Beyond the Stained Glass

I CARRY YOUR HEART

 

i want no world  (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

 

Chapter 1 ~ Monday Morning

 

She felt the softest touch to her lips, a breath, warm and sweet, at her ear.

It is almost morning, Catherine. I must go. Tell me goodbye, for now …

Her mind fought against waking, fought to stay warm in his arms, fought to believe he was there … really there.

But her clock, jangling and rude, forced her to accept the day. She opened her eyes to the pink light of morning and to an empty pillow, the bed cold where only a dream had held her.

Where are you? It’s been so long …

She struggled to let work claim her thoughts. In the shower, she gave in only to brief moments of fantasy, pushing away the dreamy shiver and imagined hands of the man she loved. There was the Erin Benson statement to take and the interview of Flynn O’Carroll. Lunch with Jenny … maybe … if she could muster the spirit to feign normalcy.

But nothing was normal. She had not seen him now for days, and too many nights had passed with an ominous feel to their emptiness. Not one word in a note, no tap on the pipe answered, no gift left on her balcony to let her know …

She sighed as she finished her hair … again as she put on her shoes.

“I miss you, Vincent.”

The morning soured. Another breakfast of burnt toast and bitter coffee. Late, late … lost in a reverie of worry. A nagging thought that it was time for a dentist’s appointment. Could it get worse?

“It’s only Monday. Plenty of time to nosedive,” she muttered out loud. “And I’ll go mad if it does.”

She fumbled with her deadbolt, felt a presence behind her, whirled to see the stairwell door inch open.

“Zach, you scared me! What are you doing here? Is everything all right?”

He slipped into the hallway, an envelope in his hand, her name on it in Vincent’s familiar script. Zach looked almost directly into Catherine’s eyes these days. So tall.

His expression softened. “Vincent sent me. He gave me this note and made me promise to hand it to you in person, not to leave it for you. I’ve been waiting in the stairwell for an hour. Aren’t you awfully late?”

“Yes, I’m late. I was thinking of calling in dead!”

Zach grinned at her and she felt relief. He couldn’t smile … could he … if something were wrong? “You could have just knocked. You’re welcome here, you know. Are you hungry? Can I buy you breakfast?”

He shook his head, his hand already on the door handle. “Vincent … loves you, Catherine. He’ll be back.” With that, Zach disappeared in that way of tunnel children – swiftly, silently.

“Back?” she cried, launching after him a gasp of breath too late. “Where is he? Where did he go?”

The metal door snicked shut, the sound of it heavy … final.

She sat down in the hall chair to read.

Chapter 2 ~ The Lonely Shore

 

Two thin pages were folded together – a poem and a note, veiled and intricate. Word from him, all she’d only moments ago longed for, but now not nearly enough.

_____

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more
From these our interviews; in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.1

Catherine, I feel your concern. There is a place I sometimes go, deep beneath the tunnels. Soon I will return, and then, we will talk.

V.
______

She slumped against the chair, remembered to breathe, wondering, as she had so often in the past, how best to comfort him, how to move through the labyrinthine chasm between them. Absorbed in this thinking, moments passed, and in them she recognized that she could only wait … wait for Vincent’s return.

Another rude jangling … and this time it was the telephone, behind her apartment door but loud and sharp to her ears. The ring accused her with its unrelenting shrill.

You Are Late, Cathy!

And then she heard the voice on her answering machine – Joe’s – saying just that.

She commanded her feet to carry her to the elevator, willed her forefinger to press for the car. And when the doors opened, she stepped in and rode down and when the doors opened again, she strode out with determination, with fortitude, into a crisp, clear morning.

* * *

While navigating the hallways at work, Catherine prepared an answer to Joe’s sure irritation. She dropped her briefcase on the floor, her purse on the desk, and plopped into her chair. Waited. I’m good at waiting. Soon enough, she heard Joe barreling through the office.

“Cathy! Cathy, where have you been? Do you know what time it is? Do you have any memory of where you were supposed to be this morning?”

Umm, here?” Her smile was rewarded with a deepening glare from her boss. “Joe, I’m sorry. Really. I tried. I did! This morning was just … ”

“Well, you got lucky, Radcliffe. Remember Lydia, our new first-year? The one who’s so ambitious, umm, I mean, energetic?”

“The one who thinks you’re charming?” She stabbed a pencil into her sharpener, wincing at the high-pitched squeal.

“Yeah.” Joe harrumphed and blushed. “That one. Well, she took the Benson statement and did a fine job of it. She was quite pleased to fill in for you and now she wants to know if she can run with it, since you seem, as she put it … overwhelmed.”

“It’s a fairly simple case. I’m sure she can handle it. I’ll look it over, make sure she’s on top of things.”

“You do that.” Joe perched on the corner of her desk. He folded his arms, furrowed his brow. “Cathy, you don’t look so good. Is there something you want to talk about?”

“No, I’m okay. I am,” she said, not meeting his eyes, busying herself with a towering stack of files. “I just had one of those mornings after one of those nights.”

“Are you up to talking to Flynn O’Carroll? The press is all over this one.”

“I’m ready. I just need a minute to get organized. I have some time, don’t I? It’s not until after lunch.”

“Are you really taking a lunch?” Joe groaned, but he drummed his fingers on her desk and smiled at her.

* * *

Work demanded her attention, yet often, throughout what was left of the morning, Catherine’s thoughts wandered Below to Vincent’s chamber, to her balcony lonely and wanting these past days, to uncharted passageways deep below the tunnels where the worst might happen. She worried over Vincent’s words – his suggestion that they talk – and she could not shake a deep fear that in his melancholy of late, he would make a firm step away. Not steps back, which she knew to wait out, which she herself had made, but steps to separate from her. Swiveled toward the window, staring into the skyline, she was adrift in that worry, unmoored and caught in a dark, swelling current.

“Cathy … Cath! Anybody home?”

“Oh! Jenny! I should have called you.” She looked at her watch. “I can’t believe it’s so late.”

“Don’t say it,” Jenny groaned. “You can’t leave for lunch, right?”

“I was a little late getting here this morning,” she said, gesturing at the books open on her desk. “There’s … all this.”

Jenny brought her hand from behind her, bowing over a large bag. “I know you better than you think. Ta da! Sesame noodles and pea pods. Your favorite!”

Catherine popped up from her chair, a smile willed wide at the gift, a quick hug offered for it.  “You’ve saved me. Again. Thank you.” And then, because it was what a grateful, guileless, confiding friend would say, “Thank you for putting up with me.”

“For waiting for you to tell me what on earth is going on in your life that puts those wrinkles in your forehead?”

“For not asking right now,” Catherine said as light-heartedly and promisingly as she could manage. She pulled up a second chair for a knee-to-knee lunch, another like so many before, like the old days, like their old days. But the time would come, she knew, when Jenny would ask.

* * *

In the staff room, she wrote her name on the white cardboard boxes. After stowing the leftovers in the refrigerator, she closed the door with authority and leaned against it, crossing her arms.

“On pain of death,” she promised, shaking her head at Joe’s hungering expression. Ignoring his scowl and growl (Was that his stomach?), Catherine took Jenny’s arm and walked with her through the office and to the elevator.

“What’s up for your weekend? Want to drive upstate if it’s nice, maybe do some antique hunting?”

“That sounds good, Jen, but can I let you know later?”

“As usual, yes, you can let me know later.” Jenny tried to look stern, but couldn’t hold the frown, reaching out instead for a final hug. The elevator arrived and Jenny turned away to step in, waving as the doors slid shut.

_________________

1 George Goron, Lord Byron. A Pleasure in the Pathless Woods. from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. 1818.

 Chapter 3 ~ Counterparts

 

Catherine knocked on Joe’s door. “Ready to go over?”

“Yeah, I’m set. Are you?”

“It should be a simple statement, Joe. It was clearly a good …” Catherine hesitated. What would – what should – she call what happened? Flynn O’Carroll was NYPD ESU, special weapons and tactics, a rifleman and, from all reports, one of the best the department had ever employed, but this … “Not a shoot.”

“No, but I know O’Carroll did the right thing. You know it too.” Joe snorted. “Those reporters want to twist it. If he hadn’t gone in … who knows what might have happened to those kids.”

She nodded, smoothing the sueded leather strap of her shoulder bag. “What he did was … necessary.”

Outside the conference room, the hallway teemed with suits and uniforms and reporters. When the brass doors opened and Sgt. O’Carroll and a woman – his wife, Catherine surmised, not his union rep – emerged from the elevator, the press let loose with a barrage of questions. Cameras flashed and clicked and whirred.

“How does it feel to kill a man barehanded?”
“How hard was it to snap a neck? Did you look him in the eye?”
“How do you sleep at night, O’Carroll?

“Get these people back!” Joe shouted to the officers, adding to the din. “Give us some space. Give us the room!” Muttering and glowering, he muscled his way through the crowd to stand guard at the door he wrenched open just as Catherine and the O’Carrolls neared and pulled closed having followed in on their heels. Inside, the anteroom was cool and dark and empty, and for a moment, the four of them stood together in the welcome silence.

“Joe Maxwell,” Joe said, offering a hand freed in greeting once he’d shifted his briefcase over, clamping a stack of folders and legal pads under his arm. “DA’s office.” 

“Catherine Chandler.”

“Flynn O’Carroll. This is my wife,” he said, just turning to the woman close at his side, ever so slightly leaning to her. “Eimear.”

The pair was a study in contrasts. Eimear was tall, almost as tall as her husband, with wild, penny-colored hair and sooty circles under her dark eyes. Flynn was black-haired, sturdy and defined. His eyes were a piercing blue that Catherine found startling and familiar. She breathed away a sudden pull, curling her fingers in on the more familiar touch she might have offered the uniformed man, the watchful woman.

“That’s an unusual name. How do you spell that, Mrs. O’Carroll? ‘E-m-u-r’?”

“It’s ‘E-i-m-e-a-r’, but you’ve sounded it right. I want to come in with you.” Her gaze never left her husband’s solemn face.

“Just the officials, I’m afraid,” Joe said.  “We’re waiting on the Union attorney and the stenographer. This won’t take long. You can sit out here, away from all that–”

“Don’t worry,” Catherine interjected, her words meant for the two of them. “We just need your statement, Sergeant. Remember, we’re on your side.”

“I’m ready,” the officer asserted. He took a single step forward, though not alone.

And then the door blew open, the Union attorney looming in the sudden bright light. The stenographer scuttled in around him. The glass window rattled when the door slammed behind them. “Let’s get this done,” the suited man snapped. Without introduction, he barged through to the conference room.

* * *

“Sgt. O’Carroll,” Catherine began, a yellow pad squared before her on the table, a closed manilla folder beyond it, “we need you to walk us through the events of this incident. One last time,” she promised. “Tell us what happened as you remember it, beginning with why you were at the Yeshiva that morning.”

“I wasn’t at the Yeshiva,” he said. “I’d bought a pretzel off a cart a couple buildings up. It was about 8:30 in the morning, my day off, and I was meeting some guys for volleyball at the gym across the street. I was hungry. I was just waiting for my buddies and I heard a gun shot, then a second shot, and kids and … kids … screaming …”

He told his story then — how three men, believing a rumor about cash kept in the school, terrorized twelve children and a young teacher with threats and pain and guns, how a man, who just wanted a pretzel for breakfast, charged into the unknown to help strangers, how lives were ended and saved and changed that day.

“Were you armed, Sergeant? Did you carry your service weapon?” asked Joe.

“No. I won’t leave it in the lockers at the gym. Not secure.”

“How long were you inside the school?”

Sgt. O’Carroll was silent a moment as he flexed his fingers … stared at them. “It seemed like … a lifetime … but it was nine, maybe ten minutes, tops.”

“What made you decide to go in without assistance?”

Decide?” He stared hard at Joe. “There wasn’t anyone else. I had to do something.”

“No one tried to go in? Anybody you turned away?”

“No. The street was quiet to start with, but the shots sent everybody inside.”

“The pretzel vendor?”

“He’s seventy-something, if he’s a day, probably 110 pounds. He ducked, yelled for me to. Opened the half-door so I could crawl in with him – he said, anyway. I didn’t see him do that. I was already gone.”

Catherine paged through her folder. “Just a few more questions.”

… …

… … …

“I think we’re finished here.” Joe stood, nodding to the Union attorney who had already shoved his paperwork into a satchel stretched at the seams and had twice checked his watch and to the stenographer who hadn’t said a word the entire meeting. He led the three of them out. “I’m clearing that hallway if I have to yell Fire.”

The officer remained in his chair, his spine straight, his shoulders back, his gaze downcast … elsewhere. Catherine reached across the table stopping her touch short of his white-knuckled hands gripped before him on the table. A current flowed between them nevertheless, tentative and stuttering, but seeking. Real. She’d testify to it. She was, surprisingly, not at all surprised. “It’s over now. It’s all right.”

Flynn O’Carroll shook his head. “No, it isn’t. I knew …” 

“What you had to do,” Catherine finished.

No. What would happen if I didn’t.”

“A lot of kids could have been hurt that day. You–”

He pulled away, their connection suspending in nearly visible sparks. “Not them. Not just them. Not just that day. Yesterday. Tomorrow. A dozen tomorrows from now.”  

What was he trying to say? If his attorney had but stayed with him, hadn’t left him on his cold own, he’d have advised his client to quiet. Catherine’s legal conscience clashed with her heart. Something lurked, something … prowled. What did he need  to say? 

She willed him to look up; his gaze met hers. The clear sky-blue of his eyes, a depth of fleeting shadow, like sorrow, like sacrifice … Vincent’s eyes … In another life, another world, they might be brothers.

“Let me get Eimear,” she pleaded. “You can wait here while we get rid of whoever’s still outside.”

“I don’t want her in here. Not now. I need a few minutes. Alone. Tell her to go on downstairs. Tell her to–” He took a breath. “Ask her to wait for me in the park. Columbus Park. She’ll know where. Please,” he added.

A few minutes …  To herself, she counted Vincent’s hours, Vincent’s days.  “Are you sure that’s what you want?” Say no. Say it is not

“Yes.” Leaning back in his chair, Flynn folded his arms, his frown etched and stony. That look, too, she recognized.

After a moment, she pushed away from the table, eased the door open and closed again, careful of the snick of the latch that even so reverberated in the silence. In a corner of the dim anteroom, Eimear sat vigilant, her hands stilled in her lap but a tension in her posture. Catherine joined her, settling on the neighboring chair’s hardly padded edge.  

“Are you finished with us, Ms. Chandler?”

“Please. It’s Catherine. And, yes, it’s over.” With us. Of course, she thought, all this was happening to her as well. 

“Then … where’s Flynn? Mr. Maxwell said he’d be right out.”  

