sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 41 ~ There Comes the Swish and Sigh of Rushes
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
Kanin winced at the admonishment and looked away, his spirit traveling farther than the nearest corridor, father than the next junction, the next stairway up … or down. In the tension of his shoulders, in the shifting of his burdened weight, his despair, his desire to bolt was … communicable.
… a place miles beneath the city—a nameless river that runs through the darkness. Sometimes I go there.
No letting him leave, he decided. No leeway, but here and now …
“Olivia has named your daughter,” Vincent informed him. “She’s chosen guardians for your children.”
Kanin’s eyes widened in surprise and sparked with a flash of anger. “She has? Who?” He stiffened … and stared. “You? You and Catherine?”
Unflinching, Vincent nodded.
Kanin’s rigidness withered in the ensuing silence. “Tell me,” he whispered, his chin to his chest. “Tell me her name.”
Kanin drew a sharp breath. “My mother’s name, my grandmother’s. A truth I did tell her.” Fingers pressed hard above his brows, he slumped against the table.
“A family name then. Your family. Think, Kanin – what that means, what she’s saying to you with her choice.” After a stillness, Vincent returned to the torches, dousing one … another. Dark would soon follow.
Kanin raked his hair and surveyed the room, his gaze lingering on the now-dim foyer to the rooms beyond. “Losing hope, you said. Before it’s too late. Maybe … maybe there’s still a chance.”
Single file on the steps, they left the meeting place for the work site. Vincent felt the push of Kanin’s hopes at his back, the tug of Catherine’s need at his heart. When they topped the steep staircase and emerged into the wider corridor, Kanin turned longingly toward home, if only a single step.
As did he … if only a single step more.
The subway’s rumble was loud, the 4-Train terminal only three levels above. Over it, he was sure he heard Devin’s voice … Ditch it. Ditch everything and run … but it was only the wind, wind that whipped the corner, raced away and spoke no more, leaving him with a sighing, trudging companion and the wheel of his own thoughts.
Here … our friends live here.
He’d touched the map, had spoken the words, and Stuart, Noah, Kanin, and Mouse had leaned in without question … without misgiving or hesitation, without judgement or qualm or quail.
Hey! I know that place! Noah said. Went up with Grandpa once.
At that, he’d staggered back from the table, his heels striking the feet of the stone chair. He thumped into the seat and a vision formed, a glory in his mind … Catherine … on her face her wide, slow smile, in her hands a gift, a box. She held it out, drew back the lid …
What if we … How about … We could maybe … Then yes, yes that works, sure. His friends’ voices were eager and interested, triumphant at the end but moving on to the next necessary decision with hardly a beat between. Mouse turned to the empty space where he’d stood, spun to find him, grinned and motioned him forward. Vincent, need you. The water trap. Bothers you, you said. Better tell.
And the work, life, the unshattered world … went on.
Later, he’d searched for her, for a moment sharing the pure ray of her smile, but the vision quivered and winked out. As if he’d missed a step on a staircase – the plummet, the sudden void, the clammy touch of panic – his stomach lurched. The current of their bond, always a deep, purling channel, swirled in turbulent vortices. His senses flaring, sinew and tendon coiling, he prepared to move, to brave the sunlight. To go to her.
No, he knew. I’m all right. Against the taste of resignation in her throat, he swallowed her cry. I’m all right, he knew again, that which she wanted him to know, to trust … And – voice-body-heart-soul-breath – the ripples smoothed away.
Another time, Catherine, he promised. But soon.
“You did this all by yourself?” Kanin shrugged off his pack and dropped it to the tunnel floor, already inspecting the overhead work. Beneath the newly-set beams, he wandered a slow figure-eight, his hands shoved in his back pockets. “How’d you lever that girder into place from down here?” He whistled and repeated the study. “I’m impressed.”
Vincent nodded his thanks and crouched before the tools arrayed on a low shelf of rock. “The augers need sharpening. Do you have your bit file? I have only the one.”
“I do,” Kanin said, bending to his bag and loosening the straps.
Between them a second stillness fell, deeper but easier, broken only by the steady rasp of toothed file to dulled steel and, paced with their efforts, a duet of breath.
Kanin broke the long rhythm of their work. “Stuart and Noah never came down much. I don’t know them very well.” He traced two inches of honed spiral with his thumb, repositioned the bit against the sharpening stone and laid his file to the bevel.
