Cricket Fiddles the Night Away

Cricket was fiddling up a storm. The late summer afternoon had been sweltering hot. So sultry those creatures who had to be out and about were suffering from heat exhaustion when the Sun finally set. Now the evening drone of insects was beginning, and Cricket was jiving to the tune.

The only creature who had enjoyed the day was Snake. She had luxuriated in the sticky heat, stretched out on the south side of the neighborhood woodpile. Snake had shed her old skin this week, and her sleek new suit sparkled in the sunlight. Snake just loved how the light played on her, and she couldn’t resist flexing her muscles to see the colors dance along her sides.

Cricket had not had such a delightful day. He’d been holed up on the shady side of the woodpile with a quorum of his wife’s kinfolk. Despite the oppressive heat, they had insisted on yammering about that cursed serpent. Snake, you see, had been snacking on the cricket fry ever since the big hatch, and the whole clan was in a tizzy.

Cricket had attempted to ignore the brouhaha and sleep while the Sun was high. He figured it was a cricket’s job to celebrate the Waning of Summer in song, and not fixate on fate. There would always be snakes, but today’s tune was in the air and gone tomorrow. If you didn’t fiddle it now, the moment would pass ungraced. Why obsess on the obvious?

But the clan’s insistent clacking had demanded Cricket’s attention. He was the Master Fiddler, and elected Clan Chieftain, and the kinfolk wanted him to address the slippery subject of serpents. Cricket had kept his eyes closed, and hoped they’d all cool down, but when his mate poked him for the third time Cricket had smiled ruefully, and opened his eyes.

Cricket had tried to jollify the other insects with one of his off-pitch jokes. A few of the young males squeaked and nudged each other, but the rest of the tribe had met his jibe with stony faces. His wife had given him one of those looks.

So he’d promised to approach Snake, and try to negotiate some sort of truce. Cricket thought the whole idea ridiculous, probably dangerous – but anything was better than a row with the wife. Or the clacking of her kin. Cricket said he’d get right to it. Tomorrow.

But now the Sun was setting behind towering cumulonimbus clouds, and it was still hot enough to boil your brain. Perfect fiddling weather. In the sultry evening stillness Cricket took up his bow and dashed into a mad mazurka he’s learned from a passing Gypsy moth. Cricket filled the air with glittering glissandi.

As usual, the dapper fiddler was dressed in his best bib and tucker. Bow tie knotted just so, two-toned shoes spit-shined. Cricket did a little jig as he fiddled. Tomorrow might see his end, but tonight was made for music and dancing. He sawed a dazzling arpeggio, then leaped three feet in the air, clicking his heels. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Slowly the other creatures in earshot felt their hearts lighten. Cricket’s tune vibrated with pure joy. The younger Crickets lost their fears, and joined in chorus to the Master’s tune. The biting bugs swarmed and buzzed and whined and danced in the air. The moths fluttered in gay arabesques. Night creatures woke from their daydreams, harkened to the tune, grinned and sniffed the air. Even the other cricket elders began to smile a little.

“What is Life but a dance of Joy?” Cricket’s song seemed to ask, and the rest of the clan nodded knowingly. They broke out their instruments and commenced to tune up. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Soon the din of insect music was almost deafening. There was a thunderous bass riff rumbling under the melody now, too – and flashes of lightening strobed, freezing the insect dancers in frenzied poses. Bats were whistling merrily, and diving through the dancing swarms, feeding on the insect frenzy. The music was all madness and mayhem. Cricket fiddled furiously.

A whiff of ozone, a rush of damp air, and the storm exploded overhead. Teeming rain poured down on the revelers, most of whom scattered and fled into hiding. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Cloths drenched, bow tie drooping, soaked shoes squelching as he hopped from foot to foot, Cricket played a skirling salute to the storm. Violent squalls shook the trees, and they threw down leaves and branches in supplication. The air was so full of moisture you could hardly breathe, but Cricket sawed away. Then, suddenly, the cloudburst was over. The thunder rumbled and tumbled off along. The whole World dripped and steamed. Cricket fiddled furiously.

