sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 50 ~ The Opening Chord of its Long Song
But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.
At the top of the steps, he swept the convening crowd with a searching gaze. Noting those present and those yet missing, matching the day’s work-chart to the roster of assignments, gauging in a heartbeat if an absence were cause for concern, he … counted … not only their numbers, but also the crew’s successes and frustrations, the days of labor, the nights of hard-found rest remaining of their task.
Descending the stairs before him, Wren sought but one face, one spirit. One embrace.
Across the wide floor of camp, his back to their approach, Stuart stood at the long table where he layered a twisted hemp rope on his shoulders in lengths the measure of his outstretched arms. Then, the fat loops of rope draped from one hand, he fashioned a slack bight with the starting end of the cord, wrapping it around the strands, binding them in a careful mountaineer’s coil. Three identically-fashioned lines lay on the work surface; there’d be no kinks or twists or knots on their next deployment. Vincent settled the tool box on the far end of the workbench, Wren at his side.
Stuart looked up and grinned. “Hey, buddy. That’s my wife.”
Wren ducked the canteens’ straps, leaving the metal vessels in a clanking pile on the table, and snugged beneath Stuart’s arm. There was a moment, when Stuart touched his lips to Wren’s temple, when he touched Wren’s just-rounding belly, that Vincent couldn’t breathe, dazed by a sudden flash of silver-sparkled light.
“D’you guys get a swim?” Stuart asked. “It’s been a while, Vincent. You still fit down the chute?”
“I didn’t try,” he said, though from far away, years away, he heard his roar of utter joy. Once begun, the swoop would not be abandoned, the plunge inevitable. He would make the leap, rush on, committed, and there would be a moment, a glorious moment of exhilaration, of freedom, of wildness unrestrained when, propelled from the raceway, he arced above the black water, its depths alluring and unfathomable. Once more, he decided. Once more while I’m here. At least. “But yes,” he continued. “I did some laps.”
“You show Wren your ‘fly? Nobody’s measures up, I told her.”
Wren sputtered into her fist, while he … chose to inspect the chamber’s high ceiling, its many, many shadows.
“Hey, your hair’s not even wet,” Stuart pointed out, giving her braid a sweet yank. “What’s so funny?”
“Yeah. Funny, what?” Mouse crawled from beneath the table, alternately pushing and dragging a sectioned box of U- and J- and carriage bolts. He bounded to his feet and hopped over the bin. “And where’s Kanin. Not with you. Not here already.”
“Kanin has gone home.”
A feathered silence surrounded his last word, images, no doubt, fluttering within each heart, each mind’s eye – hearth, bed, the routine of a concernless day. For most, the return to what was; for Kanin, to what might be. And for himself …
To think just how the fire will burn …1
… to when he might wake with Catherine again in his arms, when she might turn to him and smile beneath his eager morning kisses. Too eager, he would surely chide himself, too much, though her throaty chuckle, he imagined, would … interfere … with his resolution. And her stroke down the long bone of his thigh, the tuck of her fingers behind his knee, the draw of his leg over hers … Never enough.
He set aside his cloak, still folded into the wooden crate, and with a inward sigh of both longing and resolve began to lay out the tools for the evening’s cleaning. “In the morning,” he went on, breaking their circle’s tender spell, “he’ll meet with Father and the council, bring them up to date on our progress, about all he learned when he crossed the perimeter. I expect his return by noon tomorrow, by subway, not on foot. We were to set the junction header beneath Woodlawn terminal first thing. The arch needs more rebar, but I can finish the reinforcement on my own. We agreed I’d wait for him there. I’ll need his help to hoist the beam, then to transport the winch and pulleys to the worksite at Fenway and Jerome.”
“Noah and I were gonna dismantle the iron spiral under the Old Putnam station,” Stuart offered. “He can get started by himself. I’ll stay, give you a hand.”
“Mouse, too. Easier with three.” The storage box balanced on one shoulder, Mouse shuffled away, grumbling. “Wish Kanin could bring Arthur. Stupid rule about animals on the subway. Stupid, stupid rule.”
