sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 30 ~ The Gentle Wind Doth Move Silently, Invisibly
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off waking toils …
And look like heralds of eternity.
Vincent sensed Martin’s restraint even as the distance between them sparked with energy. He envisioned leading the man to the doorway, leading him through and then far below, descending level by level by level, down a narrow spiral stair, through an inclined sliver of corridor – one glistening with black mica and pearly muscovite, with evening emerald and sky-blue celestine – at last to a giant’s cavern, the ceilings and walls, the floor, dazzling with crystal and amethyst, its tumbling waterfall nearly twenty stories high.
“Tell me … Is it true?”
Martin’s tone bore a willingness. A … readiness.
Spiritually, if not physically, he reminded himself, the way in his imagination, in reality, being long, the return taxing. Too much …
For now. His wish, his dream … disallowing impossibility.
Perhaps just the entry then – through the trap door, down the rough-hewn stairs – perhaps just to the secret latch that slides open the stone.
He shifted toward the archway, a single considering step.
There … are … rules, Vincent!
Father’s age-old admonition but in its perception his own voice in undertone …
The near-melding unnerved him; he deflected the ingrained reproach. More than one edict had been ignored this night – more than a dozen, if Father or the Council were to do the counting. The honed instruction, meant to awe and discipline, had long chafed, long galled. Had not the most wondrous things come to him from broken rules?
How much can you accept?
It was Rosaleen’s question of Catherine … his yet of Martin. He grasped the edges of his hood, fingering the satin binding, the blanket stitching … pulled it low about his face.
“I’ve seen no pathways of solid amber,” he replied and allowed a smile into the words.
“Then you’re saying there are cities and bridges and caverns of dia–” Martin’s laugh bubbled out. “You’re joking, you are. But I’ll admit, I’m not remembering a time I was more curious … except, well … perhaps once.” He peered over his shoulder – toward Eimear’s home and Flynn’s – and seemingly satisfied of privacy, turned back. “When we first spoke, you said … you said your home was at some distance and yet you’re–”
“Please, Martin. I cannot bear to deceive you or to answer with silence. There are … considerations. I must …”
“Consider them,” Martin finished. “Right then. Righty-O.” He stepped down onto the garden path. “But are you sure you wouldn’t like to–”
“It’s not a question of what I’d like, Martin. Please believe me. I must–”
“Go. And I should let you without whinging.” Martin turned toward the rectory door, then back. “Vincent?”
“Earlier you– A scrap of poetry. Divine that triumph … Was that Tennyson? No, no. Let me think … Coleridge?”
Vincent chuckled at the artful delay. “Wordsworth.” As I suspect you know.
“Your education, Vincent, must have been spectacular. These days, ‘tis hard to interest the young ones in the fine old words. May I ask …”
“Ah. He’s a teacher?”
Don’t tell her anything! he again heard Father chide, though from very far away now. Hadn’t he defied that instruction within minutes of its trumpeting, telling Catherine as much as she could then accept? Hadn’t it proved a glorious rebellion?
“A doctor. A teacher as well. He is,” he went on, without hesitation, “the leader of our community.”
“Is he, now? All that? I’d like to meet the man. But you know, Vincent,” Martin said, closing the topmost button of his sweater, smoothing its wide collar, “I’d have believed that last job to be yours.” In the street, a car slowed, its motor grumbly over a low throbbing bass beat until it screeched past. “Ahh, but I’d hoped that to be Flynn, home now.” He fell still and Vincent could just hear his breathing, in it a faint stridor of age and respiratory injury. “May I?” Martin rallied. “One last question?”
Flynn. He’d expected this – a last entreaty, a final plea to help the man. Habit and necessity warred with need. Already his resistance wavered. Already he searched for the possibility … a way through to possibility, to dwell there.
But then …
“Your love. Your … another. The one who keeps you close.” Martin’s voice dropped into a deep, round register. “She keeps you close … here?” He spread his arms, the moonlit garden, the shadowy ambulatory, the doorway, in indication.
He could sense the drawing-in of Martin’s brows, his puzzlement, his efforts not to pry. Still and slow-breathed, he waited, giving room and license to questions.
“Does she live nearby?”
