Myka unsnaps her guitar from its case and strums it once before she picks it up, enjoying the feel of the instrument in her hands. Other musicians are unpacking, too, and somebody has already moved the tables out of the back left corner of the cafe, and set a dozen chairs in a circle, ready for the players. Myka finds her favorite spot in the very back corner, where she can see both the other musicians and the rest of the room, watch people’s toes tapping and bopping along as they read or talk or work on their computers.
Sure, this is the ‘easy’ session, the one where anybody in Colorado Springs can and does show up, and sometimes the tunes are painfully slow - but the people are always delightful, and the point of folk music isn’t only about skill, after all. Some sessions you can relax into, and that can be just as fun as the smaller sessions with more serious musicians.
“You didn’t even bring your drum? Whoa. Got faith in the locals tonight, Mykes.” Pete slides in next to her, setting her cup of tea down by her feet.
“Thanks. And it doesn’t have anything to do with faith. You told me you were coming tonight,” she points out, “and you’re miles better than me on the bodhrán, anyway.”
“True. Wonder if Claud’s going to show tonight.”
Claud does show, and Abigail, and half a dozen others. Wednesday nights at the Wonder Cafe are practically an institution in the community: the owner, Irene, has some kind of music going pretty much every evening. Jazz night is Mondays, an actual string quartet shows up most Tuesdays, Wednesdays is Irish folk night, Friday is open mic, and there’s pros playing weekend nights at least twice a month. The schedule is posted right by the door. People come in just to check out fiddle night, bring their guitar, their violins, even if all they know is C,D, and G, or the Irish Washerwoman. It’s enough to start, and Myka often ends up changing seats between tunes to sit next to the new guitarists. An experienced player next to a new one often does wonders to help them find their footing.
Abigail asks for an A. Myka tunes her guitar at home, so there’s no ambient noise to throw off the machine or her ear, and everyone knows it. Even Artie, when he makes it, asks for her A for his mandolin - and he’s as much a perfectionist as Myka is. Claud tunes her guitar without Myka, off to the side, muttering into her instrument. Steve shows up and unfurls his collection of whistles. Hugo shows up with his accordion. Myka winces a little - the man plays too loud and tends to speed everything up inexorably no matter how much Myka and Pete try to hold the beat. Five minutes before they’re set to start, someone new shows up, looking nervous and holding a very shiny violin. Brand new at this, Myka thinks, so she stands up and sticks out her hand as she enters the circle and looks for a spot.
“Hey, welcome! I’m Myka, I’ve been coming to this session for years. Sit down anywhere, we’re pretty casual.”
“Oh. Thanks,” she says, finding a spot on the other side of Pete. “I’m Kelly. First time at a real session, so sorry if I don’t know the rules yet.”
“It’s fine,” Myka waves, “you’ll figure it out. Or do you want a quick run down?"
Kelly shrugs. "Can't hurt. I do know that every group has its own rules."
Myka nods. "OK, well, we take turns calling tunes - or sets, if you have more than one you want to play in a row - around the circle. Everyone gets to call tunes, guitarists and drummers too, not just the melody instruments. If you're playing a set, let us know you're changing the tune by whooping."
"Not just after three rounds?"
"You can play it three times through, but you can change it anytime you want - within reason, anyway!" Myka grins. "That give you enough to go on?"
Myka turns to the group at large. “Ready?” Myka asks. “You want to call first, Abigail?”
Abigail calls for Morrison’s Jig followed by Kerry Reel, eyeing the newcomer. It’s a kind way to start the evening - few tunes are as universally known as those two. She sets an easy pace, putting extra emphasis on the down beats for Kelly - one two three four five six - which Myka backs up with simple strumming, easy to follow.
Myka's job as the guitarist in a session is to hold the beat, like Pete, but also to remind everyone of the key, the line of the music. She's the heart, keeping time and tune, and she loves it, loves being the center, if not necessarily the star.
