sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 32 ~ The Subtle Electric Fire
(some adult content)
I give thanks for …
The waves of possibility
Breaking on the shore of dawn,
The harvest of the past
That awaits my hunger
And all the furtherings
This new day will bring.
Steam billowed into her bedroom, swept from the bath in suspiring wisps through the balcony door she’d left slightly, hopefully, ajar. Catherine stepped outside. The last mists swirled about her, vanishing like dreams upon awakening. The sun rose into a pale blue sky, shaded pastel to jewel in streaks of rose and copper and amethyst, though in the west dark clouds roiled at the horizon. She’d take her umbrella along, just in case.
Seated at her dressing table, she pulled a comb through wet hair and searched for her watch, finding it wedged in the cityscape of perfume bottles. When she pulled at the band, the face inched into clear view and she frowned at the position of the hands.
Within the roar of the blow dryer, she struggled to clear a space in her mind for the day ahead. The hours just past, the hours with Eimear and Rosie and Martin … with Vincent … held her fast. But there was a bag on her couch bulging with work and in the very place she’d dropped it Friday night, and her answering machine, flush with messages, blinked with reproach underneath the pillow she’d heaped upon it on a trip to the kitchen for water. She silenced the dryer. On the streets below, the blare and screech of traffic was a discordant symphony filling the lull.
The doors still unfastened, a purl of air circled the room. It riffled the bedding, the ribbons of her gown where it spilled across the bench … murmured against her skin, a feathered touch. Has he– But when she whirled, she was alone Her bed, the covers thrown aside, a pillow lengthwise bearing yet the imprint of her zealous embrace, called her back to dreams. If only, she thought, turning again to the mirror where her reflection wavered silvery, shimmering …
One morning Vincent had led her to this stool, having washed her hair in the shower, having massaged away the jarring predawn alarm with gentle circles at her temples, having held her in the lock of one arm, her head cradled in his hand and just beneath the spray. He’d bent to her, touched his tongue to the water pooled in the hollows of her collarbone … wrapped her in plush white toweling, urged her to sit for him … teased out the tangles he apologized for making.
She’d watched the glass where his every mirrored move was a blessing she counted – a shift of his feet, the flexing muscle of flank, of abdomen, the hitching-up of his own towel draped low on narrow hips. Her hair lay cool against her shoulders, stroked into ridges and valleys away from her face. He gathered a strand, spiraled it between his thumb and forefinger, pulled down its length …
“So dark, like honey secreted deep within the comb.”
Behind her he knelt and loosed the tuck of her wrap. It fell in folds around her.
He’d parted her hair, swept the smooth wings forward and with a slow exhale and then his lips, he warmed her nape, his tongue and teeth grazing the cords of her neck. Against the kisses down the valley of her spine, against the velvet rasp of beard, she arched into his hands; her nipples pearled … caught in the V of his fingers. She cried out when he abandoned her breasts, but his mouth was on the small of her back; his hands were sliding over her thighs, slipping between her knees.
He’d carried her to bed.
There had been a moment – fleeting, imponderable – when above her his eyes had darkened from cloudless sky to glittered cobalt. A moment when his skin flushed the color of thunder in the dark of night. When his voice … descended.
Look away …
She’d swear she heard him speak, though not with her ears, the demand resonating beneath her breastbone. There was a cooling of her skin. He’d raised his head, averted his gaze … had ceased his long, gifting stroke. With nothing more than will, she brought his face ‘round to hers. His hair fell in a golden curtain to her shoulders, glittering in the candlelight, closing out the world.
She shook her head – slowly – denying him this one thing.
No. I won’t. I won’t look away.
And then – not from his lips, but from within …
Catherine … I am. I … am …
She’d had no time to deliberate.
His affirmation rushed through her as if a flame were tipped to long-stacked tinder. A sudden saber of light dimmed her vision to black. She was weightless with him, rocked in the eddy of the nameless river, wrapped with him, the surly bonds of earth slipped, their darkness a rapture and a glory …
After he’d departed, she’d taken a second shower. Under the pulsing spray, she wondered if she’d truly seen … If she’d truly heard …
Even now, she wasn’t entirely sure. But what he’d said to her on the rooftop …
All that we will never know …
If I no longer deny …
If I give the darkness freedom …
She opened her eyes to her reflection and the sun streaming in, to that truth beyond knowledge …
Our bond, Catherine. In concurrence.
