In many ways doth the full heart reveal

The presence of the love it would conceal

Samuel Coleridge



by Joanne Grier
(originally written as J.A. Cliffe)




Surveying their handiwork Catherine broadly smiled then whirled around with her arms extended and her happy laughter echoing against the chamber walls.  “You do think it looks all right, don’t you?”  Without waiting for a reply she breathlessly rushed on, “Have I forgotten anything?  You don’t think he knows, do you?”


“Catherine, you have thought of everything and Vincent will most certainly be enchanted.”  Pascal flashed her one of his rare ear to ear smiles, which more than mimicked her happiness.  “We’d better hurry or we’ll be the last to arrive.  Even though he would never admit it, you know Vincent will be concerned at your being late.”  Slipping on the flowing claret robe he had abandoned earlier, Pascal stood patiently waiting while Catherine took one last look around.  Leaving one solitary candle burning, together they pulled the made-shift door closed and headed toward the library.


“I’ll slip in through the upper level,” the pipe master said, leaving Catherine to enter the gathering alone.  She smiled at his rapidly disappearing back, took a calming breath and stepped inside.


The chamber was charged with was an air of ordered chaos.  Surrounded by a circle of children at his feet, a chubby toddler on his knee and Kipper in the place of honor at his left, Vincent truly looked like a king in some medieval pageant.  Catherine’s eyes widened, and then her hand flew to her mouth, stopping the incredulous cry of disbelief that bubbled from her throat.


Pudgy, tiny fingers struggled to place a brightly colored crown with slightly misshaped points upon Vincent’s flowing tresses.  His head dipped lower to accommodate the giver and small hands perched the crown precariously on his head.  The toddler on his knee smiled in an open mouth giggle of joy, drool spilling from the gapping corner of Austin’s mouth.  Producing a clean square of linen and without interrupting his conversation with Kipper, Vincent gently cleansed the child’s face.


Catherine stood watching, her face clearly revealing her elation at the unfolding scene.  The children took special delight in creating gifts for Vincent’s birthday and more than one tunnel child had solicited Catherine’s council regarding their choices.  Each child had been amazingly original, creating and designing items to fill a special need for their hero.  No matter how often he repeated his wish that the children not give him gifts, Vincent’s pleas always fell on deaf ears.  There was not one of Mary’s charges who didn’t wish to remember their favorite teacher and very special friend.


Catherine moved down the stairs and slipped in beside Father to watch Vincent open the remainder of his gifts.  Blue eyes flashed warmly, capturing Catherine in his intense gaze, and she was lost within their burning depth.  Father’s discreet calling of her name broke the spell and she leaned nearer to hear his conversation.


Accepting the pillow Father offered, Catherine dropped gracefully to the floor, curling her legs beneath her.  Her lap was instantly filled and she leaned to place a soft kiss of greeting on Geoffrey's warm cheek.  Together they sat watching until the last gift was opened and all the scraps of cloth and paper used for wrapping were gathered up to be re-cycled for another happy occasion.


After the cake was consumed and the library re-ordered to Father’s state of organized clutter, the party energy began fading and slowly came to a halt.  Slipping her arm around his waist, Catherine stood beside Vincent bidding good night to the last lingering adults as the echoing sounds of laughing children, who were half-heartedly protesting their bedtime faded from the nearby tunnel.


“Catherine, you were later than I had anticipated.  Was anything wrong?”


Quickly grasping his large hand, she gave him a reassuring squeeze before responding.  “No, nothing is wrong.  Actually, I was delayed in making final preparations for my birthday gift for you.”


Reaching to remove the paper crown, Catherine allowed her fingers to linger, lightly fondling his long flowing tresses that had cascaded across Vincent’s forehead.  His eyes followed her movement and Catherine felt a sudden rush of pleasure in his shy smile.  The touch of her fingers was feather light yet his breath caught and she witnessed the vein at his temple pulsating rapidly.  Placing the crown in his hand she stared at it for several moments then raised sooty lashes to gaze openly at him.  “You are the prince of every woman’s dream,” she murmured.


“I believe you have lost your lawyer’s sense of objectivity where I’m concerned.  My heart and I thank you for this delightful perception.”


Through their bond song, Vincent felt her giddy excitement and the knowledge that she wished to surprise him, caused him to purposely subdue his ability to read her thoughts and emotions.  There had been moments when he was remorseful, almost guilty, over his ability to literally share her mind.  When he had confronted Catherine with his shame, she had gently rebuked him and had told him instead how much she envied his ability and wished she was so gifted.


From across the library, Pascal’s discreet clearing of his throat broke the spell, and Vincent’s eyes moved to focus on his life-long friend.  “I’d be happy to take your gifts to your chamber since I’m headed that way, Vincent.  I’m sure Catherine isn’t leaving this early.”  He stood there smiling shyly, then strode to the table and gathered up the gifts without waiting for a response.  His rapid walk quickly took Pascal from the room.


