Two Chapters story
In early November, Catherine had come to the hospital almost daily. Brigit had seen the beautiful attorney the day after they'd met. The “other owl woman” had been standing in the hospital waiting room, rid of her costume and its accoutrements, looking fresh scrubbed from a shower. Her hair swung loosely in its face-framing style and was much shorter without the curls she’d had pinned into it the night before. Her eyes looked a little tired. But she was there.
She'd said she would help, and she was there to do just that. Brigit blessed her for it.
The Irishwoman would have bet that the American had had no sleep at all, but they'd had little time to speak of some of the things that had happened the night before.
Brigit’s father, Sean, was the central topic of conversation between them now. And Sean O’Reilly's situation was dire in more ways than one. Not only were there multiple doctors to see, there were multiple legal documents to tend to. Pleas. Appeals. A power of attorney to be done and papers regarding his medical care. And sadly, Sean's last will and testament to get drawn up and notarized, for what little the Irish rebel had managed to amass in his life, and whatever peace it would give him to have such things settled.
There was a certain legal intricacy involved in keeping Sean in New York. Not an easy thing, considering how much he was "wanted" in his Irish homeland. Or how much he wasn’t wanted there, depending on who you talked to.
All stalling tactics, Catherine assured Brigit. Necessary ones, all things considered.
It's not that they thought Sean was innocent, nor was that something anyone was trying to prove.
It was that they thought he'd be dead, by January.
By mid-December, “January” looked like an optimistic prognosis. Brigit's prediction that they would have less than 300 days was correct. And according to Sean’s internist, “300” was an incredibly robust number by a long ways. He estimated the correct figure at closer to 100, then pared that it half again, when the test results started coming back in.
If the worst was going to happen, Brigit wanted it to happen right where they were. In New York, and at a decent hospital, not in a Derry hospital, or a county clinic, or in a prison cell back in Ireland, where Sean's enemies would see to it that he didn't last the day, no matter what building housed him.
Cathy had done everything in her power to keep Sean right where he was. The ADA had helped the famous Irish author, just as she said she would. If, astonishingly, the two women almost never spoke of Vincent, it was only because the topics of their conversations had usually so much more to do with Sean’s situation than with Catherine’s.
They'd dressed Sean up in a suit, once. It was a Tuesday, Brigit remembered, and sometime in mid-November. Winter winds had made his Irish cheeks ruddier than the whiskey usually did, and his striped necktie looked like it was choking him, something Sean swore was true.
It was all done to take him downtown and have him give whatever statement he would to Joe Maxwell - and two representatives from the state department. At least one of whom wanted Sean put on a plane that day, handcuffs, hacking cough and all.
A hastily contacted Peter Alcott had asked a doctor friend of his to accompany them, an oncologist who swore that a transatlantic flight was “inadvisable” given Sean's current state of health. Charges were filed. Statements were signed. It was then up to Cathy to file the delays that would keep them in New York.
Brigit still referred to the long, trying day as “Sean's Last Day Out."
He'd seen the inside of a jail cell. Then he'd seen the inside of a hospital.
And as the weeks went on, Brigit couldn't decide which address seemed more cruel.
As November bled into December, and Sean's condition worsened, she marveled that she'd ever been confused about that.
Seven weeks. Seven weeks, literally almost to the day she'd found her father again, Brigit O'Donnell knew she was losing him, and that it would be soon.
It all seemed so bloody unfair.
And so bloody ... inevitable.
If Ian's sudden death had been accomplished with an explosion that had ripped across her psyche, this was its opposite.
This was a slow, torturous journey that insisted every step in an excruciating gallows walk be executed at a bleeding crawl - that ripped across her psyche. This misery was accomplished slowly, with an almost ugly and deliberate pace.
With Ian, she'd never had a chance to say good-bye.
With Sean, she'd had nothing but.
As bad as his first days in the hospital had been, those were their 'salad days' compared to this.
“Salad days.” Such an antiquated term. No more salad days for Sean, and Brigit didn't feel like remembering hers. Or eating salad. Or anything else. They now fed Sean through a feeding tube. And Brigit from a vending machine, unless she could be coaxed downstairs to the hospital cafeteria.
When she actually took in a meal sitting down with tableware, the hard chairs and bland food were almost an Edenic relief, compared to the mechanical austerity of Sean's hospital room.
Bit by bit, she'd watched her father weaken, waste, and sicken further. “From what” had a host of correct answers, at this point. Cancer. Pneumonia. Cirrhosis and renal failure. He was dying as his body failed him. To Brigit’s way of thinking, he was dying because he was dying. It wasn’t so much more complicated than that.
The IV needle and the heart monitor had made room for other machines and other accessories, as his condition steadily worsened. Sensor pads taped to his chest and two at his temple measured Brigit knew not what. A clip on his finger kept track of the oxygen he was getting. Or wasn't getting, as his disease(s) progressed. He had a stent for injections and a mask for oxygen. Bags that measured how much fluid went in, and then humiliatingly, how much fluid came out.
"You're a right monster you are," she'd told his still form with what she hoped was Irish sass, hoping there was enough of the bog side fighter in him to rise to the jibe. He looked like something out of Frankenstein, complete with the electric wires at his temples and chest.
But he hadn't snapped back at her. Hadn't opened a bleary eye, and sharped "Mind your manners, girl. I'm your father." Not for a couple of days now. More, maybe. Days Brigit had had a lot of time to think.
