sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 52 ~ The Center of All My Labors and My Loves
I am to see to it
that I do not lose you
Misgiving-nerves-defiance-a standing of ground-a heart beating fast …
… an easing off … … …
… an astonishment!
… the curve of joy, a triumph … an of-coursing …
Like a storm-tide, the whoosh of blood surged … a crashing wallop in his ears, then … a fizzing retreat. A mirage of daybreak on a glassy sea made him blink. When breath returned, laughter pulsed with it. Catherine.
The campground shimmied into focus, its hardscape sharp, its floor firm again beneath his feet. Damien stood by, staunch and statue-like, offering out fat wrapped torches, one in each hand. His expression was almost comical: his brow furrowed in confusion, thinking better, it seemed, of making any sudden moves.
How long have I been … away?
“Are you … Is everything …”
He couldn’t suppress it, didn’t want to … Allowing Catherine’s light to infuse him, he smiled, showing his teeth, and Damien … unwound, chuckled.
Then Damien’s stomach growled – loudly – and they both snickered.
“You should have had seconds,” Vincent admonished, though he recalled he’d raked the sides of the cook pot for his own serving, and for some reason, they laughed harder at that.
“Torches now? Go someplace? Us? Where?” Mouse spoke up behind them. A scroll of paper and a flat carpenter’s pencil clutched in one hand, an apple ballooning his vest pocket, two coils of rope draped over his shoulder – Vincent wasn’t sure if he were undecided or overburdened. His step bounced, as always, and he gestured for one of the flares Damien held, but there was a quick wrinkle at his eyes, a wince with the movement.
“I thought we could–” Damien began and laughed again at nothing. Mouse chortled in camaraderie, though he glanced obliquely at Vincent and raised one brow. Damien scrubbed his cheek on his lifted shoulder. “Sorry. I’m a little punchy. I figured you’d want to go hunt up those last two rolling doors.”
Before Mouse might himself, Vincent took first one torch, then the other, holding the pitch-soaked rag ends pointed down.
Their situation, once fraught with urgency and a shadowy menace, was now relieved. Caution and diligence still a necessity, the tension had ratcheted down, yet into the emptying place, the disregarded aches and pains, the abeyanced fatigue unfurled. The imperative had forced them to ignore hunger, bruises, scrapes, and sprains, the lack of sleep and dreams. They would each – to the last person – do what was necessary, even more than that. And they had, regardlessly.
But Stuart, hunched over the workbench, should instead prepare a cup of – what had Wren asked for? Ginger? Mint? Yes – peppermint tea, serve it to his wife in bed. Noah, on first-level sentry duty, should spend an evening with his family. Mouse should know the thrill of taking a running leap off the Mirador into the Lake he’d not yet seen, follow Jamie down The Chute into the ebony water. All this was true.
Yet an equal truth was this …
“No, Damien. I don’t want to.”
“But …” Damien started.
“There’s no need to go tonight. Tomorrow will be soon enough.” Catherine would relish the befuddlement on Mouse’s face, the fact that Damien opened and closed his mouth without uttering a word. He fully intended to tell her about it. Soon, if not soon enough.
The unnecessary torches deposited in the storage crate at the passageway, he turned and grinned at his tag-along companions. “The sense of crisis is lowered. We’ve been offered great gifts. Knowledge. Time. Respite. We should … enjoy it.”
“Party?” Mouse asked with dawning surprise, and Vincent wished he could fulfill his unexpressed hope – cake.
“South of here, two levels down,” he began, “is a deep lake we enjoyed as boys. There’s a chute – a slide – into it, and a high jumping-off point of flowstone. A current of warmth in the center.” Vincent put a hand on Mouse’s shoulder. “I’d planned to message the second crew to convene tomorrow, to effect the change of plans, but … some … might be able to come tonight. Take the third-level passage. Damien says the trunk-line is repaired. Use it to message the western camp, then take the short-cut Cullen and Jamie rediscovered. You’ll meet her halfway, no doubt.”
With a whoop, Mouse leapt for the corridor, only to return seconds later, dashing to the row of stored equipment, letting the ropes slide from his arm to the cavern floor, tossing the scroll and pencil on the closest tabletop, without a word running out again. Vincent beckoned Damien to the map table, where he pointed out The Slice, the narrow entrance passage he should take into Wall Street, the route past The Knees, through The Needle’s Eye, the proper turn at Arrow Rock.
