sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 19 ~ What Outweighs the Heaviest Night
How I desired a torch
and you gave me a candle saying
this is all you need.
“I have so much to tell you.”
Their words came as one voice, none the throaty echo of another, a chorded chime.
“A story you’ll hardly believe.”
Again, in unison, in harmony.
“I wanted you
“I felt you
For a long moment, clasped arm in arm, in awed concert, they … beheld … each other.
He pressed her hands to his heart, its throb both constant and kindled. His quickened breath paced hers. In the blue mirror of his eyes – truly, she believed, not simply reflected – she could see herself. Almost as if we were one.
She tightened her hold, capturing fabric and his fingers in her grip. “I– I think I need to sit down.”
“I won’t let you fall.”
He bent to her and she arched against his steady hand spread warm at the small of her back. His kiss was confident and deep. On her tongue was the taste of amber honey, and from his hair, from the hollow of his throat, a heated scent rose, spiced cream and shaved wood. Mine. My lover. My life. She would follow the curve of him wherever he might lead, even to his darkest river at the ends of his earth. She would never give him up.
He pulled back, his raw need exposed.
She brushed his cheek with her fingertips. I see you, Vincent. I know you.
My delight and thy delight, he might have whispered …1
… and the wide world rolled away. 2
The sounds of the midnight city dared not return, but its lights – the humming street lamps, the golden-glowing windows, the signage … glass tubes of noble gasses – dissolved to starry mists and rose around them, soared to dance the sky … glimmering shining arcs and bands, a marvel of emerald, sweeps of rose and violet and blue … a flaring borealis.
Where everything shimmers and floats
The same winged energy blazed in her breast … Am I floating? … an exquisite pleasure without beginning or end, without origin or design … Love, a place, and Yes, a world …She merged bone to bone with him, vein to vein, the dark red blood of their marrows returned to one heart. And in this world of Yes we live …3
With a sound both ragged sigh and muted roar, he broke from her, gasped for breath.
She dropped her forehead to his lapels.
“Was that … ”
“Our bond, Catherine. In concurrence. Our … attunement.”
“It was so strong, like a great wave closing over us. But we could still breathe. We could breathe, Vincent, and we were breathing pure joy. Then the colors … and the light … and then we became light …” She looked up at him. “Is … is that how it is for you? Always? How … how do you manage?”
“I know it best when we’re … together,” he murmured. “I feel a lessening of boundaries and there’s a vibration, a celestial hum in my ear. Something stirs between us … because of us … some essential unnameable force; the deepest secret no one knows seems near.” He brushed back her hair, cupped her cheek. His thumb traced her lips. “It’s very beautiful, always, our … joining. But this was … more than that. ”
“Do you think– Will it happen again?”
“I hope so.”
“Why tonight? Why now, Vincent? Something’s … different.”
“As if a great presence is moving nearby, spiraling us toward a magical place?”
“Yes! I’ve had that very thought! How–”
“The heart feels things the eyes cannot see, Catherine, and knows what the mind cannot understand.”4
Her head tucked beneath his chin, his embrace was a solid comfort. The night’s music reasserted itself — the low drone of traffic, the distant melody of laughter. Settled again to their nests, doves cooed in the eaves.
Her arms went around his waist, tight with appeal.
“I wish we were home.”
Close to her ear, a dusky accord … “As do I.”
“Take me below. Love me,” she added, in case he’d missed the nuance of the word. Her hands roved over his hips. Evidenced in the artery of his neck, his pulse hammered.
“Below,” she repeated. “Now.” Her urgency was a torch, a thirst. Minutes, Vincent. Oh, God, seconds – that’s all we need. If she moved his hand to her breast, if he only wedged his thigh between hers …
He panted out his protest. “I will not … take you … against a stone wall, Catherine.”
“You have before.”
He pulled her closer; his haunches tensed, and when she stroked the ridged muscles, he gulped. Audibly.
“But that was our wall,” he managed.
It was impossible not to smile.
His voice wavered, his willpower similarly struggling, she imagined. She could win this one if she tried. But he’d made exquisite good on his previous whispered promises of “later”, and if, with enough time and pillows and candlelight, what they’d just experienced might be re-experienced …
“Well, then, if nothing else … I’m staying with you tonight, Vincent. In camp.”
