Bealtaine on the Square: A Short Story
Today I have a little Bealtaine-inspired story for you! I hope you enjoy it.
Lisa buys a latte from the coffee shop by the square when she has to work on Saturday. She's bought coffee every week for two months, but she’s never seen this morning's barista before. The woman’s disorderly dark hair is pinned atop her head with sparkling bobby pins, one of which has slipped free to dangle above her shoulder on a stray wisp of hair. She scrawls Leesah* on Lisa’s cup, and draws a swooping flourish ending with a small spiral under the name. Lisa wonders if this is the barista’s outlet for thwarted creativity, or just something the woman does to amuse herself. But she doesn’t ask questions, just mutters “thank you” and steps out into the first morning of May.
She can't imagine herself as a Leesah*, in her khaki raincoat and sensible shoes which still, somehow, hurt her feet. She clutches her paper cup in one hand and her briefcase in the other as her purse strap cuts into her shoulder, threatening to slide down her arm and spill her coffee. She walks north-west-ish along the edge of the square, skirting the line of pillars at the top of the brick steps - pillars which support nothing but the occasional weary commuter, waiting for the MAX train when they’d rather be in bed.
The late spring rain has stopped, and mostly Lisa smells the rich bitterness of coffee. But she also catches a hint of something faint and sweet on the air, a breath of blooming spring under the scent of the city's stimulant of choice. When she’s halfway along the edge of the square, she hears laughter and the scraping of metal on brick. She pauses and turns, almost involuntarily, to see the source of the sound.
Something is always happening on the bricks of the square. She's seen the Unipiper in his Darth Vader mask, wheeling along with his bagpipes in defiance of pouring rain and dense crowds. She's seen the silver-painted man on the box, statue-still and silent until offered money, then moving, jerky and robotic, until he freezes in a new pose. She's seen crowds of protestors; a homeless girl with purple hair and a black cat on a string; and, one scorching August afternoon, a crowd of young people steering adult-sized tricycles around the square, wearing nothing but sparkling capes and tiaras, blowing enormous, iridescent bubbles into the parched air, and ringing little bicycle bells.
But two men with accordions, wearing rubber horse heads - or are they donkey masks, stolen from some local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream? - is something new. She watches them place a big white bowl on the ground in front of the chairs before sitting down, shouldering their accordions, and beginning to play.
Lisa has never cared for the sound of accordians, but today the music pouring from the ungainly instruments haunts the cold damp air with notes of sorrow and joy simultaneously. She finds it difficult to turn away. Impossible, really, and it seems she's not the only one. The big white bowl at the musicians’ feet seems to glow under the gray sky as it fills with coins and bills from passersby.
Lisa never carries cash: it's too easy to give it all away to the hungry women crouching in doorways, wrapped in blankets and tarps against the damp; or to the clever-fingered guitarists, the boys pounding frenzied rhythms on overturned buckets, the girl with curly hair and skeletal fingers dragging a bow over the strings of an aged violin. Instead she budgets for bus tickets and five-dollar coffee shop gift cards each week. When she has given them all away, she spends the rest of the week passing the cardboard signs and eager performances with down-turned eyes and twisting stomach.
Now, as she watches the horse-headed men and sways in spite of herself, she feels an unusual urge to caper around the square. Unfortunately - or fortunately? - she isn't sure how to caper, and her shoes are probably unsuitable for capering even if she knew how. The horseheaded men deserve sprightly dances and silver coins, but Lisa has only rhythmless swaying and a pocket full of gift cards, purchased this morning along with the latte for Leesah* and a granola bar which she tucked into her purse.
At the base of the brick steps, a woman holds the hands of twin girls, one on each side. The girls have fluffy, dark braids and matching pink tutus. They bounce up and down, with more rhythm than Lisa, and as she watches they swing forward and reach for each other, joining hands to form a circle. They draw the woman - who is probably their mother, and who is also small framed, with dark hair smoothed into a tidy bun - into a dance, ring around the rosy without the all fall down. As their little circle turns, the mother’s face comes into Lisa's line of sight, and the mother is laughing. Lisa's heart lurches. She aches to join them, but her feet feel mortared as firmly as the bricks, and her heavy purse and her briefcase drag at her arms.
She should keep walking. Yes, it is a Saturday morning in late spring; and yes, the rain has ceased and the trees are budding; and yes, there are sweet little girls dancing; and yes, a man at the opposite corner of the square is making balloon animals for clapping children; and yes, a crowd is gathering; and yes, the smell of flowers is beginning to overpower the smell of coffee.
But also, no. It is oh-god-my-taxes-are-past-due season, and Lisa's rent increased by 35% last month, and she's up for a review soon and angling for a raise, and she needs the overtime, and the panicking tax payers need her help. She finishes her coffee, shifts her briefcase and her heavy purse, and looks across the square at the third-story windows of her workplace, which now reflect a smear of vivid blue emerging from the gray clouds.
"You can't live on music," she tells herself, but her right foot taps now, its imagined mortar crumbled away.