“He said … he wants some time alone and asked me to ask you to wait for him in Columbus Park. Everything went fine,” Catherine rushed to say when Eimear’s eyes narrowed. “There’s nothing to worry about … not legally,” she added, compelled to a natural honesty. She hesitated. Flynn held something back, something within, but how could she presume to know what it was or why he might, or that Eimear didn’t already know, or that she had the footing requisite to insinuate herself between them.

Eimear met her gaze with, not a steely, but a steadfast regard that softened in an instant. “Would you, Catherine? Could you leave yours to sit in the park in the sunshine and wait?” 

“No,” she answered with a sure shake of her head. And Eimear almost smiled.

Catherine leaned forward, reaching out just as she had for Flynn. “This isn’t the first time he’s had to use lethal force.” She meant no question.

“No,” Eimear acknowledged, welcoming her touch, folding her warm, strong fingers over Catherine’s. “There’ve been four others, all reviewed as good shoots and there was no other choice. It was different, though, not like this. He didn’t make those calls – his unit leader did – but he had to … to do it. He’s a rifleman, you know. Special Weapons.”

“And Tactics,” Catherine asserted. “ESU is mostly tactics – I know that. De-escalations and interventions and extrications and heavy duty rescues. Flynn’s not just Special Weapons.”  Eimear squeezed her hand, grateful, Catherine imagined, for the understanding. A word came to her – Refuge. She swallowed past a tightening in her throat. “How long have you been married?” she asked.

“Four years almost, but together … always. Always.” Eimear sighed. “Do you know what his name means in Gaelic? It means victorious warrior,” she whispered on when Catherine shook her head. “He is that – a warrior, a soldier. He protects what and who he loves. But there’s no victory in it for him. After … after any sort of … incident … he … withdraws.”

“Can you help him, can you … find him … after? I mean … when he asks you to leave him alone, do you?”

Eimear’s dark eyes welled with tears but her voice was steady. “He says that. Maybe … maybe he even means that. But I won’t let him be alone in this. Ever. No matter what.”

Something passed between the two women, a heart’s knowing in that quiet instant. Catherine nodded and Eimear softly smiled, and they stood, their hands for a long moment still joined. It was, though – Catherine knew – time to leave them be.

Beyond the frosted glass windowpane, out in the hallway, shadows drifted and streamed, an undertone of conversation blurred by. It seemed a removed realm. Her hand on the doorknob, Catherine turned back to Eimear. “What does your name mean? In Gaelic?”

“Eimear means swift … ready. And she was the wife of the hero, Cú Chulainn.” 

Catherine lingered long enough to witness the manifest of Eimear’s name. In only seconds, she was kneeling beside her husband. His hands were caught in her wild hair.

The march back to her office was a somber one, and Catherine walked slowly, invisible, cloaked in thought. Minutes … an hour … passed before she spoke a word to anyone. At her desk, she swiveled in her chair toward the window, opened the blinds … and in the clouds that scuttled past, she found answer.

Chapter 4 ~ Visitor

 

“Radcliffe, you wanna get a drink with us?” Joe stood empty handed with a chattering group at the elevator while Catherine juggled notebooks, briefcase and purse.

“It’s Thursday, Joe. I always have too much work to do on Thursdays,” Catherine returned. “Rain check?”

“You gotta have a pile of rain checks, but okay. I’ll ask again next week.” Joe stepped through the opening doors. “Tomorrow morning, bright and early,” he said as they closed.

Though it was the cover she used to keep certain evenings free, tonight she had no pressing need to take work home. She expected to sit in her apartment in a funk. The week had dragged and it wasn’t over.

Her door had never looked so good to her. She had the key just in the lock when, behind her, someone called her name. Startled, she whirled with her keys like sharp teeth gripped between her fingers. It was Jamie standing there, a wadded bundle of clothes in her arms.

“Catherine!” Jamie pleaded with her. “I need to talk to you. Can I? Please, can I come in?”

“I can’t believe it’s you! Yes, of course, in. Come in.” She rushed her visitor over the threshold and once inside the apartment, dropped all she was carrying. “What is it? Is something wrong Below?”

Jamie cried out, “Yes! Yes, there’s something wrong!” At Catherine’s gasp, she rushed to add, “Not with Vincent, at least I don’t know that anything’s happened to him, although, how would I, since he left last night and took Mouse with him, and everybody’s been sticking their nosey noses into my business all day long! Father and Mary and Rebecca – they’re driving me crazy! I can’t stand it down there another minute! Please, can I stay here with you for a while? Please!”

Catherine was stunned by the outburst. Never before had anyone from Below come to her with a personal problem. She’d been treated always as a special guest, always the best presented to her, protected and afforded an unusual respect in matters of Vincent, but never as a girlfriend, and that was clearly what Jamie needed at the moment—a girlfriend.

“Man, is it HOT in here, or what!” Jamie was already removing more layers.

Catherine laughed. “Let’s have something cold to drink then. I haven’t had the best day either. Please,” she said, indicating the couch, “put your things anywhere. Sit down if you’d like.”

Jamie was too agitated to sit and roamed the apartment instead, touching and inspecting, distracted and still a bit frantic. “I’m not a child anymore! They treat me like I don’t have good sense, like I don’t have a say. It’s MY life; it’s MY world too. I know some things! I know some things better than anybody else!”

“It’s all right. Or it will be, whatever has happened. These are normal feelings, parents … can be so … bossy. And it’s like … like you have an awful lot of parents sometimes, isn’t it?

“Yes. That’s exactly it. Ohhh, I am so MAD!” Jamie growled, flinging herself down on the couch.

“Tell me … is it something about Mouse? Why did Vincent take him … wherever he took him? Do you know where they went?”

“Oh, I know why. Father made Vincent take him!”

“Maybe you should just start at the beginning. Just talk it out. Let me get us some sparkling water or a ginger ale.”

“Don’t you have anything stronger?” Jamie snorted and groaned and laughed. Catherine laughed too, debating on her way to the kitchen the possibility of a glass of Bailey’s Irish Cream on ice.

She came from the kitchen bearing tall, icy glasses – of ginger ale, after all. “Why did you come to me, Jamie?” she asked. “I’m glad you did, but, why me?”

“Here’s the thing. Nobody down there has a clue about my feelings! They are all so wrapped up in philosophy and duty and the past and what might happen in the future! Nobody but Vincent even LISTENS to me .. well, and Mouse. He listens.” Jamie’s face grew rosy at the mention of Mouse. “But you … I know you can understand.”

“Just start at the beginning, okay? I’m a little lost,” she said, patting Jamie on the knee.

“Okay. Fine. At the beginning. See, I’ve grown up in the Tunnels. Always. And when we were young, we went to school together, played hide and seek, slept together in one big room, swam together in the pools. I can remember Vincent throwing us into the deep waters and we would laugh and squeal for him to do it again and again until he had to be exhausted. He never seemed to tire of us. We were all so happy. And later, before we grew up too much, Father and Mary and the others … they began to separate us, girls from boys. It’s obvious and necessary and for the most part, we are like brothers and sisters, except sometimes things change.

“I blame that stupid Lisa. She was such a flirt. Oh, we all know the story about her, how she left to go Above without even talking to Vincent, how badly she hurt his feelings! I almost gagged when she came back, telling all her woman of mystery stories. I wanted to snatch Samantha baldheaded, she was acting so star struck! ‘Will you teach me to dance, Lisa?‘ Yuck! All the little girls , whirling around the place for weeks, waving their arms in the air and walking on their tippy-toes. It was so incredibly annoying. You couldn’t get any work done for them flitting around like little bugs.”

“Does Lisa have something to do with this?” Catherine was concerned for Vincent’s privacy, his hurt. She didn’t believe Jamie – or anyone besides herself – knew the real and whole, deeply painful story. Not even Father.

“No, not really. It’s Father, FATHER, who’s the problem! See … oh, I’m getting confused! There’s so much to tell.” Her breath huffed out, vexation thinning her lips. “Last night, I was late for dinner. I’d gone to the bathing chamber and just lost track of time, sitting under the falls. So when I got to the table, my hair … I’d barely had time to comb it out. I don’t know, it gets all wavy when it dries like that. Anyway, I was putting dinner on my plate and Mouse was there too. Then … then he reached up and, um, kind of twirled my hair through his fingers and then, ummm, he, ah … well … he …”

“It’s okay. I understand what you’re saying. Go on.”

In a rush, Jamie continued. “He put both his hands on my face and just looked at me, really hard, but really sweet and he said, ‘Jamie … so pretty.’ And there was a, a space, you know? Like time shifted or something. I don’t know how to say it, but everything changed. I’ve known Mouse forever, from when he came Below and couldn’t talk, wouldn’t let anyone but Vincent touch him, didn’t trust any of us, from when he would steal food and save it under his bed, from when he wouldn’t play with any of us but would just watch from dark corners. He’s not like that any more. He’s … different. That’s all. I know him.” Jamie’s voice trailed away but with defiance, she crossed her arms over her chest.

“What did Father do that’s upset you so?” Catherine finally asked.

“Well, what Father DID was embarrass Mouse to death! And me too! He swooped down on us so fast. All of a sudden, Father clamped his hand on Mouse’s shoulder and pulled him back. Mouse was mortified and everybody was looking at us. Then Mouse ran off and when I tried to go after him, Father made me stop. He told me to go to my chamber, like I was ten years old. And the next thing I know, Vincent is taking Mouse off on some journey where I guess he’s been instructed to give Mouse The Talk.”

“What’s The Talk?”

“Oh, you know. How Mouse and I can’t possibly have a relationship. How he needs to see that I’m going to go Above one day and have a life up top. How he needs to let me live the life I’m destined to. You know … the standard speech. But Father doesn’t understand! I love Mouse. I know it. I knew it the minute he touched me like that. And I won’t go up top to live for good, not ever.”

“Are you sure? There are so many things you could do Above – school, travel, work?”

“Oh, I could do something up here, and I might. But I won’t leave the Tunnels. I can’t. You, of all people, know what I mean, Catherine. Mouse can’t leave. He can’t live anywhere else. And I’m not going off and leave him. But then I guess it wasn’t enough for Father to send me to my room, and to send Mouse away, but Mary had to come down and she started in on this business of holding myself apart and the greater good and the big picture and about how all the young children looked up to me and how I had so much potential. She went on and on until I thought I would scream! She must think that plan is working for her but I know better.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can’t you see it? Sebastian is so in love with her! Can you believe that? He is. He comes Below every week and shows her some special little trick that reveals a trinket for her, but she acts like she doesn’t even notice. It’s her shoes.”

“Her shoes?” Catherine shook her head, not understanding.

“Haven’t you noticed? She has goody written across the tops of both of them.”

Catherine burst out laughing, and after a fleeting moment of consternation, Jamie joined her.

“And that’s not all!” Jamie continued, having caught her breath. “After Mary was finished with me, then Rebecca came to put in her two cents. She tried to tell me that I should be careful with Mouse’s feelings because he is so vulnerable and that it’s best to just be friends. Huh! Friends forever like Rebecca and William? No thanks!”

“Rebecca … and William? Can you explain that?”

“Yes, Rebecca and William, except Rebecca’s nursing some big disappointment and she’s afraid, and William thinks nobody can love him because he’s so big. About every six months, he goes on a diet. Believe me, we all pay for that. Last week, William gave Rebecca a replica of the Ark, with all the little animals made out of marzipan. He spent weeks on it. She didn’t even hug him for it and you could tell, it just about killed him. But he won’t make the first move.

“And another thing. You can’t get any privacy down there. People just walk right in your chamber without asking. It’s not right. I’m going to say something about that at the next council meeting. I am. It’s about time somebody did something. We should get doors or curtains or something!”

Catherine couldn’t stifle a giggle. “That’s the truth.” As her laughter died away, her stomach grumbled in announcement. “I’m starving. Do you want to go out for some dinner, walk around town a little?”

“Could we order a pizza? I love pizza and you just can’t get a hot delivery Below.”

And they were off again in peals of laughter.

While waiting for the pizza–an extra large everything – Catherine showed Jamie around the apartment, offered her towels for the shower, offered her a change of clothes.

“I guess I should ask … does Father know where you are?”

“Yes, little Miss Responsible left a note for him, but I told him not to DARE come after me.” Jamie opened the doors from the bedroom. “So this is The Balcony.” She lifted her brows over widened eyes.

“You know about the balcony?”

“Who doesn’t? Remember what I said about privacy down there? I’ve overheard Father and Vincent talking. Father worries about Vincent up top. Father worries about Vincent Below. Father needs to get a life.” Jamie wandered back into the living room, surveyed it and smiled, her hands on her hips. “I can’t imagine Vincent in here, all this tiny furniture. It’s a sight isn’t it, him on that little couch?”

“That would be quite the sight,” she agreed, laughing.

Jamie stopped short. “Just exactly what are you saying, Catherine?”

Ummm, well, he’s never, ahh …

“What?” Jamie shrieked. “He hasn’t? What is WRONG with you people?

* * *

Jamie ate most of the pizza and drank two tall glasses of soda. Catherine hadn’t expected her guest to sleep, but when she emerged from the bathroom, her face washed and her teeth brushed, she found Jamie curled on the couch. It had been wonderful to laugh and she knew a lifting of worry. Vincent was with Mouse, not alone, and she felt positive, as she had assured Jamie, that Vincent would tell Mouse to follow his heart.

Chapter 5 ~ Pull of Responsibility

 

The morning dawned with the dream of soft lips brushing the bare skin of her shoulder, pursuing with gentle curiosity the pulse of her, up to her ear, with that voice, close, keen with ardor …

Wake now, Catherine. Soon I must go.

The desire to remain fixed within the dream warred with the sun and the alarm and the pull of responsibility. She opened her eyes, accepted his absence. Noises from the kitchen announced her company. Catherine padded out to her living room where Jamie had set out mugs and butter and jam.

“Morning,” Jamie said. “You need to go shopping. Your cupboards are kind of bare.”

Catherine pushed her hair from her face. “You’re so right. It seems like I’ve been living on worry lately.”

“You’re looking a little bony, don’t you think?” Jamie observed. “I don’t think bony is a good look for you.”

It didn’t feel like a good look either – her stomach growled. “Let me get a shower. I’ll just be a few minutes. Don’t leave, okay?”

“I wasn’t about to. I’m going to rummage your cabinets some more, though.”

There was a breakfast of fruit and toast and hot tea on the table when Catherine emerged with still-damp hair. “Jamie, you sweetheart. This is so nice. I can’t tell you how happy I am … that you came to visit me, and now breakfast! I know Joe will be glad I’m not so cranky at work today, but I wish I didn’t have to go in. I’d rather stay and talk.”

