Three Chapters story
In early November, Catherine had come to the hospital almost daily. Brigit had seen the beautiful attorney the day after they'd met. The “other owl woman” had been standing in the hospital waiting room, rid of her costume and its accoutrements, looking fresh scrubbed from a shower. Her hair swung loosely in its face-framing style and was much shorter without the curls she’d had pinned into it the night before. Her eyes looked a little tired. But she was there.
She'd said she would help, and she was there to do just that. Brigit blessed her for it.
The Irishwoman would have bet that the American had had no sleep at all, but they'd had little time to speak of some of the things that had happened the night before.
Brigit’s father, Sean, was the central topic of conversation between them now. And Sean O’Reilly's situation was dire in more ways than one. Not only were there multiple doctors to see, there were multiple legal documents to tend to. Pleas. Appeals. A power of attorney to be done and papers regarding his medical care. And sadly, Sean's last will and testament to get drawn up and notarized, for what little the Irish rebel had managed to amass in his life, and whatever peace it would give him to have such things settled.
There was a certain legal intricacy involved in keeping Sean in New York. Not an easy thing, considering how much he was "wanted" in his Irish homeland. Or how much he wasn’t wanted there, depending on who you talked to.
All of it (plus dealing with the deportation of Jamie Harland), had kept Catherine very busy during November. There was much to know, more to learn and many things to file. A request for a change of venue. A request for a continuance. A conference between a sympathetic judge and Sean's doctors. Contact with people in Dublin. Contact with people in Ulster, some of whom wanted Sean’s head on a stick, others of whom wanted him nowhere near Irish shores, fearing the blowback of his arrival. Messages. Telegrams. Letters. Phone calls, some of them ‘behind the scenes.’ Requests for delays. Delays for requests.
All stalling tactics, Catherine assured Brigit. Necessary ones, all things considered.
It's not that they thought Sean was innocent, nor was that something anyone was trying to prove.
It was that they thought he'd be dead, by January.
By mid-December, “January” looked like an optimistic prognosis. Brigit's prediction that they would have less than 300 days was correct. And according to Sean’s internist, “300” was an incredibly robust number by a long ways. He estimated the correct figure at closer to 100, then pared that it half again, when the test results started coming back in.
If the worst was going to happen, Brigit wanted it to happen right where they were. In New York, and at a decent hospital, not in a Derry hospital, or a county clinic, or in a prison cell back in Ireland, where Sean's enemies would see to it that he didn't last the day, no matter what building housed him.
Cathy had done everything in her power to keep Sean right where he was. The ADA had helped the famous Irish author, just as she said she would. If, astonishingly, the two women almost never spoke of Vincent, it was only because the topics of their conversations had usually so much more to do with Sean’s situation than with Catherine’s.
They'd dressed Sean up in a suit, once. It was a Tuesday, Brigit remembered, and sometime in mid-November. Winter winds had made his Irish cheeks ruddier than the whiskey usually did, and his striped necktie looked like it was choking him, something Sean swore was true.
It was all done to take him downtown and have him give whatever statement he would to Joe Maxwell - and two representatives from the state department. At least one of whom wanted Sean put on a plane that day, handcuffs, hacking cough and all.
A hastily contacted Peter Alcott had asked a doctor friend of his to accompany them, an oncologist who swore that a transatlantic flight was “inadvisable” given Sean's current state of health. Charges were filed. Statements were signed. It was then up to Cathy to file the delays that would keep them in New York.
Brigit still referred to the long, trying day as “Sean's Last Day Out."
He'd seen the inside of a jail cell. Then he'd seen the inside of a hospital.
And as the weeks went on, Brigit couldn't decide which address seemed more cruel.
As November bled into December, and Sean's condition worsened, she marveled that she'd ever been confused about that.
Seven weeks. Seven weeks, literally almost to the day she'd found her father again, Brigit O'Donnell knew she was losing him, and that it would be soon.
It all seemed so bloody unfair.
And so bloody ... inevitable.
If Ian's sudden death had been accomplished with an explosion that had ripped across her psyche, this was its opposite.
This was a slow, torturous journey that insisted every step in an excruciating gallows walk be executed at a bleeding crawl - that ripped across her psyche. This misery was accomplished slowly, with an almost ugly and deliberate pace.
With Ian, she'd never had a chance to say good-bye.
With Sean, she'd had nothing but.
As bad as his first days in the hospital had been, those were their 'salad days' compared to this.
“Salad days.” Such an antiquated term. No more salad days for Sean, and Brigit didn't feel like remembering hers. Or eating salad. Or anything else. They now fed Sean through a feeding tube. And Brigit from a vending machine, unless she could be coaxed downstairs to the hospital cafeteria.
When she actually took in a meal sitting down with tableware, the hard chairs and bland food were almost an Edenic relief, compared to the mechanical austerity of Sean's hospital room.
Bit by bit, she'd watched her father weaken, waste, and sicken further. “From what” had a host of correct answers, at this point. Cancer. Pneumonia. Cirrhosis and renal failure. He was dying as his body failed him. To Brigit’s way of thinking, he was dying because he was dying. It wasn’t so much more complicated than that.
The IV needle and the heart monitor had made room for other machines and other accessories, as his condition steadily worsened. Sensor pads taped to his chest and two at his temple measured Brigit knew not what. A clip on his finger kept track of the oxygen he was getting. Or wasn't getting, as his disease(s) progressed. He had a stent for injections and a mask for oxygen. Bags that measured how much fluid went in, and then humiliatingly, how much fluid came out.
"You're a right monster you are," she'd told his still form with what she hoped was Irish sass, hoping there was enough of the bog side fighter in him to rise to the jibe. He looked like something out of Frankenstein, complete with the electric wires at his temples and chest.
But he hadn't snapped back at her. Hadn't opened a bleary eye, and sharped "Mind your manners, girl. I'm your father." Not for a couple of days now. More, maybe. Days Brigit had had a lot of time to think.
The sudden horror of Ian's death had not been kinder than this one. But it had been, perhaps, less draining, in its terrible speed. One instant, her young husband was there. The next, he was gone.
Brigit suddenly had many hours as her disposal to compare the two. She had no idea which one she preferred, and found it horrible that the subject was even on her mental table.
So which is it you choose, lass? The quick kiss good-bye then the sound of the explosion on the other side of the wall? Or having to walk through the hospital room door again, knowing what you'll see on the other side? A man who looks increasingly less like the one you always knew, day by day?
Brigit had no answer for it. And it bothered her that the question kept arising, mentally. Is this what I’m reduced to? she wondered. Choosing which death I prefer, for the only two men I ever really loved?
It seemed impossibly sad that she was.
Twenty minutes later, she'd had to leave Sean’s room again. But not for a "mental break" or to stretch her legs or to return Catherine's most recent phone call. She'd had to leave thanks to the routine of where they were, as other people came into the room to do their jobs.
Time to empty his catheter bag, check the bedsore he'd gotten on his backside, apply a fresh bandage to that, update his chart, adjust his oxygen flow... It was as if a team of dedicated ants would swarm her poor father, do what they were trained to do, then leave him in that strange kind of mechanical peace, again. The kind where machines beeped and blinked, and the slow drip of the IV bag marked the passage of time steadier than any clock.
They all needed room to do their jobs, do the work of keeping him comfortable, and still alive.
Brigit had escaped to the chapel, the only other room besides the now-closed cafeteria where she could sit, away from the cold machines and their soulless technology. And away from the sorry sight that Sean O’Reilly, fighter and felon, had become.
She stared at the altar, unseeing. St. Vincent’s Hospital still held the Catholic trappings of its namesake. A wooden cross hung suspended from the ceiling, votive candles lit beneath it, for prayers. It was a peaceful spot, in its solitude. Peace was welcome.
"A friend of mine says the world devours our beauties and our certainties," a young male voice said, from behind her. Brigit startled a little. She'd have sworn she was all alone in the candlelit room.
He hadn't interrupted her prayers. She'd been too tired for those, lately, and no longer knew what to pray for. She now simply used the chapel for the sense of respite it still gave her, and as a refuge.
Her unexpected companion was sitting just behind her, not far from her left shoulder. If she turned her head just a little, she could see him in the pew. Young. Brunette. Curly hair in bad need of a trim and a New York baseball cap still perched on his head, in spite of his somber surroundings. His eyes looked kind. So did his soft smile.
"Does he now?" she returned. "Well. Offhand, I'd be sayin' he's right," Brigit said, turning around a little more in the seat. She could think of a man who had no beauty left to him whatsoever, at this point. And damn little dignity, for that matter. And only one certainty, and that was his impending departure from this world.
"My name is Kristopher. And you're Brigit," he stated, leaning closer as he crossed his arms over the back of her pew and propped his chin there. She found his boyish smile very disarming, if not just a little out of place for this solemn hall.
"I am that." She turned toward him a little more. He must have recognized her from one of her book covers, or from a newspaper article. She was too tired to ask.
"You'll not be wanting to blow me to pieces now that I've confessed it, will you?" she asked, her Irish sense of irony coming to the fore. It would be beyond ironic if she died not only in a hospital chapel, but before Sean did.
"Why would I want to do that?" he asked, looking both puzzled and curious.
Her face looked sad, and very heavy with all she bore, at the moment.
"Och, because most people seem to want to." She turned her face back toward the altar. Candles glimmered behind stained glass. The wooden cross gleamed from the flickering flames beneath it. Soft organ music played in a continuous loop, through the overhead speakers. And Brigit had the air of a woman who was certain she was right.
The young man behind her seemed to take in her words a moment, before he replied.
"No, they don't. That's what I'm here to tell you."
What? Oh, not now. Not some well-meaning missionary about to pontificate about the resurrection, or some Good Samaritan about to insist that most people were good.
It wasn't that she didn't believe. It was that she wasn't sure she even cared, right now.
"Me father's dyin’, Kristopher. So unless you know how to stop that..." She tried not to sound bitter about it. And hoped she succeeded.
His next comment caught her utterly off guard.
"Not stop it. Not that. You can't stop that, Brigit," he said sympathetically. "I want to paint you. Some day. Just not this day. This isn't the right one for it."
She turned to him again, her red head snapping around. What in the name of saints and sinners? His conversation had gone from curious to nonsensical... and prohibitively insensitive.
"I'm not some painter's model." Her tone was sharp. She let a bit of her tiredness and her Irish temper show. "So if you'll excuse me."
She stood up to make her way out of the sanctuary. Her long brown skirt brushed against the polished wood as she sidled her way down the row. She was dressed for winter’s chill, as well as the iciness of her father’s hospital room.
"No, you aren't," Kristopher agreed, standing as she passed him. "You aren't, and you never were.” He sidled right along with her, his long legs keeping easy pace.
“You're a writer. You've always been a writer." He continued down the pew as she did. "Your beauties and your certainties. They're there. You just got lost, Brigit. Kind of like Simonetta. Or like Erika. People get lost, sometimes. Then they get found." He said the last as if it was a bit of cheerful news, amid her gloom. They stood facing each other in the aisle.
She had no idea what he was talking about. And decided to tell him just that.
"I have no idea what you..."
"Cathy Chandler was lost too, once. Lost before she got found. Lost before him. Lost before... everything."
She had no idea what this riddle-monger was hinting at. But she obviously knew the name Catherine Chandler, and was surprised he knew it too. She stopped trying to move around him.
"You know Catherine Chandler?" Brigit asked. Catherine was most of why Sean was still here under an assumed name, with nothing more than an armed guard at his door, rather than in a prison infirmary, likely shackled to the bed. Part of why Brigit had been allowed to stay with him at all, through it. This unusual person wasn’t somehow part of all that, was he?
His answer was more curious than any he’d given so far. And that was saying something.
"Not yet. Not really. But I will." The answer made no sense at all. Neither did his grin.
"Catherine is Catherine," the boyish spirit tucked his hands in the pocket of his long coat and shrugged his narrow shoulders. "We're destined to meet. She looks beautiful in red. Or she will. I can never remember some things. You should see, one day. It's a gorgeous dress. And he's all behind her, looking like something out of ... Theseus. Or Cu’ Chulainn."
He gave her a bit of a boyish wink and she startled. Those were the first words she'd ever used to describe Vincent, to his face.
“You look as though you might have ridden with Cu’ Chulainn, or sailed with Theseus.”
“Only in my dreams,” Vincent had answered.
The young man in front of her adjusted his scarf and pressed on. "But I'm not here about Catherine. She'll be here soon enough, by the way. But I'll be gone before she arrives."
Brigit stepped around his slender form.
"I’ll be needin’ to get back to me father. If you'll excuse..."
"There's a coffee machine in the hall. Not as good as cappuccino, but it's okay. Want to get some?" he smiled.
There was something about him, and she couldn't say what. Perhaps just the fact that he was talking about anything other than what they normally talked about in a hospital. Disease. Passing. Tests. The comfort of praying to a higher power. When the next round of pain killers was due. Whatever.
Perhaps it was just that there was enough of a rebel in him to keep his hat on in what passed for a church, and she liked rebels, even impious ones.
"You're wearing a baseball cap in a chapel." She chided him about it for the first time. And this was so far and away from where she could (and probably should) be and what she could be watching right now, she could only bless him for continually interrupting her sorrow.
"Is that a yes or a no, on the coffee?" Kristopher asked, handing her his card. "I'm an artist. See?" She could only make out his first name and the word “artist” before he took the card back.
"Just remembered. I only have the one. Sorry. Coffee?"
He gestured toward the door.
She tilted her head at him, but proceeded down the narrow, red-carpeted aisle anyway.
"So it’s a painter you are?" Brigit said asked conversationally, as she made for the doorway of the chapel.
"Paint, sketch. Color with crayons. Go outside the lines. Depends on the day I'm having," he replied.
He followed her out of the chapel and down the long, antiseptic hallway. His sneakers made no sound on the mopped floor. Her knee-high boots clicked on it, for contrast.
The coffee machine he'd mentioned was just ahead of them. Brigit knew it well.
"I can never decide if I’m wantin’ coffee or not," she confessed, putting in fifty cents.
"Because on the one hand, you need to stay up. And on the other, you're a bundle of nerves. I know," he said, with a kind of sweet understanding. And did not produce a coin for his own beverage.
Shrugging her shoulders, Brigit put extra change in for him. It wasn't like I have anything else to spend me money on, she realized sadly.
"You seem to know a lot about it," Brigit observed.
He pumped as much cream and sugar into the cup as the machine would allow, then warmed his hands over the steam, and blew the contents cool.
"I know my friend is right, sometimes. About our beauties and our certainties. But that you mustn't let that happen to you." He blew on the coffee some more.
She leaned against the rough plaster wall a bit, and regarded him.
"I'm a widow who's about to become an orphan. Me mother's gone, taken by the same kind o’ violence that consumed me father and is cutting the heart out o’ me homeland. Me husband's killed. And that same father is busy dyin' in a room I can no longer bear to set foot in, but for the breakin' o’ me heart. What beauty would you like me to take from that, Kristopher? What certainty?" She was trying not to sound bitter, again. And knew it wasn't quite working.
His boyish grin dimmed. For what Brigit realized was almost the first time.
"Those ... Those are all things you've lost, Brigit. But they're not what you've made. What you can make, once you remember how, again."
She took in his lanky frame and large eyes, and realized she couldn't begin to guess his age. He could be nineteen. Or twenty five. Or a boyish thirty. More. Something about him felt ageless. Just as something about her felt ancient, right now.
"And you're an artist, so you would know. Because you make things," she supplied.
His grin returned, immediately. "Beautiful things! The best things!" He shook his head and it set his dark curls to dancing, beneath the cap. "You are going to be in the most beautiful portrait, one day. It will take your breath away, how gorgeous you are. How like a picture from a book you haven't even written yet."
She raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. "So you're telling me it's going to be all right," she stated, clearly not putting much store by the advice.
"Better than all right. Better than better. That's not me who says that, by the way. But you'll meet him."
The eyebrow remained raised.
"A friend of yours?" Brigit asked.
"A friend of Cathy's," Kristopher answered, drinking thirstily from his cup, now that the contents were cool enough. He downed the beverage and threw the container into a nearby garbage can. He had a foam mustache from the liberal cream.
"Thing is, you have to do what Cathy says," he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Even if it sounds crazy, sounds impossible.” He stepped close. “You have to do it. Have to trust her. It will be better, Brigit. It will. You have to go where they still believe. Where they still believe in … everything.” He flung his arms wide, in an expansive gesture. “Especially in each other. You have to do it, have to be willing to believe, too. So you can write again."
"Write? I've done nothin' but write," she sighed. "All of me heart poured out on blank pages, as I see what they're doin' to him. And what he's done to himself."
"Not that," Kristopher said, shaking his head in the negative. "Oh, you can write that, if you want to. Or if you need to. But that's like 300 Days. It will be … important.” He closed his hands into fists to indicate weight, and gravitas. “But it won't feed the thing inside you that's starving. The place inside you that wants to hear the fairy music, again." And his hands opened, in the gesture of letting something go. Something light. Something airy.
Fairy music? And what would this youth know of that? Or of the breaking of a heart? Or anything else, for that matter?
This man didn't know Sean, had never known him. Not the father. Not the husband or the rebel. Not the man who used to pick her up and send her pigtails flying, making her squeal when she was a little girl. Not the man who used to leave the house at all hours, while her mother sat white-faced with worry at the kitchen table. He didn't know. No one did.
Brigit felt her Irish temper wanting to run. "Kristopher, me father's dyin'. What do you know about dyin?" She didn't mean to sound sharp. But she had to.
He took no offense, and stood just a little bit closer. "Maybe not a thing. Maybe more than I want to," he said, a little sadly. "That's just it,” he confided. “We all know more than we want to about that."
She blinked, and something in the way he said it made her believe he was telling the truth.
Then he startled her by turning his ball cap around, front to back, the gesture so unserious a thing she couldn't believe he'd done it.
"But if that's all we remember that we know, we won't remember anything else, Brigit! Won't remember the places inside us that know about other things. Better things. The places that remember Cu’ Chulainn and Theseus. Owl women and fairy music. We might lose our beauties and our certainties, I know. But that doesn’t mean we don’t gain other things. Doesn’t mean the world leaves us empty handed."
He watched her take in his pronouncement – having mixed it with some of hers.
He sounded positive. Very positive. But something inside Brigit couldn't hear that, right now.
She shook her head. There was no place for fairy music or fables, or leprechauns or even banshees, any more. No place for owl women or enchanted forests or castle shapes in the clouds. Right now, there didn’t even seem like a place she could walk empty handed, among her enemies. This gauntlet seemed far more pitiless.
"I keep askin' meself if it all means anythin'. And all I can think is..."
"You think it doesn't," he interrupted. "You think that it's a hard end, no matter what. That there's no magic left, and no gentleness, either." He flipped the cap back again. "The end doesn't define you, Brigit. Trust me about that. I know."
He watched a slow tear trail down her pale cheek. Paler than ever now that December's chill had taken hold of the year. Brigit did not remember the last time she'd sat in the sun, or felt its warmth.
"There's more." His soft voice had a wonderful quality to it. "So much more, Brigit. There's always more. Death is a thing we pass through. But ... it's just a line. Just a door. Ignore the lines. Don't look at the door so hard you can't see what's beyond it. A doorway is just a line you step over. Or even back again. Like a threshold." He demonstrated by stepping this way and that, in the hall. Then shrugged his coat-clad shoulders.
"You mean an afterlife?" she asked, realizing she didn't want the contents of her cup.
"I mean all the life.” He gestured with his palms up. “Before. During. After. His. Yours. Mine. The beginning, the middle, even the end, and then what comes after that. And after that! So much life! So many stories in there. So many, waiting to get told. Stories about what was. Stories about what’s never been. I love stories about things that have never been, don’t you?"
Her blue eyes stayed steadily on him. She used to. She used to love those stories. Those fantastical tales of her childhood. Those myths, those legends, those bits of children’s fancy.
“I used to,” she allowed.
His smile was as broad as the brim of his ball cap. "I know you did. One of us has a painting to do. And one of us has a children's books to write. One that begins with a trip to a magic land. One where the heroine meets a very unusual boy who loves to tinker with machines, and infuse them with his magic." Kristopher wiggled his fingers in the air in front of himself, in the gesture of a wizard casting a magic spell.
“You'll meet him. And then you'll meet more of them.” He grinned a conspirator’s smile. “You'll know.” He dropped his voice to the level of a thing said in the deepest confidence. “You'll feel magic again, Brigit. Find beauties. Find certainties."
He said it so gently, she nearly believed. And that hurt, because she really didn't want to believe, right now. Misery was almost a comfort, and the armor of it kept her from being hurt more, and worse, from being exposed to anything that felt like "hope," right now.
"Paging Ms. O'Donnell. Phone call on line three. Ms. O'Donnell. Paging Ms. O'Donnell. Pick up the nearest white phone..."
Her name over the loudspeaker distracted her from this odd boy's bizarre predictions.
