The Attenuated Dream

A Round Robin for WFOL 2015
by Cindy Rae and JoAnn Baca


 Severed Selves by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Sonnet XL from The House of Life: A Sonnet Sequence

Two separate divided silences,
    Which, brought together, would find loving voice;
    Two glances which together would rejoice
In love, now lost like stars beyond dark trees;
Two hands apart whose touch alone gives ease;
    Two bosoms which, heart-shrined with mutual flame,
    Would, meeting in one clasp, be made the same;
Two souls, the shore wave-mocked of sundering seas:-
Such are we now. Ah! may our hope forecast
    Indeed one hour again, when on this stream
    Of darkened love once more the light shall gleam? --
An hour how slow to come, how quickly past,--
Which blooms and fades, and only leaves at last,
    Faint as shed flowers, the attenuated dream.




***

It was still so new, Mary had to pinch herself sometimes, just to ensure she wasn't still dreaming. For years, her fantasies had been centered on just one man … the one whose chamber she had just slipped from, like a thief in the night, albeit a very well-satisfied thief, with a smile she could not keep off her face.

If anyone else had been roaming the deserted passageways between Father’s chamber and hers hours past midnight, they would have encountered a Mary they would scarcely recognize – hair, a light brown and silvery mix, loose, spilling long and free across her shoulders and past her shoulder blades, clutching a crocheted shawl which had been hastily drawn over a filmy ecru nightgown. She knew she must look a sight, but she didn’t care.

Two weeks ago, her life had changed so remarkably. Just two weeks … but oh, what weeks!

She was in love.  In love with him perhaps as she’d always been, but now, more so.  With a singular man who bore many burdens.  With a man who had always sheltered her, as he sheltered everyone.  She could ease the burdens he carried.  She could make his life easier and better.

She could be his love.

It was all so new, and she felt like a teenager again.  Like a giddy schoolgirl who’d caught the eye of the captain of the football team.  Like a blushing beauty.

Like a blushing bride.

He was handsome and he was hers.  And in the two weeks they’d been lovers, he was Jacob to her, only Jacob.  She had not called him “Father” in private (for obvious reasons) since their first night.  That amazing first night.

To recall it now sent a shiver of ecstasy down her spine to center low in her abdomen, a delicious mixture of desire and weakness that threatened to have her running back to the man whose bed she had only just left. She leaned against the rough rock of the passageway for support as she steadied herself … and remembered …

How surprised she had been when their hands had accidentally brushed each other, both of them reaching for the same lantern to light the way home after an evening visit with Catherine and Vincent. Something about being in the presence of those two – whose love was already deep and all-encompassing but who seemed unable yet to grasp their destiny, only inching towards it slowly, haltingly, with great caution and care  - had worked upon them both. Something about the ineffable sadness of lost time … and how much they would come to regret it.

Jacob and Mary had spoken of this, later, and it caused a latent light bulb to shine brightly in Father’s mind and brought the frustration of long-held desire to the fore in hers.

Time was no friend to the hesitant or unsure, and as Mary had watched Vincent’s courtly departure with the woman Mary knew he’d sell his soul for, she’d lamented, just a little.

“He isn’t sure what to do, Jacob.  He’s not sure what it all means,” Mary had said, sliding a loose hairpin back into her soft bun.  Her hair was growing long, and would need to be cut soon.

“I’m not sure anyone ever is, Mary,” Jacob had replied, aware she was ready to leave, as well.  They both rose from the table together, knowing the evening was coming to an end.

Mary smiled at his wry comment.  Jacob could be thorny about love, especially where Vincent was concerned.

“Oh, I think we both remember being in our twenties and thirties well enough to be sure.” Her smile was a little private, but it was a gentle nudge.  Mary had brought far too many children into the world to pretend she didn’t well understand what passion caused and how often love ruled one’s choices.

Jacob had chuckled a little at that. Mary was always aware that she could skewer his sense of balance like few others could.  She suspected that, like Grace, she was a little smarter than him when it came to matters of the heart, and they both knew it. But … with not a little pride … Mary also knew that, unlike Grace, she was perhaps the one woman who knew him better than any other.

She’d reached for the lantern just as he had.  Just that.  Such a little gesture to change a fate.  Two fates.

His physician’s hands, clad in fingerless gloves against the chill, had touched hers.  Simply that.  Nothing more.

Except it was everything “more.”

The evening spent with Vincent and Catherine echoed between them.  Jacob might not approve of his son’s deeply felt love, but only a dead man could be unaffected by it.  The love between the exceptional pair shone like a bright and beautiful beacon.  Like a light.

Like a lantern.  One they were both touching, now.

Awareness had raced up her arm. She sensed that it had his  as well.  They both knew it, and neither pretended it hadn’t happened.  They’d both stood staring at the touching hands for a long moment, neither lifting the lantern, nor pretending they wanted to.

Then the soft tress of silken hair she’d tried to re-pin had slipped loose again, and it had delicately trailed down her temple to rest against her cheek.

Mary did not reach to re-pin it.  Her hand was still warmly “trapped” beneath his.

Within an hour, so was the rest of her.

Mary shook herself and, with a visible effort, pushed away from the rock wall to slip down to her chamber and under the covers for a too-short few hours of sleep. But she was smiling as she fell into a deep, dreamless slumber.

