Beyond the Stained Glass
THE THING WITH FEATHERS
An Anniversary Story
set a year after You Arrive in the Flower and the Water
I’ve heard it in the chillest land, and on the strangest Sea …
They walked together now, early each morning to the park entrance. Arriving before the dawn, they would stand outside, hand in hand, quiet, preparing to part.
“It’s a lovely day for a run,” he said.
“You say that every morning,” she replied.
“I mean it, every morning. To see you dart into the brightening day … you are a thing of beauty.”
“Some days, it’s raining. Some days are dark and dreary.”
“And yet you are ever beautiful.”
“I’m so happy, Vincent.”
“Until this evening …” He bent to touch her lips before shadowing back into the tunnel, his fingers slipping out of her hand, sorry to leave her, even if only for hours.
She did dart into the day. Sorry to leave him as well, though the cool spring air strengthened her, energized her. The sun, when it broke through the pink clouds, sent rays to the earth, and on them, a poem to remember, to recite to him on their pillow that evening.
Another year had almost come ‘round. She could remember before, though it seemed the life of someone she’d merely known, not her own. To say all had changed that night was understatement, yet those were her only words for it. Her despair had been terrible and she’d known her first great sorrow. She hadn’t known she could suffer and yet be healed, that she would find hope.
He’d shown her the way through the darkness, carried her, encouraged her, enjoyed her. He’d given her a most brilliant gift, a reflection of her best self.
How wonderful it was to love him.
Catherine made a circuit through the park, across the bridge and around the lake. She was not the first out today, passing a few couples running in easy conversation, a few silent cyclers lost in speed, heads down …
The woman was there again, a striking woman of an age when experience and years war with a still youthful spirit – perhaps sixty, slim and fit with smooth skin, bronzed in the way of someone accustomed to outdoor work. Her hair was a long, thick, silvery braid. She sat on the same park bench, facing the lake, alone, still, as if in meditation. She’d been there every morning for days now.
Today, Catherine slowed as she neared the bench by the lake. The woman met her gaze with a bright smile. Not a New Yorker. She stopped her run a few paces out.
“Good morning! Isn’t it beautiful today?” She’d surprised the woman, she could tell, but her response was warm.
“It most definitely is. Spring time in New York …”
“May I sit with you a minute?”
The woman scooted to the side, patted the bench. “Please do. Some mornings are just meant to be shared.”
“I saw you yesterday and, I think, every day this week, sitting right here.”
“I noticed you too. You run with happiness showing on your face. Almost everyone else seems to be, I don’t know, balancing their checkbooks or something equally sobering.”
Catherine smiled. “Maybe I should do that too, but not while I run. There’s plenty of time to do that at work.”
The remark made the woman laugh, and then they were quiet. Two ducks skittered the surface of the lake, lifted into the sky.
“They seem to walk on water, don’t they?” the woman said. “It takes them a while to get going, but then, they have such … direction and purpose, don’t you think?” There was a wistfulness behind the words, another meaning.
“I can see that.” She held out her hand. “I’m Catherine.”
“Della.” The woman’s was a firm grasp of roughened skin.
“Will you be here again tomorrow?” she asked, rising to leave.
“If I am, I hope you’ll stop to say hello. Run strong, Catherine.”
She sprinted the last blocks to her apartment and tried her best to sidle through the door. Her new daytime doorman held it open for her, tipping his hat with a questioning look. “How’d you get past me this morning, Ms. Chandler? I must be losing my touch.”
“You were probably hailing a cab for someone when she left,” Brian piped up. He stood just inside, zipping up his book bag. She flashed the doorman a smile designed to distract him and was successful … this time
Brian leaned close, whispering, “He takes a coffee break every morning at exactly 7:45, if you want to time coming in right.”
“You’re a good Helper, Brian.” She laughed, but she meant it, and he blushed with pleasure at her words.
“This has become a really expensive closet,” she mumbled to herself on the ride up. She left the elevator and made way to her door. She’d moved her favorite things to the home she made with Vincent below – (Homes, she corrected herself. Two of them, she marveled still) – but she’d needed to keep a residence above. Soon, things would change. Soon, she’d own two addresses above. Too many. Calling the realtor was at the top of her to-do list. Still, when she opened the doors to her balcony, felt the rush of breeze and memories, she knew it would be hard to give the apartment up.
