sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 38 ~ O, Sweet Fancy! Let Her Loose
Hush, not a whisper!
Let your heart alone go dreaming.
Make a wish …
She took up her fork, though her hand shook and the tines chattered against the ironstone china. Once she might have longed for Vincent to sit with her at this table, might have railed against the fates that kept them from sharing a simple slice of pie in a diner. She might have pined for the freedom to wander streets together hand-in-hand at noon, to stroll the park’s pathways, to shuffle through spring petals rained to the ground. It would have proved a barren asking, her answer a ringing it can never be.
There is no life without limits.
She’d proclaimed that, believed it. Now, as if a stone were tossed into a still lake, ever-expanding circles rippled from a deep center – crest and trough, cause and effect.
We don’t know what the limits are …
On the tabletop, Martin tapped out a syncopated message, a slow heartbeat’s rhythm, and he began a soft-hummed melody, his expression so open, so patient … Tears welled again. He clucked his encouragement, walking two fingers across the cherry-red formica to her bone-white plate, thumping its rim with one.
Come, she heard. Wish now.
It would be everything, more than everything, if he might push open the door with the certainty of welcome, her world finally theirs. She could see it – as if it were already a memory – a dinner out of doors amidst the blooming roses, safe behind high walls and in the company of friends. She heard his laughter, his free and sounding peal … his voice, deep and musical … saw the play of sunlight on his hair.
Take it, Catriona. The bite, the wish bite.
She did … and it was melting and sweet and warm. Like his kiss.
Light bloomed behind her eyelids.
“I’m just over to Queens Hospital now. Will you ride with me?” Martin asked. “A taxi’s more quickly found there than here, and I’ll confess to wanting more of your company, if only for the few minutes ride.”
“I should call Joe, let him know I’m on my way.” She picked up the angle scope, offering it back, but he shook his head and hid his hands under the table.
“No, ‘tis yours. Take it to him, to Vincent. Perhaps it’s a key of sorts. Tell him I’ve a box of mysteries in need of explanation, that I’m guessing he’ll have the stories. And that there’s a finger or two of the Green Spot left yet and in need of sharing.”
“What is that – the Green Spot? You mentioned it before,” she said, tucking the toy into her purse.
“Ah, only the finest Irish whiskey, bettered by the necessity to smuggle it into this country. A perk of wearing the black coat and the white collar when I travel, it is, that I’m not much inspected through customs.”
“Whiskey!” A hollow knock reverberated behind her eyes. A headache! This morning I had– I felt– She chuffed in surprise.
A single beer, a glass of red wine – these were his self-imposed limits and even on the most festive of occasions he’d rarely finish his portion. Only once had he succumbed to more and then to champagne, a wedding gift from Iris and Phillip, a Roederer Cristal. She’d poured and its color matched his hair, burnished gold in the flute. On the sofa in their atrium, in the stream of light into their chambers below, they’d murmured love-words against skin, tasted the lush-peach and white-flower on the other’s lips and tongue. A second glass … a third. His hand closed over her breast with a thrilling insistence and a dark need rumbled from his throat, a sultry, greedy language. But suddenly he set her from his lap and went striding for the bathing chamber without an impassioned word, without an amorous look back. She followed, passing a trail of clothing in the ante-room cast off more, she sensed, in tumult than in ardor, finding him naked beneath the fall of water, his head thrown back. I’m sorry, Catherine. I shouldn’t drink. I cannot allow– But she launched into his arms, her mouth on his to stop his apology, guiding his wary hands again to her breasts, glorying in the drag of wet silk, at the tug and rip of straps …
The front door opened with a swoosh. A crash and a shout thundered from the kitchen. A diner. In Queens, she recalled. With a priest. She flushed. The tips of her ears were pink, she knew – they certainly burned. But Martin’s eyes twinkled; his lips quirked at the corners. He pushed a glass of water closer to her hand. Beaded on the outside, fresh with ice … When had Nessa filled it?
“Not his drink of choice, is it? He did mention I was a bad influence.”
If I no longer deny that part of me … if I can give that darkness some freedom … it will lose power …
“On the contrary, Martin, I think he must feel very comfortable with you.” A wave of anticipation broke over her and she took a grateful sip from the proffered glass. Another.
