Winterfest was coming to the unknown chambers deep beneath the streets of New York. Forgotten figures, unseen and unimagined by most of those who lived above, filled the secret passages with light and motion, their anticipation slowly growing as final preparations were made. Carefully, candles were passed from hand to hand with reverence. Excited whispers echoed throughout every part of the labyrinth network of dusty tunnels, piercing an engulfing quiet far beneath the harsh sounds and colors of the city sprawled above. A delicate piece of music started and stopped in the distance as some unseen musician labored over a difficult passage in last minute rehearsal. The still air buzzed with life as people hurried eagerly back and forth through the deep caverns, familiar with every twist and turn. Tables and chairs slowly made their way throughout the rough passages, carried with care by arms working in unison. Following behind were food and decorations, festive and plentiful, accompanied by candles. Always more candles. Candles everywhere.
Deep down however, one chamber remained dark. Massive doors of ancient wood stood silent and closed at the entrance, holding back the continual gusts of subterranean winds which whispered just outside. The room within was large and empty as it waited in quiet night far beneath the candle lit environs above. Its cradled air slept undisturbed. Nothing moved in its spaces, covered in a blanket of shadow, peaceful and content.
Finally, the door to the great hall swung open, dimly filling the darkness as tunnel denizens from above flowed in without a sound. The fragmented wisps from the appropriately named Chamber of the Winds behind them danced across their backs. Lit dimly by the glow of the flickering torches outside, they moved with practiced ease, guided by a single elderly man dressed in the warm, simple garments of those who lived in the tunnels. He was the leader of their isolated community, and although most knew his name, everyone simply called him Father. To many of those below, that was what he meant to them in mind if not in body, coming as they did from various bad situations from the world above. Father directed the work to be done, the confidence in his whispered assurances and various gestures built upon long years of Winterfests past.
And it would be a large Winterfest this year. Even Father's wizened face held an air of anticipation. He watched happily as tables were moved and positioned in the shadows. Armfuls of tapestries were hung on the empty stone walls climbing along the staircase which lead to the balcony above. Mouse, the young man who years ago had lived alone in the tunnels by stealing food from the others and thus earning his name, scurried over the two large chandeliers sprawled on the floor. As mechanically inclined as usual, he inspected every rope and pulley, checking and double checking their condition. Machinery fascinated Mouse, things that moved or glowed, and fixing and building things was his singular passion. His normal, fragmented speech whispered to the others around him as his excitement got the best of him. Together they bent down to place unlit candles within empty holders, candles which would blaze overhead after the lighting ceremony when the iron fixtures were raised.
Slowly everyone moved back to the windswept doorway where Father waited. Smiles danced across their faces as if they were children again. When the old man saw that all of the hall's settings had been placed, he ushered everyone back out into the chamber of the winds to rejoin the others in the tunnels above. Then, with a last satisfied glance into the shadowed hall, he pulled closed the massive doors, leaving the darkness which slept once more, patiently waiting for their impending return.
Far above, nightfall was coming to the dizzying heights over the city streets of New York. On an empty rooftop, an unnoticed figure watched the setting sun as it began its descent behind the shadowed skyline looming over Central Park. The sun's dimming rays turned an overhead cloud bank a beautiful orange-red, bathing the shadows with dim color wherever the sunset's light did not touch. The watching shadow stood alone on the high roof, the building beneath it long familiar to him. His features remained hidden within the deep shelter of the warm, patchwork cloak he wore. No one watched his movements. No one had seen his arduous climb up the building's elevator shaft when he had pulled hand over hand up the thick cables until he made his way at the top to a service opening onto the roof. Having done it a thousand times before, he had lost, long ago, any fear of that dangerous ascent. Lately, however, all those memories had seemed increasingly distant. Faded pictures drawn on air, that had happened a lifetime ago.
With practiced ease he glided over to the edge of the building's rooftop, silent and unseen as his black cloak flapped in the soft breeze which blew past. All across the city around him, his eyes caught the flicker of lights turning on in distant windows, as the vast metropolis prepared for the coming dusk. Even after so many years the beauty of New York at night never ceased to surprise him. The fact that he would never dare to see it in the light of day was irrelevant to that appreciation.
There it was below, the empty penthouse balcony that he had come to see. The one fragment of memory that still burned in his heart and his thoughts when the others were dispelled by the breeze. In the vast expanse of air around him, sunlight flowed past the silhouetted buildings in an orange stream, flowing towards him as if in recognition of a stranger it rarely encountered. He felt it play across his face in the chill air, a rare thing indeed. Then, with one last glance at the glittering vista, he dropped smoothly onto the empty balcony below.
Far, far beneath him candles glittered in every corner in a display of their own, bathing the tunnels with a warm, soft light. People bustled about actively as final preparations continued above the great hall. A beautiful woman moved among them, her clothes the new, elegant fashions of the city above amidst the hand-sewn wardrobe the others wore. Smiling, she helped a small boy gather food into a large tray intended for the great hall, her smooth, elegant face framed by long tresses of deep red hair that seemed almost to glow in the candlelight. The boy thanked her and moved away, happily carrying his burden and revelling in his assigned responsibility.
The woman rested for a moment as she affectionately watched the activity around her. Even though she had known this community for only a handful of years, treasured years though they were, she was still surprised to be swept up in the hope and reverence felt by those who had lived in the tunnels all their lives. To them Winterfest was a statement. A statement against the cold of winter and the evils in the city above. Against the darkness in the empty corners of their underground world, where one could feel alone and abandoned by the world above unless one sought the comfort of friends and the warmth of family.