Vincent turned to Wren and Stuart. “There’s a possibility Olivia will accompany him. For a brief visit. A … tour. Are there rooms ready, if she should? A very private one might be best.”
“Ah,” Stuart answered. Without elaboration, he began coiling the last rope.
“There’re several of those,” Wren said. “Each isolated from the other but none too terribly far from our Main Street.” She stood a stone hammer upright on its broad, flat head, rocked it back and forth. “Good and tight,” she declared and both Vincent and Stuart nodded. From a bucket on the floor, she plucked an oil-moistened cloth and wiped the hickory handle down. “And here,” she pointed out, “we have doors.”
A contingent of workers bustled into camp from the north-west corridor. Clustered at the fire-pit, over supper’s simmering kettles, their hunger was evident in the scuff of feet and the dry clap of hands. Damien drew himself tall and over the restless crew surveyed the room, pointing at a side niche when Vincent lifted his chin in acknowledgement.
“How goes the trunk-line repair?” He leaned one shoulder against the stone. The swim, the slow trek back from The Lake, had sponged away the residue of his long, percussive day. The time spent with Wren a confirming, gladdening respite, her mention of Eimear a crystalline concurrence he wanted to share with Catherine – a sign, surely, that all was right in their worlds, their fusing worlds.
Soon, soon, his senses edged in. Coming to me, the hours between without her and beside her dwindling. He saw her, saw her gentle smile, her closed hand outstretched, rays of pale yellow light escaping. Catherine … Coming to me.
“We finished,” Damien reported, calling him back, grounding him. “So we took a hike down to see those rolling stone gates. They’re like pocket doors – they glide out and over and lock right into place.” With his hands, he illustrated the effortless closure – reach, drag, drive home the peg. “We found six but Noah said his grandfather told him there were eight. Too bad he never mapped them. Where’s Kanin? He needs to get them marked on the blueprints, because I have a hunch they were designed to create a defended maze. If we find the last two and he figures out the sequence, we might already have what we need to protect most of the western quadrant. We could ditch the plans for all those rock falls, save ourselves a week of hard work, maybe two weeks.”
Now is not the time to be cutting corners, looking for shortcuts. Father might have quelled Damien’s enthusiasm with such an admonition and he’d have been right … in general. It never was. But Damien was no shirker; he had stamina and willingness for any task, reason and foresight, an intuitive spirit, confidence in his instincts, a lack of hubris. A natural leader.
“Kanin is home overnight, to return late morning,” Vincent said.“Perhaps I can discern the locations of the remaining gates from the ones you’ve found.”
“You any good with patterns?” Damien asked. “I couldn’t see one, but I sure feel one.”
Vincent inclined his head. “I think you’re right. The stones must exist for a reason; their positions … hardly accidental. Their legacy and Leo’s explorations are to our benefit. We may find our work well begun, possibly nearly finished.”
Damien cast a hollow look over his shoulder. Thick slices of buttered bread, browned in cast-iron spiders, had been stacked on ironstone platters, the platters themselves on warming stones near the fire. Bowls, steaming and fragrant, were being filled and handed out – brown lentils, redolent with ginger and lemon peel and thyme; the sweet potatoes Catherine had insisted were no burden to carry, the emerald kale Aniela swore she heard her mother insist upon from a borough away, both jewels in the tomatoey broth.
From where he stood, he, too, could see it. Taste it. “We’ll spread out the maps, you and I, mark the known closures, theorize the rest, ” Vincent suggested. “After supper.”
* * *
Eimear gazed out the passenger window, seeming intent on the passing cityscape.
“Beneath this city,” she whispered.
The first words she’d spoken since they’d left the threshold and merged with the shaft of light, climbed the ladder Above again. The first words since Catherine unlocked her car and steered them north from Manhattan across the George Washington Bridge through Van Cortlandt Park, past the lake shimmering in the gloaming, beyond the screen of spring leaves, past Woodlawn cemetery and its deepening shadows. Her first words in nearly an hour.
“It’s all true,” Catherine said.
“I’ve never told anyone everything.”
