sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 12 ~ My Being’s Silent Harmonies
Stumble to silence, all you uneasy things
that pack the day with bluster and with fret,
for here is music at each window set … A roof
to shelter till the argent weathers break;
a candle with enough of light to make
my courage bright against each dark reproof.
Alone in the office, every desk weekend-cleared but hers …
Even Joe had departed, though only just.
He’d slammed the drawer on Phan’s case file so hard the glides jumped the track. There it hung, half-in and at a painful angle; he’d had to wrestle it free. It hadn’t proved easy.
Somebody tell me why everything is so damn hard! His muttering undercurrent surged to a riptide of curses before he managed to get the drawer rolling again. Though at one point she thought he might topple the entire metal cabinet, she hadn’t offered to help, instead bore witness. She felt the same pain. She’d never leave him alone with it.
Afterward, not at all triumphant, he dropped into his chair, bowed his head. In time – minutes that seemed both frozen and flaming – his breathing steadied. He looked up at her, shook his head and sighed. She’d have stopped him had he tried to apologize, but he only urged her to go home.
“Let’s pack it in, Cathy. It’s … enough already. I don’t know about you, but I need groceries, the couch, and a cold beer.”
She watched him leave – he offered a crooked smile and pretended to tip up a bottle before the elevator doors closed – but she’d bet money he’d go home by way of the 5th precinct house, from there call his detective friends in the 17th. Probably the 7th, too, and the 76th in Brooklyn. He had a lot of friends, and he wasn’t one to give up.
Back at her desk, hoping for focus, she switched on her lamp, snatching back her hand when the light bulb popped and went dark. Maybe it’s a sign, she thought, surveying the empty room. I’ve done all I can. She stared down at her legal pad, its soft-yellow page waiting, its blue lines blank. Which is … nothing.
“Stupid day. Stupid, stupid day,” Catherine grumbled. Purple gum bonded one shoe to her taxi’s floor. A previous rider had left behind an acrid souvenir of cigarettes and nerves. Despite the driver’s arguing otherwise, she had to open the window to breathe. Traffic was more stop than go, horns blared, the exhaust fumed. Churned-up litter soared wide-winged within the canyon streets. Out there was no better.
After inching from Greene Street to Broadway, the cabbie made what he deemed a detour at the next light, turning off Canal on to 6th. They were waiting out the stoplight at Grand Street when the whoop of sirens started up. She met the driver’s gaze in the rearview mirror where flashes of red and white blazed with insistence. An Emergency Services Unit closed in, drew abreast … stuttered ahead through the intersection. The officer in the passenger seat, the one she could see, faced grimly forward, resolute but mirthless.
She knew that face, that expression.
With its siren subsiding to an ominous warble, the truck veered on to the tree-lined parallel of Sullivan Street, made a wide, slow right at the first corner. Her cab was freer to move along and at the next light they crept through on green. But the cross street was closed off now, a police car having just pulled across it. Farther down the block, ill-boding lights strobed: ESU, an array of cruisers … more than one ambulance. Someone’s nightmare come true. In the few moments she had to observe, she saw only shadows of action, but a darker menace loomed, its raven wings flared.
Broome Street, even this distant end of it, still unnerved her. The tension was her stone companion the rest of the way home.
At last. She tipped the driver and he pulled away from the curb. How it happened was a mystery – no one bumped her elbow, nothing tangible startled her – still, she managed to drop her satchel in the gutter. She supposed she should be glad the latches stayed latched and the paperwork within wasn’t flying down the street … but now something she didn’t recognize darkened the bottom of the leather case.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She emerged from the shower discontent. From desk to table to dresser she paced, opened and closed her balcony doors, opened and closed a half-dozen books. She took nothing from the open refrigerator, but stood in its light, perplexed by its contents. She flopped onto the couch, rose to turn on music only to snap it off when her mood changed. She picked up her ruined briefcase – Should I try to clean it? – and carried it to the farthest corner of her apartment, as out of sight as possible, as out of mind. In passing, in a mirror, she glimpsed the very definition of adrift.
She leaned in in assessment. The word haggard came to mind. Perhaps in the candlelight below, no one would notice.
Perhaps in the candlelight, she could pretend the day away, talk about anything but … at least for a while.
* * *
The desk’s surface was masked by a dozen open volumes, by towers and pyramids of texts. “What’s all this?” she asked, her hands on her hips. “Did I not spend an entire afternoon shelving for you?”
