sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 26 ~ That Shadow, My Likeness
Higher still and higher
from the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
the blue deep thou wingest
and singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest
It fed him, this light, this … lightness. In these winging moments – joyous, large, unrestrained – he knew transcendence. He became the light, breathed it, assumed the good and glory of dawn …
The darkness … displaced …
One creature …
One being …
whose spirit unconfined … was free
… the Deep was at my feet
and heaven above my head
when a strange trance over my fancy grew
which was not slumber …1
a slow kaleidoscope of color, of voice …
Welcome … this place in-between
Beautiful … this place of dreams
the thrash and simmer of surf, the scudding wind through vale and heath
the grip of forearms. Brother!
a roughened shout of Ready!
reins of knotted oxhide taut in his hands … a nickered anticipation
the press of knees
a spray of pebbles, the sweep within a rock-lined maze …
a flush of birds, their upswing loud in a blue and brilliant sky
and in the clear air, a lark’s elated song
Is this then a touch? Quivering me to a new identity … 2
A rising mist … the scent of sun-warmed stone and leather, of sandalwood and jasmine.
His name in her voice, calling, calling to him with love. Resonate. Lingering. Her hands on his, threaded through, his guide …
… the echo of his heart … the thrum … the long sigh …
… no other kiss than the all-being.
no other love than the love that illumines … 3
Then … a quieting …
And then …
Elsewhere’s fade to grays and browns, to rusts, to shadows shimmering with veins of mineral stars …
His hand now on chiseled cuts, a shoulder rolled to solid stone
Yet her whisper. Know this.
You are … we are …
Rich in hope
A running dream
He could not divine when the light would lessen or how far he might travel within it, when he would again feel the floor solid beneath his feet or know the confines of his clothing, when his great breath would be bound again by his lungs …
Had someone, had even Catherine asked him, he’d have but an insufficiency of words.
… somewhere I have never travelled,
gladly beyond any experience …4
The visions oft would fade, his reach for them the capture of smoke …
But since that night …
Since Catherine …
Tendrils of thought took root, held fast in his deep, acorns dreaming of blue skies and birdsong …
A craving of thirst … a spill of water in his cupped palms …
Vincent splashed his face and ran wet fingers through his hair. A few drops trickled down the back of his neck. The water held an unusual chill, colder than the changeable pool at camp, colder than any other known to him, as if it streamed over ice instead of feldspar, mica and quartz.
Fordham Gneiss, the oldest of the city’s bedrock, Levon had long ago instructed … and did so again, now, the man’s voice a sweet silent thought. Manhattan Schist. The Hartland Formation. Inwood Marble. The foundation making possible New York’s skyline and their world below. He’d described the deposit of the layers, showed them maps of the varying depths of each, explained why there were few tall buildings in Greenwich Village, why in midtown the skyscrapers stood in dense clusters. Rock-solid science, Levon called his impromptu classes. Yet when asked about the glacial temperature of the waterfall, he’d shrug. Magic’s my guess, he always said. And though they’d all lived long within the weave of limestone caves and conduits, their known world seemed an astonishment.
As he had in years past – long past, too long – Vincent sent his gaze soaring. Christened Bucking Mule Falls – indeed, Father had allowed him to so label the official maps – the underground cascade was but a miniature of the one near Levon’s childhood home in the Bighorn Mountains. A five hundred foot drop, that one, he’d told them, fetching then a shell-encrusted box from a high shelf, a box crammed with photographs. He’d sorted through a stack and laid out a row on his workbench. They were small and square with deckled edges and in black and white, but the fading landscapes blossomed with their teacher’s reminiscence. Not a ribbon waterfall, or a veil. A horsetail.
As boys running the tunnels, Noah and Stuart and he ended many a day of dusty adventure in its namesake’s mists, daring each other to plunge their hands into the basin, betting who could bear the raw temperature the longest. Afterwards, they’d hurry on to Levon’s, hoping for an afternoon snack and a story set in the wild and faraway land of Porcupine Falls, Crazy Woman Creek, of Cloud Peak, the Medicine Wheel, and Ringbone Lake. They were always rewarded.
Not far now.
