sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 45 ~ The Steep-Coiled Stair
Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?
I am not afraid – I have been well brought forward by you.
Between my world … and his.
The nuance of shade and shadow, of deniability, cast aside, she’d said it. Chanced … everything.
The moment stretched between them – delicate, golden – like a thread of honey.
Eimear’s expression voiced no change, no wary side-glancing, no awkward chuff. No surprise. Only stillness. Only … willingness.
“There aren’t words for it, really,” Catherine managed, the surprise relief of trust a sweet constriction of breath and voice. “For his world … for what it means that I’m … here.” She encompassed her realm with a gesture of her hands above the array of her desk. “I’d need to show you. And then, in an instant, you’d know.”
In for a penny …
The adage danced from her memory. Not three weeks before she’d used that very phrase in a conversation with Mouse, tossing it off-hand about an inconsequence, spending then the better part of the next half-hour in explanation of coppers and pounds sterling, emerging from the maze of discussion only by agreeing with whatever Mouse argued – something about a pennyweight of nails. She’d turned, knowing her eyes were wide and glassy, to find Vincent leaning against a bookshelf, his arms crossed, the white of his teeth gleaming in the chamber’s lamplight. What? she’d asked.
The poetics of risk, Vincent deemed it, drawing her into his embrace, smiling into the curve of her neck. In for a penny, Catherine. Even now she could feel his chuff of joy on her skin, the determination in his arms.
Eimear met her long gaze.
In for a pound.
“After I saw you in the laundromat …,” she began. “After what you saw, the connections you made … I didn’t want to leave without– I … I wanted …” She gripped her desktop, her fingers tingling as if poised over a piano’s keys, new music pleading through them for rendition. “Last night … it was dark when I … when I came up. I started for home, but drove to your house instead, thinking to invite myself in for tea. I hoped we could talk; I wanted to. But you weren’t home, so I parked and waited for you. And every time a car would slow as it passed–”
A hollow clang – metal on metal – splintered the air as Stan wrangled the emptied waste cans to each desk. Eimear winced at the sound and when she looked up, something dark dragged at her features.
Catherine’s heart seized as if she’d skidded in loose gravel.
Was I wrong? Wrong about her, about this connection between us?
She inventoried her words. What have I said? ‘When I came up’. ‘His world’. Nothing that means anything. Nothing I can’t disguise or deflect. But the acknowledgement – what you saw, the connections – would require either explanation or another letting-go.
A cold eddy of disappointment reached for her. Aloneness loomed, gray and oppressive.
No! she cried, refusing to sink to her knees before its threat, and over the fizz of blood in her ears, she heard a whispered affirmation. You know. Deep inside you, you do.
She stepped back from sorrow’s creep. I’m not wrong. I’m not.
But the pitch of Eimear’s demeanor had dimmed, her gaze … casting aside, her openness … shelling-over.
It is … fear?
Wait, Catherine said to herself, the hours paging back. I know that look. Saturday afternoon, walking the garden. Phone call, Flynn announced from the porch door. And afterward, pouring the tea, a tremor shook Eimear’s hand. Your face looks funny, Rosie remarked.
Rosie had been right then. And would be now, were she here.
“What? What is it, Eimear?” Chagrin warmed her face. “I’ve been so focused on my–”
“Ach,” Eimer interjected. “I shouldn’t have barged in on you as I did. At the least I should have called from the lobby. ‘Twas rude of me.” She tugged a ringlet of hair straight. “And now I’ve kept you late, rabbiting on.”
“No, you haven’t,” Catherine assured her. “I’ve done all the talking.” She scooted her chair closer. “I’m glad you’re here. What would I have done if you hadn’t come? Your timing was magical. Plus, you distracted Joe. I wasn’t ready, not for him, and I was sure he’d start asking questions.”
Radiating a shivery energy, Eimear studied the office aisle-ways as if charting a route to the elevators. Like the hummingbird, Catherine remembered, one she’d seen in the park, in the Shakespeare Garden, hovering before the funneled cardinal flower in the light and cloud-shadow of decision – to sip, or to flee.
