What My Heart Will Be
by Barbara L.B. Storey
Originally published in Tunnels Vol. 1
No, what my heart will be is a tower,
and I will be right out on its rim:
nothing else will be there, only pain
and what can’t be said, only the world.
Only one thing left in the enormous space
that will go dark and then light again,
only one final face full of longing,
exiled into what is always full of thirst,
only one farthest-out face made of stone,
at peace with its own inner weight,
which the distances, who go on ruining it,
force on to deeper holiness.
Rainer Maria Rilke
~ The Solitary Man
Somewhere in the middle of the Park—he didn’t totally have his bearings yet – was his favorite place in the world Above. At least, in as much of the world as he had seen yet; it had only been two months since his twelfth birthday, since Father had allowed him to go out at night unescorted and just for the sake of exploring. Vincent understood Father’s fear, understood the danger he invited every time he ventured out of the safety of the tunnels . . . but he had to go, he just had to. He’d heard all the wonderful stories Mary and his friends had told him so many times, and he loved every detail. But he couldn’t bear not seeing at least part of Above for himself anymore. And so Father had finally relented – but only after grilling Vincent for days on all the major and minor places of access to the tunnels in the small area of the city where he would allow his son to go.
And now . . . he was here again. Above, where he still marveled at the strange miracle of the wind in his hair. It was so fresh, so clear and clean; he sniffed it, lifting his head slightly as he did, and compared the scent with the musty—though not unpleasant—dryness of the air Below. He wished tonight that he could bring some of this air back to his room. And the stars: no story had really prepared him for their actual beauty.
Vincent pulled his cloak a little closer. It was an early summer evening and the breeze was only a slight one, but he was used to the subterranean warmth of the tunnels, and he had promised Father that he would be careful not to catch a cold. Father was always afraid of colds, of sickness, of accidents, of not having enough medicine. Vincent knew that these things were important, but right now, he just couldn’t think about them. He settled down into a slightly relaxed crouch against the inside of the brick wall that surrounded the object of his wonder, the tin roof above it lending him the safety of darkness.
It was a carousel. Vincent hadn’t even known the word
for it, had come running back to Father the first night he’d found it,
almost babbling in his excitement at finding this amazing, magical
thing. “Horses, Father, horses in the middle of
Once Father understood what he was talking about, he
had brought out a book of the history of
Vincent had listened intently to the amazing story of Michael Friedsam’s kindness, and then asked Father if he could borrow the book to read it again later. After much thought – and rereading – he decided he didn’t like the word “merry-go-round”, even if Father did use it. It was too . . . babyish. “Carousel” seemed much more special and fanciful, like something out of an epic tale. He went to see it every time he came Above, sitting and staring and studying it, touching – carefully – the bright and pastel colors of the horses and their saddles and reins.
And he dreamed about riding it. He was still too much in awe of it to dare even sit on one of the horses; it might all disappear from underneath him, and he didn’t want that to happen. So he just wondered, and imagined. Pictured himself astride his favorite horse – the black one with the streaming silver mane and the red and blue saddle – riding off to perform some courageous deed at his king’s request. . . .
Just then a small, strong gust of wind blew its way inside the enclosure, whistling over the horses on its way to the other side. Vincent started, his senses instantly alert to the possibility of danger and the necessity of flight. He was almost through the iron bars that hemmed in the entrance to the carousel before he recognized the wind’s voice, still so new to him. He settled back down into his crouch again, but carefully, still poised to run.
The wind continued on its way. A pool of leaves rose to greet it, then fell back down in slightly altered patterns of disappointment as the breeze moved over them without lingering. Its real business was with a smooth, elliptical globe resting in the curve of the wall. Vincent watched curiously, head tilted to one side, as the breeze tossed the thing up in the air – the string attached to one end of it trailing sadly – and caught it, blew it sideways, let it almost drop, retrieved it again. He knew the principles and rules of science that governed wind and air currents; Father was very careful to give him a well-rounded education. But he had never seen the wind “play” with something before. As he continued to stare, a much stronger gust suddenly raced into the shelter and stole the object away from the smaller breeze, hustling it toward the iron bars. Vincent, in the act of pulling his cloak even closer against this invader, saw suddenly that the globe was being blown in his direction; the cloak forgotten for a moment, he darted out his hand and snared the string as it floated past.
He had it! Vincent could barely contain himself as he reeled the thing in – so airy and delicate, its color a very light blue. Vincent had to think for a second before naming the color he saw so little of in his home below the city. He stared at the globe, patted it gingerly – mindful of the sharpness of his nails, somehow knowing it would break very easily. He did know what this was . . . he remembered it now. Pascal had explained it to him once, after all the other children had been Above to see something called a “parade.” This was . . . a balloon. It was lovely.
Thrilled with the universal attraction of the
ephemeral, Vincent slowly turned the balloon around, wanting to memorize
it from all sides. There were words on it—big gold letters: A
“Aren’t you a little old for balloons, Vincent?”
Terrified, Vincent lunged for the darkest corner of the enclosure, desperate to hide himself, heart pounding in his throat. How could he have been so inattentive? Father would be— There was no word in Vincent’s vocabulary for what Father would be if he were ever caught Above. He had known this kind of fear only once before—it felt like dying. He clutched at the balloon’s string as if to a lifeline.
Then he stopped, blinking in the darkness. The voice—that cold, cruelly amused voice—had spoken his name. It must belong to someone who knew him. But who? Who would want to frighten him this way? Vincent stood up slowly, flattening himself against the wall as he rose, searching the shadows beyond the bars. Nothing.
“Who’s there?” he whispered, his pulse so deafening in his ears he barely heard his own voice. Still no reply. He waited several more minutes; then, after carefully wrapping the string of his balloon several times around his wrist to bring it in close to his body, he started to move again, sliding carefully along the wall toward the bars. If he could just reach the safety of the tunnels, if he could only make it home without being caught, he would never be so careless again. Please. . . . He had to make it back to Father.
“I said, aren’t you a little old for this, Vincent? Come on, speak to me.”
“Mitch.” This time Vincent recognized the voice. Mitch was the son of one of the Helpers, Sam Denton. Now sixteen, he’d been sent Below by his father eight years ago to protect him from a life in the streets; he’d been living in the tunnels ever since. Vincent let out a heavy sigh, and his heart stopped pounding, but he was still uneasy. He’d always been fascinated by Mitch—though he knew he shouldn’t be, and was attracted against Father’s better judgement—because of his familiarity with a world Vincent would never be able to know. Father did not want him to associate with Mitch, felt the older boy was a bad influence on Vincent—and with good reason.
Two years ago, when Vincent was just ten, Mitch had convinced him to go with him one night to the train yard; Mitch was going to meet his Above friends there to “hang out.” He had promised Vincent that it was not a populated area, no one would be there to see him, and that he would take care of him. They wouldn’t have to tell Father. . . .
Vincent had not been able to resist the lure of Above. He had never in his life been out of the tunnels. He was only too aware of his “differentness”, and Father had impressed upon him thousands of times the deadly jeopardy he would find himself in if anyone Above ever found him, someone who didn’t understand him and love him, as his friends and family Below did. But . . . if there were to be no people around, as Mitch said . . . a deserted part of the city . . . and it would only be for a short time. . . . It was too much temptation for a ten-year-old boy who longed for a little freedom—a freedom that could never be. He always told Father everything—he never had any reason not to tell Father everything—but maybe, just this once, he could tell Father . . . later.
He hadn’t had to tell, as it happened. Father had found out. The deserted train yard had turned out to be inhabited by hoboes, who had resented the intrusion of teenage boys into their newly established living quarters. Not to mention the official attention they might bring down onto the place, if they caused trouble. Mitch’s friends had scattered as soon as they saw the flash of the hoboes’ knives in the moonlight, leaving Vincent and Mitch to run for their lives to the grate that would take them back to the safety of Below. Vincent had fallen, had almost been caught by the angry, ragged men, but Mitch had held the grate open for him, urging him on, and just managed to slam it closed in the second between Vincent’s leap into the tunnel and the hoboes rounding the corner to face an empty blind alley.
The two boys had huddled there, breathing hard but trying not to make any sound until the vagrants had given up their chase, bewildered and cursing. Vincent remembered that Mitch had thought it high excitement, laughing and making fun of Vincent’s terrified face. And then, as they turned a corner into the tunnel that led home, they had met Father, wild-eyed and terrible in his fear and rage. He had gone looking for Vincent, not found him in his room, and panicked. One of the other children had told him of Mitch’s plans, and he had hurried to try and stop them. Vincent had never felt so miserable and ashamed in his life. He had betrayed Father’s trust—and for what? A stolen moment of freedom that could have ended in his capture, or death, which would have brought Father an endless grief.
And to make Vincent feel even worse, Father did understand why he had done it, did understand his frustration at the restraints of his very special life. It was Mitch he blamed for the fiasco. Father tried to be patient with all the children, and had tried to understand Mitch's loneliness for his father, his unhappiness at being sent to live in the tunnels. Vincent remembered many times when Father had tried to give Mitch the benefit of the doubt when trouble had been stirred up, or tried to make Mitch feel a sense of responsibility for the younger children. But when Mitch had involved Vincent in such a close call, that was the end of Father's understanding. He insisted on an immediate meeting with Mitch's father, determined to send him back Above. And it was only when Sam had begged him, weeping and pleading, that he relented—more for the father's sake than Mitch's—and agreed that Mitch could stay. As long as he kept away from Vincent. The memory of the disappointment in Father's eyes had prevented Vincent from even looking at Mitch for a whole year.
"Come on, Vincent, wake up. Mother of God, what's the matter with you? I'm not gonna bite. More like the other way around." Mitch laughed nastily as he came into Vincent's view from behind a tree.
"I'm not supposed to talk to you, you know that," Vincent replied. "I have to get home. It's late, and Father will be worried." He swung himself through the bars, just managing to squeeze the balloon through with him.
"Well, we wouldn't want to upset Father, would we now?" the older boy sneered.
"No, I wouldn't." Vincent said it clearly, proudly. "Never again."
Mitch ignored the reference and swaggered up to Vincent, circling him slowly as he pretended to study him. "I still say you're too old for a balloon—don't ya think? Gonna take the pretty blue balloon home with you . . . to Father?"
Vincent ducked his head, embarrassed for a moment. "I've . . . never had one before, Mitch. I just. . . ." He looked up, searching for some kind of understanding in the older boy's eyes.
Mitch's bearing suddenly changed, and he put his arm around Vincent. Vincent was too surprised to react.
"Aw . . . I'm just teasing you, Vincent. I always used to tease you, remember? Remember . . . the good old days, when you and I were friends?"
"I remember," Vincent replied, and the tone of his voice made Mitch pause for a moment.
"You can't hold that against me forever, Vincent. Didn't I save you in the end? Don't know what you're so upset about."
Vincent turned to stare at him then, really look at him for the first time in months. He saw the easy smile, the charm, the air of sophistication that he'd always envied and been drawn to. But now, he also saw something else – a carelessness, a lack of concern for anyone or anything other than himself. Vincent sighed.
"Don't you love your father? Doesn't his pain matter to you at all?"
"Now, don't go all noble on me, Vincent. I don't wanna hear it. My father is a fool, especially if he thinks he can keep me from where I belong—on the streets! That's where the real life is, man!”