The way was unchanged; his feet knew the turns. Left at the third corridor past the cascade, across the bridge above Wind River where the whistling gusts still white-capped the shallow stream, then the two-level spiral up. He’d last walked this path with Kanin and Winslow, carrying food for a three-day journey and the tools necessary to seal the secret doorway beneath Levon’s cottage – forever, he’d believed then.
At the final junction, he stood sentry, sensing no one, friend or outsider … the stillness from the radiating corridors nearly perfect, stirred only by a skitter of wind along the scabrous walls, a splattery tick of water. The passage floor, a hard, black amphibolite, showed no dusted footprints to or from the old ladder well. And the gate, he found, was secured as they’d left it, the bars wrapped with chain, heavy links threaded through an iron staple hammered into stone, finished with a massive padlock. He hefted the fastener in his palm. Still strong, if flowered now with the bloom of rust, the only key on a wrought-iron ring, safe in Father’s cabinet. The torch thrust through the rods and held high, he inspected the now-illuminated chute. Bare-walled, solemn, no evidence of climbing rope or pitons. At its floor, only a single embedded rung, a scattering of gray bolts – remnants of a ladder that once led Above.
No sign of Kanin.
But behind him … approach. A clattering, a guffaw. An advance of light, blue and wavering. And welcome.
He closed his eyes … slipped into memory … into yesterday …
“Let me go up first,” Kanin asserted. “Or Vincent.”
Pensive at the outset, for the last hour of their trek, Kanin had been closemouthed and withdrawn, walking, it seemed, more alone than single-file. Vincent, surprised by the sudden outburst, slowed his pace. When Winslow turned and glared at them, he was glad to be left more in the shadows.
“What?” Winslow barked. He barreled his chest. “You think I’ll break the ladder?”
“That’s not it,” Kanin retorted.
“Then you need to tell me straight to my face what it is, then. And stop that snickering, Vincent. I hear you. I hear you real good.”
Kanin stood in the circle of lantern light, his head down, the muscle in his jaw jumping, but he cast a sly look over his shoulder and mumbled something that, to Vincent, sounded like Foghorn Leghorn. Confused, he mouthed a silent What?
Kanin didn’t answer.
“Are you listening?” Winslow demanded. “I say, one’a you two boys’d better stand up. Right here!” He pointed to the ground at his feet, and when no one moved, stabbed the air twice more and growled. “I’m waiting. I’m goin’ to count to three. One. Two …”
“All right, all right.” Kanin long-stepped to the designated spot, his chin high. “It’s … you know … Sometimes, when you climb, you …”
“Say it!” Winslow boomed.
“Fart!” Kanin waved his hand back and forth in front of his nose, sniffed once, and Winslow drew up, his eyes open wide, his mouth more than a little agape. Kanin’s shoulders twitched beneath his knapsack, but Vincent burst out laughing. Doubled over, he laughed harder. And he laughed until Kanin joined in, until Winslow braced his workman’s hands on his knees and howled.
“Whoo-boy,” Winslow wheezed at last.
Spent, the three sank to a cross-legged seat. Winslow opened his canteen, gulped and spluttered, and a round of laughter started up again. Still chortling, he pulled a loaf of dark bread from the rations pack, then a small wheel of cheese, two apples, the end piece of a dry-cured sausage. He sliced and wedged their meal, and they fell to the business of eating, sobering to a silent agreement. What food was left over, Kanin packed with exaggerated care. Finished, Kanin looked up … nodded … and led the way to the ladder. At the top, he released the splintered trap door, crawling first from behind a cold, blackened furnace to a damp cellar lined, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with empty wooden shelves.
Levon’s life-list of minerals and gemstones had once glittered in display on the wide planks. Manifest in pebbles and nuggets and chunks, his adventures were stories to be held cupped in their hands – his forays into caves, dreams of panning for gold, an unsanctioned, off-trail meander in the Painted Desert. I was never lost! he declared, indignant after well more than half a century. And I didn’t take that rock. A friend gave it to me, a friend I made in White Cone, thank goodness.
