And now … she sleeps.
He closed his eyes, forearms relaxed on the tabletop, the pen slack in his hand though still poised over the page. He listened … within … slipping … hesitant … eager … into her stillness to rest there for a moment … and wondered at his audacity.
Oh, but it was …
It felt …
He sighed feelings that would not accede to words.
Her tempest had worn itself out, the chaos now calmed, and only a whispered pulsing remained, almost an echo of his own heart’s beat … soft and serene and soothing.
If fingers can be said to ‘tip-toe’, his did … capping the pen, laying it down with precise care beside his journal, as though an unguarded movement or sound might awaken her. He glanced toward the bed. She’d arranged the pillows and blankets before setting off with him earlier.
He closed his eyes again, sought no respite this time.
Bowing his head, he welcomed the concealing flow of hair over strong shoulders, his whole being sagged in shame and sadness.
He allowed the grief to well up … and run over. All his life he had known a poignant sense of aloneness but this … the physical separation from her … this was agony … different …
The word haunted his earliest memories. He was not like others. He knew it. He had accepted it … hadn’the? Yes, he had … in long talks with Father, in experiences as a child growing into maturity, into this adulthood that he now claimed.
And in his difference there should be no pain like this.
But there was.
All the rational ‘acceptance speeches’ he’d prepared and recited to himself, over a lifetime of constant and obvious reminders of his differences, should have precluded any possibility of feeling this way … about … a woman.
Why did they not?
Was he perhaps man, human man, enough? And did he have a secret … human heart … that would know these feelings? To have the heart but not the body … Yet he had some aspects of manhood: two arms, two legs, all the musculature, the sex organs, feet and hands similar to a normal man’s … except … the claws … and with too much hair over all of that. Of course his face … two eyes and a nose and mouth … all … different.
He shut out the senseless anatomical study to pace off long steps, head held high, in defiance all that disqualified him from feeling as he did.
It was not a matter of what should be for one such as he because, despite all of that, he missed her. He … cared … about her. And he was connected to her, heaven help him. Her feelings flowed, flooded and raged, and then settled, within him, and were as present, as formidable, as stirring as his own.
If he should nevermore be granted the moment of grace to gaze upon her face, her poor desecrated face, he must yet be grateful that he still held this part of her. Lamenting what he did not have was sacrilege in light of the gift of her here, in his life, these ten days. And he must ever be conscious, be worthy, of the miraculous bond that connected him to her. He had no cause to complain of her corporeal absence.
He had experienced the secret mysteries of her soul.
He harbored her heart within his own.
He knew the gentle and welcome burden of her feelings.
That he would suffer with her he accepted without reservation. The gift of sharing her deepest hopes, her ardent dreams, all her big and small successes as well as the frustrating disappointments … that … unity … was worth … everything.
She’d shed tears this day … and he’d wept with her. Emotions shredded … raw … wave upon wave … helplessness … he’d borne it … as she relived the horror in each retelling … to her father … to the authorities … as she protected him through it all.
At last, he could welcome the sense of her tumbling into that ‘sweet forgetfulness of human care1’, where, all emotion spent, the self is stunned by the void, and oblivion is all that remains.
Now she slept. Having survived this day, she would, he felt certain, find strength to face the next.
If there were only a way to be there for her …
Be there for her? You ran off, left her, frightened and alone, on the threshold of a callous and hostile world!
Be there for her? She called to you but you did not go to her!
Be there for her? You told stories of courage and survival, but where was your courage when she needed that from you?
He slid into the chair, prepared a pillow of folded arms and lowered his head.
He made no argument for innocence.
He assembled no defense.
He raised no shield.
Soon, he, too, slept.
Gentle fingers smoothed his hair, once and again, where he lay half slumped across his desk, and she whispered, “Not a nightmare. This part was never a nightmare.”
He recognized the tentative weight of Father’s hand nudging his shoulder.
“Vincent. Vincent? You’re having a nightmare.”
“Father.” He stood, took a few steps away, desperate to hold close the affection in her caress, the silk of her voice, the blessing her dream self had spoken.
The older man looked around, spared an uneasy glance toward the bed. Emboldened he turned to his son to ask a question deeper than the words admitted, “Are you … all right … Vincent? I thought I heard sounds … of distress. That’s why I entered …”
No, not distress ...
“I am fine, Father. Thank you.”
“I came to see about our patient. She’s gone then?”
“Yes. She went …” he thought home but said, “… back.” He faced his Father, and so that there should be no … worrisome notions … forming behind the thoughtful gaze leveled upon him, added, with what he hoped sounded believable … and final, “I accompanied her to the threshold.”
There was a silent pause as the words were considered.
“Good. Good. We did what we could. There’ve been great strides in the field which I think might now be called ‘cosmetic’ surgery. Used to be ‘plastic’ surgery in my day. There was an article about it in one of the journals Peter sent down some months ago.” He looked around the chamber once more before announcing, “I’m going to bed. Perhaps you should think of doing the same … more comfortable than falling asleep at your desk.”