“There’s no privacy.”
She shrugged and wedged her fingers in his back pockets.
“The facilities are … rudimentary. We sleep on the ground,” he persisted. “And I have last watch.”
Last watch. Responsibilities. His … and hers to take second to them, with grace. For a moment, she’d allowed herself to forget why he was even here. For a moment, all the world had seemed theirs alone.
“Is that all you’ve got? Surely you won’t argue with me, not after …” She raised her brows, mustering as much release as she could in a playful look. Release, for now, anyway.
“No …” he said on jittery breath. “No, I won’t argue. Just … let’s not go yet. You … we both … have stories to share.”
He led her to a corner of the rooftop. Only four floors above the street, but no neighboring buildings rose higher – no windows on their world; no watchers on whose sanction they’d dare rely. There, within the parapet wall, an embellishment of concrete and bricks framed a small enclosure, a recess made cozy with cushions he pulled from a lidded metal bin.
“Aniela and Damien come here … to talk,” he explained before she could ask.
A shiver of envy skimmed her shoulders.
“Are you cold, Catherine?” He motioned to the bin. “There’s a quilt …”
“I’m all right,” she said, sinking to the brace of pillows, holding out her hand in invitation. “Is that Aniela’s van parked out front? I’ve nearly blocked her in.”
“She’ll not be leaving tonight.” He settled beside her and in deliberate succession touched a kiss to each knuckle. “And they’ll not be coming above,” he said, between brushes and grazes and the utterances she couldn’t contain. “I heard their check-in on the pipes. They’ve gone for a … walk.”
His attentions burned deep, though she quivered as if he trailed ice between her breasts. He had once, only to capture the droplets left behind with his mouth. “To talk,” she rasped out.
Molded to him, half-turned, she found the sweet niche of his shoulder.
With a flicker of promise, of paradise, in his eyes, he drew her close.
“I’ve missed you,” she said.
“These days apart … these nights …” He brushed hungering lips across her palm and her wrist, caught her skin in his teeth. “… are too long,” he whispered against her pulse. “But this moment, our now, is all that matters.”
Luminous, the aurora flashed again behind her closed eyes. Against his chest, she rode the slow pitch and surge of his breath, counted the beats of his constant heart … nineteen, twenty.
“How should we start? I’ll need hours for everything, but I only want to hear your voice.”
Long minutes passed before he replied.
“What I have to tell you, Catherine, is more of a … confession.”
A confession? In her old life, the word would have triggered a flag of caution, what would follow surely to bring her disappointment if not pain, too often sad decisions to make. But in this life, their life … confessions were truths unveiled, bared. Opportunities.
He knew, didn’t he? Each discovery, each admission only strengthened them.
“Tell me,” she whispered.
Through four deep breaths, he searched the night sky, parted his lips to speak and bit back the words. Then …
“Damien came to me asking for advice, advice regarding Aniela and their relationship.”
“Did that surprise you?”
“That he, that anyone, would see me as one with insight into the course of love? Yes, it was – is – a surprise.”
“What did you tell him?”
“He was worried – about her life above and his below, how the two worlds might meld. I encouraged him to be honest, to control his jealousy, to refrain from the unilateral decision …” He drifted away in thought and after a moment, Catherine sat up. She stroked his set jaw, coaxing free his next hoarse words. “I suggested he listen when she speaks, that he neither question nor interpret, but believe her … the first time.”
He huffed in exasperation and threw his head back. Her heart constricted with the distress that pulled at his tender mouth. “I am … a hypocrite. A young man sought my wisdom and I delivered a hollow speech, the very words I’ve forced you to repeat at my stubborn ear.” His gaze bored into hers. “I tried your patience, Catherine, almost overlong.”
“Only almost, Vincent.”
The muscle in his jaw flexed. “Once, months ago, I asked you … I asked how you could even look at me.”
“You answered, because you knew me. You stood with me, unflinching, bearing such pure light on my most loathsome features. And I … I made you go.”
“I shouldn’t have, no matter what you wanted … or said you wanted.” She blinked away tears.
