April 14, 1987
The moment had come with shocking swiftness, when the last of the morphine was gone and the awful sound began to unfurl from deep in the woman’s body as she suffered in his bed, rigid and contorted with pain, a sound more terrifying than any Vincent had ever heard. Frantic, Vincent paced endlessly around his chamber, occasionally reversing direction when interrupted by entreaties from Father, slumped at Vincent’s writing table. There was a deep angry red mark on Father’s cheek from the clasp of his medical bag where he’d briefly, for just a few minutes, used it as a pillow.
“This is the hardest part,” Father had said wearily, feeling about for his spectacles; “the part they cannot teach you at medical school.”
As a physician himself Father was, ironically, accustomed to it, this helplessness; the limits of medicine, but Vincent was not, and as the woman’s agony increased he found himself driven nearly mad, unable to find his equilibrium even as Father pleaded with him in hushed tones to stop; to rest.
But Vincent could find no meaning, no plan of attack in Father’s words, the woman’s torment gripping him as if his own flesh were being torn, his own bones broken, but worse; his formidable strength was useless against such an enemy.
“Vincent please!” Father’s voice was ragged with exhaustion. “With Peter out of the country there is simply nothing more we can do right now. The woman is young, she is strong, and if she survives we have a very grave predicament ahead of us. Save your strength, you will need it. We all will.”
Vincent stopped, gripping the edge of the table, unable to form a coherent response.
Father tried again. “Go to my chamber and rest, even for an hour. I must insist, Vincent. I need you at your best. I’ll keep watch here. Go.”
This time Vincent had obeyed and taken his leave but once in the tunnel he changed course. It was very late but he didn’t dare stop to reconsider nor even to go back for his cloak; heedless of the hour and the cold he headed down to the lower levels and down beyond those and down further still, heading to Narcissa.
* * *
But where the blind conjure woman should be, instead it is Death who waits for him by the scrying bowl, and beckons Vincent close to look into its depths.
Knowing it unwise to give offense to his oldest and closest enemy, especially under the circumstances, Vincent bows his head in wary respect and steps closer, but before he can find the words to state his case, his attention is suddenly riveted to the image that trembles in the blacking-water. No matter how many times he has looked into these depths he will never lose this sense of mixed awe and unease at the presence of the Other Side.
You believe you know her.
Vincent feels Death’s voice more than he hears it, an invasive electrical thrum in the bones of his skull and spine, a sensation just one degree from actual pain and he has no illusions about his ability to withstand the effects should Death choose to increase the intensity.
“This is the woman I found in the park?” asks Vincent, lifting his eyes from the eerie likeness. “But… as a child?”
No. I passed her by, then, too.
And there it is, the threat unmistakable however conversational the tone; Death is here to collect a debt. With effort Vincent keeps his voice calm, his face impassive. “Why?”
Who can say?
Vincent holds Death’s gaze for as long as he dares, mutely refusing the implications of that warning tone, swallowing hard against the sick dread that grips him as the realization hits him.
“You passed her by, then… and took another child in her place.”
Death’s silence freezes in mid-air the breath that carries Vincent’s words. Ice crystals crackle in his lashes and brows, a powdering of snowfall glistens down the front of his heavy wool tunic.
“This is the child you took instead.”
We understand one another very well, as always.
Vincent cannot answer, staring instead at the dead child’s reproachful gaze even now beginning to disperse across this water whose darkness, like Death’s, is the whisper of the Abyss.
The woman in your chamber suffers greatly and you have not the means to ease her suffering nor to care for her properly.
But I do.
Knowing too well what comes next, Vincent reflexively steps back from the brimming bowl as if he can put distance between himself and the inevitable. There is no use now in trying to hide the rising panic he feels and he cannot stop himself even as he hears the unmistakable note of pleading in his voice.
“You are mistaken. Father says she is very strong.”
Indeed; so she will not die quickly. And so I ask you, is this what you wish for this stranger? And for yourself?
She will linger for days and her torment will be yours.
Returning to this moment in his mind— as he will do, often, for the rest of his life— Vincent will never be able to articulate even to himself the instinct— the desperation?— that somehow shook him out of Death’s spell and propelled him out of Narcissa’s chamber and up the tunnel that would take him back to the living, back to his family, to his own chamber— to his bed and the beautiful stranger in it—
And it is true that as he breaks into a run, still Death’s voice follows him—
I can take her now or I can take her later but I will have her
But Vincent does not hear it over the wild beating of his heart; all fatigue, all fear has left him, all doubt.
This certainty he feels: it gives him wings.
* * *
*the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth