To Hope Anew
Jacob carefully clutched the bright patchwork pillow in his small arms and crossed the room to the rocking chair. With the utmost concentration he set the pillow down onto the well-worn seat of the chair, and patted it twice to make certain it had settled properly in its place. He looked over his shoulder then to the tall figure standing a few feet away and smiled broadly.
"All done, Father."
"Yes, I believe we are finished, Jacob." The little boy was easily scooped up into his father's warm, strong arms. His favorite place in the world. From the protected vantage point, Jacob was able to happily survey the world, secure in the beloved embrace. He followed his father's gaze around their room.
"Do you like it, Jacob?" There was something about the morning that was lightening his father's heart. The little boy felt it within himself. It was such a welcome feeling, and despite the strange and unfamiliar commotion of the morning, Jacob knew the happiness was strong enough to linger about them this day.
It had been an unusual morning, too. Instead of the simple, quiet routines of the child's life, the day had begun in a flurry of anxious activity. The room he shared with his father, his home, had been changed. Several of the bigger boys had come in and helped his father move things around, bring new things in. The little boy understood what they were all doing, but he wasn't certain about why.
Then father had explained. "Diana will be coming to stay with us today, remember?"
"For always? She won't need to go back again?"
Jacob's questions had been met with a quiet sigh and the strengthening of that wondrous warm feeling filling his heart from his father's. "Yes, she is staying with us for always. She will be a part of our family."
That made everything right. If all the activity was for Diana, then it was nothing to be worried about. Father had told him a while ago that the beautiful lady he cherished with such trusting devotion would be coming to live with them, be with them, but the child thought such a wondrous gift would be too good to be true. He didn't dare hope, didn't dare believe it: His father's spirit had ached so every time Diana had returned to her own home Above. He couldn't believe that the warm brightness of today's reality would remain real.
Jacob looked around the room. It was still home, but somehow, a little brighter. Like the pretty-colored quilt that now hung on the wall behind his crib. It hadn't been there before, but it was cheerful to look at; somehow, it made the room feel a bit warmer, a bit... happier.
"Yes, father. I like it very much."
Vincent smiled easily at the little boy up in his arms. He never ceased to be amazed at the child, the wonder of having him near. And now that he was growing and becoming more and more articulate every day, it was a wonder just to spend time speaking with him.
Jacob was far advanced in his language skills for his tender age. He was already capable of reciting favorite poems, even though he carried a bit of his baby lisp in their delivery, which only served to accentuate his accomplishments . Yet, even more advanced than his vocabulary was his loving empathy and connection to his father's spirit, a tender lifeline of promise and innocence.
Every evening before bed, Vincent was gifted with a bit of his own childhood returned to him, as he and Jacob nestled comfortably on his bed amid the pillows and quilts, to venture through treasured childhood stories and books. No matter what duties claimed Vincent's attention during the later hours Below, he always spent the better part of an hour in delighted communion with Jacob and his books and conversation.
More and more often, that time had included talk of Diana, of his father's hopes for them all. And Jacob had welcomed the change he had felt come over his parent's spirit.
Vincent had dared to share, aloud, his dreams, with his child, for, beyond the little boy's wealth of intellectual and imaginative ability, the mythic figure treasured his son's heart above all else. There was a purity and completeness to Jacob's love for all those around him that left everyone feeling blessed by his mere presence. It was as if Vincent's and Catherine's love for one another had actually taken on a mortal form in the child.
His link to his father's spirit, more than once, had revived a flagging heart, at times so ready to succumb to desolation. Vincent never gave in to his pain completely, let despair wash over him totally, for to do so would be to touch the anguish to the child as well. At times, it seemed that the very essence of Vincent's spirit had been carefully placed within shelter of the child's soul, keeping it safe from harm. It took only the soft touch of a little hand, a sweet smile, an unexpected word, to offer that essence back to the sorely-tested man, unharmed.
That safeguarding of the spirit was also very much Diana's welcome ability. More than once, the little boy had recognized in the bright-haired angel a kindred spirit, someone who cherished his father's heart, stood ever vigilant in its protection. The thought that she would now share in their day to day existence was a precious comfort to the sensitive child.
"I hope Diana will be pleased." Vincent turned round once more taking in the changes he had allowed to take place in his room. They were subtle enough; even he had a hard time realizing his one place of total refuge in the world had not always been detailed as such. But the small changes had indeed brought a hint of brightness more easily noticed into the space.
It was so like Diana to bring such transformations about in whatever she touched, whomever she blessed with her closeness. Things were changed, people were changed, with her hopeful imagination seeing beyond that which actually existed to the wealth of possibility that could exist beyond the present reality around her.
