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The Gift of Music

by Sharon Lee


Early September; the air crisping up, and the sea getting feisty.

Fall was bearing down on Archers Beach, and all the rest of Maine, too, the way Andy heard it, but you'd never tell it from the number of folks on the streets, and filling up all the hotels. Folk that'd come up from Away down Boston, and Montreal, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Places Andy'd only heard about, him being Archers Beach, all the way through.

He stood on the Pier, arms folded on the rail, guitar in its case nestled like a dog at his feet. Standing right there, he could look down and see the breakers strike the white beach and splinter into ivory foam. Turning his head just a little, and he could see straight up Archer Avenue, all busy with automobiles, and horse-drawn wagons, pedestrians, and the electric trolley just making the turn down from Portland Street.

Well, Andy thought, squinting up the hill against the September sun; it'd be winter soon enough, and the town hunkered down against the cold. Half the hotels would be closed by All Hallow's, and the rest by Thanksgiving Day. Then, it'd be the townies keeping their own company 'til April brought the owners back from their winter places in Portland or Boston. May and April, those were working months, repairing what the winter'd broke, cleaning up, and repainting 'til the town was fit for company again.

He straightened away from the rail, and stretched before reaching down to take the guitar in hand. Truth told, a crowd in town suited him fine; it was always better to play for something other than himself. It was nice to get paid, too, though -- another truth told, even at the height of summer there wasn't a lot of work for Andy LaPierre.

The ballroom and the concert halls paid best, but they wanted the Big Bands, and the big acts up from New York and Atlantic City.

A fella like Andy -- single fella with a guitar -- not much call for him. Less even than a call for a duo -- guitar and fiddle, like him and Cray tried doing.

Damn' fool thing, that'd been. That fiddle was dangerous, which they'd both known. Their mistake was in thinking they could handle it -- which made them a pair of damnfools.

Fiddle'd almost killed a boy, dancing, at Fathom Five -- well, no. Him and Cray'd -- they'd almost killed the boy, it being them that'd brought the fiddle into it, knowing what it was. And -- full truth told -- if the boy had died, it would've been Andy's death. He was older and he should've been watching; he'd told Cray that he'd be watching.

But the fiddle -- well. Say the fiddle had its own ideas.

In the end, Andy had come to himself in time, and no lasting harm was done. The boy'd wanted a bracer, and a friendly arm to lean on back to his hotel. Couple of Cray's fingers got burnt, but that wasn't worth mentioning -- though Cray still did, now and then, being Cray.

Could've been worse.

It did put an end to the duo, though -- no real loss. Cray didn't need the music, not like Andy did, and he was happy enough to go back to the marshland and tend his own potatoes.

So that left Andy -- a fella and his guitar -- playing fill-in, side, and early at the little places, and the speakeasies. Fathom Five, The Pearl and Coral, The Sea Nymph, The Conch -- those were his usual venues. Once or twice a summer, he'd pick up a gig at one of the big hotel restaurants, wandering from table to table, playing soft, maybe crooning a little. That was fine, and the tips were good, but the big hotels didn't want the likes of Andy, not regular.

That was all right. It was the music that was important. More important than money. More important than love.

Learning that. . .that'd been a shocker. But the music -- it wanted -- it needed -- to be played. It wouldn't let itself be put away to fester. The music -- that was his gift, and it wasn't going to let him waste a single note of it.

So, Andy played where they'd have him, for the hat, and supper, sharing his gift, and, just by the way, healing himself.

Tonight, for instance, he was playing The Conch, seven to ten, which was longer than usual, but the sax player's wife had sent a note that he was under the weather. Meaning that he'd drunk too much coffin varnish again.

The word came to Andy's ear about the time it reached Mr. Flannagan, The Conch's barkeep and manager. That meant he was walking in the door, having given the doorman the word, guitar in hand, smoked glasses covering his eyes, before Flannagan had time to send 'round to any of the other regulars. The barkeep didn't necessarily like Andy, which was mutual, but he wasn't a man who relished putting in extra effort, either. Mr. Flannagan didn't like music, and he didn't like musicians, and one was as good as another to him.

