Iron Behind the Velvet - Chapter 47

~ A Trickle of Saying That Will Not Cease1

He struggled to resist the imagined weigh and discard of her words, to refuse the familiar inventory of his own rusts and divots. A cirrus of wind stirred his hair. And when she nodded, the silent moment transfigured to the stillness between two waves2 – between his lapping dark river and the windswept tallgrass of her prairie.

“Vincent,” she said, her voice so gentle. “That’s a lot of baggage, isn’t it?” Baggage. All the freedoms unlearned or never learned. The holding back, the always holding back. But she was smiling at him, and she tugged on the rope handle of the toolbox. “Put that down. Your pack too, and let’s get a drink. I’ll tell you.”

Water for camp spilled over flowstone to an eddying blue pool, its portal a mere slice in the stone wall thirty feet back the way they’d traveled. Wren slipped through first. He shrugged the crate to the ground, the canvas knapsack, shouldered the worn webbed straps of his two metal flasks, crossing them over his chest. The passage was steep and slow-going; she’d pick her way to the base of the chimney-like cavern. He counted five and five again before he wedged past the jagged lip into the narrow corridor.

The roofline menaced, the walls pinched, but after a final switchback the path spilled him to a high-ceilinged, white-walled chamber, a chamber he could almost span with his outstretched arms. A silver cascade trickled within every velvety fold of calcite. Wren sat on a jut of rock, her knees drawn up. “Cold, but not too cold,” she said. “No brain freezes.” She tipped a black-speckled cup to her lips. The fanned end of her braid brushed the floor behind her.

A leather belt hung from a spike in the wall, studded with hooks, weighted with metal cups. He snagged one for himself and the harness rang as sleigh bells might.

Settled to the one stone bench, he held out his vessel. Water spattered in, loud in the chuted space, pebbly against the chipped enamelware. Thirsty, so thirsty, he managed not to gulp, but searched the emptied cup as if some treasure might have appeared there. A quivered contemplation. “Yes,” he said and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Did Stuart tell you how we met?”

“He watched you run. For days before he ever spoke to you.”

NY Botanical Park Rock Garden
“And all along, I thought I was doing the watching.” She laughed and gestured for his cup, returned it to him brim-full, dipped into the basin again with her own. “I’d been running the Forest Trail for weeks. I’d taken a sublet near Fordham since I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live and, first thing, I bought an early morning grounds pass to the Botanical Gardens. I had it timed, when to start to do the whole loop and get to work by nine. One day I took a turn off my regular route, up through the rock gardens. Now any change would have, for sure, made me late, but I had to. It wasn’t much past six but Stuart was already there, sorting through this pile of stones. I circled around the pond and watched from the back side for a while before I went on. He didn’t even look up. The next day, I ran that way again and the next and the next and every day he was ... examining rocks. And every day I was about twenty minutes late for work.

Rock Garden containers - miniature plantings within stone vessels
“Then Saturday morning the place was deserted – his day off, I figured – so I stopped and looked around. There’s this whole area of miniatures, tiny magical places inside these concrete containers. I couldn’t begin to describe them, but now I recognize every single one. He’s recreated Below up top – the chambers and pools and gorges. Bridges made of woven vines. Little rock rooms, disguised with plantings of mat daisy and iceplant and corkscrew rush. With bellflowers.  Not that anybody would suspect ...”

“Bellflowers,” Vincent repeated. “Iceplant. The names alone are beautiful.” Martin, no doubt, would recognize the flowers. Perhaps he’d toured Stuart’s studio, walked among his live canvases. The Gardens, after all, were not so very far from Woodlawn.

“You should see them,” Wren said. “And you can, most likely, because Stuart doesn’t always, umm, go in the front gate, if you know what I mean. Anyway, all of a sudden, he’s there. I didn’t hear him coming, but I looked up and he was standing next to me holding an arch of stone with a channel bored all the way through and a bucket of water. He kind of motioned me out of the way. Then he fitted that rock over this hollowed-out slab of granite and poured it full, right through the chute. The Chute, Vincent! And he sat back on his heels and said, So. Just like home. And I said, Where are you from?”