Yet, the changes that she quietly inspired were never jarring or misplaced, never far from the actual truth revealed. It was as though her influences had always been there, had always actually been a part of the world around her, the changes wrought had always been; they only needed to be viewed from a different perspective to shine.
"Diana will be happy, too, Father."
Vincent looked into the eyes of his child and believed in the truth revealed there completely as well. He let a rare, totally encompassing smile spread across his unique face.
"And now, because you have been so patient with me this morning, my little one, how would you like to do something special?"
The child's face brightened as completely as his father's had. "May we go and sail our boats?"
"Only for a short while. Mary and Grandfather will need us soon to help with the rest of the preparations for today."
"Thank you, Father. I can't wait to try my new sail."
Vincent set the child gently back to the floor. "Now hurry and find your boat. I believe Jamie was going to bring Luke and Katy down to the river, too. You all can have a race."
The little boy scurried over to a small wooden chest near his newly rearranged corner of the room. Vincent was suddenly taken aback at the realization that the child now easily lifted the lid of the chest without assistance. His little legs were lengthening almost daily, it seemed, and he was proudly able to clamber atop or beyond one former obstacle after another.
Even his crib. Vincent knew the child was overdue for a small bed of his own, but he had opted to wait a while still before forcing the change onto him. There had been enough upheavals in the little boy's life to date. He'd weathered them all with serenity. Having him give up the familiar and sheltered confines of his crib could wait for another time.
Limits were not always negatives in life.
Ten minutes later found Jacob blowing as hard as he could across the wooden form of a small sailing scow, built with the generous assistance of Cullen's pile of scrap wood. Part of a handkerchief had been rigged up as a sail, and the dregs of Elizabeth's paint pots had yielded a fine assortment of reds, blues, and greens to color the little ship's hull.
The vessel was afloat on a small pool formed by an eddy of the great river in the Chamber of the Falls. If one carefully followed a narrow and steep path down from the viewing ledge of the Falls, a sheltered stretch of the riverbank itself was accessible. It had been one of Vincent's favorite places as a child, the imagined launching point of a rafting adventure conjured up for him by Devin. Even though there was only rock walls and filtered sunlight in view wherever anyone turned, a young boy's imagination could easily turn the spot to a landing on the mighty Mississippi.
Or a young woman's hopeful, creative instincts could turn it into a garden.
Vincent watched happily as Jacob's tiny craft proved itself seaworthy enough to cross the little makeshift pond in a respectable time. Luke's small vessel likewise navigated the little ocean with ease. Katy's ship had a mishap with its sail halfway across. Vincent carefully rehoisted it so that she, too, could enjoy the marine adventure. Jamie, who had brought the other children down to the river for some early playtime as well, before all the concentrated activities of the day, stood ready to safely haul in the vessels as they crossed.
After numerous sailing excursions, the children, as one, begged to be allowed to splash their feet in the pool, and their elders realized it would be futile to attempt to refuse them. Besides, the more energy they expended here, the less likely the trio was apt to find itself into mischief later, Vincent discerned, from plenty of past experience. So shoes and socks were slipped off and pant legs rolled up. In Katy's case, her skirt was tucked up. A moment later, the delighted squeals of the children's laughter rang across the great cavern to mingle with the roar of the Falls far beyond.
Settling onto a small wooden bench that had been placed nearby the river's edge, Vincent let himself be drawn into the joy and magic of the children's play. This place was magic as well, he thought, moreso because of the imaginative changes born of Diana's special touch. Two years ago it had been only a rocky leveling of the river's course. Now it was the community park.
An actual patch of green grass, interspersed with vinca and mosses, about 15 feet wide, ran up alongside the river's edge for nearly l00 feet. Two large ficus trees in pots made of wooden barrel halves sheltered the bench Vincent sat upon. Scattered along the length of the green area were assorted pots of all sizes and material -- actual terra cotta flower pots, a ceramic tea kettle or two that had cracked on the huge old stove in William's kitchen, an enamelware coffee pot with a dented and equally leaky bottom, and a dozen other fanciful containers that had outlived their original uses, having instead been brought to the river for their newest assignments: holding a vibrant and varied collection of green and flowering plants spilling over with life.
There were astilbes and hostas and, at this time of year, even a hybrid lily or two. Several ferns brought lush texture to the space. Everything was growing in soil that had been backbreakingly hauled down to the river's edge by hand and kept evenly moist by the perpetual mist and humidity caused by the Fall.
Over along the far edge of the spot, sheltered up against the rising heights of the cliffs, was a small play area for the younger children, with a sandbox, slide and two wooden toddler's swings hanging from an A-frame.
Vincent leaned his head back and looked up into the ficus with its abundance of green leaves. An imaginative heart had been able to turn stone and rock into an outdoor paradise beloved by all in the community. The only thing that was missing was a bird or two. If he kept his gaze in the light filtered by the small tree long enough, he could even swear there was a blue sky overhead. It was miraculous.
