever seen, so staring did not seem such a bad thing. It was almost like he expected it, else his feelings would be hurt.
He wore a coat of scarlet and golden-yellow, a long one that swallowed his body up inside its folds even though the hot summer wind tugged like a child at its hem. In his hand he clutched a fiddle, golden-red like the sun at the break of day. Shiny and golden-red like the sun. Gold-red like the coat he wore. And he was a sawing on it with the bow, playing a tune not quite sorrowful but nearly so.
Eddie was a thin man and a tall. Taller than me, and I was tall for a boy of ten. Taller even than my step-daddy Jake, I reckon. His hands were long and thin, boney in their lean-fleshed beauty. On his head was a billed cap, and the bill hid his eyes from me till he shot a look at a crow that was cawing in a pine tree near by. I could see then that his eyes were blue. Blue as robin's eggs beneath his shaggy yellow eyebrows. The fairest blue I had ever seen. The blue of wishes and unanswered promises. But it was his smile that held me still. Broad and full it was. Not a grin exactly . . . but more than just a friendly howdy-do.
“If you come to see Jake LeMoyne,” I told this man Eddie, “you are broke for luck.”
“How is that?” said he.
“Jake has gone with the other men to town to talk of rats.”
“Rats, you say?” spoke the stranger, never missing a stroke on his fiddle.
“Yes, sir,” said I. “Rats. They have about run us out. Ain't nobody knows what to do.”
A smile passed over his face. It split wide his mouth and creased his eyes. And all the while he kept on a sawing at that fiddle. “Then tell me,” he said, “what is it that you want?”
“Well . . . ,” said I, not hardly knowing how to answer, “to get rid of the rats, I reckon.”
“No,” said this man Eddie. “What is it that you want? To boil pitch? To hunt gold? To own a string of racing ponies? Be the envy of kings?”
“No,” I told him. “I want none of them things.” And before I could stop myself I told him, “I want to see the world.”
Eddie stopped his playing, and he laid down his fiddle across the tops of two cypress knees. And it stayed.
He said, “Some are here to the be the story, `Ti boy. Others are here to tell it.”
“But how can a body tell it if he ain't never seen it?”
“All you got to do is close your eyes. Then you can see it. The way it was. The way it was meant to be. You can and you will, `Ti boy. You'll see.” Then Eddie went inside my step-daddy's house and fixed himself a bowl of guinea gumbo, right off the stove. Just like that.
The rats had always been trouble. They claim it was the packet boats what brung them down from Shreveport and way across from New Orleans. But that summer, the summer that Eddie come, they was especially worrisome. They got into the rice stores and the leather goods. They gnawed through the bousillage chinking in the houses for to clean their teeth on and into the walls of the cisterns for to get long cooling drinks. At night you couldn't hardly step for the squirming and squealing under foot. And in the day you spent your wakefulness thinking of ways to rid them from your night.
By and by the working men in town met, and the store owners in town met, and the town council members met, and when they met they talked, and when they talked they argued. They were a vain and prideful bunch, these arguing men of town. And pride is often long on talk but short on doing. It seemed that for every man there was a different idea, and for every idea there was a reason why it would not work. For you see when it all came right down to it, there was no one willing to take the chance of being wrong. So they met and while they met, the rats went on gnawing and growing in numbers, and as they grew Eddie sat at the landing playing his fiddle. Morning and night. Not quite sorrowful, but nearly so.
Till finally Emile Gautier, who was the mayor and owner of the last good store of corn seed in the town, threw up his hands and said he was willing to try anything. Was there nobody man enough to help him get rid of the rats?
And Eddied stopped fiddling, and he walked the rest of the way straight into town.
“I was wondering when you would send for me,” he said.
“Who are you?” Emile Gautier said, all puffed up and loud. “Answer me now, for I brook no fools.”
“Who do you want me to be?” asked Eddie.
“The son of a bitch who rids us of these rats!”
“Then, monsieur, it is that son of a bitch I am.”
He told the men his name was Eddie Reynard. He told the men he was the answer to their prayers. He told them his specialty was rodents: big ones, small ones, old and young ones, fat ones, thin ones, gray, brown, black, white, four legged and two. He told the men of the town, “I am neither boastful nor vainproud. But I will tell you this for sure: hire me and there will not be a rat left in fifty miles. Not even the squeak.”
Now Emile was a cautious man, and being cautious he was not easily fooled. He had traveled some and was knowledgeable in the ways of the world and of men who dealt in rats. With the eye of the shrewdest dockside merchant, he looked Eddie up and down, measuring the man against the weight of his words. “How much?” he asked. “Tell us, monsieur, what is your fee?”