“In a little while, Father. Rest well.”
“Yes. Thank you. And good night, Vincent.”
He allowed her precious visit to comfort him for a moment, then considered the accusations that had not followed him into sleep. Perhaps her presence was his talisman. A soft half-smile sparkled in his eyes.
He opened the journal and began to write.
Of all the unkind childhood names hurled at me by angry-, or resentful-, or mean-for-the-moment playmates, ‘chicken’ was the one I railed against most. I know myself, to a degree, at least, and that was never a fair judgment. I am not a coward. I say it without pride but with honesty.
My flight from the threshold was precipitated by fear, but not for myself. I feared only for her, fragile beneath a patchwork of scraps, what was left of her dignity, all dragged together, sewn with threads of denial and desperation. Those flimsy stitches could not hold should she be made to grab and stretch that protection another time.
Had she not endured enough … the argument that impelled her flight … falling victim to monsters … the treatment of her wounds, though Father examined her with gentlest care… not to mention confinement, blinding bandages, pain … and ten days in a place she could not begin to imagine or understand…
How could I permit her a guess at what was happening … her feelings, her soul, her heart no longer her own? Her soul … the one place that had not been scarred by the terror … was mine! She felt … and I felt. Her heart beat … and I knew it within me.
What havoc such realization would have visited upon one in danger of succumbing to despair every moment of her convalescence … I dared not imagine. I had no way to know that the conduit, in opening to me, had not alerted her to what was happening. Even if it hadn’t, a glance at my face … to see the shock, the awe, the incredulity in my eyes … it would have destroyed her.
No, it could not be permitted. Not by my hand. There was so little I could do for her, so little words can do, but they’d been all I had to offer… until that moment. Now, at last, there was an opportunity to act. I left her there as intact, as whole, as she’d been able to form herself.
It was my final gift.
And hers … a sweet invasion … delicate … rearranging … making of me a most willing captive to a presence … glorious and alive within … all awareness attuned to feelings that were not my own … enraptured by a vision that was her very soul laid bare for me, and I … the unprepared, inadequate, unworthy host to the incredible reality of her heart beating beside mine …
Those had been her feelings of fear and dread being pushed aside so that she could say her thanks. I felt them.
Unable to compose the words, she did the unthinkable - she embraced me. Out of gratitude. And in friendship. I knew those feelings, as well.
With no hesitation she offered her body’s warmth, pressing herself close to me, an expression of her appreciation for … I’m not sure. Our time together? The care she received? It was all she had to give in return … her warm touch … and she gave it to me. To me.
The thought stuns and humbles. It is so precious.
I dread the thought that I might ever be as … exposed … to another … as she was to me … an emotional intimacy … beyond my ability to conceive even having experienced it.
Still I call it wondrous. Astonishing. Beautiful. A glorious link between two beings … she and … I. My hand shakes as I write the words.
It blossomed ever more fully as she leaned into me and I … had to … ached to … receive her … and … claim her self-offering… with, how dare I say this, with a dream of eternal possession.
I could not … stand there … with her … holding her … knowing her through this miraculous violation.
I had to … I fled.
I wonder, now, about this connection …coming to life with an undeniable energy in those timeless moments. Was it here inside me, preordained and prophesied by that weaker sense of others that I have always known, waiting in patient expectation for her appearance to bring it to wholeness?
From the first, beginning in the park that night, I sensed a subtle presence alive in the reflecting mists … protecting her. It became a cocoon enveloping this chamber while she lay in my bed, beneath my quilts, her head on … my … pillow. And I existed within it, conscious of it, becoming a part of it with her, during those ten days.
How presumptuous seems my declaration, “I know you, Catherine,” pronounced with solemnity as I crouched before her … right over there. A lifetime ago. A moment ago. That knowing did not approach what I have been shown as this connection strives to fulfill and energize itself.
One learns people through the heart, not the eyes or the intellect.2
I am learning her, moment by moment, feeling by feeling. I know that even abandoned by me, she would have gathered her cloak about her, as surely as I felt her gather the bits of courage she had come to recognize in herself. Though meager the fortification, she would begin the difficult climb back to a life she … needs … to resume.
I will not let her be alone in this. She will never be alone as long as I live. With this bond I can be with her when she awakens … with her …
I have just thought the word ‘love’. My pen stumbles over it. My mind clings to it.
Friendship. Help. Encouragement.
But it is … love.
These thoughts shock me.
They do not shock me.
Perhaps Father is right. I am tired.
To lie where she lay.
Where her warmth might linger, her scent still perfume my pillow …
And where I might be blessed once more with a dream … of love … a dream of Catherine.
for H … forever
1 Alexander Pope
2 Mark Twain