The sudden horror of Ian's death had not been kinder than this one. But it had been, perhaps, less draining, in its terrible speed. One instant, her young husband was there. The next, he was gone.
Brigit suddenly had many hours as her disposal to compare the two. She had no idea which one she preferred, and found it horrible that the subject was even on her mental table.
So which is it you choose, lass? The quick kiss good-bye then the sound of the explosion on the other side of the wall? Or having to walk through the hospital room door again, knowing what you'll see on the other side? A man who looks increasingly less like the one you always knew, day by day?
Brigit had no answer for it. And it bothered her that the question kept arising, mentally. Is this what I’m reduced to? she wondered. Choosing which death I prefer, for the only two men I ever really loved?
It seemed impossibly sad that she was.
Twenty minutes later, she'd had to leave Sean’s room again. But not for a "mental break" or to stretch her legs or to return Catherine's most recent phone call. She'd had to leave thanks to the routine of where they were, as other people came into the room to do their jobs.
Time to empty his catheter bag, check the bedsore he'd gotten on his backside, apply a fresh bandage to that, update his chart, adjust his oxygen flow... It was as if a team of dedicated ants would swarm her poor father, do what they were trained to do, then leave him in that strange kind of mechanical peace, again. The kind where machines beeped and blinked, and the slow drip of the IV bag marked the passage of time steadier than any clock.
They all needed room to do their jobs, do the work of keeping him comfortable, and still alive.
Brigit had escaped to the chapel, the only other room besides the now-closed cafeteria where she could sit, away from the cold machines and their soulless technology. And away from the sorry sight that Sean O’Reilly, fighter and felon, had become.
She stared at the altar, unseeing. St. Vincent’s Hospital still held the Catholic trappings of its namesake. A wooden cross hung suspended from the ceiling, votive candles lit beneath it, for prayers. It was a peaceful spot, in its solitude. Peace was welcome.
"A friend of mine says the world devours our beauties and our certainties," a young male voice said, from behind her. Brigit startled a little. She'd have sworn she was all alone in the candlelit room.
He hadn't interrupted her prayers. She'd been too tired for those, lately, and no longer knew what to pray for. She now simply used the chapel for the sense of respite it still gave her, and as a refuge.
Her unexpected companion was sitting just behind her, not far from her left shoulder. If she turned her head just a little, she could see him in the pew. Young. Brunette. Curly hair in bad need of a trim and a New York baseball cap still perched on his head, in spite of his somber surroundings. His eyes looked kind. So did his soft smile.
"Does he now?" she returned. "Well. Offhand, I'd be sayin' he's right," Brigit said, turning around a little more in the seat. She could think of a man who had no beauty left to him whatsoever, at this point. And damn little dignity, for that matter. And only one certainty, and that was his impending departure from this world.
"My name is Kristopher. And you're Brigit," he stated, leaning closer as he crossed his arms over the back of her pew and propped his chin there. She found his boyish smile very disarming, if not just a little out of place for this solemn hall.
"I am that." She turned toward him a little more. He must have recognized her from one of her book covers, or from a newspaper article. She was too tired to ask.
"You'll not be wanting to blow me to pieces now that I've confessed it, will you?" she asked, her Irish sense of irony coming to the fore. It would be beyond ironic if she died not only in a hospital chapel, but before Sean did.
"Why would I want to do that?" he asked, looking both puzzled and curious.
Her face looked sad, and very heavy with all she bore, at the moment.
"Och, because most people seem to want to." She turned her face back toward the altar. Candles glimmered behind stained glass. The wooden cross gleamed from the flickering flames beneath it. Soft organ music played in a continuous loop, through the overhead speakers. And Brigit had the air of a woman who was certain she was right.
The young man behind her seemed to take in her words a moment, before he replied.
"No, they don't. That's what I'm here to tell you."
What? Oh, not now. Not some well-meaning missionary about to pontificate about the resurrection, or some Good Samaritan about to insist that most people were good.
It wasn't that she didn't believe. It was that she wasn't sure she even cared, right now.
"Me father's dyin’, Kristopher. So unless you know how to stop that..." She tried not to sound bitter about it. And hoped she succeeded.
His next comment caught her utterly off guard.
"Not stop it. Not that. You can't stop that, Brigit," he said sympathetically. "I want to paint you. Some day. Just not this day. This isn't the right one for it."
She turned to him again, her red head snapping around. What in the name of saints and sinners? His conversation had gone from curious to nonsensical... and prohibitively insensitive.
"I'm not some painter's model." Her tone was sharp. She let a bit of her tiredness and her Irish temper show. "So if you'll excuse me."
She stood up to make her way out of the sanctuary. Her long brown skirt brushed against the polished wood as she sidled her way down the row. She was dressed for winter’s chill, as well as the iciness of her father’s hospital room.
"No, you aren't," Kristopher agreed, standing as she passed him. "You aren't, and you never were.” He sidled right along with her, his long legs keeping easy pace.
“You're a writer. You've always been a writer." He continued down the pew as she did. "Your beauties and your certainties. They're there. You just got lost, Brigit. Kind of like Simonetta. Or like Erika. People get lost, sometimes. Then they get found." He said the last as if it was a bit of cheerful news, amid her gloom. They stood facing each other in the aisle.
