sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 20 ~ A Process in the Weather of the Heart
There, on the backs of the leaves
in a breeze beneath the sky
lay the answer I had been searching for
without knowing it until I saw it as a color
instead of a word:
Two bold steps beyond the threshold, a tentative third …
She’d followed Vincent into the cellar he’d described, thinking herself … prepared. After all, after everything, she’d loosened her grip on her certainties. Had not the day already moved beyond mere coincidence?
But … how can this be? The two of us … drawn to this one place, to these same people, at this moment? The threads of all their lives seemed pulled as one.
The blue-silver chord.
Her sense of wonder enlarged … in equal measure astonishment and anticipation. The cellar room required another designation, she determined. Once, perhaps, as cool and dark as it was, it had held preserves on its ledges, bins and baskets of potatoes and cabbages and carrots on the floor. Was it then – was it always – a secret tunnel entry? It seemed to her more. An antechamber, a vestibule, a gateway … a bridge between one land of dreams and another
At the base of the stairs, Vincent lowered the lantern to a niche of rock, turned for her. Its glow haloed him, seeming a more inward light.
He held out his hand and their limits retreated further into shadow.
The white and radiant ring in which they danced widened.
“I’m … I’m a little scared,” she admitted. He tilted his head in silent question. “Of what this could mean, what might happen now.”
He chuffed and smiled, drew her closer. “When I was a boy, my teacher, Marguerite, wrote out a poem for me … well, for each of her students. Different verses or the same? I never knew. To be read on New Year’s Eve. I kept mine for years, folded, inside the front cover of my yearly journal. Eventually the paper softened and the pencil blurred, and one January I forgot to transfer it to my new diary, but the words come back to me now. They speak to your feeling … and to mine.”
“Thy fate is seeking thee, it began. Fear not! Fear not! … Nor anxious question the great master plan; as, how ’t will end, or why it this way ran. Or what means these strange lines a-gleam of late …Vex not thyself with question. Work and wait.” 1
He drew in … and released a cleansing breath. “I’m only now …” he murmured, “just now … beginning to believe, to accept … to do the work.”
He brought their clasped hands to his heart, which thumped and hammered in concert with hers. “There’s a small landing this side of the churchyard door … with room for us both,” he promised. “Shall we?”
The iron gate’s hidden latch surrendered to his touch. He started up the steep steps, taking two in a single, powered stride, but she stopped him with a whispered appeal.
“Vincent … what you heard … the man … Neal. I would never … never …”
Stock-still above her on the stairs, his expression was as solemn as she’d ever seen it. She couldn’t bear if he were hurt. Neal, Flynn, his brothers Jack and Darragh … she’d danced with them. Laughed. Enjoyed them. Friendly and confident, handsome men, they’d barely registered. There’d be no more Elliots. Even Elliot had never really been …
He held her gaze as he descended. She stood fast. He has to know.
But she’d needed to say.
“Make no apology, Catherine.” With both hands he cradled her face, his thumb light against her lips. “Our love, this life … the separating secret. The questions from your friends will mount with time, perhaps causing a rift unmendable with less than the truth. All you sacrifice, the balance you manage with such grace … I’ve no insight to help you brave it. I only ask that you do.”
I ask. Simple words. Words she’d once longed for, standing at another gate. A decision, she’d called it then. And I need your help. But it had been a slanted truth.
Ask me, she’d meant. I need you to ask me to stay.
I only ask. The plea, the petition, a prayer – words long icebound, now melted, a spring freshet. He asks … and there was a flourishing, an increase, a change. His embrace was fierce and tender and rich with promise. They were never giving up.
He worked the trap door free and they climbed out and then she was on the landing, with him within the wall. Insistent moonlight through the slats of the narrow door tempered the darkness.
“We’re alone,” he whispered, his ear to the stone.
He turned and spread his hands. “Here. I sat here and was carried to a far-off land by Martin’s music. I held out your rose … my rose … and it seemed to glow from within. Catherine …” He took her in his arms again, in a quiver of muscle and breath. “This convergence in our lives is an exquisite mystery. I find no beginning; I cannot see the way ahead of us. That it is … that it exists for us, is all that matters.”
And yet there was more, more than even this.
