Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. Not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory do we come.
Drifting into the present, a warmth, like sunlight felt though high chinks in stone, through grates and window shutters, touched Vincent and he bathed in it, until his conscious mind caught up with the fact that this could not be. The deepest rock and circumstance made it impossible. The only light that greeted his newly opened eyes was the light of their diminishing torch.
Vincent wakened further, taking stock of what and when. Although he didn’t have the tapping of the pipes or the movements of the subway trains to help him estimate time, the lessened flame, the dull ache just starting in his back, and his own internal clock told him they had slept a few hours, perhaps three or four. Catherine’s body still curled across his lap in sleep; he was grateful for her rest.
Seconds passed and the encompassing warmth persisted. He could almost smell it. It touched no part of his body, yet it reached everywhere all at once.
It was his son.
His hand had lain protectively over the child while they slept, and now he could feel the baby move under his palm. Their recent storm of emotions had masked the child’s, but as Catherine’s mind swam deep in a dreamless sleep and his mind calmed with hers, Vincent could focus on the tiny being.
A new soul grew inside the person he loved, and even more astonishing, Vincent could feel him growing, strengthening.
It was a miracle.
Vincent’s earliest memories reverberated with the emotions of others. At first a curse, the feelings overwhelmed his young mind, especially fear, sadness, hatred – such basic emotions, especially in the world Above, so easily broadcast to him. Later he learned control – how to use and also forgo the ability – but he had never before connected to a child unborn. Perhaps their shared genetic heritage allowed him to glimpse into this new life, or because the baby was a part of her. Whatever the reason, the beauty of what was shared, the gift of it, caught him as a whirlwind through his heart. It drew up from the depths pride and love and bewilderment.
He had seen Catherine hold the babies of the Tunnels. He saw the longing she couldn’t hide when he had cradled Lena’s infant daughter. If it had been in his power to give her what she wished then, without fear of what it might bring and what it could take from her, he would have made her his own that very night. It was what he wanted, where his instinct pushed. Mate, it urged. She wants to be yours, it promised, but he had lived in fear for so long, for her and any child he would father. Terror had been the only thing that could override their connection, the pull of her.
He knew the desire, but only in its denial. He had watched as friends delved into the sea of creation without hesitation. He did not blame them; his burdens weren’t theirs. He was left pacing, contemplating that ocean on a grey stone coast, more alone each love declared, each child born. His questions could not be answered from above the surface, despite the others’ experience. Would the waves batter him back, shattered? Would he drown in the unknown current? Worse, would the water reveal him, wash away artifice and expose a monster living in his soul?
Within this cave she had beckoned him forward, and what resistance remained fell to her siren call. He had rushed past the feared breakers into her drawing tide. The consuming sea took him within the lifting waves of desire and Fate, and in their ebb and flow he had found a satiety he had never thought possible – to be loved, to be stripped to his core and find himself a new name: Lover. That was her power – to find, to hold and accept. These were gifts he never expected to be given, cherished beyond all others, but they came at a price. Now he must face where the waves had washed him – a place where his heart lay open, exposed and doubly vulnerable.
Within the dark of her body she had ripened his heart, increased it to live in two separate beings, both infinitely precious, but two who must both endure the narrow passage, the implacable testing ground of life. He dreaded it more than any battle…all the unknowns, the possibilities. Yet under all that fear, perched within his soul, plumed with love and reverence for her strength, the thing with feathers.* It sang its forever song: Wait and Hope.
Vincent tried to hold her steady while adjusting to relieve his back so he could rest with her again, but then he felt…something…although she did not seem to, not yet, more a feeling from the child. It was a growing sense of curious…different…more as the tightening began. Less than thirty seconds later, her body loosened, and the baby became tranquil once more.
Part of Vincent grasped the import of this. She had experienced the clutching heaviness in the last few days and, in turn, so had he. They had been intermittent and fleeting, or a constant slight achiness with no boundaries. This was different, more concentrated, acute.
It felt like a beginning.
Questions ran roughly over him, his thoughts battering waves.
Is it truly time for our child’s birth?
Will she survive?
What kind of parents will we be?
Will she survive?
What kind of child?
Will he be like me?
Will she survive?
He had to dam the flood of his thoughts or else she would waken. He slowed his breath, the way he had been taught as a child – to notice, not judge, just be.