Jamie’s gaze drew back to meet hers. “You have a lot of pretty things, Catherine. It’s like a fairy tale up here.”

Catherine found the remark sweetly paradoxical and herself hungry for both breakfast and a confidante. “Jamie,” she asked, hesitation in her voice, “can you tell me … Vincent … how has he been? It’s been … a while since I’ve seen him.”

“Well …” Jamie seemed to search for words. “He’s been … broody. Apart from us, apart from Father. Physically there, but … retreated. I found him once at the pools under the falls, swimming hard, over and back. He didn’t see me though. Then he left for some private place for a few days. He does that sometimes.”

Catherine toyed with her spoon. She should have been down there with him. She should have held him, read to him, swam with him, combed out his hair. She felt a heat rising to her cheek, a sharp knotting below her breastbone.

Jamie continued. “Then right before … before Mouse … before Father…. Vincent seemed … I don’t know exactly. I’m sure he was coming to see you, Catherine. He was way down the Tunnels when Father sent a message on the pipes for him to return, that it was Urgent. And you know Vincent. He came back.”

Catherine could sense Jamie’s exasperation fermenting. Her face telegraphed annoyance and anger, but, suddenly, also awe and wonderment. Possibilities.

“What are you going to do when Mouse comes back?”

“I’m going to undo whatever Father has done.”

“You know Father did this because he loves you, loves you both, Jamie. He wants to spare you hurt and disappointment.”

Spare me?” Jamie sputtered. “What kind of life is that? I want some of that, the high, light feelings … and that means I have to risk the rest. The lows. I know, I know. I should be careful and I should be sure. Father thinks I’m still a child. You, of all people have to understand that the decision is mine to make. I mean, Mouse … he may pursue me,” she said, with a bark of laughter, “in his own way, but he’ll wait for me to say yes or no. And knowing Mouse, if I don’t get right on it, he’ll be too embarrassed now to ever make a move on his own. His confidence … well, he knows what he knows, but with girls … ummm, women …” Jamie folded her arms across her chest and huffed. “I think I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

“You’ve come to meaningful conclusions awfully fast.” Catherine said softly. “All this from a single touch, from one sentence?”

“From one sentence fragment,” Jamie said with a brilliant smile.

Catherine sighed. “Can you stay Above? I’m going to have to leave soon, but I can try to get off early. Would you like to go out, maybe do some shopping?”

“I should go back. There’re some things I need to do.”

“Do you know … do you have any idea how long Vincent and Mouse will be gone?”

“I can ask William how much food they packed. That should give us a guess about how many days. Vincent’s appetite … well, he can go longer than Mouse can without eating. Mouse gets antsy.”

“Can you send me a message after you talk to William, or, if they’re back, let me know that right away?”

“Sure. I can do that. I will. I promise.”

Catherine gathered her things for work and was about to leave when Jamie called out to her from the kitchen. She came into the living room, drying her hands on a towel.

“There is something else I need to talk to you about, Catherine. Two things, really. Serious things. I want to go see Peter,” Jamie stated.

“Peter? You mean … as a doctor?”

“Uh huh.”

“Instead of Father?”

“Yes, Peter instead of Father. Sometimes, we need … you know … privacy.”

“Privacy. Oh! Oh, right. Of course. I understand.” Catherine blushed but not as deeply as Jamie. “Do you need me to go with you?”

“No, no. No. That’s all right. That’s fine. But do you think I could borrow some of your clothes so I don’t stand out like the proverbial sore thumb in the waiting room? And could you call him, tell him I’m coming by this morning? I’ll wait until he can work me in.”

“Of course I will. I’ll call first thing. You can borrow anything you like. Don’t worry about getting it back to me.” A silence settled between them, the first issue broached and closed. It was the second that loomed, a sudden chilling shadow. Catherine leaned against the back of the couch, watching Jamie as she paced a tight circle in the room. The clock could wait; Joe could wait. Her comp time was through the roof. If I don’t go in for a month …

“There is something bothering me. Something that has to change Below. About Vincent. About what happened when we were attacked, when that Tong gang … and Paracelcus … when those … outsiders killed Randolph. It’s not right!” Jamie burst out. “It’s not right for Vincent to have all the burden of protecting us alone. It isn’t fair that he has to go out by himself. Somebody has to go with him. William’s right when he says we have to fight back. Vincent isn’t there for us to use. We can’t just assume he’ll always make the sacrifice for us while we sit or hide. I can’t bear it again. It hurts him, tears him up inside after, while we’re all relieved and having a nice cup of tea and talking about … I don’t know, Winterfest or something. It doesn’t matter that it was necessary, that we were in danger! Remember Winslow! I think about it … what might have happened if I hadn’t followed them down that time. We might have lost Pascal. Vincent too. You.”

Catherine was stunned. The darkness that clashed within and rent Vincent’s soul rose and swelled, palpable in the room.

“I know you took self-defense lessons. That’s what I want to do. I want to learn to fight back when I have to. Not just me, but there’re a few of us who can’t wait around anymore. Can you get us a teacher, your teacher maybe? Someone who won’t ask questions we can’t answer? I know he helped you once, helped you find Vincent. And that’s not all. I want to learn to shoot, shoot true the first time, if that time comes.”

Catherine simply nodded, because as she listened, she knew Jamie would not be swayed and because sometimes, clearly, things happen for a reason.

Chapter 6 ~ Time Between

 

Friday was jammed with work, however, much of the day she found herself missing time, staring at blank pages that should be covered with notes. She floated into dreams of Vincent rising from the cavern pools, streaming water, dreams of how he would look, the heat of him, the scent of him.

“What’s going on with you, Radcliffe?” It was Joe’s voice, parting her late-afternoon woolgathering. “You know the secret of the universe? Maybe you’d like to share.”

She composed her face as she turned to him, widening her eyes in innocence. “What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Cathy. Give. How’d you do it?” Joe’s eyes crinkled.

“I really, really, don’t know what you are talking about.” Catherine put down her still-sharp pencil and slid a large reference book over her virgin legal pad.

“You don’t, do you? You must have some kind of guardian angel. Give me the Bendix file.”

“I’ve been working on that appeal … let’s see.” Catherine made a show of shuffling folders and pulling one from the pile, held it out to him.

“They dropped the appeal. Case closed.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Yep. Give me the Listerman file.”

Catherine rummaged in her stack. “Here. I’ve got two interviews scheduled for next week, and I’ve got a call in for an expert witness, but I haven’t heard back yet.”

“Listerman changed his plea to guilty. Sentencing in six weeks.”

“You’re kidding.”

“You’re repeating yourself, Radcliffe.” Joe’s smile broadened.

“Wow.”

“Is that the best you got? Wow? Now, the Patterson file.”

“Patterson? I’m meeting with the forensic accountant next Wednesday.”

“Nope, the accountant went into labor. Meeting’s postponed at least six weeks.

“I can’t believe that! Three cases, just … poof?”

“Who said anything about three? I need Bartholomew, McGarvey, and DeLilo.”

“Don’t tell me …”

“Bartholomew changed attorneys. They got a continuance. McGarvey got that change of venue he wanted, and DeLilo’s lawyer is screaming conflict of interest. That one’s probably going somewhere else too.”

“Conflict of interest with whom?”

Joe shrugged and grinned at her as she handed over the last folders on her desk. 

“That’s … that’s everything I’ve been working on!”

“Darned incredible, huh, Radcliffe. I can’t believe it myself. But, hey! Sometimes things work out. You’re due some vacation time, putting in all those extra hours. You’ve got comp time out the wazoo. Why don’t you take off, get out of town? Take a week, Cathy. I mean it.”

“A week?” She was dumbfounded but very, very pleased.

* * *

Even though the skies were darkening with a coming storm, her step was lighter that afternoon, unburdened as she was by a heavy bag of files and reports. Remembering Jamie’s assessment of her pantry stock, she stopped at the store on her corner. Out the door, a laden brown paper bag clutched in her arms, Catherine nearly collided with Benny, his bike skidding to a stop before her with barely inches to spare.

“Message for Miss Chandler.” He fished in one pocket and then another before he pulled out a folded note, all the while popping his gum to a strange rhythm. He gestured for her purchases, then passed the missive across. “Want me to wait?” he asked, raking the fingers of his free hand through already wind-crazed hair.

“You’d better.” The onion-skin paper whipped in the gust and her hair blew into her eyes, but the words were clear.

W said 4 days, maybe 5, depending. J.

Grinning, she pulled a pen from her purse and, using Benny’s flat cargo rack for a desk, scribbled beneath the written lines.

A week off work. Coming down tomorrow night. C.

“You almost got me this time!” she exclaimed, folding the note.

“Nah. I saw you. I’m the best, remember? Want some help carrying?”

“That’s okay; I’m almost home,” she said, knowing he knew that. “But would you get this to Jamie?”

“Sure thing. You’re a peach.” He exchanged the note for her groceries and pedaled off, lost to sight, dissolved into the sounds and colors of the city.

So … counting from late Wednesday, Vincent would return Sunday night, maybe Monday. Not much time until, though it seemed an eternity, but if all went the way she hoped, a blessed week after.

* * *

Her apartment was too quiet, too empty. A woman alone with her thoughts, her worries, her dreams, she flopped onto the couch, remembered Jamie’s marveling at the imagined sight of Vincent on it. It was time he came in, wasn’t it?

He desired her, she knew. His desire fused with such restraint, such diffidence … the hunger in his eyes when he looked at her, the wrenching loss she felt when he looked away. He was so beautifully male, powerful, contained, promising …

Hers. There could be no other. Into this sweet fancy, she blissfully ebbed, sinking into a waking dream.  And so, when her telephone pealed, she needed several rings to fully rouse her to place and time, to her apartment on a long, lonely Friday night.

“Cathy!” Jenny trilled. “You’re home and answering your phone! Are you all right?”

“Funny girl, Jen. I’m not that bad, am I?”

“You are worse than bad. You’re terrible! But now that I have you, do you want to go antiquing tomorrow? Like we talked about?”

“Oh, I’d love to but …”

“No buts, Cathy! I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“We just had lunch last week!”

“That doesn’t count,” Jenny said.

“How about this,” Catherine proposed. “How about we go shopping, but let’s stay in the City. It’s Market Day tomorrow in Chelsea. We haven’t done that in forever either.”

“Chelsea? Sure, we can hobnob with the hipsters! I’m on. I’ll come by and get you about ten.”

“I can meet you there.”

“Oh, no. I don’t trust you. I want to make sure you’ll go. Let’s eat first thing though.”

“Jenny, your appetite is amazing. How do you stay so thin?”

“Looking for Mr. Right. Aren’t we all?”

“Will you know if you find him, Jenny?”

“Haha, Cath. Will you? Besides, I may have.”

“May have what?”

Uh-uh. No way. Updates tomorrow. It’s my only leverage.” Jenny laughed.

Ha ha to you too. I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll be ready. I promise. Bye now.”

She hung up, chuckling to herself. Jenny always made her smile.

Well, almost always, memory niggled. 

One day, she hoped to be able to truly confide in a friend. She’d all but told Nancy. 

All but … and therein lay the rub.

The collision of what they believed … with what was true. Would they … could they accept? Catherine had met many helpers in the City, dozens of them, and had heard of many more. All of them knew Vincent, appreciated all that was made possible by the reality of him … loved him. It was a magic the Helpers carried within themselves. Theirs were welcoming and reachable hearts, their spirits loyal and protective. The description fit Nancy … 

And Jenny, she added, purposefully, generously, with hope and caution and qualm in equal portion. 

“Someday,” she more begged the universe than promised.

Now, how to fill the evening. When all else fails … the practical. A run before the rain. A shower. Dinner. Read. Then sleep, perchance to dream.

Chapter 7 ~ Love-Throb In the Heart

 

And in Life’s noisiest hour,
There whispers still the ceaseless Love of Thee,
The heart’s Self-solace and soliloquy.
You mould my Hopes, you fashion me within;
And to the leading Love-throb in the Heart
Thro’ all my Being, thro’ my pulse’s beat;
You lie in all my many Thoughts, like Light,
Like the fair light of Dawn, or summer Eve
On rippling Stream, or cloud-reflecting Lake.
And looking to the Heaven, that bends above you,
How oft! I bless the Lot that made me love you.1

Catherine fell asleep reading the words of Coleridge, her thoughts only of Vincent, wherever he was. Surely by now, he was making his return to the Tunnels.

This morning, a morning with no alarm to remind her of duty, she lingered in her bed, watching the sun brighten and reflect window to window, the night’s rain done. How would it be to wake to candlelit chambers instead, the colors faded to earth and sand and granite, to descend from the city daily, to hear its voice grow faint and muffled? To no longer wake alone? The choice was clear to her now.

You mould my Hopes, you fashion me within …
You lie in all my many Thoughts, like Light …

The light of morning filled her room. Her heart was Light.

* * *

A Saturday with a girlfriend – laughter, food, people watching. Catherine and Jenny were tireless and the day passed too quickly. In the late afternoon when they were halfway to the Village, Catherine found a small shop of treasures on a shadowed side street. The front display offered curious stacks of books and boxes of ornate, old fashioned keys. Through the tall panes she could see shelves lining the walls of the room, laden with stacks of vintage china and sparkling crystal. Architectural relics and curious furniture crowded the floor, and a counter boasted handmade jewelry.

“I have to go in here, Jen.”

Jenny peered through the glass. “I can see that you do. You’ve developed the strangest tastes.” After another peek, she turned to Catherine, whose hands were shading her eyes, whose nose was pressed to the window. “Do you mind? I think I’ll dart into that shoe store on the corner. Come get me when you’re done, or I’ll come back for you.”

“Deal,” said Catherine, already pushing her way in to the store.

Inside it was a delight to the senses. A subtle, lilting music played. What she’d thought were keys were instead intricate silver crosses. Sorting through them, she was mesmerized and didn’t notice the shopkeeper’s approach, was taken unawares when she spoke …

“For I am running to Paradise;
And all that I need do is to wish …” 2

Catherine whirled, surprised.

“Yeats,” the woman said and then laughed with delight. “Ms. Chandler? Catherine?”

“Eimear?” Cathy stuttered. “I … I can’t believe it’s you! Is this your shop?”

“No, my sister’s. I help her out some weekends. But what are you doing here?” Her words were softly accented, a melding of the City and some far-away place, lilting like the underscore of music.

“Out for a day with my friend who likes shoes better than old books.” Catherine laughed. “We were just about to call it a day.”

“I’m glad to see you, Ms … Catherine. I want to thank you … for how kind you were with Flynn, with me, the other day.”

“I hope things can get back to normal for him. For you.”