“Exquisite … That’s the very word Eimear’s sister used, Vincent. The word she used to describe you.”
He blinked and took a step back. His chest rose and fell in a hitching rhythm; his brow knitted.
“I told you, barely, before … Rosie showed me a sculpture, one she’s been working on in a way since she was ten years old. But first she asked me a question, and after I answered, she told me a story. It was her story, but it was yours too, Vincent. Yours. The first time you saw the moon …”
The recounting had not been meant for her ears, or even Devin’s, though he’d never forgotten the night. Beside him on the stone circle, frozen with him, listening, she’d seen the memory cloud his eyes – of Vincent’s suffered unfairness and more – his own helplessness to protect his younger brother, to prevent a second occurrence … a third, the tenth. Later, when Charles and Devin were gone, she’d wished only to soothe the bruising, yet at her ventured word, Vincent put his hand on hers and, with a look, closed the subject away. But now … now!
“And the little girl in the park,” he finished, his words uneven and thick.
She pressed her palm to his heart and beneath felt his efforts to steady his breathing – a long inhale, a pause, a longer expelling. “Yes,” she said. “The little girl in the park. A girl no older than you who believed desperately in fairies, who believed she could photograph them.”
“Like Elsie and Frances … the Cottingley fai–”
“Yes, like them.” Pressing her fingers to his lips, she hushed him. “Years ago, Rosie was at the park, near the lagoon, and Eimear too, and their mom and dad. It was midnight and the moon was full, she said. She waited at the foot of a particular tree for the fairies to come out and when they didn’t, when her parents insisted on leaving, Vincent, when her father’s car made the big curve away from the lake, she was looking back, afraid she’d just missed the most magical thing. She saw some boys slip from the shadows of the woods as if they’d been waiting for her to go, and then … then she saw you, alone in a clearing, in the moonlight. And she did start to cry, but not because she was frightened or sad. Because you were so beautiful … Exquisite, she said. She thought you were an angel, her own rescuing angel sent to save her from disappointment, from the loss of her dreams. Later, at home, she was sent straight to bed, but her father came in to say goodnight. He sat down beside her and took her hand and told her to keep looking, that she would see things others can’t or won’t, and of everything she’s done since, Vincent, everything, you’ve been a part.”
* * *
Across time, he was in the park again. The night was brilliant. The grass glinted with the diamond dew; his shadow whirled with him, black and long. And then … a noise that shouldn’t have been, not this late. He froze, still full of joy. A motor … a car’s passing … a little girl his own age, but beyond him, out of reach, her face in the rear window lit by a moonbeam so bright he could see the sepia freckles sprayed across her cheeks. Her eyes welled with tears. Again. Again he knew the doubling blow – the abandon he’d enjoyed curtailed, the wonder of all things reduced to a bitter word. Why?
Catherine’s voice tugged at his precious keepsake – She said something to you. Did you know? She wasn’t sad or sorry for you. She was overcome but not with fear. See it, Vincent. How it really was! – yet he clung to it, loved it still. The pain was imperious and costly, but so intimate, so smooth – it fit him – not his first hurt, but the worst, a terrible, shattering, isolating hurt.
“Vincent!” she demanded, though her call rose barely above a whisper. “Look at me! We went to her studio and outside, to her workspace. The sculpture – white marble, perfect white marble with even whiter veins. An angel, one of the Grigori, and there’s a woman in his arms and he’s looking at her. The angel … his face is your face. You have to see it, Vincent. Somehow, you must see it.”
Like chestnuts of blue coal tossed into a pile, the old torments lay banked in a corner of that guarded room, the marrow of his mind. He approached with habitual dread, but found the nuggets oddly loose in the heap, scattered, their numbers reduced. Reaching deep within the mound, he found the sad souvenir – still there – and closed on it. So small … yet it held a stinging edge.
He doubled his fist until the knuckles paled. You must see it. Truly see it. Her determination, the purposed repetition, kneaded at his stubbornness. Prying at his fingers, she coaxed his hand open. With her kiss pressed into his palm, the sooty shard was changed – winking with crystal clarity, a diamond now. A diamond.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. In the air was the scent of night-blooming flowers, the coming of rain. The resistance he once attempted fell away to supplication … gratitude … anticipation. Hoarse, he whispered her name.
