sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 39 ~ One Pierced Moment whiter Than the Rest
Each new day is a path of wonder, a different invitation.
Often it seems we have to undertake the longest journey
to arrive at what has been nearest all along.
The dense wooden beam was black with age and nearly as hard as the stone above. He levered it back into its niche, propped it with a deadman, and began the process of drilling new holes for the long anchor bolts. The wooden-knobbed brace with its oversized bit demanded an unwavering pressure. Working alone, the work all overhead … his arms were tiring.
Twice the tool kicked from his grip, the last time slamming into the side of his face and bouncing off his collarbone to skitter along the ground. He scrabbled after it on hands and knees, stars colliding behind the blind of tears. The D-shaped crank found wedged into a dark crevice resisted his first, patient efforts to dislodge it, prompting him to rock back and forth with peevish agitation, to roar with frustration when it yanked free and sent him sprawling on his back. As he fell, somehow the sharp spade bit sliced the skin before his ear – a deep gouge from the blood of it. Father would likely stitch it, but Father was miles away. He inched back against the wall, drew up the neckband of his undershirt and pressed it to the wound.
Though the headache with which he’d begun the day had subsided, there was a hollow place at the base of his skull that echoed its traces, and this last blow jarred even his teeth. From his recline, the strap of his canteen was just beyond arm’s reach, but he hooked it with his boot heel, dragged it close. He would admonish another to cleanse the oozing cut with what water remained. Instead he drank sparingly from the flask. The nearest clear spring was two levels down and a quarter-mile east, not a long walk, and soon enough he’d need to make the trek, but he expected Kanin and wouldn’t risk missing him to leave the worksite now.
The wind whistled through the junction, on it a tattoo of footsteps and a faint halloo. The first time he’d heard it, he’d laid down his tools believing someone was near, but no one rounded the corner. An hour later and now again, the illusion repeated – on a sudden whisk of air came the approaching shuffle, the hooting call, a faded answer. Sounds, voices, he realized, from another place or time. Like the listening bridge. Resting his head in a scoop of stone, he closed his eyes, grateful for respite. But his thoughts, released from the focus of solitary toil, were soon a juggle of reason and longing.
Against the progress of the work, he charted the time passed, weighed the threat from beyond their perimeter against the endurance of the crews. They had no magic. There were limits to what could be accomplished, limits to their skills and resources, limits that would be recognized only when they were gone beyond, defined only when failure loomed.
Before Kanin’s reconnaissance, they’d found it necessary to make alterations to the plans. But even working as one crew rather than in alternate teams, they were only just on schedule. Kanin’s recommendation to pull in their northern boundary under Van Cortlandt Park, to cut off the Woodlawn area, would surge them ahead on their calendar, remove the burden of a dozen decisions waiting to be made in the field.
Ten days …
Only ten days away from home. It seemed like as many weeks and the hours bore that strange quality of both dragging and flying by. Already he heard rumblings in camp – they missed their chambers, their loved ones. Mouse was sure Arthur had grown fat and spoiled or, worse, had forgotten him. Father worried, too, he knew, felt … left aside. Too little information traveled the pipes. The entire community suffered with so many members away, the daily routine disrupted.
Suffering … Olivia suffered, as did Luke. Althea as well. And Kanin. Perhaps his grief is deepest of all. He doesn’t know … doesn’t know his own daughter’s been named, that Olivia, losing hope, has chosen guardians for his children, has chosen … us.
A half-smile parted his lips. To hope till Hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.1 Martin’s advice, in other, plainer words – fake it ‘til you make it. Better phrased than Shelley’s, he mused. Perhaps the most useful advice Kanin could receive. But best delivered by Martin himself, I think.
Should I take Kanin there? Take him up into the garden before it becomes impossible? Perhaps then he might understand why I–
With a shake of his head, he stopped the veer of his thoughts. A wince of unfocused apology followed. I mustn’t think … My own wishes … The needs of the many …
Don’t be afraid to want it, even for yourself …
Catherine’s voice touched the tangle of his thoughts. Always a steadying undercurrent, her nearly-tangible presence smoothed the furrows pleating his forehead, yet there was a gnawing beneath his ribs, hunger in his hands. He wanted the heat of her body, the taste of her. But more, what she wanted he ached to give her.