Turning back to take in the children and Jamie splashing in the pool, Vincent's gaze came to a halt. Even now, the distinctly pointed pang of remembrance was recognizable within his heart, not raw and desperate but still quietly aching and familiar:
Just off the center of the magically lush green space, a large clay pot claimed Vincent's attention, as always. It held, to overflowing, the very first plant to have found its home in this little bit of Brigadoon -- a rose bush, in full bloom, covered with tender-petaled flowers of deep red and purest white.
"I thought you could use a change of scenery by now."
Diana attempted to process the words, but somehow it wasn't easy. It had been two weeks since the catastrophic flood, two weeks that she had spent in the rocky, candlelit world of the tunnels Below. Although she had been freed of most of her pain during that time, her heavy leg cast and the rugged lie of many of the tunnels made it impossible for her to spend any significant time on her feet, even with the help of crutches, especially since her right arm was also still encased in plaster. The extent of her experience with the physical characteristics of the tunnel world had been limited, by necessity, to a week in the large hospital ward chamber and now another week in her own room, one of the guest chambers.
She had actually made it out of bed by now. The most well-appointed upholstered chair that could be found in the community -- a large, overstuffed arm chair of questionable decor in a murky shade of avacado green -- had found its way into her room. Covered with a quilt and accessorized with pillows, an ottoman, and a lap tray, the chair had allowed Diana the possibility of feeling less of an invalid from her injuries.
The community had continued to do its best to include her in its daily routines, for which Diana had been eternally grateful. Two weeks of nothing but serene immobility would have tested any a hardy soul. So, in a short space of time she had become quite familiar with the daily life of the tunnel inhabitants, their easy rhythms of nurturing and concern. It soothed her troubled spirit like a return journey home.
This time of morning had brought about one of the young woman's favorite activities: sitting in, literally, on the children's classes. Each day at least one lesson had been transported to the location of her chamber, and the interaction with the bright youngsters of the community was a godsend, reminding her of the infinite possibilities of life.
She had listened to a discussion of cells led by Father for the older children's science class on Monday, even having been allowed a turn at the microscope. Tuesday Olivia had helped the seven and eight year olds through the logic of math computations by using buttons and pebbles, which somehow always got scattered. And Wednesday found Elizabeth guiding sharp young eyes through the subtle properties of light and shadow in her art appreciation class.
This Friday morning's class had been Diana's favorite one to participate in yet. Samantha had been "student teaching" Vincent's history and literature classes for the younger children all week, in preparation for her much anticipated future position as teacher within the community. Together with her own beloved mentor, the girl had led the children through some of the history of their own city Above -- New York -- bringing alive the facts of immigrant living at the turn of the century.
To help gel the experience of emigrating to a foreign land, Samantha had devised a special lesson activity for the week: that of writing "journal entries" through the eyes of immigrant children. Each of her young students had chosen and researched a character for themselves and placed themselves in the immigrant experience through the eyes of that person with their writings.
Young Caleb had written about the voyage to a new land: "I thought it would be a great adventure, crossing the sea. But we were crowded onto boats like so much cattle and not even a breath of fresh air managed to find its way down to our dark hole deep within the ship."
Sara wrote of leaving behind a beloved Grandmother: "How can I go on without Nana? I will never again be able to hear her wonderful stories of growing up on the farm. I've only now begun to do well with my embroidery. She was going to show me more stitches. I wanted to make her proud of me. Mother will have little time for such things in a new place. She is so tired now, always. I fear she will be ill. And Nana will never see me complete my lace."
Timothy described arriving in the city itself: "I have never seen such a place, dreamed of such a place. The streets are endless and crowded, the houses stacked tall and narrow without the tiniest space of green. Everything is constant movement. I was nearly run down by a wagon because I was pushed off the walkway by an elbowing crowd. It is exciting and yet frightening to be here."
Each of the students had been eager to share their perspectives and the class had gone far over its usual limit of time. Diana had been entranced by the figure of Vincent in all this. He had quietly retreated to the role of observer as Samantha helped the children share their insights with one another, only occasionally interjecting a remark.
His support, Diana noted, was careful but unobtrusive, allowing Samantha full responsibility for the continuous flow of the discussion. The young girl truly had a gift for teaching, a true love for sharing knowledge. Diana could easily see that in her.
She could see as well the justifiable pride in Vincent's eyes at the girl's triumph, even catching a gentle misting in them at one point. It caught a lump in Diana's throat.
Finally Jeffrey came into the room to look for absent members of the noontime lunch brigade. He was greeted by a chorus of jubilation for the fact that the meal would soon be served, but reluctance, too, from the youngsters who had kitchen duty for the day.
