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IN A FIELD OF DISCOVERY, ONE SONG OF THE SEASON PRODUCES A HAUNTING REFRAIN

I hoisted the last few chunks of log onto the firewood wagon. They were heavy pieces, and I was careful to bend my knees to save my back. I packed up the tools and stowed them in the wagon box. I had cut up a good size load. Would the little tractor pull it through the muddy spot at the end of the corn field on the way back? I figured it would, if I got a little speed up.

I had been working alone for a couple of hours near the creek, for my usual helper had gone off Christmas shopping with his mother. It would be getting dark in half an hour or so. I couldn't see the sun, but looking up I could see its orange glow in the tops of the tall trees overhead.

I sat on a log and took off my logger's helmet and pulled on a knit cap. My labors had raised a sweat, but now I was cooling down. I slid my hand into my pocket, thinking my watch was there but was surprised to find a book of matches. The cover announced somebody's l988 wedding.

The matches had to have been in this coat since maple time last spring. I figured they had to be duds, but when I struck one, it answered with a flame. It gave me the idea to make a little fire and sit in the woods for a while. Chores could wait.

I gathered some shreds of bark and dry twigs and formed a cone and held a burning match inside. There was a wisp of smoke and then the soft orange of flame. I broke up some branch wood, and in a few minutes I had a bright-smiling companion in front of me.

I felt like whittling and reached back in my other pocket for my knife, only to discover that the shape I had felt there was a harmonica. A Hohner Special-20, key of C. I had been wondering where it had gone.

I hit it on my palm a couple of times to dislodge hay chaff and pocket lint and tried it to see if the reeds were all free. They were. I worked my way through "You Are My Sunshine," playing slowly, as always. How many times had I played that tune?

A second later I leapt up yelping in terror, almost swallowing the harp as a large cat-like animal screamed right behind me. I spun around and stared into the dusky woods with my fire-dazed eyes. What was it? A bobcat? A cougar? There had been rumors going around here about a big cat in the woods.

But cats don't laugh the dry cackling laugh I heard next, and I knew that Lem had caught me again. Sure enough, the leathery old guy stepped from behind a hickory tree and came over to the fire, carrying something. He sat down on a stump and grinned at the small blaze. In his hands was a fiddle. He raised it to his chin, yanked his bow down hard, and the cat screamed again.

"Lem, you've got people believing that there is a mountain lion prowling these woods," I said shaking my head at his deception.

"Waaal, ain't too far wrong, these're cat gut, after all," the wrinkled man replied, plucking a string. He held the fiddle out in the fire light as if to warm it, explaining that the strings needed a little drying.

I took up the harp again and jigged through "Cripple Creek" just as fast as I could, showing off. I shouldn't have, for Lem snatched away the tune with his fiddle stick and double-timed me. So I quit the melody and just played back-beat rhythms until he ran the song out.

I struck up "Joy to the World" slowly, not wanting to get into a race again. When the sounding joy faded, Lem began "Away in a Manger," but it was in a key I couldn't follow.

"You folks today ever sing that one, 'Carpenter's Boy'?" Lem asked after a while. I told him it didn't sound familiar to me.

Lem played a piece of ballad melody in a minor key, then just droned his instrument as he sang the oddest carol I'd ever heard. The verses were about Jesus and Joseph his father working in their wood shop. They carved beautiful things for wealthy people and lived plain themselves. The child carved a bowl of olive wood for his mother to mix bread in.

I couldn't make out all the words in the refrain, maybe some of it was an old dialect. Someday I'd like to learn it.

The fire was fading, a clue it was time to depart. I added some wood, hoping Lem would stay and rest in the warmth.

"Merry Christmas," I told the old man. He just nodded and started to play again. Snow was filtering down through the trees. I walked off a ways, then stood a while to listen behind a tree. The fiddle sounded like a girl's voice. I could almost hear words in the melody.

In the open field it was dark, and the wind was full of snow. Far off, I could see that the shoppers had returned. The refrain of "Carpenter's Boy" hummed in my head as I went toward them, my steps unhurried, like Lem's bow as he had played the song.

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