The next call had been to Peter Alcott, who had promised to get a message to Father that they definitely wouldn't be home for another week. “Father's handling it well so far, so don't worry,” Peter had said when she asked. “I think Vincent being away will turn out to be a good thing for the community.”
“How so?” Catherine asked.
“Well, Vincent's been the person everyone went to for so long—everyone's 'fetch this, carry that, take care of that' person. He never really gets a vacation unless he goes below the pipes and then Jacob worries frantically, so Vincent doesn't even do that often. Vincent's needed the time away, and I'm glad for both your sakes that he's getting it.” Catherine thought about that then, what it must be like to be on call 24 hours a day for any amount of difficulties, large and small. There was no question that Vincent aided his world willingly, but the cost to him had sometimes been incredibly high.
She came back upstairs to find Vincent stretched out on the bed, absorbed in a book. The sunlight was brilliant on the fine gold hairs of his muzzle and cheekbones, and as she came closer, she thought she saw blond highlights in his mane. It was much the same sight as had greeted her every day since they'd arrived, but it never ceased to amaze her. Vincent, whole and healthy in the sunlight.
Vincent put the book down and looked at her, eyes wide and blue. “What is it?”
“You,” Catherine said. “I'm thinking that I'll never forget seeing you like this.” She sat next to him on the bed, hearing the creak of the old box springs as she sat down. “You're getting more blond in your hair. I bet you never thought you'd get sun streaks there.” She leaned closer to kiss him and noticed the faint dusting of freckles across his muzzle and under his eyes. “Do you know you have freckles?”
“I...what? I don't get freckles, Catherine.”
She traced the high cheekbones. “Yes, you do. They're cute.”
“I am not cute,” he rumbled, fangs peeking out in a smile.
She led him over to the cloudy old mirror that was anchored to the bow-front dresser. The mirror clearly had been made for someone much shorter than Vincent; he had to bend down to see his reflection. The freckles stood out, light brown against the golden tones of his skin. “See, I told you: freckles,” Catherine chuckled.
Vincent continued to stare fixedly into the mirror and Catherine remembered something he'd said in the beginnings of his illness the previous summer: “There are no mirrors in this chamber, Catherine, but there are mirrors of the soul, and I cannot live with what I see there.” She shivered, remembering, and touched his shoulder. “Vincent?”
“It's just me,” he whispered.
“I don't understand,” Catherine replied. The bond between them filled with emotions she couldn't immediately name, but at least despair wasn't one of them. She relaxed minutely, waiting.
“I never looked in a mirror or any reflective surface unless I was forced to it,” Vincent continued. “I always saw a monster, something less than human.”
“You're not---” she began, but one of Vincent's calloused fingers on her lips silenced her.
“I know,” he said. “I know it here now,” and he touched his heart. “I look into this mirror now and I only see myself. No animal, no monster. Just me.”
They were attempting to put together an old jigsaw puzzle later that morning when the phone rang. Catherine picked it up and then grinned in a way Vincent should perhaps have found unnerving, but didn't. “Why, yes, Gertrude, he's here,” Catherine said, with her gamin smile. She held the phone out to him. “She wants to talk to you.”
Vincent raised his eyebrows, but took the phone. “Hello, Gertrude.”
“Hello, Vincent. I hope I wasn't disturbing anything?”
“No, we're just putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”
“That sounds like fun. I never was much good with those.” She paused. “Say, Vincent, I need your help.”
“Well, yours and Catherine's. I've got a compost heap and I need some leaves. Would you be willing to give me some of yours?”
They certainly had enough of them, but didn't Gertrude have trees too? Vincent wondered. “I think we can manage that.”
“Oh, thank you, that'll be a big help,” Gertrude said. “Just call us when you have them bagged up and I'll send Matt over.”
She hung up the phone and Vincent looked at Catherine. “She wants to borrow our leaves.”
Catherine laughed. “Well, we certainly have enough.”
Vincent shook his head. “True. But she could have asked you. Why did she want to talk to me?”
Catherine stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “The same reason you could talk to me about waste-water treatment and I'd still listen. Because she loves your voice.”
“So how do you get your food below?” Catherine asked, thinking of Gertrude's compost heap. They walked out to the storage shed where the rakes were kept. The leaves crunched underfoot and the sky was blue and cloudless.
“It used to be fairly haphazard,” Vincent said. “When I was a child, we didn't have as many helpers and what we received many times were foods that impractical for our conditions---foods that required better cold storage than we had, or fuel that we didn't have to heat the food, or foods that were just on the edge of spoiling. And sometimes, there just wasn't enough to go around.”
As efficiently as the tunnels were organized now, Catherine found it hard to imagine such hard times. “What happened then?” she asked, not wanting to think of any of the people below starving.
“Children ate first, then the women, then the men. You won't find a lot of picky eaters among those of us who were around then; we learned early that you either ate or you starved. Later, as our network of helpers grew, food production and storage became a top priority and now, no one goes hungry. But it is a lot of work to keep everyone fed. We all take turns at canning and Mouse has rigged up a refrigeration system that is mostly sufficient for our needs. And we have helpers now who have given us storage space in their freezers for supplies like meat and poultry.”
The door on the old shed was swollen with the recent rains and it squeaked as Catherine pulled on it. “Here you go,” she said, grasping one rake and handing it to him and taking the other. Together, they dragged the old garbage bins back to the rear of the house..
