The Third Gift

Angela Palmer

Vincent rolled over as he slowly awoke. Gradually he became aware of a strange jumble of feelings within him-- discomfort, anticipation, nervousness, excitement, all muffled somehow, as if.... "Catherine!" He sat up suddenly as he cried her name aloud. She was not in the bed beside him, and he looked around wildly. There she was, smiling contritely at him from the rocking chair across the room. "I'm sorry, Vincent," she said. "I was trying hard not to wake you. I thought you'd need your sleep for the big day we have ahead of us." She smiled again, her eyes twinkling.

Vincent leaped out of bed and crossed the room to her in two great strides. He knelt in front of her and clasped her hands. "Is it time?" His hands moved to the large, firm mound of her belly, moving gently over its curved surface, feeling the pulsing of the life within.

Catherine nodded. "I think it's beginning, yes. A contraction woke me up about half an hour ago, and I've had a couple more since."

Vincent stood quickly. "Then we should tell Father and Mary." He began to move toward the door but Catherine grabbed his hand. "Vincent, wait." He looked at her quizzically as she continued. "There's plenty of time. We will be surrounded by people soon enough. Can we just be alone together for a while, just the two of us?"

Vincent hesitated, but seeing the pleading look in her eyes, relented. He helped her from the chair and pulled her as close as her swollen belly would allow. "All right, my love. If it is what you wish."

As she laid her head against his broad chest, Catherine sensed his fear for her-- the fear that had been present ever since the day she had told him that she was pregnant with their child. She knew how deep this fear ran within him, and she also knew how hard he had struggled to hide it from her, not wishing to burden her any further. She pulled back from him and took his head between her hands. She looked into the beloved face, the brilliant blue eyes full of concern, and stroked his finely furred cheeks. "Everything will be all right, Vincent. It will."

Vincent met her steady gaze. Breathing deeply, he managed a tremulous smile. "Yes."

As she once more nestled into his shoulder, he reflected on the last six months. When Catherine had come to him to tell him of her pregnancy, he was still recovering from the illness that had nearly claimed his life. He knew that Catherine had courageously entered the cave where he raved in his madness, and had saved his life with the strength of her love, but he remembered nothing of it. When she told him that they had conceived a child, he had been shocked, disbelieving. He had run from her then, run blindly through the tunnels until his heart pounded and his lungs burned. He felt his worst nightmares coming to life. He still remembered Paracelsus' account of his own birth, and although he believed Father when he said it was all a lie, the images Paracelsus had painted were as real in his mind as though he had actually seen them. To lose Catherine would be...unbearable, unthinkable. Even if no harm came to her, what of the child? He never wanted to condemn an innocent child to his kind of existence. Forever hiding from the light, destined to live his days in the darkness of the tunnels; separate, different, a...beast. When he could run no further he had slumped to the floor, his head in his hands. Finally he realized that what was done was done. All that he could do was to stand by Catherine and the child, and hope and pray for the best. He had returned to his chamber to find her still waiting for him there, and had listened to her plans to quit her job and move Below--with him. She had also expressed, with a shy hesitancy that still made him smile when he thought of it, her desire to be his wife.

He could still scarcely believe it, that Catherine was with him, here. He had learned so much in the last few months. He had learned to accept the truth and the depth of Catherine's love, to no longer question how she could possibly desire him. Though he still could not remember what had happened in the cave, he learned about the beauty of loving Catherine with his body, not just his mind and soul. The first time they had made love in his chamber, the first time he had awoken to the sight of her beside him in his bed, the first time he had placed his hand on her belly and felt the small stirrings of the baby within, all of these were miracles to him, and he would never cease to be amazed.

