Much of the Sterlig fame comes from the distinctive wood harvested from the family-owned valley near the city of Penesol.
— History of Traditional Music
Linsan sat on her father's work chair in the center of the living room. Her bare feet dug into the faded blue rug as she struggled to sit with her back straight. She took a deep breath and worked the rest of her violin back under her chin.
“Now, hold it out to the side like this,” her father said. He sat on their worn couch with one of his own violins under his chin. His arm held out at a comfortable angle, elbow bent and the neck of the instrument as solid as the ground beneath their feet.
After four years, the couch was threadbare and worn. She still remembered how springy it was when they had first gotten it. But years of abuse had left it flattened and barely comfortable.
“Pay attention just a little longer. Hold it like this.”
She concentrated on her position. Her arm shook with the effort to keep her violin's neck up. Despite watching her father play instruments her entire life, she didn't realize how hard it was to keep everything together at the same time to play even a single note. She envied how comfortable he looked perched up on the couch.
“Don't focus too much on me. Just look at my bow. Bring it up to the violin like I'm doing and rest it right on the strings.”
The bow quivered as she tried to move it gracefully like her father. The hairs bounced against the tight strings. She managed to stop it from jumping, but when she accidentally drew the bow down too fast, the screech rattled her teeth.
Linsan cringed and yanked the bow away. Tears blurred her vision. “I can't get it!” she wailed.
“It's okay. It's okay.” He held up his bow. “Everyone gets those notes. It happens all the time.”
“You don't!” She struggled to keep her tears from falling.
“Well, Honey, I'm forty-one and have been playing for thirty-seven years. You are nine and have been trying for almost two days. Of course I'm going to make fewer mistakes. You'll get better, but we all have to make the sour notes first. It's required.”
“Mommy is going to be here in three days. I'll never be able to play this in time.”
He slid off the couch and onto his knees. A groan escaped his lips as he crawled over to the chair next to her and then used it to prop himself back onto his knees. “Listen. You've never wanted to play the violin before. You may know a little piano and the pipe, but string instruments are a very different creature than those two.They require patience.”
Linsan stared at her father. On his knees, he was only a few inches shorter than her. “But, she'll love if I can play this, right?” It was her idea as a present when her mother came home. Though, at the time, she was convinced it would only take minutes to gain her father's mastery.
He hugged her firmly. “And I'm so proud of you thinking about it. But a nine-year-old girl isn't going to pick this up in minutes. It takes time.”
“What if I make a mistake?”
“Your mother will never hear it.”
“Because she is going to be so happy just to hear you play. Besides, I was terrible when I started. My brother used to say that I woke the dead when I was learning how to play the fiddle. It was his joke that everyone knew it was noon because they could hear me clear at Oak Street.”
She sniffed and struggled to grin. “That's like a mile away.”
“Three blocks and you know that. You walk further than that to visit your friends every week. I just never taught you….” His voice trailed off. “You know what? Why don't we think about it like dancing? You can pick up your mother's moves in only a few short hours.”
“Those are easy.”
“Yes because you've been bouncing, rolling, and twirling in this house since you were five and I was carving Palisis.”
“That was forever ago.”
He chuckled. “It was only four, Honey.”
Palisis. She remembered when her father's assistant, Dukan, had come to the house to package the violin to be shipped out. There was so much silk and velvet after he finished crafting a custom case for the violin that he made her a small bear with the remains. She still had a ribbon of the deep purple material in her bedroom and the bear on a shelf.
She looked up to see the sad look in her father's eyes. Something had happened and the violin came back a few years later. Her father had put it up in the attic and never said another word. “Daddy?”
He looked up and shook his head. “No, let's try this. Learning to play is just like learning a new dance. You start with just one movement, a foot tap.”
“What about my left hand?”
“Just hold the neck for now. I'll show you fingering later.”
Her father reached up and wrapped his fingers gently around hers. With a firm hand, he adjusted her grip on her bow and brought the neck to a slightly different angle. When he set the bow down on the strings, there wasn't even a hint of noise.
He smiled and drew the bow down. The tone was strong but slightly off. He adjusted and tried again, pulling the bow across and creating a single clear note. “That foot tap is like playing one note. We start by getting good at that one.”
With his help, she drew the hairs of the bow along the strings. There was screeching but he helped her find the right speed and the tension needed in her hand. “Just keep playing, one note then another. One more.”
While concentrating, she tapped her foot in time with the tone. The feel of the rug on her bare toes helped her focus as she drew the bow back and forth until her fingers burned but the tones were clear.
Her father kissed her cheek. “There you go! Now, ready for the next step.”
Linsan pictured the last dance her mother taught her, the one she was no doubt using right at that moment for tonight's performance. “When I slide my foot to the right and step forward.”
“I guess. While playing, the next step is this note.” He played the two notes repeatedly. “So, try it again. Back and forth, moving in steady strokes.”
Furrowing her brow in concentration, she struggled to find the right way of getting her body to listen. Her father's guidance made it easier. Frustrated, she used her bare foot to mimic the maneuver, working her toes along the carpet. It didn't take her long until she found a comfortable balance of music and movement.
“There you go. Now put the two together.”
She did, moving her foot and the bow in tandem to chain the two notes.
It took her two measures before she realized what song he was teaching her. She giggled. It was one of her favorites, My Ass for a Glass of Milk.
His smile almost lit up the room. It caused the skin around his eyes to wrinkle and his beard to stick out slightly. “Figured it out?”
“Mommy hates this song.”