***

It had been unspoken, a tacit agreement to keep this just between them for the time being. If it bothered Mary a little – secrecy seemed to shadow Jacob in many ways – she determined not to let it spoil her happiness. It was enough, for now.  More than enough. After years of denial, years of subsuming desire into other avenues where Jacob would accept her single-minded dedication … to be able to reach for him in the night seemed a treasure beyond measure. 

During the day, as they both went about their duties, they spared each other no sidelong glances, dared no furtive touches, aware that any small change in attitude would be seized upon in their insular community. Gossip was coin of the realm Below. And as no whisper had reached their ears, they were content that their secret was safe.

For Mary, a product of her generation as much as her upbringing, to keep an affair (either of the heart or otherwise) under wraps was expected.  While other generations rather gloried in parading their sexuality about, Mary and Jacob had come from a more conservative time and were bound by that reserved attitude.

Still, it rankled some to not be able to reach over and touch his arm as they worked in the infirmary together, or to know when he reached over her shoulder for a book on the shelf, that he would not stop, linger, and whisper something loving into her ear.

Those things happened when they were alone together, however.  And if each of them bore dark circles under the eyes, or seemed a bit fatigued by the time dinner rolled around, no one seemed to notice, or connect those dots.

At first, in the insecurity of newness, she’d not even been sure if they’d repeat their amazing first night.  At first, in the insecurity of newness, she’d not been sure what to think, at all.  But Jacob had pursued her with sweet consideration, and by the time the next night found her in his bed again, and the night after that, she knew what was passing between them was not going to be dismissed as either a mistake or a one-time event.  They were lovers.

If they didn’t discuss the particulars of “Where is this going?” or “When do we tell the community?” neither did they discuss her past romances or his.  Everything seemed about “now.”  Now, and this minute. A glorious “now.”  A wonderfully fulfilling “now“ that it seemed to Mary she’d waited years for.  It was wonderful.  It was magic.  It was … a light to find your way home by.  A lantern.  Something warm, and bright, and comforting against the dark and the chill.  She was content that their long friendship had set a strong foundation for their romance.  She was content about everything.

For Mary, the physical expression of the emotional desire was a long time in coming.  And if she didn’t quite know what it was for Jacob, well … since they didn’t speak of it during the day, and they were wrapped in each other’s arms at night, having better things to do than converse, Mary wasn’t sure.

But she knew that, whatever he felt, he felt it deeply.  Jacob was not a man who trifled, and their relationship was far too long and too deep to make her think he was anything but devoted.  She knew he loved her, even if he didn’t say the words.  She knew she loved him, even when she did say them.  It was all she needed to know.

She sat at the small vanity in her chamber, brushing out the long hair she never wore any other way but “up” as she went through her day. One part of her mind impatiently listened for the sentry’s “all clear” on the pipes, followed by the time. How slowly the days seemed to drag these past two weeks! Because … the nights …

She paused in her act of brushing, looking closely at the sleek length of hair that fell unbound. Though the delicate lines on her face revealed her age, her hair was still far more brown than silver, a fact she carried with a little pride.  Worn down, her hair looked like it might belong to a woman in her forties rather than her sixties.  There was silver in it, to be sure, but its texture was soft, and Jacob seemed fascinated by the gentle wave that wearing it twisted into a bun all day caused.  He’d had his hands full of it, his hands full of her, as they'd loved.  She swept the brush down in a long stroke, loving how the soft tresses felt against her shoulders.  Her hair was like a secret, one Jacob had discovered, and enjoyed.

Pinned in a prim knot on top of her head, it was not overly thick, but it was silky, and soft, and she'd not taken scissors to it for some time, simply because she'd been too busy.  The children needed care.  The expectant women (and there were two of those right now, one a Helper from Above with no insurance, and one Below who'd just found out) needed her care and support.  They all did.

And then there was Jacob … who discovered that, even though he was neither a gravid woman nor a small child, he needed her, too.As she needed him.

Mary hesitated in the act of creating her usual hairstyle. Jacob always wanted to take it down himself – in bed, he would loosen it, stroke it, bury his nose in it. It made her so happy to hear him praise the fine silk of it.

She thought of wrapping her hair in a loose chignon, something “up” but not tight. If she changed her hair, would it cause questions to be raised?

She shook her head, dismissing the thought almost as soon as it entered her mind. She was old. Nobody was looking at her. The men kept their eyes on the fair features of the Rebeccas and Olivias of their world. The Elizabeths and Marys went unnoticed. 

The decision made, she fussed with her tresses until a proper chignon was achieved. She smiled at the result … just as the sentry near the business district entrance tapped out a report that Father was exiting the Tunnels at that point, dressed in UpTop clothing.

She stared at her reflection in the mirror, surprise wrinkling her brow. Jacob…going Above? She didn’t even know he had any clothes suitable for the streets of New York City. And why had he not mentioned this trek to her?

Worry clouded her features. Her image in the glass looked suddenly older, the smile that had wreathed it for a fortnight now unsteady.

***

The day that had begun with her fussing over her hair like a teenager with a crush now seemed interminable, and the woman who had felt old became ancient as the day wore into late afternoon, then early evening.