Kelly is clearly relieved to know the first tune, at least, though she misses the whoop to tell her when the change is coming - concentrating too hard, judging by her expression. It takes her almost all the way through the A part to figure out where she’s gone wrong. Pete reassures Kelly as soon as the Kerry Reel winds down that it’s all cool, everybody gets lost, and if it’ll help he can lift his foot for her too when they’re changing tunes.
Myka grins. Pete’s been single for too long. And Kelly’s cute.
Steve calls for Butterfly and Swallowtail. Kelly nods in relief. Myka holds the rhythm steadily, just chords, nothing fancy for now - the Butterfly’s a slip jig, in 9/8 instead of the usual 6/8, and with three parts instead of two, but still, it’s practically the first jig people learn, after Morrison’s. And Swallowtail is probably the next after that.
Kelly calls Kesh Jig. Then Pete’s turn - Banshee, slower than even this group generally plays it. Myka smirks - is Kelly really that cute?
The session’s starting to find a rhythm. People are getting warmed up, and the pace picks up slightly now. The tunes start to get harder, more complex - Banish Misfortune. Gravel Walk.
Halfway through Myka’s first pick of the night, Kid on the Mountain - a favorite tune, so easy to get lost in, five parts that wind around each other - she catches movement out of the corner of her eye. Glancing up, she sees a genial, gray-haired man holding a little girl’s hand. She’s maybe three or four, with curly hair, and she’s pointing to something in the glass pastry case while he orders at the counter. The woman next to them waves a cheerful goodbye, and begins walking up to the circle of musicians, fiddle case in hand.
Myka nearly misses a chord change. The woman is absolutely gorgeous, long dark hair flowing behind her like a waterfall, and with grace to her movements to match. Myka watches her lean in close to check her tuning, and even that movement is elegant, her eyes closed for a moment, her long fingers plucking one string at a time. She straightens up and tucks her fiddle under her chin and starts walking the few steps from the cases to the circle, already playing, and Myka can just tell she’s got the goods before she even gets close enough to hear, just by watching her wrist, her bow-arm, the fluidity in her movements.
Oh, yes. She’s brilliant. Her tone is sweet, her intonation impeccable, and she’s already adding ornaments to the tune before she even sits down, throwing out shuffles and slides and rolls effortlessly, smiling to herself and finding the only empty seat, right next to Myka. She tilts her head, the closest she can get to nodding without throwing off her playing, and Myka, for her part, grins, probably way too hard, but this woman is good.
Myka whoops halfway through the E part and makes the switch to Sleep Soon in the Morning. The woman pauses, tilting her head again, listening, and Myka starts to lean over and shout out the tune, but no need - she’s got it already, with a slight smile, four measures in - god, where did she come from?
Then the whoop into Reconciliation, and again, just a slight pause as she cocks her head and listens, and Myka is so taken by the gesture, the look of searching on her face. The tune winds down and Myka smiles at the newcomer, slightly breathless and shy suddenly, as though she were the new one. “Hey. Haven’t seen you here before. I’m Myka.”
“Hello. Yes, we’re new in town here. Helena. Pleased to meet you all.” The woman’s British accent is as elegant as the rest of her.
“Um, so, I called Kid, so it’s actually your call now, if you want to jump right in.”
“Ah. Well, have we had Pigeon on a Gate yet? Perhaps with Lafferty’s, and Matt People’s?”
Myka raises an eyebrow. Classics, standards even… but certainly not the simplest tunes she could have chosen. “Nope, we haven’t done them yet tonight.” Or most any night, but this woman - Helena - doesn’t need to know that.
Claud interjects. “Not sure I know Matt People’s - what key?”
“Oh, apologies - it’s in G.”
Claud gives her the thumbs up. “Lead off, then.”
Helena sets a respectable pace - nothing a competent player couldn’t handle. Kelly doesn’t even try Pigeon - all those triplets, Myka can’t blame her - but everyone else is game to give it a shot at least. Lafferty’s slides by, Kelly jumping back in with a look of intense concentration, then the key shift for Matt People’s, which Myka’s only played a handful of times, but the chord progressions aren’t too complicated. She and Claud manage, though the other fiddlers mostly die back, not familiar with the tune either.