“Where is Aniela tonight?” he asked.
“Working … I think.”
The sudden color in his face disclosed his fears. In Dix’s basement, wire brush and chisel in hand, but … thinking of him? Or wishing she were out with friends Above?
“Go to her,” Vincent said. “Perhaps she’d like to come Below again tonight.”
“Really. But first, recall the inner-tier sentries from their duties. Either assign workers or take volunteers to relieve the perimeter stations after two hours.”
“Well … which?”
Vincent could fairly see the calculations carried out in Damien’s mind and suddenly, he was reminded of Devin in his role as oldest boy, contemplating the ifs and thens, what was fair. More than likely, Damien would take a shift himself.
“Whatever you think best. And Damien …” If I’ve learned anything, he wanted to tell the young man, it’s that you should say out loud what you want. It does Aniela no service to withhold your thoughts, your feelings. Confide your dreams. Don’t make her guess. Don’t waste the time you have. Don’t disregard the gifts. “… I’ll see you in the morning.”
“You’re not going?”
“I’ve had a swim. I’ll be Above with friends … in Woodlawn.” For a while, he thought, later a tantalizing mystery Catherine would solve. “Mouse knows the place, should you need me. On my way, I’ll tell Noah he can go home for the evening as soon as his relief arrives.”
Damien seemed rooted before him. Off you go, he very nearly directed and in Father’s tone.
“But try to not–” he began instead.
“Not? Not what?” Damien asked.
“Try to not need me.” The words themselves were freeing, as much a surprise to himself as to Damien. Another milestone he would describe for her … as soon as she was in his arms. He eyed the corridor that would route him Above.
“Okay, good. Great. This is … great.”
He waited until Damien settled the schedule in his mind and headed for a squad seated by the fire. Vincent looked on, approving. The three first conscripted had drawn the easiest duty that day, walking the uppermost levels, checking the secreted electrical connections, the camouflaged panel boxes, the access to quick disconnects should their appropriations be discovered. After a moment’s conversation, Damien met his gaze and nodded. Done.
Word spread quickly. Spirits kindled … kindled higher. Through the south-bound passageway, an exodus all but thundered, hardly anyone, he noticed, thinking to grab a towel. No matter. Someone would remember and return for a duffel stuffed full. Ira and Philip led the contingent and their chamber was not far out of the way; they’d likely have a supply.
Vincent put his hand on Stuart’s shoulder.
Without a falter of rhythm, still working his jack-knife’s blade against the taut leather strop, Stuart looked up. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I’ve suggested a night off,” Vincent said. “A night at the lake.”
“A little R & R …” Stuart tested the honed edge on his thumb, snapped the knife shut and arched his back. “Sounds good. I could use a swim myself, work out some of the kinks.”
“You could make a second trip home. Stay there this time.”
“Ahh, she sent me off. Wren’s got a big court case tomorrow. She likes alone-time the night before, to practice. You know. To work it through.”
He did know. At times, Catherine’s focus could laser rock. “Then, tomorrow night … After.”
Stuart offered a one-sided grin. “Yeah. That might be safer.” He folded the strop and banded it, returned it to its place in the partitioned box of sharpening tools. “All your people good enough swimmers? I can do lifeguard duty.”
“They’re your people, too, Stuart.”
“I know that.” Stuart stood and made a fist. They bumped knuckles twice, forearms once. “I’ve missed you, buddy.”
Vincent tipped his head. “I’ve missed you too. This place …” He spread his hands. “I don’t know what happened. Why I let time and distance–”
“Hey, the tunnel runs both ways. No more your doing than mine. And it’s a long way on foot.” Stuart studied him, hard. “Hey, you’re not still riding the subway, are you? You promised to teach Noah and me to do that, remember?”
“I remember being afraid of both your mothers.”
Stuart chuckled. “How do you get that, umm, exercise past Catherine, anyhow?”
In a strobing stream, the last occasions he’d had to ride atop the subway cars flashed by, not in the exhilarating rush of freedom or youthful defiance but stinging, like running through briars, necessity fueled by fear. “I’ve had … have … no choice.”
“True.” Stuart laced his fingers, stretched out his arms. His joints cracked, a sound that once made his mother and both his sisters cringe. “Bummer.”