There was beryl from his time in Brazil – a secret mission, he said with a wink – perfect six-sided crystals in colors of emerald and aquamarine and gold and peach. Azurite from a tour of duty in France. From Guatemala, a cabochon of imperial jade. A constellation of blue benitoite and glossy black neptunite from the California valley where he’d first met his Ellen, pried from the ledge of a dry creek bed where she’d perched to sketch the primroses. A shard of the pigeon’s blood ruby he unearthed in Burma. Hidden for weeks in the hollowed-out heel of his boot, by the time he made it home, little was left of it. Still, enough to have a thin marquise cut from the raw stone and set into gold filigree. Enough to hold out to Ellen, enough to entice her to say ‘yes’. Content in the remembrance, he daubed the crimson fragment from the pad of his finger back to its bed of cotton, reset its protective slab of thick, clear glass.
A great-grandchild! Father exclaimed.
I want to go home, see the ranch again, what’s left of it, Levon said on his last visit to Father’s study. He rubbed his white-stubbled face. I’ll miss you all.
“I can’t believe he’s gone.” Kanin choked out the words, his arms slack at his sides. “Wyoming’s too damn far.”
In his sigh, Vincent heard a pained wish – Maybe I should have moved with him – and Kanin’s face crumpled with a terrible longing.
The blue light flickered, winked out, reflamed …
Another place, an earlier time …
Kanin’s first Winterfest. His face, Vincent saw in retrospect, bearing the same expression – dazed, defeated.
Levon paced a corner of the Great Hall that night, regaling an assembly of children with the tale of Persephone in the Underworld, pulling garnets like pomegranate seeds from his pockets, garnets gathered from a storied, faraway chamber, garnets reputed capable of illuminating the night sky or the darkest tunnel. With calloused fingers, he brushed the wall behind him and told the story of hematite, a common rock made glorious with the myth of Mars, of his spilled blood evident even in their own walls. These long, dark red streaks. Here. See? To wear an amulet of hematite, to carry it in a pocket, would bring invincibility, he said. Would protect against madness. Kanin stood at the perimeter, alone, hunched against the still-unfamiliar chill, against the celebration, listening, almost desperate in his attention. Levon looked up, meeting Kanin’s clouded gaze over the last rapt ring of audience. At the story’s end, he promised another – Later, my young inquisitives – and approached Kanin as one might an injured bird, his hand out in tentative greeting. A lifeline.
In the wintery months afterward and on into spring and summer, at each week’s end, Kanin would grab his pack and set off north to visit his new friend, offers of forays topside or entertainments Below deflected with a raised hand. He’d return in time for his next scheduled shift, sometimes brooding and unapproachable, his brows knit in a sullen glower, sometimes industrious, his ideas, his contributions rapid-fire.
The years passed and Kanin seemed to settle into place, to soften. He spent fewer days apart from the community. He stood closer when a group would circle, no longer the first to leave a gathering. Less brittle, surer, when he’d raise his eyes in greeting, his wide, gentle smile would follow.
Levon had cared for him, had guided Kanin through the isolating pain that had propelled him Below, had helped him heal.
Or so they’d believed …
Did you ever tell Levon your truth, Kanin? Vincent wondered now. How you must have missed him, all these years.
They’d often worked together, Kanin and he, taken supper at the same long wooden table, and with others, ended the days with long swims beneath the falls, with noisy competitions on the ball-grounds – the dry packed sand of an ancient ocean bed. Once, months after their journey to close Levon’s doorway, after a hard-fought game of scatter-base, Kanin approached him, a towel around his neck, another held out.
He’d smiled his thanks.
“You hold back,” Kanin observed, wiping his jawline.
Vincent threaded the towel across his shoulders, under his hair, spread his hands palms up, and shrugged. “Yes.”
“So do I,” Kanin replied. “I …” His voice trailed away, whatever admission he’d been about to share forgotten.
Without a word or even a glance of hello, Olivia sprinted past, falling into Jesse’s arms eager for his kiss, and Vincent lost his breath, as if Kanin’s heart … stopped … in his own chest. Olivia’s wedding, just announced and soon to be celebrated, was an end to a beginning that Kanin must have dreamed of.
* * *
Oh, Kanin. You’ve loved her so long.
The lecture once boiling in his mind tempered to a simmer.
Show her that love now. Make cloudless your respect. Don’t make her decisions for her, Kanin. Tell her everything. Accept her choices.
His hand strayed to the secret pocket of his cloak, to his own folded-away truth.
