sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 8 ~ In the Earth of Your Soul, In the Cross of Your Arms
I must renew my bones in your kingdom
Catherine slipped through the open wedge, the once-secret door in the wall to their private rooms. In the alcove behind the stained glass window newly replaced, long-burning candles glimmered, their recent attendance a gift from Mary perhaps, perhaps from Jamie or Sara – her welcome home.
Darkness, pushed back by love.
At the top of the stairwell, her hand on the switchback of rusted iron, she listened for any word meant for her. The pipes and their messaging reversed in the narrow corridor beyond the entryway, leaving their chambers below hushed; this was last contact unless someone came with necessary word or call or question. Their first morning together in their secluded Eden, entwined with him, she’d lifted her head from his shoulder. So quiet, she’d marveled then, and he’d murmured gratitude for it, urging her cheek again to his heart, their separation, even that single inch, unendurable. Now this distance … She sighed and descended the steps, longing for what he knew, that channeled pulse between them.
At this late hour the strange slant of light from above offered only a flicker of illumination to the atrium floor. Where does it come from, she still wondered, though with less and less curiosity and more marvel, Vincent’s reply – From elsewhere, Catherine – answer enough. She lit the lanterns at the base of the curved stairs, the large torches flanking the gallery walls and those in the archway of the library … and in the bathing chamber. The pillar candles there were scented with patchouli and sandalwood, stained a deep black pearl. The tall flames leapt up at the touch of the match, the scent spiraled wild and sensuous … Her heart quickened and she felt a flush at her breast, a rhythmic pounding in her blood, a feeling of breathlessness … The suddenness of it stunned her.
He’s coming back? She rushed into the atrium, wishing, fully expecting to see him there. She bent at the waist, her hand on her heart to harness it. A brightness bloomed behind her eyelids – their bond, like the sun, a thousand rays in her soul. She felt his presence drawing nearer, heard the echo of thudding footfalls in a distant corridor …
But then … descent. Resignation. The drag of gravity on the wings of joy …
His frustration … her own.
But hope, she remembered, was the thing with feathers.
“What? What is it, Mouse?” He fought to keep exasperation from his voice, but fell on that battlefield.
With no more than a blink, Mouse soldiered on, duty-bound. “Kanin. Needs you.”
Stop! Stop with the allusions! he chastised himself and he almost laughed. Almost. He felt the fire in his spirit, in his loins, abate.
“Did he send you for me?”
One deep breath in … and out …
He could not let Kanin go.
The turn made to go back, his stride long and judgmental. Mouse was forced to scurry to keep up.
“Sorry, Vincent. Had to find you.”
“It is … no matter. Just tell me.”
“Kanin and Damien. Started yelling.”
“About the plans. About where to make the rockfall. About … everything.”
“And could they not settle their differences on their own?”
“Damien walked away. Kanin kept yelling. Stomped off.”
“Where’s Kanin now? Do you know?”
“Not sure. He said, manage by yourselves then. Now everybody’s mad.”
His steps slowed. He should find Kanin, talk with him, make him see all he had in his possession, all he stood to lose. He clenched a mental fist around the shirttails of his patience. The subways would still be running. Afterward, there might still be time …
Perhaps he’s returned.
A faint hope fueled his lope into camp, but one glance snuffed that lingering flame. The week had been long, everyone with an ache or contusion to nurse, each missing their own beds and more satisfying meals. Now the crew bunched together in knots, Kanin’s name skipping like a stone on water group to group. Fed up, someone grumbled. Now what? another muttered. Vincent crouched by the fire to listen.
Not long after he’d left camp, they told him, word had come from the farthest-flung lookout – an intrusion past the most northwestern junction of upper-level tunnels. Three men left painted marks at each intersection to guide themselves out … and in again, their plan to return to explore further overheard. After the strangers retreated, the sentries chipped away the blazes, but their efforts could not confidently address the breach.