“When we were boys, we shared much adventure,” Vincent said, blinking away his concentration. “The distance was nothing then, part of the fun, being so far from home. I spent two summers here, but we grew older, became … interested in different things. Lost touch.”
Will you go north again this summer, Vincent? Father had asked, his eyes dark with an unspoken question. He’d weighed his answer, tempted by the unfettered days and the prospect of tunnels yet unexplored, but Lisa backed through the swinging door of the kitchen, in her hands a tray towered with stacked bowls, and he sprang from his chair, hurrying to relieve her burden, anxious for her smile, gladdening at her thanks, breathless that her shoulder might later brush his at table …
He mirrored Kanin’s testing gesture, but a nick still marred the steel. He leaned into his work, buffed at the flaw. “About the time you came to us, Stuart left the tunnels for a while, for college. Noah, to travel.”
“There’re more people here than ever came to Winterfest or to the annual meetings,” Kanin observed.
“Yes. Solitudinarians, Father calls them.”
“I’ve met Liz, Noah’s wife. Olivia said they were close once. I’ve heard some stories.
“Um hmmm. Liz was a character. She still is.” His thumb raked the edge again and, satisfied, he nodded. “While you were away, Stuart met Wren. Brought her Below.
“That must have caused Father some grief.”
“He was … concerned, but Wren won his heart. Their baby comes this fall.”
“She works Above, right? At the Botanical Gardens with Stuart? Is that where they met?”
Vincent smiled. “It is where they met, but not where she works. Wren is a lawyer, a child advocate attorney.” The bit laid flat along the stone ledge, he tapped one end. “It rocks a little. Bent. When I dropped it I guess …”
“Let me have it,” Kanin said. From the store of tools, he rummaged for a stubby wooden block, the small sledge. “I’ll straighten it out.”
* * *
Catherine squared her shoulders and gripped the handle of her satchel with both hands. She wanted time to slow, wanted nothing else but these last seconds to stretch into hours, into forever, into … never. But as sparkling, as determined as a bottle rocket, Jenny whistled toward her, arms wide, pinning her in a hug she couldn’t return. Their cheeks pressed close; they sighed as one.
It felt like goodbye.
“Hi, Ned,” she said over Jenny’s shoulder. Close by, but toeing an instinctive line, he spread his hands, smiling in surrender, his dark eyes soft with a devoted watchfulness. She heard a long note, knew a strobe of recognition – something in his stance, in his expression, in the sweep of hair angling across his forehead – but she blinked and it was gone. Only the clouded fluorescent flickered overhead, a pulsing signal to the maintenance cart she heard rumbling along the hall.
“You ready to go?” Jenny trilled and stepped back. “Joe gave you my message, didn’t he?”
Behind her, Joe’s door closed and the latch clicked – apologetically, she imagined – into place.
“Well, I hope you’re hungry!” Two roses bloomed on her cheekbones, but the high beam of Jenny’s smile dimmed. “What’s the matter, Cath? You don’t look so good.”
“We’ve had some bad news … a setback, two reallly.”
“Well, I’ve … we’ve … got something to tell you that’ll take your mind off your troubles. Give me your bag. That newspaper too.”
She relinquished her case, but clamped her arm to her ribs, trapping the folded-over section, hiding the print. No questions, she pleaded, though she longed to smooth the ad, to point to it, to share her dream.
After a second tug, Jenny dropped her hand, her brows quirked to two perplexed wings. “Just … go get your jacket. Okay?”
A setback … so pale a word, so unjust to Phan, to Mr. Haas. How comforting it would be to collapse in Jenny’s arms, to cry out the unfairness, to worry her bootless efforts into tomorrow’s surer course on the shoulder of a friend, a sister. So much of her life went unshared, the bleak … and the miraculous. Words welled up; need provoked … persuaded. Dare I …
She met Jenny’s gaze. Not now, Cathy. Was it a plea she read in her friend’s expression …
Or the reflection of a deeper truth, her truth? Not ever.
With a sigh, she tucked a strand of hair behind an ear, exposing her scar. Her fingers brushed the quiet ridge, but it was his touch.
Ned leaned against the edge of a desk. “You’re a little pale, Catherine. Do you feel like going? We could …”
“She’s fine!” Jenny declared. “Come on, Cathy. I made reservations for the balcony at Cortile. And I asked. Tonight’s special is that pasta you like, the black linguine with shrimp and crab?”
She bit down on a memory, on an unbefitting, unexpected urge to chuckle.
