“Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.”
~ Homer, The Iliad
The pain – the monster that took first her ability to move, then her ability to rest, and now even her ability to breathe.
The cancer had grown, like in that horrific movie Charles took her to years ago. He laughed all the way through at her hiding behind her hands. The thing had eaten and eaten, growing larger, then immense, taking over the town. The cancer had overrun her life in the same way, eating, multiplying, consuming everything.
She was now so thin it felt like her skin touched her organs. The liver buckled under the grinding hurt; the bones started to crack. She could imagine each leeching sickness.
At least she wasn’t suffering the indignity of the hospital. Even the private rooms were only called so by the very nurses and doctors who thought nothing of pounding in at all hours. Charles, Peter, and Eudora had brought her home, set up a nursing service, and replaced her marriage bed with an invalid’s. A sick bed, a bed to die in, but at least she still had her own home.
Her dresser stood as it always had, reminding her of past, unnoticed health – jewelry and cosmetics she would never wear again, perfume that didn’t cover the smell of antiseptic and decay.
The window looked out on a busy world, lost in its own pursuits and priorities, unknowing, uncaring that she wouldn’t be in it soon. Her bedroom kept her from that world. She believed the room did its best to cheer her, although there was nothing the antiques and wallpaper – roses on fields of Prussian blue – could do to stop the overwhelming agony.
When they bought the apartment all those years ago, they’d kept the old fashioned walls. “For my Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” Charles had laughingly said, giving her more roses.
Now they attacked her with their joy. They could be pink and white and perfect, but she would still die surrounded by them. Why didn’t the world acknowledge her leaving it? Shouldn’t the glass crack, the tapestry unravel, the heavens weep, the sky fall? Instead, it was a beautiful spring. Why wasn’t she allowed even that solace? The lack of creation’s acknowledgment of her sacrifice, of her husband’s and her child’s loss, made everything that much worse.
“Caroline?” Charles called from the hallway. “Peter is here, darling.”
“Charles, I’m so sorry,” Peter apologized, rushing in sideways through the half open door, as if it were Charles’s discomfort he come to assuage. The doctor – and their friend – dropped his black bag on the dresser.
He looked as frantic as Caroline felt, rummaging through, searching for anything to make the end better for them. “The nurse should have told me you were running out,” he said into the contents of his case.
“She didn’t tell you?” Charles rounded on the thin man, incredulous. “She didn’t even come today!
Charles shouted when he got angry. Caroline had always liked the fire in him, except now. Each loud word was a nail piecing her hearing.
She couldn’t fault the nurse for not returning. No one in their right mind wanted to watch someone leave the world by inches, even if it was your occupation.
Peter finally held a glass bottle and needle.
He took an eternity to mete out a meager dose… fussed with the liquid in the syringe.
Not fast enough!
Make it stop!
But she could barely speak. Any movement caused each and every layer of her – skin, muscle, sinew, bone – to cry out in some new way. She measured miserable breaths in how shallow she could make them and still call it breathing. Peter had to know! Only he could help her. Her arm – clumsy, wasted – grabbed the hand with the syringe.
“Please…” She could only rasp. “Give me the whole bottle.”
“Caroline…” Charles began.
“Caroline, I appreciate how much pain you’re in right now,” Peter protested.
No, he didn’t. If he did, he would end it.
“Peter … I want this … over,” she gasped out as some new demonic ache punched through her lungs.
“You can’t leave Cathy,” he said, final as the plunge of the pain relieving, but not pain ending, injection.
What naive men have written this sentimental soap opera?
How can I stay? I have nothing I can give my daughter.
There is nothing left of me.
Peter wrapped up the needle as the medicine began to hurry throughout her body. The drug didn’t take the pain away fully, not yet, maybe not ever again she feared, but it did silence her, something she was sure the doctor and Charles needed.
Peter handed the vial and needle to Charles to place in another room. It would have been a miracle of Biblical power for her to rise from the bed unaided and reach the dresser, but still, she was not to be trusted.
The morphine started to truly work. The pain was finally fading under the medicinal weight, soft as a blanket, immoveable as an anvil. It eased over her, taking the sound and the fury of the room and the past hours with it. She floated in a quiet, yet giddy sea, and as she did, a new idea took shape in her freed mind. She wasn’t really dying. She couldn’t be. Peter was right. She couldn’t leave her child. The cancer wasn’t killing her, it was simply turning her body to stone. She’d become granite or marble, the perfect memorial. She would grow moss and lichen, wings that would never fly. She would last and last, able to watch over those she loved, instead of dead in the ground too soon.
It was all she could hope for.
“I know the feeling.”
She opened her eyes.
Standing near the window of the now drug-grey bedroom stood a man in vibrant Technicolor, and even she, in her strange state, could see he didn’t belong there. Shabby and disheveled, jean clad with a black long coat, homemade scarf, fingerless gloves, and a baseball cap. He looked young, except for his eyes. They were filled with a quality of pity that she’d only seen in the very old.
“The time when you have to learn how to let go. That’s the hardest,” the new visitor instructed, but only she seemed to hear him. In fact, all other sound – Charles talking to Peter, perhaps about the missing nurse, or how to find another on short notice, Peter laying out provisions for the next few days (hours, minutes) of her death – sounded like the whoosh of traffic or rain outside the lake house; noticeable, but only if you wished to notice. No one else saw the strangely dressed figure or heard him.