Spying Andy, he gave a short nod and turned to draw a beer.

"You're playing straight through tonight," he said.

"Yes, sir," said Andy, nice and polite. He took the beer, and went down to the little stage to set up.

He could feel the music buzzing at the ends of his fingers and in-between his ears. He'd just played two days ago, but the music was eager, like there was something special brewing.

He thought about that, tuning up. Something special, was it? Well, if that was the case, then it had to be the night was somehow special, 'cause it sure wasn't the gig.

The Conch wasn't one of your upscale places, like the Sea Change or the Casino. But it wasn't just a townie joint, either. Flannagan didn't like townies any more than he liked music or musicians. About the only thing he did like was that money from Away. That being so, The Conch made itself agreeable to those folks from Away who had money, but who didn't necessarily expect the digs to be top-notch.

That meant it drew a younger crowd. A tougher crowd. Sometimes, things happened at the Conch that shouldn't've. Flannagan paid a nice percentage of that Away money to the cops, to make sure those things never came to their official notice.

Andy didn't mind the crowd; trouble never came to him that way -- and hardly ever came to The Conch when he was playing. The only thing that mattered was that he got to play. Mostly, too, he played for himself; the crowd had their own business, and the sounds he made were background, or less, to them.

That was all right, too; the music did its work. It didn't have to be heard; it only had to be played.

#

He noticed them about half-way through his second set: A couple like any other from Away who owned the kind of money that would make Flannagan's nose twitch. She was pretty, he thought; kinda skinny in a short dress and long beads, a bell-shaped hat cocked over one ear and a big red flower pinned to it. He didn't necessarily incline toward skinny girls, but this one had great, sparkling eyes, and a wonder-smile on her painted mouth. She was hearing the music, no doubt there; hearing it and wanting to hear more.

She made for the empty table to the right of the stage. Her fella followed, but it was plain he wasn't best pleased; jerking his head toward the back o'the room, where there was an arm in the air. Bigger'n her, naturally; burly and thick muscled in a tailored suit; his hair was glossy with brilliantine, slicked back from a square, hard face. He had a little black mustache over a full red mouth, and his hands were square and soft.

He jerked his head again toward the back of the room. The girl pouted. Her fella pulled her chair out with ill-grace, and went to the back of the room alone.

Andy forgot about her for a while then, lost in the music himself. The next time he noticed her was during his supper break. Her fella had come back to her table and was apparently wanting to move on. The girl shook her head, and he grabbed her wrist, jerking her to her feet.

Andy came away from the bar fast, meaning to have a word with the boy, but -- she looked right at him; met his eyes like she could see them behind the dark lenses. . .

. . .and shook her head.

He nodded, slightly, and went back to his supper, watching as her fella pulled her arm through his, and they moved toward the door. It seemed she went willing, and her fella stayed civilized, 'til they were out of his sight, gone into the breezy September night.

Andy sighed, still feeling unsettled, which was just foolishness. He didn't have nothing to do with people from Away. Nothing to do at all.

#

He amused himself with a run of old ballads: “Low Bridge”, “Old Dan Tucker”, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” -- nobody noticed. Nobody ever did. He played 'til it was time to stop playing, got the guitar into its case, and drank a last beer while Flannagan counted out the hat. Two dollars and eighty-five cents; more than he'd expected from this crowd. He left fifty cents on the bar, so Mr. Flannagan wouldn't find him to be lacking in gratitude, stowed the rest in his pockets and strolled down the noisy, crowded room. The guy on the door opened up for him; he nodded his thanks, and followed the smoke out into the sweet autumn air.

#

He walked down the hill, among the glare of the electric lights. Despite the hour, the streets were crowded; the light spilling from the new hotels making the street as bright as day. Down at the bottom of the hill was the Pier, hung with so many lights it looked like a sun had fallen into the sea. Andy could hear the band playing at the Casino -- Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, it was this weekend -- nice and clear.