And hope … hope that her sun will reach into the dark hollows, the bleak valleys, and lead you through. Her light is that strong, Kanin. Be worthy of it.
There was no reason to linger. He’d found no evidence of any recent traveler, neither Kanin nor intruder. The corridor was melancholy, the air dampish and stale, but not fouled by bitterness or anger. He loosened the laces of his cloak, sweeping the garment from his shoulders, and, backwards from the long-locked gate and on beyond the junction, he brushed his tracks, his trepidations away.
Only steps into his further journey he turned.
A last observation …
Nothing. No one.
Catherine had been right. A decoy … smoke … no connection.
A thin band of tension dissolved …
But still … Kanin. Where are you?
And still … MD.
Years ago, he imagined telling Catherine, in the earliest days of the community, the chambers scattered throughout the northwest tunnels were homes to a contingent of their more ascetic membership: the hermit, an anchoress, the skeptics, the solitary … the independent, the self-sufficient. The unconventional, even for Below. Theirs was a peaceful province.
But the colony shattered. An unexplained violence occurred – grisly murders still unsolved, spoken of rarely and always in hushed, guarded voices behind a shielding hand – the obscure rationale for the drawing of the northern demarcation, a boundary not to be crossed, the world on the other side kept out. After … some moved south to their central city, but more congregated in the northeast. For years, only Julianna remained behind, as removed as Narcissa, hardly more than a myth, at last moving to a chamber nearer others, but still a strenuous descent from Stuart’ and Wren’s rooms, from Liz and Noah’s. How she managed was a mystery, and Liz reported they rarely saw her – until now – Julianna serving as a regular sentry for the crews.
The musing had slowed him. He quickened his pace. Miles to go before I sleep, if sleep would but come.
The distance from Levon’s to the entrance under Spencer and Leighton Avenue measured less than half a mile but the path was arduous and serpentine, through corridors so narrow he had to turn his shoulders to pass. To a spoked junction below Van Cortlandt Park … through another constricted passage to a jagged incline inside a fissure of bedrock. A difficult journey even for the fittest, a test of memory in or out,
Still he found the way-marker he sought – a blaze of red paint faded now to brown, two eternal palm prints side by side.
His one outstretched hand covered both impressions now, spanned all the years.
The area was off-limits to young explorers. It is a rule, Father decreed, his expression grave. And there will be no discussion. Am I understood?
Seconds passed while they stood at attention under narrowed-eye scrutiny. Father had just turned away when Devin pressed Vincent’s foot with his own and the corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly. It was only a matter of time.
The gruesome events, the mysterious place, figured in numberless late-night stories. They’d sit, six or eight or a dozen of them, cross-legged and huddled close to a brazier or a camp fire or a conglomeration of candles, and soon enough, someone would venture the magnetic words – the dog’s-leg off Spencer, the rusted grate at Leighton – and they’d all lean in, drawn to hear the story whispered again and again.
Nobody knows who. Nobody knows why.
Devin was particularly deviled by the silence maintained by the adults, but it was Mitch who roused them to that first midnight journey – dared them, called them names, strutted before them making clucking noises. He fully expected Devin to take Mitch down for the taunt. But when Father went for his bath, Devin smuggled a map from the library cabinet and made a hasty, rudimentary copy of their route. On the chosen night, with portions of their suppers wrapped in napkins and secreted in their pockets, a single canteen between them, six started out – Devin and Mitch jockeying for the lead, then Zilpha and Rebecca, then Pascal and Vincent.
They’re the littlest, Mitch sneered. They’ll turn tail and run. Just watch.
Devin ignored him, choosing to entertain rather than mock. He called their mission counting coup.
“What’s that?” asked Rebecca.
You don’t know?” Mitch laughed and pointed. “Girls. You should’a stayed home.”
“Why don’t you explain it, then,” Devin countered, “since you know everything.”
“Just a minute and I will.” Mitch busied himself with his shoelace and the group passed him by.
“You tell us, Devin,” Zilpha said, looking over her shoulder at Mitch still bent to his boot. “I’d rather hear your version of it, whatever it is, any day. Or Vincent’s.”
“It’s French,” Vincent offered. “Couper. It means to hit or strike. To cut.”
Rebecca shivered and linked her arm with Zilpha’s.
