Leda noticed the guitar case as soon as the man entered the inn. Too small for a guitar, actually. A mandolin, maybe. She narrowed her eyes as she watched him, her hands busy with her barkeep tasks. He stayed by the door for a minute, looking around the taproom, at the tables only sparsely filled with customers, every single one of whom had been there at The Sow’s Ear a dozen or a hundred times before. This man by the door, this musician, was a newcomer. Newcomers were a rare commodity these days, what with the fighting not so far away anymore. Twenty miles doesn’t seem like a small distance, not until there’s gunfire involved.
Finally, the man with the mandolin case stepped toward the bar and Leda bristled, knowing exactly how hard-nosed she was going to have to be to keep this guy from holding out hope that he was going to get any sort of free handout. It was against her nature, not sharing, not helping people with hard-luck stories. But she’d had to force herself to learn to take care of herself first over the last few years, since her dad had gone off to fight in the war that wouldn’t end, and her mum had gone off to help with the wounded soldiers at the front, leaving Leda to tend the place on her own. They had gone to help, and they hadn’t come back, and that’s what happened when you extended aid these days. You got shot in the stomach or you got sick from whatever the wounded soldiers had, and then you died and never came back.
Leda was pulled out of her spiraling thoughts by his voice. In just that one word she could hear how melodic his voice was. She forced herself to glower a little.
“Can I get you something?” she asked.
He nodded a little, a small bob of his head. He was taller than her by a few inches. “A pint, please,” he said.
Leda’s eyebrows went up a little, but she turned to get the drink for him without comment. She had expected him to ask for something, a bite to eat or a place to stay or some money. Next test, then: would he pay for the drink?
“One dollar,” she said, turning back to him with the almost-full pint glass. She held on to the glass and met his eyes, and waited. He looked at her for a moment, then must have realized she was waiting for him to cough up the money before she handed the drink over. His mouth hitched a little to the side, and he gave an awkward sort of nod, and to her immense surprise he dipped down into his pocket and came out with a small handful of coins. He carefully counted out a dollar and put the rest back in his pocket, then looked at her again, his expression entirely agreeable as he extended the coins to her, held in a little stack between his thumb and forefinger.
“One dollar,” he said.
Feeling more wary than before, wondering if this man could possibly be as sincere as he seemed, Leda held out her hand for the money, and when he’d dropped it into her palm she handed him the glass. They each said “thank you” at the same time. The man gave a small smile and Leda turned away, busying herself with putting the money in the till.
She kept an eye on him, out of the corner of her eye, as she went about pouring drinks and occasionally serving a bowl of stew to the locals who had farms and businesses in the area like her, who were either too stupid or too stubborn to move on away from the looming front line. Leda hadn’t decided which one she was, stupid or stubborn. Some days she figured she was both.
The newcomer sat there peacefully drinking his pint, slowly, like he wanted to make it last. She wanted to ask him if he had been traveling for a long time, where he had come from, if he had been near the front line, how hard it was to find work playing music, if that’s what he really was, a traveling musician. It was rare to find someone who just carried around an instrument for the heck of it these days.
“Excuse me, miss?”
His voice pulled her attention to him again, away from her inner ramblings. His tone, as much as his polite words. No one had called her “miss” in a while.
She raised her eyebrows at the newcomer, wondering if he was going to spring for another drink, but she saw the one he already had was only about half gone.
His smile hitched a little to the side and his hand went to the case he’d set down by his stool. Quietly, he asked, “Do you think it would be alright if I played for a bit?”
Leda’s gut reaction was to say yes. She wanted to hear him play. She missed music. She forced herself to hesitate, though. It was entirely possible that this guy was not as nice as he seemed and that he would, at the very least, take advantage of any sort of hospitality.
He was only asking to play, though, she reasoned. She could kick him out if he started harassing her other customers for tips. Or if he wasn’t any good. She was the proprietor. She had that power. And a bat behind the bar for enforcement purposes.
So she paused, and she couldn’t think of any real reason to say no, and she did want to hear some music, so…
“Alright,” she finally said, and the smile he gave her was so genuine – like she was literally doing him an enormous favor to let him play – that she didn’t regret her decision at all.