She turned back to her armoire, raked the laden hangers over the bar, chose a springy suit she hadn’t remembered she owned.
* * *
Evening at last. She shared a cab from work with a colleague who would be making his first argument in open court and needed a bit more hand-holding, begging off his offer of dinner. Without even glancing at the elevator, Catherine hurried to her basement, to the ladder leading to her real life, to Vincent. He waited for her tonight a short way down the tunnel, leaning these days in a carefree manner, loose of limb, an easy countenance.
“Catherine.” His embrace was close and long, as if she’d been gone days instead of hours. She kissed him with promise and felt him smile beneath her lips. They began their long sweet walk down.
“I saw the same woman in the park again this morning.”
“Did you speak to her?”
“I did. Her name is Della. Something is weighing on her.”
“Then tomorrow,” Vincent said, “if she’s there, you must ask if she needs your help.”
“I will. I’ll do that.”
* * *
The next morning was just as beautiful; a rosy sky gave way to brilliant blue as Catherine ran. Vincent had kissed her goodbye with a confidence that thrilled her and though each footfall reminded her of her earthbound life, she felt as if she were flying.
And so she raced along the path, head high and sure of foot, and rounded the bend toward the lake. She felt a twinge of disappointment and was almost past the empty bench when she saw Della standing at the lake’s edge. Catherine pulled up short and bent with her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Della turned at the sound.
“Good morning, Catherine. The ducks were back. And there were two black swans.”
“You saw the swans? They’re … elusive.”
“They mate for life, did you know that? I hope those two found each other early.” The wistfulness had returned to Della’s voice, but her tone changed and she smiled. “You’re positively glowing this morning, as if you know the most wonderful secret.”
Catherine visioned walking her back to the tunnel entrance and showing her just what a wondrous secret she did keep, instead asking, “You don’t live in New York, do you Della? Are you here on vacation?”
“Oh, my, how can you tell? People told me to act blasé or the city would eat me alive.”
“I promise not to bite!”
“Actually,” Della continued, “I’m here for a friend, because of a friend. She died.”
“Oh, Della, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to bring up sad thoughts this morning.”
“No, honey, it’s all right. She was a wonderful person, and she had enough time to take care of things before she passed. She left me her house, one of those brownstones. I’m here to decide what to do with it.”
“Do you have a lawyer? I could give you the names of some colleagues.”
“Are you an attorney?” Della asked. “You don’t really look like one. You’re not all buttoned up.”
Catherine laughed at that, laughed because so many of her work clothes made her feel just that way. “I am. Is there any way I can help you?”
“Thank you, but no. My friend left excellent instructions complete with her own attorney and a real estate agent.”
“Is there a chance you might stay in New York, keep the house?”
Della turned back to the lake, seeming to search the shoreline for an answer. “That’s a terribly difficult question, and I can’t imagine wasting your glorious morning with my story. But thank you for … visiting with me.”
“I don’t have to go if you’d like to talk. I can call in late … or sick.”
“No, no. You go on. I have to be somewhere soon anyway.”
Catherine tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her ear. “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.”
Della’s smile was apologetic, but she was done with talking. Catherine reached out, the barest touch to the woman’s shoulder. “I hope I see you again.”
* * *
Walking back from the Falls, on their way to supper, they met an elderly man. He bowed slightly at the waist as they passed.
“Good evening, Vincent, Catherine.”
“Hello, English,” Vincent said.
Once out of earshot, Catherine said, “Tell me about him, Vincent. I don’t know him. I don’t think I’ve seen him twice since he spoke to Brian that night.”
“Lately, he’s out in the community more. He’s begun teaching the older children more advanced maths, relieving Father of that burden, who has frustrated his students with his insistence on using a slide rule.”
“A slide rule? Poor old thing.”
“Father says it still works and old ways should not be tossed aside for newfangled ‘gadgets’. This from the man who longs for advanced medical equipment and spends hours pouring over Peter’s journals.”
“That makes me think of what English said to Brian … that his crime was to have grown old, that he was to be … cast away, I think he said.”
“A Helper knew him well, watched his decline. Three years ago he came to us.”
“How wonderful for him that he found this world.”
“Yes. Finally, he feels more at home and at peace. He has much to share and, he says, there is life left in him yet …”
“I saw Brian yesterday. He seems more mature, more optimistic. All he heard that night, from Pascal and William, from English, changed him. He saved me from the scrutiny of my doorman. He’s going to be a strong Helper one day,” Catherine said.