It had been dark when she arrived home, and cradling the warm, foil-wrapped package, she’d hurried to set the apartment’s locks. Across the room, the french doors stood open. He separated from the shadows, crossing the floor in swift strides, and took the box from her hands, set it on the table, then gathered her up, nuzzling the curve of her neck and shoulder, exploring with tongue and breath.
“I brought you supper,” she managed.
“Ummm. I taste it on you. Something … spicy.” The glint in his eyes could only be described as … hungry.
It was still new – his touch – and thrilling when he teased her, flirted with her. She imagined sitting face-to-face before the fire, her legs over his, twirling the sauced strands around the fork, delivering the peppery bite to his lips, kissing them clean. But when she tore away the foil and opened the lid, he drew back with a short, sharp gasp. His eyes widened, and, in a slow, obstinate swing – right, left, right – he shook his head.
What … is that, he’d asked.
Linguine Nere Arrabiata. It’s delicious, she’d assured him, though nothing she said convinced him that squid ink noodles promised culinary – or any other – ecstasy. Later, when he emerged from her kitchen, a soup spoon and a jar of peanut butter in his hand, she’d burst out laughing.
“I wish I’d known, Jenny. I had a late lunch. Really late. I can’t possibly eat another bite.” And no matter. If I had known, if I’d had to choose … I wouldn’t have missed the apple pie.
But Jenny’s insistence was a magnet, and molten within her, some secret nudged the surface. From the corners of her eyes, Catherine surveilled the sanctuary of her desk, the white expanse of blotter, the books around it stacked like turrets, the telephone a lifeline she was desperate to grab. Ring, damn it! I need an excuse.
Almost five o’clock. What time does Dix close his shop? If she caught him before he left for home, would he hide a key for her? And the real estate ad with its number begging to be dialed. Surely it isn’t too late to call.
Everything she wanted demanded aloneness.
“I’m really sorry, but I need to stay close. There’re some things I have to do yet.” She reached out, though Jenny was a step too far away. “Your news … it’ll tell over coffee won’t it? Downstairs?” She offered what she hoped seemed an apologetic smile. “We can get a good table this time of day.”
“Cathy, this is important! It’s not … it’s not a coffee shop kind of thing.” Jenny’s rosy blush darkened and she summoned Ned with a beseeching look.
“If Catherine needs to work, we could go to Temple’s for a drink,” Ned suggested. “It’s just a block away, not that much farther than downstairs. I’ll call Cortile. Maybe I can change our reservations.
“Would you?” Jenny turned back to her. “Not the coffee shop. Please, Cathy.”
Catherine checked her watch. The hour blurred. “Well, okay, but–”
“No buts.” Jenny declared, taking her arm.
* * *
“I’ve marked these so all the holes will match up. Then we’ll drive this rebar through all three, but after that, I don’t know how we’re gonna lift it. You got any ideas?”
On his knees, the brace and bit positioned against a dark-penciled -V- on the rough-hewn timber, Vincent knew Kanin spoke to him. The words filtered through; their question prodded him, but there was no here. Only her … with her. His hand stole to the lapel of his jerkin and when he clutched at the leather, he felt the close echo of two hearts.
“Vincent? Hey, you all right?”
Kanin gripped his shoulder and a moment later eased the tool from his grip. He sank back on his heels and rubbed his face, wincing at the still-raised welt crusty under his fingertips. Kanin sat down on the beam and held out the canteen.
“You want some water?”
For a moment, he stared at the presented flask, then reached for it and tipped it up. “Thank you,” he said, after a long swallow. With the back of his hand, he wiped his lips and chin.
“You were really– Was it– Is Catherine all right?”
Vincent nodded and took a deep breath. She called through to him, her reassurances as resonant as her grief. And it was grief he … she felt. And wariness and resolve and faith. “She struggles … to share, but not to burden.”
“How does it work? Your … bond. Can you read her mind?”
“No,” he said on a long exhale. Willows whiten, aspens quiver, little breezes dusk and shiver thro’ the wave that runs forever .1.. How might he explain the miracle – the seeing, hearing, feeling, the streaming landslide of love?2 He spread his hands. “The same as for you. You awaken just before Luke stirs. When he cries, you know if he’s angry or frightened, hungry or lonely. When Olivia–”
“Oh, I know what she’s thinking, all right.”
“You and Catherine haven’t been together long enough. You haven’t had time to irritate her.”