When he didn’t answer, Martin went on. “With you, then …”
“Below. We call our world … Below.” He drew a steadying breath. “Yours we call Above. She … is a woman of both worlds.”
Of course, he could not see. How could Martin grasp all he was hearing, all that he was not …
“You told me your love was new and yet not. Where you’re from … Below … do you … are you … married?”
Surprised by a sudden, consuming desire – desire to name her, to claim her as his – fierce imperative rushed words onto his tongue – to declare, to profess, to acknowledge everything. “We are … more than that.”
“More than that!” Rocking to his toes, Martin rubbed his chin. A smile spread across his face, brilliant, wide and white, a smile turned toward him with glee and a tangible A-ha.
“Dhá anam, croí amháin,” Martin said, sighing the words. “Glanchroíoch.” 1
A deep stillness fell between them, a profound but sparkling hush. Gladness.
Vincent drew, at last, and released a conceding breath. The night had gone from pitch to charcoal … was tinging now to deep blue. With their whistling wings and somber call, mourning doves rose, scattered from their nests by the approach of dawn. A wave of exhaustion crested – another – beating against the shore of him with a steady cadence of warning, stirring cottony, pale-grey wisps into his lucent thoughts.
And worry – the weight of it laid aside these last hours – returned. The threat to their world, vague and ominous in anxious balance. The work awaiting him this day and the next and the next and the next …
And Catherine. Catherine.
Their separation was torment enough, but a cold dread hissed – dreggy foam left to seep into the sand. Mitch. If he had returned, everything was changed.
“… and I’ll talk to him.”
“What?” Vincent probed the knotting tendons of his neck. A fog was gathering behind his eyes. “I’m sorry, Martin. I … didn’t hear you. I was … I am …” He sagged to the wall.
“I’d only said to bring your friend, ummm, up. I’m glad to speak with him, with Kanin. It helps sometimes to have the uninvolved ear? Maybe even for yourself, sure, and that anger you believe you’re not allowed. Maybe for yourself and the responsibilities that have you so knackered.”
“Flah’ed out. Melted.” Martin’s voice seemed very close. “Tired, Vincent. You could have a kip here – ‘twould be having a nap to you – in the old dormitory across the way. “T’were once the meditative cells for those seeking seclusion, but I do and always have refused the word. Cell. Tsk.” He shook his head. “They’re guest rooms, with a bed, a decent feather tick and pillow. A lavatory with running water, old as it is.”
“I … Thank you, but … I must go.” Vincent bowed his head, his face averted and shrouded by his hood, by the corner’s darkness. But through the armor of his clothing, Martin’s sudden grip on his arm was firm and sure. Under it, he could not, would not retreat.
“Hmmm. I understand, or rather I–” The pressure to his arm deepened … released. “They’re never locked, Vincent,” Martin went on. “The cells, the old rooms. A hut to receive ye from the rains, should you find yourself forlorn on the hill of storms.2 Night or day …” Martin offered his hand, pale now in the ebbing darkness.
A simple handshake …
Stunned with frustration, Vincent shook his head, a slow, sad swing from side to side. Martin’s hand dropped.
“‘Tis all right, my friend. ‘Tis. ‘Tis only my habit to offer you a benediction.”
“I am sorry.”
Martin withdrew to a merciful distance. “Let me leave you with something. At least this. Listen now. Listen closely. Pian. Uaigneas. Trócair. Bráithre. Can you render it, Vincent? I’m thinking you’ll be good at the Gaelic.”
The words hovered almost tangible in the air. “Pian … pain? Bráithre. Is that … brother?”
“Very good. Good, indeed. Yes. Pian. Pain is the first lesson of a warrior … the pain of training and selfless reflection. Uaigneas. Aloneness … solitude … the second lesson where the true identity is revealed, where the path becomes both a friend and a heavy burden. Your third lesson … trócair. Compassion … compassion for others, for those less able, less willing. These lessons all … you’ve learned.
“But then … Bráithre. Brothers. Brotherhood. You who dare to live as you believe, according to your most noble dreams, to understand and control the raging tides of your emotions, to follow the course dictated by your spirit.3 You … are … not completely alone, Vincent. Bráithre. Know that it exists.”
