The Best Busker in the World
by R.K. Duncan
“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 paid 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.
The Weald Maiden’s Will
by Nicholas Ian Hawkins
The man who carried forests in his heart stood where the trees gave way to grass and sunlight. From out of the failing shadows, he peered at the cottages in the glade. A mist of memories swirled about him, whispering that this place was once his home.
He could not remember what the hamlet was called; he could not even find his own name among his muddled thoughts. Like the briars tangled in his hair, identities were scattered in his mind. Husband. Father. Woodwarden. But they seemed distant and dim. He knew only this: when he had entered the forest, he did so in service to another, one who ruled the destinies of many. But deep within the oak and fir, he had lost his way, and something else had claimed him.
It seemed an age since the moss had seized his leather and steel, and the forest shades had crept into his clothing. His brown skin had deepened to sooty black, like the soil that had devoured his boots. Now his feet were calloused and caked in mud. Musty leaf mold and sweet resin drifted with him on the wind.
The same wind brushed the wooden chimes hanging from a cottage porch. They rattled with the breeze, an empty sound, but it quickly filled with bell-like laughter as three children dashed by. The sounds were familiar, but they echoed beyond a thin veil he could not pass.
The young ones shrieked in delight as a dark-haired woman chased them playfully. Their faces appeared bent and blurred, as if draped in ribbons of water, but he recognized each one. They were older than he remembered, though still as beautiful, with tawny complexions and raven-feather hair–the same as their mother’s. He recalled lying with her in the sun long ago, that hair spilling through his hands with the texture of a summer breeze. His cheeks ached as they fought the strange impulse to smile, and he relished the mix of pleasure and pain. The veil began to fall away.
A deep chuckle joined the chorus of laughs. A man, long limbed and strong, stepped out of the cottage with a woodsman’s axe on his shoulder. The children rushed to him, and he gathered them with his free arm, giving each a tender kiss on the forehead. The woman watched, smiling.
A sense of intrusion gripped the man in the shadows, and he scowled. Something precious had been taken from him, and he strode out of the woods to reclaim it. But a voice, soft and feminine, stayed his step.
The words hung in the air behind him like the damp of the deep woods. All around, tree roots creaked as they stretched into the earth. A cluster of white flowers blossomed in a flurry and moss spread like spilled water. In a nearby nest, a sparrow’s new eggs hatched and her children burst forth into flight.
He turned to face his mistress, Lady of Leaves and Thistle Queen; Weald Maiden to the folk who lived along the borders of the forest.
She stood before him with skin of loam and hair like strands of hanging moss. Her jade eyes nearly slew him with guilt as she moved closer with the epic creep of the forest. “Why do you leave me when I need you most?” The sorrow in her voice seemed beyond measure. “Look…”
She gestured toward the lands beyond the wood, where the forest had once grown lush and green. Now, a swath of rotting stumps like a graveyard stretched from the mountains to the valley. The trees had receded far up the slopes of the foothills, cowering from the axes that had taken their kindred.
The great woods were all that remained of the earth as it was before men learned to burn and build, and the man who carried forests in his heart grieved for the fallen wilderness. Still, he could not tear his thoughts from the dark-haired woman and the laughing children. They were… family. The word came back to him, wrapped in staggering joy and sadness.
He turned away from the Weald Maiden, but she grasped his hand and pulled him back. He reached for his wife and children, straining as he let out a feral roar. But she would not release him, and he struggled in vain. His cries turned weak and desperate, like a cornered beast, and tears escaped his eyes. “How long have you bewitched me, lady?”
She pressed her body against him. “How long have I helped you to see?”
Her kiss calmed him while arousing long dead sensations. He tasted honey and wild berries, smelled pollen and blossoms and rebirth. The ecstasy and exhaustion left him shivering.
He knew in his bones that this had all gone before, that he had failed time and again to remember what he must and return to the glade.
And he knew his final chance had slipped away.
Deep within, where the forests entwined and choked his passions, a faltering love yielded at last to brambles and yew. Now there was only his mistress, and his only desire was to keep her from harm.
The Weald Maiden breathed in his ear. “Protect me.” He nodded, and from his belt he drew a knife carved from obsidian of rarest green, like sunlight shining through a birch leaf.
In the glade, the woodsman waved to his family and headed to the hills, his axe in hand. The man who carried forests in his heart gripped his glass blade and followed.
by Ryan Schapals
To find the Sherd, you will follow the path through the moorlands until you find the Quivering Peaks. At the entrance of her domain a megalith rises into the sky, balanced impossibly. Three slabs rest atop one central pillar. They jut out in three directions. One toward the peaks, one toward the moor, and one toward the vast sea. Though the earth may quake and stones tumble, this configuration remains upright as if lashed by unseen bindings. Glyphs and runes inlaid into the stone may offer you guidance but you will not understand this right away.
