In Her Hands

A Continuation of the Episode "Arabesque"  

By Linda S. Barth

"Unto thee I lift My hands, and eyes, and heart, and crave of thee a gift."   (George Gordon, Lord Byron)

For many long moments they remained as they were, two souls drawn together in a single quest for shelter from the pain of memories, the shame of revelation, the despair of dreams. They could do nothing more than hold one another in a desperate embrace, clinging hand to hand as if grasping a lifeline in hope of riding out the fury of a storm.

From within the darkness of his turbulent emotions, Vincent reached for Catherine, knowing that without her he was truly lost. The tide that carried him was so full of anguish that it took him beyond words, and he was left alone in his grief, with only her unending light to guide him home. Yet even then he denied his right to follow that light to its source where it would warm and soothe and renew him. He had opened his heart to her, revealing its darkest truths, and in doing so he knew he had set loose the force that would snuff out that light as surely as a candle's flame dies in a bitter wind.

Summoning the remains of his strength, he opened himself to their bond, dreading yet craving the awareness of her emotions. What he found there assaulted his raw and wounded heart, and he shuddered violently, unable to withstand the intensity of feelings she could not conceal from him. Her love raged over him, through him, yearning to consume his suffering. Where he had thought to find fear and disgust, he found only a fierce and unyielding passion, a desire to take him within her and keep him safe forever.

Raising his head, he drew in a ragged breath and tried to pull his hands away from her tight grasp. "Catherine, no -- no more." His voice rasped unevenly, betraying the effort it took to speak. "This is wrong. It can't be. How can you bear to look at me -- to touch me?"

As her eyes met his, they offered a mirror image of his own sorrow, and he staggered under their force. To have knowingly risked bringing her with him into this place of terrible pain was almost more than he could bear, and he moaned aloud his torment and remorse.

"Catherine...Catherine, what have I done?"

At once she released his trembling hands and drew him into her arms, easing his head down upon her slender shoulder as she murmured soft, soothing words. "Sshhh, Vincent, it's all right. Everything will be all right."

For long moments she simply held him, crooning tender sounds and gentle words. Yet as the familiar haven of her voice and body cradled him, her heart and mind were filled with a turbulence beyond anything she had ever known, and it took all her strength to shield him from it.

With lightning-quick intensity she had found herself able to see into his heart, absorbing and understanding the agony he had lived with for so many years. His confession, describing that long-ago moment with Lisa, had offered images to accompany every remembered feeling that now flooded through her from his overflowing heart. Their bond vibrated in discordant waves, and she had no choice but to share his memories of pleasure and pain.

Starbursts of delight and desire to send the heart soaring. Wild hope unleashed, only to live a lifetime in a single moment. Uncertainty and then a sudden pain, one that might have been easily healed. Too many fears ripping apart that possibility, instantly bequeathing a potent legacy that wedded desire to shame and hope to denial.

At last she knew. She knew everything, and yet she loved him all the more.

Wrenching herself back to the present, Catherine was aware that at last Vincent's shuddering had diminished. Carefully she urged him downward with her until they sat huddled together upon the cool, smooth terrace floor. Once again she repeated the loving words that were meant to begin his healing.

"It will be all right, Vincent. It will. I promise you."

She felt the heat of his tears against her neck as he shook his head in disbelief, and she pulled him closer into her embrace.

Her simple, heartfelt vow of indomitable faith crushed him, for he knew that when he found the words of denial that would finally make her understand, their truth would break her heart. Reaching for courage he was no longer certain he possessed, he straightened and forced himself to hold out his hands to her.

"Catherine, you said these hands are beautiful to you. But there is no beauty in what they have done."

"No, Vincent, you're wrong!" she began. But when she reached for him, he pulled his hands away and held them up at eye level, desperately trying to make her see and accept what he knew as truth.

"There is no beauty! There is shame and there is terror in what these hands have done -- what they have done in the name of love, not only to Lisa, but over and over, time after time. These hands were not meant to give love. I can never allow myself to forget that, never again." For one heartbreaking moment, his voice quavered, but he went on. "I have accepted this truth about myself, Catherine. And you must accept it, too."

He slowly lowered his hands as if to shroud them from her sight within the voluminous folds of his cloak. But she would not let him hide from her, and with gentle strength she reached out for him, cradling his large hands in the small shelter of her own, as she looked steadily into his tear-filled eyes.

