The Thing with Feathers
They walked together now, each early morning to the park entrance. Arriving before the dawn, when the birds alone had noticed the new day, they would stand outside, side by side, quiet, alive, preparing to part.
“It’s a lovely day for a run in the park,” he said.
“You say that every morning I go for a run,” she replied.
“I mean it, every morning...to see you dart into the brightening day, along the path to the lake...you are a thing of beauty.”
“I am so happy, Vincent.”
“Be well today, Catherine.”
“Until this evening....” He bent to touch her lips before shadowing back into the tunnel, his fingers slipping out of her hand, sorry to leave her, even if only for hours.
She did dart into the day. Sorry to leave him, as well, though the cool spring air strengthened her, energized her. The sun, when it broke through the pink clouds, sent rays to the earth, and on them, a poem to remember, to recite to him on their pillow that evening.
Another year had almost come ‘round. She could remember Before, though it seemed the life of someone she’d merely known, not her own. To say all had changed that night was serious understatement, yet often those were her only words for it. Her despair had been terrible and she’d known her first great sorrow. She’d had no experience to show her that she could suffer and yet be healed and that she would find hope.
He’d showed her the way through the darkness, carried her, encouraged her, enjoyed her. He’d given her a most brilliant gift, a reflection of her best self.
How wonderful it was to love him.
Catherine made her circuit through the park, across the bridge and around the lake. She was not the first out today, passing a few couples running in easy conversation, a few silent cyclers lost in speed, heads down....
And then she saw the woman again. She was striking and of an age when experience and years war with a still youthful, active spirit, perhaps sixty, slim and fit, with smooth skin, tanned in the way of someone accustomed to outdoor work; her hair was in a long, thick, silvery braid. She sat on the same park bench, facing the lake, alone, perfectly still as if in meditation. She’d been there every morning for days now.
Today, Catherine slowed her run as she neared the bench by the lake. The woman met Catherine’s gaze with a slight smile. “Not a New Yorker,” Catherine thought and she stopped her run a few paces out.
“Good morning! Isn’t it beautiful out today?” Catherine surprised the woman, she could tell, but her response was warm.
“It most definitely is. Spring time in New York....”
“May I sit with you a minute?”
The woman scooted to the side, patted the bench. “Please do. Some mornings are just meant to be shared.”
“I saw you yesterday and, I think, every day this week, sitting right here.”
“I noticed you too. You run with a smile on your face. Almost everyone else seems to be, I don’t know, balancing their checkbooks.”
Catherine smiled. “Maybe I should do that too, but not while I run. There’s plenty of time to do that at work.”
This made the woman laugh and then they were quiet a moment, as two ducks took off from the lake, stealing their attention.
“They seem to run on water, don’t they?” the woman said. “It takes them a while to get going, but then, they have such...direction and purpose, don’t you think?” There was a wistfulness behind the words, another meaning.
“I see that,” Catherine replied. “My name is Catherine.” She held out her hand.
“Della.” The woman met hers with a firm grasp and slightly roughened skin.
“Will you be here again tomorrow, Della?” Catherine rose to leave.
“If I am, I hope you’ll stop to say hello. Run strong, Catherine.”
She sprinted the last blocks to her apartment and tried her best to sidle through the door with a clutch of others. Her doorman, sharp-eyed, tipped his hat to her with a questioning look. “I don’t know how you get past me every morning, Ms. Chandler. I must be losing my touch.”
“You were probably hailing a cab for someone when she left,” Brian piped up, surprising Catherine, as he stood just inside the door, zipping up his book bag. Catherine flashed the doorman a smile guaranteed to distract him and was successful this time, but she mused that she could not keep this routine going much longer.
Brian leaned over to her, conspiratorially, whispering, “He takes a coffee break every morning at exactly 7:45, if you want to...time it...right.”
“You’re a good Helper, Brian.” She laughed, but she meant it, and he blushed with pleasure at her words as he left for school.
“This is becoming an expensive closet,” she said softly to herself as she left the elevator and made way to her door. She’d moved many of her favorite things to the home she made with Vincent Below, but this was still where she received her phone calls and mail, of course, and where she met friends for outings. She needed a home Above; it was necessary, though it grew logistically complex. Still, when she opened the doors to her balcony, felt the rush of breeze and memories, she knew it would be hard to give it up.
