sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 13 ~ A Meteor of the Burning Heart
The wild-wood bluebell’s sweet ting-tings,
humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But I was a fool …
Martin’s pronouncement rang of loss, of finality. As if a great bell resonated, Vincent felt the long after-hum of recognition, a foreknowledge of the man’s story … a truth would be disputed, the undeniable denied. Was it all vanity – jealous, interpreting, withholding …
Or fear. Fear of incontrovertible deficiency.
“You’d have to hear something about me, about the boy I was,” Martin began.
At the hatchway, Vincent hesitated. Below beckoned, safety and escape a mere leap from the bottom of the old stone steps. Was it intuition to flee or habit or schooling? He sensed no menace. The risk of exposure already taken, he could neutralize any consequence in seconds … for good.
The man’s words were charms. He turned to the enchantment.
Inside the mural passage, if he stretched out both arms, he could touch either mossy wall, easily trace the framework of the ceiling. Confined by dampish stone, he was soon transported over ocean and rocky cliff, over green fields and boglands to the heights of Slieve Aughty, up the meandering blue ribbon of Lough Derg, through Ballyglass and Derryoober, Drumminnamucla, Caherlistrane. Magical-sounding places …
This place, too, he judged, settled again near the door.
“My mother’s last born, I was,” Martin was saying. “There were seven of us, three girls, then three brothers and ten years later, me, a sickly child, wracked with asthma. There in Rosturra, I was often kept home by the fire and the window while my mates ran to play.
“My mother’s was a hard life. She kept the garden and the fires and dug the peat herself, kept us mended and clean, baked the soda bread in the coals of the hearth. My Da was not afraid of work, happy enough he was to lay down beside it and sleep. But he could fiddle and knew all the old tunes. Ah, he did love music … almost as much as he loved the pub. Every evening, he’d strike out for the village, or to Woodford or sometimes go all the way to Portumna, anywhere there’d be music … music and drink. When I was old enough to walk on my own and well enough to do it, he would take me with him, Ma pleading to leave me home, railing that he tortured me with the smoke-filled rooms and the smell of whiskey, that he couldn’t be made to care that I’d cough and wheeze for his vice. But he needed a helper and I wanted out.
“He started me on the bodhrán so I could keep time for him, using the last of his pay to buy it. I remember my mother crying into the morning hours, begging God for a recipe to make soup from a goatskin drum.
“I’d pick up this man’s whistle off the table or that man’s flute and I learned to play along. One night when I was maybe eight or nine, a man came in with a squeeze box, the first I’d ever seen. His fingers flew over the buttons. I stared and stared at the thing, and he took me aside and showed me how to play it. He was Lily’s grandpa.”
Martin paused for breath, perhaps, Vincent thought, to wave the old smoke clear. “Do you have time for this story, Vincent? I can feel it growing over-long already.”
“I want to hear.”
“Are you sure you won’t come out? It goes against my grain to have you with no chair, no stout in hand while I natter on.” He paused again for a muffled cough.
“Don’t worry for me.”
“Is there a chair?”
“Go on, Martin. Please.” It was impossible not to smile.
“Well, then … where was I … ah, yes. Lily’s grandpa. It turned that Burkes lived in walking distance of me, just back of the hill and down the bog road around Turlough Hill. Ma would sniff whenever I said I was going over, but I wanted my lessons with Old Evan. Lily’s pa was Young Evan, though it would be years before I would meet him … or her.
“‘Twas about this time Ma started in on me with her dream. The last of my brothers had married and she had no priest in the family. That two sisters were nuns mattered not a whit. I owed her, she said. “Twas her duty to provide a servant of God, you see. I was her last hope.” Martin quieted and the city sounds rose – a car’s hesitation in a nearby street, a radio from an open window. “Is yours a quiet home, Vincent?”
Quiet? The tapping he supposed would be uncommon noise. Catherine had once objected to the constancy. “It is.”