Vincent turned away, suddenly anxious to feel the warm security of the tunnels around him again. “I have to go home, Mitch,” he repeated. “Good-bye.”
"Don't you want to know my secret? The one I was going to share just with you? The secret about the . . . carousel?"
Vincent froze in his tracks. He wanted to go back, wanted to know the secret about his wonderful, magical place. But he knew what Mitch was like, was certain it was a trick. Grimly determined, he took another step.
"I know you want to ride it, Vincent," Mitch said softly. He watched Vincent stop again and smiled, knowing he'd hooked the younger boy. "I've watched you come here almost every night, seen you sit and stare at the horses for hours. Guess what? One of my friends Above is a whiz with machines. He's learning all about it in school. He says he can start this thing up, Vincent, all by himself. Just think—you could actually ride the carousel, ride your favorite horse, too. I know which one it is. I've seen you—”
Vincent whirled around, a low growl rolling out of his throat, cut to the quick at Mitch's insensitivity to his fantasies. They were his only reality, all he had, while Mitch had all of Above to roam in. He closed the distance between them in an instant. Mitch started back, afraid; Vincent was reminded of the strength he was not even conscious of, and which saddened him when he saw how it made others afraid.
"Mitch," he said gently, taking a step backward, "please . . . don't tease me. This place is special to me."
"I know that, Vincent," Mitch said, suddenly sincere. "That's why I'm telling you this—because I know how much you'd enjoy it. I promise it'll be okay. I'll even get the guy to show me how to run it, and then I'll send him away. Nobody but you and me, okay, Vincent? It'll sort of make up for . . . before, you know. What do you say?"
Vincent looked at him, blue eyes imploring the other not to tempt him again. “I have to go,” he said finally, turning on his heel and running away before he could hear any more of the siren song offering him a taste of a forbidden life.
Mitch leaned back against the nearest tree, smiling to himself.
Father looked up, surprised to hear the sound of Vincent's footsteps. The clock showed 10:30 p.m., and his son was very rarely home before midnight these nights. Ever since he'd been allowing Vincent to move about on his own at night, the boy had been gradually adjusting his body's timetable--staying up until two, sleeping until ten—to fit his own. Though it still seemed somehow . . . wrong to permit a twelve-year-old boy to stay up that late, Father could see that Vincent was thriving on it—and he himself was glad for the extra time they were able to spend together.
But something was different tonight; Father took off his glasses and unconsciously leaned toward the entranceway, straining to decipher the change in Vincent's approach. He was, of course, unusually large and strong for his age, but there was always a grace and elegance to his walk, a lightness to his step that had more to do with his heart and his imagination than his body. But tonight, Vincent seemed to be . . . trudging through the passageway.
Father stood up just as Vincent appeared at the top of the small staircase that served as the entrance to his study. "Vincent! Home so early?" He reached out to embrace his son, as was their usual custom. Vincent returned the greeting, but as if in a dream. Father was further surprised to note that Vincent was not wearing the cape Mary had made for him, and which he treasured; obviously, he had already returned to his room before coming here.
Vincent threw himself into the nearest chair and stared at the candelabrum on Father's desk, a look of great sadness on his face.
"I went to the Park tonight, Father," he said finally.
Father was puzzled. "But why then are you so sad, my son? I know how you love the Park—especially the merry-go-round. Did you go there? Where are all your stories of knights and heroes and daring deeds?" Father smiled encouragingly, trying to raise Vincent's spirits. Receiving no smile in turn, he realized how deeply upset the boy was.
"Yes, Father, I did go to the carousel. It was beautiful, as always. But then, something happened to spoil it."
"What? What could have—?" Father choked on a moment of dark panic, his face pale as he thought of a thousand possibilities, all adding up to one tragedy. "No one saw you? You weren't careless, forgot the rules?"
"I was careless—for a second. Forgive me, Father. But it's not what you think." Vincent shifted in his chair, finally looked Father in the eyes. "I met Mitch in the Park. He was following me. I didn't realize it and he startled me, caught me unaware."
Father's face was grim. "I had almost believed that he'd left, gone Above for good, but Mary told me she'd seen him here in the tunnels last month. I'm going to talk to the Council. Despite the affection in which Sam is held here Below, we can no longer grant him this favor. Mitch has been nothing but trouble since—"
"Father." Vincent's clear blue eyes looked up at him, close to tears, pleading. "Please don't be angry. I can't bear to see you angry. Mitch is just unhappy because he's forced to live in the tunnels when he'd rather be Above." Vincent's head went down. "I can understand that."
Father stared for a moment, the heat of his anger cooled by the empathy, the sorrow in his son's face. Vincent had a sensitivity toward others that reached far beyond his actual years, that seemed to flow from him as easily as mischief flowed from other boys. Father thought—not for the first time—that it was a quality almost supernatural, its source hidden in the mystery of Vincent's beginnings. Slowly, he let out a sigh and returned to his desk.
"Come here, Vincent. Please . . . sit next to me, and tell me what happened."
Vincent got up and moved to his chair, a slightly smaller version of the one Father used. Winslow had built it especially for him, so that he could sit comfortably at Father's desk to learn his lessons. He drew his knees up into the circle of his arms.
"I was sitting in the dark, against the wall, looking at Black Beauty—you know, my favorite."
Father nodded, smiling, and motioned Vincent to continue.
"I was imagining a wonderful story, Father, full of magical people and things, dragons and treasures, knights and chivalry—and then Mitch called out to me from the shadows, where I couldn't see him. I was so frightened, I thought my heart would stop. And even after he let me see who he was, he still teased me, told me I was too old for such things."
Father felt his heart pierced as Vincent's head sank to his knees, hiding his face. Vincent had so few pleasures in his hidden life, so little of the freedom that was every child's birthright. How dare Mitch try to destroy what Vincent had been able to build for himself? He had always considered himself a fair and rational man, but right now, Father felt he could have killed Mitch Denton.
"Vincent . . . Vincent." He reached out a hand and stroked Vincent's red-gold hair. "You mustn't listen to such things. I've told you—each one of us is unique, with our own dreams and yearnings and fantasies. You and Mitch are different—” Vincent's head snapped up, and Father saw the tear rolling down his son’s cheek; he closed his own eyes for a second, tightly, and forced himself to go on. "Different—in many ways. But your most important difference is that you are filled with a positive, outward-looking spirit, a beauty of soul and heart that Mitch will never know. You are filled with a hunger to learn, to know, to feel all that life has to offer and not miss a single drop, while he is full only of the bitterness of thwarted selfishness. Don't let him stop you from dreaming the dreams that are Vincent's."
Father could see that, even though Vincent understood his words, there was another question, more important to his heart, that the boy burned to know the answer to.
"But we were friends once, Father, friends! Why would he deliberately taunt me, say things to hurt me so? Why, Father, why?"
Father exhaled heavily and shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the weight of Vincent's expectations of parental wisdom. The boy had so many questions. And where would he find the answers for this trapped child, whose curiosity could never be fully satisfied?
He shook his head finally, reaching out to grip Vincent's shoulder while he searched for the right words. Vincent's face was tilted up toward him, the always-startling gaze of an old soul looking out through innocent eyes . . . waiting.
"I'm sorry, Vincent, but I can't tell you why. Cruelty—deliberate cruelty—can never be understood by the compassionate heart. It is true that those who care, who feel for others, are more easily hurt, but people like Mitch do suffer, in their own way and in time, believe me. Now, Mitch thinks only of himself, and doesn't care what he does to other people. Someday he will find himself alone, with nothing left of himself and no one to care about him."
Vincent turned his head away, impatient at tales of "someday" and long-term fairness. In this, Father noted, he was the same as any other child—satisfied only with justice in the here and now. Vincent's voice held a trace of anger when he finally spoke.
"But the others Below are not like this—they are my family, they care for me, and they would never harm me! Mitch has lived with us since he was eight years old. Why is he different?"
"Perhaps, Vincent, the truth is that Mitch has never really been one of us. He doesn't belong in the tunnels—he's made that quite clear over the years. Remember what he did to you two years ago, in the train yard?"
Vincent nodded grudgingly. "I know, Father, but—”
"No, Vincent." Father interrupted with an abrupt, chopping motion. "I know this is difficult for you to believe, but not all people are good, or kind. What he did to you—then, and tonight—was not kind, and he knows it. He thinks of tormenting people as sport, and doesn't take it seriously when his actions harm others. That's why he's so dangerous. Not to himself, and not even just to you, although that is very important to me." Father smiled at Vincent warmly, but the boy maintained a sorrowful silence, unwilling to be cajoled. Father took another deep breath and continued. "It is to the community as a whole that he is most dangerous. He must leave us. Surely you can see that, Vincent?"
The small, reddish-gold head nodded, barely.
"It really is for the best, Vincent. Please trust me in this. No one can hide from what they truly are—even though Sam thinks he can protect his son from the streets by hiding him in the tunnels. The others down here—our family—are not here because they want to hide or escape anything other than the madness and callousness of the world Above. We have all come here to belong, to be loved. There is no love in Mitch, only bitterness," Father insisted, hoping that his words were convincing Vincent. "He may belong somewhere, I don't know, but he doesn't belong here."
Vincent looked up, his face concentrated in such a serious expression of childish determination—fair, upswept brows knit tightly together, his curiously beautiful mouth pursed—that it was all Father could do to keep from laughing in fond amusement. "What is it, Vincent?" he managed to say.
"It may be true, Father, that Mitch does not belong here, but I can't believe there is no good in him at all. It must be there, somewhere." Vincent struck the arms of his chair decisively. "It just has to be found, looked for."
"If it can be found by anyone, Vincent, you'd be the one to do it—certainly the only one with the patience to search for it!" Father looked down tenderly on Vincent, warmed by the generosity of the boy's heart. He bent and kissed him on the forehead. "But I still say it's a hopeless cause." It was time to change the subject; Vincent was too obsessed by the idea that he could somehow bring out the best in Mitch.
"Well, now, since you're home early tonight, why don't we do a little reading? You mentioned yesterday that you'd found a new author you wanted to explore. Where is the book?"
Vincent jumped out of his chair at the mention of books. In a life of restrictions and containment, they were his only freedom. He could roam and explore as much as he wished within the pages of the volumes in Father's library. And even though he had been able to read almost since he could talk, the times when Father read aloud to him were special occasions of closeness for both of them. Father smiled to himself as he remembered that he had even managed to "train" Vincent to eat spinach by withholding the crucial shipwreck scene from Moonfleet from him until the last spoonful of the dreaded leafy vegetable was gone.
He watched Vincent run to one of the oldest, least-used shelves, where the books wore a layer of dust like a garment. Vincent blew some of the coating away and pulled out a slim book, then hurried back to hand his prize to Father, who took a look at the title and frowned, unhappy with Vincent's choice for more than one reason.
The author was Rainer Maria Rilke—not someone he would have chosen for a child of twelve, not even one as serious as Vincent. Far too mature, difficult sometimes even for an adult. He found himself anxiously praying that Vincent had not found any of Rilke's other works yet . . . specifically his erotic poetry. He had had only one or two rather awkward conversations with Vincent about sex—basic, fundamental information the boy had to have—but he couldn't find it in his heart to bring up the concept of the joy and beauty and fulfillment that could be found in the act of love. How could he torture Vincent with knowledge of sensations and emotions that he would surely never experience?