Damien suggested they drop a temporary rockfall at the next work site and move west toward the riverside tunnels, a proposal out of sequence in Kanin’s carefully mapped-out plans. Calmly enough at first, Kanin protested, and Damien tried to reason with him, retrieving the maps, laying them flat and moving stones like chess pieces over the drawings. But as others took up Damien’s idea, Kanin lost his temper and lectured and chastised until, bristling with annoyance, they turned away from him, the Silence spontaneously imposed. Kanin marched into the tunnels and had not yet returned.
The plans still spread across the worktable, he considered the possible changes. “I agree,” he said. “We should rework the junction nearest the encroachments first, but I think the project must accelerate. We’ll need two crews, one to work west, another to move north into the park, then east along the border. That will mean …”
“We know,” Esther said. “We’ve been talking about that and we all agree. When the relief crew gets here, we’ll just divide up. We’re all staying.”
Vincent toed the ground, contemplating the alternatives in the sweep of dust under his foot. Then, raising his head, he studied each man, each woman … searched their spirits. To the last, they were tired after just one week, the tasks demanding and unfamiliar, yet he knew – they would push on, push themselves. To the last, they were committed.
He nodded and squared his shoulders. “You should rest now, all of you. I’ll find Kanin, tell him what we’ve decided … and bring him back.”
Almost as one, the crew sighed in relief and exhaustion. No one argued for late night storytelling or hot tea or for excursions up top. Bedrolls were unfurled; sweaters bunched to pillows. In minutes, only the two on first watch were awake. At the nearest pipe, Vincent tapped out his questions for the scattered sentries and soon, he had his answer.
Kanin was close enough, it turned out – a sentry had shadowed him to one of their portals into Woodlawn Cemetery and watched him now from a vantage point within a nearby mausoleum. He’s just sitting there. Has been. Nobody else out and about.
Though hardly far by Tunnel standards, the distance snagged at Vincent’s feet nevertheless. Preoccupied by the coming conversation, struggling with impatience and intuition, he stumbled more than once, his already bruised shoulders grating across the corridor’s rocky points. The final three-level climb up rusted rungs chafed the palms of his hands. Without a settled-on speech, he eased open the sliding stone in the floor of the groundskeeper’s hut, dodged the hoses coiled and hung from the crossbeams on his way to the wedged-open door. He could see Kanin just across the grassy way on the steps of a great granite memorial, his head bowed into his hands, all but lost in the shadows.
Vincent stood in a deeper shade. His thoughts, undeniable, were for himself, of his head cradled against Catherine’s soft breast, of her gentle hand stroking his hair, of his ragged breath evened with hers in sleep. But then … Olivia, her dark, bewildered eyes … and Luke, his father suddenly and too long only a bedtime story … a tiny daughter unfamiliar with Kanin’s strong and comforting hand. He had no choice. He would try once more to bring Kanin home.
The years had not dulled the memory of his first foray into the cemetery – Stuart and Noah huddled with him at this very door, shivering with curiosity and daring. (Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, Stuart had declared, a maxim that resonated with him as few others had.) This place was off-limits to them at night, the graveyard closed after dark to visitors, the watchmen diligent in their patrols. Off-limits to him always. But more than once his friends had slipped out unnoticed in the daylight, wandered the paths as any sightseer might. They’d told him of the spired and turreted mausoleums, of the statues so pensive, so tender they must surely be goddesses turned to stone by a spell, a spell that might someday be lifted so they could dance beneath the stars. More than anything, he’d wanted to see.
Perhaps tonight, some magic might indeed be wrought, a stony heart freed.
He called to him from the stoop and Kanin raised his head. Then in silent stride, Vincent swept across the soft spring lawn, up the ledge-stone steps to a niche flanked by sculpted angels, deep within the pillared loggia.
“You here to deliver a sermon, Vincent?” Kanin gestured toward the statues.
“No sermon. An offer to listen, perhaps some words of truth. A friend, always, Kanin.”
“A friend. Right. Well, I’m running short of those lately.”
“By your choosing.”
“Some of your words of truth, Vincent?”