Breathe in and feel the rock beneath you; breathe out the conflict. Sink. Listen to the movement of the earth surrounding your body. Be one with it. Feel her breath on your neck, feel her heart beat slow with sleep. Anchor under her weight in your arms; anchor to your son under your hand. Feel her reality. Sink further.
It was long enough between sensations to fall into her calm and allow sleep to start to claim him again, but as soon as the tightening began he was back to full consciousness. Catherine stirred – a hitched breath only – then fell back into rest once more.
Many moments passed, dominated by colliding thoughts that surged, but as the moments passed, they ebbed away in the quiet darkness. Long enough to think aberration, false alarm, and then another contraction – they were contractions, he had to accede. He held perfectly still, anticipating. Another contraction a handful of minutes later and Catherine was beginning to waken, despite his efforts to keep her comfortable.
This cannot be.
Only three days together, three beautiful and torturous days, his heart rebelled.
But his deeper thoughts warned, Nothing is certain. Life is not manageable and need not be fair.
Vincent could feel the baby’s new anxiety. His world was changing. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered as he tried to send calm to the child, but the baby was frightened anyway.
I know. So am I.
Change was coming.
Even the child was cognizant of change.
At first, all Catherine could discern were Vincent’s textured fingers gently stroking her face, drawing her from an uneasy sleep, and then, a moment later, the tight gathering band low in her belly. He had wakened her just prior to its starting and, in the split second before it took all her thoughts, she realized these must have been going on while she slept. Panic gripped her along with the contraction, but then, instinctively, Vincent became her touchstone, as he had so many other crucial times. Her breath deepened as the twisting inside her grew. She placed herself into his hand, where the pads of his fingers brushed jaw and neck; his hand and his embrace became her focus.
She didn’t need him to acknowledge what was happening; his worry was palpable.
She looked up into his eyes from where she lay in his arms and shared this movement towards the new. The contraction heralded the dismantling of the certain and the giving way to potential. She could feel his rising panic – for her, for him, for them. She wanted to spare him. Her need to rescue him from his fears, she felt certain, was as urgent and strong as any he ever had for her.
This is an old path, my love, she wanted to say, to bypass his doubts to deflect her own. We will see this to the end, together.
Once the sensation passed they stayed open to one another, in congruence, gazing into each other. She spoke with words and without words, through the webs that bound them.
“This isn’t how I wanted to start our life together…”
…In necessity instead of choice, in fear instead of joy.
“But you and our child are what I wanted – the only thing that I have ever, truly, known I wanted. I love…You.”
She emphasized the last word, hoping the declaration and the feelings she projected behind it would push past his barriers, so he would believe that, out of an entire universe, he was chosen.
He was about to speak, but before his mouth opened she felt his words tossed away, unnecessary, a sacrifice to a moment too perfect to utter within. His singular lips kissed her forehead and, for an instant, they were all just one – together.
She smiled as his rough chin rubbed against her. This was a long process, she remembered vaguely, but to ease his mind she knew they would need to start back home, soon. It was time to face the next step, and the next, and the next…
“All right,” she said, accepting the now and unknown on little sleep, but as long as he was with her, she would, she could.
Catherine turned up to him and kissed his cheek. “We aren’t going to catch a break, are we?” She laughed lightly into his jaw.
“No.” A smile and a short laughing breath burst from him along with the word, his tension lessened for the moment.
A small victory…
She wanted to just stay and trail her lips back and forth across his skin, to deny, to forget what could be happening, but instead she motioned for him to help her up.
As he did, a change in perspective allowed them a glimpse of odd form from the floor of the cavern. Only after he was certain of her balance did he bend down and sift through dust after the possible object. He drew out the metal chain of her necklace, the crystal he had given her still intact, arenose and clouded, but miraculously returned to them.
“Oh, Vincent, I thought I had lost it forever. Thank you….” She took it from his fingers as pressure seized her again, low in her belly. She wrapped her palm around his gift, the sharp corners biting but anchoring. She spoke with effort through the sensation, “…good omen…” then she was silent until it was over.
When done, she arched her back, stretched, took a deep breath and announced, “Well, I guess we have to get back.”
She reached for him, ran her hand along the raised pattern of his cotton shirt, down his arm, and stroked the fur of his hand just before placing her palm in his. She squeezed, and then drew him forward towards the light.
