sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 28 ~ The Fire-Born Moods
The messenger comes from that distant place
Beside us where we cannot remember
How unlikely it is that we are here.
A dream … but more than that.
Best ideas come all cloud-covered. Just have to look, just have to see. Then find – don’t take! – then do. Father says … reading’s good. Thinking-up … better, though.
He sped after the chasing rope lights – flickering strands he’d fastened to the tunnel walls – laughing. Laughing. Through a labyrinth of corridors, he followed the stream of colors delighting at what was to come. Red was his, his color, his path. The yellow lights – her lights, on her path – would soon reverse direction, he knew. Any minute now! Programmed it! She’d turn – Have to! Rules! – and run back the way she’d come. She’d round the last corner … and he’d be there, his arms already open. Heart, too. He giggled in his half-sleep, his imagination carrying him far from his sentry post, toward her, toward Jamie. Good game. Extra good … Just need–
The frantic tapping pelted his reverie. Startled from his rocky nook, Mouse pressed his ear to the pipe, his lips moving with the code. He sat back on his heels, squeezing his temples between his palms. Think now! Think harder! He leaned in again. Old code out, new code in. Vincent … back! Vincent … gone again!
Mouse, too! Go! Go!
He skidded to a noisy stop at the top of the stairs to camp. Below him, a man stared into the embers of the fire, his hands shoved into his back pockets, his supper bowl on the ground by his feet. The sleepy crew rustled in their stone berths. Across the floor, the corridor to the stone circle – the corridor Out – brightened with an oncoming torchbearer. An orange orb jounced along the tunnel walls and then Damien sprinted in, flushed and scowling. The man at the center, at the pit, looked up.
“Kanin!” The name echoed in a thundered duet.
* * *
“Little Mab, little queen. You hungry?” 1 She was alone in the house but she whispered nevertheless, turning her back on a pulsing glare from the hallway where, in its niche, the answering machine proclaimed its neglect. She sank to a low kitchen cabinet for a bag of food and the kitten squirmed from the crook of her arm, crawled out to her knee … balanced there … and after eyeing the distance, leapt to the floor. Her tail an exclamation of demand, Mab circled her feet, forcing a cautious pas-de-deux across the room. The spatter of kibble into her bowl lured the kitten up to the countertop, the old red stool with its pull-out steps positioned just so in her assistance.
Eimear leaned a hip against the sink. Outside, the garden shimmered in shades of silvers. As if by a sudden breeze through the trees, the spring leaves ruffled starward, but when she bent to the window, when she searched the night sky, no great wing stirred the air. The moon was bright but laced with clouds. Martin’s shadow still bobbed in the archway.
“Stopping to talk to Mom, he is,” she explained to Mab, who turned and turned under her stroking hand.
* * *
“Come no closer.”
Only moments ago, his fingers had brushed the night-folded, velvet petals of tulips, had traced a course over the rippled trunk of a musclewood tree, the hide-like bark of a beech. Now his hands tightened to fists. Now, preparatory, he shifted to the balls of his feet, tensed toward the doorway … the exit Martin blocked.
Necessity. His boots on the stone stairs, the bars clanging closed behind him, the door secreting shut. Safety. I must …
“Are you all right?” Martin’s query skimmed the stone wall he flattened against.
“Yes. But no closer. Please, Martin.”
“Are you ill? I’m not afraid. Let me help you.”
“You have nothing to fear.” Don’t be afraid. Please … Please don’t be afraid. How timeworn, this … preface. Already, he’d revealed too much and Martin stood before the confirming doorway. “It’s late and I believed everyone to be asleep. I thought …”
“And I’d begun to believe you an invention of my fancy, perhaps one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a Man of Dea come up from the underground, from Cnoc Meadha no less … or an angel, an angel sent to me.2
“I am … no angel.”
“Ahh,” Martin breathed. “But you are real.”
The knots in his forearms burned in reminder and his nails pricked at his palms. “Yes.”