Though uttered with an edge, Kanin’s dig seemed not entirely insult; smoke curled from the ash of despair.
“What is it you want, Kanin?”
“What do I want?” Kanin sagged over his knees. “What I want,” he muttered. “I can never have again.”
“You should go home, home to Olivia, home to your son and daughter. Be with your wife. We can manage here.”
“Of course you can manage. I’m not necessary … to you or to them.”
“That’s not true, Kanin. I watched Olivia grieve for you, long for you. I heard her tell Luke about the day he was born, how you held him first against your heart, about the games you played together, of the adventures you will have. You are … more than necessary. Go home.”
“How can I? How can she bear to even look at me? Can you understand that, Vincent?”
The words coiled in the air, a serpent of doubt. Vile memory filled his thoughts, and images swirled unbidden, fanged and ugly. “Yes,” he said, his voice clotted with pain. “I can understand.”
The tension grew in the blackness between them; the minutes passed …
“What–” He began again. “Who do you think she sees when she looks at you?”
Kanin shook his head. The moonlight through the trees and spires accentuated the sorrows of his face. “What she sees … is a liar. Every morning, I woke up and … chose … to lie to her, day after day after day. How can she have faith in me, how can she count on me ever again? And without that, how can I live?”
“Olivia has forgiven you, Kanin. The boy’s mother – Joey’s mother – has forgiven you. We hoped you would forgive yourself.”
“Don’t you see, Vincent! I don’t want to be that kind of man … a man who needs that much forgiving!”
Vincent stepped from the shadows and sat down on the steps, his posture a mirror, his elbows on his knees, his head bowed over his clasped hands. After a long moment, he tipped his head, imagining the granite guardians – the weeping marble seraphs circled before them – held a single celestial breath. Out of all the words in the swirling universe, he must pull the rightest ones together, speak them now.
“How … how can we be any other way? Is there, truly, another kind of man?”
Anguish pulled at Kanin’s features, a terrible downward force. “Why should she have to bear that for the love of me? How can I ask her to do it?”
“You don’t ask; you can only accept. Because she’s the woman who knows you. She’s the woman who nourishes your daughter at her breast, who sings your son to sleep at night. Do you not sense the iron of her spine, in the ribs that shelter her great heart? She did not break, Kanin. She grew stronger.”
Kanin’s shoulders heaved and the night air shuddered with his strangled, guttural cry – grief and fear one long vibration … and tears, years and years of them.
Clouds moved in, veiling the moonlight, masking the hour. Kanin trolled his own nameless river, but his breathing calmed, and at length, Vincent sensed a turn, a readiness. The winds quickened, heralding a flash of lightning and its close-following thunder. The nightwatchman – only a single employee, he knew now – had kept to the schedule of rounds they’d purposely mapped. If it indeed rained, the man’s habit was to retire to his quarters for the night. But still … always … caution.
He clasped Kanin’s shoulder, tightened his grip. Time to go.
Kanin rubbed his face with both hands, nodded behind them.
“Damien’s idea is a good one, to move west immediately,” Vincent ventured.
“It is. I was … well … being a jerk.”
“It doesn’t matter. Everyone understands.”
“I can’t count on that forever, Vincent. One day, I’ll go too far …”
“Yes, you will … if that’s your plan.”
“Plans … what’s that old saying? It’s an ill plan that cannot weather change.” Lightning flashed again; a gentle rain began. “Speaking of weather …” Kanin gestured toward the old stone hut that harbored their doorway Below.
“You should go home tonight, Kanin. All the way home.”
“There’s too much work. I can’t.”
“You can. The first site is nearly finished and everyone’s agreed to stay on after the relief arrives. We’ll split into two crews, work both locations. Damien can take the lead tomorrow.”
“I have to stay too. What we do here protects everybody.” Kanin’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I have to do this, at least. Besides, it’s late. What is it, midnight? After? It’s a long walk.”
“I’ll go with you. We could take the subway.”
“The subway?” Kanin laughed. “You’re serious! Aren’t you getting a little old for that?”