Had the illness taken her sanity along with everything else?
Or is this truly the end?
Caroline’s mother had maintained – in those handful of moments the two of them had ceased hostilities long enough for parley – that at the moment of death, family spirits came to gather you up to God’s Kingdom. Caroline has been thinking about that a great deal lately – daily when Peter had uttered the word cancer, then hourly when his and Charles’s expression said terminal. But this man with his heavy coat, day’s old stubble, and long brown hair under a boy’s cap, didn’t resemble anyone related to her. He didn’t even look like anyone she knew.
“I’m sorry…” she started with great effort. “But I… don’t believe we’ve… been introduced.”
Charles turned to her. “What is it, darling?” But his voice sounded hollow and far off. She glanced slowly his way and then back to the gatecrasher.
“If I’m suddenly seeing things… I’d at least… like to know who you are,” she said, forcing the words out without benefit of breath. “Your name wouldn’t be Harvey… by chance?”
“I’m sorry?” he said, cocking his head, not getting the joke.
“You don’t look like a six-foot-tall… rabbit, but since… no one else can see you…”
“Oh, right! That’s funny!” he exclaimed chuckling, and then started tapping his pockets. “I wish I had a card for this,” he offered, but then he stopped and he returned her gaze, timorous and embarrassed. “I don’t think you care much about what I do, do you?”
A strange man in her bedroom, while she literally lay on her deathbed. No, she didn’t much care, unless he was some apprentice of the Grim Reaper.
“Introductions like this get complicated,” he said smiling, then knelt next to her to speak close, and she realized how pleasant that was, how tired she’d become of everyone looming over her. “Hi. My name is Kristopher Gentian. I’m… a friend.”
With an exaggerated swivel, he surveyed the room, noting the floor, the pictures, paintings, and furniture, and especially Charles and Peter, neither of whom perceived their unusual visitor or her conversation with him.
“A friend… who isn’t even born yet, I think,” the strange man whispered.
“I’m Caroline Chandler,” Caroline whispered back. “How… do you do?”
“I’m doing very well, thank you.” He laughed a bit. “And you?”
“Well… dying at the moment, I believe.” She wanted to laugh, too. Giggle like a school girl, actually. Was it the drugs talking? Maybe, but she really didn’t care. “Why are you here, Mr. Gentian?”
“I’ve come to ask you a favor. A big favor.”
A favor? She could barely move.
“I’m not exactly capable…” she wheezed out the words, “… of taking… requests at the moment. Perhaps, we should… consult… my calendar… for a later appointment.”
“Oh, wow, I knew I’d like you,” he said and smiled a wide grin, and because smiles were something no longer brought to the rose bedroom, she was charmed, despite his odd manner and appearance.
“The way you are right now, you’re right,” he said, nodding, “but I’m going to do something. I’m going to make you like me, Caroline.”
“What … are you? An emissary? A ghost?” she asked, with not exactly dread.
He waved his hands, trying to reassure her. “Not quite… well, kind of. I need your help. We need to talk with someone. It isn’t far away, I promise.”
Without further noting the other men in the room, Kristopher stood and bent towards her. He eased his rough hands behind her robed torso and lifted her as the nurse did, but with much more gentleness. A tug upwards, and she felt a thousand pounds disappear. She was free.
She stood in some new state. She felt whole again. How long had it been? She couldn’t even remember. She surveyed her new/old body. Her lace nightgown and robe didn’t look as shocking and out-of-place any longer. Her arms were no longer skin over bones and ropes. Her legs could suddenly walk again and immediately she wanted to use them. She paced around the grey room and her unnoticing husband. She wished he could see her now. She was herself again, cancer-free, and the one person it mattered most to couldn’t see her.
No, there was one other.
“Mr. Gentian, thank you, and I’m sorry to ask for more, but before we do anything else, can I check on my daughter?”
She should have been embarrassed that this strange man was seeing her half-dressed, but he had bestowed a blessing, and, selfishly, she wanted more blessings. “I haven’t been out of this room for days.” The freedom to leave the sickroom felt wonderful… and also ruthless. There was so much she needed to do before she left the world.
“Cathy, you mean?” The man seemed to brighten even further. In recognition? Did he know her daughter? “Sure, yeah, that’s great… no problem. Oh, and it’s just Kristopher.”
She glanced back at Charles watching the sleeping shell on the bed, then walked the ten steps down the hall that were impossible an hour ago and turned the corner into Cathy’s room.
Princess. There she was. Propped up on lace trimmed pillows and the startling white comforter. The walls of Cathy’s bedroom remained fields of tiny roses snowing from unseen clouds, but now in different tones of black and white and gray. Caroline noticed the lack of color, because Cathy, with Stuart Little balanced on her drawn up knees, looked like a hand-tinted photograph. Caroline was about to ask why when Cathy’s gaze lifted, and for a moment, Caroline thought she saw them. The little girl’s eyes, not quite her true color, but close enough for a mother not to care, looked right through them, blind to their ethereal invasion. After a second, she returned to her novel.
Books like a fort enclosed her – The Frog Prince, Madeline, The Secret Garden, her illustrated Camelot, numerous colors of the Lang Fairy Books, The Velveteen Rabbit, Through the Looking Glass, all her Beatrix Potters. Cathy was either searching for something or keeping something away. Caroline remembered enough terrible nights at the Hudson house to recognize the tactic.