“Yes, why don’t you two children go along?  Mary and I were just about to have a nice cup of tea while we discuss a problem concerning a couple of the younger children.  And,” Father added with a pointed good-natured chortle, “since we have serious work to accomplish, we don’t need you lingering about making stilted, polite conversation while attempting to think of a believable excuse to leave.”  His eyes danced merrily and his carefree voice, ended in a gentle laugh.  “Go along now and enjoy the rest of your birthday, Vincent.  Goodnight, Catherine.”


Reaching for each other’s hand, Vincent and Catherine quickly mounted the steps; their laughter reverberated in the tunnel as they ran.  They stood at the junction that would take them toward Vincent’s chamber and the more populated areas beyond.  Looking up at him, Catherine observed, “It was a lovely party.  The children’s gifts were creative and certainly showed their love of their teacher.  Did you see Eric’s chest puff up with pride when you praised his gift?”


“Yes.  He’s still delicate needing reassurance of his talents and more importantly, that while he might technically be an orphan; he has a home and a family here who love him.”  The brightness left his eyes, leaving them sad in remembering Eric’s sister, Ellie.


Her fingers fluttered against the ties of his vest then briefly touched the warm, soft skin of his throat.  Pressing her face against his jaw and brushing a kiss over the soft stubble, she hugged him fiercely.  “All children need to know they are loved,” she entreated softly, even those children who wear the mantle of grown adults.”


Vincent’s arms tightened and he felt her love strongly enfolding him.  They clung for several moments before his finger stole up to lift her chin.  His eyes held her intense gaze.  “Every moment with you is a blessing.  I’m enriched by your…your love.”


For a heartbeat they stood quietly holding each other, lost in their own memories and emotions.  Sensing their mutual wish not to spoil their time together with sadness, they drew gently apart.  Vincent favored her with one of his rare smiles and Catherine returned it warmly.  “Shall we go?” he asked softly.


Taking her hand they continued to walk, slowly finding their way from the melancholy that had momentarily overcome them.  Reaching his chamber, Vincent stopped, but Catherine continued walking.  Pausing, she turned back to look at him, held out her hand, and simply said, “Come.”


Two strides brought Vincent to her side and he took her outstretched hand.  He allowed her to lead him and they came to a halt before a seldom-used guest chamber.  “May I lead you through the dark?” she whispered, echoing the words he had spoken to her on the night of her first Winterfest.


Reaching to help with the temporary door, Vincent quickly dropped his hand in seeing Catherine’s determined look.  She momentarily struggled then the door slid forward enough to allow Vincent to enter.  “Close your eyes, please.”  He did as she asked and slid through the opening.


Vincent stood quietly listening to the sound of Catherine’s tugging the door closed.  He felt her excitement, followed by her giddy, soft laughter.  He was aware of her movement within the chamber by the shifting air currents that carried her perfume to him in varying degrees of intensity as she moved within the confined space.


“Okay, you can open your eyes now.”  She stood across the room, excited and enthusiastically awaiting his reaction when he viewed the formerly dank, musty chamber.


Vincent’s eyes opened slowly then widened.  The glow from a dozen large candles illuminated the space casting soft shadows in patterns of silver and gray into the deeper areas of darkness.  Taking his hand she guided him toward a large overstuffed love seat that was covered in a soft chintz fabric of cabbage roses.  After seating him, Catherine sank gracefully on to a low antique stool at his feet.


“I’ve been thinking about your birthday and what sort of gift would be appropriate, almost continuously since last year.  There are so many things I wanted to give you, but I know how you feel about my spending money on you.”  She paused picked up his hand and suddenly brushed a light kiss against his fingertips, and then covered them with her own.  “I’m torn between obeying your wishes and showering you with tons of gifts because it’s what I long to do - give you all the beautiful things in my world.”


“But, Catherine, I have the most beautiful and precious thing in your world.  I have you.”


“Oh,” came her breathless reply.  A faint blush touched her cheeks and she looked up at him, suddenly shy at his unexpected compliment.  She smiled, then as though gathering her thoughts, and picked up the threads of her conversation.  “I knew that if I gave you costly material things it would embarrass you and make you uncomfortable, so I decided I needed to be as creative as the children.


“What I have collected are the elements of my world that have brought me joy and things I wish to share with you.”  She paused, clutching his hand more securely.  “Vincent, if I asked you to do something that seems strange, will you understand that I don’t mean to make you ill at ease?  Something I’m giving you is very different; it requires….”


“The end justifying the means,” he interjected looking expectantly.


“Yes.  Will you trust me, knowing that your comfort is paramount?”


Nodding, Vincent gently rubbed his thumb over her hand.  “I trust you with my life.”  His eyes held hers and for a brief moment, he inclined his head toward her, and then abruptly drew back.