A sudden sharp intake of breath from Catherine brought him quickly to the present. He felt her hands tighten around him as, within himself, he felt the pain of her contraction. It was not as a physical pain in his own body, but more as an awareness of her sense of the pain. He felt it rising, intensifying, and struggled to remember what Mary had taught him during the prenatal "classes" she had given to the two of them. His hands moved to her back and he began to knead gently. "Harder, Vincent." Mary had told him. "You can't be afraid to break her. You have to apply strong pressure if you're going to help her deal with the contractions." He pressed more firmly into her back and Catherine sighed. "Mmm, that helps, thank you, my love." Vincent felt the contraction peak, then slowly fade away. Catherine looked up at him and smiled. "There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"

For the next few hours they remained in their chamber, sometimes lying on the bed while Vincent read aloud to Catherine, sometimes walking around the room, sometimes rocking together in a silent waltz. Soon they began to hear the sounds of the tunnel community awakening, preparing for a new day. The tapping of the pipes became more clamorous, voices were heard, and from William's kitchen wafted the smell of baking bread. Catherine's contractions were coming closer together now, and Vincent could feel that they were harder. She no longer talked during them, and with each one seemed to retreat to somewhere deep within herself. He had held off for as long as he could. "Catherine, we really should get Father now," he said firmly. He was almost surprised to hear her assent. "All right. But let's go to him. I could use the walk."

They made their way slowly through the passageway to Father's chamber, Vincent's arm carefully supporting Catherine. Father looked up as they entered, and immediately surmised the situation. He began the series of events that he had carefully rehearsed in his mind in preparation for this day. Summon Mary, send one of the children to get Peter, get Catherine to the hospital chamber. When Vincent had first told him of Catherine's pregnancy, he had been as shocked as Vincent had been. But one look at Vincent's face had silenced all of the objections and reproofs that would have poured forth, and he had given his son the gift of his quiet acceptance. He had kept Catherine under his close medical supervision throughout the pregnancy, his mind flooded with many concerns. Catherine had sailed serenely through, however, and Father had to admit that everything had been proceeding normally, although the baby did appear to be quite large. He and Peter consulted often, and Peter had supplied the hospital chamber with all the equipment they would need for any possible emergencies. Mary had put up a curtain to hide the gleaming machines and utensils, insisting that they would frighten Catherine and Vincent, and that the birthing room should be made as inviting and relaxing as possible. Father smiled now at the beloved couple in front of him, hoping that he was projecting confidence and reassurance, trying to still the inner voices whispering to him thoughts of doubt and apprehension.

Vincent stared fixedly, uncomfortably at the wall while Mary examined Catherine to determine her progress. Settling Catherine's knees back onto the bed Mary smiled apologetically at her. "You're almost 2 centimetres, Catherine," she told her. Catherine's face fell in disappointment and she groaned. "I was sure I would be more than that." Mary patted her arm reassuringly. "First labors usually take a while. You're doing wonderfully. Maybe you would like to walk around some more?"

The afternoon wore on as Catherine's labor slowly progressed. Father and Peter hovered close by, periodically monitoring the baby's heartbeat and Catherine's vital signs. Mary was a constant, calming presence, gently helping Catherine into different positions to make her more comfortable, showing Vincent how to hold her and where to press on her back. Soon Catherine became very serious, no longer smiling and joking between her contractions. This was not fun anymore.

It was nearly 36 hours later, and Catherine lay curled on her side in bed as Mary sponged her face with a cool cloth. She had stopped talking hours ago, it was too much effort, and all of her concentration was required just to breathe through the contractions that seemed to come one on top of the other. She barely heard the quiet voices of Father, Mary, and Peter. The only voice that reached her in the deep place she had retreated to was that of Vincent. She clung to those low, husky tones as a drowning person would cling to a lifeline. It didn't matter what he said, only that she could hear that beloved voice, feel his strong presence beside her, and know that he was with her.

Vincent did not even feel his own weariness. His attention was focused completely on Catherine and the silent struggle that she was waging. He marvelled at her strength. The pain seemed unbearable, yet she did not cry out. She had adamantly refused pain-killing drugs, fearing that the baby might, like Vincent, be unable to tolerate them. The only thing that eased the pain of her contractions was firm pressure on her back and hips, and Vincent had been tirelessly massaging her. He looked across the room to where the two doctors huddled together in consultation. His sensitive ears picked up their lowered, urgent voices.