“There’s that, then. Good. Good. Not a moment ago, I was begging a girl to tell me if I’d gone round the bend, wondering after my own self, I was.” Martin swayed from the edge of the archway. His pale sweater and silvered hair gleamed in the long, white moonlight. “Your voice … I couldn’t forget it, Vincent, couldn’t bear to think it only a dream. I heard the rush of the rain-swelled stream in it and saw all the colors of home – the golden furze, the heather’s bronze flower, the brown peat trench. Since the night we spoke, I’ve sought to call its parallel from the lowest, tenderest notes of my flute, but when I try to capture, to summon … it disappears like Irish sunlight. Like the mist o’er the bog, I cannot grasp it. Perhaps I should not … should not even attempt … ” He chuckled, a chirrup as soft as a dove’s. “But now, I’ll stop with all that. You’ll not know what to be saying after me. And what man would?” He gathered another breath, but let it dissolve to a soft sigh.
A concert of night sounds rose to fill the rest between them – cautions of the world Above. A car slowing at the corner, a sash thrown open to the rain-washed air, a dog’s defending whoof. Flight’s urgency was fierce – to race past with a stunning bellow, to leave the man dumbstruck and befuddled on the ground. Through the dense, stacked granite, as if a message tapped at his ear … Father’s voice. Did he see you? A glimpse? A glimpse! Do you know what they’d do? No distance could lessen the persistent echo, the plaguing encore, neither miles nor years …
The beginning of it, the way it surely leads. This convergence … an exquisite mystery.
His own words pushed back at the stalking darkness.
No distance … except the distance I choose to narrow.
He pulled his hood forward, tucked his chin. “Your garden is beautiful. I … followed a scent.” He paused. “But you’re just home and I am uninvited. I’ve startled you. I’m sorry.”
“No, no. Vincent. A thousand and one nights I’ve willed the doors to thin. That you’ve come through … through this one … however that’s happened, from … well, wherever, I’m happy for it.”
Beneath Martin’s assurances Vincent heard the trill of curiosity, and beneath that, Father’s estimate of his recklessness, seasoned cautions to temper – to evade – the inevitable questions. “I’m glad … but it is too late.”
“Too late for what? The neighborhood’s all snugged by now, but I never sleep just after an evening’s session. You’ll not be making noises to leave. Surely not. I’ll simply not have it. Bar the door, I will, from this side with my own feeble body. You’d be all after knocking an old man down. ‘Tisn’t in you, I’m thinking. ‘Tisn’t.”
Surprise nudged him. The coincidence of Martin’s words – Knocking an old man down – and his own imagining – dumbstruck and befuddled on the ground. Cloaked as he was, in darkness, by mantle and hood, a clue might have come from his tensioned intonation and shallow breath or, more likely, from recognition of a merely base human response. But could Martin have truly known? Had he discerned that very image from vibration and resonance? Surprise nudged him again, nudged away his chagrin at having had the thought. A welcome warmth seeped in. Affinity.
“I’ll stay then … for a short while.”
Martin rested against the archway’s wall. “What brings you? You’ve come with the story you owe me, have you?”
“Yes, yes. ‘Tis your turn. As I, ahem, mentioned the other night, I bought the first round with mine. To buy the second, sure, that’s why you’ve returned.”
“I returned …” Without thinking. “Because …” Because I am furious and envious and resentful. Lustful and hungry. Because I lost my temper and will make a dozen apologies before dawn. Because I wanted to be free, to breathe. “Because I need your advice.”
“Advice, is it? You can count on me for that. I’m full of it, I’ve been told. And I’ll get my story, won’t I, in the course of your asking?” Clouds swept the moon. Martin pushed off the stacked stone, cajoling the darkness. “Let’s go inside, shall we? The rectory kitchen’s in the back. You’d take some tea perhaps? I give my best advice over tea. And I can make coffee, believe it or not. Or perhaps you’d prefer a wee dram. I give the honest advice over a dram.”
“No. I … cannot.”
“But why? You’re not hurt or ill. I’ll not believe you to be a fugitive, careful with your face.”