He ambled along, in no rush to be anywhere, guitar case over his shoulder, weighing whether he wanted to go over to the Casino and take in what was left of the show. Might learn something.

Or might not. He didn't much care for the Big Band sound, and while some of the arrangements might be adapted for a single fella and his guitar, most were built for that full orchestra.

Be a lot more to learn at the jam session, after the Pier closed down for the night and honest folk were asleep. That was when the roadies, and some of the orchestra musicians, too -- the ones who lived the music almost like Andy did -- they'd get together to play. Blues, now, there was something a fella and his guitar could learn from the Blues. Might be good to sit in, tonight. Nothing else doing, after all.

It was right about then that he noticed her, keeping pace with him on the crowded walk, a careful arm's length away.

Andy stopped. The girl stopped, too, and turned to face him. Her big eyes were bright under the brim of the perky little hat -- bright and hard as glass. He could see her shivering, which was no surprise. September it might be, and mild, yet, but they were still on the Maine coast, and the wind off the ocean wanted a shawl or a jacket to turn it.

"Best you go inside," he told her, gentle, because it took some that way, those who really heard the music, and they got confused about what it was they wanted. "I've got nothing for you, missy."

"But you do." Her voice was husky, and it shivered, too. "Have something for me."

Well. Maybe he'd misjudged. He looked at her dress, the pearls, and the earrings. Expensive things, by his reckoning.

"You want money?" he asked.

"Money?" she repeated blankly, then swept her hand out, as if tossing the word, or a coin, away. "I don't care about money."

"Right, then. You go on back to your room, wherever you're staying."

Her hard, brilliant eyes widened, and she lunged, catching his sleeve.

"No!" she said sharply, and then, more moderately, "No, I can't go back there. Please -- please walk with me, just down to the trolley stop."

They were blocking the sidewalk, or should've been. People flowed past without seeing them, no smallest shift of the eyes to acknowledge their presence. That was right, most folk didn't see him, unless he wanted them to, which he didn't, right at present, and they'd automatically look away from a girl who was talking to herself.

Still, seemed the best thing to do was ease off the don't-see-me, and get her out of the way, before some drunk trampled her, or a fella with an eye to opportunity decided she was too crazy to know what was happening to her.

"Sure," he said. "I'll walk you down. Best step it up; last trolley for Portland leaves at midnight."

"I know," she said, and, "thanks."

He waited for her to let go his sleeve, but she didn't, just stood there looking at him, shivering in the breeze -- or maybe, he thought suddenly, not only with the breeze.

"Where's your fella?" he asked her.

She blinked. "Gone drinking with Percy. I told him I was tired, and wanted to go back to the hotel to sleep."

He nodded, and, when she still didn't move, or let go of him, he turned and started walking again, down the hill.

She went with him, drawing closer, and slipping her hand into the crook of his arm, like they were walking out together. That hurt, that did, and he almost pulled himself free of her.

"You can, can't you?" she said breathless and shaky before he could pull away. "You can. . .fix things."

He felt a thrill; a stronger repeat of the sensation he'd had earlier, that there was something special about. . .to happen. He'd seen that the girl heard the music; that she'd also been able to puzzle out the music's purpose -- well. There were those who could see the wyrd and understand the strange, even though they, themselves, were neither.

Her question wanted answering, though, and he had to be careful with it.

"I can't fix anything," he said, and felt the sour truth in his belly.

"Not you, maybe," she said, talking fast, now; her words tumbling over each other like puppies. "The guitar -- the music -- that's it, isn't it? I felt it, back there in the bar. I felt it begin to -- to stitch me together." Her laugh was even less steady than her voice. "Stitch me together, that was it. Like a kid's ragdoll."

"Look, missy," he said. "Whatever you want --"

"I want you -- the music -- I want. . .to be fixed. It -- the music -- it can do that, can't it?"

She'd found the twist, bless the girl. He couldn't fix one blessed thing, true enough, but the music -- that was something else.

