sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 29 ~ Like Light and Cloud-shadows
Only someone who is ready for everything,
who doesn’t exclude any experience,
even the most incomprehensible,
will live the relationship with another person
as something alive and will himself
sound the depths of his own being.
Vincent turned up his hands, an invitation in the opaque night, a gesture Martin could not see … or would not. Even now the man’s gaze was trained on the empty marble base in the center of the garden … or perhaps on something much further away.
“You have a question, Martin?”
“Forgive me, Vincent. I have so many.”
“Do you believe I will allow only the one?”
“I’m ordering my slate, just in case,” Martin said, sitting in silhouette, and Vincent saw his half-smile broaden. “Not to push my luck, or to be rude, but I’m not decided yet between who … and where.”
“And why?” Why must you sit with me in shadow, speak to me in whispers …
“No, no. I’m feeling rather confident of the why … or whys.” Martin tipped his head. “The darkness pulls in everything, and it is possible …”
“That a great presence is moving near me.” 1
“Yes,” Martin murmured. “Exactly that.” After a long pause he went on. “I’ve ventured to this spot nearly every night for more than twenty years now. ‘Tis always a sort of magic to it, I think, and after hours ‘twas my private place. You might understand the need for such a hideaway. Here, in the darkness, I’d play and pray and dream. Plan my work. Stay close, should I be needed. These past few weeks, I’ve felt a gathering, like a clock spring wound and ticking toward some profound hour. I credited the ratcheting-up to my worry for Flynn. I’ve been at such a loss, you see …”
Perhaps allowed by the cover of that darkness – that sense of aloneness – Martin spoke into the familiar shadows, his expression unguarded, changing with whatever emotion moved from heart to mind to the set of his jaw, to the wincing wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Self-reproach, Vincent read, for what Martin surely felt was failure – failure to connect, to rescue, as if his hand could reach within inches of Flynn’s, as if those inches were entirely his to bridge. Frustration. Unease. Tempered by … expectancy, by faith. Hope.
Martin raked his hair again and rubbed his face. “And there’s been something else. Not a foreboding, Vincent, but a … a fore-feeling. A dear notion it was. Lily seemed so close, so present, calling me to stay longer into the night, to be still and wait. To listen. Then, one night, I thought someone was here, and the next, I knew it, though I could not be sure of your, ummm, corporeal state. Then I heard your sigh and you spoke to me. And now it’s as if you were sent with some particular gift, even as I’m not entirely knowing what it is … or to whom it belongs.”
I bring a gift? But the gifts have come to me. Not just the garden’s balms. Not just the sharing of food and fine spirits. Not just the unburdening, the unburdening to someone without … collateral concerns.
Their blue silver chord … Catherine’s essence threaded through him and he heard her acknowledgment of him – here, Above – again. Mine. My love. My life. Her happiness, the promise he felt here, was a sense of … entry. A gift for her.
And for me. For me.
He saw Rosaleen’s young face once again pressed to the car window glass, pale as white marble, but wet now with tears born neither of fear nor pity. You must see it, Catherine had said. You must. The moon no longer wielded a knife-blade of memory.
“I am drawn to this place,” he said. “To you.”
“How did you find me, Vincent?”
“A friend, someone special, heard your music and showed me the way. Another … keeps me close.”
“Another? The word is so sweet from you, as if it were her name. Another keeps me close.” Martin’s shoulders lifted … fell. “But showed you the way from where?”
“It’s impossible to explain it all tonight.” He imagined leaving his cloak on his chair, stepping out into the garden moonlight, revealing the inexpressible with a deliberate turn. He kept his seat, but with one word – tonight – he pledged a tomorrow. “Though I should be soon–”
“Oh, don’t be thinking of going,” Martin appealed. “Not just yet, please? You see, Vincent, I’ve a confession to make. I thought at first you might have come for me, to ease my spirit. No one else on this earth knows the terrible entirety of my story, not even Lily’s girls. I’ve counseled them to follow their hearts, always. To recognize love, to pursue it. In its defense, to wield the Tuatha’s magic sword and spear – the Cliamh Solais and the Sleá Bua.2, 3 To nurture and protect it with – to bring to it – their whole selves. I can’t imagine what they’d think of me, so faint-hearted, so niddering as to let their saint of a mother slip–” An acid-etched anger crept past his small laugh and he covered his mouth with the heel of his hand.
“They must know – Eimear and Rosaleen – how you loved her … loved Lily.”
