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Holy Night

by Zara Wilder

 

A luminous energy courses through the Tunnels at Christmastime. It is a time of endings, and of beginnings too. The world Above becomes colder still. The quiet earth freezes, deepening the reach of the year's longest nights. We who live Below draw together for warmth, for cheer. And within the light we create for one another, a lightness of heart grows bright and shines. 

Some of us love Christmas for the good memories it brings. Others love this time for the new memories we gain during each successive winter together Below. Many customs from every walk of life mingle freely in our community. We all celebrate our respective holidays throughout the season, honoring as we choose those traditions from the world beyond these tunnels and chambers. 

In the world Below, our tradition is to give December to the children. I've heard 'Randa refer to their activities as the work of Santa's elves. If elves they be, the little ones are assuredly dedicated to the role. Each year, I receive a fortnight's worth of trinkets well before the twenty-fifth of December, and I am not alone in this. All Tunnels adults, and many Topside Helpers, are recipients of this deluge. The generosity of children is beautiful.
 
Such gift-giving culminates late Christmas Eve. That is when our children deliver their best presents. They stop at the entrance of each chamber, or the footboard of each orphan's bed, to fill the waiting stockings, bags, baskets, or boxes with gifts. They are all delighted to see their treasures shared and praised on Christmas morning. I love their laughter. I love the carols they sing together throughout the month, and especially at the Christmas feast. 

William is preparing for that gathering now, diverting most of his attention toward organizing his kitchen for the creative frenzy to come later in the week. Breakfast this morning is a simple affair. Oat porridge, boiled eggs, canned fruit. But it is also nearly Christmas; so William has made coffee too. Hot chocolate for the children. The treats are welcomed with great appreciation. Our energy is building. The Dining Hall hums with good intentions. 

I have flavored a cup of almond milk with honey and “a thimbleful of coffee,” as Winslow puts it. Truly, it was more than a thimbleful; though certainly far less than Winslow's large mug of the morning brew. “To each his own,” I replied. I find coffee too strongly burnt for my taste. A little goes a long way. Nor does an ordinary quantity sit well once drunk. A full cup of coffee strikes at my nerves, sets my hands to shaking. But my thimbleful does not offend, so I sip my drink and smile because despite his teasing, Winslow is in a merry mood and that's all to the good. My friend is in charge of set construction for the pageant this year. I sense that he's proud of his work. 

Winslow turns away from me now, nudging the man who sits beside him with one elbow. He has taken his companion by surprise; Cullen was preoccupied with his own thoughts. Our newest friend looks up at one of my oldest friends. 

“Did you get that rocking chair fixed up for the stage?” Winslow asks. 

Cullen has to think for a moment, pulling his attention away from private musings. “Oh. Yeah, I did. The paint's still drying. It should be ready for you this afternoon for sure.” 

“Great. I'll send Jamie over for it.”

Cullen nods and goes back to moving the last few bites of his oatmeal from one side of his bowl to the other. I attend more closely to the emotional impressions he is projecting. Sorrow like icicles; regrets as bitter as the fierce north wind. 

I think I understand the source of his feelings. This is Cullen's first Christmas Below. This is Cullen's first Christmas without his wife. I look away from Cullen's face, look into my half-emptied cup, feel my own sorrow surge forward in response to Cullen's pain. I have been bereaved. I have lost friends, a brother, a beloved teacher, Helpers to the world beyond the Tunnels, hopes, dreams, plans for my future. 

But a wife? A woman to whom I've bound my life, a bride who has pledged her heart to mine? No. 

How Cullen has borne such a loss I do not know.
 
He gives up on the porridge. Cullen stands, takes his dishes toward the children who are scrubbing bowls, cups, and spoons in large, sudsy washtubs near the kitchen entry. He is a tall, thin man with dark brown hair, just beginning to gray and sharp hazel eyes that have more green in them than brown. Although he came to us in grief, I've learned that Cullen is a fun-loving soul, gentle with children and generous with his skills. I admire his dexterity with woodcarving tools. I can shape stone to make a chamber entrance, or sand a wooden board to make a new leaf for an old table, but I have no gift for sculpture. My hands do not know how to wield blades and chisels with such fine control. 

I finish my variation on a cup of Christmas coffee. I watch Cullen leave the Dining Hall, taking his sadness with him like a snow cloud sifting icy flakes down upon our carpenter alone. What can I do to ease his burden? What can any of us do? 

I am sitting in a room surrounded by my family and yet my aloneness is hovering at the forefront of my mind. Cullen's loneliness has summoned it. I turn my thoughts toward the December sky, far Above. Where is she this morning? I listen now for her. I don't need to be nearby in order to feel the currents flowing through Catherine's heart. I don't know how or why our connection has not faded with physical distance. I know only what I feel—and what she feels. 

Today, she is happy. My sorrow lifts a little. She is traveling through the streets of New York and she is pleased with what she sees up there. It snowed last night. A scant half-inch. The air will be crisp with winter opportunities. The snow will be vanishing from the pavement by now, crushed and melted beneath pedestrian and motor traffic, yet the bushes and trees will remain gilded with white for a little longer. How whitely does the sunlight shine on new-fallen snow? The poets say it is dazzling. I can only take their word for that. 

Catherine, enjoy the brightness. Stay happy, today and always. May blessings of the season go with you. 

*******

Dad's going to love it. The antique writing case is going to remind him of his old one, the one I “decorated” for him when I was seven. He laughed so hard that day. What a picture I must have presented to him and to Mom, their darling little girl, more covered in poster paint than the object of her artistic ambitions. I have always loved to make Daddy laugh. It's the sound of everything that's right with the world. 

The elevator stops and the doors open. I exit the elevator cab, stepping out quickly to make way for the others joining me on this, the conclusion of our vertical voyage. It's a Monday morning, but for the first time in a long time—maybe the first time ever—since I started working here, I am actually caught up on the paperwork. Today, Cathy Chandler starts with a fresh slate, sailing toward Christmas on the happy knowledge that I've done my job well— 

But my triumph is short-lived. 

I walk into the Investigations Bureau, cross the bustling room to my desk, and find at least six new file folders and a sheaf of loose papers waiting for me. From the other side of the room, where he has been talking with Scott Haywood, the man with wavy black hair and an imp's quirking smile sees me deposit my purse into the bottom right drawer of my desk. He ends his conversation with Scott and saunters over to me. He's wearing a red and green striped tie around the collar of his starched but already wilting blue shirt. He holds up three more file folders. 

“Joe,” I tell him. “It's Christmas.” 

“Tell that to the criminal element,” he returns. Joe Maxwell, Deputy DA, places the new files squarely upon the center of my desktop and grins. “Season's greetings.” 

There are some days when I believe that my de facto supervisor could drive me to join the criminal element, except for the fact that I know it would only create more paperwork. 

I sit down. Joe wends his way to somewhere else, no doubt to torment some other poor sap who is also chained to their desk in the DA's office. I take a pen out of my top drawer. But as I reach for the first file folder, I am stopped by the slow sense of unreality that slides over me, touching lightly here and there with clammy fingers. I'm facing what is practically a snowstorm of paper, but I'm not afraid of it. I'm not sitting here trying to think of some way to get out of doing my work. 

There's my hand, poised to begin. There's the job, awaiting completion. Here's me, capable of completing it. 

I tell myself that of course I am capable. The chilly feeling begins to slip away. I welcome its departure. The strangest things still take me by surprise now and then. I think my memory was trying to compare today with last year's twenty-second of December. 

Last year, I would not have been at the office so early in the morning, settling in at my desk a few minutes before eight. Last year my desk would have been located in my father's law firm, and I would be spending more time at that desk poring over my social calendar than I would ever willingly spend tackling, say, Wight and Mackson, Inc.'s material breach of contract claim. Or any other case assigned to me, for that matter. I used to do everything in my power to spend as little time at that desk as possible. 

I glance at my current desk calendar. The notations I've written there are not social occasions, but necessary appointments for my work. My morning is blissfully clear. Then I have the Corwick deposition at one, and an interview with Lacy Dunland at three-thirty, to review her testimony and prepare her for participation in the trial of the man who assaulted her sister. I'm told that trials taking place around the holidays are always particularly rough on everyone. It will be important to apply my full concentration to Lacy's prep session. 

On my calendar, Thursday, Christmas, is the only day with no work appointments scheduled. It occurs to me that it's going to be the first Christmas of my new life. This is the first Christmas since the night I experienced my own aggravated assault, eight months ago. 

Firsts continually sneak up on me. I hope very much that if I can just get past the twelfth of April next spring, these jarring little moments will stop. I'm doing better now than I was. These days, it's not the fear that strikes me as much as the discontinuity. I have been teaching myself not to give in to my fear, slowly stitching the pieces of my life back into a coherent whole—the way surgeons stitched my face back together after criminals tried to destroy it. 

But, Cathy, that's enough of that for today. I take a deep breath, let it out. Think of Christmas. Think of the glittering tree at Rockefeller Center. Think of the party at Dad's house. Imagine how much he'll enjoy the writing case. It's not my first Christmas, it's my thirtieth, and I'm going to have a wonderful holiday this year.
 