Careful again, he said, "It can't fix. Not the way you're thinking, it can't." He hesitated, and threw her a glance.

That was a mistake. Her face was rosy, her eyes on fire; the bright red mouth pinched until it was hardly pink.

"What's the trouble?" he asked, the words drawn unwilling out of him, one by one.

"I just want to get away, that's all!" she said, her fingers digging into his arm like a vise. "But he has the stuff, and he -- I -- if I don't have it, I'll die."

He knew then, why her eyes was so bright, and why she shivered so.

"Your fella gives you dope?" he asked.

She nodded, jerkily.

"It was -- swell at first, y'know? But it didn't stay swell. I'm sick of it -- and I'm sick without it."

"That's how it goes with the dope," Andy said, and it was pity he felt for her, knowing now why she was so thin. "Nothing to fix it, that I ever heard."

"If I can get away," the girl said. "Go up to Portland. I got -- I got an old school chum in Portland. She'll help me."

"Then you don't need me," he said. "Last trolley to Portland's at midnight."

"I know that, don't I? Or why'd I ask you to walk me to the stop?"

"You said you wanted to be fixed," he reminded her.

"Fixed -- I need; I need to stay strong enough -- to not go back -- to get on that trolley and get to Sarah."

It wouldn't do her any good, and might hurt Sarah, too, depending on how deep the dope had a grip. Not his problem; he told himself. He had nothing to do with folks from Away.

He sighed, lightly, and put his hand over her fingers that were leaving bruises on his arm.

"I'll wait with you," he told her. "And I'll maybe play some while we wait."

Hope flared in those too-bright eyes.

"Thank—"

"No, now, hear me out! There's no fixing involved. Music might put a little courage in you, maybe. Maybe. And not so much as that." When she crossed out of Archers Beach -- well, he didn't know what happened to the music's power, outside of Archers Beach, now did he?

"Courage enough to hold you on the trolley," he said, not promising it -- not exactly. "So you'll sit tight, all the way into the city. Get a taxi to your friend. Understand me. . ." He paused, thinking how best to tell her that distance wasn't what she needed; that she was carrying her doom inside her -- she was sick, he recalled her saying. Well, then, she knew as much as he did.

"Sylvia," she said, shaking him out of his thoughts.

He looked down into her face again.

"What?"

"Sylvia. It's my name."

He felt it strike him, solid, like a fist against the heart, and almost swore. Dammit, he hadn't asked for her name!

Asked or not; he had it, now. And everything that went with it.

He sighed.

"Dangerous thing to be giving your name out to anybody," he said, mild, like it made no difference.

"You're not anybody," she answered. A breath, and she added, "You don't have to tell me yours."

Damn right, he didn't have to tell her his.

"Cross here," is what he said, and took them across Archer Avenue, to Milliken.

"Trolley stops on Grand," Sylvia objected.

"Stops on Milliken first, and it's quieter there. You want the music to concentrate on you, right?"

She nodded, jerkily. "Right."

The town council had planted fewer street lights on Milliken, it being a secondary way. There was plenty of spill off of Archers Avenue, though, and a lamp post right next to the trolley stop, its light furry in the sea-damp air.

Andy settled into the corner of the little wooden bench, and slipped the guitar out of its case. He could feel the music buzzing in his fingers; buzzing in his head. It came on like that, sometimes, 'specially if he hadn't played in a while. After a night of moving music through him. . .it worried him a little, just while he was getting the case out of the way and settling his fingers along the strings. It worried him, that the music was so eager, almost like it. . .had a plan.

It ought to worry him, that the music had a plan, but once he had his fingers on the frets, nothing worried him at all.

"Sit on down," he murmured. "We got a couple minutes."

"I don't want to sit down!" she snapped, and he might've snapped back, but there wasn't any sense to it -- it was the dope making her twitchy and mad.

"Suit yourself."

His fingers were already moving, teasing out a melody – “Simple Gifts”, it was. Good music, that one; gentle.

Powerful.