Things will be different now.
She was desperate for home, for him.
“So you’ll tell him, will you, how much I enjoyed his company?”
“You might see him before I do,” she admitted.
“Hmmm. He did say he was working far from home. But you can visit him, no? You were still in Woodlawn, you said, yesterday – Eimear, the laundromat and all.”
Her stomach knotted. Her habit, her promise, was to protect, always. To conceal. Comfortable, yes, he must have been, and yet he’d not disclosed … The red cross-hatched design of the tabletop blurred. She layered her cup and saucer on her plate, gathered the silverware, folded her hands in her lap.
“There are things I can’t reveal until I speak with him, Martin. It’s not that I … Even though …”
“Oh, shame on me for prying. I can’t help but be curious, and though I plied your Vincent with whiskey and you with pie, I’ll not badger you further. Just know this … I’ve spent a lifetime believing, and that to me, the unexplained is glorious.” He patted her hand. “Forgive me?”
Their conversation could go no farther. Not today. Not here. She knew that. “There are so many coincidences, Martin, but I–”
“Ach.” Martin winced, a look cast upward, a mouthed word: Sorry! He met her gaze again. “Coincidence. We must find another word. Let’s say this instead. It’s been a journey up all sides of the mountain, and just now, we’re in each other’s sight. When we all reach the pinnacle …” He paused and tipped his head. “All of us, Catriona.”
And suddenly she felt so light.
A pale green check was secured under the coffee urn. He inched it out and, peering at it over the rims of his glasses, opened his wallet.
“Let me get that,” Catherine protested. “You didn’t even order!”
“No way,” he returned, grinning, she was sure, at her dropped jaw, at her undisguised surprise – as astonished as if she’d heard Father declare something Groovy. “Run along,” he said, shooing her out of the booth. “Make the call to your boss. I’ll meet you outside.”
* * *
“You never know where he will take you – around this bend, beneath that bridge – but if you are his quiet companion …” Father’s was the mesmerizing tone that for years had held his pupils stock-still in their seats, that froze their pencils poised above their notebooks. Over his spectacles, he scrutinized his students. “And I emphasize the word quiet. This is to be a silent excursion, a communion. What did Thoreau say? Who remembers?”
“Each town should have a park!” Geoffrey shouted.
“Or rather a primitive forest!” Eric leapt from the bottom rung of the circular stair, triumphant fist in the air.
“And how large should it be?” Father closed his book on a marker and leaned forward. “Samantha? We’ve not heard from you.”
“Five hundred to a thousand acres, Father, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, but you know they can’t do it. 1 They won’t – they can’t – be quiet.” She folded her arms and slumped deeper into the corner of her armchair, offering a sniff of disdain. Geoffrey and Eric stared at each other for a moment, their lips pinched together between forefingers and thumbs, then burst into rowdy laughter.
“Harummmph.” Father’s was a theatrical sigh. He coaxed his glasses from his nose. “Well, then,” he said, “I must appoint a chaperone, someone who will–.”
“Nooooooo,” Kipper protested, his boy’s voice cracking. Eric elbowed him from one side, Geoffrey from the other. Samantha rolled her eyes.
“Yes. A chaperone,” Mary concurred from the doorway, a dozen hand-stitched collecting bags in her arms. “Brooke has an appointment in the city this afternoon. She can walk up with you … watch you … for a while. And Zach has a free afternoon. I just passed him going for a swim. I’m sure you can catch him if you’ll hurry.” Like racehorses quivering at the gate, as one, the students shifted an anxious gaze from Mary to Father. At his nod, the boys broke from their seats, jockeying for the lead on the short flight of steps.
“I wish you’d take us up, Father,” Samantha said, gripping the railing, reluctant to follow. “They’ll be Thoreau-ing rocks in the lagoon. Or their shoes.”
Or each other, Father thought. A discreet cough disguised the curve of a smile. “But you, my dear … you understand, don’t you? The meaning of Thoreau-ing? You’ll find a treasure … several, I’ve no doubt. And tomorrow, you’ll share your traipse through the woods with me. And it will be as if I’m there myself, borne along on your words. Now, off you go. And Samantha …”
In the doorway, she was haloed by the light from the corridor and Father felt a tightening in his chest, the scratch of tears. Such a serious turn she’s taken of late. “Be careful. Home before dark.”