“So what don't you like to eat?” Catherine asked, raking up the first heap of colored leaves and depositing them in the bin.
“Mushrooms,” Vincent said. “They're everywhere below and for a very long time, they were in everything we ate.” He deposited some leaves in his own bin. “What about you? What don't you like to eat?”
“Beans, mostly,” she said, dropping some more leaves into her bin. “After my mother passed, Dad hired a woman to live in and help out with the cooking. I'm pretty sure that beans were the basis of everything she made. Dad used to joke that the only thing she hadn't put beans in was her muffins.”
Vincent's soft breathy laughter made her look over at him. “What?”
“Father used to say the same thing about mushrooms. Before William came to us, the adults took turns cooking, and the results were frequently...interesting.” His eyes met hers, dancing merrily in the sunlight. “Get Father to tell you about the mushroom pancakes sometime.”
She chuckled, raking another bunch of leaves into a pile and placing them in her bin. “You all must have kissed the ground when William came.”
“Oh, yes,” Vincent said. “I was eight, Devin was eleven and I believe we badgered him for days about just what he put in his food that made it taste so good. Finally, he got annoyed with us, and sat us down at one of the tables in the Commons. I can still hear him now. 'Boys,' he said, 'I can cook pretty much anything, but I won't use mushrooms.' We later found out he'd had some bad experiences with mushrooms as an army cook.”
“I didn't know William had been an army cook,” Catherine said. “Though it doesn't surprise me, now that I think about it. He certainly is very good at feeding all of you.”
“That he is,” Vincent agreed. “He doesn't talk much about his experiences, but Father and the council know his story. We're just grateful he's here with us.”
Catherine thought about that as the morning went on, about how many tunnel dwellers she knew, but whose stories she might never know, because they had come to that place to build a new life and left the wreckage of the past far behind them. Sometimes it seemed to her that there were mysteries in every shadow in the tunnels, but not mysteries demanding to be solved. Except for one. I would dearly love to know who Vincent's parents were and how he came to be abandoned on that cold January day.
Vincent's eyes met hers, soft and blue. “So would I,” he said, “but the past cannot be recaptured and the future is all we have to go on. We learn that early in the tunnels.”
After a quick lunch, they went to sit outside at the stone patio. The leaves were bagged up and Catherine sat beside him, the weight of her head on his shoulder soothing. Her hair smelled like the leaves and the sun and the clear air of the forest around them. She absently stroked the fur on his arm below his rolled up sleeves. “So what would you like to do now?” she asked.
Hold you in my arms and never let go, Vincent thought and almost said, but by Catherine's contented sigh, he knew there was no need for words. What are we---what is our bond---becoming? Our connection has only rarely been this deep but now....
“You ask too many questions,” Catherine said, tugging on a lock of his hair in mild rebuke. “So many things we just have to accept for the miracles they are. And you're my miracle.” She stood and held out her hand. “Come, there's a place I want you to see.”
Content, he followed where she led him, picking up his cloak as they left. Away from the shadow of the house and the breeze from the lake, there was a large patch of thickly clustered forest, the trees so woven and interlinked that they must have stood in this earth for many generations. The trees----yew and oak and birch---formed a dense canopy as they walked under the branches; sunlight peeked through but it hid and danced in and out of the leaves. In a few weeks, these trees would be bare, but now, they were nearly as dense as any curtain. “I used to play here as a child,” Catherine said. “Hide and go seek, you name it. Gertrude's daughters and I even played Robin Hood in here.”
“Who was Maid Marian?” Vincent asked, intrigued.
“Well, that was the problem, you see,” Catherine said. “We all wanted to be Maid Marian. So we took turns. I'd have given a lot for one of Jamie's bows when it was my turn to be Robin Hood.”
Vincent laughed, picturing the scene. “This is a lovely spot,” he said as she drew him beside her. The leaves crunched under his legs as he sat down. There was a faint play of filtered light in her hair and he thought that as much as she had never seen him in sunshine, the sight of his Catherine was as magical as anything he had dared dream. “You're beautiful,” he whispered. One hand traced the raised edge of her scar. “And I do not know who I would be without you.”
The taste of her lips on his was sweet, like the honeyed wine he'd had years before and never since, the deepening warmth spreading through his veins, in counterpoint of their hearts. Some instinctive caution whispered furiously that they were outside, in broad daylight, but in the shelter of a wooded grove even that bit of caution was almost scattered. Almost. “Do you want to go back to the house?” he breathed against her.
“No,” she murmured against his mouth. “I hid out here for hours in summer and fall and I was never seen, and we're miles from anyone. Just this once...”
And Vincent felt the rest of her thought, shimmering deeper than his own breath: I want to love you in the sunlight. It was not such an impossible dream, not here; though he might never walk down Fifth Avenue to buy her ice cream, he could give Catherine this. The desire echoed in his own heart, warring with his caution, battling with fears that were entirely too real. He might at least take them deeper into the forest where the canopy was thickest.
The same thought was in her mind; Catherine stood as he did and they walked towards a darker section of the wooded grove where the sunlight was dimmest. Vincent spread his cloak on the ground as a blanket and felt the gentle tug on his heart as his Catherine, his mate, came to him.
Click here for Chapter 16....