Of Blue and Golden
He turned another page, and finally that image appeared. His eyes scanned it carefully, and a slow smile curved his lips. He looked at her, and she beamed back at him. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?” she asked, barely containing her excitement.
“Indeed,” he replied in an awed tone, returning his gaze to the large book. “Indeed,” he repeated, lightly caressing its lower corner with a clawed finger and following the signature name – Vincent – and the date – 87 – almost with reverence.
“I’ve stood looking at that picture so many times… and it wasn’t until this last time I noticed it,” she exclaimed, all but bouncing on the big bed where she sat, cross legged, close to him. “I gaped. It was almost as if… you… were looking at me from the wall of the Met. I couldn’t help glancing around nervously, in my best stealth mode,” she giggled. “I had to find a way to show it to you. I wish I could bring Muhammad to the mountain, but…” she tapped the large portfolio book, “the mountain to Muhammad will have to do.”
His smile widened, as he kept gazing upon the image of the painting. “Now I understand why you felt so… impatient, while I was leafing through these beautiful pages.”
“Sorry!” she said merrily. “It’s not that the other pictures are any less beautiful, but this… oh, Vincent! This is absolutely extraordinary. And the signature was there, calling to me, drawing me closer to see it, really see it, perhaps like never before. Symbolic, huh? I so wish you could see it properly too. These photographs are very good, but…” She glanced around at the lights of his chamber, all lit up, electric and flames, but not quite enough, in this dim tunnel chamber, to appreciate a printed art piece, no matter how extraordinarily reproduced. “The sunflowers are cut, almost withered, and at first sight the image might seem sad, but the colors… ” she enthused waving her hand over the book in Vincent’s lap, “if you look at them closely, the individual colors are brilliant and warm, a wonderful, wide palette, and all the strokes are visible, you can almost follow the brush that… ”
Catherine stopped, noticing his grin and his eyes on her, rather than on the Van Gogh picture. She lifted her eyes to his face, finding it amused and relaxed, as if he was enjoying her engagement more than the wonders she was describing. She asked, uncertainly, “What?”
He said nothing, just kept watching her, and his gaze, from her eyes, slowly moved to brush her face and hair, like a light, warm caress. She suddenly understood, and blushed.
He smiled a little more, and turned to look down at the page on his lap. “Attorneys aren’t supposed to blush, are they?”
You make me forget my training… and my evidence, she couldn’t help thinking. “Guilty as charged, your honor,” she said. “You do see all this perfectly, don’t you?”
“Being different has some… interesting side effects,” he admitted demurely. “Yes, I do. This book is quite extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like it. I knew some of these pictures from old books in our library, but there wasn’t… much to see there, even with different eyes. I’d never thought that I could really enjoy any of that art. Muhammad had dreamed of going to the mountain, but… the alarm system of the Met is too much for me. This is a wonderful gift, which I appreciate deeply.” He looked at her again. “Thank you, Catherine.”
She promptly decided that the two weeks spent hunting for that darned rare, precious, legendary, numbered, limited edition portfolio that Jenny had pointed her to (“The quality is phenomenal, unmatched!”), all the arm twisting and calling in of favors to find and finally persuade one of the rare owners to part with it, let alone the ridiculously generous donation to his favorite charity he demanded in exchange for a book he didn’t even remember having in his library… it was all perfectly worth that little “thank you”.
And after that worthy little “thank you”, Vincent closed the precious book, swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up. At the surprised and somewhat disappointed look on Catherine’s face, he replied with an almost apologetic nod and a glance to the hallway of his chamber. She listened, and after a moment the distant shuffle of feet and hushed giggles were audible to her non-different ears too. She sighed inwardly, and with a little smile she stood as well, setting the empty sleeve of the portfolio on the table. From outside, the sounds of a group preparing to enter could be heard, and an assortment of whispers.
Catherine looked at Vincent inquiringly, but he was busy sliding the big heavy book carefully back into its sleeve. Finally, a young voice asked, “Vincent? May we come in?”
“Yes, come,” he replied. Zach entered the chamber, shepherding a little patrol of small children, whom he marshaled and hushed with surprising effectiveness after the joyous greetings to Vincent and Catherine. “Now, silence, everybody! We’re on a mission, right? Say your part, and Not A Word More, okay? I’ll call you and you speak.” The excited children all nodded, giggling or solemn, all of them smiling at Catherine, who was beginning to enjoy the situation. “The first to speak is… Joshua,” Zach said. “Remember: Not A Word More,” he repeated waving an admonishing finger.
