After the Ashes Cool
Vincent couldn’t sleep after seeing Catherine home, and found himself wandering back to the burned-down fire where the ashes of the letters to Ellie lay. Cold now, those ashes represented the lost promise of a child whose time had come too soon, and Vincent sank down in the shadows.
Father would not soon forgive himself for being unable to save her, he knew, and though he had also failed to save Dmitri, at least he had been an adult. They did not often lose children Below, and Father always took it hardest of any of them.
Ellie’s face swam before Vincent’s eyes as he thought about her brave insistence that she was “fine,” when she so clearly was not. She didn’t want to frighten Eric and she didn’t want to add yet another burden to the man who had become the father she’d always wanted, and if courage and determination could have kept the plague at bay, Ellie would have beaten it, Vincent was sure.
They did not have photographs Below, and Vincent suddenly worried that Ellie’s face would fade from their memories, especially Eric’s. She had been his only blood relative in the world and he didn’t even have a picture of her. Elizabeth would paint her; in fact, she had probably already begun to work on it, but that was not the same as a photo that Eric could keep nearby to remember his sister. Perhaps Elizabeth could be prevailed upon to draw a smaller portrait of Ellie, on paper, that Eric could keep in his chamber. Vincent had never known Elizabeth to draw anywhere but on the tunnel walls, but if she could do that …
He scrambled to his feet. He would go ask her right now. It would at least give him a useful task to perform.
As Vincent left, he never noticed the small boy sitting even deeper in the shadows, his tears magnified by his glasses.
Elizabeth was, indeed, working on a portrait of Ellie when Vincent arrived in the Painted Tunnels. She had only just begun the outline, but Vincent could see the likeness already.
“Vincent!” Elizabeth beamed at him and dusted her hands on her smock. “It’s not ready to be seen yet,” she added, a little reproachfully.
“It will be beautiful,” he said. “All of your pictures are.”
She smiled, but a little sadly. “I wish there were no need of this particular picture.”
“As do we all,” he said. “Elizabeth, I have come to ask a favor of you.”
“What is it, dear?”
“Can you draw portraits on paper, as well?”
She paused and put her head on one side. “Why do you ask?”
“Eric has no likeness of Ellie to keep near him,” Vincent said. “He’s only a child and I fear … that his memory will fade.”
“He’ll have this one,” she said.
“Yes, but it’s a long walk for a boy,” Vincent said.
“A walk you made at least once a week when you were his age,” Elizabeth said teasingly.
“I came to enjoy and admire, not to mourn.”
She sobered. “That’s true. I once drew on paper, when I was … younger,” she said. “I haven’t for many years, but if I had the proper tools –“
“I can get them for you,” Vincent said, knowing that Catherine would gladly procure whatever he asked. “Tell me what you need.”
Late the following evening, Vincent tapped on Catherine’s balcony door, the list of Elizabeth’s requirements safely tucked into a shirt pocket. When Catherine came out, he saw she had been crying, and he knew why without asking. Wordlessly, he opened his arms and she came to him, holding on tight.
“I don’t know what to tell the people at work when they ask me why I’m so quiet,” she said, her voice muffled in his cloak.
“The truth,” he said. “Tell them you’re sad because a loved one has died.”
“They’ll ask too many questions,” she said.
“You have relatives they haven’t met, don’t you? Friends far away? They needn’t know more than that.”
She nodded, her face still buried against him. Finally she pulled away so she could look at him. “How’s Eric?”
“Very quiet. He spends a lot of time alone. Father has released him from attending class and doing his chores for a few days so he can think, and heal.”
“I wish there were something we could do for him.”
“There is.” Vincent reached for the list and handed it to her. “I’ve asked Elizabeth to draw a portrait of Ellie for him, one that he can keep nearby to remember her face. We have no photograph of her, and he’s so young –“
“He might forget, and that would break his heart,” she finished for him. “What a wonderful idea. I don’t know much about art supplies, but I have a friend who does, and I’ll ask him to help me get the right things.”
Catherine’s friend took the whole thing out of her hands when she met him for lunch a couple of days later. She told him she had an elderly neighbor who wanted to return to a once-loved hobby but couldn’t get out and shop for herself, and he nodded.
“You never get over the itch,” he said with a merry grin. “You try. You pretend it’s not there. You find other hobbies, but doggone it, that urge just won’t go away. I’ll fix her up, Cathy, and drop it off at your office before the end of the day. You ought to try this yourself, you know. It’s fun.”
She shook her head with a smile. “I flunked art in college. Almost made my professor cry, I was so bad.”
He patted her hand. “I remember. Awful, it was.”
She laughed, and it felt good to laugh. And true to his word, Dan showed up at her office around 4, loaded down with sketchbooks and pencils that he dumped on her desk on top of her latest headache of a file.
“There you are. That ought to hold the old dear for a week or two. I’d like to see some of her work when she’s ready.”
“I’ll ask her,” Catherine said. “She hasn’t done it for a long while and she might not want to have anybody see it, though.”
“Yes, she will,” he said knowingly. “It’s not nearly as much fun without compliments.” With a wave, he was gone, and later that night, Catherine made her way Below.
Elizabeth was astounded. “Such nice things!” she said. “Oh, my dear, you don’t know how wonderful this is.”
“I can’t wait to see what you do with them,” Catherine said.
“First, the portrait of Ellie,” Elizabeth said. “I shall begin this very night.”
They stole away to leave her to it.
“Why don’t you have photographs Below?” Catherine asked as they walked.
Vincent paused. “We do have some,” he said. “Father has a few from his days Above, so do some of the others who began their lives Above. But cameras and film are expensive, and taking photos Below could risk our safety and our secret.”