Vincent laughed. Two decades before, he’d returned home from his summer visit with that word new in his vocabulary and when he’d offered it to Father – in response to what he no longer recalled – Father had drawn back in distaste. At his side, Pascal had snickered, and they were then both specially assigned Melville’s Clarel and Moby Dick, while that fall the rest of their class read The House of Mirth, Heart of Darkness, Sister Carrie. I’ll show you … bummer, he imagined Father thinking.
Many nights over the years, he’d lain awake in his bed or prowled the deepest passages, the blackest alleys, lamenting his differences, the limitations so terribly boxing. Reducing them now to this single, silly term … brushing them off with slang and a shrug …
He clasped Stuart’s shoulder; Stuart his. Why not? Until exigencies required otherwise, why not try?
* * *
Eimear staggered backwards a step. “Wren?” she asked, a croaking whisper. “Wren Rasmussen?”
“Um-hmm. She lives Below now. Her husband was born there. It’s his home – Stuart’s. It always has been, a part of Vincent’s world, a smaller community beneath Van Cortlandt Park. Where we’re going.”
“But …” Eimear shook her head. With fingers widespread, she raked into her hair, clamping her palms to her temples.
Too much, her actions seemed to say, or worse – this cannot be. Catherine could only wait until Eimear went on.
“I met him once, Catherine. He’s … tan! From the sun! How?” And then she laughed. She dropped to a seat on the stairs, rested her forehead to arms folded on her knees, shoulders heaving with cackled glee.
Catherine’s inward relief bubbled out. She joined Eimear on the step, in her mirth, at the end leaning weak against the palings of the banister. Except that she expected to later curl into Vincent’s embrace, she might have closed her eyes, fallen to a sound sleep.
“Whooo.” Eimear wiped her cheeks. “I’m losing it,” she admitted. “What a day, yeah?”
“No kidding,” Catherine agreed.
“I’m all of sudden exhausted,” Eimear continued, giving Catherine’s knee a pat. “Though more’s the truth, I’m hungry. Really, truly hungry. How about you?”
“Three minutes in the microwave while the oven heats up,” Eimear instructed from the first step of the stairway, “with a drizzle of cream over it first and a toothpick stuck in. A damp paper towel tented over. Any more wrecks the cheese and toughens the noodles, but, cold as it is, the stove alone would take too long. Longer than I think I can bear at this point. There’s foil for the final warming in the bottom drawer next to …” Failing to finish her thought, she’d cast a befuddled look around her foyer, then clear-eyed again, met Catherine’s gaze. “”Tis rude, I know, to ask a guest to fend for herself, but can you see to that? I’ll run upstairs and change my clothes.” Already she was pulling off a shoe.
Jeans and layers, a heavy sweater, she’d suggested, nodding when Eimear questioned sweats for sleeping. Dull footsteps overhead crossed back and forth; water ran in the bathroom, a drawer creaked open. But now, the floor above was quiet. She’d been a while at readying.
Catherine dragged the oven rack forward, peeled back the aluminum foil covering the small, square dish of lasagna. The winey tomato sauce simmered and the aroma of melting mozzarella, the memory of its deliciousness two nights before, tempted her to dig into the layered pasta standing up at the stove, but she resisted reaching for a fork, instead recovering their now late supper and closing the door, dialing the temperature five hastening degrees higher. Grateful, she hovered close, as if the heat might evaporate the cold water threatening to dash her high spirits.
She’d not thought this through. The entrance was locked – locked from within. Vincent was levels below, most likely fully involved in tasks that took precedent to her concerns. She wasn’t unsure of Eimear or of the rightness of her introduction Below, of the solace and safety a night in the tunnels would provide her, but it was rash, even self-centered, she chastised herself, to imagine she could simply wish him here. Eimear’s question – How? – rang in her ears.
A slow air, lullaby-like, sang from the archway. Would he come to her with Martin still in his chair? Was he there now, within the churchyard wall, his hand on the latch? Was it time to throw open the door to every possibility, caution tossed aside, to reveal all to everyone? Was it her decision to make? Didn’t he have a say? And really, Catherine pummeled herself, where will Eimear sleep? Could she, on the cold stone floor amid two dozen strangers? Never mind the implausible, the astonishing, would she see past the primitive to the magical? It was so important that she did. The larger question loomed from the shadows. Is this for her, or for me? She twisted the cotton dishtowel in her hands. Could it not be both?