Catherine straightened, and giving her head a small shake, then smiled.  “Pascal was kind enough to help.  He was surprised that no one noticed his absence from the pipe chamber in the last few weeks.  He values your friendship and when I explained what I wanted and he readily volunteered, saying he would do anything to surprise you.”


Reaching down, her fingers caught the edge of a box and brought it forward and removed an envelope from its top.  “Happy Birthday, Vincent.  This is merely the beginning of what I hope will be a memorable night for you.”


Vincent accepted the envelope, withdrawing the single sheet of silver blue vellum.  Opening it, he read the word lovingly inscribed:  


Dear Vincent, I am blessed because of your generous spirit which has guided me to discover the best within myself.  My wish is to return these gifts by enriching your senses beyond all that you have known.  We have walked the city in the darkness of Saowen.  Now, may I lead you on a visual foray into my world?   All my love, Catherine.


“I am yours to command, Catherine.”  His eyes sparkled in open curiosity.  Catherine had always managed to surprise him for his birthday, exceeding his dreams, and he was certain this year would be no exception.  Folding the note, he carefully reinserted it back into the envelope, putting it aside to be retrieved later and stored in his steamer trunk.  Each note, card and letter from Catherine was carefully tucked away to be read and re-read when they were apart; to reassure him, when necessary, that this incredibly beautiful woman truly loved him.  He had tried to deny her love, but in those moments late at night when he had returned from another evening with her, he admitted to himself the depth of her love.  Repeatedly, he had tried to dissuade her, but she had met his every argument, out-flanked him verbally and continuously returned to surround him with her unending love.


Taking the box Catherine offered, he quickly removed the wrappings.  Nestled within the billowy mounds of tissue was a set of bronzed baby shoes.  A smile tugged at the corners of Vincent’s mouth as he lifted the tiny shoes and settled them in his palm.  His large hand enhanced their petite stature and the gentle movement of his finger traced the bronzed surface.


“Those were always on Dad’s desk, and when I packed up his office, I just brought them home.  Somehow I felt it was fitting that I should give them to you.  You are my family,” her voice trembled slightly then grew stronger, “and I thought they should remain with someone who loves me.”


Vincent stared down at this most precious gift, blinking away the tears that stung his eyes, and then he reached for Catherine’s hand.  “You honor me,” he haltingly responded.


“There’s more,” Catherine softly replied.  “I didn’t know if you would want them, but I hoped…”  Her voice trailed away ending with a light rush.


Beneath another layer of tissues he found an envelope faded to the color of antique lace.  From the delicate folds of paper, Vincent removed the contents and swiftly scanned the raised print.  “Your birth announcement,” he whispered reverently.  His fingers skimmed over the letters and he could imagine the pride of Catherine’s parents on the birth of their child.  Tears brimmed his lashes and threatened to spill down his face.


Lifting the remaining tissue, he revealed bronzed hand prints, and on the plaque beneath it was written, “Catherine, age three.”


“You don’t mind, do you, that I…,” she hesitated, the lump in her throat making further speech impossible.


Overcome by emotion, Vincent gathered Catherine to his chest, holding her closely.  “To trust this legacy from your father to me, Catherine…”   His voice broke and he lowered his head to her shoulder, nuzzling against her long hair.  They clung tightly for minutes then slowly drew apart.  Catherine smiled and withdrew from his arms.  “I thought of giving you these,” she gestured toward the items in his lap, “for a long time, but somehow your natal day celebration seemed appropriate.”


Vincent turned from her then, peering into the shadows, his body suddenly tense and his senses fully alert.  “There’s something there in the shadows,” he stated warily, “A presence I can’t define.”  His arm came in front of her, ready to thrust her behind him, offering his body in protection.


“Oh, I’m sorry.  Please don’t be alarmed,” Catherine interjected, reassuring him, “It’s something I brought.”  Her voice held a wisp of gaiety and she left the stool where she had been seated, and moved into the shadows.  Moment’s later Catherine returned carrying a large covered cage.


“When I was trying to decide what to do for your birthday, I remembered how intently you watched and listened to the children after I had taken them to the lecture at the library on birds.  There was such longing in your eyes as they talked about the colors.  So,” she placed the large cage on the stool and paused dramatically, “I borrowed these for the weekend.”  Lifting the cover she revealed a pair of stately cockatoos.  She watched Vincent lean forward, his eyes wide and his expression eager.  “They’re…”


“Cacatua leadbeateri,” he interjected excitedly, giving the full Latin name for the brilliantly plumed birds.  “I’ve read about them, but to actually see them….”  Vincent paused, struggling for control.  “I never realized the colors would be this vivid.”  He continued to stare, and then moved his finger to stroke the cage in awe.


“Their owners are friends of mine.  They’re finger trained if you would like to try holding them.  They have been family pets of Bob and Chris for several years and much of the time, they’re loose in their home, only spending the night in their cage.”


