One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
Shuffling footsteps in the entrance of a barely lit private alcove off the main library, the old doctor lost in a hundred different concerns, not the least of them an absent son, a heart-worn woman, and a child ready to be born. Mary’s message this morning – unexpected yet expected, led to a gentle examination of a woman whose spirit seemed locked away under too many burdens.
A child who comes in strife, can leave in sorrow. An old saying, and a reminder for every birth, but turmoil wasn’t always easy to avoid.
You can’t love me, Jacob. You have a woman already sleeping in your bed, a ghost, and until she is gone, you will never love any other woman.
Grace had been right, and the strife remained. That child left in sorrow, well after his bloody and traumatic birth, but he still left, and his mother, lost.
He nearly pushed another mother-to-be this morning, but the steel was there in her tired eyes. She would not reveal – perhaps to Vincent, but not to him. She had trusted, in the past, taking on burdens of a beloved’s illness that she felt were hers, but that was before her time away from them.
Mary must lead in this as she usually did. She would be comfort, optimism.
He had sent the women to lunch, and every careful footstep away from them echoed “change” to his old ears. Catherine brought them change, tested limits. No matter what the outcome, their lives would be different. Trepidation was the only sane answer to her.
If the candle near him hadn’t sputtered and glinted off golden hair, he wouldn’t have seen the unnaturally still figure.
“Oh, good Lord, Vincent, you startled me!”
Father swayed in the doorway of his private chamber, one hand steadying himself against the ragged rock; the other held his cane over his heart. Vincent sat in the many-times-mended chair, next to the many-times-mended desk. Even at Father’s distress, he barely moved; only his eyes glanced from folded hands.
A memory: a silent man, one who would never complain, perhaps for fear of losing his new place, whose bandages had hid the hot, red lines of infection that lived on well past when a wound from a simple fall should have healed. The recognition of that concealed hurt, Jacob’s first test, and first triumph in his new – and what would become forever – home. His previously unknown skill, seeing what was needed, and finding the resources to fulfill the need, made a place for him. “Asset” they called him then…”leader,” later.
The man’s name was lost in time, but not the lesson. It was something he had learned early, had to learn, for the community – what Mary called his greatest strength: to recognize when a person was close to their limits, at the edge of endurance for whatever reason, and find what was required to tie the frayed ends together – confrontation, redirection, consolation…some or all. Vincent had grown to become Father’s greatest ally in this, his empathy an invaluable tool in the war to keep the peace, but Vincent could be no help to himself. The boy was fighting on far too many fronts, and a civil war within.
They were on the edges again, near the limits, and so the question: what did he need? Him or her? Although “both” seemed the more likely answer, Vincent lingered away from her for a reason, but as with her, he might not be ready for Father to press the wound. It was never easy to see the clear path with his own. Was it easy for any parent?
The older man gathered himself for the encounter, rising past the aches and settling that came with years, limped in, and took the chair opposite. For many moments they sat without speaking.
He waited, hoping Vincent would begin, provide an opening, a welcome inside, but after the silence lengthened rather than retreated, realized that his son would not start, and probably half-hoped Father would not either – an impasse that could not last.
“Would you like any tea? It’s almost lunch. William has a special….” But Vincent just shook his head.
Another silence, followed by another necessitated beginning, akin to pulling teeth. “I’m glad you’ve come back. I was worried,” Father added before he could stop himself.
“…that I would not return?” Vincent’s dangerous voice asked.
“No, of course not. I….” But then he stopped, cognizant of the spurious question. Vincent was being intentionally obtuse, and that, even on easy days, could be vexing. Frustration would not be conducive to finding any resolutions or ease.
Of course he came back. She’s here. He would always return to her – a truth, a charge leveled, and not the first time.
Vincent sighed, placing his hand on the worn wood of the desk as if testing its solidity. “I wasn’t far. Mouse sent me home.”
I might need some direction from Mouse. Clearly he can reach you, even if I cannot.
Vincent picked up the papers Peter left, studying them, looking for answers that they did not contain. Was that why he was here? It reminded Father of the fallout from the night previous.