In her fog of worry, Catherine hadn’t heard the creak of her step, but now, a small backpack slung on her shoulder, Eimear crossed the room, lifted the heavy cabled sweater from its hook, deposited both by the back porch door where her own bag waited.
“What is it, Catherine?” she asked, retracing her steps on the black and white floor. Eimear tugged the towel from her, threading it through the handle of the stove. “You seem a million miles away and sorry for the journey. Is it … is it Jenny you’re thinking of?”
“Jenny?” She felt her brow wrinkle. The breech with Jenny hadn’t crossed her mind, not since the moment she’d listened to the tapes from Eimear’s answering machine, not since she’d sped Eimear to her apartment and from it, to the threshold below. It would. It would cross her mind. Not this hour, not this day, but soon she’d withdraw the sadness from the niche she’d prepared in her heart, where it lay now, sodden and cried-out. She imagined cradling the loss in her palms, holding it up, angling it this way and that as if to lure a resuscitating ray of light, repeating, repeating – Anything is possible. But long ago, she’d wept over the inevitability. I know what Brian was looking for when he followed me down, she’d admitted. The same thing I was looking for, for so many years. A family.” Something had always been missing, something she didn’t have the courage to name, until now. All along. Before … before Vincent, even then – she’d known.
“No … it’s not Jenny.”
“We don’t have to do this,” Eimear finally murmured, turning to the sink where she picked at an curl of carrot, dull orange and dried to the porcelain. “If you’ve changed up your mind, thought better of this … of me, I understand. It’s not an everyday thing, is it, to usher strangers below. And there’re … rules … you said, rules I break.” Both hands gripping the counter’s ledge, she leaned on stiffened arms and, for a long moment, stared into the basin. “I appreciate your company, Catherine. Know that, and I’m glad for it tonight particularly and for what you’ve promised to see through for me tomorrow, but I’ll be all right here at home. You should go on, go Below. Without me.” She spun the faucet open full force, splashing water on the stubborn shred.
“No! No, Eimear. It’s not you and I’m not leaving you alone tonight.” Catherine hustled to her side and shut off the spigot. Standing next to Eimear, looking up at her, for the briefest moment, she saw Vincent at his most balky – the lips pressed to an ardent frown, the jutted jaw, the averted eye. Still, it wasn’t lost on her, Eimear’s easy taking-up of the language. Below, she’d said. No hesitation, no doubt. As if she’d always believed … always expected. Catherine blew out a long breath; her lifted, open hands she gathered to fists. “Vincent and I … Our connection … I told you … about the times I’ve … needed … him and he knew it, before I did sometimes, but I’ve never actually just … called him and the entrance … it’s locked from the inside.”
Eimear dried her hands on a paper towel, wiped the tiles at the sink’s rim, behind the hot and cold handles, the sprayer, the high arching, chrome spout. In the mirror of the window, she still frowned. “You’re fearing you don’t have a key?”
Catherine nodded, hearing, even as she did, through a shimmery distance of space and time, his soft, reminding chuckle – the uncountable balcony-nights, his ready hand at her basement’s ladder, the sliding-open scree of metal before she ever knocked at the secret door. I’m a part of you, Catherine.
Martin’s music sheared off to silence, a silence that rocked between them, whitened waves lulling to tranquil ripples. Eimear’s smile returned. Outside, glass chimes pendent from the porch eaves pealed and celebrated, and another, bell-deep, round and sonorous, tolled as if to mark the moment. From one drawer Eimear gathered two forks, from a second two gently-faded napkins. Coral-pink apple blossoms, Catherine saw, a linen likeness of the fresh fairy wand plucked from the garden’s trees days before. Passport, she recalled, to the palaces of the otherworld, to Tír-na-nog.
“But, Catherine … you are the key,” Eimear said.
* * *
Coming to me. Half the day the knowledge had kept him fixed on the tasks required of him. Through this, he’d encouraged himself. Through this and then …
Unsure why she was near, sure only that she was … Come to me, he heard now. They’d have but a short time together. Where might he begin to recount his hours since he’d sent her away, Above. Kanin, Mitch. Martin. Apple tart. The Green Spot. Wren … the coincidence of Eimear.
And Martin’s benediction, his plea, his promise. Bráithre. Brotherhood. Flynn.
