Author: Tess Thompson








Li returned to me on a chilly day in the deep midwinter of 1928. The Colorado sky, blue against the white backdrop of our mountains, had no cloud layer to shield me from the numbing cold. Just as I had no protection from my own heart. The way it beat for only Li.

Smoke billowed in the air from the steam engine accompanied by the roar and clanging of metal, complaining like a grumpy old man with aches and pains in his joints. It slowed as it came around the bend and came to a stop before me.

I searched for him in the windows. The face I knew as well as my own. And there he was. Centered in a window as if he were a photograph in a crude frame. I lifted my hand in welcome. And he placed his hand against the foggy window.

My stomach fluttered with excitement even as a sense of calm washed over me. He was here. Everything was right in my small world. There would be no one else for me. I’d known it for a while now. I wanted him for all time. Not only as a musical playmate, but as the love of my life. By my side, through seasons and children, joys and sorrows.

By the end of this week, I would be twenty years old. I’d decided I would tell him, finally, of my feelings. In all the days we’d spent together, I’d searched and searched for hints in that face I loved so. Did he love me too? But I couldn’t see it, one way or the other. Li was not like my father or my brother Theo. Everything they felt was portrayed with a nod of the head, twitch of the cheek, or curve of a smile. Not Li. His reticence and caution informed his day-to-day life. Except when he played music. Then, I knew his heart.

And still, I had no idea if he returned my feelings. I’d bided my time, restless and itchy, but knowing it was unlikely. For one thing, he was six years older than me. I might be a silly schoolgirl to him, or the youngest sibling of the original Barnes children. A little girl with black curls and a big bow. I didn’t know, and so I waited.

He’d been away in Denver since the new year, performing music in a club. In addition, he’d accompanied a renowned blues singer on the piano for an actual recording. This was utterly too exciting.

For as long as I could remember, my family had departed and returned from the train platform in Emerson Pass. I’d watched with a bittersweet ache as my sisters and brothers left for adventures. Later, I’d waited for them in the same spot I’d said goodbye, delighted to welcome them home. Yet I had no desire to travel myself. Was this a character flaw? This natural contentment and love of home? I’ve no idea. I was quite simply Fiona Barnes. Sister, friend, daughter, and auntie. My gifts were appreciated. I never had any urge to go myself. Why would I, when everything and everyone I loved was a stone’s throw away?

I’d never yearned for travel or new experiences. They came to me in music. I had no ambition or competitiveness in my character, as my siblings did. Unlike my beloved stepmother, who had come out west in a desperate move to save her mother and sister, I had no earthly needs that pushed me forward into difficult things. I was content and happy to be the sister who remained behind and was here to welcome them home again.

Music was the vehicle through which I traveled. My sister Josephine often told me she’d traveled to many places inside the pages of her precious books. “Whole lives are in here,” she’d said once, waving a copy of Heidi at me. Music was the same for me. Whether singing or playing piano, I journeyed to worlds unknown to me but revealed themselves through the music. If one listened carefully enough, the story of my life was in every note.

Like the river that meandered alongside our little town, I, too, bubbled along happily, expanding and contracting with the seasons and my siblings. I was not the traveler but the one who welcomed the intrepid ones home.

Li stood for a split second on the top step of the train car before disembarking. My body warmed as I took in every detail of the man I loved. He looked good in his dark gray suit with a slightly askew bowler hat pulled low over his forehead.

“Hello, Fiona.” He grinned and tipped his hat.

I drew closer, placing my fingers briefly on the lapel of his suit. He smelled of pipe smoke and peppermint. “Welcome home.” I held out my hand and he brushed his mouth against my knuckles.

I asked him about his train trip from Denver, and he assured me it was fine. “Your father’s first-class ticket was too extravagant, but I enjoyed myself.”

“He’s very proud of you,” I said. “Making a recording with a professional musician. It’s perfectly perfect. What was it like to record? Did you get to hear it played back?”

He described in detail the process in a way only another musician would understand. “The blues singers and musicians are just as you imagined them. Crusty, sad, soulful, and so very skilled. My violin may never play another happy tune.”

“Oh, don’t say such things.”

“I’m only teasing you.”

He took his suitcase from the porter and asked questions of me. How was Flynn? Were he and Shannon still happily reunited? Would Louisa’s baby come soon? Had Josephine gotten the grant for the library expansion? Had Cym and Viktor returned from their competition circuit yet?

I rattled off all our news as we walked to the car. Yes, all was well with Shannon and Flynn. In fact, they’d just shared they were having another baby, due in early fall.

“The reconciliation went well, then?” Li asked, clearly amused.

I flushed at the implication and went on to answer his other questions. Jo had indeed secured the funds for another wing for our library. Cymbeline and Viktor had just returned from a ski-jump competition in Wisconsin where she’d taken first place, beating the man favored to win. “Cym says he was so angry that he hurled his second-place trophy at her head. Fortunately, she’s quick, you know, and ducked.”

Soon, we were driving along the icy dirt road toward home. It was such a habit to bring him to the estate where he’d lived in our servant quarters with his grandmother and sister for almost all the years of my childhood that I almost missed his driveway. I veered left suddenly, and we brushed shoulders. A spark went through me. Where had it come from, that shot of warmth and excitement?

We bumped along the driveway. Iced-over mud puddles cracked under our tires. On either side of us, trees were covered with frost. A fierce wind had come in the night before, wiping away the layers of snow that had accumulated on bushes and trees. Now they were ice sculptures that sparkled under the sun. After a few minutes, we reached Li’s cottage. Built only last summer, it was a similar bungalow style to Viktor and Cym’s home.

“Let’s get inside where it’s warm,” he said.

The end of my nose had grown cold enough that I welcomed the idea. Before he got out of the car, however, I reached over and touched his hand briefly. “I missed you.”

He turned slightly to look at me. His eyes warmed me as nothing else could. “I missed you, too.”

“Did you think about me at all, away in the big city?”

“I thought of you every day and wished you were with me.”

“I want to hear all about it, every detail,” I said.

“You’ll hear everything you need to know when the record is done.”

“I will?” I asked.

His mouth lifted into a lazy smile. “You know what I mean. Everything’s there in the music. All the love and longing and beauty in the world, right there, in the notes. These musicians, Fi, they were indescribable. For the only time in my life, I didn’t feel out of place.”

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