I set down my pen to gather folders and papers, automatically shaping the scatter into a stack, prioritizing as I go. I move the most pressing items to the top of the pile and drop the whole conglomeration into my in-basket. This is how I give myself breathing space, when I can. A clear desk has become a rare luxury in my everyday life. I decide the size of the in-basket stack calls for an immediate transfusion of coffee. So I reach into the drawer where I keep my portable personal effects and take out my ceramic mug. 

My trip to and from the office coffee decanter keeps me thinking about Christmas. Potted poinsettias and bedraggled lengths of silver tinsel decorate the desks of many co-workers. I think these people are very brave in their attempts to infuse the atmosphere with a little holiday spirit. This office is a crazy place to work sometimes, but we try to stay human. 

We try to take care of each other. And we try to live as well as we can. These remembered words cut through the office chatter. I sit down at my desk again, wondering about the person who once spoke those words to me. This is another memory from April, and it is a secret memory, for Vincent's world is a secret place. 

Do they celebrate Christmas in the world Below the city streets? I try to imagine what kinds of gifts a band of outcasts might give to one another, and find that I cannot. Or maybe I simply don't want to imagine the Tunnel People—and especially Vincent—rooting through dumpsters and scouring the rubble of demolished or derelict buildings, searching for potentially useful objects to salvage and repair. Rejecting that image, all I can see is Vincent's room, a candlelit cave full of his comfortable assortment of New York's cast-offs and antiques. 

I sip my steaming coffee without really tasting it. Apart from dreams, I haven't seen him since April. I hope Vincent is well. I hope my unique, most special friend is warm and safe. Last night's snowfall is a frigid reminder that more snow showers are expected this week, perhaps fresh snow for Christmas morning. Oh, yes, and there's Christmas again, looming large in my mind with all its trappings of peace and good wishes. I wish I knew what kind of present Vincent might like, not to mention how on earth I would ever deliver it to him. My heart sends a Merry Christmas in absentia! toward the city drainage tunnels. 

I take the top file folder out of my basket. Reading through the report it contains, I mark those pages that require further follow up. This folder is going to generate about five phone calls. I should say, at least five phone calls. “Season's greetings,” I mutter, and reach for the handset of my phone. 

*******

It is the wave of sadness spilling out into the tunnel that stops me in my tracks. It is the slow, repetitive sound of wood creaking and thin paper crackling that draws me toward Cullen's workshop. I stand at the entryway for a moment, looking in at my newest friend. 

Cullen is sitting on the seat of the freshly painted rocking chair, his head in his hands. He rocks slowly. The runners of the chair bear down in rolling arcs upon the old newsprint he has layered across the stone floor to protect the gray rock from splatters of brown paint. He does not notice my arrival. 

I call softly to him, “Cullen.” 

He looks up. His eyes are red. He is not weeping now, but he must have been earlier. “Vincent,” he says his voice a little hoarse. He motions for me to come inside. 

I do so, choosing a clear place on Cullen's workbench to set down the crate of books I'm transporting from the Upper Storage Chamber to the Nursery. Cullen stands up from the chair. 

“Just...testing the paint job,” he tells me. He tries to smile. 

“Our players will be very pleased with your work.” 

He sniffs, sighs. “Yeah. I did pretty good with it.” 

He does not want to talk. He isn't ready. I reach out to him, resting one hand on his shoulder. I want him to know that he is not alone. We are here for him, whenever he needs us. He may not be ready to hear that either. So I say nothing.
 
He looks at my face. Cullen is so tall, he doesn't need to tip his head back in order to do this. “Do you put on a play every Christmas?” he asks. 

“We do. The day after Halloween, the children always elect a new director for the project. They write an original pageant each year.” 

“That's really great, Vincent. These kids down here...all of you...” Cullen shakes his head. 

I correct him as gently as I can. “All of us, Cullen.” I sense his questioning, and his lonesome doubt. “You're part of us now too,” I say. 

This time he does manage to smile. “Okay, so when do the rest of us get to see this pageant?” 

“Christmas Day. The performance begins after dinner, and we have desserts during intermission.” 

“Oh. Not Christmas Eve, then.” 

“No.”
 
This news worries him. I do not know why. 

We talk of other projects. Cullen and Winslow are trying to discover some way to repair a failing water pump on an important main line. Mouse is helping with this project too, although Winslow always finds Mouse's plans ill-suited for a stolid mechanic's forthright methods. Cullen and I agree that Winslow and Mouse have trouble listening to each other. 

When Jamie arrives to take the rocking chair over to the stage being prepared at the south end of the Dining Hall, I take my leave as well. Cullen has found points of connection between himself and his new family. This is good. I'm glad to have provided some comfort in that regard. As I leave with my load of books, Cullen begins scraping his plane over a warped length of wood scavenged from a broken fence Above. Our carpenter's hurts are slow to heal, but they are healing. I will continue to look in on him during the days to come. 

Reaching the Nursery, I find I am forbidden entrance into the children's domain. Samantha stands guard at the entryway. She directs five of her friends to come out and unload the crate. 

“Thank you!” she chirps to me. The girl's brown eyes sparkle with Christmas secrets. “We can take it from here.” 

Thus am I dismissed. 

I bring the emptied crate with me to Father's chamber. Father and Mary are there, heads bowed over one of Father's supply ledgers. They are reviewing our inventory of medical supplies. Mary is taking down notes on a slip of notepaper. 

“More suture,” Father says. “Calamine lotion. Iodine.” 

“Witch hazel and ibuprofen,” Mary murmurs. “We're running low.” 

“Add them too.” Father glances up at me as I descend the steps into his study. “Ah, Vincent.” 

I nod my greeting. 

“Is that everything?” Mary asks Father. She smiles at me. 

I set my crate on the floor beside one of Father's many towers of books. 

“Yes. Thank you, Mary,” Father tells her. 

Mary drops her pencil into a pocket of her apron and folds the supply list in half. She eyes the empty crate. “Did they let you in?” she asks. 

“No. Our elves have only a short time left to them now. Grown people can only slow their labors.” 

Mary huffs. “Far be it from me to interrupt them. But do they still know I'm happy to help?” 

I give her my gravest nod. “They know.” 

Sighing, Mary moves toward the study's rear entry. “I'll get this list to Andrew.” 

“Very good,” Father replies. He closes the ledger book and returns it to a drawer of his desk. “We'll see you tonight at the Solstice celebration?” 

“Of course, Father,” Mary replies over her shoulder. Then she is gone. 

I sit down in the tapestry armchair beside Father's table, stretching my legs out, waiting for Father to join me there. I notice that he is using a walking stick this afternoon instead of his crutch. This is a good sign. My adoptive father's old injury gives him little pain today. His relative comfort will be a boon to him when he attends the Solstice gathering out at the Mirror Pool tonight. This year, Rebecca is presiding. I expect the ceremony she has prepared will have much to do with candles. 

Father crosses the room and sits opposite me. There is a chessboard on the tabletop between us, the black and white pieces assembled on their squares in anticipation of battle. The rest of the table is suspiciously clear of books, which means that Father may have been studying the strategies of chess masters again and doesn't want me to know what he's been reading. I'm aware that this practice does tend to improve his game—though whenever he takes his place across the board from his best student, I cannot begrudge Father any least advantage he can rally to his cause. 

“Now then,” Father says. “To business.” 

He plays white, as usual. A King's Pawn opening. Aggressive, for Father. I make the classic response, mirroring the move. Father's answer: Pawn to King's Bishop 4. He has opened with the King's Gambit. 

I look at him. Father seems quite pleased with himself. I fold my hands beneath the table and consider. Do I accept, decline, or counter? 

I decide to decline. Since we are making a very old-school beginning, I offer the Classical Defense. And the battle unfolds in earnest. 

“You were very quiet at table today,” Father comments after a few minutes have passed. “For both meals.” 

I make my next move and reply, “I was distracted.” 

“May I ask by whom?” 

“You assume my distraction was a person?” 

“When you spend the lunch hour glancing at the entrance to the Dining Hall without seeing the person you're expecting to see; yes, I assume you're waiting for someone.” 

I laugh quietly. Father knows me very well. I say, “I was watching for Cullen, but he never joined us for lunch today.” 

Father ponders a moment longer, then captures one of my pawns. “Cullen.” 

“Yes.” I look up from the board. “His sorrow weighs heavy. He's in great pain.” 

Father looks up too. I feel the flicker of shadows as his own griefs rise to the surface of his thoughts and then submerge themselves again. Father has never spoken to me of his deepest sorrows. Yet I know they are there, a part of his past and his reasons for living where and as he does. It is a subject I do not ask him about, a boundary I will never cross without invitation. His immediate sympathy, however, is commendable. He understands many of Cullen's needs. 

“The world is a wholly different place during the first year after a loss, when every square on the calendar grid seems like a gaping wound,” Father murmurs. 