And then there was Rilke's insistence on the advantages—no, the necessity—of solitude. His essays on that subject, which really had more to do with the artist's inner life than with the average person's existence, were severe, adamant, and as far as Father was concerned, unhealthy and morbid. Vincent's life was solitary enough; he didn't want to encourage brooding in someone for whom it could become dangerous.
Father's frown grew deeper as he perused the title of this particular volume: Stories of God. It was one of Rilke's lesser works, at least that's what the critics said. He himself had scanned it several years ago and been mildly annoyed by the simplistic, middle-European fairy tales that purported to explain the ways and means of a supreme being. Harmless enough, until he looked at it from Vincent's perspective. The boy had to fashion his own ideas about some things based only on what he could read or what he was told—certain experiences were beyond him. He himself was agnostic, and even if Vincent had been a normal child, free to move in the world Above, he would not have encouraged him to participate in any sort of religious community. He knew that a certain amount of exposure to things religious/mythic was inevitable, especially with Mary around, but Father still preferred to attempt to guide Vincent's experience in such things, for right or wrong, as he saw best. Vincent was very impressionable, and there would be time enough when he was grown for him to discover his own truths. And Rilke's version of God was not one he was anxious for Vincent to experience. Even Mary's tales of Roman Catholic saints and martyrs would be preferable.
Father glanced at the first story—“The Tale of the Hands of God”—rifling the pages as he tried to quickly get a sense of the story. Perhaps not this one. . . . He looked up at Vincent, who was waiting impatiently, and smiled brightly. "Which one should we start with, Vincent? How about—”
"We should start at the beginning and go through to the end." Vincent's tone was inexorable, his eyes steely blue. "It's the only way to read a book, the first time."
Father made a noise of exasperation and turned back to the front of the volume. He should know better by now than to try to get around Vincent when it came to stories. Half-measures were never accepted; the boy wanted to savour every single word of every single book he could lay his hands on, and he wouldn't be denied even the smallest one. Father had tried to play this game with Vincent before, and hadn't won yet. It was becoming more and more difficult all the time to censor Vincent's reading material, a sure sign that his son was growing up. There was a sharp pang of regret at that revelation.
"Yes, the beginning," he said gruffly. "I suppose so."
"That's what you told me, Father, a long time ago." Vincent settled back into his chair, arms folded firmly in front, not budging an inch.
Father found it in himself—just this once—to curse Vincent's remarkable memory; the incident referred to had taken place when Vincent was four years old. Recognizing a corner when he was in it, he turned back to the front of the book and began to read. He watched Vincent, secure now in his victory, relax gradually, his chin finding its way into his hand as he became absorbed with the words.
As he read, the details of the story came back to Father from his reading of it long ago. It was a creation story—on the surface, a simple enough folk tale of the type where inanimate objects and even parts of the body existed and acted independent of the person they belonged to. "The Tale of the Hands of God" told a story of a deity so distracted by the immensity of the creation of an entire world that he decided to allow his hands to complete the work of creating man while he watched over other things. A different approach, certainly, than the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition, which held firmly to the belief that God was omniscient in all his attributes, at all times. Rilke assured the reader that, while God was all-knowing and all-capable, he had not—up to this point—had to focus his mighty "faculties" into "specific duties", and so they existed only as a "single great force" until the intricacies of creating a varied world required him to channel his energy into the different attributes.
Father could barely prevent himself from laughing at this simplistic yet bizarre theology. He would definitely have to divert Vincent's attention from this book, but it would have to be done subtly and indirectly. Perhaps if he gave Vincent one of Rilke's other, less objectionable books, it wouldn't occur to the boy that he disapproved of the author—disapproval being the best way to insure that children would do exactly what you didn't want them to do. Vincent was not willful, but he could be stubborn about books.
Father returned his attention to the story, trying to get through it as quickly as possible.
Then suddenly he saw something falling through space, something dark and in a direction that made it seem to come from quite near him. Filled with evil foreboding, he called to his hands. They appeared, all blotched with clay, hot and trembling.
“Where is man?” God thundered at them.
The right hand flew at the left: “You dropped him!”
“Excuse me,” countered the left, provoked, “you insisted on doing everything by yourself, you wouldn't even let me have anything to say.”
“But you ought to have held him!” And the right hand drew back as if to strike, but then thought better of it, and the two raced each other in saying:
'”He was so impatient, man. He was in such a hurry to live. It is not our fault; really, we are both innocent.”
But God was seriously angry. He pushed both hands away, for they blocked the earth from his sight. “I've finished with you from now on; go and do as you like!”
And that is what his hands have been trying to do ever since, but whatever they start, they can only begin. Without God there is no perfection. And so at last they tired of it. Now they are on their knees all day long, doing penance—at least, so it is said. To us, however, it appears as though God were resting, because he is angry with his hands. It is still the seventh day.
I was silent for a moment. My companion used that moment very sensibly: “And do you think they will never again be reconciled?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “At least I hope so.”
“And when might that be?”
“Well, not until God knows what man, whom his hands released against his will, looks like.”
Father started. Vincent had never interrupted the reading of a story in his life; he had sometimes even noticed the boy holding his breath as a story concluded, as if that act would somehow prevent its end. There was something very strange in the air tonight, and he glanced at his son worriedly.
"Yes, Vincent, what is the matter?"
"I understand now!" Vincent's boyish voice barely contained his excitement.
"Understand what, Vincent?" Father asked with patience—and growing apprehension.
Vincent leaned forward in his chair, clear eyes wide. "I've always thought that God had a reason for making me what I am—I had to believe something. But maybe there really isn't a reason. Maybe God's hands dropped me, and I’m a mistake!"
"Vincent!" Father exploded, unable to remain calm any longer. "I had assumed you were old enough to understand the nature of the story we were reading. It is a middle-European folk tale, a superstition, not to be taken as a reality. I have also told you my feelings on the subject of human nature: we are all presented, by an unknown power or force that is beyond anyone's capability to name or define, with a set of circumstances that is our life, and how we deal with that set of circumstances shows our character, and the strength of our inner being. I do not believe that there is a 'plan' for anyone's life, but neither is there such a thing as an accident. You are not a mistake, and I don't ever want you to think of yourself as a mistake again. Do you understand me?"
Vincent nodded solemnly, taken aback at the outburst from his usually benevolent parent.
Father closed his eyes and tried to slow the rush of anger he felt. He was not, after all, angry at Vincent, but at this weird tale and its peculiar author. He took a deep breath, then opened his eyes and reached out to cup Vincent's chin in one hand. "Hands can show love," he said gently, with great emotion, "but they do not have the power of reason, and they are not capable of deeds—or misdeeds—of their own. This is a fairy tale, Vincent, a myth." He stopped, unsure of how—or whether—to continue.
Vincent slid his hand into his father's other palm. "You didn't let me finish, Father," he said quietly but stubbornly. “I know about myths. I read somewhere that a myth is 'something that never was but is always happening,' and I'm not quite sure yet what that means, but I do know that a myth is sort of a— a metaphor for something that's real."
Father raised an eyebrow. Vincent's comprehension of the mechanisms of literature, not to mention his vocabulary, often exceeded adult expectations. "That is one way of putting it, I suppose," he allowed, curious to hear what would come next.
"And I do remember what you've told me before about human nature," Vincent continued with a grimace, indicating he was not satisfied with Father's interpretation. "But there must be something else to it, something that explains why we're not all the same, why some of us are different, and why some of us are happy and some of us are unhappy."
He paused, deep in thought, and Father found himself holding in a breath, waiting for the next step in Vincent's logic.
"So, there have to be such things as mistakes, Father—and mistakes don't always have to be bad. Sometimes they can be for the good, in the end, can't they?"
"Yes-s-s," Father said slowly, feeling another corner closing in behind him. "But—"
"So I could be a mistake”—Vincent paused and looked carefully at Father, who made a face in reply— “and Mitch could be a mistake too, just another kind!"
"Mitch!" Father's voice rose again, this time in bewilderment as much as anger. "Vincent, what does Mitch have to do with all this?"
Vincent swallowed, but continued to look Father straight in the eyes. "Maybe God's hands dropped Mitch too," he said quickly.
Vincent took Father's hand in both of his. "You told me that myths and fairy tales are ways of explaining things that people can't understand if they look at it only with their minds."
Father shook his head in exasperation. "Vincent, please—I did not say that it was the right way of explaining things, I—"
"But this helps me understand why Mitch is the way he is. I know he wasn't really dropped, but there is something missing in him, and maybe I can help him find it if 1 can just understand."
Father saw determination return to Vincent's face, and his own frustration suddenly melted away. How could you berate someone for wanting to care? Vincent did care, even about someone as worthless as Mitch. Hadn't he himself once tried to reach the boy, sure that he showed promise, during Mitch's early years in the tunnels? Maybe it was not his place to try to squelch Vincent's concern, or to try to show Vincent that a heart worn on a sleeve is easily bruised. But bruising was the price that must be paid for the understanding Vincent craved, and he would have to learn that lesson all alone. It was a parent's place to stand and watch, also alone. Father sighed as he pondered, not for the first time, who grew the most day to day.
"Vincent, Vincent," he said finally, head shaking, "one of these days you'll have me believing in fairy tales and magic myself."
"Well," Vincent said thoughtfully, "if you decide that something is magic, or something fantastic, at least you've explained it somehow." He pulled back from Father and began studying his hands, head tilted slightly to one side, a small frown on his face.
Father didn't like the look on Vincent's face, or the direction his thoughts seemed to be taking. He decided to nip such talk in the bud.
"Vincent, there is no such thing as magic," he said firmly, taking up Vincent's hands in his own. "Except possibly for the magic of love." He smiled at his son, hoping once again to distract him from his thoughts.
Vincent sighed and looked up at Father. "Maybe love is magic," he said quietly. "And maybe each life is a fairy tale, Father, and we should live as if we were telling a tale, trying to explain ourselves and who we are—first to our own hearts, and then to someone else's. Someone else who really cares to know. Like God wants to know us, in that story."
Vincent stood up and leaned forward to kiss Father on the cheek. "I think I'll go to bed now, Father. Good night."
Father nodded wordlessly. He couldn't have trusted his voice to reply, but he held onto Vincent's hand for a moment longer before letting go. He watched as the boy left the chamber, his step as heavy as when he'd entered.
As soon as Vincent was out of sight, Father was on his feet as well, but headed in the opposite direction—toward Mary's chambers. There were certain times when, Catholicism notwithstanding, Mary could be counted on to share the special burdens of parenting. He blew out a row of candles on his way, leaving his study in semi-darkness.
Vincent stood at the entrance to his chamber, staring, suddenly unable to cross the threshold. This had been Father's other gift to him on his twelfth birthday, aside from permission to go Above: privacy. A room of his own. He was old enough now to be alone, Father had said, and old enough to take care of himself, too. He had started to make the chamber his own immediately, with treasures discovered in the brand-new world outside the tunnels: the old jukebox he'd found, and that Winslow had promised to help him revive; the china elephant—it reminded him of Kipling's The Elephant's Child—unearthed on a foraging trip with Sarah; the replica of the Statue of Liberty Father had given him to study until he could someday, perhaps, with the aid of a Helper in the right position, make the trip to see the real thing.
