Union Chapter 21
Special Thanks to Mumford and Sons for Awake my Soul, best song about all types of birth, ever.
“Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”
“Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.”
Gloria Steinem, Ms. Magazine, April 1981
Hours passed, somehow, impossibly, without clear reckoning. Each contraction, like a new gauge of time, formed a pattern more sure than the minutes or hours noted by the clock on Vincent’s dresser. The only time for them—how long she would be in pain, and how long the respite in between.
They lay curled upon his bed, Catherine facing the room, Vincent’s body gathered around hers, both dealing with the labor without speaking or instruction. Every contraction was a dance silently orchestrated by their bond. He could almost hear the music, the deep drumming rhythm of her body. He welcomed her pain into him as his guide to aiding her through the rise and peak and fall, bringing them closer, (closer, please, please, closer) to the birth.
He felt her body gather, and in response he placed his hand on her belly, under the baby, his warm empathetic touch her cue to release into his embrace and allow the muscles to work without battling them. His other hand pressed into the ache in her back, sometimes throughout the entire contraction, sometimes pushing and releasing in concert with her breathing.
She opened her eyes with the sensations to focus on the candle and her crystal, now placed safely on Vincent’s table. The long flame danced with her breath, its light reflecting on the pendant’s hard surface, as she tried, (tried, tried) to let the contractions open her body.
There were times in between when she fell into troubled sleep, and the images, the feelings of her cell returned to her, ghosts and worse—the silence, the emptiness—but then the contraction would come, she would waken, Vincent would hold her, and she was too full of him, the baby and the labor for anything else to stay. Soon even the past lost meaning to the urgent now, and nothing but the three of them remained.
The pain Vincent and Catherine shared, what he could feel through her, wasn’t sharp like lightning. It was lightning’s answer, a force drawn up from the deep earth. It developed and spread while they lay bound together—no longer low in her belly, it encircled her entirely front and back. It started to grab her, move her and move through her, as the plates of the continents shifted one over another, an earthquake within. And as the movement of the earth, it would go on forever, she began to fear.
In the quiet at the end of night, after consulting in hushed voices with Father, Peter and Mary, Vincent resolved to take Catherine back to the warm spring. The elders confirmed what Vincent already knew: the labor was progressing, tolerated by both mother and child, but getting harder. As the contractions strengthened, unconsciously she began to thrash her legs, mimicking the twisting inside. She could retreat into Vincent no longer. She needed more.
Each step he took, leading her to the water away from the others’ immediate help, felt like a towering climb on unstable rock. His scholar, anxious and concerned, enumerated within his mind the myriad ways birth went wrong, but his deeper self responded that Catherine and the child were healthy, the birth was not imminent, and that the warm water would ease her.
Halting often, grabbing at Vincent when she needed him, Catherine slowly shuffled down the halls, then through the cavern to the edge of the water. She stared into the pool as if uncertain what to do next. Vincent, forgoing the confusion of words, gently raised her gown up and over her head.
There was more blood on her upper thighs—not much, but some. Father had warned him blood was a normal sign of progress, but Vincent couldn’t help but tense at the sight. He tried to ease into Father’s logic and his own innate knowledge that she and the baby were taxed but fine. Vincent was anxious she would share his worry in her open state.
He held her hand in support as she entered the water. In an instant, her body was no longer just an affliction; her relief flooded his psyche. In the water she loosened and unfurled. She could relax and, in turn, so could he. She moved almost timidly along the rocky wall until she was deep enough to allow the water to fully support her.
He didn’t understand, and she had no words to explain it, but for a moment he had given her freedom. The water was a warm reprieve from impatience and pain. It was freedom in his world, within his life, each step taken together in this process becoming their life. He couldn’t know how important it was to her, but she promised herself she would find a way to tell him, hoped she could communicate it through her hand that held his as he crouched above her on the rocky shore, but then the pulling spiraled and took all thoughts again. Afterward, she found herself clutching his hand as a lifeline. The contractions were easier now in the water, to be sure, but not easy.
She wanted to joke with him. She wanted to laugh at how different this was from the last time he had brought her to this cavern, but she could never get so many words out at once. The contractions had become her world. She used all of her strength in between to ready herself, and used all her energy during them to keep from being dragged under by the pain, not just for herself, but for Vincent.
How can he stand this? She thought, fighting to open her eyes, to see into him, to find his strength.
How can he do this?
I can’t do this.
With care he extracted each clawed finger from her desperate grip and took off his clothes with quick, harried movements. He wanted to get to the water before she needed him. He rushed to her and she grabbed for him as soon as he got close, creating waves both in the water and in her, the next contraction triggered by her movements. She moaned with the unexpected twisting. After it passed he kissed her forehead—in apology, in deference, in adoration.