Vincent felt the probe of Martin’s thoughts, pictured him turning the pages of their conversation back and back in search of her mentioned name. Years of admonition, of drill, disallowed the accident of speech. No blunder, his admission, yet he braced himself for the questions, his hands spread on his thighs. Above the distant hum of traffic, an anxious siren whooped … and faded.
“Yes, Eimear and … Rosie,” Martin said. “We call her Rosie.” He tapped one foot – three measured triplets. “Well, now. And where was I? Yes, they know that much, the girls do. Just not the way I lost her. I’ve played the sad romantic, Vincent, covering up the envy, never having acted on my heart’s desire. And don’t you be calling it noble, as it’s been a cold bed. Oh, I’ve made the best of it, kept the vow I did take, and for Lily, it was for the best. But after all these years, after kicking my own ar– After kicking meself and pretending I was one man instead of the other, and none of that being something I ever allowed … out … it was freeing to tell you.”
“I understand your hesitation, Martin.”
“Hesitation, hmmmph. ’Twas cowardice. Let’s not glaze it with sugared words.”
“I’ve worried the same choice. What is best, not for myself, but for others. For her.”
“A-ha!” Martin chuckled. “I’ve not found a woman who enjoys her decisions made for her. Have you?”
He had to agree.
Sobered, Martin studied the ground. “What’s best for others. Even then we’re thinking selfishly, aren’t we? ‘Tis frightening to be accepted, as then we must set about keeping ourselves worthy. And so we choose against ourselves for ourselves. So we might stay in that safe place where we’re sure, if only of our loneliness, of our … objectionableness. We fit there, the lovely groove. It requires nothing further from us. To venture out we risk …”
“And you’ve done that, have you, Vincent? Ventured out?”
“You mean tonight? Through this door?”
Martin leaned on his forearms. “Do you hear a different question?”
A different question. So many questions. Unanswerable.
To pursue love, to protect it with a whole self …
Not finished. He was not finished. Not whole.
He shook his head – No – but the descent began regardless. Steep. Dark. Chin to chest, he slumped in his chair and in the imagined corridor – darker still – he saw the heavy door, chained and barred. At his approach, the rusted links slipped silently to a coil at his feet; the bar paled and diminished. Dissolved. The door swung open on a rush of vinegary air, to the dreaded passage beyond.
Ready for you, Catherine. Finally, ready.
He raised the words like armor, like a shield, but as did his footfalls, they echoed from the chiseled granite cuts. The way wound and burrowed, narrowed narrowed narrowed toward the nameless river.
The ravines where my madness lies …
Waiting. Ready for him. Beyond the heaped, hard-quarried boulders, his dark companion swayed foot to foot and prowled a rutted boundary – a familiar dance of stalemate.
My likeness … a shadow among the shadows. My terror, my abyss.
How often had he stood pressed to these grizzled rocks, his eyes averted as from the Gorgon’s gaze, his ears stopped by his hands? He’d promised her – Ready, Catherine – promised her more than mere words, promised her an act of beauty and courage.4
Denial is the only fact, perceived by the denied.5
He raised his head, moved in close …
A furrowed brow, a lined face, dark hair streaming in the winds. Mirrored eyes, a doleful blue. And in the utter silence … a call. A small, desperate plea.
I am here. I exist. Help me. 6
Through a high cavern cleft, a light astonishingly bloomed, pale green and shimmering pink, and a breeze – a morning breeze, cool and crisp and washed – stirred the untrodden dust between them.
All that we will never know …
A long, dragging, testing breath
I no longer deny.
A purposed movement. A single step.
A low, wild sound. Surprise.
Grateful … to venture out.
“Vincent?” A voice called him back. Welcomed him. “Vincent?”
Martin stood at his side, a hand reaching toward his shoulder. Though he sat in deep shadow, his draped hood concealing his downturned face, though his hands were captured under his arms, he flinched at the anticipated touch.
“Well, good, then,” Martin said, pulling back. He shuffled again to his chair. “Good. I thought– Well, you were a bit gone, my friend. But people often tell me the same thing.”
“Nochtfaidh a solas mé agus, cha dtig liom sin a sheasamh.”
“You … you know Gaelic, Vincent?”
He’d surprised himself with the stammered blurting out, but with it the grip of tension at the base of his skull lessened. “I know it from you. From Flynn. Her light will reveal me …” he began.
“And I cannot bear that,” Martin finished, with far less surprise that would be expected.
“That night …” he confided. “I shouldn’t have– I didn’t mean to–”
“Eavesdrop? Is that what you think? Don’t be naming it such. Or confessing to some perceived wrongdoing. I called out, Vincent. Called out for someone else. And you arrived.”