A second alarm rang, set the night before as insurance against her anticipated reluctance. This won’t do, she thought. With a weak laugh, she pushed away from her dresser. In the kitchen, she went straight for the kettle, filling it with water from the three-gallon bottle on its stand in the corner, setting it on the flame.
Owww, she thought, rotating her shoulders. An ache plucked at her. Is that from sleeping on the ground? She ran the tap water hot to warm her mug and the glass French press, then leaned her hip against the counter to wait for the whistle.
I really should get going …
Instead, she closed her eyes, taking in the scent of the coffee beans – Panama Geisha this week – anticipating the clarity of the upcoming brew, its makings another tether to her life below.
Water was delivered to her now, water captured from the mineral spring at the ledge at the falls. Every Monday morning, she found two bottles at her door. On the rare occasions when she made after-theater coffee for friends or had people over for dinner, someone would demand to know why the taste of their water, purchased from the same company as her bottle’s label, seemed different. She could only shrug and shake her head. At least she could – and did – direct them to her coffee seller.
Phillip and Iris. Last fall at Mary’s birthday party, she’d met the Helpers who for years had supplied William with the green coffee beans he roasted himself and Father with his favored British blend of tea, one she herself loved, a delicate, smokey cup, winey and rich with malt. Father greeted each new packet of loose leaves with the glee of a child on Christmas morning.
She’d been standing with Sebastian at the railing in the Great Hall, watching as Vincent led Mary to the floor for the first dance of the evening. With his arms braced on the bannister, his hands clasped, Sebastian sighed and hung his head. “How long is long enough?” he’d mumbled. Something in his tone told her his question wasn’t for her … or for Vincent.
Mary? She saw it now, should have seen it all along.
Before she could turn to him, a burst of conversation captured her attention. A few steps away, William stood with two guests, a man only an inch or two taller than Catherine and a woman surely six feet tall. “It’s satisfactory,” William was insisting, “to roast just once each week.” Each kitchen assistant was assigned a turn with the hand-cranked roaster and then the grinder, he explained, adding with a chuckle that relief might well appear, should someone have been caught rummaging the pantry shelves after hours and been assigned extra kitchen duty because of it.
“Three or four hooligans, an hour each,” William went on. “That gets her done – seven days worth of ground coffee, ready and waiting.” Turning from a frowning Phillip, frowning himself, William hurried away, waving a warning at Kipper and Geoffrey skulking too near the keg of home brew.
“One should roast every day, just enough,” Phillip called out. “I’ve told you and told you. Begged you.” His lips turned down and Iris took his arm, patting it with sympathy. Catherine was sure she saw tears form in the corners of their eyes.
At her glance, Sebastien tipped his hat and ambled away, his melancholy masked once more.
“I could use some coffee advice,” Catherine proffered.
“Ahhh.” Philip’s smile was sudden, startling against his espresso-colored skin. “Let me guess. Decent one day, oily murk the next? You’ve tried three machines, each more expensive than the last and it’s still a crapshoot?”
Catherine nodded. “How did–”
“We just know, dear.” Iris led her down the stairs to a small table, where she and Phillip settled into chairs, their faces solemn and their eyes wide.
“We can help you,” they said as one.
The following Saturday her telephone rang at eight-thirty in the morning. She was just in from her run and had a day’s work spread over her dining table. Visitor, her doorman announced.
And then Iris was at her door, the handle of a large canvas shopping bag gripped in both hands. She sniffed the air and a sadness creased her face. “We couldn’t let you go on living like this, burning your already frightening coffee. I’ve brought you the fix for–” She eyed the coffee maker steaming on the sideboard. “For … that.”
Catherine laughed and ushered her inside. She marched to the dining area and removed the carafe, hurrying it to the sink. She unplugged the newest machine – a step up from the Mr. Coffee it replaced at least – and set it outside on the balcony table. “Out of sight,” she said, dusting her hands.
Iris unpacked a bag of coffee beans and two French presses, one tall, the other a miniature version in a filigreed silver cage. “I know you young women are too busy to roast, but you should grind every morning or …” She swallowed hard and lifted a black box grinder from her bag. “Or at least every other morning. See, you sit down and hold this one between your legs. Perhaps Vincent could …” She looked around the room, then back at her, her expression unreadable. “We’ll send you some beans along, freshly roasted, special delivery. Please, please promise me. Promise me you’ll never buy stale, ground, packaged–” Iris broke off with a grimace of pain.
