sequel to The Only Gift

IRON BEHIND THE VELVET

 

 

chapter 10 ~ Some Walls

Some walls are made of stone
Sometimes we build our own

 

He performed his evening duties methodically and well, cleaning and oiling the handles of the pickax and adze, the chisels and hammers. He sharpened the wedges, coiled the ropes, sorted the carriage bolts from the anchor studs, counted washers and nuts. The inventory list amended, the tasks of repairs spelled out, he returned the clipboard to its peg by the tool room’s archway. These rote tasks occupied his hands, the necessary details his practical mind, but the undercurrent between them washed him to her shore – where she need say nothing, her urgency his incentive, her determination his resolution.

So long – too long – he’d paced a dark corridor, a barred and blackened door his terminus. A rut worn before it, beyond, furies inexorably raged. But to the black ends of his earth, she brought light in a steady approach – confident, unflinching … never giving up.

We don’t know what our limits are … more promise now than protest. 

Like this I want you, love,
love, Like this I love you,
as you dress
and how your hair lifts up
and how your mouth smiles,
light as the water
of the spring upon the pure stones,
Like this I love you, beloved.
… and Like this, I need you
.1

His skin hungered. He ached to hold her.

If only …  How often those words had sighed between them. How often would they? 

And tomorrow …

Tomorrow new workers would arrive, and he, with Kanin and Cullen, would divide the crews. The reports of intruders in the western tunnels made it a surety – he would be obligated to go there, to stand ready in defense, however long … and whatever … it might take.

The strides he took toward camp carried him in her opposite direction.

 

Most of the crew had gathered in the circle of the campfire, steaming mugs held in tired hands. The conversation was muted and amiable, with encouragements offered up now and then to the evening’s designated cook who tended the stew pot suspended over glowing coals. The cavern’s draw was perfect, he noted, the steam spiraling high overhead, disappearing into a natural limestone ductwork, yet still the simmering sent out the earthy aroma of lentils.

Supper would come soon; they’d not notice him absent, didn’t notice him now as he swept up his cloak from its tumble on his bedroll. If memory served him, he could avoid the closest-stationed sentry by taking only a slightly circuitous route. Later, farther along his course, he’d tap out his whereabouts. Tonight might be his last to hear music at the stairs, and he wanted to go alone.

 

He’d retrieved the sector’s map from Mouse, and now he unfolded it from its soft-worn square, compared it side-by-side with the companioned street grid of the Bronx above he carried. The narrow passage, its winding incline and final ascent he traced to the western edge of Woodlawn, just beyond the boundary of Van Cortland Park. Perhaps Dominic could guess the address. At the narrow entrance, he lit the lantern he’d picked up at a perimeter way station. With a look over his shoulder, a sensing cast out down the passageway behind him … he slipped through the cleft, hurrying through the first iron gate to the secret shifting wall. The lantern left at the base of the stone staircase, its flame reduced to its softest light, after springing the latch of the last barricade, he made his way up and through the hatch to the portal between below and above. Between him and the music.

He pressed his ear to the door’s old-oak slats. It was still early by his measure – well into the gloaming, but not yet full night. End-of-day filtered through – the screech of brakes, a mother’s call, a child’s protest against the dying of the light. He smelled the rain-drenched earth, the still-wet grass. Earlier there’d been a storm.

Hefting the padlocked chain, he found it rusty but substantial enough. The walls around him were stacked and mortared and soft with moss, the ceiling spanned by wooden joists, capped with flat stones. He skirted the open stairwell, exploring past it to a sharp corner, right-turning into a passage damp and rubbled. Through a high chink in the laid-up stones, a dagger of street lamp light thinned the darkness. At the alley’s end and in the gray-green shadows, another door outlined, similarly barred, similarly chained and locked. A walled garden, he decided, joined to a structure, an old mansion, perhaps a church. Last closed off by someone retreating Below – a mystery who and why – these passageways were once a secret way out … and in.

No music tonight? His question for the universe went too long unanswered. He turned for retreat. Six paces along, he heard a creak and a slam, the sound of quick footsteps passing by and a low, hummed tune. A rustling, a scrape. A bellowed sigh. And then … an air began, loud enough and lively enough to mask his return to the landing.

