The Smallest Sound
Author’s Note: This was supposed to be a stand alone story written for the Conzine, but it really was an extension of the Union Universe. Oops. It fits right here, so this is where it lives. I hope you enjoy it.
I have lived with shades so long,
And talked to them so oft,
Since forth from cot and croft
I went mankind among,
– Thomas Hardy
The smallest sound, something between a breath and the coo of a dove, woke Catherine without preamble—dead asleep to wide awake. Their room, what her mind still defaulted to Vincent’s chamber, stood dark; just a few candles scattered throughout shed any illumination. Even the light behind the stained glass was extinguished. It could have been any time of day, although by the muted music of the pipes and the absence of the staccato rhythms of the trains, Catherine judged—late or very early.
Vincent had wanted her to sleep after the birth of their son. He blew out all but the few candles before settling himself, despite her protests that he needed rest too, into his chair. She hadn’t fallen asleep so much as been pushed—tucked in, cosseted, reminded that if the child should need her, she could easily be wakened—and Vincent was right. The slightest noise from the baby drew her awake like getting pulled to her feet by a quick, strong tug.
She searched the room from her vantage point on the bed. Most of the chamber was a black-grey mystery, but her eyes were getting accustomed to the dark. By the just the light of the pillar on the table she could make out Vincent, his journal open, his pen dropped mid-page, still sitting in his velvet chair, but now holding the baby.
In the stillness that she was reluctant to break, she watched the large man made all the more huge by the tiny life he held. His one hand supported their son’s head, the other cradled the baby’s sleeping body. Vincent hadn’t noticed her waking; his focus was elsewhere, contemplating their less than day-old child.
Catherine closed her eyes to focus on the cacophony of feelings playing between them, ones he didn’t know to mute and ones she didn’t yet know how to handle. Within him, the undulating movements of a symphony—swelling awe, deep and resonant love, a high note of joy—but beneath the notes, a pulse, the heavy drumming of unease.
The darkness was meant to help her sleep; instead it had woken his doubts. Quiet dark could be deafening. She knew this.
She should have seen it coming.
Without a word she drew back the stacks of sheets and quilts off her weary body and gingerly dangled her legs over the side. She wanted to move quicker, but knew the better part of valor was to get used to her limits.
Someone else’s skin—that’s what I have. Stretched and floppy, a bulky suit placed over her familiar frame.
As soon as she sat up she could feel a gush of blood. Mary had warned her that would be the consequence of motion for the next few days.
That’s the problem with birth, Mary said when she helped Catherine get cleaned and padded. You have to open yourself to allow your child to be born, but then you’re open and vulnerable … for a long time.
Catherine stopped to allow her body time to adjust to the new position. Only then did Vincent become aware of her and concern overwhelmed all other feeling from him.
“What are you doing up?” he questioned in a harsher tone than she expected, the shadows and dim light carving his face into stern sandstone. “You haven’t gotten nearly enough rest.”
With guarded and careful movement, she planted her feet on the carpeted floor and rose from the bed, trying to be kind to the tender parts of her that needed time to heal.
“I could ask you the same thing…” A grunt escaped she couldn’t help, a slight catch as she shuffled the few steps over to him. Muscles she’d forgotten she had protested the movement.
“But you’re in pain, Catherine,” he asserted, flustered.
She could see that he didn’t know what to do. Should he quickly put the baby down and help her? But that might wake the child. Should he tell her to stop and get back in bed so she wouldn’t hurt herself, knowing of course how much she would appreciate that? He was at a loss.
Catherine reached out and ran a hand over Vincent’s shoulder trying to assure him. “I’m fine, Vincent. Just a little mangled. It’s nothing.” A half-smile for a half-truth. Well, nothing compared to before.
She reached over and, with a grazing finger, brushed their son’s head. The baby startled just a bit, grabbing the air with his small arms, but then softened back into sleep.
“I’ve been through … a lot worse,” Catherine understated. “But I’ve been told I am strong…” she assured, trying to reflect the love that had comforted her through the endless hours of labor.
Vincent sighed, giving in, accepting her action. “You are remarkable. “
With the nails she had dug into rock walls, and bed sheets, and into Vincent’s palms when the pain was too much to bear, she combed his hair back, pulling it away from his eyes, and waited until he looked at her to be sure he understood.
“I am very loved and very lucky,” she half-whispered.