She had no idea what he was talking about. And decided to tell him just that.
"I have no idea what you..."
"Cathy Chandler was lost too, once. Lost before she got found. Lost before him. Lost before... everything."
She had no idea what this riddle-monger was hinting at. But she obviously knew the name Catherine Chandler, and was surprised he knew it too. She stopped trying to move around him.
"You know Catherine Chandler?" Brigit asked. Catherine was most of why Sean was still here under an assumed name, with nothing more than an armed guard at his door, rather than in a prison infirmary, likely shackled to the bed. Part of why Brigit had been allowed to stay with him at all, through it. This unusual person wasn’t somehow part of all that, was he?
His answer was more curious than any he’d given so far. And that was saying something.
"Not yet. Not really. But I will." The answer made no sense at all. Neither did his grin.
"Catherine is Catherine," the boyish spirit tucked his hands in the pocket of his long coat and shrugged his narrow shoulders. "We're destined to meet. She looks beautiful in red. Or she will. I can never remember some things. You should see, one day. It's a gorgeous dress. And he's all behind her, looking like something out of ... Theseus. Or Cu’ Chulainn."
He gave her a bit of a boyish wink and she startled. Those were the first words she'd ever used to describe Vincent, to his face.
“You look as though you might have ridden with Cu’ Chulainn, or sailed with Theseus.”
“Only in my dreams,” Vincent had answered.
The young man in front of her adjusted his scarf and pressed on. "But I'm not here about Catherine. She'll be here soon enough, by the way. But I'll be gone before she arrives."
Brigit stepped around his slender form.
"I’ll be needin’ to get back to me father. If you'll excuse..."
"There's a coffee machine in the hall. Not as good as cappuccino, but it's okay. Want to get some?" he smiled.
There was something about him, and she couldn't say what. Perhaps just the fact that he was talking about anything other than what they normally talked about in a hospital. Disease. Passing. Tests. The comfort of praying to a higher power. When the next round of pain killers was due. Whatever.
Perhaps it was just that there was enough of a rebel in him to keep his hat on in what passed for a church, and she liked rebels, even impious ones.
"You're wearing a baseball cap in a chapel." She chided him about it for the first time. And this was so far and away from where she could (and probably should) be and what she could be watching right now, she could only bless him for continually interrupting her sorrow.
"Is that a yes or a no, on the coffee?" Kristopher asked, handing her his card. "I'm an artist. See?" She could only make out his first name and the word “artist” before he took the card back.
"Just remembered. I only have the one. Sorry. Coffee?"
He gestured toward the door.
She tilted her head at him, but proceeded down the narrow, red-carpeted aisle anyway.
"So it’s a painter you are?" Brigit said asked conversationally, as she made for the doorway of the chapel.
"Paint, sketch. Color with crayons. Go outside the lines. Depends on the day I'm having," he replied.
He followed her out of the chapel and down the long, antiseptic hallway. His sneakers made no sound on the mopped floor. Her knee-high boots clicked on it, for contrast.
The coffee machine he'd mentioned was just ahead of them. Brigit knew it well.
"I can never decide if I’m wantin’ coffee or not," she confessed, putting in fifty cents.
"Because on the one hand, you need to stay up. And on the other, you're a bundle of nerves. I know," he said, with a kind of sweet understanding. And did not produce a coin for his own beverage.
Shrugging her shoulders, Brigit put extra change in for him. It wasn't like I have anything else to spend me money on, she realized sadly.
"You seem to know a lot about it," Brigit observed.
He pumped as much cream and sugar into the cup as the machine would allow, then warmed his hands over the steam, and blew the contents cool.
"I know my friend is right, sometimes. About our beauties and our certainties. But that you mustn't let that happen to you." He blew on the coffee some more.
She leaned against the rough plaster wall a bit, and regarded him.
"I'm a widow who's about to become an orphan. Me mother's gone, taken by the same kind o’ violence that consumed me father and is cutting the heart out o’ me homeland. Me husband's killed. And that same father is busy dyin' in a room I can no longer bear to set foot in, but for the breakin' o’ me heart. What beauty would you like me to take from that, Kristopher? What certainty?" She was trying not to sound bitter, again. And knew it wasn't quite working.
His boyish grin dimmed. For what Brigit realized was almost the first time.
"Those ... Those are all things you've lost, Brigit. But they're not what you've made. What you can make, once you remember how, again."
She took in his lanky frame and large eyes, and realized she couldn't begin to guess his age. He could be nineteen. Or twenty five. Or a boyish thirty. More. Something about him felt ageless. Just as something about her felt ancient, right now.
"And you're an artist, so you would know. Because you make things," she supplied.
His grin returned, immediately. "Beautiful things! The best things!" He shook his head and it set his dark curls to dancing, beneath the cap. "You are going to be in the most beautiful portrait, one day. It will take your breath away, how gorgeous you are. How like a picture from a book you haven't even written yet."
She raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. "So you're telling me it's going to be all right," she stated, clearly not putting much store by the advice.
"Better than all right. Better than better. That's not me who says that, by the way. But you'll meet him."
The eyebrow remained raised.
"A friend of yours?" Brigit asked.
"A friend of Cathy's," Kristopher answered, drinking thirstily from his cup, now that the contents were cool enough. He downed the beverage and threw the container into a nearby garbage can. He had a foam mustache from the liberal cream.
