sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 25 ~ No Words More Simply Sweet
In the morning and the evening we are by ourselves …
Still, we persist.
Catherine lingered in the print shop’s driveway, one hip against the van’s front fender. “Well,” she said, crossing and uncrossing her arms, crossing them again. “I can’t believe I’m going home without my supper.” Or that she could even speak, given their last moments together. Or that she could stand.
“Me either,” Aniela replied. “And now I’m really hungry. Want to grab a sandwich? Something’s gotta be open.”
The days ahead – alone – stretched as dry as … the remainder biscuit after a voyage,1 she imagined him saying with a wry acceptance she could not fully share. But across their Bond her dismay would be a millstone fob on the leather strand around his neck thumping rudely against his heart, the antithesis of his rose. Would she add that weight to his journey?
She would not. She called up a smile, rueful at best … insisted it unfeigned …
“I guess I’ll head back,” she said, offering Aniela that same quarter-smile. “Get a hot shower and some real sleep.”
“I hear you. I took one the minute I got home.” Aniela climbed into the driver’s seat. “You know, I haven’t told Dad anything about Kanin, ‘cause it’s sure to get back to Father or Olivia if I do. So he’ll be here tomorrow morning to drive Kanin to his parole officer meeting, eleven on the dot. I’ll be in the basement working already so I’ll know how that plays out. Want me to call you?”
“Would you?” She started for her car. “Let me get you my card.”
“S’okay, I know your numbers.”
Aniela keyed the van’s engine to life, waved as she started to back into the street … waved again as she drove away, leaving her standing with her hand on the handle of her own car’s door. Home. She’d promised, but home seemed to require a new definition, a different measurement.
Once, after a childhood friend’s party, she’d lost her pearly lavender balloon. A spring wind tugged it from her grip and away with it sailed her contentment, her sense of belonging. Now she sat behind the wheel just as untethered, her only direction a reluctant reverse.
She hadn’t told him about meeting Eimear in the laundromat. Would its magic have dispelled the specter of Mitch? Why was she so unworried about his possible return? She’d pronounced it too unlikely, but was Vincent right? Did she know, did she … count on … what he would do?
No. She closed down the thought. Denied it. Refused.
Besides, this MD – whoever he was – and his minions were puzzle enough.
Perhaps even a darker threat.
No! She argued that disquiet down as well.
The mystical past hours … days. The concurrence. Think of that … only that.
What traffic there was was unhurried, in fact … sparse, but still she idled in the driveway. A passing motorist slowed and stopped in the street, waved her along with room to spare for her backing out. With a sigh, she accepted the kindness.
The light at the cross of Katonah Avenue turned red just as she approached. A longish light, as if it sensed her wish to tarry.
The gloaming. Not truly dark, the hour suspended between sun and stars. A magical hour, Martin had said, when an expectant hush falls over everything and the walls between the worlds blur and thin. The hour he daily spent with Lily in the archway between what was and what might have been.
At the portal between Above and Below as well. If only …
Her blinker ticked away time. A left turn would send her to the expressway and to her apartment – to a reorienting with the world she would face too soon, for that shower she craved. But the sky was streaked apricot and smoky blue and purple and it seemed wrong to leave with so much unfinished. She pictured Eimear’s bright kitchen, the yellow-swirled formica table, the conversation they seemed destined to have.
And tea, she imagined, switching to signal a right. Tea would be lovely.
* * *
It was already crowded in Behan’s and as dark as ever. Had she entered at noon, the light would have crawled barely past the arched entry, and the windows, prismed as they were with shelves of shapely glass bottles – reds and golds and blues – would have allowed only those seated at the front tables a kaleidoscopic shower of sun. The many shamrock-green neon signs still proclaimed Guinness good for you, and the stock of liquors behind the bar, lit from below and glowing amber, mirrored the halos cast by the globed wall lamps. The intimate understory of conversation was pulse and purr and percussion.
Tables were scattered over the scuffed floor without pattern or aisle-way. The weaving-through was second nature to her, the path worn in her earliest memories when the ladder-backed chairs loomed well above her head and people she believed family would reach out to ruffle her hair as she wandered past. If she lost her mother’s hand or her dad’s, a friendly face would bend to hers with a smile and likely a kiss to her brow and a kind voice would call out, Here she is, our Eimear. Here’s our love!