“You will not bear a shred of guilt, Catherine. I won’t accept it from you. I’ve done you a terrible injustice. No. No protests. I must finish.” He turned her face to his with the tips of his fingers and grazed her cheek with his nails. “I placed an impossible burden on you, convinced myself it was your acceptance of me, of what I am … and what I am not … that stood between us and a life together. And though I required your assurances time and time again, I deemed them naive and you … blind, believing you would, one day, see me standing, bloody and snarling, eternally, miserably apart from you …”
His voice shuddered away; his chest heaved.
“… and be glad of our distance. That I would … finally … frighten you, frighten you to tears not of compassion, but of terror. And then you would leave.
“And so … I left. More than once I retreated to the prison of those fears. In my mind, I keep that door barred and locked shut, but behind it … a demon paces and shouts and rattles chains I forged years and years ago, chains in which I’ve had little confidence. But you were patient with me. You, Catherine, too often alone with your faith, with your undrawn limits. You persevered; you beckoned me forward, yet I was convinced I waited for you. Balanced at your own edge, reaching to save me … you brought me from the depths of my solitude, held my head above the black waters, mixed a morning breeze with my midnight …”
He looked down at her, quieted; his eyes glistened. But he wasn’t finished.
“It wasn’t courage; it was love. You said that once, early on.”
“Don’t be afraid to want it. Do you remember saying that?
“I remember everything, Vincent.”
“I do want it … this … us. I have from our very beginning. Any reticence I offered, every denial … disrespected you. I made the very unilateral decisions I counseled Damian against.” He shook his head, touched a finger to her lips quelling the absolution she would have offered. “There in the Chamber of the Falls, you told me you weren’t afraid of what this …” He clutched her hand, drew it close. “… requires. But I couldn’t believe you. Wouldn’t. I insisted – then, later, for too long – on a listing of those fears, when you … you only wanted hope.”
“You’re not afraid now … to want.” A declaration, no hint of question.
“No, I … I trust myself … with you.”
“And the darkness? Do you trust … that … too.”
Her question was met with knitted brows, a downturn of mouth.
“I suspect my origins, Catherine. And my madness lies in ravines glutted with blood and mystery … I have such terrible remorse for what I’ve done, for all you’ve seen me do, yet, each time, if I’d not acted …”
A lightness bloomed in his features; his lips parted in a sharp inhalation, a sustained exhale …
“Perhaps … my darkness feeds on my refusal. I’ve visited that chained door again, laid my face to it. My fears … wrapped in all we will never know … still prowl there, but if I no longer deny that part of me, if I can give that darkness … recognition … respect … then, perhaps, it will cease to be my Other, and that which manifests in this face, in these hands, all that I cannot name, will end its warring within me.”
“If pain for peace prepares …” she said. “If springs from winter rise …”5
He chuffed and smiled down at her, cupped her cheek.
“Don’t be afraid to deserve it. You deserve everything … You said that, too. And I want to believe you; I will, I promise. Because you … you … deserve everything, everything I am and can be.”
He drew in a long breath, sighed it away.
“Since I was a boy,” he went on, “I’ve believed I was broken, convinced I would always be, no matter what I did or thought or felt.”
I can change that, Vincent, to an old story you no longer have to tell yourself.
He leaned closer. “From this moment on, I vow to ferret out the fears I harbor, face them, respect them.”
“With me.” Please.
“I couldn’t otherwise.”
His last words were murmured at the corner of her mouth, sweeter than any kiss …
“I’m ready for you, Catherine. Finally, ready.”
Her thoughts were a tumult. Your shadow is a necessary warrior, ageless, instinctive. You are worthy. You are good. You are enough. I love you. Her most fervent desires flared — to heal even his smallest hurt, to dress each wound with her most tender ministrations, to lay him back, to smooth his tangled hair, console him, cool him with the balm of her touch. The ravaged terrain of all he bore, for years so alone, unrecognized …
The chains fall; the doors open. We embrace our life. We triumph. We exult.
Still wordless, she met his gaze. It’s true, isn’t it … in silence love knows its freest passage.
“Say nothing, Catherine. Nothing.”
Cradled against him, within their intimate communion still and warm … she might rest forever, but voices from the sidewalk below and a grind of brakes from the intersection returned the softened world to a sharper focus.
“How are things going below?” she asked.
“I’m too far from you, Catherine. I miss everything. How quickly I’ve come to expect you in my arms … in my bed. This separation …” He broke off, pressing his cheek to her crown. “But that’s not what you’re asking.”