“He’s still having a bit of a bad time, he is. His nights are fitful. And his days …” Her voice drifted into sadness.

“Oh, no. I don’t like hearing that. Is it trouble with the administration? Is the press still hounding him?”

“The press, now, they’ve dropped back some. His bosses … they act as if he should just get on with it and his teammates seem a bit apprehensive around him, but mostly Flynn has his own troubles. He sees something newly dark in himself.”

“I know it’s … difficult … now, but he has you, and I’m thinking you’re his rock.”

Eimear regarded Catherine with a long look. “And I’m thinking you know something about fitful nights and dark places. Is it someone you love?”

Catherine lowered her gaze, closing her eyes for a moment, then responded by lifting her hands in supplication. “I’m not sure I can truly reach him.”

“You can only step closer to him, so that the chasm is not so fearful and he doesn’t stand alone.”

“Yes.” Catherine fell silent, taken aback by the sudden, gladdening connection forged between Eimear and herself, but thinking too of Jamie’s parting request. “Could I call you some time soon, Eimer? I’d like to keep in touch. After all this has settled, I have a favor to ask of Flynn.”

“A favor?”

“A recommendation … for a teacher.”

“What kind of lessons do you need?”

“It seems too raw to ask now, but I need … a precision shooting teacher.”

“For you?” Eimear tilted her head, her expression considering, searching. “Or for the one you worry for?”

“No, for a friend. A special friend with a special reason.”

“Who worries as well?”

“Yes.”

Eimear held Catherine’s gaze, then nodded. “Sure, Catherine. Flynn would do that for you. You can come ’round and ask him. He works with the best. He is the best, though right now, he’d like to forget he knows anything about it. He seems built of stone but he’s really a soft hand under a duck.”

“What? A soft hand …?”

“Meaning he’s a rare, gentle thing, regardless of his strapping exterior.”

Catherine bit her lip against a cry of understanding.

“Now,” Eimer said, knotting her hair in a business-like and adventurous way, “let’s find you some treasure to mark this day, and besides, my sister will have my head if I don’t make my wages! Look around while I go to the back. I think we have something newly in you might like.”

Catherine wandered the shop, entranced by so many things that reminded her of Vincent: an oversized, tucked and tasseled footstool; a small globe on a stand, the countries cut from colors of jeweled glass; tall pewter chalice. Eimer returned with a heavy thing in her hands, and after placing it on a table amid towers of old books and peeling the petals of careful wrapping, she stepped back, smiling.

“This is from a very special artist. She does only a few pieces a year. In her regular life, she’s a nurse, a hospice nurse in Maine.”

Catherine was quiet, but her thoughts were whirling. “What is this, a geode? And the sculpture, it’s bronze? The figures seem to melt into eternity. Look at them, so close to having … everything.”

“Yes,” Eimer replied. “This is her homage to Rodin, a variation on The Eternal Idol fixed inside an amethyst geode. ‘The inter-mixture of disparate substances, yielding a single essentiality,’ or so they say.”

Catherine gulped, a most unladylike sound she was not embarrassed to make. “I’m speechless. It’s … astonishing!

“I know,” Eimer sighed. “Compelling, isn’t it? Hard to take your eyes off it or to turn your mind from the possibilities.”

A man knelt before his lover, his kiss at her breast, his hands, once clasped behind his back, now loosed and reaching for her.  Even cast in bronze, her arch was to him, yielding all. At once, they rose from and melted into a bed of ancient, glittering facets. She pulled her tracing fingers back as though burned.

“I’d better have a box for it.”

* * *

Jenny was just leaving the shoe store when Catherine rounded the corner.

“What did you find in there? Your heart’s desire?” Jenny had two shopping bags of shoes in her hands.

“Something like that,” Catherine replied, and they hailed a taxi home.

“So, Cathy. What did you find?” Jenny’s voice was teasing – wasn’t it? “Are you ever going to show me?”

Catherine pulled the box from the shopping bag she carried and opened it on the seat between them.

“My God, is that a Snowden?3 It can’t be. It would cost a fortune! And you would never find one in a little shop. Hers go straight to galleries.”

“No, that’s not her name, The artist is a nurse, in Maine, umm … Klein.”

Jenny picked up the sculpture and turned it in her hands. “This is so sensual. I can’t believe you found this!” She watched Catherine’s face a few moments and wrinkled her brow. “Is this for you? Or is this a present? And if it’s a present, who’s it for? Cathy! Cathy! Are you going to answer me or not?”

“You’re incorrigible!” Catherine said, laughing, making a rustling show of repacking the sculpture, the wings of her wish fluttering against her promise. I want to, Jen. I want to tell you everything. If only …

 

________________________

  1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Presence of Love.
  2. William Butler Yeats. Running to Paradise.
  3. M. L. Snowden. Amethyst Geode and Bronze Sculptures.

Chapter 8 ~ What a Moon Means

 

Home. So much to do in preparation of going Below. She dumped an armload of mail on the table. There were the usual flyers and charitable event announcements and a large packet from her Father’s law partner – her settlement package she was sure. It could wait.

She lifted her gift from its cushioned wrappings. Setting it on the table before her, Catherine let herself loose in the fantasy. There was a heat rising off it, a heat that was at once reflected and absorbed by the glittering stone beneath the intimate figures. It was the dreamscape of her heart. When she went into her bedroom to pack, she carried the sculpture with her and from its vantage point on her night stand, it seemed to both calm and electrify her feelings.

I can only carry one bagWhat to take …

The softest, the warmest without weighty bulk … delicate … pretty. She began an appraisal of one item after another. A few outfits were easy and she could borrow Below, but she needed one special thing. She flung hangers back against each other. No, no, too tight, too … complicated. Seen it, seen it, seen it. She attacked her drawers and finally her sheer and lovely night clothes were scattered all about. The floor was a ripple of peach and blue and rose and nothing would do.

One more drawer at the bottom of her armoire called to her. She dragged it open, finding fault with each filmy thing – until her hand touched a tissue-wrapped parcel in the very back. She remembered the day she purchased it … early on, just after meeting Elliot.

She’d passed a trousseau shop and compelled to enter, had gravitated to the lingerie.

“When’s the big day?” the sales clerk asked her.

“Just looking.” She’d responded curtly, a curl of pain cutting off her breath, for at that very moment, images of Vincent rose – his voice and mystery – overshadowing the amative thoughts she’d entertained for Elliott … as if Vincent protested and she had heard.

She felt disoriented, disconcerted, but continued through the racks, trailing her fingers along the padded hangers until she stopped at this one. Until she tried this one on. Until she carried this one home in its silvery paper and placed it at the bottom of her armoire, at the back of the drawer, where it lay to this day.

Yes …

A Jane Woolrich vision that cost too much but would not be denied. A long cream-colored silk with handmade French lace panels, the thinnest of straps, the back cut daringly low and edged of a diaphanous lace, crisscrossed with thin cording all the way past the hips … the bodice tied with the same cording, panels of delicate lace held barely together at the bosom, ribbon by ribbon, down to a flare of skirt.

Her eyes focused on the sculpture. She remembered a quote from Maya Angelou, “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.”

She cast a look at all her clothes strewn about and scooped them into her closet, closing the door on the disarray. Later. Time was passing and she grew restless to be gone.

Almost ready. Her single bag packed with what seemed essential; her gift lovingly re-wrapped, but lacking accompaniment. She needed a letter or a poem, the right words written out in case her own failed her. She stood, hands pressed to her face, studying one stack of books and then another, calling on Calliope or Erato to help her and help her now. Then it came to her. Not classic perhaps and from a less romantic era, but with a strange power. She found her college poetry anthology and there it was. Copying it out onto a heavy ecru card, she tucked the poem into the wrappings of her gift.

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart) 1

Forevermore, Catherine

 

______________________

  1. e. e. cummings. I Carry Your Heart. 95 Poems. 1958.

Chapter 9 ~ Here, Waiting

 

In the shattered door space she turned to look back at the ladder, obscured now by the strange shaft of light. Catherine felt no disquiet. And turning again to the light that beckoned her, she made her way toward love – toward him – deep and slow, resolute and firm of heart.

She was given a curious privacy and allowed to approach the living spaces unaddressed. Aware of the sentries passing her advance along on the pipes and finally, hearing whispers, she called out, “It’s Catherine. Someone? Anyone! I could use a hand with my suitcase.” She turned a corner, anticipating a younger greeter, and was surprised to see Mary leaning against the wall.

“Let me help you, dear. You’ve had quite a tramp and you must be tired from carrying.”

“Thank you,” Catherine said, releasing her bag to Mary’s grip. “I didn’t expect to see you here. I figured Zach or even Samantha. Where is everyone?

“Word travels quickly down here and Father sent me to meet you first and tell you …”

“Is something wrong?”

“No, no, don’t worry. Vincent sent a message just a few hours ago. Pascal came straightaway with it. He and Mouse have … completed their task and are on their way up and home. I’m guessing sometime tomorrow late afternoon, early evening at the latest, you’ll see him.”

“Then tell me what?”

“Sweet child, I’m to tell you that Jamie has given us quite a thorough tongue-lashing, suggesting we have interfered in many ways. I’m to tell you, that we – all of us – are prepared to grant you and Vincent … complete privacy … until you or he tells us differently. I’ve prepared the guest chamber closest to his,” Mary said, blushing, “so you’ll have the space you need. Vincent has been so quiet for days now, so alone and adrift. He needs you close. I am not so old nor so unseeing. I still hope … I wish I could know for myself what binds the two of you.”

“When I started down, I was so sure, but now I’m a little afraid.”

“I know, dear. I know.” Mary was quiet for the rest of the walk.

* * *

The guest chamber had been made special for her. There was a four-poster bed heaped with quilts, the topmost one, Catherine was sure, Mary’s handiwork. A bedside cabinet held fat, white, long-burning candles, a pitcher of water, a pottery glass. Two overstuffed, mismatched but tempting high-backed chairs flanked a small round table hosting a bowl of beautiful marbles – all sizes and colors – as decoration. An ornate, silver cheval mirror stood to one corner, opposing a carved folding screen that hid a washstand and an old-fashioned beaten-copper tub. Soft, pale, braided rugs stopped the cold of the floors and a drum of fire warmed the space casting flickering, welcoming lights around the room.

“Do you think you’ll be comfortable here?” Mary asked. “Can you think of anything you need?”

“Courage and patience,” Catherine replied.

“Yes, waiting requires a great deal of fortitude. It can be a bit … cold.”

“I’d like to talk to Father, if that’s all right.”

“I’ll tell him to expect you. Get settled. Come down to the dining room for a late supper, if you’d like. I know there are all sorts of delicacies hidden away. William has been working up new recipes this week, though I must tell you, some of them are unusually spicy. Anyway, Father stays up quite late and likes nothing better than an into-the-wee-hours chat.”

Catherine hugged Mary tightly and long. With a deep sigh, Mary held Catherine out at arm’s length.

“I’ll have to tell you the thing Jamie whispered in my ear after her … lecture. She leaned close to me and said don’t be a dope.”

Catherine clapped her hands to her mouth, failing to hold back a snort.

“I know,” Mary said. “I laughed too. It seemed absurd at the time, but I’ve spent every minute of every waking hour since trying to understand just what she meant.” Mary patted her shoulder. “I’ll leave you. You know where to find me. All right, now?”

Catherine nodded and soon she was alone.

What time is it? As keyed up as she felt, how would she ever sleep? She unpacked her suitcase, distributing her toiletries and clothes to the proper places. There were soft dresses in the wardrobe and extra layers folded in a dresser drawer – comfortable, scented with lavender and vanilla. Compared to her office wear, these were the clothes of a princess.

* * *

Father sat deep in thought in his big chair, slumped a bit, elbows on the chair arms and hands clasped. His head tilted against the high chair back. In truth, he was thinking not about Vincent for a change nor about Catherine nor Jamie nor Mouse nor any of the myriad people Below.

He was thinking of Margaret.

He remembered the summer dress she wore when he first saw her, felt again the warmth of the breeze that carried her perfume to him. It was the scent of such exquisite promise. Lately, he’d felt the wounds of his heart healing over, a delicate and tentative healing to be sure, but nevertheless, a change. Their last, sweet seven days together had brought with them the blissful freedom of forgiveness.

He’d not had what he wanted, for which he still truly longed—the comfort of a life companion. He’d steeped himself first in anger and bitterness and then, after Vincent, an intense sense of purpose, almost priest-like in his care of the strange and wonderful baby. Oh, the mistakes he’d made as Father, as a father. No matter that he would counsel any other parent that, with love at the root of thought and deed, such mistakes are normal and always forgivable, always rightable …

In affairs of the heart? Father knew himself to be … disheartened.

Vincent had told him a dozen times before—such decisions were not his to make. Yet he’d opined and railed, perversely harassing Vincent with negativity. He’d been wrong. Catherine was not Margaret. He had been stubbornly resistant to her, dear God, even jealous of her, jealous of Vincent’s having …

Catherine surprised him with a kiss to his brow. Her approach had gone unnoticed, deep as he was within a tangled thought. He startled. “Oh, goodness! Catherine. I was, apparently … elsewhere and you are apparently … here.”

She smoothed back his hair, an intimate gesture, and leaned in close to him. “Yes, I am here. And Father, I don’t plan to leave.”

“Catherine, dear Catherine.” Father took her hand in both of his. “Sit with me for a while, please. There are things I want to say to you.”

* * *

She sat opposite Father, silent, taking in all the now-familiar sights of the library. So often, she’d felt a bit less confident than she preferred here, even a bit young. Father was a very powerful presence, a man who had accomplished the extraordinary, but also a man who distrusted her. Perhaps she’d distrusted herself as well.

Father was having trouble voicing his thoughts, making several attempts to begin a sentence, stopping after each drawn-in breath without a word. “Catherine,” he said at last, “I have to tell you what Jamie called me and I have to tell you that I agree with her.”

“And that was …?”

“She called me an old fart.”

She could not hold back her smile or next a snicker, and then Father joined her, laughing out loud.

* * *

As Catherine made her way back to her chamber, she felt she’d claimed a prize, the bright brass ring. She’d relaxed with Father, grown true and easy. She’d heard the stories she’d dreamed of hearing – stories of a toddler Vincent, of the curious boy, the serious student. She often wished for photographs, but Father could, as Vincent always said, paint clear, colorful word pictures.

It was at least a late-hours chat and one that soothed Catherine into believing she would sleep after all, but upon reaching her chamber, she paused in the doorway, then turned and walked deeper into the tunnel.

His chamber … the physical place of her own transformation. Healed here, changed here. She stepped further in. How silent the room was! Candles were lit – another kindness of Mary’s, no doubt. Those lighting the stained glass glimmered in their customary muted fashion.