She readied herself for work.
Evening, finally. Home to her apartment again and her Above tasks complete, Catherine hurried to her basement, to the ladder leading to her real life, to Vincent. He waited for her tonight, as he often did, just a short way down the tunnel, leaning these days in a carefree manner, loose of limb, an easy countenance.
“Catherine.” His embrace was warm and close, as if she’d been gone days instead of hours. She kissed him with promise. She made him smile. They began their walk home.
“I saw the same woman in the park again this morning.”
“Did you speak to her, then?”
“I did. Her name is Della. Something is weighing on her.”
“Then tomorrow,” Vincent said, “if she is there, you must ask her if she needs your help.”
“Yes, I will.”
The next morning was just as beautiful; a rosy sky gave way to brilliant blue as Catherine ran. Vincent had kissed her goodbye with a sweet ease and growing confidence that thrilled her and though each footfall reminded her of her earthbound life, she felt as if she were flying.
And so she flew along the path, head high and sure of foot, and rounded the bend toward the lake. She knew a moment of disappointment and was almost past the empty bench when she saw Della standing at the lake’s edge. Catherine pulled up short and bent with her hands on her knees to catch her breath, attracting the woman’s attention.
“Good morning, Catherine.” She was smiling. “The ducks were back. And there were two black swans.”
“You saw the swans? They are...elusive.”
“They mate for life, did you know that?” Della asked. “I hope those two found each other early.” The wistfulness returned to her voice, but her tone changed as she looked at Catherine, “You are positively glowing this morning, as if you know the most wonderful secret.”
There was a moment when Catherine felt such an affinity with the woman that she envisioned walking her back to the Tunnel entrance and showing her just what a wondrous secret she did keep. She allowed it to pass through her, though, and she posed the question she’d planned.
“You don’t live in New York, do you Della? Are you here on vacation?”
“Oh, my, how can you tell? My friends all told me to act blasé or the City would eat me alive.”
“I promise not to bite!” Catherine laughed. “There’s just something...are you visiting friends then”
“Actually, I am here because of a friend, but she died.”
“Oh, Della, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to bring up sad thoughts this morning.”
“No, honey, it’s all right. She was a wonderful friend and she had enough time to take care of things before she passed. She left me her house, one of those brownstones. I’m here to decide what to do with it.”
“Do you have a lawyer? I could give you some names.”
“Are you an attorney, Catherine?” Della intuited. “You don’t really look like one; you’re not all buttoned up.”
Catherine laughed at that, laughed because so many of her work clothes made her feel just that way. “I am. Is there any way I can help you?”
“Thank you, but no. My friend left excellent instructions complete with her own attorney and a real estate agent.”
“Is there a chance you might stay in the City, keep the house?” Catherine asked.
At that question, Della turned back to the lake, seemed to be searching the shoreline for an answer. “That is a terribly difficult question, and I can’t imagine wasting your glorious morning with my story. But thank you for...visiting with me.”
“I don’t have to go, Della, if you’d like to talk. I can call in late..or sick.”
“No, no. You go on. I have to be somewhere, soon, anyway.”
“Will you be here tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.” Her smile was apologetic, but she was through talking.
Catherine tentatively reached out to Della, touching her lightly on her shoulder. “Then tomorrow, I hope I see you.”
That evening, before they went to supper, Catherine and Vincent spent a few moments alone at the falls and walking back, they passed an elderly man, a relative newcomer to the Tunnels.
“Good evening, Vincent, Catherine.” He bowed slightly at the waist as they passed, a sweet and formal gesture.
“Hello, English,” Vincent returned the greeting.
After they’d turned down the last tunnel to the dining hall, Catherine said, “Tell me about him, Vincent. I don’t know him. I don’t think I’ve seen him twice since he spoke to Brian that night.”
“Lately, he is out in the community more. He has begun teaching the older children more advanced math, relieving Father of that burden, who has frustrated his students with his insistence on using a slide rule.”
Catherine laughed. “A slide rule? Poor old thing.”
“Father says it still works and old ways should not just be tossed aside for newfangled ‘gadgets’. This from the man who longs for advanced medical equipment and spends hours pouring over Peter’s medical journals.”
“That makes me think of what English said to Brian...that his crime was to have grown old, that he was to be...cast away...I think he said.”