“Yes,” he agreed, turning to the child who had justified the pain, even if he could not yet banish the memory. “Lucky…” Vincent cradled the word as he did their son. For long moments they just pondered the sleeping boy, both thankful and both astonished by the gift.
The baby’s eyes danced under closed lids; his mouth twitched up and down, expressions flickering across his face—concern, happiness, sorrow, bliss. They fluttered over his features as if he were trying them out, experiencing all of life in a scant moment.
“I think he’s dreaming!” Surprise raised her voice above the whisper the faintly lit room naturally inspired.
“Mmmhmm,” Vincent agreed in a knowing manner.
“But he just got here. What on earth could he be dreaming about?” she wondered aloud.
“Well,” Vincent’s voice quietly rumbled, “he’s had a momentous day.”
We all have.
“Does every baby do that? Dream like that?”
“That I have seen, yes,” he answered with a weighted wistfulness.
“Do you have a lot of experience with babies?” She couldn’t help but hope. She had absolutely none.
“Some,” he owned. “Parents are usually able to care for their children here, but there are always orphans. Simon was the first newborn I remember tending. Elizabeth found him when she was hunting for newspapers in the bathroom of the 103rd Street station. He was the first Mary would let me touch. She trusted me to care for him, despite my … differences.”
Thank goodness. Another thing I have to thank Mary for.
“It’s a rare time when there are no babies here. Children are abandoned with regularity Above.”
He sounded so sad. It was hidden truth and fact of life in New York, but Vincent saw it for what it truly was—a desperate and tragic crime.
Catherine stroked Vincent’s head, the texture of his hair soft, his tresses shifting under her fingers. “Some of them are lucky enough to fall through the cracks and land here,” she tried to remind him. This was their child’s home. Despite any drawbacks, there was no other place in the world she would want their son to grow up.
“It happens less often now, but Simon wasn’t the only one,” he continued, to oppose or confirm her sentiment she didn’t know. “I found Samantha in a gym bag in the park.”
Samantha, the loving, spirited girl… “Oh God, Vincent, how awful.”
“I was lucky to have found her.” His voice dipped to a stony whisper. “We have discovered some … too late…”
She wanted to snatch up the baby and hold him tight to her, to shield him from that world.
When she could breathe again, when she could speak, dread and wonder forced her words. “I look at him … What kind of desperation … to leave a baby…”
“Yes,” he answered in a murmur, his eyes downcast. “I have asked myself the same … nearly every day of my life.”
This is where the night had taken him, to his origins so clouded and unknowable. She may never be able to make that less so, but she could give him this.
“You are so loved, Vincent. You have always been wanted … here.”
Here, in the Tunnels … in my heart, within me…
Catherine turned, stood behind him, and rested her upper arms on Vincent’s shoulders while her fingers stroked and massaged his bowed head. In that position she was able to gaze at both man and baby at the same time. She lowered her lips to kiss his hair, inhaling his and the baby’s mingled scent for a moment.
Vincent almost imperceptibly nodded and she let him go.
Even with no extraordinary insight, she could see the tension rising, in his corded shoulders, in the jaw held tight. His moods were so clear. Either he had never learned to hide them, or he recognized it was pointless to hide from her.
“Looking at him, I feel so much joy…” he began, but the words were surface, the opening notes to a complex piece. The rest did not come easily, and silence engulfed them again.
“But joy is delicate,” she continued for him, “and can be drowned out by other emotions.” Gingerly, she walked back to the side of bed and eased into a shallow perch, her expectant waiting pushing him. She would compel him to explain if she had to.
No more hiding.
“I was writing and watching him sleep. For a moment, lost in my thoughts I forgot … I thought I couldn’t feel…” His gaze settled on the cradle, the blankets tossed to a corner as if they were thrown off in haste. She could see the ghost of panic shimmer across Vincent’s face.
“Despite knowing he was fine—in my heart, Catherine, I knew this…” Vincent emphasized to her, to himself, his gaze drawn back to the baby. “I had to check him. He was here … and safe, yet I had to see his breath with my eyes, feel his heartbeat with my hands.” Guilt weighted the confession.
“Oh, Vincent.” She shook her head. “I…” she started, the incredible nature of what they were together slowing her words. His actions, his disgrace, revealed his love. He should never be ashamed. “I could feel him too. I knew he was beginning to wake up, but I would have checked him the same way. He’s just so new.” She peered back to their son. “He seems so fragile…”
But he isn’t. We are.
