Iron Behind the Velvet - Chapter 72

~ Like Mirrors, When They Tangle Light1

On the walk from the site of the failed flap gate, through the weave of switchbacks and across the level field of Ninham’s Ground to their bivouac, he’d borne – recognized, relegated, sequestered – a soreness bounded by the barrel of his chest, the effect, he wanted to believe, of the great gulp of air he’d snared before plunging underwater – the expansion of his lungs, a cerebral fist clamped tight on their release, the long need for oxygen too possible, the merest trickle from them all he could allow until Mouse was delivered to dry ground. Liz’s probing touch, her inquest, was a gust of wind over grayed coals, exciting an ashen ache. More than his ribs hurt – or threatened to.

Feel it in my bones. How often, growing up, had he heard the presaging so described – the approaching cold, a coming storm ... the winds of change ... triggering an elemental alarm. Always a foreboding, an uncertainty worthy of one’s mistrust, never an advent of gladness or transport or discovery. He sensed it now, something indwelling, gaining matter and mass, impending, portending ... in the socket of his shoulder, in the long bone of his thigh, the ridge-lines of his face. A distant throb, like a drum struck with a soft mallet, the drummer yet over-hill. A rawness, a gritty burning from temple to chin he could not quite distinguish with his fingertips. Written off to a heightened sensitivity, to his faculty of mirror-touch, his practiced shielding thinned by physical shock and self-encounter, the hinted injuries could almost be assigned to someone else.


Adrenalin, if that was what powered him, was a mighty masker of pain. He’d gone into the water with the truth of that April 12th night clear at last, and beautiful. Yes. Beautiful. Walked away from the near-drowning into a reminiscence of the feather-brush of magic, hope evinced in a fluttering rabble of butterflies. The connection with Flynn, as unanticipated as it was native – Just know that it is true2 – and despite its promise of crucial and essential self-examination, left behind a singular euphoria – uncertainty, awe, the mystery of a living universe unfolding itself.  And Catherine. Catherine, always. He knew what prayer was, knew its answer, lived on it ... flew free.

But part of him ... was a man ... and the consequence of the force of water, his slam into the culvert’s brick and cinder wall, would be reckoned with after all. The dull twinges would escalate – discomfort to trouble, nuisance to hardship. What changes-of-plan Kanin would soon suggest would no doubt require his muscle and steam, but without some relief, by afternoon, he would wield nothing heavier than the full stew pots to and from their hangers over the fire. Not the stone hammer, not the pick. Though he could not be dissuaded from the rendezvous, he would feel the haul up the iron ladders that would take him to meet Catherine when she at last ventured below. The thermal swirl of their bathing pool summoned him – if, indeed, it was warm this time of day – mid-day when I should be working – but he would likely limp his way to it, and everyone, his workmates and friends, all those who relied on his endurance, would see.

He trailed behind Liz, stopping when she did at the camp’s center ring. Having agreed, however tacitly, to her once-over, he was impatient for its process, its finish, and uncomfortable standing still for it. He lifted and rotated his shoulders, forward ... back ... brought up his hand, curling his fingers to his palm, flexing, curling. Winged his bent arm around, around. Bending first one knee, then the other, he tested his weight, leaned hard on his wincing right leg. All the while, as if reconnaissance were necessary, surveying the familiar corridor exits, archways to staircase to fissure passage, monitoring the comings and goings, plotting his own. Bidding Catherine appear through one, Olivia through another. Wren at the top of the steps, descending on the wings of victory. I’m not losing Edward, she’d vowed, and he called on all that was right and loving in the Universe that it be so. Damien, he noted, hustled toward the Woodlawn-leading corridor as if on a mission. And Noah ... where was he?