Charles had insisted they keep the cancer hidden, to allow Cathy as long a childhood, untouched and uncomplicated by illness, as they could manage. However, seeing Cathy huddled in her castle of books, watching the girl trace sentences and flip pages with fingers grown longer than Caroline remembered, she couldn’t help but question the strategy. The poor girl didn’t know what was happening, but she knew something was happening. Time and illness were taking away her family.
All Caroline wanted was time, time to watch Cathy and help her grow. Sometimes she could just watch Cathy all day, fawn over every beautiful inch of her face, the way she moved, the way the light danced over her features. It was overwhelming, this feeling. Was it love? Amazement?
This beautiful girl wouldn’t exist if Caroline hadn’t met Charles at her father’s office, if she hadn’t been bored enough to stop in between her trip to the museum and her dinner with college friends. What if Charles hadn’t had the courage to ask her out? What if Caroline had followed her mother’s advice and said no? What if their first fight had been their last? Cathy’s existence seemed frighteningly tenuous, based on too many coincidences.
No one had done Cathy’s hair that morning, and Caroline guiltily remembered that Eudora had been trying to help her instead of tending to her child. Had someone made the child breakfast? Lunch?
Cathy wasn’t a baby anymore, Caroline tried to remind herself, but it was hard. She could still see the infant inside the skinny girl in peddle-pushers. The baby who taught Caroline a mother couldn’t blink still resided within her, the toddler who loved to pull her coat off at the park no matter what the temperature, the brave girl who could talk to anyone, the kind child who inconsolably wept when they couldn’t save the broken-winged bird. Who would look after her? Who would love her the way a mother should, the way her own mother couldn’t, with joy and without limitations? Charles would try, but he wouldn’t have enough eyes to watch everything in their lives. How would Cathy navigate the world without a mother?
Kristopher drew up behind her, breaking Caroline’s attention.
“Wow! It is her.”
He kneeled to study Cathy. He did recognize her.
“Mr. Gentian, how do you know my daughter?” Alarm pitched her usual voice too high.
“Caroline, I’m sorry, but we have to go,” he said, not answering. He stood and offered her a hand.
“No, I’m not—”
“It’s important, I promise. It has to do with her, too.” His gaze flickered to Cathy and back.
She took his arm.
They traveled, out of the house and through the city, not walking, not running, not flying, but somehow, it passed by them or they passed it. Thousands of people milled on the streets. Cars and buildings, swept by almost as if it were their movement, the movement of the world around its axis, that propelled them.
And then, somehow, dreamlike, they followed stairs down and down, impossibly down, deep and deeper. Winding caverns and hallways rushed past. Was that light? Candles? What was this place?
A drab cave by the looks of it, but eclectically furnished enough that Caroline was beginning to question if it were they who had stepped through the looking glass – a rug and bookshelves, two beds, although one was stripped to an old mattress, and other was occupied with… what?
What was lying in the bed?
The monochromatic world was shattered by a vibrant and impossible… monster? A man, long haired, with the face of a lion, or perhaps a lion with the body of a man… no, a boy. The difference was subtle, but a teenager’s arm rested on the outside of a patchwork quilt. Thin and awkward, it would have reminded her of Cathy’s gangly limbs, except for the amber fur and preposterous claws.
There was a gentleman in patched clothing sitting in a chair adjacent to the… creature… reading by candlelight. The man, made greyer by the vibrancy of his charge, did not seem to notice Caroline or Kristopher, judging by his uninterrupted reading.
“And Odysseus of many counsels answered him, saying: My lord Alcinous, most notable of all the people, there is a time for many words and there is a time for sleep.”
The man’s chafed voice died out, and he pressed two fingers into his tired eyes as if to assuage a headache. He blinked and assessed the beast child in the bed.
The man’s expression – awe, fear, care – she recognized; she would swear she wore its twin in Cathy’s room.
“Mr. Gentian.” Caroline turned to her guide. “What is that poor creature? Why is he so… colorful when the rest of everything is so grey?”
“He’s close to us,” Kristopher offered, along with a shaky, yet tender smile. “He wants to die, and his body’s starting to… listen, I guess. He’s… straddling the edge of one world and another. He’s done it his whole life, and… it shows.”
“But, wait…” she said, remembering Cathy, pastel hued compared to white-blank room. “That would mean Cathy—”
She pivoted. Somehow she had to get back to her daughter.
“Caroline.” He grabbed her arm. “Cathy’s ok. She’s closer to us, too, because of you.”
Caroline spun back, barely contained, anxious for him to explain.
“Children who lose a parent are open to life in a way most people aren’t. They can see other worlds. They see what’s possible. They see the endings.” With a craning head, he motioned to the boy. “He, Vincent… he’s like that.”
Kristopher walked towards the bed.
“This man here…” Kristopher pointed. “Vincent calls him ‘Father,’ but his other father, the one that started his life, he’s long gone, and Vincent lost his mother the day he was born.”
Well, that was tragic, but why were they here? What did this eccentric ghost-man want from her, and how did he know Cathy? She was about to ask, although she hadn’t a clue how to do so without being rude, when a strong voice startled her.
“How is da child?”
Caroline skittered sideways out of the doorway to allow a Negro woman adorned with brilliant layers of jewelry and skirts to enter. Kristopher backed towards Caroline to also allow the woman room.
