sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 53 ~ For I Am Running to Paradise
Love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear …
the truth more first than sun, more last than star …
He’d have burst through the door’s weathered planks if the iron latch had offered any resistance.
He was through and at his friend’s side in less than a frantic heartbeat.
Martin listed a bit in his chair, his chin nearly to his chest … his chest … that rose and fell, rose and fell, that blessedly rose and fell. Vincent knelt at his feet, a steadying hand to his sloping shoulder; he would not let him fall.
Though the flute had slipped from his grip and rolled away, Martin’s fingers curled in soft memory of it, loose in his lap. Vincent scuttled the walkway leading from the arch where, just off the stone, in a cushioned bed of earth and petals, light through a window reflected from the instrument’s silver bands. Crouched there to retrieve it, he watched the house. Inside, a woman crossed the room – busy at the sink, he deduced, hearing the rush and plash of water. Backlit, her hair flamed, and behind her … movement. A burnished glint. A quiet cadence between them – their asks and answers.
Catherine. Eimear. They didn’t suspect …
In the archway, light curiously converged, rayed from Eimear’s kitchen window, from the rectory’s, and angling in from above … the reflected skyglow, the insistence of determined stars. A certain slant of light. Martin’s white hair, his cabled sweater, his cleric’s collar gleamed in it. A will of the wind brisked a chime of tinkling glass, tolled another of resonant and throaty bells. Branches rasped at the high, sheltering, stacked-stone walls as overhead a nightjar called, her churring song dulcet as she floated by, black against the pale ornament of moon.
He laid the flute across Martin’s knees.
At the weight of its return, Martin’s fingers closed on the blackwood and he drew in a long, snorting breath. One foot kicked out; his head snapped back. He whistled out the last notes of the interrupted song. Or his surprise, Vincent imagined, for Martin’s eyes were open now, black and lustrous as olives.
“Vincent,” Martin whispered. ‘Tis you.”
“Yes.” Not once had he thought to raise his hood.
Martin rubbed his cheek with the heel of one hand, a sandpapery sound. Twice he coughed. Twice he rumpled through his hair.
“Please don’t be afraid.”
“Vincent. Vincent. Fánaí ard na cathair na draíochta.” Martin angled the flute across the velvet-lined case open at his feet and leaned forward, palms to knees. “We’re done with that, yes and forever?”
Martin commanded his gaze. There was no need to look away, to look down, to move into shadow, to retreat. No need, yes and forever. But the night air was cooling; dampness rose from the rain-soaked stones and Martin’s breathing was fast and too shallow, a wheeze of fine crackles. Vincent eyed the path to the rectory, then turned his ear to Eimear’s porch and beyond. Catherine’s spirit tugged at his … and loosened, granting a leeway of time. Soon, he both heard and promised, and within his marrow a carillon of joys sounded.
He reached for the flute. “Show me how to take it apart.”
“‘Tis wet from an hour’s playing,” Martin protested. “It needs a good drying first.”
“We’ll do that inside.”
“Inside? Inside you say?”
Vincent pushed to his feet and bent for the case, seizing the tape-wrapped handle. The instrument secure under one arm, he held out a hand, a lever-up, but Martin had tipped his head back to rest against the stone and closed his eyes – well, one, at least.
“Today was a cracker of a day, Vincent. A cracker. I’m all together shattered,” he said, yawning behind his fist. Martin’s weariness was genuine, its gravity an exerting force compounding his own, yet the curving corners of his mouth showed beyond his knuckles. “What would you say to the hair of the dog that bit us, eh?”
A smoggy thud at the base of his skull prompted his reply. “Not tonight, Martin.”
“Well, at least from that I’m once again inferring there’ll be a next time.”
Vincent chuckled. “Has anyone told you you’re a tenacious sort?”
“Ach, you’d have to elbow your way to the front of that line.” Martin said, yawning again, clapping his hands as if to wake himself. “Tea, then?”
Even with Vincent’s bracing, Martin’s track along the cobbled path wove and wavered and on the rectory’s few steps he leaned heavily on the railing. But on the porch, he pulled the drop-chain dangling from the bare glaring bulb overhead and held open the screened door to usher Vincent through first. “There’s no concern you should be having,” Martin assured him when he hesitated at the threshold. “No one will come. No one can see. I’m locked away from the church proper – my private rooms, tidy and tight. And the nave’s doors close at nine. A bell jingles here should someone enter the narthex.”