Fidgety, Father would have pointed out – had pointed out often enough over the years – suggestion he be otherwise in the editorial tone of his voice, concern in his assessing gaze over the steel rims of the half-glasses riding the tip of his nose. Liz offered him a similar audit, though wordless and without the glasses. Her heterochromia was disconcerting, two different temperatures emanating from the ice-blue and earth-brown irises, one streetwise and shrewd, the other bidding and sympathetic, both eerily compelling. How had Devin put it, slumped on the edge of his mattress, inspecting a reddening blotch on his arm? Will you walk into my parlor? said the Spider to the Fly.3 You want to get closer to her, he’d told him, but it’s risky. A reassuring smile mustered-up, he concealed his clenched fists in the folds of his cloak, though the cleansing, stilling breath he chanced next stopped short and jittered out. Her opinion of his efforts was evident in her calculating scan of him, the peg of her lips afterward.

Get on with it, he wanted to tell her. Hook your thumbs under some displacement, some pinchedness, be it bone or nerve. Lever it back into place, clear the circuitry. Tape me up, return me to the field. He had no willingness, no tolerance for downtime. If Catherine should call out ... If another emergency befell ... But Liz would see to Mouse first. Should see to Mouse.

Liz deposited Ephraim at Mouse’s side, Tobin at Jamie’s, who crawled under Jamie’s legs and stuck his head out between her shins. “Where’s Dad goin’?” the boy asked. “How come we couldn’t go with him?”

“He’s meeting Gio and Vernon up-tunnel, walking them down to relieve Julia. She’s been on duty since daybreak.” Liz paused. “At the south letter-station.”

The week’s schedule was pinned to a cork board propped on the ledge behind the array of coffee tins and tea, the tarnished silver spooner, the wooden crate of cube sugar, though having helped devise it, he had no need to consult the chart. Miriam, marooned on a rocky island by rising water, was to have been Julia’s relief – nearly three hours past now – at the intersection of pipes where messages relayed from under-Queens and Brooklyn, from under-Manhattan, terminated. The conduit Gideon would have used to share Wren’s report of the outcome of Edward’s hearing. Gio and Vernon, back from their morning deliveries – of fresh drinking water to the far-stationed lookouts, of lilacs and linens to the rooms Olivia and Kanin would not share – and apparently pulled from the school day’s classes as necessary crew reinforcements, would need no escort anywhere in these customary tunnels. If Stuart’s checking of his watch had not, then in her oblique way, Liz answered his own unspoken question. No one had heard from Wren, and Noah would find out why.

Occam’s razor.4 Lex parsimoniae.5 There were any number of logical explanations for the silence, most having nothing to do with the verdict, he reasoned, ticking off the possibilities thumb to fingertip. A critical joint in the communication pipe might have chosen this particular morning to crumble away, and somewhere along the long iron line, marking the spot, a tell-tale pyramid of dry oakum fibers and flecks of lead solder piled on the tunnel floor. Last-minute changes might have been made to the court docket such that Wren only now stood before the judge deciding Edward’s fate. Had Catherine not regularly complained of just that sort of delay? Of all mornings, Gideon and his saxophone, his case open to the pitch of money and messages, might have been moved on from Collect Pond Park where Wren was to have met him. Julia might have been called away from her post. Or fallen asleep. All along she’d volunteered for the most physically demanding assignments, for extra sentry shifts. In her fifties – or so everyone believed – understandably worn down by the work ... no one would fault her if it were so. She might have been called away from her post, or remained by it, unwilling to leave to deliver the message that Liz had requested, that Stuart expected.

Was it not within his power to relieve them of worry, from the unsettledness of waiting for word? Eimear, even in her private duress, would hear, would make it a priority to hear – Edward equally her charge, her responsibility. And Catherine with her, Eimear’s aide and ally this day ...

If Catherine knows of Edward’s fate, then surely I ... if only by a brightening of her spirit, even a sense of sad relief.

He reached out to her, and in his vital mind, the radiance where she lived – lived lightly and perfectly – quickened ...

... glimmering billows, undercurrents of somber blue, small whitecaps of excitations ...

... a bed of loose rocks shifting in the tide ... yet a steadiness, a footing ...