Adrenaline powered his leaving, choice a heady feeling. Try not to need me. Had he ever once said those words aloud? Had he even pretended them permissible? He raced the passageway at first giddy with discovery, but mounting the steep stone circle, halfway up, his lungs strained in the long pull of air; his boots grew heavy. His toe caught the lip of the worn limestone steps more than once. Catherine had made this trek herself, she and Aniela. How had he not felt the sure burn in her calves, her hammering heart, the hitch in her breath?
On the final twisting turn of the spiral, at the crest of it leaning against the jagged wall, he paged back through his wakeful hours. They’d begun … when? Yesterday? The day before? In camp, with Catherine tucked close, what she’d assumed was sleep was only a thin meditation and last night’s rest – rather, this morning’s – no more than a nap. A kip, Martin would deem it, but without it, this pinnacled day, blunted by what could be called nothing other than a hangover, he’d have been no better than a dead-man, the wooden support pole that stood the place of a live laborer. I need little sleep, he’d assured Catherine. You need some, she’d countered. The effects of the lake’s mineral waters were dissipated. He had no choice now but to agree.
Come to me.
He pushed off the wall. Through a junction, around a turn, an eddy of dust and sand stirring forth from his boots … Her appeal was a sweet wind, a freshening that corrected the course of gravity inside him, defied the drag at his bones. But exhaustion had unsealed him. He was too open, too sensitive to the efflux of energies swirling him, and the curtain – the curtain he must hold closed – gapped. Shades flitted into his path, their whispers dry and whiskery.
Grief, regret, loneliness.
His thinking darkened; a cast-net of melancholy settled over him. Once the perceived heartache might have slammed him. His young shoulders had often caved, the out of nowhere weight making it hard to breathe, to see. But he’d learned … to examine, to discern, to differentiate himself. He summoned Light, both illumination and shield. Breathed deeply in … strongly out. Hurried on.
Not mine. Not my pain.
Apart so from the commonwealth, from his homeland, from the familiar course, of late so absorbed by imperative and hard labor, he’d been less suffused by the force of others’ unwept tears, by disappointment or temper, even by gladness or wonder, his … connection … here muted, damped-down.
Saddening, that thought – his patterned distance from his oldest friends.
His passage through these tunnels had been singular. He’d met no one; the pipes were silent. Damien followed not long behind him on his way to Aniela, but as yet the crowding of his youthful hopefulness was no more than a nudge between his shoulder blades, and Noah, still two corridors ahead, unaware of his impending liberation, broadcast a quiet calm. At a junction, the promise of a sentry-reprieve tapped out, Vincent waited for Noah’s acknowledging clink and ting, which sounded and subsided and sent him on and upward.
Again, a cloud of perception …
Sooty wisps of sorrow. Phantoms of distress.
Had Kanin begun his trek home light of heart, whistling with hope, only to stumble, to lose his footing, his vision scattered by shadows to round a corner coming face to glaring face with a dark mirror of realization: Always a father, not necessarily a husband. Did the reckoning sweep him, bog his step? Home was a crossroads, no more a destination, the choice at it not entirely his, but Olivia’s. Whatever she asked, he must be ready to do.
Reluctance, regret, apology.
At his distance, though? After the intervening hours?
Not Catherine’s. Hers was a joyful call.
Whose, then? Whose?
He was sure only of the utter pull, an indefatigable magnet, suddenly not only Catherine. He emerged into the upper level. The passage to the churchyard stairs just out of sight, he loped for it, slipping the gap without breaking stride. There in the cul-de-sac was the bedroll he’d left behind that morning, the lantern still burning low, a miracle of oil. In the stone wall, at his pressured grip, the secreted latch pivoted free; the doorway slid smoothly open. Fluted notes – fine and mellow, a subtle tracery – charmed him forward. The glossy scent of the beckoning night garden, a vision of flowers, white as the moon. He took the steps two at a time, his focus on the steel bars halfway up … already his hands worked their password.
Enough. Enough now. Is Leatsa mé go deo.
A scramble up the last of the stairs and into the wall passage. Mossed stones under his palms. A scree of rubble beneath his feet – the broken lock, the coiled chain. His ear to the plank door; his fingers curled into the rusted latch. Martin’s music slowed and softened – faded – falling off mid-phrase. A stoppage of breath.
A muffled clattering …
Something racketed on the archway stones, rolled and stilled.
Chapter Title: Rainer Maria Rilke. Blank Joy.
Opening Quotation: Walt Whitman. From To a Stranger.
Gaelic: Is Leatsa mé go deo.. I am yours forever.
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