The Only Gift - Chapter 2

(part 3 of the Trilogy ~ A Great and Thorough Good)



Thursday afternoon after a long day of interviews of people she did not trust to tell the truth ...

The week had worn her out, and her concentration had wandered. More than once Joe had called her back from a daydream.


It is almost morning, Catherine. I must go.
Wake now. Tell me goodbye, for now ...


His voice, keen with ardor ... once heard only in dreams, now real and soft and so sweet at her ear. And the brush of his lips to the bare skin of her shoulder, still so new, so intoxicating ...

It was harder than she ever could have predicted to have him leave her.

“Hey, Radcliffe!” Joe was at her desk. “I don’t believe the Robardi case can put that look on anybody’s face.” He stood with his arms folded across his chest. “You want to tell me what's going on with you? I really need you to focus here.”

She started at his words. “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m just a little distracted.”

“By what? You can tell me, whatever it is. We’re friends, right? Is something wrong? Did something - good or bad - happen while you were gone?”

Though it was not quite the whole truth, she told him a partial truth, one she was relieved to share.

“I’m going over to Dad’s tonight, for the next few nights maybe. I’ve just put off emptying his house and now ... well, I need to get it ready to sell. It’s time.”

Joe perched on the corner of her desk, softening his expression and lowering his voice. “That’s a rough thing. Hard, I know. You want some company? I’m good with a tape gun and a magic marker.”

“Oh, thanks. I might take you up on that another time, but tonight Marilyn's coming to help me. She knew Dad better than anyone and I’ve always felt close to her. It will be good for both of us.”

“Sure. But you know I’ll help you any time, with anything. Just ask me, okay?”

He placed his hand over hers, just for a second, and then he was up and gone. He called to her over his shoulder. “Tomorrow morning, 8:30, in front of the courthouse. Make sure our witnesses remember to show up.”

“I’ll call them all before I leave, don’t worry,” Catherine said to his back as he headed toward his office. He answered her by sticking both hands deep into his hair and, with great exaggeration, pulled at it, never looking back.

Marilyn was coming to help her and she would be meeting Catherine at 6:30 for a quick dinner beforehand. But Vincent would be there too, much later that evening, and she had so many things to show him, things she very much wanted to move below to their chambers, things she wanted him to have.

She’d asked him if he could meet her there.

“Whatever you need, Catherine," he'd answered. "If there is a way for me, I will find it.”

__________

The women stood on the wide granite steps of the Sutton Place townhouse, the steps where Catherine played as a girl, where she poured imaginary tea and dreamed dreams with her imaginary sister. Months had passed since she had first come to clean out the kitchen and sort through her father’s papers and bills. Kay had accompanied her then, and they had spent as much time in tears as in accomplishment. It had been too intense, and she’d found it easier and then easier still to ignore the task. But last week before ... before everything ... she received the final settlement papers concerning the firm, and the estate lawyer included a sternly worded suggestion that she move on with the sale of the house.

He'd pointed out that the sale would mean a great deal of money which, she acknowledged, combined with the settlement, would give her the means to do some good, perhaps a very great good in her worlds, both of them.

The carved, heavy door swung open with a groan of disuse, and a small stack of mail delivered through the slot was swept aside. The grand entryway echoed with their steps on the cold white marble.

“Are you okay?” Marilyn asked, her voice small in the high-ceilinged space.

“I can do this. I will.” Distracted, she stuffed the gathered mail in her bag as she turned slowly in the entry, standing finally at the base of the curving stairs, her hand on the burnished wooden railing. “I still can’t believe it sometimes. I keep expecting to hear his voice or see him. He used to sing the silliest song every morning, coming up these steps. I’d lie in my bed, wanting to stay under the covers, and his voice would get louder and louder. I knew I’d better have my feet on the floor by the time the song ended or I’d be in for a terrible tickle. That’s what we called it ...”

“He did have a beautiful singing voice,” Marilyn agreed. “I almost looked forward to rainy days ...”

“I know!” Catherine’s face lit up with the memory. “Singing in the Rain! He was ...”

“Spectacular?”

“Yes, he was that.” She squared her shoulders. “I’m ready.”

“Me, too.”



“Some of the furniture I know I’ll have moved to storage. But some of it ... Do you think I could just sell it with the house, or should I call an antiques dealer?”

“You’re right, some pieces are just so large. Weren’t they in your mother’s family? They surely have quite a bit of value.”