“Dear Miss Catherine,” the little black boy said solemnly. Catherine’s eyes widened, and she looked at Vincent, sitting comfortably in his big armchair, a smiling, enigmatic mask on his face. Silence followed.
“Yes, Joshua,” Zach said. “Then?”
Joshua looked at him. “That’s all. I gave the rest to Judy. There was a hard word.”
“Oh? Okay… Judy?”
A very thin girl, holding a one-eyed teddy bear, took a step forward and carefully announced: “On behalf of the entire community, we are here to invite you to a special event.” She looked at Zach. “That was Joshua’s. He was afraid he couldn’t say onbe half. Can I say mine now?”
“Yes, please, Judy,” Zach sighed. “Catherine, you following?”
She laughed. “Of course, Zach, and thank you, children, you’re doing very well! So, Judy?”
The girl continued, “We can’t tell you what this event is, because it’s a… one, two, three…”
“Big surprise!” all the children yelled together cheerfully.
“Okay, okay, David now?” Zach patiently called.
“It will take place… ”
One after another, the children delivered their lines under Zach’s strict direction, and at the end an impressed Catherine said: “So, let me see if I got everything straight. This event you’re inviting me to is a big surprise (“Yes! Big! Secret!”) and you can’t tell me much or you’ll spoil the surprise, only that I need to be Below at 11 am on the second Tuesday from today. And you’re telling me this now so I can arrange my schedule, as it’s a work day. All correct?”
“Yeah!” the children cheered.
“Very good. I am very, very glad to accept your invitation, and of course I will arrange everything to get away and join you for this big surprise. Thank you so much!” she said solemnly.
“All right, all right!” Zach said over the voices of the happy children. “Let’s go now, and remember, we want it to be a surprise, so you have to keep the secret from Catherine, okay?”
When Vincent returned to his chamber, Zach was there, waiting for him, sprawled in the big armchair.
“What did she say?” the boy asked anxiously.
Vincent smiled as he removed his cloak. “Of course she’s very curious, but she likes surprises, so she didn’t ask too many questions.”
“I wonder if we’ll be able to keep the secret until then. The kids won’t be able to talk about anything else now. They were the ones who wanted it to be a surprise, but I’m sure they’ll go and spill the beans…”
“So far, so good. You’re doing very well. And thank you again for thinking of Catherine.”
“Oh, c’mon, how could I not include her this year?” Zach’s eyes shined with excitation. “You just keep her away from the kids… meet her in her apartment, go for a walk in the Park…”
Vincent smiled, outwardly and inwardly, at the transparency of the youth. Not for the first time, it struck him that he was a role model for the young people Below, even in matters of love. And Zach was the president of his fan club.
He sat in the chair opposite, the precious oversized book that was Catherine’s gift on the table between them. He once more caressed its leather sleeve, and looking at it, he asked pensively, “Do you think she’ll like it?”
The boy all but jumped at the question. “Like?? She’ll be flabbergasted! Vincent, how can you not think she’ll love it? It’s… it’s the best of the best we have Below!”
“Her world has so many wonders…”
Zach looked at him suspiciously. “Did you two have a fight?”
Vincent chuckled. “No, no… it’s only that the world Above is full of wonders, isn’t it?”
“And of crap.”
It was the bitter edge in the boy’s voice that startled Vincent, rather than the unexpected word. He fleetingly scolded himself, as Zach’s horrible past flashed through his mind. At Vincent’s sudden glance, Zach continued quickly, “Sorry, Vincent. I mean… it’s full of things that are far from wonders, too. Catherine knows.” And he added with a touch of endearing pride, “You just can’t understand.”
Vincent’s heart filled with a surge of tenderness for this strong, generous boy. He stretched his legs, relaxing against the back of the armchair, and said softly, “Tell me.”
Suddenly self-conscious, Zach backpedaled: “C’mon, you know what I mean.”
“Maybe, but I want to hear it,” Vincent replied, “…especially if it’s something you think Catherine knows too.”
The boy stood up, moved a few steps and gestured vaguely. “I… I think Catherine… knows what it means… not to have… all this,” he said carefully. He stopped and was still, not knowing exactly how to continue.
“While I take it for granted,” Vincent offered.
He lit up. “Yes! That’s it! Don’t you?” he asked, cocking his head a little.
“Yes, Zach. Sometimes I do.”