More slowly now, and sadly in the cooling night, Cricket played old waltzes and sensuous Schottish. The fiddler honored the muggy darkness, and the passing season, in song. The clouds parted and blew away. The stars came out. And so did the other night creatures, shaking off the wet, and moving rhythmically to the elegiac music. Cricket added flourishes to the old songs, and they mutated into wholly new melodies. As though the ending of this time was merely a passage into a melodious unknown.

Unknown to Cricket, Snake was mesmerized by the music. She had slithered into the woodpile at the first sign of the storm, for fear rain might spot her lovely new skin. But she had lain near the entrance to her lair, listening to Cricket’s performance, in rapture. The serpent’s tongue tingled to Cricket’s tunes, and involuntary shudders of delight rippled along Snake’s sides. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Cricket played all night long. Long after his kindred, and most of the night creatures, had packed it in, Cricket was still wailing on the night air, and calling up the Morning Star. Sister Skunk paused on her way home with a bellyful of fresh compost to enjoy his dawn solo. And Mother Coon told her malingering children to listen up. That when Cricket played his last lick of the night it was time they were off the roads, and deep into the puckerbrush.

Cricket bowed one final note, and held it quavering as the Sun came up.

When Cricket staggered home to his bed in the woodpile, he had forgotten all about his pledge to confront Snake. All the other crickets were sound asleep, and Cricket silently crawled in beside his mate. He was soon snoring contentedly.

But the cricket clan hadn’t forgotten. Morning was barely half over, and the neighborhood dragonflies had just finished their second breakfast, when the yammering about Snake rose to a fever pitch. A dozen cricket fry had foolishly spent the night camped out in the tall grass, and the local homeowner had chosen that morning to mow the lawn, flushing the youngsters on Snake’s side of the woodpile. Snake had gobbled all but one of the campers, and she’d scuttled home shuddering in terror to tell the tale. Now the whole tribe was apoplectic. The household hubbub rose to a crescendo. Cricket’s mate jabbed him in the side, repeatedly, until he roused himself, bleary eyed, muttering about the lack of respect for artists, etc.

But the clan was all cranked, and there was no getting around it. Cricket’s time had come.

His mate had at least cleaned and ironed his best duds, stuffed his shoes with paper to dry them, and given them a touch of polish – so he could go out in a blaze of glory. Cricket loved clean dry clothes, and he found himself whistling as he suited up. Cricket simply couldn’t stay grouchy long, and the hazards of any day were too numerous to contemplate. Feeling dandy in his fresh finery, Cricket stuck his fiddle and bow under one arm, kissed the wife, nodded at the in-laws, and sauntered into the sunlight.

It was a glorious late summer day, with puffy cotton clouds sliding across the Sky. Cricket tried to put on a solemn air as he strolled around the woodpile, but the simple joy of being alive made him want to dance and play. It wasn’t until he came into the presence of the serpent that Cricket woke up to the awful risk he was running.

There lay his Nemesis. Snake was sunning herself, stretched out on a four-foot length of ash, with her eyes half-closed, when Cricket hopped onto another junk of firewood in front of her. The serpent’s tongue wriggled in and out in delight. Here was the biggest, juiciest, dandiest cricket she’d ever seen, and it appeared to be committing hari kari – marching into the jaws of Death. Yum. Snake watched the insect in amazement.

Cricket was struck dumb. Up close the snake was overwhelming. Her smell overpowering. Cricket was hypnotized by the serpent’s slitted gaze, and her flicking tongue made Cricket tremble. But, if this was his moment, Cricket was not going to go silently – words or no words. Cricket stuck his fiddle under his chin, and began to play.

A haunting, mournful dirge curled out of Cricket’s fiddle. A melody worthy of the End of Days. And as Cricket warmed to the tune he stared into the cold emptiness of Snake’s eyes, convinced she truly was the End incarnate. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Snake had been tensing her muscles to strike out and swallow this fat treat when Cricket’s quavering notes sang in the air. And she hesitated. This was very like the magic concert she had so enjoyed last evening. Slowly, muscle by muscle, Snake relaxed, and sank into the music. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Cricket had never played so well. In the face of Doom, the fiddler found deep wells of inspiration. An enchanting song of sadness flowed through Cricket, and out of his instrument, until the very day seemed full of grief. Deeper and deeper into himself Cricket reached. Tears welled up in the serpent’s eye. Cricket fiddled furiously.