“What are their names?”  He tried to look at Catherine, but his eyes were continually drawn to the colorful plumage and at last, he gave up and simply gazed in undisguised wonder.


“Tristan and Isolde.  Bob is a great fan of Wagner, but don’t ask me which is which.  I never could tell them apart!”


They sat in companionable silence and after several minutes Catherine started to smile, a slow chuckle building in her throat as she watched first the birds cock their heads, and then Vincent’s head angling to duplicate their movement.  She covered her mouth, but moments later her gentle laughter floated upward.


Vincent turned; gazing at Catherine, then shook his head.  His left eyebrow rose in a quizzical statement of mutual understanding and he responded lightly, “I was rather intense, wasn’t I?”


“A little, but I was enjoying it.  Watching the birds watch you, seeing your heads moving in unison,” she teased lightly.  “I’ll need to pick them up early Monday evening.  Bob and Chris are returning about 9:00 p.m. from their weekend holiday, and they indicated that would be the best time to return them.  Monday is still the day you don’t have any literature classes, isn’t it?  You could spend the entire day enjoying their antics.”


Picking up her hand, Vincent held it then suddenly raised it to his lips.  “Catherine, I don’t know how to adequately thank you.  To have the opportunity to observe them is totally unexpected.  And, yes, Monday is the day I don’t have classes.”


“You might not thank me if Tristan and Isolde start talking non-stop and keep you awake.  Chris has been working with them and they have a wide vocabulary.  I have some other things for you.  Would you move the cage over to that table, please?”


After completing this task, Vincent returned to his seat and watched Catherine slip from the shadows balancing a large cardboard box.  “Kind of difficult to wrap,” she announced smilingly then lowered the box to rest it against her hip.  Settling again on the stool beside him, she partially lifted the lid.  “Would you close your eyes again, please?”  Without waiting to see if he complied, she removed the top and began placing items on the table.  “Open up, your treasures await,” she commanded gently.


Vincent drew a large bubble of tissue paper toward himself.  Watching him carefully work through layer by layer of tissue, Catherine gently mused, “Remember when we thought it was possible for us to travel to the cabin in Connecticut?  I decided that if we couldn’t go, perhaps it was possible for me to bring part of the glen to you.”


The corners of Vincent’s mouth lifted in a smile as he withdrew a perfectly formed burnt orange leaf suspended in glass.  The glass was mounted on a polished red oak base.  He turned the globe slowly, admiring the solitary leaf from every raised angle.  Opening the second mound of tissue, he found another glass ball with a single sprig of a pine bough, with a petite bud of a cone at its head.


Pausing, Vincent looked deep into Catherine’s eyes and saw the depth of her love reflected back to him.  “Catherine….”  His voice was an inaudible cry of joy and he reached for her left hand.


Grasping his fingers tightly, silently communicating her understanding of the emotions her gifts evoked, Catherine brushed a tear that spilled down Vincent’s cheeks.  “There’s more,” she tenderly replied.  “I didn’t mean to overwhelm you.  You said I had taken you there, to Connecticut, with my words, but I wanted you to actually see the colors captured forever for you alone.”


Releasing her hand, Vincent removed another mound of tissue and discovered another paperweight larger than the others.  Within its clear expanse were a variety of small bird feathers clustered around a single puff of white goose down.  Delving into one of the three remaining puffs of tissue, he discovered a perfectly preserved dandelion pod.  Another paperweight contained a maple nut still in its spring green jacket, seemingly waiting to spin to earth to produce another tall, leafy tree.  “Oh, this is wonderful - wonderful,” Vincent exclaimed.


Catherine moved and arranged the paperweights along the table for easier viewing.  Gingerly, Vincent tore the tissue from the last item, a larger globe that contained a single, perfect red rose.  The small brass plaque attached was inscribed, “Across time, forever and always, you are my love.  Catherine”


Vincent’s eyes flew to hers.  Reaching for her, he drew Catherine up to stand in the lee of his spread legs.  Catherine’s arms enfolded his head, holding him to her breast.  Holding her tightly, he murmured soft incoherent sounds as he pressed into her fragrant warmth.  She stroked his hair and through the layers of his vest, she felt him trembling.


When the tremors diminished, Catherine spoke in a calm voice.  “I wanted to give you the glen in all its glory of every season.  There’s a delightful elderly man who lives in a nearby town, and when I stopped there and saw his paperweights, I knew what I wished to give you.  I’ve gone to the meadow each season since your last birthday, hoping to capture the most perfect pieces of nature to enclose in your paperweights.  When we are apart, I want them to be a visual reminder of my love; a reaffirmation when your doubts threaten you, that for all of your uniqueness, you are worthy of being loved.  And, that you are my heart’s best treasure.”  Her voice caught and she lifted his face, cradling it in her small hands and then pressed a kiss against his cheek.