The button box, he knew the evening’s instrument was called. A concertina. Years ago they’d provided haven to a boy who played one. He’d said he could try it, that he’d teach him to play, but he’d eyed his nails as he spoke. In the end, the boy hadn’t stayed with them long enough to make good on his offer. 

He settled to to the floor, leaned back against the stacked stone wall and closed his eyes. One tune merged with the next and the next, their rhythms dotted with the triplets, drones and slides and grace notes he remembered, the cadence high-spirited and dashing, the mood larking. Their names must be poetry. 

The music bore him away. Another life, another time. 

This man’s story, he wondered, his and Lily’s, their love lost – was it to separation? To another?

He was grateful for the respite, for the transport, for the kind of aloneness he treasured, but if he confessed the truth …

He wanted more.

___

Voices roused him from a half-sleep he’d neglected to guard against. In a crouch, he was poised to flee … but the musician played on, a nimble, rounding chorus slowing to a waltz of tender hopes. Don’t go. Not yet …

“Flynn, please,” a woman begged. “Something’s happened.”

“I told you, it’s nothing. Just … work.” The man’s voice burned and chilled at once, dry ice from his throat. “I’m fine. You don’t need to follow me around.”

“You’ll have me believe you’re out pruning the roses this time of night.”

“I just want– ” The man drew a sharp breath and discarded it. “Let me be, Eimear. Please. Let me … … … stand here.”

“All right, then. All right,” she repeated. 

Her consent was … respecting … but reluctant. Had Catherine’s been any different, the many times he’d required it of her?

“Flynn?”

The music couldn’t mask the man’s silence. 

How cold his refusal was, how crushing the emptiness. 

“I love you,” the woman whispered into it. “You’re scaring me.”

But for her inflection – Eimear’s – the timbre of her voice, the utterance was Catherine’s. What she’d said – I love you. What she hadn’t, but hadn’t had to – You’re scaring me. 

A brushing tread through wet grass, a clattering on wooden steps, the snick of a door … 

One last chorus danced to its end, its notes drifting away, wavering harmonics in the night air.

“Will you be wanting to talk now?” The musician’s voice was gentle, a hand held out.

“No, Martin. Just … play on, will you.”

Don’t do this, he wordlessly pleaded. Accept the help, accept the love. I didn’t. I didn’t and I didn’t and I didn’t. And she paid. 

“Have ye any requests, then?”

“No …Yes. Something on the flute.”

“So it’s the hollow places you want. The Dark of the Moon, is it? The River of Jewels?” 

The concertina sighed in the musician’s hands. A click, the frictioned rasp of wood, a whistle of breath …

I should leave. This is not mine. He rose and edged toward escape. but a pull begged him … stay.

He could sense him – Flynn– waiting, wishing himself other, wishing himself elsewhere  Could visualize his posture – arms folded, head down, shoulders slumped against the wall. He’d mirrored that stance a hundred times, a thousand. A stony-hearted wall of a man.

He fit his palm to the stone, leaned in …

A whisper filtered through. “The Coolin first.”

A long moment of consideration fell between the two men beyond. “Ah, sure,” the musician agreed. “An Chúilfhionn.” And the song began, a sad soul’s mirroring. 

Full of longing and uncertainty, the music reached farther than his ear, the yearning diffusing throughout his muscles, into the chambers of his heart … reaching, reaching for some long-ago before, in its breathless silences fusing grief to grief to grief. 

How? How could he leave? He wouldn’t.

He’d not leave the man to stand alone.

___

Killeen’s Fairy Hills, Roisin Dubh, The Ragland Road, Carrickfergus …

Poetry, but something more. Somewhere more …

And then … the last, an end. 

The jar of the city returned, the here, the now. 

 

“’Tis time I put the cork grease to it,” the musician – Martin – said. “It needs attention.”

“I thought you poured Guinness down the bore and let it soak overnight.”

“That’s a myth altogether. And you know I’d not waste my daily allowance like that.” Like a tossed stone, his next words rippled a deep lake. “You should tell your wife. Let her help you through.”

“I can’t.”

“Come closer. Sit with me. We’ll talk. You know ‘twill not leave this alcove.”

“I’m fine where I am.”

“Not so. Not so fine. You’ve gone on with it long enough now. Weeks. You’re but a shade of your own true self. I’ll wait here ‘til you’re ready.”