“We should go,” she said, too soon. “I want you asleep beside me at least an hour before this last watch of yours. We’ll talk tomorrow. I’ll make myself useful and I promise not to distract you … too much.” She fingered the chain bound around the bar and threaded through iron staples embedded in the stone. “Next Saturday, Rosie’s moving the sculpture here, to the garden. She invited me to the ceremony. I wish … Do you think it’s possible … later, later that night …?” She caressed the heavy fastening in a wistful gesture.
A lingering burst of lightning illuminated their shelter, sparking the air with a potent energy. He urged her aside and seized the padlock, and with a shift of muscle, twisted it against the links of the chain. The shackle broke away.
He led the way to camp through the turns of the upper tunnel to a secret door, down two levels on a tight-spiraled stair. A rope bridge spanned a narrow, jagged ravine, a single plank its walkboard. From the depths a mist rose – swirling and opaque. Slow step by slow step by inching step he cajoled her along.
Once across, she blew out staggered breath. “Tell me you don’t have to carry materials over that bridge.”
“Don’t worry. There’s an easier path to our work site, longer but with less incline. Bridgeless,” he assured her. “Camp is well below our efforts, a safe place.”
“Then why are you awake all night on watch?”
Caution had hushed the pipes to the intermittent tap and rounded ping. In the hollow of that near-silence, home seemed far away, but welcome torches blazed in these corridors. The lantern doused, he set it with a cache of cold lamps. Turning, he met her leveled gaze. Her shoulders squared, her arms crossed – she was formidable. He shrugged and tipped his head, smiled at her until she smiled back.
She took his hand and at a junction, he veered left. “It’s so quiet,” she said. “Deserted even. Where do Stuart and Wren live? Liz and Noah?”
“Not far from here measured above, but they make their homes deep. Liz brings the boys by every night to see Noah, and Wren is often in camp. Stuart has taken a leave from his job above to be part of the crew, but she comes to us after her workday. She rewinds our ropes, checks them for wear, waiting for him to finish his shift. You might cross paths.”
“I’d like that. I should get to know Wren better. We have a lot in common.”
A torch had flamed out, casting a stretch of passage in a charcoal veil. “Wren is … Stuart told me …” Her hand tightened on his; her step slowed. “A baby.”
“Oh! That’s wonderful. You scared me a little! When?”
“In the fall. They’ll be moving, I expect, to larger chambers.” A few paces passed in silence; he read confusion in her fallen quiet. If she questioned him, would he have the words to explain his hesitancy, why the news seemed almost too precious to share? They rounded a corner into amber light. She pressed against him as they walked, hip and thigh and shoulder. “Are there many chambers here in the north?” she asked.
The subject changed … but postponed.
“Yes, though most stand empty, one of the great mysteries of this place. Some are quite beautiful, different than ours. Raw. Unrestrained. With draperies of flowstone and white wall and hoodoos dividing the rooms.”
“There’s a spectacular gorge of spires, one I explored as a boy with Noah and Stuart. Vistas and waterfalls Devin and I discovered on unsanctioned treks.” He chuckled. “Treks Father still knows nothing about.” At a cornice of rock, the path switchbacked. He stepped into shadow, drew her in. “We’re almost there.” He explored a sensuous trail down her back, and under her sweater, he found her satin skin. “There’s so much I need to say to you.”
“It will keep,” she whispered.
He gazed long into her eyes, his lips … hers … parting. Their warm breath mingled. At her ear, his mouth moved in sultry hunger … lower, then lower still. He closed his teeth on her shoulder. Yielding to her kiss, he was lost to her. She held the thread of him, was his tender unraveling, his every dream.
“No more of that.” She straightened his vest and cloak, smoothed his hair and then hers. “For now.”
“For now. I’ll cherish those words, always.” His hands roved in slow stroke, shoulder to fingertip.
“I mean it,” she said, backing away from him. “I can’t walk into camp all flushed and … well, flushed. How much farther? And when does your watch start?”
“We’ll find Mouse within a hundred feet. Our base is just beyond. I’ll take my turn soon and must stay until morning.”