Vincent’s eyes boldly swept her face and he saw only her loving acceptance of all that he was reflected in her expressive eyes.  “Your generosity is like your love - boundless.”  Continuing to cling, Vincent allowed himself this rare intimacy of being pressed against the softness of her breast.  Minutes pasted and they continued to hold to each other tightly, lost within the world they created.  A small sigh eased past Catherine’s lips as Vincent stirred, preparing to lift his head.  “No, please, just a moment longer.  It can be your gift to me,” she pleaded softly.  “This is wonderful and I never want it to end.”


Vincent’s arms tightened and tugging gently he eased Catherine closer.  Later, he would question his wisdom, but for now, he had to grant Catherine’s wish and to fulfill his own secret dreams of feeling her body pressed intimately against his.  Her perfume was a sensuous cloud that encircled him, teasing his senses time and time again, and for brief moment he envisioned her dressing to meet him and applying the perfume that always delighted and intrigued him.


Catherine’s enjoyment and giddy happiness filled their bond song, echoing Vincent’s joy.  They had endured obstacles that would have destroyed others, but they had been strengthened by their trials.


Lifting his head, Vincent sought her eyes; his own automatically seeking any sign that Catherine had been repulsed by this new intimacy.  Her eyes were bright, her skin translucent in the soft light and her mouth curved in a serene smile.  “Thank you,” she whispered against his chest.  “There are times when I long to, no, need to hold you.  I know the intensity of my love frightens you and I don’t mean for it to, but I’m aware that it does.  I’ve tried to respect your need for distance, allowing you to work through your fears.  But, I long to hold you as every woman wishes to hold the man she loves.”


Vincent looked down, openly staring at the rounded silhouette of her breasts pressed against his upper chest, remembering how soft they had felt.  “I know.  I’ve felt your needs because they replicate my own.  Every moment we are together, I struggle to control the need that nearly overwhelms me - the desire to hold and touch you as I do in my dreams.  Would you allow me to simply hold you on my lap?”  Longing filled his eyes and he silently prayed Catherine would fulfill his dreams.  Months before he had witnessed Olivia setting in Kanin’s lap at the Mirror Pool.  Since then he dreamed nightly of how it must feel to hold the woman you loved nestled so intimately on your lap.


Catherine’s delighted squeal was her only response, and her arms quickly slid around his body in a warm, loving embrace.  Nestling her head on his shoulder, Catherine’s lips pressed lightly against his jaw and her breath was a gentle stirring on his sensitive skin.


Vincent held her loosely until the peaceful spirit filled him then, emboldened, he shifted slightly, drawing her closer, his hand pressed against the solid warmth of her spine.  Catherine’s heart beat against his chest and the feel of her tucked securely within his arms was comforting while stimulating, and intoxicating him like heady wine.


The faint scent of her shampoo, clean and fresh, filled him and Vincent breathed deeply of this light aroma.  Silently, he had nuzzled against her hair, taking this small part of her within himself; to be re-breathed repeatedly as he did each night after he had walked home.  Now, in this intimate position, all he need do was to breathe deeply and he was surrounded by the fragrance that was uniquely Catherine’s.


One hour slipped silently into two and no conversation passed between them.  Only the twin beating of their hearts spoke the language of their love.  This haven created within the confines of their intertwined arms eased the ache that had been an integral part of their lives, pushing aside the impossibilities and showing them the glorious promise that was their future.


“It’s late.  I should take you home,” Vincent offered halfheartedly.  “Or, I could arrange,” his voice caught then gained strength, “a guest chamber if you would care to stay Below.”


“That would be wonderful.  Are you sure, though?”  She paused; touching his face and bringing his deep eyes level with her own.  “Will my being here, so near to you, create problems for you?”  Months after her father’s death she had confronted him with her knowledge that her prolonged presence in his world had been difficult for him.


Vincent’s eyes briefly closed and he trembled.  “Having you in my world is a longing that constantly dwells within my heart.  It fills my soul with such an unbearable sweetness that nothing else matters.  Your proper rest and sleep is more important that what I feel.”


“No, Vincent’s, that’s not true.  Your feelings and sense of well being are important.  They are very important to me.  How could I possibly stay if my being here causes you pain?”


“The pain of separation is greater.  This will be the one night when I…I know you are safe.  I’d feel secure knowing nothing could harm or hurt you while you slept here in my world.”  His eyes boldly held hers, the passion in their depth speaking far more than his simple words.  “Please stay?”


Her arms slid around his neck and she pressed her cheek against his.  “Yes,” she whispered, placing a light, delicate kiss on his forehead.


“Catherine, this has been the most memorable birthday celebration ever.  I can’t thank you enough for all this.”  His palm momentarily left the warmth of her back; sweeping outward to the array of gifts that covered the small table.


