sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 21 ~ I Stretch My Hands and Catch At Hope
Two shall be born the whole world wide apart …
And these, unconsciously, shall bend their steps
Unerringly toward the same trysting-place
Until at last
They enter the same door
Too soon, and at the same time, given their duetted rumblings of hunger, not soon enough, the sentry’s relief appeared. Juliana – someone she’d never met. A silver-haired, silent, serious woman who was, Vincent distinguished, the community’s northernmost and deepest dweller. She received Vincent’s report with a thumb to her chin, a crooked finger to her lips, their leave-taking acknowledged with no more than the jut of her chin.
And at the last moment, with her touch, fleeting though it was, to Vincent’s shoulder.
“Our stillest, as well,” Vincent told her once they were away. “Perhaps our deepest in its different definition – soft quiet hovering over pools profound.” 1
They rejoined the crew, arriving amidst a debate concerning the name of the breakfast fare. The argument was good-natured enough and the anecdotes flew, everyone – even those who rarely spoke of their lives above – with a first-time story of camping and cooking over embers the very dish in question. Rather than quell the discussion, Vincent let it range, but in its wake, the frying pans remained empty and time was passing. At last he proposed a secret vote be taken, a winner declared, and breakfast begun. On that, all in attendance agreed; the din subsided, though to a still spirited and busy burr.
Folded paper scraps were piling in an empty iron pot when, whisperingly, he’d excused himself for the facilities. She dallied at the end of the forming food line, waiting for him … missing him … missing their private bathing chamber, their steaming soaks …
And then he was back.
The waters chill or warm, he had jumped in. His hair was damp; one bronze tendril clung to his cheek. And in the hollow of his throat a droplet of water pooled and glittered. His earlier … What? Distraction? Memory? Worry? … dealt with or dismissed or – more likely, she imagined – pigeonholed for the sake of the crew’s morale … or hers … Or his? … he stood loose-limbed and easy beside her in the breakfast line. Her thoughts strayed from food, smoke purposefully evident in the sideways look she sent, willing him away from whatever precipice of concern he paced.
Good, she thought when, with a chuff of surprise, he was suddenly mesmerized with the toe of one boot. He’s smiling.
The winning name announced, Mouse went to work. He moved the queue along, manning three sizzling skillets with a skill she hadn’t known he possessed.
“Set … Flip … Yours. Next,” Mouse directed, waving the recipient away with his long metal spatula.
She took a step forward. “I had no idea breakfast could be so …”
“Controversial?” Vincent finished. “Your suggestion lost?”
“I read all the Campfire Girl books – Campfire Girls at Half Moon Lake, Campfire Girls and the Secret of the Old Mill. I know it’s called Eggs in a Nest.”
“Devin’s name for it was Eggs in the Bed. Every Sunday morning he’d badger our cook for a batch, no matter what she’d prepared for us. Often, he’d disappear from the dining hall and I’d find him in the kitchen curled over a platter with Camille grousing at him and nevertheless making more.
“Maybe he had a crush on her.”
“Possibly. He asked about her when he first returned. He seemed disappointed that she’d moved to Florida with a helper years ago. Of course, she was in her seventies when she turned over the ovens and the pantry to William.”
“Funny … I sometimes forget William wasn’t always–”
“The kitchen boss? He’s our third. First … Marguerite, who was, for a while, also our teacher. When Camille arrived, she took over the dining hall full time. Both of them …”
“So … how did you vote?” Catherine asked, separating two enamel platters from the dwindling stack, passing him one.
“My preference has always been for Pharaoh’s Eye.”
“So you lost too.”
“Here’s your Egg With a Hat.” Mouse lifted a portion from the pan and she held out her plate. He slipped it from the spatula, followed with the golden toasted cut-out, placing it just so atop the egg. “My vote. Toad in a Hole. Funny. Should’a won,” he said, already returned to his cooktops. Another buttered slice went in … the second flipped … the browned third scooped up for Vincent. She snagged two dull metal sporks from the bin on the ground.
“No, one slice is enough, Mouse,” she heard Vincent say.
She’d lodged her coffee mug on a narrow shelf of rock and just settled to a low ledge when Mouse appeared. He bobbed with anxious energy. “Good, Catherine? You like?”