But now, as Vincent looked at all of them, they seemed strange to him, these articles that so short a time ago had been precious. He saw them now with another's eyes: they were stupid things, shabby, and he was a baby who had no idea of what was really valuable. Vincent shook his head, trying to dislodge the sensation of a sound, suddenly very strong inside his head. It was a low, mean laugh. It was Mitch's laugh. Vincent knew he was “feeling” it as surely as Mitch was at that very moment—as surely as if he were Mitch.
This connection with other people's hearts was something that Vincent had been experiencing more and more often lately. It was probably something that he should discuss with Father, but he didn't know quite how to put it without upsetting the person he loved most in the world. He knew Father would be very disturbed, would feel this was just one more proof of Vincent's "differentness"—but the truth was, it didn't usually bother Vincent at all. Not every difference was a bad thing, just as every mistake was not; he'd told Father that, but he wasn't sure Father had believed it.
All the feelings he had ever experienced through these connections had been good ones, from his family: the love and concern, the ordinary worries and problems of everyday life in the tunnels. Vincent had always welcomed them, savoured them, took them as cues to help out, to be in the right place at the right time, to be extra kind to someone who was upset. This was the Game he played for the benefit of those he cared for. He knew they wondered how he understood so well what they needed, but he never told them—part of the Game.
And, no matter how Father explained it, Vincent still couldn't understand why the feelings he received from Mitch were so harsh, so mean—like the laughter he'd just felt—when he had spent so many years in the tunnels and in the company of people who showed him nothing but love. He had tried to play the Game with Mitch many times, but it never seemed to work. Vincent could feel the nastiness Mitch projected, Mitch's disgust at being trapped in the tunnels . . . even sometimes a glimpse of the pain the older boy hid from everyone. Only Vincent knew how Mitch had once adored his father, wanted to be with him, to help him. And only Vincent realized that Mitch had felt discarded when Sam made the decision to send him Below, like he was someone who couldn't be trusted. The hurt had colored his attitude, and it hadn't been long before most of the people in the tunnels had looked on him as trouble—and not long before Mitch believed it himself.
Now Mitch was making Sam's fears a reality, hardening himself, refusing to be loved, or helped, or understood. Father had said that Mitch would always be alone—but Vincent just couldn't accept that. Father had also told Vincent not to let anyone stop him from dreaming his own dreams. And one of his dreams was to make the people he loved happy. There was a better part of Mitch, buried deep, and Vincent knew that he could find it. That was why he'd been given the ability to play the Game, he was sure of it: to help people, like Mitch, who were lost or alone in their hearts.
Reassured of the strength and rightness of his own feelings, Vincent took a deep breath and entered his room, a room that once again was warm and safe, well-loved and familiar to him. He fell onto the bed, rolled over on his stomach, and stared at the large wrought-iron grate that curved in a half circle over him. It was the one thing about his chamber that he didn't like—the metal bars seemed so dark, so confining. Then he remembered that, just the other day, Pascal's Aunt Jeanne had promised to teach him something that she alone of all the tunnel dwellers knew how to do, the art of making stained glass. The panels and lamps that she had created not only brought small patches of light and color to the darkness Below, but were also sold by the Helpers to the world Above to buy necessary supplies and food. Vincent was honored that she had chosen him to pass on her knowledge, too. After all, Pascal was already apprenticed to his father, learning the language of the pipes. Vincent was thrilled at the idea of being able to create beauty with his own hands and help his family at the same time. But now he began to think of another way he could use such a skill. Replacing the ugly bars with a large window of stained glass—specially tinted, light carefully focused behind it—would give his chamber its very own sun, something to make his room unique, his own. Vincent knew that it would not be an easy project, and that it would take a very long time just to learn the necessary skills, but he was so excited at his inspiration that he rolled over and hugged his knees to his chest tightly, giggling softly with pleasure.
It was still a little too early to go to bed, so Vincent turned to one of his bookshelves—all carefully placed so as to be in reach no matter which way he lay on the bed—and took out a small volume. There was something else he hadn't told Father; he'd actually already read one of Rilke's other books on his own, and was now starting on his second. Now he was glad he hadn't; Father's reaction to Stories of God had been very strong, and very negative.
Vincent didn't understand why
Father didn't like Rilke. He found the words in Rilke's compact, richly
textured poetry and prose difficult, sometimes frustrating, but always
awe-inspiring and sadly beautiful. First, he had swallowed, almost
whole, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke.
It was a prose-poem inspired by one of Rilke's own ancestors, a brave
young standard-bearer who had died in a war in
Then he had turned to another work, Letters to a Young Poet; he was struggling with that now. The book consisted of ten letters written to a young man who, like many others, asked Rilke for advice about writing, about life. Vincent found it both simple and difficult, and some of the writer's advice puzzled him. One letter spoke of ancient myths of dragons and princesses, things terrible and helpless—the words had no meaning for him as he read them, even though he thought they should.
Vincent opened the book as he leaned back against the pillows and began to read the fourth letter over again; it was one that had particularly puzzled him. But now, as he studied it, Vincent felt a great excitement rising up in his chest, and he took a deep breath as he read the lines over again.
You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Vincent smiled to himself as he finally understood the truth of Rilke's words. This passage had always baffled him; his whole life was a question, without even the hope of an answer. How could he be patient? But now these words revealed not only their own truth to him, but the truth of Father's words as well. Yes, it was difficult to be patient, to wait for the right time, the right moment, when life would reveal its mysteries to you. But the waiting was part of the answer; while you waited, you should be busy with becoming the kind of person who would understand, recognize the answers when they came. Just as Father had told him! How well you "lived into the answers" showed the strength of your character, your inner being. Not a plan, but a way, known only to one's own heart in stages as life unfolded. His way was the Game, which grew and changed as he did, becoming more difficult, then easier; now a well-loved part of his heart, and then an uncomfortable mystery. It was only his to live and discover.
Vincent sprang to his feet, anxious to share his insights with Father. Perhaps he would even tell him about the Game. Halfway out the door, another thought occurred to him. The balloon! He had completely forgotten about his treasure since coming Below, shamed by Mitch's cruel words into hiding it in his chambers before he went to visit Father. It had seemed so silly, so childish to hang onto it . . . when Mitch had been the only one to see it. Vincent realized now what he should have remembered before: that he could share anything with Father without shame. One of the wonderful things about loving and being loved that Mitch didn't understand. He went to his wardrobe, where he had hidden the balloon in the folds of his cloak.
But the balloon wasn't there. Vincent searched frantically through his clothing, and then gasped in disbelief when he finally saw it, deflated and half its original size, at the bottom of the wardrobe. It was wrinkled and small and ugly. Vincent felt sharp, hot anger and disappointment tighten in his chest, and he struck out, slashing at the balloon and leaving it in shreds—and the tension in his body suddenly drained. He stood, staring at the rubbery remnants of what had once been a lovely, airy thing, until suddenly the salt taste of a tear at the corner of his mouth brought him back to the present.
Vincent sniffed once, wiped his eyes with his sleeve, and then made his way around his chamber, blowing out all the candles but one. Quickly removing his outer clothing and pulling on his nightshirt, he dove under the quilts on his bed, pulled them over his head, and curled himself into a tight, miserable ball.
The Park lay quiet under the
weight of July's heat; not an animal, not a leaf stirred. Most of the
people in the city were at home, in front of air conditioners, trying to
keep cool—it seemed to Vincent that that he was the only person in
This was the first time he'd actually come back this close since that night in June when Mitch had surprised him. That encounter had saddened him so that he couldn't bear the idea of going to see Black Beauty the next night, hadn't gone Above at all. He hadn't even wanted to go the night after that, but Father had started to question him, asking him if he felt well, concerned that Vincent didn't seem to want to leave his room. Vincent couldn't worry him that way, and to try to discuss Mitch with Father again was pointless, so he went Above. And after a few nights of avoiding that end of the Park altogether, Vincent found he couldn't resist the lure of his beloved carousel after all. Slowly, every night a few inches closer, he allowed himself to be drawn back to its magic. Last night he had occupied the bridge closest to it, hovering over the little valley where the carousel sat for a full, dangerous fifteen minutes. He had drunk it in, peering into the shadows with his keen eyesight as he committed to memory details he had never noticed before, finally moving back to the relative safety of the nearest stand of trees.
And now he sat here on Chess Hill—Father had told him it was the place where people Above met to challenge each other's skills in the game Vincent was just learning—and stared at the object of his adoration. He didn't have the courage to go down, not even in the middle of the night when it really didn't belong to anyone but him. But as he scolded himself, Vincent admitted that what he was really afraid of was that it somehow wouldn't be his anymore. Mitch had changed that. Vincent was sure it wouldn't feel the same, and getting too close to it might prove his fears right. All because of Mitch. Mitch—who was waiting for him somewhere, and who would know just where Vincent's heart would irresistibly bring him. Vincent had told Father he understood Mitch and wanted to help him, but along with his sympathy and concern, Vincent was also afraid that the older boy would be able to lure him into trouble again. Simply because Vincent wanted to be able to trust him so much. The thought of being able to find a way into Mitch's heart, of having the Game succeed, was almost as powerful an urge as the thought that he should protect himself from the pain of being betrayed by Mitch's carelessness.
Vincent shook his head vigorously, sending the worries that had kept him crouched and frightened on the hill flying. He hadn't even seen Mitch since that night, and no one else in the tunnels had either. Perhaps Mitch had really left this time, as he was always threatening to do. And even if he should meet Mitch—wasn't Mitch a part of his family after all? Why should he be afraid of him? Mitch had always told him that he liked him, and had always paid more attention to him than to the other children Below. If he was careful, there was no reason to have to reject Mitch, as so many other people had done, as Father would have liked him to do. Father didn't know about the Game . . . and Vincent still had hopes.
Vincent stood suddenly, wiping his hands free of the dead leaves he'd been resting on, and walked carefully but purposefully down to the carousel.
He stopped just short of the building that housed it, and inspected the bars closely. They were painted black, but in the middle of each length of iron was molded a small carousel horse, painted over in a color that matched the horses inside. It was a small touch that delighted him, and he always looked for the bar that had the same colors as his favorite horse—silver and red and blue—and squeezed through at that point. Tonight Vincent traced the outlines of the horse over twice before taking a deep breath and pushing his way inside.
Once he was there it felt like he'd never been away. All the joy and magic he'd been so afraid of losing were there, and it seemed that they almost had a presence, and that the carousel had missed him. Vincent closed his eyes, glad that he had decided not to listen to his fears, overwhelmed with happiness at being in his special place once more.
Vincent opened his eyes again and scanned the walls, familiarizing himself again with all the details: the murals all around the structure and in the center of clowns and animals and other friends of childhood; the little booths where the men who operated the carousel stood. The book Father had given him explained that the very first carousel in the park, in the 1870s, had been powered by a blind horse and blind mule. Vincent felt a pity for those poor, long-gone creatures; at least when people worked the gears and mechanisms of the carousel, they could understand the enjoyment of the children who rode it, and see their faces as they clung to their chosen steeds.
Favorites. . . . Vincent's attention drifted back to the horses themselves, and he started to circle the ring of brightly painted wooden mounts, looking for Black Beauty. When a branch scraped along a row of iron bars, Vincent stiffened for a moment, not recognizing the sound, and searched for a familiar outline in the shadows around him, but he saw no one. After waiting several minutes in careful silence, Vincent moved, with more care and attention to his surroundings, toward the nearest black carousel horse. But this was not his horse; instead of the usual garlands and blankets carved into the wood, it had two fierce lion's heads staring out from either side of the back of the saddle. Vincent frowned. He had never quite felt comfortable with this one. He continued to move around the outside of the wooden platform where the horses were anchored until, finally, the one he loved most was just ahead.