“You’re wrong about that,” he said, and they shared something resembling a rueful smile. He reached for the brace, for the refuge of work. “Mouse repaired the pulley, replaced the rope with cable. He’ll bring it soon, I expect, and we can get this up into place. We should finish the drills.”
Vincent swung the sledgehammer home, a dozen solid blows necessary to drive the steel rod flush. “Do we have enough rebar to finish this section?” he asked when his breath evened.
“We’re gonna need some extra, I think,” Kanin said. “There’s more vibration here than I expected.” With gloved hands, he twisted another ridged bar into place. “Funny thing … Noah knowing your friend’s entry, that he’d been there before with his grandfather.”
The head of the sledge resting on the floor, Vincent leaned on the handle. “It was so long ago, Noah surely met Martin’s predecessor. Before he retired, the old priest spoke of wonders he’d seen on travels deep beneath this city. Martin believed him to be … confused.”
“I guess Leo gave him a tour. Must have trusted him.”
“Yes.” He gripped the hammer’s handle, waiting for Kanin to step back, then battered the next pin in.
“I met Leo a few times. At Levon’s.” Kanin reached for the last length of rebar. “They’d play chess on this little set. It was tiny, but lots of detail in the pieces. Silver and gold instead of black and white. Anyway, Levon always complained he needed his gem scope to see the board, it was so small, and they’d gripe back and forth. Then one time I was there, Leo brought Levon a present, a special scope. Levon snatched it up, but it was a trick scope, one of those sideways things. Apparently he saw the inside of my ear. Leo laughed the rest of the evening.”
“Ah! His laugh.”
“Yeah, it was all wheezy. Like that cartoon dog, what was his name? Manfred? Muttley? Or, wait … was it Spike? Do you remember?”
“Oh,” Kanin said. “Right.”
At last propping the sledge against the wall, Vincent dropped to a seat, cross-legged on the floor. “When I was a boy, Leo brought us all angle scopes.”
“Would’a been fun, able to see around corners. You go down to the maze with it?”
“You know, I might have one of those scopes, too.” Kanin mirrored his settling and hauled his pack into his lap, from a pocket drawing two silver-wrapped squares, tossing over the welcome bit of chocolate. “Levon gave me a box when he moved away. Said Leo’d made it. A cigar box with these layers glued up, all notched out and carved, a tiered lid. It was crammed with marble chess pieces I didn’t know he had. I don’t play, so I never took ‘em all out, but … the scope was wooden, wasn’t it? About three inches long?”
“I think it might be in there. I’ll dig it out when I go home. Save it for Luke.” Kanin folded the foil wrapper smaller and smaller. “Anyway, Noah says the latch system in that sliding slab’s really unusual, the one leading to your friend’s entry.”
“Mouse was impressed.”
“Maybe we can duplicate it. Sounds really secure. And have you seen those doors he was talking about? Round stones six feet across, two feet thick? They roll out of a pocket and block a passage?”
“I haven’t. There’s so much geography here I’ve not explored. They sound the perfect fix to the perimeter junctions.”
“We should take a look after dinner. They’re four levels down. Don’t want to hike that far hungry.”
“Hmmmm.” Acknowledging without committing, without agreeing – Father’s manner well learned. I won’t go deep, Catherine. I … await.
“The way Stuart described them,” Kanin went on, “they’ll take some time to carve. A week or two each one, and we’d need at least eight. Then getting them in to place. If I …” He leaned forward, elbows to thighs, his hands clasped.
“If you what, Kanin?”
“I was just thinking. When we get the major projects done, everybody else could go home and I could stay on, work by myself. If Olivia liked those rooms …”
“I think she would.”
“I don’t know,” Kanin said, inspecting a thumbnail. “The furniture’s all so … big. And dusty.”
“That can be remedied … changed. The storerooms are full here and with plenty of strong and willing friends to carry–” He inclined his head. “Ask her to come.”
“Too far to walk with Luke and the baby … with Althea. And alone? I don’t think so.”
“She could take the subway.”
“Maybe, but Luke’s talking a blue streak. You never know what he’s gonna say. He might spill the beans.” Kanin straightened his shoulders, and a small, proud smile curved his lips.
“Then one of our Helpers could drive them.” Vincent drew up his knee. “You remind me of me just now.”
“A ‘No’ for every possibility presented to you. It cannot be is a habit of thinking, one you must break. Trust me in this.”
