She liked to watch him play the violin. She wasn't sure why - but she could not truthfully imagine anything more pleasurable than crouching down near to where he stood in all his rag-festooned glory, the ground at his feet littered with old newspaper and discarded plastic cups - and just listening , her bright eyes fixed on the long, crooked nose bent toward his instrument and the lengthy shadow he cast, set to trembling by the flickering light of passing subway cars.
It gave her a curious sense of ownership, and of pride, to know that she alone, out of all the people who had ever heard this music, understood the melodies that this man wove like tapestries of light over the deafened ears of men and women who rushed past day in and day out. She, alone, knew that to fling coins into the battered violin case sitting open beside him with that careless flick of the benevolent, alm-giving wrist would be as much of an insult to him as a slap in the face - perhaps moreso.
He was not an old man, but nor was he young like her - his face was pock-marked and bristly, his hair wild and dark, graying only faintly at the temples and casting his brilliantly green eyes into the sharpest relief. He was tall and thin, almost ascetic of build - he wore a tattered coat of dark green over layers and layers of ancient, thinning sweaters. His body swayed, to and fro, back and forth as he drew his bow across the strings, like a metronome to his own music - and sometimes when she watched him, she could swear that she saw him spinning fire from his fingertips, in thick, hot webs that wrapped around him to lend to him a glow of such unsappable vitality that it took her breath away.
She came, every chance she had, to lean against the back of this rotting bench in this fetid subway station, to listen to him with the same intention one has when refueling a car - the intention to render oneself able to carry on. Sometimes after leaving, she felt as though she could stay awake for weeks, if only she could carry that gorgeous flame of melody with her when she went.
She would never ask him for his story. She had never even so much as advertised her presence to him, but she thought that he must know she was there - and more, she thought that he probably knew why. He seemed to know more about her from a few simple glances exchanged at week-long intervals than any person she had ever verbally confided in. It was an odd thought, too, that she should feel pride in this - that her closest friend was a tramp playing music on a broken-down violin in a subway station, with whom she had never exchanged so much as a word. But the fact was there - and it made her proud.
She left with her chin up, emerging onto the snowy sidewalk with one hand on the rail, the other pulling her scarf tighter about her neck. The street was lit by the long train of golden window displays that meant Christmas was on its inevitable way; small, electric Santa Clauses ho-ho-ho'd every few feet, ringing their bells and smiling, all in the same warm, inviting, and very plastic manner. She stood still for a moment, taking it all in - and then, siezed by a sudden, violent whim, she pushed through the milling crowd of businessmen and shoppers, toward yet another golden window above which was a sign proclaiming, "Pritchett's Musical Supply, Ltd.," in large, blinking red and green letters.
A small bell over the door punctuated her entry, serving as a period to end the sentence of the street behind her - and the vague smile of the fresh-faced youth behind the counter served as the beginning of the sentence infront of her.
"C'n I 'elp you, miss?" he asked in a polite, practiced tone - she wondered for a moment who had mended the old newsboy's cap on his head, and why it should sieze her attention so.
"I'm looking for a violin, please," she answered, dragging her eyes to his, though she could not look long, turning her eyes instead to the rows upon rows of neatly stocked instrument parts and books of sheet music that ran parrallel the length of the small store.
"A violin, miss?" He grinned, casting her a cheery wink before turning toward the glass case behind the counter, unlocking it to lay bare the instruments inside. "For someone special, is it?"
She paused. Then, slowly, she nodded.
"For someone very special."
She emerged back into the chill of the street minutes later, a small smile on her lips and a gift-wrapped package under her arm. She hurried back along the sidewalk toward the stairs that lead down into the station, flat-packed snow crunching softly under her boots. She strode purposefully down into the cluttered dimness, against a tide of people emerging from a newly departed train, and toward the pillar by which he always stood. Instead of seating herself to the side, however, this time she moved to stand directly infront of him, clutching her package to her chest, watching him with her head held high and bright flames licking behind her eyes.
He waited until his melody had ended to acknowledge her - and when he raised his eyes to hers, she noted with surprise that the aura of warmth and inspiration around him had not died with the final notes. It held fast, shining from his implacable, ageless face.
Wordlessly, she held up the package, her fingers curled around its gift-wrapped neck. And then, slowly, deliberately, she began to tear the wrappings off until the rosey wood of the instrument gleamed naked, hanging from her hand like a stilled pendulum.
He watched, impassive, slowly lowering his violin from its place under his chin.
"This is not a gift," she said, her voice quiet and almost mocking, while her heart fluttered in her breast when she thought that this was the first time that he'd ever heard her voice. "It's an exchange. My violin - for yours."
She saw the smile in his eyes more than on his face - and she heard the laugh in his solemn voice as clearly as she'd heard the tinkling of Christmas bells on the street above.
"And why, miss," he asked in the quiet, breathy, unused voice of a man who has given his most eloquent form of speech to his music, "should I be tempted to trade?"
Her smile broadened gaily, and she tossed her hair back, never taking her eyes from his. "Because mine is worth more."
He chuckled, giving his wild head a shake. "You know better."
She nodded. "I do. But I still want yours. It's not the instrument that you care about - it's not that at all. It's the songs that you play that mean something, but that violin is a symbol to me, and I want it."
His eyes, clear as still river-water, twinkled.
"You see well, miss," he said, just as softly as before. "And you have good ears, too."
She laughed. "So will you trade?"
He considered her for a few moments, his fingers moving slowly over the length of his instrument. She had time only to realize that he was saying goodbye before he turned, the movement sudden and wild, to smash his violin against the stone pillar beside him. It snapped cleanly in two, the main body crashing to the tiles a few feet away. The neck and pegbox remained clutched in his hand as he turned back to her, smiling as serenely as he ever had. "You'll find your own, if you want to learn to play."
She nodded her understanding, her smile growing fixed, almost reverent as she reached out both hands, one to offer him the new violin, and the other to take the remnant of the old. "Perhaps I will."
His smile broadened, becoming the smile of an old friend - he was moving, his long fingers stroking the smooth wood of his new instrument, plucking gently at the strings as if they were acquainting themselves with a living being. And then he turned away from her, taking up his bow and preparing to play again.
She stood, staring at the broken fragment in her hand, her face devoid of any expression save for a slow, musing thoughtfulness. And then she raised her eyes to the back of his head.
"O, for a Muse of Fire," she said, slowly, softly, clearly.
He gave a little start, and turned to look at her over his worn, sloping shoulder. ". . . You know what that means, miss?"
Her lips curved into a slow, warm smile; she leant forward to press a kiss to his whiskery cheek.
"I'm beginning to," she whispered. Then she turned away, heading toward the stairs that would lead her back to the street above.
The sounds of his firesongs followed her as she emerged once again into the golden light.