sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 36 ~ Hope Grew ‘Round Me, Like the Twining Vine
The essence of rhythm
Is the preparation of a new event
By the ending of a previous one.
Everything that prepares a future creates rhythm.
At the woman’s greeting Martin looked up from the tea service he’d assembled. Not quite a single step out of its arc, the swinging door nearly caught him, grazing his shoulder, sending the cups into a dance upon their saucers. Recognition took his breath.
And the room spiraled.
On one shoulder, his starched and buttoned gnome of reason tugged with exasperation at his earlobe. Coincidence. A fluke. A happy accident. Don’t read anything more into it–
Than the Universe is gifting? From his other shoulder, a favored brownie cooed, a white swan’s feather in her grasp, a swan’s feather soft as roses plucked from the Seven Woods.1 More than coincidence. More than that, she murmured at his ear.
A velvet sweep of memory …
His voice – the low flute, the throaty, reedy rasp …
We are … more than that.
Catherine hurried across the floor. Through his fogged vision he could see the brimming concern in her eyes, in her eyes bright and sparkling as the sun on Coole Lough, in her eyes the color of gray-green moss pathside to Thoor Ballylee. Only when her fingertips grazed his white-knuckled clutch of the carrier’s handles did he remember to breathe.
“Catriona,” he whispered. Glanchroíoch!”
“What?” She steadied the tray, quieting the skittering china. “Are you all right?”
“Dhá anam, aon croí amháin.”
With silent insistence she pulled the carrier from his grip. “I should be surprised to see you here,” she said, her intonation as sure as a dove’s wings around her hatchlings.
“Yet surprised we are not?” he replied, surer still.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
At the bay window, Martin pushed aside a stack of magazines and a potted violet starred with pale lilac blooms. Catherine slid the tray into the clearing.
“You’re here for Sam?” he asked.
“And so you’ve met Seamus?” he followed up, a hand to his friend’s shoulder.
A moment of silence bloomed.
As did Martin’s smile.
As did her own … she could feel it on her face.
Then … this, from Sam.
“You two know each other?” he asked as he rustled for his chair, angling to sit. “How’s that?”
Catherine reached to set the brake firmly against one wheel, then against the other, assessing her audience through a veil of hair. There was a glazed serenity in Seamus’s expression, a sudden, blinking vagueness, an awaiting. Martin’s was courtly, accommodating, patient … knowing in a way that both intrigued and reassured her. Of the four, Sam was the wondering one, his brows raised, his gaze shifting face to face.
Over the months and years, at the celebrations and ceremonies, at simple dinners, at council meetings, she’d met dozens of Helpers. Above, their paths crossed with an astonishing regularity, a glance in anonymous passing not always feasible. Or satisfying. Or acceptable, bearable. Sometimes … sometimes she just had to … engage.
How do you know each other … her incognizant companions – friends, co-workers – would often inquire.
Jenny had asked that same question more than once, though at first she’d shown little curiosity beyond whatever easy explanation she’d offered, laughing in a loving and proud way, teasing Catherine for her eccentricities, for her … expansiveness. Lately, though, at each nebulous introduction Jenny’s eyes crinkled with a mild bewilderment, her greeting reserved and unsure. A sad chasm had opened between them.
Still narrow, Catherine silently implored. Please, still narrow.
Joe teased her as well, but underscoring his light-heartedness was recognition. He saw the line – her line, her mysterious, unshakeable line – and wouldn’t cross it.
Father urged avoidance – Vincent, consolation – but both assured her all concerned would understand if she were in the company of friends and couldn’t acknowledge a Helper. And though she’d had to do just that sometimes, it felt wrong. They were her friends, her family. In her dreams, they walked a blended world.
But this was a first … the question coming from one within her Tunnel circle. And Sam was waiting, expectant.
“Martin and I have friends in common,” Catherine said.
“And we’re becoming friends in our own right, are we not?” Martin finished.
“How ‘bout that,” Sam observed. “A coincidence, huh? Both of yous here–”
“No such,” Seamus contradicted without looking up. “Providence.”
From the convent’s bell tower, a muted carillon rang – a harmonic of Here, of Peace, of Embrace.