Eimear worried her wedding ring, circled it on her finger. The symbols engraved on the wide silver band spun past, inscrutable. With a final twist, she righted its jeweled, shield-like center. “As was I,” she said. “Worried for his questions, I mean. When I called, asking for you …”
“Oh! Joe told me about your message, and Jenny’s too, just before she– I didn’t have a chance to–” Catherine began a search of her desk, lifting first the telephone, then the tub of chocolate candies. Pink squares fanned onto her blotter – Phyllis’s handwriting, Rita’s, a note to call Edie and her new number in D.C. Then … Joe’s scribble. Jenny called. Wants to talk to you. Here, five-ish. She turned the message face down on her desk. The fold of newspaper, ragged where she’d ripped the property listing free, was tented over a paperweight. She plucked it off and underneath the ornament found a yellow scrap torn from lined paper, its rough edge just showing.
Eimear needs to see you, she read. Leaving Woodlawn at four. Below the scratched words was a question mark, made bold and uneasy with the heavy stroke of his pencil, a double-underline. She smoothed the paper flat.
Want … Need … There’s a difference. Joe recognized it. I should have.
What do you need, Eimear? Tell me.
Catherine raised her head, the entreaty on her lips, but Eimear leaned over her desk, reaching past her for the unearthed paperweight. She cradled the heavy bronze in both hands, inspected it, traced its detail. Gingerly, reverently, she returned it to the desktop and untucked her jacket from the arm of her chair, pulling it across her lap.
Don’t go! she almost cried, but Eimear made no move to leave, instead, digging into a pocket, withdrawing a closed hand. Her fingers, pale and slender, dotted to their tips with freckles, curled about some secret, as had Martin’s around the angle scope.
“Do you believe in signs, Catherine?” Eimear went on without requiring an answer. “Between Mom and Martin, we couldn’t escape the litany of omens, good and bad. A hare should not cross your path before sunrise. Three magpies on your left spell trouble, but two on the right bring prosperity. ‘Tis lucky to meet three sheep on the road. And we’d laugh, Ro and I, and they’d exchange a look. All our lives Martin counseled us against cynicism and doubt, swearing there were bridges between time and eternity, between the mystical and physical worlds.” She drew and released a breath. “Between the fairy realm and man’s, swearing there’s no coincidence, no accident, that what seems pure chance is a message, one that comes at precisely the right time to send us on a new journey.” 1
Her fingers opened to a miniature of Catherine’s paperweight, the same spiral stair. She balanced the trinket in her palm before she settled it beside its larger twin. A shared mystery.
“Wh-where did you–?” Catherine stuttered. “Who gave you–?”
Eimear fished a card from her purse and placed it on the desk. Catherine inched it closer. William Litton. Artist. A chortle threatened, as did tears. Catherine pressed two fingers hard to her lips.
“What?” Eimear’s hair, a fiery copper in the office light, was wild about her face. She raked it back, raked it through again … and tipped her head. “Tell me,” she pleaded, bending near.
Catherine folded her hands on her desk, refusing to turn to see if Kristopher were behind her, enjoying this. “At least,” she managed at last.
Eimear twirled the card and read it again. “At least … what?”
“At least …” She smiled and pointed. “At least, on this card … at least this artist put his phone number on it.”
Eimear shook her head. She giggled, in spite of the question in her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“You will.” Catherine swiped at her cheeks. Thought and image spun past like carousel horses, her world blurring golden, emerald, azure, pearl. “I’ll tell you,” she began, the words strong and sure after all. “I’ll tell you everything.”
“Then we have a lot to talk about,” Eimear murmured.
“We do,” she answered. “But you needed to see me. So I think … you should go first.”
* * *
Vincent stood in the passageway long after Kanin’s footsteps died away. The dust of his leave-taking, of their afternoon’s work, stirred and swirled in the current of air. A lowing wind returned a spritely hum, the song, Vincent sensed, of a hopeful man.
In his imagination, he pictured Kanin’s dodge from the tunnel, his shuffled edge against the wall along the tracks to the ladder, his climb to the train’s platform. He could feel the quickened breath, the burn of destination, the demand, the necessity … to hurry home.
He knew it as if it were his body, his need.
As it suddenly was …
Calling out to him, calling for him …
Calling with a full heart of gifts – her outstretched arms laden; her anticipation a tremor, her hand to his. Calling exhilarated with mysterious discovery. Burdened with a measure of sadness he would bear altogether if he could, that he would, by his most tender efforts, halve, whatever its cause. He would meet her, rest with her in sorrow, offer his strength to bolster hers, share the spark of his own new insight …
The pull to her, a fervent magnet, pulsed in his veins. He turned his hand, the throb evident at his wrist … touched his lips to the persistent beat. He parted his mouth and tasted on his own skin the life she engendered: the salt reminder of love’s expression, of will and determination, of tears both mournful and glad to be shed throughout their years.