An uncanny light played over the milky mineral curtains. Braced on her hands, Wren studied the ceiling. “Don’t tell Jacob this,” she said, and Vincent leaned forward in conspiracy. “We fudged the timeline a little when we told him our story. A few weeks later Stuart brought me Below. We walked through Wall Street and The Knees. We talked for a while in The Hammock.” Grinning, she waggled her eyebrows and rushed on. “He showed me The Stadium and we slid down The Chute into the lake. Stuart asked me to marry him up in the Mirador, but before he let me answer, he told me about his parents and where and how they lived, where he lived, about Noah and Liz and Julianna and all the others. About Noah’s grandpa Leo and Jacob and the two communities. About the Helpers and Winterfest. That this wasn’t just a secret place. He asked if I could. I knew what he meant. I’d cut out my own heart before I’d betray him. And that’s what I said.”

“But there was more.”

“Yes, more. You. Stuart said it was his privilege to know you, that you were more than a friend – a brother to him by oath. He told me you were different, about your ... power phase. That I would understand when I met you.”

He wished he might laugh. “He didn’t mean my swimming, Wren.”

She reached out, lay her hand on his arm. “The other power phase,” she whispered. “An extra gear. He told me.”

She was so kind. So open and amiable. So steady and sure. As Stuart had described her. The morning of their wedding he’d received a summons and when he rounded the entry to the guest chamber, he found the groom pacing a tight circuit on the rug, hands clasped behind his back. Is this too much, he’d asked and handed over a creased sheet of paper worn soft with folding and unfolding. Is it enough? Vincent held the page beneath the candelabra’s glow, read the dark penciled lines. I hid in my ordinary days, in the long grass of routine, in my camouflage rooms when into my life, larger than life, beautiful, you strolled in.3 His expressions always so direct, with no patience for flowery speeches or vagaries, still Stuart brought poetry to his bride. Loving words. Perfect words.

An extra gear. A power phase. Loving words for him as well. Brotherly words.

His cup was empty again. A mirroring droplet clung to its rim. She eased it from his grip, let it rain full, nesting it to his palm, letting go only after his fingers curled about the blue-flecked barrel and through the handle.

“Honestly, Vincent,” Wren said and he raised his head and met her gaze. “By the time he got to you, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Stu had sprouted wings and flown around the chamber.”

“But you were surprised.” Not fear. It was never fear. There’s a difference. See how it really was. See how it might be again.

“You betcha. But ... I like surprises.”

He thought of those he’d ... surprised. Mischa. Lucy. Eric and Ellie. Henry. Brian. Isaac. Rosie so many years ago. And surely every Helper. Every tunnel denizen. Peter, Mary. Even Father, for a moment. Catherine. But those moments passed. They had passed and

Stephen, he heard in a rushing hiss. Don’t forget. As if he could. Shoved to the bleak edge of his abyss, he stared into the depths. The mists threatened to part, to expose the chasm’s littered floor. To expose me. To reveal what lies below. Forced to this promontory too many times, unbearable times, he’d avert his eyes, as if bleached-bone cairns would rise and be numbered. But now, his shame, his heavy regret were counterweighted ... with a somber clarity, with the growing confidence that he – he – had chosen every action that brought him to this cheerless memorial. That his choices meant other graves did not manifest in the fog, that over them his was not an everlasting watch, that hopeless grief was not his everlasting cloak until beneath it, dry-eyed, dry of heart, he crumbled to dust.4 That somewhere, deep inside himself, he had known the consequence of both action and its lack, that the defense of justice was not a thing to be celebrated but its necessity wept over and borne.

If I give that darkness freedom, it will lose power ...

Perhaps that darkness had, all along, protected him, had slunk away ... after ... bearing alone the copper tang, the red-black veil, the impossible pull of the drowning breath, willing to pace the rutted lair untended, no slake of thirst, no cool hand to the fevered cheek, no kiss to the sweat-laced brow. No kiss.

Letting me live. Letting me have ...

Darkness denied, darkness avowed, he would always be that being, that ... man. So much seemed inexplicable – who could understand when there were no words? Once he thought he knew the answer – no one – and though his stained cloak was folded into the tool box and one hundred feet away, his hand sought his breast pocket, the tangible memory of the deciding instant.

Martin’s request, his benediction, whispered to him. Bráithre. Flynn stood at his own grim precipice, flailing in the loose rubble of desperate denial. That man. Always, that man. In need of brotherly words. There might be too little time to ease their introduction. Perhaps surprise might turn him. Save him.