Helena sets her fiddle against her knee. “I didn’t realize that last wasn’t a tune you play around here - apologies again. If -”
“No no,” Myka interjects, smiling encouragingly. “It’s totally cool. I love learning new tunes, and how are you going to if you don’t want to hear them?”
Helena nods. “I agree, but not every session is so open-minded.” She turns to her left, where Todd sits, clutching his violin nervously - this is only his third or fourth time, and Myka wonders whether he’ll call the same tunes he’s called every other time he’s come. “Is it your call then, next?”
He does - Cooley’s Reel, almost excruciatingly slow, D major. Helena adds some simple ornamentation, and plays a little quieter, letting Todd have the spotlight. The session unfolds almost the same way as it always does. Helena, good as she is, seems happy enough to poke along at the standard tunes with the newer players. People come and go, buy drinks, watch or play for a bit, try to clap along occasionally, forcing Pete, Myka and Claud to play extra loud to hold the beat for everyone. Hugo goes home at eight after calling his favorite, Mason's Apron - the only tune he can hold to tempo, for some reason - claiming he’s got an early morning. Everyone waves goodbye cheerfully and says how sorry they are to see him go, but Myka’s small sigh of relief earns a smirk from Helena. Myka ducks her head, embarrassed.
Then it’s her call again, at last, and she’s been waiting for this moment, and she grins as she says, “Silver Spear, Earl’s Chair, Musical Priest,” glancing at Helena, who nods her approval and flashes a smile. Myka feels something in her chest swoop like a bird and knows immediately she’ll do anything to make Helena smile like that again.
Abigail whoops. “Yeah. Let’s rock! Bring us in, Myka.”
Myka’s not thinking of Kelly or even Abigail as she chucks everyone a five-six-seven-eight, she’s thinking about Helena and her elegant bowing technique, and how she really wants to hear what happens when she gets to open up, and Helena doesn’t disappoint, she lays into the tunes with a precision and flair that makes Myka’s heart jump. All those shuffles in A part of Silver Spear and then those long notes in the B, she wanted to hear if Helena does it justice, and of course she does, turns the B into a long wailing run that makes Myka shiver. Then they all rip into Earl’s Chair - everyone knows that one, even if the newer players get lost at this speed, that’s OK, they hit the long notes and stumble through the rest, and Musical Priest’s a classic, all three tunes are but they don’t sound like standards now, they sparkle, and when Myka whoops for the ending, it’s with an unsuppressable joy.
Few things are more exhilarating than a woman who can make a tune into a live thing in her hands, at least in Myka Bering’s world.
Then it's Helena's turn, and Myka is actually on the edge of her chair waiting for her to call. “Tuttle’s Reel, The Moving Cloud, and Fáinne An Lae. Are these tunes familiar ones?” she asks the group at large.
“Fáinne An Lae?”
Myka nods. “You know it, Claud. It’s Gaelic for The Dawn.”
“Oh! On it - E, right?”
“Quite so. Off we go, then.”
Even though Helena’s pace on Tuttle’s (in A minor; easy for the guitar, trickier for the fiddler) is quick, Myka can tell she’s just coasting, that she could play even faster if she chose. She slides up into G for Moving Cloud, allowing herself just a bit more speed, and the rhythm instruments - Claud and Pete too, not just Myka - don’t try to hold her back like they do Hugo; this is not the slowly speeding grind of someone without discipline; this is a deliberate shift. Then down for the opening of Fáinne An Lae, flying, flying, three times through, and everyone skids to a stop when Helena whoops.
But Helena doesn’t stop, she’s onto a fourth tune, all by herself, and it’s so glorious to listen to that Myka stops trying to find her way into the tune, just lets herself listen to this woman absolutely rip. Besides, Pete’s already drumming, because a reel is a reel, and just the two of them take it around again, with the cafe patrons clapping and whistling because even they know this doesn’t happen every week. The little girl is dancing, drumming her feet as hard as they’ll go on the floor, and Helena spares her a smile even as she finishes off, with a ritard and double stops and Myka never, never wants to stop listening to her play.
