Union Chapter 17

I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free; and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed?

–   Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Jim saw it first.

The children saw it too, even if the adults didn’t wish to.  They talked among themselves, they worried for her, but the children stayed away.

William should have seen it—the signs were plain enough.  He had been in the Service almost as long as Jim had, but, in the cook’s defense, it was during a different era, under different circumstances.   William was used to the willful disregard that comes with bossing people around a kitchen.  He’d been a head cook long enough for his own brand of good-natured badgering and ignorance to be ingrained into his character.

The sickness, easy to spot if you had the experience, carried almost as many names as symptoms—“Shell Shock” during The Great War, “Railway Spine,” “War Neurosis.”  They were calling it “Battle Fatigue” by the time Private James Fields had snuck out of a tree with as much unsteady stealth as a frozen midwestern teenager could muster after two endless days and nights of German soldiers passing unknowingly beneath him.

soldier in snow

He’d lost more than three toes to that bitter winter in the Ardennes Forest.  Battle had ruined his every endeavor for over ten years by the time he found this place.  He’d been just another lost veteran in New York with no family and no future when he was accepted.  In the years since, Father helped him learn about his condition, why he hit the drink trying to calm the panic from sights and smells and sounds innocent to everyone but him.  Just cold could send him into an angry spiral, shaking, aching, wrapping himself in three times his normal layers, and wishing they didn’t lock up the hooch Below.  Although he hadn’t been Up Top for any period of time in over twenty years, he wasn’t drinking himself into an early grave either, thanks to a community which had always embraced his defects as well as his talents.

Jim—Old Jim now to most of the Tunnel children—had watched Vincent grow up, a boy resigned to darkness as much as he.  Jim didn’t regret his service, despite his own personal movie reel that ran roughshod weekly, sometimes nightly, over his dreams: the charred bodies, meat and bone left over after the explosions; the bullets, felt more than seen; the walking skeletons; dead friends; killer friends.  He had seen what kind of world the Nazis aspired to and Vincent had no place in it.   Damn Nazis would have had a field day with him, Jim thought more than once when looking at the unique boy—now man—placed in their safekeeping, and they in his.

By the time Jim followed Catherine into the dining hall that evening, he had read a dozen books on the subject of what they were now calling “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”—lots of words for the same problem.  The small, pregnant woman followed Mary with about as much enthusiasm as Jim had for walking in snow.  Watching her trying to fight the “stare” and panic, Jim could only think “Soldier’s Heart.”   That’s what the doctors had called it during the Civil War.  It was the best description.  It fit the bill.

Jim felt protective.  He knew they almost all did, but he had been the one who heard her call on the pipes all those months ago, before those bastards took her away again Ever since, he had felt especially responsible. He had prayed on his aching knees each night for her return, and that prayer had been answered.  Now he prayed for healing, and the healthy baby she and Vincent deserved.  He wished they could have found her the first time, but if wishes were horses, they’d all be knee deep in horse manure by now, his dad used to say.

Catherine didn’t look happy, despite the life she carried.  “The Thousand Yard Stare”—the eyes that had beheld so much they weren’t looking at anything anymore—that’s what she had when she didn’t notice people noticing her, when she didn’t try to mask it up. He’d seen a lot of that in the War and a lot of it since.  You could take a person from the Up Top, but, it was hard to take the Up Top from the person.  He’d seen it in Cullen, and in Mary, how she still got so sad sometimes looking after the little girls.  He’d even seen it in some of the children, and that really tore at him, but usually, with enough love and enough kindness, they healed well enough—Jamie had after years; so had Zach.  You didn’t push it though, or at least not without a lot of thought; that was the Tunnel’s unwritten rule, especially when someone seemed close to the breaking point.  That’s why the children gave her a wide berth.

Catherine couldn’t eat. That was easy to see, at least for Jim, who knew when a person was trying to avoid food, afraid of throwing up bad memories.  She sidestepped William carving some beautiful roasts like they were snakes ready to strike, even though they had been sent by Antonio in a glut of generosity spurred by the good news of her return.  It was her party, but she didn’t want to be here.  Jim could see she placed just a few small potatoes and carrots on her plate.  He slowly trailed her through the large crowd of feasters.  She sat next to Mary and sipped on a glass of water.  The women at the table, Sarah and Rachel, warmly greeted her, but after getting little from her while she pushed the food around her plate, they fell into an absorbing conversation with her guardian.

Catherine slipped into an unnoticed niche where she fought for control, her breathing a little rough, biting her lip at times when she needed grounding.  Jim stood against the wall at the end of the long table, watching her as she fought, but he didn’t interfere.  She was close to the cliff, but she might pull back, and maybe she wouldn’t take kindly to an old man questioning her.