Samantha brought her class to a close by collecting the journal entries from her students. "Don't forget we are going to talk about immigrant neighborhoods on Tuesday. See if you can find any descriptions of traditions that were continued here in the new country, ways that the immigrants in the new land kept their ties with their homeland alive."
The children were dismissed and left the room, chatting about ideas for their assignment as well as plans for the upcoming weekend lull in their routines. When they were all gone, Samantha threw her arms up into the air and let out a relieved and delighted, "Yes!"
Vincent came to his feet and enclosed the girl in a happy embrace. "You did wonderfully well, Samantha. You made the children think and feel, and they were able to beautifully translate those thoughts and emotions to words. It was an excellent lesson plan."
Diana added her praise as well. "You are a natural teacher, Samantha. I think your students very much enjoyed your project. It made the history come alive for them, and it helped them exercise their writing skills as well."
A bit of a surprised smile lit Vincent's face at the sound of Diana's words, as he appreciated her own insights into the teaching process. He had long thought the young police woman thoroughly capable of influencing those around her for the good, understanding with extraordinary ease what is needed to motivate and support. Vincent decided then and there that Diana would have much to offer the community that was his family. She could very easily become a teacher; she'd already taught him so much. Even things he was too afraid to learn about himself.
Samantha accepted Diana's generous hug and then laughed. "I was so nervous, but I really enjoyed myself, too," came her modest reply. "I actually can't wait until Tuesday."
Reaching over to his pile of books and lesson plans on the small table in front of him, Vincent retrieved a well-worn volume, carefully. He held it out to Samantha.
"Such a special accomplishment deserves a special remembrance. This is for you, Samantha."
The young girl's eyes filled with wonder, yet she noticeably hesitated to accept the book held out to her. "Your copy of Jane Eyre? Vincent, I couldn't possibly take this from you."
A powerful, tender hand enfolded a smaller one gently over the book. "I wish you to have it. It is your favorite. Read what I've written for you."
The look of pure adoration that filled the apprentice teacher's face was breathtaking. Diana felt her heart clamor at the revelation of innocent, pristine devotion. Samantha let her gaze settle finally back onto the book and opened the front cover, reading silently for a moment. She swallowed hard, then quietly shared the inscription aloud. "To Samantha, ever teaching minds to wonder and hearts to soar. On the completion of her first student classes. May our world always be brightened by your instruction. -- Vincent "
Without hesitation, Samantha threw her arms round about the powerful figure before her. "Thank you, Vincent. I'll try to meet your expectations, always."
A gentle caress over the girl's braided hair spoke volumes. Still, her own teacher graced her with a few more words. "You'll only need to meet your own expectations to soar, Samantha. Remember that. Now, you'd better get ready for lunch. We've kept William waiting long enough."
A sweet smile radiated over Samantha's face. Then she directed a happy greeting to Diana and was gone through the doorway of the room, hugging the book to her joyfully.
"She is such an extraordinary young lady," Diana said, admiration easily tinging the words.
"With our world's future in her very capable hands. She will do well. And she will be happy."
The words were unexpectedly wistful. Diana questioned softly, "The book is special to you?" as she took note of a sudden... shadowing... of her companion's features, only a moment ago so warm with pride and caring.
Vincent looked deeply into Diana's face for a minute, then let a sigh escape him. As he responded, he kept his attention on the shiny surface of the table before him, tracing the pattern of the inlaid wood with his finger, unconsciously.
"It was the story we were working on just before I became -- ill. When I could no longer conduct classes, I asked Samantha to."
Diana bit down on her lip in anger, berating herself silently for probing and again causing the spirit-battered man before her, pain. She had no idea, again, that she had ventured into the anguish of his tormented memories. Would she ever be able to help him heal, instead of continually subjecting his wounds to scrutiny that only made them more unbearable?
But, this time, Vincent seemed willing to continue speaking about his pain, and Diana breathed a silent prayer of gratitude for his momentary hold on the instant.
"I gave her the book then, to use for the classes. She always understood the story so well, took it to heart so easily. Her words always helped inspire the other students."
Of course a tender-hearted young lady such as Samantha would have found kinship in such a story, Diana found herself thinking. Jane Eyre's true love was a tormented older man she couldn't seem to be able to reach with the healing richness of her heart, until tragedy struck. It seemed that Samantha and Diana were fated to the same painful destiny as the literary heroine.
"Her face was the last one I could still recognize. The sight of her standing in the tunnel, clutching that book, fighting back tears, for me, was the last conscious memory I have of that time, before I was plunged... into darkness."
The powerful man whose very presence seemed to fill the entire room suddenly became the embodiment of burdened, painful memory. He seemed, visibly, to falter under the weight. Diana felt as though she were seeing him as Samantha must have that terrifying moment: a soul she would give her own to help, but knowing she could do nothing to remove the pain.