She grinned at a nodding, satisfied Sam, bent then to Seamus. “What’s all that in the box? May I?”
With a chortle and a flourish, Seamus deposited the rosewood side-angle scope into her palm.
“Look, Sam!” she insisted, the toy in her outstretched hand. Sam took it from her, holding it to his eye.
“You know what that is?” Martin asked.
“Sure, my boy had one–” Sam cut his words short and looked away. Between them, an odd hush fell, a shift, a looking-away measured by the tick of the round schoolroom clock above the swinging kitchen door.
“Tá tú go h-álainn,” Seamus crowed, capturing their attentions. “Duine flaithiúlach.”
“There he goes again, speaking the gobbledy-gook,” Sam bantered with what Catherine sensed was a grateful chuckle. “Who knows what he just said to you. He thinks he can get by with anything, old as he is and a priest to boot.”
Martin leaned against the ledge of the bay window. “Indeed, he’s the curate before me, leaving me to the place when he retired. Twenty-five years I’ve tried to fill his shoes.”
“Bí trean, seas an fód.”
“Hush with the leprechaun-ese, will ya?” Sam teased. He looked up at Martin. “That wasn’t an insult, was it? Because if it was, I might have to fight him.”
“In his day,” Martin told her, “Seamus Barry the hurler could take down a goliath, scrappy thing that he was. Not so big, you know, but the heart of a lion. He could shoulder and block and strike the sliotar with the camán sending it four hundred feet at one hundred miles an hour. He’d put the pure fear, he would. Or so he says.”
Seamus cackled with glee and tapped his knuckles together. “Mothaím le neart na naomh inniu.”
Before Sam could utter a second protest of his mysterious language, Sister Norberta scurried in. Martin straightened his shoulders and put his hands behind his back and Sam folded his in his lap, both turning innocent, wide eyes her way. “I heard squealing all the way down the hall,” she said, her admonition negated by a toothy smile and a full face of laugh lines. “There’s entirely too much fun being had in here! Father M, are you causing trouble again? And did you bring the apple tart you mentioned?”
Martin hung his head. “I confess, there was company up last evening and I was obliged to share it. Next week. Next week, for sure.”
“I suppose I’m obliged to forgive you, and I do, though just barely.” She lifted the box from Sam’s knees. “What’s this? A hobo’s box! And heavy too. Shall we pack it up? The doctor’s here to check you over.” She held the open container out to Sam, who wedged the scope into an empty corner. With it latched shut, she set it on the window ledge.
“The keys!” Seamus cried out, reaching for the box again, opening and closing his fingers in anxious, fruitless grasp. “The keys! Where are they? Lev will be up soon, all after a game of chess. Those are Lev’s cups. His Kiddush cups. Is it Friday? He’ll want them.” He closed his eyes. “The door. It’s locked. I’ll need those keys.” His voice fell away to a chanting lament.
“It’s only Monday, Father. We’ll find your keys long before Friday.” The Sister patted his shoulder and tucked the quilt beneath his knees. “Ready to go?” she asked, unlocking his wheels. He raised his head, his irises floes of blue ice. A smile deepened every wrinkle.“Glanchroíoch!” he crooned. “Laoch neamheaglach. Grá, neart, ceangaltas, seasmhact. Dhá anam, aon croí amháin.”
Sister Norberta looked from a startled Catherine to Sam to Martin. “Not to worry. Sometimes he finds himself home at last, walking the vast green fields of Clare. He’s home more and more these days.” She smoothed his sparse hair and touched the back of her hand to his forehead and smoothed again to press two fingers beneath his ear. After a silent countdown, a nod, and a gentle patting of the man’s cheek, she wheeled the chair toward the door.
“Sam,” she said in passing, “Sr. Mary Xavier will collect you for therapy in twenty minutes. Will you have your visit in by then? We can push your time back if you want, but you’ll not get out of it, so no whimpering.”
“Save me, Catherine. They use the rack here.”
“Hahaha-ha-ha,” Sister Norberta trilled as she pulled the door closed behind her.