“Promise,” Catherine said and crossed her heart.
That afternoon, the first bottles of water were delivered. “Benny!” she’d cried when she answered his knock.
“Nope. I’m Jimmy. But I know you, Catherine. I’ve delivered a few messages to you on the bike. Never had time to explain.”
“You’re … twins?”
He shrugged and grinned and trundled the specialized dolly with its cargo back and forth.
Soon an aromatic package arrived in her mailbox and three days later, another, and after that, a third. Not once had they forgotten her – small amounts, a different bean or blend or roast each time. After a week, she admitted defeat and purchased an electric burr grinder from Berceli’s, though lately Vincent had taken to the task of hand grinding, seated on the undersized chair in her kitchen, the gifted hand-tool clamped between his knees, a contented smile on his face.
They’d given her directions to their store written in squared script on the back of a business card imprinted only with their names and an invitation to visit. Not all that far from St. Vincent’s hospital, she’d mused then. Or from Rosie’s shop, she realized now. Their store was a treasure trove of aroma and sight and sound. And people. Rosie would love it. Eimear too. I wonder if they already know each other?
The kettle chirped and she snapped off the burner. With a longing look at the larger pot, she measured in the coarse grounds and streamed water into the single server, twisted the timer’s dial and began the five-minute wait.
Forever ago. And it seemed so, though only two weeks had passed since he’d been with her, here in the kitchen in the blue-dark of morning. She’d been standing at the stovetop that last day waiting for the wail of the whistle when he was suddenly behind her wearing the soft robe she’d found for him, his hands at her waist, his cheek turned to her crown. A minute ticked by; a rustle, like wind in the treetops, gathered within the kettle. He’d tightened his grip and she’d felt the quickening of his breath, the press of his desire against her. He nuzzled at her neck …
Oh, Catherine. The excitement.
She’d shut off the flame, turned to him, tugged away the belt of his robe. Yes, she said, backing him through the kitchen doorway. The excitement.
She’d given him no chance to undress. The robe open, its plush fabric spread beneath him on the bed, she moved over him, tasting him … the knob of his ankle, the ridge of muscle at his knee. She dipped her tongue into his navel, pressing her smile against his skin when he flinched. It tickled, she knew, but undeterred, she rained more than smiles upon him. I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem. Stroking him, then, with more than words …
Afterward, his arms widespread, she’d slid her own inside the robe’s sleeves. His ribcage heaved and she rested there, cheek to heart, until thought returned, until words …
She shifted, cuddled to his side … smoothed the stitched lapel over his chest. This color, Vincent. So beautiful on you. It was yours, the moment I saw it.
What is it called, this color, he’d asked … laughed when she told him, sighed and closed his arms around her.
Lion, she’d whispered. The tag called it ‘Lion’.
She wore his robe now, craving the scent of him, though in the few weeks of his possession, there’d been little opportunity for it to acquire his cedary-sandalwood, amber-musk scent. On-again, off-again. She tried to smile at her attempt at levity, but she managed only a hitch of breath and wrapped herself tighter within its embrace. The coffee’s timer dinged. She poured and stirred and sipped, but found her morning cup not as satisfying taken alone.
All the clocks of her kitchen – the stove, the microwave, the radio – glared at her. Over the rim of her mug, she glared back and tried to shuttle her meandering thoughts into the channel of work. Should she leave in the next twenty minutes, she’d be just pardonably late, but there was unsorted mail on her dining table and the sun lit the balcony. Pulling back the curtains, she remembered Rosie demanding Joe’s watch, that he’d pocketed it with a dazed expression. If she were lucky, he might still be unaware of the hour.
Her second cup of coffee half-finished, she studied the donor’s flyer from the Naumburg Orchestra, pleased to see Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings on the summer concert schedule. He loves that one. The center spread was a lush illustration, two emerald-colored pages edged with Celtic ornamentation. Stanford’s Irish Rhapsodies! The entire series! The performances were set for June and July, but she ached to tell him now.