“And you told him that?”
They walked on in the hush, the spill of the falls receding and the pipes nearly silent. Vincent squeezed her hand. “Another anniversary has almost arrived. How shall we celebrate this year?”
“Quietly.” She arched her brows. “Alone.”
“Then, possibly, not so quietly,” he murmured, and her knees went weak.
* * *
The next morning, seconds from their parting, she sprinted back into the tunnel, surprising him as he reached for the hidden latch.
“What, Catherine? Did you forget something?”
“She saw the black swans. She told me yesterday they mate for life. There was … something more. I didn’t understand.”
He took her in his arms, pressing her close, holding her for long minutes.
“She has a story to tell you, Catherine. Stay with her until she can.”
* * *
As Catherine rounded the path to the lake, she saw Della in her customary seat slumped as if with a sad burden. Work could wait. As long as it took, she would stay.
“Della,” Catherine called, hurrying to her side. “Are you all right?”
“I just don’t know what to do next.” Her voice held the shudder of tears.
“Has something happened?” Catherine sat down, bent close. “Maybe it would help to say it out loud.”
“The realtor wants the house cleared out. It is such a final thing to do, to go through my friend’s things, to give her clothes away. Then I’ll have to move on, but to … where? To what? And more than that. I’m clinging, I think, to a silly dream.”
Catherine waited, willing her on. A soft breeze rippled the still waters of the lake.
“I never married,” Della told her. “I lived in Wyoming on the family ranch with cattle and horses and wheat fields. It was a difficult life – money worries, weather worries. After college, I went home to help out for a while and … I just stayed. I loved it though – the rides through the grasslands, the mountains in the distance. I loved the physical work, being outside. As my parents aged, they needed me to care for them, to manage the farm business. Four years ago, my mother died and then two months later, my father followed her. I expected keep on keeping on, keep everything the same, keep the ranch going. After all, I’d lived there all my life.
“One morning, I rode out and I just knew … I didn’t want to. All of it was wrong. I felt like I had to change, change radically, before it was too late. A year ago I sold the ranch. I’ve been traveling since, visiting old friends, looking for a new home, a place to grow and maybe even to love, finally, truly.
“But, now, about the dream, the dream I’ve held in my heart for ages. Years back, one April, I came to New York to visit my friend, the one who’s just died. I was unhappy in some deep way I couldn’t exactly name. I would walk out in the park every morning, early like this, sit here on this very bench. There was a man who came too.
“He came with his wife in a wheel chair. They weren’t so old, maybe only in their 60’s, but she was suffering. Alzheimer’s. He would read to her every morning – poetry – and tell her stories of their life together. After a few days, I realized he often read her the same poems over and over, told her the same stories. All with a patience and gentleness that overwhelmed me with envy.
“I sat across from them, here, on those mornings. I wanted the stories, the poetry, the love he showed her. He knew I was there, knew I was listening, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“One day, another man came with them. A younger man, perhaps a brother. He was angry, told the man his wife’s care was draining his finances, that soon there’d be nothing left and who did he think would care for them then. He shouted, ‘Why do you do this anyway? She doesn’t even know who you are anymore!’ And the man, very quietly, said just this – ‘Maybe she doesn’t remember me, but I remember her.’
“I knew then what was missing in my life. That sureness spread inside me like a great bird fanning its wings. I wanted someone to know me, someone to love me enough to pull me back from my dark places, someone to remember me when I didn’t remember myself.”
Della drew a long breath, sighed it away. “I know it’s silly to sit here on this bench, dreaming if I wish hard enough, if I sit here long enough, I’ll see him again. I’ve always wanted to thank him … for changing me … for showing me what love looked like. I didn’t have it for myself, but I believed in it because of him. Sometimes, I believe I could have it still, even this late in my life.”
Catherine was stunned into a sad silence and she reached for Della’s hand. “Something powerful happened to me, too, in this park,” she said. “Something that changed me forever. Perhaps there’s some magic here and you shouldn’t give up. Do you know his name? I could try to find him for you.”