“You have my oath, Catherine. My oath for your trust.”
Contentment enswathed her, their ensuing silence an easy cloak of plenty and peace.
* * *
Catherine pulled into the driveway, close on the bumper of Eimear’s parked car. With a swift glance at the replaced tire and a fleeting, grateful smile over the hood and toward the church, Eimear started for the front porch, at the corner of the house slipping between two shrubs to reach past the utility meter to the telephone interface, to reconnect the service she’d unplugged hours before. A few steps along the sidewalk, she paused before a bent-twig trellis and its delicate vine, reaching behind the foliage to retrieve a glinting key from its hanging hiding place. Her mechanic must have left it for her, or perhaps Martin had returned from his hospital visit early enough to see the repair through, knowing just where to leave the necessity. Her trusted friends. Her helpers. Unfamiliar, heavy – the suspicion Eimear bore, uneasy now in her own home … But if they drive by again, they’ll know she’s not alone, Catherine thought as she made sure all four doors – on both cars – were locked.
Soft light filtered through the lace curtains at the front door’s glass panes, a welcoming lamp left on in a far room. Eimear turned the lock and eased the thumb-latch of the dull brass handle, standing aside for Catherine to enter first. Deep within the house, there was a cushioned thump, a hurried skittering. A shadow stalked the hallway.
Finally. Home. Pet me now, Mab mewed.
Eimear scooped her up. “Flynn remembered to let you out,” she murmured, touching her nose to the kitten’s. Mab’s motor revved.
A good sign, Catherine determined, the turn of Eimear’s cheek to the kitten’s fur, the softening of her shoulders. After chaining the door and a moment’s watchful wait as one car and then a second passed purposefully by, after closing the front window’s blinds, Catherine followed the pair to the kitchen.
Mab’s water bowl was but half-full and surrounded by a puddle. Before it, she turned in a circle of escalating complaint, pausing only to stick in a testing paw, to snatch it back. Eimear wiped the spill away and refilled the dish, reached high in a cabinet for a small tin of food, into a drawer for a hand-cranked opener. Mab’s remarks fell to a contented grumble once her demands were met.
At the sink, Catherine opened the cafe curtains, pushing the patterned panels to either side along their rod. Outside, darkness gathered in the church-wall passage, and in it, Martin’s chair stood empty, but twilight bathed the gardens; the pale-petaled flowers flared with an inner glow. Too soon for the wooden door to swing open, to see his silhouette in the archway, and yet …
A thin cotton towel in her hands, Eimear leaned against the counter and peered out the same window, unconsciously, Catherine believed, folding the dishcloth to reveal the border of green leaves and bright red cherries, draping it over the rim of the white porcelain sink. “In my lifetime, I’ve tried that door’s latch a hundred times,” Eimear said, “to no avail. Mom told us ‘twas only a moldy alcove, storage of who-knows-what, but Martin let it slip once that the wall was hollow, connecting the sacristy with the out of doors. I imagined I might crawl over rubble and bat away cobwebs to sneak through to the rectory and somehow up on Martin, send him to the ceiling with a boo, but I never once considered … a whole world …” She crossed her arms and shivered behind them. “The door’s locked, Catherine, and from within. But he’ll know, won’t he … to come for you. For us.”
Her words were unquestioning, and when she turned, her eyes gleamed, the jitters and jumps, her earlier trepidation crowded out for now by wonder.
Some secrets give us strength.2 Already, the magic was begun.
Eimear had seemed no less awed when, beneath her building, Catherine had rapped out her message and acknowledgement came soon after. Received and relayed, Pascal’s staccato code assured her. She waited, close to the bridging trunk line, but Eimear lay her ear to the pipe, to the faint echoes of conversation that traveled even this far. A louder tapping startled her upright.
“What was that?” Eimear asked. “Who?”
“Vincent’s father, Jacob. The leader of his community, his family. My family now.”
