RED FOR REMEMBERING
Ann R. Brown
Standing on the riverbank, Catherine saw a raft approaching through
swaths of mist, and poised herself to jump aboard. Vincent poled the raft
closer to the shore and reached out a hand to steady her as she climbed
on, balancing carefully. She sat down, tucked her black woolen skirt under
her legs, and hugged herself, shivering as she watched tendrils of cold
fog coil and twist like ghosts over the dark river.
With a hard shove of the pole, Vincent pushed away from the bank. Under a dark cloak he wore a black suede shirt and trousers. The thongs of the shirt were knotted tightly across his chest.
“I’ve never been this way before.” Her words echoed eerily in the dimness.
The sullen rumble of the underground river made Vincent’s answer hard to hear. He didn’t look at her as he spoke. “Everyone else is taking the long way, walking down several miles of passages and stairs that lead from the main tunnels. I claimed the raft for you because you’ve never been to a ceremony like this one. The cavern is used only for memorial services.”
She huddled closer into her coat, trying to overcome her nervousness. Although she hadn’t known Margaret well, she had accompanied Peter Alcott to the graveside service at St. Cleo’s. The sun had glinted brightly on banks of colorful flowers, and the young minister was bland. This ceremony in the depths of the earth was altogether beyond her comprehension. She felt as if she were crossing the Styx with an unearthly ferryman.
Explained Vincent, “We are so few in number that we are unable to take death lightly. No one is expendable, here. Every loss is a serious loss, and in this ritual, we acknowledge our grief.”
Catherine told herself that the Tunnel way was more honest than a false cheerfulness that denied the pain of bereavement. Still, the shadowy cliffs and black rumbling water sent prickles of apprehension down her spine. She glanced up at Vincent, who was pushing the raft away from a jagged protrusion of rock. His expression was so stern that he looked like a stranger. She had something important to ask him, but this was not the time or place.
The raft seemed like a speck of driftwood floating between mist-haunted cliffs of black and blood-red onyx that continually dripped streams of moisture. Cold wind moaned like a lost soul. To Catherine it seemed appropriate that the river was nameless. She couldn’t think of a word to describe it.
Rounding a bend, Vincent steered toward a wide ledge a foot above the waterline. Catherine could already hear a distant sound of drumming as she climbed out of the raft and on to the ledge. She found herself standing within an alcove shaped like a rough clamshell that captured the low rumble of the waves and magnified the sound.
Vincent tied the raft to a tooth of rock and leaped up to the ledge, landing on his hands and knees.
Looking around, Catherine could see no sign of a cave entrance. To her astonishment, Vincent remained kneeling. Only then did she see a split at the base of the rock wall, hardly big enough to crawl through.
“Are you wearing anything valuable?” he asked.
Her hand flew to her throat. “A silver locket my mother left me.”
“You’ll need to leave it here. Death strips us of all possessions.”
“Will I get it back?” Reluctantly she unclasped the delicate chain. Already placed near the entrance were a wedding ring, a framed photograph of a child, an engraved pocket watch, and a packet of letters tied with blue ribbon.
Vincent didn’t answer. From an inner pocket of his cloak he drew the copy of Great Expectations that the two of them had read together. He stroked the leather cover reverently, as if saying a prayer, and placed it beside the other treasures.
“Follow me and keep your head down.” He disappeared into the cleft.
With sudden longing, Catherine glanced back at the raft. Why
was she here? She was a newcomer, an outsider to the tunnel community.
They might resent her presence at this ceremony for Margaret. It
might be better for her to wait here, on the ledge, and not intrude. Anything would be easier than crawling into that horrible rift.
Except that Vincent believed she could do it. He had faith in her
courage. She couldn’t be a coward now. With a small moan of
fear, she dropped to her knees and crept into the hole. It hemmed
her in on all sides. She could hear drumming ahead, but couldn’t
see anything. The blackness was absolute.
She kept her head down as she inched cautiously through the low tunnel. Only faith in Vincent kept her going, for she had always feared the dark. Every time she moved, pebbles rained down. Rough gravel bruised her hands and knees. If this journey was intended to be a symbolic death, it was very effective.
Reaching out to feel her way, she sensed space, and guessed that the narrow shaft had come to an end. To her immense relief, a warm hand grasped her fingers.
“You can stand up now,” Vincent murmured.
She kept tight hold until she got to her feet, feeling dizzy and disoriented. When her eyes became accustomed to the dim gray light, she could make out a circle of people sitting on the floor of a vast cave. She recognized Father and Mary, and Winslow, and a few others. In the center of the circle, Pascal tapped a skin drum tucked between his knees. The other helpers and tunnel people she knew only slightly.
