sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 44 ~ The Fountains of my Hidden Life
are through thy friendship fair
O friend, my bosom said,
Through thee alone the sky is arched,
Through thee the rose is red.
Had she spoken aloud?
She wasn’t sure … or certain what she meant.
Eimear stood close … deer-still. Catherine’s gaze held hers, then flickered away, back to the stern expanse of tight-jawed steel. No less than the sliding panel beneath the park, the elevator’s doors had closed away a world, and beside them, the arrow-up light – the signal of return, of possibility – remained dark. A peevish grumble sighed through the cables and subsided.
It was almost too much, this charade, this effort Above, denying the best part of her, concealing her heart’s best treasure. The polished metal door a mirror, in it a dim and watery reflection danced … hers. But only a half-truth. A band tightened rib to rib; her heart stuttered. Tears, words, dreams … everything … threatened release.
For months she’d walked a fine, long edge, an edge honed by the whetstone of her secret; the course companionless, considering the full-stop she encountered whenever she imagined taking Jenny – or anyone from her life before, her street-level life – Below. But now … Eimear. And through her, Rosie. Through her, Martin. Flynn. Their every meeting, from first to this, seemed a meditation point along the labyrinth to its center, an energy moving, stirring, pulling them forward into its flow. That Eimear – as if through a gap of tumbled bricks – would appear at this moment, stand with her, moor her … seemed more than a gift.
She could press for the car and it would rise; its gates would open again. She could shepherd Eimear through … downstairs … outside … past Columbus Park, past Mulberry, to Mott Street, to Dr. Wong’s on Pell. They might barrel into the apothecary stirring the dust of bone and horn and herbs, rush the stairs to the secret basement doors Lin would, without question, hold open for her. Through a wonderland, they might then walk … home.
She remembered the alarm on Mouse’s face when she’d first chuted into his chamber, on Jamie’s at first sight of her. A friend of Vincent’s, she’d declared, and all was changed. He was the key to her admission, her sanction.
A friend of mine? Might her endorsement grant Eimear similar passage?
She expected Father’s voice. There is a process! Longed for Vincent’s, velvet over his iron trust. Beside you, before anyone, whenever you are ready.
But it was Eimear whispering, Eimear squeezing her hand – hard – and letting go, Eimear who inclined her head ever so slightly in signal.
“Hey!” Joe said, nearly at her elbow. Catherine wheeled on him, her suddenness forcing him back a step. “Whoa! Careful, Radcliffe!”
His eyes sparked, then veiled and narrowed. His listening eyes, she’d called them since their first courtroom win, when, over coffee and celebration, he’d taught her nuance and subtlety, the several ways to read a jury.
He was reading her now. Or attempting to. She reached for her ready cloak, worn supple by necessity.
A studied beat passed.
“Hi, Eimear,” he said, turning his auditing gaze not quite aside. “What’s up? Everything okay?”
A straining briefcase in one hand, his gym bag slung from a shoulder, Joe was laden with obligation, buoyed by hope. She canted a look at Eimear, in it a willed plea for understanding, to follow her lead – divert, distract, redirect … to refocus the spotlight. Not on me, but on you.
With a slow, teasing grin, Catherine surveyed his burden. “Mmm-hmm,” she purred, the pesky sister.
A dusky flush rose from his unbuttoned collar and in a masking two-step, he shifted on his feet, elbowing the duffle behind him. With the lift of his chin, by the sweep of his thumb low across his throat disguised as a tug on his loosened tie, he telegraphed a don’t-say-anything warning. “Jenny leave already?” Over his shoulder, he scanned the room.
“She did. She’s getting married!”
His head snapped around. “Married? You’re kidding! You mean today? Now?”
“To Ned of the mirror?” Eimear’s question dovetailed Joe’s.
“No! In August probably and in Charleston.” Catherine grinned and turned to Eimear. Thank you. “And yes. To that Ned.”
“Ah! Ro will surely love that. She’ll be thrilled to learn her wares ignite such … fireworks.” Eimear’s smile flashed, as wide and bright as the full moon.
Joe blushed again and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, that’s, umm, good, right? I guess that explains why she was so anxious to talk to you yesterday, why she kept trying when she couldn’t reach you. Busy Sunday, I guess.”
His less than innocent observation seemed a question posed to them both. Catherine held her breath, but Eimear said nothing about their meeting in the laundromat. Nothing in her expression betrayed the mystery she’d touched, the world she’d glimpsed.
“So where’d they run off to?” Joe continued. “You going somewhere to celebrate?”
