Clare Sieffert

  The night was old and chill. A dank mist haloed the rare street lights and muffled the pre-dawn city sounds to a far off murmur. The intangible grey walls seemed to close Vincent off in his own cloistered universe. He had been roaming these brick canyons for many hours, trying to distract his unsettled thoughts by eavesdropping on the clamor and passions of strangers' lives.

  It had not worked.

  He could not keep his unhappy introspection from circling once again in the deepening groove it was scoring in his mind. It had happened once again this past night. He had come so close to giving in to temptation. Too close. Catherine was so beautiful. And she had looked on him with such love and longing. He had barely been able to tear himself away in fear and trembling.

  Vincent had always known that Catherine loved him. He was an empath. How could he not know? He had become aware of her love even before she recognized it in herself. It was a constant source of glorious joy and astonishment to him, but he never doubted its truth. He saw the light kindle in her eyes whenever she first saw him. He felt the heat rush through her whenever she first heard his voice. She could not know how her ever growing passions fed his own.

  She must not know.

  It took all his strength to keep a false, platonic distance between them. The struggle was ravaging him, consuming him, but he could no longer pretend that leaving her, or sending her away again, was an option. He craved his time with her as if it were a drug, and he could not stay away. Even if he somehow found the cold, iron discipline needed, his leaving would hurt Catherine. And that was unacceptable. Unthinkable.

  One day, he knew, his own unacknowledged love would turn and devour the life it fed on. How could he go on lying to her through his inaction while his heart cried out to hers? How long could he continue refusing Catherine her deepest desires when they were also his own? How could he persist in being an immovable object, when faced with such an irresistible force?

The night was almost spent and Vincent was no closer to finding his impossible solution now, than when he started his futile search. It was time, and more than time, to go Below and continue the search there, until sleep released him from it. As he turned toward home, he was startled by movement where he sensed no life, and a faint light gleaming where there should be no light. Looking closer, he realized that the movement was his own. He was looking at a mirror.

  It was a very large mirror, lying propped against a dumpster in the darkest shadows of the alley. It was at least three feet wide and six feet long: a thick sheet of beveled glass, surrounded by a wide frame of extravagant wooden lace, making it even larger. It was very old and sadly damaged. The frame was chipped and scratched and had a number of small pieces missing. Both it and the glass were coated with decades of grime, and the mirror's silver backing was flecked with tarnish. Most sadly, a long crack reached diagonally across the glass, adding a jarring note of discord. Vincent was reminded of the time ravaged face of an old woman whose bones pressed through with tales of her lost youth and beauty. Even those who had ultimately discarded the mirror had done so with gentle reluctance. It must have taken three or four people to bring it out to this alley. Yet they had not just thrown it away, but had laid it respectfully against the dumpster.

  Cleaning and repairs to the frame could return much of its beauty despite the irreparable damage to the mirror itself. Its large scale might fit very well in the Great Hall and the Tunnel dwellers would cherish and enjoy it despite its flaws, as they did Vincent himself. He would have no trouble carrying it home, but its size and shape were awkward and would never fit through the closest Tunnel entrance. It was too near dawn, and Vincent would not have enough time to reach a larger entrance. No, he would have to leave it behind.

  There were few mirrors Below: no large ones, save the Mirror Pool, and certainly none in his own chamber. But nonetheless, Vincent's eyes had learned a habit over his lifetime of slipping around and past mirrors without looking directly into them. Yet this night, something made him gaze straight into the dark, cloudy depths as a thought came to him.

  As he grasped the frame, lifted it, and started off toward home, Vincent whispered to himself. " 'Listen, then, Vincent, to your sentence: tonight, place the glass before you, and draw your own picture, faithfully; without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; and write under it, Portrait of a Beast.' " *

  Despite his earlier misgivings, Vincent reached the larger Tunnel entrance unobserved. It was necessary to take a circuitous route through the tunnels to accommodate the mirror's size, but he arrived ultimately at his own chamber having met no one at this early morning hour. Oh, the sentries had seen him pass, but the sight of Vincent carrying a bulky object was hardly noteworthy.

  It wasn't easy maneuvering the mirror into his chamber, but at length he managed it. Now there was nowhere to put it! Well, he only needed it for a short time; so he leaned it against the entrance to his chamber. That location would serve an additional purpose. For anyone approaching his chamber could not fail to see the broad wooden backing of the mirror blocking off the entrance, and take the hint. Vincent did not really intend to draw his own portrait. But the exercise he had in mind should help to strengthen his resolve. He needed something to help him maintain the distance that kept Catherine safe. For his conflicting needs to hold her close and push her away were threatening to shake him into jagged, shattered, shards.

First he wet a rag and washed off a large portion of the dirt that shrouded the glass. He carefully arranged and lit all the candles in his chamber. Then he turned his back on the mirror and slowly stripped off every thread of clothing.

  In all his life, he had never done this before. He had never had the opportunity to do this before: to see all of himself at once, from outside himself, as another might see him.

As Catherine might see him.

  Finally, he lifted his head, turned...and gasped in dismay. This? This was what Catherine loved? Surely even Catherine's lion heart must falter at this sight! Facing him was the most terrifying display of overwhelming, brute power he could imagine.

  Because he rarely faced it, the sight of his inhuman features usually gave him a small shock, as it did now. His friends and family were used to his face. However, he was on the inside of it, while they were confronted with it every day. And they loved him. Catherine loved him. And he trusted her judgment without question. But there was a small part of him, which knew that his true appearance was reflected in the horrified eyes of his victims, who saw the fanged muzzle of a roaring beast before they died.

  However, to Vincent the true symbols and reminders of his otherness, which were always before him, were his hands. Furred and clawed, they were a fearful sight. But even they would have been relatively innocuous if they were not part of his most appalling weapons of destruction: the arms that drove them. His arms, his shoulders, every inch of his body shouted of terrible strength and speed. Every swelling curve and contour were the very sculpture of monstrous power. And yet...they lied. They lied through understatement. For Vincent knew that no normal man, even one as massive as he, could do the things that he could do. Had done.

  As inhuman to the eye as he was, his most profound differences were invisible. They weren't just a matter of quantity, but of quality as well. The very cellular structure of his flesh was different from other men. There was no other explanation for torn chains, and smashed walls. His flesh was even different to the touch: like mink cloaked marble.

For it was covered with fur.

  Red-gold, sleek and shinning, his fur was thinner, almost baring his hide, in the places where normally hirsute men's hair was thinnest. And it was thicker, longer, almost wavy, in those areas where normal men had more hair. But that was where its resemblance to other men's hair ended. His fur veiled and blurred the sharply chiseled definition of his strength at the same time that its shine highlighted that same strength. The flickering candlelight flowed like liquid gold across the rolling planes of his mighty frame. It shimmered and rippled with his smallest motion and slightest breath. But it gleamed on fur, not hair.

  This then was the figure from his nightmares: the Other, who could not be trusted or resisted. The Other, who gloried in dominance and conquest! His intellect knew, and Catherine insisted, that all men had dark sides to their natures. But she had not seen this! This vision was not wholly a man. This vision was created for flaming passion and rage! She could not fully know what this Other was capable of: when the red mists came down, and the Other tore control from him, when he became a horrified witness within his own mind.

  And it was within his own mind that a voice constantly whispered, that all it had taken was one moment's loss of control, and he had lost Devin. One moment's loss of control, and he had lost Lisa. And with one moment's loss of control, he could lose Catherine....forever.

  And then....And then....

  He would die.

  And Vincent bent his great head, and wept.


* JANE EYRE - Charlotte Bronte