They found places in the circle and sat down without speaking. The cave felt like the belly of an animal; the drum its heart. She lost all track of time and space, as if she had been carried back to a prehistoric world in which Pascal, the shaman, summoned the spirits of the clan. Her sense of being an outsider gradually faded. The ritual was connecting her to everyone in the circle.
When the drumming finally ceased, the weight of silence made her afraid to breathe. She wondered what would happen next.
Eventually out of the dimness came Mary’s voice, soft as a whisper.
“The impression I received of Margaret was radiance. The aliveness of the world came through her. Even at the last, she loved to make others happy and to spare them pain. I wish I had known her longer. May God bless her forever and forever. There will never be another Margaret.”
Tears stung Catherine’s eyes. Mary’s tribute was generous, considering how deeply Margaret had imprinted her image on Father’s soul, even after three decades of separation. Catherine glanced up at Vincent. His profile seemed as noble and remote as a statue’s, and she wondered what he might be thinking.
A low sound began to rise and fall. She couldn’t identify its source, then realized to her amazement that Winslow was humming. She had known him only as the tunnel blacksmith, but the voice she heard could have filled a concert hall. Deep and solemn, his song filled the cavern.
“My feet took a walk in heavenly grass,
All day while the sun shone clear as glass.
My feet took a walk in heavenly grass,
All night while the lonesome stars rolled past.
Then my feet come down to walk on earth,
And my mother cried when she give me birth.
Now my feet walk far and my feet walk fast,
But they still got an itch for heavenly grass.
They still got an itch for heavenly grass.”
There was a long pause. Catherine wiped her brimming
eyes on her woolen sleeve. Once again Vincent’s hand found hers,
and she felt the strong and tender communication of the bond. The
circle of mourners and the music seemed to intensify it, until the bond
seemed for the moment to be connecting not just Vincent and herself, but
everyone present. With sharpened intuition Catherine sensed that
a white-haired fellow named Sebastian was recalling the earliest days of
the community … Mary was fighting against a personal demon of envy … Father
was struggling to be grateful as he recalled the final seven days he had
shared with his former wife. Vincent’s thoughts were clouded; she
could sense only a soul-deep dread, and that puzzled her.
When Vincent finally rose to speak, he seemed to be talking not only about Margaret, but also about someone else. He had to force the words out one by one.
“What can possibly be said about such a loss? It seems almost unbearable to feel someone go after having such a brief time together. Because our sharing was brief, we must keep our recollections clear - they are as precious as amber. In our hearts and memories, if nowhere else, she persists as bright and vivid as she was on the best day of her shining.” His voice broke, and he fell silent.
A sudden flash of insight left Catherine stunned. ‘He’s grieving for me,’ she thought, dumbfounded. ‘I’m not dead. What’s wrong with him?’
Father stood up then, leaning heavily on his stick. He waited, gathering his thoughts, while a basket of candles was passed around. He looked weary, but at peace. When everyone had taken a candle, he raised his head and spoke quietly.
“Margaret, it was on the seventh of this month that we were married. Dreams brought our lives together and we went on dreaming even after circumstances parted us. In a deeper sense, our separateness did not exist. As I move about, these days, in my chamber, missing you and yet having you all around me and inside me, I have a lovely sense of joy, knowing that it is actually one life that we made come true.”
Catherine heard the faint scrape of a match. She had been so caught up in the ceremony that she hadn’t noticed Rebecca sitting in the shadows. The candlemaker lit the first taper, and the glow was the same color as her bright hair. As the light was passed from candle to candle, and each bloomed into flame, Father recited by heart a poem by Archibald MacLeish.
“Lovers who must say farewell
When the road has reached the trees,
Lovers who have all to tell
Before the road runs out of sight
In the green cove beyond the leaves -
The green cove below the light,
Lovers who must say farewell
When the road has reached the trees,
Touching hand to hand to speak
All their love has ever known,
Find no words to speak and say
Love … Oh love … and, each alone,
Walk together toward the trees
Where the road runs out of sight
In the green beyond the leaves -
The green cove below the light.”
In the flickering light of the candles, Catherine could see that Father was standing before a row of terra cotta tiles that circled the entire cavern. Each tile held the imprint of a hand and a name. From where she was sitting she could read a few signatures: John Pater - Grace Devin - Jacob Wells. She recalled that after rescuing Vincent from the university lab, she had been asked by the Council to press her own hand into a square of clay, and to write her name. Now she knew why. She was officially no longer an outsider.
