Chapter 17: Clear Unpeopled Space 
The rest of the day was spent relaxing, just enjoying the simple gift of being together. Vincent had brought one book with him---only one, to Catherine's amusement---and it was the obvious one: Great Expectations, the book that had been at their very beginning. As he read, Catherine had taken his wide-toothed comb and proceeded, with great gentleness, to free his hair of the inevitable tangles. She had done this for him before in Connecticut and as Vincent leaned against her, she heard a low rumble under his breathing. “Happy?” she asked.
“Mmmm, very,” Vincent replied. His voice was quiet and she thought he might be slowly drifting into sleep but just when she moved to take the book from his hands, he spoke again. “I'm not sleeping.”
It was an echo of words from another time, a cherished closeness on their balcony. “No, of course not,” Catherine said, smiling, and leaning forward to kiss the wavy dampness of his hair. “Though you probably should.”
“I've gotten by on less sleep,” he responded.
“I know, but you don't have to now. Why don't you take a nap and I'll make us a late lunch?”
Vincent turned to face her and his mouth quirked. “Are you suggesting I take a cat nap, Catherine?”
She chuckled, sensing he was not at all discomfited by the comparison. “Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.” Catherine touched the soft silken bristles of his cheek. “Love, I can feel how tired you are. Sleep...just a little, please.”
He pressed a quick kiss to her palm and murmured, “Very well.”
They have come to the deep…the drums, the heartbeat of the earth…drawing them….calling them...
The rains have not come. The hunt is useless. The people are starving.
The drums are a heartbeat. The elders have sent them to this place, the womb of the earth.
Men, women, children, old and young, tired and hungry, still they dance, calling life back to the land, their footsteps a pounding rhythm against the parched earth.
The heartbeats are an echo and the echoes are heartbeats.
Vincent opened his eyes to Catherine’s worried face. Her hand was resting on his heart, no doubt feeling---as he did---the fast pace of his heartbeat, thudding against his ribs. He raised his head briefly, but thought the better of it. “I was…”
She frowned. “You were muttering something and when I came in, you were thrashing about. Are you all right?”
Vincent moved his head again, and the distant fading echo of drums---or was it his own heartbeat?---began to recede. “I had that dream again.”
Catherine sat back on her heels and took his hand. “What happened?”
He related the story of what he'd sensed in the dreams---the hunger, the need, the fear. “I wish I knew,” Vincent said when he finished.
“Knew what, love?”
“Knew if the rains came,” he replied. “They were so afraid, Catherine.”
He felt a cool hand on his forehead---Catherine, brushing aside his jagged bangs. “There must be a reason why you're sensing these things,” she said, her touch soothing. “Perhaps you'll find out.”
“Perhaps,” Vincent replied, warmed by her acceptance.
“Lunch won't be ready for about half an hour,” she said. “Will you try to sleep?”
The dream wouldn't come again, Vincent sensed, though how he knew this was as mysterious to him as any of his other abilities. “Yes,” he said, “I am still tired.”
“I thought so,” Catherine said. She bent down to kiss him and he remembered waking like that one other time, seeing her face smiling above him, after another dream that had terrified him and mystified him by turns. What a long way they had come since that day. “Sleep now,” she said, and he closed his eyes.
Catherine loved to watch Vincent in his sleep, the golden lashes pale against his cheek, the lines of care and worry softened. His breathing was deep and even, dreamless, a lock of reddish gold hair fluttering over his face. “You are so beautiful,” she whispered, hating to wake him but knowing he must be hungry.
Sleepy blue eyes---Persian blue, her grandmother would have called them---opened. “Catherine,” Vincent murmured. “You’re here.”
“Of course,” she replied. “Where else would I be?”
Vincent reached out (and how she treasured that, that he was reaching out for her) and pulled her, unresisting, down beside him. He was warm and solid, one large hand resting on the curve of her hip, the callouses on his hand a sweet roughness against her skin. “Beside me,” he said, voice still rough from sleep.
Catherine turned in his arms to face him. “That's right,” she said, smiling, “and don't you forget it.”
“I won't,” he assured her, nuzzling her neck, the soft susurrus of his pulse throbbing in counterpart to her own. They lay together for a time until a loud growl---his stomach, protesting---broke the silence.
“Well,” she said, amused, kissing his hair, “I know you're hungry. Lunch is cheese sandwiches and vegetable stew and...Vincent, have you ever had s'mores?”
“Not since I was a boy,” he replied. “They are a bit...sticky, aren't they?”
“Well, yes, but...” And then she understood: sticky chocolate in his fur surely wouldn't be comfortable. “I'm sorry, Vincent, I didn't think.”