“Oh, Narcissa, I didn’t hear you approach,” the older man said, also surprised at the woman’s appearance, judging by the dropping of his book. The Englishman, educated and cultured as evidenced by his careful annunciations, slowly groaned his way down to retrieve the volume. He seemed annoyed at her intrusion, but with a moment to collect himself, his countenance eased into tolerance.
“Thank you for your concern. I wish I could tell you how Vincent is. He’s quiet now, at least,” he added, but sounded as if he was trying to convince himself that was a good thing. The father looked back to study the strange child in the bed.
“There is something about this stillness I don’t like.” The man sighed. “Oh, Narcissa, we’ve seen him grow up, but he’s still such a mystery.”
The colored woman watched, holding her silence while the man contemplated the creature.
After a moment, he shook his thoughts back to the present and asked, “What time is it?” He turned a creaking body to squint at an old-fashioned clock.
“Time?” she queried in a sing-song Caribbean voice. “What is time? Time is like death. It is da river we dive into. Do we decide where the river takes us? No.” She looked above her to a higher realm. “The current of God takes us where it will.”
She rustled over to the sick bed, her voluminous skirts swishing, her cowrie shell adornments clicking.
“He was brought to you. He must be here, because Fate will bring others.” She touched the boy’s strange mane-like hair, smoothing it down. “Do not be afraid. This boy is watched over … by da spirits.”
“Ah, yes, the spirits,” the man said in a clipped and clinical tone. “Well, Narcissa, as much as I… appreciate… their attention, I would value a more solid intercession at the moment – a medication, or some treatment for this blasted condition.” The older man shook his head wearily.
“Oh, wait, that’s it!” Kristopher exclaimed, grabbing his cap as if it might jump off his head. “I get why we’re here now!”
The island woman turned, nodding in their direction. “You have knowledge and gifts yet to give. Before you leave this world, you must do dis.”
“Narcissa?” the sitting man questioned. “What do you mean?”
“You know what to do.” She inclined to them once more, then left the room without another acknowledgement or leave-taking.
“Actually,” the weary father said to her back, not realizing the words weren’t meant for him, “I haven’t the faintest clue.”
Kristopher turned to Caroline and held her arms in a gesture that demanded attention.
“Caroline, I understand now. In a minute, Vincent is going to need us… well, you. He’s needs to know he should stay.”
How can I tell him that? Less than an hour ago I was begging for death.
“And how am I meant to convince him? I don’t know him.” She attempted to shake Kristopher’s grip.
“You don’t, but Cathy will.”
“What?” Anger and fear flared, overtaking and compounding her confusion. “What do you—”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Mr. Gentian.” She jolted him off, pulling her robe tightly around her. “I notice that you don’t like answering my questions.”
He shrugged his shoulders and would not elucidate further.
“Well, then why can’t you persuade him?” She countered. “You have a great deal more knowledge of this than I.”
Convincing millionaires to give a few thousand to the Opera or Library was one thing. Convincing something that wasn’t even human that the world needed him? Where could something like him ever hope to find a place in life?
“I can’t talk to him,” the grizzled young man protested. “That isn’t my job. I’ve had my time with him, or will have. It’s really hard to understand.”
He shook his head. “All I know is Vincent needs you, not me. That’s why I was sent to get you.”
Me? But, why?
Before she could ask, he seized her again.
“This is also what I know: He is special. He and Cathy are special.”
Kristopher did it again; he mentioned Cathy.
“I don’t see what she has to do with this—”
“The world’s waited a long time for them,” he said.
What could he mean? What did this aberration have to do with Cathy?
Kristopher finally let go of her and turned to the boy in the bed.
“There’s this old story I read once. I read all the time, when I was… around…” he digressed. A bittersweet smile rolled across his features. “This story said the Bible got it all wrong.”
The Bible, wrong? This was off to an auspicious start.
“It wasn’t the Tree of Knowledge Adam and Eve ate from; it was the Tree of Nescience, of Forgetting.” Kristopher padded closer to the cot and knelt to study the sleeping figure, just as he had done in Cathy’s bedroom. “Adam and Eve ate the fruit and couldn’t remember how to be connected to the earth, the weather, the animals, God… and with each other. They forgot they were a part of creation. All sin comes from ignoring that we are a part of everything, Caroline.”
He stood again and pointed to the sleeping lion-boy. “But he’s the reminder! He and Cathy will remember, together, but only if he doesn’t die now…”
“Mr. Gentian, he’s—” She gestured to the deformed face, the clawed hands.
“I know. Isn’t he beautiful? Cathy will think so. She’ll love him.”
Her daughter would love… that?
“Mr. Gentian, you are talking about my daughter’s life tied to…”
No, that wasn’t possible. How could Cathy find love with… him?
“What if you’re wrong, Mr. Gentian?” she proposed, although it was a cold offering. “Maybe it is his time. Maybe he, perhaps everyone, would be better if he died here.” She hated herself for the idea, but if it meant her daughter’s life…
“No! You don’t get it!” he protested. “Without him, Cathy’s spirit will fade. She’ll be too afraid of life and too afraid of death to belong to either world!” He shook Caroline in the most unmannered and alarming way, and it was the first time she was truly frightened since starting this fever dream.