“I guess ...” Her thoughts wandered as they stood at the door of the office. She wanted the large, round cherry desk for her space, as she had already come to think of it, for the center chamber upstairs above the library. She wanted her father’s books and her father’s oversized, high-backed leather chairs. She wanted the Tiffany floor lamps and the desk light with its marbleized green glass shade whether they would work Below or not and the antique globe and the tufted ottomans and the marquetry side tables and the buttery-soft leather sofa. They needed a sofa, a proper place to sit together. She wanted the photographs and the delicate chambered nautilus he kept on the mantle. She wanted the whole room, the essence of her father manifest in shape and scent, with her below, where her heart dwelt.

“Where do you want to start?” Marilyn asked.

“Would you help me with his clothes? I had boxes delivered months ago, but I just couldn’t do it then. I’m donating them to the Rescue Mission. They're coming for a pick up Saturday.”

“Sure, honey.” And they climbed the steps together.



“Are you sure you’re okay to stay here alone?” Marilyn asked, as she stood by the waiting cab.

“I’ll just be a little while longer. I want to go through some old photographs first. There're a few I’d like to have restored.”

“Do you think I could have a copy of the one your Dad kept on his desk?”

“The one of us in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle?”

“He always referred to it as the 'calm before the storm'. He cleaned the glass on it every morning. I think he sort of ... meditated ... on it. It was a happy time for him,” Marilyn said.

“Too bad about his shoes ...”

Marilyn laughed. “That’s exactly what he would say! He’d look up at me every morning and say, ‘See, the calm before the storm. Too bad about my shoes.’ Then I’d show in his first appointment of the day. It was ... poetic in a way.”

“I’ll have it copied for you,” she said, giving her friend a final hug. “Thank you, Marilyn. For everything.”

“I love you, honey. I miss him. Call me, okay?”

“I will,” she said, and the taxi pulled away from the curb.

________________


As the moon rose full in the sky, Vincent climbed onto the rooftop garden from the next building over. Two carved unicorns topped the stanchions at each corner of the limestone townhouse, magical guardians of her childhood, and in the shadow of one, he waited for her to come to him.

The door opened and she seemed to glide along in the moonlight, her movements those of a dancer, fluid and graceful. She could not have seen him, yet she walked straight to his hiding place and into his embrace. Holding her, the sweetest yielding gift, the scent of her hair ...

“It was the longest day,” he whispered.




“Vincent, I told you once when we found Eric and Ellie, that I’d lived in luxury all my life.”

“You did.”

“I can’t withhold the truth from you. You’ll see. It was more than luxury. I hope you won’t think it ... Well, there are some things that I have a strong attachment to and want to keep and others ... that were just always here.”

“There is no shame in wealth fairly earned.”

“I earned none of it. But it is mine now ... and when I sell it, I'll have the resources to do something important. You will help me, won’t you, to find the right things? Help me use it for good?”

“You would use it no other way. I know that.”

He held her close and kissed her when she tipped her face to his.

“Show me. Show me the place of your childhood, Catherine. I want to see everything.”

So from floor to floor, she took him on a tour of her youth. She showed him her best hiding place, an alcove built in beside the fourth floor fireplace, a massive, carved and polished mahogany masterpiece.

“I thought I was invisible here. I cried for hours when one day, the housekeeper walked right over to me, leaned in and told me it was just a place to stack wood and that it was time for my lunch.”

She led him into her bedroom, where twin beds stood against opposite walls, still spread in layers of eyelet, lawn and lace, where arched windows of watery glass framed the towers and tracery of the Queensboro Bridge. The lamps were dimmed to a soft, satin glow.

“There’s a park in the back, with trees and then the river. It’s safe to leave the curtains open,” she assured him as he wandered her room, touching, memorizing, learning.

Shelves were piled full with books, picture books and all of Baum's Oz and Carrolls' Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Dr. Doolittle's Voyages and Miracles on Maple Hill, the Little House books and Dr. Seuss. “So that’s where you are. I thought you were lost.” She pulled one from the stacks. “I bought this book just a few years ago at a signing. I must have left it here. Do you know this artist?” She showed him a large book with a strange charcoal-colored picture on its cover.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick ... no, I’ve never seen it.” 1 Vincent took it from her and began paging through. In just a moment he was lost in it, his eyes wider at every drawing. She laughed, her sweet, delighted laugh.

“I knew you’d like that. Take it with you tonight. I’ll want to pack all these books up and bring them below. Someday we will ...”