“I’m sorry - I seem to be saying that a lot this evening - I just felt that last one in me and couldn’t help myself.”
Myka shakes her head. “Don’t. It’s fine.” It’s more than fine, but she doesn't have words for how it is, and anyway it's Todd's call again, and he calls Out on the Ocean, and Helena leans in to catch his tempo and slide in some harmony, making Todd smile in delight.
It's five minutes to nine, last tune before the shop closes. It’s Steve’s call, but it hardly matters. “The usual?” he asks, and with barely a pause launches in. Myka doesn’t even spare a moment wondering about Helena - there’s no way in the world she won’t recognize Star of the County Down. It’s hard to argue that there’s a more classic waltz. Helena’s fiddle slides in after a scant few notes, and of course, on top of everything else, the woman has a vibrato that sends a warm thrill down Myka’s spine. She wants to wrap that sound around her like a blanket, live in its embrace. The little girl and the grey-haired man are dancing together, now, among the tables, first with all four feet on the ground, until he spins her around and lifts her up, and holds her up, his feet in perfect rhythm, stepping round and round as she hugs him tight.
The tune winds down. People start standing up, stretching. Steve begins cleaning his whistles. Pete zips up his drum case, then wanders over to find Kelly. Myka can’t quite make herself leave yet, can’t bear for this evening to end. So she stands, walks to her case, then starts a tune quietly, her guitar up on her knee, using a chair as a stool. She’s fooling with a tune she's been working on by herself, half-fingerpicking, half-strumming - she doesn’t have this one steeled yet.
"May I?” Helena’s voice sounds behind her. “That's a Liz Carroll tune, isn't it?" Myka turns and nods, a hopeful smile playing across her lips. Some part of her had been wishing that maybe, somehow, Helena would hear her, and know this tune, though it’s far from the standard repertoire. Would know Myka’s very favorite tune-writer of all time. And here Helena is, asking, sounding slightly breathless, as if maybe - just maybe - Helena is feeling the same pull that Myka is.
"Oh, please join,” Myka answers her. “I’d love that. I’ll start over, give you a lead in, yeah?"
Helena doesn’t sit down, just props a foot up on a chair next to Myka, leaning over close enough she might hit Myka with her bow arm. Liz Carroll is serious music, and they need to be able to hear each other over the din of everyone else talking, moving chairs. And this tune, Lost in the Loop, requires so much focus for Myka. The syncopation wants to drag her out of reel time, and she taps her foot to keep herself firmly in 4/4. Helena, of course, seems to have no trouble at all, and Myka for the first time feels at home in the tune, and the music they are making together by the third round makes Myka dizzy with excitement.
Reluctantly, Myka lifts her foot. Helena lets the tune go with a final triple stop.
“I love her tunes. Do you know Sevens? That’s one that I still don’t feel I have quite right, if I’m honest.”
Myka is about to reply in the affirmative when the man Helena came in with wanders up, the little girl nearly asleep in his arms. "This one's fading fast, Helena."
"Oh, I'm so sorry." Myka's embarrassed. “It’s my fault, I just couldn’t quite let the session go, you know?”
"Oh no, don't be. It’s quite alright, I can never pass up a chance to play that tune, especially not with such a competent guitarist.” Helena sets her fiddle down into its case and holds out her arms for the child. “Thank you, Caturanga. I've got her now."
Caturanga waves cheerfully. “See you tomorrow, HG. Have a good night.” Helena waves as he departs, then turns back to Myka.
“It was lovely to meet you, Myka. Hopefully I’ll see you again next week?” Her tone is polite and just this side of hopeful.
"For sure. But, um," Myka stammers, "would you like to come play again? On Friday night? Um, it's a smaller group, a little more… well. It's invite-only."
