The Traveler

by H.C. Aubrey

Ivy Taylor liked strength. She sought it in her music, in her methods, and in her men; for each, it provided definition, giving shape to purpose and potential.

The potential seated at the window was slender and long limbed. His silhouette suggested a high forehead followed by a long, sharp nose and a delicately carved jaw. When he turned to see Ivy enter the room, the light of a small desk lamp revealed that he was young and that he was not smiling.

"I had to come."

"I told you not to," he answered, returning to his vigil over the city.

"The season finale is tonight."

"And the tour?"

"I leave at midnight."

He said nothing.

"You have reserved seats for this evening's performance. The Langley Award?" she asked wryly.

"You may leave the tickets on the table as you leave."

"You're actually going through with it?" Ivy took a step forward, resting her hands on her hips as she watched his head swivel in her direction.

"It doesn't matter to you any longer." His eyes were hard, dark emeralds.

"You are." Her glance flickered to his desk. "You're going to throw away the opportunity to publish a book like The Traveler, a book that winds mankind into a frenzy of perfection, that stands for something rare . . ."

". . . an adventure," he whispered. But he turned his eyes away. "They'll fight it if I do," he sighed, his entire body deflating as his shoulders slumped. "I'm running on a tight budget as it is. I'd have to put everything into that book; if it failed, I'd be ruined. But if I give in this once," he said slowly, his voice flat, but rising in volume, "I'll have the Langley endowment with which to publish other books, good books . . ."

"You think so?" Her eyebrows arched. "John, skip the money. There are people out there who will read this great risk of yours. And if there aren't, why are you publishing? Sell lawn equipment."

"Why do you always make things sound so simple?" His mouth twisted as he spoke.

"Because they are," she said evenly.

"But are we really so different, Ivy? Because our methods vary? Our dreams are the same."

"Don't you see?" Her eyes searched his. "You're contradicting everything they stand for. I won't do that."

"I haven't requested that you do any such thing."

"You asked me to love you."

He clenched his eyes shut for a moment, his entire body rigid at the exertion of blocking her presence from his awareness. But the harder he fought, the brighter the outline of her face grew against the shadow of his sealed lids. He saw the wild halo of copper hair framing her face. He saw the wide, dark eyes fixed at a point visible to no one but her. She was standing onstage. In her hands was a violin. And in those hands, the violin wept in deep, shifting murmurs and laughed in high, arcing cries — enunciations that scandalized many, seduced some, and frightened others. She crafted the music into slim, reaching figures that danced across the stage, rising with each step, rising and rising until they diffused to fill the entire auditorium with sounds that had never before been heard, dreams that had never before been dreamt. And there were no compromises.

"But look where your path leads," John said suddenly. "You know you'd be nationally recognized by now if your music weren't quite so demanding; you've already managed to destroy or ignore more opportunities than most get in a lifetime. You've made so many sacrifices."

"No." Her voice rang sharp and clear against the muffled din of his uncertainties. "I've made choices. Each of those choices has borne an equitable price. And I have paid each in full."

He watched her silently as she slid the tickets onto a table piled high with folders and manuscript boxes.

She turned to face him as she neared the door. "I can't allow the thing that is beautiful in you to suffer like that, fighting and yearning for a day that you will not allow to come."

"And what will you do?"

"The only humane thing there is," she said, closing the door behind her.


John sat in the silence of his office and stared at the paper lying before him. The room seemed very empty after she'd left, emptier than it had ever seemed. He raised his pen above the lines that read, "We, the undersigned, do hereby agree to adhere to all publication practices recommended by the Moral Improvement Association advisory board and its subsidiary committees and councils." The words paraded across the page, promising the Langley Award endowment, promising the money to publish some of the other books, if he just didn't publish this one. Just this one. That was all. They just didn't want this book. But they'd want the others, once they saw them. The endowment would see to that. Yes. What would it cost him, really? One book. They'd fight him if he published it. And they'd win. Yes, it was best this way.

But the breath that shook his frame as he shifted his pen left him cold, lifeless. He paused. It was too late to turn back; he had already offered an informal acceptance of the award and its conditions. And they must be right, somehow. They were too widely accepted, too legitimate with the public, not to be. Everyone would agree with his decision. Everyone but one. And with a vague half-relief, he lowered the pen to the paper.


Her brain throbbed with the longing that possessed her. And that longing drew deep, plunging pulses from her muscles and sent them reeling across the strings of her violin. Each stroke was a fervent demand for the perfection that swarmed above her in triumphant pronouncements of sound.

He shifted in his seat and raised his eyes reluctantly. He was simultaneously intrigued and frightened by the sight of her fevered lust. He lowered his gaze, but it was met by the image of her face staring back at him from the cover of the program. So confident. So inspired. So alive. He rolled the booklet into a tight paper dowel and slid it between the seats.

As the final notes drifted into oblivion, a heavy, slow moving man stepped before the row of lights that illuminated the front of the stage. His arms hung evenly by his sides, but his fingers tore at the edges of his jacket as he waited for the crowd to quiet itself. A smile drew his face into a fleshy knot, and he opened his mouth to speak.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to pause after that brilliant introduction and take a moment to recognize another form of greatness." The mayor leaned back on his heels. "We have a very distinguished guest in our audience tonight: John Walken, a man who has helped forge a vital link between the government and the arts. As publisher of Ambrosia Books, Mr. Walken has voluntarily submitted to the authority of the Moral Improvement Association; he will publish only the types of work that our advisory board deems acceptable.