No. No celebration. “They had reservations somewhere,” she said and hurried on, addressing Eimar. “Joe helped Rosie with a project yesterday. At the Cloisters.”
“Did you! And have you heard from her today? I’ve not and I worry for her, driving the old van all the way to Rochester … and all by herself.” With a simple pause, a sliding step off to one side, Eimear captured Joe’s attentions.
Thank you, she wanted to say – would say – the moment they were alone.
She half-turned and checked her watch, a slow exhale concealed by a fine curtain of hair. In its far corner, her desk was striped with sunlight, the air above it powdery and gold. She longed to push away the clutter, to clear its surface, to rest her head on her arms for just a moment, to say …
Goodbye, Jenny …
Too heavy, too hopeless the thought, she drew new breath to temper the words.
For now …
Though once, to Vincent, regardless of the uncertain way, she’d offered the words for now with such surety, they now dissolved like candy floss, unvoiced on her tongue. On either side of the river, Jenny and she were both were turned away from crossing, and nothing less than the truth – about Stephen, about Vincent – would bring them back to juncture. Perhaps, downstream, the banks would narrow; perhaps a bridge of stones would arch from the waters.
Perhaps not … but she would live with her decision.
Relief and regret, exhilaration, exhaustion chimed a reverberant chord. Hours must pass before she would somehow find him, hold him, whisper the day to him, tell him … tell him it was over. Over. As the moon across a night sky, she’d dodged behind the fleece of clouds, had raced shadow to shadow in advance of this confrontation with Jenny, this last moment before the quake and shift … to find the anticipation of the sticking point had been worse than its braving.
I’m sad. Of course I am. But when the time came to choose, there was no choice. I stand for us. Never imagine I weigh my old life heavy against my new. What we have is worth everything.
Oh, Vincent. I am ready. Finally, ready for you, for all that is to come. Some doors will close … have closed, but this commitment, our full faith in each other, will open new doors – to places and people, experiences we’ve never imagined. We just have to walk through.
Across the room, at her slatted window, a brilliance burned. It was only a trick of the sun impatient to descend, eager for elsewhere. At this hour, below in their private chambers, the no-longer-strange slant of light would inch along the floor, illuminating even the watercourse on the far wall, reflecting in mirrors of mica. Prismed colors would dance back across the stone. One could stand in the middle of their atrium and rainbows, like butterflies, would shimmer skin and hair and clothes. There were no words for the magic. It must be seen.
Henry was below as Lin’s choice; Wren as Stuart’s. Even Margaret – her welcome paved by Father’s constancy. And Vincent, that fateful night … Breaking the fundamental rule, he’d carried her below. Trusting her on no evidence, he’d revealed the secret.
Eimear’s voice … Joe’s … Eimear’s again … bantered past. As if around a wishing stone, her hand closed on the angle scope secreted in the pocket of her vest. If only …
Without consulting Father, Vincent had changed the priorities of the crew’s work, had journeyed alone in investigation. He’d kept Kanin’s disappearance, the uncertainty of Mitch, off the pipes. My decisions, he’d said and beneath his agitation, she’d heard a resonant chord of grit and mettle and resolve.
Will I find that place? Would her footing firm? With confidence, with willingness to bear any consequence, might she one day stand before the community, spread her hands and say … My family. My decisions.
Beside you. Before anyone. Whenever you are ready, he’d said. A wave crested within her, smoothing onto roiled sand …
I thought I understood, Vincent, but there was another layer of meaning, one I had to discover for myself. This … power … won’t be granted. Not by Father. Not by you. Not ever. It comes from me. I have to recognize it, trust it. I have to claim it.
Through the angled blinds, light surged and receded. Overhead, a faulty fluorescent flickered – a candle guttering in a soft-spoken wind. A sensed breath brushed her crown. Warmth blossomed – against her cheek, low on her spine – an arc of energy ribboning between the touches, a fleet, ephemeral embrace. So simple, that truth beyond knowledge. So simple after all.
It’s a prestigious program,” Joe was saying as he pressed the down button. “I hope she–”
Catherine broke in. “A teaching position? At RIT? I thought it was just a seminar!” She glanced at Joe. A crease deepened at one corner of his mouth, an unreadable punctuation. “Rosie’s … leaving?”
“For only a summer’s session should she get the job,” Eimear said. “Cover for an instructor’s short leave. I argued for taking Andrew along, but she wants the shop kept open, though I think she’s worried that if the show’s not well received or her lecture falls flat …”
“That won’t happen.” As best he could given his baggage, Joe crossed his arms.