She wouldn’t go on with her sentence – though he knew – and he met her gaze with his own longing. She recalled the terrible, painful moment when he confessed his deepest fears to her, for her. Between them, in this sudden quiet, a feeling of deep, abiding faith grew even stronger, more profound and palpable.2

With all that I am ...

________________


“Do you think we can get this furniture below?”

“If we ask Mouse, can you imagine him answering negatively?”

“No, but do you think we can get this furniture below?”

“We’ve managed to carry unique things great distances. There's a helper with a warehouse and an entrance we use.”

“Do you like the chairs? The couch?”

“The seating seems more ... to size than that in your apartment, Catherine.”

Jamie would be entertained by the knowledge that Vincent had yet, even now, to sit on one of her couches, electing to lean against it from a position near her on the floor. 3

“Joe calls them dinky; even he looks funny on them. Sit down here.” She patted the cushion. “We need somewhere to be together, so when you read to me we’re comfortable and near.”

He settled against the arm and she seized the opportunity to snuggle close to him. “Feels good, don’t you think?” she murmured.

“Yes. Good. Very good.” He sighed in mild surprise. Indoors above with her was less threatening than he'd ever imagined it could be, though it seemed like a fairy tale in this grand house, almost a mansion, a castle. The irony of that thought was not lost on him. He marveled at her ability to accept ...

In his reverie, he felt a strange coldness, sudden and without origin. He loosed his senses, searching, listening ... but it was gone.

She hopped up, interrupting his slide toward vague unease, and crawled under her Father’s desk, disappearing behind the solid knee-wall. She emerged with her find, a small, folded square of yellowed paper.

“It’s still here!” she crowed. “Look! I wrote this when I was maybe seven or eight. I was playing under the desk with probably a dozen dolls, when Dad and Mother came in. They didn’t see me and I sat so still. You never know what you might learn, staying still. Mother put a record on the stereo. It used to be over by the window. I’ll never forget the song. It was Frank Sinatra. I’ve Got You Under My Skin. They started to dance and Dad sang along. Here. Read this.”

She handed him the fragile paper. Carefully, he spread it open; smiled as he read aloud.

“It says, ‘I, Catherine Chandler, will never marry a man who does not sing and dance. Never. Ever. I mean it. Signed, Catherine Chandler.’”

She eyed him with mischief. “Well, do you?”

“Do I what?” He looked up at her with confusion.

“Sing and dance.”

“You’ve enjoyed my dancing, Catherine. At least you seemed to. But the waltz is both the beginning and the end of my talents.”

“What about the singing?”

“No.”

“Let me hear you.”

“No.”

“Anything, just a verse of something.”

No.

She looked hard at him, determining how she might cajole him ...

“No,” he repeated, refolding the note along its aged creases, laying it on the table. “You will have to retract your vow if singing is a requisite.”

After a moment, she took his hands, bringing them to her lips. “Vincent, thank you. I thought tonight would be terribly difficult and you’ve made it wonderful for me. I can remember and not cry. You’ve healed me again and I can laugh, thinking of what I have, not what I’ve lost.”

“I want to hear your stories, Catherine, any that you will tell me. And your laugh ... thrills me, always.”

She held his gaze for several moments, love and memory playing on her face ... until a sparkle flickered in her eyes, and her mouth curved in impishness, and she said ...

“So tell me, Vincent. Do you ... hum?”

What?!” he spluttered and laughed loud and long – a sight and sound she would cherish forever. He pulled her into his lap and held her close, there in her childhood home above, where its stony limits protected them and kept the world out.

__________________


The contents of the wine cellar would be boxed for William, and he would have the knives, the napery and the copper pots. Mary would delight in all the fine bed linens and towels of Egyptian cotton. They would use the long dining room table and its dozen chairs in their atrium, while the twin beds from Catherine’s room would go into the two empty bedchambers on the upper gallery. They would crate all the books and her father’s collection of antique maps to expand the library below.

She asked if he saw anything he wanted for himself.

He did. He wanted all the photographs of her and there were many, but one held his attention.

“My mother took that one,” she said, peering over his arm. “Usually it was Dad with the camera, but I think he was laughing too hard to make the snap.”

In the black and white photograph, a very young Catherine dressed in Easter finery stood holding an empty sugar cone. Squashed under one foot were the splattered remains of a once much-desired double dip. Her face was one of shock and five year-old despair as she bent to see the disaster at her feet.

“Do you remember this day?” Vincent asked her.