With the chef watching and holding his breath, she sampled the dish. “Ummmm. Soft yolk, set white, crispy bread. Perfect.” Mouse sagged with relief, then bee-lined back to the fire to tidy up.
Next to her, Vincent carved his breakfast in considered wedges, each a balanced equation of wheat bread and egg. He speared a bite. “So, do you remember your first time?”
She’d just raised her mug to her lips and managed, in her surprise, to swallow without choking. A bit wide-eyed, she was sure, she stared at him through the steam of her coffee and he stared back with sky-blue innocence. He reached over and tapped her plate with his spork.
“For this,” he said and grinned.
She scraped up the last of the egg with a saved-out crust and from the corner of her eye, she saw Vincent do the same. He mopped thoughtfully and thoroughly around the rim of his plate. He wanted seconds, she knew, but she could almost hear him accounting, weighing tomorrow’s needs against their stores of food.
There has to be enough.
“Give me your plate,” she petitioned. “I’ll get you another. I’ll make it myself.”
* * *
Aniela dug a pen and a pad of paper from her day pack. “Okay, shoot,” she said.
Several spoke out at once, listing things they’d forgotten, things needed anew. Salt – there’d been an accident with the box – and real milk for the morning coffee. WD-40. Hard candy, someone called out. Toothpaste.
“Deodorant soap,” she heard Aniela mutter.
If a pharmacy were open, they should replenish their first aid supplies: antiseptics, peroxide, gauze and tape. Some aloe vera and a jar of pure lanolin. And tweezers, six, a pair for each tool box.
“Who knew,” Mouse grumbled, “that rock could splinter.”
She’d winced and turned away when Mouse held up a reddened thumbnail for her inspection, but when he asked for silk thread and a few stout quilting needles, she leaned in.
“You mean curved needles, don’t you, Vincent. For stitches. Surgical stitches.”
“As a precaution, Catherine. Nothing more.” He frowned, knowing better. “You shouldn’t go up alone,” he said. Again. “The way is–”
Aniela sniffed and his attention shifted. She shoved the list into her bag, crossed her arms over it. Something at the chamber’s roof required her long hard look.
“Straight shot up the little stone circle, Vincent. Easy,” Mouse interjected, clamping down hard on his bottom lip when he swiveled his crew-mate’s – his friend’s – way.
“I’ve made the trip a half-dozen times … this week,” Aniela persisted. Her glare leveled on him. “You know, you’re really starting to remind me of my dad, Vincent.”
Damien grimaced at the image. Dominic’s temperament was mercurial, effusive, and embellished by dramatic gesticulation. I’m none of that, Vincent reasoned. But where Aniela was concerned, Dominic’s default was to no. Which sounded a bit – more than a bit – like Father’s. A mind-set he’d vowed, years ago, to never embrace.
Now I’m caught.
A muffled eddy of laughter traveled the room. Even Catherine couldn’t keep a straight face.
“You need supplies, you need clean clothes, and you need to get to work,” Catherine said. “That’s the whole point of us going up. All of you, pile what you want washed right here. I’ll do them this afternoon.” She grinned around the circle, then met his gaze at last. “Send the message to the sentries we’ll be coming through. You’ll know soon enough if we fall into the abyss.”
A jest, nothing more … yet his stomach muscles tightened as if in recoil from a blow. It was a straight shot up the steps … almost. And there were sentries on alert. Aniela had made the journey on her own with no problems, and they would pass four work sites along their route on their way back with the handcart. But this was Catherine. He rubbed his neck, aware of some wispy touch there – warm, light fingers trilling high, treble notes on his skin – and raised his head. The look she sent him, he was sure, bent even the most disinclined witness to her will. He nodded with reluctance. “You’re right. Forgive me, forgive my–”
Rising on her toes, the edges of his vest gathered in her hands, in front of everyone, she kissed him.
“We have money for incidentals,” he said, after a long, speechless moment. “Take what you need.”
* * *
The stone staircase proved to be a dizzying workout, but once, she reminded herself, she’d climbed the Statue of Liberty to the crown. And the Washington Monument, too, all 898 steps, up and back. She would not give in now, not to the stairs, not to the floor or to the cold, not to the ache, not to the stiffness–
“My legs!” Aniela groaned, close on her heels. “These steps are murder. My tailbone hurts. My neck hurts. I think my hair hurts!”