“His name? No, he never told me. We never spoke. Sometimes his wife would call him Liam, if she were having a good day. When she said his name, he looked as if he felt blessed. Such a little thing …”
Della studied the lake. A black swan floated out from the shore’s brush, another behind it. “I’ve forgotten the poems he chose,” she went on. “Never really knew the titles anyway. Only scraps of verses come back to me now, one in particular … Love is a thing that flutters and sits within the soul. But I remember, clearly, how it felt to hear him read, to hear what he was really saying to her.”
Catherine was at a loss to help. She wanted Della to be happy. She wanted to find this man for her. But how? There was nothing to do but sit together in the morning sun until she was quite late for work.
* * *
“She told you her story today,” Vincent didn’t ask. He knew. “Tell me.”
She’d finished the tale by the time they’d reached the corridors central to the community. “I can’t think of what to do for her. There’s no way to find him. She doesn’t know his name, and even if she did, he could have moved away. It’s been years. He might have died.”
“Maybe,” Vincent offered, “the man is not as important as the message. He’s already given her what she needed, the vision of a different life, the hope that she might find it, the knowledge to recognize it. Maybe the best gift you could offer her is the strength to continue to look.”
“How could I do that? I feel so sad for her. I see myself in her, Vincent, the person I might have been if it weren’t for you. Still in corporate law, searching for meaning in my life, always an unnamed longing in my heart for something better.”
His hand tightened on hers. “Remember our first night on your balcony, when we finished Great Expectations? That last chapter will always have deep meaning for us. Sometimes, even now, I’m compelled to hold the book itself, just to feel that night, that change, in my hands. Perhaps, you might find a book of the poetry she remembers this man reading. She could take that with her into the rest of her life, as a guide, as inspiration.”
“I like that, Vincent. She only told me one line. Love is a thing that flutters and sits within the soul. Do you recognize it?”
“Hmmm. It is familiar. Perhaps Father will know.”
* * *
Father and English sat at the library table, pages of the math curriculum strewn about. Father brandished his slide rule, but English turned the screen of a calculator toward the closest candle.
Father smirked, nearly crowed. “What did I tell you?”
“Maybe it just needs a new battery,” English said, scowling.
Vincent and Catherine descended the steps and the two men looked up.
“Vincent, give us a difficult problem. Let’s see who solves it first,” Father begged.
Vincent shook his head. “I don’t do math on an empty stomach, Father. You know that. I’ll think of a problem for you after my supper.”
“Yes, yes. Make it a very difficult one,” English entreated, lighting an extra candle. “One with many n’s and x’s and y’s and plenty of parentheses and throw in a factorial, won’t you, and a matrix exponential.”
Father winced and pushed his slide rule under the cushion of the chair. “To what do I owe this very timely visit, Catherine? Vincent? It’s wonderful to have you prowling these chambers again, even if it is only for a few days this time around.”
Vincent neatly steered Father from what was still a … tenderness. “We’re hoping you can help us,. We need to find a particular poem and we know only a few words of it. Would you like that game better?”
“Word games are my forte. Tell me what you know.” Father settled back in his chair, steepling his fingers while keeping one eye on English who now tapped keys on the calculator with one hand while scribbling out equations on a yellow pad with the other.
“Love is a thing that flutters and sits within the soul …” Catherine repeated.
“No, no, no,” English said, never looking up from his work. “‘HOPE is the thing with FEATHERS, that PERCHES in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.’ Emily Dickinson. It was my wife’s favorite.”
“Ah, yes, Emily Dickinson. I was just about to say that,” Father rose from his big chair and began to rummage his stacks. “I know I have several volumes of her work … maybe under here … no … perhaps over here. I was just reading … ah, here she is …”
* * *
Later they lay twined together. “Tomorrow night,” she whispered. “Another year. The most wonderful year of our lives.”
“Yes.” He sighed and tucked her closer to his heart.
* * *
“Vincent, wake up.” She tugged on his arm. “I have to know something.”
“What is it, Catherine? A dream?”
“No, not a dream. What’s English’s full name? What’s his first name?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always called him English. It could be his given name or his surname. I’ll have to ask Father. Or English himself. Why?”
“What happened to his wife? Was she sick?”
“I think so, yes, for quite a while.” He drowsed off, half asleep still.
“Think about it, Vincent!” She shook his shoulder. “A sick wife and he knows Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What if his first name is Liam?”
“That would be … a coincidence?”
“Maybe a miracle! You’ll help me find him tomorrow, first thing?”
“First thing. Anything. Sleep now.”