"Thing is, you have to do what Cathy says," he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Even if it sounds crazy, sounds impossible.” He stepped close. “You have to do it. Have to trust her. It will be better, Brigit. It will. You have to go where they still believe. Where they still believe in … everything.” He flung his arms wide, in an expansive gesture. “Especially in each other. You have to do it, have to be willing to believe, too. So you can write again."
"Write? I've done nothin' but write," she sighed. "All of me heart poured out on blank pages, as I see what they're doin' to him. And what he's done to himself."
"Not that," Kristopher said, shaking his head in the negative. "Oh, you can write that, if you want to. Or if you need to. But that's like 300 Days. It will be … important.” He closed his hands into fists to indicate weight, and gravitas. “But it won't feed the thing inside you that's starving. The place inside you that wants to hear the fairy music, again." And his hands opened, in the gesture of letting something go. Something light. Something airy.
Fairy music? And what would this youth know of that? Or of the breaking of a heart? Or anything else, for that matter?
This man didn't know Sean, had never known him. Not the father. Not the husband or the rebel. Not the man who used to pick her up and send her pigtails flying, making her squeal when she was a little girl. Not the man who used to leave the house at all hours, while her mother sat white-faced with worry at the kitchen table. He didn't know. No one did.
Brigit felt her Irish temper wanting to run. "Kristopher, me father's dyin'. What do you know about dyin?" She didn't mean to sound sharp. But she had to.
He took no offense, and stood just a little bit closer. "Maybe not a thing. Maybe more than I want to," he said, a little sadly. "That's just it,” he confided. “We all know more than we want to about that."
She blinked, and something in the way he said it made her believe he was telling the truth.
Then he startled her by turning his ball cap around, front to back, the gesture so unserious a thing she couldn't believe he'd done it.
"But if that's all we remember that we know, we won't remember anything else, Brigit! Won't remember the places inside us that know about other things. Better things. The places that remember Cu’ Chulainn and Theseus. Owl women and fairy music. We might lose our beauties and our certainties, I know. But that doesn’t mean we don’t gain other things. Doesn’t mean the world leaves us empty handed."
He watched her take in his pronouncement – having mixed it with some of hers.
He sounded positive. Very positive. But something inside Brigit couldn't hear that, right now.
She shook her head. There was no place for fairy music or fables, or leprechauns or even banshees, any more. No place for owl women or enchanted forests or castle shapes in the clouds. Right now, there didn’t even seem like a place she could walk empty handed, among her enemies. This gauntlet seemed far more pitiless.
"I keep askin' meself if it all means anythin'. And all I can think is..."
"You think it doesn't," he interrupted. "You think that it's a hard end, no matter what. That there's no magic left, and no gentleness, either." He flipped the cap back again. "The end doesn't define you, Brigit. Trust me about that. I know."
He watched a slow tear trail down her pale cheek. Paler than ever now that December's chill had taken hold of the year. Brigit did not remember the last time she'd sat in the sun, or felt its warmth.
"There's more." His soft voice had a wonderful quality to it. "So much more, Brigit. There's always more. Death is a thing we pass through. But ... it's just a line. Just a door. Ignore the lines. Don't look at the door so hard you can't see what's beyond it. A doorway is just a line you step over. Or even back again. Like a threshold." He demonstrated by stepping this way and that, in the hall. Then shrugged his coat-clad shoulders.
"You mean an afterlife?" she asked, realizing she didn't want the contents of her cup.
"I mean all the life.” He gestured with his palms up. “Before. During. After. His. Yours. Mine. The beginning, the middle, even the end, and then what comes after that. And after that! So much life! So many stories in there. So many, waiting to get told. Stories about what was. Stories about what’s never been. I love stories about things that have never been, don’t you?"
Her blue eyes stayed steadily on him. She used to. She used to love those stories. Those fantastical tales of her childhood. Those myths, those legends, those bits of children’s fancy.
“I used to,” she allowed.
His smile was as broad as the brim of his ball cap. "I know you did. One of us has a painting to do. And one of us has a children's books to write. One that begins with a trip to a magic land. One where the heroine meets a very unusual boy who loves to tinker with machines, and infuse them with his magic." Kristopher wiggled his fingers in the air in front of himself, in the gesture of a wizard casting a magic spell.
“You'll meet him. And then you'll meet more of them.” He grinned a conspirator’s smile. “You'll know.” He dropped his voice to the level of a thing said in the deepest confidence. “You'll feel magic again, Brigit. Find beauties. Find certainties."
He said it so gently, she nearly believed. And that hurt, because she really didn't want to believe, right now. Misery was almost a comfort, and the armor of it kept her from being hurt more, and worse, from being exposed to anything that felt like "hope," right now.
"Paging Ms. O'Donnell. Phone call on line three. Ms. O'Donnell. Paging Ms. O'Donnell. Pick up the nearest white phone..."
Her name over the loudspeaker distracted her from this odd boy's bizarre predictions.
She looked up at the now-familiar intercom and down the antiseptic hallway. They often called her when they were done tending Sean for the moment, or when his doctors wanted a word with her, or when they needed permission to change his medication, or add another torture device to his array. She prayed this wasn't about the latter.