“We’re wearing ourselves out with worry again, I think,” she said, catching Vincent’s eyes, then smiling—this time in commiseration. “We tend to do that sometimes.”
He laughed slightly, but it was mirthless. “Yes,” he conceded. “For the longest time I despaired that this kind of life, one of family, would be closed to both of us, that I would never have you with me. Now…” He sighed still looking at the baby. “He almost makes all that time seem … pointless—the pain, the longing…” Vincent breathed out as if to let go of their painful history. “That such a tiny being could change everything.”
“It does seem rather silly that someone so small can wash away all your certainties. It’s a new beginning.” She lifted Vincent’s chin, drawing his gaze to hers. “But it isn’t without its fears.”
He nodded, perhaps in agreement, perhaps in acknowledgement that she understood his myriad emotions, maybe both.
A rush of love for her family—her family—engulfed her. She would learn this world, make it her own as much as she could. The people of the Tunnels had kept Vincent safe, and no matter what kind of child they had—fully human, or more than human—their friends would do everything to keep their baby safe.
“Catherine…” He breathed out her name. It sounded like a barrier falling, allowing the rest of his thoughts air. “I can scare trust myself. I am not…” He lowered his head in shame. “I have raged. I have lost myself. I have killed. Death has surrounded me.” He shook his head to disavow those times or perhaps against her expected renouncement of them, but she wouldn’t lie and couldn’t argue.
Her barriers were broken.
“You’re right, Vincent. We’ve had too much death…” She regretted the words as soon as she said them, yet they were the truth.
Her agreement surprised him, but also allowed him to continue on the road to his deeper fears. “If I am that … how do I deserve you … this life?” He turned to the child sleeping on his arm. “How can I raise him with that as his legacy? What can I give him?”
He rose suddenly and handed her the baby, a rejection of his nature, a rejection of his right. He appeared ready to run.
“Vincent…” she nearly yelled. The newborn flinched, but her warm embrace settled him.
Vincent stopped, his back to her, hands braced on the table.
She had to reach him. “You will give him love.”
“And when love isn’t enough…” He growled.
When was love not enough?
She wished she didn’t know, but she had been plagued by worries since getting pregnant. Either through Vincent’s words or thoughts she could see Mitch Denton, that failed Tunnel child turned criminal … and more—Laura’s missteps, the loss of Ellie, Rolley—all the children lost…
“I am trying, Catherine, to trust…” His words died away. He practically shook.
“I know.” She placed the baby deeper into the fold of her arm and grabbed Vincent’s hand to help him stay, to remind him she would be there for him. “It’s all we can do. We will try, and we will make mistakes, but, Vincent…“ She pulled him close, wrapping her free arm around his waist, gathering him into a circle of protection. “We made a baby. Look at him,” she pleaded. “Isn’t that a miracle?”
“A true one,” he answered, gracing her with a superficial and slight grin, “since he has so little hair. The irony of it…” The flash of humor vanished as quickly as a snuffed flame, his biting wit always sharpest against himself. “Catherine, I look at him. He is perfect. He could have the world, yet what can he be with me trapped down here?” His pleading tone shattered her heart. “I have never felt my limitations so keenly. I can never acknowledge him Above, take him Above in the sun.”
She shook her head. She could feel the hysteria bubbling to the surface, causing her words to fumble and quake on the edge of tears. “No, but you can take him in the moonlight! You can show him the night creatures and the paths and trees of the Park. You can teach him the caves and the tunnels. If you handle the night, I can cover the sunlight. He will have both of us.” She grabbed the belt under her hand, and shook Vincent like to wake him. “All right?”
“There is danger in the night. And if he is threatened … I know what I will do…” Vincent pulled away. “And after…”—as if it was inevitable—“…can he see me as anything but a monster?” He walked away, turning from them as if to leave.
Fatigue weighted all her thought, and relentless exhaustion rang bell-like in her head. She hadn’t expected to be at work on oral arguments so soon after the baby.
“Vincent,” she said in a speaking tone, but the stillness amplified the sound to a yell. “You are afraid that he will reject you? Maybe, someday…” But she stopped herself. She wouldn’t accuse her son of a crime that only unfamiliarity had caused her to commit herself.
A sough escaped her. He was so different yesterday. Selfishly, she wanted the man back who stood beside her in her labor, the Vincent who loved her and what they had created unconditionally and without thought of future or past, but she checked herself again.