He heard Martin’s soft chant of gratitude. Gifts, goodness, mercy, love.
“This is the why,” Martin murmured. “The because. You reflect his pain in his voice. The gift you bring … ‘tis for Flynn.”
Flynn’s raw words flooded his memory. How can I ever be ready. There’s something dark in me. I always knew it. I’ve seen it. The power, the power of that darkness.
Too well he understood – an entity of brute potential, ranging just beneath control. Fingers of insinuating cold wrapping the bars of its chamber, the sour breath of cruel doubt through them, a feasting laughter. The aloneness. He rose to his feet. A tingling, sharp as the sting of bees, rushed his legs.
“You’re not leaving?” Martin cried out. “There’s so much– Oh, stay, won’t you? Please.”
Because Flynn’s path first crossed Catherine’s … and thus mine. Because we travel toward the same destination. We have, all of us, for weeks now. Perhaps we have all along, from the moments of our births. Because I know you. Because I know him – through Catherine’s concern, through his own words, through his pain … through my own. Because I’ve seen my own darkness, harbored it, fed it with denial. Because it will be … freeing … to speak of it.
“Divine must be that triumph,” he whispered, “when the very worst, the pain … hath something in it which the heart enjoys.”7 He rose and moved to the corner, his stance wide, his arms loose at his sides.
Aloneness … shared.
“You know Flynn’s story. Something in your voice … well, ‘tis my training to hear the unsaid words. You said you were never a soldier and you’re not police.” Martin propped his chin in his hand, waiting for an answer.
“I am neither.”
“But you appreciate his suffering. I’ve tried … tried to assure him he did only what he had to do, reminded him he saved a dozen – more – lives that day. Children, innocent children.”
“Innocent no more for what they saw.”
“As Flynn believes. He’s certain he delivers their nightmares. They are changed. But alive, Vincent. Alive!”
The cool embrace of the stone corner seeped through his cloak and shirts to his shoulders. “You’re afraid of what is in his mind. Afraid of the path he will take to atone.”
“I am, yes. Flynn is tactically trained, special weapons. He’s been called upon to … terminate situations in the past. But what happened that day …”
Special weapons. He turned his own palm up. “There was no distance. He was alone in the room with evil. Hand to hand with it.” He took a breath. “Face to face.”
“He judges there was a moment when he could have stopped.”
“His case was closed without reprimand,” he offered, shaking his head at the hollowness of his acquittance. As if official exoneration cleared the conscience, swept away the memory, the blood-hot moment of decision. Kanin’s sentencing blurred with Flynn’s. I’m the one who said this would be forever.
“Yes. Yes, it was. But he reprimands himself. He’s cutting away from all he loves. His wife, his friends. Even his garden languishes without him. He’s separating, and not just from us, from his family, but from himself. I miss him. Ahhh, and he’s a fine lad, grown to a good man. I wish you could know him, Vincent.”
“He’s strapping, he is, but gentle. A soft hand under a duck. And a playful, boyish thing. Generous. Loyal. Principled. When he came here, to our neighborhood, ‘twas because he needed a fresh start in a new school,” Martin said. “His mother marched him and his three brothers to my office before the moving van pulled away. I swear to you, Vincent, she pinched four ears in the fingers of her two small hands, propelling hundreds of pounds of boy before her as if it were nought but a baby’s pram. Flynn was sixteen, turning seventeen in a few weeks time, needing work whether he knew it or not, his mother said. Every year, it seemed, he’d be in trouble for fighting, for he’d never let the weakest ones be bullied. He’d step in, take the fight himself. He came to me with a magnificent black eye, a chipped tooth, a bent nose. Two broken fingers taped to splints. He was not always the winner.”
Vincent chuckled. “Devin – my brother – was the same.”
“A champion,” Martin said, nodding. “A fine example to you, was he? And both a prize and a trial to your parents, I’m guessing.” The words fell into a still pool – a ripple that smoothed away before it reached shore. “I’m thinking now of your friend, Kanin,” Martin continued. “About his troubles. He gave his wife a story of himself, and ‘twas a false story, and so she fell in love with an actor, a poser. If he’d told his truth, even if only to her, if he’d showed her his authentic face at the very start, and she’d gone on with him, accepted him, all his faults observed … But he didn’t give her the chance to choose and ‘tis their stumbling stone.
