Nor Iron Bars a Cage
WITH WHOM BUT THEE
A Missing Moment
Love, faithful love
I scrabbled to him over gritty concrete. The ridged steel of the cage floor dug mercilessly into my knees and hands and even with the door thrown open, the keys still clattering freedom against the lock, the bars closed off the world. He’d had only a thin pillow, a mocking life’s-blood-red pillow, a useless blanket. Where were his shoes? His cloak? His face beneath my fingers was damp, his skin cool … no … cold.
“Hughes?” he repeated.
The name was borne on a rattle of breath, his voice a whisper of wind in dry summer grass. I pushed the hair away from his face and lifted his chin. His pupils were dilated and I could see a hollowness there, a frightening gray swirl of the abyss. A lump of despair clotted my throat. We came too close …
“He’s gone,” I said.
He reached to cup my cheek. Though his hand trembled and there was an odor – salty and acrid – on his skin, it was the sweetest touch I’d ever known. I pressed a kiss to his palm and laced my fingers in his. How? How could I ever have–
“Look at me, Vincent.” I breathed in – determined – and blew out. Like this, I willed him. Breathe. Breathe. The first pull shuddered through him, a ricochet of gravel in his lungs. Color tinged his cheekbones. His lips, at first so dusky, blushed grey-rose and his eyes glittered pale at the edge of a black pool. I leaned in close, my lips at his ear. “We can’t stay here. Help me.”
He nodded and I felt him curl inward, gather himself, and I moved back as he pushed to his hands and knees. His hair hung in matted, sweated ropes and the muscles of his arms quivered. I bit back a cry when his elbows buckled, when he pitched forward into the bars, when using those same bars, he pulled himself to his feet and turned to me. I could feel the bore of his focus even beyond his gaze.
I lay my cheek to his chest, grateful for the strong whum, whoosh of his heart, a clutch of soft shirt in my fist. His hand touched low on my back, begging a permission he should never have to question. I pressed harder against him, my arms around him. I love you so.
“Where are we, Catherine?”
“At Columbia. The Anthropology building – Schermerhorn. But how …” I couldn’t finish the thought. Dark was hours away.
“These buildings are connected by–” He had to pause for breath. “Heating tunnels. We need … a stairwell. Under the rotunda in the old library, there’s–” Stuttering to silence, he dropped his chin.
“Then we’re just across the quad. It’s close, Vincent. We can make it.” I took his hand and tugged him to the cage door. He stumbled to follow, one foot catching at the rude quilt. He never looked back.
Though the thought of leaving him was agony, I did. I inched the door open and slipped through, skulking in a half-run down the hallway. I found a pair of dented steel doors unlocked, behind them a floor port, rungs set into the wall descending to murky depths. Faint with relief, I hurried back for him.
“I have to go back,” I said. At the bottom of the ladder, he clung to the railings, his head resting on one outstretched arm. “Tell me. What did you touch? Did Hughes make notes?” I swallowed hard. “Are there … pictures?”
“There’s a box, a notebook. And a camera, a video camera. My cloak, he folded it …
He twisted and slumped against the wall … slid to a seat. In the dim light from above, I saw the gratitude in his eyes … and the shame. “There was another lab, but he brought … everything … he said, to keep … it … from Gould.”
“Rest here. I’ll be right back with some water.” I kissed his forehead, testing his temperature. Still too cold.
The notebook … papers loose and disordered, covered in columns of dismissive numbers, in crabbed, meaningless writing. I tore the pages to strips and soaked them – scalded them – in the mop sink, until the cruelty was rendered a pulpy mush. I snatched the video tape out of its housing, sawing it back and forth over a protruding nail in the wall until the threads were frayed and split, mixing it with a nest of excelsior in an open crate, ignoring the stench of the room, ignoring the fallen bodies. I could do no more. I had to get him home.
Our way was slow and shuffling but soon I heard tappings on the pipes. A coil of tension loosened in him, and he was lighter on my shoulder.
“We should send a message. Have someone meet us. Help us.”
“Not yet,” he whispered … and would say no more. I tightened my hold on his waist.
“We’ll take over from here. Winslow!” Father’s voice was cold and broached no argument. A man, strapping and tall, materialized from the shadows, hefted him to bear him away, matching a long, impatient stride to Vincent’s halting one.
“Wait!” I cried, but Father marched on. Vincent turned, turning even his sturdy protector on a heavy heel.
“The second right, Catherine. The next two lefts.”
Soon enough, I found myself at his chamber door. I paced and paced his room. At every sound, I froze and watched the entry. Tappings rose in fervor and frequency as if life once again coursed through the veins Below, but still, he didn’t come.
Weary, I sank into his chair, taking up the book at its arm. Wordsworth. The rustle of pages was a comfort, and in the cool air, the old-book scent was sweet perfume. A bluebird’s feather, brushed smooth with wonder, silky with touch, marked his place.
And finally, he was there, his arm across Father’s shoulders in as much affection as fatigue. His hair was damp on the ends; his rose-bronze color returned. He smiled at me and his eyes glittered … or was it my own tears? Everything blurred; everything burned. Vincent …
“You’re still here?” Father sighed and led Vincent to his bedside.
“I’m here,” I said, my words only for him.
“I should check your blood pressure one more time, Vincent. And I’ll stay and monitor–”
Father turned from Vincent’s face to mine and he opened his mouth to speak. Instead, shaking his head, he backed away a step. “You’ll call me, Catherine, if–”
“I will.” Go, I begged him silently. Please, just … go.
“You were reading, Catherine?” His voice was nubbed velvet.
“Perhaps you would–”
“Vincent. Did you know? Did you know I never left. That I couldn’t leave?” That I never will?
The moment lengthened between us. A ribbon bound our hearts.
“Read to me.”
I opened the book to the feather.
Surprised by joy, I whispered. Impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh, with whom
But thee …
My voice grew stronger, and when I finished, I raised my eyes from the page. His hair shimmered gold in the candlelight; he stretched long in his bed, the wracking tension melted from his limbs. His smile was invitation and promise, and I felt that same smile bloom on my own face … a burst of light within my breast. He shifted on his pillows, making room for me.
William Wordsworth. Surprised By Joy. (title, opening quotation)
Written for Winterfest, 2010
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