Saturday morning cartoons, Woody Woodpecker on the television, Dad on the couch with me watching too, a bowl of cold cereal in his hands. Catherine chuckled at the memory Sister Norberta’s teasing laugh had stirred … and then sobered. Did you and Mitch watch cartoons together, Sam? Before he went below to live? There surely was a time …
“Actually, Sam,” she said, “you’re looking really good. Whatever you’re doing, you should keep doing. But I do want to talk to you. Could we go for a walk? Down to the library maybe?”
“Go for a roll, you mean,” Sam said with a resigned sigh.
“No need,” Martin interjected. “No need to leave. You take the tea while it’s hot still and I’ll pay a wee visit to Sister Felice. She has some … umm … fundraising ideas she wants to share.” He lingered in the doorway. “Would you be needing a ride somewhere after, Catherine? I have my car and I’m still a fair driver. Or if you would, might we have lunch? I’ve a favorite place not five blocks from here and your company would be a gift.”
“Well, I have run you off from your tea.”
“Good then,” he said and started away.
“Wait!” Catherine called and he reappeared, curving around the door jamb. “Seamus’s box – should you take it to him?”
“‘Tis really my box, after all. Left for me twenty years ago.”
“That sounds mysterious. And what did Seamus say? I’m dying of curiosity.” And you, Martin, she thought. What did you say when you first saw me here?
“A mystery, indeed, and a curiousness we can discuss over bread and jam. Could you bring it out with you? And ‘tis more than all right,” Martin said in parting, “if you want to have a peek in.”
Alone with Sam, she sighed and offered a smile, though she felt it was thin.
He does look well. And I’m going to upset him.
How to begin.
He’d been out of the hospital a few weeks, deemed strong enough, well enough to return home, but he’d weakened in spirit. As they’d sealed the entrance beneath his building months before, Vincent had traveled the narrow, littered alleys to visit with him night after night, arguing, then pleading, for him to move below.
“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t,” Sam repeated, his face turned to the wall. “It’s my fault, what happened. I can’t.”
“He won’t come,” Vincent later told the council. “We must find another way.”
Father had appealed to Peter, whose contacts provided a possibility, who managed the preliminary paperwork. And one night, Catherine knocked on Sam’s door. At her call, Vincent let her in and for hours they sat at his bedside. At last, Sam had agreed. Seven months of waiting for a room brought him here, and a year later, Sam smiled once again. His hair and mustache were trimmed and neat. Though he pruned the shrubs and roses from his wheel chair, he could now walk short distances on even ground with a cane. He played cards. Talked and laughed and ate with appetite.
Sam wasn’t hidden away. On the day Peter and she had gone for him, the day they’d moved him here, a clutch of friends had seen him off, friends from the building, from the old neighborhood. A more robust few had made the trip to visit him a month into his residency, bearing well-wishes and tins of cookies and small cakes from those too frail to come along. The building’s super had his forwarding address, she remembered, though Sam fretted that it was a mistake to give it to him. If Mitch comes back, he’ll know right where find me.
Mitch can be charming, Vincent had pointed out, if he wants something …
She made a mental note to visit the super, to ask … to warn …
From a row lining the wall, she dragged a chair close to Sam’s, angled so she might watch the door.
“Catherine, you’re a sight for sore eyes. It’s been too long.”
“So much has happened since I was last here. Vincent and I …”
“I know!” His eyes were bright. “Sarah told me her last visit. I wish I coulda made it to the party. Tell Vincent I said he’s a lucky man, okay?”
“He misses you, Sam. Very much. He wants to come to see you, but …”
“This place … it’s far.” He chuckled and looked over his shoulder. “And the Sisters are all eagle-eyes and they never sleep.”
“It’s a good place.”
Sam nodded. “I’m … I’m happy for you. For you both. Vincent. I … love him.”
“I know you do.” She closed her hand over his, her next necessary words sure to wound.
“What? You look like you swallowed something sour. Spit it out.”
“It’s about Mitch.”
Sam paled and pulled his hand away, quieting its sudden shaking with the other, pressing both against a jittery leg.
“When Sarah was here … did she tell you? There’s been some trouble north of the community. They’re reworking the entrances in the Bronx,” she told him. “Guarding against … well … guarding. Miriam had sentry duty and she heard something beyond a rock fall they’d created. A group of … troublemakers. She heard a name. Initials, really. MD. And when she told Vincent, he thought …”
“Of course, he thought.” His face grayed and he bowed his head. “How can you even look at me, Catherine? After what … my son … did to you.”