Frustration welled in his throat, cluttering his reply and the silent measure of distance between his corner and the passage entrance. “I cannot explain.”
“So we’ll sit right here together then, won’t we. Remember though, I am an old man. I shall need a chair. And I have chairs. Folding chairs right here inside this little room, right here across from–” There was a hurried patter, the chink of a latch lifting, the scrape of wood over stone. An argument of tangled metal, Martin’s determination manifest. “We’ll be better off if I could sit inside the ambulatory with you, at the edge of it at least. Out of sight, the both of us, in case Eimear …” Martin hesitated, then disappeared through the opening, returning in seconds without explanation. He pushed down on the seat and grabbed the back with both hands. “I’ll just be scooting this chair toward you …”
“I don’t need a chair. Please. I must keep this distance.” He spoke softly but well above a whisper, his meaning surely clear. Didn’t I? Wasn’t it?
“… just an inch. And now I’ll ease off.” Martin took three exaggerated steps backward, folding his arms and turning to seemingly inspect the treetops across the way. His words came over his shoulder. “Say when you’re ready, yes?”
Ready. Ready or not. The moment of retreat was past … had it ever been.
“But where’re my manners!” Martin went on. “I want your story, indeed, I do, but not dry or with an empty bowl. I’ve not had my dessert this evening, occupied I was, with the music in one hand and bending the elbow with the– Well, tsk tsk, never mind that. If I run in for a snack, will you leave? If you’re truthful and say yes, I’ll plant my starving self here, and if you say no and I come out to find you’ve gone, I’ll … I’ll … be very sad.”
Vincent chuckled his answer and dragged the chair to a chosen spot.
“I’ve Mrs. Finley’s apple tart,” Martin offered. “The best baker she is, yes, yes, the very best. Ask her! She steeps the raisins in good single malt, a very good malt, I must say. And saves a splash for the apples, she does. And the pastry, crisp and melting on the tongue. You really must have some, Vincent. Hungry or no.”
“It sounds delicious.”
“Oh,‘tis, ‘Tis that. And a pint with it.”
“A beer … with pie?”
“No, son, no. Not pie. Tart. And not beer. Stout. But I see the thing. Hmmm. So first, then, a sandwich with your pint. I’ve a pantry full of Sunday food gifts. Sure, and the parish ladies think I cannot cook. Or that I shouldn’t. Or won’t. Oh, I’m not entirely knowing what it is they think. But there’s brown bread and roast beef and mustard sauce I mixed up myself. Then the tart. Then the tart.” Martin stopped for breath. “I’m blathering. Prattling on. I know that. But you’ll have the weight off your legs, won’t you, when I return? You’ll not have disappeared leaving me to hold my head, knowing I’m shy of a full shilling.”
Vincent! Father’s voice again – a lapping wave gritted with sand. But Martin regarded the darkness with lifted brows, a spritely smile.
A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.3 My decisions, Father. And I am sick of safety.
“I’ve talked through your entire meal, haven’t I? But you’d have enjoyed Behan’s evening, Vincent. The craic, it was. It was indeed. Perhaps …” At Martin’s feet, the concertina case served as table to a deep-sided tin and over it he brandished a glinting sterling server. “How’s it? Good? Enough, have you? Another wedge?”
The bone china plate he held was delicate, translucent, he knew, should he venture from the shadows and hold it to the light. The silver was scrolled, ornate – a pleasing weight. Like Father’s favorites. Vincent pressed his fork into the last syrup-soaked crumbs. “No. Please, no more. But tell your Mrs. Finley she is a fine baker. I know someone who’d like the recipe.”
“Tis a guarded secret, she’d say, but she’d give it up to me if I asked nicely.” Martin reached into the box he’d carried from the rectory. “Now on to the point of it all. A nightcap we’ll be having, sure?”