I say nothing. I know this is true. Father knows that I know. 

He sighs. “Have you spoken with him?” 

“I have begun to speak with him,” I reply. “He's afraid of Christmas Eve.” 

“Hmm. See what you can do for him, Vincent. I know the two of you are becoming good friends. And tell me if I can help in any way.” 

“I will.” 

We return to the game. 

Father observes my next move and remarks, “You realize I could easily outflank you there.” 

I smile. 

At that, Father grumbles and leans over the board, studying the chessmen with undisguised mistrust. Fondly, I watch him work through his tactical deliberations. For all his bluster, I'm sure he'll take the bait. I know Father very well too. 

*******

“A continuance,” Lacy says. “What...what does that mean?” 

“It means that the counsel for the defense petitioned Judge Hawthorne to postpone Jackson's trial. Judge Hawthorne granted that request just this morning. They haven't set a new date yet.” 

“And...Jackson's bail is still good?” 

“Yes, Lacy. I'm sorry.” 

We are sitting at a table in Jen Li's Fine Tea House on Baxter Street, less than half a block from a long line of small bail bonds agencies. I asked to meet Lacy here rather than have her join me in my office as we had originally planned. It seemed like a more neutral place to deliver this news. Her hands are shaking a little as she lifts her glazed jade-green teacup to her lips and sips the steaming white tea. She seems tired, frazzled, her curly blonde hair brushed back into an impatient ponytail and her many sleepless nights shadowing Lacy's otherwise beautiful blue-gray eyes. Lacy has been taking care of her older sister Ruth ever since the morning Ruth's former boyfriend, Jackson, beat the woman unconscious with a tire iron. Ruth's cognitive abilities have been reduced to those of a five-year-old child. 

Why Jackson Bordeaux was granted bail at all is an utter mystery to me. 

“So...what can I expect? After Christmas? After New Year's?” Lacy asks. 

“Definitely after Christmas,” I answer. “Beyond that, I couldn't say. But Lacy, the moment I know anything at all, I will call you.” 

She nods, very pale and looking years older than twenty-eight. “Sure. Look, I really want to thank you for...just...walking me through this the way you're doing. I know you don't have to. I mean, you've gotta be terribly busy. Work, life, everything. Plenty of crime in this city. Not a lot of official people would go out of their way like this to help Ruth and me. Not a lot of people have.” 

I think: We try to live as well as we can. “I'm not a lot of people,” I tell her. “But I am someone you can count on. Me, the DA's office, the police officers who responded to your call—we do care.” 

Lacy nods again. I feel like my words are only cold comfort at best. We drink tea. 

“Miss Chandler—” 

“Cathy. Please.” 

“Cathy, then. Can you tell it to me straight...how good are our chances in court? Jackson's dad got him David Phelps, and he's supposed to be this hot shot lawyer, and at the arraignment...you wouldn't believe the look Jackson gave me. God, I was scared. But I'm even more scared that if I don't go to these things, no one's gonna tell me anything.” 

I set my cup on the table and look steadily into Lacy's exhausted eyes. “Okay. Straight up. Joe Maxwell is prosecuting this case.” 

“Yes. He seems nice.” 

I hope my smile comes across as reassuring. “Well, he may be nice, but Joe is also very smart and he's very good. He hates what happened to Ruth, and he wants to see that justice is served for both of you. Joe is not a hot shot. He's in this for the long haul, and he's here to see that Jackson's crime is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  He'll do his best. I can't predict what the jury will decide, but they're going to hear the whole truth from our end.” 

Lacy bites her lip. I reach across the table, grasping her hand. The heat she's received from the teacup has warmed her cold skin. She grips my fingers and tries very hard not to cry. 

“I promise, you're not going to be left out of the loop. Okay, Lacy? I know you've been working with Andrea Parker. She's a great ADA, but she's also wrangling a dozen other cases right now. So before you go, I'm going to give you my card. I'll write my home number on the back. I will call you with any and all news, and I want you to promise to call me, anytime, if you have any questions. Any problems at all. Or even if you just need someone to talk to. Will you promise me you'll do that?” 

“Sure.” She utters a shaky laugh. “How can I say no to that offer?” 

We smile sadly at each other, two women brought together by the worst of circumstances. Lacy lets go of my hand to rub one knuckle at the corners of her eyes, then she wraps her fingers around her teacup again. I ask her how her sister is doing and learn that Ruth's therapist at Wedgefield Community Center is optimistic about Ruth's progress. Ruth can speak in complete sentences now. This has generated a vast improvement in Lacy's ability to communicate with her. 

“Stay strong,” I tell Lacy a few minutes later, as she's gathering her things to leave. “You're doing an amazing job.” 

Lacy whispers, “Thanks,” and goes out the door. I pick up the tab, then step out into the cold myself to walk back to my office. I head down the block, past little oriental restaurants, past the bond agents, past (of all things) a flower shop. I cross the street, thinking about Lacy and Ruth. I find that I'm also thinking about me. 

I was lucky. Oh, God, I was lucky. 

Back in the office, the temperature feels tropical after the brisk gusts of wind on the street. I work on tying up loose ends, choosing which files to take home with me and which to leave at my desk. I have vowed that I will leave on time today. I want to stop at my favorite stationary store on the way home, to select the things I'd like to put inside Dad's new-old writing case. I should be able to pick up a few other last-minute gifts for those friends attending Dad's Christmas Eve dinner party. I also want to find something nice for Dad's closest friend these days, Kim Baskerville, and something fun for my new friend, Edie. I really think my favorite part of getting ready for Christmas is choosing presents for everyone I care about. 

I think I'd like to get something for Ruth and Lacy too. I'm not sure what might be appropriate. Something special. Something to help them feel that the world hasn't turned its back on them. I'll have to give it some thought. 

I manage to have everything packed up at five-thirty. Scott, walking by my desk, sees me putting on my coat and makes a big show of checking his watch to see if it's stopped. “So, Cathy. Who said you get to go home early tonight?” 

I laugh. “See you tomorrow, Scott.” 

He waves, and I'm free. Outside the building, lights are blazing everywhere. I see sidewalks teeming with people bundled against the cold. The people are carrying bags and boxes, stepping into and out of idling taxis, talking on street corners, arguing into payphones, striding down the street holding briefcases, or cartons of Chinese food, or throbbing boom boxes, or gift baskets, and even, in one case, a large, pink, plush poodle with plastic cartoon eyes. The poodle is wearing a rhinestone collar that could serve as a belt for a stocky child. This uncanny toy is tucked beneath the arm of a brawny black man in a leather coat who is in one hell of a hurry to get wherever he's going. 

It's Christmas in New York. I join the throng, doing my part as a conscientious consumer to bolster the American economy. Today hasn't been half bad, for a Monday. 
 

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.

Music from the children's morning choir rehearsal fills the tunnels of the Inner Circle. I stop where I am to listen. This is one of my favorite carols. Now the boys sing out: 

Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?

The girls reply:

 Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain.

I hear someone approaching from the passage behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I see that it's Cullen. He comes to stand near to me, leaning against the opposite tunnel wall. We listen. The good king calls for food and drink and firewood. He and his page set out into the storm to bring aid to the hungering man in the wood. 

“You know, it's funny,” Cullen says to me. “They've been going over the same set of songs all month, but I haven't gotten tired of hearing them yet.” 

Smiling a little, I reply, “Nor I. Sometimes I think the sound of pipe code on the pipes is the heartbeat of our world, and then the music we share becomes our very breath. I can't help regretting that Father is leading their final rehearsal today. Hm. But we'll hear them sing some of their carols tomorrow night, while they are delivering their gifts, and we'll hear the rest of their Yuletide music at the feast.” 

Cullen nods thoughtfully. He looks at the tunnel floor between us for a moment. Then he says, “I hope I didn't scare you off yesterday. I know I wasn't in a very good mood.” 

I listen for the cadence of Cullen's emotions. If yesterday's encounter comprised a sad mood for him, our carpenter is in a more optimistic frame of mind today. “You're entitled to all the things that you feel, Cullen: the joy and the pain, and everything in between.” 

“Down here maybe.” His gaze becomes curious as he studies my face. “Do you spend much time up Above?” 

An interesting question. Not one I expected. “I go Above on many nights,” I tell him. “I walk the streets and visit friends and Helpers. I listen. I watch, and breathe.” 

He thinks about this. “Some people down here never go Up at all.” 

“Many of us find neither safety nor solace in the world Above.” I try to understand the path Cullen's heart is taking. I sense a pang of longing swell within him. “You've stayed in Tunnels for several months now,” I say. 

“Yeah. New York City...it hasn't been good for me. Any city, actually.” 

“You've traveled.” 

Cullen laughs softly, a weary bitterness hardening his voice. “I followed the jobs. I don't think that counts as 'traveling.' When Betty and I ended up here, we thought we could make a fresh start.” Now his bitterness recedes and the weariness of his soul takes its place. “No one plans for cancer, Vincent.” 

I whisper, “No.” 