Want. How seldom he had claimed that word, so practiced in stamping out smoke, so willing to douse the fiery cravings of his soul. She’d asked him once. How … how did this happen to you? Then, as best he could … or would … he’d answered her literal question.
What have you told her? Father’s challenge reverberated. And his answer, What could I tell her that wouldn’t frighten her?
He sought the dark folds of his cloak piled beside him, his hand ferreting out the hard square of paper long-lodged in the breast pocket. There were deeper questions, truer answers, and things he had not entirely dreamed away.
How … how had it happened? How had he become the … man that he was?
If she knew …
Words he’d planned for Kanin drifted forward. Tell her everything, everything in your heart. Let her decide.
But where to start. The beginning seemed so far away and the beginnings many.
He spread his arms in the still space and his plea joined the mysterious voices carried on the wind. Might she hear him?
I miss you, Catherine. I need you.
It had been true, what he’d once said – that his oldest memory was of Winterfest, of himself at three or four in a cold, dark room, frightened by the echo of his footsteps, brought to the light by the touch of Devin’s hand, by the striking of the candles. But there were other memories – colder, darker whispers of the past that took his breath even now.
There’d been chocolate cream pie at lunch that day, the kind he liked – creamy smooth and sweet, piled high with the fluffy white and golden meringue he was sure would taste the same should he touch his tongue to the clouds he watched floating over the mirror pool. But he hadn’t finished his vegetables, and Mary, when she came around with a tray of dessert, eyed his plate and shook her head. He shuffled to story time in a huff, kicking a small stone along the corridor, but it was a rule that applied to every child, and by the time he settled into his seat, he forgot to be angry. When the reading was done, he hurried to the dining hall in hopes of wheedling someone in the kitchen who didn’t know he’d been earlier denied.
Off in a corner, Devin and Ike, Pascal and Stuart, Noah and Mitch crowded a round table. Ike dug into his pocket and Devin did the same, and Pascal. A sprinkle of bright clinks – like the wind chime in Rebecca’s room – called him over. He ducked under elbows, popping up inside the circle. Coins! A whole pile!
“What you doing?” It was a simple question, and he expected an answer, but silence felled the excited chatter that had masked his entry. He looked from face to face, though only Devin met his gaze. “What?” he repeated and smiled his widest smile.
“We’re going topside,” Mitch said. “Street fair.”
“Me too,” he said, nodding, reaching into his pocket as well. He pulled out a fist, opening it to two small spiral fossils, a fragment of celestine Levon had given him for his birthday, a single red checker. His smile faltered when Mitch laughed.
“Loaded, aren’t you, Vincent.”
“What’s a street fair?”
“You’ve never been to one?” Mitch asked, wide-eyed with innocence. “There’s rides and food and games where you throw a ball at this stack of bottles and if you knock ‘em over, you win a prize. A carnival.”
“I can win a prize,” he said. “I throw good. Devin says so. Ask him.”
“So what? You planning a career in the big leagues?”
“Mitch,” Devin warned, looking over his shoulder, then back. “Look, Vincent. You’re too little. You might get lost. Go play with Olivia and Lisa or … go swimming or something.”
“Can’t go swimming by myself. ‘S’a rule.” He looked over at Pascal, up at Ike … then down to the table, to the drift of riches at its center commanding their attention.
“It’s a rule,” Mitch parroted, raising the pitch of his voice. “You think he’s too little for the truth too, Dev?
“And what truth is that?” Father asked. There was thunder treading his soft words and the boys peeled from their cluster. Two crimson disks blotched Pascal’s cheeks.
“Am not too little, am I, Father?” he demanded, determined not to giggle at Pascal’s ears burning an apple-red.