All the same, once inside, Martin reached past him, raked a hand over a wall switch. The kitchen’s ceiling fixture went dark – counter, cupboards, range and sink, graying to outlines. A floor lamp flanked a narrow sideboard. There was a rustle of a stiff-paper shade, a dull click, and a topaz glow flattered the room. Vincent laid the flute and its case on the pine table and pulled out a ladder-back chair. With a whooshing groan, Martin sank to the caned seat. His eyes, Vincent noted, were filmed with fatigue. And surely some measure of alarm, bewilderment at least. But when he followed Martin’s sideways glance, it went not for escape or to query some distant author for answer, but to the corner of the countertop where the bottle of The Green Spot stood, then to the glass-fronted china closet and the neat shelf of crystal glassware. Martin folded his hands before him as if in prayer and looked up, his expression innocent and artful at once. Vincent shook his head.
A box of Barry’s Gold Blend was open on the counter, but black tea at this hour was unimaginable. The suggestion of chamomile was roundly dismissed, Martin’s thunderstruck expression reminding him of Catherine’s when he’d once innocently offered Yerba Mate in place of her morning coffee. When next he proposed hot milk, he feared he might be shown the exit.
“Youngfellas,” Martin grumbled. He didn’t hide his sigh … or his grin. “A half-jar of beer, then. Only half! Chock with hops,” he said, shooing him to the refrigerator. “Good for sleeping and all that.”
Vincent placed the crockery ale jug on the table, and beside it, fetched from the drainboard, a juice glass – tulip-shaped, decorated with wedges of oranges, a spray of green leaves. Brimming, it would contain far less than a pint half-full. Martin’s mouth turned down. With his index finger he made a circle on the tabletop, rapped the empty space within three insistent times.
“I would join you,” Vincent said, “but I fought a fog all day long. Tomorrow’s tasks … I can’t …”
“And I shouldn’t.” Martin eyed the still-empty glass before him. “I have early Mass tomorrow at 6:30, devotions at 9:30, albeit for only a single pew of ladies if they’d but sit together, confession at 4:00, and in between, counselings for two couples, one hoping to marry, one hoping to stay married, a session with a young seminarian in struggle with his faith, hospital visits. And that’s just what I’ve written on my calendar.” He propped an elbow on the table, his chin in his palm. Vincent lowered into the opposite chair, resting his forearms, his bare hands on the tabletop, tendering himself to Martin’s unabashed study.
“I’m wondering two things,” Martin admitted into the depths of what was unsayable between them.
Martin’s answering laughter was a string of clear trills, like the crystal chimes at Eimear’s door, chimes he heard yet … or perhaps again.
“Well, the first is a question about your …” Martin waved a vague hand his direction. “The féth fiadha you wear. Like Manannán mac Lir’s, his cloak of concealment. Does it?”
“Conceal me? I have no magic, Martin. I am … just a man.”
Martin pursed his lips. “Hmmphmm.”
“Hmmmphmm,” Martin muttered again.
They sat at a small table, its finish distressed at one chair, evidence of the wear of years – Martin’s dining alone, the consequence of a lone plate set, removed and set again. Vincent looked down at his hands, thumb-to-thumb, palms flat, his fingers spread wide across the pale scratchings. Weaponless, he’d meant to convey. “You see now … why I … when you asked me to speak with Flynn …” You live somehow in more than a single world, he wanted to say, but how can a man who walks but one, who, near-daily, witnesses the reality of the city’s mean streets and colorless alleys, who relies wholly on the separation of his rational self from his–
“There’ll be bit of an introduction to make, sure.”
Martin was matter-of-fact, almost … casual. He’d known little casual, ever, in his life – save, he realized, the days and weeks and months spent here in the north, Below, with Noah and Stuart, in the less-constrained frontierlands, the hither-edges of their community. Could it be so easy – to say yes, to step forward saying yes again and with the next step, yes a third time? He saw himself reflected in the lenses of Martin’s eyeglasses.