He had not returned.  With no explanation and no word to her … he had simply … vanished.  Gossip was rife, but then, gossip always was.  Mary stayed largely silent, content to listen far more than she spoke.

The other virtue of being an old woman.  You were invisible to the young, especially when they were busy.

Pascal called for silence on the pipes, so they could hear Father if he tried to call for help on them.

The silence preyed upon Mary’s nerves almost more than the gossipy chatter had.

She went to Vincent, wanting to see if she could help, praying he wouldn’t ask probing questions about how Jacob had spent his recent nights.  He didn’t, of course.  But that didn’t keep Mary from asking them of herself.  Was this about them, somehow?

Vincent knew little more than she did, and was blessedly not prone to gossip.  In a day that had few comforts to offer, that was one, at least.

Vincent’s chambers being too full of concerned people, Mary kept to her own, and worried in silence.

Did his disappearance have anything to do with her?  With them?  Possibilities flew through her mind, from the ridiculous to the reasonable.  He was going Above to … to take care of some business having to do with them.  To buy a ring?  Get her a present?  To go and fetch something from his old life and bring it back to her?  He’d been gone a long time, but with no money and therefore no way to hail a taxi …

Mary knew all the suppositions were wrong and, as the evening shadows grew longer, she knew that no idle whim had forced him out from Below.  Mercifully, she was not the last person to speak with him before he had departed.  Mercifully, whatever this was, it seemed to have nothing to do with them.  Mercifully, no one asked her, “The last time you saw Father, did he seem upset at all, Mary?”

Because the last time she saw him …

The last time she saw him he had fistfuls of her hair in his hands, and both the candles on his table and the oil lantern on his shelf were burning low.  They’d nearly fallen asleep together, afterward, and only an act of will on Mary’s part had kept them from being discovered by the early risers.

She took the chignon down twice, once putting it back in place, nervously, once simply pinning the hair back up on top of her head, as her nervousness grew more pronounced, and she began to retreat to the familiar.

***

“I am going to see Catherine,” Vincent told her from the doorway, as night fell in earnest.  “Going to see if she can help.”

“Do you think she can?” Mary fought hard to keep her voice steady, to keep herself from bursting into tears.

Vincent misread her upset, of course, but still tried to comfort her as best he could.  “Catherine is ... amazing, Mary.  If anyone can help with this, I feel sure she can.”

“Vincent, I …” she stammered and looked into the deep blue of eyes that were far too canny, usually, but clearly knew nothing of her and Jacob.  Should she tell him?  Would it help?  If it would, she’d gladly give away their secret, embarrassment be damned.

“It’s all right, Mary.  I know you are concerned, but try not to be,” Vincent cut her off, clearly in a hurry.  “Father received a message before he left.  The sooner we understand it, the sooner we will know where he has gone.  I must go now.  I need to see Catherine, urgently.”

Mary nodded, taking in the words.  A message?  From whom?  A Helper, someone who needed him?  Was that why he’d dressed in Topsider clothes and left with no word to anyone?  But that made no more (nor less) sense than any other scenario.

Bring him back.  Bring him back, to me, she prayed silently, sitting at the dressing table, nervously putting folds into the fabric of her skirt.  No matter what has happened, just bring him back to me.  No matter what it is, we can sort it out later.  I love him.  I love him so much…

Tears of worry melted down cheeks as white as paper.

***

The picture. She had heard about it from Pascal. She heard about it third-hand. Whether it was better or worse that way, she didn’t know.

Sitting in Jacob’s bedchamber long after Vincent had gone Above to search for more information in the big library there, Mary stared at the photograph he had found. It had been tucked behind some long-unused clothing.

 She considered how often she had opened that chest herself, to place clean clothes there for Jacob. All these years, that photograph had been there, silent as a time bomb, unspoken of. Had she been the least bit curious, she supposed she could have found it long ago. But she had not. She had been a trusting, naïve fool.

No, she was being too hard on herself. Jacob shared the blame. He had had ample opportunity to reveal something of his past to her in the decades they had been good friends … and in the two weeks when they had been much more than that.

Perhaps he had relegated this woman to the ash heap of his memory? But then, why keep the picture? Had he forgotten it was even here?

Doubtful. Jacob seemed to know how to put his hands on any bit of paper or obscure map or particular book in what looked like a chaotic study. There was no way he would have forgotten saving this particular picture of himself, smiling, a groom with his bride.

This photograph was a key to unlocking the mystery of his hasty visit Above. But it also was a key to understanding the man she had loved in silence for so many years.

A chill breeze must have found its way Below and into the chamber in which she huddled. How else to explain the sudden rising of goose-bumps on her arms, and the trembling of suddenly cold limbs?

Cold.  She turned up the lantern for a little bit of warmth, not wanting to give up her position at the table to go and stir the brazier.  She traced a delicate finger around Jacob’s features.  A groom.  He’d been a groom.  Some nameless woman’s husband, a long time ago.

Had he deserted her?  No, of course not.  That sounded nothing like Jacob.  Had she died?  Perhaps, but if so, what message had the power to stir him from his life, to make him abandon it, abandon her, without a backward glance?

For how many years … for years it had been … had he said nothing of this -- while he knew almost everything about her?  About her life.  About her son.  About the losses that she couldn’t bear, and about the ones she had.