Catherine. Catherine ... Through what were and would be troublesome hours, regardless of all that tugged at her – her work, Jenny – she stood with – and for – those who needed her. Did she console a despairing Wren? Did she sit at Eimear’s yellow-topped table, waiting for what would come next after the telling? He couldn’t be certain, sensed only her ... determination. Perhaps she hoped to shield him from distraction, from the heart-heaviness of this April day in her world above. Perhaps she knew ...

... to remind him. His responsibility was to reassure, to protect. He must deny the imaginable dark, anyone’s dark. Everyone’s. Unless and until it would not be denied ... and then, he must lead them through.

The twins’ faces were bright with trust and faith, but question flickered in their eyes. Had he brooded on too long? “Ah, well, of course. Good,” he replied, quickly enough, he hoped. No curiosity, no alarm, about Noah’s whereabouts, no letting on of adult concerns. Their world was safe, secure, their playground.

“I wanna be a sentry,” Ephraim declared, at the same time unlacing Mouse’s left boot. “When can we take a watch?”

“Yeah, when?” Tobin echoed. Settled beneath Jamie’s knees, he scooped pebbles into a heap, the purpose of which was unclear but concerning. Jamie leaned to the side, trying for a look, but Tobin covered his hoard with both hands and puffed out his cheeks.

“When you can sit still and be quiet for one whole hour,” Liz answered.

Awwwww,” the twins responded.

The conditions were a disappointment and would require a miracle, and they hung their heads, morose.  He empathized, having heard the same stipulation from Father decades ago.

Though he’d missed almost all of their infancy and toddler years, he loved these boys. This gift of proximity and time, Vincent marveled. A concurrence of urgency and joy. An opportunity to rectify the loss, to forge new bonds. Ephraim’s and Tobin’s attachment to him, their grudgeless allowance for his heretofore absence from their lives, was sweet and soul-stirring, and he thought to kneel down beside them, regardless of his complaining leg, to gather them in his arms, whisper to them all the alternatives available to the parental argument, complete with examples from their father’s own youth. Admit the watch-duties he once kept with Noah and Stuart were not entirely ... noiseless. He considered tempering their mother’s edict with the disclosure that, as a grown-up, while he could stay quiet with no effort, he often paced a track in the dust of the corridor of his station. But ever so slowly, Liz swiveled his way. She tipped her head, eyed him ... hard, the brown iris molten, the blue snapping with frost. You wouldn’t dare. He kept a sensible silence instead. For now, he promised himself.

Standing at the central pit, he was closer to the worktable and the crew gathered there with Kanin, but the conversation was too low-pitched to discern. He could only read their faces, their postures. Every man and woman leaned forward on braced arms, their heads bent in study. He saw Cullen rub the back of his neck, watched Miriam kick the toe of one boot against the stone floor – tells of concentration. His attention divided, Stuart’s concern for Wren rippled from him in tangible waves, but Vincent heard his familiar, low whistle of wonder, a drawn-out wow. Why? At what revelation? He considered edging away to join them, but Liz held out the lidded bucket with both hands, and he was obliged to take it from her.

“What’s in the pail?” Jamie asked.

“Eggs outta the shells, ready to scramble. Who’s got KP – Ira?” She rose on her toes and scanned the crowd, motioning the young man over when she spied him leaving the dry larder. The designated cook of the day arrived at the fire-ring with a three-pound sack of white beans, a short braid of yellow onions, and plans for a slow-stewed supper, but he dropped his staples to the ground when Liz pointed at the bucket ...

... the bucket in the sudden vise of his grip, grown heavy and cold.

The many torches dimmed ...

Again, the rubbled promontory, the looming edge. His call – Wait! Wait! – a dull reverberation in that rayless, pathless, eternal space.6

A man at the rim of the abyss ...

... his back to it, his face sooty and bruised, one hand doubled at his heart. Eyes that just sparked. A graveled voice, hoarse and cracked. The hope I dreamed of was a dream, was but a dream; and now I wake, exceeding comfortless, and worn, and old, for a dream’s sake.7

Let it go, Liz’s touch to his arm told him.