Catherine huffed up the final turn. At the top they stopped to rest, each stooped like spent runners, their hands to their knees.
“Fagioli e grandi muscoli,” Aniela wheezed.
“Huh?” she managed.
“Something dad says …” Aniela blew out a crooked breath. “… around the house. Beans and big muscles … Mom’s rule … no cursing at home … I’m guessing he means … something else.”
Gray skies greeted them, as gray as the stone ceiling below, but the rain had ceased. They set out for the corner, finding a C-Town Supermarket on Katonah Avenue, just two blocks up, the Emerald Pharmacy right next door and open for business. The modest list of medical supplies fulfilled, they patrolled the grocery’s narrow aisles, searching out staples and condiments, all considered for nutrition and rustic preparation … and for weight. They could manage, they decided, a few special treats.
“Mouse would love these,” Aniela said, holding up a package of Sabrett’s franks.
“And buns are light,” Catherine agreed. “We need that onion sauce too, the red sauce.”
A display of multi-colored string bags caught her eye and she purchased four. The straps long enough to hook over their shoulders, they were freed to carry only one brown paper sack in their arms, Aniela declaring, however, that anything more in even one bag would have thrown her over.
Back at the print shop, she grimaced at her reflection in the glass. “I look like I’ve partied and slept in these clothes. Which I have.”
Aniela worked keys into the many locks of the entry. “At least we didn’t run into anybody we knew.”
“Do you think Dix prints tee shirts? I’d change into almost anything. I’ll buy.”
“Maybe. Yeah. Brenda did some for St. Patrick’s Day. Take a look around.” They maneuvered their bags through the entrance and Aniela turned to bolt the door again. “Hey. I just remembered. There’s a huge sink in Dix’s back room and one of those hot-air hand-dryer things. We bought shampoo. If I can dig up a comb …”
She found him kneeling beside an open well, pounding in shims to square the wooden frame of the trap door. Careful in his work, precise and resolute, he positioned the wedge just so and drove it flush with one strike. He moved with commanding grace even on his knees, reaching his muscled arm high, his eye ever on the mark beneath the mallet. His vest and sweater and belt – his ivory rose – were folded in an orderly assemblage on the floor, leaving him in a faded, thermal undershirt, torn at the collar and pulled loose from the waistband of his jeans. At the junction of the three passages, she lingered in the archway.
So beautiful …
* * *
“We’re back,” she called, her voice low in her throat.
“I heard.” he said, sitting back on his heels. “I knew you were safe.”
“I’ve been watching you.”
“Yes.” She moved from the shadows. Her words on the still air were round and deep, as the sweet dream and coo of the night dove.
“How can I help you Vincent?” Her fingers combed into his tangled hair and he lifted his face to hers.
Where did he end and she begin? Her demand, her call, swept through him, shot with a welcome, ruby heat to the muscles and tendons of his legs. He rose to his knees into the protection of her heart, burrowed beneath her rib cage. His cheek to the slight, soft rise of her belly, there the swell and ebb of her breath signaled more than her simple inspiration and exhale. She promised a miracle with it – tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, we are, we are, we will ever be. His arms encircled her waist. Tighter. Hold me tighter.
The cool of the stone floor went unnoticed, though in time he shifted under her hands – an indistinct stirring – and opened his eyes. His cloak lay puddled nearby and from the secreted pocket in the lining, a wedge of wear-softened paper, pale against the dark material, peeked out. At the pull of the chord – the blue-silver chord – that bound them heart to heart … her gaze followed his.
“Something’s worrying you,” she murmured.
“I …” Not that, not now. We’ve too little time.
“Were you afraid for me above?”
“It wasn’t fear,” he said and tightened his embrace.
“I like it best,” he admitted, “when I can see you.”
“Is that the truth, Vincent? Is that truly what you like best.” She teased a flare of joy in his breast, but his eyes again sought out his cloak and its half-hidden mystery.