His silence felt like a lie of sorts, even if it was one of omission.

No.  Stop.

Perhaps it didn’t matter.  They both had lives.  Lives before they’d come to this place, and lives after.  Perhaps whatever this past was, whatever this picture was, it did not have the power to take him away from her.  Perhaps.

The gown was expensive.  Very.  Mary knew fine quality lace, and both the veil and the gown were covered with it.

The lantern began to sputter as the oil ran low.

There was a long, cold night in front of her.  A lonely night.  The first such night she’d spent since … since they’d begun.

***

Stunned. That was the only word Mary could summon to describe her frame of mind in the aftermath of Catherine’s message. Jacob had gone Above … and been arrested for murder. Murder! What could have happened? What troubles was he hiding from her, from all of them?

She squirmed in her rocking chair as she watched over the youngest children, up late into the night because several were sick and needed attention. Frustration bit hard in her heart. There was nothing she could do to help him. She had asked, knowing it was a futile question before she’d uttered it.

What could she do? She had no money, no skills to offer. She had nothing of value.  She was only Mary.

Relief had filled her heart to know that Catherine was working on his case. She was a good woman - a fine lawyer, according to Vincent. But meanwhile, all Mary could do was wait … and hope that he would return to her.

A rustling sound behind her brought her back from her contemplation and worry.

“Mary? Am I disturbing you?” Vincent knelt beside her rocking chair, careful of the child in her arms she had rocked to sleep.

Mary shook her head to indicate he wasn’t then rose to place the slumbering youngster back in her bed.

They slipped quietly out of the chamber to talk, Mary anxious to hear his news.

“Is he all right?” she blurted, before Vincent could begin speaking.

“Yes. Still in jail, but safe and as comfortable as he can be, for now. Catherine is working on his behalf … investigating.” His brow furrowed. “Did you know he had been blacklisted during the Red Scare in the 50s?”

How many secrets had Jacob kept from her? She could scarcely breathe out a “No” in response.

Vincent leaned against the tunnel wall, shaking his head at the news he was imparting. “His reputation, his career … his life … were ruined. His wife left him. All those blows together were too much for him. It’s what drove him to seek out another life, here, Below.”

Mary considered what he’d told her. “So … the photograph … it was just part of the past he left behind?” She was desperate for the answer to be “Yes,” but a part of her already knew that it would not be. Secrets and Jacob seemed to go hand in hand. She steeled herself for Vincent’s response.

“Apparently it was her … Margaret Chase … Father was trying to find when he went Above.”

A knife twisted in her stomach at his words. The woman now had a name as well as a face … and a past that was still alive for Jacob. Mary summoned every bit of will power she possessed to remain outwardly calm as Vincent, unsuspectingly, drove the knife deeper.

“It was she who put an ad in the newspaper, the one that sent him Above to provide whatever help or solace she required.”

Selfishly, Mary wondered for a moment where her own help and solace would come from after hearing this news. The man she loved was obviously still in love with the woman he’d married so many years ago. And she was in love with him still, or why would she have reached out across the years to him?

Vincent had continued speaking while she was so introspective, and she struggled to follow his words. “Which is why Catherine is trying to contact her, even though, as I understand it, Margaret is quite ill.”

Mary nodded, dumbfounded. Her newfound happiness lay in broken shards at her feet.

***

Margaret Chase was here.  Mary found she could not hide deep enough from that reality, either emotionally or physically.  Margaret Chase was in Jacob’s bed, the bed Mary had occupied, the bed she knew she’d never share with him again.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, everyone below kept expecting her to simply be “Mary” -  invisible when not wanted, yet required when an extra set of hands was needed to wipe a runny nose or cradle a fussy infant or mend a shirt or …

They all had no idea.  Of course they didn’t.  So Mary had to behave as if it had never happened.  Which was what she’d been doing all along, of course, but …

She was never sure how she stayed on her feet, with her heart breaking in her chest.  But she knew she had to.  Because she was Mary.  Prim and proper and dutiful and dependable.  Like a dog who’d had obedience training and been sent to the groomer’s.  Mary.  A kind of tool to be taken off the shelf when needed, then put back on and ignored when she was no longer required.

No, no, and still no.  She had to stop thinking in those terms, or the bitterness would eat her alive.

***

Rain.  It was so ironic that rain would bring the two women together.  By now she’d heard the story of Jacob falling in love with Margaret Chase on a day when bright sun, a yellow taxi, and a beautiful dress had all but eclipsed his consciousness.  But it was rain that would draw him away from Margaret, and draw Mary near.

She was in the hall near his chamber when the tapping on the pipes was unmistakable.  An SOS.  One of the children had fallen, slipped in the mud near the access tunnel to the park.  Broken arm.  Zach.  No, not Zach.  Kipper.  Kipper, on that damn skateboard of his, doing something he shouldn’t do, out where he shouldn’t do it.  Zach was with him, and banging for help.

Jacob rushed from the chamber, medical bag in hand, Vincent right after him.

“Mary, oh, good,” Vincent said, passing her.  “We must leave Margaret alone and go see to Kipper.  You’ll stay with her for a while, won’t you?”  He said it while walking, and she doubted if Jacob heard.  She’d been about to go toward the exit herself.