“A thousand dollars,” was Eddie's reply. “Paid in full by sunup day after tomorrow.”
“Now that, son, I cannot do,” said the mayor. “We are a poor people in a poor town. What do you say to half the money tomorrow, half when the job is done?” Then he wiped the sweat from his palm on the front of his pants, and he offered Eddie his hand. I saw him do it. I saw it with my own two eyes as the two men circled beneath the fairest sun.
Emile gave Eddie his hand. He said, “If we are to trust you with the fate of our town, you will have to trust us to pay you what the job is worth. That is how we do business here. Equal pay for equal work.” And mischief glimmered in his eye.
We followed Eddie's word to the letter. We robbed beehives all that day and all the next, squeezing out the honey, saving just the comb, boiling it and straining it, cooking it till the wax was white and pure. Pure enough to plug our ears with. Pure enough to save us from the rats. Pure enough to wax the bow of the man with the golden-red fiddle. And when we were good and deaf with beeswax in our ears, we went to bed and we waited.
It did not take long, for the next morning as the sun crested the line of cypress and tupelo gum, Eddie was there with his fiddle. He played and he played. He played a tune no one could hear. No one that is except the rats. And as he played he walked, down the road, out of town, passed my house, straight to the muddy yellow river. Eddie and the rats. I brushed a tear from my eye as I watched them go. What beautiful music it must have been to lure them so willingly to drown in the yellow waters of the Atchafalaya. The yellow muddy waters where the pitch fires burned.
We feasted that night. The whole town feasted. We feasted and we drank and we laughed and we danced. We danced like rats, round and round the streets, round and round the pitch fires, round and round till we all fell out upon the grass like autumn pears shook from a tree.
Everyone danced but Eddie. He was in hurry to be on the road. He was in a hurry for his money.
“I will be on my way,” Eddie told the mayor. “My job is done. Now I will collect my fee.”
“I don't quite follow,” said the mayor. “What fee might that be?”
“The remainder of my pay. It is time to settle up on what is owed me,” the fiddler told Emile Gautier. Told him in a nice way but steady.
But even as he asked, it was clear to all that the mayor, Emile Gautier, had forgotten what had been agreed upon. He told Eddie, no. He told Eddie it was five hundred, and not a thousand, and that five hundred had been paid.
“Five hundred now, five hundred when the job is done,” said Eddie. “That is what you said. You gave me your hand with those words. It is a matter of trust. Surely you must see.”
“Then it seems you have run into some bad luck, my friend, and trusted the wrong man.”
And no one saw fit to see it different. Not the working men, or the store owners, or the town council. Not even my step-daddy Jake LeMoyne, fair man that he was.
“If it is the matter of money,” Eddie told them, “you can pay me in goods. I seen a nice brace of mules yonder. Maybe them and a winter's supply of food would suit my needs just as well.”
But Emile Gautier held firm. “It was five hundred paid you, and five hundred all you will receive.”
“You can pay me now,” said Eddie, “or you can pay me later. It is of little consequence to me. But I will be paid. Mark my words. Five hundred dollars worth. Not a red cent more.” And he smiled broad and full---not a grin exactly, but more than just a howdy-do.
We all slept that night. We slept the sleep of the dead and redeemed. We slept without squeaks or squeals or gnawing in our brains. We slept without worry or care, with hearts full, with ears open. And that is how he took us.
There was never a sound so sweet as the one Eddie played for us children. It filled our souls with such gladness that the longing for it will be forever with me. It gave us sight, to see as it once was, as it still should be. So we followed him. All the children of the town. From our beds, from the floors, from the barns, to the road. We followed him to the river. And no one could stop us. Not the working men, or the store owners, or the town council. Not even Emile Gautier, the mayor. They could only watch with voices frozen and legs stiff, unable to move or to even call our names. They could only watch as we followed him down the road, out of town, to the river and beyond. One by one they watched us drown. Five hundred children. A dollar a head. Five hundred dollars worth and not a red cent more. All except for me, the crippled boy, who was too slow to keep up. I was left behind to mind them fires.
Time passes. Life rolls on. I am a grown man now. Age has not yet bent me over or slowed my walk, but enough summers have gone by to plow my face with furrows and ridge my hands with thin blue veins. I don't boil pitch. I don't hunt gold. I ain't got a racing pony to my name. But if I close my eyes and listen hard, I can hear him playing still. And I see the way it was, the way it was meant to be. For some are here to be the story. Others are here to tell it.
The Narrow Journey - Chapter One "Lucie"
The Narrow Journey - Chapter Two "Charles"
Crossing Abbey Road 1994