"No, Vincent," she said, her voice low and sure. "I don't accept it. I never have and I never will." When she felt him begin to pull away from her, she tightened her hold upon him, drawing him back with the force of her hands and her heart. "You say these hands have caused terror in and pain in the name of love, and perhaps in some ways that is true. But you have never sought out violence, you've only done what was necessary to defend your home and the lives of your family. And while I wish more than anything that you had never been forced to experience those moments, I know them for what they are -- and you must know it, too. Those moments, in spite of the terror, were in their own way an act of love. And, Vincent, there is no shame in that."

She waited, anxiously searching his face for even the smallest sign that he had begun to believe the truth in her words. When he did not speak, and yet did not lower his eyes from hers, she took his unreadable silence as permission to go on. She knew it would have to be enough and that for now it was all he had to offer.

She took a deep breath, aware that she would now lead them both into far more treacherous waters. "And, Vincent, think of me..." To her horror, her voice broke in a tremulous quiver.

Instinctively he offered her his strength. "Always, Catherine," he whispered. "I think of you always."

For a moment she closed her eyes tightly, and when she opened them, she knew he saw her love for him in their luminous depths. Sustained by that knowledge and all that she knew him to be, she continued. "Think, too, of the times you've protected me. So many times it was these hands that kept me safe from harm. They're the hands that have saved my life...Do you find shame in that?"

"No, Catherine! There is nothing I would not do to keep you safe. But the things I've done...the men I've destroyed..."

"Go on, Vincent," she urged. "Please. It's time we talked about this. You won't hurt me by saying the words...It's nothing I haven't said to myself a hundred times or more."

His face tightened with pain. "Sometimes I see their faces in my dreams and it is horrible, unspeakable... but I know that I would do it all again for you. If there is shame in that, then it's a shame I will gladly bear to keep you safe."

Her eyes filled with tears, but her voice was strong. "And the shame is mine as well. I've led you to this point again and again, never fully facing how it destroys you a little more each time it happens. I don't know how, Vincent, but I swear to you that I'll find a way for this to stop. I promise you I will!"

Wordlessly, he drew her into his arms and with a small sob she collapsed against him. As they held each other, they treasured the possibility that their lives were somehow evolving, bringing them closer to the dream they longed for, the promise that seemed always just beyond their reach.

For many minutes, Vincent allowed himself to drift in the comforting glow of Catherine's hope. But as he raised one hand to stroke the silkiness of her hair, the bitter reality of the night's revelations brought him brutally back to earth.

With gentle firmness he pushed her away until she sat opposite him once again, close enough so that he could still feel the disarming warmth of her body, but with enough distance to allow the chill night air to raise its invisible wall between them. And when she trembled, he pretended it was that same night air that was the cause.

"Catherine, you're cold. You must go inside now." But as he rose to his feet, her hands reached out to stay his flight.

"No, I'm fine," she lied. "Please don't go. There's so much more we need to say."

She knew that if he left her now, all hope for further resolution would be lost. They'd come so far this night, she could not risk losing what they had gained. For one brief moment, she thought of asking him to come inside with her, to enter the warmth of her elegant home. Yet in a heartbeat she knew the futility of that tender hope. He already felt he had violated her trust; he would not violate the supposed sanctity of her world, a world he still believed held no real place for him.

With sudden relief, she watched as he swept his cloak from his shoulders and arranged it on the terrace floor. Silently he lowered himself upon it and waited expectantly as she joined him, both aching to open their arms to the other, yet remaining apart.

His voice was low when he began to speak and she leaned closer just to hear him. "I don't question the wisdom, the truth in all you've said, Catherine, but there is something more. And it's something beyond the defense of my family and home, even beyond my protection of you. There is something in me that cannot be controlled, that would hurt even the innocent." He paused, summoning the strength to continue. "It wasn't always like this. There was a time when I let myself believe, only for a moment, that a dream could come true even for someone like me. But when I reached out for that dream, reached out with these hands, I destroyed that hope. I've thought about that night so many times over the years and every time it's still the same. I see Lisa smiling at me, coming to me, so lovely, her eyes full of tenderness. I feel her in my arms, as delicate as a butterfly... and then I feel her start to pull away, to struggle when I would not let her go. When these hands could not let her go...I hurt her then. I didn't mean to, but it happened. And it was then I knew the truth that such dreams were not for me. And that I could not risk dreaming them again." He lowered his head, turning away from her to find shelter behind the bronze and gold curtain of his tousled hair.

But she would not let him withdraw, and with infinite tenderness she reached one small hand beneath his chin and turned his face back toward her. "And tell me, Vincent, in spite of everything, did you take that risk? Did you dream again?"

He could not withhold the truth from her. "Yes...when I found you."

There could be no turning back now. "And in these dreams do you hold me? Do you touch me with these hands?"