“Mine was not. My parents fought. Their furies rattled the window panes. Ma was … disappointed. And it was true … Da would drink up whatever he managed to earn and then drink up the government dole. She would materialize on the stairs, take one look at him lurching through the door at midnight, my shoulder for his staff, and, crying, she’d fly to her room. He’d bang and rattle until she let him in and then … well …” Martin clicked his tongue. “Surely twice a month or more, he’d vow never to return to drink. ‘Hear me out, Missy,’ he’d cry. ‘I feel a great change coming. I’ll not be going to the pub again.’”
Vincent saw him, Da, a spread hand raised to heaven. “I heard you say that, my first night here,” he admitted. He tipped his head to the slatted doorway when Martin’s timbre softened.
“Did you now? Whenever I’m angry with myself, when I know I could be a better man, I make my father’s promise. He meant it, every time, though he was a wee bit short on the follow-through. I try to make good on it for him, though I do view the pub as a figurative and not a literal evil.” He chuckled and tsk-ed.
If he’d had a glass at hand, Vincent imagined, Martin would have taken a long draught. They both might.
“And so … one dark night, Da went out, leaving me home. They found him of a morning, drowned in a ditch of foul water. Stumbled in drunk, they said. This very concertina lay in its case in the high grass, safe and dry. Old Evan said Da traded his fiddle for it that night, for me, for my birthday. He’d have to’ve been well fluthered for that.” Martin shifted in his chair and hummed to himself, three chastising notes.
“But you wanted to hear about Lily and I do love to speak of her. I’ll get there, I promise. Ach, I could use a drink myself for all this talk of it and here I’m saving my allotment for the party tomorrow. But you, Vincent. Could I give you anything?”
Anything? He reached out, palmed the heavy lock. Could a man accepting of a voice within a rock wall assent to more?
Martin went on. “So it’s just me now with Ma in the house. Me sick half the time, gone for lessons the rest; her working to try to get me sponsored into seminary since we had no money. Only Maynooth would do, in Dublin. She made it her quest and she succeeded.
“Then … home on holiday, I was leaving Old Evan’s house, twenty-four years old and nearly through divinity school. A rickety cart pulled up and it was Young Evan driving. And then … an angel climbed out. Lily.”
For a moment, Martin’s memory was Father’s – of Margaret in a summer dress, stepping from a cab. For both of them … for himself, the coincidence of time and place had been guided by an unspeakably tender hand.1 In his niche in the corner, he rested his head against the stone.
“Red hair curled over her shoulders,” Martin said. “Down to her waist it was. Ivory skin like wedding satin. Her skirt tucked up, baring her knees with mud up to ‘em from the cart having stuck and her asked to get out and push. She laughed at me staring, and said something that I couldn’t hear for my heart pounding. And so we had the summer together.”
Martin laughed without humor. “We walked together, sat beneath the fairy trees, talked for hours about music and art and books and my … calling. She let me go on end over end for theology, which I loved and espoused and most certainly did not understand. But I was terrifically shy with her and not a little bit stupid. We never exchanged one kiss. I never even held her hand as close as she stood to me, no matter that I burned for her.” His voice trailed away on a whistled rasp.
“Lily played no instrument but she had a lovely voice. She would sing and I’d try to follow her on the flute, but I found it hard to breathe steady enough to play. Do you know how that is, Vincent?”
“I do.” Like trying to hold birds in your arms.
“Good. You’re still awake. Checking up, I was.” Martin sighed. “I learned to play a song that summer. Love at the Endings. ‘Tis a happy tune, but a contradiction. I played it tonight, in fact. I never gave a moment’s thought to the days passing, but the time came when I was to leave. It hit me then, what I’d be doing … doing without … if I carried through.
“I told her I’d give it up, begged her to marry me. But she said no, that I had to be sure, because I’d talked about it all those days and had been promised to it all those years. And there would be my mother, dead of shame on no road to heaven. And so I left for school. Twice that year, my sister bore me Lily’s secret letters. I had to read them and give them back. I wasn’t allowed dreams.