“It looks like this ship is about to set sail.”
It took them three times as long to get back.
The walking, at first, slowed the contractions. They were entering the Catacombs before the next one came on; but, this was just the calm before the storm. After the first true set of stairs they returned, but with greater force.
With each pain she would either hold the wall or him and let the wave lift her up and set her back down, just breathing or dancing with the sensation. She had no guide, she simply moved, unconscious of place and “should.” As soon as it was over, she slowly walked on.
By far, the worst of the journey was the bridges. Vincent never questioned the tautness of old rope, the strength of dry wood, or cursed the deficits of design more in his life. They would wait until a wave passed before striking out in uncertainty. He pulled her forearm almost painfully, he knew, rushing them across the spans. She understood his fear, respected it, but their luck held, the contractions waiting until they were safely across on solid ground, before coming on again.
The same couldn’t be said for the stairs.
Not a few times, Vincent fought the compulsion to just pick her up and carry her back to the home Tunnels, especially when faced with another set of steps. It would have made him feel better to be with Mary and Father, but she met his impatience with reassurance and determination. She would walk back home with him, each step her own.
And this is how we face the future, he told himself, half attending, half supporting her every rise, trying to match her courage; each footfall is one over our terrors. This is how our life must move on, but it is hard.
Most of the journey was silent, hands held, words unnecessary, but on entering one of the natural caverns – one they called The Viking’s Hall, for its long length and impossible symmetry – she offered him her wonder. “I didn’t really notice this place before. It’s amazing.” He looked as well, his eyes renewed with hers, recognizing that every other occasion she had traveled through must have been marked by blinding concern. She examined the walls with her touch, and raised her gaze to the high ceiling.
“You were right,” she said unexpectedly, and then turned to him. “You were right to take us back. We needed…the time. I don’t think I could have told you…any of it, without being away from everyone, or going to the cave. Thank you.”
She offered him confidence when he doubted, gratitude when he expected reproach.
Since their beginning, her gifts had always been astonishing.
After what seemed like endless hours of walking they finally reached the outskirts of the main tunnels. With Catherine’s permission, Vincent sent a message on the pipes of their location and progress. He knew Mary would come to them and the others would stay away unless called. Mary would make sure of it.
Birth does not make good theater – the more people watching, the longer and more painful the acts.
Mary, proud of her knowledge, would remind them of this time and again. It was easy to forget, between the infrequent Tunnel births, especially for the children. They so wanted to be a part of everything, but Mary was insistent: unless you had a job, you were hindering the process.
By the time she reached them, with her Pinard in hand, Vincent’s anxiety was increasing with each contraction.
“Oh, my dears,” she started, out of breath, hand braced against the wall, “I knew ‘Christmas’ was coming.” She beamed at them. “I just didn’t know the day, but the baby did, I guess.”
Vincent would have protested that his child had no idea this was going to happen, but concern for Catherine stayed his words. Catherine stood with her head down, one hand holding the wall, the other on her hip, as another contraction began.
Mary knelt next to the slowly swaying woman, placed the large horn on Catherine’s belly, and took out a broken-banded watch from a pocket in her dress. She listened on the smaller end, her finger moving up and down in a quick rhythm. Vincent noticed the watch said nearly half-past ten.
“Simply beautiful,” she pronounced after a few moments, lowering the horn and putting it and her watch back into her apron. “The baby sounds perfect. And how are you both holding up?” She ducked her head, trying to find Catherine’s eyes under a cascade of hair. Mary pulled it back with her fingers.
Catherine sighed and smiled under the older woman’s gentle hand, but it was plain the journey and the pain were beginning to wear on her. “Okay, I guess.”
“Good,” Mary said happily. “Let’s get you to the hospital chamber. Father and Peter will want to check a few things, but then we’ll get you something to eat and drink. Do you think you can eat?”
“I don’t know,” Catherine answered. “Maybe…toast or something,”
“Perfect,” Mary said. “I’ll have William send us some.” At the mention of the man’s name, Catherine’s eyes opened wide in alarm.