“Well …” Eimear inspected the buckle of her purse strap. “I do hate to think of her having no one in the seats cheering her on or packing away all her pieces by herself after the presentation. Driving back alone Wednesday morning, whether her talk goes well or sour. That van’s been known to refuse to start and even if it runs, it’s six hours of lonely road …”
“Joe,” Catherine drawled. “Didn’t you say you weren’t feeling well?”
“What’re you talking about? I feel fine.”
“Now don’t go all stoic on us. You look terrible!”
He frowned. “I do?”
“What do you think, Eimear?”
“A bit wobbly about the eyes, yes,” she agreed. “A sad case. Gabh an oíche ‘twould be my advice.”
“Huh?” Joe asked.
“You know … you could grab a commuter flight tomorrow afternoon,” Catherine said, sidling closer to him, her voice low. “Tomorrow anytime. You’d be there in an hour. Moreno’s in Albany and we’re not going anywhere on our cases. You know that. Some time away might give you a whole new perspective.”
“I don’t know.” Joe studied the scuffed floor, raising his head when the elevator dinged opened. “Wait a minute,” he crowed. “Hold the phone. I know a con when I hear one. You want a day off, Radcliffe, you gotta ask me. But the answer’s no …” He backed across the threshold and reached for the buttons. “That is, unless you come down with whatever I’ve got.” He waved goodbye, waggling his fingers.
The doorway narrowed. She let out all her breath in a long sigh and heard its soft-whistled echo from Eimear.
Before she could find her words, the maintenance cart rumbled in from the hallway. A grave and wiry man – a hawk’s nose over a bushy mustache, a braid of white hair half-way down his back – maneuvered his tools down the office aisle. “Hi, Stan,” Catherine said as he passed. He answered with a two-fingered -V-. Beneath the dimmed fixture, he telescoped and spread his ladder, snapping the braces into place.
“Let’s go back to my desk, okay?” Her arm laced with Eimear’s, she led a detour around Stan’s rolling workshop, past Mei-Xing’s desk where she sat, her chin propped in one palm, her pencil resting on a yellow pad dark with notes, her eyes cast down, just fluttering shut.
“What was that you said?” Catherine asked when they were out of earshot. “The advice you gave Joe?”
“Advice?” Eimear hesitated. “Ah, right,” she said. “‘Twas a suggestion, really. Gabh an oíche.”
“Seize the night, more or less.”
Catherine dragged a chair desk-side and stood behind it, both hands on the cresting rail. “The Irish equivalent to Carpe diem?”
“He might should … seize them both, I mean. Do you think he will?”
“Fly to Rochester?” She imagined Joe at his gym, imagined his brow furrowed with self-assessment, the muttered dressing-down she knew he sometimes delivered to himself. Months ago, his door left ajar, she’d overheard a staccato list of short-comings, an accompanying thwunk of darts. Outside, prowling the hallway, she guarded the privacy he assumed he had, itching to burst in, to refute each perceived flaw. When finally she eased inside, a binder of testimony in her arms, though wrinkled wings at the corners of his eyes seemed more evidence of pain than humor, he grinned boyishly at her and dropped two Root Beer Barrels and a small box of Lemonheads in her hand. He shoved shut his candy drawer with his knee, with more force than was necessary, and she’d asked no questions.
She’d seen him at times oblivious to romantic interest and intimation, so obtuse she considered tearing her own hair. And once, in a fool’s-gold infatuation, she’d almost lost him. After Erica, he’d first vowed No more, modifying that soon enough to No more lawyers, and until Nia, he’d kept his resolution. I met her in the grocery store, he’d protested. So it doesn’t count. And always, there was the steady undercurrent of his feelings for her, feelings so recently spilled without fan-fare, without drama, but spilled at last. Another moment I dreaded and avoided that somehow freed us both, she realized, for just that morning he’d asked her, How long do you think it takes? and Do you think it’s possible? But like his briefcase and gym bag, certitude and prospect seemed too evenly balanced.
She shook her head and rounded to her own chair. “I can’t guess. I’ll have to come to work tomorrow to find out.”
There was no rush to conversation, instead a settling … but a settling into anticipation. The office air seemed charged yet freshened, and she was reminded of a day in Scotland when, with her father, on the wind-dashed northeasterly coast, they’d descended the Whaligoe Steps. They’d approached along a grassy avenue, through a kissing gate, past a chambered cairn – its entrance a dark, underground passage – past a row of low cottages, veering finally to a cobbled walk and the topmost stone stair. Three hundred, sixty-five of them, her father announced, slipping the guidebook into his pocket.
One for each day since her mother’s passing. An unintended anniversary, surely.