Devin rolled his eyes. “No cutting, no hitting. When we get there, you just have to run up and slap the door. The Cheyenne did that, and the Lakota. It was cool. They’d run up on an enemy and touch him and take off without getting caught.”
“Who’s gonna catch us?” Pascal squeaked.
“Nobody,” Mitch boomed. He jostled his way to the front again. “Those stories are for babies. Nothing out there. Let’s get going.”
“Nine miles as the crow flies,” Devin said. But there were no birds below.
The trip was longer on foot than it appeared on Devin’s primitive map, and although they maintained a steady march, detours were necessary to avoid the sentries, adding distance and minutes to their journey. The rumble of traffic intensified as they passed under the Cross Bronx Expressway.
“How much farther?” Rebecca asked.
“We’re past halfway,” Vincent said. “But the lookout at the reservoir will spot us if we keep going. We need to go down a level. There’s supposed to be a rope bridge and a stone staircase. Then it’s a straight shot north under the park.”
“I don’t know,” Pascal said. “It’s getting late. We won’t make it back for Saturday breakfast. Father’ll figure something’s up.”
Mitch stuck his fists under his arms and waggled his elbows again and Zilpha whirled on him, swiping the air with her torch. “Stuff it,” she barked before Mitch could make a sound.
“I have weekend duty in the nursery,” Rebecca said. “First shift. You know Mary. She expects me on time. She’ll come looking.”
“All right, all right,” Devin stopped and turned. “We should have started earlier. Who wants to go back? Who wants to go on?”
Pascal and Rebecca scuffed at the ground. Zilpha offered a rueful smile and dragged the strap of canteen over her head, passed it to Devin. “I got a piece of cake too,” she said, rooting in the pocket of her long vest. “Unless it’s all crumbled up.”
“We’ll cover for you till you get back,” Pascal promised. “Just be careful.”
The rope bridge was narrow and swayed in a current of air above a fogged gulch. Devin studied the twisted manila railings and shifted foot to foot. Mitch clucked under his breath.
“Shut up, Mitch,” Devin growled. “Shut up or go first.”
“Look at the map. Is there another way?” Vincent asked.
Devin shook his head. “We could double back about three hundred feet and then go topside through the park and over to the cemetery and down again from there, but even this late, there’ll be a lot of traffic on Jerome Avenue. That’s a lot of … exposure … above.”
Mitch smirked. “I vote for the topside route.”
“We either all take the bridge or we all turn back.” Devin drew himself to his fullest height. “And that’s the only vote we’re gonna take.”
“I’ll go first.”
Vincent crossed; then Devin, but when they turned to wave him over, Mitch had disappeared.
“You know he’ll rat us out,” Vincent said, and Devin nodded, glum but undeterred.
“This is it.” The torch wedged into a crevice, Devin fished the map from his pocket, smoothing its wrinkles against the wall. Vincent leaned in at Devin’s shoulder and traced the way from the last junction to this, their destination, the final stairwell out. The cut in the rock narrowed and steepened before them. Darker than dark. Invisible fingers of cold and colder air clawed the paper from their grasp. Vincent rushed after it before it was lost.
“Give me your hand,” Devin commanded, a can of spray paint aimed at him.
“Come on. We gotta leave our mark. Watch.” Devin shook the container, the rattle of the mixing balls loud in the confined space. A wet hiss, a blurt of crimson … Devin pressed his palm to the stone. Vincent laughed and held out his open hand.
“I bet that’ll last forever,” Devin promised as he stowed their artists’ medium. “You and me, little brother!”
“Counting coup,” Vincent murmured.
Back to the wall, he listened with all his senses. A big leap … a dozen warrants. Had Mitch found this place, he would surely recognize the man’s sour scent – the embittered envy, the churlish bravado – but the air was merely dank, unbreathed, the wind voiceless.
But they could take no chances. Too remote for permanent sentries, too vulnerable … too haunted. The entire section must be sealed off on each level, cut from their territories forever, even the approach to Levon’s gateway. He would be the last to see this territory of the tunnels.