“Hush,” Vincent said, smiling, eyes dancing roguishly. “That's what bathing pools are for.”
They bathed after the dishes were cleaned and put away, and spent the rest of the evening plotting their cavern explorations for the next day. “There are three, joined here,” he said, gesturing to a nearby junction marked clearly on the map. “Mouse told me before we left that this one--- “ and Vincent pointed to the smaller of the three caves---“showed definite signs of water incursion and erosion.”
Catherine shuddered a bit, remembering the Maze. “Exactly,” Vincent said, picking up on her thought. “We’ll avoid that one.”
“And the other two?” she asked.
“One of them is partially blocked by some rubble, but Mouse didn’t think it would be difficult to remove.”
She had nothing but respect for Mouse’s abilities---hard not to, when he’d saved both Vincent’s life and Father’s---but her doubt must have shown on her face. Vincent chuckled. “Mouse doesn’t like moving rubble, Catherine; it’s ‘not shiny.’” She could almost hear Mouse saying the words. “If he said there’s not a lot, there isn’t.”
“All right,” Catherine said. “So that leaves us two caves to explore tomorrow. Has Mouse been inside the other one?”
“No,” Vincent replied, “and neither have I. The first time, I wasn’t equipped to do much more than search for your crystal, and the second time---last week---I was in a bit of a hurry.”
“Imagine that,” she said dryly and was rewarded by his grin. “I’m still stunned you went all this way for my crystal.”
He was sitting cross-legged on their makeshift bed, and the low light from the candles glinted red in his hair as it flowed down his bare back. “I would have given you the universe, Catherine,” he said. “I still would.”
She cupped his chin in her hands. “You have, Vincent. You have.”
They broke camp early the next morning. “I can’t believe we’ll have to head back tomorrow,” Catherine said, yawning as she rolled up the sleeping bag.
“I know,” Vincent said, putting on his boots, “and yet, like Connecticut, we can return here. The ways don’t change, not this far down.”
Catherine nodded. “I’m glad. I’m looking forward to doing a lot of exploring with you.”
He grinned, a flash of white teeth in the dimness. “You’re much easier to travel with than Mouse is.”
She chuckled. “Why am I not surprised?
“No, it’s true,” Vincent said, laughing. “He snores. You just giggle.”
Catherine gave him a playful shove. “I do not.”
“Yes, you do,” he replied, returning her smile. He drew the drawstrings on his backpack closed and held out his hand. “Let’s see what’s out there.”
The junction wasn’t far from the cavern they’d just left, according to the map. “It probably links up to the other three,” Vincent said as they walked, “but the it looked blocked when I saw it last week and I didn’t think we wanted to spend the next few days tunneling it out.”
“No, I’m sure not,” Catherine agreed, taking his hand.
“Step carefully,” Vincent’s voice said out of the shadows a small distance in front of her, his profile lit only by the glow of phosphorescent algae. Even then it was difficult to see much beyond the outline of the flow of his mane and the long lines of his legs but Catherine smiled anyway, enjoying the view. They had traveled single file for a few minutes, through passages nearly too narrow to cross but Vincent’s sense of direction, his familiarity with the underground world, was unerring.
“I will,” she replied. The ground felt like it was clinging to the soles of her shoes and the smell of moisture, such a contrast from the drier tunnel air she was accustomed to, made her wonder if there was a water source nearby. “What am I stepping on?”
“Sand,” Vincent replied. “This was once the shore of an ancient lake bed. I believe there’s an underground pool near here.”
“You know this world so well,” Catherine said, marveling. “How much time have you spent exploring, anyway?”
There was the small flicker she recognized as the warmth of his smile. “Years. I needed…the freedom.”
“Did anyone come with you?”
“Occasionally,” he replied. “Rebecca, before she took over the candle workshop from Eileen. Pascal, when his father could pry him off the pipes. And David, before he went to college Above—you met him at Winterfest.”
She concentrated, trying to remember everyone she’d met at Winterfest. An image of a tall thin man with reddish hair who had wandered the crowd with his guitar rose before her mind’s eye. “I think so,” Catherine said. “The accountant?” He had danced the Charleston with his partner Joshua, much to the amusement of the tunnel children.
Catherine couldn’t see her husband but in some unnamed way, she knew he nodded. “Yes. He comes below occasionally to help with our ledgers. David is a good man, and a good friend, but he's very busy in his job Above and we don't see him as much as we used to.”
“And no one else came with you, love?”
“No,” he said. “The deepest places have forever been mine.” Vincent cast a glance at her, as if sensing her sadness that he had been so alone. “The dark is not always something to fear. I found it comforting to be only what I was and not what everyone thought I must be.”
