It was the music he could never forget. The music first drew him, held him, bound him.
Cole was four years old the first time he heard it. His smiling mother had sent him out to the field to call his father for dinner; half an hour later, she’d gone to investigate their absence and found her little boy sitting beside his father’s prone body, twisting together a crown of blood-red poppies. His father, thirty-one and stronger than the oxen he used to plow, was dead. There were no apparent causes. All Cole remembered afterward was a hauntingly sweet, sorrowful music twisting through the air, mixing with the scent of the poppies that didn’t grow anywhere near his family’s farm, and a pair of dark, lonely eyes. He could not even tell his mother where he’d gotten the flowers.
The second time he heard it, he was sitting on the back porch with his mother and stepfather, sipping lemonade and listening to the sound of his younger siblings playing while his parents argued playfully about what to name the baby on the way. As the music drifted across the waving wheat and stalks of corn, he lifted his head to catch the source. No one else showed any sign of noticing the music, but Cole could not ignore its plaintive qualities. It was somehow reminiscent of the lullabies his mother used to sing to him, containing all their sweetness and love, yet also like the sound of his best friend saying goodbye before moving to the village across the river. It made his heart ache so sharply and beautifully that he could not think of anything else, did not want to think of anything else. But he saw nothing, only a distant flash of memory showing yearning eyes in a face he could not remember and had never known. Though he had felt while listening as though he could have sung every turn of phrase, predicted the fall of each minor cadence, once the music faded again, he could not remember enough of it to sing even two notes together.
For the next four years, Cole heard nothing out of the ordinary. He and his siblings grew up a bit, though the baby whose name his parents had been arguing about had never really needed a name, dying only moments after her birth. He never spoke to anyone about the music. Sometimes he dreamed of the haunted eyes, dreams in which he longed to make the sorrow melt into peaceful joy but could not determine how to do it. Upon waking, he would lie quietly in his bed and think of his father and the smell of poppies until the last wisps of the dream melted from his mind and he could no longer remember either the exact shape or the shade of brown those eyes had been. Then one of his brothers would stir, and the smell of breakfast would seep into the room, and the sights and scents of morning would drive away any lingering remembrance.
It was the night of his seventeenth birthday that he next heard the music lilting mournfully across the fields. He’d been savoring a moment alone under the willow tree in the front yard while his siblings got ready for bed and his parents cleaned up the remnants of the small party they’d thrown him. The few friends he had invited had gone home an hour ago while it was still light. In the peaceful dark, Cole rested his back against the bark, still warm from the heat of the day. For a moment, he let himself imagine it was the heat of another body seeping through his shirt, but he cut the thought off quickly. None of the village lads were interested in a quiet giant like him, too intimidated by the increasing breadth of his chest and shoulders and too bored by his propensity for long periods of silence. The lasses were little better, though Cole had just as little interest in them. He was sure his parents would arrange a match for him when it was time, and he would marry as he was bid because there was nothing better for him elsewhere.
The sound of a solitary wood flute playing a song he could swear he’d heard a million times before crept into his consciousness. Cole sat up straighter, knowing there would be nothing to see but unable not to look just once more, eyes raking the darkness for any unfamiliar shadow.
“ Why do you sit here alone on the night you become a man?”
Cole jerked at the sound of a husky voice that curled softly around him like smoke in the darkness. Though he knew that he should not recognize the man to whom such a voice belonged, the sound tugged at a memory somewhere deep inside him, somewhere mixed with the scent of poppies, the sound of forsaken hope, the sense of loss. “Who goes there?”
A figure emerged from the shadows, the stars and the faint glow from the windows of the house the only light by which Cole could see his tall, thin frame and the darkness of his hair and eyes. Eyes he recognized from his dreams. Eyes he recognized from the day his father died. Cole sucked in a breath. “You,” he murmured.
He flushed slightly when the stranger’s eyebrows lifted. “You remember me?” Cole nodded, unable to speak. Something in the lonely face eased, and with it something inside Cole eased as well. “I did not think you would. You have not seen me since you were a very young child, and I was rather surprised that you saw me even then. Most do not.”
“You gave me the poppies,” Cole breathed with a sudden vivid flash of remembrance. “And”—he cut himself off, cold as he recalled what had happened next.
The sadness returned to the stranger’s face. “Yes. Then I took your father.”
They were silent a moment, and Cole listened wistfully to the music, wishing hopelessly that it would not fade away and leave him without a memory this time.
The stranger spoke again after a moment in his quiet way. “I am not sorry I took your father, because it was his fate and because that is my role. I am sorry that I took him from you, however.”
Cole blinked, surprised by the sentiment. “I hardly remember my father, so I do not miss him, and my stepfather is a good man. I have not lacked for anything.”
“No,” the stranger murmured, something in his eyes dimming. “I suppose you have not.” He sighed so softly Cole almost thought it was the wind through the branches of the willow, but the leaves did not stir around him. “Enjoy your birthday. It does not seem as though it will be your last.” He turned to go, and Cole lunged to his feet, not wanting the man to disappear again just yet.
“Wait!” His hand closed around the thin arm, cool under his fingers. The look of surprise on the stranger’s barely visible face made something in Cole’s heart beat faster. The dark eyes looked almost… what? Pleased? Sweet? Hopeful? “I don’t even know your name.”
“It is not time for you to know it.”
“Please,” Cole begged, unsure why it mattered so much that he have a name to go with the face. “I have been dreaming of you since I was four years old, and I don’t know why. I don’t understand why you were there that day, or why you took my father, or why you were so kind to me. I don’t know why you didn’t take me as well. I don’t know why you’re here now.” He stopped abruptly, realizing how hard he was gripping the stranger’s arm and releasing him before he left bruises.
“I do not entirely understand it myself,” the stranger answered, “but I have always been drawn to you. I did not even intend to speak to you tonight, just to come and look for a moment. I did not expect you to be alone.”
“I am often alone,” Cole admitted.
“Are you lonely?” The yearning in that voice of smoke wended its way deep into Cole’s heart, mixing with the soft music still drifting through the air. Cole had never thought about whether he was lonely or not, but he knew instantly that the man to whom he was speaking was. Desperately lonely.
“Is the music yours?” he asked instead of answering.
A nearly imperceptible smile curved the thin lips. “You can hear it?”
Cole nodded. “No one else ever has.”
The stranger’s mouth opened as though he wanted to say something, but he hesitated. When he spoke, Cole had the impression that the words were not what he had originally intended to say. “The music aids me in my job. Few people ever hear it more than once.”
“That is a shame,” Cole said honestly. “It is lovely, like remembering everything good that has been lost or left in the past all at once. I always wish I could remember it after it’s over.”
Those dark eyes watched him pensively for a long moment. “Will you come with me?” he asked suddenly, almost impulsively.
“All right.” Cole was taken aback by the sudden nervousness in the face before him. “Where?”
The stranger looked away. “To my home.”