“It’s not over yet.  There are a couple more items.”  Catherine’s face broke into a delightful smile and she began to giggle helplessly.


“But, you have already given me far too much,” Vincent protested earnestly.


“Nope!  I could give you the world and it still wouldn’t be enough.  It could never equal all you’ve given me.  You freed my heart and spirit, and your love has enriched me beyond anything I ever thought possible,” she adamantly observed.


“When I thought about gifts, I got so excited, I couldn’t stop once the ideas started coming.  And then…,” she paused breathlessly, “I reviewed my list and there wasn’t one thing I was willing to cut.  So, you have to endure this profusion of loot a little longer.”  Her laughter choked her final words.  Burying her face in the warmth of Vincent’s neck, she vainly tried to smother another fit of giggles.


Catherine’s merriment was infectious and Vincent began to chuckle.  “If there’s one thing,” he breathed between laughs, “I haven’t experienced in my life, it is a ‘profusion of loot’.  That’s not a term commonly used in this community.  Father believes in teaching moderation in all things.”  The corners of his eyes crinkled and his lips lifted, revealing the tips of his teeth as he smiled.  It was one thing to tease and joke with Father and his friends in the community, but it was only recently that he had discovered the joy in sharing his wry wit with Catherine.  He found she enjoyed his sense of the absurd and they enjoyed sharply intelligent puns.  Holding lightly they lingered for several minutes enjoying the gaiety that they had found in Catherine’s choice of words.


“Thank you.  I haven’t laughed this much since your last visit.”  Vincent’s tone clearly indicated a wish to continue their present mood.


“I agree.  We should do this more often - the laughing and this cuddling.  I could become very addicted to both.”  Catherine smiled brightly then lightly stepped off of his lap.  Again she moved into the shadows and returned with a box wrapped in several sheets of the Sunday comic strips.  Vincent’s eyes glowed in seeing the wrapping.  Eyeing him, she exclaimed happily, “I remembered you said the children often got the comics first when a Sunday paper was brought down, so I saved several, hoping you hadn’t read these, and that they could be your late night reading.”


Vincent’s fingers nimbly plucked the ribbon and tape from the colorful wrapping, and then with great care, he folded the paper, to be savored later.  He watched Catherine’s face as he lifted the lid, aware of her anticipation of his happiness.  Gingerly lifting the lid and folding back the tissue, he inserted his hands into a sea of brightly hued packing peanuts.  He found what felt like plastic bubble wrap and cautiously removed this next layer of wrapping.


Catherine quickly reached over, bursting one of the bubbles between her fingers.  She began to laugh as the popping sound faded.  “I can’t resist them,” she offered helplessly.  “When I see them I have no control, I have to pop them.  It drives Joe crazy and he’s threatened me constantly since the time I popped several, and he ducked under his desk, thinking it was gun fire!”


Vincent stared, seeing a side of Catherine he had never known and finding it all too delightful.  He peeled off a layer of plastic bubbles, wordlessly handing them to her.  Fascinated, he watched as she began a random pattern of bursting.  His mouth dropped open when Catherine threw the bubbles to the floor and began to madly jump up and down, gleefully laughing as the popping sounds ricocheted off the chamber walls.


Laughter swelled in Vincent’s chest, bursting from his throat in a glorious sound that echoed repeatedly.  Holding his sides, tears rolled down his cheeks, and Catherine continued her spontaneous dance.  “Oh, my stomach hurts,” his hand rested lightly against his still quivering muscles.  “I trust you don’t share this lively dance with just anyone!  They might question…”


“My sanity,” Catherine offered between peals of laughter.  Tugging her bangs back in place across her face, she grinned happily.  Her hand shot out, but Vincent was quicker and held the still bubble-enshrouded gift aloft out of reach.  She pouted at him prettily, but said nothing.  “I fear, Catherine, that we will have everyone living in the tunnels down here if we have another exhibition of your…humm…bubble dance.”


“Okay, you win.  I’d prefer enjoying our privacy without having to explain my fetish to the entire community,” she said with a silly smirk.  “Now, let’s see what else the birthday fairy brought you!”


Nodding, Vincent lowered the package he had been holding aloft.  Removing the remaining plastic wrap, he stiffened, his hand clutching his chest in an effort to still his racing heart.  “Oh, my, oh,” his velvety gravel voice choked with emotion.


Gingerly he placed the object on the table, elbows resting on his knees and his chin supported by one hand.  A lone finger stole out to gently rotate the shimmering stained glass lighthouse.  The base was iridescent white glass, crafted to create the illusion of the traditional cylinder shape.  Beneath the pale blue, almost clear dome top, was a black marbled glass catwalk.  Slender slivers of dark marble glass formed perfect supporting posts for the solid, tiny copper foiled top-rail.  In the center of the dome, minuscule mirrors created the warning beacon.  Varying dark hues of stained glass, positioned to create the impression of craggy rocks surrounded the lighthouse.