“Vincent.” Martin reached across the table, a hand briefly around his wrist and withdrawn, his quiet pause a patient call for return. “Believe this. The face is a threshold where infinities meet. Infinities ancient and eternal, wildly mysterious. ‘Tis the exposure point of our individual lives. Though our bodies are covered, our face is ever naked. A vulnerability we must protect otherwise. Most of us learn to hold our mouths just so, to avert our eyes so another meets us side-on rather than heart to heart; we hide our inner selves, our miseries and magnificence both, and those who might know us have a task set out for them, to get below the mask. But your face won’t let you hide.” Martin smiled and nudged the ale his way. “Saves us a basket of black peat a day, yes? Let’s us get right to each other.”
The kitchen was warm; the lamplight as burnished and autumnal as candle-flame through amber quartz. Martin’s welcome so forthright, so matter-of-course, as if expected, as if ordained. There was a gathering beneath his breastbone, the prompted sigh replete and content. At once drowsy and renewed, Vincent contemplated the contours of the earthenware jug, took in the colors cream to tan, meeting Martin’s gaze over the stopper. Why not?
He rose to acquire a glass for himself and Martin’s eyes lit up, more with triumph than fortune, Vincent suspected, the bottle uncorked and poised to pour when he turned from the counter, able – even in such a diminutive and disappointing vessel – to force the cream head a half-inch proud of the rim. Martin lifted his in silent toast; Vincent did the same, their first long sip drawing off half the measly portion.
“And the second thing you were wondering?” Vincent asked, tending to the foam on his upper lip with the back of his hand.
Martin settled in his seat, his head tipped to the side. “You do love the songs, yes? I’d imagined us sitting in this very kitchen, me teaching you the squeezebox or the whistle, you taking right to one or the other, and us having a late night seisiún every now and then in the dark of the ambulatory, but I’m thinking the bodhrán’s more likely, given, umm …”
“The givens?” Vincent reached for the flute. “Show me how to care for it.”
“Did you believe I’d slipped beyond the veil?” Martin asked as Vincent mopped out the instrument with a wooden bore-rod threaded with a scrap of soft rag. He pointed next to the small bottle of almond oil niched into the edge of the case, mimed squeezing a drop – a wee drap – onto a cloth of chamois leather, wiping down the barrel, crown to foot.
He paused in his ministrations to drain the last inch of beer from his decidedly too-small glass. “There was,” Vincent acceded, “a moment. I sensed … a letting go.”
“‘Tis not the first night I’ve fallen asleep in my chair. I’m fine, really I am, with leaving this world all in my music. I’d beg it, if I could, for I do love it, more than is seemly given …” and he sighed and brushed at his collar, “… the givens.”
“Enough, you said. Leatsa go deo.”
Martin’s brows arched high over his spectacles, his speechlessness giving way to a contemplative, three-note hum. “You heard that? My pledge, my silent pledge, I was believing. To Lily. I am yours forever. Would but she have me in my afterlife, for even a walk among the clouds.” After a beat, he twice tapped his heart. “Ah, bright dreams of the past, you know, bringing back features joy used to wear.” Another tap … then, “Your own father – he’s near my age, yes?”
Nodding, Vincent separated the flute’s three sections, fitting each then to their shaped shallows, wondering as he did, if Martin wondered – about his father, about his origins. Wondering too about Martin’s and Father’s introduction, recognizing it not a question of if or how … but where and when. Here or there. The walk was too far for either, but perhaps …
“And you expect to find him the same? Asleep in his chair?” Martin smiled reassuringly. “One day, long, long into the future?”
As Martin’s had for his flute, Father’s hands would hold the memory of an open book slipped from them to the faded rug beneath his worn velvet chair.The Sonnets. Wordsworth. Byron. Perhaps Blake or Mary Robinson. Tea still hot in a flowered, fine china pot. Only a spare crumb of his favored shortbread left behind on the plate. Yes, he’d beg that too. For Father. He shut and latched the case. “I sensed … great sadness, Martin. A heavy burden.”
“Ah. Well. In the course of my work, I’ll glean a peck of others’ despairs. Sometimes ‘tis hard to sort my sorrows from theirs, and today was no different, though it did have its very bright spots. By closing time, it can all well up. I’ve had to learn … as no doubt, you have.”
By closing time. The last hours of so many of his own days, standing outside the tunnel entrance, longing for a cleansing rain. “I’m still learning.”