“Oh, don’t worry, dear,” Mary said quickly, rubbing Catherine’s arm, trying to soothe. “He’s already over it.” She dismissed the painful episode, batting the air with her other hand. “Cullen and James and Father, well, a lot of people, talked to him. I am sorry I didn’t see your distress. He’s sorry too, and for William to be sorry, well…I think you’ve done us all a great service.” Mary chuckled.
Catherine half-smiled at the older woman’s words, somewhat becalmed.
Escorted by Vincent, her arm securely locked in his, and with Mary rubbing her lower back through each contraction, their small party slowly progressed home.
Once they got Catherine to the facilities next to the hospital chamber, Mary pulled Vincent aside, her composed demeanor a blatant contrast to his own.
“We didn’t get time to talk as I hoped we would, Vincent.” Mary touched his arm. “Father, Peter, and I have agreed, because of…of her blood, and the baby…, because of what we know about your troubles with medication in the past, we don’t want to give her anything…for the pain, unless absolutely necessary. We can’t predict how she and the baby will react.” She looked him in the eye, contrite, although sure in their decision.
Vincent’s hand moved to his forehead, his eyes closed, trying to grasp what this meant for Catherine, not quite believing what he was hearing. The labor was already getting difficult for her to manage.
“It’s always hard on the fathers, Vincent…” she tried to pacify him with her experience, “…but for you…. We’ll all understand if you have to leave,” she added for him, an escape.
No, never that, not ever again.
Then she added, certitude from her many births plain in her voice, “But if you stay, understand that at some point she will probably doubt she can go on. She may say things, feel things…but you must be strong, for her, Vincent. You can’t doubt her ability to do this. Just look to us to see how things are going.” And then Mary hugged him around the neck, pulling him down to her level, somehow transferring part of her confidence to him.
She eased her embrace until just her hands held his arms. Her face beamed. “I have been so blessed to be a part of your life, Vincent. I can’t wait to be a part of your son’s.”
“Thank you, Mary, for everything.”
“Try not to worry, dear. All is well.” She rubbed his arm.
Father and Peter were gathering some supplies at the other end of the room when Catherine shuffled back to them.
Mary was ready with questions. “Did you see any blood, even pink or brown?”
“Yes…some…a little. Is that all right?” Catherine asked, taking Vincent’s hand.
“Yes, it’s good,” answered Father, hobbling towards them from the far end of the chamber. “I think it’s starting.”
Catherine turned to him, alarmed. “Starting?”
Mary drew her back with an embrace around the shoulders and smiled. “Don’t worry, dear. First babies almost always take their time. It’s normal.”
Vincent didn’t need to listen to their bond to feel Catherine’s trepidation; it was plain in her eyes. Clearly this was a climb far higher and more rugged than it seemed at first sight.
“Yes, don’t worry, Catherine,” Father agreed as he wrapped a blood pressure cuff on her arm. They all hushed as he placed the disk of the stethoscope on her arm, pumped in the air, and took his reading. A moment later, the hiss of the final air escaping and the removal of his earpieces signaled he was finished. He continued, “You seem to be moving along just fine. Mary is right, everything is normal.”
Catherine eased, and Vincent couldn’t help but inwardly thank Father for the reassurance.
At that moment, to Vincent, normal was the most beautiful word ever spoken.
Rolling up his stethoscope, Father turned and spoke directly to him. “I’ll have food sent to your chamber, Vincent. Why don’t you two go there for a while, to rest after your long walk? Mary or I can sit with you, if you wish.”
Deep jade met sea blue. You, her eyes said. She wanted quiet and peace and him, only him, to feel safe, and she needed safety.
I am with you, Catherine. Everything that I am, everything that I can give, I will give. This is our path. Every step will be ours.
Unable to look away from her gaze, Vincent replied, “I will call for you if anything changes. I’ll know…” Astonished, but determined he said nothing more.
“Fine, Vincent, fine.” The older man patted his son on the arm. Father pivoted and tried to get Catherine’s attention. “Then after a rest, maybe to the bathing pool?” he offered. But the now-serious woman had no hope of answering while the contraction held onto her. She grabbed Vincent’s forearms, rested her head into his chest and circled slowly with the pain.
Father seemed to give up and addressed his son once again. “Just call us if you need us, or if she feels a great deal of pressure, all right?”
He looked back with open empathy at the laboring woman. “We’ll stop by from time to time to see how you’re faring.”
* Hope is a Thing with Feathers, (254), Emily Dickinson