"I don't like this, Peter. This has been going on too long. Maybe we should get her to a hospital Above...."

"Jacob! You know Cathy would never agree to that. If this baby is born looking like Vincent, the risks are too great!"

"But the risks to Catherine......"

"We have everything we need here. We'll do what has to be done if it becomes necessary."

Suddenly the quiet was broken as Catherine cried out, a despairing sound that tore at Vincent's heart. "I can't do this anymore! Please help me. Please make this stop!" She clung to Vincent's shirt and looked at him pleadingly. "Vincent, please, I want to go home. I want it to be over."

Vincent's eyes filled with tears, and he bent to fervently kiss her forehead, feeling overwhelmed by his helplessness. He heard Mary say, "I think it's time to check her again."

Catherine continued to weep as Peter checked her progress with a gloved hand. "Eight and a half centimetres," he announced, looking pleased.

Mary leaned over Catherine, smoothing her hair. "This is transition, dear," she said. "Remember what we talked about? What you're feeling is normal, and it means you're almost there! You're such a brave girl, it's not much longer now."

Catherine looked into the kind eyes, took a deep breath, and quieted. She looked then at Vincent, his large, powerful form seeming so lost and vulnerable now as he watched her anxiously. She managed a small smile of reassurance for him, then closed her eyes and returned to her silent concentration.

"Push, Catherine, you must push harder!" Father shouted harshly. Catherine began to sob, her head thrashing from side to side on the pillow. "I can't! I can't do it anymore!"

Vincent was filled with anger. Catherine had been pushing for nearly three hours now. How could Father be so cruel? "Father, stop! She's pushing as hard as she can!" he cried, his voice dangerously close to a growl.

Father glared at him and spoke quickly in an intense, lowered voice. "Vincent, the baby is showing signs of distress and Catherine has been losing a lot of blood. We need to get him out soon or we will have to do a caeserean section. We don't know what the anaesthesia would do to the baby, and these tunnels do not offer the best conditions for major surgery. It would be dangerous for both of them"

Catherine continued to cry hopelessly. She was aware of little else but the pain. Her whole world was pain, and there was no escape from it. She would be caught in this place forever, a place which was neither life nor death, only this unending suffering.

Vincent felt her despair and could no longer hold back the tears that had had been threatening for hours now. He bowed his head beside hers on the pillow, his great body wracked with sobs.

"Catherine, Catherine, I wish I could take this pain from you. Oh, my love, I am so sorry!"

Father looked sharply at him. "Vincent, step outside, please. I'll be with you in a moment." Vincent looked stricken. "Father, I can't leave her."

"Vincent, do it NOW." The edge of authority in his voice could not be ignored, and reluctantly Vincent left the room. In the corridor, he began to pace furiously, running his hands frantically through his tousled mane. He could still feel the relentless waves of Catherine's contractions. She was in agony! How much longer could she stand it? How much more would she be forced to endure? And because of him, all because of him! The Beast in the cave that had taken her in unthinking, animal lust. He suddenly threw back his head and roared, all his helplessness, terror and self-loathing thrown into that one heart-rending sound.

Father stepped in front of him. "Vincent!"

Vincent instantly came to himself. "Father, I'm sorry. I did not mean to-"

Father cut him off, his eyes blazing in anger. "Vincent, I know how hard this is for you. Catherine is having a very long and difficult labor. I know you are frightened. But your fear has no place here."

"Father, I-"

"Let me finish! Catherine does not need your concern, or your apologies, or even your empathy. What she needs right now is your strength. If you are not able to provide that for her, then I must ask you to leave."

Vincent looked as though he had been slapped. "Father!"

"I mean it, Vincent. She is feeling your emotions through the bond that you share. They are making her more distraught. She needs to focus all her energy right now. She needs you, Vincent."