She met the stone, leaned against it. Her stance was familiar, reminiscent of an impasse, one once painful, now bridged. She was beautiful. Exquisite. He stepped closer, his forearm on the passage wall beside her, above her, his thigh just pressed to hers, one hand on her waist …
“In my imagination … Oh, Catherine.”
* * *
“Vincent!” Mouse looked up from a board balanced across his legs, a makeshift desk. “Knew it was you. Thought you’d be here by now. Awfully slow from up top. Catherine, what?”
She felt herself blush, the heat in her cheeks rising when Vincent turned to her, his eyebrows quirked in feigned innocence as he waited for her answer. “Ummm … that bridge. Yes, the rope bridge. I was scared to cross.” She nodded, pleased to have stumbled on a plausible response. “What’s that you’re working on, Mouse?”
Papers were strewn about, dark with cramped print. He scrambled to scoop them up, ordering them in some unknowable fashion, his arm shielding the topmost one from view. “Lots of stuff in my head. Important stuff. Might forget.”
“Anything from the other camp or from home?” Vincent asked. “News of Arthur perhaps?”
“Arthur? No! And I miss him.” Mouse made a notation on one of the pages, furiously underlining a word, afterward stringing a dozen exclamation marks, stabbing on the points.
“I’ll be back soon,” Vincent said. “First, I’ll get Catherine settled …”
But Mouse did not look up.
* * *
The campsite opened before them, a sunken ballroom fully ten feet below the entrance, with steps to the floor cut into the chamber wall. A coppery light slanted in from the domed ceiling, illuminating the center, casting the periphery in half-shadow. As at the mirror pool, a strange, funneling chimney chuted to the stars, and underneath, a fire sent skywarding lazy ribbons of smoke. Some workers were bundled into far alcoves, turned from the light in sleep, but those sitting near the low blaze huddled in hushed conversation.
“Aniela is awake. She can show you the facilities, Catherine. They’re along that passage.” He pointed to an opening, a dim rectangle across the room. “We sleep together,” he said, apology – perhaps doubt – in his voice. “There’s no help for it.”
“I’ll be fine. I’m part of this.” Once she’d have beseeched him to let her try, but now she simply would. She glanced up at him. His struggle was evident and she knew he’d abandon his every physical comfort for hers, lay pillowless and uncovered on the cold stone if it brought her ease. Your advice for Damien, Vincent. Remember? Believe me. Let me.
He stepped down from the landing and the movement, the play of shadow, attracted the attention of those below, garnering smiles and waves of welcome. He drew himself up, took on stature and presence. He hesitated and gestured for her, urging her to pass first, she thought, but instead he pulled her close.
“I have to know,” he murmured, bent to her. “Rosie’s question …?”
She sighed, a deep, contented sigh. How surprising to have been asked. How gladdening. “She asked me, How much can you accept?”
“And your answer?”
“You know, Vincent.” As if impelled by a folding wing, a rush of wind swept past, quick and driving. “I accept everything. Everything.”
After a half-mug of tea – lemon balm and magnolia bark, one of Liz’s blends, he told her – after her return from the bathing chamber where Aniela supplied her with a spare toothbrush, he’d unfurled his bedroll for her, a thin camp mattress more child-sized than adult, likely the same one he’d carried on those covert excursions with Devin or the summer adventures he’d shared with Stuart and Noah. From his pack, he’d pulled his extra sweater, folded it it over and held it out, but when she asked if he had another pillow, one for himself, he shook his head. He’d refused her refusal … at first.
“An hour,” she’d insisted, pointing at the ground, amending to “Okay, then, half an hour,” when he noted the time. He knew, at least, to sink down beside her, to settle himself against the wall, his bundled sweater cushion for his shoulders. To close his eyes. The last thing she remembered was hearing his whispered good night.
She never expected to fall asleep, but a wind sang in the highest realms of the chamber, a soft schuss from facet to facet to facet, its melody a lullaby, almost a round. She closed her eyes … and woke to a dream – of sandalwood and vanilla and billowing steam … of Vincent, damp from a bath, his hair in dark-honeyed ropes, a rivulet of water trailing the ladder of his abdomen, a towel slung low on his hips. She stirred under her covers, stretching toward the vision.