Catherine remembered her debutante ball, which she’d danced in at her father’s urging because it was “expected” in their circles. The heels had worn a blister on her foot and the white gown couldn’t hide that she was the only motherless girl there. But she had put on a social smile and danced as if she were not already an oddity. “I understand,” she said.
Vincent stopped and reached out to take her hand just as they rounded another hairpin turn, the quick white flash of his smile brilliant in the dimness. “We're almost there.”
There was only a small amount of rubble at the mouth of the cave, Vincent was pleased to see; it spoke for its stability that no more rocks had fallen since Mouse's visit last week. The debris didn't need to be cleared after all; there was an opening just wide enough that he and Catherine could enter the cave, even with the added bulk of their backpacks.
Catherine had turned on her flashlight on a low beam. “It's this way,” he said, stepping through first.
“Be careful,” she murmured.
“Always,” Vincent replied, smiling over his shoulder.
The scent of the cavern air hit him first---stale air, age and dampness, mixed in with the odors of...
Others. The smells of fear and hunger and hope and anticipation.
They were here once.
Vincent felt the hair on the back of his neck and along his spine bristle as the ancient scents washed over him in a wave of sensation. Time was distant, dissolving...The sound of gravel against the rock floor reached him----Catherine, following him through the entrance. “Vincent?” she said, pulling him back, her touch on his arm, her fear for him flooding, enclosing. Her love, drawing him home. “Vincent?”
He shook his head, banishing the ghosts. “I'm...sorry.”
“Don't be. What was it?”
As Catherine spoke, she pressed a metal square into his hand---her canteen, Vincent realized belatedly. Untwisting the cap, he took a drink from it before answering. “I could smell them, Catherine. They were here, the people in my dream. They were here once.”
Angling her flashlight, she drew him to a low sturdy rock outcropping. “Sit for a minute, love,” she said, sitting down in front of him and crossing her legs. “Now, tell me what happened. What did you sense?”
The images, the feelings were fading even as he spoke of them, which was reassuring in a way. His other visions---the precognitive ones---were far stronger. “I don’t know why I know this, Catherine,” he finished, feeling somewhat awkward in the face of yet one more thing that marked him as unusual. Only with Father had he spoken of the odder facets of his abilities and even then, the discussion had been hampered by Father’s insistence on a rational explanation.
His wife’s green eyes studied him. “I don’t know either, love. But I wouldn’t be so concerned about it.”
She shook her head. “No. There is a reason, of that I’m sure. But the fact that you can know these things is as much a part of you as the color of your eyes.” She leaned on his bent knees and reached up to gently cup his chin in her hand. “You don't have to hide, not with me.”
Vincent considered how much of his life had been spent hiding in one way or another, and felt a long-held inner tension relax. She had seen and accepted, he reminded himself. “I know,” he replied aloud, pressing a quick kiss to her palm and feeling her thrill of enjoyment. “Thank you.”
Her gamin smile surfaced. “Better?”
He nodded. “Much.” Returning her smile, he stood then, ready to confront the rest of the cave and its mysteries.
Catherine stood as well, brushing the ochre dirt---ochre, he thought, such a strange color to find here---off her jeans. “I’m ready if you are,” she replied, picking up her flashlight.
The walls, as they traveled further back, were stained the same rust hue as the dirt on the floor, the color of drying blood, Catherine thought, remembering cave paintings she’d seen in a long-ago anthropology class. Mica and quartz jutted out in irregular patterns, making her feel as if she were walking through a geode, or a ruby. The entire effect was unnerving, unsettling for no reasons she could name. “You're afraid,” Vincent said. “Why?”
She started at the sound of his voice, so deep in thought had she been. “Honestly?”
He nodded. “Of course.”
“It gives me the creeps and I don’t know why. It’s lovely but…I don’t think I want to come back here.”
“I understand,” he said simply, stopping. “There’s a passageway beyond us that should take us into the other cave but we can just as easily go around.”
“Sounds good,” she replied, relieved.
“I told you once you should listen to your fear,” Vincent said as they backtracked. “I meant it then and I mean it now. If something Below ever feels not…right to you, I want you to listen to that feeling.”
“Even when it seems irrational?” Catherine asked. “It's a cave. There is no real reason I should be afraid, but I am.”
They had stepped back through the entrance when Vincent turned to face her. “I've camped Below many times. There are places that I will not willingly enter, for no reason I could ever explain...only a feeling. I trust that feeling in myself. I'm asking you to do the same and listen to your intuition.”
She nodded. A thought occurred to her. “Vincent, are there ghosts below?”