“If you lift the house carefully--there are three small prongs that hold it tightly--you can actually put this inside.”  Catherine held a small candle in her outstretched palm.  “It reflects in the mirrors and actually looks like the lit lighthouse near the cove by the cabin.”


Fearful that he might actually shatter this delicate treasure, Vincent carefully exerted slight pressure on the house, rocking it gently upward, then, placed the candle in the holder.  Catherine struck a match, lighting the petite votive.  His hands shook as he slowly lowered the top again.


They sat in silence, staring with open admiration as the mirrors refracted the light.  “How is this possible?”  Catherine smiled at Vincent’s perplexed expression, catching a glimpse of how he must have looked as an eager young student discovering the mysteries of life.


“I attached tiny mirrors to the top dome of the beacon so that they would catch the refracted light from the candle and spread it around like the real thing.”


“Catherine!  You made this yourself?  With your own hands-for me...for me?”  Clearly astonished Vincent’s voice revealed his surprise and his growing pleasure.


“I’ve always been interested in stained glass, it was something my mom loved and she taught me about it, making sure I saw all the best pieces when we traveled.  A friend at work had taken it up as a hobby and she’d discuss her various projects quite often when we had lunch.  I brought in some books of mom’s I’d kept, then one day Wanda asked if I’d like to try creating a piece myself.  It was something I had secretly longed to try, so we arranged to meet.


“I was awful at first, but I kept trying in spite of ruining a lot of glass before getting this pattern perfectly cut.  Remember when I had all those tiny cuts on my fingers?  I was certainly clumsy, getting cut by all the slivers, but I finally got it cut.  Foolishly, I thought that part was difficult, but it was only the beginning.  Folding copper foil and soldering almost proved to be my down fall,” she laughed.


“On the knoll beyond the lake, in the early spring before the foliage is full and deep, you can see the lighthouse clearly.  I thought you would enjoy having your own, so that’s why I decided to create this when Wanda offered to be my mentor.”


Reaching for Catherine’s hand, his eyes never leaving hers, Vincent gently kissed her fingers, seeking to heal the memory of those painful cuts on his Beloved hands.  “How can I thank you?  You have already given me so much.  This must have taken many hours.  I shall treasure this more because you created it especially for me.”


Catherine smiled, softly and sweetly at him, knowing her hours of hard work had been rewarded beyond all her expectations in seeing the happiness reflected in Vincent’s eyes.


“I have one last gift and if you will recall earlier, I said there was a part of your gifts that required your trust; that I would never knowingly seek to embarrass you.”  Disappearing once more into the dim shadows and returning with her hands held behind her back, “Would you close your eyes one last time, please?”


Vincent quickly complied and waited, listening intently; he could hear the soft sounds of Catherine’s shoes as she moved toward him.  He knew the exact moment she stopped and stood in front of him.


“Sniff, please,” she instructed.


Inhaling, he lifted his face, his eyes still closed, then inhaled again.  “It smells like the waterfront, tangy and salty.”


“That’s right. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fool you.”  She was laughing when he opened his eyes.  Beneath his nose he saw a glass filled with clear liquid.  Placing the glass on the table and reaching for his hand she simply said, “Come.”


Together they walked deep into the shadows in the corner, and before an old faded dressing room screen and stopped.   Releasing Vincent’s hand, Catherine lit a solitary candle that served to soften the darkness.  “Will you sit there,” she asked, pointing to a small wooden crate, “and take off your boots and socks?  Please wait until I call before coming behind the screen.”


Suddenly a thousand demons rose within Vincent and the desire to flee was strong.  The idea of exposing even his feet to Catherine’s eyes frightened him.  He would face any danger for her, but to allow her to see any part of him without layers of clothing was impossible.  Immobilized by his fears, he trembled violently.  From behind the screen, he could hear Catherine moving about and what sounded like a lid being rolled around.


He suddenly stood, took one step then sank back down. ‘No,’ he whispered to himself, ‘I cannot do this to Catherine.  She gives everything and I give so little.’  Vincent straightened his slumping shoulders, took a calming breath and then Vincent began to tug off his boots.


“Vincent, when you are ready, tell me.  Give me a few seconds before you come behind the screen, so I can move outside through the other end.  Don’t worry,” Catherine warmly reassured him, “I won’t look and you’ll have complete privacy.”


“Th…Thank you!”  Vincent’s heart swelled with love at her understanding of his fears.  Slowly he pulled off his socks and stared down at his feet.  They were long and narrow with a high, well-defined arch, and his toes were tipped with round nails.  Their appearance was much like Father’s, but it was simply that they were a part of his body that, to him, made them repugnant.


“Oh, Vincent, I forgot!  You’ll need to roll your pant cuffs up one or two turns.”