“Mr. Gentian, this is insanity!” Caroline resisted. “I don’t know if I’m still lying in my bed in some sort of nightmare, or I am already dead, but I wish to go home.” She tried to wrest out of his hands, but his grip was tenacious. “I want to see Cathy!”
“I know you do,” he said, nodding, suddenly calm. “I get it. I understand why they sent me.”
Without warning, he placed his forehead to hers. “Caroline, I’m going to show you.”
She wanted to get away, to flee from this bizarre man who destroyed every boundary.
“I’m going to show you Cathy…” he whispered, and all the fight left her.
“I’m going to show you Vincent.” He nodded, transferring his movement to her where they touched.
“I’m going to show you the possibilities.”
A moving painting of night in… a forest? The park? A bundle rolls from a vehicle into the grass. A far off lamp light glances off wet ground and shining hair. Red brake lights fade and the boy/man/creature’s hand (claw) reaches around, revealing a woman’s face.
No, dear God, please don’t let it be.
Caroline wanted to deny it, to pull away from this nightmare, but it is her daughter’s adult face—fine boned and mature. Rivulets of blood rush down the lengthened nose and high forehead.
He carries her down to his caves. He and his father work desperately to save her. In the next days, Vincent, the lion-man, feeds her, reads to her, creates as much safety as he can for her.
Caroline loves him for this.
He will save her daughter’s heart. For this, she will always love him.
Another vision – Cathy stitched, and it is ugly, but she is alive and healing. She is asking how she might thank him. The now woman Cathy embraces Vincent, who has also grown up. He is massive, powerful, compared to the dying boy in the bed.
The touch that Cathy offers him, without hesitation or fear, seems the greatest joy and greatest pain of his life. The feelings – anguish, thankfulness, heartbreak, tenderness – illuminate the broken brick room, rippling off them like sunlight in a Monet.
Visions, pages of the future flip through her mind, but they move, they speak.
He roars in her defense, and he is a god of vengeance.
Another moment – Cathy curls in a chair and reads to him as he rests on a bed. She looks up, and devotion – her to him, him to her – hindered and thwarted, but still there. It encompasses them both like a bittersweet veil.
A turned page and a bespectacled boy, rescued by her daughter, orphaned and battered, meets Vincent, his new friend and teacher, with open questions and an incandescent smile.
A new vision – a carousel horse in a frozen canter separates them. She, holding a manila envelope, gazes up at him. He, hand on the crest of motionless yet moving animal, gazes down at her. Together they laugh.
Another painting, this time of grey streaked faces, terror giving way to relief and thanks. Even in the dust and smoke, Caroline can see them. A golden chain binds them together, past all reason and sense. She understands how one affects the other.
Another – Vincent rests in a dark cave and contemplates an ivory rose.
My rose. The one Charles gave me.
He is thinking of Cathy. How bright she is in all his thoughts.
Another page – the couple relaxes as music surrounds them, swirling, stirring the night air. The notes lift and sway in a thousand colors.
They are the nexus of a web, a gossamer lacework of compassion and salvation that reaches further, touching more lives than they can ever guess.
The next image – Vincent holds Cathy in dancing form. They flow, white and cream, brown and gold, in shadows and out. Joy and love keeps the darkness at bay.
A different page and a great loss is breaking her daughter’s heart. Cathy needs to retreat, to rest, and Vincent watches over her.
When she is recovered enough to return to the city Cathy kisses him, and afterward he is the same, and yet, as in every good fairy tale, he is also changed.
Kristopher released her from the memories of the future.
The vivid pictures and voices retreated, replaced by the colorless cave, a sick boy, and unexpected violence.
Vincent convulsed on a quaking bed, flickering like a light in a storm
The father, terrified, grabbed the boy, but even this young Vincent was strong, so very strong. His thrashing body shoved his caretaker to the ground.
“This is it, Caroline,” Kristopher urged. “He needs you!”
Could he hurt her in her spectral state? Even if he could, it didn’t matter. He was just a boy. How could she not have seen that? And besides, Cathy would need him.
“What must I do?”
“Catch him, Caroline! Hold him here, Please!” Kristopher pleaded.
Before she could even reach the other end of the room, though, the strange boy jolted twice and then crashed down on the bed.
“Vincent?” the anxious man at the bedside called.
“Caroline, it has to be now!”
She reached out to the translucent spirit laying over the boy’s body, but then, like a bird who suddenly flutters fiercely to be free, she felt him trying to escape. His wish for freedom lent tremendous strength to his efforts, and they were both thrown across the room in a second.
“Oh, God, no…” The man gasped as he placed his hand on the now empty dull shell.
The confused young man crouched for a moment in her arms, watching his father’s frantic movements over the discarded body.
“Vincent!” the father yelled, pounding on the boy’s chest.
The boy didn’t stay to watch any more of his death. He ran – flew – from the room with Caroline somehow holding on to his existence.
He wanted to go up, to leave, to be free of everything, but, somehow, she was weight that would not allow him to rise. He bucked and thrashed in frustration, but did not hurt her. Instead, thwarted, he plummeted down, until layers of more rock cocooned them both within the earth.
His flight ended in a small cave, the light from who knew where. He huddled in the middle of the room with her hand still poised on his back ready to catch him if he tried to flee again.
“Vincent?” she called to him.
How should she treat him? Sternly? Kindly?