“No one blames you, Sam.
“They should. You should. Vincent told me what he wanted to do to Mitch and why he didn’t.” He drew in a shuddery breath.
“It wasn’t … personal. Remember … Mitch only knew I was helping the Sweeneys. He didn’t know Vincent and I … until …”
“Until he shot you and Vincent was there. Then he knew.” Sam stared past her, into the garden. “He was always so jealous. Mad about everything.” With both hands, he rubbed his face. “After his mother died, I just wasn’t any good.”
“You were a friend, a strong friend, always. Father has told me. Vincent too. What you did for them, the help you offered …” She waited while the fragile boat of his memories steadied, until his eyes met hers again. “Father blames himself, you know.”
He pressed his knuckles to his lips. “My boy,” he managed. “My fault.”
“Sam,” she asked, her hand on his arm. “Do you have any idea where he is?”
He shook his head. “He’s not here. Whoever this MD is, it’s not Mitch.”
“How do you know that? Tell me.”
“About three months ago, see, I got a letter from him. Burt sent it over from the old place. A chaplain wrote it for him. I guess … something musta happened to Mitch’s arm. He’s back in the pen.”
“South Florida somewhere. It’s bad, Catherine. This time … it’s real bad. Mitch wanted me to know … and he wanted money.”
Florida. Miles away.
“Do you know what he did?”
“Armed robbery. Assault.” Tears clouded his eyes. “A woman,” he admitted, bowing his head. “He … he hurt her and … she died, so … murder.”
“How long, Sam? The degree? His sentence?” Sam didn’t answer, didn’t look at her. “May I see the letter?”
“Don’t have it. Tore it up and threw it away. When I go … don’t want anybody finding it after.” He sighed again and swallowed hard. “He won’t be getting out, causing you or anybody any more trouble. It’s over.”
Over … Relief surged through her like a storm-fed wave onto parched sand – like that wave, slaking with its swell, gouging and eroding with its ebb. Yesterday, her assertions had been sure, but afterward she’d been almost frantic to believe her own words. A leap, Vincent. Mitch couldn’t possibly … And since, she’d repeated them with fervor and perseverance to drown out Vincent’s: What I would do to him if I saw him again, if I found him anywhere near you.
It had been a sharp briar underfoot all along, a pricking thorn of fear that Mitch would return, deranged by grudge and spite, determined to do harm – to Vincent, to Father, to Sam – determined to destroy all he’d been offered and all he’d refused. Sam’s face was etched with sorrow, the planes of it stained with a fevered, gray-red wash. Once Mitch had been a baby, cradled in the arms of loving parents thrilled with his promise, with hope for him. And now the tears in Sam’s eyes were proof that he’d held on to a single, frayed strand of that hope, that one day Mitch would change, that he might atone for every anger-fueled cruelty, that he might truly return.
She should feel only sadness, but not so deep in her heart, she was glad … glad that Vincent was saved from having to choose again, from one day in the future being required to tell Sam that Mitch’s end had come by him.
She curled her fingers gently around Sam’s, loosening his grip of the armrest, and, after a while, he brought her hand to his dry lips.
“Tell Vincent and Father about Mitch. I haven’t, and I should have.”
“I will. They’ll understand why you didn’t.”
“Now,” he said, after another solemn stretch of time. “I wanna hear how you know Martin, but first, let’s have a look in that box. Whaddya say?”
“I say okay.”
Catherine dragged the box from the ledge and balanced it on her knees, tipping back the lid, careful of its papery, ribboned hinge. She dug the rosewood scope from its corner. “Vincent has one of these, too, Sam.”
“I remember the day Leo gave those out. He musta had a dozen of ‘em. It was Ike’s birthday and I got an invite to the party. Mitch had been below a couple years by then, I guess. Leo gave one to all the little boys – Ike, Vincent, Pascal, Rennie, Stewart, Mitch. Devin, too. And Noah, of course. They ran right off and pretty soon there was word on the pipes they were down in the maze, tryin’ ‘em out. Got in all kinds of trouble with Father. Vincent …” Sam turned, dragged away by a cough.