“The truth,” he began. “I told you I was ready … ready for you, and when I said it, I believed I was. So many of my truths must be reexamined, Catherine. And so many of my truths are desperate and dark.” And draped, he thought, could not stop himself from thinking, with the Gorgon’s tasseled cloak, beset at every point with fear and strife and force and cold nightmare …2
A beat of trepidation stretched to a crowded measure, but then … harmony. In only the note of her steadying sigh, he felt his discordance balanced, heard answer. One small, strong hand caressed his shoulder, laid next to the racing pulse in his neck. Fingertips traced the shell of his ear. So beautiful …
She loosed herself from his arms and pulled him up from his knees. “Whatever happens, Vincent, whatever comes, we’ll face together. I’ll never leave you alone. Nothing will come between us. I promise you,” she said, smoothing the torn flap of shirt into place at his throat, “it won’t all be desperate and dark.”
Her words were as motes of sunshine; the air he breathed in – blessed – for she breathed it too.3 Love and be loved.4 How simple it really was.
He believed her.
* * *
A clattering came from deep within the passage, one of such exuberance and accompanied by such chatter that Catherine was sure they were soon to be joined by fully half the crew. But it was only Mouse.
“Great stuff,” he crowed, skidding through the doorway, shaking the can of WD-40. “Love this stuff. Squirt it on, twist off. Done!” He bore heavy bags strapped across both shoulders, and he shed them. One after another clunked to the ground. Dropped to a crouch, Mouse pulled open the pouches.
“Box of bolts from Noah’s secret place. Won’t have to buy now. Gotta get the old nuts off though. Pretty rusted.” Mouse peeked up at Catherine through an errant wing of hair. “You try? Hand ‘em down to us? Save time! Lots of it.”
“Sure. Show me what needs twisting. I’ll do it.”
“You’re a good teacher, Mouse,” Vincent suggested when Mouse looked to him. “Show Catherine what to do, and I’ll get back to work.” He stepped down onto the ladder and disappeared from view.
“Okay, good. Okay, fine! Take a rusty bolt. Like this one. See?” Mouse brandished the offending machine screw. “Nut’s stuck. Squirt here … and here,” he instructed, focused on the precise placement of the lubricant. “Wait. Wait some more. Then twist and twist and twist.” He yanked a rag from his pack. “Wipe off. Then … find a new washer. Find a new nut. Slide on new washer. Twist on new nut.” He placed the completed assembly in the palm of Catherine’s hand and continued his demonstration with a second bolt. “Make a bunch of new things, okay? Put ’em in a bag, this one with the rope tied to it. We go down. You lower the bag. We get the parts out! Hold on to the rope. Don’t forget and drop it.” Mouse rubbed his chin. “Oh, yeah. Careful. Don’t hit us in the head.”
“I will … I mean, I won’t. I won’t forget, Mouse. Promise.” Catherine laughed, crossing her heart. “I had a girlfriend in college who thought WD-40 was the finest cologne a man could wear. It meant he could fix things.”
“Cologne? You mean … perfume? On a man?” Mouse sat back and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Don’t get it.”
Vincent’s chuckle floated out of the ladder well.
* * *
“That’s quite a pile.” Aniela stared at the jumble of colors and textures massed near the camp fire. “It must be everything they have except what they’re wearing. You sure you don’t want some help at the laundromat?”
“I’ll manage. It’s mostly waiting after all. Let’s get them into the canvas bags we brought down. I hope Dix won’t miss them.”
“He had a dozen stacked in the closet, I guess for when he does big mailings.” Aniela giggled. “Catherine, are you sure about those sweat pants? I mean, they’re clean and they’re all we could find in Dix’s storeroom, but you’re lucky that tee shirt’s extra long on you.”
“I know! Who could want this printed on their–?” She groaned and tugged the hem lower. “You’re right. I’ll have to be careful.” She pointed at Aniela. “Yours are worse. And very, very green.”
“They are! But I’m getting in the van and driving straight home to change. And I’m not taking off my coat until I’m inside the house and past Mom. You want me to bring you something decent?”
“Thanks, but no. I’ll wash my things too and change later.”
Bent to the task, they folded the clothes and stuffed the two bags full. Catherine stood and stretched. “I’m glad we need the cart. Any excuse to avoid the little stone circle.”
“Yep,” Aniela agreed, “I’m totally, completely, one hundred percent in favor of the circuitous, long and more level way up. Ready?”