The surrounding quiet punctuated the music of her new existence—the mechanical movement of the clock on his chest of drawers, the even breathing of sleeping baby, the heavy heartbeat of a doubting man. She recognized the repeated and somber notes, but could she offer him a counterpoint? Her patience was thinned and worn, but she could not allow the deep night to feed his anxieties any longer.
Maybe he believed yesterday, in us, in his ability to do this, but old fears aren’t forgotten in a day, maybe not in a year. How long must he have buried these? How long did he push his worries aside in order to focus on me and what I needed?
He had seen her through her darkest hour. During the birth, he had loved her, believed in her, even when she was certain she couldn’t go on. He knew her, saw her strength. As the baby had been born, she had been born as well.
But now this was his darkness.
There are darknesses inside of me you cannot even imagine…
This was his birth.
The room—intimate, confined—was filled with only them. They had created a private universe, but one wrong word, or without the right words, it might implode. It had so before and he had sent her away.
I’m so tired…
I can’t think…
But you will, because he needs you to.
This is it. You are a family.
You know him too. He will not forgive his own past, but maybe…
“Vincent,” she began, the ideas forming, the inspiration unimpeded. She was too weary for reticence. “When you see Lena reading to the younger children, do you only see a whore?” He flinched at her question, rebelling bodily against the word, but did not answer. “When you see Kanin holding Luke,” she demanded, Vincent’s back still to her, “or help him work on a new chamber, is all you think, murderer?”
Vincent wasn’t vehement, or quick to answer. He knew where she was going with her line of questioning. “No,” he said in a defeated monotone, and pivoted back towards them.
“Trust me, Vincent,” she beseeched him. “This child will know you, and I promise, he will love you.”
Vincent knelt in front of her. He was close again.
“I love you,” she whispered.
For a moment neither of them could speak, just regarding each other, marking territory with gaze and touch, known and unknown.
“Vincent, he is like you, like us. He is something that has never been,” she declared. “And I think after everything we’ve endured, everything that could have destroyed us … he was … destined…” She wanted Vincent to know that she was resolute and that he must believe. “He is something that was meant to be.”
The words eased him; she saw it, his pride in her claim beginning to dispel the dark and doubt.
“We can’t know the future,” she continued, “but here, where you grew up, where I learned to love again, I know he will grow strong.” She could feel the peace spreading in Vincent’s heart, the minor key of worry giving way to a rising melody of hope. She cupped her free hand around his jaw, stroking his tired face with her thumb. “He will never have preconceived notions of what is normal. To him, Vincent, you will be no more and no less than his father. Isn’t that wonderful?” She smiled through tears just started. She looked back down at the child, warm and content. “I have no idea what he will be, but he will be loved. I love him as I love his father. ” She wiped the wetness from her cheeks as she paused at the now complicated term, “Or dad,” then stuttered at the wrong word. “Or daddy, or … Oh this is going to get confusing.” She grabbed her forehead, and snickered.
She was heartened, that despite everything, Vincent couldn’t help but chuckle a bit too.
His voice broke slightly to a soft gravel tone. “I love him as I love his mother,” he echoed in a whisper. “New names for us…” He laughed lightly. “Whatever they end up being.”
His clawed fingers curved around the back of her head, then he slowly drew her forward, eyes open as if he did not wish to miss a moment, taking a kiss, taking what was always his to claim, and giving her his fragile heart. He withdrew slightly, but held her there, his heart’s rhythm now one of elation and concordance.
“Speaking of names…” Vincent tilted his head as if to see into her, a slight smirk still gracing his features. “Have you thought of a name for this child?”
“Actually…” She smiled and declared with pride, “I have.” Vincent let her go, and she lowered her gaze to the baby. “I’ve thought about it for a long time.” She raised her gaze without lifting her head. “And I guess it may get even more confusing…” She sat straighter, confident. “Jacob. I think Jacob is a good name.”