“Just a wee taste of the good stuff, Vincent, so I’ll not be drinking alone. You’ve had only the one jar of beer. ‘Tis nothing to add a finger to it.” Martin set two stubby tumblers on the floor and reached into the box again. The scent of tanned leather, of butter and apples and acorns poured out into the night. “And it’s The Green Spot, the finest, brought over from home. Smuggled, I must confess. A perk of the trade. I’m never inspected at customs if I wear my collar and black shirt.” He touched the rim of one glass to the other and stood, stepping out into the garden before the clear ring of crystal could subside.
Why not? He imagined Father’s reproach. Could you be more reckless, hmmmm? The conjured censure triggered what Devin called The Third Law of the Tunnels, his equal and opposite reaction. As Martin studied the sky, behind him, Vincent claimed his portion – if a finger, he assessed, a finger laid upon itself three times over.
“Ahh, yes. The amber taste of an autumn day, honey-sweet, caramel. What do you think, Vincent? I’ve shared it with no one else.”
The first sip filled his mouth with a glorious spice. “I think … it is most excellent,” he said. “And strong. And that you are a bad influence.” The second swallow, he was sure, was late summer sun.
“Well, you’ve found me out. Still friends?”
“And now, to what you came for. That advice you need.” Martin settled into his chair, stretching his legs before him.
“First a personal question. May I?” Vincent rested his elbows on his knees, the tumbler cradled in his hands. A fleeting glimmer of light reflected from the crystal facets, from his nails. “Do you always like your … job?”
“Ahh. My job. You mean my life. No, Vincent. I’ll admit I don’t. Some days, not a whit. The hospital visits remind me I’ve had all I want of sickness. I fear I’m no comfort, though I do try. I don’t care to be asked for blessings much past the christening. No matter what I’ve been taught, I wonder, who am I to offer such a thing? And I grow weary of the piddling problems, the pettinesses. Who’s roses are artificially fed against the competition’s rules. Who snubbed who in line at the greengrocer’s. Who used a cake mix, for heaven’s sake, and passed it off as homemade.” Martin fell silent and rolled his glass back and forth between his palms. “Of course, I know that’s a kind of pain speaking, that to help them, I must look within their complaints.” After a moment’s contemplation, he drained his glass. “Sometimes I’m so lonely. People believe me to be beyond the trappings of this world, Vincent. They’re careful with me, careful around me. They see the collar and expect that I’ll laugh at this, frown at that, that I … want less, when in truth, even at my age, I want everything. At heart, I’m a selfish man.”
Oy! We should all be so selfish. He almost laughed out loud, but how could he explain? He’d heard a voice from decades past, clearly, as if he sat beside him in this place. Noah’s grandfather. His odd accent, his peculiar cadence. He lifted his glass in a silent toast. To you, Levya. “But do you regret your path?”
“No. Yes. No. Oh dear. Which is it? But the real question is yours, Vincent. Why do you ask?”
“I have a friend, a brother. He’s suffering now, a great weight of conscience. And I find his behavior … maddening.”
“Is it your … job … to counsel him?”
“Not my job, but my …” My fate, my exaction. “My life. I have no choice.”
Martin nodded. “I’ve worked long hours in prison ministry. I’ve found pure evil there, but good men too. Good men caught in a whirlwind of poor choices and then confounded by the consequences. Your friend … where was he sent? Was he close to … home?”
Over a relieving hour, most of the story had spilled out. Martin listened with a quiet compassion. Eased, encouraged, he’d raised a hand to push back his hood. “No,” Vincent said. “Upstate. Lyon Mountain.”
“That far?” Martin whistled. “Almost Canada. The weather there can be brutal, the snow and ice … numbing to the spirit. But there are worse places to be. Much worse, as prisons go. His family, they’re here?”
“I’m surprised. Only thirteen months and probation. He might have been offered a closer facility.”
“We hoped for that, a … friend lobbied for that, but he pressed his attorney for … service … far from the city.”
“Well, he could hardly be farther away and visits there are weekends only.” Martin straightened and studied the swath of pale tulips. “But you say he spent his entire year alone? With no visitors? Not his wife and son? Not you?”