She tossed out her cup, went down the hall to the nearest wall phone and took the call. Yes, she understood it was time to increase his medication against pain. Yes, she understood they'd be in more often, to tend the sore that was healing. Yes, she understood that she could go home if she wanted, that they'd call her if anything changed, suddenly. She knew she wouldn't.
When she turned back to look down the hallway, Kristopher was gone.
The Riders of Cu' Chulainn
"An artist in the chapel?" Catherine asked later, having heard at least some of Brigit's story.
"Sure I am as I'm sittin' here across from you," Brigit said. "Does he sound familiar?"
Catherine shook her lovely head. "I've never met him. Or if I did, I really have forgotten. I used to pose for a life study class in college, but that was a long time ago. Maybe he knew me from there."
"Then it's another crazy man who took to strikin’ up a conversation with me." Brigit gave a soft shrug. "More harmless than the IRA but no less mad, for all that." Brigit shooed away any further mention of Kristopher.
Christmas muzak piped softly into the waiting room near the nurse's station where they sat. Some of the staff wore a little bit of holiday cheer. Christmas earrings, or a picture of holly on a lapel pin. A large bunch of mistletoe hung over the area where they kept the patients' charts. More sat in a glass, next to a glitter-tipped poinsettia.
“I didn’t want to have this conversation in his room, Catherine. They say sometimes…” her voice hitched. “Sometimes that they hear you, even when they don’t speak.”
Catherine nodded, and squeezed the other woman’s chilly hand. “I understand, Brigit. You’re sure there’s no one you want me to call?”
A silenced television was playing "A Charlie Brown Christmas" over their heads. Scattered magazines on tables featured glorious wreaths and elaborately decorated trees. All of it reminded Brigit that the holiday was uncomfortably close. And that her father wouldn't live to see it, more than likely.
“Och, no. Most of friends are either in hidin’ or dead, and most of them back in Ireland. I’m all there is, for family.” She squeezed Catherine’s hand in return.
"And I'm thankin' you for comin', Catherine. They say it’s in God’s hands, now. And this is a hard thing to bear, alone."
“I’m so sorry, Brigit,” Catherine said, sincerely.
“When it happens he wants nothin’. No wake, no service. Me mother’s ashes are in Derry Cay. He wants the same for himself.”
Catherine nodded her understanding. “The hospital staff has already been informed. It’s already arranged,” Catherine said, with the same kind of steady competence that Brigit had come to rely on.
The beautiful attorney had visited the Irish author several times, in the hospital. When Brigit had called to request her presence immediately, Catherine knew the need was likely dire.
"You're not alone,” Catherine consoled. “If you're certain of nothing else, I'd like you to be certain of that." The blonde woman gave the redhead a soft hug.
Our beauties and our certainties. Brigit thought, remembering the strange words Kristopher had given her.
"You've no idea what a comfort it is to have you." She returned Catherine’s affectionate embrace. For a small woman, she feels so strong, Brigit thought, aware they were nearly the same size.
A small parade of hospital staff walked by the waiting room, one of them stopping to nod to Brigit.
“Well. They’ll be done tending him.” Brigit said, watching Sean’s attendants go past, as a group. “We’d best go in,” she said, rising from the waiting room chair.
Catherine did likewise, and accompanied the Irish celebrity as they strolled down the long hallway to Sean’s room. Catherine’s winter coat was over her arm, and a small bag was in her hand. She knew Brigit was holding up as well as could be expected. Also that the long days spent tending Sean were taking their toll.
"I wish you could have known him when he was... younger, Catherine,” Brigit said. “Healthier. He was this great big... bull of a man.” She held her hands up, fingers splayed open to indicate size. “Strong. Not tall, not so much, but powerful, across the chest and in the arms. He used to love to pick me mother and me up, and swing us around. Tell me tall tales. Samhain. The little folk. Cu’ Chulainn. When I was little I remember thinking me Da must have driven his chariot, he was so strong."
"Cu’ Chulainn. I don't think I know those stories," Catherine confided, walking in step with the woman she now counted as a friend.
"Ah, well, and sure your education has been a-lackin' then,” the Irishwoman said with just a hint of a wistful smile. “He was mighty since he was a babe in arms. He's the great folk hero, don’t you know. Many who fight beside him are kings in their own right, and all who ride with him do nothing but what's good and brave.” Her pace slowed. “Cu’ Chulainn always stands against great odds. Sometimes alone."
"They sound like wonderful stories to be raised on," Catherine replied, slowing with her as she approached the door.
Brigit's eyes held a wistful place for a moment, remembering her childhood.
"It's sure they are." She nearly whispered it.
But her expression sobered as they walked, turning away from childhood and into present times. “He’s one of the few both sides in this bloody war still embrace as a hero. He dies wounded, but standing up, tied to a stone. Facing down the last of his enemies. Stubborn Irishman.”
They’d reached Sean’s doorway, and the uniformed cop stationed there stood, and held the door open for the two women.
Brigit gestured that Catherine could precede her, and even Catherine had to start a little at the diminished figure of Sean, before her eyes.
She'd seen him less than a week ago. In the time between he looked... smaller, and dwarfed by even more machines than she recalled.
"It's all right. They tell me he's in no pain," Brigit said softly, understanding Catherine's reticence to enter. It was nothing Brigit didn't feel, herself.
The policeman nodded to the two women as they stepped into the sickroom. He or his clone had been there since the day Sean had come to the hospital.