"Yes," Helena nods her assent, her voice quiet, her body swaying slowly for the little girl pressed in her arms. "I would enjoy that very much. I assume you'll be in attendance?"
"Oh yeah, definitely. It's at my house, after all." Myka laughs, slightly awkwardly, but Helena just raises one eyebrow.
"Ah. Indeed. Well then, I shall definitely be there. Will it be alright to bring Christina along? I doubt I can find another minder for her on such short notice - it's just the two of us, you see."
Myka finds that she's having trouble staying focused. "Oh yeah, sure, that's no problem. Bring her, sure." She almost drops her phone as she pulls it out of her pocket. Great. So smooth. "What's your number? I'll text you my address."
Helena smiles, and gives the number. "Until Friday night then, Myka." And then she goes to set Christina on one knee, and Myka realizes what she's trying to do.
"Oh, let me help. If you don't… I know some people won't let anybody touch their fiddle, sorry, I should maybe not have asked."
"No, please, go ahead, I appreciate it." Myka turns her hands to the business of loosening Helena's bow, of wiping the rosin from her strings. "You're correct," Helena continues, "I don't let most people touch my violin. But you - you know how to hold an instrument properly. You will take care of her, I can see that."
Myka flushes, and snaps the case closed. Helena's fingers brush hers when she gives her the handle.
"See you Friday.”
"I wouldn't miss it." Helena shifts the sleeping child back into her shoulder, and moves off through the departing crowd.
Let's step back from our players now. See Helena arrive at Myka's house on Friday night with Christina in hand, a bag of snacks and games to keep her entertained, only to find there no need: Myka has carefully set aside a corner for the little girl, with books and toys and a cozy chair all her own, and a shaggy dog with a penchant for licking faces that delights the child for hours. Pete and Claudia and Steve and Abigail are there, and Leena, who works Wednesdays but is always there on Friday. They play faster, longer sets, and venture out of the classic Irish repertoire, and Helena hears new tunes and leans in, picking up bits by ear, and Myka hears new tunes, and leans in, strumming quietly. At the end of the night, when everyone's fingers are sore and the roads are starting to ice over, Helena has to peel Christina up off the floor where she's fallen asleep on a sheepskin rug in front of the woodstove. Myka walks them to their car this time, holding Helena's violin case, opening the door so Helena can place both child and instrument gently inside. Walks breathless back to her own door, and not just because of the cold.
Three weeks later, Helena and Christina show up on Friday night only to find out they're the only ones there. Myka swears up and down that everyone bailed at the last moment - and indeed, they did, because Pete knows Myka well, and knows she will wait far too long to make her move, otherwise.
They make music together, beautiful music, and Myka lets Christina play her drum, and her mandolin, and even try on her clogging shoes. They play all the Liz Carroll tunes they know, and at the end of a set Helena slides into a tune of her own - the first time she's dared to play it for another. Myka beams, and listens, and has the chord structure for the A part by the third round, and Helena smiles in satisfaction at Myka when she hits the changes right, and that's the moment Myka knows for sure that there's some kind of magic between them.
And later that night, Helena tucks Christina into Myka's guest bed, and then she and Myka learn whether what they say about musicians and their long, skilled fingers are true (they are), and whether they still understand each other's movements and changes with bodies, rather than instruments in their hands (they do).
And this is the beginning of many, many happy evenings together, and if Helena and Christina stay in Colorado Springs longer than they've ever stayed anywhere else - well, music can do that.
And if Myka leaves Colorado Springs eventually, when nothing and nobody has ever felt compelling enough to risk it before - well, music can do that, too.
And someday, they will sit together, just the two of them, in front of a much larger crowd than the one at that little cafe, and Helena will nod once to Myka, with a taste of a smile on her lips, and Myka will chuck down a five, six, seven, eight, fast and tight and even, and Helena will take the beat and the structure offered, and a song will rise out again from inside her. And Myka will anchor Helena, and Helena will make Myka soar, again and again.
And together they will make an ancient song feel like new again.
Music can do that, too.