As I must. Snatching at the last wisps of recollection, he groped in the void. Dans le vide. Inanitas.8

No ... No, not nothingness. The brush of presence ... Of address ...

Liz’s grip tightened, her thumb digging into the articular cartilage of his elbow. An electric charge shot from the joint, traveled the nerves and muscle fibers to his chest, as therapeutic as a defibrillator, as coercive, as corrective. The contents of the container sloshed. He’d have dropped the bucket but for the cook’s shared hold on it. He chuffed an apology, ducked his head, smiled as any prodded daydreamer might, as anyone sapped and overtaxed, who’d been through an ordeal would. Relinquished the pail.

“Protein,” Liz announced. A briskness entered her voice, a tone of dispatch tinged with prescription. “Yous all need it, and right now. I rounded up what I could on the way over, plenty for everybody, I think.” She dragged the cracked leather strap of her medical bag over her head, its heft replacing the bucket he no longer held for her, anchoring him with purpose. “Any of those ash-roasted potatoes leftover?” she asked.

“When I went for water, I saw a mesh sack half-full hanging in the cold alcove behind the falls,” Jamie told her.

“Good. Run ‘em down, will you? Get the skillets out,” she instructed the cook. “Cube up the potatoes and fry ‘em with these diced into it.” From the hand-warmer pocket of her pullover, she produced three fat red bell peppers, tossed them underhanded, one after another, to the crew cook. “Vitamin C,” she said. “Extra’s good for stress.”

And expensive, Vincent knew. Out of season up top and dear there. Rarer than rare below. The exceptional peppers, the dozens of eggs ... Someone, or several someones, had barer shelves for their generosity.

Liz shrugged when he looked down at her. It’s what we do, the gesture conveyed, and you won’t thank me for it.

“Second breakfast!” Mouse cupped his knees and rocked on his slab stone seat. “Okay, good! Then back to work!”

Yes, Vincent was about to say. If they had any hope of soon returning this community to its secure and serene normalcy, if there was hope of home for all so stoically displaced, then, yes, they must all get back to work. He glanced over at those still intent around the worktable. Kanin held a rerolled map under one arm, furled the second one to a tube. Stuart clamped a hand on Kanin’s shoulder and nodded – a grip of agreement. Whatever announcement was to come boded change, grave or great or both. In days rather than weeks, might they all sleep in their own beds again? He swallowed past a sudden dry clicking in his throat.

Mouse’s shoulders rounded to a fit of coughing – short, harsh barks behind both hands that made Jamie jump and Ira drop the long-handled spatula he’d pulled from the bucket of kitchen tools. The paroxysm passed but left a sheen of sweat across Mouse’s forehead, his bangs clumped and matted. Ephraim patted Mouse’s knee. “S’okay, s’okay.”

“N ... O,” Liz commanded, and Mouse sighed and doddled his head in glum acquiescence, sneezed twice, then twice again. She unfastened the buckle of the outer pocket of her medical bag Vincent still held, bringing out a small, brown paper sack, its top rolled down tight to its contents, sealed with a patch of kraft tape. It rattled when she shook it only inches from his nose. “Horsetail, mostly,” she said. “Three capsules every four hours till they’re gone. There’re twelve of ‘em, so that means you’ll be parked by this fire or laid out somewhere close by for ... how long?” She shook the bag again.

“Twelve hours,” Mouse grumbled. “Middle of the night. Might as well–”

“Exactly,” Liz interrupted. Mouse caught the plummeting sack. “Might as well.” She rummaged the pocket of her bag again, this time producing a small aluminum flask, rough with dents and scars. “Lungwort and marshmallow tea. It’ll knock out an infection before it takes hold. It’s a concentrate, right? Add two capfuls measured to this line ...” She unscrewed the container’s lid, pointed to an engraved mark a quarter-inch from the rim. “... to a cup of hot water, four times. Drink it – all of it in one go – halfway between taking the pills. Got that?”