“Maybe … just for a few hours … maybe Mary could watch …”
“Send for her, Kanin. Or better yet, go to her.” Vincent raised a hand to stop the quick objection. “We can spare you for an evening. Those stone doors will be there for your study tomorrow and the next day and the next. But Olivia …”
“Won’t wait forever.”
“… deserves the chance to choose. And you must be strong enough, brave enough, to bear her decision.”
“You mean if she says no …”
“If she says yes.”
* * *
“Listen,” Catherine said. Please listen. “I need five minutes.”
“Fine. I’ll sit right here and wait.” Jenny plucked at her sleeve and circled the bracelet watch on her wrist. “Five minutes, starting now.”
Ned shifted on his feet. “Why don’t we go on, Jen. Grab a table before it gets too crowded.”
“That’s a good idea,” Catherine said. “I’ll just be a–”
“You go, Ned,” Jenny urged. “Cathy and I’ll walk over together.”
“Well …” The word drawn out into two syllables, he seemed unsure, but after a studied glance from face to face, he turned for the elevator, his hand in his pocket. Catherine heard the questioning chink of keys.
“Okay,” Jenny said, pointing at her watch.
Catherine dropped into her chair. Joe’s scribbled messages were weighted with a saved-back tub of Chocolate Ice Cubes, her favorite from Joe’s now-donated stash. Pencils, pens, her card file – everything swam before her in a choppy sea. Jenny sat nearby, her arms folded, her legs crossed, her foot jiggling with impatience. The old school clock high on the wall ticked on as if in countdown.
“I have to make a couple calls, Jen.”
“Go ahead.” Grinning, Jenny lifted her shoulders.
Jenny’s smile flattened a degree. “What? You want me to wait in the lobby?”
“Joe’s still here. You could–”
“All right, all right. In the lobby. I’ll be standing by the elevators.” Barely a desk away, Jenny turned. “But I mean it, Cathy. Five minutes.”
Catherine spun her rolodex to Dix and Brenda’s card. She closed her eyes, listening to the droning burr of the call, to the answering machine when it picked up. Business hours are– Dumped to its cradle, the receiver clattered. There was no message she could possibly leave.
She unfolded the newspaper and reached again for the telephone, but froze, her hand hovering above the handset. She heard a hum, felt a vibration, and looked to the faulty light fixture overhead, but it was Jenny … Jenny bustling back, triumph almost a song in her wake. With no time to search for scissors, she ripped the ad from the classifieds, tucking it to her vest pocket. It rustled when she smoothed it with her hand, a lyric talisman. What we have is worth everything.
“I can’t wait,” Jenny crowed, dragging the chair close to Catherine’s. “I just can’t wait for Temple’s. Get out your calendar, Cathy.”
The expected question – What? Tell me! – was unnecessary. Already she knew the answer and delight should have been all …
“We’re getting married! Yes, I know, I know it’s fast, but, well, why wait? The wedding’s in Charleston, at his family home on Sullivan’s Island. There’re three floors, every one with a wrap-around porch. You can see the beach, Cath. It’s in the back yard almost! There’re palm trees and those live oaks with all that moss floating down. And the flowers! You won’t believe it. Ned’s shown me pictures. But here’s the best part. Six bedrooms! Six! Enough for all of us, Nancy and Paul, Becky and Bill, Amy and Beth, Hilary and her latest … and you, Cathy. We’re thinking August. Everything’s slow here in August. We’ll pick a date that works for everybody. September, October if we have to. A long weekend. A big party. There’s plenty of time, time to arrange this.” Jenny searched her face and grabbed both her hands. “You can’t say no, Cathy. You can’t. You’re my …my girlfriend. I love you. I want to share this. I mean, really share it, and that goes both ways. So no more stalling. Whoever he is … it’s time. You have to bring him with you.”
… and a slice of earth went missing, scudding into the chasm finally cracked between them. We make ourselves a place apart, behind light words that tease and flout.3 But light words floated away, fragile bubbles on a thieving wind, and no lexicon, no wordbook whispered a new vocabulary.
Chapter Title: Amy Lowell. In a Castle. from Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. 1921.
Opening Quotation: John O’Donohue. For a New Beginning. From To Bless the Space Between Us. 2008.
1. Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The Lady of Shalott, Part IV. 1833.
2. paraphrased and combined: Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Song of Myself. 1855. And Siegried Sassoon. Miracles. from Picture Show. 1919.
3. Robert Frost. Revelation. From A Boy’s Will. 1915.
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