Catherine closed her eyes in the face a fleeting thought, Is this a Dream? But when she opened them, Eimear stood before her, all eager grin and shallow breath. “A note was delivered this morning,” Catherine affirmed. “You might have seen it on my dining room table. Father … Jacob … had asked me Below to tea tonight. I told him – messaged him – I can’t make it. Work, I said, so he wouldn’t worry and wouldn’t argue. He’s just sent an answer.” Catherine lay her hand on the pipe and Eimear’s gaze followed the cast-iron conduit along the wall to its bend to the floor where it was lost to view. “Another time,” he says.”
“Another place,” Eimear whispered.
Catherine smiled. “Another world.”
The disclosure had come so easily, the words spilling forth, fitting themselves measure by measure to a song she cherished. No hesitancy … to no vague halt as she’d drawn with Nancy, telling her only so much, to no impasse as with Jenny, to no grave uncertainty as when she considered Joe’s knowing.
Beside you, before anyone. Whenever you are ready.
She’d paced before the word – ready – studied it, traced its planes and angles, searched for chinks, for fissures, reaching out, doubtful, touching ready to find it wispy, elusive, beyond her grasp. Now ready simply was, as if all along, around that final bend, at climb’s end, at the pinnacle, it had stood, a testament in white marble, a whole and shining thing.
Eimear breathed out, a long, forceful whew. Even Mab paused in attack of her food, looking up and around at the sound. “I’ll meet him tonight. Vincent.”
“You will,” she said.
“Come with me, Catherine.”
Scooting past her, beckoning her to follow, Eimear headed for the stairs. Under their hurried step, the wide plank treads squeaked and groaned. Eimear threw open the door opposite the landing to a room Catherine had not seen at the ceilidh, one with twin beds, a low, wooden dresser between them and two paned casement windows overlooking the garden. The window from which Eimear had long watched Flynn, Catherine concluded, from behind curtains of old Irish lace. Where she’d mooned about, already in love. Eimear switched on a table lamp with a fuzzy, pompom shade, likely the very one Rosie and she had studied by as girls, and a warm, dappled glow turned back time.
Eimear sat on the edge of one wrought-iron bed, Catherine on the other. The plush chenille spread – its pattern an ever-interlocking chain – was soft under her palms … and very pink. The walls were papered – blowsy cabbage roses on a background of goldenrod – and was, though had Rosie lobbied for orange and yellow daisies, Eimear for purple paisley, too well stuck, Eimear said her mother had proclaimed, to replace. The room unchanged for decades before the sisters ever made it theirs, they camouflaged the walls, no doubt, with posters that fit the faded places, with photographs likely taped to the worn veneered vanity’s frameless round mirror. But the ceiling – the ceiling was painted a blue-purple-black, glossed with grey wispy clouds, with celestial swirls and spheres and diamonds.
“‘Twas Rosie’s doing,” Eimear explained, “one Saturday with Dad at work and Mom in the church kitchen preparing our Irish contribution to the Italian’s Feast of St. Anthony, too frantic with parish competition to do more than cheep with dismay when, home at midnight, she smelled paint and saw.” Eimear searched the room’s canopy. “But we had the sky up there, all speckled with stars … We would lay in the dark, our hands behind our heads, and imagine our enchanted lives far from here, ‘twixt night and day, riding fast with the host from Knocknarea …”3
“Your cheeks pale, your hair unbound?”4 Catherine asked and they shared a grin. Her own girlhood dreams had been so devised, though she’d whispered them instead to a fancied sister.
“And all along … All along the fairy palace was just beneath our feet.” Eimear knelt before the chest and pulled open a drawer, removing it altogether from the cabinet, reaching inside, up to her elbow, to her shoulder, and Catherine heard a rasping – wood sliding past wood. A secret panel. “From what you’ve told me,” Eimear said, “I’m thinking you have no photographs of him as a boy. Nothing risked that might … confirm him.” She withdrew a large, flat envelope from its hiding place and held it out.
Catherine reached for the package. The brown paper was soft with age, Inter-department Delivery stamped at the top, two columns of lines filled in and crossed through – date, precinct, recipient, sender – the last name on the list, Francis McDermott. Eimear’s father. She unwound the string from the frayed, red-button closure, slipped the contents out. “Oh.”