The cowering boy would be so important to her daughter, but this was only the seed of him. He was Cathy’s soulmate and savior, but was as much that person now as an acorn to an oak.
How was she to tend to this seed? Kristopher proposed no constraints, only considerations.
“Vincent,” Caroline began. “Will you talk with me?”
He twisted, startled out of his misery.
Why shouldn’t he be startled? A stranger in a nightgown is asking to talk with him.
He studied her with an accusing eye. The younger version of the raspy voice from Kristopher’s visions asked, “Who are you? Why are you keeping me here?”
Well, they could start with introductions.
“My name is Caroline.”
She swept her robe underneath her so she could sit in front of him.
“I’m trying to keep you here because it’s not your time.”
“It isn’t fair if I wish to go,” he asserted, and as much as she might want to, she couldn’t fault him.
What do you say to that, Mrs. Chandler?
“You’re right. It isn’t fair keeping someone against their will.”
The acknowledgement kept him listening.
What child is used to being told they’re right?
“Vincent, what if I promise that if I cannot convince you that you should stay, I shall let you go?”
He offered the slightest affirmation in her direction before more questions. “Why do you care? And how do you know my name?”
“I know a good deal about you. You are a very important person.”
“How can you say that! I’m not even a person!” he yelled, but instantly reigned in as if he dragged her into a long and ongoing argument by accident.
“Besides,” he added with a quiet, challenging anger, “no one needs me.”
“Oh, that isn’t true,” she started, but feared pleas without logic would have no influence. “I know you doubt it. You may doubt it for some time, but, please, believe me. You are a person and important to so many.”
She tried to smile, to lift him that way, adding, “And you are very important to me.”
He suddenly startled and stared at her, an idea shooting across his features.
“Are you my mother?”
The question took her entirely off guard. It shouldn’t have.
Poor boy … In a way, I will be.
She almost said it.
“No, I’m sorry, Vincent. I’m not.”
His face fell even further. Expectation and hope fled quickly as they’d come.
“But I am a mother, and I know when a child is in pain.”
The boy looked like he wanted to protest child, but that would have taken will, and he appeared to have none, at least for that contest.
Defeated and embarrassed, he buried his face in his knees again.
How was she to convince him?
As if sensing her dilemma, her weakness – “I’m not going back,” he said, steadfast, speaking into his arms. “I’m a mistake. I should have never been born.”
“Please don’t say that. The man back there—” She pointed out of the cavern, in vague direction to his sickroom.
“You mean Father,” the boy provided.
“Yes, Father. He loves you. He thinks you should have been born.”
“Father loves all the children.” The words were small to him; he barely opened his mouth to speak them. “But they don’t all love me,” he said with more conviction. “They know what I am, even if Father refuses to say it. Freak. That’s what they call me behind his back… Monster.”
She’d said the same before, but now she saw him. Were there others who saw him as well?
“I can’t believe they all say that, do they?”
“No.” he admitted, but dropped his eyes again.
“Part of growing up,” she said, bending to his now downturned face, “is learning to whom we should listen. Sometimes, we must find the people who will cherish us.” She rubbed his leg. “And if it’s any consolation, I know you’re not a monster.”
“I am…” he asserted in as flat and objective tone as a teenager could muster. “I’ve seen my reflection in the mirror pool. New people stare at me. I can feel their fear. I’m tired of it.”
His insight into the world, his empathy. It was killing him.
Oh, child. I am sorry the world is not ready for you yet. I’m sorry I wasn’t ready.
“It’s easy for you,” he accused, finally looking her in the eyes. “You’re beautiful.”
Ah, yes, the conceited misery of youth. She had him there. All those fights with Charles the lawyer were going to pay off.
Refute one part of the argument and the rest stands on shaky ground.
“I’m not beautiful, Vincent. Part of me is here to be with you, but the rest of me is…”
Her gaze drifted down her body, the healthy one, before it had rebelled.
“… the rest of me is dying.” She looked up to the dark rock ceiling. “Not too far from here, up in the city, I have cancer, and it’s killing me. I’m wasted to nothing.” She shook her head at the unbelievable circumstances that brought her here, talking to a boy who would one day love her daughter.
Thank you, Mr. Gentian.
“I’m sorry,” the young man said, sounding more sincere than most of her friends.
Vincent almost took her hand in sympathy, but a hair’s breath away he stopped short. Perhaps he didn’t trust an envoy meant to take him back to a life he found too agonizing to continue. His clawed fingers curled into a fist and drew back.
What kind of sadness brought him so low?
“Vincent, I’d given up, too,” she commiserated. “The pain was too much. I wanted it to end. But once I heard about you, I had to try to help.”
He wouldn’t look at her. Despite his compassion, he wasn’t listening. There was something, some hurt, he was using as a shield.
“I’m dying, Vincent. No one can stop that. But you don’t have to die,” she insisted, trying to meet his gaze. “You still have so much good to do.”
“You don’t understand!” he pleaded with her. “I’m not good,” he said, growled actually. “I’ve hurt too many people. I hurt Devin. Then he… left.”
Someone close to him, she could hear it in his voice, in all the words he didn’t – couldn’t – say.
His eyes fixed on a point past her. “Lisa’s gone, too.” The words echoed across the barren rock surrounding them. “She had to leave, because… because of me…” He collapsed, the rest of his words lost in shame and tears.
He was fighting her, fighting to die.