“There were reasons for that, Martin. Reasons why she did not go, why I could not. But Ka– But he refused to see the friends who did travel there. After a time …”
“And the surprise of the new baby? Did you agree with the withholding of that news?”
“It was not my decision.” Vincent shifted in his chair. “He declared, before he left us that his punishment would be forever. The day he turned himself in, he swore he would refuse even our letters. We begged him, argued with him … promised him, but in the end, he would have his way.”
“He was determined to make the most of it, was he not?” Martin queried softly. “And you were determined to give him this respect?”
“We felt we had no choice.” Vincent said, regret blunting his voice. In the dimness, he saw Martin fold his hands.
“A year is a long time and it can feel like forever,” Martin continued. “Eventually, your friend would need some measure of company, someone to talk with. He’d have sworn to himself he’d never smile, though, that he’d wring even more from this punishment. But one day, he’d hear himself laugh at something someone said, or he’d take an interest in a project or a book and the guilt would rocket after. He should not be be knowing happiness, he’d think, not even the pale ghost of it.”
“He won’t speak of this time.”
“Now he hides another part of his life. A man like your friend, a man whose life was blown glass all along, whose life shattered just when he thought he’d … atoned, just when the every-morning’s mask was nearly not necessary …”
Martin’s drawn-in breath rattled with fine rales, was released with a stuttery sigh. Dr. Wong’s formula might help, Vincent thought. Ping Chuan Wan – ficus simplissima, elaegnus glabra, swallowwort root. He would ask Lin for the tea pills, return one night to leave them just outside the door, with perhaps a brown bottle or two of William’s homemade brew.
He nodded, though he knew the silent agreement went unseen. “I watched his wife move through denial. Through anger and despair to hopeful apprehension. She has forgiven him. She’s willing to start again. She … loves him.”
“To be forgiven is humbling enough,” Martin said, “because we’re reminded that it cannot change the past. Only the future. And it’s sometimes easier to feel guilt, Vincent. His guilt then becomes a reason for living.”
“But he has so much more to live for!” All I have ever wanted.
A memory surfaced, one so vivid that Vincent looked down, fully expecting to see a baby nestled in his arms. At Olivia’s nod, he’d lifted the newborn from her blankets. Her tiny fist had fastened on his smallest finger, and Catherine had leaned against him, looking up with a smile so pure … He’d searched it, felt to its farthest reach … and there was no sadness, no resignation in her – only … only faith. Longing was a taste on his tongue – then and now.
“Shame is a terribly strong thing, Vincent,” Martin asserted. “That sense that we’re defective or wrongly put together at the very core of our being. He believes, perhaps knows, he might never have come clean on his own. But remember this. Only the truly good feel remorse. He must be that – a good man – to suffer so.”
In his tightened grip, the tumbler’s ridged crystal cuts were rough in his palm. Vincent swallowed against a deep ache, breastbone to throat.
“Your friend is so exposed,” Martin continued. “You’ve said that your … community … is small. He has no privacy. His journey will have switchbacks, roadblocks. He will succeed one day, falter the next and the next, succeed again. Fail. His friends will know his every stumble.”
“I understand, but there is so much love waiting.”
“You’d like to throttle him, wouldn’t you, until he begs for mercy and promises, until he realizes.”
“I would. I’ve come close.”
“I know that feeling, Vincent. I do.” The moon had traveled, and at the edge of the ambulatory, Martin sat in its slant of pewter-colored light. He retrieved his empty glass, then reached again for the bottle at his feet. The splash was loud and long. “Epictetus tells us to not make others’ troubles our own.”
Might they see each other, he was sure they shared a rueful smile. “Is that a guideline you’ve found … adoptable?”
“No,” Martin admitted. “No, I have not.” He lifted the glass just to his lips and shook his head before taking a long draught. “So,” he said, dabbing a knuckle to his mouth, “you’ve asked for words powerful enough, magical enough to change a man’s path. Hmmmm. All right. You must listen closely to these, my words of wisdom. You grip his shoulders, Vincent. You lean in close. Tell him, tell him this. Fake it, my friend. Fake it until you make it.”