Years, she’d said they’d have. Now was what he wanted.
The lavender scent of their chamber’s bedding, the softness of the linens embraced him, a gift of breeze and meditation.
Your clear shoulder, when the clothes have gone, seems so sure of us …2
They would need the night and half the coming day …
He cast a look south toward the park, imagining the sifting dust in Kanin’s wake. He might – he could – overtake him. Leap for the subway car’s roof, ride it home himself, bide the time until she would arrive on her balcony shrouded in shadow.
For I am running to Paradise …3
Until she would arrive, too many hours, if it were but one. But she would arrive. She would come.
The pull grew stronger. Eyes closed, he prepared to move …
Their boundary a frustrating glass, she materialized in its silver-mist …
He opened his eyes and and she was unseeable. But as she wished, he would accede.
I’m here, Catherine.
The wooden crate he’d convinced Kanin to leave behind held their rarest tools, tools he must carry back to camp. He dragged its rope strap over his head, situating the box against his hip, hoisted his pack to a shoulder. Before dousing the last lantern, he lit a torch.
Still, when he came to the main junction, he chose a different path north, one that meandered in his memory of summer adventures. Searching the shadowy crags, he found it – a side tunnel he’d once streaked through, so narrow that now, to pass, he had to turn his shoulders, lead with the toolbox held out waist-high, the strap twisted in his grip. At the passage-end, iron fencing barred the way. A wave of his torch through the closely-spaced rods illuminated the mystery that had once kept them camped nearby for days, that had fueled their fireside stories and his dreams for months.
* * *
There was no gate, no visible hinge, only iron crosspieces embedded in the stone and rusted uprights between them.
“It has to open,” they agreed, goaded by the denial.
In the cramped space they took turns – they rattled the bars, planted their feet and pulled. Vincent ran his hand across the bracing, up the length of one paling as high as he could reach. In his grasp, one gave when he twisted it.
“The key!” Stuart and Noah crowed and both punched his arm, even though the gate remained fast.
Noah edged forward and knelt before the grating, testing bar after bar for movement. One made a full clockwise turn, another a full turn counter, yet another only a half-turn but in both directions.
A few steps behind now, Vincent held the lantern higher.
“Let me try,” Stuart demanded after what seemed a forever-ness and Noah sat back on his heels.
“There’s gotta be a pattern,” Noah said, wiping his face with his shirttail. “We have get in there. Go right to left this time, Stu. Or every other one over, then back.”
Stuart nudged Noah away. “I did that already, remember? We ought to be writing this down so’s we don’t do the same stuff over and over.”
“Yeah, I can’t keep track of what we’ve tried.”
But he could.
Can’t you hear it? he wanted to shout. The click when the bar ratchets into place? It’s a sequence. Prime numbers. This one clicks twice. That one, three times. There’s a slot up there, see? In the crosspieces? We get them right, the rods’ll slide together and we can pass. But he waited his turn. Then, last on his knees before the barrier, when the gate gave up its secret, he proclaimed it luck.
Like Stuart, like Noah, he whooped and pumped his fist.
* * *
The toolbox at his feet, the torch wedged among the wrenches, he twisted the gritty dowels in an order that came instinctively to his hands, regardless of time’s passing. With only the slightest pressure, as if oiled, the bars accordioned and he angled through. In this even narrower passage, still unexplained, the walls were crudely etched – knights supplicant before royalty; knights on horseback, swords raised. Mysterious symbols punctuated the crowded drawings: circles within circles, hearts within palms, the three rays, the five-fold spiral. Unchanged since he’d last visited, perhaps since their chiselling.
That long-ago day of discovery, after finally gaining entry, they’d later returned with food and supplies, with brown paper and heavy-leaded pencils and plans to carry rubbings back to Father’s library for clandestine study. Ceremoniously, they’d rolled the tracings into cylinders, securing them in their belts, convinced they’d found a chamber of the Otherworld, one through which Arthur had once traveled – or Culhwch and Olwen – sure these carved messages were somehow a map to the fabled pearl-rimmed cauldron of Penn Annwfn. Nine maidens, Noah reminded them, his eyebrows arched. Their breath heated the vessel, he said, which would not cook the food of a coward.
Vincent laughed, remembering their solemn swear to secrecy, their oath an intricate splice of knuckles and thumbs and not a little spit.
At the end of the passage he worked a second gate free, traveling then through a wider cleft of stone, and soon began a spiraling descent, stepping at last into a vast ballroom, its floor smooth, packed sand. He turned in the echoey space, in the same stunned box-step of decades ago, his torch aloft now as then.