“Well, it is rude and you were singing it quite loudly in the middle of church. The pastor's scowl matched your mother's. Neither of them are here though and I figured you'd be motivated to learn.” He gave her a playful wink. “I bet you can tell what the next note is going to be.”
“Yeah,” Linsan said with a giggle. She played the first eight notes again and followed by the next one. To her surprise and relief, there wasn't a single screech.
“I did it!” She dropped her violin to hug her father.
His eyes widened as he caught it but then lost his balance when she pushed him back. “Careful!” he said before he landed on his rear.
“Sorry!” She was't.
He hugged her tightly. “I'm so proud of you!”
Someone pounded on the front door.
Both of them jumped in surprise.
Her father frowned as he scrambled to his feet. His brown eyes turned toward the dark window. “It's really late, who would be coming at this hour?”
“Practice those nine notes. I'll answer the door.” He brushed his hips off before heading out of the room.
She looked curiously for a moment and then straightened her violin and took a deep breath.
The first note was a screech.
Linsan winced and the tears threatened to come back, but she pushed the fear aside and tried again. When she heard the clear note, she let out a nervous giggle and continued playing.
“Lin! Get your shoes on!”
She jumped. This time, she set down the violin and bow. “Daddy?”
In the entry hall, her father was speaking to Dukan. The younger man had dark black hair and a short beard that stretched up both sides of his cheeks. Unlike her father's pale skin, Dukan had a tan from the hours outside.
Both of them had serious expressions and she cringed at her father's frown.
“Are you sure, Sian?” asked Dukan. He didn't look at Linsan.
“I don't have time to find someone to watch her!” Her father's voice was sharp and tense. It sounded like when he was furious at someone.
“It's a fire.”
“She's nine and her mother is out of town. We aren't going to get too close, but she comes with me.”
“I only brought two horses.”
“She can ride with me.” Her father straightened, his tone indicating that he had made a decision.
Dukan wiped his face and nodded.
Sian turned and knelt down in front of his daughter. “Get your shoes on. Something is wrong at the workshop and Daddy needs to be there.”
She looked down at her nightgown.
“Grab your bathrobe. I'm sorry, but this is important and I don't have a lot of time. Please? For me? Don't ask questions, just do it.”
Minutes later, she was sitting in the saddle of a spirited horse and cradled by her father's arms and legs. She clutched the pommel with one hand and the shirt gather at her father's elbow with the other.
Her father held his arm over her chest to hold her in place as they raced through the dark. The only light was a lantern that Dukan held up to lit the way.
As the crisp air of fall rushed past them, she shivered and held herself tight against her father.
He looked nervous, his face pale and his grip tighter than she expected. They were moving too fast for her to ask questions but she knew exactly where they were going, to the large building that housed most of the family's workshop with the bulk of the wood working tools, drying racks, and half-finished commissioned instruments.
The half hour trip took them through a few valleys to a small woods nestled between two mountains. That was their family forest, the source of the wood that made her father's violins and the unique sound that came from the instruments he crafted.
There was a fire. She saw the glow of orange two valleys away and smelled it in the next. The stench of burning wood flooded her nostrils, choking her.
Sian's grip tightened. She thought she heard him whisper a prayer to the Divine Couple.
He didn't answer.
They came up to the familiar ridge that marked the border of their family lands. The bright orange lit up the dark, billowing clouds that rose up over the burning trees.
Sian yanked on the reins.
The horse reared.
Linsan let out a cry as she felt dizzy. Her hands tightened on the pommel until her knuckles turned white.
Her father sobbed as he released the reins. “No, by the Couple, no. Not that.”
She peered over the horse's head.
The workshop was engulfed in fire. A rainbow of colors burst out of the two-story structure. Jets of flames blew out of the windows, spraying color and heat in all directions.
Behind the workshop, the private forest her family owned burned. Ancient trees popped and hissed as the flames danced among the shriveled branches and burning leaves. Waves of heat, even from hundreds of feet away, beat against her face.
“Where is the Couple-damned fire brigade!?” screamed her father. “The entire valley is on fire!”
Dukan started to get off his horse. He looked around in shock. “I-I don't know. I summoned them before I came for you. They should be here.”
“Well, they aren't! This is my life!” Tears glinted in her father's eyes as he gestured angrily at the burning workshop. “There isn't anyone here!”
“I'll get them!” Dukan slipped back into place and spun his horse around. “I'll find out what happened.”
He kicked his horse to get it moving and the brown equine sprinted back into the darkness, lit up only by the lantern in his hand.
Sian half-slid, half-fell from his horse. His arms were tight on Linsan, guiding her to the rocky ground before he released her. He stepped forward.
The right side of the workshop collapsed.
“No,” he screamed in a voice that felt like the heavens had split open and cried. It was a sound she had never heard her father make before and it terrified her.
He staggered forward.
Linsan saw that he was going into the workshop. He was going to leave her alone in the heat of the fire. “Daddy!”
Sian turned, his face sparkling with tears. “Just stay there, Honey. I have to…” He turned and let out a sob. “My life is in there. My grandparents planted those trees, my father built that shop.”
“Daddy, I'm scared.”
He took another step then stopped. His boots crunched on the rocks underneath him.
“Daddy!” she said, pleading with everything she could. He couldn't go into the fire, he couldn't leave her alone.
Sian looked at the flames and back again. His eyes shimmered and it looked like he was being torn in two. Then, he turned and staggered back to her. Dropping to his knees, he pulled her into a tight hug.
She held him tightly, unsure what to do. There were tears in her own eyes, produced by the smoke that wafted over her and the sorrow she saw in her father's gaze.
He sobbed, the inhuman sound ripping from his throat as he held her tightly.