On this evening, she recognized fewer than half the pub’s denizens. Still, the fellowship of the place, its everydayness – the habitual sway2– settled like a supple cloak about her shoulders, and by the time she found her favorite, back-corner stool and its wobbly table magically empty, her nerves, nerves taut as fiddle strings, had eased. Across the way, Martin and Mick and Orla, Coy and his brothers and half a dozen more, tuned their instruments to a common note. Over the musicians’ fits and starts, a piper’s chant drifted in from the back entrance. Martin turned to look and when he saw her, his eyes danced, as always with love and – as the first song of the evening began, as his fingers skimmed the black buttons – with his familiar, utter merriment.
A Guinness appeared before her, the head of creamy foam rising in the glass. “Thanks, Will,” she said, grinning up at him, thinking as she always did, that his was the reddest hair she’d ever seen, redder than her own, redder than Rosie’s. Except now there’s Conor, Will’s son, whose fiery ringlets and penny-colored freckles rivaled his father’s. Will stood with his hands in his back pockets, his wide mouth in a studied frown, as together, they concentrated on the pint of beer. The tan froth climbed a full inch above the black and just proud of the rim and she nodded her approval. “A perfect pour,” she said.
“As you would know,” Will said, a tap to his heart. “Flynn on his way?”
She shook her head. “Working tonight.” It was only a moment, wasn’t it … the barest moment that she couldn’t meet his eyes.
“Sure.” She folded her arms on the table. “What?” she asked, when he didn’t move away.
Will shrugged. “You here for supper? The usual? The brown bread’s just out.” At her smile, Will turned on his heel. “I’ll walk out with you when you’re ready to go. Great party last night,” he tossed over his shoulder as he bent to another table.
Such a sweetheart.
Will, her childhood companion …
Busy and content with made-up games, they would play on the floor behind the massive bar while their parents talked or danced. Will’s grandfather, Donal, would step around them without complaint as he pulled the pints. He’d taught them to make his favorite Irish coffee – how to heat the stemmed goblet with water from the kettle, to measure precisely the Tullamore Dew and the sugar, brown not white, the coffee black as pitch to its proper fill … how to float the rich cream. They’d concoct this together, she and Will, and would stand, hopeful, hands clasped behind their backs, as the old man would draw the sip they were too young to take themselves. He’d lay an approving hand on her shoulder, one she’d never forget. Later, he taught them to pull stouts, the proper tilt and settle, the finish for the head. He set them against each other behind the bar, in laughing disregard of the laws. “Ach, the Guards … fie on them!” he’d say, waving his hand dismissively if someone dared suggest that Eimear and Will, at eleven, might be a bit young for bar-keeping.
Donal was gone now, but one night, not long before he died, he asked her mother to sing for him. She hadn’t known that night that her own mother was sick, hadn’t known to savor each dawning day. Rosie was out on a date, and she wanted to stay home that Saturday, alone. She was thirteen and old enough – she was! But her mother said no; she said Eimear was to come and say good-bye to Donal. Where’s he going? she muttered, foul and self-absorbed.
Donal cajoled her mother, pled and teased in his courtly fashion, until Lily gave in. She rarely sang in public, but Eimear could still hear her voice and the songs Donal asked for – first, The Lark in the Clear Air and then, Galway Bay. He cried a bit after, fat tears spilling without shame over the map of his face, and pressed a kiss to her mother’s cheek. Finally, he shuffled back around the bar to his stool, waving his hand at the sudden quiet. “Away wit’ ye now. Enough o’ that,” he scolded, as he toweled a glass. The chatter resumed; there was a call for another round. Will and she scuttled to this very table to discuss the injustices of life.
This place … this all … was home to her – a sanctuary – hers by rights and rites of memory. She had nothing to fear in this place. Magic it was, protected by love and family and history. Ahhh … The Flowing Bowl. One of her favorite tunes. She settled back in her chair, allowing a long draught of cold-cellared beer, the music, and laughter to persuade away the threat she’d heard in that churlish voice over the phone.
Tomorrow … I’ll think about that tomorrow.
Rosie would bring Joe here. Soon, she imagined, and the vision made her smile. She could see them standing together, Will, as tall as he was, shaking Joe’s hand across the taps, Rosie darting behind the bar to pull two black and tans, ordering up two Irish breakfasts at nine at night. The look on Joe’s face as he pondered the nature of black pudding. Was there an Italian equivalent? And wouldn’t Catherine love this place? Next week after the sculpture goes in, maybe … Maybe they could all come. Martin and Rosie and Joe. Flynn. Catherine and …
From the shadows, someone called for The Blood of Cu Chulainn and the rustle and clink, the punctuation of sound, fluttered to rest. The piper began alone, the tune a haunting, passioned plea, a marriage of lament and exultation. The beat of heart and hoof drummed in long before the fiddles and Martin’s flute called out a rush of birds. Anticipation swirled like red wine in fine crystal, a ruby-violet flare in her breast.