The twins and their mother have drawn another woman and child into their dance, and the music is swelling, and Lisa isn't quite sure the horse or mule or donkey heads are masks at all. They look alive, she thinks, and did a pair of those equine eyes just blink?
"What was in that coffee?" she says, running a finger over the boldly scrawled Leesah* before tossing the empty cup into the nearest garbage can. She watched the wild-haired woman make it, saw only espresso and milk and cinnamon make their way into the cup. It tasted fine, maybe a little better than usual, but Lisa's left foot is tapping now too.
She drops her briefcase and purse onto the bricks and stretches her arms into the cool air.
The circle of dancers has widened to engulf a man in an ill-fitting suit, a woman in yoga pants, and several more children - two of whom have green balloons tied to their wrists, and the balloons sway and bob in joyful frenzy as the dance gains speed and vigor. The widening circle turns at the base of the shallow steps, right in front of Lisa, and her feet carry her down, one two three four five, and she is hand in hand with a sticky-fingered boy in a soccer uniform on one side and on the other, inexplicably, her office-mate Blaire, who wears khaki pants and a startled expression. Blaire’s eyes are very blue, which Lisa has never noticed before, deeper blue than the sky which has swept away the clouds and arcs overhead in impossible perfection. Lisa laughs, no, she whoops and gasps, her feet light, the mortar forgotten, her briefcase forgotten.
They are all capering now, there's no question, and the breeze rises up and lifts their hair, and the air fills with tiny floating green leaves and flower petals in white, pink, purple, magenta. The rich bitter scent of coffee gives way entirely to the sweet perfume of lilac and rose, and the unnerving sensual decay of blooming hawthorn.
When the music stops, abruptly - and Lisa doesn’t know if she has been capering for a moment or an hour or a day - the dancers all drop hands and collapse, laughing, to the bricks, gasping and leaning on each other as the accordion players pack up their instruments and empty the bowl of money into a bright green bag.
One horseheaded man shoulders the green bag and the other picks up the chairs. Lisa’s laugh cuts off with one short, halting sob, as the keen pleasure withdraws sharply from her chest, like the way sometimes the needle in the nurse's hand hurts most on its way out.
A hand appears in front of her face, and she looks up into Blaire's impossible eyes.
"Need help?" Blaire asks, and smiles, but her eyes are haunted, and Lisa feels the same stricken expression twisting the muscles of her own face. She feels a road open up inside of her, a detour she could not have imagined yesterday. Lisa has talked to Blaire over the break room coffee pot every week for a year, but has never noticed the strong line of Blaire’s jaw or the way her eyes shine more when she talks to Lisa.
She accepts Blaire’s hand and rises, quickly, her stomach fluttering at the new potential hanging on the air with a few stray confetti-like flower petals. She smiles at Blaire, but turns her head, patting her pockets as she scans the square for the departing musicians. She has to give them something, to thank them, even something as prosaic as cups of coffee and bus rides. It's hard to breathe around the sharp ache in her sternum, but she can't stop to catch her breath, she has to catch up with them. The path to Blaire stretches out before her, but there's another path trailing in the wake of the musicians, one she can't see the end of or even truly understand.
She spots them at the corner of Broadway and Morrison, heading away from the square with their instruments slung over their shoulders.
“I’m sorry," she says to Blaire.
She runs after them in her sensible, uncomfortable shoes, past the hulking Nordstrom’s breathing overpriced perfume from its glass door, past the warm pita and smoky babaganoush of her favorite restaurant. At the door of the resale boutique overflowing with impressionistic scarves and flowered dresses, she loses the sensible, uncomfortable shoes. She nearly collides with a man pushing a stroller as she rounds a corner. She catches up to the strangers at the foot of the library steps, gasping, "wait, wait."
They both turn, and their eyes are bottomless and dark, warm and wild, and she can see every eyelash, every hair on their majestic heads. A fragrance drifts from those heads, of sunwarmed grass, of dusty fur, of sweet crisp apples. The air around them shimmers like heat over summer blacktop, though the cold bricks sting her feet and the breeze bites through her coat. She holds out the little plastic gift cards.
"The music was wonderful," she says, and she thinks if they don't accept her offering she might weep, might beg, though she's not sure what she would be begging for.
They regard her for a moment, still and silent in the hurried tide of humans washing along the sidewalk. They blink. They breathe. Lisa sees her face, pale from a winter locked away in a cubicle, reflected in their broad, dark eyes. The air fills, again, with the impossible sweetness of spring flowers.
They take her meager offering, and the cards disappear, and they seize her empty hands, and the sharp ache in her chest isn't a needle at all, but the roots of something green and growing, making a home inside her.
“Are you sure?” one asks, and she can’t speak, so she nods.
As the gray clouds drift back over the city, the three of them skip away up the street, hand in hand, until they turn a corner and are gone.
story ©Michelle Simkins, 2023. If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy my novella, Briar, available on kindle and many other ebook platforms.
Artwork: “Mary Magdalene” by Dominik Vanyi, courtesy of Unsplash.
If this post inspired or informed you, or just made you happy, feel free to buy me a cup of ko-fi. Your support helps with the cost of web hosting and other expenses, allowing me to spend more time creating posts for you.