She looked up at the now-familiar intercom and down the antiseptic hallway. They often called her when they were done tending Sean for the moment, or when his doctors wanted a word with her, or when they needed permission to change his medication, or add another torture device to his array. She prayed this wasn't about the latter.
She tossed out her cup, went down the hall to the nearest wall phone and took the call. Yes, she understood it was time to increase his medication against pain. Yes, she understood they'd be in more often, to tend the sore that was healing. Yes, she understood that she could go home if she wanted, that they'd call her if anything changed, suddenly. She knew she wouldn't.
When she turned back to look down the hallway, Kristopher was gone.
The Riders of Cu' Chulainn
"An artist in the chapel?" Catherine asked later, having heard at least some of Brigit's story.
"Sure I am as I'm sittin' here across from you," Brigit said. "Does he sound familiar?"
Catherine shook her lovely head. "I've never met him. Or if I did, I really have forgotten. I used to pose for a life study class in college, but that was a long time ago. Maybe he knew me from there."
"Then it's another crazy man who took to strikin’ up a conversation with me." Brigit gave a soft shrug. "More harmless than the IRA but no less mad, for all that." Brigit shooed away any further mention of Kristopher.
Christmas muzak piped softly into the waiting room near the nurse's station where they sat. Some of the staff wore a little bit of holiday cheer. Christmas earrings, or a picture of holly on a lapel pin. A large bunch of mistletoe hung over the area where they kept the patients' charts. More sat in a glass, next to a glitter-tipped poinsettia.
“I didn’t want to have this conversation in his room, Catherine. They say sometimes…” her voice hitched. “Sometimes that they hear you, even when they don’t speak.”
Catherine nodded, and squeezed the other woman’s chilly hand. “I understand, Brigit. You’re sure there’s no one you want me to call?”
A silenced television was playing "A Charlie Brown Christmas" over their heads. Scattered magazines on tables featured glorious wreaths and elaborately decorated trees. All of it reminded Brigit that the holiday was uncomfortably close. And that her father wouldn't live to see it, more than likely.
“Och, no. Most of friends are either in hidin’ or dead, and most of them back in Ireland. I’m all there is, for family.” She squeezed Catherine’s hand in return.
"And I'm thankin' you for comin', Catherine. They say it’s in God’s hands, now. And this is a hard thing to bear, alone."
“I’m so sorry, Brigit,” Catherine said, sincerely.
“When it happens he wants nothin’. No wake, no service. Me mother’s ashes are in Derry Cay. He wants the same for himself.”
Catherine nodded her understanding. “The hospital staff has already been informed. It’s already arranged,” Catherine said, with the same kind of steady competence that Brigit had come to rely on.
The beautiful attorney had visited the Irish author several times, in the hospital. When Brigit had called to request her presence immediately, Catherine knew the need was likely dire.
"You're not alone,” Catherine consoled. “If you're certain of nothing else, I'd like you to be certain of that." The blonde woman gave the redhead a soft hug.
Our beauties and our certainties. Brigit thought, remembering the strange words Kristopher had given her.
"You've no idea what a comfort it is to have you." She returned Catherine’s affectionate embrace. For a small woman, she feels so strong, Brigit thought, aware they were nearly the same size.
A small parade of hospital staff walked by the waiting room, one of them stopping to nod to Brigit.
“Well. They’ll be done tending him.” Brigit said, watching Sean’s attendants go past, as a group. “We’d best go in,” she said, rising from the waiting room chair.
Catherine did likewise, and accompanied the Irish celebrity as they strolled down the long hallway to Sean’s room. Catherine’s winter coat was over her arm, and a small bag was in her hand. She knew Brigit was holding up as well as could be expected. Also that the long days spent tending Sean were taking their toll.
"I wish you could have known him when he was... younger, Catherine,” Brigit said. “Healthier. He was this great big... bull of a man.” She held her hands up, fingers splayed open to indicate size. “Strong. Not tall, not so much, but powerful, across the chest and in the arms. He used to love to pick me mother and me up, and swing us around. Tell me tall tales. Samhain. The little folk. Cu’ Chulainn. When I was little I remember thinking me Da must have driven his chariot, he was so strong."
"Cu’ Chulainn. I don't think I know those stories," Catherine confided, walking in step with the woman she now counted as a friend.
"Ah, well, and sure your education has been a-lackin' then,” the Irishwoman said with just a hint of a wistful smile. “He was mighty since he was a babe in arms. He's the great folk hero, don’t you know. Many who fight beside him are kings in their own right, and all who ride with him do nothing but what's good and brave.” Her pace slowed. “Cu’ Chulainn always stands against great odds. Sometimes alone."
"They sound like wonderful stories to be raised on," Catherine replied, slowing with her as she approached the door.
Brigit's eyes held a wistful place for a moment, remembering her childhood.
"It's sure they are." She nearly whispered it.
But her expression sobered as they walked, turning away from childhood and into present times. “He’s one of the few both sides in this bloody war still embrace as a hero. He dies wounded, but standing up, tied to a stone. Facing down the last of his enemies. Stubborn Irishman.”
They’d reached Sean’s doorway, and the uniformed cop stationed there stood, and held the door open for the two women.
Brigit gestured that Catherine could precede her, and even Catherine had to start a little at the diminished figure of Sean, before her eyes.
She'd seen him less than a week ago. In the time between he looked... smaller, and dwarfed by even more machines than she recalled.
"It's all right. They tell me he's in no pain," Brigit said softly, understanding Catherine's reticence to enter. It was nothing Brigit didn't feel, herself.
The policeman nodded to the two women as they stepped into the sickroom. He or his clone had been there since the day Sean had come to the hospital.
Sean O’Reilly was still officially a prisoner of the State of New York. It was thanks to Catherine's connections he'd been allowed to come here as soon as he had, rather than languish in a prison dispensary, first, or die at County General.
Catherine moved farther into the small, private room, and stood as far to one side of it as she could get, taking him in. He was beyond pale. And there was little space to move, thanks to the array of monitors and hospital equipment they had around him.
If the State Department could see him now, Catherine thought. He looked so… engulfed by all the technology surrounding him. So small, compared to all of it.
Realizing that Brigit was simply standing next to her as the two women took in the sad view, Catherine pulled a padded chair over so it sat next to a second one, near the foot of Sean’s bed. There was little other available room in the space, for anything so wide as a chair.
Both women seated themselves, quietly. The beeping noise of Sean’s heartbeat on the monitor and the soft hiss of oxygen underneath his nose competed with the other low, pervasive mechanical sounds in the room.
"I, ah... brought something for you," Catherine said, reaching into a small bag. "I hope you don't think it inappropriate."
777 Smythe Booksellers, declared the plain printing on the front of the bag. Had Catherine brought her a book? A bible, perhaps, considering?
Yes to the first, but no to the second.
Wrapped in tissue paper, battered by the wear of years and the gentle abuse of having been often read, Owl Woman And Other Fables dropped solidly into Brigit’s hands.
"Where did you get this?" Brigit asked, amazed. So few copies existed, it was almost impossible to find one.
“A friend of mine, Jenny Aaronson tracked it down for me and had it sent over. She says a little shop in the village had it. I’ve never been there, but Jenny works for a publishing house. She says this place carries a lot of old things, sometimes hard to find. Out of print. Used books and new ones. First editions, sometimes."
"You said you had a copy of this." Brigit’s delicate hands stroked the binding, long since free of its dust jacket. The foil on the embossed title was all but worn away.
"I still have it, and count it as a treasure. I thought you might like to have this one. Since yours is probably back at home."
Brigit eyed the hard cover. It was almost the same deep blue color as Catherine’s business suit. Brigit’s first book. The first feeling that she could do something in the world. That she could create, and express herself in a way that communicated in both fable and allegory. Owl Woman. A story meant for children. And children of all ages. A story of becoming who you were meant to be.
"Oh, it's been a long time since I touched this," Brigit confessed, tears pricking her blue eyes as she stroked the binding, lightly. 300 Days had seen her hands far more often, and in a way, had seemed to overwhelm her life. She was unaccountably overcome by Catherine’s kindness.
Catherine sat supportively by as Brigit opened the story to the first page. At first, Catherine wasn’t sure if she would read it aloud. But after a few moments, her lilting Irish voice caressed long-ago-written words.
"Once upon a time, (because all the best stories start with once upon a time, don't you know...") she began. Her voice was unsteady, but then found some remembered strength.
"There was an owl woman who sat hard, in a great oak tree. The kind of tree where mistletoe grew in huge, hanging clumps and acorns clustered so big they bent the great branches low." Her rebel's voice steadied, as she read.
Catherine simply kept her head bent over the page and listened to the beautiful woman read the book that had, to some degree, bound their fates together. Not just hers and Brigit's, but Vincent's, as well. It had been his gift of the book to her that had started Catherine to reading Brigit O'Donnell's works in the first place.
Vincent had loved the courageous nature of 300 Days. But it was the story of Owl Woman that he'd gifted to Catherine, and the story of Owl Woman that he all but revered.
Now and then, Brigit would stop in the middle of the page and caress the paper. "I'd all but forgotten this picture," she'd say, or "Here was a line I liked," she'd whisper it as if it was a soft secret.
It was a fable brought to life. One meant for children who might read it for the fantasy of it, given. But one meant for adults as well, if they were canny enough to discern its meaning; its message of the transformative power of love, and sometimes the necessity of change, the need to find one’s strength to achieve what a person (or an owl) wanted.
Catherine didn’t wonder that Vincent had gifted it to her, not long after they’d begun to see each other again.
She listened steadily to what for her was a by-now familiar tale, until on one page, very near the end but not yet there, Brigit stopped speaking. Catherine thought she was gathering a memory until she saw a fat teardrop hit the page.
“Brigit?” Catherine asked. Another teardrop joined its fellow.
"I don't want what they're doin' to him," she said, still staring down at the yellowed paper. Owl Woman was starting to spread her wings for the first time, in the picture.
Catherine settled a reassuring hand on the other woman’s shoulder.
"I don’t think he would want it either. I know they're supposed to be doin' him good. But he wouldn't want this.” She shook her head slowly, sending her wavy red locks to moving.
“He left all the choices to me, and up to now, the only ones I could make were the ones that seemed like they gave him more time, or a way to eat, or..." She licked her lips but couldn't bear to look back up at Sean. She kept her gaze fixed firmly on the page, seeming to draw strength from the image. Her fingertip traced the outstretched feathers.
"I'd like them to take the machines away, Catherine. Take the needle out of his arm, the tube from down his throat. Turn that damn beeping sound off. Let him be Sean, again, for five minutes. Or five hours. However long it takes. Can I do that?" Brigit raised her blue eyes and looked up at this woman who now seemed to hold such a large piece of her fate, yet had been a stranger to her, only two months ago.
Catherine knew better than anyone else what she was asking.
"Yes. The paperwork we had drawn up back when he was... was still strong, allows it. Are you sure? You know I'll be with you, no matter what."
"It's sure I am," Brigit's fingers moved across the mighty owl's wings, again. They suddenly looked like angel wings, to her. And like she somehow needed to get to just this page, in her long-ago story, so she could reach this decision for Sean.
She looked then, at her failing father. At the man who'd loved her as a child, yet couldn't bear to have her in the same house when she'd married Ian. They’d had a complicated relationship. But underneath the struggle of it, they'd always been family.
"He had to fight, Catherine. And I had to let him fight, just as me Ma would have. You know he did.” She stroked the image on the page, as Catherine held her closer.
“If there was one thing certain about Sean O’Reilly, ... “ Our beauties and our certainties, her mind whispered – “… it was that he had to fight. He's done that. He'll still do it, from wherever he is. But he'd hate this bloody mess.” She gestured at the machines. “This ugly, bloody mess all around him. It's dehumanizing. It's... it's robbing him of something I can't give back...." her voice began to break.
"Shhhh," Catherine said, not needing her friend to explain. "I'll go get the nurse, and tell the doctor we'd like to make some changes. All right?" Brigit nodded, and Catherine left the room, leaving the grieving daughter to perform one last act of beauty for her father. She wasn't certain if it was right. She was only certain Sean would have wanted it, now.
She took one of the pads off his chest, carefully peeling the tape away from the skin.
"You'll have to listen, Da." she said, taking off a second one, and then a third. "You'll have to listen very close, now." Another pair of sensors came off his temples. He looked better already. More like himself. More like Sean O’Reilly, bog side brawler and Derry man. She smoothed back his dark, stringy hair.
"I know there's still gunfire in Derry. And I'm so sorry for that. Still people fightin' about a haircut, or the color orange." She removed the clip from his finger, but didn't dare touch the needle in his arm. She'd leave some things to the professionals.
"But there's still a statue of Cu’ Chulainn in Ulster. And they still tell his stories. Stories you told me. Stories about bein' brave, and standin' against the impossible odds, with aught but your strength and your will to see it through."
She squeezed the chair up next to the bed, as close to him as she could get.
"I'm goin’ to hold your hand. Just hold it. And me friend Catherine is goin’ to read the rest of the story to you. Do you know what happens, Da? Come on, Croppie. You know you bought the thing and read it, even after you swore to me you never would. You know you couldn't resist." She swallowed hard and squeezed his hand.
"Owl Woman finds her strength. Finds a love to help her through and never looks back. Finds something to believe in... well. I'll just let Catherine finish it for us. Here she is. Back to help us both."
She nodded as Catherine re-entered the room with a nurse, a doctor, and a pair of orderlies. Quietly, gently, they set to work. Within a few minutes, Sean looked like Sean, again, to her eyes. A dying Sean, still. But Sean.
"I've written many things, since," Brigit said, handing the book to Catherine while she kept hold of her father's hand. "But I don't think I've written anything finer."
"It's a beautiful story, Brigit." Catherine said, softly.
"It is," Brigit replied. "I just wish I could believe in it again, Catherine. Believe that there was a place where you could find your strength, without having to worry about people killing each other over the color of their skin or the color of their shirt or the flavor of their god or their... haircut." She paused for a moment, and swallowed. Hard. Catherine could see the sorrow that was threatening to overwhelm her.
“I don’t think I believe half the things I’ve ever written, anymore,” she confessed. “I wish I could. I wish I knew of a place where any of it was real.” Catherine could see the breaking heart, inside Brigit. And the breaking spirit, as well.
Catherine swallowed, too. And then she knew she had to say it.
"I know that place, Brigit." Tears came suddenly, and all but unbidden to her green eyes. "I know where it is. They care for each other. As best they can. They live… nobly. And without much. And the children…”
Blue eyes raised and Kristopher’s voice echoed. “You have to listen to her. No matter how crazy, how impossible it sounds.”
“There are children, there?” Brigit asked.
Catherine nodded carefully, aware she was committing a serious breach, and praying Vincent would understand why, when she told him.
“Young. Old. Everyone. They tell the children stories. Wonderful stories. Myths. Legends. Old stories… Your stories.” Catherine’s gaze held only sympathy, and the honest truth. “They all get to visit Oz, and go to Shangri-La. Or perform the labors with Hercules, or ride with … Cu’ Chulainn.”
Catherine took a deep breath at Brigit’s wistful gaze, and knew that though part of the Irishwoman wanted to believe her, part of her didn’t think it could be true.
She also knew she was about to make a promise she had no right to make, but one she was sure Vincent would agree with.
“When this is... when this is all over," she licked suddenly dry lips, "I'll take you there."
Blue eyes held green ones, hoping against hope. “It’s a real place?” More tears fell down Brigit’s pale cheeks as more of Kristopher’s words came back to her: We might lose our beauties and our certainties, I know. But that doesn’t mean the world leaves us empty handed."
“As real as New York. Or Derry.” Catherine said, aware that might not count for much.
"It must be a wonderful place, then.” Brigit’s unsteady voice sounded wistful, as she wiped her cheek. “Something out of a fantasy. Full of very ... strange people," she said, thinking of the boy Kristopher had described for her.
"It is. And there are. And I don't know if I would be alive today, without it," Catherine confessed.
Brigit said the name they’d not spoken between them since the night they’d met. "And your bonny love. Your Vincent. Is he there? He is… Isn't he?"
Catherine dropped her head a little and held the book tightly.
"He is.” She said it in an almost reverent whisper. Then she looked up. “He couldn't exist without it. And I don't think it could exist without him."
In that moment, Brigit knew something she'd barely dared to suspect.
"Catherine … It isn't a mask. Is it?"
Slowly, carefully, Catherine held Brigit’s gaze as she shook her head.
Another tear escaped Brigit's azure eyes. But it was a tear of hope, rather than one of sorrow. "Well then. Isn't that a story?” she said, her voice sounding just a little amazed. “And so good to know that there is still one fantastical tale left to be known in all the world - even if it’s a story I dare not tell,” she reassured her friend.
Catherine reached over and embraced her friend, blessing her for understanding more than Catherine dared to say.
"More than one fantastic tale," Catherine assured her. "Wait until you see it, until meet them all. Wait until I take you there." Catherine gave her a firm squeeze.
Both women smiled a little through their tears.
“You have to do it, have to be willing to believe, too. So you can write again."
Brigit wiped her eyes, again. And then helped Catherine wipe hers. "Catherine, do you think we could get some mistletoe?" she asked out of the blue.
"It's sacred to the Celts. It’s why I put it in me book. Of course, half of everything that grows in a forest is sacred to the Celts, but mistletoe is special. And it's near Christmas. Me father always used to kiss me Ma and me under it. It's just a tradition. One I'd forgot, until just now."
"I think there’s some around. I’m sure I saw some up near the nurse's station,” Catherine recalled.
"Do you think they’ll let us have some? Would you go bring some for me? Please?"
Catherine set down the book and went to do as Brigit asked.
"I want a last kiss, you renegade," Brigit said, smoothing Sean’s bedclothes. "I want to feel like I'm eight years old again, and you're holding me up high. High as the trees. High as the moon. High as Owl Woman wants to fly."
Catherine returned after just a few moments, the large sprig of mistletoe held in her hand. She handed it to Brigit.
Sean O’Reilly’s daughter moved to the very head of the bed, something she'd not been able to do, easily, when the IV stand and all the machines and monitors were still in place. She suddenly knew that her decision to take them away had been the right one. The right one for Sean. The right one for her.
She held the magical plant over his pale head.
"Now. You must deliver these kisses. The magic of the mistletoe will bind you to it. This one is for Ma." She kissed his left cheek. "This one is for Ian, and no fussin' from you, now. Death settles all the scores." She kissed the right one.
She looked at him. Her father. So mighty once, and so intimidating. So strong-willed and unwilling to give up. So hers.
So ... still that way. In a different fashion, but still. So... still just that way. "And this one is for you," she said softly.
She placed it in the center of his forehead, her lips touching cool, soft skin. He was comfortable. He was here. And he was hers, still. Hers still, and once again, after all they'd been through.
"’Twas you who taught me to be an Owl Woman," she whispered to her father. "You just didn't know what the results would be. We never do, I guess, with our children. With our beauties. With our certainties."
She sighed, and simply took him in.
"And one more. Just because." She leaned across the bed to plant a kiss in his lax palm, on the hand that had had the oximeter attached to it, earlier. Then she tucked the sprig of mistletoe into it and closed his fingers around the plant, gently. "Something for the journey. Just in case you want to take it with you," she said.
She then slipped her small hand in his other, larger one, and settled herself on the chair near the bed. Holding her back stiffly erect, she kept her eyes on his still form. She was the picture of formal grace. The azure gaze never left his sleeping face
“They used to say mistletoe cut from an oak would cure all poison. Poison like hate, maybe. Or heartbreak.” She stroked the back of her father’s hand with her thumb. He looked relaxed. He looked at peace.
"Will you read the last few pages, Catherine? While we wait? I don't think it will be long, now."
Catherine opened the book thoughtfully, and began to read. She knew she lacked Brigit’s lovely accent. But her soft voice loved the words to a fine, breathy timbre:
"Now, to find your strength is no small thing, my dears. For the spreading of a wing is not a thing that is done with no peril. What if you fall? What if you tire before your journey's end? Where do you shelter, if a sudden storm comes up? ..." Her soft, sweet voice caressed the parable’s text as Brigit kept hold of her father's hand.
"But finding your strength is a thing we must all do, my dears … For how will you ever find your true place in the world without it? ...”
Catherine remembered the first time she’d read the line, and swallowed past the lump in her throat, as she remembered Vincent’s words to her.
There is strength in you. I feel it.
Vincent had given her his copy of Owl Woman, knowing it was meant for her. Knowing she needed it, at the time.
Catherine’s voice found its power again, and she continued to caress the soft sentences that had changed Brigit from being just a young woman into being an author. Being a creative force, in the universe.
Brigit heard the words and felt time melt away, between all of them. She knew that Sean would likely reach his end very near the time Catherine reached the end of Owl Woman’s story, in the book. It was all right.
The riders of Cu’ Chulainn would take care of their own.
The words of a mischievous boy-spirit came back to her.