"I told you I knew which one was your favorite."
Vincent stepped back with a sharp intake of breath, but he was not really surprised. The other boy was there in front of him, leaning against Black Beauty with a flashlight dangling from his hands. As Vincent recovered and took a step forward, the flashlight came up and on in an instant, blinding him.
"Mitch." Vincent put his hands in front of his face and tried to keep his voice steady. "We haven't seen you in weeks. Where have you been?"
Mitch seemed disappointed that Vincent hadn't been frightened. "'We'?" he said sarcastically. "Who is 'we'—you and the almighty Father? Well, you tell him not to worry. I'm still around. And I’ve been watching you.” Finally he lowered the beam of light and stepped down from the carousel's platform to stand in front of Vincent, poking him with the other end of the flashlight. "You've been afraid to come back, haven't you? Afraid to leave the straight and narrow path Father told you you have to walk. But I have something to show you, Vincent."
He grabbed Vincent by the arm and led him over to the nearest railings, pushing him through and then following after. Vincent felt suddenly very vulnerable, being out in the open with another person—two people would be much more visible, noticeable to a passerby than one—but he also noted that Mitch was not being as rough as he sometimes could be.
Mitch was pointing at a plaque on the outside wall of the carousel. Vincent had seen it before, but he dutifully leaned forward and read it out in a loud whisper. "'Michael Friedsam Memorial—'"
"No, not that part—this. 'For
the children of the City of
Vincent felt Mitch's hand, tight and warm, over the sweater he wore; through that touch he felt a flow of kindness he had not had from Mitch in many years. He stared at the older boy, full of hope and wonder. He'd been right. There still was a part of Mitch that could be reached. And Father had been right about something else: He, Vincent, was the only one who could reach it. He could read that in Mitch's heart so clearly right now—a heart that had decided affection was a weakness it could not afford, but that still retained the ghost of a fondness he had always had for a little boy who had looked up to him, admired him once.
Vincent smiled. "Mitch. . . ." he began earnestly.
"Now don't go all soft on me, kid!" Mitch shook Vincent abruptly, his voice harsh. "And don't give me that creepy look, either, like you're trying to figure out what's goin' on in my head or something. All I'm saying is, you're the only one in that hole in the ground who's worth wasting my time on. We used to have fun, you and me, and that's all! I just think it's about time you started making your own decisions. Live a little! Don't always be doin' what Father and Mary tell you, like a good little boy." He laughed, a short, nasty chuckle. "Neither of them really knows what fun is."
Vincent shrugged, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation and anxious to get back to safer ground. He was sure now that Mitch did not really want to hurt him or bring him into any danger. If he were to go along with the older boy, just so far, maybe Mitch would trust him a little more, and then. . . Vincent made a promise to himself: if he could just once play the Game with Mitch, he would finally tell Father about it.
"Mitch," he began cautiously, "I've told you that this place is very special to me. And that's why I've stayed away—I don't want it to be spoiled, or ruined. It's not safe for me to be here even this long."
"But that's exactly why I’m here—so you can enjoy your special place." Mitch let go of Vincent and threw his hands up defensively. "I'll be your lookout, so you can sit on your horse and not have to worry about who's coming up behind you. I know you can't do things the way everyone else can, Vincent. I'm not stupid. That's why I'm offering to help you, as a friend." Mitch dug his hands into his pockets, shaking his head and trying to appear unconcerned. "But you better take advantage of my generosity now, or it may be too late. . ."
Vincent was instantly wary. "What do you mean, too late? Is something going to happen to the carousel?”
Mitch made a face. "No, don't be ridiculous. I'm talking about me—I may not be around much longer."
"But, Mitch, you said—"
"Never mind what I said, and never mind what I'm saying now," Mitch said abruptly, sounding annoyed, as if he had revealed more than he had wanted to. "Do you want to do this or what? I've got better ways to occupy my time than babysitting you."
Vincent's good intentions were forgotten in a flare of hurt and anger. "Don't let me keep you from more important things, Mitch. I'll be just fine on my own. I always am when you're not here to be my ‛friend.’”
Tension seethed between them for several minutes. Mitch finally spoke.
"You think I'm bad news, too, don't you? Just ’cause Father told you I was. Well, I'm not! I just want something different than he does, like getting out of that hell-hole and making a name for myself in the world Up Top. I don't fit into his grubby little tunnel world, like all the other good boys and girls, and he only makes me stay there because my stupid old man is his friend and he asked him to! I thought you and I had an understanding, Vincent, but I guess I was wrong."
Guilt-stricken, Vincent remembered what he had told Father. Mitch could be a mistake too, just another kind. . . He was so ashamed of himself. He had ruined his chance with Mitch, just because of his temper.
"No, Mitch, no, you're not wrong! We do have an understanding." He grabbed the older boy's arm, desperate to prove himself. "I'm sorry, please believe me. It's just that I always have to be so careful, and know it's not something most people are used to. It's not that I don't trust you—’
"I should hope not," Mitch said gruffly in a wounded voice. "Don't forget, I've protected you before."
"Five minutes. Let's go back inside for just five minutes. I'll sit on Bla—the horse, and you keep watch. That will be all right, I think, and then I'd better get back to the tunnels. It's getting late."
"Suit yourself." Mitch said carelessly, as if it hadn't been his idea in the first place. "Let's go."
Vincent followed him back through the railings and over to his horse, where Mitch put down the flashlight and bent over, lacing his hands together. "Can I give you a hand up, sir?"
Vincent took a deep breath, put his boot into the makeshift stirrup, and . . . in the next minute, he was in a different place. Actually sitting astride Black Beauty, he finally felt like a true knight, his dreams finally had some substance. Vincent's hand smoothed the horse's mane, calming it and praising it for a deed well-done, encouraging it to go on as they searched for more wrongs to make right. He wished he could have actually known those times. Perhaps he might have belonged there. . . .
"Great feeling, isn't it? Someday you oughta try the real thing—it's even better."
Mitch's voice interrupted his reverie; the older boy was watching him, flashlight on again but this time trained at the level of the horse's saddle so that the strong light wouldn't hit Vincent in the eyes. Vincent was a little embarrassed, but he nodded, then made a move to dismount.
"No, no," Mitch said hurriedly. "Now that you're there, why don't you let me turn it on, just for a minute? You'll love it, Vincent. I promise!"
"Mitch, I can't, I told you—”
"What was that? Did you hear it?" Mitch stiffened, a hand to his ear.
"Be still for a second, will ya? I'll go see what that was." And before he could hear further protest. Mitch was gone.
Vincent struggled breathlessly to get down from the horse alone. He knew exactly what Mitch was going to do, and he had to get away before it happened.
Bright, glaring lights came on then; the whole platform began to move, and then Black Beauty began to sink and rise—slowly at first, but then more steadily. The carousel's music box came to life with a shriek that quickly descended into a steady wail. Vincent, half on and half off, fell to the cement floor beyond the platform and landed on his left arm. A sharp, hot pain shot out in either direction from his elbow. Ignoring it, he struggled to his feet and looked around in a panic, uncertain for a moment which was the fastest way out. There was a sudden rush behind him.
"C'mon—that goddamn music wasn't supposed to start! Now the cops have probably heard it. Let's get out of here!"
Vincent gasped as Mitch grabbed
his injured arm and shoved him out the railings again, this time with
much less care. They started to run, Mitch taking long strides toward
the nearest entrance to the tunnels, by the edge of the Sheep Meadow
"Hey—you kids—what's going on here? Come back!"
Father. Father and Mary and Sarah and Winslow and Pascal . . . all the others. His family. . . . He'd never see them again, all because he'd been foolish enough to believe he could change Mitch with the Game.
Vincent stumbled, almost fell. Behind him, for an instant, he saw the policeman, still some distance away and shading his eyes as he squinted into the trees and their shadows.
He doesn't see me, Vincent thought wildly. Not yet . . . perhaps I can make it before—
He was almost pulled off his feet by a sudden yank at his head. Mitch had returned, grabbing a handful of Vincent's hair and hauling him off to the left, toward the drainage pipe that led to the secret door.
"This way, Vincent—quick!"
Startled and frightened and enraged at Mitch's betrayal, Vincent roared in pain and swiped at the other boy, but his arm wouldn't work properly, his nails only grazing Mitch's shirt before something cracked and the limb fell uselessly to his side. Vincent screamed and sank to his knees.
"Come on, stupid! I'm getting you out of here!"
"What the hell—?" The policeman was still behind them, closer now. He paused, feet shuffling uncertainly in the grass, trying to determine exactly what it was he had heard and what direction it had come from. He slowly pulled his gun from its holster. Mitch took advantage of his confusion and seized Vincent by his vest, covering the last few steps to the pipe and dragging Vincent with him.
"He still hasn't seen us—if we can just get to the door before he follows us all the way in, we're home-free, Vincent! Just a few feet more. . . ."
And finally they were at the tunnel entrance. Vincent sagged against the wall where Mitch had propped him and watched in a daze as he opened the iron gate and activated the hidden switch. The door slid open. Footsteps echoed behind them in the pipe.
"For Christ's sake, Vincent—get in here!"
Mitch practically threw him into the tunnel, and Vincent lay on the floor, unable to move any further. Mitch turned back to the door; as he banged the gate closed, he suddenly knelt and scooped up a handful of pebbles, which he threw into another pipe angled so that it led away from their door.
"There—he'll think we went out that way."
Just as the door thudded shut, Vincent thought he heard a whining sound ringing through the drainage pipe. Mitch collapsed in laughter against the rock wall.
"The stupid jerk! He probably thought there was a lion loose or something! I'm telling you, Vincent—I can give them the slip any time. I'm too good for them."
Vincent wasn't even listening anymore. He pulled himself, inch by agonizing inch, deeper into the tunnel, tears streaming down his face. He had thought he wouldn't make it, but he was home . . . safe. Father. . . . How could he face Father? He stopped his desperate journey and curled in on himself, weeping freely in his shame.
Vincent started at the sound of the voice, and then recognized it, remembered where he was. "Winslow," he whispered.
The tall, black youth came round the corner, a lantern held in front of him as he stared down the tunnel suspiciously. "Who's that—Vincent? What the hell are you doing here? You've never—” Winslow stopped as he got closer and realized what condition Vincent was in. "What in the name of God—?" He swung the lantern around, and finally saw Mitch. His eyes narrowed. "You." He almost spat the word. "I should've known you'd be behind this."
Mitch swaggered over to meet him; Winslow took a menacing step forward, and Mitch's bravado faltered.
"I didn't do anything, Winslow, give me a break! Ask Vincent. I was just helping him—”
"I ain't asking Vincent nothin'. Can't you see the boy's half-dead with pain and fear? And what's he got—a broken arm? What the hell did you do to him?"
Vincent started to protest. He was long past defending Mitch, but he knew that the real blame for this terrible night lay on himself. If he had not been so enchanted, so irresistibly drawn to the carousel . . . if he had not wanted so badly to trust Mitch that he’d disregarded all that common sense told him and thrown away his safety. . . .