“Me, I sometimes think that instead it could be like… like before. I don’t want it to be like before. And neither does Catherine, I’m sure. No matter how many wonders there are Above, when you find… this,” he again waved his hands around, this time not so subtly including Vincent in his gesture, “you look at things another way.”
Vincent glanced at the book, thinking about the withered sunflowers, glorious with colors hidden in plain sight.
“Thank you, Zach,” he said quietly. “I need to be reminded of all this, every now and then.”
“It’s okay, Vincent. You don’t have a before to compare to,” he said indulgently. “Just try to imagine… eating chocolate for the first time. Things change, after that,” he added with a wink. He waved and was off, leaving Vincent with the troubling thought – to follow Zach’s humbling and tempting line of reasoning – that not only was he a privileged soul, not only had he known from the beginning what chocolate tasted like, but he was the chocolate for Catherine.
Finally that fateful Tuesday arrived. Catherine, at 11 am sharp, was standing in the warm sun in front of a red sign, “NO STANDING ANYTIME,” mounted on a chain link fence surrounding a block of dilapidated warehouses along the East River. From there, she could see the little island, less than a thousand feet from the shore. When the taxi had stopped and she’d realized exactly where she was, she’d understood immediately why the instructions about where to go had been given to her at the last minute. That little deserted island meant… the Mirror Pool, laying beneath its rocks and scant woods, where its eye to the sky was open, undetected. The place, the time… Her inquisitive and imaginative mind was already in full gear, warring with the joyful desire of not spoiling the surprise, and she was grateful she hadn’t had more time to think about it. In fact, here was someone now, Catherine was glad to see, coming towards the little gate in the fence, waving, interrupting her musings. It was Jamie, who opened the gate and let her into the yard. “Hi, Catherine!”
“Hello Jamie! Not exactly your typical tunnel environment, is it?” she greeted her jovially.
“You figured it out?” the girl asked, alarmed, leading her towards a door standing ajar in a low red brick building.
“No! Absolutely not!”
“Good. And if you’re lying, please keep it up, will you? This business of surprising Catherine is driving us all crazy!” she said, rolling her eyes mirthfully.
She locked the door behind them, and down a long flights of concrete stairs, they descended into the basement. Catherine was as excited as a child, and Jamie kept teasing her, not fully believing she was unaware of what was going to happen. Through a square manhole and down a rusty iron ladder, they finally reached the tunnels Catherine recognized from the times she’d visited the Mirror Pool from the Hub. Vincent was there, waiting for her.
“Here she is!” Jamie said. “Now she’s all yours. How is poor Zach faring?” and she jogged away without waiting for a reply.
Vincent reached out his hand, and Catherine took it. “Welcome,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied, feeling suddenly at home.
“More than ready. Eager.”
He smiled. “I can feel it. Come, they’re waiting for you.”
When they entered the big cavern, Catherine saw it in a different light from the other times, literally. She’d never visited the Mirror Pool in the daytime, and the opening above let in a brightness that made the environment similar to the Chamber of the Falls, a kind of blurred luminosity. She looked around in awe, marveling once more at the incredible treasures of the underground world. Many of the tunnel people were already there, gathered all around the pond. A very large contingent of children yelled their happiness when she appeared, greeting her loudly. They surrounded the water everywhere it was possible to stand, hand in hand. Father was sitting on a rock, and she imagined the long trek hadn’t been easy for him. He smiled at her, and when she and Vincent took their place in the circle, he stood, prompting silence.
“So, welcome everybody. I am happy to start our little Summerlight event. Brooke?”
“Here!” the girl shouted.
“As Master of Ceremonies last year, to whom have you passed your task this year?”
“I passed it to Zach, and he accepted.”
“Here!” he shouted as well, from the middle of a cluster of children.
Catherine followed the dialogue, fascinated, holding tight to Vincent’s hand and wondering if this was some kind of ritual. Her stubborn, investigative attorney’s mind was drawing a blank though, and she couldn’t imagine what was going to happen. Zach looked at something in his hand, and began to speak.
“Thank you, Father. Thank you, everyone. My task now is very easy, because we are very close to the time, and I won’t have to talk much. My job before was fun and interesting, and now all the children, even the little ones and the new ones, know everything about the sun, right?” he asked, looking around.
“Yeah!” the children shouted, delighted.