“As I said. Youngfellas.” Martin’s eyelids fluttered, closed.
“You’re exhausted. You should sleep.”
“And who’s doing all the talking,” Martin muttered. “Ye look a bit rough.”
“Do I?” He wouldn’t doubt the assessment. He’d not changed his clothes, only beat them on the rocks after his swim; beneath his cloak, they were dusty with rock grit, the cindery decay of the wooden beams he’d replaced. Wren had supplied him with towels, but not a comb, and his fingers had met tangled resistance. A flash of pleasure shot through him – Catherine teasing the knots free, her brushing touch …
“The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,” Martin murmured. “And where is there hope or deed as fair, Caoilte tossing his burning hair …”
“And Niamh calling Away, come away,” Vincent answered but by rote, startled by this second – no, third – experience of resonance, of Martin’s mind-sight. But not stunned …and the warmth seeped in, stronger this time. How easy he felt with Martin. Affinity, he’d called it last night, but perhaps it was even more. Bráithre.
“Is that why you came?”
The question befuddled him and he tipped his head, waiting.
“I should tell you …” Martin began.
“Tell me what?”
“I had luncheon today … with your beloved.”
Martin shifted his position, straightened his shoulders, a skiff of alertness mustered to his voice and eyes. “Now, you’re not to go all jealous,” he said. “‘Twas on the up and up, in front of two dozen witnesses at my favorite diner in Queens, and I did ask Sister Felice to join us as a proper chaperone. ‘Twasn’t due to my machinations she declined.”
“Seems we have friends in common, you and I. My Seamus and your Sam. Catherine will, I’m sure, tell you all about it.”
Sam. Catherine – unwilling to wait for Kanin’s report, for news of Mitch or not Mitch, managing somehow to work a visit to Queens Village into her legal day. But finding Martin there! The coincidence of it all. More than that. The urgency of destiny.
“She’s here, you know,” Martin was saying. “Well, next door, with Eimear. I admit to taking a peek ‘round the wall, just to make sure all was sound.” Martin smiled. “You came for her, yes? Not because you thought I’d ditched my moorings.”
“Catherine … calls to me. Always. But to be honest, Martin, I’m not sure for whom I’m here. You, Eimear … Flynn.” Myself. “Something … something seems …”
“Poised? Then I should be getting out of the way, letting you get to it …”
“You’re part of this, Martin.” With no other word to describe, to explain, he took the empty glass between his palms, rolling it forward and back, his claws glinting in the soft lamplight. He could sense the man’s scrutiny, but when he raised his head, Martin was staring past him, at a spot of bare, tiled wall, he saw, having turned to look.
“Sé inniu an lá. Sé inniu an lá a athrófar do shaol gan amhras.” Martin murmured. He laid his hands flat on the table. “I am tired, Vincent. And if I’ve a part in this, ‘tis in a later act. But there’s something I do want you to see before I take your leave tonight. Come with me, yes? One second.”
Martin led the way from the kitchen, into a vestibule bearing a wood-and-plaster resemblance to a junction below: a central space with four doorways – two closed – dimly lit by a flickering wall sconce, with wainscotted walls of dark mahogany, built-in benches with fold-down seats, a high, arched ceiling of exposed beams not unlike the one he’d refitted himself levels below ground. Martin ushered him into a paneled room where a cleared-away desk angled one corner, a crescent of mismatched chairs arrayed before it. Decorated only by a bronze lamp with a ticking clock in its base, a leather and green-felted blotter, a coil-bound notebook – his open calendar, dark with penciled responsibilities – it was not at all the mementoed work-space in which he’d imagined Martin spending his days. Then … a door, plain and narrow, groaning open to a cramped chamber of rough walls and rougher flooring. Martin twisted the knob of the old porcelain switch on the wall; a clouded bulb flared. A long-unused vestry, he determined, cataloging the dry stone font, the faded-pillowed kneeler, a wardrobe pushed out of place, only half-concealing a shadowed niche behind it.
“Years ago, Seamus bade me guard the doorways. ‘Twas his parting instruction, yes, that … and to wait.” Martin pulled open a shallow drawer, exposing the collection of heavy padlocks and bow-barreled keys. “I removed these all over the years, from the two dormitories, the two doors in the archway, and this morning, the last one, having waited long enough.”