“A helper knew him well, watched his decline. Three years ago he came to us.”
“How wonderful for him that he found this world.”
“Yes. Finally, he feels more at home and at peace. He has much to share and, he says, there is life left in him yet....”
“I saw Brian today. He seems...more mature, more optimistic. All he heard that night, from Pascal and William, from English, changed him. He saved me from the scrutiny of my doorman. He’s going to be a strong Helper one day,” Catherine said.
“And you told him that?”
They walked on in the hush, the spill of the falls receding and the pipes almost soundless, until Vincent spoke again, “Another anniversary has almost arrived. How shall we celebrate this year?”
“Quietly, I think. I have, I believe, the most incredible gift for you.”
“Oh, you are that, every moment of each day, Catherine, my most incredible gift.”
The next morning, just after their parting, Catherine ran back into the tunnel, surprising Vincent as he reached for the hidden latch.
“What, Catherine? Did you forget something?”
“Yes, come out.”
He did. “Tell me.”
“She saw the black swans. She told me yesterday they mate for life.”
He took her in his arms, pressing her close, holding her for long minutes.
“She has a story to tell you, Catherine. Stay with her until she can say it.”
This morning as Catherine rounded the path to the lake, she saw Della in her customary seat, but slumped as with a sad burden. Work could wait. Catherine would stay with her this morning, as long as it took.
“Della,” Catherine stood before her. “What is it? Are you all right? Let me help you, if I can.”
“I just don’t know what to do next.” There were traces of tears in her voice.
“Has something happened?” Catherine pressed her a little and she sat down beside her. “Besides your friend’s dying? What is it that makes you so sad? Maybe it would help, just to say it out loud.”
“The realtor wants the house cleared out. It is such a final thing to do, to go through my friend’s things, to give her clothes away. Then I will have to move on, but to...where? To what? And more than that. I’m clinging, I think, to a silly dream.”
Catherine waited for her to continue without speaking, simply willing Della to find the words of release she so obviously needed.
“I never married. I lived in Wyoming, on the family ranch with cattle and horses and wheat fields.... It was a difficult life, money worries, weather worries. After college, I went home to help out for a while and...I just stayed. I loved it, though, the rides through the grasslands, the mountains in the distance. I loved the physical work, being outside. As my parents aged, they needed me to care for them, to manage the business.... Four years ago, my mother died and then two months later, my father followed her. I expected to keep the ranch going. After all, I’d lived there all my life.
“One morning, I rode out and I just knew...I didn’t want to stay there anymore. I felt...like I had to change, change radically, before it was too late. A year ago I sold the ranch. I’ve been traveling since, visiting old friends, looking for a new home, a place to grow and maybe even to love, finally, truly.
“But, now, about the dream, the dream I’ve held in my heart for ages.... Years back, one April, I came to the City to visit my friend, the one who’s just died. I was unhappy in some deep way that I couldn’t exactly name. I would walk out in the park every morning, early like this, sit here on this very bench. There was a man who came too.
“He came with his wife in a wheel chair. They weren’t so old, maybe only in their 60’s, but she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He would read to her every morning, poetry, and tell her stories of their life together. After a few days, I realized he often read her the same poems over and over, told her the same stories. All with a patience and gentleness that overwhelmed me with...envy.
“I sat across from them, here, in the mornings. I wanted the stories, the poetry too, the love he showed her. He knew I was there, knew I was listening, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“One day, another man came with them. A younger man, perhaps a brother. He spoke with anger in his voice, telling the man that his wife’s care was draining his finances, that soon there would be nothing left and who did he think would care for them then....
“Finally the younger man shouted, 'Why do you do this anyway? She doesn’t even know who you are anymore!’ And the man, very quietly, said just this...‘Maybe she doesn’t remember me, but I remember her.’
“I knew, then, what was missing in my life. That sureness spread inside me like a great bird fanning its wings. I wanted someone to know me, someone to love me enough to pull me back from my dark places, someone to remember me when I didn’t remember myself.
“I know it’s silly to sit here on this bench, dreaming that if I wish hard enough, that if I sit here long enough, I will see him again. I’ve always wanted to thank him...for changing me...for showing me what love looked like. I didn’t have it for myself, but I believed in it, because of him. Sometimes, I even believe I couldhave it still, this late in my life....”
