Nora came to the festival at the urging of her good friend and colleague, Michael Parker. They agreed to meet at the north end of the fair, outside one of their favorite coffee shops. She had arrived early, as was her habit, and was standing on a corner, taking in the morning sun and watching the crowd slowly build.
A young couple passed her with a baby in a stroller. She watched them walk slowly by the white tents of the vendors, perusing the wares. The man pushed the stroller and the woman shuffled beside him, one hand draped lovingly on his shoulder. Nora smiled, enjoying the affection she could sense radiating from the small family. Some days, such as today, she felt the longing to love again. As usual, she pushed it down, but not before she felt her heart constrict and her eyes begin to well up with tears. She shook her head and began to make her way towards the cafe.
Nora walked down the street, shoulder-to-shoulder with a multitude of strangers. There must have been thousands of people on the street today for the festival. Yet she was alone. Completely and utterly alone. It was not the first time that she had felt this way. In fact, it was her very first memory—waking up, completely disoriented, in a hospital bed in the ruined aftermath of the greatest earthquake this world had ever known. Haunted by the sense of having been swept underwater by forces pulling on her from below. The sense of utter isolation and helplessness.
Yet that was many years ago and now she was here, at the festival, thinking about moving on. It was time. She once again felt the urge to change it all. She moved to this town five years ago in January, and now it was March and she was still here. This was the longest she had stayed in one place since she fled her homeland in Chile almost 40 years ago. The truth was that she liked it here. She liked her home. She liked her job. She liked her coworkers. She liked her routine. But it was time and there was no denying the clock.
“Nora! You’re early—again!”
Nora turned to see a smiling Michael Parker walking towards her from the door of the coffee shop, two paper cups in his hands.
“I took the liberty of ordering your usual. I was hoping to surprise you.”
“I am surprised!” Nora laughed, reaching out to take the cup Michael offered her and greeting him with a kiss on each cheek, as was the way in her country. “Good to see you, Michael.”
“And you.” Michael nodded towards the throng, proffering his arm. “Shall we dive in?”
Nora grinned and took his arm as they began to walk. She recognized some of the vendors from seasons past, and noted a few new ones here and there. They talked about recent goings on at the university where they both taught, stopping occasionally to examine some pottery or sample some delicacy.
“I’m going on a brand new dig this summer. I just got wind of it last night and started making plans this morning,” Michael said as he casually examined a soup bowl from his favorite pottery vendor. He threw a teasing sidelong glance at Nora, “It’s in Iceland. Want to join me? That is, if you don’t already have plans for the summer.”
“Ooo, Iceland. That sounds nice.” Nora said. She put as much sarcasm in her voice as possible, but inwardly her heart was constricting. She quickly pushed down her feelings of affection for Michael—no, these were more than feelings of affection, if she wanted to be honest with herself. She couldn’t afford to let herself be more than a friend to him. It wouldn’t be fair to him when she moved on, as she must.
She was thinking up a pithy reply when the sound of a flute caught her attention. She craned her neck in the direction of the music, trying to see where it was coming from. The crowd before her blurred suddenly—a sea of faces becoming dots in a pointillism painting—and she felt a surge like being pulled out of her body and up. She swayed and clutched at Michael’s shoulder, regaining her balance.
“What is it? Are you okay?” Michael asked, reaching out to steady her.
“It’s nothing. I just lost my balance for a second. I’ll be fine.” Nora said. “Do you mind if we go over to the stage on the other side? I’d like to get closer to this music.”
“Sure,” Michael said, a concerned look on his face.
They picked their way through a gap between two tents to get to the soundstage. As they drew closer, a wave of homesickness washed over Nora.
On the stage was a Native American man, dressed in a white shirt and pants and leather sandals. Several flutes hung from straps around his neck, and he had seedpod rattles on each wrist. He was alone on the stage except for a microphone, a small mixer, an amplifier, and a set of speakers. Hanging from the microphone was a set of chimes and a tiny, bird-shaped clay flute. He was, truly, a one-man band. He was also putting on the best performance of Andean music that Nora had heard in 40 years.
Nora, mesmerized, pushed her way through the crowd as the man played.