Her edict – No nonsense, now! – a fading echo in the corridor, Mary lingered in the passage, her arms crossed.
“Well staged, Mary,” Father said, beckoning her with his outstretched hand. “Off for a swim you said! In the words of the young these days … he wishes! Zach was grateful to be relieved of kitchen duty, I imagine. What did you promise William in exchange for his liberty.” He ushered her to his big chair.
“I simply asked,” Mary said. “William is … mellowing, I think.”
“Ah, yes. So I’ve noticed.” His brows raised in inquiry, he gestured to the tea tray.
Mary answered with a half-smile, settling her shawl about her shoulders. “Samantha’s grown so. All of them have. Kipper’s voice … breaking already.”
“I know, I know. Where have the years flown, Mary? You seem unchanged, while I …” He sighed as he set a kettle onto the brazier.
“You went Above not long ago, Jacob. That night … to welcome Billy home. If you wanted …”
“To see the sun again? My last foray in daylight ended–”
“With Margaret’s return to you.”
He hunched his shoulder, scrubbing his cheek against the fabric of his robe. “Yes,” he said, as he measured leaves into the warmed china teapot. Steam from the kettle curled in the air, fanned away by his long sigh.
“You sound like Vincent, you know. So much conveyed in that single word.” She reached for the book on his desk, opening it to the marked page. “Will you miss these classes when he returns? The literature study was once yours and yours alone. And you were quite good at it. I remember the suppertime discussions, the fire you kindled in your students.” She unfolded the place-holder. “Are these your notes?”
Father eased into a chair pushed knee-to-knee with Mary’s. “No, they’re Vincent’s … how he planned … perhaps … to illustrate Thoreau’s philosophy.”
Mary handed the paper over and Father tipped the words to the pool of light beneath the candelabra.
“When I would recreate myself,” he read, “I seek the darkest woods, the thickest and most interminable, the most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place – a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow of my Nature.” 2
The words hovered in the air, then spiraled away. “He added a word,” Father noted, “there at the end.” The parchment quivered in his hand. “My nature.”
“Is that all?” Mary asked, stilling the movement with her touch.
“No,” he stammered. “There’s more … copied out under her name. Catherine.” He paused … drew breath.
“One day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn …” 3
Father squinted, blinked, the imagined brilliance nearly pain. “How I wanted him to know that golden bankside, Mary. The heat on his face and shoulders. If only …”
Her fingers closed on his wrist, cool and sure. “Nothing is impossible, Jacob. We’ve learned that. All of us. And I don’t doubt that one fine day Catherine will take him there, in body, as she has already in spirit.” She fell silent, her ear turned as if toward some faint chime.
He nodded … and waited. “Well?”
“Well, what?” she asked, a flickered glance his way.
“Do I live another day?” He captured her hand as she withdrew it, his thumb buffing the knobbed ridge of her knuckles. “My pulse, like a soft drum, beats my approach, tells thee I come.4
“And slow howe’er my marches be, I shall at last sit down by thee.”5 She pulled from his grasp and patted his arm. “You are sound, Father Jacob. But … no standing on your head.”
“You’ll have no argument from me.” Father chuckled. “Oh, but there was a time. There was, indeed.”
Mary rose and readied the tea. The porcelain cups tinged as she set them out. “You’re low on sugar cubes. I’ll bring some straightaway.” She lifted a crockery lid, let it clatter back into place. “There were cookies here yesterday,” she mumbled.
“I heard that,” Father said. “And it wasn’t I who ate them. Not to the last. I gave them to my students … for good behavior.”
“A bribe or a reward? Jacob, you’ll ruin their appetites for a proper meal.”
“Nonsense. They’re peckish after an hour of study. And they’ll run it off.”
“I suppose.” The scent of cinnamon and plums and licorice wafted from the teapot’s spout, the brew rising deep magenta in the cup as Mary poured. “I was rather fancying a shortbread, but at least you didn’t feed them to Arthur. Where is he, by the way? Not in your drawer this time.”