“I want to go home, if only for a few hours. I would appreciate your company on the journey.”
“You wanna make sure I don’t chicken out.” Kanin stared at his shoe tips. “I don’t know what to say to her, how to … explain myself.”
“Then say nothing.”
“Nothing?” Kanin blew out a confounded breath, half-bewildered, half-relieved, Vincent divined. “That’ll be easy enough, I guess.”
In silent league, they hurried toward their leave, passing unbeknownst a level below the security guard solitary at his station, stopping only to tap out a notice of their whereabouts to the northern tunnel community. Nearer the terminal, Vincent veered down a passage cramped with conduit and iron piping, leaving his companion to walk on alone to the rusted ladder he would descend to emerge within a service corridor likely always empty, but surely so this late. He would edge from the shadows on to the platform as they’d been taught – artfully, with stealth but with assuredness, with an air of belonging. No one would look twice … at him.
From his own vantage point, high and hidden, Vincent tracked Kanin’s steps, saw him step into the light, enter a car, watched the doors slide shut, the train churn from its stop, and he began the count that would mark the time to jump …
They parted at the junction with an agreed-upon time and place to meet. Privacy below being hard-won, they’d take an alternate passage to intersect the relief crew an hour’s march out from the central community as if by plan – which it was, of course, but a move that would hopefully preclude the surprised questioning – Oh! You’re home? What’s up? How come? – they’d encounter if they appeared in the meeting hall at muster. On the walk north from there, they’d brief the team of their progress and new concerns, of the necessitated changes of plan.
“Cut out at least one meeting,” Kanin noted and held out his hand. “Well … wish me luck.”
“See you soon.” Too soon.
He entered their private rooms through the deeper tunnels. He was dusty and bruised and bone-weary. He draped his cloak over a high-backed chair in the atrium. Steady-burning torches lit the main hall, but the mirror in their bedroom reflected only a quivering of light. Beyond the chamber’s archway, in its soft darkness, she was perhaps deep within a dream. He should shower first, but there was so little time, only these few precious hours stolen from duty. He removed his boots and unfastened his leather jerkin … stole to her bedside.
She slept curled around a pillow. On the side table, a single taper burned low. He settled into the cushioned bedding, working to still his suddenly uneven breath. At his arrival, she stirred, a slight shift of shoulder and the heavy covers slipped. Her bare skin glowed in the candlelight and he fought an urge to gather the quilts in his fist and pull them lower. Instead, he reached to brush an errant strand of hair from her face.
“You’ve come home,” she whispered without even a degree of startle. As if she knew.
“I’m sorry to wake you, Catherine.”
“You are?” she asked, with the soft smile he loved.
She didn’t argue that. How many times had he so apologized over their years together?
Her breath came evenly and deep; her gaze steady and tender. It was work, hard work, not to simply kiss her in explanation.
“I brought Kanin home,” he told her.
“Catherine, earlier … I sensed your joy, your … anticipation.” He looked down, the habit of hesitation, of reticence, not entirely broken.
“I thought you were near. I wanted you … near.”
She reached for his hand, threading her fingers through his. The sight of it, of their joining, his peculiarities, her sureness, held him spellbound for a time.
“I … I should bathe. You need … to sleep.”
As he started to rise from the bed, she sat up; the bedclothes folded to her waist. Her bare skin blushed rose and ivory in the candlelight. He clutched the edge of the mattress, crumpling its firm down stuffing and every layered blanket in his hands.
“Don’t go.” She swiveled to her knees and pulled him to her, fitting herself to his back with her cheek on his shoulder. She pushed aside his hair and then her mouth was hot on his neck, behind his ear. “Don’t go.”
He couldn’t speak, wouldn’t go …
She moved her hands down his arms and beneath them, over his ribs to his chest, and lower, gliding past his belt and onto his thighs. Through his layered clothing, he could feel the heat from her body and he could smell her. With her touch and her breath and with her voice – a coo at his ear, a murmur of delight – she lulled him to a trance. She tasted the skin of his throat. A shuddery breath released … his grip on the quilts loosened. She pulled the hem of his sweater up and stripped him of it and reached again for his top shirt, then the silk henley she’d given him. And then her breasts were warm against his back and her fingers threaded the hair on his chest.