“Vincent, I ...”

“She’s napping, and it should be no trouble.  I’m sure you’ve done it before.  Just …” He didn’t finish the sentence; she saw that he realized Jacob was getting far ahead of him.  Jacob couldn’t carry Kipper to the hospital chamber.  Vincent was needed, and they both knew it.

But Mary hadn’t “done it before.” Nothing remotely like this. And she hadn’t been in this room again.  Not since the day she’d traced the wedding photo with her fingertips, not since the day she knew her world was shattered beyond all repair.

She approached the doorway on feet so slow it was a mockery of the gentle race she’d run to get there just days before.  She was hesitant to go in.  Afraid, even.

From all she’d heard of Margaret Chase in the last few days … it hurt.  It hurt to be near.  Hurt to know the wealthy, cultured woman still owned Jacob, heart and soul.  Hurt to know that she, Mary, had never really stood much of a chance.

But she was Mary, the dependable and subservient.  She’d been asked to do something, and she was needed.  So she entered.

The room looked unchanged except for its celebrity occupant.  Margaret Chase lay in Jacob’s bed, in a bed jacket whose froth of lace rivaled even her wedding veil’s.  She looked … small, and sick.  Tired, and sleeping, her eyes shut against both pain and care, though both had worn lines in her cheeks.

It was so easy to feel sorry for her, this way.  A lunch tray sat by her bedside, the soup long cooled and barely touched.   

Mary sat stiffly in the bedside chair as if she might shoot back up out of it at the slightest noise.  So this was her rival.  This was the woman who’d taken Jacob to her bed and to her heart, then let him go, thoughtlessly.  This was .…

“Hmm?” Just a sound.  A small sound that let Mary know that Margaret either was not truly asleep or never truly had been.

Mary said nothing, hoping the ill woman would sink back into slumber. She noted that Margaret had a beauty parlor cut and perm, and a lovely pearl ring on one hand. Of course she did.  The gossip Below had it that the ring had been part of her bridal set.

The woman in the bed stirred. “Jacob?” Margaret asked, before she opened her hazel eyes.

“No.  Not Jacob.  My name is Mary,” Mary introduced herself as she looked into the eyes of a woman who was dying, and knew it.  It was impossible to hate her.  It was impossible to … anything.  It was impossible to do anything.

“Mary,” Margaret said the name.  “Such a nice name.  I had a friend when I was a girl who was a Mary.” 

Of course she did.  Everyone did.  It was a common name.  Common, like its current bearer.

Margaret smiled a charming smile, the smile she’d been bred to smile upon meeting a new person.  Her hazel eyes were clearing of slumber, and taking in the room.

“Jacob had to leave for a few minutes.  An … emergency with one of the children,” Mary explained, tucking the blanket up a bit for something to do with her hands.

“Ah.  Good.  Jacob hovers too much, and fusses.” 

Does he?

“It will do him good to be out of here a while, no matter what the reason.  Is the child badly hurt?”

Amazing that she could ask about a youngster she barely knew, considering.

“I’m not sure.  I’m sure Jacob will take care of it.”

Mary assessed her again. Kindness had made a deep imprint upon the lined face, clearly observable despite the pain etched there now.

Understandable. Would Jacob fall in love with someone unkind? No. She might have been too young and too sheltered to fight for him all those years ago, but he had given his heart to a good woman. Mary had to accept that.

Despite wanting to hate her rival – could she even be called a rival when Mary had never stood a chance against her memory? – Mary found herself softening towards Margaret. They had something in common, after all: they both loved Jacob.

Trying out a smile, Mary asked solicitously, “Do you need anything?”

She saw the ill woman hesitate in the act of opening her mouth to speak. She stared at Mary with a gaze Mary found disconcerting – she was being weighed, evaluated. For what? Worth? Trustworthiness? Compassion?

Apparently she found what she was looking for, because Margaret took a hitched, pained breath and began to speak in a hoarse whisper. “Would you mind very much … I have no one else to .…”

Mary realized there were things Margaret needed to say before dying, to confide in someone – another woman – and Mary had just been selected to be the recipient of those confidences. Unseen by Margaret, Mary clenched her fists, hoping to hold herself steady for whatever Margaret chose to reveal.

Mary nodded, encouraging Margaret, and Margaret’s smile was her sad reward. Her shoulders relaxed, and Margaret’s hand stole across the quilt towards Mary. Unwillingly, Mary reached out to grasp the offered hand. It was cool, the skin papery, and Mary squeezed it, a nearly involuntary movement borne of years of comforting the sick and the dying. It seemed to give Margaret courage.

“Mary, I have lived a wasted life.”

Shocked, Mary gaped at the woman before her. She had heard – through the Tunnel grapevine, of course – that Margaret was the benefactress of numerous charities, had set up scholarship funds in high schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and had even been appointed by a president of the United States as an ambassador to some country whose name Mary couldn’t recall. Surely she couldn’t feel that all that “life” was wasted?

Before she could protest, Margaret waved her free hand in the air. “Oh, I know what you’re thinking. But all of the things I did, I did with or because of my family’s money and standing. I made nothing of worth, only spent money in a worthy way.” She smiled wanly, a ghost of a wicked grin on her face. “And every penny I spent was on something my father would have ground his teeth about!”