At Martin’s invitation, Vincent passed into the exposed alcove, twisting his shoulders, ducking his head. A door. The same gray-planked construction, the same twisted iron-ring latch.
Another way into the passage. Or out.
He levered the handle to no avail.
“‘Tis barred from your side, Vincent.”
“I’ll clear it.”
With no answer, Martin sagged against the wall. A crumble of plaster pattered the floor.
Enough. For now.
“You need rest, Martin.”
“I hate to give in,” Martin grumbled, though he didn’t argue. His thumb to the yellowed switch, he closed the light.
At the kitchen entry, Martin held open the door once again, following him out to the stoop. Ready now for the benediction Martin had offered, that he’d earlier declined, Vincent put out his hand. Mindful of the knobby joints, he was surprised by the determination of Martin’s grip, as much commencement in it as farewell. “Thank you,” he said, stepping down into the sweet-scented garden. The sky was black and spangly with light. Improbable stars.
“Vincent?” Martin queried. “Your friend? Kanin?”
Unwilling to concede. Vincent turned, the spin of his heel on the herb-matted flagstones stirring a lemony perfume. “I relayed your very good advice.”
Martin chuckled. “To fake it, yes? And?”
“He went home.”
“Ah. Destiny is shaped by both grace and our own fine efforts. Sé inniu an lá. Hopefully.”
A coarse whistling wheeze was returned to Martin’s breath. He’d send tomorrow for Dr. Wong’s remedy, or, better, for Lin herself and her keen assessment, a visit Martin would no doubt enjoy.
“You said that once before. Tell me what it means.”
“Sé inniu an lá,” Martin repeated. “Sé inniu an lá a athrófar do shaol gan amhras. Today is the day. This is the day your life will surely change.” Martin leaned out from the shadows, braced on the railing, calling him closer. “I’ve seen you before, you know. Not a live seeing, true, but through Rosie’s young eyes. Years ago, in the park, late one night–”
“Under the full moon.”
“You remember her?”
“You don’t seem surprised at the …”
Martin sent a look overhead at the word’s utterance, whispering to seemingly no one, “There. How’s that then?”
He dared not ask ... yet. “Catherine told me Rosie’s story,” he said. The truth – how it really was – won out over the last clamor of hoarded hurts. A windless, abiding calm suffused him, control no longer necessary, the tumult stilled beneath deep, deep waters. “It was the first time I’d seen the moon.”
“Was it? And you were her first–” Martin broke off with a trailing ahhh. “Afterward, she drew your likeness, she did, showing only her sister and me. Oh, ‘twas hidden away from other eyes and still is, but trust me, she’s not forgotten you.” Martin took a backward step. “Perhaps you’ll make your way up again, later on this week?”
The sculpture. You must see it, Catherine had pleaded. “I will try.”
“Good. Good, then. Well … until. Slán go fóill, fánaí ard na cathair na draíochta. ” Martin said. “Goodbye for now,” Vincent heard, and the decking creaked, the screen door rasped open. “Tall wanderer from the magic city.”
The latch clicked closed; the kitchen’s tawny lamp winked out. Seconds later, from a room deeper within, another light bloomed, mellow and golden. He turned toward the archway. I’m here, Catherine. Here. The way seemed so clear, without obstacles. The union of their spirits, the dancing waters between them silver and still enough to walk upon.
A whisk of wind strummed the chimes again, swirled him where he stood in the garden, lifting his drooped hood from his shoulders. The satin hem fluttered just at the edge of his sight. Would that walking out not tremble the waters? His hands rose out of habit to snug his hood … and by will, lowered.
* * *
You are the key. The words struck a solemn chord, her first response to quell the ringing, to protest No. Not I, but Vincent. Vincent.
“In dreams begins responsibility. This dream, this love you share? It isn’t puffed up, Catherine, to recognize your necessity to it. He’s your key as much as you’re his. And look at us! Look!” Where Catherine gripped the counter’s edge, Eimear covered her hand. “You’re mine as well. Or perhaps ‘tis Rosie who’s all our keys, being first and all. Or is it Martin, or even earlier on, Father S and his friend from below … Lev, you said? Perhaps that was our beginning. Perhaps it began time ago, time uncharted. ‘Tis a beautiful thing, however we’ve come about, and one we should appreciate, yes, but count on just as much. Otherwise, we’re wasting the gift.” Eimear smiled and dipped into her pocket, opening her hand to Billy’s bronze charm. “The circled stair we’re on … each on our own step, but something singular, drawing us in to each other’s orbit, knitting our memories, putting us in each other’s care.”