He takes something from his pocket. It looks like a small wooden carving, but Cullen is idly fingering the lines of the crafted shape and I cannot tell what it might be. “When we first moved to New York, we didn't have very much. We never had very much. We saved nickles and dimes for birthdays and Christmas. Betty had this big china vase from her grandmother, where she stashed her savings. I just used an old pickle jar. I remember how one year, we decided to pool everything together. We bought two pairs of used ice skates and went to Wollman Rink, over in Central Park. That was Christmas Eve, about two in the afternoon.” 

Cullen is gazing into the past now, his eyes seeing beyond me, beyond these tunnels, piercing even the veils of death and mourning. “The weather, hell New York, had been crazy all year, but the holiday decided to be civil to us. We put on our Christmas skates and stayed out on the ice until it started to get dark. We were like two kids again. Betty was wearing this bright blue and lavender hat, and she'd done up her hair in braids. She had this absolutely infectious smile, Vincent. When Betty laughed, you wanted the whole world to laugh with her, because it was like she could open up the sky and call out the sun. 

“At sunset, we stopped to rest. She was calling me Rudolph, because my nose had turned red, and her cheeks were like cherries. We bought hot chocolate at the little cafeteria, and shared the sandwiches and shortbread we brought with us. The sky was full of colors. We watched the sun go down behind the towers. All the lights from the buildings showed up bright and the stars came out. We counted the ones we could see through breaks in the clouds. We were both tired by then, but it was Christmas Eve, and people were laughing and singing carols. 

“‘One more time,’ Betty said. ‘Just one more time around.’ So we skated about three dozen one-more-times-around.” 

Cullen's love fills him, spills over. He begins to smile. “We didn't say much to each other, walking home from the park. We were tired and it felt good to be tired. Betty just held my hand and looked at me, and her eyes were shining. I think it was our best day since the wedding.” Cullen falls silent. 

The children are now singing “The First Noel.” Their voices ring in the air, accompanying this memory of husband and wife strolling beneath a winter sky. Cullen holds his carving still in his hands. I see that it's a miniature reindeer. 

“We talked about doing that again,” Cullen says. “Maybe making it a tradition. But the Christmas after that, Betty's mom got sick. It was all we could scrape together to get Betty to Minneapolis. The year after that I had to work late on the twenty-fourth. I told her I was too tired for skating. The year after that, they had closed the rink. ‘For 'renovations.’” Cullen rolls his eyes. “You know what it means when this town decides to renovate something?” 

I do. My nod is rueful. 

“I guess we could have gone skating somewhere else, but I was the one who didn't want anything less than Central Park. I said it wouldn't be the same. That—” He stops. He caresses the reindeer carving. “That good things come to those who wait,” he says at last. 

The children's Noel has ended. I hear Father's voice delivering praise and what must be a humorous suggestion. Young voices laugh and someone plays a note on the clunky upright piano in the gallery encircling Father's study. They launch into “Deck the Halls.” 

Cullen listens with only half an ear. He shakes his head. “Betty wasn't strong enough last year to even make a trip out to the park in her wheelchair. All Christmas Eve, she sat at the window, watching the world go by without her. It made me cold, just to look at her doing that. I think maybe...Vincent; I think that was when she gave up.” 

He looks down at the reindeer. “Do you know that they finally reopened the Wollman Rink last month?” 

“Yes.” 

“The day I heard about it...I've never been so angry in my whole life.” 

There is the music, and messages pinging along the pipes, and a moment of quiet between the two of us. The choir completes another chorus of fa-la-las. I cross the space between myself and my friend to stand beside him. Cullen holds up his carving. 

“Can you tell me which one of the kids might like this?” he asks. 

I consider. “I shall apprise you of a great secret. Geoffrey is playing the heroic red-nosed reindeer in the pageant. Perhaps he would like a souvenir of his role.” 

Cullen smiles at my words. “These kids sure like to keep things under wraps.” 

“Half their fun comes from creating good surprises for friends,” I say to him. 

“Yeah.” 

He returns the carving to his pocket. I touch his shoulder. When he looks at me, I say, “You don't want to be alone tomorrow. Is that what's troubling you?” 

Cullen is on the verge of saying something, of making an effort to put what he feels into words. I believe this struggle is too much for him; he only nods his head. 

“Come find me after breakfast. We can help William bring the last of his supplies down from Long's Grocery. Afterward, I've promised to help Father and Mary complete their inventory of the Hospital Chamber. I'm sure they won't mind an extra helping hand. But once we are finished there...Cullen, do you like chess?” 

The woodcarver laughs. “The way I hear it, not as much as you do. But I have been told I can hold my own in that game.” 

“Good. Join me. We'll spend a day together.” 

“Okay. Yeah. That would be great.” 

I take my hand from his shoulder. We lean against the wall, enjoying the final strains of the children's music. While we listen, the rehearsal ends. There is a sound of many conversations, the bumps and thumps of furniture being moved. Then it is Father's time for the telling of winter tales. The children clamor for a ghost story. 

“Can you hear what they're saying in there?” Cullen asks. 

“Father is going to perform 'A Christmas Carol' for them. That's a story he tells very well.” 

Cullen stands up from his slouch on the wall. “Father tells a lot of stories really well. I'm gonna go try to find some ribbon for the reindeer. What's a present without a bow, right?” 

I smile. “What, indeed?” 

My friend gives me his wry, crooked grin and walks away. I too step from the wall and continue onward to my chamber. I have many books and papers to sort before the children's lessons resume next week. Tomorrow will not be the right day to do this work. 

*******

Writing case: wrapped. Now for the bow: a satiny ivory color, to complement the silver fleurs-de-lis design on the wrapping paper. 

My new CD of A Charlie Brown Christmas is playing on the stereo, warming the apartment with my best memories of home and family. Every time I turn my head, I see cheerful nodes of blue, pink, gold, green, and violet reflected in the glass surfaces of my furnishings. I've settled for decorating doorways and the mantelpiece with colored mini-lights this year. Between the juggling act at work, my self-defense classes, and squeezing in a few of the worthier social galas here and there, I just wasn't up to installing a tree. Dad will have a tree at his house, though. Long cords of Christmas lights will already be twinkling through the greenery, along with plain glass ball ornaments—but he'll have held off on tinsel and star, and our favorite decorative mementos. If I arrive early enough tomorrow evening, I'll be able to help Dad and Kim place the finishing touches. 

There. This was the last gift that needed wrapping. I slide Dad's case carefully into the box of packages I'm taking with me to dinner tomorrow. I look around my living room. Edie's present is sitting beside my purse and legal satchel on the table by the front door. All other presents were shipped to friends weeks ago. I smile. New Cathy puts in a full day at work, and she still manages to have all her gifts ready for the twenty-fourth with a good twelve hours to spare. 

Children's voices stop singing “Christmas Time is Here,” and the “Skating” instrumental begins. I sit down on a couch and reach into my mail basket for today's round of greeting cards. Opening plain or foil-lined envelopes, I skim each card's printed lines of tepid verse to get to handwritten notes and flourished signatures. Lorraine Brayburn has moved again. I set aside her envelope so I can update my records with the return address. Susan Alcott sent me a blank card with her own message written inside, which is lovely and just like her. Kevin and Darcy Foxcomb are expecting their second child, due in February. I make a mental note to add a reminder to my calendar, so I'll be ready to send a gift when the birth announcement arrives. 

End-of-the-year news received, I lean against the sofa cushions and let my mind wander. Give it a week and a day, and I'll have survived—quite literally—1986. I look at the string of lights framing the French doors between my dining room and my terrace. The multicolored light and music, the fragrance of spiced potpourri on my coffee table, the open bin of ribbons and gift wrap on my dining table: it all adds up to a strange sense of melancholy joy. My biggest regret as of this moment is that I know no way to share any part of this holiday with the friend, who above all others, has ensured my survival. 

I remember how he spoke to me. “You said you went to Radcliffe for college,” he had prompted, hoping in his sincere way to distract me from my fear, and from my battered body's terrible pain. “What was it like?” 

Vincent's unforgettable voice guided me through the long, dark days and nights I spent beneath the city: Listen, I'll read the next chapter of the story now. I'll read you this poem. I've brought more broth for you to drink. You've been to Rome in the springtime; what did you see there? Here is more medicine, can you hold the cup of water today? Tell me about Paris. Tell me about Cancún. Don't be afraid, Catherine. You're growing stronger every day. 

I have to wonder, during those ten days, when did he sleep? 

I do recall others caring for me, a woman with efficient hands—I think her name was Mary—and an older man Vincent called Father. But most of the time, and most of all, there was that quiet, patient Voice. It was luxurious black velvet muffling distant thunder—honest, strong, compassionate. He was so careful not to touch me, to frighten me with his huge clawed hands while those bandages hid the sight of him from my eyes. Instead, he spoke into my darkness, and his voice led me slowly but surely toward a hopeful light. 