“Peter feels terrible for causing you so much worry.”
Vincent dropped the papers onto the desk, exasperated, but remained silent, and Father had no choice but to continue. “He thought you would understand…his excitement that Catherine could carry your child, and against all odds. We didn’t know…we worried for years that…your unique nature would leave you…unable to father children at all.”
“Or shouldn’t….” Vincent would not meet his eyes.
“Vincent, this is not helpful.” Father responded, the frustration too clear in his voice. He needed to assure him, not drive him away. He leaned in closer to his son. “Please remember there are myriad ways to control bleeding after birth. We will do everything in our power to keep Catherine safe.”
The defeated man sighed. “I know,” Vincent assured, the tiniest spatter of faith revealed in simple words. “I…overreacted,” he offered.
“Well, Peter realized, after you…left, that what he discovered about Catherine, how he…presented it, might upset you.” Father couldn’t keep from fussing with the papers, his fingers unconsciously curling the edges. “He was very sorry indeed.”
“For the truth?” The anger within Vincent persisted, shocking the other man’s movement still.
“The truth cannot be denied, Father,” Vincent’s self-reproach evident in his crouched manner, in his biting voice. “The truth is, I’ve changed her. I know you feared…the likelihood…that I might be her undoing.”
And in being that, destroy myself need not be uttered between the solemn men.
Vincent quieted, again looking down, his feelings too exposed to meet his parent’s gaze it would seem. Instead, his claw drew up the edges of the printout. “I truly wanted…I simply wished for my love…to offer her some…peace.”
Father nodded at the idea, but only in affirmation of his son’s good heart. Peace was on the other side of the raging river. He could coach them, pray for them, but they had to ford it.
“Oh, ‘peace’…I see….” He swiveled in his seat, using his cane to help him around then pointing with the stick toward the bookshelves. “And tell me, Vincent, in what romance did you find that?”
Father looked back to his son, who finally met his gaze fully.
“I believe,” the older man slowly began, trying to choose words with consideration, “that love between a man and a woman is not always about peace, or comfort, or need, but it is moving forward through life with each other…not that I am any sort of expert.”
“Yes, Father,” Vincent agreed straight-faced, the smallest humor leeching through the bitterness, streaking the blue of his eyes. “Truly, the blind leading the blind.…”
Father almost countered, Failure has its own lessons, but thought the better of it before the words could pass his lips.
“Vincent.” Father rested his hand on his son’s. He had to hear him, had to understand. “From everything I’ve seen, she is healthy, the child is healthy, and she is safe here with us. We must let go of the past and all its ‘should have’s’ and fears. We can only move forward now.”
And forward his son moved, out of the chair, nearly leaping, humor spent, distress propelling his powerful stride. Father had to react swiftly, too quickly for his worn bones, or else he too would be out of his chair, but not half so gracefully.
“I know this, Father! I have told myself countless times since finding her that we must hope for the future, live moment to moment together, but she can’t. She tries, desperately, but she is not healthy. She does not feel the safety.” Vincent’s hands balled to fists as he paced the chamber wall to wall – this gesture, this plagued movement, too familiar to Father’s eyes. “She cannot sleep. She is haunted by her captivity. The walls of that room cage her and I cannot release her.”
Ay, there’s the rub…
Vincent’s voice, wretched and rage-filled, cracked to a strained whisper. “Ghosts and demons will not let her rest, and I don’t….”
The anxiety was shared, passed from son to father, hitting the doctor hard. He hoped his impressions were wrong, that his daughter in all but name wasn’t as fragile as his instincts told him. If she was fighting herself, if she could not rest, then Vincent wouldn’t. They were much too close to the birth – the time that they would need all their physical and emotional endurance. It was unsafe for both of them – all of them, he amended.
Dear Lord, just a little more time to heal, please.
“What do you think will help her?”
Vincent stopped and threw up his hands in defeat. “I don’t know where to begin! There is so much she will not say, that I know is there, but she will not share with me.”
Yes, not with me either, son.
“But surely your empathic ability….”