“Ma turned poorly that spring and I went home. Though Lily had tended to her, Ma dismissed her, railed against her even. She layered the poison shell around my heart, keeping me close for two days, voicing her requirements of me. But when I finally saw Lily, that shell shattered with love. She was all I wanted and I told her that. That day, under the hawthorn trees, I did kiss her. ‘Twas so, so sweet … and one of the two kisses I ever had from her.
“I vowed I’d meet her after I told my mother our news. You can imagine, can’t you, the wail and the gnash? I was my father made over, she said, sent from bloody hell to ruin her life. And at what would I try my hand, she asked, pointing out that I had no skills. And, oh, the humiliation I would heap and not just on her, but on Lily as well, known forever and wide as a drúth, the harlot who beguiled the priest.”
“But …” Vincent’s protest came years too late and was, he knew, a rutted repetition.
“Exactly, yes,” Martin agreed, and Vincent imagined him shaking his head, bewildered. “And even if I’d been further along, ‘twasn’t a sentence I’d be serving, free will and all that.” He sighed again. “The hour came when we were to meet. I walked to her. She put out her hand … and I hesitated.”
The birds burst from the curve of his arms. Their wild winging rushed and swirled and faded. Their hearts beat against his no more. The emptiness stung. “Is that the end?”
“The memory stuns me, Vincent. ‘Tis the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, yet I never want to lose it.2 You understand that feeling, don’t you, my new and secret friend?”
“But there is more,” Martin said. “She turned from me and picked her way over the rocky hillside. A ways down, she looked back. She gave me one more chance, but I was paralyzed. The embarrassment to her, my fears, the consequences … I believed I’d ruin two worlds, hers and my mother’s. How could that be love? She disappeared along the path and I was on the bus to Dublin that afternoon.
“Ma died late the next year. We buried her with the stole from my ordination vestments. Lily came to the funeral bringing Francis McDermott, a strapping lad home from America to sell the family farm, introducing me as her grandpa’s finest student. Only that now, I was. She gave me her hand and I took it this time. It was cool and soft and she was kind. She married him soon after and moved to New York.”
“Is that the end?”
“Yes and no, for life has a strange magic to it. Years passed. I was sent to a succession of tiny parishes along the western shore where the old music and language thrive. One sister and all my brothers moved to America, to New York, every one to this very neighborhood. One day I took a call. Two brothers were gravely ill. They wanted me to come and then I didn’t want to go back. It took proper begging and pleading family hardship, but I wrested a post at this church. My brothers and my sister lived within a few blocks.”
“But what of Lily?” There were two kisses, he remembered. The second one …
“Woodlawn was thriving Irish then. Lily lived here too. And I mean here, next door, within my arms’ reach. Francis had joined the police force and was advancing. She had two children after more than one miscarriage and a still birth. Francis was a fine husband, a loving father. She had good friends. She was happy. She told me this herself because … I was her priest.
“Then one fall day, I was raking leaves when a police car slowly rounded the corner and parked at her door. The officers settled their caps before they walked up, two abreast, and I knew … Francis had been killed. Her girls were fourteen and ten. Four years later, she came to me one glorious afternoon and told me very calmly of her cancer. She asked me to watch over her girls, see they had all they needed. Her last day on earth, she gave me her hand again, gave me her children … asked if she might kiss me.” Above his own, Vincent heard Martin’s dry swallow, a choked sob. “As if there were question. Then she was gone and I’m still here and not a day ends but I say to myself … if only.”
Wordless in his dark hideaway, Vincent spread his hands. In one, he still clutched his rose. Velvet it was, but made of some stronger stuff; it marked his palm. At the sight of it, its faint gleam in the low, low light, gratitude weakened his knees.
“Ahhh, Vincent. Thank you for your ear. A sad tale it is, and I’m somehow eased by the telling, something I don’t … do. But will you take advice from such a foolish man?”
“We’re given gifts in this life, my friend. Precious, fleeting gifts. When she holds out her hand, ‘tis rude not to take it. And so …” Martin said, his changed tone signifying a treasure returned to its sacred place. “‘Tis like buying a round, taking a turn. Surely you’ll give me a story now.”