“Ooohhh-kay, fine.” Mouse’s face, ruddied with the coughing, had paled to a more normal pink, but now his cheeks rouged a flustered color.  “Maybe Jamie could stay with?” he ventured. “We could, umm–”

“Oh! Well, wait,” Jamie interrupted. She laughed in a sweetly warning way. “Cullen and I were kinda in the middle of something before we raced over to the flap gate. I should probably get back to it, now that you’re gonna be all right.” Jamie had stashed a brown suede bota behind her bench; now she fished it up, snatched out the cork plug, tipped up the water skin to drink. Droplets from the bota’s spout fell to her tunic, soaking in, a darkening pool on the nubuck leather. When Mouse reached out to blot a bead from her chin with his thumb, she took a playful swipe at him with the recapped flask and wiped her lips with her knuckles. “You are gonna be all right, aren’t you?”

Mouse peeked up at Liz for her diagnosis. “I’m not worried about you,” Liz told him, “but a watcher’s a good idea. You might fall asleep, forget to take the meds, and that’s not okay or fine.” Liz signaled for the return of her medical bag and ducked under its strap. She met Jamie’s gaze. “Whatever you were doing ... if Cullen can’t carry on alone, we’ll either find you a sub, or it can wait.”

A sub? It can wait? What language you think she’s speakin’, Winslow muttered.

Vincent almost laughed. Almost.

“One more thing,” Liz went on. “Dehydration. Mouse, you need to drink water. Plain, cool water. Lots of it.”

“Had enough water,” Mouse grumped, and Vincent silently agreed, regardless of his parched throat.

Parched soul. Grace-parched land ...

Get back to it. One hand clamped on the ball of his upper arm, he tested his rotator cuff once more, his range of motion. No better. The ache mournfully deeper; the drubbed drum gaining, a hollow heartbeat just out of rhythm with his. A leaden echo.

Liz frowned. “You, too, Vincent.”

“It fixes everything,” a well-schooled Tobin offered.

“Besides, I told you,” Ephraim admonished, “you’d better–”

“I’m minding, I’m minding, already. See?” Mouse took the bota Jamie passed him, lifting it high, catching the arcing crystal stream in his wide-open mouth. Tobin and Ephraim giggled.

Get back to it. Get back to it. He surveyed the chamber. Kanin and Cullen carried the chipped green chalkboard, remnant from some abandoned schoolroom wall, from its storage to the makeshift dais, leaning it against a board placed across the treads of two opened ladders. Half the crews were seated, anticipatory, the rest in clatches around the gathering. Damien ... and Aniela ... bunched in a far archway, the heat of an argument shimmering from them, the hiss and sssshsh of it drifting toward him like brown leaves in a sashay of wind. The cavern floor shuddered, the tremor filtering through the soles of his boots, the fruition of some distant seismic thunder. Does no one else sense it? Impossible shadows trailed his friends’ slowed movements. Fingers of fog drafted from fissures in the stone walls.

The room clouded.

The second heartbeat sped up. The distance closed. Matched his, became one ...

A raspy awareness blossomed in his mind. Ready. No question, no hesitancy. Ready. He slipped into the brume.

The centre cannot hold,9 he heard, the desolate whisper falling away as that of a man who speaks and turns his face to a wall.

It can, a resonant voice, a rougher voice, answered. Where are you?

A silence pooled – still, still water.

Surely, the voice persisted, kinder now, sympathetic, charitable, seeking, welling with marvel and miracle ... his. His own.  Surely, he repeated, some revelation is at hand.10

“Hey! Hey!!”

Liz grabbed at him, catching him hardly two staggering strides away, catching the fabric of his cloak. He heard it rip from the leather yoke. “There is something I must do,” he said. His words hung in the heavy air. His hand closed over hers where she gathered up wool and satin edging and waxed linen thread. “Something I must do,” he murmured.

“You’re doin’ it, Vincent,” Liz said. “You’ve been doin’ it.”

Mouse stoppered the water skin, tightening the cork into the spout with a loud sccrrreenk.

Vincent blinked in the sudden, tender light. Had more than a double-heartbeat passed? His distraction was surely unremarkable, his family accustomed to his waxings and wanes, but everyone at the fire-ring ... everyone watched him.