The door of the van squealed in complaint. “Sounds like me this morning,” Aniela said as she climbed aboard. She cranked open the window and adjusted the side mirror, leaning toward it with widening eyes. “Wow,” she said. “That’s some really bad hair. I’m bringing back a real blow dryer, just in case.” She settled into her seat. “I’ll be gone about three hours. Want quarters? Something to read? I’ve got some old Fine Homebuilding magazines.” Grinning, she held the proof aloft. “The latest issue of Brickmason’s Quarterly.”
Catherine laughed. “I keep an emergency book in my trunk and I have money. There should be a change machine inside. But you may have to wait for me, depending on how many machines are free.”
“That’s okay.” Aniela fitted the key to the ignition, gripped the wheel. “I love having this secret,” she said. “Love knowing what we know. Sometimes I think … well, sometimes I dream about buying a house, a brownstone maybe, on the grid so I could come and go, really be a part of things? I’m always looking.” She gazed at something over Catherine’s shoulder, something in the distance, in a longed-for future. “I like this neighborhood,” she went on. “It’s got that small town feeling, friendly, you know? And I might be able to afford a place here one day. It’s awfully far from the main community, though.”
From Damien, Catherine heard.
From Damien now, she wanted to counter. Chambers aren’t cast in stone; the ways can change.
But were they? Could they?
Aniela mused on. “I worked on a place last winter in West Village. Needed tons of remodeling. As it was, it cost a fortune probably. But tunnels run under that part of the city and I’d bet there’s a way below. I went down in the sub-basement once or twice … well … more than twice.”
The van started up, grumbly as if reluctant to leave, and she gave room, stepping back to the wall of laundry bags behind her. Farther down the block, tended front yards threatened to riot soon with color. Screened doors smacked against their casings; neighbors called to one another porch to porch. The sun pierced the thinning clouds and glinted off the still-wet streets. For a moment, it was impossible to see through the quick veil of tears that collected on her lashes, impossible to think of losing the balcony, impossible not to share Aniela’s dream of a home with a private way down, an easier way up.
She wished she’d borrowed the Fine Homebuilding magazines after all.
Across the street, she bumped the dirty clothes over the curb and propped the swinging door open with one bag, bent to drag the second inside.
“Hop up, Rory,” a soft voice urged, and in seconds, a young boy scuttled past her. His small hands clutched at the drawstrings of a bag and he heaved himself backwards and over the threshold.
Catherine straightened, grateful and surprised, her hand to her lower back. “Thank you!”
“No problem,” he responded, adding, when his mother coughed into her fist, “Ma’am.”
“I’ll get the other one,” said a second boy, older and taller than the first, but almost his twin. Clear-skinned, with dark curls and eyes the color of cornflowers, either could be Flynn O’Carroll’s child. Or his nephew. A frisson of alert touched the nape of her neck, a triplet of touch, of anticipant musical notes, and she surveyed the room in a quick sweep. A relieved exhale lifted her bangs – no one proved familiar.
Butting shoulders in mock argument, the boys trudged backwards across the tiled floor.
“Where to … Ma’am?” Rory asked.
“How about all the way in the back,” Catherine suggested, having spied a grouping of empty machines. “And thank you again, both of you, very much.”
The room was large and warm and dewey, with natural light aslant through floor-to-ceiling windows. In one corner, a television mounted at the ceiling was tuned to a Mets game, and grouped beneath it a small audience groaned. Over the center folding tables, paired friends leaned close in whispered confidence. Along the window wall, fidgety in yellow plastic chairs, children swung their legs, cutting their eyes at one another in an age-old game of dare-you-not-to-laugh. Greetings were called out. Goodbyes.
It was a nice neighborhood.
She fell to her task, sorting the jeans and corduroys from the thermal shirts and cotton sweaters, choosing the gentle cycle and cold water in fear of ruining the lot. These clothes haven’t seen the inside of a dryer in a while, she worried, not since their rebirth in the sewing chambers. When Vincent’s garments were unearthed, she lay them flat on top of the washer, and though she had no needle or thread or particular skill, she searched them for rips and missing buttons. Sure she garnered no attention, she ran her hands the breadth of his sweater, crumpled a shirt and held it to her face. Breathed him in.