Hmmm. What is behind that, anyway?”

She had time and solitude now to explore and question this place. She stood in the middle of the chamber, resisting temptation but desperately pulled. Vincent’s writing table called to her, heaped with books marked in mid-read, his journal in plain sight, closed on a pen. Rolled maps like giant straws filled an urn and pages of drawings and notes were weighted with various treasures cast off Above. It took all her strength to refrain from devouring his written words, even the less private ones, wanting so to know him at his core.

She opened his wardrobe and was awash in his familiar scent. Lifting the sleeve of one favorite overshirt to her face, she found it redolent of ice and fire, of cold mineral waters and wafting candle smoke underscored by some unnamed spice and musk. For a moment her heart clenched and she felt almost weak-kneed. How could she ever have doubted?

The big bed drew her and she stood by it, imagining the dreams devised there by a young boy, the caprice of the teenager, the pensive self-examination of the man. She smoothed the pillows where he would lay his head. Shaking herself from the longing that overtook her, the desire to crawl under the covers and curl into the embrasure left by his weight, Catherine left his chamber for her own.

“Be well, Vincent.” She coupled her thoughts to his. “You carry my heart.”

Chapter 10 ~ His Return

 

Catherine dreamt long into morning, lulled by the rhythmic tapping and the distant whisper of a timeless wind and by the even darkness mitigated by a single, flickering candle. Her dreams were more image than story and comforted her with sensations of warmth and safety. Hidden so deeply away, a truly separate peace enfolded her.

* * *

For Mouse and Vincent, the day dawned early. Vincent awoke first, rolling onto his back from his curled position of sleep. He raised his forearm across his eyes, his dreams of the night not as soothing as he would have preferred.

In his, he had walked for miles through unfamiliar streets Above until he reached the end of the city. A massive boat was anchored in the harbor, made not of wood but of twisted thorny branches, black and wet. Wherever he touched, the thorns grew and arched toward him. From deep within the recesses of the boat, he could hear a faint music, alternating sweet and discordant, and he felt compelled to climb. Instead he stepped back, legs in wide stance, his arms behind his back, one hand grasping the other wrist.

“A difficult study for neither Jung nor Adler,” Vincent chastised himself and pulled to a sitting position. Standing, he stretched away the stiffness of a night in a bedroll and bent over Mouse who still slept. Vincent smiled at the manifestation of Mouse’s dreams – a curious finger-tapping on the rocky floor.

“Mouse … Mouse, time to get up,” Vincent spoke softly and gave him a gentle shake.

“One more gizmo … need one more,” Mouse muttered.

“Mouse.” Vincent repeated the nudge.

Mouse opened his eyes and smiled, each day a wondrous surprise party. “Morning already? Kinda hungry.”

Vincent chuckled. “We have what remains. Let’s eat it up.”

“Yeah, won’t have to carry it outside.”

Vincent tilted his head in silent question.

“You know. Carry it inside instead!” Mouse laughed at his own joke and scrambled from his covers.

Vincent took his breakfast and the book he’d been reading closer to the lantern. Mouse followed and asked, “What story is that?”

He showed him the cover, “Adam Bede.”

“Who?”

“George Eliot.”

“Poetry?”

“No.”

“Don’t always get poetry. Words left out.”

Vincent laughed. “Yes. Words left out, Mouse.”

“Vincent … read to me … like when I was little?”

“This is not a children’s story.”

“Not a child.”

“All right. I left off here last evening. Adam is going to Snowfield to see Dinah after being apart many weeks”

___________________________________________________________________

Chapter 54: The Meeting on the Hill

You perceive how it was: Adam was hungering for the sight of Dinah, and when that sort of hunger reaches a certain stage, a lover is likely to still it though he may have to put his future in pawn….

She was much longer coming than he expected. He waited an hour at least watching for her and thinking of her, while the afternoon shadows lengthened and the light grew softer. At last he saw the little black figure coming from between the grey houses and gradually approaching the foot of the hill…

What was she thinking of as she wound up the hill? Perhaps she had found complete repose without him, and had ceased to feel any need of his love. On the verge of a decision we all tremble: hope pauses with fluttering wings.

But now at last she was very near, and Adam rose from the stone wall…with the fine instinct of a lover, he felt that it would be best for her to hear his voice before she saw him. He came within three paces of her and then said, “Dinah!” She started without looking round, as if she connected the sound with no place. “Dinah!” Adam said again …

This second time she looked round. What a look of yearning love it was that the mild grey eyes turned on the strong dark–eyed man! She did not start again at the sight of him; she said nothing, but moved towards him so that his arm could clasp her round.

And they walked on so in silence, while the warm tears fell. Adam was content, and said nothing. It was Dinah who spoke first.

“Adam,” she said, my soul is so knit to yours that it is but a divided life I live without you. And this moment, now you are with me, and I feel that our hearts are filled with the same love. I have a fulness of strength to bear and do our heavenly Father’s Will that I had lost before.”

Adam paused and looked into her sincere eyes.

“Then we’ll never part any more, Dinah, till death parts us.”

And they kissed each other with a deep joy.

What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life – to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?” 1

__________________________________________________________________

Vincent paused, closed the book and brought it to his forehead with two gentle taps.

“What? You didn’t get the story?”

“I understood the words.”

“Me too. She goes away. She comes back. He’s glad to see her. Things work out.”

“Yes. That is the story.”

“What’s wrong then, Vincent? You look … bothered.”

“Just thinking.”

“I’m bothered,” Mouse said.

“What about?”

“Father. Mad at me.”

“No one is mad at you, Mouse. That I promise.”

“You’re supposed to tell me what to do.”

“What guidance do you seek?”

“You know. The Talk. Heard Father … giving instructions,” said Mouse, rolling his eyes.

“Well, then, which talk shall I give you?”

“Heard ‘em all already. Kinda like the birds and bees one best.” Mouse wiggled his eyebrows up and down.

“I think you can revisit that one on your own time.”

Mouse stared at the cavern roof, then over at Vincent.

“Got one question.”

“And that is?”

“What do I do?”

“About what, Mouse?”

“About … you know … Jamie.” Mouse whispered her name, hunching his shoulders as if bracing for a blow or a loud sound.

“You must follow your heart.”

Mouse drifted into puzzled thought. “Sometimes heart runs fast. Sometimes heart stops. Follow which one?”

Vincent smiled and clapped Mouse twice on the shoulder, but he had no other response. They rose and gathered their camp into packs, leaving behind no trace of themselves.

“Just to make sure.” Mouse was busy with straps of one bag, opening it to inspect the treasures they’d carried up from deeper down.

“Sparkly.” He sat back on his heels. “You think they’ll like?”

“They will like, Mouse.”

“Nervous.”

“I know.”

“You?”

“I’m not sure.” Vincent sighed.

“Not sure?”

“Not sure what I am.”

* * *

Catherine pulled herself from the deepest sleep she’d known in weeks, roused by a rustling sound in the passageway. “Who’s there? You can come in!”

Jamie appeared in doorway “It was my idea to give you all this privacy, but I wanted to talk to you.”

“Come sit.” Catherine patted the covers and settled against her pillows.

“How do you manage to look so pretty in the mornings?” Jamie asked, perched at the foot of the bed.

“Aren’t you sweet. Usually I head straight for the shower first thing without looking in a mirror. I’m a bear without coffee too.”

“Well, that’s why I’m here, um, mostly. I can have hot water brought here for the tub or I can take you down to the bathing chambers. We could get a coffee on the way and some breakfast, if you’d like.”

“Oh, I’d really love a shower,” said Catherine, intrigued beyond imagining in the destination. “So what’s the rest of ‘why you’re here’?”

“I don’t know. I’m a little nervous, I guess. Sometime today …”

“Yes, sometime today. I know just how you feel.”

“You do?” Jamie was incredulous. “Huh. Imagine that.”

“I’m just a girl too, Jamie. With dreams and wishes”

“I told Father to, ahh, kind of … stick it.”

“Yes, he told me. Old Fart.”

“Is he mad?”

“No. He agrees with you!”

Huh! Imagine that.”

Catherine changed from her night clothes, brushed her teeth at her washstand and followed Jamie out and down. William was in fine form, his face flushed from the heat of baking. There were fresh scones heaped on a platter and a large French press full of dark coffee waiting on the sideboard. People milled about, some packing lunches for an outing. Several heads were bent over plans for a new technique to channel the naturally warmed waterway Mouse had discovered. It was as normal and familiar as her office cafeteria. Catherine, though welcomed with surprise, was made to feel as if it were her custom to breakfast here. She filled a mug twice with coffee before she and Jamie continued on.

The bathing chambers …

They were amazingly sensual, a warren of narrow tunnels ending in small hollows, each with a gentle fall of warm waters into a pool. Jamie explained the order of things – that a white towel hung outside a doorway signaled occupancy. Some, as did Father and Mary, had private chambers further down the passage and there was a communal pool for soaking.

“Vincent’s?” Catherine asked, aiming for nonchalance.

“Vincent’s isn’t here with these.” Jamie eyed Catherine with a flash of pity. “You get to his down a stairway behind the stained glass in his chamber, through that hidden passage. You didn’t know that?”

Catherine pressed her hand to the hollow of her throat where she could feel her heartbeat and a flush of her own heat. She needed a shower. And when she emerged, Jamie was waiting in the antechamber, finger-combing her wet hair.

“What will you do today, Catherine?”

“Explore some. Wait, I suppose. What about you?”

“I can’t wait around. I’ll go nuts if I do. It’s Sunday, but I’m thinking I’ll go down to the water project site and do some work. Besides, it won’t surprise me one bit if Mouse and I don’t speak to each other for days. He’ll probably take one look at me and disappear.”

But Jamie would inspire something besides a disappearance and Catherine told her so.

* * *

She changed clothes again, this time into a soft dress Mary had provided. Then she pulled the bag with the sculpture from the corner of the wardrobe where it was secreted.

What to do with it ...

She unwrapped it and, after a few moments, carried it with her down the passageway. In Vincent’s chamber, still so very silent and empty, she placed it in the middle of his writing desk. Stepping back, thinking, she shook her head, muttering aloud. “I can’t leave it there with his journal! He’ll think I snooped.”

She moved it to his dresser, the card under the base. “This is kind of cluttered. He’ll never see it!” She moved it to rest on his bed.

Aacck! Not there!”

A franticness brewed. His chair. That would be right. She set it on the seat and walked away. Twenty feet down the passage, she turned back. “It should be wrapped!”

In her room, she returned it to the box of crinkly paper shreds. Tying it with some jute string she found in the bedside table drawer, she meant it this time. Wrapped. She carried it back to Vincent’s room, nestling the gift and the card in the corner of his big chair. In her obsession, in her anticipation, she fussed with the position of it, pulling the seat out, turning it to an angle, pushing it in. With a groan, she slumped over the back of the difficult chair, her hands grasping the finials, her forehead to the fabric.

“Just leave it, Chandler. Cast your fate to … to the chamber of the winds,” she said in a voice wavering between a whimper and a laugh.

She turned then, sparked by memory, with curiosity. What was beyond the stained glass? Just as she began to sidle over, thinking she might discover the secret passage, she heard noises – clatter and footsteps. She darted from the doorway and trotted down the tunnel.

Back in her chamber, Catherine slowed her breathing and searched her dresser-top for her watch. It was almost surreal, the idea of time Below. Above, the day had a structure meted out in segments, schedules, time clocks. Time Below had a forward and backward flow to it, as if today and tomorrow and yesterday dissolved into their original source, a measureless, mystical matrix. Still, the Sunday afternoon concert in the park would start at a particular hour and she wanted to hear it.

* * *

Their private place to listen … to be together … safe against his strong shoulder … her face turned close to the pulse of his throat … hours of beautiful music for the two of them alone …

These days, they kept a bundle of quilts and pillows to lessen the cold and cushion the hard floor. Catherine pulled these out when she arrived but it felt strange to be there alone. And so she paced. She basked in the light from above; she leaned against the wall in the shadows … until the orchestra finished with tuning. The concertgoers quieted, and for a brief moment, the music was birdsong and breeze. The violins swelled with the opening measures and she sank into the cushions. With her knees drawn up and her arms folded, pillowing her head, she lost herself in the music. It was there, in that pose, that she was found.

“Catherine.” Vincent called her name. He leaned against the tunnel wall a few feet down the passage, cloaked in shadow.

“Vincent.” She echoed his careful tone. “You knew where to find me?”

He bowed his head, looking away. A soft sigh escaped, just audible over the violins. “Always.”

“It’s difficult to surprise you,” Catherine whispered.

“That, Catherine … is inaccurate.” A few measures floated by in their silence. “Albinoni?”

“Yes, the Adagio and then after that, Bach – the Air in D and the Concerto for 2 violins.”

“Beautiful.”

“Yes. It is,” she answered.

“I meant … you, Catherine.”

He stood apart from her under the grate, his face turned to the light and sound. His stillness settled her jittery heart, but he was so terribly quiet …

“Won’t you sit with me?” She held out her hand. “I’ve missed you so.”

Chapter 11 ~ Off the Cliffs

 

The orchestra captured them for long minutes … an hour. Catherine felt her heart take on the same strong and slow rhythm as Vincent’s and she began to lose some of the anxiety that had built within her, born of anticipation of the conversation she intended to have. The music moved from the Largo of the Concerto to the Allegro.

Vincent rested his head against the wall, one leg outstretched, the other drawn up in a manner that signaled repose, but she could feel the vibration of his thoughts. A few measures into the last movement, Vincent took her hand in his, for a moment pressing the back of it to his forehead. Then he turned her hand so that his fingers pressed into her palm, fingers she gently brushed with her thumb as his grip tightened.

“I will never escape my skin.” His voice was flat, without poetry. He dropped her hand and stood. “I cannot stay here.”

“Vincent! The concert’s not over. I want– Wait! Where are you going?”

He started down the passageway, stiffened to a halt and spoke over his shoulder, toneless, cold. “I need to walk. Come with me or stay. It is your decision.” He was a shadow in the shadows.

She jumped to her feet, out of habit bending to hide the cushions away, but with a yelp, she kicked them to the side and ran after him.

“Wait … wait!”

She caught up with him, but he was a man possessed with a direction of foot and of thought that allowed no companionable conversation. She could only hurry to keep pace and puzzle the turn of events, so very counterpoint to her plans. The way Vincent took was familiar and then not, circuitous, darting through side passages she’d never before taken. Without him she would be lost.

Through strange doorways opening into the dark and down many cold, carved stone steps, Catherine followed a pace behind, not so much in distance as in understanding. When they emerged onto a ledge above the falls, she was disoriented. At a different vantage point than they had shared in the past, it was a familiar place but with an opposing view. Her heart pounded.