“The world doesn’t leave us empty handed … You have to go where they still believe in… everything. Especially in each other.”
Brigit spared a glance for the beautiful woman across from her, and she knew she would.
matter who you ride with or what journeys you take, I wish you love.
Book of Days
"Please don't be angry with me. And please tell Father not to be," Catherine fretted, as she stood with Vincent in the subbasement near her ladder.
"Angry? Catherine, you did nothing that wasn't right,” Vincent soothed. “Brigit is in pain. She needs a place where she can heal. The tunnels are nothing if they aren't that." His voice was rough velvet. "And Father, I believe, is beyond pleased at the prospect of the arrival of a celebrity."
Catherine shook her head at his easy acceptance of the unexpected situation.
"Will she be your first published author?" Catherine asked, knowing Brigit was waiting, in her apartment.
"The first famous one,” he replied. “William says several of his recipes were put into an army cookbook, some time back. But he's never found a copy of it."
"Perhaps the military is guarding it as a state secret," Catherine returned wryly. "I know this is unusual, Vincent. Please know I understand that I overstepped, seriously." Her expression contained her concern.
"If you were going to make that choice, I can think of no finer person to make it for," he assured her, anticipating the arrival of the famous Irish author.
"You say there's a chamber prepared?"
Vincent nodded. "Though she may not find our accommodations as comfortable as staying with you has been," he demurred.
Catherine reached over for his gloved hand, and tugged it into her own. "I don't think she's coming to you for comfort, at least not that kind. She's … lost something, Vincent. Her faith in humanity, maybe. A part of her heart. Another part of it," Catherine tacked on, ruefully.
It took no great mind to understand that Brigit O’Donnell’s losses had been steep ones, and that they were mounting.
"She will not be the first person to come here with a sore heart, Catherine."
Catherine knew that truer words were seldom spoken.
"Father thought she might like the peace of one of the outer rooms, considering how many of our number would like to have her as a neighbor. Including Father." Vincent raised an eyebrow at his own assessment.
"Including you," Catherine added, not minding if he admitted it.
Vincent simply inclined his head at her assessment.
"Meeting her was amazing. Spending the rest of the night in your company even moreso," Vincent deflected. "You say you told her of us only a few weeks ago?"
"I told her I'd show her this place the night Sean died. I almost thought we’d come here that night, or the next day,” she admitted, knowing that made her reckless position even more precarious. Vincent simply stood and listened, in the understanding posture that marked his person.
“She said after Sean’s arrangements were finalized that there was a manuscript she had to type up and get to a publisher. I think it was about his passing," Catherine surmised. Vincent merely nodded.
"Anyway, she's done that. But... I don't think it helped her. Or worse, it left a wound open, not closed it. She's … grieving for something, Vincent," Catherine said. "And it's more than just the loss of her Father, I think."
Vincent remembered his conversations with Brigit the night they'd met. She’d spoken of love. Pain. Loss. And wishing she could find the part of her that knew about magic, again, of fairy music and fanciful things. The things of her childhood, perhaps. Things she'd lost, as her sorrows had piled on top of each other, like cairn stones.
"Brigit has lost much in the last few years,” Vincent said compassionately. “The kind of losses that can turn a heart to stone, or to hate. Yet the first night I met her I told her I sensed no hatred in her. Only her grief."
"I think she's still carrying that grief, and now there’s more of it," Catherine opined. "She just... needs a place to be, Vincent. Someplace where she can see that good still exists, in the world. Somewhere out of the spotlight and away from the press. Away from the fear of assassins. Away from … who she is, even. She's sent away her bodyguards. I told her she'd have to, if we introduced her to the tunnels," Catherine said.
Again, Vincent simply nodded his agreement.
"I don't think she anticipated that 300 Days would take away her privacy, even as it gave her celebrity," Catherine observed. “She wanted it to be recognized as an important book, wanted it to be read, but…” Catherine let the sentence trail.
Vincent understood, even though “fame” was far from something he’d had experience with. "Fame is a two-edged sword at the best of times. One must grip the handle very carefully," he said wisely.
Now it was Catherine's turn to nod. "Back when I was with her at the hospital, I told her when we were done...” her voice faltered. "When we were done handling Sean's affairs that I would take her someplace where magic still existed. Someplace people loved each other, in spite of their differences. Treated each other with respect." She gave his hand a squeeze.
Vincent was proud that the woman he loved thought so well of his home.
"Tell her she is welcome here, Catherine. I will walk her down, myself." Vincent dropped her hand and stood in an expectant position, near the ladder.
"I'll go get her. You're sure about this?" Catherine asked.
"I am certain that all you have told me about Brigit’s pain is true," Vincent stated. "And if it is, how can we turn our backs on her?"
Catherine gave him a weak smile.
"For whatever it's worth... I think she knew about … you. Both knew and didn't know. I know that doesn't make any sense."
"It is in trying to make perfect sense of a thing that we often feel so frustrated," Vincent accepted her words with great calm. And understood them. Brigit O'Donnell had been fascinated by his face, which everyone at the Samhain party - and for that matter all across the streets of New York, that night - had assumed to be an elaborate mask.
Yet, something inside Vincent told him that Brigit had begun to suspect a little of the truth, before the night was over. Perhaps more than a little.
"I'll go and get her. Guide her down," Catherine stated, reaching for the nearest rung.
"And we will try to help her, Catherine. I will wait."
Vincent maintained his sentry's position near the ladder. Several minutes later, both women ventured down into the dusty area that was really a gateway into a much larger world.
Vincent’s gloved hand stretched out to help Brigit climb off the ladder. She accepted the gesture with the calm grace that he’d first sensed from her, on a New York rooftop.
And so it was that Brigit O'Donnell, famed Irish author, peace activist, Orangeman's whore, bogside Croppie girl, and recent orphan, came to pass her mourning time in the tunnels.
“And so what's this?” Brigit asked, eying the soft, tan leather cover of a book.
"It is a type of journal," Vincent replied, setting her things down near a rather impressive wardrobe. The book was sitting on a table he thought she might use for writing, as he did. A sturdy dining room chair was pushed under it.
Brigit stepped to one side, deftly avoiding the writing table and its book. Vincent did not miss the way she carefully skirted around the space. Rather than set her shoulder bag down on the table, the obvious choice for it, she set it on top of the small dresser, instead.
Vincent could tell that her next words pained her.
"I … I can't... I can't write, now, Vincent. Every time I try it either turns to bitterness or to ... naught. Nothing, with the possibility of more nothing. A blank page is almost … a terror, for me." She confessed it as if it were some sort of sin. He realized that for an author, it probably was.
Vincent could sense her pain, as he picked up the nondescript book from the table.
"This is special. It is not a blank journal," he prompted. He opened the cover to show her. He was right. It wasn't just a journal.
Indeed, on any one page there was no more than a few lines of space to give room for penning one's thoughts. It was more like a calendar, than a diary.
"A Book of Days?" Brigit asked, reading the first page he held open. She'd seen only a few such volumes. They were patterned after the medieval custom of keeping a book of hours. The oldest ones were often museum pieces. This one was far more modern than the old devotionals she’d seen, but it was far from new.
"To mark your time here. You can write in it, or not. As you wish," he said, knowing that one of the things many people missed when they first came to the tunnels was some sort of a calendar.
Without the constant reminders from things like a window to track the sun, or a radio or television, and with the newspapers that the tunnel dwellers read sometimes being a few days old, it was easy to lose track of time, down here. It was a thing most topsiders found initially disconcerting.
Hesitantly, Brigit held out her hand for what he offered. "Where did you get this?" Brigit asked. A stylized picture of a gleaming sun stared at her from the first page. The homily, "Never put off until tomorrow what you should do today" was printed in red script, beneath the image. There was room to write a thought or two, if you were inclined. Not much more.
"It belonged to a woman named Mary. She thought you might like it, and wanted to offer it to you. If it makes you uncomfortable..."
"No, no," Brigit said, wishing to cause no offense. "And please tell Mary she is most kind to give me such a lovely gift. This is old." It was. And though unwritten in, the pages were nearly worn free of what had once been gilt edging. The thin leather cover was soft, rather than hard, and the whole thing bent, a little, if she applied pressure. It felt good in her hands. Brigit could explain it no better than that.
"If you're going to keep it, you may need this, then," Vincent said, pulling a battered white box from inside his cape pocket. Lifting the lid, he showed her what was inside it, then set it on the writing table near where Mary's gift resided.
Brigit assessed the box with a certain sense of irony. The words “Conway Stewart” and “London” jumped out at her.
"You've just given an English pen to an Irish rebel. Wars have been started for less, you know," Brigit said, eying the battered box. It had seen better years. Decades, actually.
"Then I've given her an English author as well," Vincent's gentle voice intoned. "There's Shakespeare on the bookshelf."
He nodded in the direction of a low set of shelves which did indeed hold several fine old volumes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, among them.
"We'll just be having to risk a skirmish, then," Brigit said, daring to step closer to the writing table, at last. She set down Mary’s book and picked up the white box and lid. Ran her tapered fingers along its smooth edge. The blue lettering on the lid was worn, but still clearly legible.
"And where would you be comin’ by a thing like this?" she asked, not taking out the pen but admiring its bright colors.
“Most of what we have is simply found, or donated. But in this case, a helper of ours, Eli, owns a very... eclectic shop," Vincent said. "He repairs things. Sometimes, his clients have no money."
Brigit nodded, understanding full well how the barter system was used. Back in Derry it was half the currency in circulation.
"I wonder what this bought," she mused, still looking at it. Vincent noticed she still didn't remove the pen from the box.
"Perhaps a toaster, or a fan. Eli fixes small appliances. Sometimes larger ones. Does it matter?" Vincent asked, curious as to her mood.
She cradled the white box and then set it back down on the table, the lid beside it. "I don't know. It might," she said, as she continued her inspection of the items on the table that was now her writing desk.
Strangers with little to their name were trying to make her comfortable, she realized. How thoughtful.
Misguided, considering her current mood, Brigit felt, but thoughtful, still.
"These were fine treasures, once," she indicated both the Book of Days and the pen. “And this one might belong in a museum.” She tapped the cover of the white box. “Conway Stewart went out of business more than ten years ago," she said, knowing a thing or two about pens.
"Did it?" Vincent asked, watching her as she kept her fingers on the lid of the box a moment, before she took them away.
She wants the pen, yet fears to reach for it, Vincent realized, both sensing her mood and ascribing motives to her actions. He reached over and picked up the box lid, setting it so that it nestled under the rest. He set it back on the table where she had put it, the bright barrel gleaming in the soft lantern light. Her eyes held it, but she still stepped away from the table, wanting the distance.
"They were the kinds of pens a man received when he got a promotion, or a fine lady's birthday gift. Something for when you graduated, or some other kind of… commencement." she said, idly wondering if she would unscrew the top so she could inspect the nib. Most Conway Stewarts had a 14 karat gold nib. Only the last ones were made of steel. And a man she'd never met had given it to Vincent to give to her.
How kind, she thought again. And she knew without asking that the books in the room were from her host. Her remarkable host. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology sat on her nightstand. She knew it held stories of Theseus.
"Thank you," she said, her bright blue eyes suddenly glinting with tears. They surprised her, and she swiped at them.
"Och. I'm so used to weeping for sorrow, it... it catches me off guard to weep for kindness. Thank you, Vincent,” she said again. She bowed her head a little. "And thank Mister Eli and the Lady Mary, as well. Will I meet her, soon?"
"Soon as you like. She's usually either with the children or helping Father. She's our midwife, and a kinder woman you'll hardly find."
"Eli and his shop are Above, of course, but I have no doubt you'll meet him. He too, is a very kind man. Father enjoys a game of chess with him, occasionally."
Brigit nodded at that. Mary. Father. Eli. Names to remember. Names to put with faces, in this incredible labyrinth of stone.
She took in the amazing, vaulted granite roof over her head. It looked like hard shelter. It looked like a hideaway. Like a sanctuary, though a rough one. Which was to say that it looked exactly like what it was.
"It will be my honor to meet all of them," Brigit said. "Do you think they'd mind if I napped a bit, first?" she asked. The old quilted bed looked beyond inviting, and Brigit felt suddenly tired, a thing she often did these days, and a thing she didn’t like. "It... I'm afraid it's been a long day." At the end of a long week. At the end of a hellishly long month, not to mention the year.
"You must rest, of course,” Vincent replied, aware of her fatigue almost as she was. The sensation of being tired ran through her hard, and communicated itself to him.
“You are a welcome guest here,” he intoned. “Please don't feel as if you must stand on ceremony or greet people if you aren't ready. We understand, Brigit. I promise you that."
Brigit nodded, again finding herself very close to more tears. They’d talked for a while at Catherine’s basement entrance, and then more on the long walk down. Though she’d met him before, and even owed her life to him, she felt she was just meeting him for the first time, in a way. She realized how … exposed he’d been on Halloween night. What an act of bravery venturing out of this place had been, for him.
This astounding man with the face of a lion was all but her composure’s undoing. But it wasn't because of the unique cast of his face. It was because of the unique cast of his heart.
“You’re very kind. All of you. And Catherine. You can’t know what I owe her, Vincent.” The shadow that passed over her eyes spoke of the deepest kind of gratitude, tinged with sorrow.
Vincent inclined a head that looked to Brigit as if it had come straight out of myth. “Catherine has no equal, for heart,” he replied. The fact that he loved her imbued every syllable.
Or for her taste in … men, she thought, not sure if the last word was the right one, but knowing no other which applied.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. She shook her head. Another thing that had begun to plague her; she had no appetite for food.
"Don't worry about dinner, then. We'll see to it that someone brings you a tray," he said.
Brigit nodded, and sat herself down on the edge of the old mattress. It squeaked, a little. Vincent heard the sound.
"If you need a different bed..."
"Och, no," she said, bouncing up and down on the quilted surface, a little. The sound was even louder. "It's just like home, back in Derry.” Her wan face tried to smile, with the assessment. It almost succeeded.
Vincent gave her his own soft smile at her appraisal of the mattress. While he wanted nothing more than to spend the evening talking with her, he continued to sense the depth of her fatigue, and knew it was time to go.
“Vincent..." she said, as he turned to leave her. "Just … it’s grateful to you, I am. Thank you. Thank you and your bonny lady. I... I don't know what’s next, for me. But it is beyond kind of all of you to take me in like a poor relation."
Again, Vincent inclined his head, and his answer surprised her. "They took me in the day I was born. And we took in Catherine, when she was injured, and needed to heal. It is my hope that you fare just as well." His voice had that sonorous quality she'd heard the night they'd gone walking in Central Park.
She nodded her acceptance of his good wishes, and began tugging off her boots. Her feet hurt. The long walk down the spiral staircase had done them no favors, but again, this was a thing that seemed to be happening with her. Her body ached at times, and sometimes for no reason she could ascertain.
Vincent left her to her privacy by pulling down the heavy rug that covered the entrance to her chamber. She sat a moment, and stared at its faded mosaic pattern, hearing the sound of his heavy work boots taking their leave of her.
She looked around the pleasant chamber. Scratched wood smelled of lemon oil and care. Candles clustered on several surfaces, the light smoke giving off a vaguely vanilla smell. What an amazing place. Not just this room, but the staircase that had wound down forever, and the passageways full of refugees from the topside world.
She knew she’d only seen a portion of those various passageways as he'd brought her down, and even those amazed her. To think that all of this was going on while the teaming mass of humanity over her heads went on, oblivious to it.
He’d told her of some of the marvels of his world while they’d strolled, and she’d listened with an author’s trained sense of attention as they’d walked further and further into what was for him, a home.
She took in the titles of the other shelved books Vincent had selected especially for her, knowing that most of them were prizes culled from a discard pile, somewhere. There was the Shakespeare, plus Dickens. Both the Brownings stood side by side, and William Butler Yeats was a crack-binded treasure. Dylan Thomas leaned like the irresponsible Welsh drunkard he was, holding the others erect. She appreciated Vincent’s kindness. Again.
Brigit padded around the room in her stocking feet, already liking the soft light of candles over the harsh incandescent bulbs of the topside world. The contrast was noteworthy, especially in New York, where glaring neon and harsh lighting was almost a signature of the city.
Candlelight was much softer, and it was another thing the Irishwoman had an affection for, but hadn't partaken much of, in far too long.
Unless you counted the votive candles at chapel hospital, Brigit realized, and she barely did.
In spite of her fatigue, she forced herself to unpack the few things she'd brought down with her. Several pairs of warm socks and a crocheted shawl got stowed in the dresser drawers. A thick spiral notebook with nothing but blank pages to show for her latest efforts was placed at her bedside table, beneath Edith Hamilton. Toiletries were stowed, along with suitable, warm clothes, which Catherine had guided her toward. By the time she was done, "tired" had changed to "exhausted."
But I shouldn’t feel tired, she thought, and she berated herself for it.
She should be all but running through the halls, and she knew it. This was an astonishing place. She should be exploring every nook and cranny, by both candle and lantern light. Talking to its people. Hearing its own unique “music.” Checking for ghosts, or at least ghost stories. Something. Something other than preparing to lay down in an unfamiliar bed.
Yet her retreating strength had left her flat, a thing it had started to do after her father’s passing. There were times when she swore she was ill. And others when she knew it was something deeper; more an illness of the spirit than of the body.
She pulled her hairbrush out of her bag and set it on the dresser. A small oval of a mirror looked back at her.
"You're a right monster, you are," Brigit told her listless reflection. They were words she'd given to Sean, when the hospital machines had seemed to all but overwhelm him. Now it was her wan face that reminded her of something out of a horror movie.
Skin too pale, even for a bogside lass. Eyes deeply shadowed, the kind of shadows good cosmetics barely hid. Even her red hair seemed limp, and lusterless. She swatted at it with the brush, a few strokes, then set the accessory down.
A bowl and pitcher sat to one side of the dresser, a bar of soap beside that. A lace doily sprawled across the space, clearly a hand-made bit of fancywork.
It was a homey space.
Brigit looked worriedly at the writing table, again. They'd clearly brought it in for her, thinking she might like to do some writing, while she was here.
If only I could.
Or perhaps everyone had a writing table, here. Perhaps she was reading too much into four legs (one of them mismatched) and a flat surface. It wasn’t “pressure.” Wasn’t a reminder of something she felt she’d lost. Just functional furniture. A place to take a meal. Something.
Yes, that was it. They didn't expect her to write. Only she expected that, of herself.
And she knew she couldn't. Not really. It was a secret she’d been keeping to herself (and from almost everyone else) for a while, though the truth had begun coming out in pieces, even after the publication of 300 Days. Even Catherine Chandler had accidentally stumbled upon Brigit’s inability, when they’d first met.
“You have a real gift. I only wish you wrote more children’s stories,” Catherine had told her. They’d barely just been introduced.
“I wish I could,” Brigit remembered replying. They had not been idle words.
Brigit O’Donnell had begun her professional life as a children’s author. With a wildly imaginative brain fired by the stories of her homeland, she’d set about spinning fanciful yarns and even sketching some of her own illustrations, - until the night a car bomb had ended her brief marriage, and changed her life, forever.
300 Days was a political commentary mixed in with an autobiography. It was her and Ian's love story, set to Northern Ireland's background music. The kind of music she'd told Vincent about. The kind that included gunfire, and the screams of dying men.
Though it had flown out of her fingertips, (and occasionally bled out of them), it was not, strictly speaking, a creative work, as far as Brigit was concerned. Neither was Less Than Three score - Days with the Dying, the much smaller book she'd written about her reunited days with Sean O'Reilly - father, freedom fighter and international felon.
Both books were autobiographical in nature, and required no plot other than the ability to remember events, place them in order, then describe them.
The ability to put a sentence on a page was not a talent, as far as Brigit was concerned. At least not when it was about something as simple as telling the events of your own life, and how you felt about those. Raconteuring in one form or another was practically the national sport, in Ireland, as anybody from Derry to Cork could tell you.
She knew it took a certain skill to write. It was a skill she knew she possessed.
But imagination… no. Her last two efforts had contained precious little of that. And she felt the difference between those and the things she’d written before.
Brigit crossed back over to the soft bed with the subtle squeak. Piled with soft pillows and the massive patchwork quilt, it looked comfortable. It looked inviting.
It looked like a wonderful place to prop up your back and sit up with a cup of tea at your elbow and a spiral notebook in your lap, as you began to weaving fanciful tales. The kind of stories Brigit had stopped writing since the day Ian O'Donnell had gotten into a car and turned the key in the ignition.
Famous for being an author, the author in her now felt like a fraud.
She’d given interviews. She’d written op-ed pieces for The New York Times. All fact. All opinion. And no … fancy.
Brigit rubbed her hands over some of the seamwork of stitches that had brought the quilt together. It had no discernible pattern or picture. Just the binding up of many disparate, cast-off pieces of cloth.