Stoneshaper, Earthhewer, Mud Queen, Geomancer, Dirtweaver, Lithomancer, Pebble Reader, Dung Slinger — these names mean nothing to her for they are given from the tongue not the earth. If you call for the Sherd, you will find her. Those who ask her for gifts will be rebuked and those who ask for hexes will be scorned. It is said she can bury entire kingdoms as easily as she can raise new ones from rock and earth. You must proceed cautiously. Those who seek her teachings or share their own knowledge with her will be welcomed into her dust-cloaked arms.
As you study with her you might notice markings beneath the mud and clay that coats her body and mats her hair. Her body shares inscriptions similar to the ones on the monolith. If you press her, she’ll explain that they welcome friends and warn her enemies. She’ll point to a crest or stitcher’s name on your own garb, saying it is no different in essence, it’s simply a matter of what you want to project into the world.
You’ll see men and women carved from stone and slurry, bent, raw, and languishing in various corners and crevices of her sanctum. Some may be half-birthed from a pit of clay, while others may appear seated as if they’d only stopped to collect their thoughts. If you ask if they moved on their own accord she’ll simply wink and ask in return, how do you think they got there? This will do little calm your apprehension, but she will laugh with such honest delight that you’ll forget all about the question. The mischievous twist of her lips and the gleam in her eye will spur you to sculpt your own figures and spin your own tales.
Eventually you will ask about her name. She will explain that a Sherd is simply a word that’s fallen out of favor. It’s only a fragment of a larger whole. It is the result of entropy. Destruction and creation simply being two ways to characterize an exchange of energy. You can call it history, if you like, she will say. You can measure temper, glaze, and form to understand where a fragment came from and how it was made, but this is only an approximation. You will never truly know.
One day you will uncover a figure that looks like her among her own collection of baked-mud figures Something about this figure is unsettling. The copy is rigid and unmoving, eyes frozen in permanent awe of the world around her, but it’s not the lack of movement that surprises you. The figure shares the contours of her brow, the bowing of her hips, and the swell of her breasts. These are only parts of her. They are not her. There’s a frailty in this figure. If you pushed her over she might break into a hundred pieces and turn to dust. In this mimic you see cracks, clay flaking away, but in her creator you see someone invincible and limitless and impossible to replicate.
You will carry this troubling feeling with you as you continue to learn from her. You’ll search for ways to explain what you feel when you look at her, but you will find words clumsy and opaque. You’ll say the wrong thing, half of what you meant will remain unsaid, or emphasized in all the wrong ways. Inevitably, you’ll grow apart.
You will share what she taught you with everyone you meet and you’ll know that she will continue to create wonders within her sanctum of stone, but you will always wonder if that’s where she must remain. Are there not other sanctums? Other stones? Seas and sand? The vastness between.
One day you’ll realize that everything you learned from her had little to do with earth or clay and you will carry these lessons with you for the rest of your travels.
About the Authors
Ryan Schapals is a storyteller based in Los Angeles, who grew up in Chicago. He loves rolling dice to determine terrible fictional choices. At Hyper RPG he turns tabletop roleplaying games into performance-based experiences on Twitch. Tune in at twitch.tv/hyperrpg. Right now he’s building the world of Amaurea’s Dawn with Open Legend RPG, which will be out this summer 2017. Check out the latest updates and join the Open Legend community at openlegendrpg.com. Follow him online or on Twitter.
Nicholas Ian Hawkins is an always-reader and sometimes-writer of fantasy fiction. His short works have appeared in The Best of Every Day Fiction, Return of the Sword, Magic + Mechanica, New Realm, and FLASHSHOT. He works as writer, editor, and photographer for a major Midwestern university. Follow him online.
R.K. Duncan is a lifelong Philadelphian. 26 years old, he went to Haverford College with a double major in Philosophy and Linguistics. He listens to a lot of folk music and had a story published recently in the anthology “No Sh!t, There I Was – An Anthology of Improbable Tales”. Follow him online or on Twitter.
About the Narrators
Jeremy has produced audio for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, Far Fetched Fables, the Journey Into podcast and StarshipSofa in addition to Cast of Wonders. By day, he teaches physics and maths in the beautiful Peak District. He is a husband, father, photographer, cook and very occasional runner.
Katherine Inskip is assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.