Slowly and evocatively, he added “About the sun… and about its apparent journey in the sky… and about its dance with the Earth…” he looked again at the thing in his hand, which, Catherine now realized, was a watch, and she gasped at the sudden understanding. The boy continued, gradually raising his voice, “… the sun which today, as it does every year… at this time… as we can begin to see… comes Below… to greet our world! Let’s welcome it, everyone!”
The excited voices of the people around the pond, the children especially, rose and accompanied the rapid brightening, until a sudden, thin shaft of light dropped from the opening in the ceiling and hit the still water of the pond, which reflected and multiplied it. The effect was breathtaking. The thin shaft rapidly became a column of light, magnified by the mirroring effect of the little lake, and the big cavern was full of light, as bright as a day outdoors, brighter! Everyone was cheering and applauding and shouting, “Welcome!”, “Hello sunshine!”, “Hi, sun!” in a joyous cacophony, while the children jumped and danced.
Catherine was… mesmerized. The beauty of what she was seeing, the surprise, was beyond words. With misty eyes, she turned to look at Vincent.
All the rest disappeared. Before her eyes, in the shining sunlight, an unexpected, complete and utter beauty dazzled her with the unbelievable colors and details she had only imagined until then. Transfixed, she drank in that splendor, unable to think, unable to speak, unable to breathe, unable to cry. In the middle of the joyous celebration of the sun, she worshiped her personal star.
How long did it last? Not long enough, oh, not nearly long enough! When the long “ooooohhh” of disappointment accompanied the disappearance of the shaft of light, leaving everyone in comparative darkness, Catherine closed her eyes, letting the tears that had filled them fall and the sobbing begin, and she felt Vincent’s arm drawing her close, enveloping her in his fierce hug.
“Catherine?” the worried voice of Zach and some of the other children all too soon drew her back to reality. “Catherine, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Zach, nothing’s wrong,” she forced herself to leave the safe cocoon of Vincent’s chest and hurried to reassure them. “It’s just… just too beautiful!” She opened her arms, smiling through tears, and enfolded Zach, holding him tight. “Thank you, thank you… thank you!”
The boy beamed, as she released him and bent to hug all the children she could reach. “You liked it!”
Carefully avoiding looking at Vincent, lest she fall apart again, and mopping her eyes with a handkerchief that a furred hand had slipped into hers, she just murmured, “Yes, I liked it.” She smiled. “Which is the understatement of the century.”
Zach looked at Vincent, and winked.
The trek back to the Hub was a bit hazy for Catherine. The only crystal-clear detail was the warmth and strength of Vincent’s hand holding hers, never letting go. She heard snippets of merry conversation about the “big surprise”, about the excited preparations and expectations of the event, fragmented explanations about how the wondrous discovery was made years ago and celebrated ever since, the youngsters in charge of the annual planning. In fact, pleased with themselves, they were especially chatty, dialog bouncing from children to grownups, from a very satisfied Zach to a happy Father trying resolutely to ignore his growing tiredness. Catherine joined in as best as she could, basically grinning a lot and dropping an occasional, and hopefully sensible, brief remark. Voices, steps, friendship, glee, pride and love for the world Below, all formed a lively stream which she navigated almost blindly, towed by Vincent’s hand. Her heart’s eyes, like those of someone who had looked directly at the sun, were still full of a luminous, unexpected beauty.
And unexpectedly as well, guided by that possessive hand, she found herself in Vincent’s chamber, not quite aware how they’d so blessedly escaped the Summerlight brunch everyone else was so looking forward to. She had felt her stomach churn when it was mentioned in the flow of the procession back home, the very last thing she had appetite for.
Instead, she was exactly where she wanted to be, alone with him, to digest the revelation bestowed upon her, trying to put herself together and, possibly with his help, understand why it had struck her so powerfully. What she had seen was only new to her eyes, not to her heart, wasn’t it? The cut sunflowers painting kept returning to her mind. The rich golden and blue of it… which mirrored his colors, she realized with yet another small epiphany.
Entering Vincent’s chamber, she headed for a chair to sit down and talk… but the hand still holding hers didn’t let her, and pulled her almost brusquely to remain standing, facing him. “Tell me,” he said, his eyes burrowing into hers… those eyes, she realized, despite the chamber was not completely lit, she was still somehow seeing in their miraculous, unshaded, true color.
“Wh… what?” she replied, unsettled. He had brought her hand to his chest, laid it upon his heart, and lightly kept it there, covering it with his.
“What you were thinking… there,” he huskily replied.