Beautiful … like a dream.
She closed her eyes, let the shimmering come. The shirt of Catherine’s laundry, soft in the recollection of her hands … the strange shirt of patched cloth and leather, of heavy stitching … was suddenly live beneath her cheek. The wearer stepped back from their embrace. Black haired, he was, and with sky-colored eyes … the man swung to sit a ragged dun horse. In the rose-gold of sunrise, two warriors – two! – whirled in step and raced away, over the bronzed bracken of the Connemara hills, along the rock-lined course to the sea. Above the whorl of stonechats and skylarks, ravens soared; the air was sweet with white bog-cotton, with the scent of trod heather. Flynn’s companion had the face of an angel, Rosie’s angel, and in the shelter of a wind-scoured wall, amid a tumble of stone, beside her, there … Catherine … stood.
* * *
Along 235th … past Keplar … Catherine turned onto Oneida, then again onto 236th. Softly lit from within, the arched and leaded church windows beckoned with earnest comfort, but beyond it, Eimear’s house was dark. A space was open directly across the street. A gift, she pronounced it, pulling in. She smiled to herself, wistful as she recalled a young girl’s wishing game. I’ll wait. I’ll count ten cars passing. Then I’ll go home. She unbuckled her seat belt and a car turned onto the street, flicked off its headlights and slowed. Eimear! She reached for the door’s handle, but it wasn’t the boxy white wagon she’d seen parked yesterday in the alley-like drive. Instead a wood-paneled beater crawled by, its high-beams on again at the corner, their reflection in the stop sign a split-second flash of lightning.
She folded her arm on the wheel and lay her cheek to it.
Without him she was loosed from an ancient mooring, licked from the coast by the rudest wave. More and more, Above seemed unwieldy. Disagreeable. With no place for him in it … Yet her gaze traveled the high rock wall of the churchyard. Inside its secret passage, at the narrow wooden door, a lock lay broken open on the flat stone threshold. And within its fence – a sanctuary. A garden protected, she knew, even in the daylight, by the shadow of stacked limestone slabs, black with moss and green with ivy, further by the canopy of trees.
And by something more she was sure – a connection still amorphous but not uncertain. A providence of ready hearts.
Vincent. The chord between them seemed more a tensioned band, stretched over-tight. It felt wholly wrong to leave him alone, to bear the aloneness of being guard and guide to so many. Mitch had not returned to badger him so, surely not, but was Mitch – was the possibility – a representation of fear, fear their life together could never truly be, that an arbitrary, spiteful force – or simply the sun’s rising – could sunder it? That what they had was too good to be true?
But it is true, Vincent. It is good.
Too soon, the tenth car ambled by and she reminded herself it was a lake-house game, one that didn’t work in the city. Eimear’s house remained dark, and she was growing cold and less able to deny her weariness or the inevitable approach of Monday morning. Bound by her self-set rules, Catherine straightened her shoulders, checked her mirror to leave, but an eleventh car approached, hesitating at the corner behind her. The headlights winked out; a motor chugged. What? That’s … familiar. Frowning, she switched on her brights and the driver sped away, the long-nosed car a gray-green shadow through the intersection, its rumble fading to forgotten. She sighed and eased from the curb. A shower, yes, as hot as could be borne, and some light supper. Don’t think of that peposo … or of the brilliant blue of his eyes, the flash of need, of the back of his hand as it just grazed her breast, of his earthy, yearning whisper, the shortened breath at her ear … Oh.
Thirteen miles back into Manhattan; the traffic reasonable. Too much time to think.
She’d not seen Wren in camp and she’d wanted to congratulate her, suggest perhaps a walk together, some time alone to talk. At the Welcoming she’d learned that Wren, having begun a social work program, had changed to law mid-degree; that she’d moved to the city only the year before. And she’d just asked for Wren’s story of meeting Stuart when Jamie and Brooke whisked the newcomer away on a tour. A second moment never arrived. Now Catherine thought of new questions. Several in the northern tunnels maintained a connection with the city through a complicated dodge of address and paper trail and both Wren and Stuart held jobs Above. Wren was new … to everything. And now, a baby.