Reaching for her checkbook, a captivating vision took shape. Together under the bandshell, beneath the first row … pillowed and blanketed from the stone and cold … Eimear was there with them. And Flynn. Rosie too … with Joe.
In a flood, the depth and breadth of the past days washed over her. Rosie’s sculpture … It was Vincent. She should know him. Vincent … grateful now for that night under the full moon. Theirs would be a magical reuniting. Eimear … his shirt in her hands.
I want to share all of this.
We have to … do something, Vincent. We must. Months ago, I met Flynn and his pain was your pain. I saw it in his eyes. And Eimear, the meaning of her name … I remember what you told me, what Brigit said about you, about Cú Chulainn. Then I saw her again … Eimear … in Rosie’s shop and found the gift I brought to you, the bronze and the geode. Then at Rosie’s shop again, the marble angel, her story. Hers that is also yours. The music you heard at the ceilidh. The entry within the wall. And Martin. You spoke to him; you told me you did. There’s something true between us, between us all. So little separates us. I feel it. It’s warm and good and for the first time I think I could …
But guilt surged, curling over, breaking on her shoulders. I’m … I’m thinking of myself.
She wheeled from the materializing vista, the leafing-out, the blossoming …
Kanin … Is he back? Is he all right? Could it really be Mitch, back to plague us all? It can’t be. It just … can’t.
But even if it weren’t, the worst must be considered, the unnamed threat beaten back with stone-fall and craft.
With effort and fortitude and sacrifice. His … the work crews’ he led.
Hers as well …
An image slipped in, amorphous, then unblurred. In Rosie’s apartment, she’d studied a sepia-toned photograph from World War II. Grand Central Station, a shaft of morning light. A man in uniform, frozen in a half-turn, his stoic wave to a smiling wife and saluting son. Others, she was reminded, had suffered longer. And more, she scolded herself, thinking of Olivia – distraught and anxious. Of Kanin – bewildered and self-condemning.
Oh, Vincent, how I–
The bond between them – the singing wire of her mind and heart – was a mystery, but she couldn’t … wouldn’t … burden him. She deflected the icy dread Mitch’s name invoked. Corralled her yearning to confide in Eimear. Consoled her restless self with the anticipation of reunion.
Faith. Courage. A chord struck in her heart.
I have that. I do. And patience. If I’ve learned anything …
She folded her arms on the table and lowered her chin to rest, her gaze gliding over the changed apartment. A half-dozen trips to her basement storage locker and a few keepsakes gleaned from her father’s home did not adequately replace the things she’d moved Below. Her apartment seemed smaller somehow, duller, less … purposed. Of the few friends visiting in the last weeks, only Jenny remarked on the variations. Raising her brows, giving her a pointed look, she stared at the sculpture returned to its stand by her door. “Oh. The horns are back,” she’d said, lapsing into a short but awkward silence.
Her head hurt even to imagine the bright lights of her downtown office, the din and argument, the attack she’d have to make on a teetering stack of affidavits and motions. Here the big storm is still on … She turned her cheek to her arms, wishing the day were over, that it were nighttime, that she could expect the soft, tentative tap he still gave before crossing her threshold.
When this is done, when your work is finished and you’ve come home, we’ll talk about Helpers, won’t we, Vincent, how they’re chosen? And about friends. About … tomorrow.
Like birds’ wings against a window, there was a skittering sound. A tapping. Someone at the door?
Probably Jimmy with the water delivery.
She rose, remembering the empty bottles in her kitchen.
* * *
He sat up, scooted backward to lean against the wall, raising his knees into the circle of his arms. Even with the borrowed mattress and the pillow he’d found crushed at the center of the bedroll, the stone seemed cold and unforgiving. He’d slept, but the hour was fitful and fraught with dreams. The night before, with Catherine in the crook of his arm, with her under his cloak curled to him on his pallet, he’d taken the bare ground beside her, slipping easily into the deep meditation that gave him true rest. But now his thoughts were unsettled, a tangled skein of determination, annoyance, curiosity and delight. A part of him was far away in the most northern tunnels, methodically laying stone upon stone, closing old doorways, opening new and secret portals. Working with focus and intensity to finish, to succeed. A part of him held Kanin in a steely grip, whispered cold consequence into his ear, sent him home … or gone. His mind replayed the past hours of treasured conversation Above, the past days of magnetic pull that would not be denied. Like a heartbeat, Flynn’s name sounded, repeated … and behind it, Martin’s promise … Bráithre.