Her eyes were closed now, even in between. He kept watch for her. The universe felt thin, and for a moment Vincent knew “the soft edges”[i] Catherine’s mother had spoken of. They were fusing, their heartbeats combined into a new song of travail, beauty, and longing.
“I love you,” she said, eyes closed, startling him with an unexpected rush of appreciation, even in the midst of strain and hurt.
“…and I you,” he answered, with a rough and tear-filled voice, “with all that I am.” Sadness and helplessness engulfed him. His love was all he could offer her. There was no battle, there was no enemy, no way to rescue her. There was no place for a hero. Nothing was broken that need be fixed. He could only be a witness to her struggle.
Perhaps an hour later the water became too hot, and Catherine, nauseous and anxious, needed to retreat. The urgency she and the baby were feeling Vincent could not deny. They needed the elders now. He quickly dried them, pulled on his clothes, and helped her on with her gown. She tore at the collar, as if hating its clinging on her skin, but then gave up as a harsher sensation distracted her.
She bent, her hands on her knees, quivering and flushed from unconscious exertion. “I can’t walk…” she said helplessly, almost guiltily, as if she should.
He lifted her, carefully, into his arms, but this time she didn’t protest. The contractions seemed barely moments apart. She placed her head on his shoulder, exhausted by her body’s efforts to give birth to their child.
He started down the entrance of the spring. Later he would write in his journal of the things he recalled on their journey—Jamie and Mouse waiting for them outside, ready to notify Father of their movements; Pascal startled and unnaturally still in the Pipe Chamber entrance as he went past; the younger children blithe and innocent to the struggle and pain to create them, playing on their beds before breakfast, clapping the rhythm of life in their songs.
Plant the seeds.
Watch them grow.
Dig, cover, water, weed.
Keep them safe from the cold.
And we’ll have flowers for our win-dow…
At the time, he wouldn’t have believed he noticed anything but her, or had any spare energy to divert from the task at hand—getting her to help. He stumbled, just for moment, outside of the Nursery, under the weight of the debilitating tightening coming again. It was agony.
How can she do this?
He willed himself the strength to move forward. He surged, pushing past Michael, Cullen, and Brooke as they pressed up against the walls to let them pass.
Catherine said only three words as they traveled back to their waiting helpers, through the long halls, past anxious and attentive friends—just three words that seized his heart.
“Shut it off…” she whispered, so quiet only he could have heard her.
He didn’t want to.
To leave her alone … to be alone…
He rebelled, despite his implicit promise. Part of him needed this. Bound together, he was certain she was alive and she was here. His scared inner voice begged for her, and if she was to suffer, he asked for his measure of penance. He didn’t want to give it up, but, he knew she was right. At this moment she didn’t need his empathy, and never wanted his guilt. She needed his strength, and he could not give it weakened by her, for her.
She was frail, almost shaking in his arms.
She was unrelenting as the waves crashing hard on the shore.
He did what she asked. It took all of his will.
He closed off the Bond with her.
“Don’t be afraid the contractions are stronger than you are Catherine,” Mary tried to soothe, folding blankets and placing them on the chamber’s stove to warm them, “because they are you, dear. You can do this. You’re strong.”
Vincent didn’t believe Catherine could hear her.
“Yes, honey, you’re doing great,” Peter called to her from across the room as he wrote notes at a small desk.
Vincent was certain she couldn’t hear any of them.
Catherine huddled in a tiny alcove of the hospital chamber about two strides’ distance from him and Father. Vincent tried to give her space to move despite the irrational desire to just snatch her up and somehow stop this for five minutes—it would be all she needed, if he could just stop it! But that wasn’t in his power.
Worse than useless, his deeper voice whispered, reproachful and angry.
Since her water had broken a half an hour before Catherine couldn’t stop moving after each contraction. She tried to find any small comfort, but there was none. She had lain on one of the larger beds at first, but almost immediately the pressure was too much. Then she had clung to Vincent, but her legs had collapsed when the waves seized her, which they did with startling and horrific frequency. There seemed so little time in between them. Vincent would have held her up, but she pushed him away.
“Too hot,” she groaned, pressing her head into the cool rock, but seconds later she was shaking with cold.
“Vincent,” Father whispered, his back to her to hide his words, “this,” he covertly gestured towards Catherine to encompass her movements and mercurial mood, “is expected this late in labor.”
Vincent tried, but couldn’t quite believe him.