What it felt like, playing the music -- the kind and style of music he played. . .It felt like. . .it felt like he went all still at the dead center of him while light filled him up, flowing out through his fingers to wash away the pain and sadness around him.

That was why he'd stopped playing, after Nessa married her prince and took herself off to the Land of the Flowers. He'd told her that he was happy, so long as she was happy -- but that'd been a lie.

The truth was, it felt like his heart'd been torn out, and there was no still place inside him for the light to fill up. He'd gone back to his land, threw himself into its care and keeping, not thinking; only serving.

Until the night he found himself standing on the corner of Milliken and Archer, hat on the ground by his feet, his fingers bleeding from the strings -- playing.

Playing.

That had hurt -- the music melting the scar tissue; growing him a new heart. It had hurt for a long time, but he learned. He learned to let the music -- what the music was and everything that it did -- fill him up and flow away. It was his gift -- his gift to give away.

It was rare that he played just for one person. The full power of the music focused on a single heart and soul -- not many could bear that. When he'd been young, and learning his gift, he'd broken a man's heart, playing just to him. His fault; he hadn't known the limits of a human heart, then. Still didn't, though he had a far shrewder notion.

He learned to play for big groups; he'd learned to give the music away to the street, to a meadow, to the sea -- and to those strong enough to bear it.

This girl now, this Sylvia -- she was only human, wyrd-sighted though she seemed. Whole and healthy, she wasn't strong enough to bear the full brunt of the music; sick with the dope like she was, and dying -- the best thing the music could do, to fix her, like she wanted, was to kill her outright, and stop her from hurting any more.

His fingers moved along the frets without him paying any particular mind, and it was “Shenandoah” this time, easing into the space that had been warmed by “Simple Gifts.” Andy looked up, wanting to see how she was bearing it -- but what he saw was the music, swirling 'round and through her, lighting her up like she was a candle.

A funny kind of candle, with the flame guttering, and a space of blackness before there was light again, burning brilliant and brave.

He watched, his fingers moving up and down the strings; he watched the music coil around the brilliant base of the candle and. . .tighten. The light moved up, slow, like the dark patch was almost too heavy to budge.

The music tightened again. He found his fingers insistent, and it was some Spanish thing now, that he'd learned from that sailor, long winters ago. Flamenco, thrumming hard and insistent, exerting pressure, until, the white base of the candle flowed upward into the darkness, and the crowning flame flared bright blue-white.

The bottom half of the candle -- that was dark, now, and Andy's fingers slowed, sliding out of insistence into a gentle murmur; not music, really; more like whistling to yourself when you'd just done something that scared you bad.

The music flowed away, the image of the candle faded, and it was just the girl, Sylvia, standing there and staring at him, her face a little pale now, and her eyes soft with tears.

"You fixed me," she whispered. "I felt --"

"You felt," he said, his voice a harsh counterpoint to the murmur of the music. "You felt half your life taken off the back end, and applied to the front. You won't die this week, missy, but you won't live out the length you was given."

Her mouth tightened, the lipstick long gone, and then she nodded, once, firmly enough that the brave red flower on her hat jerked with it.

"But I was going to die this week, wasn't I?"

"Can't say that, missy, but you were in a bad way."

"Then I'll take that shorter span," she said firmly, and stiffened her thin shoulders.

"What're you gonna do, then?"

"Like I said. Go to Portland; find Sarah. Figure out what to do with what I've got left."

A bell sounded, around a crackle of electricity.

Sylvia looked over her shoulder.

"The trolley's here," she said, but instead of moving toward the curb, she stepped up to the bench, leaned down and kissed his cheek.

"Thank you," she said. "I mean that."

She turned, then, took a step, turned back to look at him, a wry grin on her pale face.

"I don't have car fare."

He snorted lightly, and came to his feet, one hand still fondling the strings while he dug into his pocket and pulled out his evening's earnings.

"Here."

"That's too much!"

"Taxi ride to Sarah, once you're in Portland," he said. "Something to eat, maybe." He pushed the money at her. "I'll get more, tomorrow."