A smile quirked his mouth. “I thought you didn't believe in ghosts?”
“Humor me,” Catherine replied dryly.
Vincent took her hand as they walked. “Yes, there are. Though that's an area of some disagreement. Some people Below don't believe in ghosts, and those who do believe, are often reluctant to admit what they've seen.”
“Can you sense them?” she asked. There were so many things about Vincent that she didn't know, would spend a lifetime learning and the thought warmed her.
“I can sense everyone, to some degree or another,” he replied. “Everyone has a mental presence. In Kristopher's case, it was because I couldn't sense him---even when he stood in front of me---that I knew he was no longer alive.”
“And I didn't listen to you,” she said, wondering—-and not for the first time----if she had hurt him by not trusting what he said.
His smile was fond and not at all disturbed. “You needed your certainties then. I understood that, Catherine. And Kristopher himself didn't make it easy on you. After all, I doubt you expected to be having cappuccino with a ghost.”
She chuckled, remembering. “No. No, I didn't.” She tilted her head. “So what ghosts are there below?”
“Elizabeth swears there's one that comes by and steals her paint. Renata blames one for rearranging her flowers overnight. And Father---”
“Father?” she asked, trying and failing to picture him believing in any sort of supernatural being.
“Father,” Vincent confirmed. “Mind you, he thinks it's a joke when he says it but...I'm not so sure. There are a few books that go missing regularly every couple of months.”
“How would he know?” she asked, picturing the chaos of the haphazard library shelves in his chamber.
Vincent laughed. “These books, he'd notice. His copy of Grey's Anatomy and the latest edition of the Physician's Desk Reference. They're always on his desk, and yet, every few months, they disappear, only to reappear in the strangest places.”
His mouth quirked again. “As doorstops in William's kitchen. Under my jukebox. Resting in Lady Justice's scales.”
“Vincent,” she began, “two of those places are in your chamber. Father doesn't suspect you?”
“He did when I was a teenager, until they disappeared once while I was camping below. There was no way for me to have taken the books since I hadn't been home for a week.” A chuckle rode just under his words. “Father doesn't really have an explanation but...I think he still holds out hope of discovering the culprit. He can't even blame Mouse since the books began disappearing long before Mouse joined us. So he laughs and blames it on a tunnel ghost, but....”
“But you think a real one is responsible?”
He nodded. “I do. But there's no point in trying to convince him.”
“No,” Catherine agreed, chuckling.
It took a good hour's walk but they were finally able to find the entrance to the last cave they would explore. The opening was covered by two large boulders, which even to Catherine's inexperienced eyes seemed deliberately placed. “Let me enter first,” Vincent said, removing his backpack and handing it to her. “If there are any gas pockets trapped inside, I'll smell it before you will.”
Catherine frowned. “I don't much like the idea of you being the canary in the coal mine, love.”
He glanced at her, blue eyes glowing in the dimness and she thought again, as she had many times before, how utterly beautiful he was, in a way that still had the power to stop her breath. “I don't want to take an unnecessary risk. If there is something inside there, and we're both overcome, it could be very dangerous for us both, this far below the pipes.”
She nodded, fighting back her unease at the very idea of him exposing himself to danger. “All right,” she replied, “I don't like it but...please be careful. Those boulders....”
Vincent nodded. “I noticed those too. They didn't arrive in those positions without a lot of help.”
“Do you think it means anything?” Catherine asked.
He shrugged. “We're not the first explorers here. There are many things we don't know about the people who came before us. It might even be that this cave system was once above, thousands of years ago.”
Catherine remembered Father's theories about Mouse's pirate ship. “Through changes in the shoreline, you mean?”
“Yes, precisely. Simon often wanted to do a full geological survey down here, but there was never time and when he passed away...” He shook his head. “Some days I can't believe that both he and his son are gone from us. Such large presences they were in my life.”
“Gone, but not forgotten,” she replied, touching his hand.
“No, never,” he said. He glanced towards the boulders again. “I'll call for you once I'm inside and I know it's safe.”
“All right,” she responded, watching him.
She watched as Vincent walked over to the boulders and moved them aside as if they weighed nothing. He ducked his head to avoid hitting the low overhang and just as his shadow merged with darkness of the entrance, Catherine felt something. A low thrum, an atavistic rhythm, deep in her bones. This is not right this is not rightthisisnotrightthisistnotright...
Heartbeats. And the sound of a beating drum, echoing.
“Vincent?” she called, instinct merging with thought and overriding every caution as she lunged forward. “Vincent?”
There was no answer.
Click here for Chapter 18....
 "This is the Creature," Ranier Maria Rilke