Almost frightened by the disquieting, unexpected directness of the question, she gently drew her hand back and turned away to gather her thoughts – or tried to.
His hand flashed and took her wrist again. The inhuman quickness of the move startled them both. They stayed still for a brief and interminable instant, staring at each other. “Please,” he breathed, returning their hands to his chest.
Spellbound by the intensity of the moment, “You… you already know,” she managed to say, lost in the features of that incredible face, scant inches from hers. ‘Seeing in a different light’ will never have the same meaning for me again¸ she thought fleetingly.
His other arm rose to encircle her back. “I do. But I can’t believe it. I need the words.”
She knew the natural beat of his heart. She had listened to it so many times, to its slow, comforting rhythm beneath her ear as it rested against his chest. Now, under her palm, it was racing.
Strangely, this reassured her. She let her gaze wander over that beloved face, unabashedly taking in every… stroke of the brush which had painted those miraculous features. She lifted her other hand, and slowly, reverently, followed those brush strokes, the contour of his chin, the minute movements of the stubble as her finger passed over them, the lower lip slightly trembling, the sensitive cleft. He closed his eyes when she touched it, with a sharp intake of breath. “I was… dreaming... of doing this,” she murmured.
He opened his eyes. Two pools of heaven. “And… then?” he asked, holding her tighter.
It was her turn to catch her breath. Was this really happening? Overcome, speechless, she bent her head and lightly pressed her forehead to his jaw. He won’t have it. His hand ran up her back to her nape and loosely caught a handful of her hair, lifting her face to his again. “And then?” he urged.
The pace of his heart was almost frantic. It was silently shouting, Tell me that you want me!
She slowly lifted her hands to the sides of his face, into the luscious mane whose color she now knew so precisely. She brought a handful of his hair to her own face, lightly stroking it against her cheeks and lips. And looking into his darkened eyes, she whispered quietly, “You tell me.”
His mouth had nothing tentative. Inexperienced, but urgent and possessive, it took her lips, took her breath, took the strength from her knees. She helplessly wound her arms around his neck, welcoming his kiss with all herself, tasting his wonderful raw textures, overwhelmed by his natural mastery. Ecstasy.
Then she felt his hands sliding up her sides and back… along her arms… and suddenly grasping her wrists and removing them from around his neck, breaking the kiss.
She positively whimpered, opening her eyes wide, outraged… but the look in his eyes and the smug little smile on those moist lips – moist from my mouth – made her breath catch anew. He placed a small, wet kiss on one of her hands and took a step back. Under her puzzled gaze, he quickly discarded his cloak, went to the armchair on the other side of the chamber, roughly moved it close to the armoire and stepped on the seat to retrieve a dusty bundle from its top. Only the tingling, delicious sensation on her lips kept Catherine in hope that he had not lost his mind.
He lithely leapt to the floor with the bundle in his arms, among puffs of dust. He darted a conspiratorial glance at her. She twisted her hands, baffled.
The heavy canvas of the bundle was swiftly and forcefully clawed away, revealing a rich, heavy dark green velvet material. A thick wooden pole appeared when the fabric was unrolled, and it was hastily brought to the chamber entrance and hung, with its attached drapery, to hooks Catherine had never noticed before on either side of the entryway. Once in place, the drape looked alien, and perfect.
Gathering the discarded canvas, Vincent threw it to the floor near the exit and finally stilled. They regarded each other a moment. He dropped his eyes to his dusty vest and hands. A shadow of that smug smile still lingered on his lips. Nonchalantly, he began to unfasten his vest. Catherine forgot to breathe. He removed the vest and tossed it aside. With slow, deliberate movements, he brought the ceramic basin to the table from its place close to the cupboard, and poured some water from the pitcher. He raised his eyes to her, and leisurely rolled up his sleeves to the elbow. A wealth of fur appeared, a vision of gold, matching and rivaling his mane. Catherine gulped, with some difficulty. He washed his hands, carefully and unhurriedly. Reaching for the towel, never stopping to look at her, he moved several steps from the table, drying his hands, finally tossing the towel aside.
She still waited where he had kissed her. Transfixed. He stood, in his loose shirt, the golden arms set free at his sides. The distance between them let him run his gaze over her. All over her. She could physically feel it, from her eyes down to her lips, to her neck, and further, and further, his different sight seeing her as she was, as she wanted to be, painting her his mate with hot strokes, with a warmth that traveled her body, almost undoing her.
“Come here,” he commanded.
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