She watched from the corner of her eye as he took the mandolin from its case, as carefully and reverently as though the instrument were the most precious creature in the world to him. He cradled it against his chest and quietly began tuning it, the first faint notes striking something inside Leda that craved such simple luxuries as live music, which had been so few and far between for the last few years. She could see the other people in the taproom hearing the notes, and sitting up and turning around, not to complain but with expressions of true interest on their normally rather grave faces.
Then he began playing for real and there was not another sound in the place. His fingers coaxed the loveliest melody from the strings, soft and slow at first, a little melancholy. The tune gradually picked up, though, with a sweet sort of playfulness to it, and Leda realized she was facing him fully, watching his fingers on the strings picking and plucking, strumming and sliding.
The tune came to a light, lilting conclusion, and the man’s hands stilled on the strings, and the rest of the customers began to applaud. A few laughed out loud as a sort of release of tension swept through the room. There came a few calls for more, and the man smiled in a sort of bashful way, even as his hands moved to begin playing again.
He played for hours, on and off, moving through the room as different people called him over to talk with them. Some of what he played was purely, beautifully instrumental. He played a few tunes that were requested, old folksongs that several people in the room sang along with, tapping their toes on the floor and their fingers on the tables. Then there were some songs the man sang that no one else knew, pretty things with clever lyrics, and Leda wondered if he had written them himself.
There were more drinks ordered, she noticed, and more stew and bread served than usual. She also noticed a number of people putting coins in the man’s hand as they spoke with him and thanked him for playing the song they’d asked for and asked him to play more.
She noticed, too, that the man was not asking for anything. He was, in fact, being extremely gracious about declining most of the drinks people offered to buy for him. He didn’t drink the ones he did receive very quickly. One of her usual patrons ordered a bowl of stew for him, and he ate that slowly, too. So, he wasn’t a glutton, then, or a sot. He wasn’t in it for the free drinks. He was, apparently, in it for the music, clearly enjoying himself as he played, and she could hardly blame him for accepting the money he was given. If this was how he made his livelihood, it could hardly be easy. How many people might have tossed him out without letting him play at all?
And so, for that reason and because of the extra business his music had given her, when the man came back to the bar where his case still sat after last call, Leda found herself holding out to him a dollar in coins, stacked between her thumb and forefinger. He looked at the coins for a moment before giving a nod and holding his hand out.
“You play really well,” she told him, going back to cleaning the bar as he put away his mandolin.
“Thank you,” he said softly, and gave another nod. “Thank you for letting me play.”
There was a note of melancholy in his voice, like what she had heard in his music, and so, knowing she was probably being stupid, knowing she might regret it in the end, Leda said, “Do you have a place to stay?”
The inn was small, and the few guest rooms there were, since no one ever traveled through the area these days, had slowly become extra storage spaces for old things Leda knew she should probably go through and get rid of. Then there was her parents’ room, which she refused to deal with at all. She offered the musician the use of the smallest guest room, the farthest one from her own room, if he was willing to clear out the clutter, and if he would continue to play for her customers, in the hope that they would spend more money while he did so. He thanked her solemnly and offered his name: Ben. He promised to be an exemplary tenant. She told him he’d better, that she would not put up with any shenanigans. He smiled slightly at her use of the word, and agreed.
Ben began helping her around the inn without her asking him to. In addition to clearing out the room she had assigned to him, he also began clearing out the others, though he respectfully left her parents’ room alone. In the mornings he would clean and declutter, and then in the afternoons and evenings he would take up residence in the taproom with his mandolin, playing for the customers for tips, and sometimes he would take breaks from playing to help her clean glasses and dishes. She found his undemanding presence throughout the days to be pleasant, and his music soothed her frayed spirit, somehow making her believe there was more to life than the fact that she could hear the echoes of gunfire when the wind was blowing just right.