She sobered immediately. “No, I … I betrayed Jacob in the worst way, in his darkest hour. I have never forgiven myself for that.”

Mary considered Margaret’s confession, then replied, “Jacob took the disappointments of his life and made a world here to banish disappointment in all those who seek sanctuary Below. Who is to say that all of this is not a greater benefit to mankind than what he might have accomplished had he stayed Above?”

The sick woman stared at Mary with hopeful eyes. “Do you think so? Oh, I hope that’s true! Then the sacrifices we both made would have been worth … something.”

Tears began to track down Margaret’s cheeks. When Mary would have offered her a handkerchief, Margaret shook her head in dismissal. “No. Tears are the least I can offer up in penance.”

“You’ve had a full life, and you’ve helped so many people,” Mary argued, fearful of upsetting Margaret further.

That just made the tears fall more copiously. “Jacob and I … we could have had decades together, living … loving …”

Her voice choked on the last word, and Mary felt her heart might break for both of them … for all three of them … as she listened to Margaret’s confession.

“Instead, we both lived solitary lives, devoid of loving companionship.”

Inwardly, Mary bristled. Jacob had “loving companionship” in her … it was just not the companionship he wished for in his heart of hearts. She was only a poor substitute for … for the Real Thing.

Anguish filled her heart, and bile rose in her throat. She strove to keep all emotion from her face, biting the inside of her cheek to keep tears at bay with pain. When would Vincent and Jacob return? How much longer could she bear this conversation?

Margaret wasn’t finished. “I regret so much, Mary! Listening to my father, running away to Paris instead of standing beside the man I love. I could have protected him from much of the censure. My father had powerful friends in Congress. If I’d asked … begged … I know he would have relented eventually. But I was such a fool, so cowardly. I never

spoke up, never raised a word in defense of my beloved … and for that, I have paid dearly.”

Mary suspected that paying dearly was a thing with which Margaret had become intimately familiar … something Mary herself was just now learning about.

“Sometimes … certain men … loving them is not an easy thing,” Mary said haltingly, knowing that with Jacob this was abundantly true.  “Sometimes it isn’t their fault, and it certainly isn’t yours.” Or mine, her mind amended.  “Some men… the path takes them to difficult places.  Places we can’t follow.”

Margaret shifted under the covers a bit as she took in the words.  “I suppose that’s true,” she finally said, picking at the coverlet.  “I just wish … oh, Mary, I wish so many things … I … I wish I was twenty-one years old again and just starting out.  I wish I knew then what I know now.  I wish I … I wish I had loved him better, said something earlier, reached out for him sooner …”

The words were daggers in Mary’s heart.  She wished so much for exactly the same thing, and for so many of the same reasons.  So do I.  So do I, Margaret.  I want to be twenty-one again.  I want to know then what I know now.  I wish I had said something earlier, and reached out sooner.  If I had, perhaps I wouldn’t be losing him to you.  Perhaps I wouldn’t be losing him at all.

But what she said was, “I think everyone has those regrets, Margaret.  I think we all do, at some point.”

“Do you?” Margaret asked.

More than you’ll ever know.  More than he will ever know. Have we passed a point of no return? Can we even get back to being “just friends” after this? Because that’s all we can ever be now … or ever again. Even if … someday … he wanted me … I could never go back to his bed. Regrets? Oh … gods.

“Of course.”  Mary spoke while her mind raced.  “I lost a child before I came down here.  Many here have suffered such losses, lost their way.  Jacob … helps us all. Helps us all find a good path again, and keep to it.”  The old ploy of relating why she had come to live Below came in handy.  It wasn’t a lie, at least.

“I love him so much,” Margaret said, and the tear that slid down her too-pale cheek was finally answered by one of Mary’s.

“I know.  I know you do,” Mary responded.  “I know what it is to love like that.  And it’s hard.”  Mary’s voice was deep with regret.  Too deep, perhaps.

Margaret must have thought the answering tear was one of sympathy, and Mary wondered if Margaret wept another for the kind understanding of the quiet, sympathetic stranger she seemed to be.

***

She’d tried, with great success, to stay out of Jacob’s way. It wasn’t hard; the man was truly devoted to Margaret, spending nearly every moment with her.

When Margaret was up for a brief stroll, he could be seen guiding her, their arms around each other.  Thankfully, their movement was so slow that it was easy for Mary to change direction and avoid them.

If Margaret ever asked about her, the word never got back to her. Perhaps the sick woman thought it odd that Mary had chatted with her just the one time, but likely everything Below was so strange to Margaret that a visit from one person more or less was of no consequence.  Mary herself felt that she was of no consequence, at least, not to the couple who were lost in each other as one of them slipped away from life.

So Mary was unhappily surprised when, early one morning, several days into Margaret’s stay, she heard the tapping of Jacob’s cane coming down the passage toward her chamber.  He called out, announcing his entry.

She was rooted to the spot in the midst of her morning ritual, unbraiding her hair, still wearing her warm woolen robe.  She did not turn to greet him.

"What do I even say to you?"  Jacob asked her, as she sat at the small vanity.