He burst out with a chuff of surprise. “Is it that simple?”
“Simple it is not.”
“Did that precept work for you, Martin? Living so close to Lily, loving her, but living as her friend?”
“Her friend.” Martin set the bottle down … rose from his chair … started for the garden. At the edge of the walkway, he held out his arms, a supplicant to the sky. “I could hear her laugh from here. Hear her sing, call to her children. If she were outdoors, I’d hear Francis’s first words to her just home from work, know when he kissed her, know how sweetly she kissed him back. See these tulips, Vincent? This lavender, these roses? I planted each and every one. These stones? I laid them all. I found manual labor … necessary. Over time, I became her friend. Her true friend.” Martin leaned against a pillar. “Fake it ‘til you make it. ‘Tis a kind of affirmation, a statement that something is already true. You have only to believe a thing can be so.”
Ready. Ready for you, Catherine. “What if he doesn’t doesn’t accept the possibility?”
“Is it what he wants – to be returned to his family, to his … homeland? To be the lovelight of his wife, the protector of his children?”
“I believe it is. It must be. It is … everything.”
“Pretend to what is not and you’ll become, in truth, what you are studying to be.4 The positive thought is a powerful tool. Like any craftsman, he needs to take it up.”
“His wife … Olivia … has named her baby without him. And he – Kanin – is so changed, so angry. I worry that it’s too late. ”
Martin reclaimed his seat. “Dum spiro, spero. While I breathe, I hope. Almost a commandment, it is, an apothegm. We Irish have a saying – of course we do – the darkest hour of night is just before the day. Often, hope begins in the dark.”
“What triumphs from the dark night of the soul,” he said.
“Yes, even the Celts knew the Phoenix, knew you could fly whole and new from the heap of your own tear-sodden ashes. The marvel of second chances.”
Tear-sodden ashes. Shards of black memories – his darkest darkest night, the hard-folded square lodged in a pocket-corner over his heart its proof. The deep ache fluttered. Still there. “Pretend to what is not. That is …”
“Ovid,” Martin said. “I can take no credit for it.”
“Ovid. Epictetus. Latin and Greek philosophers.” Vincent smiled into the night. “Your penchant for the late visit. You remind me of someone.”
“Do I? I heard that very thing, just yesterday, in fact, but from a lovely, lovely young woman. I was telling her all about the waltz, that it was once considered quite risque.”
“Yes. Imagine that.”
“Her words precisely! Were you here, Vincent?”
“I was. For a while.”
“You’ll pardon me, won’t you? I was so occupied, I didn’t … hear you. You should have– Well, I need to stop saying things like that, don’t I? She, by the way, recognized my quotation from Virgil. Quite the mind, she has. Quite the mind indeed.”
Indeed. “Was it a– What did you call it?”
“A craic. Ceoil agus craic. Music and fun comes a close definition, it does. And it was, but for one thing,” Martin said. He reached for the not-quite-empty bottle, considered it, twisted on the cap. “Vincent …”
Questions. The inevitable. The reasonable. He pulled his legs in close, set his feet flat, readying to leave. He watched Martin with narrowed eyes, watched as he lodged long fingers in his white hair as if to contain his thoughts. Unease knuckled his ribs. But a breeze danced shadows along the moon-bleached grass; branches rustled against the silvered wall. Willing a deep and steady breath against the undertow of instinct, he settled again and knew a ripple of anticipation, as if before the tapestries he might reach out and this time … pass through.
Chapter title: William Butler Yeats. The Fire-Born Moods.
Opening quotation: John O’Donohue. Beauty, the Invisible Embrace. 2003.
1. Queen Mab: Wikipedia
2. Tuatha dé Dannan: A race of heroic Irish deities, skilled in art, science, poetry and magic, who lived in underground palaces called the Sidhe. In a just battle beside mortals, they fight with lances of blue flame and shields of pure white.
3. Attributed to William Greenough Thayer Shedd. 1820 – 1894.
4. Ovid. Cures for Love. 5 BC.
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