It felt a lot like her insides, that way. Like her own “disparate pieces” were being held together by aught but a running thread, and that though her pieces could function, there was no joy in it. No spark of fire. No creativity.
The room is homey, yes. Is "homey" what I need? Tapered fingers lifted away from the quilt and rubbed at her worried forehead. She didn't know. She only knew she felt unbelievably tired. Again. Still.
She was positive the excitement of coming Below and of meeting Vincent (without the assumption of his "mask") had made for a long day. Her body clamored for rest, as it so often did, now. She felt the need to sleep. Felt it like she so often felt it, these days. Like whatever precious store of energy she could amass after a night in bed was spent too soon, and all but uselessly, during the day.
Brigit pulled the covers back and slid into the cool bed, knowing it would warm, soon, from her body heat. Exhaustion closed her eyes, as her gifts sat across from her, unused, on the narrow table.
She doubted she'd use them. She'd have to return them when she left, perhaps with a note indicating she meant no offense by rejecting them. She hoped Eli and Mary... and Vincent would all understand.
She turned toward the wall and fell asleep, to the gentle sound of the tapping on the pipes.
Mary was a lovely woman, Brigit discovered. Older, regularly possessed of a crochet hook, and a gentle mainstay, for the children. Father was intelligent, sometimes irascible, and unfailingly supportive of the many people - adults and children alike, who called him by that title. His love for Vincent shone through. He also enjoyed a good game of chess, something Brigit could scarcely accommodate him for.
"'Tis five card stud or nothin’, and if you aren't betting your dinner on the outcome, you aren't gambling," she'd told him one afternoon, as he tried to talk her into a game.
William was an ex-army cook who made miracles out of leftovers and donated foodstuffs. Kipper was a handsome daredevil who was happily possessed of a skateboard he was rarely without. Eric and Ellie were brother and sister, and the tunnels' newest residents, besides Brigit. Both had settled into the place as if they'd been born here. There were more. Many more.
They all lived with castoffs, and often made those into an odd kind of finery. Though Brigit knew that they were all poor, they didn't "feel themselves to be poor," a distinction Brigit well understood, thanks to her own upbringing.
They were all kind to her. They were all pleasant, and open, and tried not to intrude on her desire for privacy or her persistent need for what she thought was too much sleep. They generously included her in their conversations and portions of their day. They helped others, when they were in need. They expressed sympathy for her loss, and sometimes asked if they could help. Brigit could tell they meant it.
Even if they weren’t perfect, they were everything Catherine had said they’d be, and more.
Brigit met Elizabeth, and spent the better part of a long morning listening to her stories, as the author watched the artist paint. It felt good to be in the presence of a creative person. A sea of faces Brigit didn't know (and several she now did), sprawled across a curved tunnel wall. She knew the shadowy figure of John Pater was a villain before Elizabeth even began to explain him. She saw pictures of Vincent, as a child. Pictures of Father, as a younger man.
She met Cullen, and understood he worked with wood. She was introduced to Kanin, and understood he carved stone. So did Vincent, sometimes. Pascal relayed messages from the huge pipe chamber, and though he rarely emerged from there, he was more than willing to answer any questions she had.
They were all amazing people in their various ways. And meeting them did do Brigit good, she was sure. Catherine had been right. This really was an amazing place where good people cared for each other, and that care translated itself in many, many ways.
Even after a few days, Brigit understood certain things. This was an almost uniquely good place. Beyond good. And at its center, whether he knew it or not, stood Vincent. Brigit knew him better than any other tunnel dweller, thanks to how they'd met. She also realized that he was a deep well, whose emotional resonance all but echoed, throughout his tunnel home. It was a thing Brigit could sense, even if she couldn't explain it to him. She suspected he'd simply deny such an assertion, anyway.
Catherine brought bagels and cream cheese down for breakfast her fourth day there. Eli gave Jacob the good game of chess the doctor clearly craved, and they both talked in hushed tones about a boy named Rolley, a boy they'd lost to a long-ago tragedy.
It was not a perfect paradise, then, Brigit thought.
But it was an amazing one.
And if the people weren’t enough to convince her of that fact, the setting itself was astonishing: The majesty of the Great Falls, the Painted Tunnels, Pascal’s Pipe Chamber, the adventurous sense of thievery to be had inside the Music Chamber, the ability to eavesdrop on the Whispering Bridge, or spend long hours pouring over books in Father’s library … All of it was meant to be a balm to the soul. And as balms went, it was.
Brigit felt herself take it all in, and internalize what it was, and what it represented. Sanctuary. Safety. Serenity.
She read Robert Louis Stevenson to the children, hoping the adventure of it would spark the urge to create, inside her.
She helped Mary choose yarn for a baby blanket, and spent the better part of an afternoon crocheting a series of small roses to attach to the edge, hoping the domestic activity would remind her of tatting lace with her mother, and spark an urge to make something more literary.
She knew she was more accepting of Sean's passing, as the sixth day slid into the seventh one. But she also knew that once she put her head back above the ladder to Catherine's subbasement, the world as it had been was waiting for her.
Yes, here was peace.
But she knew it was a peace she could not keep. And nothing seemed to move her hand to create.
"But you've just written a book," Vincent soothed. "A very draining book, about your father. Surely you ask too much of yourself, Brigit," he chided her, gently, in his chambers, one afternoon. She'd come to borrow his copy of Alice in Wonderland, hoping she'd fare better with Lewis Carroll than she was with RL Stevenson. She was casting around like a blind woman, and she knew it.
The beautiful Irish author shook her head at his assertion. "Vincent, that was nae a book. It was an exorcism. A diary about Sean's last days, and a sadder one I’ll likely never pen. But I needed to write it. A man I met at the hospital even told me I would," she said, not naming Kristopher Gentian. "And he was right, a part of me had to. It might end up bein’ an important book, I canna say I know. But it wasna a creative one. There was no fiction in it, or at least none that I could see. And it did nothin’ to feed the part of me that's been starvin' since... " She held out her hand to indicate a long passage of time - "…since before 300 Days."
She was frustrated with herself, and it was showing. "Only I know how long it’s been since I truly created something from my imagination. And it's been far, far too long."
She chafed her arms to ward off goosebumps and held her elbows against an unseen draft.
"I feel ... like something beautiful inside me has been struck dead, only they forgot to have a funeral," she said frankly, looking around at the horde of valuables that filled Vincent’s room. He was surrounded by an incredible assortment of things others had left behind, outgrown, thrown out, or no longer had use for.
"Can you know how that feels?" she asked.
"Yes," Vincent answered forthrightly, remembering the time Catherine had been falling in love with Elliot Burch. "Yes, I know that feeling, Brigit. And it is a terrible one," he commiserated.
"What did you do?" Brigit asked, hoping for advice.
"She came back to me," Vincent replied, handing her the book she’d asked for.
Without asking for an explanation, Brigit knew they were talking about Catherine.
"So, it was nae always easy, then," she surmised. Both by his most recent comment and the ones he'd made on the night they'd met.
He gave her a steady, blue-eyed, steady look. "It has never been easy. And we are still very new with each other in many ways. But it has only ever been... worth it. Worth everything." His low voice rang with surety.
Brigit nodded, and accepted the book.
When she got back to her chamber she did something she hadn't done, before, something she thought she wouldn't do.
She opened Mary's Book of Days, but left the boxed pen where it was. Instead, she dug a ballpoint pen out of her handbag. It just seemed right.
Sometimes, what you have will cost you. But your heart will tell you that some things are worth everything, she wrote beneath the cat, then clicked the pen shut and returned it to her bag.
It wasn't much. Especially not for a woman who normally wrote volumes.
But it felt like a place to start.
“These came for you. I wasn’t even sure if I should bring them down, but keeping them seemed wrong,” Catherine said, holding out a bundle of Brigit’s mail, the next evening. The author had been using Catherine’s address for the purpose of receiving mail since Sean’s illness had progressed, and Catherine had handled his legal affairs.
Brigit flipped through the envelopes, recognizing the handwriting on most of them.
“They’ll be sympathy cards, mostly. A thing I’ll likely look at, later,” Brigit commented. “Oh! And here’s one from me agent.” She tore open the business length envelope.
“It’s about Sean’s book,” she said, scanning the contents. “He says they’ve decided to publish it.” She looked neither happy nor sad, about the news. More like she simply expected it.
“Is that a good thing, or a bad one?” Catherine asked, not sure of Brigit’s reaction.
“Good, I suppose,” Brigit said. It would, after all, put coins in me purse.”
Yet something inside Brigit couldn’t help but feel that Days Spent With The Dying would perpetuate her own feeling that she was some kind of fraud. She tucked the letter back inside the envelope.
“He says my editor is having at it with that red pen of his. That they’ll send it along, when he’s done.”
“That must be a hard thing, to have someone else critique your work so heavily,” Catherine said.
“Tis either that or the nice people at the New York Times get to do it, when they write a book review. I’d rather the one than the other,” Brigit replied, flipping through the rest of the envelopes. Catherine nodded.
“So. Now that you’ve played postmistress, will you be seeing your Vincent this evening?” Brigit asked, linking her arm with her friend’s.
Catherine nodded again, slightly, and Brigit thought there was something endearing about the almost shy way she did that. “We’re spending time with George Bernard Shaw, this evening. I’m crediting your influence,” Catherine said, naming the famous Irish playwright.
“I can tell the evenings he sees you from the evenings he doesn’t. He’s… happier. Lighter, somehow. ‘Tis a thing you can see,” Brigit said.
Catherine blushed at Brigit’s kind words.
“Finding out about this place was very strange for me,” Catherine said, nodding to indicate the tunnels they walked through, and all that lay past those. “I can only imagine how it’s been for you.”
“It has been an adventure,” Brigit agreed. “At least that damnable feeling of tiredness is finally leaving me bones,” she said.
Catherine didn’t need to tell Brigit what Jacob already had. That marked fatigue, achiness, and loss of appetite was often a sign of depression.
“Oh, that’s so good. I know you were worried, for a while.” Catherine squeezed her arm.
She had been. And she still was. For though her strength did indeed seem to be returning, her ability to create had not.
“Between that and William’s Irish stew, I’ll swear I’m almost human again,” Brigit replied as they reached the intersection that would take Catherine to Vincent’s chamber.
“Well. I’ll not keep you from your time with Mr. Shaw. Will you be reading him here?”
Catherine shook her head. “I’m helping Vincent bring up a basket. We usually end up reading on my balcony.”
“Och, and you never told me what a thorn I was, when you let me stay with you those few days,” Brigit scolded.
“You weren’t a thorn. Never think that,” Catherine said.
The blue eyes were shrewd, and very like Vincent’s for a moment. “But for me sad tale of woe, you’d have been sittin’ out on the terrace stones with your Vincent, not listening to me moan about the sorrows of me heart or the doings in Ulster and Dublin.”
Catherine stopped and gave her gentle friend a warm hug. The envelopes Brigit carried crinkled against Catherine’s back, as the embrace was returned.
“Never think that meeting you has ever been anything but a blessing,” Catherine said.
Vincent chose that particular moment to appear around a corner.
“Catherine! ... Brigit… Good evening to you.” The basket he carried was already in hand, and the lightness of his step was a dead giveaway, as to his mood.
“And it’s a bonny good evening to you, you truant. You’re late, and your lady has been stuck with my company, when I’m sure she’d much prefer yours.” Smells of William’s cooking wafted from the basket.
“It isn’t that we wouldn’t enjoy your company…” Vincent began, wondering if he should invite her to join them. Something of his intentions must have been written on his face.
“You’re needin’ a third wheel like I’m needin’ Sinn Fein. Off and shoo with you! Before I give you the toe of me boot!” She waved her free hand in a dismissive gesture.
Vincent handed the basket to Catherine. “Do you mind?” he asked her.
“Considering you’d have to climb up to my rooftop holding …” She lifted the lid and checked the contents. “… chicken and dumplings, I think it’s better if I handle this.” Catherine said, lowering the lid. “Meet you there?” she asked, backing toward her exit.
“As soon as the evening turns to night,” he answered, knowing he had a few minutes more to wait. And didn’t like it, but endured it. “I won’t be long,” he assured her. Catherine smiled at that.
Brigit watched the gentle exchange between them. If they hadn’t confessed their love to each other yet, they were the only two they were fooling. It all but shone from their eyes, as they looked at each other.
Vincent excused himself as Catherine hurried to get home, clearly wanting to be ready for him. Their body language spoke loudly of their desire to be together, and their happiness at its prospect.
Brigit stood in the tunnel, watching them go in separate directions, as they planned their upcoming rendezvous.
“Stick them in Derry and she’s a Croppie and he’s an Orangeman,” Brigit said under her breath, entertaining a very soft smile at the comparison.
Hours later, she saw Vincent again as he returned home. Jamie had been showing her the various pathways to Above, and Vincent came in through the amazing circular door that accessed the park. He looked pleased with himself. So pleased that Brigit found she couldn’t resist needling him, at least a little.
“So you spent the night readin’ with your bonny lass. Did the chill air not freeze you?" Brigit asked.
The now nearly empty basket swung at his side. "I'm sure the company I kept meant I didn't notice it. Have you been in all this time?" he tried to deflect her. Jamie left them to each other.
Brigit nodded toward the round doorway. "I remember the night we met, I wanted nothing more than to walk in your city. Meet its people. Hear its music. But now..." her voice trailed away and was punctuated by a wistful shrug.
"Healing takes time, Brigit." His voice was ever steady.
"Aye, time. The thing I've usually got too little of. I'm an impatient Irishwoman." She fell in step with her large consort, and linked her arm with his, companionably. He smelled like the park. With a trace of Catherine's perfume.
"You've been in mourning a long time. For Ian, as well as Sean," Vincent said, with deep understanding.
"Aye. And all of me homeland before that. I wish you could have known it, Vincent. Could have seen it, before everything tore it apart."
Vincent raised an eyebrow at her. His ability to "see Ireland" either before or after what had become an impossibly long war was suspect. She laughed at his sidelong glance. "And now I've bad manners to go with the rest of me."
His smile was indulgently kind. "But I did see it. In 300 Days, yes, but in Owl Woman, as well. William Butler Yeats shows it to me. Others, also."
Her footfalls kept time with his as they both strolled deeper into his home.
"I love it here," she confided. "I love that everything Catherine told me about it is true. It's blessed I am to meet all of you, but..."
"But you fear you have recovered all you can. That now that the worst of your grief is past you must go on," Vincent said, wisely. She was so easy to read. Not as easy for him as Catherine was, but still.
He had no bond with Brigit O'Donnell. But he was aware that his sense of empathy was well attuned to her. Perhaps because he had always loved her books. Or perhaps that even explained "why" he'd loved them.
"I think I'm passing away from the time I could be called a "guest" and I'm rapidly becoming a burden. In the Middle East, custom says you're only allowed to stay three days. There may be good reason for that."
Vincent kept his own counsel. Though he knew Brigit was a very strong woman, he considered her "ambulatory" more than "healed." She was like Catherine, the day she'd gone back Above to her own apartment, after the attack. She could move, but she was by no means "well." Not yet. At any rate, they were at Brigit’s doorway.
"Sleep well, Brigit," he said when she disengaged her arm with his. "I hope your dreams are pleasant." He bid her good-night with a formal tilt of his head and went off down the circular corridor.
"Same to you," she said to his retreating back. "And if you're dreaming of your Catherine, I'm sure they will be."
He stopped, turned a little, and gave her a soft, almost secret smile of agreement. Then he turned back to continue his way on down the hall.
"Will you be tellin’ me if you kissed good-night, at least?" Her voice had a teasing lilt as she gave the words to the back of his cape. She caught the barest shake of his head and his soft chuckle, as he gave as good as he got.
"A lady would never ask. And a gentleman would never answer," he returned, before continuing on his way.
But for the lateness of the hour, Brigit would have chuckled at him. Or chucked something at him. She was being teased. And by a man who all but shouldn’t exist.
"Stubborn man," Brigit said to herself. "He's surely at least part Irish."
After a long day spent between Cullen, Elizabeth and Lewis Carroll, Jacob visited her in her rooms the next evening. Brigit appreciated his company, not to mention the walk down he’d had to make, with his cane.
“Your hip is feeling better, tonight,” she noted. “Me gran used to walk with a cane. Is it arthritis?” she asked.
“Set into an old injury, yes,” Jacob responded. He noticed that the cover was on the pen box Vincent had offered her, and that the Book of Days sat closed, though at an angle, as though it had been moved, recently. He also noticed the stack of envelopes on the table, the ones that Catherine had brought down to her, yesterday. Mail. Something, he, Jacob, had not had in many years. At least not the kind delivered by the US Postal service.
“I see Catherine brought down something for you,” he said, noting that only one of the spread envelopes had been opened, and set to the side. That was a business one. The rest looked personal.
“Condolence cards, for me father. I know it’s wicked of me, but I don’t feel I can open them, right now.”
She picked up the stack and handed them to him. Several had come from as far away as Belfast. It was a weighty stack.
“He had many friends. Or you have,” Jacob said kindly.
Brigit tilted her head to the side. “Ah, but these weren’t friends. They were fellow lunatics, like him. They’d call themselves soldiers, but they aren’t. And I haven’t the heart to read what they’ve written, yet just throwing them away seems like a sacrilege. Half of them probably swear they’ll kill Jamie Harland before he reaches trial.” She shook her head, and Jacob realized how pervasive the sickness that pervaded her country was. It was a similar kind of madness that had caused him to lose everything. A kind of hysteria that took hold, and seemed to effect everything else.
Jacob knew what it was to carry a sorrow too great to bear, and know you needed to set that down. The envelopes where a weight, in his hand. And on her heart.
“Brigit, have they taken you to the chamber that holds the mirror pool, yet?” he asked.
Fire. Just a small one, but significant. Jacob held fast to his cane and bent down on one knee as he stirred it to life, for her. And told her what they used this special little chamber for.
It was a beautiful setting. Intimate. Peaceful. Full of water, and starlight, and low licking flames. The kind of flames that were built to bear condolences away, built to carry regrets.
Jacob had asked her if she’d wanted to write a letter to Sean, or to Ian, or anyone else, but she’d said “no.” The one she’d already had ample time to say good-bye to, and the other she’d bid farewell to long ago.
It was the stack of condolences that bothered her. The ones she couldn’t open. The ones that likely expressed both regret and revenge, the ones that would have called Sean a “good soldier,” not understanding what that had cost all of them, including Sean.
“I know these were your friends, Da, and you held them like family. And I know their sorrow is real. But I canna carry that, now. Canna carry their sorrow with me own.” One by one, she put the cards and letters, unopened, into the flame, and watched the paper burn.
Whatever message they bore now went heavenward, on wings of fire. Sparks crackled upward, and got caught in the updraft.
“Good-bye, Da. These came to me. But they’re really for you,” she said, feeling lighter as each envelope hit the flames. She felt a weight being lifted, and she couldn’t explain exactly “why.” Perhaps it was the act of letting go. Perhaps it was the act of not having to deal with the sorrows contained in the envelopes, even if they were meant to give comfort. Perhaps it was just the magic of this place. She didn’t know.
When they were done, she sat for a long time, Jacob content to sit with her, even though it likely bothered his hip to do so.
“Do you ever come here to pray, Jacob?” she asked. This room was as close a thing to a “chapel” as she’d seen, in the tunnels. She knew it was a personal question. He didn’t seem offended.
“Yes. Sometimes. Pray. Think. Just to feel close to ones who’ve gone on, before. It’s a pretty spot,” he said, looking up to the star shot night. “We don’t use it just for our sorrows. Vincent used to come here when he was small, just to enjoy the starlight.”
Brigit looked in water so still it served to reflect the night sky.
“He must have been fascinated,” she commented.
“He was. I’m not sure, but I believe it was the first way he ever saw a star.” Jacob remembered the small boy that his huge son had been. The older man eased his weight back on a boulder, using it for a chair.
“What did he do?” Brigit asked, curious.
Jacob smiled with memory. “He put his hand in the water, to try and touch the star. Became very upset when the rippling water distorted the image. Mary had to calm him, and we sat together very patiently, until the water stilled again, and he saw it return.”
Brigit’s blue eyes took in the man who’d raised Vincent from babe to adult. Saw the gentle love in him. Knew he wasn’t Sean, but that both of them had been fierce fathers, in very different ways.
“You were good to him. A good father. It must have been a challenge.” Brigit tried to commiserate, though she’d never been a parent, herself.
Jacob’s smile grew softer. “I promise you he’s given all of us far more than he ever took, in return.”
Brigit accepted that assessment.
“What happened when he saw his star, again?” she asked, wanting to know.
“Mary taught him the poem ‘Star Light, Star Bright,’ and told him he might make a wish,” Jacob recalled. He rose, knowing he’d best do that while his hip still allowed it. He steadied the cane, under him.
“To this day, I have no idea what he wished for,” Jacob confided.
They both regarded the still water solemnly, for a moment.
“Ready?” Jacob asked, offering her his free arm.