With Ben doing so much work for her, Leda found herself in the strange position of having extra time to herself, which she happily spent in the tiny old greenhouse attached to the back of the inn. Her dad had built it for her mum years and years ago, when he’d first brought her home as a young bride. Her mum loved flowers, and had shown Leda how to plant, how to transplant, how to collect seeds and bulbs, and how to talk to the plants to help them grow. Leda didn’t spend as much time in the greenhouse as she used to, but she still had a small number of plants that she tended. Mostly herbs for cooking and for remedies, but she also had a handful of flowers in mismatched pots that she kept just because they were pretty. Her favorites were the hyacinths. She loved their scent, their deep purple blossoms.
A few days after Ben began making himself useful at the inn, she found herself humming some of his music in the greenhouse, even singing to the flowers, his melodies having infiltrated her subconscious. She particularly liked the one that went something like “a song for a penny, a song for a pie”. She had stopped herself from asking the first time he’d played it if he had made it up right on the spot. If she asked, he might say yes, and then she wouldn’t know what to say. He was so talented. And what was she? Just a barkeep too stupid to move away from a warzone.
She was still humming when she opened the door to the kitchen and came abruptly face to face with Ben. He had a broom in his hands, looking as though he had paused in the middle of sweeping. They each said “oh” at the same time, then turned away and went awkwardly about their separate tasks.
Later, when she was behind the bar and he was tuning up his mandolin, he said to her, “You have a pretty singing voice.” She looked at him blankly for a long moment, befuddled, then realized he must have heard her when she’d been singing to the plants, then wondered how long he’d been standing by the door listening to her do so. Her cheeks grew warm and she looked down at the bread she was slicing and shook her head.
“Oh, no, I don’t,” she stammered, embarrassed, “but that’s nice of you to say.” She glanced at him quickly, mostly out of the corner of her eye, and saw him give a small, crooked smile before turning away to go sit among the tables of customers.
There were more customers than usual. Her thought that having a resident musician might improve her business had been correct. People who had been there on Ben’s first night had told others, and it seemed there were quite a few folk eager to listen, eager to have their everyday worries eased by the lovely music of Ben’s mandolin.
And when Ben sang his song about pennies and pies, she found herself singing very softly along, not loud enough to be heard beyond the safety of the bar, she was sure, but when she glanced toward Ben where he sat on the other side of the room, she saw that he was smiling at her as he played and sang.
“…a song for a penny, a song for a pie, a song for a smile, a song for a night…”
The tune stayed with her as she closed up the taproom that night, as the last of the customers left for their own homes. It stayed with her as she said goodnight to Ben and went to bed. She woke up with it in her head the next morning, and realized she was smiling because of it as she got up and got dressed. She was humming snatches of it as she went downstairs to the kitchen, to begin that day’s chores.
She stopped at the base of the steps and cocked her head, thinking she was going crazy for a second, that she was somehow hearing out loud the tune that had been in her head. A moment later she realized she was hearing it out loud. She was hearing Ben’s mandolin, his voice quietly accompanying it. She wondered if he was playing in the taproom already, but then she realized the music was actually coming from the greenhouse.
She went to the door, which was ajar, and pushed it open a little more, enough to look inside and see Ben, quietly playing his song for her plants. She stood transfixed, his music as much of a treat to her ears as always, watching him direct his attention, his voice, at the silly flowers she liked so much. As she listened, she realized he had added a little to the song.
“…a song for a penny, a song for a pie, a song for a smile, a song for a night, a song for a sparrow, a song for a view, and a song for a flower as pretty as you.”
When he finished, the last notes plucked from the strings, he looked up and noticed her standing there, then looked down at the mandolin in his hands.
“I hope it’s okay,” he said, his words quiet but rushed, like he was making himself say something he’d rehearsed, “that I came in here. I wanted to do something nice for you since you’ve been so nice to let me stay here. I thought maybe I could sing for your plants like you were doing.”
It was more words than she’d heard him say all at once before, not including when he sang. She stepped inside the greenhouse and sat down on an overturned bucket and looked up at him, this musician she had almost kicked out before even hearing his music.
“Will you play some more?” she asked.
He smiled, and he did.