And overarching, both understory and canopy, everything …
A warmth crept up from his collar. He tried to shake it away with a toss of his head, but the vision came, all his senses gathered up, his memories nearly tangible in the low lantern light. She was liquid jewel beneath him – ruby and emerald, rose-tourmaline and topaz – on a bed of ivory. The keenness of her fire was his, the taste of her nectar on his tongue. More than the desire to possess, he wanted … yes … to be one … with her, to transfigure to a new and brilliant being. She was the giver of stars.
Once he’d come so close to disclosing his truth … and now he’d vowed to her to no longer deny …
At his temple, a rubber hammer struck an anvil once … twice. Then again. He rubbed his face, reached for the canteen Mouse had left for him. Splashed his cheeks and neck with the chill water from it, drank long and deep. He rocked forward, rose to his feet.
Miles to go, he said to no one, his head tipped back, a fog creeping in, clouding his thoughts. And promises to keep.
* * *
The tapping ceased. A note came slipping under her door, the butter-yellow envelope Father favored for correspondence. She started across the floor to retrieve it, but jumped and froze at the ring of her telephone. Despite being muffled, the sound still blared. Joe, she expected, but when the answering machine picked up, she heard Jenny’s voice.
Where are you, Cathy? I called you yesterday at least eight times! I need to talk to you. Today. Call me or I’m coming to your office.
“Well, that explains the messages, most of them anyway,” Catherine said to the empty apartment. For a long moment, she stood at the telephone table, then removed the pillow. The counter blinked a red double digit. The erase button was a strong temptation, but instead, she turned on her heel.
Sharply creased in precise thirds, the heavy notepaper bore an invitation –
We miss you, Catherine. I miss you. I’d be honored ~ pleased ~ if you’d join me for supper tonight or at least a late tea?
I am ever your loving father,
Not so long ago, she’d have rejoiced at such a request. How far we’ve come! But how can I go for supper? How can I go Below at all, unless I hear from Vincent. Unless I have news of Kanin’s return. I can’t lie to Father or pretend with Olivia to know nothing about what’s happened. Aniela said she’d call or send word, but who knows where I’ll be this morning.
She took a surreptitious look at the clock on her mantle and groaned.
No water delivery greeted her when she opened her door and stepped into the hallway. A messenger had come and gone; Jimmy had yet to arrive. Juggling her briefcase and purse and a folder of notes she should read in the taxi, she scooted the two empty jugs over the threshold with her foot and fumbled her key into the locks. The elevator was crowded with glum passengers and she fit right in.
“Share? We’re going your way.”
It was her neighbor on the sidewalk, a man she’d met in the storage area late one afternoon. She’d been on her way Below and had to waste a precious hour sorting a box for the second time, waiting for privacy. He’d been eager to talk, though mostly about himself. Now he held the cab’s door open for her and she climbed in, smiling a hello at the woman already pressed against the window. The driver pulled away from the curb just as Benny sailed past on his bike, his hair flying, a pink bubble of gum forced roundly into the wind. A horn beeped behind her. Craning her neck to the rear window, she saw Jimmy’s battered, wood-paneled station wagon nose into the space her departing cab created, saw Benny cut across the crawl of traffic and hop the curb. She’d never seen the twins together. But squeezed between two people already busy with calculators and spreadsheets, she had no hope of exiting the lurching car. With a flounce, she settled into her seat, acquiescing to the demands of the day. The sky had darkened and a spatter of rain drilled the roof overhead.
Drat. I forgot my umbrella.
Chapter Title: Walt Whitman. Oh, you whom I often and silently come … from Song of Myself. Leaves of Grass. 1860.
Opening Quotation: John O’Donohue. On Waking. From To Bless the Space Between Us. 2008.
- Frank McCourt. From Angela’s Ashes and ’Tis. “The Excitement” is his term for lovemaking.
- Pablo Neruda. Every Day You Play …
- Walt Whitman. To You. Leaves of Grass. 1860.
- from I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 3: Counterparts.
- from Season 1: Masques.
- from I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 7: Love-Throb in the Heart.
- Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to Clara Rilke. August 17, 1904.
- Amy Lowell. The Giver of Stars. From Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. 1914.
- Robert Frost. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. 1923.
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