Without a backward glance, leaving the evidence of their feast – morning’s proof – Martin strode along the stone walkway, past swaths of tulips and gillyflowers, past the silvery knots of thyme and rosemary and lavender, past the flat marble base gleaming in the last of the moonlight, giving a brush to the low hedges of melissa and hyssop, sending the scent of lemon and anise into the air. On the rectory stoop he paused only to tuck an errant branch of sweetbriar into its thorny arch. A loose board creaked. The screen door clapped. Martin’s shadowy self crossed the curtainless kitchen. A door within the rectory must have closed, for the room’s soft illumination winked out.
Vincent stepped down into the churchyard. Dewdrops glistened on every petal and leaf, and beyond the high wall, the sky was streaked purple and blue and orange. Over the subtle whisper of breeze … a warbled trill, ethereal and pure. The morning song of the wood thrush.
Whenever a man hears it, he is young. Whenever he hears it, it is a new world … and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.4
He wheeled under the gleam of the daybreak star.
* * *
Inside, in his study, Martin groped for the light switch, but froze when his thumb found the toggle. Instead, he threaded the murk to his desk, through the maze of books stacked on the floor, and fumbled for the pull-chain of the lamp. A buttery pool spread beneath the satin-glass shade. His hands planted flat on the surface, he leaned for a moment on shaking arms. Then, drawing a deep breath, he pushed aside a clutter of papers and open volumes to clear a space on the worn wood. A volley of pencils racketed over the edge, a wooden waterfall.
One hand to his heart, with the other he yanked at the bottommost drawer. Glaring at the result – only a bare inch of gap – he shoved it in and, fitting eight fingers to the grip, planting his heels, pulled back again. He groaned as he straightened and kicked at the still-stuck drawer.
The dark no impediment to familiarity, he hustled to the kitchen.
The room was veiled in steel-blue, the streetlamp light filtered by the newly leafed-out trees. He rummaged the contents of a drawer beside the stove, shoved it shut, darted to the sink, pitching utensils from the dish drainer one by one. Metal clanked against old porcelain. His own reflection ghostlike in the panes, beyond the window in the center of the garden … a great figure rounded, wide wings in black contrast to the lightening stones …
There you are, my new and rare friend.
Rooted at the counter, the long, steel spatula in hand, he closed his eyes against a flash of ivory and feathered gold, against the sound of bells and flutes, ringing like old silver lightly dropped.5
* * *
Keeping to the indigo edges, Vincent circled the churchyard. In the far corner, no window between them, two wooden doors were set into laid-stone walls. The long, vertical planks were heavy, hinged and battened. Nailed above, etched into a slab of gray-weathered cedar, a winged being kept eternal watch. The latch of old iron levered open without complaint.
Inside the narrow cell, his eyes adjusted to a gloom mitigated by a milky skylight set in the ceiling’s eastern slope. He sniffed the air, found it cool, freshened by a current through a grillwork vent. A table at the entry hosted an array of candles, a silver quiver of matches. He struck a light.
Rusted, hand-forged spikes, pounded head-high in a row along one wall, served as the room’s closet. A striped umbrella hung there, oversized, red and yellow, the handle a duck’s bill and so out of place that he laughed out loud. Beneath it, rolled tight and secured with straps, a thin pallet wrapped in a mustard-brown army blanket stood on its end. The coil of bare bedsprings glimmered. A camping mattress in a worn cardboard box – inflatable, he determined – rested atop a folded sleeping bag, beneath that a woolen army blanket.
A passage-like space connected the two rooms; as he explored, a knotted pull-string brushed his cheek. Lit by the single, bare bulb, the alcove housed an old-fashioned washroom with an elevated cistern and a long pull-chain, a yellowed china basin worn blue-black in spots. At the spin of the crosspoint handle, water stuttered out, then streamed. He drank from his hands, splashed his face and neck. The stiff towel was rough on his skin and smelled bright and sweet, like a candle Mary had once given him – the sun, she’d said, on new-mown hay. There was no mirror.
In the second room, an iron bedstead was fitted with a tufted, blue-striped mattress and a small feather pillow. Bedding folded neat and square was piled at the foot – cotton sheets and quilts worn velvety with age. He sank down. Every muscle mellowed toward sleep. Smoothing the old fabrics under his hand, he struggled with the need for rest, to forget his perimeters … to dream. He studied the rock and mortar walls. Over the headboard hung a carved plaque, testament to a life’s purpose – om et labora – prayer and work.