Father peered over his glasses, closing the volume in his hand. “Surely not these specific books! Other tomes, to be sure.” He smiled and gestured her closer. “Catherine, my dear. What a joy to see you. It’s far too quiet around here with so many away. Sit with me. Will you take tea?”
“I came for that very thing.” She leaned in to kiss his cheek and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “I’ve missed you.”
He rose with some difficulty. Even with the aid of his cane, his limp was pronounced. A few steps eased his stiffness, but still she filed away a reminder to alert Peter to an issue Father likely downplayed.
At the brazier, he lifted the lid of a gently steaming kettle and murmured his approval. An ironstone tea pot at the ready, he poured some warming water in … and then away, spooned dark, loose leaves into the vessel. Snugged on a crocheted cozy once he filled it again, cast over his shoulder a contented smile. She hurried to set a tray for him – sugar cubes and silver tongs, a lidded pitcher of cream, two flowered, bone china cups.
“Are you working on a particular project?” she asked, clearing a space for the array on the chair-side table.
“Ah, yes. I am indeed. I’ve taken on Vincent’s literature classes while he’s away. They were mine once before, you know.” Father angled a velvet armchair for her, attentive at her elbow until she sat. “He left us at Wordsworth and Coleridge. I had this wild thought …” he said, inching a sheaf of papers from beneath a carved wooden weight.
The chair had long lost its button tufts, but the worn velvet welcomed her, an old perfume wafting from its nap. She nestled in, accepted his notes.“A wild thought? I’m dying to know what that might be!” Page by page, she studied them. “Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott … Ellery Channing. The Transcendentalists! Oh, this is truly untamed.”
“And on to Dickinson and Whitman, even to Hawthorne and to Amy Lowell. You tease me,” Father said, “but it is a departure from the very detailed syllabus Vincent left for me. I still have a few independent thoughts.” Father tapped his temple and nodded. “It is a … defensible segue … from the British Romantics, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yes.” Catherine said. “There is a truth …”
“Beyond knowledge,” Father finished and beamed at her.
“Do you really think …” Her voice trailed away. “Will they be gone that long?” A college semester couldn’t cover the authors and philosophies Father listed.
“Oh, dear, no. I’m sure not. I might, however, attempt a coup once Vincent returns.”
“I was in Concord once,” Catherine said. One inquisitive brow arched, Father poured an amber half-cup, leaving a margin against a spill, an allowance for a measure of cream. “With my Dad,” she went on, taking the refreshment he passed to her. “It was late fall. I was thirteen. We saw Walden Pond, toured The Old Manse and Wayside and Orchard House. I was desperate for one of those little half-moon desks like Louisa’s father built for her. She put on her ‘glory cloak’ and wrote Little Women at it, in just six weeks! Did you know that?” She took a careful first sip. “That afternoon we walked through the cemetery – Author’s Ridge. The sky had clouded up and Dad wanted to leave before it rained. I was determined to see all the grave stones though, so I pretended I didn’t hear him and walked up to Hawthorne’s marker. Just as I picked up an acorn from his gravesite this huge clap of thunder blasted overhead. I ran back to the car like a scared rabbit.” She nested the translucent china to its matching saucer. “I kept that acorn on my desk for years, until one day, it just disintegrated into dust.”
“Perhaps you might enjoy leading a session of the class,” Father suggested from the new sanctuary of his winged chair. “This was a time in history when women took on new roles of intellectual and artistic leadership. I believe my students would benefit from your perspective.”
“Thank you,” she said. She traced the ribbons and rose petals carved in the table’s edge, as intricate a pattern as her own path to acceptance. “Thank you for asking, but I’m … I’m not really a teacher. I’ll think about it. I need to participate. I want to, but I’m not sure …”
Father leaned forward, his eyes glistening in the candlelight. “Catherine. You must trust what I say to you. This is truth … our love for you has no price tag. It simply is. You’re a part of us. Yes, I know … I fought against it, but it was nevertheless true from the first moment. And it will ever be … whether you teach a class or nurse the sick or simply sit and talk with an old man who enjoys your company.”
“Is it enough, Father. Really? You don’t need a lawyer below, not very often anyway,” she said with a soft laugh.
“Let us pray we will not.” He busied with his tea, stirring in a drop more milk, a sift of sugar. His spoon tinged against the china. “You’re more than your profession to us, Catherine. Truly. To spend an hour with the kind, intelligent, generous woman who loves my son?” He reached out, touched her cheek, urging her to meet his gaze. “The woman who brings light into his life. Into mine? Yes, it is enough. You must simply let us love you.”