Father offered no verbal answer. A warm hand settled onto his shoulder, urged him a step away from the group, pulled him in close. Father’s robe blanketed him, and for a brief moment he imagined he might disappear behind the folds to emerge triumphant in some shining, secret place.
“Go on with you now,” Father said to the other boys, pointing the way. “Watch out for each other.”
At Father’s words, Mitch swept the heap of coins into one hand and buried the treasure in his pocket. A dime, blackened silver, careened across the stone floor, falling flat at his toe. When he pulled his gaze from it, all he could see was a blur of browns and rusts. Leaving.
Far from the dining hall … from him … the secret door slid open; the gate clanged. His friends hurried into the sunlight. The whoops and shouts. That first laughing gulp of spring air. He could hear. He could taste.
Father knelt and gathered him up, but he twisted in the embrace. “Devin!” he yelled, one arm outstretched. “DEV-IN!”
“Shhhh,” Father whispered. “Hush now.”
“I wanna go! I wanna go!”
“I know. Shhhh.”
Pressed to Father’s chest, he writhed, straining with argument. On planted heels, he pushed and pushed and pushed until beads of sweat rose on his forehead, until copper flooded his mouth. His breath, so rapid, so shallow, could not answer his blood’s need, and he wilted, sagging against iron-band arms. At this submission, Father loosened his grip, and with one hand, tipped his chin and cupped his cheek, gazing down at him with tenderness and with … what?
That look. He’d seen it before – the expression Father had worn when Devin skidded into the library that day, a park squirrel hit by a car, carried limp in his hands. It’s gonna die, Devin had cried, out of breath from running. Can you fix it, Father? Can you?
In Father’s eyes now and in the straight line of his lips he read dread and hopelessness, a giving-up.
Like Devin feels when he knows he’s going to be sick.
A bitter wind fanned embers in his heart he didn’t know smoldered, glowing red-yellow-white against the blackened char; the fire greedy for him as if he were a plain of dry, dry grass. He stared up, disenchanted, his feet finding solid rock, his shoulders squaring.
His lips curled at one corner, parted as he sucked air over his teeth. Focus narrowed to the drumming pulse of Father’s throat. His shoulder twitched; command rippled from black thought down his arm to his clenched fists … unfurling … to his fingers … spreading.
“No, Vincent.” Father spoke with a calmness that belied his sudden paling. “You will not strike out. You … will … not.”
Even then he knew it. Five years old and he knew … power.
A shadow boy … his second … separated from him, stood at his elbow, silent, watching … waiting …
He burst into tears.
When he lifted his head from Father’s shoulder, he knew his friends were too far away to follow. Shifting, turning the other cheek, he looked for the shadow boy he’d seen, but it … he … had disappeared. He sighed, a deep, chattering expelling, but the new hollowness remained.
“There, there,” Father soothed. “There you are. All right now? Let’s have some cocoa. We’ll talk.”
“Don’ wanna talk,” he said, sniffling the words. “Wanna go with Devin. Wanna go with Ike. ‘T’s not fair.”
“It isn’t,” Father agreed, taking hold of his upper arms, standing him straight. “But it is the truth, Vincent. Your truth. There will be things, many things you will want that you cannot have.”
“Why?” He shuddered out the question, wanting to clamp his hands over his ears.
But again Father didn’t answer, not with words. He pried loose the strands of hair plastered to his neck and face, brushed back the damp curls and, with the lightest touch, traced the shape of his ears, the shape he knew to be peculiar. With a forefinger, Father tapped twice the end of his nose, traveled over the tip to brush the cleft in his lip. Then he reached down for his hand, bringing it up, cradling it in his open palm. His sharp nails glittered in the guttering candlelight.
He had no vocabulary for what he saw in Father’s eyes, yet he knew. He understood.
Months passed and there were times that he forgot and wanted … wanted desperately … but when he voiced a request, the pain that etched Father’s face added sorrow to the anger that crouched and scuttled inside him and soon taught him to keep his wishes to himself. If it weren’t for Devin, for his championship, he’d have gone years without seeing the moon, a lifetime without a ride on a carousel.