Vincent stood silently for a moment, breathing heavily. Then he bowed his head, his mane tumbling forward to hide his face. "You are right, Father. I'm sorry. I'm so ashamed........"

Father stepped toward his son and wrapped his arms around him. "It's all right, Vincent. She's going to be all right." Yet in his mind he was seeing vividly another woman, many years ago, in the throes of labor; wild-eyed with pain, too exhausted to scream any longer. That woman had not survived. He had failed to save her, and Devin had grown up never knowing his mother. He would not let that happen again. He must not.

Catherine lay limply, her hair drenched in sweat, her face pale. Blood soaked the sheet beneath her. Mary sat beside her, applying the cool cloth to her forehead and speaking soothingly. As Vincent entered the room Catherine turned her head toward him. "I'm sorry, Vincent" she whispered. "I wanted so much to be strong........"

Peter's surgical instruments were laid out on the table beside him. "I'm preparing to anaesthetize her, Jacob. The baby is showing signs of distress and she is just too exhausted to push anymore. We have to get him out now." Father nodded mutely and quickly began donning a surgical gown. Alarmed, Vincent knelt by Catherine's side. He grasped her hand. "Catherine, my love. You are the strongest person I know. You have nothing to be sorry for. " Placing his other hand on her forehead, he closed his eyes. Very seldom had he tried to project his feelings to her through their bond, but now he began to concentrate, summoning all his strength and love, willing it to enter her fatigued, pain-wracked body. "You have the strength, Catherine, I know you do." he silently told her. "You CAN do this."

Catherine's eyes fluttered open as she suddenly felt a flood of warmth and energy pouring into her. She felt her strength suddenly renewed. The pain was still there, as excruciating as ever, yet somehow it was not overwhelming her like before. She began to struggle to sit up. "I want to push some more," she said, as determinedly as her hoarse voice would permit. "I want to try again."

Peter and Father turned to look at her in surprise, then questioningly at each other. "What do you think, Jacob? Perhaps we could give her a few more minutes."

"All right, but just a few. Vincent, why don't you support her-"

But Vincent was already moving behind her to cradle her upper body in his arms. She struggled to raise her knees and he helped her pull them toward her body. The contraction began and Catherine started to push. Vincent closed his eyes along with her, joining her deep within the bond, their wills working together with a single purpose. "He's crowning!" Father shouted. "Good girl, Catherine! Do it again, just like that!" Once more she pushed as Vincent held her, then she gave a sharp cry. "The head is out, Catherine! We're almost there!" Catherine nearly managed a smile at that news, and Vincent grinned widely. Suddenly Peter and Father's expressions turned grave. They began to mutter in low voices to each other. "Shoulder dystocia" Vincent heard, and the smile vanished from his face. Mary hurried around to join the two doctors. She pushed on Catherine's stomach while Father pushed her legs even closer to her body-- brutally, it seemed to Vincent. Peter reached inside her to tug on the baby, his face red with effort.

Catherine screamed, and Vincent fought to suppress the growl that rose in his chest. They were hurting her! She screamed again, and he desperately tried once more to focus his strength for her.

"One more push, Cathy, everything you've got!" Peter shouted. Catherine bore down again as Vincent lifted her. She screamed once more, the agonized sound echoing throughout the chamber.

Catherine suddenly felt something give way, and then the indescribable feeling of the baby sliding from her body. "That's it, Catherine, you did it!" She heard Mary say. Relief flooded her. It was over. Thank God, it was finally over. She sagged back against Vincent, her eyes closed. For several moments she was aware of nothing else but that profound, all-encompassing relief. She became aware of Vincent leaning over her, raining kisses on her cheeks and murmering endearments that she couldn't quite hear. She could feel his tears falling on her face, but she knew that they were tears of joy. Their baby was here. The baby! She opened her eyes and looked into Mary's smiling face. "My baby" she rasped hoarsely. "It's a boy, Catherine. He's beautiful." Mary soothed. "They are just checking him over for a minute. He had a rough time getting here!"