Liz anchored him to her side, her hand snug in the crook of his good arm, exerting a gentle force in a direction of her choosing. “Come on, Superman,” she announced, and all who’d ceased to, breathed again. Smiled and chuckled. Released him. “You’re on the DL, too.”

Click HERE for Chapter 73

1. Honor Moore. New Shoes.
2. Dialogue: Once Upon a Time in the City of New York. Pilot episode. 1987.
3. Mary Howitt. The Spider and the Fly.
4. Occam's Razor. John Punch. 1639. Restating the principles set forth by William of Ockham (1287–1347). “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” The simplest of two competing theories is preferable, and the explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known.
5. Lex parsimonae. Latin: Law of parsimony.
6. George Gordon, Lord Byron. Darkness.
7. Christina Rossetti. Mirage.
8. Dans le vide (French): in the emptiness. Inanitas (Latin): emptiness, nothingness
9. William Butler Yeats. The Second Coming.
10. Ibid.


Anonymous said...

Poor Vincent -- caught up in the uncomfortable vice between his own very real injuries and the mental, emotion, and psychic damage and new physical injuries Flynn is suffering. Except, Vincent doesn't KNOW about what's happened to Flynn, and can't be sure which sensations are his own and which are Flynn's. No wonder Vincent's a bit out of it!

Excellent chapter! So anxious for these two warriors to finally meet face-to-face. Flynn is in such terrible need!

As always, MORE!!!

Regards, Lindariel

Mamacrow said...

Dear Carole,

Worth the wait!

I loved so much of this chapter. The feeling of anticipation is palpable.

One thing that always hits me when I read your work is the words unique powers to move us where you want us to go, to feel what your characters feel. For instance - "recognized, relegated, sequestered" You can feel Vincent feeling the pain, but pulling it in, as he must. It was beautifully done.

Always an inspiration. Thank you, thank you for all the hard work.

- Karen :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, Carole. I saw that you were having trouble getting this chapter into the shape you wanted, but you stuck with it and worked it out. It was worth the wait, as another commenter said.

I want to come out of lurkdom (sorry, long story) to tell you how much I have enjoyed this fanfic. I should have said this a long time ago: Thank you for this wonderful story.


Carole W said...

Exactly, Lindariel! Vincent doesn't know the extra stuff that's happened with Flynn. The sudden connection has to be disconcerting. Add all of that to his list of general responsibilities, plus his additional responsibilities ...

I don't think he can actually *read* minds, so his perceptions are imperfect. And I think, over his years, Vincent has to have practiced–

Wait! That thought will be expounded-upon in the next chapter. :-D

Which is cooperating better than this last one did, thank goodness.

Thank you for your encouragement through this last difficult session. Remember when I said it was something you'd said that made me see the errors of my first draft? It was a while-ago comment on Vincent's constant otherness. My first draft showed him less other than he always is. I was proceeding with an underthought of dissatisfaction that I couldn't put right. I am so grateful for your insight!!


Carole W said...

Thank you, Karen. Your words on these words are so encouraging. If I admitted how long I dithered over those three choices … I'm exceedingly glad they worked, and bless you for telling me.

You're good to me. I only want to work harder now. Happily, this next chapter doesn't seem to be poking me with a sharp stick, muttering, good gravy, this stinks. :-)


Carole W said...

Thank you, kc, for such kind words. I'm glad you said hello!


RomanticOne said...

Vincent is connected to Flynn and feels it, though he doesn't understand it yet. Does Flynn feel the same connection and confusion? Guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Carole W said...

R-1! Hi!!!

Although it will be elaborated upon, soon and in upcoming chapters, I can tell you Flynn is unlikely to feel a connection with Vincent … at this time. I have great hopes, however, that one day - ONE DAY - they will have a conversation face to face. Doors might fly open between them at that point.

I do wish I could just finish this story in one fell-swoop, like a novel in a month during NaNoWriMo. If only, if only, a girl could get a clone. :-)