“Yes. Thank you for this, Jacob. It helped,” Brigit said, rising and dusting off her long skirt. “I dinna know why, but it did.”
Jacob inclined his wise head. He understood better than most that ‘mourning’ was often a two part process. First, one had to let go of sorrow. Then, to embrace joy. Those were two different things.
But something else weighed on his conscience, at the moment. Something he’d wanted to confess to her.
“Brigit… when Vincent first went out to meet you, that first night, I admit I had misgivings. Not just for his safety. But … I didn’t want him to be … disillusioned by you, if you turned out to be … less than he expected. Not to confuse the magic with the magician. I need to apologize for that. Please accept it.”
She kissed his grizzled cheek. “It’s sure and no apologies are needed.” She looked around the room, and to the tunnels beyond. “You’ve made something so extraordinary here. It’s proud you should be.”
“I am. And I’m keenly aware that pride is a sin, in some circles.”
She gave him a bright smile.
“Well, then. At least we’re in the right room to confess it!”
Before she went to bed, she opened the Book of Days. Coincidentally, a star shone up at her, bearing the inscription, “How I wonder what you are?”
Brigit wondered the same thing, and realized that the economy of space on the page meant she had to choose what she wanted to express, carefully.
Still using her ballpoint pen, she wrote beneath the image.
Flipping to the next page, she saw that it had a picture of a fat, cheerful moon.
“I wonder what I’ll write for you?” she asked it, realizing that she was at least anticipating the possibility.
After a few more days of voluntary confinement, Brigit ventured Above, one night, the image of the moon still in her mind. An unexpected nap taken in the afternoon (she’d thought she was over those, but apparently not) had now made falling asleep at a decent hour impossible. After an indeterminate time spent tossing and turning in the creaky bed, she'd decided to do what she'd done in Derry when sleep wouldn't come. She went for a walk.
The hour was prohibitively late. And it surprised her to see that Vincent was just outside the drainage culvert, sitting in the cold grass, looking up at a beautifully full moon. It was almost as fat as the one in what had now become “her book.”
"That's a lovely one," she said, taking up a seat beside him. He didn't seem to mind the unexpected company.
"That it is," he agreed, acknowledging her. His gaze drifted away from the glowing orb, and wandered a bit in a westerly direction. Without being told, Brigit knew he was looking toward the direction of Catherine's apartment building.
"Couldn't sleep?" she asked.
He shook his head, still holding the westerly view, for a moment. Without having to ask, she knew he'd come from seeing his love.
"Too... full of everything," he gave, by way of explanation. She understood.
"You?" he asked, feeling a little guilty for his happiness, in the face of her sorrow.
"The same, but the opposite,” she admitted. “Too … empty, in some way. But not the same way as before. The worst of me sorrow seems gone. Still, I keep tryin’ to make something happen on a page, but nothing comes," she confessed. "But that doesna mean I'm not happy for you," she added quickly, lest her inability to write something fanciful dampen the lovely night, between them.
Vincent accepted her words with quiet grace. “I know you are. I do not know how to help you find the gift you have lost. But you know we are here for you, Brigit.”
“I know you are,” she said, enjoying the view of the moon with him.
“There’s one big as that in the book Mary gave me,” Brigit commented.
Vincent smiled, knowing her comment meant that she’d at least riffled through the pages. “Is there? I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” he said, not asking if the small step toward writing might lead to a bigger one. Either it would or it wouldn’t. There was no sense pushing. Brigit was doing that enough, herself.
It was a cold night, much colder than the one back in October, when they’d first met. He seemed unbothered by it. So did she.
"Still think I should run?” His eyes came down from the moon and fixed on her. “Run, and never look back?" Vincent asked, with something of a smile. They both knew he wouldn't. Or couldn't. The results were the same, either way.
Brigit’s lilting voice adopted a teasing note as she gave him a slight smile of her own. "Oh, more than ever," she advised, "But only because you’re feelin’ it so much." The last was a serious statement, even though she offered it in a light tone of voice.
She knew he felt his love, deeply. The entire community knew he did. The love he had for the woman whose life he could never fully share was a golden light, around him. It made something bright and beautiful happen inside him. Something strong. It was impossible not to bask in its glow.
"And only because I'm sure you'll still ignore me good advice," she tacked on.
Vincent accepted her comment as looked back up toward the Sea of Tranquility.
"If I ran, it wouldn't stop what I'm feeling," Vincent said wisely, taking in the January moon.
"No," Brigit conceded, pulling her shawl a little more closely around her shoulders. "That it wouldn't."
She put her hand on Vincent's forearm, and he gave her his full attention.
"Vincent. If I told you that this love you hold, wonderful as it is... that it will leave you with pain, with sorrow. That it might even... break something inside of you..."
"I know what you're about to ask," he put his gloved hand over hers. And the answer is "No. I wouldn't pull away from it." He considered a moment.
"If you had left Ian. If you'd decided to go before... before what happened, happened," he said sympathetically, "Would you love him less? Would it mean less, now?"
She looked away, unable to hold the steady surety of his gaze. "I don't know. It might." They both knew she was lying. At least a little.
"But if you had run... you'd have never known the joy of loving him. Do you remember writing that?"
She did. But she couldn't speak, for the lump that had suddenly lodged in her throat. This wasn’t pain. Not the raw pain of loss. This was poignancy. And it was such a sweet pain. Still.
"You had a great love, Brigit," he said gently. "And if it hadn't have come for you, you would be so much the less for it, now," he said solemnly.
"I had two," she barely got out the words. She meant Sean. He knew she meant Sean.
"Then I have been fortunate as well, for I also have had two," he said. "But we both know it is a different kind of love.”
They did, and it was.
“It is as if my life exists in two halves, now,” he said. “There was my life before Catherine, and my life now, after it. No matter what happens, run or stay, that will still be true."
Brigit accepted the wisdom of his words.
When she returned to her rooms she knew she’d write in the Book of Days. The moon picture all but insisted she do that. The words “Change is inevitable” were printed beneath the image. Of course, a moon would say something like that.
Running from love doesn't mean we won't still feel it, she wrote in the book.
She looked at the words, and knew them to be a simple truth. All of the words and ideas Vincent had given her, not just the ones she'd penned. She thought about him, and how much his life must have changed, after he'd met Catherine. And how much Catherine's had, as well. It took a special kind of courage for them to embrace their love. She knew the flavor of that courage, because she'd tasted it, once.
He had a beautiful home. And there were many beautiful people, in it. Beautiful in a way that went far beyond the physical. And while she utterly marveled that such a place had allowed Vincent to grow from child to man, the cold ennui that had sapped her creative talent still felt like a hard fist, inside her.
Maybe her ability to dream never would never return. Maybe that's what she would discover, down here. That even in the midst of Oz, even companioned by a being as unique as Vincent, and by people as gentle as Jacob, and Mary, and Elizabeth, that something inside her felt buried, and no longer reachable.
Seeing this place was supposed to fix that, wasn't it? Supposed to help her cope? Not just cope, but hope, again?
The fat-cheeked moon continued to stare at her, reminding her of its message.
Perhaps she really did just need more time. She’d give it a few more days, she promised herself.
Sleep. Get up. Wash in the basin beside her bed, and go down for breakfast. Spend more time with the incredible people who made up Vincent's world. Explore a little. Explore some more. Sit with Mary, for an hour, or Jacob. Watch the joy Vincent experienced, while he taught. Wander through the whispering gallery, listening to pieces of other lives. See the big black man, Winslow, as he easily hefted a huge mallet over his shoulder and went off to work. Meet Laura, whose beautiful language all but danced from her delicate hands. Try to help Rebecca, as she made the candles which gave light. Sit with Elizabeth, and watch her paint, some more, and even give the children lessons, on that. Wander down to the falls, and to the mirror pool, again. Wander down to William's kitchen, for a fresh pot of tea. She ate and slept normally, again, and the subtle pains that had often seemed to attack her bones went away entirely. She read Mythology and marveled at Theseus, knowing Vincent really had dreamed of sailing with him. In this very book, perhaps.
All of it was "healing." But none of it was helping.
It was the last fact that utterly startled Brigit.
Vincent's world was everything Catherine had said it was. Everything she'd said, and far more. A constant stream of children ebbed and flowed through the great halls. Happy children. Literate children. As Mary had characterized them, "safe children." And they were. The importance of that adjective was no more lost on Brigit than it was on Mary. The children were safe. They all were. Northern Ireland could only wish for such security, for its populace.
Black, white, yellow and brown, old and young, the able and the disabled all mingled coherently, if not downright contentedly, together. It was a place of acceptance. It was a place of peace. It was a place of love and understanding. If anything, Catherine had utterly understated its virtues.
It was restoring Brigit’s faith that good places existed, even if they had to be carved out of bedrock and kept completely secret, but for their ruination.
Why then, did she still feel so... blank, inside?
“I’m sick unto death of safety,” she’d told Vincent back in October. Yet she knew she meant the kind where she was constantly shadowed by bodyguards and overseen by publishers, diplomats, and interviewers, anxious for a quote. The smothering kind, the kind that allowed her no personal freedom.
She’d dispensed with those things, at least temporarily. And yes, it had helped. Walking these halls had indeed helped to restore her sense of equilibrium.
"I've seen too much," Brigit tried to write in her spiral notebook one day, not with the fountain pen but still with the still more convenient ballpoint that had driven Conway Stewart out of business. The fountain pen seemed for important things. The ballpoint would do, for this.
Seen too much and buried too many. I don't know what I believe. I don't know where to turn. I have a completed manuscript of my father's passing, in an editor’s hands. When it comes back, it will kill me to read the edits, as I go through it all, again.
I have a Book of Days on the table beside me, inviting me to start a new chapter of my life. Yet a scant few pages hold so much as a sentence, even if what it holds is true.
Even as I let go of the sorrows that shaped my recent years I know I canna write, as long as the old pain defines me. Or as long as it holds on to me, in some way.
Brigit tapped the pen against the paper, and clicked the ballpoint closed, then open, again.
When will it stop, this endless need to mourn what’s been utterly lost? This need to get back what I can no longer have? I canna write, as I used to. Is that a thing I should be fighting? Or just accepting?
She stared at the words.
Why can’t I dream, anymore, when I look at a blank page? she asked.
She's impatient with herself," Catherine translated Vincent's assessment of Brigit.
"Yes. Part of her is still mourning the people she’s lost. Vincent said. "Now it’s her inability to create fantasy that she mourns. She struggles to find that talent, again, that ability.”
“It won’t come?” Catherine asked.
“It hasn’t so far,” Vincent indicated. “She's struggling to find something inside herself, Catherine. Something she lost years ago."
"Vincent, she's hardly had time to--"
"I've said the same. But I do not know if this is about time, for her. In a way, she lost both Sean and Ian long ago. This seems to be about something else. Brigit worries that she's lost the ability to write stories like Owl Woman, anymore. The loss has left her feeling as if she has a hole, inside her. I do not know how to help," he confessed.
"I remember her talking about that at the party." Catherine said. "She said the violence in her homeland had overshadowed everything else."
"As violence often does," Vincent said sagely.
“When Sean was … passing, we sat by his bed, and I read Owl Woman to him. To her. I could tell it … affected her. She talked about the pictures, about writing it. You can tell she was remembering a happier time,” Catherine said.
He realized that he had no answer for Brigit. But he held his arms open to his love, and felt the soft pleasure of her coming into them. Talking to Catherine would help. It always did.
“She treasured your presence. Needed it.” The gentle envelopment of his arms told her that Brigit wasn’t the only one who needed that.
"She's very young to have faced so much sorrow." Catherine said sympathetically, her head turned to the side, cheek pressed to his vest.
"Yet her soul is an old one. Perhaps that is not a good thing, right now." He gave her a squeeze.
"How do you mean?" Catherine asked, looking up.
"I mean... it seems as if Brigit feels very old, Catherine. Very old or very empty. I'm not sure my world is helping her, with that."
"I promise one thing," Catherine said, giving him a returning squeeze. "If it isn't helping, it certainly isn't hurting. There is no better place for her than this one, right now."
After the twelfth day, Brigit bundled her dirty clothes together and made for the area she'd been directed to, the one Jamie had indicated was the laundry chamber. She'd all but decided that after she got her clothes clean again, she might as well pack her bag and return to the land of electricity and television. That whatever this amazing place was, and no matter how stunningly beautiful it was, or how intriguing Vincent was, that this just simply wasn't the place for her, now.
Knowing that it existed was a marvelous thing. A marvelous, secret thing. But nothing seemed to help, when it came to her ability to write, and she did have a life Above that needed tending to.
In a way, she felt as if she was contaminating the tunnel rooms with her disquiet. Taking nothing away from them except for the welcome respite from the hectic pace of Above.
If she wanted solitude and a day spent doing nothing meaningful, she could lock herself in her hotel room, she reasoned. It wasn't that the tunnels had failed her. It was that she had no idea what she wanted from them, at this point. Or from any other place, right now. No place seemed able to return her sense of inspiration.
If that was the case, one place seemed as good as another.
With a wicker basket hefted on one hip, Brigit picked her way uncertainly forward through the passageways. The path Brigit took wound to the left, and forked as it meandered. "Keep to the left," Jamie had advised her. "You'll start to smell water before you see it. Probably pass Olivia on the way down. She's just had a baby, and apparently that means a lot of diapers and spit up rags."
But Brigit hadn't seen Olivia, or anyone else. And the more she wandered, the more she was sure she'd gotten turned around, somehow. She kept the basket of clothes on her hip, holding up her lantern to light her way. She wasn't frightened. She knew that if worse came to worst, all she had to do was bang on one of the pipes and someone would come.
If she didn't reach the laundry chamber in five more minutes, she vowed to retrace her steps and try again.
A dozen feet later, it wasn't the sound of water that reached her sensitive ears. It was the sound of a hammer, hitting metal. Then of some other tools, clattering across a table.
A soft light issued from an entryway, just ahead of her. Flickering, some, and brighter than just lantern light, or candle flame. Brigit heard the hammer again, and then the sound of frustration. Male. Young. Aggravated.
"Stupid spring. All bent. Never work like this! Got to get it out. Fix it. Make it good. Better than good. Ow!" A tool dropped to the table just as Brigit stepped under the archway of one of the most amazing rooms she had seen so far. And that was saying something.
If Vincent's astonishing chamber was a testament to treasured castoffs and quiet contemplation, the mechanical bedlam in front of her was its exact opposite.
Everything seemed to move.
A lava lamp plugged in to an unknown source made huge, red bubbles as it simmered, and it had fellows of different colors, scattered around the space. One looked like captured starlight, full of silver glitter. A children's train went down a track. A perpetual motion monkey went around and around a high bar. Steel balls clacked together as they swung back and forth, three by three. A plastic dinosaur walked across an end table and meandered very close to the edge before a young hand simply picked him up and set him back to center, never stopping to look. A huge… something sat to one side, covered by a patchwork sheet. A large raccoon rolled around inside a woven basket
In the middle of all of it, a gangly young boy sat on a stool, manipulating a pair of pliers. The train gave a cheery whistle. The young boy gave another frown.
He was a tunnel person. That much she knew by the familiar, patchwork garb. But everything about him told her he was different, somehow. Goggles obscured his eyes. A surgeon's operating disc was on his head, and he was either taking something apart, or putting it together, judging by the astonishing number of small parts before him. A large bank of lights that told him Brigit-knew-not-what sat behind him. Most of them were white, but three were yellow. Brigit had no idea why.
His soft, un-whiskered jawline pegged him as an adolescent, though his height gave him the end of that, rather than its beginning. Probably. Brigit guessed his age at somewhere under twenty, but not by much. He was lanky, and average in build, with a mop of wavy blonde hair that went every which way. She couldn't see his eyes, fixed as they were on his task, and still hidden behind the eyewear. He held his body in both a stoop shouldered pose, yet stiffly, as if ever muscle was brought to some strange kind of attention.
It was an odd combination, Brigit realized.
She half-wondered if she'd just stepped into a machinist’s version of Wonderland.
"Hello?" she called. He startled when she did that. Looked up, frowned, and then went right back to what he was doing. Brown. His magnified eyes were brown.
"May I come in?" she asked, carefully, taking a cautious step inside the room. He shrugged his shoulders, indicating he didn't care whether she came in or not. Fiddling with the pliers, he worked until he’d gotten something where he wanted it, then set them down on the crowded table. The raccoon tumbled out of the basket, then climbed back in again.
What in the world?
He glanced up briefly and eyed her load of dirty laundry, through the goggles. They made his brown eyes look impossibly huge.
"Washing room not here. Go back three turns. Then stay left," Mouse said bluntly.
"I thought I did that," Brigit answered, letting her eyes wander across the amazing space some more. A kaleidoscope sat on one table, next to an astrolabe.
"Didn't. Got lost." He was painstakingly obvious. And sparse with his commentary as he inspected the results of his efforts.
"That I did," she replied, watching as he blew the dust away from the part of the toy he wanted to work on. He picked up a screwdriver, and deftly set it to its task.
Mouse gave the tool a few turns, then stopped, realizing she was still there. "Washing. Big chore. Don't like it.” He blew again. “You?" he asked, after a moment.
Brigit was pleased that he'd finally deigned to ask her a question.
"Och, I'm not an Irish washerwoman. That is I am right now, but not usually.” He looked up again. It was hard to tell, but she thought his look might be quizzical.
“‘Irish washerwoman’ is a stereotype and an old song.” She smiled at her own small jest, but noted he didn’t return it. Perhaps he didn’t get the joke, or had never heard the tune. She decided to take a more direct approach. “I'm an author. I write books."
"Oh. Books are dumb," he dismissed, then blew on the toy, again. "Can't do things. Not really. Better to make stuff. Better than better," he said, from his perch atop the stool.
She laughed at his utter disregard for her art.
"’Tis right you probably are," she allowed, watching him take a smaller screwdriver to what looked like a child's wind-up toy. He fiddled with a key that went into the back. Set it down. Picked up the screwdriver, again.
"I'm Brigit," she said, introducing herself.
"I know. Everybody knows. Famous Brigit. Important Brigit. Even Vincent is nervous. Father yells. 'Best stay out of the way, Mouse.'"
"Mouse? Is that your name?" she asked, unaware that her coming down here would affect anyone negatively. The notion that he'd isolated himself thanks to her being here...
"Yep,” he confirmed. “That's Arthur," Mouse nodded in his direction, as the largest raccoon Brigit had ever seen once more emerged from the basket and wandered across the table, knocking bits and pieces around, as he went.
Arthur looked at her from the vantage point of the table's edge, sat back and held up one black hand, pawing the air.
"Why, what a little bandit you are!" Brigit said, delighted.
She reached out a tentative hand, then stopped. "He'll not be biting me, will he?"
Mouse barely looked up. "Not if you don't bite him, first."
Brigit gently scritched the raccoon's fuzzy ears. He endured her for a moment, then waddled away.
"Your pet's a particular one. Like an Orangeman," she observed. Mouse had no idea what she was talking about.
"Not orange. Arthur isn't." Mouse observed. He took off the goggles and wiped his fallen bangs out of the way. He had lovely eyes, free of the magnification. Still brown, they now looked gentle, and inquisitive.
No, Arthur wasn't orange. And this odd young boy clearly had no idea what she was referring to. Brigit set down her load and took off her shawl, laying it atop the basket. It was warm in here, thanks to the multiple devices in the room which gave off at least some heat. What had once been a fairly large space was now crammed with his inventions. Mouse looked happily surrounded by the mechanical chaos. Brigit couldn’t help contrast the picture he made with that of her late father.
He rubbed the side of the toy with a soft cloth, focused on his task. He looked so intense. And so… innocent.
To have no idea of the struggles in Ireland, she mused. No idea of the killings, the bombings, and the blood. Or words like “Orangeman,” or “Ulster” or any of the rest of it. To not know of the orphans and the widows, the maimed and the dead…
He gave the toy a few more hard swipes with the cloth.
What a luxury that must be, Brigit thought.
He set the child’s plaything down, and wound up the back with the key. In a moment, a tin soldier was marching around the table, one arm deftly swinging.
"You did it!" Brigit declared, watching the tin man stop in the "sword up" position.
"Wasn't hard." Mouse secretly basked in her praise.
"It would have been impossible, for me," Brigit said, reaching out for the little man. Her blue eyes asked permission, and his nod gave it. The soldier had a black cap with a metal feather on it. The paint was gone, from most of the body.
"Just have to know how. Have to work at it," Mouse said.
She handed his accomplishment back to him.
"They didn't forbid you to come out, did they? Because I was here?" she asked. The idea of that bothered her. Deeply.
Mouse shook his blonde, tousled head. "Mouse not forbidden! Just busy! Goes anywhere! Everywhere. Like Vincent. Like anybody," he said, gathering up the faulty parts of the toy and putting them in a cleaned out sardine can.