Past Woodlawn Cemetery, through Van Cortlandt Park. Still close, though by now he might be half a borough away. The miles distanced them, and, unbidden, a vision of her desk appeared, heaped with snarled detail and obstinate demand. Tomorrow! she chided herself and snapped on the radio. Ahh! Her hands relaxed on the wheel. An encore airing of her favorite classical program – a Mozart piano concerto well into the the first movement. Still, the music accompanied her south through the Bronx and across the river into Manhattan. She’d just looped to the Henry Hudson when Performance Today signed off and Radio Reader began, another rebroadcast, another gift. He was well along in the book, but she knew the story – Exit the Rainmaker – the mystery of a man who meticulously planned his own disappearance, who walked away from his family, friends and prestigious career to live another life.
Being read to … In the rear view mirror, she shared a smile with herself. First her mother, her father, then her fourth-grade teacher. All the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, she remembered. Then a gap of years – teenaged years – happily alone with a book, hearing only her inward voice. Then college … and Dick Estell. A sophomore, flummoxed, her life’s direction a muddle, she’d found a place of retreat, spending the noon-hour perched on a stool in a coffee shop in Harvard Square, listening to the daily segment on the grill cook’s portable radio. Ragtime. The Great Train Robbery. Papa. At some point the seat at the far end of the counter became hers. She’d find it held for her, heaped with laundered bar-wipes or sleeves of wax-coated cups, the cook ready to sweep it clear the moment she came in. That year she rarely missed a selection, drawn to the intimacy of listening, to the reader’s skilled and soothing voice. And it was soothing, still, but now … compared …
Off the parkway at 79th, down Broadway, to 74th. Almost … there.
Catherine slumped in the corner of the elevator, and when the doors opened, the hallway stretched before her too bright, almost garish. Once inside, she leaned against the jamb, her hands behind her back, her eyes adjusting to the dark, her breath already quickening. Across the room, her answering machine blinked – frantic, furious … forlorn.
A hope-against-hope step onto the balcony, a quick retreat. Clothing dismissed in a trail behind … A button pressed, the CD player at her bedside spinning to sound … Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, its thoroughbass brooding and stirring and one of Vincent’s favorites.
And since there was no help for it, time alone to remember … to surrender. In the bathroom, she lit a dozen candles, sandalwood all, lit votives fragranced with neroli and jasmine. The music through the closed door was a heartbeat, a call. Water coursed in runnels through her hair, in intimate cascades over her shoulders. Sweet-scented steam rose around her, and she was transported on the mists … back into his presence, his arms.
~ ~ ~
“You’re still going, aren’t you.”
“I have to know, Catherine. If Kanin should need our help. If it is Mitch …”
“Or if your suspicions are unfounded altogether. It’s a possibility, Vincent.” He watched the ground, and if she couldn’t see his face, she could picture the stubborn set of his jaw. “I wish you’d wait until tomorrow. If Kanin makes his appointment …” A softened tone made no difference. His response was a slow shake of his head, a deep breath in and held. She sighed for him. “But you won’t. And you can’t send me a message, since we’re keeping this … situation … off the pipes.”
Sorrow rattled from his throat, and he spread his empty hands.
“How long?” she asked.
“Until Aniela returns?”
“Until the work is finished.”
“Not as long as in the beginning, yet … far too long.”
“Then you should go, Vincent. Go now. But eat something first. Please.” And don’t go alone, she wanted to say, although she knew he would. The inevitable distance and companionless hours loomed. He led her to the staircase.
“I’ve watched you climb into the light so many times,” he said. “Always, I’ve wanted only to follow. Tonight is no different, Catherine.”
She mounted the second step, the third, but at the fourth she turned. His hoarse and burnished whisper called her back.
“I had a dream about you. A waking dream.”
He stood at the foot of the stairs, the railing gripped in both hands and she slid her fingers along the valleys between his whitened knuckles. He shivered at her touch, bowed his head. In the cooling, nearing-night air, the building’s cross-beams settled, a groan in the silence, a tick in the steady sweep of time.
“I saw us walking through a park of pale willows,” he said at last, “along the high banks of a stream. Limbs danced on the breeze, scattering the sunlight. The water’s surface was still, like glass. Below, the bed was rocky. An undercurrent raced through, glittering like diamonds, like stars …” His voice trailed away.
“And then?” she asked, smiling the memory to him. Your words, Vincent. I remember.