* * *
Hours later, nearer morning, Catherine was beside herself, anxious for Vincent to help her. At the staircase, waiting for him, she tapped her foot, and when he emerged from the bath, dry and dressed, she rushed him up the steps, through the passage behind the stained glass, through the secret door into his old chamber.
“What are you thinking, Catherine?”
“I’m thinking there’s a woman, probably making her way alone to that bench right this minute, and we have to get him there before she gives up. To see.”
“You believe English is Della’s man in the park?”
“I believe English might be Della’s April 12th.”
* * *
Vincent went first to Father’s chamber while Catherine searched the dining hall. In the roundabout of corridors, one leading to the laundry, one to the classrooms, one to the chandlery, one to the park entrance, she met Vincent, their quarry in tow.
“You two must tell me what the mystery is,” Endlish said. “This is quite a bit of excitement for an old man so early in the morning.”
Vincent said nothing, only looked to Catherine and stepped back. It was her story after all.
No, Della’s. “English, what’s your first name?”
“It’s William. Why do you ask? No one calls me that, not any more.”
“You have to come with me into the park. There’s someone there who’s been waiting to see you. For days. For years.”
“No one above has any need of me and how could you know anyone who …” English grew wary – his eyes narrowed and he scuffed his feet.
“Trust me. Please?” Catherine begged.
“Trust her,” Vincent suggested.
English scratched his head. “I don’t understand what’s happening, but I do know you two are impossible to resist. All right. Whatever, whoever it is you want me to see, I’ll see.”
* * *
English shed his outermost tunnel vestments and stood outside the entrance, his face tipped to the sky. The sun broke through clouds leftover from a night rain, igniting the song of the blue-winged warbler, of the meadowlark. Catherine turned to Vincent. “Don’t go. Stay. I’ll come back to tell you.”
“I’ll know, Catherine.”
“Wait for me.”
He nodded and slipped back into the shadows.
English offered his arm, courtly and kind. They walked together toward the lake in silence.
“Are you going to give me even a little hint,” English asked at last. “I can’t imagine who you’ve unearthed who would remember me. I haven’t lived up top for over three years now. There’s no one for me there.”
“You might be wrong about that. Or I could be wrong, English. You may not know her; she may not know you. But even if that proves to be true, you could …”
“You have so much extra happiness, Catherine, you wish me to share it?”
“I have that much hope, English. Vincent gave it to me. If I can, I want to give it to you. And to Della.”
“Della?” English puzzled the name. “Della …”
As they neared the lake, English slowed his steps, cast his gaze upon it. “I sat here many spring mornings with my wife. She loved the park, this lake, the swans.”
Catherine stopped. Della sat on the bench, her silver hair glinting in the early light. English followed Catherine’s gaze. He walked a few steps farther, stopped again, rubbed his jaw. A rush of birds took wing from the lakeside. Della looked up at the sound, turned to them, to him, her expression a strange sea of wonderment and sudden knowledge.
English nodded and closed the distance between them. He took Della’s hand. “I remember you,” Catherine heard him say.
* * *
On her balcony, their vantage point … they stood together, leaning close, no shadow of one parting from the other.
“Happiness never decreases by sharing it, does it?”
“Never. You did a wonderful thing, Catherine, stopping to talk to Della. You changed the course of two lives with your compassion.”
“There was a time in my life,” she said, “when I might not have noticed her, when I could have passed her by, caught up in my own thoughts, my own plans. You changed that for me. You changed me. That night was the darkest of my life, Vincent. To find you, to find what is beautiful and good, I’d go through it all again.”
Their gazes met … and held.
He turned to her.
“I couldn’t name what I was waiting for until that night, Catherine. I only knew I could never give up longing and wishing while I lived. Certain things we must simply hunger after and never lose hope.”
“Yes.” She chuckled softly … tentatively… then drew a forging breath. “Hope …” she ventured, her heart all fullness, all flutter. “A friend from work … … … named her baby Hope.” She took his hands in hers, his quick and gladdened, yearning gasp forever inerasable from Love’s memory.
Title and opening quotation: Emily Dickinson. Hope is the thing with feathers.
Next in the Beyond the Stained Glass arc is Supposing I Dreamed This
Author’s Note: written originally for Batbland’s April 12, 2008 celebration: Hope. Revised to better fit the Beyond the Stained Glass arc.
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