How long had she stared at the drawing? She couldn’t put it away. Ribbed black paper, white charcoal, a blue pastel. He was still slight beneath the layers of stitched leather and knitted wool, still – if for just a minute more – lighthearted. The curve of his mouth; his arms held wide. His silky hair loose, swirling with his sudden turn. The detail was astonishing given Rosie’s was no more than a glimpse, the family car, headed resolutely home, the window rolled up and fogged with her discouraged breath. The dark mitigated only by moonlight. A moment’s reckoning; for both of them, a lifetime’s memory.
It began for him in this instant, his acquaintance with the night. He was … exquisite.
“I’m afraid to slip it back into the envelope. Afraid I’ll smudge it.” Afraid I’ll never see it again. Elizabeth’s gallery she could visit, and she had, a dozen times, tracing the history, devouring the moments, captivated, wistful. But if she hadn’t before, she understood now. Covet. She wanted the drawing, wanted Rosie’s experience. Wanted more for Vincent to see … to see himself …
Reverent, reluctant, she held the portrait out.
“Oh, there’s no worry,” Eimear said, easing the heavy paper into its worn casing. “Rosie sprayed it with Final Net from Mom’s bathroom. When we remodeled, the door opposite the sink and mirror was coated a quarter-inch thick in yellow shellac. This … ‘tis fixed for life.” For a long silent measure, she studied the envelope, then secreted it away, returned the drawer to its home, herself to the bed’s edge. “She’d want you to have it, Catherine, if she knew.”
“Thank you … for showing me.”
Eimear leaned forward. “Rosie saw him first.”
“And the orange cat and the boy in the photograph, Zach, you said, who lives below.”
“Then why me, when Rosie seems the destined one?”
Rosie was important, indeed one of the resplendent rays that fanned from a single point in a sky of clouds … or stone. But the brightest, most lightsome beams poured from the secret center and converged to one mystical spotlight, filling her with a billowy awe. “The hardest thing about my life,” Catherine managed, “is hiding my happiness. Denying him is … terrible, and there was a time when I wasn’t sure I could go on, pretending. Our way was littered with obstacles, with nevers.”
“But, nevertheless,” Eimear whispered.
Nevertheless. Not once had Eimear shown alarm or incredulity. Only astonishment, but a variant of even that. What had she said in the laundromat? It wasn’t surprise. It was recognition.
She turned up her hands, spread them wide, encompassing more than the ease between them, more than the room, the house, but the home – bright with laughter, live with music; the kitchen’s ovens warm with suppers, the table set for four, for six; the garden’s sunlit pathways, fragrant and jeweled, all … everything … open to his exploration, his tending. “We committed to a life together and nothing seemed impossible … except this. I wanted something of my world, something beautiful, to be his. Ours. When Martin told me about the twin flames, how rare they are, he said Vincent and I … that you and Flynn … that we would of course find each other. That it was inevitable and necessary. That something large would come of it, of our meeting.”
“‘Twas a wretched day, that session in your offices,” Eimear recalled.5 “Everyone seemed to think it a good thing. Closure, they called it, when it was anything but. Yet in the few moments we had together, you cared for Flynn, for me, in a way no one else had. Not dismissive or impatient, not falsely compassionate, not uneasy or suspicious. Not imagining us stretched on tenterhooks, wondering if our weave would dry straight or tear. You understood.” She shook her head. “More than that …”
“Flynn’s pain was so familiar, too familiar,” Catherine said. “And his eyes … they’re the same blue as Vincent’s, and in them I saw the same wounds, the same weight of responsibility …”
“The depths of despair and love. A warrior’s eyes.”
“Glaine ár gcroí. Neart ár ngéag. Beart de réir ár mbriathar.6 Conscience, strength, truth. The champion’s gifts, as well his millstones. I thought then, somehow, you’d been there. Instead, it’s where you live.” Eimear held out her hands, palms down, one hovering not an inch above the other. “We’ve been so close, all along, in spirit and now I feel a joy … here …” She curled a fist to her breastbone. “As if a magical flame were kindled, one that parts the shadows, and something long-lost is illuminated.”7
“I’d become almost afraid to hope,” Catherine admitted, “but each time I saw you, another door opened. Rosie’s part of this. Martin too, but …” There was a clutch in her throat, the portent of tears. “You’re what I wished for, more than anything.”