“Jacob?” Vincent questioned, his eyebrows perked. She could see the uncertainty in his face even in the small amount of light. “It’s a fine name,” he agreed, taking time to consider her suggestion and compose a response. “Catherine, are you certain? Your history together—”
“It’s been a rocky one, I know.” She sighed. She couldn’t help but feel sadness and a bit of remorse over their rough beginnings. “Parents make mistakes sometimes and we love them anyway, right?” She cupped Vincent’s cheek. “Father loved you, Vincent. He raised you. He helped make you what you are. Without him…”
There would be no us … no baby…
“Well, then,” Vincent began and shook his head again, but this time he was smiling. By the light of the candle saw it, the light in her heart confirmed it. “Father will be very pleased, but…” She caught a mischievous glint in his expression both different and delicious all at once. “We should make him wait until the naming ceremony to tell him. I want to see his face, and he will wonder himself ragged until then. He deserves that at least.”
Catherine laughed, saying without words she liked this seldom seen side. She sealed their secret pact with a light peck on his cheek.
“Jacob.” Vincent called to his son. The baby yawned and stretched, and, as if he approved his name opened one eye to survey his parents with. He was so beautiful … mysterious.
Why should the apple fall far from the tree?
If tonight proved anything, Vincent was, at least to her, growing more beautiful, and less mysterious.
Maybe their child would also…
“So, Vincent, Oh Wise One in all matters concerning babies…” Catherine teased.
“Yes?” He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m confused. When do we need to feed him?” Catherine chuckled, exasperated at her sad lack of knowledge. Father and Mary had told her before she had moved back to Vincent’s chamber, but how many hours ago was that? Their instructions tumbled in her head, when to begin and end melding, hours dissolving. She was at loss.
Vincent laughed out loud, further dispelling the gloom, and startling the baby into action. Baby Jacob’s alarmed jump escalated into kicking and squirming, and soon he was rooting into his mother’s forearm.
“I would tell you, Catherine, but it seems we can trust our son to know what he needs,” Vincent observed, pride lending a clear pitch in his voice.
Without another word he took the baby from her and laid him on the end of the bed. Lying on his back, away from familiar warmth, their son started to fuss his way towards a cry. Vincent gently shushed the uncomfortable boy while gathering supplies. A clean diaper was soon placed under the baby as Vincent undid the old one and whisked it from away from the squirming infant. The baby’s arms flailed in grand gestures around his head, making him seem for all the world like a tiny conductor ready to lead.
In work, Vincent lost his uncertainty and focused only on the baby. The happiness of the new father crested harmonic and vibrant despite his weary state.
To watch Vincent with their son—curling claws away, deftly wrapping the new diaper and layers of clothes around the boy, gentling his voice to a slow rumble of soothing words—it was a privilege that made everything before—all the pain and hardship, hesitation and fear—diminish into past days.
Catherine took the opportunity to push herself back to the head of the bed and under the covers.
Another small gush—she paused, let it pass, and moved again.
Vincent lifted the baby, bouncing him slightly in both hands, and looked to her. “I may have some skills with children, but this is the part I have little experience with,” he admitted somewhat chagrined, and handed her the infant.
Catherine gathered pillows, situating the baby’s little body as Mary had taught her, and with only a small assist from Vincent in getting Jacob’s hands out of the way, settled the baby to her breast. He easily latched on and started to nurse. “Well, it’s a good thing he seems to be a natural,” she mused in a whisper breath. Catherine watched their son begin to sate himself with the sustenance her body couldn’t help but make for him.
Without looking up, Catherine patted the bed next to her. Vincent hesitated for a heartbeat, then, with guarded movements, crawled to the side next to the wall and window. He eased under the covers, winding his long limbs and large frame around her and the baby as if they were fine porcelain. It took some time for him to relax into the position, but Catherine could feel his fatigue. No matter his pride and protests, he needed sleep as much as she.
Vincent was dozing by the time she finished the feeding.
She burped almost sleeping baby, swaddled him loosely, and while shifting down in the bed, inched him into the cradle. He fussed a little, making the sighing coos that had woken her in the first place. She rolled fully on her side to lightly jostle the antique cradle, while Vincent further curled around her. The slight movement eased both males in her life, the baby soon drifting into the sleep that had already claimed his father.
Once she could feel the evenness of his rest, Catherine turned to catch Vincent sleeping. She almost giggled. Both father and son shared the identical slumber slack expressions on their faces.
It made her love them all the more.
Vincent, our baby is something that has never been, but he’s something meant to be, and he won’t be alone.
“Trust me, Vincent,” she whispered to the new father. “I think our son is just like us … very loved and very lucky.
It is a fearful thing to love
what death can touch…
A thing for fools this, and
a holy thing,
a holy thing to love…