Catherine looked then at Vincent. She reached up to caress his beautiful, tear-streaked face. The love she saw in his eyes nearly took her breath away. Neither of them spoke, no words were necessary.

Finally Father came over, carrying a small, wrapped bundle. He was smiling in a way that Catherine had never seen before. He was positively beaming! He said nothing as he handed the baby to her. She took him eagerly and looked into his small face. "Oh, Vincent" she breathed. "Look at him." Gently, reverently, she touched his pursed lips and slender fingers. She ran her fingers through his abundant wet hair. "He looks like you, Catherine" Vincent said softly, and Catherine heard the relief behind his words. "But he has your eyes, Vincent, look." And indeed his eyes did have a slight, exotic slant to them. Just then he yawned and opened his eyes to look at his parents. Both gave a small gasp as they saw that instead of the usual newborn slate grey, they were an intense crystal-blue. Catherine smiled in delight and Vincent gave a rare toothy grin. Suddenly Catherine's eyes rolled back and her body went limp in Vincent's arms. "Catherine!" he cried in alarm. Mary rushed to take the baby and Father and Peter sprang into action. Vincent watched in horror as a huge crimson stain spread across the bedsheets and began dripping to the floor. "Vincent, go with Mary now." Father said in a tight voice. Vincent moved obediently, numbly, to join Mary and the baby on the other side of the chamber. "What's happening?" he asked her in a tortured whisper. "She's hemorrhaging", Mary said, not meeting his eyes. "They're trying to stop it."

Vincent stood in shock, watching as Father and Peter worked frantically over Catherine's still body. He reached out to her through the bond, but could feel nothing. Where moments before her warm presence had been, there was now only the cold, black void of unconsciousness. He was losing her. After all they had been through to bring this child into the world, everything they had endured just to be together, surely it could not end like this! He looked at their baby boy, crying in Mary's arms. Would he never know his mother? He looked back at his beloved, battling for her life. He continued to stand stiffly, barely aware of Mary's tugging at his arm as she tried to lead him to a chair. "No Catherine, you can not go," he whispered. "Not without me." The words sounded strangely familiar, and he silently repeated them to her, over and over.

After what seemed to Vincent like hours, Father limped over to them. He looked very old and very tired, but there was a smile on his face. "The bleeding has stopped. We're giving her a transfusion. I think that she is going to be all right." His brow furrowed in concern suddenly as he looked at his son. "Vincent, you don't look well. Perhaps you should-"

Vincent swayed and fell to his knees with a thud. He buried his head in his hands. "Thank you," he whispered. He felt as though his heart had suddenly started beating again. Catherine was going to live. His world would continue.

Father laid a hand on his shoulder. "She needs to rest now. Mary, could you sit with her for a while? I would like to have a visit with my grandson."

Several hours later, Catherine sat propped up on pillows on her bed, nursing her new son. Vincent sat beside her, holding her close, and together they marvelled at the strength and purpose with which the baby's small mouth sucked at her breast. Catherine felt weak and tired, but gloriously, deliriously happy. She was in the arms of the man she loved more than life itself, and in her own arms she cradled a child that already she loved more than she would have ever dreamed possible. 'Thank you," she said suddenly. Vincent looked surprised. "For what, my beloved?" he asked.

She smiled up at him adoringly. "For this child, for making me a mother, for our wonderful life together."

Vincent shook his head in amazement. "You can say that after all that you endured?"

She gave a small shrug. "I'm sure it will be much easier the next time."

Vincent's jaw dropped. "The next time? Catherine!" She couldn't suppress the laughter that bubbled up at the shocked expression on his face. "I guess we'll save that discussion for later."

She laid her head back against his shoulder. She was still smiling as her eyelids drooped and she fell into a sound, peaceful sleep. Vincent gazed down at the two greatest miracles of his life: "wife", "son"-- two words he had never thought would have any connection to him. One of the many passages he had read to Catherine in the long hours of her labor came suddenly to his mind. "Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third."* Finally, he understood.

The End.

*Marge Piercy