Ready …” Flynn spat the word into the air, chased it with a bitter laugh. “I saw that today – my own true self.”

“Tell me.”

“Today at the shop. We were headed out for the truck and I got a call to come to the desk. Those kids and their parents …”

“The children from the Yeshiva.”2

“Yes,” Flynn snapped. “From the Yeshiva. Where else?” He hesitated. “They were there … to thank me. To thank me for saving them.”

“And this breaks your spirit? There’s something more.”

“There’s more. Oh yeah, more. The teacher, he was there. He did the talking, well, what talking there was. I felt like it might be okay, seeing them, all of them alive. Unhurt …”

“Go on.”

“They came up to shake my hand, all of them, one at a time. They were so little, so–” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But one boy, when it was his turn … he looked up at me and I saw such fear in his eyes. He grabbed his mother’s leg, turned his face away. She pushed him behind her … protected him. She was protecting him from me. I knew it then.”

“Knew what, Flynn?”

“What I was. What I am. I was … there … all over again. The guns, the screaming. The kids crying. The teacher, what he–”

The air was pressured, the hush prolonged. From his vantage inside the wall, Vincent edged closer, turning his cheek to the stone. Offered the mercy and forgiveness he never believed himself due. His guardianship as well, his recognition … of the locked doors at the ends of the earth, the imperative to keep them chained shut. I, too …

“Oh, my sweet, sweet boy. That’s where you stop, always. Take me past there. Take yourself pa–”

“I had to fight,” Flynn went on, ignoring, perhaps not even hearing Martin’s entreaty. 

His words weren’t an exculpation, Vincent knew, but a statement of fact. I had to fight. I will have to fight again. A truth met without even the shrug of shoulders. 

“It was three against one!” Martin said. “Three against you. They were killers. Crazed men. And you saved–”

I’m the killer those kids saw. I’m who they remember.” 

“They’re but babies, Flynn. You can’t take their reactions as judgments!” Martin countered. “Their parents … they know. They’re grateful, thankful for you, that you were there and willing.”

Flynn snorted. “Willing? Was it a choice? The thing is, even after today, after that little boy … the look on his face … I’m not sorry I did it.”

“You’re sorry you had to do it. Therein’s the difference.”

“There’s something dark in me, Martin. I always knew it. I’ve tried … tried to keep it buried, but it’s so strong. The power of it … Sometimes I need it.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary!”

Steeled for it, Vincent waited … but Martin offered no denial, no platitude he – no, Flynn – would have scorned.

Breath by breath, the silence deepened. 

Within the wall, their sorrow engulfed him, hammered hard on his chest, clouded his vision. Flynn’s pain was his pain. No longer alone in the darkness … How he wished it otherwise, that there were no darknesses.

“Eimear should hear this from you,” Martin said at last. “She’s afraid.

“She should be.” Flynn shuddered, a dry rattle of breath and bone.

“Not of you … for you, for herself. A mhic3, talk to her. She knows you. Sees you. She always has.”

“She sees what she wants to see. ”

A leanbh na páirte.4  You’re wrong. So very wrong. Don’t leave her standing up the heather glen. An gcoinneóidh tu uathi, a fhad is atá sí ag fanacht, ag iompair an tsolais?”

“I can’t … I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Think, now,” Martin urged. “Think on the words.”

“Something about waiting … and carrying a light.”

“Not quite, lad. I asked you, Will you keep this from her, while she waits, bearing the light?’”

Flynn struggled, a few misbegotten sounds wrenched out …

Nochtfaidh … a solas mé agus … cha dtig … liom sin a sheasamh.”

Seconds later, the wooden steps complained; a door groaned and Martin whispered after him, “Her light will reveal me and I cannot bear that.”

Both hands to it, Vincent sagged against the wall, his forehead bent to the chill stones. He hadn’t needed a translation to understand the words, the lament. And sorrow, sorrow like rain. Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning.5 Behind a chained door, in a long-forgotten place, he stood, Flynn’s cloaked and hidden Other.

“Ah, Lily,” Martin implored. Chair legs grazed the cobbles. “Now what? I’m lacking a way to reach the lad – the right words, the proper understanding. He needs … someone else, Lily. Someone else.” The last words fell unevenly, almost as a sob. “If only … Beidh tú, i mo chroí go deo. Codladh sámh. You’ll be in my heart forever. Sleep well. love. I’ll not be giving up.”