“You lay upon a cushion of velvet moss, of gray-green moss, Catherine, moss the perfect color of your eyes. It was mid-day. The sun poured down around us. A sheen gathered on the bare skin of my shoulders, in the furrow of my spine, but I sheltered you. And I was loving you. I stroked you with my gaze – the avenue of your throat, your shaded secret hollows. You were ivory and silk and rose-tipped, slicked with our heat. My lips found your breast; your nipple firmed against my tongue, yearned for my pull. The sweet taste of you … And you, your lips just parted. And you, arching against the moss. I touched you, touched the exquisite pearl of you … and I was proud, fierce with my own power, that with these hands, with this mouth … … … And then … we joined. I fitted myself to you, the plane of my belly against the soft swell of yours, your teeth fastened on my shoulder. And you made a sound, a beautiful sound. I was … I am … so utterly yours.”
She clutched the baluster as she might his cloak or his vest, grateful for support, thwarted by its barrier. He cradled her face and kissed her and kissed her again, and she leaned into one palm as he traced the scar on her cheek with his thumb, as he whispered Everything … as he skimmed her neck, as his hand turned at her breast, as he raked the bud beaded beneath her sweater with the backs of his fingers, one knuckle, another, the next, the next.
He brought her hands to his lips, his breath across them ragged, and bent to her ear. “Think of me, Catherine. Tonight. Know that you are never alone. And this. Know this. Your hands … are my hands. Remember.”
~ ~ ~
Candles flickered low and the water ran hot and hard. She filled her hands with oil of apricot and ylang ylang, the sweet oil he’d chosen for her … smoothed her ribs and flanks, her belly … and again, the whorl of her ears, the avenue of her throat, the fullness of her breasts, rose-tipped … Her hands at rest at her heart, her breath in … out … in … until …
… until the echoed beat, until pulse for pulse …
A slow discourse then, a sweet pursuit. A labyrinth trail of fingertips. The devotion of palms … glide skim sweep cup favor glory crest … and they were his hands and she was so utterly his.
A glass of wine, some fruit and cheese … surely her neglected pantry would afford that much. Snugged in her plushest robe, she padded from her bedroom. A newspaper blanketed the dining table, strewn with curling sweeps of orange peel, weighted with an empty plate, an earthenware cup and saucer. She stacked the dishes, chiding herself on her halfhearted housekeeping of late … though it was fitting, she supposed. Half her things were moved below, she spent far less than half her life in the apartment now and her heart … was wherever he was.
Saturday’s news … She gathered and evened the sections, remembered reading … something … that had amazed her, had made her shake her head in wonder. Only the space of two days, but all that had occurred … Would surprise be possible ever again? She surveyed the room, dismissing the blinking red light mirrored and multiplied in the brass accents of the sofa’s end table. Friday’s mug was on the mantle still; Thursday’s cup as well. A single leather glove.
She’d propped a small mirror there, a gift from Nancy. See who I see, Nancy’s card had read. Now she exchanged a smile with her reflection, a rather pleased smile, she thought, leaning closer. No. Proud. And one that broadened when she saw the note, the familiar cream-colored stock slipped under the door, the script minute and precise – Pascal’s – the message so abbreviated as to be in code …
PN #81 ~ V
But she knew. The slim volume from which he’d last read to her lay at the foot of the bed. She hurried to it, turned to the page, and he began …
And now you’re mine. Rest with your dream in my dream.
Love and pain and work should all sleep, now.
The night turns on its invisible wheels,
and you are pure beside me as a sleeping amber.
No one else, Love, will sleep in my dreams. You will go,
we will go together, over the waters of time.
No one else will travel through the shadows with me,
only you, evergreen, ever sun, ever moon.
Your hands have already opened their delicate fists
and let their soft drifting signs drop away; your eyes closed like two gray
wings, and I move
after, following the folding water you carry, that carries
me away. The night, the world, the wind spin out their destiny.
Without you, I am your dream, only that, and that is all. 3
Chapter title: Robert W. Service. Home and Love from Rhymes of a Rolling Stone. 1917.
Opening quotation: Minnie Bruce Pratt. The Sound of One Fork.
Pub music (links opens in YouTube):
1. William Shakespeare. As You Like It. Act II, scene vii, lines 39-40.
2. William Wordsworth. Ode: Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. 1803-06.
3. Pablo Neruda. Sonnet LXXXI. 100 Love Sonnets. 1960.
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