Catherine poured a cup of tea for him, lukewarm now, but soothing still, she hoped. “Vincent … what?” she prompted, when he’d caught his breath.
“Father herded them back up to his chamber and there they were, all in a row, their heads hanging. Except Vincent. He’s watching Father stomp back and forth. We’re in the back, me and Leo and Richard – Sebastien, I mean – trying not to laugh, and finally Father asks, Just what made you go against my instructions? When I’ve told you time and time again the maze is dangerous? Does no one have an answer? And Vincent pipes up, But Father, it was research. Father goes, Research is it? Explain yourself. And Vincent says, The efficacy of an angle scope can only be proved in circumstances where there are corners around which to see. The maze has the most corners. We have angle scopes. Therefore, it was research. Father’s just standing there with his mouth open. Vincent’s seven, maybe eight. A baby still, with that funny little voice he had, scrapey-like. Father looks over his glasses at the boys. Even glares at Leo. Turns back and says, Efficacy! Circumstances! Around which! Therefore! Pray tell, from whom did you learn this manner of speech?”
“Pray tell, indeed,” Catherine said, laughing, amazed at Sam’s fair rendition of Father’s tone and manner.
“Exactly,” Sam said, wiping his eyes. “You oughta ask Vincent about the paper weight he made Father for the next Winterfest. Carved it outta rosewood, just like the scopes.”
“Wait!” Catherine squealed. “I’ve seen it on Father’s desk. It’s beautiful! I didn’t know Vincent made it.”
“Yeah, Vincent’s good with his hands. Always was. Flip it over next time you’re down there.”
“You’ll see. Wait ‘til Father’s around to do it and watch his face, ’cause steam’s gonna come out his ears.”
“When I see him next, that’s the first thing I’ll do,” she said, spinning the open box toward Sam. “Let’s see what else is in here.”
“Would ya look at that!” Sam said, reaching for a small wooden case. When he released the catch, the box opened flat and a rimmed game board was revealed – tiny, painted squares of lacquered black alternating with an ochre-colored wood. Miniature chess pieces of gold and dulled silver rattled corner to corner. “Leo had a set just like this. Carried it in his pocket, everywhere he went. Always liked a game.”
“Who’s Leo? I don’t think I’ve met him.”
“Oh, he’s been gone a long time. Russian guy. Noah’s grandpa. They lived kinda far out. North, up kinda near Levon under the park in the Bronx where I guess Vincent and the others are working now. His name was Levya, but his wife called him Lyova, so we shortened it to Leo, cause otherwise there’d have been two Lev’s.”
Leo gave those out. Leo had a set just like this.
Lev will be up soon, all after a game of chess. Those are Lev’s cups. His Kiddush cups.
Leo … Lev
Would Seamus call this providence over coincidence? Certainly … an intersection … of their worlds above and below. A stunning one.
But before Catherine could say … or ask … or even marvel more, Sister Mary Xavier materialized, her soft rubber soles having masked her approach. Likely the face she turned to the care-giver matched Sam’s almost comical countenance – eyebrows raised, his mouth a ‘O’ of questioning wonder.
“What?” Sister asked, scanning the room. “Did I miss something?”
Sam made a show of smoothing his hair, palming the chess set to Catherine with a magician’s skill. “Nothing, Sister. A little reminiscing is all. Turns out we got more friends in common than we thought.”
“The world’s a small place, isn’t it? Connections everywhere if we’re open to them.” Sister Mary Xavier chuckled. “Say goodbye for now. Your turn on the rack.”
“Told ya.” Sam groused. “Hold on a minute. Gotta kiss my girl good-bye.” He pushed out of his chair to a wobbly stand and held open his arms for her. “Happy life,” he whispered at her ear.
Catherine repacked Martin’s box, tying it shut with the knotted leather string she found in a coil on the ledge. Something else I wish you could see, Vincent. Something else I want to tell you. The light through the window brightened. In the garden, prismed droplets of rain studded the clown-faced pansies and the evergreen hedges shimmered. A sky of broken clouds streamed sunlight to earth in a rayed fan. Far from here, deep below the streets, in their private rooms hidden even within a secret city, that same light beamed from their atrium’s high ceiling into their bedchamber, across their pearl and ivory bedding.