It seemed that the tiles were arranged chronologically, for her
own imprint was in the last row, next to Margaret’s. The bonds of
love that connected this community were not broken by death. Glancing
at Vincent, she received again that odd impression of bone-deep fear.
Father touched Margaret’s handprint and traced her name with his fingertips. “I honor and love you with all my heart. Goodbye, my dear.”
Everyone rose, and Catherine scrambled to her feet, wondering if the ceremony was over. Then she saw that goblets were being passed out to everyone, and that William the cook was making his way around the circle carrying two bottles of wine; one red, one white. Into every cup he poured a little of each.
Gruffly he said, “Red for remembering, white for going on.”
They lifted their goblets, drank in unison, and chanted, “Red for remembering, white for going on.”
That seemed to be the signal. The circle broke into several groups, most of them speaking quietly among themselves and to Father. One by one, candles were extinguished and dropped back into the basket, along with the empty cups.
Vincent leaned down and spoke quietly to Catherine. “It’s a hard climb back up to the main tunnels. Shall we let the older people have the raft?”
“We’ll take the long way,” she agreed. It was important that they talk seriously before this night was over.
They ducked under a low arch and began to climb an endless flight of steps that wound up into darkness. Vincent took the steep risers easily, but she wasn’t tall, and her stride not as long.
He slowed to let her catch up and lifted a lantern down from a wall hook. It cast a vague circle of light that enabled Catherine to see a couple of steps ahead.
Eventually the stairs became a steep ramp that angled upward for miles. A shortcut led them through an ancient mining shaft of crumbling earth braced by rotting timbers.
It was a slow journey. Only a couple of months had passed
since Catherine had been gunned down by Mitch Denton; sometimes the muscles
in her back still ached. Once in a while she sat down on a stone
to rest. Vincent stood beside her, silent and oddly remote.
He said only, “I should never have brought you this way.”
“I’m all right,” she reassured him, and smiled, but he did not smile in return.
The mining shaft turned into steps of stone again, and she began to recognize landmarks along the way: a swaying bridge, a tangle of pipes that snaked along the wall, a corridor of curtained alcoves. The tunnels seemed deserted. Even the clicking pipes had fallen silent. Apparently the other mourners had not yet returned. Catherine wondered if Vincent would stop at his own chamber, but he did not.
Leaving the main tunnels behind, they crossed a trench that had
once been a subway track, and climbed a spiral staircase that rose like
an enormous corkscrew through solid bedrock.
At last they caught sight of an iron grille that opened out into the park. Vincent pushed it open and they walked together into bright moonlight. He had been very silent during their ascent.
She found a park bench tucked between two oak trees, a green cove below the light, and sat down to catch her breath. He hesitated, then sat beside her, dangling the lantern between his knees. The hood of his cloak concealed his face.
After a time, he said, “The locket will be returned to you, and I will retrieve my book. It was only a symbolic renunciation.”
“But a powerful one,” she assured him. “Very moving. I could tell you were feeling it deeply. Actually I’m a little surprised you took Margaret’s death so personally. Probably you were sympathizing with Father?”
He shook his head slowly. “No, I was grieving more for the two of them than for Father or Margaret alone.”
She rubbed his sleeve and asked him gently, “You’ve been far away from me all evening. Can’t you tell me what’s weighing on your mind?”
He could force himself to speak only if he turned his head away. Tension tightened his throat.
“I don’t mean to seem distant. So many things have happened recently. Happened to you, I mean. It's only been two months since you were shot, and you’re still recovering. Before that, you came into conflict with the IRA, and with the gangs on the Lower East Side. Sitting there in the cavern tonight, listening to the testimonies of friends and looking up at your handprint, I couldn’t push away those terrible memories. The pipe bomb that killed your informants. Carrying you to Lang General and leaving you on the steps.”
He paused for a moment to pull himself together. “Thinking about Father and Margaret reminds me that our time together has been brief, too. Only a few months, really. But already … already I know …“
He had chained himself back for months, fighting to keep his deepest feelings secret. But the ritual in the cavern had shaken him so deeply that he couldn’t hold back any longer.
“Nothing that could ever happen to me could hurt me as much as losing
you. The bond between us arises from the deepest part of who I am
- the force that is my life. When you were shot, I felt my own existence
falter, just like this.” He turned a knob on the lantern; the flame
narrowed to a thread of light and vanished.
Placing the darkened lantern on the ground, he stared out into the night. “Every day, every hour, I battle myself to a standstill to keep you from knowing what I’m feeling.”
She cried out, “Why?”
His voice was unsteady. “Because I haven’t any right to burden
you with my terrors. Dangers and difficulties have never held you
back, and I respect your courage. I suppose I’m asking you to have
patience with me when my fears for your safety seem to hem you in.