Catherine’s existence had narrowed precipitously since leaving the spring. With the breaking of her water, that still gushed periodically and freely down her legs, came a pressure and force that she could have never believed prior to this. She would have laughed at her former audacity—to think she hurt before now, to think that she was capable of doing this. She was lost between must and can’t. She wanted them to help her, wished they could, but that was impossible. The pain was completely isolating. They couldn’t understand. She was drowning in it. She wanted to stay in control, but there was nothing she could do. There was no controlling this.
She felt it coming for her, rising, merciless, and when it buried her, she screamed.
She was wild, caged by the pain, unable to escape.
After it was over, and she could open her eyes again, Father appeared next to her, concern etching his face into a gentle but condescending mask. “Catherine, why don’t you lie down? You should really try to rest—” He went to touch her arm, to lead her back to the bed.
“No! Don’t touch me!” she yelled at the doctor, all pretext and politeness gone. Everything in her wanted to run from them, to try to out-run the seizing of her body. If he touched her too-sensitive skin, she would run (somehow, without question) and never stop.
Vincent could see the readiness in her. He too had felt the rough wall at his back, muscles anticipating, with only the choice of fight or flee before him. No longer herself, Catherine was more, possessed by the dark, cruel gods of creation. He had been right. She was different now, changed, and in a way greater, more powerful than ever. He had altered her, changed her. Father’s son swallowed the guilt, distraught at the loss of who she once was. His shadow twin, the one emerging now in answer to her need, was fiercely proud of her strength.
Vincent could smell the birth coming. It was an unconscious knowledge—a welcome sign of progress—but unnerving, smelling of ozone, semen, brackish water and blood mingled. It stirred the beast in him, the instinct, the protector.
“I think she just needs some room, Father,” Mary tried to stop the older man, to remind him that Catherine would show them what she needed if given the freedom to do so.
But Catherine felt no freedom. Fiery hands squeezed her body, allowing her no rest. There was only pain and greater pain. She was trapped. There was no escape from this cell.
Scream if you want to, Ms. Chandler, the voice from the Tower taunted.
No one will hear you.
No one will help you.
No one will care.
She screamed for him and he was there, holding her, grounding her. She gripped his shirt with harsh and terrified energy.
“I’m here. I’m here,” he whispered to her. “You are strong.”
And for a moment, from just his words, she was, but then the pain was tearing through her again. She couldn’t do it anymore. The baby was frightened, and she couldn’t block his fear. She couldn’t soothe him, because there was nothing left to give.
She wouldn’t say the words (couldn’t, never), but she could feel her death. She was ripping open, bleeding out, and they couldn’t stop it, she was sure of it. She didn’t want to leave him, but how could this go on? She sobbed into Vincent’s chest as the pain subsided because she knew it must come again.
I can’t die.
I promised him.
I’m going to die,
Or I’m giving birth to this baby.
Catherine’s exhausted body yielded into Vincent’s arms as her tears dwindled. Her body released, almost sleeping as he held her.
“Vincent—” Father began to advise but, unexpectedly, Vincent snarled at him. A turn and snap was all, but enough for Father and Mary to back away. Vincent’s primal self had surfaced in response to her call. Catherine was his, his mate, and she was vulnerable. No one would touch her but him. She needed him close.
Another surge was coming; she readied. Vincent felt her drawing in, but even before it reached her, he knew something had changed.
With the next wave the pain transformed, the pressure magnified a thousand fold. The opposite of throwing up, it was as if everything that Catherine was, every part of her, was throwing down, a feeling impossible to deny. She fell from Vincent’s arms to crouch on her heels, gripping his legs as she dropped. She couldn’t help but groan with the irresistible force of it.
Mary, midwife first, moved swiftly towards the birthing woman, intent on her, not even noticing the man who could break her with barely a thought.
“That’s it, Cathy,” Peter encouraged her. “You’re doing it.”
Catherine sat on the bed propped between Vincent’s legs, one arm around his neck, her forehead pressed into his jaw, pushing with the unstoppable energy rushing through her body. In between the contractions she slumped, a spiritless doll in Vincent’s arms, alarmingly still and silent.
Hardly there, “…water,” was the only word that she uttered to prove she was still with them. Vincent helped her drink, but as soon as she was done she slipped back into her universe, consisting of just her and labor.
“You are doing very well, Catherine,” Father said, looking at the small bit of the baby’s head now visible in between contractions after less than an hour’s worth of pushing.
She couldn’t understand his words. She just needed this to be over.
The next contraction, she grabbed her legs and bore down, roaring with the intensity of it. All her strength went into each push. When it was over, Vincent wiped her brow with a cool cloth from the bedside. She sank into his touch.