"By the time Catherine reached me, I was no longer able to find myself. I no longer even knew her."
There was a long pause before either of them trusted their ability to speak further. Diana's mind raced even as her heart snapped at the palpable sorrow visible in Vincent's stooped figure. He seemed suddenly so desperate, so willing to remember anguish, where just a few moments ago he had rejoiced with Samantha's accomplishments. Why the change in his spirit? Diana prayed that she could find the right words to reach him with.
"'Though they sink through the sea, they shall rise again.'" she spoke almost in a whisper.
Vincent responded in his heart, the words still too painful to be breathed aloud. "'Though lovers be lost, love shall not.'" He visibly fought with his inner self to regain some semblance of balance, some reconnection to the hope and promise he had felt with his beloved pupil. Forcefully he pulled himself past the memories into the present. And met eyes so full of love and concern that he found some measure of strength once again.
"Diana, do you feel up to leaving this room for a bit today?"
The question was so far removed from the pain of a minute ago that the young woman wasn't certain she had heard the inquiry correctly. She repeated it aloud to be sure. "Leave the room?"
Before she knew what was happening or why, Vincent had stepped over to her side and carefully lifted her up into his arms. If she hadn't been so startled by the abrupt change in his mood, she would have noticed that his eyes still carried the burden of memory.
"I thought you could use a change of scenery by now."
Settled against his massive chest, Diana fought to keep her heart from trembling wildly. Their last encounters with physical closeness had both terrified and blessed them with heart-stopping tenderness and frightening confusion. Diana was in danger of slipping back into that bewildering mindset at the realization she was now totally engulfed by his arms, his long, golden hair lying silky against her cheek and over her own limbs gone around his neck, the muscles of his body tightening with his movements, discernible even beneath the layers of woolen clothing.
She fought to remain within reason and logic, but pure emotion threatened to wash completely over her, drawing along with it the breathtaking sensuality she could lose herself in so willingly, that ached to bind her to the mythic presence that now carried her so easily in his embrace. Yet, Vincent seemed totally unaffected, perhaps purposefully so, his demeaner only casual and completely in control. He could have been carrying Jacob in distracted familiarity, for all his reaction to having her near and intimately within his arms. Diana managed only to reply with halting anxiousness, "Yes, that would be -- a nice -- idea. A change of scenery -- would do me good."
Before she was able to give their situation a coherent analysis, they were heading down the tunnels and away from the common areas. Towards, God only knew, what additional anguish of heart awaited them both.
The roar of the Falls was softened by the angle of the rock cliff they were up against. Diana attempted to keep her attention fully on the sound and off the fact that she could see little but open air beyond her legs. Heights hadn't inordinately bothered her in the past; indeed in her work she'd occasionally found herself in precarious locations with only her wits, courage, and a whispered prayer to keep her safe. But at the moment, she had absolutely no control over their descent along the steep path down from the ledge.
She pressed her head up against Vincent's shoulder, closed her eyes, and swallowed. He took in her momentary panic and reassured her with an almost mischievous glint in his own eyes, made even more deeply blue by the relatively bright light of the cavern. "Don't worry. I won't drop you."
"And you won't slip, stumble, or fall, either, I'm sure," came the automatic reply.
"Where is your trust, Diana?" The gentle rebuke was surprising to her. Up until now, she had always been the one to admonish him, attempt to reassure him in his struggles to reclaim his life in a world without Catherine. Now she actually had placed her life into his hands. There was no reason to fear, however, she admitted to herself. He would never subject her to the slightest hint of danger.
They reached a level area even with the river itself after a few moments of descent. The rocky shelf widened out to a sandy bank that hugged the water's edge for some distance. Near the water itself, seated on a thick blanket, were Rebecca and Jacob.
Vincent called out a greeting. "I'm sorry we kept you waiting, Rebecca. Our class was quite reluctant to give up its discussion this morning."
"Then Samantha did well. I'm so happy for her. As for keeping us, Jacob and I have been having a wonderful visit."
Hardly burdened by her weight in the least, Vincent came down to his knees on the blanket and smoothly set Diana down in front of him to lean up against some rocks. Jacob greeted her immediately with a chorus of "Dina's" in his sweet baby voice. Rebecca scooped the child up in a gay, swinging motion and settled him on Diana's lap with a smile.
"The light actually feels warm today. It must be sweltering, Above. I'll be getting back, now."
"You won't join us?" The question was a bit more hopeful than polite.
The young woman smiled at Vincent and shook her head at his invitation. For all his strength and power, the vulnerability within his spirit was what endeared him to her more than anything else, ever since they were children together. But, Rebecca felt as though her dear friend had initiated something he wasn't quite certain he was capable of seeing through. She also concluded that she needed to allow him to find his own way in this all. It could mean the tiniest spark of hope in a life plunged in darkness for so long.
