by Carole W
The tumbled boulders that sealed them in were weights on her own heart, leaving her with breath enough for but one last word before the blast and the rain of stones. Please.
“Vincent!” He lived; his heart thundered against hers. All that mattered.
“Father’s badly hurt.”
Father lay still, his skin and brows, his sable beard, death-gray with ash and grit. His eyes fluttered open, filmy and resigned – everything ... over; everything ... gone. Too soon, too soon. She understood the regret. But he cupped her cheek and named her, gladdened, he seemed to say, to return to a world with her in it.
Winslow elbowed through the assembly, returning with a fringed leather vest in his hands. He threw it to the ground, spread it open. Another man did the same with his, and another, the garments overlapping. Father was eased into the long sling.
“He needs a doctor,” Catherine whispered. Father was their doctor. Was there a stand-in? His second? Whom did she know trustworthy enough to be roused and brought below?
Vincent supported Father’s bundled head and shoulders, the edges of Winslow’s vest gathered in his hands. He looked up at her. “We have a friend Above, Catherine. A helper. Someone has been sent ...” His lips parted as if he might say something more, but Father uttered a lowing moan and his attentions turned.
“Ready?” Winslow queried. On the count of three, Father was lifted to safety and stretchered away over the rubble. The family crowded in behind to follow, stumbly with deliverance. A man with white hair clapped a friend on the back; a woman rumpled a child’s dark curls, slipped her arm around his bowed shoulders. Weak laughter broke out, sobbing’s grateful substitute.
Mouse knelt to dismantle his machine. At his side, the young woman ... Jamie ... passed out the parts to three younger boys. “Get going,” Jamie commanded. “Mouse’s chamber with all of it, pronto.” Tears etched the grime crusting their faces, and if the parts were heavy or longer than they were tall, they didn’t complain.
The wrench skipped off the last nut, not once but three times. Jamie held out her hand for the tool, and, when Mouse relinquished it, stashed it in the wooden box Catherine had carried down. With the tips of her fingers, Jamie lifted Mouse’s trembling chin. “You’re a mess. Let’s go see about Father. We’ll come back for this tomorrow.” He nodded and they pushed to their feet.
Behind the augur, a flashlight was wedged in rift of stone. Catherine worked it back and forth until it dislodged from its seat. Mouse touched her shoulder.
“Catherine? Vincent’s Catherine? Can’t lose you. Come with us.”
She coughed, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth. The tunnel floor was thick with cindery dirt and rife with footprints aimed in but one direction – away. Away from here, where the specter of loss and grief and guilt loomed. Her eye’s stung. The dust would take hours, maybe days to settle.
They stepped through the powdery veil.
A woman rounded the corner. Slim and brown-haired, dark-eyed, kind. She’d not been in the rescue company. “Catherine, I’m Mary. Vincent sent me for you.”
They walked together in silence, in Jamie’s and Mouse’s wake, until the pair veered into a branching corridor. “Come back,” Mouse called. “Vincent’s friend, Mouse’s friend.” He nudged the girl with his shoulder.
“See ya,” Jamie said.
“Jamie’s friend, too,” Mouse decreed. “Come back soon.”
“This way.” Mary took her arm. “It’s so good to see you again.”
Again? Though she’d been below more than once, Catherine didn’t remember the woman’s face. And yet ... a familiar scent drifted from her clothing. Blinking away years and miles, Catherine saw herself in an upper-story bedroom, the windows open to the Connecticut lake breezes, the fine gauze curtains billowing. A three-part mirror topped a white-painted vanity. On a silver tray, crowded among the shapely cobalt bottles and squat ceramic jars ... an oval, pink metal tin of talcum powder. She pried off the cap, breathed in a meadow of flowers. Cashmere Bouquet. Her mother’s summer scent.
“Sit down, dear.” Mary pulled a straight-backed chair from under the small table in the middle of the chamber. She bustled across the floor to tend the brazier, dropping some curls of wood shavings on the embers, layering on bundles of cedar twigs. The fire blazed, bringing home the forest. A shining copper kettle humming on the grate began to sing.
Other than Father’s study, she’d seen only Vincent’s private quarters. The lamps and candelabras were as vintage, the books as many, but the furniture was modest, the decoration sparse. An armoire missing its doors shelved bright crocheted afghans and intricately pieced quilts, yet the low-post bed in its arched alcove was spread with a plain cream-colored coverlet, the dining table’s cloth knitted squares of earth-brown and yellow-drab.
From a green-patterned china pitcher, Mary poured water into a matching bowl, adding in a steaming stream from the kettle. She dunked and wrung a washcloth, dragged a second chair to sit knee-to-knee with Catherine. “Look at you,” she murmured, stroking the bangs from her forehead with one damp hand, tracing the ridge of scar with soft fingers. “Just look. You’ve healed beautifully.”
The tears she’d clamped back, the fear she’d dared not admit, surged and overwhelmed her. She sagged in the woman’s arms.
Mary drew the warm, cleansing cloth across her cheekbones, along the curve of her jaw, the slope of her neck. “Again?” Catherine managed. “That night ... You?”
The rag folded to a fresh exposure, Mary dipped it again into the basin, dabbing then at the bridge of her nose, her eyelids, her brows. “I’m Father’s nurse, his ... helper. That night, I cleaned your wounds before he stitched you up. I bathed you, and we bound your ribs. I dressed you in loose, clean clothes. Then Vincent carried you to bed. Afterward, I tried to mend your dress, but ... Well, you know I couldn’t. The fabric was too fine for my rough hands.”
“Thank you,” Catherine whispered. Her hands weren’t rough at all.
Mary rose from her chair, retrieved a porcelain-backed hairbrush from the washstand’s drawer. “How did you know to come?”
Catherine let her head fall back, yielding to the stroke of soft bristles and the memory of her mother standing just this close behind her. “I heard ... pounding. Iron on stone. I think it was ... it was Winslow’s pickaxe.”
“Winslow will believe he failed them.”
“But his trying called to me. Without him ...”
“I’ll tell him that,” Mary offered.
“No, I want to. Could you take me to him? And would you tell Vincent where I am?”
“I won’t have to, honey.”
There was a rustling in the passageway; she heard his soft, long sigh. She turned in her chair. His face was tarnished still with soot; his hair stiff and matted. But his eyes ... oh, his eyes were the deep, deep blue of her boundless heaven.1
Title: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Prometheus Unbound. Act 1, Scene 1. 1820.
A/N: This story concludes toward the end of: the wind ... blowing in the same bare place, a Shades of Gray story from Winslow’s point of view and part of a different Everything project, Eternity in an Hour.
Title: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Prometheus Unbound. Act 1, Scene 1. 1820.
1.Ibid. Act II, Scene I.