“He’s asleep, um, in my wardrobe. In a tangle of scarf and sweater from Mouse’s room. He’s lonesome for him,” Father said, fiddling with a carved wooden box on his desk. A drawer slid out and he extracted two golden, stippled fingers of pastry, held them in his open palm. At her purr of delight, he beamed. “You’re in good spirits, Mary.”
She made a singing sound low in her throat and took the proffered cookie.
“How was your date?”
“It’s … ummm … tomorrow.”
“Where will you go?”
“Sebastian intends to surprise me, but … Above. Dinner.
“You can too, you know.”
“Can what? Go along? I don’t imagine–”
“No!” She blushed and tidied a strand of hair. “I mean, you can still be surprised. It’s not too late, even for us, Jacob, if we’ll just … permit ourselves.”
Father shrugged and sipped his tea. I wish. The valley of years was behind him; he scuffled through fallen leaves, and yet … He sipped again, envisioning the parting of branches before the unexplored path. And yet ...
“You’ll tell me all about your … outing … day after tomorrow?”
“Not bloody likely, Jacob,” Mary replied, her teacup halfway to her lips.
You’d have made a fine Eliza Doolittle with that cheek, he didn’t say.
“So,” he did say, grinning surrender around a bite of shortbread. “Brooke is going up top today? An appointment? With whom?”
“Peter’s arranged for her to shadow a nurse-friend of his at the clinic where he volunteers some evenings. St. Ann’s. The midwifery program.”
“St. Ann’s? That’s in the Bronx! She’ll not be home till midnight!”
“Jacob, you sound like Brooke’s … father! She’ll be fine. Peter will get her safely there and see her safely home. He’s arranged an afternoon for her at his side later this week. At Queens Hospital. He volunteers there as well, you know.”
“So she’s serious about this plan of study. She’ll be leaving us, Mary. First Laura, then Michael. Now Brooke. Given the grousing I hear from Dominic, I determine Aniela and Damien are quite serious. I suppose he’ll be next.” He rose and hobbled to his long table. From an urn he pulled a tube of maps, untied the jute string and spread the pages flat.
“Aniela’s a lovely girl,” Mary said, chasing a crumb of shortbread at the corner of her mouth. “But I don’t have the impression that Damien intends to leave the tunnels. What ever are you looking for?”
“I know that hospital. I once–” He bent to the maps, shuffling one to the top of the stack. “Yes. There’s an entrance nearby and according to the plans I have, a work crew should be stationed there. Perhaps she could carry messages.”
“You mean, she might bring us information. I know it’s quiet. Too quiet. But we’d have heard if there were serious problems. We must trust, Jacob, that others can and will. ” Mary hooked her arm with his, urging him back to his chair. “Let Brooke have this time without expectation or added task. Heavens knows I volunteered her to watch the boys in the park beforehand, though she seemed amiable enough. She’s anxious we won’t take her seriously.”
“Well, not a year ago, she was determined to become a baker. And the year before that, a weaver.”
“I think you’re mistaken. She was barely twelve when Sarah taught her to warp the looms. And thirteen the summer William apprenticed her. ”
“That long ago?” Father sat down hard in his seat, both hands on the cane between his knees. “I worry that she’ll set her heart for Michael to find he’s moved far from the tunnels. Catherine says–”
“That he tested out of more than a year’s worth of classes. That he’s taking heavy loads. That he’s already considering graduate programs,” Mary said, finishing his sentence. “In Pennsylvania. Virginia. North Carolina. Chicago.”
“Chicago?” Father shuddered. “The cold! But indeed the world awaits him. He has so much to offer.”
“He does and you should be proud, but all our children do, Jacob. They will travel in a wide circle and some of them … some of them … will return to the tunnels. We must encourage Brooke. After all, our professions … we … will need replacements.” She brushed his cheek with the back of her fingers.
Acknowledgement was a stone between his teeth. Wordless, his jaw worked at the grit, but acceptance flooded in, clear water washing a dry creek bed. He caught her hand in his, pressed a kiss to her fingertips … managed a small smile, an incline of his head that passed for a nod. “Yes.”