A halting exhale flurried her hair.
“Our days are long,” he said. “We’re uncomfortable and the food is plain, the work intense. To keep everyone centered, to remind them of the imperative of the work without ratcheting their fears is … difficult. We don’t know exactly who we must defend against, and this makes us anxious. Anxious workers can become irritable; tempers will flare. Distraction will beckon but can lead to mistakes. Mistakes will make us even more anxious.”
He tipped his head as if listening to a clamor below. His heartbeat thudded at his wrist, a tattoo against her hand. She loosed from his grip, brought his palm to her lips. As a wave might crest and glide to shore, he sighed, deeply and long.
“You know we’ve split the crews,” he went on. “We’ll make better progress, but now I cannot watch over everyone as I should. Father is left almost alone with the care of the community. It weighs on him, that he must stay behind.”
“He’s growing older. More and more, he’ll shift responsibilities to you.”
A silent beat passed. “Yes. I made a promise.”
A promise compassionately offered, she countered inwardly, not necessarily binding.
A hazy specter hovered at the edge of memory. Was that looming likelihood what weighed on him so after Winterfest? What took him so deep within the earth, within himself. Away from me? 6 Part of it is resolved, she’d assured Father, and while true, he’d told her far less than she’d surmised. Interpreted. She cordoned away that avenue of thought. There would be a time to lay this bare between them, but it was not now.
“And then,” she said instead, “there is Kanin.”
“Yes, Kanin, who’s tried everyone’s patience. There’ve been times I’ve wanted to pin him to the wall in frustration. He stands to lose everything, with this … test … he administers. He lays up a barricade of stones and dares us to care enough knock them down. One night, in Woodlawn Cemetery amid those grand, cold mausoleums, we spoke of forgiveness, of its true gift. Around us was proof that life is too soon over, that an end will come and we’ll have no more chances to make things right. I thought … hoped …” He shook his head and sighed again.
“Olivia asked that we take Luke and Althea as our own should something happen to her.”
“Althea. So she’s chosen a name.” His eyes misted. “She’s losing hope.”
“I don’t want to believe that.”
“If he doesn’t change, if he won’t face the whole of himself, the mortar he’s spread will set. Olivia will not wait forever; she will provide for her children. One day, another man will come. He will love her, protect her, and Kanin’s children will call that man Father. It seems so … wasteful. And now he’s taken himself beyond our tunnels, disappeared across the perimeter in search of more than just … information.”
“What do you mean?”
She frowned throughout his telling.
“You’ve heard nothing from him?”
“Are you desperately worried?”
“Yes, but I’m exhausted by him. And when he does return …”
“You’re not sure whether to kiss him or deck him?”
He chuckled and caressed her shoulder.
Good, she thought. He was not lost to worry – she’d trust that he trusted Kanin’s care and caution and eventual return. “Are you sleeping at all, Vincent?”
“I need little sleep. You know that.”
“You need some. And I think you need something else …”
“Every moment with you, Catherine, is Paradise, no matter where we are.” Shifting his shoulders against the bricks, he stretched his legs straight. “Enough of me for now. Now you … your story.”
I will never have enough of you. “You are so beautiful, Vincent.”
“What you see in me is the only the reflection of the beauty inside you.”
“You said something like that to me once, in a dream.” She teased the corner of his mouth. “This is better.”
“Your story,” he urged.
“How to begin …” She drew herself up, tucked her legs. “I wanted you with me. All day. There were times I was sure you were close. I … I thought, I believed I heard your voice.”
“I sensed your excitement, Catherine. Once, I felt something almost miraculous had happened to you, that you had seen or heard something that changed you …”
“I tried to be open to you. There were so many surprises. Strange and thrilling coincidences. And yet, it all seemed predestined.”
“Yes! Like it was meant to be.” Her fingers laced, she tapped knuckles to her chin. Images rushed her memory, welled and overflowed. “I had breakfast with Jenny this morning in the Village …”
“At The Den? Did you have the french toast as usual?”
