The girl was swathed in white when my sister and I found her. White dress, maggot pale skin bloated in the black green water. A shine of gold sparkled on her finger under the swelled flesh. It was raining, I remember that because my skirts were sticking to my legs and dribbling into my shoes. But there she was, ugly fat face starring into the sky and golden hair all tangled about her shoulders. My sister didn’t want to leave her. Said she looked like a swan. A dead swan maybe I thought, but mostly like a drowned girl in a mill pond.
We stood there, wind a howling and my sister going on about it. Finally she ran off to get our da. I stayed, wondering if she smelled like pond or something worse, and what my da would do about it.
“Poor lass.” I heard it on the wind and looked up. There was a man on the other side of the dark water, watching the dead girl like I was. His cloak, storm cloud grey, hung low over his face. But he had sharp chin, and a sad mouth. I remember that.
I wanted to ask what he knew about it. If she was really was ‘poor’ or just some fool silly enough to go swimming in the river during a storm, but I didn’t. He was a stranger and corpses were showing up in ponds. My da came back, blustering until he saw the girl, he went as pale as she was.
The stranger walked up to him, storm cloud cloak dripping as much as my skirts, and they talked a fair bit. The stranger was a traveler, a minstrel by trade, in need of board, and my da a miller with trouble floating in his pond. They agreed to solve each other’s problems.
The rain picked up as they shook hands, the wind stinging my eyes as I shivered. Our da ushered us inside, leaving the minstrel outside to find his place in the barn.
The sun rose bright in the morning. My sister shook me awake before I saw it to tell me the girl was gone. I wondered what the minstrel had done with her, but my da wanted to hear nothing of it. The stranger would be staying with them, no need to talk of unpleasant business or get the village gossips involved.
We saw him little, the minstrel. He kept to the barn, sometimes strolling into town to return with bread or a book from the trade house. Didn’t much talk to anyone that I saw. Everyone would say later he was a strange one, even for a traveler.
The music started when the rain came again. Don’t know how I heard it from my cot with the torrent hammering away at my window and the wind shaking our roof, but I did. It wafted from the barn clear through the storm. Fiddle music, not like the quick breath-stealing tunes of harvest, the notes coming out of our barn set my heart to ache.
It might have been that, the doleful melody, that set me curious. Or the prospect of another storm to wait out, but it was something. I sneaked out the kitchen, wrapped up tight against the blistering wind and followed the music.
The minstrel seemed to wait for me, the barn door was swung wide and he sat just inside as if playing for our small empty yard. The fiddle on his shoulder was a beautiful thing all white like snow. His fingers moved over it’s rough skin, a golden bow swaying over golden strings. The minstrel sung into the storm and I watched his hands moved over the strange pale fiddle.
How long he played I did not know, but I felt ragged when the notes floated off, like I’d been set out in the storm. The fiddler smiled at me, eyes too wide, too focused. “Poor lass.”
The yellow-haired girl in the pond. My eyes went to the fiddle at his shoulder, to the rough odd ivory of it and the thin golden strings and bow. The minstrel reached into the pocket of his cloak. More gold. But this time a ring.
He offered it to me, the wind and rain furious around me. I took it, watching his eager eyes. Cold in my palm, it smelled of pond water and something much worse. He brought the bow back to the strings and the dreadful song started again.
The minstrel left the next day, taking the bone white fiddle, its music and the storm with him. I didn’t see him go, but my sister did. And she talked much of it, and of the ring he’d left with me. Even when I tried to pass the trinket to her, she huffed and left, angry it’d been gifted to me.
And now when the clouds roll, I feel her eyes on me as the rains flood our pond.
The song that started this. This rendition is by Crooked Still.