And then … that day on the stairs, he’d slashed Devin’s face.
Father blamed Devin, but he carried the fault. Devin pushed him and the shadow-boy appeared. The boy – his mirror – nodded, grinning mirthlessly, showing his teeth. His fingers crooked and stiffened and his arm swept back. Fury lasered his aim.
You … will … not!
Father’s declaration blazed in the air like a glowing brand pulled from a fire. The sear of light blinded him, saving Devin’s exposed throat, leaving him marked, but alive. The shadow-boy was burned through … gone.
Devin’s decision to leave was yet a secret, but still the aftermath was devastating. He expected to be punished for inflicting such a wound. Boys scrapped and tangled often enough, bickered over nothing, finding themselves with long hours of lonely chores not confined to kitchen duty. Sometimes there were scrapes and bruises, sometimes blood, but this … this was much worse. Days passed as Father and Devin railed at each other while speaking rarely to him. He would join a group of friends, at the falls or at the supper table, and they would look away or down at their plates, a beat of awkwardness tripping up the conversation.
Devin having found quarter elsewhere, he was alone in his room when Father came for him, bidding him to come to his chamber. He followed a few paces behind, at the same somber pace, grateful for the summons. Punishment. Soon it would be over.
Father went to his desk, leaned on it, his back to him, both hands flat against its surface. A lecture was surely coming. Perhaps the Silence would be imposed, but at least it would have a name and an end. In a dwarfing chair, he waited. Finally, Father turned, drew a second chair close before him and sat down.
“As you grow older, you will gain strength and power. Vincent, you must always … always control that power. You must restrain yourself … in all ways. You have great intellect, physical prowess. It would be easy for anyone with these endowments to ride roughshod over others less gifted.”
Father’s words were unanticipated, veering far from the ordinary discussion of crime and penalty he expected. He’d planned to tell Father about the shadow-boy and the flash of light, but now the story died on his tongue. A finger of fear curled within. “He pushed me. He hit me in the nose. He made me mad.”
“Yes. I know. Devin told me.”
“He wouldn’t believe me about the knife. It wasn’t me!”
“No. It was Mitch who ratted, as Devin put it.”
“I told Devin I was sorry. I apologized!” He heard a frantic no, no, no in his ear, but the questions tumbled out. “Why won’t Lisa and Rebecca talk to me anymore? Why won’t Pascal?”
His throat hurt so. I’m not going to cry, he swore … but the shine of tears reflected in Father’s eyes – in his sad, sad eyes.
“You must look to yourself, Vincent,” Father said softly. “You do not want to become a tyrant. People will give you what you ask if they fear you. If … if you want to play scatterbase, your friends will give up swimming.”
“No they won’t, Father. I’ve said scatterbase and they’ve left me standing holding the ball.”
“That will change. Through no will of your own, though you do not demand it, others will look to you. You must channel your gifts into leadership.”
“Because you are … you have … something more.”
“What?” he demanded. His own voice sounded strange to him, rough and toothed like the rasps Noah’s father used in his shop. “What something more?”
Father’s lips pressed white. “I have no words to name it, Vincent, but it is there.”
“I don’t want it!” he shouted, lunging from his chair. A shadow flitted corner to corner but he denied the vision and raced for the stairs. “Whatever it is .. I … don’t … want it!”
Father reached out for him, but he wrenched from his grasp. He’d made the first rung when Father’s voice stopped him. “You have no choice in that matter, Vincent. You do not want to achieve your desires through intimidation. Your nature is to … burn very brightly, but you will outshine others. They will resent you. Fear you if you are not careful. You must be cautious with your skills, with your … powers.” He couldn’t listen any more. Didn’t want to. But Father kept on, and the softer he spoke, the more it hurt to hear. “Control, my son, like turning down a lantern’s flame. You must practice control. Always.”
The cold verdict settled in his stomach. Stone soup. He almost laughed.