"Thank you for the invitation, but it's my turn to supervise lunch clean up today. Hope you enjoy your meal. I'll be back before 2:00 to help you return."
With a final tickle to Jacob's tummy, Rebecca retreated back up the narrow path.
Diana suddenly realized that the entire expedition had been planned out before hand and was not the spontaneous decision she had believed it to be. That knowledge made the whole situation infinitely more complex. She wasn't certain if she should be anxious, overjoyed, or intrigued.
Vincent seemed not to notice her confusion. Instead, he simple asked, "Would you care to have lunch now, or would you rather wait a bit?" Up against the rocks was a small, old-fashioned picnic hamper of wicker. Diana smiled at the discovery, the feeling of warm expectation filling her with comfort, and hope. A moment later she replied, only half in jest, "I'd be happy to eat as soon as my stomach joins us down here. Maybe it would be better for us to wait a little."
Giving Jacob his hand, Vincent replied apologetically, "I'm sorry I didn't warn you before about our destination." His little boy eagerly pulled himself up to his feet while holding on to his father's hand. "If you are willing to wait, then, I believe Jacob is requiring my attention."
Indeed, the little boy was fairly racing across the blanket, support only by the slight touch of his father's steadying hand. And a tumble of baby words enlivened the conversation, the foremost one being "wata."
"Go right ahead," Diana replied, her uncertain circumstances brightened by the opportunity of sharing their time with the child.
Vincent walked the little boy over the sandy expanse for a dozen feet or so and stopped at the edge of a small pool scoured out by the river current. He sat by the little pond cross-legged and settled his young son onto his legs, slipping the child's shoes off his feet. The moment the shoes came off, the kicking began, as little limbs defied confinement.
It took Vincent a long moment before he was able to capture the child's legs again and retrieve socks that had, by now, slipped almost free of their own volition. Diana couldn't help but laugh outright at the mismatched wrestling contest. The larger participant was surely not winning the battle. And the unfamiliar, rich tones of Vincent's laughter warmed her heart.
Finally freed of both shoes and socks, Jacob clambered over his father's legs, heading straight for the water at a fast crawl. Vincent made a big show of halting the child's progress. "Oh no you don't, little one. You can't get those trousers wet. Just a minute." Even the usual formal elegance of his speech had changed in the interaction with his son, Diana was pleasantly surprised to find.
Jacob finally conceded that he was not going swimming with his pants on and let his father have them for safe-keeping. Once in the welcome freedom of his diaper and shirt, the little boy sat at the edge of the pool's bank and slipped his legs into the water. A squeal was immediate, as the temperature of the water was anything but comfortable to only the hardiest of souls. Yet, the community Below had long since become accustomed to their lack of heated water and took it all in stride. It merely meant a plunge in the river would be that much shorter, and that much more stimulating.
Vincent wrapped his arm around his son and let him lean against it. Safely supported by his father, the child graced him with a look born solely of boyish impishness, and began a furious kicking battle with the surface of the water, raising a flood that engulfed his father leaning over him as well. The powerful man was reduced to begging for mercy from the young water sprite even as he was thoroughly doused.
"I think you're losing, Vincent," Diana called out, heaping insult upon the situation easily. Vincent swept his dripping hair gracefully off his face with a shake of his head, and turned to his second tormentor.
"I should have known you'd encourage his efforts," came the accusation.
"Only trying to nurture Jacob's healthy physical activity."
"Yes, at my expense."
Turning his attention back to the child who had momentarily quit his flailing in the water, Vincent reached his free hand down into the pond and gently began to splash the little boy's limbs. The tables were now turned in the water fight, and Jacob quickly pulled himself up out of the water, trying to hide his bare, and thus vulnerable, legs, from his father. A bout of tickling ensued, which ended only when Vincent was left suspiciously sprawled on the ground with Jacob climbing over him in laughing triumph.
The entire episode of play had transfixed Diana as she watched. She had always noted Vincent's generous affection for his child, indeed, for all the youngsters Below, and the exchanges she had witnessed before between him and Jacob had been easy and warm. But, she sensed that this was a special place for them, a place of free hopefulness, graced by the relatively bright light of a mysteriously reflected sun they could never truly share in the world Above.
That light's revelation caught at her heart.
She had always been used to seeing Vincent in the softly glowing, candlelit chambers of his world. The shadows of that world seemed always to keep him an indistinct figure of mystery, slightly unapproachable. Here in the brightest light of his home, the reality of his presence was enough to make Diana's heart ache, at the injustice of the limits placed around his soul. At the yearning need to rest beside his ravaged heart.