My strange and gentle friend: I wish I had not recoiled from my first chance encounter with your generous hand. In the months since I came home, I've caught myself again and again, longing for that touch, that security. I know how to give someone a present enfolded in paper and a bow. I'm learning how to give my skills and my support to those who need them most. Yet how can I ever give a gift that matches the depth of hope Vincent has given me? 

Tonight there is no answer to this question.

Sighing, I get up and make the rounds. I set the Brayburn envelope next to my address book. The Foxcomb card gets moved to my desk, where I tuck the card inside a 1987 appointment book that is resting there. Gift wrap supplies go back to the top shelf of my bedroom closet. Then out come the legal files from my satchel. I take these to my dining table, where I can spread out and dig in. On the CD, “The Christmas Song” piano solo tinkles to a close and the music ends. I switch off my stereo system. 

“You are the last batch of homework I'm going to look at this week,” I tell the papers waiting for me on the table. “No more files get to come through my door until Monday.” 

These are such pleasant thoughts, I feel ready to sit down at the table. We'll just see how much I can get through before the need for sleep overtakes me. And that's another thing I'm intending to enjoy for Christmas this year. 

Sleeping in. 

 

I open my journal. I set pen nib to page. I write: 

24 December 1986, Early Morning— 

Last night I dreamt of Catherine.

 I hesitate, gathering my thoughts. Then, swiftly, attempting to capture elusive impressions, I continue. 

I stood in an open place. The air was cold, the ground beneath my feet dark yet gleaming with points of reflected light, like a sheet of obsidian glass. From a great distance away a woman was gliding toward me. As she came closer, I saw that she wore a blue gown. The train of her long cloak swept across the glassy floor behind her, an outer garment of no discernible color, perhaps gray or brown, trimmed with white fur and silver ribbons. The woman smiled. I knew her. Father's black sutures were gone from her face. Her wounds had become smooth white lines across her skin. Catherine was—

 

She was beautiful.

 

In my dream, Catherine held out her hand to me. I tried to step across the space between us and nearly fell. The glass was slippery. “You'll need these,” Catherine told me. I saw that her hand held a pair of skates by their laces.

 

I took the skates from her. My hand met hers. Her touch was warm, bright. Her radiance grew and the black glass beneath us became as a silver mirror.

 

“You'll know it has begun when music touches the stars,” she said.

 

I asked her, “What music, Catherine?”

 

“The music that completes the dream.”

 

She glided even nearer. She was already wearing her own skates. “Even the memory of love is worth its loss,” she said. “But is love ever truly lost?”

 

Catherine rested her hand over my heart. She drew close, embraced me, fearlessly. I received—her trust. And in my heart, I felt—

 

There are no words for what I felt.

 

When I awoke I was in my chamber, surrounded by stone and books and pipe song. For a moment I was afraid that I might succumb to sadness, that I might regret leaving the dream, returning to a reality in which Catherine has not remained beside me.

 

But her touch—her light—it stays with me, even now. I am warmed. I find that I am—happy.

 

She was very beautiful.

I stop writing and wait for other thoughts that bear recording. Nothing further comes to mind. I twist the cap onto my fountain pen and sit back in my chair. 

Is love ever truly lost? 

No. It is not. 

All at once, I believe I know what I can do for my friend Cullen. 

I listen to the rhythmic rumble of a subway train passing by overhead. It is a sound I usually do not notice, for I've been hearing it constantly all my life. But my awakened self hears it today, and hears in these train sounds the swish and scuff of ice skates on frozen water. 

I will need to speak very gently, to convince Cullen to come. I think I will wait to tell Father about my idea until after the thing is done. There are times when it is wisest to address Father's fears after the fact, rather than allow him to stew in his well-intentioned anxiety before a risk can even be attempted. 

The memory of love survives each loss. And I know even the greatest griefs can build the strongest foundation for new memories. 

*******

I woke up early enough to indulge in a cup of French press coffee at my dining table. That pleasure made up for the final hour of expected sleep that I lost. I put Costa Rican beans into my coffee grinder this morning. San Marcos de Tarrazú seemed like the perfect choice today. 

I definitely needed the sensual boost. Joe's got me trying to track down a witness gone AWOL, and Sadie over in Special Narcotics needs me to cross-reference a suspect's criminal record in New York with background information from Florida and Louisiana. ASAP. 

I'm running on autopilot right now. In a few more minutes I'll have to make a mad dash over to Edie's station in the NYPD Data Center and pray that Christmas has put my new friend in a good mood. If it hasn't, I'm hoping my little gift will cheer her up enough to overlook my inconsiderate rush job on the interstate background check. In the meantime, I write down two more possible contact numbers I can try, in my attempt to figure out whether it's merely the holiday that has swallowed Joe's witness—or whether the criminal element is working to silence him. 

However: the frenzy isn't completely reaching me where I rest within my internal oasis of baffled calm. It might shear through eventually, but my heart is mulling things over on a separate plane from the waking world around me. I am still dazed by my dream. 

Last night, I dreamed that I was walking through the snow. I felt that I had wandered into the Christmas carol that gives us the phrase, “All is calm, all is bright.” The world was silent and soft, with white flakes descending around me like tiny stars. The peace of starlight on fresh snowfall lingers in my spirit. 

I remember coming to the gradual realization that I was not walking alone. A tall shadow wearing a hooded cloak matched me, pace for pace, along my journey. When I stopped to look up at his face, he stopped too. 

“How did you find me?” I asked, for through the foggy logic of dreams, I understood that it was natural for the snowfall to hide me from everyone who might come looking for me. 

He spoke my name and his blue eyes smiled. “Catherine. I have never left you.” 

Vincent by moonlight was—breathtaking. I know that his features, human and inhuman in the same first glance, can give him an aura of severity. His mouth is not shaped for an ordinary man's smile. His long nose and deep-set eyes are as imposing as those of any monument sculpted to honor a great king. But in the face of what king has the feral power of the animal world and the compassion of the noblest human heart ever met and mingled so completely? 

“Come,” Vincent said. He held out his hand to me. I put my hand into his and was strengthened by his touch. We continued walking and the footing became treacherous, but the large, long-fingered paw I held kept me steady at every turn. 

We eventually stopped at the shore of a silver lake. The surface of the water had frozen into a sheet of ice. “Will you dance with me out there, Catherine?” he asked. 

Dance? On the ice? For a moment I was afraid. I believed the lake was very deep, very cold. What if the ice cracked beneath us? 

But Vincent stepped out onto the frosted silver surface and stood still, waiting for me to decide. I chose to join him. We walked far out onto the frozen plain. Then, there, by moonlight and starlight, to the sound of hidden chimes and the low, strangely musical creaking of the ice beneath us—we danced together. 

I don't know what the steps were or how we performed them. Sometimes we seemed to be skimming swiftly over the lake, like figure skaters in the spotlight of an arena. Other times, the music changed and we were waltzing or simply standing close, swaying in tandem beneath the open sky. I was never cold. Vincent's warmth so close beside me kept me from ever feeling cold. 

“The simplest pleasures give us the most hope,” he whispered to me, when we glided to a stop at the center of the ice. “Our small moments of beauty are the ones we are best able to carry with us...always.” 

“This doesn't feel like a small moment,” I replied. 

“It will. Later. But that will only make the memory all the more precious to you.” 

Truer words were never spoken. 

Slowly, we began to walk back to shore. I didn't want to reach the edge of the lake. I didn't want to part with him. But when we stepped off the ice, Vincent was resolute about the separation. 

“You have gifts to deliver,” he said. Then he smiled again. “But take this gift for yourself before you go.”

Gently, Vincent's strong arms enfolded me. We embraced, in the winter light, in the falling snow. I have never felt so cherished, so safe and so alive. I was reminded of a different memory: the bittersweet glow we shared at our parting beneath my apartment building. My dream softened that memory into something else. It began to feel like a promise, or a wish fulfilled. In my dream, there were no regrets between us. 

When he stepped back again, I saw that Vincent had placed something in my hand. It was a gilded angel with a glass star for a halo, the kind of figurine people put at the top of their Christmas trees. “Love endures,” Vincent told me. “It is never lost. But sometimes love must change, so it can grow.” 

I looked more closely at the angel. She had curling yellow hair, plaited into two braids and tied with satin ivory ribbons. Her smooth white hands held a cracked golden heart that had been smelted back together after being broken. Her painted eyes were a shade somewhere between gray and blue, and the little angel was wearing (of all things) miniature ice skates on her porcelain angel feet. I smiled at this memento of our dance upon the ice. 

When I woke up, I was still smiling. 

I realize that I've stopped writing phone numbers onto my tablet. I shake my head, try to get my thoughts back on track. I look at my desk calendar. My gaze falls upon Monday's appointment schedule, and Lacy Dunland's name. 

There is a timeless pause, the space of a heartbeat, as everything clicks in my mind. Warmth, peace, skates, and a Christmas angel. 

I know the gift I should give to Lacy and Ruth. 

I glance at my watch. Four minutes past ten o' clock. Lacy will be at work right now. I find the Dunland file and look up the number for the downtown bakery where she is an assistant pastry chef. 