Mitch exploded. “Me? I wouldn't hurt him! You've got a hell of a lot of nerve, you son of a—"
Winslow put the lantern down quickly but carefully; his hand lashed out and he had Mitch by the front of the shirt in an instant, drawing him in close to his face. "What were you about to call me?" he asked in a deadly voice.
Mitch swallowed and tried to look fierce, but said nothing.
"I thought so, you cowardly little rat. Now, I don't trust you even as far as I could throw you, so I tell you what I want you to do. Pick Vincent up—as gently as you know how—and carry him back to Father's chambers. I'm gonna be right behind you. Then you're gonna give the whole story to Father, and he'll probably want you to repeat it to the Council, of which I am the newest member. So hear me now—your story had better be good."
He let go of Mitch and pushed him toward Vincent, who began to struggle weakly against the rock wall in an attempt to stand. He would not be carried by Mitch, anywhere.
"Winslow, I can—"
"Forget it," Winslow said gruffly. "Do what you're told. I'd also like to know what the hell you were doing over here, so far from the entrance Father told you to use. You both have a lot of explaining to do. Let's go."
Vincent gritted his teeth in more than pain as Mitch lifted him and they began the trip to Father's chambers under Winslow's watchful eye.
“You can't be serious!"
Father was incredulous as he looked around his chamber at the faces of the tunnel inhabitants. Most of them averted their eyes; only Mary stood by his side, equally indignant. Winslow remained firm.
"It's got to be done, and you know it," Winslow said in a loud, determined voice. He scanned the room for support, and several people nodded at him quickly, but not without obvious guilt. He shook his head in disgust. "We've got to," he said stubbornly. "The Silence has to be imposed, on both of them. They've endangered the safety of our home, brought the police almost to our door! We're going to have to seal up that entrance indefinitely, and you know what kind of risk that is, reducing our entrances by even one. That was one of the main gates, too—the Helpers sometimes used it." Winslow turned back to Mitch and Vincent, who were standing by themselves in the middle of the gathering. "They have to be made to realize that their actions affect all of us." He looked at Father. "And you cannot play favorites."
Father sighed deeply and sank down into his chair, a hand to his forehead. It had been nothing short of a nightmare since earlier that evening when Winslow had come to his chamber, shepherding Mitch and Vincent into his presence. Winslow's intervention alone had prevented him from going for Mitch's throat when he saw the state Vincent was in. But then he had pushed both of them aside and tended to his son. His fears confirmed—Vincent's arm was broken—he went to work, setting the limb and preparing the last of his plaster of Paris for the cast, refusing to listen to anything until he was sure that Vincent was more or less comfortable.
And when he had heard the whole tale of the evening's folly and subsequent narrow escape from both boys, Father's heart had dropped into his stomach like a stone. He could not speak for several minutes. In his head, a silent litany went on: Vincent is safe. Everything is all right. Vincent is safe. Everything is all right. He had finally managed to get through his belated panic and return to the present, where Winslow insisted on an immediate Council meeting and Mitch sneered at him, filled with hatred for everyone and everything around him.
And Vincent. . . Vincent sat off by himself, on the stone steps, refusing his own chair when Father offered it to him, his face a mask of pain and shame and . . . anger. He would not speak. For the first time, Father found himself unable to reach Vincent or draw him out, though he thought he might have had a better chance if Winslow had not been there, hands on hips, adamantly demanding that he be listened to. Father had had to relent in the end, and by early morning the entire community had been gathered together.
Father finally lifted his head. "I resent that implication, Winslow. I realize as well as any of you the seriousness of the offence and the necessity for self-regulation in a community such as ours. But this is not a simple situation. Vincent—"
"In this situation," Winslow interrupted, "Vincent is no different from anyone else."
Everyone was suddenly silent, and then just as suddenly began shuffling uncomfortably. Even Vincent's head came up, and he stared at Winslow for a moment in amazement before lowering his head again to hide behind the curtain of his hair.
"Winslow!" Mary's voice was disbelieving as she leaned forward.
"What I mean is, he has endangered all of us and he has to answer for that, just like anyone else." Winslow stuck out his chin defiantly, determined to prove his point. "We all care about Vincent, we all know he has special considerations, and there's not one of us who wouldn't defend him with our lives. But he can't be an exception when it comes to the rules—or to punishment."
Father pinned Winslow under a relentless gaze; the youth fell silent, but his posture was still pugnacious.
"As I was saying," Father continued slowly, "Vincent is an exception, for two reasons. One: He is a child. It would be psychological abuse of an extreme nature to separate him from the company of his family for a whole month. What will he do? He does not even know the homes or habitats of any of the Helpers yet. He's not been allowed out of the Park! And it is obvious that he cannot be allowed Above until his arm is healed—the risk of moving about in unknown territory with such a handicap is much too great. Look into your heart, Winslow. How can you condemn a child to such loneliness?"
Winslow made as if to speak, but Father raised a hand to indicate that he was not finished.
"Two: To punish Vincent with the Silence for this mistake is tantamount to telling him, 'You cannot go Above. At all.' And who among us, myself included, has the right to tell him this, to restrict his life to such an extent even for the sake of his safety, our safety? It has been difficult for me to let go, to allow him to discover what part of the world Above he can, but he must learn this himself. Vincent understands the risks. Vincent loves all of us as fiercely as we love him. We must allow him the dignity of our trust."
"The needs of one person can't be more important than the needs of the community as a whole," Winslow insisted. "We all need this safe place, and that should be the bottom line."
Father waved his hand, angrily dismissing Winslow's words. "The person and the community must have equal importance. Without that . . . yes, we would be safe from the world Above, but would we be safe from each other?"
A small voice floated down from the spiral staircase and everyone turned to look. It was Pascal—one of the smallest children, even though he was the same age as Vincent.
Closing his eyes for a moment in an effort to regain some calm—he didn't want the children to be discouraged from speaking up by his anger—Father smiled encouragingly. "Yes, Pascal. What would you like to say?"
“I . . . know Vincent would never want to do anything bad, he just wouldn't. But it wasn't right for him to take such a chance either. Maybe two weeks of the Silence would be enough." Pascal looked around nervously to see whether anyone else thought his proposition made sense.
Father shook his head slightly as he tried to form an answer to the query. "The thought behind your suggestion is admirable, Pascal, but—”
"I think the boy has a point," Winslow broke in. "I'd be willing to go for two weeks. But it has to be done. Don't think this will be easy for me," he continued, looking around the chamber in an appeal for understanding. "I'm insisting on this because I care—about everyone."
"Like hell you do."
Father turned sharply back to the center of the room; Mitch had finally spoken. The boy had been standing in an insolent slouch in the middle of the room during the entire meeting, smiling and even laughing from time to time to show his contempt. The entire assembly had basically ignored him; there was no question as to his guilt, or the necessity for his punishment.
Mary stepped away from the wall and addressed him, hand outstretched. "You have lived with us for eight years, Mitch. Your father is one of our most beloved Helpers. Why do you resist the love, the place we have offered you here? We have tried so hard to give you a home, and you seem to take delight in endangering us, especially Vincent. Now we have no choice but to withdraw our love and support, and hope that its absence will bring about a change in your heart."
Mitch snorted in derision. "Don't give me that 'love and peace' garbage. You all hate me, I know it. Even Vincent does now. You've finally convinced him."
"It is pointless to attempt to talk to you, Mitch," Father broke in abruptly. "You have always been and will probably always be concerned only with yourself. There is no other explanation for the way you have treated Vincent!"
"Father. I would like to speak now, please."
Vincent's voice was clear and quiet in the chamber, and it stopped Father cold. He had never heard Vincent sound so serious, or so defeated.
"Certainly you may speak, Vincent," he said gently.
"Winslow is right. I am the same as anyone else in this. I have endangered my family, out of my own selfishness"—he looked at Mitch briefly—"and pride. I was given the privilege of going Above, and I misused it. And since I am the only one who can be responsible for my own actions, I should be punished, as any other would be."
Vincent finally turned to look at Father, whose eyes he had been avoiding during his speech. "I also must apologize to you especially, Father. I have betrayed your trust in me, and disregarded your wishes. I hope that you can forgive me."
Father saw the beginnings of tears in Vincent’s eyes as he struggled to contain them, and he longed to gather his son into his arms. "There is nothing to forgive, Vincent. There is never a time when I am not proud to hear you call me 'Father.'" But try as he might to reach out to him, Vincent had lowered his head again once he had spoken and would not look up.
Winslow cleared his throat. "I think we should vote now. Everything's been said that can be said." A murmur of assent went through the chamber, and Father realized that there was nothing more he could do to convince them. He turned to Mary, who smiled at him supportively. What would he do without Mary?
"It's time, then," he said quietly. "We will begin with Mitch, who has admitted the charge of endangering the community—”
"They should be voted on together," Winslow protested.
"They will be voted on separately," Father said, his voice icy. "There will be two Silences, and two votes. I want to count each one. Now—those who favour imposing the punishment, please so indicate."
The entire community turned their backs without hesitation on the older boy in the middle of their circle. His reaction was to study his fingernails carefully.
"Mitch," Father began, omitting the usual apology, "since you refuse to listen, perhaps our silence will teach you the lesson our words could not. You are sixteen, no longer a true child. So, for one month, no man, woman, or child among us will speak to you. The sentence will begin now."
Mitch continued to ignore everyone around him.
Slowly, his heart burning with pain, Father turned to his son. Vincent's head came up, and he met Father's gaze levelly, without hesitation. It was very difficult for Father to speak.
"Vincent . . . has admitted the charge. Those who favour imposing the punishment, please . . . so indicate."
Winslow's back remained resolutely turned. Slowly, as Father watched, a few of the tunnel inhabitants—including several of the children—began to move, facing the middle of the circle again to show their support for Vincent. Mary stood firmly with him, as he'd known she would. But it was not enough. More than half of the people in his chamber had their backs turned to Vincent.
"Vincent . . . I'm sorry." Father could not go on. The entire group held its breath, waiting to see what he would do. He had no choice. He was the head of the Council, and if their world was to survive, he could not play favorites. But he also knew he could not repeat the cold, ritualized words to this boy.
"Vincent, for two weeks"—Father's eyes dared the assembly to stop him—“no man, woman, or child among us will speak to you. The sentence will begin . . . now." The last word was a whisper.
"Now that sentence has been passed," Mary's voice rang out in the quiet, "I have something to say. I am absolutely in agreement with Father. We are guilty of severe child abuse if we do this. I cannot, in all good conscience, participate in this sentence myself. While I will not openly defy everyone's wishes, I want you all to know that I intend to visit Vincent every day, bring him his meals, and make sure that he is well. It may happen that, in the course of those visits, a word or two will be exchanged—I cannot say."
Winslow was furious. "You can't do that! We decided—we voted! We all have to abide by the rules or there's no point."
Mary was unrelenting. "Ordinarily I would agree with you, Winslow. But not in this case. I believe special considerations—which were not discussed in the rush to sentence—are necessary and possible while still upholding the concept of punishment." She smiled down at Vincent, who averted his eyes. "Though, as far as I can see, Vincent's greatest sins are hope and poor judgment."
Mary returned her attention to Winslow. "So—you will have to deal with me as you see fit. Just remember that the Silence has very little meaning for me."