Poor child. He would always fight…
The hateful and ignorant…
For Cathy he would battle anyone and everything,
His own doubts would run roughshod over his life, but he would combat hers…
“You have the strength, Catherine. I know you…”
He’d attack death in every form.
“Vincent, No! It’s over!”
He would struggle against himself.
“You don’t know me.”
He would love her until his last breath, as she would love him, but only if he would stay to find her.
Watching the crying boy, the question came again, unbidden – would Cathy be better off without him?
Caroline’s own mother thought she would have been happier without Charles. The woman had never understood anything about him, his intelligence, his generosity, his fire. If Caroline had heeded her mother she’d probably still have cancer at thirty, but without the love of her life and without her daughter.
Could she deny Cathy this magical, singular love, as complicated as it was, for simplicity’s sake?
Vincent’s tears ended with a swipe of an arm across his eyes, bringing Caroline back to the lengthening silence and mounting inevitability that she would fail.
Another tactic was needed.
“Vincent, maybe you made some mistakes, but you are strong and kind, and that’s why I need you. I need your help.”
He looked up.
A loving boy. Yes. He’s a loving soul, and that is the key.
“I think there’s a reason why we met. I’m leaving the world soon, and I know that you are… deciding whether or not to stay.”
How much should she tell him?
Enough for him to believe in the future.
“There will be this beautiful…”
“…this beautiful woman. If you stay, you can save her.”
Purpose – and for a split second, it was enough, but conclusions hit, and he bowed into himself again.
“Even if I do, she’ll think I’m a monster.”
For a moment she will… I’m sorry, she will. But then she’ll remember. She’ll know you by your words and deeds.
“No. She will love you, and you will love her.”
His eyes opened wide, his mouth went slack, a question on his lips he couldn’t yet form. It was as if he was being offered an unbelievable gift, one he needed, but never imagined he might receive.
He shook his head, but without the bitter vehemence of before. “That’s impossible.”
“Impossible, Vincent?” she protested. “What might the future make possible?”
Her hands opened in wonderment. “How is it we are here, away from our bodies, sitting in a cave under the city?”
How are you possible?
Cathy would search for the possible, in her books, in her life, in her relationships. Vincent would search through poetry and literature, and years, and miles, finally realizing what he truly searched for was what he thought impossible, someone to speak to his intellect, his spirit, who would look within him out of love.
And just as she would see him, he would see her.
Cathy would have to create armor to grow up without a mother. She would have to find her way. Charles was an extraordinary father, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Charles had seen past the upper crust façade that Caroline had put on to survive in her world. Could this extraordinary boy do the same for Cathy? Could they do the same for each other?
Connection: He would need that, and Cathy would, too… and hope, hope of connection to another soul.
This boy was dying because he was starving for hope.
“How do you know?” The question felt like a last grab at his suicidal plans.
“I don’t think I should tell you exactly.”
He narrowed his eyes, more in confusion, she had to believe, than in doubt.
“I think I can safely say I know you both, and I know you will love each other, Vincent.”
Just as he would save her, she would save him.
He started to cry, but this time it felt like more from relief than sorrow.
She rubbed his arm and tried to let him have his cry out, trying not to feel anxious, but how long could he stay away from his body? She didn’t want to, but after a few moments she thought it best to press the issue.
“Will you stay, for me… for her?
Will you love her for me, as I might?
“Will you protect her?”
“She will love me?” A tiny voice spoke from a heart grasping at life.
“I promise you, beautiful boy,” she whispered, holding his cheek where the downy fur was just beginning to grow, “she will love everything you are.”
He closed his eyes and a half smile graced his features. He wanted to believe, but startled with a new inquiry.
“How long will we have to wait before we find each another?”
‘We,’ he already thinks of them as ‘we.’
“Oh,” she laughed, and it was good to laugh again. “A lifetime, according to the young, and mere moments to the old.”
She stroked his long golden hair and added with a sigh, “Time is a funny business, Vincent.”
She reached out a hand.
“Now, will you go back with me?”
He nodded as his clawed and furred fingers curled around her own.
Suddenly Caroline was back with Kristopher in the original room in the underground world. Vincent’s father cried next to the young man’s motionless body, but already the boy was beginning to color with life.
“Father,” he whispered with a weak rasp, Vincent’s chest starting to rise and fall. “Did Odysseus find his way home?”
“Vincent!” The man enveloped his son in an ecstatic embrace. “Oh, my boy, I thought we lost you!”
Kristopher placed a hand on her shoulder. “He’ll live,” he sighed with relief. “He’ll grow up and find Cathy.” He took off his cap and pretended to wipe his brow with his coat sleeve. “That was a little too close for my taste.”
“And a little too close for mine as well, Mr. Gentian. I had to tell him some of the future,” she confessed. “Is that a problem? Will he remember?”
Kristopher nodded his head. “Part of him will.” He smiled. “Like a dream. I think he’s meant to.” The artist – of course Kristopher was an artist. How had she not realized that before – led her with a hand on her back. He continued, an air of amusement in his voice. “Caroline, I believe you’ve just created the most romantic soul in the whole world – candles, poetry, the works. He may not remember, remember, but you’ve given him what no one else in this world could. You’ve given him hope.”
One room transformed into another. Charles sat in the chair next to her bed looking for all the world like he was praying. Her fitfully sleeping body burned through the morphine. She could feel it pulling her spirit back inside.