In the quiet of the chamber, Peter counted instruments, readied metal containers, draped tables. What for? Vincent had no idea, but he could feel the anticipation rising like the crest of a wave. Father’s eyes followed Catherine’s actions, preparing, calculating. Mary waited on the side of the bed, helping Catherine hold her legs when the contractions came.
“I can see some more of the head,” Mary beamed. This drew Catherine back for a brief second, reminding her that this might not be forever, but then her head lolled against him and she was lost once more.
Another contraction—Vincent held her up, supported her as she clung to him, one being. There was no thinking, just instinct, love, and the duty to safeguard. She disappeared again after it was over.
Perhaps because of his need to find her, help her, he abandoned his promise. He chose to open himself, to allow her to engulf him, and forged connection with her again.
There were no words in this place in between, where they found union. They existed simultaneously—
On a bed in a man-carved cave beneath the earth,
Deep within the strain and press of her body,
Across the Universe where stars coalesced into being and then died in elemental fire and vast space.
They were slaves to the omnipresent forces of destruction, birth and change. Their former selves had been destroyed by the pounding labor. They were something new. They had become one being, within the nature of themselves.
He is sure of her, he strengthens
The wave comes, and it is inescapable, necessary, all
They shoot across the Void, and into the molten core of the earth
“The baby’s coming,” Mary said with her sure voice.
“He’s crowning,” Father announced, as the old doctor placed his toweled hands out to receive his grandchild.
A moment held, the universe, paused
The baby turned, spiraling into his grandfather’s hands, tiny arms outstretched, crying out as he slipped from his mother’s body.
Blessed release—it washed over them, sweeping all disbelief aside.
The infant wailed in confusion as his grandfather placed him onto his mother. Peter rubbed him down with one of the warm flannel blankets. He was covered in love by all who gazed at his tiny, quivering face.
“Oh … God…” was all Catherine could utter at the baby’s appearance, carefully unwrapping her arms from around Vincent’s neck and gathering their child to her.
Vincent studied his son—his amazing, perfect, human child.
What are you? Vincent’s inner voice asked, as if already knowing the answer.
More than I imagined, and not as different as I feared.
He overlapped his hand above Catherine’s on the tiny, stunned, slick and bloody infant, a claiming within his touch for her and what they created together. The baby cried a short burst of indignation, but soon quieted under his parents’ covering warmth.
“A perfect boy!” Mary laughed, clapping her hands together.
Outside the hospital chamber’s cloth partition, Vincent could hear the din of happy voices, shouting in exultation. He had forgotten the others’ attendance; they had stayed quiet enough that he could. Their friends must have been holding their breath as much as he.
Catherine, so achingly grateful that the labor was over, still astounded that the baby on her belly came out of her, tried to imagine a way to pick up the delicate being still attached to her by a pulsing cord. She pushed off the blanket and reached under his arms to grasp the fragile-seeming body with her shaking hands. She lifted her son tentatively as he kicked against the air and placed him into the crook of her arm. Mary was there, trying to wrap another blanket around him, but Catherine took it off immediately. Catherine had to see him, the impulse undeniable. She had to look at her baby, all over him. She had to be convinced by his perfection that he was undamaged by her captivity, whole and here.
Thin wisps of wet brown hair curled on his birth-molded head; his tiny florid chest for the first time breathed in the air of his new home.
“He’s so beautiful,” she whispered to Vincent.
“He is beautiful,” Vincent echoed her, placing his curled finger in the small grasping hand.
You will never be left in the cold to die. You will never be discarded. I promise, you will be protected and loved all of your days.
The baby blinked and opened his grey-blue infant eyes to gaze at his parents. A moment before, he wasn’t there, just a possibility, a soul only he and Catherine were conscious of. Now a presence in the world, their son took up space, a gift, and a challenge to humanity to make a place for him.
Father said nothing, could say nothing, silence the perfectest herald of his joy.[ii] The objective doctor for the moment was gone, weeping with gratitude and relief at the beautiful sight of his son and his son’s beloved holding their child, a small and scared family. Blake had always been too uneven, disproportionate, to be a favorite, but his Cradle Song, When thy little heart doth wake / Then the dreadful night shall break, never was more fitting. This was all he could not hope … dare not hope … for Vincent, made real.
Catherine turned and looked into Vincent’s eyes—eyes that held astonishment, thankfulness, belief, and disbelief all at once. She smiled, the pain almost forgotten under his gaze and the sweet weight of the baby in her arms.
“Thank you,” she said simply, and kissed him.
Thank you for your love, and your trust, and you, mixed with me, into this new soul, our child…
He kissed her in return, and gazed at the priceless, brave woman beginning to nurse his son.
“Thank you, Catherine.” Tears of gratitude openly streamed down his face. “You have given me everything.”