“Of course,” she said. “I should have known that.”
He turned toward her. “In your world, photos are such an everyday thing that you don’t think about them,” he said.
“As are so many things,” she said sadly. “I know it would be too dangerous, but I wish I could have a photograph of you.”
Vincent looked so startled that she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” she said hastily. “But wishing doesn’t hurt.”
“But …” he shook his head. “Why would you want one?”
He honestly didn’t know! Catherine again fought back tears. “So I could see your face when we’re apart,” she said. “The same reason anyone wants a photograph of someone they love.”
“You can’t picture me in your mind?” he asked after a very long pause, during which Catherine watched a whole host of emotions play in his eyes.
“Yes, of course. But it’s not the same.” She reached up to touch his cheek. “I don’t have the abilities you do, Vincent. I don’t think anyone else in the world does.”
Her face was always before him, as real as it was when she was close enough to touch, but he knew that was largely because of his desperate love for her. But the thought that she would want a likeness of him, that she enjoyed looking at him … had never occurred to him before.
Somehow she sensed this. “I love looking at you,” she said, letting her hand slide into his hair, a more intimate gesture than she had ever allowed herself before. “I wish I could see you all the time, every day.”
“That would, indeed, be heaven,” he said very softly. “To be together constantly.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” she murmured.
He guessed from her tone that was a quotation, but he couldn’t place it. At the confusion on his face, she giggled a little.
“That’s from a song,” she said. “By the Beach Boys.”
She laughed again. “A pop group. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long.’ Teenage angst.” She put her arm through his. “’And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong?’”
“Not only teenagers feel this way,” Vincent said.
“No,” she agreed. “And it’s not only poets who can express longing.”
“I would call that poetry, also,” Vincent said.
“I would, too,” she said, smiling.
Elizabeth took her time with the portrait and though she usually objected if people spent too much time looking over her shoulder while she worked on something, she did not mind if Vincent occasionally checked on her progress. In three days, it was done, and Catherine chose an oak frame to fit it, bringing it Below with her on the day that Vincent sent word the portrait was ready. She had not seen it before; work had kept her Above since the day she’d given Elizabeth the supplies.
As Vincent and Catherine entered the Painted Tunnels, Elizabeth looked up. There were tears in her eyes.
“I think this may be the finest work I’ve ever done,” she said quietly. “Probably because so much love went into it.”
Catherine approached and looked down at the pencil sketch, catching her breath with a gasp. Ellie was smiling, her hair blowing a little in an unseen wind, wearing her favorite Tunnel dress, with a bunch of flowers in her hands. She looked so real and alive Catherine almost expected her to speak.
“Elizabeth, that’s … “ Words failed her.
“It’s beautiful,” Vincent said, joining Catherine at the artist’s side. “It is your finest work, Elizabeth, absolutely lovely. Breathtaking.”
Elizabeth smiled up at him. “Thank you, my dear.” With Catherine’s help, she put it into the frame and held it a little away from herself to look at it one more time. “Take it to Eric, child, and tell him it comes with Elizabeth’s dearest love.”
“I shall,” Vincent replied, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
They found Eric near the cold ashes of the memorial fire. Vincent had figured out that’s where Eric spent much of his time these days, but no one disturbed the boy when he went there. The other children tried to include him in their activities and tried to comfort him, but he preferred to spend most of his time alone. Vincent understood, but he also didn’t think it was good for him. Eric was sitting in the shadows, knees drawn up and his chin resting on them, when they found him. He glanced up as they approached.
“Eric, we have something for you,” Vincent said gently, kneeling next to him. “Elizabeth made this for you and said to tell you it came with her love.” He handed the portrait to Eric.
Eric took it and looked down at it for many moments in silence, his hands shaking as he realized what it was, and then tears welled up in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. Vincent put his arm around him and rested his face on top of the boy’s head.
Catherine felt her own eyes spill over as she watched.
After a very long silence, Eric said, his voice choked, “How did you know?”
“I was a boy once, too,” Vincent said, understanding without having to ask. “I knew you didn’t have a picture of Ellie, and I thought it might comfort you.”
“I couldn’t … I couldn’t remember her face,” Eric said, fresh tears pouring down as he raised his head to look at Vincent. “My own sister, and I couldn’t remember what she looked like!”
“That was your heart, protecting you,” Vincent said. “Letting you heal.”
“She was all I had, Vincent, and she’s gone.”
“No, Eric,” Vincent said, pulling him a little closer. “She isn’t gone. She’s still here,” he touched the portrait, “and here,” he touched Eric’s chest over his heart. “The ones we love are never really gone. They’re a part of us. Forever. And, Eric,” he put his hand under Eric’s chin and lifted his face, “she wasn’t all you had. You have all of us. We’re your family, and we love you. We grieve with you.”
“Ellie loved you,” Catherine said, kneeling next to him on the other side. “She would want you to be happy again, when you can, and to remember her with love, not pain.”
“You will, someday,” Vincent said. “I know it doesn’t seem possible now, but someday, Eric, you will.”
“It’s not fair,” Eric said. “Why did she have to die?”
“I don’t know,” Vincent said. “No one can answer that question, I’m afraid.”
“I miss her,” Eric said, his voice trembling. “I miss her so much.” He looked up at Vincent with so much pain in his eyes that Vincent winced. “How can I keep living when my sister is dead?”
“Because we need you, Eric,” Vincent said, tears trembling on his lashes now, too. “You must carry her memory and her love with you, and she will live on, in you. In everything you do and say, you can honor her and remember her and make her proud of you. She’s watching over you, Eric, and she still loves you.”
Eric glanced up at the rock above them. “She’s watching over me?”