“How long do I have… before…”
He shrugged. “A couple days, I think.” He seemed discomposed on the subject. “I really don’t know. I’ve never been good with time or the rules, so…” He met her gaze. “But I promise, I’ll be here at the end.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gentian… Kristopher. It means a great deal to me to know I’ll see a friendly face.”
A rush, pressure, pain again, but this time, manageable pain.
“Charles,” she said, startling him out of his contemplation.
“Yes, my darling?” He half stood, at her command.
“I want Cathy.”
Catherine. He calls her Catherine.
“Are you sure, sweetheart?”
“Yes… I want to see her.”
Her husband left the room with a slow, reluctant step.
The ache began its march across her chest again, lengthening the lifetime it seemed to take for Cathy to come to her.
Rare city sunlight struck her daughter’s golden brown hair as the girl peeked around the open door.
She would be so lovely.
She was lovely now.
Caroline smiled in spite of the fatigue and growing discomfort, regretting her former curse of spring. How could she? This was beauty she could take to the end and beyond.
“Cathy,” she sighed, trying to smile. “Come here, my love.”
But the child hovered at the door.
She’s afraid of me. It’s new, but understandable. I must look so terrible to her … a monster…
“I was thinking of some fairy tales… sweetheart.”
The girl took a hesitant step forward.
“What’s your favorite, Cathy?”
She looked down, unable to meet her mother’s eyes.
Her Blue Fairy Book opened automatically to the tale. It was also the first film Charles had taken Cathy to, a lovely memory to build their new relationship on. Charles enjoyed taking Cathy out on the town. That was good. They’d need that.
“I’ve always liked that one… as well.”
A sweeping ache from just under her ribcage gave an unnatural pause to the conversation and a space to think. Sleeping Beauty – an unconscious girl, a sleeping statue, waiting for life to happen. No, that wasn’t enough anymore. This was a new age, and Kristopher had shown her – even a dying woman of fragile flesh had other gifts to offer.
“Cathy, I wanted to give you something and tell you another story.”
Cathy looked unsure.
“Here, go to my bureau.”
Despite her distress at her mother’s discomfort, the child did as she was bid.
“See the rose in the middle the dresser?”
The girl immediately knew the one and picked it out of the display of perfume bottles and vanity items. She’d been told it was too fragile to play with all her life, so, of course, she was familiar with the forbidden treasure.
“Your daddy gave me that. Now I want you to have it.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
The little girl cupped it in her palm, the same way the man she’d love would in the future.
He will awaken you.
“Keep it safe, my darling.”
“I will, Mommy,” Cathy insisted, gazing at the sculpture. “I promise.”
“I know you will… my pretty one.”
Breath was getting elusive. Caroline took some time while Cathy was engaged to catch it.
“It’s funny,” Caroline said, when she could finally continue. “My story has a rose in it, too.”
Cathy wasn’t paying much attention as her fingers traced the ivory petals.
“Listen, my darling,” Caroline called, and the girl looked up.
“Once upon a time, there was a girl who was beautiful, but not just on the outside.” Caroline dragged in air. “She had a loving heart, and despite losing almost everything… she kept it, even after she met a prince who looked like a beast—”
“Mommy,” Cathy interrupted. “I already know this story.”
“Good,” sighed Caroline, the weight returning to her lungs. She was so tired. “You can… tell it to me then.”
However, Cathy questioned her instead. So much like her father.
“Mommy, why did the Beast get so angry when Beauty’s father tried to take the rose?”
“Well…” Caroline began, trying to shift away from the hurt. “The Beast lived in his castle, surrounded by stone. The roses were all the natural beauty he had. They were his heart.”
The girl contemplated the answer for a second before asking further, “The Beast loved Beauty?”
“Very, very much. He loved her… because of her generosity, not just her face, not even because she could break the spell. She saw the man inside him.”
And so shall you.
You will be the woman who can talk to anyone, who will dance in the rain, and who will try to save those left behind.
“The Beast gave her his roses, his castle, his mirror, everything he had… even…” Caroline wheezed. “…the freedom to choose.”
It took almost everything in her to get through the last words, but the girl didn’t realize. Did they ever? A child always had more demands.
“But he was going to die without her, Mommy,” Cathy objected.
“You’re right, little one. Without her… he lost hope.”
Charles returned and hovered in the doorway, looking so unlike himself, timid and unsure.
“Come on, Cathy. We should let Mommy rest.”
Cathy turned to both parents, unsure to whose wishes her loyalty lay.
“You can see Mommy when you get back from the park.”
Charles, so lovingly dishonest…
They were so close now. Caroline could already see them, in the sunlight, in dust motes, waiting for her to truly let go. They were already here.
Cathy appeared, for a moment, unwilling to leave Caroline’s company, but then heeded her father, ready for retreat from the unnamed thing that had devastated her family. The child gathered the rose to her chest and bent to kiss her mother goodbye.
“Cathy,” Caroline whispered, her bone hand cradling the face of her beautiful daughter. “In the Beast’s heart, he was always the prince.”
Another breath. Another gift.
“You know him… by the way he speaks… to your heart,” Caroline offered. “Remember.”
If Cathy – her mother’s beloved monument to the future – gave one last embrace and whispered, “I’ll remember,” Caroline never knew.