“Owwww! Ohhhhh!” All her muscles were stiff and against the stone floor, every knob of bone complained. Now his cloak was both her blanket and her pillow; a part wadded beneath her cheek, she was tangled in the rest. Gingerly, she worked a foot free, freed a knee, her arm. Everything hurts? After a few hours one night? I’m such a wimp. Owwwww!
Though she imagined the creak of her joints would wake the crew, she hitched herself upright and scooted back to the wall. Mouse lay nearby, no doubt instructed to stay close. Curled into a ball, his knees almost to his chest, his breath came in little huffs of near-speech. Even in sleep, Mouse heard the different drummer. Aniela and Damien had slept nearer the fire, the modest gap between them bridged by their clasped hands, but as Catherine surveyed the room, Aniela sat up, rolling her shoulders, wincing and twisting at the waist. Their eyes met in pained camaraderie and they shared a chagrinned smile. In silent agreement, they scrambled to their feet and made their way to the bathing area.
Crouched at the pool’s edge, Aniela swished one hand through the water, jerked it back and tucked it under her arm. “Well,” she said, “it isn’t freezing, but we’ll both be, if we actually do this. I only washed my face and brushed my teeth last night. At the basin. It was steaming then and I almost got in. Should have, I guess.”
“I know. It’s changed. When, I wonder. How?”
“Just one more of the truly incredible, umm, things down here,” Aniela said, turning to Catherine with a blushing grin.
Catherine knelt beside Aniela. Can I will the water warm again? She’d anticipated a soak, but even a dip seemed impossible now. She’d not allow anyone to read her discomfort though. No way, she silently declared. What was that song? Whistle a Happy Tune? 2 She puckered to try, managing only a resigned whoosh.
“Do you have a change of clothes, Catherine? I don’t.”
“I’m taking a pass. I mean, nobody’s gonna notice. They’re all a little ripe, don’t you think?”
She sat back on her heels, winced and laughed and winced again. “I haven’t been that close to any one except Vincent,” she said, rubbing her knees. “And he–”
“Probably jumps right in, warm or not. Okay, so maybe ripe’s too strong. How about seasoned? Damien and Mouse, for two at least, could use some clean clothes. I should haul all their stuff home and do laundry, but it’d take forever to do everybody’s in the one machine.”
“There’s a laundromat across from Dix’s. I can do it. I should get a message to him anyway, about my car. I don’t want him to have it towed. How would I do that from here?”
Aniela giggled. “Uhhh, the telephone? I’ll walk you up in a bit and you can call. I’ve got keys to the place. We should rummage the print shop for some big garbage bags to put the clothes in. Check the hours of the laundromat too.”
The telephone. Catherine smiled to herself. She could almost forget such a thing existed. “You know the way out? Can we bypass the rope bridge?” Please, please, please!
“Oh, you must have taken the scenic route. Actually, there’re a couple of other ways.” Aniela studied her, reached out and thumbed her cheek. “What’s with the red mark? Did you use a rock for a pillow?”
Catherine rubbed at the spot. “No, Vincent’s cloak. Something in the pocket, I guess. Not very big, just … impressive.”
“Like the princess and the pea, huh?” Aniela grinned. “I didn’t sleep a wink either … well, hardly, but Damien was out. How to they do it? Without complaining, I mean.”
Catherine shrugged and for a moment they studied their reflections in the calmed water. She rose with decision, raking her hair into a ponytail, fishing an elastic band from her pocket. “No bath for me either. I won’t tell if you don’t.”
In the few minutes she’d spent at cold-water ablutions, camp had awakened. The fire stoked, the aroma of boiled coffee suffused the chamber. The wind-song was drowned out by the chatter of tin cups pulled from storage in the cooking pot, by the stamp of boots, the clatter of tools arrayed for the day’s work. Just outside the archway, Mouse sidled up.
“Supposed to watch for you. Vincent said.”
“I was in the–” Mouse flinched and his hands fluttered up near his ears. She touched his shoulder. “I’m fine, Mouse. I’m right here. Is Vincent …?”