“A story?” Vincent sagged against the wall. Catherine. Her words in his memory … I’m not afraid. If not for her will and mettle, her tenacity, his might have ended as Martin’s. If only …
“Something about you, where you live perhaps. Your home? Is it far from here?”
His enclosure came into focus, palely lit through gaps in the planked door by insistent light – street lamps and the moon – and by his torch still burning a level below. “It is at some distance,” he allowed.
“Will you go there tonight? Does someone wait for you; is she worried?”
Vincent tested the glassy river of their bond. “She … misses me.”
“You say that with some surprise. Is this love new to you?”
“Yes. And no.”
“Giving me back my own words, are you? You are a man of great mystery, indeed.”
“It’s complicated. Inexplicable. Forgive me, Martin. I cannot say more.”
“I have one more question for you, Vincent. May I?”
“I’ll answer if I can.”
“Will you come back?”
“To this place?” He could hear Father’s reply to that … seal it, leave it, or risk … everything. “Yes,” he said, certain that he would.
“Good. Good. The hour grows late. Are you sure …?”
“I must go.” He pushed away from the wall. Mouse could guess his whereabouts, he believed, as might Damien, but he’d been out of reach far too long. He stood at the door, his hand to it. He wanted to trust, needed to. “Martin?”
“You’re not to worry,” Martin said. “Your visit will be our secret, should anyone believe me anyways, and I’ll assume you’ll leave the doors locked as always.” Martin’s squeeze box groaned to life. “Here. I’ll play you away.”
A dancing song began and Vincent stepped down into the stairwell, pulling the trap door closed behind him. The music covered the quiet click of the latch and followed him, befriended him, along the winding way to camp.
* * *
Lily? Martin silently questioned the stars. Did you send him to sit with me in the night, to bring that story out of my heart’s locked box? A man surely, but with the voice of an angel, a soul whisperer. Is there some truth I need to see myself? A dark messenger with pale wing? The fairies at midnight?
With a deep sigh, he rose from his chair to test the latch, finding it still fast. “I’ve been listening long to your girl, Lily, to your glimmerin’ girl … and about that very thing, believing then, believing now. Until tomorrow night, my love, until then …
* * *
“Vincent!” Mouse popped up from a crouch at the outskirts of camp. “You’re late! Your watch, ages ago. Waited for you. Worried about you.”
My turn at watch … I fell asleep; I gave away my presence. I forgot my duties. “I’m here now, Mouse. I’m sorry. Am I truly very late?”
“Only a little. Not like you though.” Mouse peered at him, a question in his eyes. “Want me to stay with you?”
“Go on to bed. You’ll need your rest for tomorrow.”
“I’ll be fine.” He urged Mouse along with gentle pressure on his shoulder. “His name is Martin,” Vincent said to his retreating form. “Lily is a lost love. Missy is his mother.”
Mouse whirled. “You found out! How?”
“I spoke to him.”
“Talked?” Mouse trotted back. “Tell!”
“Tomorrow, while we work.”
“Promise.” He considered, then plunged ahead. “Would you ask my relief to come a little early tonight, perhaps an hour early?”
“Sure, Vincent.” Mouse shrugged. “We pitch in.”
He took his sentry position, armoring himself against sleep. From a ledge, he retrieved a book, one Mouse had left behind, open and face down. (Sacrilege, Father would surely grouse.) He turned a page and then another, chuckling at the discovery. A surprise and yet not. Mouse could have written the lines himself.
Sun sets, bell sounds, the mist.
Headwind on the road, the going hard.
Evening sun at cold mountain.
Horses tread men’s shadows. 3
And there was a marker, a folded note with his name scratched across it.
Father sent a message. Catherine visited tonight.
She is well. She misses you.
Chapter Title: William Butler Yeats, The Indian to His Love. 1889.
Opening Quotation: Charlotte Mew, The Changeling. 1913.
1. Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet. 1903.
2. William Wordsworth. Surprised by Joy. 1807.
3. Ching-an. Over King Yu Mountain with a Friend. from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: the Buddhist Poet Monks of China. 1998.
Love At the Endings Reel performed by Brid Harper and Harry Bradley (youtube).
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