Sean O’Reilly was still officially a prisoner of the State of New York. It was thanks to Catherine's connections he'd been allowed to come here as soon as he had, rather than languish in a prison dispensary, first, or die at County General.
Catherine moved farther into the small, private room, and stood as far to one side of it as she could get, taking him in. He was beyond pale. And there was little space to move, thanks to the array of monitors and hospital equipment they had around him.
If the State Department could see him now, Catherine thought. He looked so… engulfed by all the technology surrounding him. So small, compared to all of it.
Realizing that Brigit was simply standing next to her as the two women took in the sad view, Catherine pulled a padded chair over so it sat next to a second one, near the foot of Sean’s bed. There was little other available room in the space, for anything so wide as a chair.
Both women seated themselves, quietly. The beeping noise of Sean’s heartbeat on the monitor and the soft hiss of oxygen underneath his nose competed with the other low, pervasive mechanical sounds in the room.
"I, ah... brought something for you," Catherine said, reaching into a small bag. "I hope you don't think it inappropriate."
777 Smythe Booksellers, declared the plain printing on the front of the bag. Had Catherine brought her a book? A bible, perhaps, considering?
Yes to the first, but no to the second.
Wrapped in tissue paper, battered by the wear of years and the gentle abuse of having been often read, Owl Woman And Other Fables dropped solidly into Brigit’s hands.
"Where did you get this?" Brigit asked, amazed. So few copies existed, it was almost impossible to find one.
“A friend of mine, Jenny Aaronson tracked it down for me and had it sent over. She says a little shop in the village had it. I’ve never been there, but Jenny works for a publishing house. She says this place carries a lot of old things, sometimes hard to find. Out of print. Used books and new ones. First editions, sometimes."
"You said you had a copy of this." Brigit’s delicate hands stroked the binding, long since free of its dust jacket. The foil on the embossed title was all but worn away.
"I still have it, and count it as a treasure. I thought you might like to have this one. Since yours is probably back at home."
Brigit eyed the hard cover. It was almost the same deep blue color as Catherine’s business suit. Brigit’s first book. The first feeling that she could do something in the world. That she could create, and express herself in a way that communicated in both fable and allegory. Owl Woman. A story meant for children. And children of all ages. A story of becoming who you were meant to be.
"Oh, it's been a long time since I touched this," Brigit confessed, tears pricking her blue eyes as she stroked the binding, lightly. 300 Days had seen her hands far more often, and in a way, had seemed to overwhelm her life. She was unaccountably overcome by Catherine’s kindness.
Catherine sat supportively by as Brigit opened the story to the first page. At first, Catherine wasn’t sure if she would read it aloud. But after a few moments, her lilting Irish voice caressed long-ago-written words.
"Once upon a time, (because all the best stories start with once upon a time, don't you know...") she began. Her voice was unsteady, but then found some remembered strength.
"There was an owl woman who sat hard, in a great oak tree. The kind of tree where mistletoe grew in huge, hanging clumps and acorns clustered so big they bent the great branches low." Her rebel's voice steadied, as she read.
Catherine simply kept her head bent over the page and listened to the beautiful woman read the book that had, to some degree, bound their fates together. Not just hers and Brigit's, but Vincent's, as well. It had been his gift of the book to her that had started Catherine to reading Brigit O'Donnell's works in the first place.
Vincent had loved the courageous nature of 300 Days. But it was the story of Owl Woman that he'd gifted to Catherine, and the story of Owl Woman that he all but revered.
Now and then, Brigit would stop in the middle of the page and caress the paper. "I'd all but forgotten this picture," she'd say, or "Here was a line I liked," she'd whisper it as if it was a soft secret.
It was a fable brought to life. One meant for children who might read it for the fantasy of it, given. But one meant for adults as well, if they were canny enough to discern its meaning; its message of the transformative power of love, and sometimes the necessity of change, the need to find one’s strength to achieve what a person (or an owl) wanted.
Catherine didn’t wonder that Vincent had gifted it to her, not long after they’d begun to see each other again.
She listened steadily to what for her was a by-now familiar tale, until on one page, very near the end but not yet there, Brigit stopped speaking. Catherine thought she was gathering a memory until she saw a fat teardrop hit the page.
“Brigit?” Catherine asked. Another teardrop joined its fellow.
"I don't want what they're doin' to him," she said, still staring down at the yellowed paper. Owl Woman was starting to spread her wings for the first time, in the picture.
Catherine settled a reassuring hand on the other woman’s shoulder.
"I don’t think he would want it either. I know they're supposed to be doin' him good. But he wouldn't want this.” She shook her head slowly, sending her wavy red locks to moving.
“He left all the choices to me, and up to now, the only ones I could make were the ones that seemed like they gave him more time, or a way to eat, or..." She licked her lips but couldn't bear to look back up at Sean. She kept her gaze fixed firmly on the page, seeming to draw strength from the image. Her fingertip traced the outstretched feathers.
"I'd like them to take the machines away, Catherine. Take the needle out of his arm, the tube from down his throat. Turn that damn beeping sound off. Let him be Sean, again, for five minutes. Or five hours. However long it takes. Can I do that?" Brigit raised her blue eyes and looked up at this woman who now seemed to hold such a large piece of her fate, yet had been a stranger to her, only two months ago.
Catherine knew better than anyone else what she was asking.