I don't know what the sisters may have already planned for Christmas Eve, or if my suggestion will come to nothing beyond a misguided intrusion into their time together. Yet this is a suggestion I must offer. It feels right to try. 

“Vincent, I'm not sure about this.” 

I answer Cullen with, “I know.” 

My friend is radiating fear in the same way William's oven is currently radiating heat and the fragrance of gingerbread. I can almost smell Cullen's uncertainty. The sensation is in my own mind, of course, and not in my nose. Scenting conditions in the park tonight are good, but I am walking into the gentle wind and Cullen is behind me. The world Above is cold, the night damp with impending snow. It is early, just after full dark. I sense many people are out in the park with us, indulging in the romances of the season. 

I must not allow any of them to notice me. 

The danger for me is greater than Cullen knows. He does not need to know. He is justly concerned with the dangers to his own heart. 

“It feels weird to be up here. The last time I saw the sky, the cherry trees were blooming.” 

“Do you want to go back?” 

Cullen stops beside me in the shadow of a pin oak. Bronze-colored leaves cling to the tree's branches, rustling in the faint movement of the air above us. Cullen looks up at the lonely sound, then back down at his feet. “No. I let you talk me into this and I think I'd better see it through. Get the new rink in my mind so it can't take me by surprise later on. It's a good idea.” He sighs, his breath emerging as a cloud of vapor in the frosty night air. “Sorry, Vincent. I just didn't figure on this being so hard.” 

“It's all right,” I assure him. “Tell me more about Betty. That might help.” 

We begin to walk again, skirting Inscope Arch and swiftly crossing a patch of open ground toward the trees lining the pathways beside the Pond. Cullen speaks of his wife's liveliness, her energy and frugality. He tells me Betty had a knack for organizing coupons. Maybe two or three times a year, she could come home from the grocery store with a triumphant receipt showing how her clippings had paid for all of her purchases. She grew geraniums in their window boxes and worked as a cashier at the consignment shop four blocks from their apartment building. 

I am listening to Cullen and I am also listening to the sounds of traffic around us—motorized and pedestrian, near to us and farther away. The defoliated groves readily reveal our silhouettes as we travel. I am trying to keep us out of sight as much as possible. I feel exposed. I am giddy with our risk-taking. We reach a new congregation of sheltering trees and I survey the tangle of public thoroughfares beyond. 

Cullen gives me a shrewd look. “You don't usually get this close to people Up Top, do you?” 

From behind the limited cover of a fat tree trunk, I watch a man travel down a path several yards away from us. He is holding the hands of two young boys, who are walking to either side of him. They are all talking and laughing together. One of the children, the youngest I think, projects his delight most strongly. I catch wisps of the boy's pleasure with the dark and the trees and his family. They move northwest along the path without stopping. I release a held breath. 

“I prefer to keep my distance,” I tell Cullen. “That is safer for everyone.” 

Watching, listening, we wait until the way is open to us. I lead Cullen onto paved paths and off the paths, taking us in the same direction that the passerby and his children have gone. Approaching the skating rink, I look forward to finding an evergreen I know, a squat and unlikely white pine which has always struck me as possessing a stubborn survivor's spirit.  

Now we reach the tree, and the visual cover it offers. This is as close as I can come to the bright lights illuminating the skaters' wonderland. Cullen stands beside me. I notice that the faint wind has died away. All the trees are now completely still. We look out at the shining rink. People are skating a good distance away from us. They are dark figures upon a field of ice. Recorded Christmas music pours forth from the rink's speaker system. 

“It looks better than I thought it would,” Cullen comments. We watch the holiday celebrants for a moment. Then Cullen adds, “The skates, Vincent? Hers and mine? I had to pawn them after things got tight for us. Trying to keep one step ahead of the debt collectors.” 

His statement requires no answer, so I make none. I do not understand a world that is willing to impoverish vulnerable people during the most difficult trials of their lives. I cannot fathom how any institution could value money over a woman's health—or limit her hopes for a dignified death. And yet Cullen has told us that Betty's hospital did just that. Others Below have endured similar situations, in their old lives Above. I share Father's anger about this. 

“Do you think all those people over there have any idea how fortunate they are?” Cullen asks. 

“Some people understand the nature of their fortunes in life. Others do not.” 

Cullen looks at me, then back to the skaters. “And the rest of us only get clued in when the good times die.” 

Was I wrong to bring my friend to this place? I open my mind fully to his emotions. A few seconds pass and I decide that Cullen is watching the world go by without him—his old world, his old home. His previous life. He is angry, and he is also tired of his anger. He is feeling cheated. 

“Why couldn't this town give her one last good thing, Vincent?” Cullen mutters. “Why couldn't I?” 

He is feeling unforgiven.
 
“Cullen, how would Betty answer those questions?” 

He thinks this over. “She'd probably tell me something gracious. Something like: 'The best good things aren't the things you wait for. They're the things you give to other people. The days you share with the ones you love.'” 

“Betty was wise.” 

“Betty is gone.” 

We stop speaking. Silence grows between us. We watch the skaters. Cullen's wounds have reopened. His grief is like a gravestone strapped to his chest. Mourn, I think to him. It is necessary. 

Then, suddenly, I sense more than Cullen's dark shroud of misery. A brightness from beyond him, from beyond us and the shadows where we stand, begins to grow and glimmer in my mind. The light comes closer, localizing below us, at the skating rink. I realize that the light has been coming nearer for some time, but I have been distracted from feeling its advance. Yet now—now, I cannot help knowing a glorious truth. 

Catherine is here. 

I search the crowd of people, but cannot see her. Would I recognize her shape if my gaze did happen upon her distant form? I feel sure that I would know her anywhere, at any distance, but my feelings are not infallible. It is my hope which fills me now with such confidence in my powers of perception. It is my desire. 

I remember standing upon an icy mirror, holding Catherine in my arms, and being held. I recognize the prescience of my dream. Catherine, I believed the sorrow of a friend drew me here. Can it be that I was mistaken? Might it be that the prospect of your presence called me Above tonight? 

Catherine, I feel your joy. 

*******

“I like that lady's scarf,” says Ruth. A woman wearing a knitted rainbow around her neck scrapes by on wobbly legs. The rainbowed woman is holding tightly to the hand of a young man who looks at her, adoringly, as he offers advice on her new-to-the-ice skating technique. The couple slides farther away, merging with the throng of people circling the rink in a collective whirlpool. 

Lacy says, “You have a nice scarf too, Ruthie. Here. Keep it tight like this, or you'll get cold.” Lacy adjusts her sister's winter-wear and smiles at Ruth's delighted grin. “Your skates feel okay?” 

“Yuh.” Ruth nods and turns her slate gray eyes to mine. “Cathy! I'm going on skates now!” 

“Yes, you are. Have fun, Ruth.” I smile at them both. 

At this moment, the red ridge of scarring on Ruth's pale forehead means nothing to either sister. Ruth is wearing her favorite green knit hat and scarf, and there are rented ice skates on her feet. This is a woman ready for adventure. Lacy takes a moment longer to tease stray locks of Ruth's chestnut hair out from under the scarf. Then she gets up off their bench and takes Ruth by her right hand. The look she gives me is one of pure gratitude. 

“You're sure you don't want to come too?” Lacy asks. 

I shake my head. “This is your time. I'll watch from the railing over there.” 

“Thank you,” says Lacy. “Just…thank you.” 

Ruth puts in loudly, “Thanks, Cathy! Lacy, come on!” 

The sisters make their way out onto the ice. Once Ruth gets a feel for the rhythm of their stride, the  movements of the two women even out. Ruth is a little stiff, but her legs and ankles are strong. They make the first turn without falling and Lacy laughs. My heart is nearly bursting with happiness for them. I slowly walk from the bench over to the observers' railing. I lean my arms on the top rail, witnessing the Christmas miracle I have contrived. 

Lacy practically jumped at the chance to get Ruth out of their apartment for a Christmas Eve surprise. Over the phone she confessed to me that skating—or much of anything else—was outside the realm of possibility for their budget this year. The Dunland sisters were roommates in the first place because Lacy was still gathering momentum in her career as a promising chef, and Ruth had been working on her master's degree in art history at City College. 

Ruth had been hoping to open her own interpretive gallery after graduation. Once, in the days before Jackson Bordeaux, Ruth dreamed that she was going to partner with three exuberant modern artists who wanted to start a youth education program in the Bronx: a sculptor, a painter, an artisan bookbinder, and a passionate art historian. It was a match made in heaven for disadvantaged kids—but now it is a dream that excludes Ruth from its development. 

Sometimes love must change, so it can grow. Wasn't that the message of my own nighttime dance on the ice? Ruth has changed now. Her choices are different. Lacy's responsibilities are different. Even the way the two of them are relearning to love each other is a strange new process for both. 

The sisters complete their first lap, laughing, curly hair flying, eyes bright with the cold and the simple gift that I'm so happy I was able to give.