Winslow glared at her. He knew, as did everyone there, that Mary had once been a nun, living in a cloister where she kept a vow of silence for ten years. Her calm gaze of undisputed authority was familiar to all the children firsthand, and to many of the adults by association with their childhoods in Catholic schools. There was nothing he could say, and finally he stalked out of the room. The other tunnel residents began to follow him slowly, with occasional backward glances at Vincent.
Father embraced Mary warmly. "Thank you, dear friend." He knew that she had done it as much for him as for herself. As she patted him comfortingly on the back, he saw Mitch finally straighten and head out of the chamber—with Vincent on his heels. He made a move toward them. Mary saw what he was doing and held him back.
"No, Father. He must face this alone."
He gestured helplessly at the tunnel where Vincent had disappeared, and then, realizing the truth of her words, buried his face in her shoulder.
"Yeah? What do you want?"
Vincent caught up to Mitch, slightly out of breath and wincing at the pain in his arm as he came to an abrupt halt in front of the older boy, blocking his way. Mitch stared at him sullenly.
"Where are you going, Mitch?"
"That's none of your business, Vincent. You've gotten me in enough trouble tonight, so why don't you get lost and leave me alone?"
"I . . . got you in trouble?" Vincent was speechless. "But, Mitch, you were the one—” He stopped and shook his head, trying to comprehend.
"Yes, you. I know Father tells you you're perfect all the time, that you can't do anything wrong. Look how he tried to get you out of the Silence just now! But you could’ve spoken up for me, Vincent. You could have told them that I was just trying to do something for you that no one else had even thought to do, that I was your friend. If I was really as bad as they all think I am, I would have just left you there. Wouldn't I?"
Vincent had never been more confused. He had gone after Mitch, hoping to talk to him, make him see how much he had betrayed not only the trust of the community, but his own trust as well. Because he had tried to reach out to Mitch, he had disgraced himself. Vincent thought that if he could only make Mitch understand just how deeply that had hurt him, and how important his honor was to him, that Mitch's own sense of honor would return to him. But instead, Mitch blamed him for the punishment they had both just received.
"I know you are angry," Vincent said slowly, frowning as he spoke. "I am also angry with you. You put me in danger of my life, Mitch; after I told you there were certain things that were not possible for me, you deliberately placed me in an impossible situation against my will. My arm was broken, I was almost caught by the police! I would never have seen my home and family again."
"Yeah, well, maybe I would have done you a favor. Family's not all it's cracked up to be, you know—mine or yours. They'll always let you down, Vincent, always. You're better off alone." Mitch shrugged away from Vincent and started to leave.
"No!" Vincent grabbed Mitch's arm, and was instantly assailed by a wave of pain stronger than any he'd ever felt before, from anyone. It left him gasping, astonished. In that instant, the Game was no longer a game, and it was not just about love and helping and feeling good, as he'd always thought of it before. It was about the pain and aloneness that came from the deepest corner of every person's heart—sharing the things that made life hard as well as easy. This . . . gift he had was a call to love, something more than just picking and choosing the feelings that made him happy and warm. It was a call to care for others in a special way that only he could. To become a part of them, and still have all of himself to give as well. He had been hurt, but so had Mitch, and this was something they could share, something that might help them both be better than what they were now.
"Get away from me!" Mitch gave him a strange look and pulled away, only to come up short against the wall.
"Mitch, I know we're both under the Silence now, but I don't think that means we can't talk to each other. And we need to talk. We're friends, we have an understanding—anger doesn't have to take that away!"
"You fool! Do you really think I'm going to stay here and abide by their stupid little rules? This is not the real world, Vincent, and what they say doesn't count, not to me. I'm getting out!"
"What do you mean?" Vincent said slowly, afraid that he knew just exactly what Mitch did mean.
"Do I have to spell it out? I'm leaving, running away! And Father can't stop me. You heard him. I'm 'no longer a true child.' Not that any of them would care if I disappeared off the face of the earth—or down one of these holes either."
"You would leave me alone, in the Silence'?"
"Give me one reason why I shouldn't."
"Our friendship," Vincent said quietly.
"Hah! I've forgotten about that already," Mitch said carelessly. But Vincent could see in his eyes that he did care.
Mitch pushed himself away from the wall and spat. "Just like you forgot about me, Vincent. But there are some things I don't forget—or forgive. You tell Father he'll be seeing me again . . . someday."
Mitch turned away and walked down the corridor; soon Vincent could only hear the sound of his boots. Eventually even that sound disappeared. Vincent stared down the passage after him, then looked back toward Father's chamber for one wistful moment. His head dropped, and he began to rub his injured arm gently, caressing it and holding it close to his body at the same time. A tear fell onto the rough white fabric Father had fashioned into a sling.
A brass candlestick stood near Vincent's elbow, flame sputtering and dipping occasionally when a bead of wax seeped away from the wick and down the side of the taper. He sat with chin in hand, oblivious to its waning, and read the book in front of him intently. His left arm, which was healing well and becoming itchier inside its cast every day as it did, rested lightly on top of the book. Vincent was scarcely aware of it when he was reading, except when it needed to be scratched.
He yawned. Just what time it was, he didn't know—the only clock Below was in Father's chambers—but he knew it was later than his usual bedtime. Sometimes Mary would drift by, at around this time by his body's clock, and remind him with a look that growing boys needed proper sleep. Vincent had been embarrassed when she had announced her intention of looking after him during the Silence—that awful night seemed like it had happened years before—but he was grateful for her presence, her quick hugs, and the extra little treats she sometimes brought with his evening meal. It was the next best thing to having Father with him. And tomorrow the Silence would be over.
The Silence. It had been just as terrible as he’d expected, in the beginning. The first two days he had spent crying himself into a state of exhaustion, and then sleeping for hours in order to recover, waking up to find himself alone in the relentless quiet. His heart refused to listen to his head: He was unlovable, unloved, unwanted. He had started pacing his room restlessly, still wearing the same clothes after three days, despising himself so much he didn't care.
Until he noticed, on one of his circuits, a small brown paper package by his door. "From Pascal" was scrawled on it, and when Vincent opened it up, there was a piece of Sarah's gingerbread inside. She baked it every Wednesday, and Pascal knew how much Vincent loved it. He burst into tears again, but this time they renewed him. When he'd regained some control, Vincent put the cake down on his table and went and washed himself, changed into new clothes, and combed his hair before he allowed himself to eat it. He would not permit self-pity to waste this time he had been given to understand and grow.
Once he had come to that realization, everything changed. It was still difficult to be alone, but he found that carefully structuring his time lessened the ache of having no one to talk to. He studied, and thought, and sometimes read old favorites just for pleasure—and he became obsessed with Rilke. Each new book he read said something different, something wonderful and mysterious and sometimes even frightening, and he stored all those messages up in his heart toward the day when he could find the answers to their questions, just as Rilke had told the young poet.
And his gift, the power to see into other's hearts and understand them, grew stronger, deeper—difficult, and yet comfortable. It seemed funny to him that he had ever called it a game. Even separated from his family by the Silence—not moving in their company so that he could use the gift—Vincent could now feel their thoughts in his quiet chamber, almost as powerfully as if they were actually there. He felt their love and concern for him, though he felt so undeserving, and realized for the first time that this gift was his to receive and enjoy as well, in a reflected sort of way. It was a gift, and a responsibility that he had taken too lightly.
He knew now that not everyone could be trusted, and not everyone could be loved; Mitch had taught him that, brutally. And Mitch had taught him something else the day he had run away, leaving Vincent alone in the corridor outside Father's chamber, never looking back. He had taught Vincent how to hate. A part of him hated Mitch for his carelessness, his insensitivity, his abandonment of their friendship, even though he knew these things were the older boy's protection against pain. He would never again be able to think of his childhood friend without hurt, and anger. Still . . . another part of Vincent's heart yearned to know that someday Mitch would find someone who could love him enough. It stung him yet to think that he had not been the one to reach him—and he knew that Mitch, in his own way, had been trying to reach out to him. But he locked away the pain until the time came that he would understand it.
There were other answers to look for now: what to do with this gift he had been given, how to use it wisely and well, what kind of power it should have in both his own life and the lives of those he loved. He had made a mistake this once, and he did not want to repeat the experience.
Vincent turned back to the book he had been reading; just a little more study before he went to bed. But the candle was low, and it was hard to see. He deliberated for a moment, then got up and went to his cupboard for a new candle. He would want to leave it burning while he slept anyway. Lighting it, he picked up the book again. It was a book of Rilke's correspondence; Vincent marvelled that someone could write letters so full of wisdom and understanding and compassion and suffering, and he wondered if Rilke had had a gift like his, and had also found it difficult to bear. Perhaps an answer to the mystery of his own life could be found in these very pages, in this author's life. Vincent struggled to concentrate through his growing sleepiness, turning the words over and over in his mind to find their true meaning.
To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this it is that young people need. —Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work. —So whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something!
For believe me, the more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.
To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love: they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and so loving, for a long while ahead and far on into life, is—solitude, intensified and deepened loneness for him who loves. Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, and uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate—?); it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another's sake; it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.
It was a long passage and a rich one. Vincent read it over twice, rubbing his temple with one finger while he concentrated, searching. Being alone he understood. His differentness had always set him apart, even within the love of his own family—except for Father. There would always be a life standing between him and the people he cared for that he could never know. But he could not see that his aloneness was a special thing, a positive thing that would grow and become powerful. He saw it as a burden, a sadness that he could not escape but only learn to endure—alone. There would not be another to share, to understand this quality of his life.
And there did exist a great love here in their world below the city, a love that was known not only by the adults, but also by every child. Father had often told him that the reason their community existed was that the comfort and safety of being loved was so difficult to find in the world Above, a world where people feared each other more than they cared for each other. If Rilke had been able to know a life in the tunnels, Vincent thought, perhaps he would have had more hope.
Vincent sighed heavily and finally put down the book. It was very late, and the truth of this particular letter still eluded him. Perhaps after a night's sleep. He changed into his nightshirt slowly, moved the candle to its night-time niche in the far wall, and pulled back the bedclothes, sliding into the cool comfort of the sheets. Laying his head down on the pillow, he closed his eyes and waited for sleep.
But sleep would not come. Vincent tossed and turned, the words he had just read still in his head, still trying to speak to him. And then, in the darkness, one small voice began to make itself heard . . . whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey . . . it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things . . .
Vincent rolled over onto his side and hugged his arms to his chest, frustrated by his inability to sleep or understand. As he squeezed his eyes shut, he caught a glimpse of a picture propped up at his bedside—Central Park in the spring. Father had given it to him on his birthday, and it reminded him of the way the Park had looked the first night he had gone Above. He thought about that night, how going Above had brought such change into his life . . .
And suddenly his chamber seemed darker, larger . . . a faint wind blew across his face . . . like being Above, but something was different. He knew—but did not understand how he knew—that this was not a memory, or a dream. He watched helplessly through eyes that were his, only . . . older. He saw the Park all around him, smelled the fresh breezes of spring, and then—then there was a body, fragile and wounded, on the ground before him, pain and fear and despair radiating from its unconscious state. Someone reaching out to him, claiming him—binding him in an inevitable spell. He felt the weight of the body on his shoulder, recognized the familiar walls and passageways of his home, the curve of the circular staircase that led to Father's chambers as he labored with his unknown/unknowing burden. He carried it with a quickening of heart and breath until its pressure lifted him up, out of all he knew, into another world, another place, another life.