* * *
When Martin dared again to look, the figure in the garden had disappeared, but a pale light seeped from the dormitory’s door frame.
“Aoi a bhfuil fáilte roimhe, dlúthchara. A welcome guest you are, my friend. Welcome.”
An arc of headlamps swept the adjoining yard. He blew out a long breath. “Ahh, ‘tis Flynn,” he murmured to the empty kitchen. He opened the refrigerator and by its light, checked the clock above the stove. Tut, he mouthed. Tut-tut-tut.
* * *
The last lock keyed, Flynn eased the latch open, glad he’d finally oiled the squeaking hinges. Out of habit, he reached for the bank of switches by the door, but he curled his fingers in, chastised himself, shook his head. When he peered around the tapered column, he found Saturday’s party neatened away, the blinds open to the streetlights, the living room cast in shadows of gray and violet … the sofa empty.
So, he thought, stranded between relief and disappointment. She didn’t wait up.
The foyer’s bench was crowded with returns for the library, beside it, a black plastic bag knobby with clothes he’d promised to take to the mission a dozen times over. Fighting an urge to open the door and kick the bundle into the street, he sat down hard, shoving aside the books with his hip, grabbing for the top two before they slid to the floor. Frowning, he watched the stairwell, listened for footsteps overhead, then bent to unlace his boots. Trained for stealth, he padded to the kitchen.
Mab turned from the window at his approach, her eyes black, rimmed with only a thin circlet of brilliant copper. Unblinking, she stared at him as he crossed to the laundry room.
“What?” he mumbled, as he stripped off his tee shirt on the way.
The shallow pool was a clammy surprise to his sock feet. “Yah!” He flipped up the washer’s lid and reached in. “Damn it, it’s full!” He plowed wet fingers through his hair and cold water, slick with soap, dripped down his face.
Again at the window, Mab’s ears canted forward, her tail twitching as she bunted the glass with her forehead. Flynn stood … watching her … with his shirt and wet socks wadded together against his chest. The damp soaked through. With a snarl, he pitched them to the corner and opened the dryer, his pulse thumping in his ears, a sharp pain shooting temple to temple.
“Where’re my–” He threw the door shut, catching it in time to muffle the slam, mashing his fingers. Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Get a-hold of yourselves! His mother’s voice rang in his memory. Funny, he thought, how she always referred to me in the plural. He jammed his throbbing hand under his armpit and trudged to the refrigerator.
Chattering, Mab rose to her feet, arching her body in a long, lazy, padding stretch. She leapt from the counter, greeting him midway across the room, stopping him, pricking at his pants and legs, reaching up for his knees.
“Owww, Mabby.” Flynn wiggled his foot and side-stepped, but the kitten held on. He pried her claws loose, one at a time. Even in his arms, she was adamant … needy … noisy and vibrating against him. “What are you doing up anyway? Something out there? Wanna go outside?”
* * *
He didn’t want to leave, wanted time to ponder … to reflect … to appreciate … but daylight scrabbled at the door, the flare of it fire to his feet. It wasn’t – had never been – a choice. He’d race it home.
But maybe … just for a moment …
It was true, what he’d said – I need little sleep – and a half-hour’s repose, even a few meditative minutes could renew him. Without that respite, images loosed in his mind, flashing and weaving, gathering force and speed, and he found it more difficult to concentrate, felt himself more sensitive, more … irritable. If long without rest, he’d hear the rumbling approach of storm – the clash of cymbals, the throb of drums. Even his sight would dim.
But I can … I will … hold the center. 6
Concentrating on the sensation of his breath, he straightened his spine, expanded his lungs, allowed his gaze to soften.
Be, he bid himself. Witness. Exist. Nothing more. Nothing more …
He called up the shimmering mists, the music of the falls … imagined a dive into the water below, his eyes open to the swirl of diamonds around him, his skin teased by the sparkling froth. Descending …
Catherine … bare-skinned on a bed of satin in a chamber behind the cascade … droplets of pearl, of opal, beaded at her collarbone … on her breasts …
… pushing off, rocketing to the surface, emerging from the pool, hair slicked back, a bellow in his throat …
To a clamor of voices. Where are you, Vincent? Where?