He retraced their once-fearless path. At the bridge, the fog that on that long-ago night had hidden treacherous depths was lifted. He knelt to test the fastenings. The plank treads seemed drawn more closely together, the ropes less feathered than he remembered. A chiseled-out stone pocket held a half-dozen flares amber with pitch, still sharp in scent. As if its bearer would soon return, a long rod wound fat with flax slanted at the wall. He brought it to his nose. Sulfur and lime – a candle that could burn underwater.
He’d been this way only once, over twenty years ago, yet he’d not been the last traveler.
Someone … Who? Julianna, perhaps, and he imagined her companionless walks.
He tipped his flickering torch to the soaked flax. A hot, bright-white flame burst forth, illuminating a craggy canyon, stark grandeur carved by nature’s zeal. He looked down on coral-colored hoodoos, twisted rock spires, needles and fins and pillars, a sight that might have brought them to one knee at the edge and tied their tongues in panic. Father, Devin might have muttered, in a tone both resigned and relieved, and they might have turned back, never to cross the bridge, never to question the prohibited or brave the out-of-bounds.
Sometimes, he mused, seeing clearly into all the corners forces the greatest adventures to be abandoned.
I’ll go first …
He stepped on to the swaying bridge, his stride over each wooden rung returning a memory … the nights on her balcony, toeing a stubborn, uneasy line, the intrepid explorer stymied, the child braver than the man …
Catherine. I tried your patience, almost overlong …
Only almost, Vincent.
Mid-bridge, he lowered the flare over the abyss and the treacherous ravine both reflected and sponged-up its light. Without the shadows, the landscape would have no dimension, no mystery.
Sprit that form’d this scene,
These tumbled rock-piles grim and red,
These reckless heaven-ambitious peaks,
These gorges, turbulent-clear streams, this naked freshness,
These formless wild arrays, for reasons of their own
I know thee, savage spirit – we have communed together …5
His arm outstretched, he dropped the torch and it spiraled, end over end. Light-dark-light-dark-light-dark-light. Cleaving the river below without a splash, the candle gleamed beneath the water, a burning heart.
On his journey in search of others, he’d recovered a vision of himself: the going-first, consequences-be-borne boy he’d once been.
Catherine … I am ready.
He hurried along the stone circle, down two levels, taking an unguarded passage east into camp, his concerns addressed, a plan sharp in his mind’s eye, his duty, always, to protect those who gave him his life. His now glorious life. Catherine. He broke into a steady lope, a deliberate meditation, one that allowed the wandering of the tree-lined brook of his dream, the sun-drenched orchard. He felt the cushion of the sage-green moss. Knew the perfume of apples …
Eat something before you go.
The aroma of peppercorns, of garlic, of fire-roasted tomatoes teased the air.
Hungry. Hungry. Nearly faint with it, with the forgoing.
Not so very late. Someone was still awake, tending the fire, stirring supper.
Something left for me. His mouth watered. Need quickened his step.
He emerged from the corridor, riveted to the low flame, to the kettle. Swiftly, silently, he closed the distance, his eyes half-closed, already tasting the long-simmered stew. A lone man bent close to the grate, ladling the peposo to his bowl.
The cook-pot was scraped clean, the meager heel of bread on the cutting board a mere crust. Kanin turned, the soup spoon at his lips, the only sounds in camp the snap of embers, a smoldering moan.
“What?” Kanin grinned around a mouthful. Swallowed.
The ink-black fury coiled and struck, and a miserable bellow splintered from him. He backed away from the fire, from Kanin, from appetite and thirst and fatigue, from temperance, from forbearance. Out … into the tunnels …
Out … to the upper levels … OUT …
No light, no sensation of flight, of freedom … no escape …
A flat-footed, spine-jarring, gasping race …
Ready for you, finally ready.
The taunting voice spat the words from his shadows, mocked him …
You are ready for nothing …
Chapter title: Walt Whitman. That Shadow, My Likeness. Calamus. Leaves of Grass. 1860.
Opening quotation: Percy Bysshe Shelley. To a Skylark. 1820.
1. Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Triumph of Life.
2. Walt Whitman. Song of Myself. Leaves of Grass. 1855.
3. Vincent Aleixandre. The Poet’s Words. 1979.
4. e e cummings. [somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond]
5. Walt Whiteman. Spirit that Form’d this Scene, #282. Leaves of Grass. 1860.
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