* * *
From their huddle, each peered over a shoulder. Noah caught his eye. “Anybody?” he whispered. “Any … thing?” And though he’d discerned a long – but hopeful – stillness, he’d shrugged an I-don’t-know.
The high-arching walls were.studded with iron bettys – some fashioned after dragons – from which hung oil-filled cresset lamps. At first they’d crept along, hand to shoulder in a linked queue, lighting the bowls, growing braver with the burgeoning light.
“It’s as big as a gym,” Stuart exclaimed when the last wick flamed, and Noah agreed, knowing of such things, both having gone Above more than one Saturday morning to play basketball. Materializing in the rec center’s hallway, they’d told him, then out on the polished floor, pretending to be new to the neighborhood, vague with the regular boys about school and address.
But the three of them that day were too few for such a game, if they’d even had a ball with them. Too few for scatterbase, too old for swinging statues.
“Race ya,” Stuart dared, and they were off.
That summer, camped close, they ran sprint after sprint – one-stade and two-stade races – trained for the long-distance match, first four, then seven, then fifteen stades. They built low hurdles, graduating to higher and higher obstacles. They measured their long jumps, running and standing.
A few times … he won.
Late one night, near the end of that first summer, he slipped away from their bivouac, leaving Noah and Stuart rolled in their beds sleeping away the day’s exercise and explorings. They’d christened the ballroom The Stadium, and there he stripped to a single thermal layer, shedding his vest and sweater and shirt. He shook out his arms; his … containment … sparked from his fingertips. He broke into a slow lope, lengthening his stride on the second lap, savoring the power in his newly-muscled calves and thighs, the fire delivered from his deepened lungs. On the third pass, he surrendered to his gift … and flew.
* * *
“This place …” he wondered aloud. “I’d nearly forgotten. Perhaps …” But as he swung the torch in a slow arc, as he readied it in a ring embedded in the wall, the joint of his elbow complained. The reprimand of the week’s work charged from knees to neck, deltoids to trapezius. A hollowness weighted at the base of his skull, one he’d endeavored to ignore, chided him. Martin. His wee dram. He retrieved his flare. No run then. Not today. Instead …
The Stadium’s floor was dimpled with footprints and, circling the walls, a narrow, shallow path was worn in the sand. No longer a secret place, someone ran here – recently, often – someone light and fleet. Across the room, at the narrow exit, he turned and touched his flame to a last lamp. It flared, its scent immediately redolent of pine and lemons, entirely different from the coal-oil odor he remembered. Rosemary.
Rosemary … for remembrance. It seemed a sign, a promise.
He hurried through a straightaway, his eye trained on an opening in the wall, a smooth-sided, angled tube. As boys, they’d perfected the timing and their sideways vault in. Shoot-the-chute, shoot-the-chute, they’d chant on the run – an undulating whoop, a whoosh, a splosh signal to the next to begin his approach. Though memories teased him to try, he was too wide-shouldered for it now. Too laden. He passed by without a pause.
The staircase down, its steps round-edged from wear, the cold mineral spray, a strange wafting perfume of ginger … all so familiar.
To the lake!
His heart pounded in his chest. He dropped his pack and the crate of tools on what they’d deemed The Beach, pulled at his clothes. He hopped foot to foot, yanking at his boots. Catherine’s smile teased him as he ripped free the buttons of his fly. She’d laughed at him, at this very dance, as she stood under the pour of their bathing chamber falls … too long ago. Later, he might laugh at himself, but now, his sound gathering, he leapt for the water, arcing into a pool two hundred feet across, incalculably deep, pure and still and raven’s-wing-black, rimmed with white rippled flowstone and shimmering cave pearls, lit from a high ocular with champagne-satin light.
But as he sailed from the lake’s edge … a shifting shadow, perhaps a scuffled tread … perceived too late … his last thought before the plunge …
Chapter title: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. World’s Worth. From Poems. A New Edition. 1881.
Opening quotation: Walt Whitman. From Leaves of Grass. 1871.
1. Murray Stein. Jung’s Map of the Soul. Chapter 9. Of Time and Eternity (Synchronicity). Carus Publishing Company. 1998.
2. John O’Donahue. Love Notes from Echoes of Memory. Dufour Editions. 1997.
3. William Butler Yeats. Running To Paradise. 1914.
GOOD TO READ
Fan Fiction Sites
ON THESE WALLS
Fan Art Sites