“Yes … but, hush, that’s not important. Then we went to Eimear’s sister’s shop. Her name is Rosaleen … Rosie. You know, where I found the geode sculpture? Well, Jenny bought a mirror there for Ned, who reminds me of someone, I just can’t think who. Her new boyfriend,” she interjected before he could interrupt again. “Later, after Jenny left, we went upstairs to Rosie’s apartment, for tea, and I saw her photographs, a whole wall of them, these huge prints. She had one of Zach, Vincent. Of Zach maybe three years ago. Of Zach in an alley nose to nose with an orange cat Rosie had followed through the streets for hours. I couldn’t believe it. And then she told me an incredible story and asked me a question and when I answered, she showed me a marble sculpture that somehow you must see. And then I went to a party …”
“At Eimear’s house. Eimear’s and Flynn’s.”
“How did you know that?”
“There was music, beautiful music, fiddles and drums and flutes. And dancing. You stepped on Neal’s toes and dashed his hopes.”
“I heard Martin describe the twin flame. I heard you declare yourself … as mine, Catherine, connected through all time by the blue-silver chord. I heard you share our story.”
“Martin! You know his name? How–” she repeated. She drew back, stared at him full-faced. “You can’t read my mind.” A statement. “Can you?”
“I was there, Catherine.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me show you.”
He pulled her to her feet, stashed the cushions they’d shared. She followed him to the rooftop door, stumbling in astonishment. The rest of her story – his story, truly – danced to be told, but this revelation seemed part of it.
Inside the stairwell, a bare yellow bulb dangled from a long cord, casting more shadows than light upon the waffled-metal treads. He led her down four flights to a basement, past a stash of Aniela’s stonemason tools, to a secret door in the exposed brick, down and down and down again, and over the unimagined bridge.7
* * *
“We’re not far,” he assured her. His stride was long but she’d set the pace. Her intensity had come in waves – Hurry! and Faster!
“Mouse found the passage? Was it on the map you gave him?”
“It was not. He was distracted by the sound of music and didn’t finish his mission, and how glad I am for it. I almost gave Mouse another task, set him on another route … but something gave me pause.”
“Before today, I’d have said I can’t believe it. When?”
“A tunnel entrance? A passage within the church wall? That’s what’s behind that old door?”
“Martin said the old priest there had traveled beneath the city, but he’d thought him daft.” He paused for thought. “Not too daft, I suppose, since he didn’t seem surprised I was there.”
Digging in her heels, she tugged him to a stop. “Wait. What? Did you just say … Martin said? Does that mean …”
“Yes. Friday night. His music was beautiful and lively but I was tired. I fell asleep. He … discerned me, called out to me. Thinking I was homeless and hungry and holed-up, he offered me chicken left from his supper and a real bed for the night, sight unseen. He seems a very kind man.”
“He’s that. But, Vincent! You spoke to him?”
Her tone was both incredulous and proud. She sounds just like Father.
Well, like Father sometimes sounds. “I had to. ‘Twould be rude to not.”
She squealed. “You did! Tell me exactly what happened. Don’t leave anything out.”
She’d started down the tunnel, her demand tossed over her shoulder. With an impatient wave, she motioned him to catch up.
Capturing her hand, he purposefully slowed their approach. “It’s just ahead.”
He rounded the corner and slipped into the crevice. A lantern hung just inside the opening. He lit the wick, deliberate, taking his time with the match and the mantle and the speckled globe, watching her expression shift from delight to bewilderment. They walked in its shimmer to the first iron gate and through to what seemed a stony end.
“Mouse made me search for the secret door. See if–” Even in the dimness, he saw her eyes flash a warning. “Never mind. I’ll show you. Here.” He manipulated the hidden lever, rotated the shackle, and the wall swung wide, revealing the last narrow corridor – passage to the cellar … and then the stairs.
For a moment, neither moved and both held their breath, then he turned to her and smiled. Once, he might have scoffed, but no more, not after Winterfest, because here … yes … he could hear it still, just beyond the silence.
Chapter title: Rainer Maria Rilke. Duino Elegies. The Third Elegy.
Opening Quotation: Karen Donovan. Testimony Concerning Diatoms.
- Robert Bridges. My Delight and Thy Delight.
- Stephen Crane. Should the Wide World Roll Away.
- e e cummings. Love is a Place.
- Attributed to Robert Vallett.
- Emily Dickinson. If Pain for Peace Prepares.
- explored in I Carry Your Heart, the first story in this arc.
- Rainer Maria Rilke. Uncollected, untitled poem. Translated by Edward Snow. 1924.
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