Catherine was stunned into a sad silence, the story moved her so. She reached for Della’s hand, squeezing it gently, understanding.
“Something powerful happened to me, too, in this park,” Catherine said. “Something that changed me, forever. Perhaps there is some magic here and you shouldn’t give up. Do you know his name? Maybe I could try to find him for you?”
“His name? No, he never told me. We never spoke. Sometimes, she would call him Liam, if she were having a good day. When she said his name, he would look...as if he felt blessed. Such a little thing....
I've even forgotten the poems he read. Only scraps of verses come back to me now - Love is a thing that flutters, and perches in the soul - but I remember how it felt to hear him read, to hear what he was really saying to her.”
Catherine was at a loss to help. She wanted Della to be happy. She wanted to find this man for her. But how? There was nothing to do but sit quietly together in the morning sun until she was quite late for work.
She rushed past her doorman, hoping that he wouldn’t see her, in her mind, ticking off excuses to use with Joe for her tardiness. “You’ve done it again, Ms. Chandler,” the doorman said to her back as she leapt into the open elevator.
“Drat,” she muttered, checking her watch. It was way past 7:45.
“She told you her story today,” Vincent didn’t ask...he knew. “Tell me now.”
She finished her tale as they neared the corridors central to the community.
“I can’t think of what to do for her. There’s no way to find him. She doesn’t know his name, and even if she did, he could have moved. It’s been years. He might have died.”
“Maybe,” Vincent said, thoughtfully, “the man is not as important as the message. He’s already given her what she needed, the vision of a different life, the hope that she might find it, the knowledge to recognize it. Maybe the best gift you could offer her is the strength to continue to look.”
“How could I do that? It makes me feel so sad for her. I see myself in her, the person I might have been if it weren’t for you. Still in corporate law, searching for meaning in my life, always an unnamed longing in my heart for something better.”
“Remember, Catherine, our first night on your balcony, when we finished Great Expectations? That chapter will always have deep meaning for us, beyond the story. Sometimes, even now, I am compelled to hold the book itself, just to feel that night, that change, in my hands. Perhaps, you might find a book of the poetry she remembers this man reading. She could take that with her into the rest of her life, as a guide, as inspiration.”
“I like that, Vincent. She only told me the one line, “Love is a thing that flutters and perches in the soul.” Do you recognize it?”
“Something about it is familiar. Perhaps Father will know.”
When they arrived in Father’s library, he was deep in conversation with English over math curriculum. Father was brandishing his slide rule while English was turning the screen of a calculator toward the largest candle on the table.
“See, what did I tell you,” Father smirked.
“Maybe it just needs a new battery,” English returned.
The two looked up as Vincent and Catherine came down the steps. “Vincent, give us a difficult problem. Let us see who solves it first,” Father begged.
Vincent shook his head. “I don’t do math on an empty stomach, Father. You know that. I’ll think of a problem for you over my supper.”
“Yes, yes. Make it a very difficult one,” English entreated, as he lit an extra candle. “One with many n’s and x’s and y’s and plenty of parentheses and throw in a factorial and a matrix exponential.”
Father winced and pushed his slide rule under the cushion of his chair. “To what do I owe this very...timely...visit, Catherine, Vincent?”
“We’re hoping you can help us, Father. We need to find a particular poem and we know only a few words of it. Would you like that...game...better?” Vincent teased.
“Word...games...are my forte. Tell me what you know.” Father settled back in his chair, steepling his fingers while keeping one eye on English, who was now rapidly tapping keys on the calculator and scribbling out equations on pages of papers.
“Love is a thing that flutters and perches in the soul....”́ Catherine repeated.
“No, no, no,” English said, never looking up from his work. “‘HOPE is the thing with FEATHERS, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.’ Emily Dickinson. It was my wife’s favorite.”
“Ah, yes, Emily Dickinson. I was just about to say that,” Father rose from his big chair and began to rummage his stacks. “I know I have several volumes of her work...maybe under here...no...perhaps over here...I was just reading...ah, here she is...”
That night, twined together loosely, Catherine whispered, “Tomorrow night. Another year. The most wonderful year of our lives.”
“Yes,” Vincent replied, as he tucked her closer to his heart.
“Vincent, wake up,” she tugged on his arm. “I have to know something.”
“What is it, Catherine? A dream?”