A second cup of tea poured, Mary broke the silence grown companionable and familiar. “We need to talk about Olivia.”
“Althea’s distress. Do you think it’s truly colic?”
“She nurses and takes some solid food; she’s gaining appropriately. Her heart is strong and her lungs …” Father rubbed at his ears. “She’s second in endurance for crying only to Vincent as a baby. I don’t want add to Olivia’s burden, but as I believed then, I do now. Althea’s is a cry of loss. She … illustrates … what her mother feels.”
“Endurance.” Mary worried her bottom lip. “I’m wondering how much more Olivia can bear.”
“Postpartum? Certainly I’ve considered that, though it’s onset coincided more with–”
“Yes. In the weeks following Althea’s birth, in comparison, Olivia was … serene.” Taking up his teaspoon, he tapped a few prayerful words on the rim of his cup. “This separation is most inopportune.”
“Speaking of entrances in the Bronx …” Mary said.
“Dix and Brenda’s shop. They’re renovating the upper floors, you know.”
“I seem to remember Brenda saying it’s a very slow project for them.”
“But they have an apartment, a furnished apartment, the one Stuart uses, he and Wren, for a street address. Two simple rooms but private. It might be good for them. A change of scenery.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“Oh, dear. You’re surely more of a romantic than that!”
Father wrinkled his brow at a sudden skid onto ice, a loss of footing. He shook his head. “Of what … or of whom are we … speaking?”
“Of Olivia, Jacob! And Kanin!” Mary leaned forward, her fingers wrapping the arms of her chair, her words a whispery siss at his ear. “Privacy! It was … useful … for Vincent and Catherine. Remember?” Her hand fluttered to her throat, pale in contrast to her rose-feathered blush. “They’re so exposed – everybody tiptoeing around them. You see, I have an idea …”
* * *
Nessa squeezed her shoulders; Gus offered a silent wave. She stepped from the restaurant into a blur of worry, that the coming time with Martin in the car might be suddenly awkward. But he filled the minutes with chatter and story, and it was … easy … as if they’d known each other years instead of hours.
“Do you know the story of the Tuatha dé Danann, Catriona. Of the aos sí?” He waited barely a heartbeat for her answer. “In the old days, the Men of Dea came to Ireland on flying ships, descending from a dense, cloaking cloud. And finding it the most beautiful land in all the world and never wanting to leave, they burned their winged boats behind them. The smoke is the great gray mist that hovers over home today.
“They were,” he went on, “a magical people … but not invincible, and when they were defeated by the Milesians, they retreated to an underground other-world – Eire. Grand defenders of justice they were, among the mortals, among whom they loved to … ummm … walk, appearing between dusk and dawn when the walls between the worlds were thinnest. Great heroes were born of the aos si and humans – Cúchulainn and Meave. The Church grudgingly calls them fallen angels, but we know they’re fairy folk. Not your little flower fairy, now, nor your woodland sprite. The aos sí were a beautiful people, strong and tall, with flowing red-gold hair and noble faces.
“Like Rosie’s statue. The Gregorii …”
“Well, sort of,” Martin said.
They were stopped at a traffic light and through its cycle of arrows, he was turned to her, silent, watchful. She struggled to keep her expression curious but neutral, her eyes on the road, her lip unbitten. Red flashed to green, and they rolled through the intersection.
“In Lisdoonvarna,” he resumed, “in a ruined chapel, there’s a tapestry hung – riders of the Sidhe outfitted with banner and lance, disappearing beneath the earth into the fairy mounds. When St. Patrick arrived, the Old Ones were soon denied, and the barriers between Eire and the world above grew more difficult to traverse. Many aos sí were caught above and destroyed, as they’re not immortal … exactly. Yet some escaped to the new land, to America, blending with the great wave of immigrants – Oghma, the god of strength and eloquence; Lugh, the god of light and skill; Dian Cecht, the god of healing; Brigid, goddess of fire and poetry. Though they are few, they walk among us today … their progeny as well.”
“Why … why are you telling me this?” she stammered. Once she’d asked how did this happen? Once she might have sought an answer. Considered … even one such as this. Now, there was only Vincent. Only him. But her heart was pounding and it took an effort of will not to cover it with both hands and press, press hard.