In time I hope I’ll be able to accept your way of life with as much honesty
as you have accepted mine.”
Catherine knew what it had cost him to make such a confession, and she ached for him, but there was a spurt of anger, too. ”Let me get this straight. Are you, in a roundabout way, actually asking me to quit my job?”
The struggle tore him inwardly. At last, pushed to the limit, he said, “When I give in to my fears, perhaps I do wish you had a less dangerous job. When I’m being rational, I would answer no, don’t give it up. You’ve sacrificed so much already in order to be with me. I don’t want you to lose anything more. Too many sacrifices can easily lead to resentment. I’m the one who needs to change. I have to trust that nothing will happen to you, that God would never take you from me. I have to believe there is justice and mercy in the world. But I’m not guiltless. There is blood on my hands. Maybe justice will happen to me, instead of mercy.” The pressure of his anguish drove him to his feet. He stalked away a few paces and leaned his back against a tree.
“Don’t listen to me, I’m raving. I picture myself crouched
in that cavern, listening to Pascal drumming for you, and I want to howl
like an animal. I don’t deserve you, I know that. I don’t even
know if I have the right to pray for mercy. Maybe only human beings
have that right. Maybe I’m only making God angry. I drive myself
mad thinking about it.” He choked on a sob, his stark face upturned
to the night sky.
He longed and yet dreaded to hear her speak, for there was something inevitable in the long silence that followed.
Catherine propped her elbows on her knees and rubbed her eyes, trying to see her way clearly through a firestorm of emotion.
Vincent wanted to keep her safe, but he also wanted her to be free. How could anyone be both? There was no way to be completely safe in this dangerous world. Any life choice might turn out to be disastrous. Besides, Vincent’s pleas could be considered emotional blackmail, and she had every right to resent that sort of pressure.
On the other hand, she had always suspected that Vincent kept his deepest emotions locked away behind fortress walls. Stone by stone he had constructed them, over many lonely years. Tonight, those walls had crumbled. Now she knew the secret he had tried so hard to hide. That in order to leave her free, he had to murder his own heart every day.
For Vincent, the moments stretched out, and the tension of waiting
was becoming unbearable.
She bit her lip, thinking hard for both of them, and stood up to face him.
Putting out a hand to stall her, he said hoarsely, “Don’t pay any attention to me. You have to follow your own path. My demented fears aren’t your problem.”
“Listen, Vincent. There is an opening in the domestic violence division. I’d be preparing cases and trying them in court. Someone else would be doing the legwork. I could talk to Joe and ask him to speak to Moreno."
Before he could protest, she came nearer and placed a hand on his chest, feeling the beat of the faithful heart that loved her so unselfishly. Vincent had revealed his soul to her, and it was time for her to be honest, too.
“I’ve thought about this before tonight. I have memories that
are unbearable, too. I followed you when you chased Jason Walker,
the subway vigilante. All I found was a jagged hole in the abyss
bridge. There was no sign of either of you - I thought you’d fallen.
I nearly went mad. It still makes me cry to remember what you suffered
at the hands of the Silks gang. And when I opened that cage at the
university lab, you looked so gaunt and weak. For months you and
I have lived on the razor’s edge of disaster - maybe I should make a change
before my good luck runs out.”
His face was a mask. “You’d do this … for me?”
Pure truth shone in her eyes. “For us. You needn’t feel you pushed me. It’s my decision. Jobs and careers come and go. What we have, the bond between us, is the bedrock. I don’t want to risk it, or you, or myself.”
His relief was so intense that he bent double and raised her hand to his lips. “Thank you. Oh, thank you. Catherine! Thank you.”
Leaning against his bowed shoulder, she murmured, “How do you really feel about my idea?”
He tried to laugh but it turned to a sob. “As if I’d died in that cavern and been reborn.”
Catherine reached an arm around his shoulders, held him close, and felt the tension shuddering out of him. Her expression was luminous. “If I have anything to say about it, you won’t ever have to sit in a dark cavern and reminisce about me, or think of a poem to say goodbye, or drink two kinds of wine to give you strength to remember and carry on. Father tried to make the best of the little time he had with Margaret, and that was brave of him, but I don’t want us to travel a short distance together, and then part, as the two lovers in Father’s poem were forced to do.”
His hood fell back, and she pressed a kiss into his tangled hair. She whispered a promise and felt the bond carry it straight from her heart to his. “Someday we may walk on heavenly grass. But you and I, Vincent … we’re taking the long way.”
“Heavenly Grass” by Tennessee Williams
“What Must” by Archibald MacLeish