 

Flynn … Eimear. A Yeshiva. A deliverance from evil …

In the standstill of aftermath, recognition slammed full force.

He knew this story, these people. Catherine had told him – of her connection to this woman, her compassion for the man. He’d seen it, felt it then as if it played out before him … felt it now, as if Flynn’s hands had been his. He touched the back of his neck. He was sweating, and when he touched his face, he found tears.

The woman’s growing anxiety, her helplessness, gnawed at him. How often had he turned from Catherine, closed the door on her love. Standing up the heather glen. He frowned. Fragrant poetry to describe the place of her outcasting.

The man’s despair was a red, stabbing pain behind his eyes, the aloneness a black and fitting shroud. Too well he remembered the agony of his own first look – at the beast that paced and prowled, that laughed and licked its chops in anticipation of escape. He lifted the chain and padlock that safeguarded the door. Twisting the slack from the links, he tugged at it, and he knew it was no obstacle to him, that his slightest exertion could snap it. The air was suddenly stale; the space confined, confining. 

He wanted out.

His descent of the stairs was swift, and his steps, ever quickening, took him to a little-used entry into the cemetery. Attacking the heavy door, spending himself, he burst outside at last, his chest heaving in the night air. In this wooded place, his head thrown back, he could believe he saw stars. He lifted his arms in silent supplication, beyond his walls and free.

* * *

 

“I can’t take any more of this,” Joe said. “Can you? It’s probably pointless anyway. Without Phan, who are we gonna put on the stand tomorrow? We’re not gonna win on my smile.”

“We can’t just give up,” Catherine argued.

“Kiddo, some days you eat the bear and some days the bear eats you. Prepare yourself. We’ve done our best.”

“While you were at dinner, I called a friend of mine. He’s Vietnamese. I thought he might know Phan or someone in his family.”

“Does he?”

“No, not by name, but he’ll ask around. I told him I’d get him a photograph. Long said he’d let me know the minute he learns anything. I told him to call me at home, even if it’s the middle of the night.”

“It’s almost that now,” Joe said, yawning. He snapped his head around. “Hold it. Wait. You want to send a photograph, we’ll get a courier service. And if this guy calls – and I’ll get to the question of how you know so many ‘potentially helpful’ people later – if this guy calls in the middle of the night, you are not going down there. That’s a day job and a uniform goes with you, even then. And don’t start in with that ‘he won’t talk if there’s a cop around’ stuff. I don’t want to hear it. Remember. I am your boss.”

She smiled. “It’s not even midnight. I thought you were a night owl.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yes, yes. I promise! Can we drop it?” She checked her watch. “We might as well go home. I’m reading the same reports over and over. Nothing changes. Maybe some sleep will help.”

“You want to share a cab?”

“Sure.” She put on her jacket, gathered her purse and briefcase, more than ready to leave. She had somewhere to go.

 

Catherine rested against the taxi’s upholstery and closed her eyes. Behind her lids, the city lights still strobed. Sirens and horns muddled her thoughts. And to think I once found the pipe-tapping bothersome. She heard Joe’s briefcase snap open. 

“What’s this?” she asked, eyeing the book he held. “For me?”

“It’s nothing really. Just something I thought you might like. I found it at that place in the Village, the bookstore.”

“At Smythe’s? You were shopping at Smythe’s?”

“How come everybody thinks I don’t read? You’ve been to my apartment. I have bookshelves. With books on them.”

“You’re protesting a bit too much, I think.”

“Fine!” Joe sputtered. “I’ll take this back. Give it to … my mother.”

“Oh, no, you won’t.” She opened the cover and held the book to the window, angling it to the streetlights. “Will and Ariel.It’s signed! Oh, Joe, this is lovely, but what’s the occasion?”

Ummm, I was in there. Thought of you. I figured, for your birthday or something, but now’s good. Best, I think. No sense hanging on to it.”

The cab pulled up to her building and hovered, double parked beside an idling black limousine. “Don’t get out,” she protested. “I’ll see you in the morning, bright and early. You owe me a story about your date.” Ignoring his stammer, she patted his hand where it rested on his knee and scooted out. “Thank you for the book. For dinner. You know I love Angelo’s Insalata Capricciosa.” She leaned in the open door. “And Joe, you’re a great boss.”