He kept his attention to the road. “‘Tis just a story, Catriona. One I thought you might enjoy.”
“Do you believe in fairies, Martin? In the aos sí?”
“Of course not.” A wide smile creased his face. “But you must be quiet. Hush. Hush with such questions. They’ll hear you.”
Her resistance faltered … fell away. How freeing to be in the company of a man so easygoing between two worlds. Laughing, she leaned her head against the cool window. Traffic was heavier; the sign for Queens Hospital just ahead. I don’t want to go back to work.
“In my youth,” Martin said, “I was sure of so many things. My sight was narrow and I adored the words no and it cannot be. These days – my last, I know – I’m stirred by the widening path, enticed by the overlook into the broad valley, yes and why not my favorite words now.”
“Your last? What do you mean?”
“There’s no denying I’m an old man. I’ll retire one day, perhaps soon. I’m not knowing the number of years left for me, but I do intend to embrace them.”
“Retire? I guess I never thought priests … What does that mean, exactly? Will you live at …”
“At Maryfields?” Martin’s sigh was deep. “‘Tis not my plan, but you know how awry those sometimes go. If I’m granted my wish, I’ll buy the home I have now.”
“Buy the church?”
“The little places like mine, losing parishioners to the larger, flashier ones … The Church is selling off much of that sort of property, a piece or two now and then. The small sanctuaries, the wee schools – they can make nice homes with a bit of work. And I do have a dream …”
“Tell me,” she prompted, shifting in her seat.
“A school of my own, for music and song and dance. Perhaps rebuilding a bit to let a few rooms to old musicians in exchange for their teaching. We can be a penniless lot. The work’d give purpose to their day.”
“Would it be expensive?”
“Quite. But my brothers each left me small legacies. ‘Tis the way it’s done for clergy in our families, and I’ve made a few investments. There’s the hope of a grant, says Eimear. Plus I’m angling for an insider’s discount. Due, I think I am.”
Catherine was silent as Martin showed his pass to the attendant and advanced through the gate of the parking garage. “But what if …” she began.
“What if I can’t buy this one? I’d look out for another, I suppose. There’d be a few possibilities in Woodlawn, or perhaps near Rosie … There was mention once of a small school expected to close and not a block from her, though the area there’s a bit more dear. I’ll hang on as long as I can, ’til the last of this parish’s existence, and hope for the best in the afterward.” His shoulders rose and fell as he glided into a space and braked to a stop. “I can’t imagine moving away.”
“Your dream … It sounds wonderful. Perfect for you. You’d be with Eimear still. You’d have your garden.”
“And,” he said, meeting her gaze with what she was sure was message, “I’d have my doorways.”
Martin was right about the ease of hailing a cab. He’d taken her elbow lightly in his grip, steering her past two cars waiting at the curb to a third.
“Bald tires,” he’d whispered. “The both of them.”
She gave her destination to the cabbie and settled into the seat, watching as Martin disappeared, the stream of visitors closing around him.
“Hey! You want I should take the Expressway or Metropolitan Ave?”
“Whichever’s longest,” she said, answering the driver’s surprised glance in the rear-view mirror with her brightest smile.
“Got most of Sunday’s Times here,” the driver said, holding a roll of newsprint aloft. “Want it?”
“Sure.” She riffled through the sections, dismissing the Opinion and Business pages, the Sports. The News felt intrusive, and the Science and Arts, the Styles and Travel pages were missing, the unread classifieds and real estate making up the bulk of the offering. Oh, well, she thought, sliding the newspaper to the empty seat beside her.
A wee school, a small sanctuary … with, perhaps, a high-walled garden.
Frozen for no more than a second, she pulled the section free and, with a squeak of prayer, bent to the listings.
Chapter Title: John Keats. Fancy. 1820.
Opening quotation: George William Russell. A Call of the Sidhe.
- Henry David Thoreau. Journals. 15 October, 1859.
- Thoreau. Walking.
- Henry King, Bishop of Chichester. (1592-1669) Exequy on his Wife.
The painting, “Riders of the Sidhe”, is by John Duncan, a Scottish artist, completed in 1912.
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