"Nothing.  Nothing, Jacob." Her soft eyes met his in the mirror before she turned and met them directly.  "Your ... your wife is here, and she needs you."

"Mary ..."

She wondered how he could even begin to explain Margaret to her at this point. She knew from Vincent that, technically, Jacob and Margaret weren't actually married.  But given the manner of their parting, the manipulations behind it from Margaret's father, she realized now that a part of him had always considered himself Margaret's husband, even when he wasn't.  And that Margaret had never been "wife" to anyone but him. Margaret’s own words had cemented that belief.

"Jacob, you don't have to explain.  I'm glad Catherine found you.  I was very ... worried." Tears sprang to her eyes on the last word, and she pushed them down, hard.

 Worried.  Yes.  She'd been worried.  Because one night they'd been lovers, and by the next afternoon, he was gone.  Gone to the one place she thought he'd never go … Above, looking for the one person Mary never realized existed.

"I'm so sorry, Mary," he said.

"So am I, Jacob.  So am I."

He should have gone.  Should have turned around in that moment, and simply left.  He must have known he had permission to do so, and that there was no help for the disaster that was enclosing all of them.  Margaret was dying.  Mary was heartbroken, and he, Jacob, would be a widower before the week was out, having barely been a husband.  She tried to feel compassion for him; he was losing both of his women, and he knew it.

"I ... I never told you about her.  Never told anyone, here, really.  Lou knows.  Of all people."

"Lou?  The barber?"  Margaret could only guess how the gentle barber had come to know the secret it seemed no one else had possession of.  Would Jacob never stop being full of surprises where this situation was concerned?  How Mary wished he would.

"He and Margaret were ... good friends, back in the day.  I should get a message to him, perhaps.  Let him know she’s here.  He might want to say ... good-bye to her."

His voice broke on the word "good-bye" and he sat heavily on the thin chair beside her and tried to catch the sob.  Mary hoped he would not weep for his wife in front of his ... what was Mary then?  His mistress?  The word utterly galled, and she wept for that, inside.

Mary's gentle hand rested on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Jacob," she said, and meant it.  Not for the world would she wish this despair on a human being.  "And ... you shouldn't be here."

"I know." He wiped his face and collected himself. 

Mary hoped he was aware that he was looking for sympathy in the very last place he should be.

"You should be with ... her." Mary could not say the name, and she hoped Jacob didn't wonder why.  "If the time is short, you should be with her, and hold every moment as a treasure."

"She may not have long," Jacob agreed, "perhaps less than a week."

"And we only had two.  Good-bye, Jacob.  Please understand if I don't ... if I don't see you very much, for a while.  Either this week or ..."

"Or after."

He was smart; he knew what she was doing.  She was withdrawing herself from his life, as if they had never been.  So he would not have to carry it, along with all the other things he was about to have to carry.  So he could be in love with Margaret again, as he was meant to.  So he could be her husband, with no constraints or regrets between them.  She was giving him time to be with his wife, and time to mourn her passing, and time to ... to understand that things between them would not go back to what they had been before his disappearance.  Mary had her pride even in her pain.  It was important to her that he understand that.

"Ellen's time is getting close.  I think I may go stay with her for a bit," Mary said.

"She's close to delivering?"

"A few weeks, perhaps more.  Perhaps less.  You know children, Jacob.  They come when they will, and you can't rush them.  Her ankles are swelling and she's alone.  It would be better if someone were with her."

Jacob nodded. 

Mary took a deep breath. This was solid ground. This was the sort of conversation they had before.  Before everything changed.  Before they’d become lovers.

"Catherine must be done amending Margaret’s will by now," Jacob said.

Mary nodded.

Still, he lingered.

"Mary, I --"

"Father." Her voice was firm, for so small a woman.  And with that word, they both knew she had ended them.  "You really need to go."

She was holding her composure by a bare thread. He had to know she meant it.  She'd called him Father.  Again.

He left.  Finally.  And Mary brushed out the overlong hair, knowing they were done, knowing Ellen needed her, knowing that no matter what Margaret Chase had carried of Jacob's heart, it was she, Mary, who'd always been Mother to his children.  It was a hard comfort, but she held it to her breast for all it was worth, because it was all she had.

She wound her hair up on top of her head, determined to pin it neatly, as she always did.  Prim and proper Mary, that was her.  And if that was not a fairy tale princess kind of thing to be, it was not a bad thing, either.

The too-long strands were heavy, and the topknot was pulling down before she even got it settled.

She let it drop, ran the brush through it and reached for the scissors.

The quickest cuts were the cleanest.

***

Not long before she was due to leave for Ellen’s, there was a great deal of activity on the pipes, and then all was quiet.  Quiet like the silence in a hospital waiting room.  Quiet like in the nursery of a very ill child.  Quiet like ... like the obvious.  Like a tomb.

Mary sat in numb grief, holding a cup of tea she no longer tasted, wishing for comfort for a man she wished she no longer loved, wishing the phrase “the wreck of my memories” did not so keenly apply to everything she was feeling,  wishing for an easy passing for a woman she had barely met, wishing for … something.

Vincent came in an hour later, and saw her there, sitting in the room that served as a dormitory for the adolescent and pre-adolescent girls.  He'd been bringing a book for Samantha.  It had been in his hands the moment he'd received word, and now he was completing the chore before he moved on to others.