“How could I forget?” she chortled. “Right after this was taken, Daddy bought me a balloon to make up for the ice cream cone. But when we got in the car to drive home, he opened the sunroof and my balloon was sucked right out and up into the sky. I was heartbroken. Later, when I got home, I declared it the worst day of my life.”

“If only it had remained so,” Vincent said.

“Oh, I don’t know.” She leaned into him. “Look what came of the true worst.”

And there was, in her father’s room, a small camphor-wood chest, ornately carved in strange creatures and dragons and birds, sailing ships tossed upon wild waves and trees bent in the wind, bearing a heavy brass hasp and rope handles. He wanted to move the gifts he'd massed in the mirror room – evidences of his wishes fulfilled – from their bedchamber to a more private place. He would always be grateful and always amazed, and there would be days he knew when he would want to take each gift into his hands just to remember, just to count his blessings. This chest would be a perfect new home.4 

He lifted the lid to find it not quite empty. "Catherine, you must see this."

At his side, she peered into the chest. Two small treasures lay on the quilted satin padding. She squealed with glee, for one was an open-topped, velvet lined box and in it was the round, red rubber clown's nose her Father had worn to coax her into good humor.

"He kept it! All these years! I'm surprised it hasn't disintegrated." She cradled it in her hands, remembering the last time he'd worn it ... in her guest chamber Below. This would stay with her until it turned to dust.

The second treasure was in a miniature manila envelope. She reached for it, unwound the circled string closure and shook out a heavy, old-fashioned key. Inside she found a folded a sheet of the rich yellow ragged paper her father favored for writing.

It's Dad's handwriting." Her throat tightened and she passed the note into Vincent’s hands.

The only gift is a portion of thyself – therefore the poet brings his poem; the miner, a gem: the painter, his picture; a father, his love, inexpressible in words but until, and even after, his last breath. 5

“Do you know what this opens, Catherine?” Vincent asked.

“No. I’ve never seen it. He must mean something by it.” Tears threatening to spill from her eyes, she tucked the key and the note inside the little box with the red, rubber nose and closed the lid of the chest.

Again ...  he felt a strange and sudden coldness, though it was erased by her warmth and the circle of her arms. There was a moment, a fleeting sureness of having had the feeling once before ... before this night ... but it dissipated and he passed it off as a sensation of Catherine’s grief shared through their bond. As he held her, the memory slipped away.

____________



It was late and she would have few hours to sleep. Vincent insisted she call a cab for home so that she might rest and insisted she tell him goodnight here before he went below. He lingered on the rooftop in the shadow of the stone unicorn and she knew he was there, but as she stepped into the taxi, she looked up. He moved forward from the darkness into the silvery moonlight, his hood down, his mane of hair riding the breezes off the river. He was like an angel watching over her. His eyes were stars in the night.




1. Chris Van Allsburg. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1984.
2. I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 14. See Me.
3. I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 4 ~ Visitor.
4. I Carry Your Heart. Chapter 14 ~ See Me.
5. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Gifts. Essays: Second Series. 1844.



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5 comments:

Brandy said...

Carole, I see you and your nesting! Shameless. :D

I wonder if Vincent does hum. He is such a quiet person: moves silently, speaks softly. Then of course, he's all sound and fury. He enjoys music, but does he make music?

Carole W said...

I like your description, Brandy. Poetry.

I can imagine him humming. Under certain circumstances particularly.

And I am a nester. One of those deep, funnel-shaped nesters where the world is kept far away.

I remember an interview with Edith Crowe - she divided fan fic writers into two general groups - the nesters and the action-ers. She thoroughly nested and I love her stories.

One she wrote was from the POV of V & C's brownstone - so creative and such a surprise. Have you read it?

Sonia Who? said...

Ch. 2

Yay! Her dream is finally reality!

I LOL when Catherine was trying to get Vincent to sing for her.

Excellent chapter.

(PS: I read and liked all of Edith Crowe's stories too.)

Carole W said...

LOL, Sonia, that makes me laugh too. He never denies her (not now anyway) so he must really not want to sing.

Thanks for the 'excellent'. Now I'll have to try even harder!

Krista said...

I can't believe I didn't post on this when I first read it (and I've read and reread it several times since) but wow. You create such a vivid world here...and I, too, imagine Vincent can be moved to hum. Given the right conditions, of course ;)

(Oh, Edith Crowe's stories? I love them, particularly the story from the brownstone's POV. What creativity she has...)

-Krista