She covered his hand with hers, then pressed a kiss into his palm, folding his fingers over it. He swallowed hard and took back his hand, took up a book, opening it to a marked page. “I found this poem earlier this evening,” he said. “And I thought of you. You bring the colors to us, Catherine. Here. I’ll read to you.
“April had covered the hills
With flickering yellows and reds,
The sparkle and coolness of snow
Was blown from the mountain beds.
Across a deep-sunken stream
The pink of blossoming trees,
And from windless apple blooms
The humming of many bees.
The air was of rose and gold
Arabesque’d with the song of birds
Who, swinging unseen under leaves,
Made music more eager than words.
Of a sudden, aslant the road,
A brightness to dazzle and stun,
A glint of the bluest blue,
A flash from a sapphire sun.
Blue-birds so blue,‘twas a dream,
An impossible, unconceive’d hue,
The high sky of summer dropped down
Some rapturous ocean to woo.
Such a colour, such infinite light!
The heart of a fabulous gem,
Many-faceted, brilliant and rare.
Centre Stone of the earth’s diadem!
Centre Stone of the Crown of the World
Sincerity graved on your youth.
Your eyes hold the blue-bird flash,
The sapphire shaft, which is truth.”1
Afterward … together … they watched the candles burn low, her hand gentle on Father’s arm. Little was said … or needed to be … and when she stirred and rose, when she leaned in to kiss his temple …
Surprised, she skittered back. “I thought you were sleeping.”
“No, only … thinking, though I’ve kept too many late nights. I can scarcely keep my eyes open during morning councils.”
“You could reschedule the meetings, you know.”
“I could, yes.” Father picked up his pen, toyed with it. “There’s been some news from the work sites. I shouldn’t keep it from you …” At her sharp intake of breath, Father rushed on. “Oh, please don’t worry. I didn’t meant to frighten you. I’d just heard when you arrived. There was a … small scare … but it was nothing. Only teenagers, urban spelunkers, Pascal calls them.”
“Did Vincent … ”
“No,” he assured her. “No, he only had to–” He laced his fingers as if in prayer, tapped his folded hands to his lips … took a new breath. “Well, a little noise and at a distance – a far distance – was all it took. He sent a follow-up message, but sometimes rumors … drama … I wouldn’t want you to hear half the story.”
All it took. Father’s words weren’t meant to downplay Vincent’s requirement – more, he hoped to spare her concern, she believed, but the scenario played out in her mind’s eye … the consequence of even no confrontation … All it took from him. Oh, Vincent.
“Cullen told me about the change in plans, about the two crews. Vincent will feel responsible to both of them. He’ll never sleep …”
“You saw Cullen?”
“I brought a letter for Vincent down last night.”
“Hmmmph. No one told me you were here.”
“There were problems at work. I had to get back and should now. It’s a long and frustrating story,” she said, noting his inquisitive expression as she rose to leave. “Another time.”
“Must you go, Catherine? There’s something else … something I’ve wanted to discuss with you for some time now. May I?”
She returned to her chair. “Of course.”
“About Vincent … this past winter … before …”
“Before I came below?” she prompted. Any word for their joining, their cleaving to one another, seemed too small.
“And it is still your honeymoon. I rue this interruption of your, ummm, celebration.” After a delicate cough into his fist, he sobered and steepled his fingers. “But yes. Then. Before.” His gaze searched an unreadable landscape. “Vincent was so inwardly turned … as if he prepared for some final test. He was uncommonly silent and I was unable to reach him, though I tried. God knows, I tried. He did his work, led his classes, participated in council, but there was something switched off in him. I knew he’d not gone above … to you … for weeks. Then he left us … for the dark river. I felt as if I had missed the essential clue, that I failed him … that he suffered some terrible pain alone.”
“I felt the same way,” Catherine answered. And I’d had no word until …2 She tripped over an old resentment, but kicked it away without examination. It’s over, she reminded herself. We are … now. That’s all that matters.
“You suffered as well and as alone, if not more so.” Father’s shoulders sagged. “I am sorry, Catherine, for my neglect of your feelings, for my … narrowness of concern.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, his spectacles riding up over his thumb and forefinger. “Has he spoken of it … that time away … explained himself?”
