Whatever happens with us... (*)

 

 

Magellan's Wife

 

 

{ excerpt from work in progress }

 

 

 

 

As the hours passed and there was only radio silence, as Pascal put it, from Peter, Father grew increasingly worried. Because there was very little morphine left in the vial Father had rationed out carefully throughout his desperate attempts to repair the worst of the stranger’s grievous injuries, he had sent an urgent message Above to Peter, asking for as much assistance, and painkiller, as his old friend could provide; without such help from Peter there was simply no way to procure more. A hastily awakened Helper agreed to try to reach Peter by calling his service, only to discover that the harried physician had, at the last minute, agreed to fill in on a panel at a medical conference in Berlin and was not expected back in New York for another week.

 

The moment came with shocking swiftness, when the last of the morphine was gone and the terrible sound began to unfurl from deep in the woman’s being, a sound more terrifying than any Vincent had ever heard; the sound of unbearable pain.

This is the hardest part, said Father; the part they cannot teach you about 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 physical torment grew, he found himself driven nearly mad, unable to find his equilibrium even as Father begged him in hushed tones to please stop pacing.

 

Unable to stop moving, unable to speak, Vincent could find no relief in Father’s words, the woman’s suffering gripping him as if his own flesh were being torn, his own bones broken, but worse.

 

Vincent please! Father’s voice was ragged with exhaustion. Take a moment. I am begging you. I will spell you. I have sent Mary to rest for an hour, and Rebecca will be here in the morning. There is nothing more we can do.

 

Vincent knew Father was right. Even his formidable strength was useless against such an enemy.

 

He suddenly felt dizzy but no sooner had he lowered himself heavily into the nearest chair, than he was back up out of it and on his way from the chamber to pay a visit to Narcissa.

 

*

 

…who wasn’t there, but then all at once she was, and Vincent jumped a little, in spite of himself, startled to see her suddenly so close, within arm’s reach, where seconds before there had been only empty space, and he wondered, not for the first time, nor for the last, at her ability to transcend her frailties so silently and surely that her movements had eluded his acute hearing and vision.

 

But the long trip to see her had been wasted, as Narcissa insisted she had nothing for him; he would return to the beautiful, agonized stranger empty-handed.

 

The spirits see only what’s there, child, she chided him; your woman needs medicine not a conjure-woman. But she is strong, like you, Vincent…

And then she caught her breath, her eyes seeming, improbably, to focus on his.

 

Oh Vincent! she crooned; sweet sweet child! Grown though you are. Grown to a man now…

 

He waited, knowing she was entirely blind, yet feeling himself pierced through by her milky gaze. She seemed, always, to see him, not quite as he was, but fixed in a time and space he had yet to occupy, some evolved version of himself he could only hope to fulfill.

 

Why you need an old lady to tell you what you know, Vincent? she said with a gentleness quite unlike her; then to his astonishment he saw tears spill over and run down her cheeks and he knew beyond question that the joy transforming her face was for him, as her message enfolded him on all sides in a soft hymn of blessing:

 

No more shame Vincent. All love is a gift from Him that made you, child. Don’t see sin where there is none.

 

*

 

When he arrives back in his chamber Father and Mary are there, having fallen asleep in their respective chairs, the tea quite cold, untouched in their cups.

 

Mary wakes first, struggling to her feet, her sleepy smile radiating across the chill to warm him even before her whispered news does. She catches her blanket as it slips from her lap, and stands on tiptoe to wrap it around his shoulders. It is still warm.

 

She’s settled now; she whispers, taking him by the arm, drawing him toward the woman in his bed. She’s strong for such a little thing! much stronger than she looks. Father says the worst is past us now. I know you must want to see for yourself.

I know, thinks Vincent, allowing himself to be led, gritting his teeth painfully against the sudden hot sting of tears that might unman him; she is; it is. I do.

Father wakes now with a little cough, reflexively groping for his glasses before realizing they are still on his face. Vincent and Mary flank him, assist him to his feet; silently Father opens his quilt for Mary to duck under it, and she does, steadying him with a shivering arm around his waist. Vincent guides Father’s hand to the polished head of his walking stick and then, together, they make their way to the edge of Vincent’s bed for a long, marveling look at their patient.

 

For some moments no one speaks. In the heavenly quiet that encradles them, Vincent fears his heart is beating so hard the crashing of it will wake the woman, and he tries to calm himself, but she does not stir, and if not for the gentle rise and fall of her breathing he might have thought they’d lost this battle after all.

 

As he struggles with the tumult of feelings he cannot put to words, the lump in his throat threatens to burst along with his stoic resolve, and he takes some comfort in the sound of sniffles, from Mary, and a restrained throat-clearing or two from Father as the three of them cling to each other, lost in thoughts of how things might have turned out differently, grateful for the woman’s brief respite from the pain that now defines her world.

 

Before retiring to steal a few more hours of sleep, Mary reaches for Vincent, looking up into his dear, haggard face, brushing back his hair a little, as she has not done since he was a teen, and kisses him, one kiss on each cheek. Father embraces him, then waits on Mary as she bends to stroke the arm, and leave a kiss on the bandaged forehead of the woman in Vincent’s bed, whispering something to her even Vincent cannot hear.

 

*

 

At last stepping back from the bedside, Vincent sits and stares at the journal for some moments, trying to gather his thoughts. More moments still before he reaches for it, and slides it across the polished grain of the table under the dance of the flickering candlelight. Any other night, the pen would already be in his hand, the ink pot already unstoppered.

 

Why this hesitation?

 

Because whoever he was in the journal’s pages before tonight, he will never be again, and the thought leaves him spinning, suspended, between exhilaration and dread, crippling doubt and transcendent hope.

 

He opens the journal. The date, already inscribed there, some hours ago before the events of this long night.

 

Silence is the perfectest herald of joy, he writes.

I were but little happy

if I could say how much

 

And here he pauses, intending to let the ink dry, perhaps; but somehow his hand rushes on to continue the speech, the familiar words spilling in a rush from his heart to the page as if he has never seen them before, so new, so holy do they look to his brimming heart now—

 

—Lady, as you are mine, I am

yours. I give away myself for you,

and dote upon the exchange.

 

and then he carefully closes the journal and pushes it away. Soon it will be dawn. He will draw his chair back closer to the bed, in case she wakes. He wants his voice to be the first thing she hears.

 

 

April 12, 1987

In the City of New York.

 

 

 

 

(*)

"Whatever happens with us, your body will haunt mine"

Adrienne Rich, from The Floating Poem

 

 

 

 

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