Help me, his Other had ... not demanded. Begged.5

“As do I,” he answered and knew it was true. Had not the past three years proved it so? The past few days? This last hour? He submerged one canteen, then the other. Crystal bubbles sparkled to the surface. Wren deposited their cups in the galvanized hod beside the entranceway. Before she could, he grabbed the bucket’s wire bail to carry it to camp, to the washing station, and counted five – this time, only five – and followed her up and out.

With a twist of his shoulders, the arching of his back around a granite crag, he emerged from the passage. Wren waited for him in the tunnel, the tool box and his pack where he’d stowed them, the quirk of her mouth testimony she’d acquiesced to the appeal he was ready to repeat. “At least!” she insisted. She flung out one hand for the flasks he carried and he gave them up.

The aroma of boiled coffee wafted from camp, strong after their turn down the last corridor. Kanin’s junket had netted them time, had loosened the clock-spring tension ratcheted around the crew. Now chatter rose more spirited; a brighter glow radiated from the sunken chamber. More lanterns were lit, more torches – the gloom dispatched, no longer indulged.

The meditative swim and companioned walk had tempered the day’s commotion, its demand, but Catherine ... She was a concert of satisfactions and sorrows, the thrum of her anticipation an overture ... to what, he was unsure, knowing only he’d promised to be ready. Promised.

Yet an evening’s tasks would be done. He’d need a cup – perhaps more than one.

“So,” Wren said. “That first night ... did Jacob really like the sweets I brought him?”

Delightful, Father had declared, when late that introductory evening, Stuart and Wren departed for the guest chamber. He’d been prepared, Vincent knew, to scowl and lecture on Process and The Breach of Community Protocol, on Grave Responsibility, but instead he’d sampled the Bakewell puddings she’d made, the recipe her English war-bride mother’s – Do tell! From Yorkshire? – and shared two full pots of tea with her and stories of a summer holiday in the Dales. A schoolmate’s family farm. In Ribblesdale. Hesketh, his name was, Father remembered. I’ve never been, Wren admitted, but her mother’s memories of home in Dowbiggin, of her favorite traipsing places – Hardraw Force, Buttertubs Pass, the Gordale Scar – had seemed a magical landscape, a fairy tale begged for every night at bedtime. Father tapped a finger to his chin. And did she mention the Kilnsey Crag? The Cautley Spout? Imagine, Father said, taking her hand, children, your mother and I, below the same high fells of Pen-y-Ghent.

Vincent nodded. “I’m not sure he shared even one. At least, I didn’t get a taste. How did you know?”

“That he adored jam tarts? Liz told me. I thought of making him lefse, but that’s better hot off the griddle, rolled up with butter and berries and Norwegian to boot.” The tease was delicious and unbearable and his stomach complained. Wren laughed. “Maybe I should make you a batch. But no lutefisk, no matter how hard you beg.”

No free hand to placate the rumble, he tallied the day’s meals – bread and cheese pulled from a pack, cold and compressed, an orange shared with Mouse, the bit of chocolate from Kanin’s stash. Hardly more than a snack. A nosh, Leo would have called it. For the length of a double stride, he closed his eyes, tasted again the brown bread sandwich – the sweet-hot mustard sauce, the peppery roast beef. The apple pie, more than half left in the tin ...

Too long since his midnight supper, yet another evening drew near. Shadows would soon deepen within the sheltering ambulatory, fog-gray to blue to black. But surely Martin was exhausted. He couldn’t expect, couldn’t hope ... Still, his feet mounted the imagined steps to within the churchyard wall. He reached for the door’s latch. A melody played softly just beyond ...

“Vincent?” His focus snapped back, narrowing to now. Wren’s smile had dimmed. “The kids who live Below, the ones without families ... without biological families ...”

He raised his brows, willing her on, but she dragged her braid over her shoulder, worried it, tugged it, as something ... someone ... tugged at her. Her gaze slanted past him, then fastened on the path of their feet. “Where do they come from?” he asked her and she nodded. “Some we find abandoned. Some arrive by way of our helpers. They see their desperation, their ... hunger ... and bring them to us.” Wren crossed her arms over her ribs. Her knuckles flashed white against her sleeve. “Is there a child? A child you know through your work?”

“Too many,” she said. “All of them, really.”

“But there’s one, one who touches you in a different way.”

“A little boy. Edward.”

The sentry post at the high entrance to camp was vacant. Supper’s clatter rose from the pit – the ring of metal spoons against iron pots, the snap of a stoked flame. Vincent slowed his pace, at the lookout’s bench hesitating, eyeing the seat for Wren to sit. Instead, she leaned against the wall, her hands behind her back. He rested the tool box on the stone perch and, reflecting her stance, inclined his head.

Her words spilled out. “We’re not supposed to have favorites. They all need ... They all deserve ... but he–”

“He captured your heart.”

Um hmm. He’s only ten and his life’s been chaos. Neglect, when that was all he suffered, was a blessing compared to–” Her chin went up and she took a deep breath. “He was my first court case at Howland. He’d been there two years. I was in my second week. A non-offending family member showed up, petitioning for custody. The interview was ... hinky. So many things just wrong. I argued. Hard. The petition was denied.”

“You trusted your instincts. Good.”

“We’ve found a family for him. A mom and a dad, two adopted kids already. He’d have a brother a year older. A sister three years younger. Two sets of grandparents close by. The family study’s done. He’s started to trial with them on weekends.”

Color rose in her cheeks. If Edward were with them in the corridor, Wren would have pulled him in close, stepped in front, dared all comers. A guardian’s defense. One he’d seen before. One he knew. “Something happened. Tell me.”

“They’re back – the non-offenders – with a second petition, a better lawyer. The paperwork was on my desk this morning, in my stack of mail, and then, at our staff meeting, I had to tell everybody. Eimear must have seen on my face what was coming. She ran out of the room before I could say the words.” She sighed. “He was doing so well. He was ready. If it’s only a delay, then hopefully–”

“No if, Wren. You will save this boy, give him a family at last. I feel it in you. You can’t lose.”

She scuffed a line through the gray dust, bounced one heel off the toe of her shoe. “What am I, Vincent?” Startled, he drew back, aware only then he’d pushed from the wall, that he’d taken a step her way. Challenge sparked from her. “You said Helpers sometimes bring children below. Am I a Helper?”

You wouldn’t know it to look at her, Stuart had said, heedless of the tear slipping from the corner of his eye. His dark-featured face – the typically knitted brow, the squared jaw – softened. She’s ... strapping.  Eggshell-pale, willow-slender – Stuart’s opposite, some might see, yet they shared a stalwart nature.

Understanding passed between them. Determination. Accord. “You’re more than that, Wren,” Vincent said. “So very much more.”


“But I think you should go first,” she’d said. And then ...

They’d shared a smile of triumph and in a flash she was somewhere far away from the dry rustle of her office. A high place, it had seemed, below a lace-capped ocean, above a sun-lit cloud, the vista before her golden and bright as if the world had flung open its morning door, spread its arms wide in joyful welcome. Martin had been sure. It’s been a journey up all sides of the mountain. When we all reach the pinnacle ...

But Stan was back, turning the corner at her alcove, the swish-rattle-bump of his wide dust mop breaking the spell. The mophead collided with the metal legs of a desk, caught and fought with the next. A few stations away, Mei-Xing had been curved over her work, cloistered with it, oblivious to Stan’s earlier efforts, oblivious even as Jenny stalked past, yet at this racket, she slammed the law book on her yellow pad, swept her jacket and bag from the back of her chair, stepping into the aisleway just in front of Stan’s advance, nearly race-walking to the elevator. Over his shoulder, Stan turned a glance Catherine’s way. The metal-upon-metal argument subsided ...

... and the light faded from Eimear’s eyes. She blinked and alert returned, blinked again to circumspection, to apology. Catherine leaned closer. Tell me.

“‘Tis not what I want to talk about, Catherine. Not what I imagined saying. I’d prefer to tell you about Rosie and me, trying out a tandem bicycle, how we wobbled at first, how glorious our cadence was, once we found it. Or about the vision I had last night at Behan’s, a vision with you in it, how we stood, you and I, on the cliffs of Inis Oírr, the drystone wall of Dún Formna warm at our backs, Flynn and Vincent off to their own adventure, the fine day before us ours to share.” She reached for Billy’s bronze spiral charm, closed her hand around it. “I’d rather hear the story of this staircase, where it begins and ends. And about this William Litton, why you laughed at his having a phone number on his business card, how it is you know him and, sure, The Great Sebastian too.” Eimear delved the pocket of her purse and spilled the two small tapes to the desktop, aligned their black carapaces at the edge with her fingertip. “More than anything, I’d rather hear your ... everything. But there are these ... and I need your help.”

