I read to Delaney’s first grade class yesterday. She had prepped me for my visit like a military operation, reminding me at least five times of the exact time and S.O.P.
“There’s a chair you sit in, and I’ll sit right by you,” she said. “You have to bring three stories, but don’t be sad if we don’t get to all three.”
I promised to hold it together.
She nodded, then ran upstairs to rummage through her books. Five minutes later she was downstairs, beaming.
“First, you’ll read this one,” she said, handing me Rosie’s Fiddle, a great version of a classic folktale. “Then Crictor, the Boa Constrictor, and then”–she held up a finger, eyes closed– “IF there’s time…you’ll read Pete’s a Pizza.”
“Ooh, good ones,” I said, only really meaning it about Rosie’s Fiddle. The other two are nothing much, but Rosie’s Fiddle is the kind of story that can keep a roomful of six-year-olds perched at attention on the edge of their buns.
The operation commenced at 1330 hours.
“If Rosie O’Grady ever smiled,” I read dramatically, “no one but her chickens had ever seen it. She was as lean and hard as a November wind…”
The story goes on to describe the solitary Rosie playing the fiddle on her porch at night.
Folks said Rosie could fiddle the flowers out of their buds. They said she could fiddle the stones out of the ground. Folks said Rosie O’Grady could outfiddle the Devil himself. And that was a dangerous thing to say.
I flashed forward through the story in my mind, a version of Aarne-Thompson taletype 1155-1169 (Mortal Outwits the Devil). The tale has taken many forms through the years, but once a Russian folktale put a violin in Lucifer’s hand, the fiddling faceoff became the preferred choice, from Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat to The Devil Went Down to Georgia. And Rosie’s Fiddle.
“What’s the Devil?” one kid piped up.
Shitshitshit. I looked at Mr. H, Laney’s magnificently gifted and cool teacher, whose smile was unperturbed.
“It’s a kind of a monster,” offered another kid.
“No,” said a third, “the Devil is the one who curses you if you do something bad.”
Aw shit. Stupidly, this hadn’t even crossed my mind when Laney selected the book.
I turned the page to reveal a drawing of the Devil, horns and tail and dapper red suit, standing at Rosie’s gate with a golden fiddle. They exchange pleasantries, then he gets down to bidness. “I hear tell you can out-fiddle the Devil himself,” I said with a growling Georgia accent, for some reason.
Soon the inevitable challenge is made, and Rosie mulls it over:
Now Rosie wasn’t any fool. She knew what the Devil would ask for if she lost: it was her soul she’d be fiddlin’ for. But Rosie had a hankering for the Devil’s shiny, bright fiddle.
I see all of this as great folklore. But I also knew that if I’d walked into my daughter’s classroom and heard another parent reading a parable of the Devil casting about for human souls, I’d have laid a poached egg.
The kids were riveted — it is quite a compelling story — and Mr. H didn’t seem the least bit troubled. But I was glad to pick up the second book, leaving the world of Faust and Charlie Daniels in favor of a safe, dull story about a pet snake — pausing for only a moment to remember whether the damn snake offers anybody an apple.