His daydreams … wondrous, exquisite … could not be indulged.
Sadden’d and stunn’d the boding day coming.7
He was … required.
And the sun traveled on its inevitable path.
* * *
Crouched at his desk, Martin worked the spatula into the space at the top edge of the drawer, levering for the obstruction. A wad of loose papers, the hard cover of a book? Who knew what the hold-up was.
In mid-jab, the drawer still stuck, he went rigid.
Flynn home so late. Or so early. He’d be likely to walk the garden … unwilling to wake Eimear from her last hour of sleep, unwilling to meet her questioning expression. The door in the wall … was it open still? He race-walked from the room, skidded across the kitchen in a careening trot.
Hurry up after it, will ye? he heard in his mother’s voice.
* * *
Vincent replaced the heavy bar … imagined Martin trying the entry first thing upon waking. As he threaded the chain through the iron brackets, he hesitated, then pulled the links free, letting them circle on the ground … reached out to test the barricade. Enough. With his boot, he shoved the mound to the corner where the lock lay in pieces.
He closed the gates behind him – the trap door within the wall walk, the rusted fencing at the bottom of the stairs. At the secret sliding stone, he felt along the ridges for the hidden lever, hoisted the rolled mattress and blanket he’d … borrowed … from the dormitory room. He’d have – what had Martin called it – a kip in the antechamber on the other side, some time alone before he cast himself into the long day and longer night. He’d meet the crew at the worksite … later.
The wall opened to a surprise of lantern light. Groggy and blinking, their heads just raised from their folded arms and upraised knees, Mouse and Kanin waited.
* * *
In the archway, wheezing, wobbly, Martin bent his forehead to the door, one hand flat to the rutted wood.
Closed tight. Might I be– Is it possible I’m–
“What’re you doing, Martin?”
He started and wheeled. Flynn advanced on him, arriving bare-chested and bare-footed with Mab draped over his arm. Her purr revved in the still-quiet hour.
“Yeah, doing. Outside so early, armed with … a spatula.”
“I … ummmm … was out for herbs, yes, herbs for my morning omelet.”
“You’re a little out of breath for gardening, aren’t you? And I thought you fasted on Mondays.”
Martin put his hands behind his back and smiled. ‘Tis my innocent look I’m giving, Flynn. Now go on with you. Take your surely freezing self on to the house.
But light bloomed in the yard and Eimear appeared on the porch, where she leaned out gripping the railing. Mab scrabbled against Flynn’s chest, leapt to the ground and ran to her. He traced the reddening scratch, a tender gouge torn below his heart.
Eimear started down the steps. “Flynn, you’re finally home. Wherever were you?”
* * *
Mouse scrambled up. “Vincent! Went up! Didn’t come back down!”
Kanin groaned and lowered his head again to his arms. A pizza box lay at his feet.
Vincent crouched to nudge open the top, hooking one finger under its edge. One piece was missing. He let the lid fall back. His head tilted in query, he felt the corners of his mouth twitch.
“Ate your supper back at camp,” Mouse said with a cutting glance for Kanin. “Made him go get that for you. Up top.” He scuffled at the dirt. “Gone so long! Got a little hungry, waiting.”
“You should head back now,” Vincent prompted. “Kanin and I will follow after a while. Don’t worry,” he whispered, when Mouse made no move for the narrow corridor. “We’re all right.”
With a last longing look cast at the red and white carton, Mouse scampered off.
After a long-exchanged look, with a grasp of forearms, he hauled Kanin upright.
“I’m sorry,” they said in unison.
Chapter title: William Blake. Love’s Secret.
Opening Quotation: George Gordon, Lord Byron. The Dream.
- Translation from the Irish: Dhá anam, croí amháin. Glanchroíoch. Two souls, one heart. Pure-hearted.
- James Macpherson. Fragments of Ancient Poetry. X. 1761.
- Lessons from the Karate-do, translated for this story by the kind folks at irishgaelictranslator.com.
- Henry David Thoreau. From his Journals. Vol. IV. July 5, 1852.
- Donald Culross Peattie. An Almanca for Moderns. 1937.
- 6. William Butler Yeats. The Second Coming. 1919.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Pains of Sleep. 1816.
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