His quick intake of breath betrayed the ragged edges of a sob. "Yes. Forgive me, Catherine, but I do."

In her reply there was only strength and certainty. "Then our dreams are one and the same, Vincent. I long for you to hold me and touch me, as I would hold and touch you."

He closed his eyes tightly, forcing back the torment they would reveal, all the while knowing the act for the futile gesture that it was. Catherine knew his heart, and there was no longer a place where he could retreat and hide from her. Perhaps, he told himself with sorrowful resignation, this is as it must be, as it should be. Now he would speak the words that would destroy her hope, her faith, her very heart, and with it his.

He opened his eyes and looked steadily into hers. "What you long for, the longing we share, this can never be. My heart is filled with love for you, Catherine, but I have no way to offer that love to you, not in the way that you wish it." He glanced down for a moment and turned his hands upward toward her, their empty palms holding ghostly promises of things that might have been.

In silence, she mirrored his gesture, gently cupping her hands over his, palm arching above palm, as if to protect the fragile possibilities he felt must be surrendered to a grim, distorted reality.

She looked up at him, a tender smile lighting her face. "Hands are just hands. Flesh and blood, no more and no less than that, to do with what you will, or what you must. I've seen your hands dry a child's tears and give support to a troubled friend. I've seen them speak words of courage and love to an angry, frightened girl...and I've seen them hold a newborn baby. There is so much love in these hands, Vincent, in your hands."

For a heartbeat he hesitated, feeling a glimmer of hope flare within him, only to be extinguished by his despair. "And there is pain there as well, Catherine, pain and suffering and destruction in what I have done."

When she felt him start to pull his hands away, she responded instantly, entwining her fingers with his, leaving him no further chance to escape. "But never to me! It isn't possible. Your hands have helped heal me with their touch. They've reached out for me when I've been frightened and alone. They've touched me with tenderness and love, always with love. You could never hurt me, Vincent. I know that and I believe it with all my heart. And I think that deep inside you believe it, too."

"It's what I want to believe," he whispered, his voice roughened with effort. "But how can I be sure? What if I --"

With unsettling swiftness, she interrupted his sad musing. "And what of my hands? Tell me what you find in them."

He tilted his head slightly in momentary contemplation of her unexpected request. "In your hands, Catherine? In them there is tenderness and comfort and strength. In your hands there is only love."

She shook her head, sending tendrils of hair sliding across her shoulders as she spoke. "These hands have struck out in pain and fear. They've held a gun. They have hurt others, and they have killed."

"Catherine, no!"

"Oh, yes, Vincent, they have. You know they have -- that I have done these things." She waited as he closed his eyes for a moment in silent affirmation of her words. "I'm not proud of it, but we both know it's the truth. And knowing that, how can you bear my touch, the touch of hands that have been instruments of hurt and destruction?"

There was no hesitation in his reply. "Because to me they have given shelter and solace and healing. They are a part of you, Catherine, and you would never knowingly hurt me. These hands have given me nothing but love..." His deep voice trailed off in a raspy whisper as he heard the words of his heart, words that at last acknowledged what had always been true.

Catherine watched the anguish that had ravaged his face slowly dissolve and fade away, leaving in its wake a dawning glow of new-found hope and absolute trust. Her heart pounded within a body that threatened to collapse in joyful relief, for she knew the song of sorrow and despair that had haunted Vincent for so long was ending at last.

As he gazed into her eyes, he made no attempt to conceal the complex tangle of emotions he knew she would find there. And then, with slow and steady grace, he raised her hands to his mouth, echoing the pledge she had earlier entrusted to him.

"These hands are beautiful. These are my hands."

She felt the sweet warmth of his breath a heartbeat before his mouth caressed the softness of her skin. The sensation sent flames searing through her, as if setting a torch to the banked kindling of a bonfire, and she knew without the shadow of a doubt that same fire raged within him, waiting only for the moment that together they would set it free.

Her eyes held his as she gently drew her hands from his grasp and reached to tenderly cradle his beloved face. "And my heart, Vincent, that, too, is yours. Only yours, always."

"As mine is yours, Catherine. Only yours, forever."

For timeless moments they remained as they were, content in knowing that their long journey had brought them back to the safe haven of their love.

"Now join your hands, and with your hands your hearts."     (William Shakespeare)

(This story was originally published in 'Soulmates -- A Never-ending Dream," Volume 1, Issue 1; Barb Hill and Teri Milliman, Editors, under the title "When the Music Stops." A revised edition "In Her Hands" was completed in August 1996, expressly for CABB's online archives.)