“But, back now, to Flynn … I took one look and hustled him to Lily. She was so ill, and her garden faltered, and I’m believing the boy might benefit from another use of his hands. And Eimear, still a girl really … there on the porch, balanced on one bare foot, the other lodged on her knee. She saw him that first day, with his black hair half down his back and eyes the blue of my mother’s good china, with all the brutal color in his face and wearing a scowl that said he’d be at the same tomorrow, taking the stand between evil and the innocent. She loved him from their beginning. She knows who he is. She’s always known.”
Martin’s story was one of tender affection, but the words carried him to a desolate place. A petroglyph carved into the granite of memory, lodged deep in his heart. A stumbling stone. Even now, the shame of it brought on a swaying queasiness, a trickled sweat. He wiped his palms on his knees.
The look in her eyes … of terror, of dismay. Their beginning. The brownstone, the … aftermath. He could never forget it.
But her words – We can’t stay here – and her hands held out to him …
Even their parting was a promise. “Goodbye … for now.”
Remember!” came Catherine’s whisper. She wasn’t sad or afraid. She was overcome with a great joy. Think, Vincent. See it. See how it really was.
She saw. And she chose.
Perhaps it wasn’t terror. Perhaps … not dismay. Not recognition. Nor even acceptance.
Like the night in the park, under his first full, heartbreaking moon, perhaps …
Perhaps redemption. Perhaps … love.
“There are those born protectors,” Martin was saying. “They can and will when others cannot, and people are grateful, truly grateful to them for it. And yet, underlying the gratitude is fear and … and a kind of jealousy, for beside such a guardian, we’re diminished. We lose by contrast. You see how the champion is treated in the world. We’re always in a debt position and it’s a debt never to be adequately repaid. How could it be? And ‘tis human nature, I suppose, that we distance ourselves from the hero, that we resent being made to feel … lesser than. The man, then … the man or woman who carries our burdens, the one who risks everything, takes supper alone. Can anyone understand? Anyone but another like him?”
Before the words fully formed, before the first was uttered, he knew a release, as if he’d found the free end of the Gordian knot. How long had it been since he’d tried to reveal himself to Father. That’s not who you are to us, he’d interrupt, his love and parent’s protection … his uncertainty … overwhelming them both. Silencing him.
His voice scraped along his throat. “What you said before, about shame … that we fear being put together wrong at our core. I have … protected … those I love. Afterward, they would tell me I’d done only what was necessary. And I’d tell myself there was no one else. That I had no choice. I know that’s right,” he whispered. “In my mind, I know that’s right. But in my heart …
“Because of who I am … what I am … this is my fate, my destiny. A ransom I must pay for my very existence. And what I fear most, what I dread to discover, is that my actions, my … choices … were selfish ones. What if … what if the truth is that I was protecting myself … providing for myself. That I did these things not for others, but so I would not be so alone, so I might know love. That all the philosophy, the reasoning, the … poetry … is just a guise for the greedy creature I am.”
“But, Vincent,” Martin said, breaking the long ensuing silence, “You’d have traded your own life for those you love to live, even if you did not.”
“I would. I will. Always.”
Martin rubbed the back of his neck. “So alone. You said ‘so you would not be so alone’.” He turned, searching the darkness of Vincent’s corner. “You have a love. She’s the kindest, the most precious. She misses you, you said. And still … you know aloneness.”
As did he.
“Would you speak with him, Vincent? With Flynn? I could offer the reassurances, recite the keen phrase, call on literature, on scripture … and I have. Nothing connects. He’s lost, riding the rocky cliffs of the Burren. He needs … fellowship.”
“Surely he has friends on the force.”
“I’m thinking he won’t be revealing himself so to them. Each must trust the other’s steady hand. He’s already having some problems at work. He’ll not be letting on more if he can help it.”
“I wish I could, Martin.”
“Why not? Is it the entry? We’d keep it our secret. He’d never have to know your road in.”
“No. Not just the entry.”
Martin rose to his feet, bending against his hand pressed at the small of his back. He took a step toward him. Another. “I want to understand. Whatever it takes, whatever you need from me, I will give it. I can’t let Flynn go, and I believe he needs you, Vincent. I believe he has something for you in exchange.”
“We might– No. No closer, please. I … don’t know. I don’t know how I … ”
With a careful, backward shuffle, Martin found a pillar to lean against. “There’s a pledge of the Tuatha dé, a promise from the grand High Kings of Tara – Is Caomhnóirí buana sinne. Fanaimid, folaithe sa dorchadas. Ní rialaíonn and t-old ar an dtír.
“We are the guardians, everlasting. We wait, hidden by darkness. Evil will not rule over the land. This is what you do. Who you are. ‘Tis rare and beautiful. There’s not so many of you walking the earth these days, Vincent. I’m thinking you’d be doing yourself some good too.” His voice softened. “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. We depend on each other. We live in each other’s shadow. Flynn is your shadow, and you, his. Warriors, the both of you.”