Get with it, Chandler. With quarters from the change machine and detergent from the dispenser, she started five large loads. Tropical Breezes, the soap boxes promised. Aniela will be pleased.
She tucked into the farthest chair. The monotonous, low chug and constant whir were, together, a powerful lullaby, stronger than the discomfort of the hard, molded seats.
Drat, I forgot my book.
This was, she remembered later, her last sentient thought before dropping off to sleep.
The gentle tap to her knee, the tap she believed she dreamed, became a full fledged, two-handed shake. A small voice pitched with escalating urgency. “Ma’am … Ma’am … Ma’am!”
She snapped awake and the boy jumped back.
“Whoa!” he cried, his hands up in surrender. “I’m supposed to tell you your washers are done.” He backed up another step and regarded her with concern. “We have to leave now.”
Catherine managed a smile. “I can’t believe I fell asleep. Rory, right? You’ve been a good helper today. Tell your mom I said that, okay?”
Beaming, he bounced away.
Four dryers in a line were available. She lifted the damp clothes from the tubs, pleased that the spin had removed so much water. Setting three to low heat and one to air, she settled again in her chair and checked her watch. Aniela would be back for her in two hours.
This time she roused herself, thankful for the thudding clunk that signaled the end of the dryer cycle. The shirts were fragrant and soft, and she piled them onto a work table; the cords and jeans and sweaters needed more time. Punching the temperature buttons again, she recalled the rough, line-dried towels, the sun-whipped sheets of her lake-house summers. One day …
She inspected the laundered clothes for damage. The long-sleeved thermals and flannels were sturdy and had withstood the machine washing well, but her concern was for the more intricate tunics and toppers, those with the stitching and piecing-together. Of them, one had separated at a shoulder seam; from another, an applied pocket hung by its lacing. Not bad, so far, and fixable.
A patchworked vest slipped from the jumble to the floor.
She rounded the table to retrieve it.
Her back was to the door when the bell jingled in announcement and she didn’t see who came through, but when she pulled another garment from the mound, when she held out before her one of Vincent’s well-worn shirts, one rare and particular and curiously intricate shirt, she most certainly recognized the voice …
She turned, even sorrier now she’d panicked atop the parapet of Blarney Castle, leaving the stoned un-kissed, the gift of gab un-bestowed.
Chapter title: Christina Rossetti. De Profundis. 1881.
Opening Quotation: Carolyn Wells. Fate.
- Sara Teasdale. Silene.
- Home. The Illiad. Book V, lines 844-846.
- Thomas Moore. The Loves of the Angels. 1823.
- George Sand.
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Ah yes! I agree with Mouse – Toad in a Hole is much funnier and better than Egg with a Hat!
I was so looking forward to the laundry scene and had forgotten that you left us with a cliffhanger just as Eimear came through the door. Looking forward to the ensuing conversation as she and Catherine fold all those interesting clothes.
I’m so pleased you remember what comes next, Lindariel! That makes me really happy. I’ve started the revision for that chapter, so it won’t be too long before it’s posted. Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to tell me you were here! Hugs!!
Another great chapter! I can picture it all so clearly, I can hear their voices and all the sounds of the settings Above and Below; it’s like truly being there, which is a wonderful gift. I love visiting this fascinating world that you are imagining and sharing with us, Carole!
And of all the vivid and evocative images, my favorites this time have to be seeing Vincent through Catherine’s eyes: the bronze tendril curled against his cheek, the droplet of water at his throat, his smile, his strength and grace while working. Sigh… To quote Catherine, “so beautiful”!
Linda, I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to know you’re finding this “other” tunnel world, its places and people, believable. I’m compelled to keep at it!
I’m glad you liked seeing Vincent from Catherine’s perspective. Just watching the episodes, we’re left to imagine most of what she thinks of him. We get Vincent’s journaled thoughts, he’s relatively outspoken with Father, and his facial expressions say so much, but Catherine’s internals are kept really close. For too long, she couldn’t (or we didn’t see her) speak her heart to Vincent himself. Writing from her POV is fun, comforting, and exciting all at once.
Thank you for reading and for letting me know you are. It means everything!!!