“Vincent, please! You’re scaring me. What’s the matter? Where did you go?”

He paced to the edge of the cliff, back to the entrance and again to the scarp. She knew his thoughts without benefit of their bond, edging into his path to deter a swift exit. A scowl on his face, he slowed, then stopped, his back against stone, his eyes closed. With a groan, he dropped his chin to his chest.

“Where did I go?” he repeated. “I went deep and into the dark where there is an ancient river. I went there … to see myself mirrored in the black waters. I held out my hands … these … and I clenched these hands into fists until I drew my own blood. I shed my clothes, lay at the water’s edge. The eddy of the river washed over me. I hoped, I suppose, to be smoothed and rounded by its power.

“And were you?” Catherine asked. “Smoothed and rounded?”

“I was in time … comforted. I appreciated the dark and the silence; it knew me. I felt … my aloneness. There were moments when the melancholy was so strong that I believed I could give in to it, that my heart would slow and then cease to beat, that I might even will it so …

“Do not feel responsible, Catherine,” Vincent said, his head snapping up, turning to her as if she’d spoken. “This is not the first time I’ve made this journey. I made it before I ever knew you. Several times. You’ve seen what prompts it, when I am reduced to this base nature that I cannot explain even to myself, let alone to you or to any other, but which I must use to protect what I love, to which I must submit to … survive.

“Before you came into my life, I was one kind of creature. Do not protest the word; it is fitting. My heart had never been truly engaged. How could it have been? There was all the Before and then … the After. Your love has granted me not just one monumental change, but thousands of changes large and small over the days we’ve been together. With each wave of the last incoming tide, it was as if a layer were washed away and at the end of it all, I can only say … this … is what I am. It cannot possibly be enough and yet it is … too much.”

“You were coming to me,” she said, choosing her words with great care. “Jamie told me you were, when Father called you back.”

Vincent avoided her eyes. “I could feel your concern for me. Even as far down as I was, I knew you called me upward. Then Father … conscripted me to leave again … to teach Mouse the ways of life and love – or perhaps the ways of avoiding it – and so, you were spared. There are many words unsaid between us today, questions without answers … or with answers I cannot bear to hear.” His sigh was audible, then repeated. His shoulders sagged with fatigue.

“We have some time, time now to be together.” She whispered into the fragile, shatterable air between them.

“Yes, Father told me of your … vacation.”

“This is not a vacation, Vincent. This is a kind of liberty.”

He remained silent, his eyes cast downward, searching the mists.

“Do you want to ask me those questions now?”

He gave no reply.

* * *

A peal of laughter carried across the pools, riding the mists of the falls. The distance was too great for Catherine to discern the participants, but she could see two figures running along a lower ledge. One climbed the bluff, then pushed off, jack-knifing for the water. Another at pool-side cheered the jumper on, applauding when a sleek head broke the surface.

“Who is that?” Catherine asked, walking closer to the edge, squinting to see.

“It’s Jamie.” Vincent replied. “And Mouse.”

For a while, they watched the youthful display of joyous abandon below them, tentative, side by side in their customary stance, grateful for the diversion.

“Who’s doing the jumping?”

“That would be Jamie. Mouse isn’t much of a swimmer. More of a paddler. He likes to keep his feet touching bottom.”

“Jamie came to see me while you were gone with Mouse. She told me what happened.”

“Father overreacted.”

“I think he knows that now.” The old fart, she thought. “What did the two of you do for four days?”

“Mouse is good company,” Vincent replied, a smile playing on his lips as the squealing and laughter grew louder. “His viewpoint … is unique. Mostly we hiked and camped, visited a few residents who live more apart. We discovered some unusual places. We inspected an old channel cut centuries ago through a lower level, where there are broad expanses of flat sand. Mouse is determined to build a playground. There’s a natural maze, a safe one, and he wants to put in a volleyball court.”

“I’d like to see that. I’d like to see you play volleyball.”

Vincent straightened in mock affront, “Why Catherine, I have a mean serve. Everyone is afraid of it.”

It was difficult for her to assess the mood. In a strange way, regardless of the words and events of this last hour, they seemed to be as always – reverential, enamored of each other, perhaps a bit formal with the unexpressed conspicuous between them. She hoped to move this stalemate off its center, but doing so would require tact and not a small amount of grace, even luck. Perhaps here in this magical place, her years of schooling – her logical, progressive thinking – would manifest in a spectacular closing argument.

“You must have jumped off those cliffs a thousand times.”

“Oh, yes. When we were children, we would run down here after our last class of the day. The air would be filled with our flying bodies and taunts and bets. Father and the other grownups would grouse and forbid, but we ignored them and, of course, they allowed us to ignore them.”

“Do you remember the first time you jumped?”

“The first time … yes … it was Devin who issued the dare. I was still small, maybe seven or eight and … hesitant. It seemed so very high, though I had not climbed very far. But Devin made clucking noises and called me a chicken baby, a double insult which I could not bear. I was secretly petrified and wanted only to cling to the rocks and scramble back down. So when I jumped – and I did jump – I flung my arms wide and yelled some jungle cry worthy of Burroughs and belly-flopped into the pool. Devin had to fish me out and pound my back to get the water out of my lungs.”

“How long before you tried again?” she asked, sure of his answer.

“About ten minutes.”

“So you faced your fears?”

“Yes.”

“And was it worth it?”

“Yes.”

Chapter 12 ~ Closing Argument

 

“Jamie was afraid Mouse would be too embarrassed to speak to her,” Catherine offered. “For days, maybe.”

“Mouse worried over the same thing. Apparently their fears have been overcome.”

“Vincent … sit with me. I need to talk with you.”

With a wretched sigh, he complied. “I can sense in you such conflict. All the while I was away, I felt the clash of your emotions. At times, I believed I could hear your laughter … and your tears. That you were so concerned for me … brought me both pain and a strange comfort, an unbearable lightness of being. I am … a burden to you.”

“Hush, Vincent. Look at me.” She bit her lip in concentration and reached to turn his face to hers, his chin in her grip. She did not let go. “Keep looking at me.”

He acquiesced with a slight inclination of his head but watched her face. The joyous sounds from the lower pools receded.

She began again. “Not that long ago, here in this place, I asked you … if you believed we would ever truly be together. Do you remember your answer?”

“Yes.”

“When we understand the sacrifices and conquer the fears. That’s what you said. I told you then I wasn’t afraid. And I’m not … stop! Stop resisting me, Vincent!” He was shaking his head, turning away. “You have a seriously stubborn streak. I need you to listen to me … really listen.” Catherine turned his face to hers again.

“You said I was a woman of both worlds. You knew, you’ve always known, that I have a reason to be Above. My work, yes, but more than that … it’s what I can bring to you … to us, to my family down here. But I’m not a woman of both worlds.

“Without you … truly … in my life, I’m … fractured. It’s more of a half-life, either place. I want both. I’m sure. There can be no other for me. Ever. There is only You. And I know we are strong enough, tenacious and forcible enough – that we love enough – to make it work.”

“Catherine … you make it sound as if … as if we are just any man and woman, deciding whose home to live in and whose to sell. It is … more than that.”

“We are something that has never been,” she replied.

He fought for words, but the image of having swamped his overwhelming fears. A fissure opened in the vault of his brilliant, fruitless dreams; the light slipped out, timorous and shy.

“We have certainly gone with care,” she suggested. And waited.

“Vincent,” Catherine touched his face, the tips of her fingers tracing a line from brow to jaw, and with her thumb, she brushed first his lower lip and then the mysterious upper cleft. In that brief moment, a rapturous possibility began to take shape when he closed his hand over hers, pressing her palm to his cheek. But instead, he removed her hand from his face. He stood and began a familiar, rhythmic pacing.

She stood as well, forcing him to pass her on his rutted path. “I’ve examined each sacrifice I might make for you,” she said. “For nights and mornings and years with you. I’ve countered each of those in my mind and heart and what I receive from you, from being with you, far outweighs any loss. Each choice any of us ever makes takes us down one road and not another. Remember the lines ‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood?’ Ours is less traveled but it will make all the difference. I’ve searched for fears and apart from losing you, I have none. So what remains between us then are your fears, your sacrifices.”

“You know what I fear. I told you … Lisa … these hands.” He spread them before her, palms up, nails flashing in the odd light.

“It’s unhealthy to obsess so about her. You must forgive yourself, Vincent! It was simply an accident. And it was mean on her part … don’t argue! Girls at that age begin to recognize the power they wield but aren’t necessarily aware of its consequence, and we are not always kind or merciful. Once a boy I liked was chasing me in the park. I let him catch me. I jerked out of his grasp laughing but he fell and broke his wrist. A park policeman called his mother and it was all very embarrassing. Oh, we both received lectures from our parents, but it ended there. I signed his cast with a big heart. He took another girl to the school dance. Would you tell me to berate myself still?”

“It is not the same.” He walked a few steps away.

She followed him, saying, “No, it isn’t the same … but it’s … close. I don’t discount what you felt, how deeply scarred you were by the incident. You take all the transgressions, all the fault into your heart. But some of the regret belongs to Lisa. And some to Father.”

“You were not there,” he said, backing away from her to lean against the rocks.

“Yes, I was. You took me there. I felt what you felt. This connection, at least in some small way, runs both directions.”

“Her face … the fear of me …”

“I’m not so sure it was fear of you. She might have been worried about the trouble she was sure to be in. She understood some of what she was doing, but she didn’t care.”

“If I were ever to see that fear in you, it would destroy me,” he whispered, head bowed.

“I told you I wasn’t afraid. You will never hurt me, Vincent. I know that. I need you to know it. You must let this go now.”

“How can I?”

“By trusting me, if you won’t trust yourself.”

But he argued. “That is just the surface of the darkness in me. You know, Catherine. You’ve seen me, seen what I am capable of doing.”

“Did you open the gift I left for you in your chamber? Did you read the note?”

He looked up at her. “A gift?” he asked with a flicker of surprise. “No. I … only dropped my pack at the doorway. After speaking with Father, I came straight to you.” His face resumed its frown, for he was in no mood to soften.

“Well then, I’ll tell you something about it. In the note … I copied an e.e. cummings poem. You know it, I’m sure. ‘i carry your heart.’ There’s a line … it applies to us … anywhere i go, you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me, is your doing, my darling. I go into that darkness with you. I am part of it”

“NO!

Yes!” she countered. “I should never have left you alone … after … and in such pain. You’re right when you say no one can understand the shadow that overwhelms you, the instinct, the nature of the force you wield, but your … impulse is only to protect, never to aggress. You don’t lose control. You make a conscious choice to act each time. Yours are the actions of a warrior.”

He flinched at her words, but made no attempt to stop her from speaking.

“The way I see it, I’ve answered your fears. All that remains is for you to accept those answers. But the issue of your sacrifice … we have not begun to address. What must you give up for us to be together? Can you name it?”

Silent, gathering his cloak closer, he stepped to the edge of the bluff and stared into the distance. Jamie was in the water at the edge of the pool, coaxing Mouse to make a short jump. The currents of the chamber air carried her assurances to the ledge – that she would be close enough to keep him safe, that Mouse should just commit … just jump.

Catherine was not finished. “You’ve become … practiced in denying yourself pleasures. Whether Father planned it or not, he chose a path of emotional austerity and he taught you that same asceticism. His misery over Margaret and all that he lost colored what he taught you about your … possibilities.

“He turned that self-denial, majestically so, into the creation and leadership of your world and he sees you as his successor, alone and as dedicated as he. So your sacrifice, one of them anyway, would be to choose against Father’s dream. Another would be … to leave the safety of what you know and where you are comfortable, even if it is a lonely place. You would have to trade autonomy for a partnership. If there are others, tell me.”

Vincent whirled on her, close to the edge, his hands wild in the air. “My sacrifice? My sacrifice would be your happiness, Catherine. If I … choose … this life you suggest to be possible, then I sacrifice knowing you will have all you deserve! Choosing me means you hide from your friends, you are constricted in where you go, in what you do, in what you say. You will grow to resent me and I will have lost what I have … perhaps only a dream, but a beautiful dream!”

“Don’t choose for me, Vincent! You can’t do that! You told Father ‘only Lin knows what is best for Lin!’ Don’t I have the same power? Choose for yourself, choose against us if you must, but don’t decide what’s best for me!”

His breath came in great heaves, the only sound in the long, terrible silence between them. “I’ll walk you back now.”

In the distance, Mouse jumped.

Chapter 13 ~ Dream World

 

Catherine repeated two words to herself. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” Nothing was going as she had planned and she cursed the egotistical belief that what kept the two of them apart was hers alone to change. Still, she would not allow the word impossible to be uttered, not into the air between them, not even in her mind.

The way Vincent led was again new to her. There were narrow passages and more strange steps; the dust on the tunnel floor showed little disturbance. After some time, they emerged into a small atrium bathed in a mysterious light, two levels with a narrow gallery edging the upper floor.

It was not nearly as large as the Great Hall, but still impressive. Stacked stone pillars stood at intervals, flanking two arched openings. Two metal staircases, one circular, another sweeping in a long curve, rose from the ground floor toward seductive entrances to smaller chambers and shadowy corridors. The floors were etched in a pattern resembling intricate tile work and at one end of the room, a watercourse trickled rivulets down the wall collecting in a narrow trough. As they passed through, Catherine was startled by a flash of light to her right. She had little time to look, none to explore, but she recognized her fleeting reflection in a massive mirror inside one of the arched doorways.

“Vincent, what is this place?”

He did not slow. “It is mine.”

“What do you mean? Where are we?”

Without response, he indicated ascent of the curved staircase, standing aside, courteous even now, even in what seemed like fury. She climbed several steps before he followed, his tread thunderous on the rungs. At the top of the staircase was an iron gate. He reached past her, pressuring a hidden lever to open it, and without a word, led her down a passageway. Through an opening, she could see the stained glass window of his chamber, a host of stately candles burning steadily, the constant illumination of the room on the other side. The hidden passage!

But his chamber was not their destination. He led her through another gate and another hidden portal to emerge near her guest chamber. The tunnels there were empty and quiet; even the pipe sound seemed muted. Certainly they were alone. She felt her own aloneness, heavy and sad in her throat.

“Vincent!” Catherine tugged his sleeve. “Please, this silence is too much. Whatever it is, we can talk it out. Please,” she repeated. “Or I can endure it,” she whispered, when he did not respond. She walked deep into the chamber and turned to him, where he hovered in the doorway. “You can come in.”She tried a smile. “I know you’re there.”

His face was an impassive mask. With a measured, hoarse delivery, he asked, “Were you comfortable here, Catherine?”