Decision thumped beneath his breastbone like a fist on a door.
A brother … once again. He wanted it. More than a friend. Fellowship. Counsel. A common language. The companioned silence. It was so close, so close, here in this high-walled garden, on this confluence of tides. Catherine’s dream for him, for the two of them, together in the sunshine … and the possibilities, the possibilities.
At this bridge in his mind, his next step was to a narrow plank over an unexplored gorge – an unretractable step. Catherine … how he needed her. Her ear, her sureness, her hand in his. This step should be theirs.
At last, he looked up, sensing the easterly glow blooming at the horizon. The darkest hour of all is the hour before day, he thought. Indeed, the garden’s shadows had deepened at its edges, but in the last slant of moonlight, the flowers still gleamed. Vincent’s eyes were drawn to the farthest curl of them.
“Beautiful, are they not?” Martin asked, as if he followed his gaze. “The tulips.”
Vincent started and checked his hood – still up, still shielding – but Martin still leaned against a pillar, his back to the dark corner.
“So like a woman, they are,” he went on. “The iron-strong stem that pushes for life spring after spring, that triumphs over the cold weight of winter. Their velvet dress and cheek. The scent of honey.” Martin chuckled. “Sure, I can hear the old bishop now. Martin Geraghty, that’d be highly inappropriate talk from ye, and even wronger thought.” He laughed again. “But I cannot help myself.”
“Was she happier? Lily … with Francis?”
“Oh, yes,” Martin said. “Of course she was. Francis was a handsome man, a loving father, devoted to her and his family. Confident. Generous even with me.” He pushed his hands into his pockets, peered at the night sky. “I have friends in the clergy. Episcopalians,” he intoned, drawing out the word. “I could have converted, had me own family. I wasn’t ready, Vincent, but I should have faked it.”
His time Above, nearly spent. Shorter than short. So much left unsaid. “You asked me earlier – What brings you …”
“And I maintained I was confident of the why.”
“The whys, you said. The coincidences are so many. I can’t begin to explain.”
“Ach, you’ll be leaving now; I can hear a marching song in your voice. The Mists on the Mountain. The final tune of the evening.”
“You’ll be exhausted tomorrow, Martin.”
“You mean today. As will you. But I fast on Mondays. ‘Tis my day of atonement for the nights of tart and trifle. ‘Twill pass more quickly if I stay abed ‘til noon. But … must you go? I could brew us coffee.”
“I have apologies to offer. Amends to make. I lost my temper tonight.”
“All men do, every now and then, Vincent. There’s no shame in that.”
“There are angry-making things in this world,” Martin warranted. “‘Tis only human to feel it.”
“I do not have the … privilege … of anger.”
“Anger’s not the worst thing. Letting it fester is worse. Not heeding anger’s instruction, worse still.”
“Perhaps you might help me understand that.”
“When next you visit?”
He had to smile at Martin’s at-once pleading and triumphant tone.
“Yes. When next I visit. But now–” He lifted his hands. Already the stars were fading to the coming dawn.
“I suppose I should be the one leaving first.” Martin sighed and turned. “This is all so very strange, Vincent. So strange. I see you – your shadow – not ten feet from me. Your plate is empty where once it was full. Your glass stands on the floor with foam clinging to the rim. The door in the wall is open, but come morning, ‘twill be closed again and jammed tight and except for the supper crumbs and your open chair, there’ll be no proof. No proof. But what Seamus told me … is it true? That there’s a world beneath my feet – cities and bridges and waterfalls twenty stories high? Passageways of solid amber? Caverns of diamonds?” He broke off, breathless, pushing off the pillar with a dancing step.
His whispered answer – a moth wing’s brush at the flower. A truth. A truth Martin deserved.
“It is my home.”
Chapter title: Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet. #8. 1904.
Opening quotation: Ibid.
1. Rilke. You, Darkness.
2. Cliamh Solais: Sword of Nuatha, the Sword of Light. One of the four magical treasure of the Tuatha. From it, no one could escape once it was drawn.
3. Sleá Bua: Spear of Lugh, the Spear of Victory. One of the four magical treasure of the Tuatha. It would brook no defeat of the warrior who wielded it.
4. Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet, #8.
5. Emily Dickinson. Denial is the Only Fact.
6. Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet, #8. (paraphrased)
7. William Wordsworth. XXV – Anticipation. Poems in Two Volumes. 1803.
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