 Merry Christmas, girls, I think. Dad will understand, when I describe your faces to him. I've decorated plenty of Christmas trees in my time. Dad and Kim can take care of that tradition on their own this year. 

I watch my skaters for a good half hour. My heart is light. I feel at peace with myself and with my city. 

I am relishing the moment, following their progress as the two women start to make their next circuit around the rink, when I notice a wave of disruption developing on the ice. A man is clearing a space in the middle of the white expanse, directing skater traffic away from the wide circle he's establishing. Soon, he seems satisfied that he's imparted his designs to the revelers. He gestures across the way at someone. 

A woman leaves the outskirts and skates swiftly to the space the man has cleared, evidently, for her personal use. There is something about the way she moves that tells me she's not like the other skaters out there, even the good ones. She isn't merely confident on the ice; she is poised for action, completely in her element. The man slips away from her. The woman makes a few experimental turns, getting acquainted with her environment. Then she slides to the very center of the rink and stands still. 

People are beginning to watch her now. They move away from her, some skaters gathering at the edges of their icy playground, others continuing to circle the woman slowly. She is a lone figure in a white space. She is wearing blue and lavender: pale purple leg warmers over what are probably black stirrup pants, a white tunic blouse with a fluted hemline that flutters beneath the blue fabric of her coat, lavender gloves, powder blue cap, and spotless white ice skates on her feet. Her long black hair is tied into two braids. She assumes a pose that has her reaching her arms up to the cloudy night sky. 

The music over the loudspeakers has been a standard mix of Christmas fare. Now “Jingle Bell Rock” undergoes a swift decrescendo and the speakers fall silent. More and more people stop skating. Lacy and Ruth make their way to the side of the rink across from where I am standing. They turn to watch whatever is going to happen next. 

Then new music springs to life, surrounding and surprising all of us. The skating woman moves as gracefully as a ballerina. She sways, bends, and turns a tiny circle. And when an unforgettable recorded male voice begins to sing, the woman spreads her arms like wings and becomes a winter bird in flight. 

The singer is Luciano Pavarotti. The woman channels the musicality of his voice through the athletic skill of her body. She's a figure skater, and she's a very good one. 

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

 A thrill of hope sends the woman spinning, elongating her graceful figure until she is reaching for the sky again. She sweeps out of the tight rotation to yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Now she drops into a low spin, knees bent, skates a blur beneath her, as though she's fallen to her knees, her movements illustrating the lyrics with perfect choreography. 

I am entranced.

 Who was the angel, which dream-Vincent placed into my hand? Was it me? The skater? Lacy? Ruth? Someone else entirely? And really, does it matter? 

I think, This is nothing less than Christmas magic! 

In the song, Pavarotti now switches to French. 

Minuit, Chrétien, c'est l'heure solennelle,
Où l'homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous...

 As if on cue, it begins to snow. 

I glance across the rink at Lacy and Ruth. They are looking from the figure skater, to the sky, to each other. Ruth opens her mouth to catch descending snowflakes on her tongue. Lacy is holding her older sister by the hand. Her face turns toward me. Perhaps she feels me watching. People can do that, I know, they can sense when they are being observed—if they are paying attention. Lacy Dunland smiles. 

Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur...

This moment of perfect beauty is almost heartbreaking in its intensity. My mind reaches out, through the light and the dark, through the snow, through the soft scraping of skate blades and the glory of our century's finest tenor. I am on a frozen lake. I am in my healer's powerful arms. The colors flitting in front of me are lavender shadows in the depths of Vincent's stunningly blue eyes. 

I wish—oh, how I wish—if only dreams could be lived, visions released from the boundaries of perspective. I wish I could share all of this with him in person, and in truth. This is the gift I would give to the one who has saved my life, the one who has made it possible for me to be standing here, now, tonight, in awe. 

 Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur!

Mouth open, tears streaming down his face, Cullen has left me beside the pine tree and drifted down the mild slope toward the scene spread out before us. I would go with him if I could: for I've found her. 

I see her. 

Catherine is the woman in the long gold coat. She is wearing black gloves and black earmuffs and slender black boots with tall heels. Her back is toward me. I cannot see her face. She stands at the railing, watching the talented performer, listening to the sublime music. Her joy suffuses her whole being. My soul aches with her transport, and with my yearning. 

Beauty, I think. And, Beautiful. These words are too little, too limited in meaning. Pieces of white crystalline lace are shining in Catherine's honey-brown hair. 

Cullen has stopped beside a leafless tree, setting one hand against the trunk to steady himself. He is now too far away for me to directly sense his feelings, but I can read his posture. He has forgotten his anger. The woman displaying Betty's winter colors and Betty's plaited black hair dances Cullen's fears away. 

Catherine's fears have departed too. She has grown hale over these past months. Strong and lovely. Determined. Tonight she is wistful. She stands so near, so close, and I cannot help but wonder— 

I cannot help but wonder. 

I imagine myself walking to stand beside her. I imagine joining the world of this woman who once visited my life so briefly, and whose heart has—I still cannot say how or why—remained open to mine. My dreaming unfurls within my breast like wings or like roses. I dream that I am part of her. I dream that my connection to her can be more than a distant echo of empathy. And this is such a beautiful dream. 

The music ends. The skater glides to a stop. She is demure, a quiet queen in her icy realm. The falling snow alights on her hat and coat. 

People applaud, and this releases her from the persona she has assumed. She skates in a wide circle, waving, smiling to everyone. Then she moves to the periphery of the rink and is gently swallowed by the crowd. The white space fills up again, the circle reforms. Some skaters try their own spins and twirls. 

At the railing, Catherine stands up straight. She has seen someone she knows. She walks along the rail, away from me, to meet two women who skate across the ice to reach her position. The rink's cheery Christmas tunes begin again, but after the majesty of the man whose masterful voice sang out only moments ago, the new song sounds less like music to my ear than like absent-minded noise. 

Cullen is coming back to me. I glance around, returning to myself. I have been lucky that no one has approached while my mind was—elsewhere. I can ask no more of Luck tonight. She has already honored me with riches beyond anything I've ever dared to wish for. It's time to go home. 

Cullen rejoins me at the pine tree. We look at each other, two friends amazed. His eyes are bright with tears. I believe his heart has been broken tonight—and also cleansed.

We both look down at the rink. I cannot see Catherine now. She is lost in the crowd of people. I cannot see the skating woman. She is gone too. I return my attention to Cullen. 

“Vincent...” he whispers.

“Yes,” I reply. 

Slowly, we turn our backs to the rink and begin to walk home. 

We walk for many minutes, hidden by curtains of snowflakes, leaving a trail of shallow footprints across the ground, which quickly fill and vanish. The park is a muffled mystery. The world; a wonder. 

Before we reach the Park Entrance tunnel, Cullen murmurs to me, “Do you believe in ghosts, Vincent?” 

I answer his question with a question. “Do you believe in angels?” 

His smile is still wry, but his heart is soaring within him. “I'm not sure. But you know something?” 

I wait, listening to the city, and to the stillness within the snow, and to my friend. 

“I think I believe in Christmas again.” 

I smile at him. “I'm glad, Cullen.” 

We make our way into the Tunnels. We are blessed. I am grateful for the gifts of this night, and pleased with my success. I was not seen. I helped my friend. And I was a part of dreams come true. 

The music that completes the dream, I muse privately, as we duck into the dark mouth of the culvert. 

Behind us, it is still snowing. 

*******

“You can stay longer if you want,” I tell Lacy. She is about to hand over her rental skates to the attendant at the counter. 

Lacy grins. “No, we should get home. Nothing's gonna top that last song.” 

Ruth mumbles half a sentence I don't quite understand, but ends with: “...was so pretty!” 

The skates returned, the two sisters begin walking beside me, out past the crowd toward Fifth Avenue and the stream of traffic that hopefully includes a vacant taxi. The snowfall is heavy and silent. The night is pillowed upon the park's rapidly growing blue-white drifts. 

As we leave the rink behind, Lacy asks softly, “Cathy? The music? That skater? Did you do that...for Ruth and me?” 

I shake my head, still captivated by these magical events. “No,” I tell her. “New York did that. For all of us.” 

To myself I add, For everyone at the rink...and for everyone who might have been nearby, watching from a distance. I am remembering something I saw after the Dunland sisters came off the ice. I am pondering the glimpse I caught of two shadows standing together at the distant edge of the light. It might only have been wishful thinking playing tricks on me—but then again, it might be something more. 

Dimly, through the fall of snow and the shifty play of light and shade, I thought I saw the reflective glint of night-sighted eyes, and the tall, broad-shouldered shadow of a figure wearing a dark hooded mantle. I thought the shadow paused for a long moment, then turned toward the shape of the second figure to fade away into the night. 

My heart wants so much to believe that Vincent was here. Surely the scope of tonight's Christmas Spirit is wide enough to include that possibility. The magic has already been generous enough to encompass everything else. 

“Want to make a snowman, Lacy?” Ruth is asking. “Like...when you are little?” 