From the belfry, the carillon sounded again, a heartfelt peal.
I miss you …
* * *
“I wasn’t hiding, Mouse.”
“Still. Found you.”
“Ask me how.” Mouse danced in the entryway of the abandoned chamber, his gaze darting from shadowed niches to shallow, jagged ledges, back to the sunken center court where Vincent stood. Chiseled benches circled a raised table of rock, on it a map spread beneath a chuted ray of light, hazy with dust motes.
“All right. How?”
“Sniffed you out. Smell like flowers.”
“Ah. Our laundry. Have you not found your own stack of clean clothes, Mouse?”
“Saving ‘em. Jamie, coming back tomorrow.”
Vincent turned back to his study, hiding a smile. “A wise decision. Is there an occasion? A special time you’ve planned?”
“Hope so. Tell you after.” Mouse sidled into the room. “Walls look like cheese,” he said. “Lots of hidey-holes.”
“These holes go on for hundreds of feet. Speleologists call this spongework.”
Mouse leapt across a basin water-carved into the floor and bounded across the room. “I call it neat,” he said. “Whose?”
“This chamber?” he asked, and Mouse nodded. “Once it was Noah’s. I was here when I was very young. His family was moving and I remember helping Noah pack his toys into what seemed a huge chest. Levya – Leo, grownups called him – Noah’s grandfather – hoisted it to his shoulder, balanced it there. I thought him the strongest man on earth.”
“Huh!” Mouse grunted, climbing onto the bench back. “Balance,” he said, his arms wagging wings as he toed the narrow ledge. “Not so easy.”
Vincent watched him perform, but Mouse’s words blazed before him, a sear on the stone. Balance. Not so easy. Not so easy at all.
The headache was gone, in its echoing space … Catherine. Earlier, she’d seemed so near he felt her kisses on his throat. Then she’d distanced and calmed and she was satisfied and content … until she wasn’t.
After the morning meeting, he’d asked Cullen to go above to begin the relay of his message to her. His note would transfer hand to hand and eventually Benny would deliver the news of Kanin’s return, that MD was not Mitch. But he’d felt her anxiousness, her frustration, and he had to believe she’d not received his report. A wave of sadness washed over him, then a bloom of her joy. He shivered at the mercurial changes and breathed deeply in, tipped his head from side to side, stretching his neck, reaching for his own focus. A low reverberation sounded between them, like the last rumble of thunder from a passing storm … and then she was near again, so near he thought he might turn to her, take her in his arms, so near he was sure she plucked at his sleeve …
“The Number Four site,” Mouse was saying. “Kanin says meet him there. Says he needs that map, too.”
Vincent sighed and tucked the vellum’s long edge in and began to roll, the delineation of the passageways to Martin’s garden disappearing inch by inch.
“Wait,” Mouse said. “Woodlawn. Kanin’s plan to block off? Let me look.” Frowning, Mouse unfurled and smoothed out the map. “Not so sure.”
“His strategy is sound,” Vincent said. “If we’re to safeguard–”
“Haven’t asked Stewart. Haven’t asked Noah. Might matter.” Mouse splayed his fingers on the paper. “Didn’t ask you, Vincent. And it matters.”
Habit insisted he swallow his disappointment, that he deny his wishes. He’d reached for the map again, curled it nearly to a tube when another voice, another presence intervened.
Speak this truth. Your truth. Will you? … The voice darkened. Can you?
“Yes,” he said, with a more powered breath than he’d expected. “It matters. It does.”
“Kanin said if. Kanin said save time, save worry.” Mouse looked up at him. “Kanin said easier. Didn’t say only.”
Vincent gripped Mouse’s shoulder. “You’re right, Mouse. He did say easier. He didn’t say only. And there is … another way.”
Chapter Title: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dejection: An Ode. VI.
Opening Quotation: Suzanne K. Langer. Feeling and Form. A Theory of Art. 1953.
1. References to William Butler Yeats’ years at Coole Park.
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