“The souls flowing together and it will not stop.” Eimear reached out, across the last divide. “I have known you, Catherine. Needed you. Found you. Mo Anam cara.”
And time was like never, and always. So we go there, where nothing is waiting and find everything waiting there.8
He’d read the poem aloud, sitting on the floor at her feet, and after a moment, turned to look at her. No words had been necessary, only the avowal of gratitude and acknowledgement, faith and its joy. The stillness of the cup and the water in it, the silence of the moon. Confirmation of all to come.
So close. So very close now.
Mab padded in, her claws ticking on the hardwood floor. She wove a figure-eight between their feet and leapt to the dresser-top, taking regal possession of the patch of moon and city light. An aura of fine velvet hairs surrounded her, her long whiskers backlit. See me.
“There’s you and I,” Eimear murmured. “And you and Martin. There’s even Vincent and Martin.” She tipped her head, hope tender in her eyes. “And in a way, Vincent and Rosie. One day, perhaps soon …”
Overcome by yes – again, yes – after months of no, of it can never be, she couldn’t answer, but Eimear squeezed her hand. “You know,” she went on, sitting back on the bed. “Martin said not one word about meeting him, even as I knew he’d been up all night, still in his Behan’s clothes and roaming the garden at daybreak with a spatula clutched in his fist.”
“I’m sure it’s quite a story. A bit more in him of the Green Spot he had on his morning breath and he might tell us.”
“I think the story started a long time ago.” Catherine delved her pocket, bringing out the angle scope. “Martin gave me this today, from the treasure box Father Seamus left for him. Something someone gave Seamus years ago, someone who lived Below, I believe. Vincent has one just like it.”
“Father S was a … Helper?”
“A friend at least. Did he ever mention a man named Leo?”
“I was only a toddler when Martin came and Seamus moved on.” Eimear put the scope to her eye, twitched with surprise and inspected the lens, put it to her eye again, afterward cupping the rosewood tube in one hand, with the tip of one finger, stroking the tawny red wood, its dark-chocolate veins. “A toy,” she said, handing it back. “Like Vincent’s, and my spiral from William Litton like yours on your desk. Meeting him, meeting Sebastien, today of all days, me on my way to you, both of them part of your rare world. And what Sebastien said about centripetal forces, their center-seeking. The coincidences …”
“Martin says we can’t use that word.”
Eimear laced her fingers, knuckle to knuckle, turned up her opened hands. Intertwined. “Then, Catherine … what is all this?”
She’d heard those words before, in the warehouse with Kristopher’s paintings racked before her. The surety now in Eimear’s voice matched Vincent’s then. “There’s a Van Morrison song” Catherine said. “Summertime in England. Do you know it? It’s not why why why …”
“It just is.”9 Eimear echoed her long, relieved sigh. As if their breath gave it sound, outside, a soft-fluted song began. Eimear turned toward the window, rose and opened it an inch. Dark, reedy notes slipped in from the garden, a spiraling repetition of sweet wails and whispers in the night. Mab moved closer to the surprise of scent and sound, her nose to the gap. Eimear’s reflection wavered in the glass and ever so slightly, she frowned. “But … this … leaves Flynn and Vincent yet. How …”
Chapter Title: Billy Collins. The Only Day in Existence.
Opening Quotation: William Shakespeare. Sonnet 30.
1. Emily Dickinson. Tho’ I get home how late – how late
2. From Labyrinths. Second Season.
3. Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn. Chapter 19.
4. William Butler Yeats. The Hosting of the Sidhe.
5. from I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 3. Counterparts.
6. Gaelic: Motto of the Fianna. Goodness in our hearts, strength in our limbs, truth on our lips.
7. Pablo Neruda. You Will Remember.
8. Billy Collins. Silence.
9. Van Morrison. Summertime in England. From Common One. 1980.
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