"You like machines," she stated the obvious, looking around. She remembered hating them, and very recently. Back when they’d seemed to be dehumanizing Sean.
"Like knowing how they work.” He slid off the stool and put the screwdriver down carefully, so it wouldn’t roll. “Fixing,” he added. He gestured to what must have been a tabletop full of completed projects. He set the tin soldier near the kaleidoscope. “Making new ones, sometimes. Want to see?" he invited.
She nodded that she did, relieved he'd not been sequestered in the room thanks to his singular nature. She'd known children and adults with social disabilities before, back in Derry. Some of them fared poorly.
He gestured to the huge whatever-it-was, covered by the patchwork sheet.
"And what is this you'll be making, then? Some secret weapon?" she asked. Brigit's mind almost unavoidably went to those.
"Weapon? No!" Mouse scoffed, stepping close to it. "Digger! Big one!” He lifted one corner of the cloth a little, and smiled. “Been busy.” He said, in a whispered voice that indicated it was “top secret.”
“Been working. Hard,” he confided. He began to tug back the faded fabric. Brigit had no description for the morass of metal he revealed to her eyes other than to say that she expected it to shoot a laser out of what she assumed was the front.
“And you’re sure that this is nae a weapon?” she asked. It looked… complicated, if not lethal. He’d made this? By himself?
Mouse nodded his fair head. “Breaks rock. Help get through hard places," Mouse explained, patting the huge contraption. It looked like it would sport a gigantic drill bit on one end. A bit he clearly didn't have, at the moment.
"This is… amazing,” she said, properly awed. Her compliment pleased her host.
“Better than,” he said, watching her touch what would one day be a hydraulic cable… if he ever got it working.
Brigit was more than a little impressed. He’d put this together without the help of a book? Or a whole library of them? The machine looked intricate, to her author’s eyes. This was no child’s wind-up toy. Clearly, he was very creative.
Brigit spared a moment to wonder if she too, could find or make something that "got her through the hard places."
“The only machine a writer uses is a typewriter. Nothing so grand as this,” said, running her hands over the cool, smooth metal. She caressed a flywheel, not knowing it had come out of a ’63 Pontiac.
“Does it work?” It occurred to her to ask.
"Not yet,” he admitted. “Not now. Will, though. Will when I'm finished." He adjusted the makeshift tarpaulin back over his creation. The room seemed utterly full of things he'd either made or fixed.
Brigit helped him straighten the sheet, showing she cared about his invention. He liked that she did that.
She allowed herself to take in the totality of the space with a more discerning eye. From the cast aside and repaired to the devised and invented, the room was crammed from stone floor to granite rafters with things he'd either made or restored to usability. Or was going to.
No fewer than three transistor radios sat on a shelf, none playing, but one clearly taken apart and used for parts. A pocket calculator said 'hello' having had the numbers 07734 typed into it, then having been placed upside down. A camper's lantern shed light over his table, suspended by a cord that looked like it could be raised and lowered. A small chain seemed attached to a rope-and-pulley system he used for God-knew-what. A vacuum cleaner sat to one side, devoid of its motor. A car battery sat on an a shabby dining room chair, waiting to be pressed into service, maybe to power the huge machine that now stood at her back.
It was a monument to clutter, yes, but also to creativity, if not to fun. Yet he seemed very serious about all of it.
"This whole place is a marvel," she said, seeing it for what it was, the sanctuary of a brilliant, creative mind.
He said nothing to that, but simply climbed back up on the stool and tugged a music box over. Lifting the lid, she saw that the ballerina inside it refused to dance, even after he wound the bottom key. He reached for a different screwdriver, and began disassembling it.
"Do you ever stop?" she asked, watching him gently remove the music box dancer so she wouldn’t become damaged, while he worked. He then began taking apart the metal box her pointed toe was attached to.
"Stop? No. Why stop?"
Brigit felt her own sense of failure. "Oh, I dinna know. Because you're tired. Because doing it gives you no pleasure, anymore, and you can't quite see the point. Because you run out of ideas.”
Mouse looked up, strangely aware that she was not talking about him, but about herself. He shrugged his youthful shoulders. “Tired? Sleep.” He said, simply.
“Good advice.” His terse candor was direct at least. “And that has been better,” she allowed. “But I can’t write the things I want to. It’s been bothering me. I take it that’s a problem you’re nae bothered with.”
He began placing tiny parts on the table, as he adjusted something inside the box. "Stuff gets broken. Stuff needs fixed. Fix it," he said. "Or stuff needs something added, to make it work. Make it good. Make it better."
"And that's what you do, Mouse? Make things good? Make them better?"
His grin was immediate, and wide. "Sure! Help everybody! Help Vincent! He'd be lost without Mouse."
She took in his room, again. It had such a different ambience than the one at the hospital. If that one felt like a cage for the dying, this was its opposite. This place felt alive.
"What's that?" she asked, eying a rope net suspended beneath an opening in the ceiling.
"Trap. Caught Catherine, once. She was lost."
That must be a story. Brigit couldn’t help but grin at the image that presented as he began laying more incredibly tiny parts on a rag, in the order he’d removed them in. Though his mind seemed chaotic (if the madcap contents of the room were any indication), there was also an order in how he approached things.
"Lost, was she?” Brigit mused, stepping near the net. “I think I've been lost,” she conceded. “And got more lost when I wandered into your inventor’s kingdom, here." She wound up his dinosaur and set it back to walking. It was childhood whimsy at its most "Made in Taiwan"-ish.
Mouse looked around.
"Not a kingdom. Just a room." He turned an inner gear with what looked like a dental pick, already focusing his attention on his current project. No wonder she hadn’t met him, before. Clearly he’d been on a streak, when it came to doing what he loved.
Brigit, meanwhile, still had a chore to get done.
She picked up her laundry and made to leave. "I’m hardly thinkin’ that’s true. So would a handsome knight such as yourself be carin’ to escort a lost lady to the laundry room?" Brigit asked, requesting his help.
He looked up at her, realizing she wanted his aid. She talked funny, and the soft lilt of her voice reminded him of Mrs. O’Brien, one of their helpers. Oh, well. Sometimes newcomers said he talked funny, too. He set down his latest project.
"Okay." He slid off the stool, again. Taking someone to where the smelly clothes were wasn't as much fun as repairing a broken gizmo. But it would do, for a good deed. And Vincent would be pleased that Mouse had helped his new friend
He bounced past her burdened self, and made his way down the hallway she'd come in through.
Brigit couldn't help but chuckle as he bounded right by her, making no move whatsoever to help her carry her clothes.
Her new Sir Lancelot needed chivalry lessons, she mused with a slight smile.
"And you say he was completely feral?" Brigit asked Vincent, later.
"As far as we could tell. He had no language. I'm not sure he'd ever been touched with a kind hand," Vincent related. He was returning from a work detail, a pair of huge mallets over one shoulder, a bag of smaller tools slung over the other. Brigit offered to take the latter, as they walked.
"How terrible!" Brigit's respect for the titan beside her continued to grow as she adjusted the load.
"He says it was you who rescued him. You might as well know you're his hero." She and Mouse had talked some more, on her way to the laundry chamber.
"Mouse has a loving heart. And a very... active imagination," Vincent deflected her praise.
Mouse did have those things. But not everyone would have seen that. The more Brigit knew of this amazing man, the more she appreciated how special he was.
"He told me my books were a waste of time," Brigit all but laughed at that.
"Did he?" Vincent raised a lofty eyebrow. "That was... unkind. And untrue."
She shook her red head, indicating she took no offense. "Och, he meant no harm in it. And if I keep writing of life's tragedies, I canna say I aught but agree with him. And I believe he actually called them "dumb" rather than a waste of time."
"Ah," Vincent took in the word. "To Mouse, "dumb" means many things. Laura has taught him that it means ‘one who does not speak.’ I'm afraid many books do not 'speak' to Mouse."
"He canna read, then?" she asked astonished that all his learning was self-taught.
"He cannot read as fluently as others might, but he manages it. He lacks the patience to remain on the page, more than the skill," Vincent observed.
"And it’s no wonder I like him," Brigit said, aware that she sounded ironic. "He canna read of the sorrows of this world. Of its terrors, or its woes."
His step slowed. "I'm sure he experienced many of those," Vincent said. "When I found him he was dressed in rags that make what we have finery, by comparison. Cold. Hungry."
Brigit was instantly contrite. "I didn't mean to imply that he'd never suffered," she said.
"I know you didn't," Vincent agreed. "None of us know what tragedy caused him to be so abandoned. And in truth, Mouse himself doesn't seem to remember anything but scrambling to survive."
Brigit continued to be astonished. "He was young, then?"
"Very. We have no idea how old he really is, since Mouse doesn't know, himself. We only know he's been here for many of his short years."
"You did save him, then," Brigit praised.
Vincent inclined his noble head. "It is a favor he has returned, or tries to. There is no one more willing to help than Mouse. It's only that his... results are sometimes in question. Never his intentions."
Brigit continued to marvel at the huge being beside her who had so clearly taken the awkward boy under his giant wing.
"He's a treasure to you, then. Not a burden?" Brigit asked, curious. Not everyone would have viewed the blonde boy she'd met that way.
"I count him as very dear. Yes. Why do you ask?"
Brigit looked upward to the ceiling of his home and seemed to take it all in.
"Because that is the attitude I see here, everywhere. Toward everyone. By everyone. No one is thought a burden. So no one feels as if they are."
Vincent kept his own counsel on that assessment, knowing that there were times that he himself had felt something of a hardship to his fellow tunnel dwellers. But he knew what she meant.
"Ian and me were different, that way. Each was a thing the other had to carry, some. Me knowing he was an Orangeman. Him knowing I was a Croppie girl. It was a weight we lifted until neither of us minded, but we both knew it was there."
Vincent considered her words. "Yet you persevered and made the best life you could. Perhaps we are again not so different, then.” He looked down the hallway in front of them, as if he could see farther, along the path of stone, see how it branched to all the areas of his home.
“The life we've made here is ... precious, and rare. Everyone is here for a different reason. But we are all ... here, Brigit. It is a good place.”
"It is that. And Mouse is the mad inventor in the middle of it," Brigit smiled. "Or at least the one who lives on the other side of the commons, from me."
"That is his own choice, not a statement about his differences. When he first came to us he was more comfortable away from people. Then later, when the occasional … explosion would happen, Father declared it safer if he remained a bit... distant from others,” he chuckled.
"Explosion? I’ll be bearin’ that in mind," Brigit giggled, picturing it.
Vincent basked in her soft laugh, realizing it was a thing he'd heard from her too seldom. He nodded at her assessment. "It makes him happy to fix things, and to invent. He means no harm when he does any. And he achieves great good, when he tries. Here we are." He took the bag of tools back from her and went to put things in their proper place.
Brigit thanked him for the walk and they parted company.
When she went back to her chamber, she nearly picked up the fountain pen Vincent had left her. Using it seemed more tempting than it ever had. She knew it should write something special.
And then she realized she still didn’t know what that was.
"Not yet," she told the faded white cardboard box. "Not quite yet." But she gave it a stroke.
"No. You don't," she said, having no urge to add anything to that.
"We welcome the child with gifts, that he may learn generosity." Father declared, the next afternoon.
Jacob's voice held the solemn intonations of a religious leader, though near as Brigit could tell, they promoted no particular denomination, down here.
Another thing the people in Ulster could stand to learn, Brigit thought, as she took in the touching scene.
Baby Luke's naming day ceremony was one that filled the tunnels with a soft kind of joy. Brigit knew next to nothing about the young couple whose son was now the center of tunnel attention, but it was clear to see they were a devoted little family.
Kanin Evans kept his arm lovingly around his wife's post-pregnant waist. The little blue blanket that warmed their son was soft, and delicately embroidered. White roses trimmed the edge. Brigit recognized it. It was one Mary had been working on, when they'd sat having tea. It pleased Brigit to know she’d had a tiny part in making it lovely.
His name declared, the infant boy was held by his proud mother, as everyone stood witness. He was welcomed into the community with small gifts and tokens. The room was full of well-wishers, several of whom had been at Olivia’s naming day ceremony. Happiness pervaded the space. A new life was just beginning.
Catherine was beyond lovely as she stood near Vincent, her soft beige dress shimmering in the tunnel candlelight. Vincent stood solidly near both his love and Olivia, someone he'd known all her life, and placed a soft kiss on the forehead of the newest male member of the tunnel community.
"Welcome, Luke," his deep voice rumbled.
"You know I want to be on his list of available babysitters," Catherine prompted, also bestowing a welcoming kiss on the infant boy's closed fingers.
A drowsy Luke seemed oblivious to much of it.
Brigit wondered at the life the little boy would lead. How free of prejudice it might be, how filled with tenderness, yet also how circumscribed, when it came to certain opportunities. Olivia Evans was what they called "tunnel born." She'd never lived Above and had no desire to do so.
Brigit wondered what her own life would be like, surrounded by those down here who loved each other, yet cut off from so much of the world Above. Would baby Luke be fulfilled, with a life lived solely Below? His mother seemed to be just that. Something about his father seemed... a bit more enigmatic, Brigit decided.
Brigit knew her sojourn here would not, could not be of the permanent kind. Indeed, with her bags half packed, her intention to leave was cementing itself more permanently, in her mind.
But that didn't keep her from wondering what life held for people like Luke and the other children who had found this secret haven beneath the streets. It wasn't that this was a perfect place. It was that its benefits were soul-making, or at the very least, soul-feeding.
Was hers just too damaged, then, that she felt the peace here but seemed to struggle so mightily with reaping the benefits that might bring? Wasn't "peace" enough? Shouldn't she, of all people find that it was? Did "peace" have to have a benefit, an extension? Wasn't it enough that it was just "peace?"
Brigit turned over the ideas scrambling through her brain as she made her way back to her room.
She'd nearly decided to try and write some ideas about what she was feeling down when she entered her chamber. - And found it the site of chaos.
A manual typewriter sat on her small table. Which was to say that at least some pieces of it did that. The others were... everywhere. On the table, the floor, her chair. The carriage return was on her bed. Mouse was busily gathering the thin arms which had letters on their ends.
"Brigit... Hi! Brought you something. Something to write on. Told Vincent you said they write books on typewriters, now. He said “Yes, Mouse, they do,” he unselfconsciously mimicked Vincent’s lower register.
“Anyway, you said you couldn’t write, so … brought you a typewriter! A writing machine!” He was turning around, pieces of his gift in his arms. “Lots of parts!" He dropped several of those and had to bend over to collect them. "Some keys stuck. Tried to fix it. Kind of... came apart," he looked at the bedlam scattered around the room as if he only just realized it for the first time.
"Accident," he explained. "Fixing a bent key. Making it good, though. Better than good! Better than better!"
Brigit laughed. There was just nothing else to do. She'd said she was having trouble writing, so here was Mouse, offering to fix that the only way he knew how: By offering her a "writing machine." For him, it had nothing to do with inspiration. It had to do with whether or not she had the tool she needed, for the job.
It would have been a little sad if he hadn’t been chasing a spool of typewriter ribbon across her rug. Which was to say it would have been sad if it hadn’t been just plain funny.
She covered her mouth with a polite hand, and tried to tame her mirth into manageability. She couldn't help but smile at his enthusiasm, even as she came in and tried to carefully move some of the mess without losing any of the pieces.
He scooped up the errant part. "Thought it would be easy. Bring it here. Fix the bent piece. Leave..."
"It looks like one thing led to another," she still grinned, noting how disassembled the entire thing was.
"It's okay! Most of it’s dirty! Needs cleaning anyway! Needs fixing!" He smiled as he set down his load on her dresser and began immediately wiping down some of the keys with a dust cloth.
"Want to help?" he asked hopefully, settling some of the newly cleaned letters in the bowl she'd been using to wash her face in.
She couldn't help but laugh at him, again. "So you started a mess you canna finish and now you're wanting my help?" Her humor was good natured, and Mouse sensed that. "Are you certain you aren't straight from Derry, Mouse?"
Mouse shrugged at that. "Don't know. Could be. Do you have a box? Might help to keep the parts together."
She picked up a wooden tray they'd delivered her lunch on and took two apples out of a bowl she used for fruit. "Will these do?" she asked.
"Okay good! Okay, fine!" He began settling parts and pieces into the containers she offered.
Brigit eyed the old typewriter frame, a metal dinosaur of an Underwood that was old even when the sixties were young. Her IBM Selectric was much faster.
"I bet you have a history," she told the steel skeleton. "Maybe you were on a reporter's desk, or some poor secretary's, somewhere."
"Why 'poor?'" Mouse asked. A secretary was someone in the world Above who had a job. Jobs paid money. Calling someone with a job "poor" made no sense, to Mouse.
Brigit considered her answer. "It's a job where you're always workin' for someone else," she offered, by way of explanation.
His puzzled expression didn’t change. She could tell by the nonplussed look in his dark eyes that the answer didn't help him understand. "Catherine works for someone else. Benny delivers sandwiches for his boss. Vincent helps everyone. Mouse helps everyone. Don't most people work for someone else?" He continued to look confused. And rubbed hard at a very gummy “e” key.
Brigit considered the question as she rescued the space bar from where it teetered at the end of a chair seat.
"I'm supposing that's true," she allowed. "I just meant that a lass who's a secretary has to type a lot of dull business letters and doesn't get much of a chance to be creative, with her skills."
Mouse looked at the big machine.
"Maybe she wrote the creative in her spare time. Poetry, maybe!" he smiled. "When things rhyme!"
He was unshakably optimistic.
Or maybe she went home exhausted, and tried to marshal her strength for the next day, Brigit thought. But what she said was, "Maybe you're right." She was in too good a mood to give in to darker thoughts.
"Need to go back to my workshop. Get tools. Get machine oil. Brushes. Letters are sticky. Ink dried in. You okay?" he asked, as she moved the bowl of parts over near her small writing table. It was perilously close to falling off the edge, thanks to the frame of the large machine taking up most of the space.
"Fine as a field of clover,” she replied. “Perhaps you'd see if we can be getting us another table? A bigger one?"
"Got one. Big one! The biggest!"
Brigit looked at the fairly average-sized space in her borrowed room.
"Maybe somethin' a little smaller than 'the biggest' would be wise?" She asked it as a question, and the tunnel's resident inventor nodded his head in agreement.
"Not biggest. Next size. Okay! Okay, good! Okay, fine!" And he went all but leaping down the hallway, his amazing enthusiasm in tow.
Brigit looked around at the happy kind of bedlam that had invaded her space. Though she hadn't asked for a typewriter, and Mouse clearly didn't understand that on an old manual one barely qualified, (much less one that looked like it was in a million pieces), it was a lovely gesture. She’d told him she couldn’t write, and that the only machine a writer used was a typewriter. He’d taken things from there.
Brigit knew that she often wrote in longhand, then transcribed those words, later. It was how she’d written Sean’s story, and for that matter, everything else she’d ever published. Typing up a workable manuscript was almost the last step in story writing, rather than the first. Mouse didn't understand that, either.
Still, he'd tried hard to do something kind.
She plucked the spool of typewriter ribbon out of the bowl where Mouse had dropped it. Whatever had been typed on it before still showed, a little, in the parade of letters which had left impressions on the black surface.
"What might we do with you?" Brigit said to the dark ribbon, as she set it on the table. He’d had to nudge her journal and boxed pen aside, to make room for the “writing machine.” Flipping open the book of days, she found she very much liked the picture of the dog that stared back at her. He looked like a faithful friend.
She thought of the naming day ceremony, and then of Mouse, as she clicked the ballpoint and wrote inside it.
It looked like she had a lot to do. And like she’d no longer be leaving, so soon.
"And so he brought you a typewriter?" Father asked.
"Pieces of one, at this point. He swears it was found and not stolen. I gather that's been a problem, in the past?" Brigit asked the tunnel progenitor, the next morning.
"He's had his moments," Father allowed, pouring tea. They'd been enjoying a very pleasant rummage through his selection of poetry as they talked, and then had stopped for the drink.
"The machine looks ancient. Someone probably threw it away after Christmas. Perhaps they got a new one," Brigit surmised.
"How old do you think it is?" Jacob asked, sipping from a china cup.
"If I drop it on me foot I'll be needing your cane, if not crutches. It reminds me of something from the forties," Brigit returned, adding cream.
"I'm sure he came by it honestly. Though … I'll speak to him about making a mess in your chambers, if you like." Jacob offered.
"Och no, and don't even mention it. He was tryin' to do somethin' sweet." Brigit waved away the suggestion as she sipped her own drink. This was relaxing. This sense of just... being with someone with no expectations placed upon her. Someone who was comfortable in their own skin. Jacob was a kind man. A thorny one, sometimes, but a kind one. A knowledgeable one. His personality imbued his space, just as Vincent's imbued his.
And Mouse his, she tacked on, mentally. The image of him setting up the work table last night stayed with her. He’d chattered as he worked, reassuring her that he had things well in hand, and that when they were done, she’d have something she prized.