“Not entirely,” she admitted. “You mustn’t blame yourself. Something happened soon after Winterfest. I hope one day he’ll tell me all of it.”
“He seems … recovered.”
She heard the question in his voice. “Most of it is resolved.”
Father started to speak and stopped, then began again. He lifted his gaze to hers, his half-smile wavering as if reflected by rippled water. “Will you and Vincent … Have you spoken of …”
“Children?” Catherine folded her hands, studied them … and then Father. Contrition and contemplation warred in equal measure on his face – regret for having asked, for the need to ask; the threat and prospect of joy. “You will understand, won’t you, when I tell you the subject of children is entirely between Vincent and me. The yes or no of it … is ours.”
“Please forgive me. Forgive me for prying. I … worry.”
“I’m not afraid. Whatever we decide … or whatever happens.”
“I know you’re not afraid …”
“Is there something … something that we should know that you haven’t told Vincent?” Stones lodged between her ribs. Surely not. Oh, surely, surely not.
“There is nothing, truly. Only the unknown …”
She studied his face, but detected no duplicity. “He would never hurt me.” So much is mystery, uncertainty … but not that. Never that.
For a long moment, Father stared into the candle’s flame. “No, he would not.”
“If I could carry his child …” She crossed her arms over her belly, palms to elbows. “But it is … between us.”
Father stood and steadied, pulled her to her feet into his embrace, pressing his cheek against her hair. “Your strength humbles me,” he whispered. “You obey your heart. You’ve given all to love. You refuse nothing, and now everything is possible. My dearest Catherine … my daughter. I am blessed by you.”
* * *
The moon was opalescent, and through the weathered cracks in the slatted door Vincent could see the shadow-shrouded figure seated in an alcove, the flash of the flute’s silver keys under quick, sure fingers. Martin. The night’s concert was already an enthused romp; the tune fiery; the rhythm kept by a stamping foot. No laments, no yearning waltzes, but dances – this one a laughing jig. He settled near the door and drew up one knee. To muffle any spontaneous tapping-along, he padded the stone floor beneath his boot with a thick fold of his cloak.
He needed this respite. Catherine’s day had at last smoothed; she’d … let go. But his own, the … engagement … had left a hollow place within him. The music more than helped.
His hood pushed back, he rolled his shoulders against the stones to ease the tension from his muscles, the effort, though, not nearly as effective as Catherine’s touch. He loosened the laces of the leather bag, tipped out the ivory rose. The velvet of it warm in his palm, he allowed the memory of Catherine’s tender ministries to flood his mind.
He woke himself, startled by his own deep, fluttery sigh. His eyes adjusted; he peered through the splintered gap. There Martin sat, half in the shadows, the flute silent athwart his knees. Vincent closed his fingers over the rose, though not before a sliver of moonlight lit the petals.
“Don’t be afraid. I know you’re there.” Martin’s voice was low, gentled by his rich, sweet brogue.
He froze; his pulse hammered loud in his ear. He could be away in moments, down the steps, through the gates. I should ...
“It’s all right. I’m a friend. Well, I’d like to be. Are you hurt?”
“No,” he answered, his voiced reply a whispery surprise even unto himself.
“I can help you. Let me, please.”
“I am well. I need nothing.”
“Are you cold? Or needing a place to sleep tonight … indoors? ”
“No,” Vincent repeated. “I have a home.”
“There’s cold chicken left from my supper,” Martin persisted. “Or I could get you a fry up, should you’d fancy something hot.”
“I’ve eaten, but thank you.” He gathered his legs beneath him. “I should go.”
“Don’t go. Come out with you. This is a church. A haven. You’re safe here.”
“No, I … can’t.”
“The door … I’ll help you get it open.”
He counted back. Four no’s, one implied. He couldn’t manage another.
“We could sit, then, just like this, yes?” Martin petitioned. “In a companionable silence as they call it. Or … you might tell me how you enjoyed the music.”
In the fallen hush, he could hear the rasp of Martin’s breathing, a high, fine crackle hidden in it. He rose and shifted toward escape.
“Ah, well.” The chair groaned with a settled weight. “Tonight, I was practicing dance music for a céilí, a little house party in the neighborhood. But you’ve heard the sad songs too, on other nights.”
Surprise trumped caution. “You knew I was here … other nights?”
“‘Tis my business to know when someone’s on the other side of a wall. I’ve forty-odd years of practice after all, hearing what people say and don’t say.”