 

She arrowed to the basement, descended the ladder and ducked into the tunnels, stowing her briefcase and Joe’s gift in a bricked niche. At the first junction, she tapped a terse message on the pipes, listened for a reply, and when it came, hurried on, the narrow walkway above the misted depths familiar now, the necessary turns second nature.

“Catherine! I was surprised to hear from you.” Palms up, Cullen gestured to their meeting place, a level up from the clustered chambers, a guard-ring out from the community’s near perimeter. “Everything all right?”

“The truth is,” she began, “I can’t risk a long conversation with Father tonight.”

“Better not come any closer then. He’s still up. I just left him.”

“I have a favor to ask.”

“Anything. What?”

“You’ll take relief crew north tomorrow, right? Father told me you’d be leading the second shift. I have a letter for Vincent. Would you make sure he gets it?”

“Oh, right. You couldn’t know. There’s been a change. Everybody’s staying on. Splitting the crews. The work will go faster.”

She didn’t believe faster, not for a minute, but it wasn’t important, not compared …  “Has there been a problem?” she asked, searching his face. Problem, accident, incident. Is he hurt?  Is he?

Cullen scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Vincent might not want me to tell, but you should know. There’s been an … issue … north and west. A couple more intruders. But nothing serious.”

Nothing serious … yet. “I don’t want him to have to …”

“Nobody does.” Her letter tucked to an inside pocket, Cullen patted it. “I’ll tell him you were looking well. Try not to worry,” he added and touched her shoulder in farewell.

“That’s impossible,” she whispered after he was gone.

* * *

 

Vincent circled the cemetery, keeping to the shadows through the silent city of monuments and gravestones, past many grand and cold mausoleums. Their walls of granite and marble were impermeable; their immutability mocked the self-constructed barrier. Fear, doubt, pride. Stubborn bricks, impediments to life. A test. Who will care enough to knock it down, find the gap? Kanin’s, Flynn’s … his own walls … made of something other than metamorphic rock. A foolish man who would keep love out.

Near the entry to his world, loath to give up the breeze and the nightjar’s song, he sank onto a mourner’s bench. He knew his name now, the musician’s – Martin. And Eimear’s … And Flynn’s. That he’d found them was coincidence beyond reason. 

The paralleling disconcerting. Curious. Chilling. 

Fated?

He’d come for a last concert and instead a page was read from the book of his own life.

The darkness pulls in everything.6 Only dark listening to dark.7

Oh, Catherine, I need you close.

And then she was … Her hand was in his; they searched the same night sky, counted the same fixéd stars.

Remember, she whispered …

Light can only break where no sun shines.8 

Vincent in Woodlawn Cemetery at night

Illustration: Vincent in the Cemetery by Esther Wijnbeek. Click for a larger version. {Thank you, Esther!}

Chapter title and opening quotation: Walls. Music and lyrics by Mary Ann Kennedy, Randy Sharp, and Pam Rose.

1. Pablo Neruda. Because Love Battles.

2. I Carry Your Heart, chapter 3: Counterparts.

3. A mhic – Gaelic. My son. Implying take heed.

4. A leanbh na páirte – Gaelic. My dear child.

5. Rihaku (Li Po). Lament of the Frontier Guard. 760 AD

6. Rainer Maria Rilke. You, Darkness.

7. Carl Sandburg. Moonset.

8. Dylan Thomas. (paraphrased) Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines.

 

2 Comments

  1. Ah, Martin at last! Not the meeting I’m longing for, but Vincent eavesdropping on that important conversation between Martin and Flynn — that first shivering touch of what it might mean to find and speak with a fellow reluctant warrior/protector, to find a brother-in-arms who truly understands.

    This moment — “Her light will reveal me, and I cannot bear that.” For Vincent to hear Flynn articulate what is still, on some level, his own truth, and to recognize how unnecessary such suffering is — THIS moment cuts right straight to the heart of the matter.

    WONDERFUL!

    HUGS,

    Lindariel

    Reply
    • More spirit-lifting from you! You are so kind, Karen. Thank you. It makes such a difference knowing you remember the story from its earlier days and want to revisit it.

      More hugs!
      Carole

      Reply

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