Vincent was drying Jacob off with a small cotton blanket Rebecca had brought down with them, that he had tucked into the back pocket of his jeans when he'd brought the child to the water's edge. Diana felt herself transported, unexpectedly, to the hospital chamber a week ago, as she watched the powerful figure bending over to care for the small boy. Then, she had been the recipient of Vincent's gentle ministrations. But, unlike the feelings of shelter and protection she was certain Jacob must be experiencing with his father's tender care, her own heart had been left breathless, vulnerable, and revealed with his slightest touch.
As she held him in her attention while he made his child more comfortable, Diana suddenly felt Vincent's essence deep within her, reaching out to her with unerring need. He was drying the child off carefully, but his eyes were now locked with hers, his gaze penetrating far beyond her hastily constructed defenses.
It was as though he knew what she was feeling, truly knew, what she was thinking, dreaming, praying.
And far from being unaffected as he earlier had seemed to be, he was unbelievably touching to her unsteady heart with breathless communion, willing her, and himself, to see what could be possible in a world of light.
Even if he was still only capable of enduring life in the muted shadows of grief and regret.
When his gaze finally left hers, Diana let a ragged breath escape her. She had even stilled her breathing at the spiritual caress, without realizing it. Closing her eyes a moment, she forced herself to steady her heart, remembering his pain that morning after class, praying that she should never be the cause of any more of it in his so tested existence.
Still, when she let her attention settle shakily upon him once again, Diana found she had made little progress in her attempt to disguise her heart from him: with Jacob safely dried, warmed, and settled back into his clothes, Vincent had taken the small cloth for his own use, running it over his dampened hair.
The light in the cavern was miraculously bright, and it fairly glinted in the drops of water still clinging to the heavy silk of his hair. Freed from the shadows of the tunnels, it's color was closer to burnished gold than she'd ever realized. And unsheltered by his cloak and the dark, indistinct half-light of his world, his figure seemed suddenly rooted more in reality... powerful and tall, yes, but slim, too, and young. The face that was so unique and mysterious in the shadows became more lovingly familiar... cheekbones and brows that accentuated eyes the color of a bright summer sky, the faintest stubble along the jaw line that invited a touch, a mouth that promised tantalizing sweetness...
"I should have stayed drier if I would have taken this little urchin completely in for a swim."
Vincent's voice close beside her startled Diana from her thoughts. She hadn't noticed he and Jacob had returned to the large blanket beside her. It was impossible for her to hold his eyes now.
"Well, he didn't exactly drown you, and I believe you enjoyed that as much as he." Diana reached out for the little boy as she spoke, a little too casually, needing to root herself to the present, and the limits of what was possible, for a moment.
"Yes, I must admit, I don't mind the occasional frolic with Jacob here. It's a special place for us, with a special freedom."
As he spoke, Vincent, too, found it difficult to keep the young woman's ethereal features within his gaze. There was too much aching tenderness there, too much he would have wished to touch with more than his empathic care. Defensively, he reached to the picnic hamper William had packed and began to pull its contents out onto the blanket they were sitting on.
Diana felt the unbearable tension between them too, and fixed her awareness to the bounty of the basket as well, commenting on the great cook's generosity for their lunch. There were cold chicken sandwiches on dark wheat bread, a tub of salad, sliced peaches, and a small bowl of leftover apple cobbler. A pitcher of iced tea was flavored with lemon slices, too. Jacob's lunch was carefully packed into a compartmented dish: small cubes of chicken, cooked green beans, a small soft white roll, and his own portion of the fruit, plus his cup of milk in a plastic tumbler. Even the unusual abundance of the meal seemed to speak against their ability to keep their situation firmly planted in reality: It had been carefully packed by the cook to compliment and support what he deemed to be a perfect turn in his friends' experiences of one another.
Diana continued her observations in a forced lightheartedness, acutely aware that Vincent had not even begun eating, keeping his attention suddenly focused on the great falls far down in the cavern. "I can't believe how light it is down here," she remarked, attempting to draw him back from wherever it was his heart had lead him. She helped Jacob settle down to the blanket and put his meal within reach. The little boy quickly became engrossed with picking up each and every piece of his food singly and with great observant patience. Vincent at last poured the iced tea into a glass and handed it to Diana.
"It's almost like being out in the sunshine," she continued quietly, reaching for the glass.
"But, it is only reflected light," came Vincent's reply. The melancholy tone to his voice made the woman before him suddenly stop in mid-movement for her drink. Diana rebuked herself silently again. No matter how bright the circumstances surrounding him, no matter how many times he attempted to give his heart momentary rest, no matter how she longed to bring him comfort and release from his pain, it became apparent to Diana that his anguish was still just beneath the surface of his day to day existence, still so raw, still claiming all his hope.