“Probably thirsty. Probably hungry. ” Ducking his head, he flashed a shy smile. “Tell him, Mouse’s turn to cook. Come soon.” With that, he scurried off to the fire pit, kneeling before their pantry chest, lifting its lid.
As seemed routine, noting others busying, she neatened their sleeping space. Nearly transparent in spots, his pallet rolled to a paltry cylinder. This won’t do. The bedding secured with two frayed elastic cords and stowed out of the way, she began a mental shopping list – items to add to Dominic’s next delivery. There was an Army-Navy store near Penn Station, she remembered. Some new foam sleeping pads, maybe a few wool rescue blankets – nothing fancy – and once below and discovered, nothing he could argue over. Just a bit of comfort. At least.
She reached for his cloak, shook loose its folds. Secreted within the lining, she found a pocket, in it not a pea, but something small, hard, and square. A private treasure, she imagined. Or one forgotten. A curiosity to her, no matter she’d laid her head to his heart a thousand times. Draping the fabric over her arm, she saw the pattern was sewn in a different patchwork, the leather darker and crackled, a mended rent in one lapel. An old one – lacking the ornamentation of his favored cloak, one relegated to work and rougher climes, one she didn’t know he owned.
Inside the sentry’s niche, he sat with one knee drawn up, intent on her approach. The lantern was at the lowest turn of the wick yet she could see a a troubled tenderness in the downturn of his mouth.
“I’ve brought your cloak,” she said. “You might need it.” The words escaped before she thought them through. He needed the night sky. The conversation in the cemetery with Kanin not withstanding, he was too confined here, the terrain above unfamiliar and risky to roam. She’d reminded him, she feared.
He bundled the garment at his side. “I’m rarely cold, but thank you.
“You need little sleep; you’re never cold.” She bent to him and turned his face with her fingertips and sighed. “Vincent.”
He captured her hand, nestled to it. “I am cold. My world is cold without you, Catherine. I miss you.”
She sank gingerly to her knees and crawled to snug under his arm. “Better now?” she asked, and he nodded. In seconds, his unusual heat spread through her. “What time is it?”
“Nearly dawn.” At her smile, he chuckled. “Dawn as we know it. Early. On toward six o’clock, I’d say.” He slipped the anniversary watch from his vest pocket, releasing the delicate clasp. The cover snicked open and he tipped the face to the lantern light. “5:38. We begin soon.”
“Mouse says to come for breakfast – he’s cooking. And don’t tell me you require little food. That I don’t believe. The real question is – are you getting enough to eat?”
“Aniela is bringing supper tonight from her mother’s kitchen. That will please everyone. William has spoiled us. Our cooking skills over the open fire are … less than stellar.” He looked down at her and as Aniela had, brushed her cheek.
“Is it still red?” she asked and his eyes narrowed in question. “There’s something in your pocket. I slept on it, I guess. It left a mark. I can’t believe it shows now. I splashed buckets of really, really cold water on my face.”
He drew in a breath but whatever he had been about to say, he decided against. Instead, he sought the material of his cloak, clutching once at the folds. A curtain seemed to fall between them.
What? How she wished for his empathic power. His moods had ranged barometric over the last hours. And no wonder, she thought. The bewildering coincidences, the revelation that was Rosie, his self-examination and dark acknowledgment … their experience on the roof, her mystical, physical first sharing of their bond. To touch the memory of it – of all of it …
Then Kanin. Kanin. And the undertow of vague threat from beyond the perimeter, the millstone of leadership.
“What is it, Vincent?” As she waited for his response, the silence took on matter and weight. He would not withhold a truth, she knew, but his privacies were necessary, a territory outside their love. His aloneness … would it ever be? His hurts were deeper, his self-assessments more exacting, the aftermath exhausting. He lived at a higher power than she, than all others.
Finally, he eased against her and whatever warred within him passed or mellowed. “Another time,” he whispered into her hair. “Let me hold you until my relief arrives.”
Chapter title: Dylan Thomas. A Process in the Weather of the Heart. 18 Poems. 1934.
Opening Quotation: Chard DeNiord. The Answer.
- Clara Marcelle Farrar Greene. Thy Fate Is Seeking Thee.
- Rodgers and Hammerstein. Whistle a Happy Tune. The King and I. 1951.
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