“…means nothing if she hides her feelings from me!” Vincent countered, and for a moment there was a taste of their jagged past together and Father blamed her for his son’s distress, but concern and affection would not allow the censure to fully live.
A child frightened of what is needed to heal the wound will hide the hurt. Could she, a woman whose strength of will I have cursed and blessed, been taken back that far? He could only answer himself with the deepest regret for what she and Vincent would have to face. After months of suffering and silence and living with death as a constant possibility…how could she not?
“I came to you for your counsel, Father, but I fear there is nothing….”
Amare et sapere vix deo conceditur.*
They had been at this place before. Soon, in his anger and despair, his son would stop listening, and anything said would be lost, rain battering against an expedient shelter. Father had never attempted to condense this knowledge, the texts, the experience of dealing with such afflictions before, but he had this one chance to help his son, this one chance to reach through and pull them back to the light.
The weight is so heavy, the obligation, the chance of failure too large, but that is what it is to lead, and to be a parent.
One day, son, you will know.…
“Well…” Father began as he crossed the rough ground and placed a veined and aged hand on Vincent’s tensed solid arm. Perhaps the connection would keep him present, the old man hoped. “I have found the simplest, most direct route is to find the point where a person lost their way. You must discover that place and time.”
Vincent closed his eyes in thought. Did he know where that might be? When blue met blue again, Father was certain his son had at least an idea.
“And Vincent,” Father continued, “once you find it, the source, they always fight you.”
That startled Vincent from of his searching thoughts. “But why?”
“Because it is so deep, to explore it…” Father endeavored to explain what had taken him years to learn, “to cleanse the wound, for lack of a better term, can be akin to…well, the harshest physical pain.”
Vincent nodded, but Father had to elucidate – a labyrinth of hazards exists there. “They are almost always ashamed…guilty.” Vincent could not understand this aspect, if his knit brow and quizzical stare spoke truly to Father’s eyes. This man before him had almost infinite capacity to understand and forgive all those he loved, save himself. How, Vincent asked without speaking, could she believe that she had a hand in this?
“All of them, every one my son, in one way or another has said to me, ‘I should have.…’ ‘I should have known better. I should have known more. I should have fought harder. I should have done something, something different…’ even when, especially when, there was nothing they could have done. Convincing them of this can be the greatest challenge.”
The younger man ingested the words, and for long moments only the midday pipe harmonies and the trains’ egressing rhythms filled the space between them.
“They feel that in some way…” Vincent said slowly, venturing into this territory, visited before but never mapped, “they caused the damage that’s been inflicted upon them.”
“Yes,” Father agreed, with melancholy satisfaction that Vincent did understand, even with only his inadequate words as a guide.
The older man gently smiled as he pushed back his son’s wild hair and moved to hold his face in his hands, just as he had done a thousand times in the boy’s childhood. He marveled how straightforward and uncomplicated that time seemed by comparison. It surely didn’t feel so then.
“I hope you can help her, and if there is anything you think I can do, please do not hesitate to ask. You say she is closed off even to you…but…Vincent, press the wound. Only then can you assess the extent of the damage, only then can you help it heal.”
Father sighed, and with an unexpected joy allowed a new but certain belief fly from him. “You know, no one is good enough for your own child,” a sad smile creased his worn face, “but she comes very, very close.”
The boy was quiet, so Father, following his natural inclinations, filled the void with advice. “I know, worrying feels like an occupation right now. Get used to that feeling,” he advised. “It never leaves.”
He stroked his son’s hair and pulled him down to meet him head to head. “I have known such heartache and joy being your father. I am so grateful that you will have that chance as well.” If he had not been close, Father may not have seen the tears almost escaping his son’s closed eyes. He quickly wiped them away with his rough thumb and continued stroking his son’s weighted head. “It is such a gift. It truly is the best of times and the worst of…” but his words were cut by concern.
A grimace and shudder, like physical pain, consumed Vincent, an attack from another place. The blue of his troubled eyes met Father’s for the briefest moment, and then he was gone.
* Latin, “Even a god finds it hard to love and be wise at the same time.”