"Mary?" 

She was sitting still in the chair.  Too still, perhaps. "Has it happened?"  Mary asked.

"Yes," Vincent said gently.

She supposed the pipes had carried the news, but sometimes she was busy with a fussy infant or a dramatic young girl and missed things. And sometimes, like now, she was too sunk in her own thoughts to pay attention.  She should have heard. The room was empty, all the girls gone about their chores or their errands or their desires.  It was quiet in here, and was a place in which she'd sought refuge more than work.

"She is gone.  Margaret."

Mary blinked.  "Jacob is ... with her?"

"Yes.  He was there when it happened.  I sat with him a while.  William is with him now.  Peter will come and ... see to things."

Mary nodded.  "How is he?"

"Grief-struck.  Bearing it.  Peaceful, in a way.  It is new, yet."

Mary's eyes saw a distant point.  Her voice became a bereft whisper. "Vincent ... no matter what, no matter what happens or what comes ..." her soft eyes found his blue ones, "you mustn't miss this chance with Catherine.  Mustn't waste the years."

Vincent drew closer to her.

"Father said much the same thing to me, not thirty minutes ago."

He would.  And the knowledge that Jacob was speaking of Jacob and Margaret rather than Jacob and her broke a heart Mary swore could break no further.

"He would.  Of course he would."  Mary's stare fixed again, as she battled her own misery.

"Margaret was a good woman, and it was easy to see why Father loved her.  We will get through this, Mary.  Help Father through it.  Say goodbye at the Mirror Pool.  Will you write her a letter?"

"Yes." Mary wasn't sure if she would.  But she knew the reply was expected.

"Vincent,” her voice was a strange mix of tremulous and insistent, “I mean it.  Don't waste this time.  You can't have a second of it back, not one second.  I know you and Catherine are new, that you're just setting out, but ... don't waste it.  If there is something in your heart you need to tell her, you must say it."

He knelt beside the chair.  He seemed to be doing that a lot with her lately. "What if I say the wrong thing?  Do the wrong thing?  What if I ... frighten her away?"

Wasn't that exactly, just exactly, what Mary had always feared?  That if she revealed what she felt all these years to Jacob, she might destroy their friendship, destroy the only way she could be near him?  She wasn't immune to the question, or impervious to its implications.

"If you're speaking from your heart, it won't be the wrong thing.  It may not work out the way you want it to, Vincent.  But it won't be wrong.  How could it be?  How could it be, if you love her so much?"

Mary had known him from infancy. She knew his heart, possibly more clearly, at times, than he did. She knew he was already entertaining the words “love” and “forever” in his secret fantasies, when it came to Catherine. She saw him consider and accept her words, but he looked troubled.

"I'm afraid of losing her, Mary," he said honestly.

Mary was very still a moment.  Then she rose and set the cold cup on a side table.

"Be far more afraid of ... of other things, Vincent.  Far more afraid.  Be afraid of wasting years, of never truly having her.  Letting your fears, or hers, rule your choices.  Losing her to someone else." 

She mentioned the last to drive her point home. He and Catherine had already faced that, with Elliot Burch.  And if he thought what she spoke of were the lessons of Jacob and Margaret, that was fine - they were powerful ones.

But Mary wasn't done.  "Be afraid of losing her to ... time, or to some accident, or to the demands of her life, or yours.  Losing her to filling up your day with petty chores as you wait for ‘just the right time,’ or ..."  Mary closed her mouth, realizing she was about to reveal far, far too much. "I'm sorry.  I'm just ... upset.  I think I need to go start my letter," she finished.

As she turned to leave, her foot connected with the slender table leg, jarring the furniture and tipping over the lantern she had set upon it when she’d come in. The lantern toppled to the ground, the glass flue cracking. Vincent caught it up before the small bit of oil left in it spilled out.

Mary gasped. She had kept that lantern close since that night…the first night she had shared with Jacob. It had become a talisman of sorts, and she had carried it with her today even though the chambers she was in were well-lit and cozy. Why she still carried it she wasn’t sure. It had been a source of comfort … once. Now, as she looked at it, its function ruined due to her lack of attention, she felt she might burst into tears.

Uncharacteristically, she turned to Vincent and said, “Would you take care of that, please? I’m not … just not able to deal with it right now.”

Vincent nodded, watching the defeated bend of her shoulders as she left.

Keeping her shawl wrapped tightly around her, Mary exited the dormitory, swearing the chill that had followed her like a curse since the day Jacob had gone missing was still there.

As she walked, she forced her posture upright and held her head high. She was no bent old woman. She had a lot left to give. The only person she had nothing left to give to right now was Jacob … not even comfort. He had others who could do that, and who would, unreservedly.

In a way, Mary realized, she was by far the stronger of the two of them.  Jacob would not be alone in his grief.  Mary would be, and would bear hers with the same gentle but stoic stubbornness that had marked her entire life.  That was all right.  That determined streak had gotten her through worse than this.  She knew it had.  Even if she couldn’t quite feel it right now, she knew it would again.

She’d need to pack a bag for Ellen’s, then go by to check on Kipper, before she left. 

There were still people who needed her.

 

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