“Martin said … we’re on a path up the same mountain, and when we all reach the summit …”
“You believe he’s here, don’t you, or that he will be? Your Vincent.”
“Then we’re almost there, aren’t we?”
Eimear clicked the dial to off; the roar of the fan died away. The heat from the open oven swept the room, the aroma heady with herbs, rich with wine. Catherine drew two tall glasses of chilled water from the five-gallon dispenser in the vestibule. She’d ask Wren soon, perhaps tonight, if a delivery such as she enjoyed might be arranged here.
Plates at their place settings steamed. Eimear stood behind a pulled-out chair, both hands on the cresting rail. “No ceremony, Catherine. Let’s eat, yes? And then …”
The last bite of bread. Catherine eyed her flat, rimmed plate and the trail of sauces, white and red, left behind, the sliver of garlicky mushroom she plucked up. Done too soon. Eimear rose to refill their glasses. When she set them down – hard – water sluiced the rims.
“What?” Catherine asked.
“Did you hear that? That thump. It’s from the porch. Something hit the door.”
“Eimear, no.” She leapt from her chair, reached out for Eimear’s arm, following, hurrying, only catching up in the foyer. “Call the police,” she advised in her most urgent whisper. “I’m going upstairs … the front window … I’ll–”
“No! No police. Not tonight. Catherine, you know. You understand. I know you do.”
“Stay here, then. Here! I’ll be right back.” She started for the stairs, but a idling rumble from the street stopped her. Familiar, that sound. And in her mind’s eye, she saw the slow passage past her parked car, the hesitation of a long-nosed vehicle, three hunched and hooded figures inside. She inched instead to the living room window, a blade of the venetian blind bending at her pull.
Deftly, too quickly, Eimear released both deadbolts, flung the chain from it’s mooring, yanked the door wide. Her breath drew in hard and fast. The brass fastener slapped the wood, angry and annoyed, and outside the growling motor … just as angry … died.
* * *
Sé inniu an lá. Today is the day. Poised, Martin had described it.
A rhythmed echo strengthened … Soon … Soon … Soon. Anticipation of the sure-breaking dawn. Soon … Soon.
The rectory was dark; a sleep-surrendered silence suffused the dark courtyard.
I’m here. I’m ready.
A curious bush filled a corner of Martin’s garden, one with corkscrew stems and drooping catkins, cream-colored in the lack of light, without scent. But beneath his feet, the trod-wintergreen was clean- and cold-fragranced, and along the walkway, white bell-flowers – white stars, white frothy swirls, white pendent hearts – rose above the silver-napped lamb’s ear, the dark and matted thyme.
The air suddenly sharded with ice. Suddenly the red flame of defiance struck.
Twenty strides separated him from her. Ten. Three. Catherine, his only destination.
His native mission If there be trouble … instead … me.
Shadows thronged the path as he rounded the archway. She passed before him, his name susurrant, low in her throat. Behind her, behind Eimear, he followed, close, sheltering, shielding, until through … pausing only to shove the door closed, to lift and lower the protecting bar. The lantern left glowing at the foot of the stone staircase tendered light enough for their descent, and when he joined them there, light enough for truth.
Chapter title: William Butler Yeats. Running to Paradise. from Responsibilities and Other Poems. 1916.
Opening quotation: e. e. cummings. Poem.
- Emily Dickinson. A Certain Slant of Light.
- Gaelic: Translation: Tall wanderer from the magic city.
- John O’Donohue. Anam Cara. A Book of Celtic Wisdom. 1997.
- Thomas Moore. Farewell? but Whenever you Welcome the Hour. from Irish Melodies. 1834.
- William Butler Yeats. The Hosting of the Sidhe.
- Gaelic. Translation: This is the day. This is the day your life will surely change.
- William Butler Yeats. Epigraph to Responsibilities. 1914.
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