She laughed. "You talked me into it."

The trolley arrived with a clang of the bell, the door clattered open.

"Milliken Street!" the conductor yelled. "All aboard for Portland, Congress Street Car Barn!"

A fella came down the stairs, none-too-steady on his feet, tipped his hat in Sylvia's general direction -- "Miss." -- and charted an uncertain route down Milliken, taking the corner wide at Imperial, and heading up the hill, toward the boarding houses.

Sylvia mounted one step, and stopped to look over her shoulder at him.

"Come with me," she said.

He shook his head, both hands on the strings, and the music moving softly out into the night.

"Got everything I need, right here."

"Lucky you," she said.

"Hey!"

Andy turned, fearing the worst -- and here it came, the fella she'd been with at The Conch, hatless and running.

"Sylvia! Hey! Hold that trolley!"

She froze; she half-turned. . .

"Jake?"

Andy brought his hand across the strings in a slash, waking discord.

"Go!" he shouted, and used what she'd freely given him against her. "Sylvia! Get on the trolley!"

Her body stiffened. Wooden, but obedient to his command, she mounted the steps. The doors clashed shut behind her. Electricity crackled; sparks danced along the wire.

"Hey!"

The fella -- Jake -- slammed to a stop by the bench, breathing hard, and shaking his fist at the trolley's backside.

"Evenin', Jake," Andy said, quiet and firm.

The man turned toward him, eyes widening.

"You --What'd you do with my girl?"

"Gave her some help. She asked me."

"Yeah? Well, you're gonna be sorry you did that. How about I break that guitar over your head?"

"No," Andy said, and heard the music coming out of the guitar, thick and dark and heavy.

He tried to stop, but the music had him as much as it had Jake, and the music was angry.

"You better leave," he told Jake, and tried to change it; to play something else. He thought the notes of “Simple Gifts”; but his fingers continued to call forth darkness and doom. The strings were icy against his skin, and he saw the music flow into the man and through him.

Saw the candle -- saw, Andy thought, the man's soul -- dull and tarnished thing that it was, with its flame guttering orange.

His fingers were pitiless; they played on, and the dark music swept out in an eddy so poisonously perfect that Andy felt the tears prick his eyes.

There was no filling here; no squeezing, neither. Just a breeze, that was all, cold, and soft, and sudden.

The candle flame flickered, guttered. . .and licked back up, just a glow now. . .

Andy drew a breath; he drew deep, on all the power he had in him.

He lifted his hand away from the strings.

The music stopped.

The man's guttering soul flickered in the passing of the cold breeze; Jake swayed -- then straightened as the flame steadied and flared.

"You. . ." he snarled again, taking a step forward.

Andy slashed his hand across the strings, making them scream.

"Run!" he shouted. "Jake, you better run away -- and forget you knew Sylvia!"

He felt that last bit take, just before Jake jumped like he'd been poked with a hot wire. A harsh gasp, near enough to a scream, got loose from him, and his slick-soled shoes scraped the sidewalk as he sprang into a run, up Milliken, back toward the lights of Archers Avenue.

Andy watched until Jake was just one more silhouette among the many up on the Avenue. Then, he walked over to the bench and put his guitar away in its case.

He stood for a little while, then, shivering; the breeze off the ocean having gone from chilly to cold.

"Shows what comes of dealing with folks from Away," he said, to nobody in particular.

He sighed, and slung the case over his shoulder, looking toward home.

Midnight, he thought. The Big Band would be finishing up its last set real soon, and the jam session'd be warming up. He wanted voices around him, and music, that was what.

Tonight now, he thought, moving slow toward Archer Avenue. Tonight, he'd learn to play the Blues.



Copyright © 2014 by Sharon Lee


Sharon Lee is, with Steve Miller, the creator of the Liaden Universe® series. “The Gift of Music" is set in the world of Sharon Lee’s Carousel Sun, a new entry in Lee's popular Archer’s Beach contemporary fantasy series.