“NO, not a dream. What is English’s full name? What is his first name?”
“I don’t know, Catherine. I’ve always called him English. It could be his given name or his surname. I’ll have to ask Father. Or English himself. Why?”
“What happened to his wife? Was she sick?”
“I think so, Catherine, for quite a while.” He drowsed off, half asleep still.
“Think about it, Vincent!” Catherine shook his shoulder. “A sick wife and he knows Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What if his first name is Liam?”
“That would be...a coincidence?”
“Maybe a miracle! You’ll help me find him tomorrow, first thing?”
“First thing. Anything. Sleep now.”
Hours later, nearer morning, Catherine was beside herself, anxious for Vincent to help her. She was almost tapping her foot at the staircase, waiting for him; and when he emerged from the bath, dry and dressed, she pushed him up the steps.
“What are you thinking, Catherine?”
“I’m thinking that there is a woman, probably making her way to that bench right this minute and we have to get him up there before she gives up. To see.”
“You believe English is Della’s man in the park?”
“I believe English might be Della’s April 12.”
Vincent went first to Father’s chamber while Catherine searched the dining hall. When she reached the passageway leading to the park entrance, Vincent had English in tow.
“You two must tell me what the mystery is,” he said, jovially. “This is a bit of excitement for an old man so early in the morning.”
Vincent simply looked to Catherine. It was her story.
“English, what is your first name?”
“It’s William. Why do you ask? No one calls me that.”
“You HAVE to come with me, into the park. There is someone there who has been waiting to see you. For days, no, years.”
“No one Above has any need of me and how could you know anyone....” English grew wary.
“Trust me. Please?” Catherine begged him.
“Trust her, English.” Vincent added softly.
English scratched his head. “I don’t understand what is happening, but I do know you two are impossible to resist. All right. Whatever, whoever it is you want me to see, I’ll see.”
English shed his outermost Tunnel vestments and stood quietly outside the entrance, waiting for his guide. He watched the sky as the sun broke through clouds left from a night rain. He recognized the song of the blue-winged warbler and the meadowlark. His face showed changing emotions, from pleasure to sadness, but settled in calm anticipation.
Catherine turned to Vincent, saying, “Don’t go. Stay. I’ll come back to tell you.”
“I’ll know, Catherine.”
“Wait for me.”
He nodded and slipped back into the shadows.
English offered her his arm, courtly and kind. Catherine felt like dancing. They walked together toward the lake in silence.
“Are you going to give me even a little hint,” English asked, finally. “I can’t imagine who you have unearthed who would remember me. I haven’t been Up Top for over three years now. There’s no one for me there.”
“You could be wrong about that. I could be wrong, English. You may not know her; she may not know you. But you could change that, even if that proves to be true.”
“You have that much extra happiness, Catherine? That you wish me to share it?”
“I have that much hope, English. Vincent gave it to me. If I can, I want to give it to you. And to Della.”
“Della?” English puzzled the name. “Della....”
They were close to the bench at the lake. English slowed his steps.
“I sat here many spring mornings with my wife. She loved the park, this lake.”
Catherine stopped. Della sat on the bench, reading by the early light. English followed Catherine’s gaze, puzzled still. He walked a few steps further, stopped again, watchful. There was a rush of birds taking wing from the lakeside. Surprised by the sound, Della looked up and met his gaze, her expression a strange sea of wonderment and sudden knowledge.
English nodded. He walked closer, stood, silent, until he took Della’s hand. “I remember you,” Catherine heard him say, as she turned back to Vincent.
“Happiness never decreases by sharing it, does it?”
“Never. You did a wonderful thing, Catherine, stopping to talk to Della. You changed the course of two lives with your compassion.”
“There was a time in my life,” Catherine replied, “when I might not have noticed her, when I would have passed her by, caught up in my own thoughts, my own plans. You changed that for me. You changed me.”
They stood, silently, on her balcony that night, leaning close, no shadow of one parting from the other.
“That night was the darkest of my life, Vincent. To find you, to find what is beautiful and good, I’d go through it all again.”
“I couldn’t name what I was waiting for, until that night, Catherine. I only knew I could never give up longing and wishing while I lived. Certain things we must simply hunger after, and never lose hope.”
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul....” She placed his hand low on her belly. “Hope...flutters.