Though she kept her father’s tweed coat in view, she dawdled behind, wary of the fierce wind, of the sea she heard dashing the rocks below … of counting off the bleak, bereaved days. Sea birds spiraled overhead, their calls urging her on. She’d had to … continue; there’d been no other direction. But when she began the last winding flight of descent, the gusts stilled; the mists fell. Between two high cliffs, the narrow harbor inlet smoothed to azure glass. The scent of salt and wildflowers drifted on the soft current, the energy about her stronger in its calm than in its rage. And beyond the scree of puffins and kittiwakes, she heard her mother’s voice. Here, sweetheart. Here begins a new life.1
“What a day,” Catherine murmured. “What must you be thinking?”
Perched on the chair’s edge, her forearms braced on the desktop, Eimear drew breath as if to speak, but sat back and tapped her fingers against her lips.
The middle-most row of overhead lights winked out.
Eimear started and swiveled her chair. A cartoon-sized stopwatch aloft in one hand, his thumb hopping button to button, Stan hustled from the bank of wall switches across the office floor to his cart. He crouched and disappeared, then rose into view pulling on white cotton gloves. Half-way up the ladder, in a fluid reach, he culled a long, milky bulb from its upended crate. Then, perched at the top, he drew the tube slowly through his cupped hand before he notched and lodged the pins. He dug in his pocket for the timepiece, pumped his fist and scrambled down.
Catherine, leaning out, watched over Eimear’s shoulder, shrugging when she turned back, perplexed, her brows raised. She smiled I have no idea … and Eimear smiled back Odd enough, eh? … and the room was bright again.
Eimear folded her hands in her lap. “I’ll not lie to you. I’m curious as to what’s happened. It’s only that I can’t sort out what would be my first question, Catherine. Believe that.”
Catherine made a small sound in her throat, a half-laugh. “It’s reasonable to expect answers.”
“But not a given that one’s to be received,” Eimear said. “Jenny must have asked the unanswerable.”
Catherine nodded, more grateful for than surprised by Eimear’s intuition. Maybe not surprised at all. “Her wedding. The party in Charleston. All our friends from college. She expects me … she wants me to bring …”
Too rare above, his name, spoken aloud, spoken by another. She savored its hushed syllables, wanting to repeat them, shout them skyward, to affirm him.
“But you can’t,” Eimear finished, tracing a pattern in the tiny seed stitch of her sweater along her collarbone to the cap of her shoulder, the laced, leather insert of Vincent’s shirt outlined by the memory of her fingers. “He can’t.”
“And I can’t tell her why.” Her gaze willed meaning to her spare words. “She doesn’t know his name. Or how we met.” But I told you. I told Martin. Not everything, but at least … at least his name.
Eimear turned her wrist – in the smallest gesture of her hand, entreaty. Tell me.
“Something happened,” Catherine confided, “a long time ago. Something Jenny was a part of. And then … not so long ago … it all … came back. I resisted the truth and Vincent was … wounded … far more gravely than I was.” She closed her eyes, caught her lip in her teeth. “I’ve told her just enough to hurt her.”
“And what you’re not telling …”
“Is everything. Everything that matters to me. Who I really am.”
And that I can tell you, Eimear, would hurt her even more.
“There was a time …” she whispered, her palm pressed to the hollow of her throat, “a time when I’d have said my life was impossible. It seemed complicated and full of risks. Now, I’m starting to see how simple it is if I stop–”
Stop what? Denying? Arguing? Greedily, stubbornly insisting?
Eimear nodded. “And today, you let go of the tender hope. The hour of departure.”
“Yes.” Only the tremulous shadow twists in my hands. On tears kept to a silent welling, the final words of the poem came to her … and the depth of Jenny’s pain, her hard surprise. Oh abandoned one … 2
“You’ll be lonely for her, ” Eimear said and Catherine nodded. “Will you tell him?”
“I will … but I won’t have to.” Already she felt the understanding of his arms.
“Is there no fix, Catherine? No amend she might make?”
“I can’t take the chance. I guard him here. I stand between …”
Forward in her chair, Eimear turned her ear to the secret. “Between …”
A moment passed, one so quiet she could hear in it the rush of forced air through the duct overhead, a hushed similitude of the buffeting wind on those ancient Scottish steps … in the chamber of the winds below.
“Between my world,” she said, “ … and his.”
Chapter title and opening quotation: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Friendship. From Essays: First Series. 1841.
- Dante Alighieri. La Vita Nuova. 1925.
2. Pablo Neruda. A Song of Despair. From twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. 1924.
The Whaligoe Steps
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