From the author: Be careful who you listen too. Don't look for anything too long.
“The best busker in the world never plays in the same place twice. He is too busy searching. But maybe, just maybe, you will hear him once. If you hear him, you will have to see him, even if the first notes of his music drift to you from streets away, completely opposite from wherever you intended to go. Once you hear a single note, it will draw you along like an invisible string, tugging at the knot in the center of your chest where you keep your secret fears and disappointments. Wherever you find him— a dusty back street in a sleepy town, a bustling avenue in the rush-hour of a big city, a lonely campground haunted by only a few brave souls and stubborn wanderers— the sight will burn itself into your memory almost as deeply as the music.”
The old man sighed, and leaned back in his chair. The corners of his mouth turned up, but the young woman couldn’t call it a smile. His eyes were too sad for smiling. They had been the first thing she noticed about him, catching her eye as they passed on the train platform. She payed attention after that, more and more once she started digging, and those eyes had never changed. They drew her irresistibly toward him, and his rich, careful voice held her there and pushed all other thoughts to the far corners of her mind.
“At first, he looks like a street person in his dirty coat, patched and stained until it seems to be a hundred colors. His hair is long and loose and tangled, but there is something about his fingers that makes you think he cannot be a simple tramp, and then something about his face that makes you know it. His fingers are long and pale beneath the grime, strong, not delicate, and every nail is smoothly paired. Look up to his face, and the first impression is of a scraggly beard, limping down over the neck and leaving the cheeks bare, but look a moment longer and you forget the dirt and patchy hair. All you can see now is the eyes, bright pools the color of dark honey. As he lifts his instrument, he smiles with perfect white teeth, flashing bright against his weathered face.”
The old man reached up to one of the shoeboxes lining the wall behind his chair. He never turned his head to look, and his hand found it in a smooth motion. How many times had he done just that?
He spread photographs across the little table between them. The busker was just like he said, framed against dozens of different backdrops, but there was something wrong with the images. They missed something that the old man’s words had captured, felt flat and dead next to picture that already hung clear in her mind. The busker was almost alive there, not just a tired photograph like her grandparents’ vacation albums. The violin in his hands shone like wet ink or cold fire.
“You might call the instrument a violin. It’s hard to tell the difference at a glance, and this is as polished and perfect as any orchestra performer’s. When he touches the first string with his bow, you know it's a fiddle. The bittersweet notes he draws out of the strings are wilder, closer the heart than anything a violin can produce. No matter the tune he plays, and he knows a thousand thousand more than you could count, there is one feeling that floods over you with the river of sound from those tortured strings. It lives in his wordless singing and fills those amber eyes. You may have trouble putting name to it, but in Wales it is called hiraeth; a longing for something lost and unrecoverable, a home forever homeless or that never lived beyond the soap-bubble fancy of a perfect dream.”
She could hear it. The old man had closed his eyes and come closer to smiling than he ever had. The music was real in his memory, and she imagined the supple, electric feel of it wrapping around her. This was the spark she had been hunting behind those sad, arresting eyes, ever since they planted their little seed and set her digging. Nine months of work, snapping covert pictures with her phone and searching for his face, reading his old books and articles, trying to find out why he left the university, following him home when his address was unlisted. She had finally found out enough to talk her way in the door without sounding crazy. Not that sounding crazy would have mattered. He’d barely reacted when she used his name and said she wanted to know why he stopped teaching and writing, and everything, really. He’d just sat her down in the chair and told her to listen. She should have run away. He might have been crazy, or a rapist or something, but she’d been getting crazier lately herself, as the need to speak expanded to fill her days and dreams. When he put his hand on her shoulder, she had only felt recognition. They both knew something in the other, something they needed. So she sat, and listened.
“The music is so beautiful. It pulls on that knot of fears and sadness and secret wants in your chest, and it satisfies like weeping until no tears will come, like peeling off a scab in one long, painful, perfect, indescribable release.”
It felt like he was reaching under her skin and exploring. Everything described what she had felt, felt now, too well. His sad eyes had seen all her secret hurts and spun them into the story. It felt like he could see and hear the scene she had built in her head, not only his own memories.
“You will want nothing more than to stay and listen and watch his long, powerful fingers and his hungry eyes forever, to seal yourself from everything in a hidden fortress of perfect sound and music and desire. But you must go. You must drag yourself away, no matter how hard the music pulls against that knot. Listen for one song, and let it play forever in your memory. No more. After that one song, go home. Go back to work. Hold tight to the little perfect moment you are allowed, and remember that too little beauty is still better than the memory of more than you can bear.”
She couldn’t keep quiet. Who the hell was he to dangle magic in front of her and snatch it back after ‘just a taste’? “Why? Why would I want to leave it? If it’s so wonderful, I want to hear as much as I can. Hell, I want to record it.”
She tried to sound hard and cynical and adult, but she didn’t feel any of it. She heard perfect, imagined music, playing a call of wardrobes opening to winter and far green fields of wonder. She saw a splash of color in an ordinary world and she was going to grab it and hold it close, no matter what.
“If you listen too long, you will hear more than your own memories after he is gone. You will hear faint notes of an ethereal song that pulls you just as his playing did, drifting from the same otherworld he is searching for. Once you hear that faint music, nothing will do but to look for it, and you will never find the door.”
That word. That was everything. The busker was a beautiful story, but the door was what she had been looking for. It was what everyone, everyone like them, was looking for, wasn’t it? He looked so serious, half rising from his chair, planting his hands on the little table to lean toward her.
“Is that what happened to you? You listened too much? Is that why you quit your job and stopped writing; you’re looking for a magic door?”
He sank back. “You know the answer to that. You can hear it in my voice. You don’t need to ask me what I’m doing here with shoeboxes of photographs. Just listen. You’ll find the busker. You found me, so you’ll find him, and I’m not so much a fool I’ll tell you not to look, but you must content yourself with one song.”
“What’s behind the door?”
He sighed and shook his head. “I have no idea. The busker found it once, of course. He brought back his songs and his patched coat and an endless longing to return. He’s been searching ever since and he never finds the way. You don’t want a life like that. Leave him alone with his sweet music, and the tears that carve channels down his cheeks in time with the tapping of his toes.”
She couldn’t take more. The pressure she had felt to find him had ebbed, but it was back stronger than ever. She needed to be looking for the busker now, not listening to pretty stories about how sad he was.
The old man smiled after her as she ran out, smiled at her back the way he never had when she could see him. She wouldn’t listen to the warnings, of course. That was the whole point. The busker was going to be here soon, and someone so sensitive was sure to find him, now that she knew to look. He hadn’t been lying about that. She’d find him, and she’d listen to the whole set, until the busker stepped away into the air with a twirl of his patchwork coat. She’d feel empty and lonely for a moment, and then she’d hear the music, and know what she had to do. It wasn’t his first time telling the story. After all, they all had a better chance of finding it someday if more of them were looking.
This story originally appeared in Cast of Wonders.