For days, outside of class time and meals, he stayed in his room, reading, until Devin returned, taking up with him as if nothing had happened. His friends were his friends again. He played chess with Leo, with Sebastian, with Father. As Christmas approached, a Helper asked him what he wanted, and though he knew he would have presents to open, that gifts would pile inside his doorway as he slept away Christmas Eve, he answered, “I have all that I need.”
Then Devin left.
And later, Lisa …
The shadow-boy reappeared, wispy no longer, but instead black and solid and relentless, deep- and bitter-voiced, charging him with hip-check and elbow, grappling him to the edge of a rayless ravine, dragging him into unnamed acrid waters. He emerged bloody, crawling, clawing his way to the candlelight, a boy no longer. Neither of them. There where my madness roams. He would be no stranger in that land.
Over the years, others would demand, negotiate, petition … and receive. But what he wanted was impossible. Nothing would change it – no level of faith, no number of good works, nothing he could say or do would bring him into the sun …
She had loved him from his dark places – the night he found her in the park, from the darkest of all. There was no fear of him in her … none. He knew that now, believed – just – that the something else was not fearsome, not loathsome. She was proud of him, found him beautiful, worthy. She wanted … wanted to stand by his side. She brought the colors and perfumes, the velvets, the sweets. She brought the sun and the moon.
O something unprov’d! something in a trance, to escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds …
She brought Rosaleen and healing.
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous ...
She brought Eimear and Martin, music and fellowship. She brought entry.
To rise thither with my inebriate soul, to be lost if it must be so ...
She brought Flynn.
Bráithre. Martin had promised. Promised.
He couldn’t lose Woodlawn, the doorways, the possibilities.
But how? How can I ask my friends to sacrifice their bodies, their precious life’s hours. How can I ask that we accept risk on my whim.
The murmuring return of wind rained kisses on his skin, wove cool fingertips into his hair …
The truth, my love. Tell them the truth, the why. Let them decide. Say it ...
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom, with one brief hour of madness and joy.2
The breeze, roused again, swirling, weaving his bellow with its ancient song …
I want it. I want it. I do.
“Vincent!” Mouse skidded through the junction, a torch in one hand. There were shouts in the corridor behind him and a clatter of footsteps. “Heard you. Ran.” Mouse peered at his face and dropped to his knees. “Blood!”
“Hear that, Mouse?” Vincent said, his throat dry and scratchy. “The wind here – like the Listening Bridge. Voices in it and the sound of people walking. From years ago, dozens of years or maybe miles away. Hear it?”
“Hear Kanin. Hear Stuart and Noah.” From his pocket, Mouse pulled a grubby rag – oily from wiping down his tools – dropped it and dug for another. Moistening the cloth with water from the canteen, Mouse sponged at the wound. Soon the room teemed with people, bent over their knees, shoulders heaving.
“What … happened? Kanin managed. “That was – whew – some noise you made, Vincent. You all right?”
“I dropped the brace. The bit– It was nothing.”
“Hmmm,” Kanin said. “Looks like you might have a black eye.”
“Matches yours!” Mouse laughed and relinquished the cloth to Vincent’s ministrations. He swirled the canteen and held it out. “Thirsty work. Better get more. Drink first.” He scuttled backward and sprang to his feet. “Meet you there,” he said, passing the canteen’s strap over his head.
“Meet where, for what?” Vincent asked.
Kanin raked his fingers through his hair. “Stuart knows a place where we can sit down, spread out the maps. Looks like there’s some things I didn’t take into consideration. You know,” Kanin said, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “It’s not too late to change. Nothing’s carved in stone … yet.”
Chapter title: e e cummings. it is at moments after i have dreamed from Five Poems in The Dial. January, 1922.
Opening quotation: John O’Donohue. To Bless the Space Between Us. 2008.
1. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Prometheus Unbound. Act IV. 1819.
2. Walt Whiteman. One Hour to Madness and Joy.
Inspiration for the flashback in this chapter:
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