"Yes. The paperwork we had drawn up back when he was... was still strong, allows it. Are you sure? You know I'll be with you, no matter what."
"It's sure I am," Brigit's fingers moved across the mighty owl's wings, again. They suddenly looked like angel wings, to her. And like she somehow needed to get to just this page, in her long-ago story, so she could reach this decision for Sean.
She looked then, at her failing father. At the man who'd loved her as a child, yet couldn't bear to have her in the same house when she'd married Ian. They’d had a complicated relationship. But underneath the struggle of it, they'd always been family.
"He had to fight, Catherine. And I had to let him fight, just as me Ma would have. You know he did.” She stroked the image on the page, as Catherine held her closer.
“If there was one thing certain about Sean O’Reilly, ... “ Our beauties and our certainties, her mind whispered – “… it was that he had to fight. He's done that. He'll still do it, from wherever he is. But he'd hate this bloody mess.” She gestured at the machines. “This ugly, bloody mess all around him. It's dehumanizing. It's... it's robbing him of something I can't give back...." her voice began to break.
"Shhhh," Catherine said, not needing her friend to explain. "I'll go get the nurse, and tell the doctor we'd like to make some changes. All right?" Brigit nodded, and Catherine left the room, leaving the grieving daughter to perform one last act of beauty for her father. She wasn't certain if it was right. She was only certain Sean would have wanted it, now.
She took one of the pads off his chest, carefully peeling the tape away from the skin.
"You'll have to listen, Da." she said, taking off a second one, and then a third. "You'll have to listen very close, now." Another pair of sensors came off his temples. He looked better already. More like himself. More like Sean O’Reilly, bog side brawler and Derry man. She smoothed back his dark, stringy hair.
"I know there's still gunfire in Derry. And I'm so sorry for that. Still people fightin' about a haircut, or the color orange." She removed the clip from his finger, but didn't dare touch the needle in his arm. She'd leave some things to the professionals.
"But there's still a statue of Cu’ Chulainn in Ulster. And they still tell his stories. Stories you told me. Stories about bein' brave, and standin' against the impossible odds, with aught but your strength and your will to see it through."
She squeezed the chair up next to the bed, as close to him as she could get.
"I'm goin’ to hold your hand. Just hold it. And me friend Catherine is goin’ to read the rest of the story to you. Do you know what happens, Da? Come on, Croppie. You know you bought the thing and read it, even after you swore to me you never would. You know you couldn't resist." She swallowed hard and squeezed his hand.
"Owl Woman finds her strength. Finds a love to help her through and never looks back. Finds something to believe in... well. I'll just let Catherine finish it for us. Here she is. Back to help us both."
She nodded as Catherine re-entered the room with a nurse, a doctor, and a pair of orderlies. Quietly, gently, they set to work. Within a few minutes, Sean looked like Sean, again, to her eyes. A dying Sean, still. But Sean.
"I've written many things, since," Brigit said, handing the book to Catherine while she kept hold of her father's hand. "But I don't think I've written anything finer."
"It's a beautiful story, Brigit." Catherine said, softly.
"It is," Brigit replied. "I just wish I could believe in it again, Catherine. Believe that there was a place where you could find your strength, without having to worry about people killing each other over the color of their skin or the color of their shirt or the flavor of their god or their... haircut." She paused for a moment, and swallowed. Hard. Catherine could see the sorrow that was threatening to overwhelm her.
“I don’t think I believe half the things I’ve ever written, anymore,” she confessed. “I wish I could. I wish I knew of a place where any of it was real.” Catherine could see the breaking heart, inside Brigit. And the breaking spirit, as well.
Catherine swallowed, too. And then she knew she had to say it.
"I know that place, Brigit." Tears came suddenly, and all but unbidden to her green eyes. "I know where it is. They care for each other. As best they can. They live… nobly. And without much. And the children…”
Blue eyes raised and Kristopher’s voice echoed. “You have to listen to her. No matter how crazy, how impossible it sounds.”
“There are children, there?” Brigit asked.
Catherine nodded carefully, aware she was committing a serious breach, and praying Vincent would understand why, when she told him.
“Young. Old. Everyone. They tell the children stories. Wonderful stories. Myths. Legends. Old stories… Your stories.” Catherine’s gaze held only sympathy, and the honest truth. “They all get to visit Oz, and go to Shangri-La. Or perform the labors with Hercules, or ride with … Cu’ Chulainn.”
Catherine took a deep breath at Brigit’s wistful gaze, and knew that though part of the Irishwoman wanted to believe her, part of her didn’t think it could be true.
She also knew she was about to make a promise she had no right to make, but one she was sure Vincent would agree with.
“When this is... when this is all over," she licked suddenly dry lips, "I'll take you there."
Blue eyes held green ones, hoping against hope. “It’s a real place?” More tears fell down Brigit’s pale cheeks as more of Kristopher’s words came back to her: We might lose our beauties and our certainties, I know. But that doesn’t mean the world leaves us empty handed."
“As real as New York. Or Derry.” Catherine said, aware that might not count for much.
"It must be a wonderful place, then.” Brigit’s unsteady voice sounded wistful, as she wiped her cheek. “Something out of a fantasy. Full of very ... strange people," she said, thinking of the boy Kristopher had described for her.
"It is. And there are. And I don't know if I would be alive today, without it," Catherine confessed.