Completely mystified, he did as Catherine bid him.  “I’m ready Catherine,” he said albeit shakily.  He griped the section of screen in front of him and waited, then, seeing Catherine’s shadow moving around the opposite end, he stepped behind it.


“Here.”  Above the screen, her hand appeared, holding two large lit candles.  “There’s a ledge to your right, where you can place them.  Be careful when white meet blue, it’s more fragile than it appears,” she offered apologetically.  “Enjoy yourself.  I’ll be waiting on the love seat until you’ve finished.”


Vincent took the candles, listening to the sound of her footsteps receding before lifting them higher to illuminate the area.  One step and he was standing on warm, slightly damp, white sand.  It squished between his toes and he took several steps, flexing his toes as he moved, enjoying the sensation.  Two feet in front of him, placed in a semi-circle, were small geodes of varying sizes, seeming to hold back a pool of glistening blue water.  One stride brought him to the waters edge.  Crouching down, he scooped up a handful of water and brought it to his nose and inhaled.  Salt!


Heeding Catherine’s warning Vincent stepped lightly over the geodes and into the water.  His eyes grew wide and he turned in a circle, his mind not accepting what he witnessed.  Peering into the dark, he found the source of the warm breeze that blew across his face.  Tucked on a ledge anchored by leather straps was a small heater with a circulating fan.  Near the rocky top of the wall, a full moon had been carefully painted, and on the opposite wall he recognized Pascal’s fine artwork.  Illustrated in softly iridescent white chalk were silhouettes of a tall hooded figure and a petite woman in a flowing dress.


Instantly, Vincent knew this was water from the ocean near the cabin in Connecticut.  Shaking his head, he wondered how Catherine had managed to bring it all this distance.  He chucked softly, knowing that nothing was impossible, and there were obviously no lengths to which his Beloved would not go to, in order to allow him to view her cabin.


Seated on the love seat, Catherine heard Vincent’s laughter and hugged herself in glee.  From the glow behind the screen she saw his shadow moving about, his arms out-stretched.  Witnessing that, joyful, happy tears spilled down her cheeks and she smiled.


Easing out of the water, Vincent stepped from the pool to stand in the warm sand.  Curious, he dug his toes in, moving his foot back and forth.  Beneath the four inches of sand, he discovered a plastic lining that matched perfectly the blue of the pool.  Quickly he covered the secret of his ocean and he smiled broadly into the dimness at Catherine’s ingenuity.


Vincent was buffeted with emotions that assailed him, creating a whirling vortex.  Catherine’s love surrounded him, building within him until his legs began to tremble and abruptly he dropped to his knees.  She had changed him and his world forever.  The essence of their bond that he discovered when he found her had grown; it warmed his being, validated his soul, and gave new purpose to his life.  Remembering the months after Catherine’s recovery, before he saw her again, he was flooded with a hundred other memories, each more vivid in intensity.


The endless hours she had worked and planned for his birthday were gifts, symbols to him - and his world - that she loved him, above all others; that in her eyes, he was beautiful and the man of her dreams.  Tears stung his eyes and he bowed his head.  She knew and understood how deeply hurt he had been in disappointing her when he canceled their planned trip to Connecticut.  Despite her own sorrows Catherine had struggled and surmounted her pain and with renewed strength and energy had found a way to bring him the world mankind wouldn’t allow him to witness.


Vincent’s thoughts came more rapidly, each delineating the constant gifts of love Catherine had bestowed upon him.  Her protection of him had extended to encircling this beach; instinctively knowing he’d be embarrassed to have his feet exposed.  She had denied herself the joy of watching his face rather than risk his discomfort.  All this she did because of her endless, enduring devotion.


Vincent’s heart raced, and before his fears took control preventing his course of action, he rose.  Moving to stand at that thin fabric guardian of his dignity and privacy, he pulled the screen inward and stepped into the shadows, boldly striding to where his Beloved sat and stopped.


Her eyes held his, and even though he felt her curiosity course through the bond, he knew her eyes would not leave his.  Kneeling before her, he began to unlace the warm boots she wore, and then quickly rolled the legs of her trousers up to expose her ankles.  Then he rose to his full majestic height and extended his hand.  “Catherine, would you join me?”  Sweeping her into his arms, he carried her toward the screen and the waiting beach.


Stepping into the cool water, Vincent gently lowered Catherine to her feet, continuing to hold her gently in his arms.  She pressed her face against his chest and he felt her smile into his sweater.  “It’s beautiful, thank you.”


Her eyes shone and she slid her hand upward, nestling it into the warmth of his neck.  “I have something else, too, if you are willing, but I think it’s traditionally given when saying good-night.”


“Then for the first time, Catherine, I shall be eager to bid you good-night.”  He inclined his head toward her and his lips drew back in a smile.  “Very eager and willing.”

 The End…..well, maybe not!