When the tumult of the hall and whatever she fought finally seemed too much, she stood and took her plate to leave. Mary called to her, but the woman wasn’t listening.  Jim hurried after her as much as his shot knees and crippled feet could to keep up, but she had already slipped into the crowd.

“Catherine, why didn’t you eat?”  William asked as she tried to hurry past him at the sideboard.  Life in the Tunnels could be hard at times, and with so few plates coming back with food left, hers was noteworthy.  William stopped her with a kind hand.  That’s a mistake, Jim felt certain, even if a well-intentioned one.

“…not hungry,” she said quietly, not looking at William, but instead staring at the knife on the carving board next to a bloody roast.  A trigger was here, Jim noted, and if he didn’t do something, everything she had been fighting was going to burst right through her.   Her face had drained to a stark white, and her eyes were rimmed red, a too-familiar mask.  Jim tried to hurry, but the press of lunch goers was hindering him as much as his worn body.

“Catherine, you know you have to eat,” William counseled with concern, if not perception.  “For the baby’s sake at least,” he continued unheeding, “if not your own.”

The plate shattered and the knife was in her hand before anyone could react.  The whole hall erupted in surprise, but few people moved.  Jim got to her side first.

He grabbed her knife-wielding arm.  It remained mostly at her side but strained against his hold, almost as if she was fighting the impulse to attack.  In an instant Cullen was with him.  Maybe he had been watching too.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” Jim tried to soothe, “You’re safe.  You’re safe, honey.”

Her arm, and the knife, almost obscenely large in her small hand, pulled against the men’s strength.  Cullen held hardest while Jim maneuvered, trying to a catch her eyes, but they were far away.   She didn’t see him.

“You can’t tell me what to do!” She screamed, more pleading than commanding, but then her voice dropped to a whisper. “No more questions…” She begged.

She was defending herself.

“He’ll stop,” Jim promised her, catching his grip as it nearly slipped, her fury stronger than he could have ever imagined. “Just ease down, honey, and you’ll feel better.”

“He isn’t going to hurt you, Catherine,” Cullen assured her.

It almost worked.  She was starting to calm, starting to see William for William, not some personal devil.  The instant hysteria in the room began to dissipate. Catherine was loosening, unraveling herself into their arms…

…until William opened his mouth again.

“Well, of course I’m not going to hurt her.  That’s insane!” He yelled, more at Cullen than at her, offense clear in his words.

The wrong words…

Jim loved William.   Jim’s own girth spoke of many happy hours spent together in the kitchens, mostly listening to the large cook complain, or laugh at his time Above, but sometimes Jim wondered if William understood anything.

The moment the words left his mouth, Catherine, still wielding the carving knife, somehow, shook off the two men and threw herself at the cook.  It took all of Cullen and Jim’s strength to keep her from him.  She had gone from almost sleeping to wild in half a heartbeat.

People were screaming.  They were losing her…

CATHERINE!” A shout like thunder came from the entrance to the hall.  All eyes turned to Vincent, including Catherine’s.

Thank God the boy is here.

Jim silently praised the Lord for answering the prayer he hadn’t had time to form.  Vincent might be the only thing to keep the Tunnels from losing their cook and a woman who didn’t know how to leave the battle behind.

Catherine, as if woken from a nightmare, instantly stopped.   Jim and Cullen, with gentle consideration, eased their grip on her shaking frame.  She looked at the knife in her grasp as if seeing it for the first time.  She deliberately lowered it away from William and then passed it into Jim’s sweating hand.

Catherine’s eyes slowly tracked from the blade back to the quavering William, clearly more in control of herself, but still not fully out of the blaze that had claimed her so quickly.  She was silent.  She turned towards Vincent and it seemed as if she would just walk away, but then she turned back just enough so she could see the cook from the corner of her eye, and whispered her requirement, an angry and dangerous warning.

“Don’t ever tell me what I have to do for my baby.”

She turned fully to the room and, for a moment, was forced to survey a hall of astonished faces.  The stare came back, full on, and with slow, difficult steps she shuffled towards the exit, dazed and far away as everyone moved aside for her.  But as soon as she cleared the crowd, she raced out of the hall, pushed past Vincent, and stumbled through the door.

The room of people made way for Jim as well.  He wanted to be sure Vincent was going to take care of the lady.  The boy might need a push.  He could be a little thick; it took him almost three years to get her in the family way in the first place.  But Jim was relieved to see Vincent holding her.  She was doubled over in his arms, vomiting on the floor of the corridor not far from the hall, throwing up the memories that were pushing her to the edge, pushing her to threaten if, thankfully, not hurt her friends.  Vincent held her head, whispering into her ear, and when she seemed finished, he looked in Jim’s direction, giving him silent thanks for help that the older man was happy to render.

“Take me away from here,” she asked in a flat voice that matched her eyes.  “I don’t know the way.”

Vincent placed his arm around Catherine, lifted her up, and guided her out of sight.

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