Lacy takes her sister's arm, steering her gently along the path. “Not tonight. We have a big day tomorrow. Do you remember?” 

Ruth thinks about Lacy's question, then she nods her head. “Christmas! Ashton is coming.” 

“That's right. And you're going...where?”

Ruth considers for another few seconds, then smiles. “I'm showing my art place to Maxine.” 

“Your gallery, yes,” Lacy says, smiling back. “Good job remembering, Ruthie.” 

Surprised, I ask, “The gallery? The one in the Bronx?” 

“Yuh!” says Ruth. “All my friends and me too...we make a place for people to learn. I'm helping.” 

Lacy turns to look at me. “Yesterday, Ruth was feeling well enough to help out remodeling the storefront. Ashton and the others hit that getting-their-act-together stage of things. They're a little behind, what with Ruth's trouble and the holidays. But they're thinking in February—” 

“We're working so kids will come make art!” Ruth says. 

“That's right,” Lacy replies. 

“And that's wonderful,” I tell them both. It is wonderful. I feel a little chagrined for assuming that Ruth's friends and colleagues would fail to make room for the new circumstances of her life. 

I look inside myself and decide that I've based my assumption upon the reactions most of my own friends and colleagues made to the changes taking place in my life. My social circle seems to have shrunk drastically over the past several months. But then, my priorities have changed—and are still changing. My closest friends have drawn even closer to me, while my newest friends have become far more important than the broad network of acquaintances I used to cultivate. 

“Sometimes love must change, so it can grow,” I say softly. 

By the gauzy light of a street lamp above us, Lacy looks more closely at my face. Then she nods her agreement. “So...are you doing anything special for Christmas?” she asks, smiles again, and amends, “Besides what you already did for us tonight?” 

I answer, “Celebrations with my father and some of our friends. I'm hoping for a quiet holiday this year.” 

“I hear you!” Lacy avers. 

“I hear you too!” Ruth puts in. 

We laugh together. 

It's a good beginning, for all three of us, and it's a perfect Christmas Eve. 

*******

I stand between Rebecca and Mouse at the rear of the audience. The rest of the gathered adults sit on benches arranged in rows across the room, or else stand in twos and threes throughout the Dining Hall. I see Mary and Sara talking together by the north wall. Pascal, Michael, and Laura sit in the second row, sharing an animated conversation in sign language. Goblets clink together for dozens of Christmas salutes. The room is filled with festive candles tonight. We are finishing the dessert to our holiday feast. I sip from my goblet of mulled wine, smiling as Mouse devours his second sugar cookie. Everyone was allotted one gingerbread man and one soft, sugar-dusted treat cut into the shape of a star. Mouse traded his gingerbread for my star and feels he's made a good bargain. I must admit I'm pleased with the exchange as well; I prefer William's ginger confections. 

“So, what do you think, Mouse?” Rebecca asks, gesturing at the curtained stage with one hand. “Will Rudolf arrive in time to rescue the elves from the storm?” 

Mouse shrugs, busily appreciating the last bite of his sugar cookie. “It's only paper snow. Not really cold.” He licks powdered sugar from his fingers. “Have to go now. Have to help Winslow.” With a happy grin, Mouse hurries to his backstage station behind the children's patchwork curtain. Intermission is nearly finished. 

Rebecca smiles, amusement shining in her pale gray eyes. “Oh, to see the world with Mouse's accuracy,” she says to me. 

“Or his innocence,” I reply. 

She raises her cup in silent approval of my words, and we toast the winsome good nature of our younger friend. Then Rebecca takes from her pocket one of the paper snowflakes the children have distributed to their audience. We are their snowstorm. Whenever the Snow Fairy (performed by Holly) gives us her cue to do so, we wave our snowflakes in the air. This creates an ominous windy rustle and casts stormy shadows across the floor. I take out my snowflake too. It is as large as my hand and has been cut from light blue paper, the folds pressed flat by the weight of old books. 

“Is real snow still as cold as I remember it?” Rebecca murmurs, fingering the paper fringe at one corner of the scissored shape. 

I follow the direction of her keen glance across the room to the place where Cullen is standing with Father and William. Cullen is laughing merrily at something Father has just said to him. My new friend's laughter is a welcome sound. I tell Rebecca, “The snow was cold last night...but Cullen and I never felt it.” 

“I believe our carpenter is a new man today.” 

I nod. “Cullen has found something he was missing.” 

Rebecca tilts her head back, asking a question with her face. 

“He found his hope,” I answer. 

Now two solemn elves appear to either side of the stage. They ring heavy metal dinner bells to call their audience back to our seats. I move to my place in the last row. Rebecca sits beside me. 

“And what did you find Above on Christmas Eve?” she asks me in a whisper. 

I look at her. Rebecca's smile is knowing. She is sure something important happened to me. She turns to view the stage. There is no need for me to reply. 

An answer forms in my mind, just the same. I remember the light and the snow, the music, and the lone woman who stands now at the heart of it all, and of myself. Last night I found something wholly new, a thing strange and wonderful, fearsome in its sudden power, glorious in its raw possibility. I found a dream worth dreaming. 

Mostly hidden stagehands pull the curtain aside. The Snow Fairy enters and lifts her arms in invocation. Responding to her summons, we dutifully hold up our snowflakes. The winter storm resumes its collective intensity. On stage, six elves sit in a dismal circle around a dark lantern. Out of the silence, they begin to sing, to keep up their spirits. Alas, the song they have chosen is “Let It Snow!” which only emphasizes their helpless plight. And yet: help is coming. We know it. We feel it. Their Christmas hero is bound to arrive at any moment, bringing light to the lost ones in their hour of need. 

As I watch the performance, I understand the children's message to everyone Below. Theirs is the story of our world, retold to remind children of all ages how to draw strength from one another. It is the story of the life we've built together. Fed, warmed, and entertained, we are sharing the brilliant light of our love tonight. I bask in the presence of my gathered family. I accept the warmth which has flowed into my soul from Catherine's happiness during these past few days. My heart offers a silent blessing. 

May our love guide us all as we venture into the new year: toward hope, toward dreams, toward fullest life, whether we find ourselves Above, or Below— 

Or some magical place in between. 

*******

“The tree is beautiful, Dad.” 

“I think the star's a little crooked.” 

I lean closer to my father to kiss his cheek. “The crooked star is beautiful too.” 

Dad smiles at me, settling one arm around my shoulders. His good-humored pink face creases into familiar lines. The glow from many strings of electric lights softly illuminates his silver hair. We both look up at the Christmas tree from our vantage point on Dad's sitting room couch. We each hold a cup of eggnog, the scents of cinnamon and nutmeg blending pleasantly with the fragrance of white pine. 

“It's been good to have you here today, Cathy. Now my holiday is complete. I've missed seeing you.” 

“I guess I've been pretty busy lately, huh?” 

“You've always been a busy person.” 

“Not like this.” 

Dad sighs. “Yes, all work and no play these days. Or so I hear.” 

“Oh, I'm not that bad off. I do admit it's a struggle to find my balance sometimes, but I'm here now, aren't I?” 

“Yes, you are,” Dad says. “So does this visit count as work or play?” 

I snuggle against his side, grinning. “This counts as Christmas, Daddy.” 

“Well, I'm glad we got that cleared up,” he teases. 

I laugh a little and finger one of my new earrings: a polished square-cut emerald in a gold filigree setting. The earrings are one of Dad's Christmas gifts to me this year, to complement my green eyes. He's always had good taste in elegant jewelry. I'm thankful for the gift, and for knowing that he would have taken his time, finding it for me. 

Around us, the house is quiet, sleepy and full of warming memories. Christmas is one of those occasions that allows me to feel the lingering vestiges of my mother's love without feeling sad. Mom was always happiest at this time of year. She loved Christmas trees. The star at the top of our tree tonight is the one Dad and I selected together, the year after Mom died. Ever since then, we've crowned each of our trees in remembrance of her. Dad saved the star for me last night. If the ornament is crooked on its pine-needled perch, it's because I was excitedly telling everyone what had happened in the park while standing on tip-toe at the top of a stepladder. 

“I'm glad you and Kim had a good time decorating yesterday,” I say. 

My father is studying the glass star. He says thoughtfully, “Yes...yes, that was a good time.” 

“You really don't mind that I wasn't here?” I ask. 

Smiling again, Dad replies, “Oh, I think you were right where you needed to be.” 

I smile too. Charles Chandler is a man who possesses a generous holiday spirit. I should really try to spend more time with him. He's right about me always being busy. Too busy, too often, for too long. Well, the upcoming year stands completely open for new chances for connection, new occasions for love. I resolve here and now to make the most of every opportunity in 1987. 

We sit together, relaxed, sipping our drinks. I think about snow, angels, stars, and shadows. I think about mysterious friends and unexpected gifts. Were you there, Vincent? In the park? Was that you? Someday, somehow, I am going to find a way to ask him these questions. Tonight, this chance for my future, and for his, feels perfectly feasible. 

Tonight, anything seems possible. Any wish. Any dream. 

~~~

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