“You’re a priest?”
“You’d see that. Most would.”
Away, instinct demanded, but he stepped closer to the door. “What do you mean?”
“The collar, the expectations … but I am only a man. I work. I worry. I dream. I … remember.
“I love,” Martin agreed. “Indeed, I do.”
“I was here,” Vincent said. “Last night. When you spoke with the man … Flynn. I know his story.”
“I’m not surprised. It was in all the newspapers and is again today, I saw. He is a rare man. A champion who suffers for his greatest strengths, born to it, shaped and weighted by its requirements.”
“His own expense counts for little.”
Vincent counted three deep breaths between them.
“His story resonates with you,” Martin ventured. “Were you a soldier?”
“No.” The stone in his voice was colder, harder, older than the barrier wall between them. He left no room. No room. And now, he would leave.
But through that wall, Martin reached for him, turning him as surely as if he’d called him by name, touched him. “Then will you return to the subject of my music. I’ve worn out my usual audiences and can wring no more commentary from them. A performer lives for response, you know. You’d be doing me a kindness.”
A kindness. Vincent smiled, a memory skidding in from childhood – Noah’s grandfather’s commandment. A mitzvah! One a day at least.
“Your music is truly beautiful, but often melancholy and full of loss.”
“We are the men that God made mad, for all our wars are merry and all our songs are sad.” 3
“G. K. Chesterton.”
“You know The Ballad of the White Horse? ‘Now that ‘tis a bit obscure. Fully impressed, I am.” There was a creak of metal, a hitching scrape, a distance closing. “My name is Martin,” he said, only inches from the door.
“Will you give me yours?”
The palest light glimmered up from the base of the stairs, the glow of his torch stabbed into a sheltered crevice there. He turned his back on any call to retreat.
“My name is Vincent.”
“Ah. Good. Vincent.” Martin said. “You’re real, then.”
“Did you think me otherwise?”
Martin chuckled and muffled a cough. “So you’ve found out our secret, one I’ve heard of only in stories. Tell me. What’s it like in there?”
“Inside this passageway?” He felt a subtle anticipation, a whisk of breeze in tender whirlwind about him.
“The priest here before me, old Seamus, told me he once traveled miles beneath this city, that he’d seen great waterfalls and swinging bridges and caverns studded with diamonds. He showed me the entrance to that world, a forgotten door in a dark closet off the sacristy. Then he pulled me through the the courtyard, whispering in my ear of the glories of below, here to this second door. I thought him quite mad, of course.”
“Did you not try the way yourself?” Seamus. The name sparked no memory of any Helper or friend.
“Oh, I’ve given them a hard rattle every now and then.” He laughed. “Well, being truthful, I’d have to admit to trying this one nearly every night for months after his storytelling. But the doors never budged. He must have barred them from the inside, though how he managed that is a secret he’s kept to this day. I’ve had no cause to break through. At most, I figured, I’d find a hallway full of the damp and the dark and spiders and maybe snakes, and I’d get only from that closet to this door in the end. I suppose there’ve been times when someone living here might have wanted out and about by other than the front door. But you, now … you’ve found the other way in. Will you tell me about it?”
Reprimand chimed in his ear. Your exposure confirms what was only a fantastic story. The risk, Vincent. The risk!
“It is …” he said, “best left secret.”
“And how did I know you’d be sayin’ that?”
“May I ask you a question, Martin?”
“‘Tisn’t yet a fair exchange, my new friend, but go on with you. Ask away.”
“Who is Lily?”
“Ah,” Martin said, his voice softening. “You’ve heard her name a few times, have you?”
Martin sighed. “How shall I begin? She was … is … cuisle mo chroí. The pulse of my heart.”
“You loved her deeply,” Vincent prompted.
“I loved her. The word seems inadequate. Have you known love, Vincent?”
“Was your love the kindest, the most beautiful, most precious person on earth?”
“Ach. She is, not was. You’re a lucky man.” Martin drew and released a long breath. “Her name … was Lillian Burke. She loved me once, but I was a fool.”
~ Illustration by Esther Wijnbeek ~
Chapter title: Amy Lowell. Dreams.
Opening Quotation: Lizette Woodworth Reese. A Violin at Dusk.
1. Amy Lowell. Azure and Gold.
2. a reference to I Carry Your Heart, Chapter 4: Visitor
3. G. K. Chesterton. The Ballad of the White Horse.
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