He’s so sweet, she thought again.
Though Brigit had had many friends be concerned for her safety, and others even willing to risk their life to keep her alive, she belatedly realized that it had been a long time since someone she barely knew had done something "sweet" for her. Someone not dazzled by her celebrity or hoping for an autograph. She found liked the sensation almost … nostalgic, considering.
"Well. He promised to help Cullen repair a lathe. When he's done, I'm sure he'll..."
"All done! Ready, Brigit!" Mouse said, bounding into the space with the same awkward enthusiasm that seemed to follow him everywhere. His hair had a few curlicues of wood shavings in it, and there was sawdust on his jacket.
"Did you finish helping Cullen?" Father asked, offering Mouse his choice from a plate of cookies.
"Done. Finished. Better than better, now. Made it faster." Brigit could tell from the look Jacob gave Mouse that the elder wasn't sure if that was a good thing.
Mouse patted down his copious front pockets until he felt what he was looking for. "Here," Mouse interrupted Jacob's misgivings. "Cullen said, 'for you.'" He produced a small, newly turned chess piece from his breast pocket. It was a pawn.
"Said the other ones need carved. But this was easy."
Jacob held the smooth wood between his gloved fingers. His small smile let Brigit know he was touched, by the gesture. "This is lovely, Mouse. Please tell Cullen I said ‘thank you.’"
"Can't. Need to help Brigit. Tell him later?" Mouse asked, taking a molasses cookie. They were Brigit's mother's recipe. She’d spent part of the morning in William’s kitchen, showing him how.
Jacob waved Mouse off. "Yes, not now, later. Oh, and Mouse, perhaps next time, you'll ask permission before you --"
"Ah-ah, not a bit of that," Brigit said, rising. She'd asked Jacob not to chide Mouse for destroying part of her living space, and she meant it.
"Do you think the pieces have soaked long enough?" she asked the teenage boy who was now brushing crumbs off the front of his jacket and onto Father’s floor.
"Should be. Should check. Washed to make clean. Alcohol to take off old grease. Oil to make parts move. Lots of parts, on a typewriter." He frowned at the last.
"Yes. There are lots of parts on a typewriter," Jacob conceded, keeping just a bit of censure in his voice. Brigit gave him an indulgent smile and a small shake of her head.
"Perhaps working on one will keep you out of trouble," Jacob stated, but not unkindly.
"Maybe." Mouse made no promises on that score, as Brigit pushed in her chair.
"Shall we go and try to get at least some of that great jigsaw back together?" Brigit felt game to try, as Mouse's non-comital reply to Jacob warmed her heart. There was more than one rebel in the tunnels, then. More than two, counting Vincent. And her.
"Let's go!" Mouse bounded out of Jacob's chamber with the same level of enthusiasm with which he'd entered it.
There were clean, ragged towels laid out all along the top of the trestle style table he'd had brought in. Nearly every available inch was covered with metal parts. It amazed Brigit that a machine that size could hold so much, and it made her appreciate its builders, anew.
Mouse had literally stripped the machine down to the frame. A fresh coat of black paint still gave off a lacquer smell.
"Got to start from the ground up. Like a building! Only better!" he enthused, giving the spacebar a wipe from a cloth.
"The frame. ‘Tis not dry yet?" Brigit asked.
"Doesn't need to be. Need to make sure all the letters are straight. Bent the right way. Whatever."
She went to where every letter arm was laid out on a towel, the different 'bend' of the old fashioned keys making a delightfully mixed-up jumble of metal. Some of them were still soaking in a teacup filled with something that smelled like rubbing alcohol. Years of dried ink and old grease were coming off the metal letters.
"Not in ABC order. Vincent taught me ABC's," Mouse said, picking up a key.
"Did he?" Brigit asked, looking at the number 7. Seven was supposed to be a lucky number. But this one had a spot of rust in the middle of the rod. Mouse took it from her and scoured it off with a steel wool pad.
"Mm. Just a little rust. Not bad. Still good," Mouse said, not answering her question. She picked up her own steel wool pad and imitated his efforts.
"Did you like it when Vincent taught you the alphabet, Mouse?" Brigit asked, prompting him. Mouse simply shrugged his adolescent shoulders. "Vincent liked. I use it, some."
To Brigit, the notion that there was a person who didn't burn to read, as a child, was utterly foreign to her own experience, not to mention the experience of most children. Yet she could see by the look in Mouse's eyes that this was the case.
"Do you mean to tell me you learned how to read so you could ... please Vincent?" Her blue eyes grew wide. That would be a tremendous effort for someone who thought they didn't need it. Even if Mouse was wrong about that.
Again, the shoulders shrugged. He moved down the row of letters, inspecting each one carefully, talking as he worked.
"Vincent is my friend. Said it was important. Said reading was good. He'd be lost without Mouse."
I just bet he would be, she thought.
Mouse set two of the keys side by side to make sure the angle on the arms was exactly the same. They 'nested' perfectly.
Brigit watched as Mouse arranged some of his precious tools and then began moving certain parts of what now resembled a mechanical jigsaw puzzle around the table. There was an order to his chaotic mind, and watching him work confirmed it.
With no diagram or instruction manual, he was planning how to get the huge contraption back together. He checked sizes and compared lengths. Muttered to himself and set certain parts together without screwing them in. Matched screws to what they would be used for. Cut wire.
Brigit realized that even if he'd been unable to count, he could still have practiced his art, using one-to-one correspondence. If he didn't have the right size screwdriver, he simply fitted the heads of those up or downward, until he got the right fit. Though he often ran or walked with an awkward gait, he was possessed of incredibly nimble fingers, and a quick mind. She appreciated him anew, as he worked.
"How long have you been like this, Mouse?" Brigit asked.
He looked up from where he was affixing the paper guide to the roller.
"Like this? Since breakfast," he stated truthfully, misunderstanding her question. He thought she'd been asking about what he wore, or perhaps how long he'd been busy.
"No, no, I mean, possessed of this wonderful talent. How long?" she asked. For someone Vincent declared had no patience for reading, he seemed to have an unlimited supply of it, for working with machines and tools.
Again, the shoulders lifted. "Always," he tightened a tiny screw. "See a thing... take it apart. Put it back together. Figure how it works..." He blew on the results of his efforts, and lifted the metal paper guide up and down, on the carriage. It made a happy, clacking sound. Mouse couldn't help but smile his delight as he showed it to her.
Brigit smiled in return.
"But you stopped to learn to read, because it was a thing Vincent wanted," she nudged.
"Vincent... Father. Letters … like parts. Parts of words. Just have to know which ones to use. Like tools."
Ah, so that's how he'd done it. He'd viewed the printed page as a "machine" on paper. One that needed to be taken apart and put back together again. Yes, letters worked like machine parts. And letters were tools. Words were tools. Tools Brigit used, when she could.
He put down the carriage and picked up the return arm. It was badly bent and would need fixing. She put a staying hand over his.
"Mouse... what do you do when your talent leaves you? When the ideas... dry up? When you feel like you lost something?" she asked.
Mouse's deep eyes held hers. She thought perhaps he wouldn't understand her question, and in truth, she barely understood, herself. She had written an incredibly important novel, in 300 Days. She'd written a touching novella about Sean, after that. Most people never enjoyed her level of success. Yet she knew that success felt hollow, now that she'd lost her creative joy.
It still felt like something was missing, somehow, inside her. Something important.
“What did you lose?" he asked, brandishing a tiny Phillips head screwdriver.
My talent. My ability to imagine. My joy, at making a children's story come to life.
Vincent's words on the night they met, came back to her. There is no hate in you. Only grief.
"I'm not sure,” she answered. “My ability to be happy, I think," she replied.
Mouse looked at the screwdriver, certain that wouldn't help with that. Still, he pondered it.
"If I lose a screwdriver..." he puzzled through her problem, "Find another one. Or use a butter knife. Or a dime. Something else. Something that turns it. Something that works."
Brigit had no idea how that pertained to her situation, but she could see the virtue in how flexible his thinking was.
"What makes you happy?" he asked, back on point.
"Stoppin’ the war in Ireland. Other than that … writing children's stories. Or fantasies." She said it with no hesitation whatsoever, and though that didn’t exactly surprise her, it did.
In the publishing world, there were people of all stripes. Children’s books, while well regarded, were not given the weighty consideration of a well-written novel or of a politically weighty tome. In some ways, she’d “graduated into the big leagues” with 300 Days. Earned a following and a place on the global stage, a place where an important debate was taking place.
Yet, wanting to take herself back to writing things that fed her heart and soul was a comparatively new yearning, but it was one that had begun to settle inside her with a will. In some ways, this was not a thing she was supposed to want. But in other ways, it was a thing she could not help wanting.
People from her homeland would call her daft, and say she’d “turned her back on the cause.” Her publisher would sense millions, slipping away. “Romeo and Juliet with Irish accents” was set to make a fortune for many people, not the least of whom was Brigit.
Children’s stories were far less lucrative. No one had come beating down her door asking for an interview after she’d published “Owl Woman and Other Fables.” It was part of why so few copies existed.
It was something she'd only begun to realize, more recently. Since the rare volume had been put back in her hands, to be precise, or maybe even sooner. Maybe the night she'd met Catherine, and they'd talked of it.
The one thing she wanted to do was perhaps the one thing the world insisted she shouldn’t, and possibly couldn’t, anymore.
"Write children's stories, then." Mouse said simply, interrupting her reverie.
If only it were that simple. But she'd seen so much, endured so much. Did this boy not understand?
Brigit realized he didn’t. And couldn’t. The notion of sending a pigtailed child skipping down the road and into some fantasy of an adventure seemed ludicrous, in the face of what was happening in her homeland. She didn’t even have an idea for a story. She barely had an idea for the tone she wanted.
"What if I can't?" she asked.
His dark gaze held hers, again.
"Did Father tell you you can't?" The confusion was in his eyes. "Father tells me I can't, sometimes. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes... do it anyway," he advised.
Brigit couldn't help but smile at his notion that she couldn't do something because she'd been forbidden to.
"No, Mouse. Never mind, 'tis unimportant. No, Father didn't forbid it."
"Oh. Vincent, then?” he asked. Then he answered his own question. “Vincent wouldn't. He likes reading your stories,” Mouse said with a knowing smile. “Seen him. Seen him read them to Catherine. Likes them."
No, of course Vincent wouldn't forbid her to write.
"No, no. It wasn't Vincent. Just forget--"
He'd set the carriage return down to ask it, the question so simple for him that he thought it must have an easy answer.
Brigit mulled it from his perspective. Who, indeed?
"No one," she said honestly. "No one forbade it. I think... I think I forbade it. I think I didn't want to allow meself to be happy, after all of it. After Ian. After... more." She puzzled through it, trying to see. “If I do this, if I try … There are people who’ll say I turned my back on them. That I owe them.”
“Oh. Owed them. Because you took something? Need to give it back?” That was a thing Mouse understood. Father’s lectures on the subject had been severe.
Brigit blinked her blue eyes at him. No. No, she didn’t owe anyone. If anything, she’d been taken from. Terribly.
She shook her head, a slow kind of realization dawning. “No. No, I don’t owe anyone. If anything … I was taken from.”
“Stolen?” Mouse asked, a little alarmed. He knew that word. Knew it was bad, even though he didn’t always understand it.
“Yes, but … not like you mean. Well, maybe exactly like you mean, who can say?” Now Brigit sounded like she was confusing herself. “There are people who will say I’m forgetting Ian, forgetting me Da. That trying to make fantasy stories again isn’t … isn’t right for me.”
“But you said it made you happy.”
Her expression softened.
“Aye. Aye, that it did.”
“Ian … your Da.” He said it the way she had. “They wouldn’t want you to be happy? Because Mouse wants Brigit to be happy. And Vincent, Vincent is my friend, I know he wants Brigit to be happy. And Catherine is Vincent’s friend. And…”
Brigit raised her hand. Yes. Ian, above anything else, would have wanted her to be happy. One martyr in the family was enough. Two, counting Sean, and she knew there were those who saw him that way.
Her smile was slow in coming. But it was a steady light.
“Yes. Yes, they would want me to be happy. I think I just have to learn how, again. Doesna that sound silly?”
Mouse gave her a shrugging kind of nod to agree that it did, as he watched her blue eyes search the jumble of letters and numbers.
"Vincent said book writers use a typewriter. You said, too. Maybe your story is in there?" He eyed the pile with the same interest she did, as if he too were looking for a hint that there was a marvelous adventure to be had, among the pieces.
Brigit realized that for him, there probably was, given just that it was a machine in pieces.
Brigit considered the idea. "I think I need to do this, to help you. Even more than I ever thought I did. Mouse... will you teach me what you're doing? Talk to me while you do it?"
"Talk? Mouse always talks. Talks to self. Talks to other people. Talks to Arthur. Didn't used to talk. Didn't used to need to." He picked up the carriage return arm, again.
"Let me guess. Another thing Vincent prompted you to do?" she asked.
The tinker nodded. "Yep. Need a hammer. This is bent." He held the part out to her.
Yes. Yes it was. And yes he did. Brigit picked up one of the heavier mallets.
"Not that one, too big! Break it! That one..." he pointed to a much smaller brass hammer.
"Now. Wrap it in cloth. Set it on a straight edge... Don't want to hit metal on metal. Dent it. Make it weak. Don't want to break. Just bend back. See?" He showed her the way and put the hammer in her hand.
"You do it. Hit,” he instructed.
Brigit looked at the cloth wrapped bar of metal warily. "What if I hit it too hard?" she asked, afraid of doing more damage.
"Start slow. Then... more. Takes patience. Takes time. Brigit can learn. Do it."
An hour later, they'd made considerable progress. The typewriter sat flipped upside-down so Mouse could inspect the series of metal rows that held the keys in place. Some of them, he declared, were a little bent, or rusted, and would have to come off and be repaired. Others were fine, and could stay where they were. It was another disassembling process, and mindful of her request, Mouse talked out loud, all the way through it.
"A is bent. A is bent. A, a, a. Just a little. Pliers might fix. Bend it left... no ... right. Just a little. There. Q is okay. P … P… Peppermint, pets. Pliers. Pliers starts with ‘P…’”
It was a marvelous stream of consciousness ride, and Brigit sailed along with him, feeling like a passenger on a raft, floating down a river to an unknown destination.
“Z is okay. Nobody uses Z..."
"The Z key doesna get used all that much," Brigit agreed, realizing that the damaged keys were most likely the keys struck most often, while typing. She looked at the S key. Yep. Bent. Or at least worn.
"A zebra would," Mouse commented.
She laughed outright. "Yes. I suppose a zebra would. Every time he typed his bloody name," Brigit chuckled some more.
"Zoo. Zookeeper." Mouse supplied.
"Zero, but I suppose you could always use the number key, for that," Brigit tacked on, playing along with him. Playing. She was playing. A made up game with a most unlikely playmate, for a companion.
"This one?" he asked holding up the number key for "0." his open smile was contagious.
"Sure, but how are you knowin' it's not a letter "O" instead? she asked.
He looked at his offering. "No lower case on the bottom," he was proud of the deduction, though he didn't know why that was giggle-worthy, from Brigit.
"I'll keep that in mind, when I'm sorting the 1 from the L," she responded.
“Turn the ‘d’ upside down and you’ll have a ‘p.’” he said, showing her.
“And ‘p’ is for ‘pliers,’” she answered.
“Better than good,” he replied, nonsensically.
She gave him a soft smile. She was playing. Playing, while she worked. And felt herself learning to be happy, again.
A long time later, Brigit laid on her bed, her feet perched atop the patchwork quilt which had seen many hours, spent with a needle and thread. Unlike Vincent, she often wrote in bed, rather than at a table, liking the comfort of soft pillows, and the ability to stretch her lovely legs.
Though it had taken the two of them all day, the repaired Underwood sat on the trestle table, a stack of fresh paper, beside it.
If she was going to use a refurbished “writing machine,” she'd need something decent to go through it, she determined.
She opened the spiral notebook and stared at the expanse of white, in front of her, bisected by thin lines.
It’s now or never, the white box seemed to say to her.
"Maybe it's time for you to come out," she said to the Conway-Stewart pen. Getting up to cross the room, she removed it from its resting place and uncapped the end. A 14 karat gold nib did indeed gleam back at her.
"You were a prize, once," she said to it, climbing back on top of the well-padded quilts. She pressed the nib down on the paper to make the ink flow.
Once Upon A Time,
It wrote smoothly, and well. Brigit stopped, and stared at the paper. Once upon a time... what?
Once Upon A Time, because all the best stories
"Bloody hell. Can I not even begin, properly?"
No. No, she couldn't write that. Because she'd already written it, once. It was the beginning for Owl Woman. She scratched a line through the words after the comma and sat, gripping the barrel of the pen hard, between her fingers. She didn't write, but the thoughts came hard and fast. But they were not the thoughts she wanted.
Once Upon A Time I was a wife. Once upon a time I was a daughter whose father hated me for the choice I made. Once upon a time I heard a car explode, and my husband was in it. Once upon a time all the widows in Derry made a parade through the street and I was in their number. Once upon a time there were nights with no gunfire, but now...
Brigit capped the pen and closed the spiral notebook.
Something was still wrong. The open Book of Days was no help.
Vincent found her sitting by the mirror pool, her expression strangely blank.
“Am I intruding?” Vincent asked, not wanting to do so.
“Och, no. Truth and all, I’m not even sure why I’m here. Father showed me this place.”
Vincent entered, trying to sense her mood. She felt … spent, for lack of a better word. If the sense of struggle he’d detected in her was gone, so was the sense of urgency. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, one way or the other.
“Mouse says the mess he made of your room is repaired. That a museum piece of a typewriter now sits on your table,” he smiled. “He says you helped.” Vincent sat on the stones, beside her. She hadn’t built a fire. Not burning a letter, then.
“Aye, ‘tis probably older than most of us. But ‘tis all back together, and not a part to spare. Or at least, not a part we needed, according to Mouse.” Her grin was a soft one, and he answered it, in kind.
After a few moments…“Brigit, if you don’t mind my asking, why 300 Days?”
“What?” Brigit looked confused.
“The title. Why 300 Days?”
She shrugged as if the answer was obvious, which it was. “We had so little time. Less than a year. That was part of the tragedy of it.”
“And your Father’s book?”
“Days Spent With the Dying?”
“It has a longer title, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” she acknowledged, “Less Than Three Score - Days Spent With the Dying. It… linked it to 300 Days. I wanted it to,” she said.
Vincent nodded his understanding.
“Time is … important to you then, yes?”
Brigit tipped her head to one side, in a gesture vaguely reminiscent of her host. “I suppose it is. We all just want it to stop. But the troubles have been consuming Ireland for years, V—“
He raised a large hand. “I know they have. And that they pain your heart, deeply, as they would any thinking, feeling person. Time seems like your enemy in both places, then. The war has been a long one. And in your own life, sorrows run long, but joy is short lived. Is that the weight your heart carries?” he asked.
The page from Mary’s Book of Days now made an awful kind of sense. “’Time is a good companion and a terrible master,’” she quoted, feeling the magic of the book reach through to her, yet again. “The one bears an outstretched hand. The other, a whip. Oh, Vincent.” Realization dawned, and she struggled to rise quickly. He rose as well, and held his hand out to steady her.
He held his hand out. His gloved hand. He always held his hand out. Out to her. Out to everyone. He’d held it out when she’d descended the ladder, had held it out to Catherine and Baby Luke, at his naming ceremony. He helped the children as he’d helped Father, and everyone else in his world.
All the while insisting she just needed to take her time, while she was here. Be less impatient with herself. Mouse’s words echoed, as he also held his hand out.
Takes time. You can do it.
“Time is a better companion than a master. Time is… 300 Days. Oh, Vincent!” She reached up and kissed him soundly on the cheek.
“Do you know there’s magic in this place? And that a Book of Days isn’t really just a book about a day, but about so much more? That ‘Once Upon A Time’ isn’t really about time? It’s about … possibility?” she said, holding his blue eyes with hers. She was growing more excited.
His eyes looked left and right a little, then settled. His nod was a sweet reassurance. “I’m sure of it,” he answered steadily.
“Mary’s book was a lovely gift, and it’s like every page has been tryin’ to speak to me. Time. It stands still here, in some ways, doesn’t it? Lets you gather your strength. Lets you mark off one day at a time until you have of them what you need. Lets you feel like there’s plenty of … time, like you have all you can use, to find what you’re looking for.”
“It does that. Sometimes.” Vincent stated, understanding.
“All this time, I thought I was fighting me sorrows, and me losses. The lack of inspiration. Vincent… what if what I was fighting was … time? That sensation of never having enough, of the joy bein’ cut short, of the sorrow bein’ all that’s left, behind? I think I believed that!” she told him.
She began backing away toward the exit of the room.
“You don’t believe it, now?” He asked.