“Say nothing, Vincent. Nothing.”
She trailed her fingers along his shoulder blades, wincing when she saw the marks the work had made on his skin. Her lips sorrowed each bruise and he forgot their jabbing acquisition.
“You have to be careful. I need you.”
As if struck again with an errant beam or a falling rock, he gasped at the velvet pitch of her voice.
“Say nothing,” she repeated.
She pulled away from him but took his arm, tugging him with her into the pillows. His eyes traveled her body, his hungry gaze lodging in her most intimate hollows. Careful … careful … he cautioned his wild blood. He stretched out beside her and turned to her, but she urged him instead onto his back. Rising to her knees again, she pushed gently at his shoulders, held him still without words until she felt him acquiesce. Her eyes, riveted to his, pinned him with her will and she held him until the rigidity left his limbs, until his doubts subsided … and he was hers, stunned again by her acceptance, by her approval.
“You’re so tired, Vincent. I can see it. Don’t worry. Don’t think.”
She brushed the hair from his face and began the tenderest massage – light touches at his temples, circles at the hinge of his jaw and behind his ears. Gentle strokes eased the tendons in his neck and the flats of her hands moved smoothly over his collarbone. Her grip was strong into the muscles of his shoulders. She kneaded the tension from his forearm and from his hand, pressured his roughened palm, stroked to the tip of each finger. The scent of lavender and mint, stirred from their bedding, cleared the ache behind his eyes. She cared for him, smoothing the jagged and the sharp, turning his sinewed, solid core into supple clay. A simple miracle, her reverent touch to his body, his shame and fears pushed back, his humanness soaring, the circle whole …
With her, he felt beautiful.
Her lips touched his. His response, a sharp intake of breath, parted the seam of his mouth. Her tongue traced inside his lower lip and touched his sharpest teeth and withdrew, and teased the cleft and withdrew. Her next kiss was deeper and his tongue began to parry hers in growing urgency until she broke from him again.
She leaned back, kneeling beside him still. She moved her thumbs across his mouth and her fingers down his throat and over the muscles of his chest to the buttons of his pants. She unfastened them … the first … the second … the third … and inched the fabric past his hips and down his legs. He was erect and needful, his scent evident even to himself, earthy and salty. She unfolded along his body, straddling him, supporting herself above him until he brought her low … entered her with one vital, exquisite thrust. His hands on her hips … forward and back, and forward again. A rattling deep in his throat, he drew her down with a growling imperative.
In the deepest reach of his spirit, her mind brushed his as a fluttering of wings, the tickling of a feather. A light brightened behind his eyes. Everything was brilliant and clear, rhythmic and loud. He could see the shimmer of heat from their bodies, hot rubied sparks at the indent of his fingertips on her flesh, could hear their two raging hearts find the pace of one. At this summit, more than crest or crown or culmination, there was a coalescence, a melding of spirits, and finally a collapse into breathy satisfaction. But not into sleep … Her hum of more, and she took his hand, guided him to her pearl. Evident her desire, the evidence of his. In gloried moments she arched under his touch.
“Will you have me again?” he asked her, and at his words, she peaked once more. Their second joining was measured, like music, a spellbound adagio, a slow, slow rocking on gentle but incessant waves, its zenith their ferry into sleep, first hers, and then … his.
In the morning when she awoke, he was gone. But it had not been a dream, for there was a newly lit candle at her bedside and a folded note in the hollow of his pillow.
There was thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit.
There were grief and ruins, and you were the miracle.
Ah woman, I do not know how you could contain me
In the earth of your soul, in the cross of your arms.
Chapter Title: Pablo Neruda. A Song of Despair. 1924.
Opening quotation: Pablo Neruda. Still Another Day. 1969.
Closing lines of poetry: Pablo Neruda. A Song of Despair.
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