But Cricket can’t stay sad when the music possesses him and, little by little, his tune changed. It lightened and began to lilt. An homage to the joy of Life, however brief, hummed along the strings and leaped across to the serpent’s ear. Her tongue wiggled in time. Cricket fiddled furiously.

When the tune started to jump Cricket commenced to do a buck and wing, and Snake started to writhe. That almost broke the spell for Cricket. The shock of seeing Snake move nearly made Cricket drop his fiddle, and he missed a double stop. But Cricket is so adept when the music is upon him, that he covered his fluff, turning it into an inspired improv, and quickened the tune another notch. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Snake was rapt in the rapture. Cricket’s melodies spoke straight to her soul, and her muscles rippled involuntarily, entrained to Cricket’s tune. Now the fiddler was dancing a jig, and the big serpent commenced to coil and uncoil rhythmically. Cricket was thrilled, and horrified. But his awe only raised the music to more glorious heights. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Now all the neighboring day creatures were listening to this fabulous performance. Songbirds had flocked into the surrounding trees, and were mute with admiration. Butterflies were dancing to the music. Even the shrews and moles had crept out into the tall grass to listen to Cricket’s grand finale.

That was the magic moment’s undoing. For Redtail Hawk was just passing over the dooryard on his way down the wind when he spotted the unlikely occurrence of a mole out in the grass at mid day. Always ready for a quick snack, Redtail did a wingover, and dove on the mole.

Instantly the scene dissolved. Songbirds exploded in all directions. Rodents scampered. In the flick of an eye Snake was hidden in the woodpile. Cricket felt the shadow of Redtail pass over him, and he paused, but the music still possessed him. He fiddled on. Even the scream of the hapless mole in Redtail’s talons seemed no more than an eerie accompaniment to Cricket’s masterpiece. Cricket fiddled furiously.

But the hawk had broken the enchantment for Snake. Now the danger was passed, the serpent slipped back into the sunlight, and saw the fiddling cricket with a more jaundiced eye. He was a nice tasty looking one, and Snake was growing peckish. Cricket fiddled furiously.

Cricket had stopped watching Snake long since. He’d been playing wildly with his eyes closed since before Redtail had swooped the scene, and he didn’t hear Snake sliding up to him now. But something deep inside Cricket called to him, urging him to look out, into the light. Cricket opened his eyes.

Snake was no more than a few inches away. Cricket stared into the slitted eyes of Death. Cricket stopped fiddling.

But as she’d slithered up on the fiddler Snake had been enraptured by the tune again, and her hunger had passed. When Cricket stopped the music Snake hissed.

“That was delicious,” she lisped. Her tongue flicked in and out.

Cricket stared silently, then tipped his head. All volition had fled. Cricket couldn’t speak, or play. The two creatures remained silent. Eye to eye. It was Snake who finally spoke.

“We might come to an agreement,” the serpent wispered. Cricket nodded.

“If you were to play for me, what might I do for you?” Snake asked.

“Not eat crickets?” Cricket managed to gasp out.

Snake hissed.

“Or .. just the silent ones?” Cricket hurriedly amended.

Snake stared at Cricket for a long moment, and then began to laugh. Cricket didn’t know if Snake was laughing at his temerity. Was he was about to get eaten for being so bold? Or was the serpent truly amused? Cricket shook with doubt. But when Snake started slapping her tail up and down, writhing on the ground, and howling with laughter, Cricket was so tickled by the absurdity of it all he chuckled, too. Snake laughed and laughed, and Cricket jumped up and down and clicked his heels.

After both creatures calmed down they swore a pact. Cricket would play for Snake every evening. In return Snake would only devour the crickets who refused to make music for the World. When a cricket saw him coming, they better strike up a tune, pronto.

Cricket went home to a hero’s welcome. That night the whole tribe played symphonic Kyries and songs of rejoicing until the wee hours. Cricket’s wife even promised they could find a new nesting place, farther away from her relatives. And both Cricket and Snake kept their promises.

Which is why crickets tell their children they better practice their music or the great Snake will get them. And why music is often the best cure for the evils of the World.