“Yes.”

“Did you have everything you needed?”

“No, Vincent. I didn’t.”

Without meeting her gaze, he moved to the little table, fingering the marbles in the bowl. He scooped them into his palm and let them trickle from his fist, a musical reverberation in the stillness. Then, spying the nightdress Catherine had chosen months and months ago, the nightdress draped over the mirror in the far corner of the room, he stepped closer to it, reflected in the glass as she had never before seen him.

The silky fabric in his hand was a watery rope of diamonds. He drew his hand along its length until it slipped from his grasp, fluttered and spread against the glass. In the mirror, she could see that his eyes were closed and yet the longing in his face was never more evident.

“A woman would wear this on her wedding night.” His voice wavered away.

“Yes.”

“Did you intend to wear this for me, Catherine? Did you intend to employ some of that girlish power you spoke of earlier?”

For the first time, she heard sarcasm in Vincent’s voice – a flame to the kindling of her frustration.

“Well, you’ve seen all my others, Vincent. Several times.”

“Yes. I suppose I have. I’ll leave you now. When you’re ready, I will walk you home.”

Home? I don’t want to go home!”

She tried to block his way through the door, and while he did not touch her, he moved roughly past her into the hallway. His cloak billowed with his swift stride away from her, then he whirled and swept back. Standing close, so close that Catherine could see the thundering pulse in his neck, he took her hands in his. Standing even closer, he pressed both her hands to his heart.

“Do you feel that, Catherine? Do you feel your power? You bring me life! This close to you …” He drew her toward him. “I can come this close.”

His deep sigh warmed her skin as he bent his head to hers, his eyes closed, his lips near her ear as he whispered to her …

“In my imagination, Catherine … in my imagination … it is the end of the day. Our work is done. I am waiting for you … and you come to me. Warmth fills my chamber as you draw near and you smile as you appear …

“Like an angel, you smile just for me …”

He removed one hand from hers, keeping her pulled close with the other. His forearm was against the rock wall to the side of her face. She could feel the length and power of his body almost as if he were pressed to her, yet as two repelling magnets, a charged distance remained between them. He stood over her, his weight born above her.

“In my imagination, you come to me. There is the scent of ice in your hair – needles of winter wind – captured there as you walk through city streets … to come to me.

“In my imagination, it is summer, and you come to me tasting of ripe berries. Always, there is a gentle perfume lingering in the movement of your clothing …

“And in my imagination, Catherine … you lie with me in my bed. I can scarcely breathe, my heart is so filled with wonder, with astonishment. I tuck you close. I feel the softness of your breasts, the curve of your hip under my hand … I tuck you closer … and you embrace me … accept me … invite me.

“But that is only in my imagination. We cannot … for all the reasons I have given you and for all the reasons I haven’t the strength to name … we cannot.”

His head bowed, he took one step away from her, then another and another until he leaned against the opposite wall. She winced at the wrenching, almost physical pain she felt as he distanced himself from her.

“Vincent … we can … I can … I will!”

“It is impossible.”

He left her there, standing alone, hollowed, wanting. Her chest heaved with the effort of breathing. Her ribs hurt. Her defense against the shock, against the defeat, was … anger, red and roiling, and from the entry, she shouted …

“Well, in your imagination then, hear this! I AM SLAMMING THIS DOOR!”

She ran to the bed and threw herself onto the quilts. Turned onto her back, the stone ceiling the limit of her view, she pounded the bed with her fists.

“Damn it, DAMN IT!” She had no other words.

Chapter 14 ~ See Me

 

After a while, even an infant cries itself out, gives up the fight. So Catherine found herself spent, lying there alone, in a strange place neither real nor magical, suspended in her own disbelief.

“Damn it,” she repeated, weakened. She covered her eyes with her arm.

After a while, she turned to the light of the bedside candle. “Well, what now …”

She let her mind drift, her gaze fastened on the dancing flame … heard the soft lilt of Eimear O’Carroll’s voice …

“Oh, sometimes he says he wants to be alone. Maybe … maybe he even means that. But I won’t let him be alone in this. Ever. No matter what. You can only step closer to him, Catherine, so that the chasm is not so fearful.”

And then her own voice sounded in the silence of her chamber, unfaltering … words she remembered saying first, many months ago – I was never giving up.

She rose from the bed. She washed her face and brushed her teeth, brushed her hair. She took one last look at the silky nightgown. It was for her wedding night.

I’ll hang on to it a while longer, she said to herself as she left her room for Vincent’s. And if I don’t get to wear it, I’ll throw it into the abyss.

She had imagined he would be there, but he was not. His room was empty. His pack was where he said he’d dropped it, just inside the doorway, a book protruding from the outermost pocket. It was Adam Bede, marked at a passage with a folded page of paper.

Perplexed, she scanned the chamber. Where could he have gone? There were miles of tunnels, many likely known only to him. She noticed then that her gift was missing. Empty, his chair was pulled toward his bed. The jute string ties lay loose on the floor near the wall where there was, she found, a slight misalignment of the rocks.

Ah ha! Hidden passage!” A frisson, a gleeful little triumph washed through her. Pushing, pulling, running her fingers over the surface, she located the ring and chain that maneuvered the stone. “Yes!” she crowed. The passage took her to a ledge behind the stained glass and the way out was dark, but she forged ahead on a remembered path. At the stairway, she hurried down, her first instincts propelling her toward the chamber with the mirror.

And so … she found him. He was there. Her approach was stealthy, though she expected he would sense her arrival. Regardless of his contradiction, he was difficult to surprise. But if he heard her or was aware of her, he gave no sign.

She saw him reflected – sitting down, his elbows on his thighs, his hands clasped, his head lowered to those troublesome hands, hair streaming down, the epitome of misery. She could feel despair and turmoil, savage and loose in the room.

That was not all she saw.

She saw all that she’d dreamed, what she’d imagined with the anticipation of a virgin and the appetite of Aphrodite. He was beautiful, exquisite, even stunning … as it might be to look upon the face of an angel.

Raising his head, he stared at her image in the great mirror that leaned against massive stones. She was small, determined, unflinching. He flung himself from his seat, whirling away from her and then back.

“Is this …” He spread his arms. “Is this what you wanted to see, Catherine? THEN LOOK AT ME! SEE ME! See what I am!”

He was stripped to the waist, some strange loose leggings, long and stark white, folded over at the belt line, hanging tantalizing and low on narrow hips. The ladder of his muscled abdomen rose to his powerful chest and his arms outstretched were defined by the demarcation of hard work and his peculiar nature.

Tawny bristles covered just to his upper biceps. His shoulders and back were clear and sleek, though long silky swirls covered his chest and curled down his flat stomach. A ripple of muscle in his thighs strained the leggings. More than all of this, more than his magnificent virility, it was his color that seized her. He was bronze and gold and rose-colored, flushed with an internal heat and bright with a sheen of moisture. With his mane of hair untamed and flying and the fierce energy he expressed, each breath a guttural, constant rasp, he was a vision beyond imagining.

He held this pose for long moments, his eyes trained on her, more brilliantly blue against his heightened color. Then he began again to pace. His familiar step was altered; his stride long and potent … back and forth, treading the roadways of a shrouded, impenetrable, unseen map – self-caged. She was careful to hold herself still and silent.

He stopped, closed to within a few feet of her and in a voice new and dark, a shadowy rattle beneath the words, demanded, “Tell me, Catherine. What do you see?”

“I see the man I love.”

He pressed his hands to his eyes, raked his fingers into his hairline, pressed hard at his temples.

“I AM NOT A MAN!” He whirled, strode away, his chest heaving with labored breath … turned. “But I am, as many men, FOOLISH, SELFISH AND A COWARD!” He fixed her with a fiery stare, a dare to contradict him.

“Vincent, NO!” She moved closer to him, but the room was large and the gap between them seemed a dreadful chasm. “Take that back … take all of it back.”

She reached out to him, touched the bare, hot, velvet skin of his shoulder. He recoiled from her touch, cringing, each exhalation a warning rumble. “I WILL NOT … take it back. Look at this room … a testament to my folly. See that I am selfish, selfish enough to dare to believe …”

Even as he swept across the space, even as his face distorted with sadness, even in his wounded state, his presence stirred blood memory deep within her. She did as he requested – she looked.

There was the mirror, leaning huge, measuring surely over eight feet tall and as wide, a wooden frame of carved flowers and beading, gold-leafed. Reflected in it, the entire chamber was reduced to its marrow – a majestic mahogany bed, unusually crafted with raised convex panels, fluted and lotus carved stiles, over-wide and blanketed with quilts the color of alabaster and pearl and ivory. It was magnificent and suggestive of pure passion. She knew her gasp was audible and she saw Vincent’s eyes narrow as he watched her.

In the middle of the room where she had first seen him seated, there was a broad stool with low rolled arms and arched legs, a fabric of sapphire. A Renaissance library table of dark walnut and with griffin ends stood against one wall, host to several small objects – keepsakes, remembrances – and where Catherine’s gift rested, middlemost.

“Vincent.” She spoke softly, hoping to soothe his distress, unsure of the direction of this exchange, but knowing in her heart that much – no, everything – depended on it. “Tell me what this room is to you. After all these months, you’ve never spoken of it.”

She walked toward the table and the curious collection he’d amassed there, but he moved in front of her, blocking her, leaning on the table, arms wide, protective, possessive. Each muscle in his broad back quivered with his efforts to still his movements. He gathered a breath, released it, bowed his head low, his voice now a raspy whisper.

“In Thailand, there is a shrine, an elephant shrine … where centuries ago a nobleman’s favorite died. A temple was built at the site to honor the animal and it was believed that there one could make a wish … and if the wish came true, one must return with a gift for the lost elephant, to thank him. Even today, gifts are heaped at the base of the shrine, evidence of fulfillment.

“Here in this place where I would come – even before you, Catherine – where I would come as a young man and dare to dream … of one day finding that which Father deemed impossible … for me. A life beyond duty and obligation, a life in which I am chosen by a woman, held and loved, a life with children of my own, whom I would adore. In that dream, I created a home for them in these rooms. But after a while, only a terrible truth was reflected in this great mirror and I grew to accept my limitations, even to be … content … and I came here more for the privacy of it. These are mine after all, all the rooms in this hall, mine alone.

“After you came into my life, I visited here with a stronger, stranger dream. I came with a new regret and a cherished optimism. What I once dreamed ignited my thoughts again, and I came here … to wish.”

He turned to her then, softening his grim expression, beckoned to her, moving aside so she could better see … allowed her in. He chose an object, a large shard of reflective metal, cradled it, held it out to her.

“Do you recognize this?” Without allowing her answer, he went on. “You threw this at me when you were healed, the day you first saw my face, the day you … returned home. After I cleared away the pieces, I saved this one. I pushed it far back on the shelf, yet it would glint at me as I passed. A memory of a memory …

“Months passed. I tried to forget, all the while becoming more and more deeply connected to your feelings, more aware of yours than of my own. I stared long into this mirror, until its reflection was no longer of me, but of you, Catherine. I wished that I could see you again … that you would welcome me …

“That wish came true. I was … so grateful. I ferreted out the shard and placed it here, a gift, the beginning of my own shrine …”

He then held out a small music box that played, when he opened it, slow, mournful measures from the Pathetique. “This gift I brought when I was granted a second wish, that you would not … find love with Elliott Burch.

“And this,” he said, holding out a worn leather-bound book, edges of gilt, marked with a brilliant blue feather, “is the gift I offered when you did not go to Providence.” She took the book from him, saw the marked verse. Surprised by Joy.

The next was simply a small paint container, empty, orange color dried to its rim. “I brought this when you did not marry Elliott.”

One finger brushed the rim of a crystal candleholder. “When you left, confused, in despair of knowing me … I visited your balcony to say goodbye. I took this. I thought my heart would stop, or feared, rather, that it would not and I would have to live on in my wretchedness, but I wished … so desperately … and you came back. You said we were worth … everything. I brought this gift then.”

His voice broke. “I have made many wishes of late …”

She pulled her sculpture toward the table’s edge. “Do you like this, Vincent? It’s so beautiful. I had to have it for you. You see, I’ve been wishing too.”

“I treasure each gift you’ve ever made to me, relive each moment of surprise. But this … this mocks me, Catherine.” His voice darkened and there was again a low rumble behind his breathing.

Mocks you? NO! How? I could never …”

“I know you did not mean it to … but see, his hands are forever clasped behind him, his kiss is upon her heart, below her breast, but he is destined, eternally, to be separate from her, restrained.”

“No, that’s not right. This is different!” She turned the sculpture in the candle’s light. “Look,” she implored him, moving closer. “See, he’s let go. His arms are moving toward her and her hand is lifting his face. Everything … is beginning!”

The scent she knew rose around her, strong on a radiating wave of heat and light from him. The room which by all rights should have been cold, was not. She could not discern the source of warmth beyond him; as she had come to expect, there was simply magic here.

He was so very beautiful, so near. She wanted to be held, to be kissed. There was no mistaking her desire, but again his eyes narrowed and he backed away from her.

Will you not ask me about this bed?” he snapped, ice and daggers in his tone. “Will you laugh at the exposure of a fool’s desire?”

He stalked to the bed frame, shook the high finial hard and flung the covers back. He passed his hand seductively over the sheets as he peered over his shoulder at her. She stood very still, not afraid of him, but for him. His pain was as unclothed as he.

“I discovered this bed months ago in a deep chamber, not long after you found the lilacs for Kanin and Olivia. I sensed your longing at that moment and in my dreams, I surprised you with a perfect room of our own. I dragged the frame in pieces to Cullen’s workshop, cleaned it, polished it, in pretense of giving it to a helper. I doubt Cullen believed me. I asked Olivia to find the appropriate bedding. She went Above, brought back these.

“Nights, after visiting you, I would come down, sit beside this bed and think only of having you close to me. I had such … skin hunger. I dreamed of the day you might choose me. I expected I would faint with joy, but instead, I heard the lie.”

His voice sparked. A drumming thunder reverberated in the chamber, a clash in the stillness that was simply his energy. Catherine stood unsupported, apprehensive, in the middle of the room.

“Yes, I feel that in you – the lie.” He began a slow circuit around her, moved close behind her, bent to her ear. His breath was hot on her neck and moved her hair.

“I haven’t lied to you, Vincent.”

“No, your lie is the one you refuse to admit, your deepest fear, unconfessed.”

“I don’t understand.”

His arm encircled her, pressed her backward against his body, his open hand low against her abdomen. She could feel his groin at the small of her back – so large he was, towering over her. His lips brushed her neck and his words were thick with pain.

“Would you take me as your lover … come to me willingly, Catherine … and live in fear of carrying a monster in your belly … or would loving me condemn you to a lifetime with an empty womb.”

