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It’s the lack of interim darkened stains on the cobblestones that makes me pause. Where the rest are muddied and damp from the past rainfall, the solitary patch of lightened stone stands alone against the bleak backdrop. Even with a dog urging me onwards and the whispers of the city around me, that solitary patch is enough to make me take a weary glance upwards.
The man matches my gaze with wide eyes, warming instantly with a meek smile. Wrinkles trace a maze through his skin, a frail hand propping up a tattered umbrella overhead. Fitted in a heavy coat and an instrument case clenched in tight fingers, his poise holds a leaden weight equally balanced by his bright eyes. I only return the smile before taking a step away.
My dog has other ideas, quickly finding the stranger and sniffing at the ends of his coat. I tug at the leash, but the collie is determined and doesn’t so much as blink at my urgency.
“No, no,” the man says in a nearly inaudible whisper, “that’s quite alright.”
Persistent, I continue to attempt leading my collie away from the stranger, but she plants her paws into the stone sidewalk and looks up at the man expectantly. The leash dangles tensely between us, and I look to the man with an apologetic grimace.
A wide smile lightens the man’s features, causing his eyes to crinkle at the edges. “Dogs have a good sense of who to trust. More than people do,” he says, rubbing the collie’s head with stiff fingers. “You’ve got be careful in a city like this, teeming with strangers and artists and imagination. Dangerous thing, imagination.”
It takes me a moment to realize that he is laughing. Stiffening, I glance around for an escape, but only bleak cobblestones and lonely storefronts answer my plea.
The man shakes his head, patting the collie and taking a small step backwards. Looking at the dog fondly, he slowly closes the tattered umbrella and tucks it under his arm with lethargic movements. “You know what imagination lead to? Ideas. Then progress, and change. You never know what you’re going to get with change.” He winks at me. “Dangerous.”
Lips pursed, I give a hurried nod of agreement before pulling my collie to my side. This time she comes, tail wagging, and I relax slightly.
“Imagination can also lead to creativity. Art, music. Beauty. Now is that so dangerous?” His eyes lock with mine, their warmth dissipated and replaced with a transparent sincerity. “Is beauty dangerous?”
Tightening the leash I duck my head and turn away from the stranger, eager to continue on my way. The man coughs weakly from behind, a deep and ragged cough that seems to echo in the empty street. For the slightest moment, I pause.
“It can be,” I say slowly, eyes averted and back facing the man, “if misused.”
Glancing over my shoulder, I see the man hobbling away on the cobblestones, umbrella tucked under his arm. In a few moments, he turns the corner, leaving me staring down the gray street with narrowed eyes. Unmoving, a silence falls over me, as though expectant for his return.
It doesn’t come.
After a long quiet, a soft tug on the leash draws me out of my stupor. Wrapping my coat around myself, I blink, and glance after my collie. She sniffs at an instrument case, sitting alone in a patch of lightened cobblestone and the memory of its owner.
A frown dances on my lips, and I walk over to the case with warm hands. Carefully lifting the heavy lid, the sleek body of the violin provides deep contrast to the dim grays surrounding me. Pictures and clippings line the interior of the lid, spinning a new tale with each image I take in. A musty scent rises from the case, motes of dust dancing in the air as I run a finger over the edge of the instrument.
I close the case with gentle fingers and hold it firmly as I continue down the street. For a moment, I pause, glancing at the fading patch of lightened cobblestones. A soft smile touches my lips, and with the shake of my head, I walk away.