The tenderness he had so pleadingly reached out to her was only another proof of his pain, a mercy he'd never be able to truly claim.
She knew he would never burden her, yet, there was something about him today that was drawing her to him hesitantly, not seeking that heartstopping sweetness seemingly destined never to be fulfilled, but yearning, instead, for some sort of direction, some anchor. Some peace. She would not let the opportunity pass. Somehow she had to bring him that peace. Even at the cost of her own.
"Reflected light can be as nurturing as true sunlight," she observed, perfectly aware that their topic of discussion had nothing whatever to do with the climatic wonders of this world below ground. "Some very beautiful flowers can flourish in the fringes of light. They only need a little extra care and patience, and the belief that they will thrive."
Vincent held her gaze an instant, then settled his attention on the wicker basket in front of him, its rhythmic pattern of weaving denoting order and completeness. There was little of either virtue available to him these past months, he knew. "With that sort of vision, Diana, you would be able to turn this rocky expanse into a garden."
"That sort of vision is what built this community, isn't it? That sort of vision will make it the wondrous, supportive world your son will grow up in."
Looking up at the sound of Diana's unmistakable rebuke, Vincent slowly shook his head. "I'm afraid that vision has placed itself beyond my reach."
"Then you will have to let someone help you find your way to it from another point in your life."
For all her fragile, other-worldly presence, Vincent found himself marveling once again at the uncompromising strength of spirit the young woman was possessed of. It was as if she were daring him to hope in life again.
If only it could be so simple. If only he could take hold of the outstretched had she'd been long offering him and let her slender, willowy frame support his heavily burdened one. She would be perfectly capable of doing so, he knew. Even if she should stumble under the weight, she would be able to steel her resolve and lift him to her heights of hope.
But there was still so much weighting him down, so much she could believe in that only brought him memory of terror and pain. How he ached to move past that reality, ached to reach that place, with her. Not even Catherine had seen what Diana now was capable of hoping for, believing in with every fiber of her being. Oh, it was so enticing, reaching for that hope, taking hold of the totality of Diana's belief in him. Yet, he knew the awful truth.
"Jacob enjoys his time Above with you." The words were simple acknowledgment as Vincent helped his child retrieve the last of his skittering peach slices from his plate. At least he could tell her how grateful he was for her loving shelter of his son's tiny soul.
Diana responded from her heart. "It is the best time of my entire week. I look at him, so eager to embrace the world, I hear him laugh, I watch him explore and wonder, and it makes me feel as though there is still good and brightness in the world."
"You have given him so much, Diana. I can only burden his spirit with my own anguish." Vincent threw his head back to look up into the heights of the cavern. His vision seemed to pass easily beyond the rocky confines of his world, searching for some less substantial, but no less longed for, world of brightness.
"I would give anything to walk, just once, in the sunshine Above with my child, to lie on the grass and pick out shapes in the clouds overhead, to point out the night stars, tell him their stories, and help him feel a part of the sky."
Diana could not trust herself to speak again. The words she had just heard were the most despondently painful she realized Vincent had yet spoken to her, since he'd stood in the sunlight of her apartment, healing physically, and bleeding his loss of Catherine to her in a cascade of quiet torment. The words were desperately lonely, devoid of spirit, and torn from a heart beyond her tender powers to resurrect.
Vincent felt himself enshrouded by a cold darkness that challenged the bright warmth of their surroundings. Jacob, then, caught his attention, with a look of pleading confusion that further tormented his tested soul. In his own profound pain, he had unwittingly caused the child to experience a sudden fathomless anxiety in his own little heart, the bond between father and child channeling his emotion relentlessly.
Reaching over to his son, Vincent immediately gathered him close, stroking his curling halo of hair and rocking him gently to his chest. The tears were visible in his eyes, yet he would not let them fall, lest he further trouble the child. "I'm sorry, Jacob, my sweetest gift. I've caused you pain. Forgive me."
The little boy lifted his hand to his father's cheek. "Fada?" he questioned, his otherworldly blue eyes clinging fast to the face he loved as no other. Vincent attempted to reassure the child with the barest, most hard-fought trace of a smile, but he couldn't hold the angelic gaze for long. It hurt too much.
Diana pulled herself over closer to his side and rested her hand onto his shoulder. "What is it, Vincent? What is causing you so much pain today?"
"Jacob will be... a year old... tomorrow."
The tears that stung Diana's eyes were flooding over her in an instant. Sweet Jesus! She had completely lost track of time Below, for her own reasons, to be sure. She never wanted to have to return Above, to leave Vincent's side and stumble thr aily existence that held no more promise to her.
Yet, time had not stood still. Two weeks had passed since she'd become stranded Below. Tomorrow was September 21, the first day of autumn.
The day Jacob had been born.
The day Catherine had died.