In a sudden movement, he released her, the memory of his touch burning on her skin. She pressed both her hands into the pain of it and her tears welled and cascaded, hot and sad and desperate.

He walked to the head of the bed. His back to her, the bedpost in one hand, he sagged onto an arm bent against the chamber wall. His beautiful shoulders, smooth and wide and strong, shook with sorrow.

When the tears stopped, when his silence settled in, she spoke.

“Oh, Vincent. I thought you knew … I took for granted you would feel what I feel, always, clearly …”

She went to him and, when he did not move away, pressed her hand to the deep V of muscle at his spine, low on his back. He stiffened and pushed from the wall, his back still to her, his quick inhalation and persistent guttural rasp the only sounds …

“I should have told you, the moment I knew … and I knew when I saw you holding Lena’s child, when I asked you how it felt to hold a baby in your arms. I knew then that we were … a possibility … and that we could make a baby together, an extraordinary child, a most welcome child. We could make our family in different ways, Vincent. I could walk one street in this city and find a dozen children starving for love and security. Whether we plan a baby or are surprised by one or if we find one, it won’t matter; we’ll love any of them the same. If only I had realized you didn’t know.”

He was listening, she could tell, and listening not just to this last. She felt his posture relax its cold defense to her, his response crowded with dawning thought …

“I felt that word, heard it in my mind … possibility … but I thought it was … Lena’s word and I, after just a moment, had to block the pull of the feeling. I didn’t understand … couldn’t dare to believe … it was you.”

“Perhaps it was Lena’s too,” she said, stroking his skin. “Her feelings were strong and you are so kind. You know now, don’t you? You even know that possibility isn’t the right word. You are necessary to me. I don’t harbor that fear. There is nothing more to confess. And I won’t have you ever, ever, call yourself a monster again.”

He turned to her, two keen, unblunted roars escaping him. The first granted release from long-nursed doubt; the second, a sweet yielding to the fullness of the bond narrowed in his melancholy. He sank slowly to his knees and as she moved in close, his arms went ’round her. Her hands caught in his wild hair and she pressed his face to her heart until his breathing slowed. She felt a looseness spread through him and after uncounted minutes, she stepped back and tugged him to his feet.

“Vincent, you’ve used words today I’ve never heard from you. Tell me. How can you call yourself a coward? You’re the bravest man I’ve ever known – selfless, valiant. What is it you’re afraid to do or to say? And I’ve never heard you refer to anything as ‘mine’. You claim so little for yourself. Tell me.”

She kept both his hands in hers, fighting a strange impulse to smile. She waited.

“These two … words … are superimposed, inseparable. I am a coward because I’m unable to tell you what it is that I want … what I want for my own … afraid to ask you, afraid to hear your answer.”

Her appeal to speak met with a customary silence. She pressed and coaxed with similar unsuccess. Finally she touched his face, raising his chin as she had done hours before. She flattened her palm against his cheek and he covered her hand with his.

“Vincent, just say it. Whisper the words into my palm. I’ll keep them safe for you.”

And so he obeyed her. He held her hand open, tight to his mouth, pressed his lips to her skin. She felt the words carry to her soul, surely singing her body electric …

Cleave to me, Catherine. Marry me.”

Chapter 15 ~ An Ancient Word

 

Cleave … what a beautiful word, Vincent.”

“Yes.”

There was a charged moment between them, yet he knew before she spoke.

She was his.

* * *

“If ever two were one, then surely we,” she promised.1

He drew her close to him then and she lay her cheek to his chest. She felt the rise of his lungs and the drub of his heart, the strange hidden parts of his body fully vulnerable to her. Sweetest was that he did not pull away from her and while his skin quivered under her touch as she stroked his upper arm, he did not flinch.

Setting her away from him, a bare half-step, he looked at her fully on, still holding her in his loose embrace. “How will this work? We are destined for a significant journey and we have no map.”

“We don’t,” she agreed, “but we are never giving up.”

“I have so little to offer you, except this … for all eternity … my heart is bound to yours and I will never leave you.”

“What greater thing is there, Vincent, for two human souls, than to feel they are joined … to strengthen each other, to divide the burden of sadness, to multiply the joys, to live together and share unspoken memories?”2

He thrilled at her words – two human souls. “Will you … will you marry me?”

“I have. Just now.”

She favored him with her slow smile. He drew back, never letting go of her.

“You do surprise me, Catherine. Know that.”

She simply looked up at him, never taking her eyes from his. Waited. Waited …

Until he bent to her and touched his lips gently to hers, fleeting, almost chaste. Until he took her face in his hands, without worry or fear, and kissed her again. His touch was warm and his breath shortened … he opened his mouth first against hers. He gathered her close to him, tighter, and she felt the first shy probe of his tongue, a quickening and a rush and finally his restraint as he broke from her.

He bent his forehead to hers. “Too much.”

No,” she replied.

“That wasn’t a question, Catherine, but a statement. I have to … stop.”

They shared both a shyness and deep exhaustion. This day had drained them, turned them both inside out. It was enough, this much. Later would come and with it … everything.

She toed off her shoes and smoothed and straightened the bedclothes. His gaze was riveted to her motions; his heart would not slow, the thud of it shaking him.

She crawled in and settled herself. “Lie down with me.”

He would not deny her. Pulling the quilts around them, she burrowed close. He enfolded her, reverent in his touch and with her head in the crook of his arm, they fell asleep … after

After she’d kissed him twice more … and after she’d touched his hot, bare, rose-flushed skin and told him he was beautiful. After she’d brushed back his tangled mane and traced his peculiar ears with her fingertips.

After she’d whispered, “For I am running to Paradise …

After he’d answered, “And all that I have to do is wish.” 3

_________________

1. Anne Bradstreet. To My Dear and Loving Husband. 1650.
2. George Eliot. Adam Bede. Chapter 54, The Meeting on the Hill. 1859. 
3. William Butler Yeats. Running to Paradise. 1914.

Chapter 16 ~ Anitcipation

 

From this dream Catherine did not mind waking. It was a wonderful dream, complete with poetry and candlelight and a vague image of a ride on a rearing, golden carousel horse. But to wake to Vincent’s gentle touch, to his soft voice speaking her name … that was Paradise.

“Are you awake?”

“Are you really here?”

“I’m here.” He smiled at her, fully clothed, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“What time is it, do you think?”

“I’m not sure I can think,” he replied, “but I’m guessing it’s either quite late or very early. The pipes are still and the tunnels are dark.”

“Vincent … I, ummm … where’s the …”

“Facilities?”

Umm, uh huh.”

“I’ll show you. Come. Don’t worry. It’s close by,” he said, still smiling.

She crawled from the deep bed, reluctantly but necessarily, padding in her sock feet beside a changed man. His step was light and long and a sweetly dazed expression replaced the glower and gloom of yesterday. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a low humming tune in the air between them.

Vincent led her out into the atrium and across it, through another archway, a turn to the left down a dim hallway, past two small darkened rooms. She was just about to complain about the measure of tunnel distance when they came to a wooden door. It was a fairy-tale door – tall, arched, banded with metal strips and faceted nail heads and latched by a massive lever with a twisted iron handle. How it was set into the stone was yet another mystery. What it opened to was one as well.

She turned to question him, her eyes wide, but he’d retreated to the hallway; she saw him hurry around the corner. With a grin, she turned to explore.

Well, not too much exploring, not right away. She found the facility in an alcove. There was ancient feel to it, but if it were Mouse’s design, she’d have to give him an award for technical prowess.

The antechamber contained a long, narrow, black stone sink, served by pipes running the length of the side wall.

“Warm water?” She shook her head in wonder as she opened the metal gates.

The basin was carved so that water swirled over scalloped cuts in a cascade. There was a ledge of rock above the sink, an open medicine cabinet of sorts, where she found her toiletries from the guest chamber. Vincent had been up for a while … and busy.

There was a fascinating assortment of his things through which she pawed with giddy enthusiasm. She discovered he was partial to French-milled sandalwood soap for there was a large ivory-colored cake of it open at the sink and another still in the brown paper wrapping and tied with thin string. There was a delicious smelling conditioner made with Acacia honey and a shampoo combining aloe vera with Black Mud from the Dead Sea. The toothpaste he used was a homemade recipe. She twisted the top from the jar to find what looked like baking soda mixed with gelatin. She tried a little of it on her brush. Gritty, a little salty and flavored with cloves.

One of the helpers must have quite the shop.

She was feeling wild with excitement, thinking that she might skip across the floor or dance all alone in the middle of the room. Turning from the sink, she headed for a seductive opening in the wall. Of course – the private bathing chamber.

Oh …

Carved from the same black stone as the sink, but rougher-cut, were three steps into a deepening pool. The room was lit with candles that filled a stair-stepped wall on one side. At the end of it was another alcove, curtained by a waterfall that steamed and streamed over a ledge above. The alcove housed a stone bench and another ledge for bath products where there was an array of sponges and bath brushes and a strange, wide-toothed comb.

Near the pool, Vincent had stacked towels and there was a large basket filled with her folded clothes from her chamber bureau and wardrobe. She breathed out, a rushing exhalation.

Jenny and Nancy both would eat nails to see this.

She reached down to the water and found it very warm, so inviting. She slipped out of her clothes and into the pool. Closing her eyes, she dreamed yet another dream.

After the soak and the shower, after finding the black mud shampoo very interesting, she picked through her clothing, choosing the layers carefully. She had the fleeting vision of Vincent folding her lingerie. She’d have enjoyed watching that.

Whoo.” She fanned herself. And then her stomach rumbled. “Uh oh.”

She emerged from the bathing chamber, traveled the hallway. The two rooms she passed were empty, but appeared to be large closets. Shelves were cut into the stone and there were long poles suspended across the ends of each room. The entryway just inside the large arch into the atrium was empty as well but across the foyer-like area, there was another room. In it, the walls were lined with shelves of books and there was a large round table in the middle of the chamber – a library. She could not wait for the tour she would demand, right after breakfast or a late supper, whichever applied.

She entered the atrium again and saw Vincent standing near the base of the curving stair. She couldn’t resist … she ran toward him as fast as she could, remembering a similar run through the park months ago … and threw herself into his arms. This kiss came easily, playful and happy, deepening with desire but ending in a laugh.

“What is this place?”

“Do you like these rooms, Catherine?”

“I love these rooms!”

“They are … ours, then.”

“Will you show me everything? Tell me everything?” Her stomach rumbled again. “Right after we eat? I’m starving!”

He led her back to the mirror room to a small table flanked by the low stool and a second armless chair. There were crockery bowls and silverware, a large thermos, a stack of homemade rusks and glasses of apple cider.

“You can read my mind!”

“No. I’ll admit I was thinking of myself.” He poured a rich chowder from the thermos. “This was William’s supper last night. There’s no breakfast cooking yet, but I think it must be close to dawn.”

“Time doesn’t really matter now.”

“No, except that I cherish every moment of it with you.”

“We have many things to talk about,” she said.

“Yes.”

“Most of it can wait.”

“Yes.”

Then they both ate with hearty appetites, but Catherine more than Vincent.

“Did you have a snack in the kitchen?”

“How did you know that?” Behind his napkin, she was sure he hid a smile.

“Because I’ve eaten maybe twice what you have? Jamie said you could go a long time without eating. I’m going to be embarrassed if I’m the trencherman in this family.”

He closed his eyes, pleasure in his sigh. “I woke Father and told him we married ourselves last night.”

“I’d like to have been there for that! What did he say?”

“He grumbled that we would not get by with just an announcement, that he would not be denied performing some sort of ceremony. He’s up, right this minute, pouring over dusty texts for just the right words.”

“That should keep him busy.”

“Yes, the old fart. Who knows what he will devise.”

Catherine laughed. “He told you?”

“No, Pascal did. I passed him coming back with our food.” Vincent chuckled at the thought and paused. “I brought your things down for you.”

“I found them, thank you.”

“I brought all of them …” He ducked his head and shifted his gaze over her shoulder.

Her nightdress was draped across the foot board of the bed. She turned back to him with a mischievous expression.

“You said that was for a wedding night.”

He blushed, a deep, bronzed rose. “I did.”

“It’s morning.”

“Yes.” He looked a little puzzled.

“Do we have to wait … all day?”

“Let’s not,” he said, as he closed his beautiful hands over hers, his hands that absolutely could, absolutely would, give her exquisite love.

____________

sequel to this story is Marriage Morning, a story for adults (17+)

If you’d prefer to skip the adults-only part of the story, you can read the first part of Marriage Morning (for the tour of the hidden chambers) and then go on to Interludes without losing too much story line.

6 Comments

  1. Coming back to these stories is always such a joy — and I always find something new! Today it’s this:

    “Huh! Imagine that.”

    I think it’s VERY interesting that the name of your website comes from a line of dialogue that you gave — not once, but TWICE! in this story — to JAMIE!! And also that JAMIE is your primary agent of CHANGE. “What is WRONG with you people?” She delights me!

    I still see an older, Top-Side-educated Jamie with a degree in Engineering eventually taking over as Head of the Council after Father retires, with Vincent serving on the Council as one of her primary advisors, but his principle roles Below continue to be as a beloved teacher, father to his children, and husband to Catherine.

    Regards, Lindariel

    Reply
    • Oh gosh, did I repeat myself!? I’ll have to go back and see if that needs an edit. LOL!! The thousandth tweak to this story, if so.

      The original “Imagine That”, though, is from Catherine’s comment to Father in Dead Of Winter regarding the once-risque waltz information he delivered at Winterfest. I love Catherine’s tone of voice when she answers him. 🙂

      Reply
  2. I love how you added to the story ! Giving William a love interest delights me!

    Reply
    • Londa! I’m so late in saying thank you for reading and for your kind words! Thank you, thank you!!! 🙂

      Reply
  3. It certainly isn’t easy, after all this time, to find ways to expand and enrich the Classic canon successfully and believably, to offer us more of what we most love about this precious world. Yet, here are stories that do exactly that, with truly breathtaking beauty, grace, integrity, and artistry. Thank you, Carole, for sharing your amazing gifts with all of us. I am so enjoying your stories and art, and I can’t wait to continue exploring the treasures you have created. There are far too many favorite factors to list here, but I just have to mention the secret chambers you created for Vincent (and Catherine, of course). Sheer genius in every way! I could go on and on, but I have some more reading to do…

    Reply
    • Oh, my, I am blushing and dancing around the room at the same time. You’ve made my day, Linda – tomorrow is my birthday, and your encouragement is such a wonderful gift! I have no adequate words to thank you for yours. I’m just so happy you’re here and finding the site enjoyable. It means everything.

      Reply

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