She looked at the mirror pool, and realized that Sean’s recent passing wasn’t weighing down her heart, and Ian’s loss wasn’t owning her soul. “I’m not sure what I believe. I think… I think that’s the blessing of it. That I get to be unsure, again. Unsure like…” She thought of Luke. “… like a newborn babe, or a new idea!” Her mind went rapid fire through the book on her table, and the wisdom it had guided her toward.
“I think… I think I believe that time is a better companion than it is a master, and it’s all right to not have all the answers, to wonder what something is, and… and you’re not needin’ nine lives, if your one is full of meaning, and a true friend is worth more than silver or gold, and … I can learn all I’m needin’ to if I’ll but be willing to take my time and let meself be shown, and, and kindness, Vincent, kindness is a balm for almost every hurt and… and love, once it’s taught to you can’t be untaught.” A tear streaked down her cheek, but it wasn’t one of sorrow. This felt more like… relief.
Her words were taking on a whispered quality. “And that you can’t not feel it, and it changes you. It changes your life… forever.”
She continued backing away, and a subtle song began singing, inside her chest. Five beats, in a familiar measure.
Once Upon A Time… Once Upon a Time…
She turned to go, and he could feel the sense of urgency moving inside her. Something good was stirring. Something alive. She was excited about it. Something new, inside her mind. A mind that felt, in some way, as if it were just now waking up, after a long sleep.
“I have to go. I have… I have something to do, Vincent.” She darted through the doorway, then turned back, quickly. “Thank you!” she tacked on, then raced away again.
Vincent chuckled to himself, softly. “You are most welcome,” Vincent told the empty room.
Brigit picked up the book from where she'd left it and uncapped the lid on the pen again. The ink was as blue as the writing on the front of the box.
Once upon a time,
She stared a moment at the words.
Once upon a time, in the city of New York, there lived a lion faced prince, who loved a lovely princess. The princess lived in a high tower, and though much kept them apart, both felt that their love was deep, and true.
Brigit paused. This was not a story she could write. But the story of Vincent and Catherine was now dancing in her brain, and she could feel the sentences wanting to fly out.
On Samhain night, there was a great costume ball
She paused, staring at the wall, the images of the night she'd meant Vincent and Catherine swirling in her head. She could envision the possibilities for this story, even begun as briefly as it was. All the potential for it. All the promise.
She planned the story to take a far different tack than the one it actually had. This was not "biography," then, or at least it was not solely that. It was all the potential for good that watching Catherine and Vincent had inspired in her. All the good so many here had inspired in her. And in each other.
Omitting the violence, she could feel herself planning a fairy story, where the lion prince took his fair lady for a long walk through the magic of Samhain night, showing her before the dawn came that he was truly, deeply in love with her. They'd have obstacles to overcome, of course. All couples did. Perhaps it was a story about a crisis of faith, then. Perhaps they were both a little afraid to believe…
Brigit tapped the pen on the paper. Perhaps that was very much how Vincent and Catherine's story had gone, she smiled to herself. She didn't know. She'd been with Sean at the time she’d released Catherine to the Samhain night.
But as story beginnings went, this was a marvelous one, she thought, right before regret and good sense overtook her.
And of course, she couldn't write it.
No! She felt the loss immediately, and began to grapple with it.
Perhaps I could, she mused. Perhaps I could change "New York" for Paris, or London, or Belfast. Perhaps the lion could be changed for a wolf, or a bear…
And the minute she started to think of it, she could feel her inspiration begin to ebb.
No. No, it had to be a man with the face of a lion. One who looked like he'd ridden with Cu'Chulainn or sailed with Theseus. And it had to be New York. New York is a character all its own, she thought.
Brigit looked at the small beginning, so incredibly ripe with possibility. For the first time in months (Years? Has it really been years?) she felt as if she could write a children's story, again. One for children of all ages. One full of love, and fantasy. Wisdom and healing. Like the story of Owl Woman, one with the power to change your life, yet a different story from Owl Woman's, a different tale altogether ...
Was it the prince who changed his ways? Brigit wondered, even as she knew she could go no further with her tale. Or was it the princess? Both of them together? Brigit didn't know. But her imagination longed to explore the story, longed to put it on a page and make it "solid," and "real," in her mind.
But of course, she couldn't. She could never expose her friends down here, by telling their story, even as a thinly disguised allegory. It could bring them danger.
Her books now had a bad habit of hitting the best seller lists. The notion of a group of people living below the streets of New York would attract attention no one here wanted, and certainly didn't deserve.
She set down the pen, but immediately wanted to pick it back up again. The Irishwoman clenched an empty, impotent fist.
"No. No, this is not a thing I can do." She knew it wasn’t.
And that was the problem. She could feel the story singing, inside her, unfurling Owl Woman-like wings, wanting to be told. She could do it. She could create the story. It would just be wrong, to do it.
"Damn it!" she swore, swinging her legs down from the bed.
"Brigit mad?" It was Mouse's voice. And now was not at a good time.
"Aye. Brigit is mad. Furious as a banshee and for not a good reason," she snapped, wishing him gone. She wanted to sulk in peace, before she tore the pages out and threw them into the brazier. It wasn't fair. The urge to create was finally singing in her veins and...
"Brigit mad. Typewriter no good?" He noticed the stack of virgin paper still sitting by the machine they'd both labored to put together.
"Typewriter's fine. Better than fine..." she drew in a deep breath. "’Tis fine, Mouse," she said, correcting her own English. She was even starting to talk like him.
"I'm mad at meself and not good company at the moment," she stated, hoping he'd take the hint.
"Still can't write?" he asked, coming into the room. He set a spare typewriter ribbon on her table. Lord only knew where he'd gotten it from.
"Oh, I can write. I can write, all right," she said, cutting the air with her hand. She knew her words probably sounded odd to him, considering. "It's just that I shouldn't."
Mouse came in and eyed the closed notebook.
"Thought you said you wanted to. Thought you said not writing made you sad."
She dug her fingers into her wavy hair.
"Writing makes me sad, because it's about all the troubles. Not writing makes me sad, because I want to write for children again, children and adults, but I can't. That is, I shouldn't."
His hand reached over for her book but she reached the book first, and tugged it farther away, then tucked it under a pillow, some, for emphasis.
"Typin' is the last step. I write it out in longhand, first. Easier to move things around, make changes. Once it's ready, I type up the manuscript, send it off to me agent. From there, it goes to an editor. Then a publisher."
"The man who turns the paper into a book. The illustrations are added. The cover. ‘Tis why I couldn't come down right after Sean died. I'd written the story in notebooks, at the hospital. But had to type it up and send it off. It felt important to do it, at the time. So I did."
Mouse nodded. "Mouse knows all about important. Do this. Go there. Make this. Make that." He dug into his breast pocket and pulled out a tiny figure made of bits of leftover metal pieces. "Made that. For you," he said, handing it to her.
Brigit took the tiny figure out of his hand, and held it in her palm. The body looked as if it had begun life as a large paper clip. Duct tape held spindly arms to the twisted frame. A ball bearing head tilted to one side, looking quizzical. Brigit couldn't help but smile. He looked very much as if he had something to say. The impression of a foil baseball cap was on his head.
A baseball cap. Kristopher. Kristopher who had all but predicted she would come here.
"Mouse... do you think the world takes away our beauties and our certainties?" She had no idea why she was asking the question of Mouse, of all people. But the baseball cap reminded her of meeting Kristopher in the hospital chapel, and of the odd conversation they'd had.
Still, as she predicted, Mouse had no clear idea what she meant.
"Don't know. See something, fix it. Need something, make it."
"It must be nice to have life be so simple," she said, realizing the words could be taken as an insult. She was on a streak for that, apparently.
"Brigit can't do something simple?" Mouse asked. She almost laughed that he'd zinged her right back, but she wasn't in the mood for laughter. She was frustrated.
"Sounds daft, doesn't it?" she asked.
"Stupid. I was just doing something stupid when you came in, as a matter of fact." She tugged the notebook back out, and flipped open to the page she’d been writing on, to show him.
"Can't read it," he said.
"But... but Vincent says you can read. You just don't like to," she offered him the page again, so he could castigate her for her sin of writing about Vincent, no matter how thinly disguised.
"Can only read print. Not fancy writing. Not too good, anyway."
Oh. Oh, he couldn't read cursive writing. At least not well.
"I had a wonderful urge to write. Stronger than I ever remember. The strongest since Owl Woman. I even got the first page started, and I can feel a dozen more, wanting to come, behind it."
Mouse eyed her flowing script. "Okay, good. So?"
"I can't write this story, Mouse,” she said, shaking her head. “It's about Vincent and Catherine. There's no way I can do this. No way I could ever show it to anyone."
Mouse cocked his head to one side.
"Could show it to Mouse. Could show it to Vincent and Catherine," he pointed out.
"Well, yes, but..." She stopped. Then Brigit's blue eyes flew open wide.
"You mean... you mean write it but never publish it?" Happiness tugged. Then it began to bubble up, inside her.
"Keep secret. Mouse keeps secrets all the time."
A secret. A wonderful secret. A secret book about a secret world. A secret to change your life forever, to heal your soul, to direct your fate…
"Saints and angels, you're brilliant!" She threw up her arms. It was the perfect solution. Here was the story that was clawing to break free of the confines inside her lively mind, and she was beating it back, not realizing it never need be sent to a publisher.
This did not need to be put into book form. It just needed to be born. She could write the story. She could even give it as a gift to Vincent and Catherine, to the entire tunnel community. She could just never publish it, formally.
"I could ask Elizabeth to illustrate it!" she realized, hands clapping in front of her. She could. A thing she couldn't have done, before, since Elizabeth's paintings could not appear in any other books but one like this. A "newly discovered artist" would cause its own problems, in the publishing world Above. But this way...
"Ohhhh, you're brilliant.” The lively light of creativity positively shone in Brigit’s blue eyes. “It could all be done, and put between the covers of a big, blank journal. Type the pages...Or have a cover of wood, even! Cullen! We could get Cullen to do that!" Her delighted mind was off and flying, reveling in all the possibilities.
Brigit was imagining not just for herself, but for others, as well.
Mouse had no idea what “brilliant” thing he'd just said. But his friend was clearly elated.
Brigit began to recite a story that was beginning to write itself on her heart.
"Once upon a time, in the city of New York, there lived a noble prince with the face of a lion.” Her fingers spread wide, before her, as she painted the scene, with her words. “And his dearest, most trusted friend," she said delightedly, giving Mouse a huge hug and a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Vincent's not a prince."
"And the friend was a marvelous, marvelous inventor," she ignored his denial. "And everything he made was touched with magic. And... and let me think, now... something… something he makes helps the prince woo his lady love."
Her smile could not contain itself "Oh! It will be marvelous! And he lives in this special kingdom …” Her open arms encompassed the Tunnel community, “… where there's aught but what is right and fair, and the prince's friend is a … a wizard! But doesn't know it!" Her glee was sun-eclipsing, even though Mouse didn't understand all of her rapid-fire babble.
"Sounds … okay." Mouse wasn't sure he was all that impressed. After all, there were no tools in her story, so far. But Brigit was his friend, and she'd clearly been in need of some sort of encouragement.
"It sounds like you, you turnip!" Brigit's hug nearly tackled him, again.
"Me?" Mouse asked.
"You. This wonderful wizard who makes magic things out of what other people cast aside. Imbues them with happiness. With magic. With... love," she looked at the tiny metal figure still clutched in her hand, and then at the typewriter, on the table.
"I do that?" he asked, amazed.
"You certainly do. Every day. Oh, Mouse! How can I thank you?"
He had no idea. But it seemed that step one of thanking him consisted of throwing him out. She was suddenly guiding him toward the doorway. Which was fine with Mouse. He had other things he needed to do. Other gizmos that needed to be fixed.
"Out with you, now. Out! I have to get back to it. Get the ideas down while they're still fresh!" She shooed him out the door, then ran back to the rumpled bed, literally launching herself with a running jump at the covers.
"You'd best keep up," she told the pen, as she quickly jotted down an outline and then turned back to the beginning page. She could feel the creative juices flowing. The sensation of her writer's muse whispering in her ear, giving her more ideas as she went.
Not the heavy feeling of Sean's story, not the catharsis that came from creations like that, or the solemn tribute and call to peace that had been 300 Days. A different feeling. A better feeling. Something lighter. Something airier. Something... joyful. Something that could scale a building… and maybe drop soundlessly, onto a balcony.
Words began to fly. Out of her head. Out of her heart. Her racing hand could barely keep pace with her thoughts.
Once upon a time, in the city of New York, there lived a lion faced prince, who loved a princess. The princess lived in a high tower, and though much kept them apart, both swore that their love was true.
On Samhain night there was a great costume ball... one that only the nobility attended. But it was a ball for only those who lived Above in the great kingdom, not for those who lived below its golden streets.
The Lion prince paced his lair, knowing he wanted to go Above.
Now the prince was a special one, in that for all his years, no fair lady from his kingdom had ever captured his heart. And even as he knew the beautiful princess from Above could not be his, his heart would accept no other.
"I'll need to ask Elizabeth to paint me a fine picture of Vincent, one where he looks out over the park, perhaps, or simply stands on a bridge." she paused to make a note in the back of the notebook and then continued on.
The people in the prince's kingdom were aware of the direction his heart had taken, and in truth, some were more than wary. What if his great heart broke? What if the woman he loved so deeply rejected him, or decided to live a different life? What if it was all impossible?
Brigit could feel the same tone and tenor that had guided Owl Woman to success, rising, inside her. If that simple tale had been about finding your inner strength, this one was about the transformative power of love, and how it often came when it was least expected, or even least wise. How it spread out to others, like ripples on a mirror pool. How it affected more than you thought it would, or could.
She could see her and Ian in it. She could see Vincent and Catherine in it. She could see fears overcome, and the glory of daring to dream, even against great odds. She could see the tunnel community in it, from infant Luke to septuagenarian Elizabeth, everyone helping, everyone working, every one transformed by what they saw, as it transpired.
For love, for all its beauty, is not a thing that just happens just between two people. Sometimes it is a thing shared by many, and helped by many, and the prince, in his solitary nature, did not know this...
Page after page of story and dialogue flew out of the pen, and indeed, at times, the old writing instrument seemed not only to "keep up with her," but to fly on as if it had a life of its own, helping her to capture the words she wanted.
Brigit wrote, made notes for illustrations, scribbled down ideas as they came, and flew through the rest of the evening and into the night, disdaining supper, barely bothering to acknowledge it had been served. She stopped twice, to shake a writer's cramp out of her hand, dreading that the ink might run dry in the pen.
Like everything else around her, it seemed suddenly imbued with a kind of magic.
Almost as if by some enchantment, the London pen maintained its breakneck pace across the pages, Brigit flipping from one part of the story to the next, pushing herself onward until she knew she had something very, very special in front of her.
Some of it would have to be changed. Some would have to be expanded upon. Foreshadowing would need to go in, and perhaps a few more drawings of the "kingdom" and its "subjects."
By the time the largest pillar candle in her chambers had burned dangerously low, by the time the lack of noise on the pipes told her all the rest of the world was long abed, by the time she knew even Vincent would be returned from seeing his Catherine, and be ensconced in his huge, window-framed chamber, she was done with the story.
Or at least, she was done with this part of it.
No, it would never see a publisher's hand, might never see eyes other than the special people she gave a lone copy to. But it would be born. And in that birth, Brigit could feel her sense of wonder returning to her, even as her sense of sorrow and loss, faded.
There simply was not room inside her to carry both.
Her regrets might never be wholly gone, she understood. But at least they could stop dominating her days.
"The world takes away our beauties and our certainties. But that doesn't mean it doesn't leave us with something else," she mused, cradling her new creation close to her breast. She knew she'd write those words in her Book of Days. Perhaps on the page that held the hourglass image.
"And there's a story after you," she told the notebook, with a smile. "A story about an amazing inventor who makes things that always inspire other people, though he doesn't intend it. Accidental magic," she said, knowing that one day, that story would get written, as well. Perhaps even published, if she was careful with the details.
You never knew.
After all, anything was possible.
Real joy coursed through Brigit's veins, a feeling she'd not had in such a long time, her heart had all but forgotten the sensation. She felt good. Better than good.
"Better than better," the Irish author smiled hugely, to herself.
In spite of the late hour, and the incredible amount of effort spent during the last several of those, Brigit was not tired.
Indeed, if anything, she felt more vibrantly alive than ever.
This felt beautiful. Powerful. Strong. It felt like being in love.
She got off the bed and raced to the room that held the Mirror Pool, the notebook clutched to her chest. She didn't want to burn a letter that said "Good-bye." Just the opposite. She wanted to say "Hello."
Brigit looked up into the circular opening that still revealed the stars.
"Ian, Da, I've written me a love story, you two." She told her husband and father's spirits, speaking aloud in the special chamber. "A love story like you and Ma. Like me and Ian. But more. And different. So different. It's not our story. But it's a story. A good one it is, and more special because it belongs to just the two of them, even though it belongs to everyone else who knows it, as well. I just realized love does that. Belongs to everyone around you. I just realized that it could."
She caressed the plain cover of the spiral notebook with a loving hand.
Still speaking to Ian and Sean, she continued, lovingly. "Thank you both for teaching me what love was.”
She bent down near the mirror pool, to where a “darkest-before-the-dawn” night gleamed in the water. Touching a finger in, she watched the ripples take away the image of the stars. Scooping up a palm full of water where the brightest one had been, she let it cascade through her fingers, and further distort the calm pool. Then she dried her hand on her skirt and sat, back, waiting.
After a long moment, the concentric circles she’d made had travelled all they would. The mirror pool cleared, and reflected its bounty again.
Just as it had done for Vincent, long ago. Just as it likely would for Luke, one day.
“And it’s Vincent and Catherine I have to thank for reminding of love’s power. Of all it can do," she said, a soft smile refusing to leave her face. “They steal moments, and time as a thing between them, too,” she mused. “Steal enough of them, and you’ll make yourself a life, then, won’t you?” She was enjoying her own sense of wisdom.
She looked heavenward. "I have to go and type it all up, now. Right now. Some very special friends made me see that I just needed the right tools. And to give meself permission to feel joy, again. To stop fighting the time I needed and just… accept it. I started slow. Held meself steady.” She cradled the manuscript to her chest like the newborn wonder that it was.
“Then I did it.” She kissed the top of the pages the same way Vincent had kissed Luke’s tiny head.
Rising from the edge of the pool, she turned in a circle, her brown winter skirt flaring outward. What time was it? Five thirty? Six? Near to dawn, probably? It didn't matter. How wonderful that felt! Time didn't matter. It wasn't bidding her to go, or to stay, or to write or to hide. Wasn't commanding she appear at a party or speak at a lecture. Time was a companion, again, rather than a master, and she knew she had all she needed.
She had an imaginary world to make “real,” and just the machine to do it on.
Brigit raced back to her borrowed chambers, nearly colliding with Jamie, in the hall.
"Brigit?" she asked.
"No time to chat. No time!" she smiled, knowing that just the opposite was true. She was still young. And her heart could still appreciate the power of love. She had all the time in the world. Just none to stop and chin wag, right now.
"Okay, just... are you okay?" Jamie asked. She’d never seen the Irishwoman looking so … happy.
In the two weeks Brigit had been Below, Jamie had barely seen her smile, and never so hugely as she did now. Her wavy hair was an un-brushed tangle around her face. Her creamy blouse was half-untucked. The top of one boot was coming unlaced. A plain, spiral notebook was clutched to her chest, some of the pages looking loose, from having been turned too hard. And she looked positively … elated.
"Better than okay. Better than better!" Brigit all but crowed the exclamation, both women aware that she sounded like Mouse.
"It's going to be a beautiful day, Jamie! See if it isn't! Anything's possible!" Brigit said, taking a few steps backward to talk to Jamie before she turned and ran, again.
"Sure. Whatever you say," the young woman knew the older one hadn't even heard her as she’d raced off through the tunnel halls.
Brigit sat down at the table that held the antique typewriter, and rolled in a pristine sheet of paper. It was heavy. Nearly vellum. She had no idea where they'd scrounged it from, but she was glad they had it. Once she had the illustrations for the story, it could all be put together and given as a gift. She'd have to wait for a decent hour to wake Elizabeth with her request.
It was all right. She had plenty to do, in the meantime.
She opened the spiral notebook to the correct page, delighted anew with her beginning. As stories went, this wasn't her longest. But Brigit felt already certain it would be one of her best.
She set Mouse's little metal man just far enough away so that the return carriage of the "writing machine" wouldn't knock him over, and pressed the Shift key down to capitalize the first letter. The carriage lifted and made a delightfully satisfactory clunking sound. It was weighty. Substantial. Solid.
Like Vincent. Like this place. Like love, sometimes.
She began to type, reading from the elegant scrawl in her notebook:
Once Upon a Time, in the city of New York...
No matter where you are when the urge to create a fairy tale overcomes you, I wish you love.
Illustrations supplied by the author