 Click HERE for Chapter 48


1. John O'Donahue. First Words. from Conamara Blues. Poems. Harper Collins. 2001.
2. T. S. Eliot. Little Gidding. The Four Quartets. 1943.
3. Carol Ann Duffy. You (slightly paraphrased).
4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Grief (paraphrased).
5. Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet. #8. Concept paraphrased: Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something helpless that wants help from us. 


Krista said...

Oh, Carole. Wow. The wait for this has been so worth it. The intertwining of lives and friendships; the burdens shared and halved... "You are so very much more." Yes. They are. All of them. ;)

Magic again---still---in every word. :)

Great job,

Krista :)

OKGoode said...

Wow! WOW! A new chapter, as sweet as Wren's jam tarts! You carry me off with your words every time without fail. It's such a grand journey!

Carole W said...

Krista, thank you. You know your words mean everything.


Carole W said...

Thank you, Laura. I'm really glad you're reading and enjoying. I'm at a scary place with the story - nearing the end - and there are so many threads to gather up. It helps to have encouragement.


Vicky said...

Oh wow, what Krista said! So close, so close... so willing, both of them...
But, but... seriously? You're going to kill me one of these days with those cliffhangers!
I'm not even going to say it, Carole. You know you're simply awesome!

Carole W said...

You're too good to me, Vicky. If it weren't for you and your kindness and support at the beginning with I Carry Your Heart ...

I'm glad to know you're still with me on this story, as long as it's taken. Hugs!


RomanticOne said...

So many meetings to look forward to! I'm especially looking forward to Flynn's reaction upon first meeting Vincent. After that I know I would be hooked if I weren't already! This chapter was well worth the wait.

Carole W said...

Hey, R1! I'm so glad you feel that way. I simply cannot believe how many months have passed since I stopped to edit. More than anything, I want what comes next to be worth reading.

Heh, I'm looking forward to Flynn's meeting Vincent too. He's the only one who has no idea of him. That has to change and soon. :-D

Thank you seems inadequate. Your encouragement means so much to me.


SandyX said...

You're posting the new stuff! Wheeee for us!

I enjoyed getting to know Wren a little better here. I like her ... and Eimear, and Martin, and Rosie! What a great group of characters. I'd like to have them all over for dinner. Wouldn't that be fun? Catherine and Vincent too, of course. And you. You'd have to be there too. I'd just sit and watch and listen and love every minute of it.

Big hug,

Carole W said...

Sandy! I'm on my way to that dinner!
Your home is a perfect setting for V and C and friends.

Seriously, thank you for liking the characters of this story. Wren will figure more strongly in this and a future story. The hints are there but I promise not to resolve it in this one - I'll finish I/V first!

I hope you enjoy what's to come. Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

I would rejoice over a NEW chapter, but all of these have been new to me, since I'm a recent arrival at this site.

What strikes me particularly in this chapter is how eager and HUNGRY every character is for deeper and more meaningful connection, to open up to someone who truly and completely understands. Eimear and Catherine, Vincent and Flynn -- and Martin, Rosie, and Wren are each in their own way catalysts for these connections, while also finding a source of fulfillment for themselves.

This story is just so beautifully conceived!


Regards, Lindariel

Carole W said...

Lindariel, you really do know how to make my day. Thank you for this. I couldn't hope for a better interpretation of this chapter and these characters. I'm so pleased you found this meaning here - I'm smiling and enthused and I promise to work hard on the rest of the story.

You're so generous and thoughtful. It makes such a difference knowing you're reading.


NYC Utopia said...

Oooh! A new treat!
And we like surprises :-D This one, and the few big ones yet to come...
Thank you.

Carole W said...

Uh, oh, Claire. Big surprises to come? Now I'm worried I can't deliver! LOL. Well, that's my usual feeling and the reason I do so much tweaking. I hope you won't be disappointed (or have to wait so long).

It means so much that you've stuck with me through this editing phase. So many times I've been moved to tears with the kindness and patience you've all shown me. There's still a fair amount of story to come. I'm grateful to all of you who've let me know you're either here or still here. It matters.

Hugs, Claire and thank you.