Brigit said the name they’d not spoken between them since the night they’d met. "And your bonny love. Your Vincent. Is he there? He is… Isn't he?"
Catherine dropped her head a little and held the book tightly.
"He is.” She said it in an almost reverent whisper. Then she looked up. “He couldn't exist without it. And I don't think it could exist without him."
In that moment, Brigit knew something she'd barely dared to suspect.
"Catherine … It isn't a mask. Is it?"
Slowly, carefully, Catherine held Brigit’s gaze as she shook her head.
Another tear escaped Brigit's azure eyes. But it was a tear of hope, rather than one of sorrow. "Well then. Isn't that a story?” she said, her voice sounding just a little amazed. “And so good to know that there is still one fantastical tale left to be known in all the world - even if it’s a story I dare not tell,” she reassured her friend.
Catherine reached over and embraced her friend, blessing her for understanding more than Catherine dared to say.
"More than one fantastic tale," Catherine assured her. "Wait until you see it, until meet them all. Wait until I take you there." Catherine gave her a firm squeeze.
Both women smiled a little through their tears.
“You have to do it, have to be willing to believe, too. So you can write again."
Brigit wiped her eyes, again. And then helped Catherine wipe hers. "Catherine, do you think we could get some mistletoe?" she asked out of the blue.
"It's sacred to the Celts. It’s why I put it in me book. Of course, half of everything that grows in a forest is sacred to the Celts, but mistletoe is special. And it's near Christmas. Me father always used to kiss me Ma and me under it. It's just a tradition. One I'd forgot, until just now."
"I think there’s some around. I’m sure I saw some up near the nurse's station,” Catherine recalled.
"Do you think they’ll let us have some? Would you go bring some for me? Please?"
Catherine set down the book and went to do as Brigit asked.
"I want a last kiss, you renegade," Brigit said, smoothing Sean’s bedclothes. "I want to feel like I'm eight years old again, and you're holding me up high. High as the trees. High as the moon. High as Owl Woman wants to fly."
Catherine returned after just a few moments, the large sprig of mistletoe held in her hand. She handed it to Brigit.
Sean O’Reilly’s daughter moved to the very head of the bed, something she'd not been able to do, easily, when the IV stand and all the machines and monitors were still in place. She suddenly knew that her decision to take them away had been the right one. The right one for Sean. The right one for her.
She held the magical plant over his pale head.
"Now. You must deliver these kisses. The magic of the mistletoe will bind you to it. This one is for Ma." She kissed his left cheek. "This one is for Ian, and no fussin' from you, now. Death settles all the scores." She kissed the right one.
She looked at him. Her father. So mighty once, and so intimidating. So strong-willed and unwilling to give up. So hers.
So ... still that way. In a different fashion, but still. So... still just that way. "And this one is for you," she said softly.
She placed it in the center of his forehead, her lips touching cool, soft skin. He was comfortable. He was here. And he was hers, still. Hers still, and once again, after all they'd been through.
"’Twas you who taught me to be an Owl Woman," she whispered to her father. "You just didn't know what the results would be. We never do, I guess, with our children. With our beauties. With our certainties."
She sighed, and simply took him in.
"And one more. Just because." She leaned across the bed to plant a kiss in his lax palm, on the hand that had had the oximeter attached to it, earlier. Then she tucked the sprig of mistletoe into it and closed his fingers around the plant, gently. "Something for the journey. Just in case you want to take it with you," she said.
She then slipped her small hand in his other, larger one, and settled herself on the chair near the bed. Holding her back stiffly erect, she kept her eyes on his still form. She was the picture of formal grace. The azure gaze never left his sleeping face
“They used to say mistletoe cut from an oak would cure all poison. Poison like hate, maybe. Or heartbreak.” She stroked the back of her father’s hand with her thumb. He looked relaxed. He looked at peace.
"Will you read the last few pages, Catherine? While we wait? I don't think it will be long, now."
Catherine opened the book thoughtfully, and began to read. She knew she lacked Brigit’s lovely accent. But her soft voice loved the words to a fine, breathy timbre:
"Now, to find your strength is no small thing, my dears. For the spreading of a wing is not a thing that is done with no peril. What if you fall? What if you tire before your journey's end? Where do you shelter, if a sudden storm comes up? ..." Her soft, sweet voice caressed the parable’s text as Brigit kept hold of her father's hand.
"But finding your strength is a thing we must all do, my dears … For how will you ever find your true place in the world without it? ...”
Catherine remembered the first time she’d read the line, and swallowed past the lump in her throat, as she remembered Vincent’s words to her.
There is strength in you. I feel it.
Vincent had given her his copy of Owl Woman, knowing it was meant for her. Knowing she needed it, at the time.
Catherine’s voice found its power again, and she continued to caress the soft sentences that had changed Brigit from being just a young woman into being an author. Being a creative force, in the universe.
Brigit heard the words and felt time melt away, between all of them. She knew that Sean would likely reach his end very near the time Catherine reached the end of Owl Woman’s story, in the book. It was all right.
The riders of Cu’ Chulainn would take care of their own.
The words of a mischievous boy-spirit came back to her.
“The world doesn’t leave us empty handed … You have to go where they still believe in… everything. Especially in each other.”
Brigit spared a glance for the beautiful woman across from her, and she knew she would.
matter who you ride with or what journeys you take, I wish you love.
Illustrations supplied by the author