And he heard a voice then—again his own, but deeper, rougher. Don't be afraid. Please . . . don't be afraid. He felt an elation sweeter than anything he could ever imagine experiencing . . . and it was gone.
Vincent sprang out of bed, crying out, reaching— He looked around his chamber, dragging huge gulps of air into his lungs and trembling. He could not remember what he had been about to grasp, what he had needed so desperately to hold on to. But it seemed unbearable that it had left him.
He felt a sudden surge, a clear, calm resonance that he often knew when the gift moved at its strongest. But he was alone; how could the gift be working in him when there was no one there to call it out? Vincent shook his head, bewildered, as a wave of deep, inconsolable grief filled him, and then also passed.
This was all too real to be a dream, and it frightened him. Groping for the edge of his bed, Vincent buried himself beneath the coverlets, but his eyes were wide with wonder as he stared at the ceiling, wide awake through the night.
Father came awake slowly, fighting his way through a fog; he had slept badly these past two weeks, during the Silence, and had seldom felt really rested when it was time to rise. But today, finally, the awful days of quiet would be over. That thought brought him fully awake, and he rose quickly, going through morning rituals with unusual haste, anxious to get to Vincent's room before his son was up. He wanted to be there when Vincent first opened his eyes.
Father left his sleeping chamber and was halfway through his study, on his way to the stairs, when he noticed, on the edge of his vision, Vincent. Vincent—curled up in his own chair and asleep, head resting on a pile of books that were balanced on the chair's arm. Father thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. He moved across the room quietly and laid a gentle hand on his son's shoulder.
"Vincent? Vincent—wake up, son."
Vincent opened his eyes slowly, dreamy with sleep. As he raised his head a few inches, looking around in momentary confusion, Father noticed the imprint of the top book's intricate leather tooling on his cheek in dark red. He must have been waiting here half the night, he thought with a smile.
"Oh, Father!" Vincent launched himself from the chair into his arms, and for some uncounted moments, all that Father knew or cared about he held in his arms, tightly. Finally, he pulled back a little and frowned down at Vincent.
"Are you well, Vincent? How have you fared these last two weeks? Mary has told me that you ate well, and that you always had a smile for her, but I wonder if you didn't spend too much of your time reading. You look tired, and your eyes are red."
"I've been fine, Father, really." Vincent gave him another desperate hug, and then settled back into his chair, motioning for him to sit also. Father smiled and obliged him. It was hard to take his eyes off his son after those two long weeks. Which brought him to the first words he had planned to say.
"Vincent," he began slowly, “I hope you understand why Mary came to you in the Silence and . . . and I did not. It would have been—"
"I understand, Father," Vincent said quietly. "It would not have been right for you to break the rules, not for me. I knew it was hard for you not to, though. That's why I stayed in my room—so it wouldn't be any harder."
Father stared. He had been about to say that it would have been far too difficult for him to see Vincent and obey the Silence, so he had stayed away . . . and Vincent seemed to have taken the words right from his head. The boy was often sensitive to others, perceptive beyond his years, but this had an uncanny feel to it. He frowned. "Vincent—"
"Father, I have so much to tell you, so much to share with you! I’ve read and read and fallen asleep reading some nights. You were right about that."
“I thought so," Father replied with mock sternness, but he was still apprehensive. "And what have you been reading?"
Vincent sat back in the chair with a blissful expression on his face. "Rilke, Father. Books and books, and so many of his letters . . . I know you don't like him, Father, but he’s a wonderfully wise man."
"It's not that I dislike him, Vincent. Every great writer has something to say to us, if we read them properly. But not every work is great, or appropriate to our situation.”
"But I felt as if he were writing these letters to me, Father," Vincent said with strained patience. "They were so right—they helped me realize something important."
"Which is? . . ." Father felt even more apprehensive.
"You remember 'The Tale of the Hands of God', and our conversation about mistakes?" Vincent asked anxiously.
Father nodded, frowning again.
"Mistakes aren't always bad, it's true—at least, God's mistakes. And I am one of God's mistakes. But I know now that Mitch isn't."
Father shook his head, baffled. "Vincent, what are you talking about? What does Mitch—?"
"Did you know Mitch ran away, Father? The very night the Silence began, he left me alone."
"Ran away? The little— Well, good riddance!" Father felt a flare of pure anger at the mention of Mitch's name. "I told you he did not belong here, didn't I?"
"Mitch doesn't belong anywhere, Father, because he's a mistake the world made. No one ever loved him the way he needed to be loved, so he can't love either. I don't understand that part of it—it's so easy to love. But there are a lot of people like Mitch in the world Above, aren't there?" Vincent put his head down for a moment, then looked back up, his bright blue eyes wide and staring. "But when God makes mistakes, they're because he loves too much . . . maybe he holds onto us too long. He makes people who know how to love so much better than everyone else, they don't fit in either. That's why we all live down here in the tunnels; it's why my home is here."
Father's head was reeling as he tried to follow Vincent's train of thought. He could tell by the pace of his son's speech that this was something that burned fresh in his heart, probably something he had spent all night thinking about. "Vincent—" He held out a hand for a moment, to stop the stream, searching for words. "Vincent, not everyone who lives Above is a . . . ‛mistake.’ We have Helpers, and there are many others who love and care—"
“Oh, I know, Father, I know," Vincent broke in with a look of wonder. "I understand that! Father—I have something to tell you," he said, changing his tone abruptly. "Something about me that I never told you. It was only because I didn't want to worry you—"
"What, Vincent? Please—tell me!" He took hold of Vincent's hand, sick with fear. Vincent smiled and patted his hand. "I knew you would worry. But it's nothing bad, honestly. It's wonderful. Father"—his voice lowered—“I have a gift, a special way of loving people right from my heart to theirs, without words." He reached out toward Father's chest and drew a line back to his own. "Like we're attached . . . heartstrings."
Father sat, frozen, at his son's words. He remembered all the times Vincent had turned up just where he'd been wanted or thought about, before he'd been called . . . the kindnesses expressed, the things he'd done for others before a need could be spoken . . . his uncommon ability to comfort people in a way no one else could. He'd always put these things down to Vincent's restricted life making him more focused on the few people who made up his world, or the extra measure of politeness and respect Mary instilled in all the children, but which Vincent took more to heart than the others. But what Vincent was describing was empathy, true emotional empathy.
Father covered his mouth with his hand and bent over, staring at the top of his desk and remembering another time not so long ago, a sunny street, a bright and lively woman whose life had once been linked with his. That had been the special joining of a man and a woman, something far beyond Vincent's unique life here below the city. Vincent spoke of this love as an ability, though, not just a feeling. That couldn’t be possible.
He looked at Vincent's face, and saw a power, a knowledge there he had never seen before, and realized that, for someone like Vincent, anything might be possible.
"I don't know how else to explain it to you, Father, except to say that I've been given something very wonderful. And last night—last night I had a dream. No, not quite a dream. Something like it, though. At first it frightened me, but then— Oh!" Vincent broke off, agitated by his lack of words. "There was . . . someone else out there, and they had the gift, too! Someone who knows me, who's waiting for me—someone very special!"
Father's throat was dry. He'd known this would come someday, but he was a coward and had never been able to prepare himself—let alone Vincent—for it. What to say, to do? Save Vincent from future pain by inflicting the wound now? He cleared his throat and stared at his hands.
"Vincent, I think that perhaps you are too soon after experiencing the Silence, your mind too full of dreams you've concocted to make it bearable."
Hurt shone in Vincent's eyes. "Father! You don't believe me. You don't believe—"
Father smiled gently and stroked Vincent's hair. "That you are special? That I know." His face grew serious. "In the gift? I feel now as if I should always have known it when I looked in your eyes, but have only now recognized it. You should have told me, Vincent—this is something we must talk about, for I fear it may cause you pain." He paused. "Or has it already? Mitch?"
Vincent nodded, but did not speak.
Father nodded. He was tempted to stop there, but he should go on, in fairness to this . . . young man he now realized sat before him.
"That there is someone . . . special waiting for you—someone as special as you are—that I do not believe. Or rather, I do not want to believe it."
Vincent stared at him in amazement. "Father!"
"That kind of attachment can only bring you unhappiness, Vincent, I'm sure of it."
"No, Father." Vincent was resolute. "Someone is out there, someone who will be . . . another part of me. I felt them, just for a moment, but they were there! And now I have to hide that moment deep inside my heart until we find each other, and we both remember it again. I know you don't want me to be hurt again, Father—you love me. But please believe me, I know this will be! I will live into the answer—just as Rilke says."
Father felt a great despair. Vincent was not listening, did not understand—how could he, a boy of twelve? He would have to allow some time to pass, allow Vincent to grow and then discuss it again, when Vincent was older.
Suddenly he heard a tentative scraping of feet in the hall outside his study. "Yes?" he called. "Who is it?"
"It's Pascal, Father." The young boy emerged from around the corner, inching toward the desk shyly. Vincent still sat in his chair with his back to the door, and Pascal couldn't see him. "I'm sorry, it's so early, but Vincent isn't in his room— Oh, Vincent!"
Vincent had stood up, smiling, and the two boys embraced each other warmly.
"Pascal—I've missed you so much!"
The smaller boy pulled away then and looked up with a slightly shamed expression. "Vincent, I—"
"I want to thank you for the gingerbread. I should have known you would remember."
"Vincent!" Pascal said insistently. "I have to tell you something. I feel . . . as if I was not a good friend to you. I voted—”
"Pascal." Vincent's voice was soothing. "You did what your conscience told you was right. That is the best kind of friend to be, and it is everything I would ever ask of you. Now,"—he changed the topic abruptly—"you must teach me the new code you've been working on. I know you're very proud of it."
"How did you know?" Pascal's mouth was open in amazement. "I just began it this past week!"
"I recognized your touch on the pipes," Vincent said lightly.
"Oh—come on, Vincent!" Pascal turned red.
"Do you mind, Father?" Vincent turned back to face him. "I'll be back soon. There are some books I want to show you."
"Go, Vincent, please—I know I am not the only one who has missed you. Sarah is waiting for you too." He shooed them away. "Go!"
Vincent threw his arms around Father's neck and hugged tightly for a moment, then ran off with Pascal, his footsteps, Father noticed, lighter and more confident than they had been in recent weeks. He watched them go, something tickling at the back of his mind. Vincent had known about the new code—something Pascal never discussed until he was satisfied his work would meet his father's approval, and blend into the echoing language of the tunnels' pipes. An example of Vincent's gift. . . .
A thump brought him back to the present; one of the books Vincent had brought to show him had fallen off the arm of the chair. Father bent to look at it: Rilke. He scanned the other volumes still balanced on the chair: Rilke again. Angered and frustrated by this reminder of the disturbing words that Vincent took so much to heart, he swiped at the stack of books, knocking them all to the floor, and went off to follow the boys.
Behind him, one of the books had thrown itself open at a page near the middle.
. . . perhaps he is the one thing that never shifts,
around which the stars move in their hours,
and the motionless hub of the constellations.
For the city drifts and rushes and struts around him.
He is the just man, the immovable
set down here in many tangled streets;
the dark opening to the underworld
among a superficial generation.
~Rainer Maria Rilke
--from Pont du Carrousel