in the woods

The Long, Sweet Smell of Home

On the edge of Glasgow there is a small town where the streets are lined with typical shops, the roads are paved with stones, and the air is filled with the indecipherable language of the Scots. The people there are hardy and their voices lilt quite roughly as the sun crosses over the cold rooftops. Mothers push babies in their fine prams while old men smoke and nod at passersby. I, a stranger on unfamiliar ground, was wandering up the high street when I saw her.

Something pulled at me. A scent? A sound? I do not know. I stopped and watched the slant of her shoulders as she knelt on the sidewalk nearby. She cast a look at the people around her and I knew then what it was — recognition. She did not belong there any more than I did. She and I, two windswept creatures, no equity and no debt, were made of the same fabric. We were in the same place, and yet neither one of us was of it.

She knelt in front of the severe face of a bank and unpacked an old accordion. She fussed with the keys and stretched out the bellows; it wailed in awful consternation. I heard her curse under her breath at the indignity. I watched as she adjusted herself and it and then began to play. There was a friendly bench close by and so I sat to listen. Like calls to like, as we know.

A few moments passed. She was not so good, at first; she seemed bored with it already and the people passing by did not love her. She was dressed well — nice boots, jeans, she was clean — but still they sensed that she was something other. Her dark hair was untidily pulled back and her eyes darted, at the people, at her bag, too slowly filling up with coins. She was skittish, aware of her difference and the indifference of the crowd. I believed I knew exactly how she felt.

We were both strangers there, but she and I shared a thing or two. Defiance. We do what we must, even when it demeans us. Anger, at what has been done to us, at the things our lives have forced upon us. We know how to survive, both the homes we left and those we’re trying to find. I knew her kind. This world is hard; we must get through it together. I gave her four golden pounds — it was all I had. I asked her to please, play a song for me.

She looked at me and knew just what I wanted. She saw me, too. It happens that way sometimes. Her fingers, thin and cold, began to move. I did not recognize the tune, but I knew the melody. It was the sound of those who lust for life and live for joy despite their circumstances. It longed and mourned and pleaded and no one heard. Only I was gratified by the sound of her presence.

The air changed, grew soft, the birds ceased their singing, and the sun came out from behind a luminous cloud. I squinted — yes, the veil was lifting, shredding, tearing there before my very eyes. I smiled. The slightest crack between the worlds had opened. All was as it should be in her playing, and home lay just around the bend.

On the bench, I swayed to and fro. I wanted to rise and dance beside her, but I did not. There was no need, the connection was made; it had begun. She played her other songs half-heartedly, but when her fingers hit the keys for me the music changed. It engulfed the street and people finally stopped to listen, as though half-aware that something strange was buried in the sound.

I wondered where she’d been and what she’d seen, who she knows here, who she left behind, where she lay her head at night. What has been the shape of her life? Where is she going? She played on and on, and at last removed her coat and gloves as the sun warmed the stones. She took a break, ate a meal she’d brought in a brown paper bag as pigeons circled at her feet searching for a crumb. I waited. She finished and smiled. I nodded. The dance that was not a dance began again. She knew which song to play.

The people on the street wandered past her, senseless, in a daze. They shopped, they talked, they carried bags, they pushed their prams, but none knew what to think if any thought at all. Some threw a penny; most did not. Many pretended she was not even there. Earth is earth and folk are folk, yet from my seat between the worlds it was them who seemed so very out of place. Her face was hard; she played another song and when the sun had passed over the baker’s shop, she finally stopped for the day. The street was the same old street and the gates were closed. Not one single person had dared to enter.

She packed her instrument, zipped the bag, and buttoned up her coat. We shared a smile. I thanked her with a hand on my heart; she did the same. I watched her cross the street and vanish. I remained. The bench was warm; I watched the bodies pass and felt a sort of sorrow. They had never caught the long, sweet smell of home.

Earth is earth and we are we and together, we made magic, two strangers never touching, day or night. A passing wonder, there and gone, unnoticed by any. Four pounds was all I had to give. When it was done, four pounds was all she had. The coins the passersby had tossed into her bag had vanished, as fleeting as the leaves of fairy gold, as gone now as the day she played her song.

[Header photo: Deux-Sèvres, France.]