"It is only through such aesthetic engineering that the vision of the moral majority will be protected and encouraged. And protecting and encouraging that vision is the most noble of pursuits. For how do we determine the morals of the majority? Or the justification of its enforcement? We vote, ladies and gentlemen. We exploit the inherent justice of democracy. For how can an entire country be wrong?

"The Langley Award reinforces the Association's mission by supporting individuals of talent and promise. Tonight, that award goes to John Walken. We would not be where we are today if it were not for people like him; this endowment presents an opportunity for us to assist him in his efforts. Please, Mr. Walken, step down and accept a token of our appreciation."

John looked out over the sea of faces that turned toward his. He began to push himself up, but what he saw on the stage made his hand slip from the armrest and his legs drop back into the seat. It was Ivy — Ivy with her flaming copper hair and pale skin, Ivy with her soft lips and hard eyes — who carried the glaring brass placard engraved with his epitaph. She strode to the center of the stage and smiled up at him, her mouth radiantly supple, her eyes mockingly knowing.

At last, he stood. Her eyes never left him and her voice, humming in his head, whispered, I will crush you, if you chose to live like this. I will crush you. And as he walked down the stair-stepped aisle, he thought he could hear the crowd crying, you — you legitimize our lives, our choices — you are one of us . . . one of us . . . one of us. He was two tiers from the main floor when he caught sight of the green halo of an exit sign. His walk slowed, his attention torn between the whispering, following faces and the hovering beacon, as though his focal vision had been completely obliterated by his peripheral. But he continued down the aisle, propelled by the momentum of his descent.

He stumbled, half-blind, up the stairs to the stage. The black flooring, the black backdrop, and the blackness that was the invisible crowd before him rose in a great crest of darkness through which he swam. At last, he reached the swollen figure of the mayor, tottering like a buoy against breakers. A large, oily hand closed around his so firmly that his fingers were momentarily paralyzed within the grasp.

"I have a special announcement to make." The mayor's mouth widened into a smile. "But I must preface it by telling you about a book Mr. Walken had intended to publish. It was a book that ventured beyond the bounds of the advisory board's recommendations, a book that glorified the indulgence of pride and the decadence of pleasure — a complex book, full of ideas that would confuse the young and frustrate the old. An unpublished book is an unrealized promise. But a promise of what? Mr. Walken chose not to gamble our support against unknown profits; he set the book aside for the betterment of the community and in deference to the community will.

"Mr. Walken's gesture indicates his suitability for a very special project." He winked at John's bewildered expression. "It is my pleasure to announce that he will be publishing the Association's own book, a work that outlines the very ideals Mr. Walken's actions epitomize: a belief in the sanctity and supremacy of majority morality."

John simply stood, staring out into the darkness where hundreds of eyes watched and hundreds of ears waited. All of the books. They were gone. The mayor stepped beside him, patting him on the back.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Langley Award, presented by one of the symphony's premier musicians, violinist Ivy Taylor."

If it had been anyone but her, he thought as she pressed the placard into the dull claws that were his hands. But there she was, smiling, shaking his hand, laughing, nodding in approval. The applause that arose from that gesture made him cringe; the noise was deafening, unbearable; each cry drove her smile, her laugh, deeper and deeper into his brain. He heard himself mutter something about civic duty and the needs of the community being borne by the talented and the strong and then saw himself shake the mayor's hand and turn to the audience to take a bow for this, his greatest performance.


The night closed around Ivy with a chilled embrace. Even though she stood in its heart, the city sounded far away, hollow and echoing, more like a dream of a city than a city. Her fingers tightened around the handles of her suitcase as she lifted it with a surging, upward motion. The platform was deserted, and the train tracks extended into the darkness like sliver promises, conjuring space to wander in and a distance to yearn for.

Weakness can be a strong thing, she thought to herself. John was strong like that, strong in his weakness. He was so strong that he killed himself. But I dealt the death-blow. He had to be shown; he had to realize what end he was working toward. A casual suggestion slipped to the mayor was all it took. That project will be his ending. Her chest ached with a deep-spreading heat. How different everything must seem to him now.

Her ears pulled the sound of a train from the distance. She turned and motioned toward the station. The other musicians nodded and began collecting their trunks, satchels, and cases, oddly-shaped homes. The distant glimmer of light and the faint vibrations shocked her to her senses. She inhaled the night air with a sharp breath and walked to the edge of the platform. She set her bag down and pulled a boarding pass from her pocket. Her legs felt sure and strong beneath her, like the lean limbs of a bridge arching across the void of a deep ravine. The train rushed toward her with a momentum that seemed unstoppable. As it drew near, its wheels screamed like an unbroken horse as the engineer's brake handle fought to harness the power behind the speed.

Ivy reached down to grasp her suitcase, but her fingers closed on the cold evening air. She turned to see the back of a long, grey wool coat, a man's hand extending from the sleeve, and his fingers curled around the handle of her luggage. She took a step forward. The severe click of her heel halted the scraping sound of his.

"I'm coming with you." John's words were quiet and measured, but his eyes danced before her.

She did not move.

"Do you love me?"

Ivy stood silently, her gaze traveling across his face. The urgent cry of the whistle rose, and the crowd surged forward, washing past them in waves of grey flannel. A smile lifted the corners of her mouth.