At no other time were the residents below and their helper's above more joyous and united than when they shared in the singular celebration of Winterfest. But even then, this year was going to be unique. For many reasons. Helper's who hadn't been seen in years were expected to attend, the largest gathering that any one could remember. Most were already there, doing their part for the festivities. She hadn't seen such a collection of people in the tunnels since baby Jacob's naming ceremony, and he was almost nine now. Old and young, rich and poor, from above or from below, they all worked together. She was still amazed at the patchwork of people who knew of this place and kept its secret. who helped it survive and grow. A patchwork as varied as the clothes the tunnel dwellers wore, sewn together with caring and love. One thing linked them on this day. Everyone, including herself, held a home-made candle, distributed to all that attended to be lit at Winterfest from a single flame.
She held more than one candle, however. Cradled in her elegant hands were two. One for herself and one for the person she waited for, as she searched the crowd for the one face that would never be lost in it. The one face that never left her mind or her heart.
Father rushed past checking on everyone's progress. Until he stopped in a corner with Pascal to discuss whether everyone had been contacted or sent a candle in invitation. As Father spoke with the self-proclaimed "master of the pipes" that the underground community used to tap out messages to each other, a cluster of children pushed their way between them and scrambled by.
"Diana!" They called as they ran up to the beautiful woman in the breathless excitement of youth. "Where's Vincent? Is he coming? We haven't seen him today and if he doesn't come soon he's going to miss Winterfest!"
Father watched the exchange even as he listened to Pascal tell him of the tapped communiques he had sent and relayed to the far-flung parts of the tunnels and the world above.
Diana knelt and placed a comforting hand on the smallest girl's shoulder, a knowing smile on her face as she spoke to all of them. "Don't worry. He'll come. Vincent would never miss Winterfest," she touched the little girl's chin, "or miss a chance to dance with you , Molly."
Molly broke into a youthful smile, and just as suddenly as they all had come, they all darted off again, laughing and giggling as they took in all the preparations in the tunnels around them. Diana watched with amusement, her body filled with contentment amidst the controlled bustle of activity around her. As she soaked it in with the same glee the children had, she knew she belonged here.
Slowly a smile spread over Father's face as he watched Diana. Once she had been nothing more than a stranger, an unknown element who had found Vincent wounded and in despair above. Back then, Father had not been sure she could be trusted with their secret. Now, he couldn't imagine the tunnels without her. When she spoke of Vincent with such assuredness, he wondered if she knew anything of Vincent's plans for the evening. If she had been able to intuit his intentions. It was amazing how close the two of them had become. Even the children seemed to realize it, coming to her to ask for him. It was as if Diana were a part of Vincent now.
Suddenly Father realized that Pascal was watching him and waiting for an answer to an unheard question. The balding little man grinned as he watched Father gaze affectionately at Diana. With an embarrassed smile, Father turned towards him.
"I'm sorry, Pascal. Please, could you start again?"
Even though the balcony was empty, in many ways it hadn't changed. Slowly Vincent moved over to the windowed doors and silently looked into the empty rooms within. Some of the interior walls still caught the fading orange glow of the setting sun, and he saw himself outlined in shadow against them. In his mind's eye, images formed in those empty spaces. Images of the elegant furniture of her apartment, music wafting out onto her balcony as long curtains billowed on the night air. Candles. Laughter. Flowers. Faces. Now all that was replaced by bare walls and the distant clamor of the traffic below.
How many times had he been on this balcony with her, taking in the lights of New York, each second a joy, and a tragedy for being by necessity so short, so limited. How many times had she rushed into his arms as he stood on that very spot, both of them relieved to find each other again? Then there were other times, spent just being there together, talking about everything and anything, as he watched the city lights cast a glow along the curve of her face. Other, less happy, images surfaced as well. Of him laying her dead, pale form on her bed within, then kissing her cool lips as he said good-bye. In that corner of the balcony, by the low wall, was where she had read Great Expectations to him. It was almost as if he could hear her voice, asking him to sit beside her, calling him to-
He turned suddenly towards the imagined whisper. But there was nothing there but an empty balcony.
Vincent still remembered. But deep inside he knew that those memories would change tonight, in some subtle way. He felt the loss of her still. The fragrance of her perfume seemed to dance at him on the evening air. But she was gone. Years gone. Since their son, Jacob, was born over eight years ago. He could still see her face as she had looked up at him and died in his arms on a distant rooftop far from there. However, he didn't regret what he had come here to do, to admit to himself. He knew it was right.
For years he had lived on memories of Catherine. So much so that for a time he had feared the he had grown empty and bitter, holding on to the shards of a life that could never be again. Catherine had been his world, but instinctively he knew how devastated she would be if the grief and loss of her had destroyed his life as well. Catherine's life meant more than that. So Vincent faced the rest of his feelings, and found that he had grown to love Diana. Catherine had never wanted Vincent to lie to himself, and in life they had always been truthful with each other. Vincent would give her, and himself, no less in death.
Reaching underneath his cloak, he pulled out two roses, one red and one white. Bathed in the setting sun, a winter breeze flowed over their delicate petals. The conversation he had with Father that morning echoed in his mind as reverently placed the roses on her balcony floor.
Tonight at Winterfest, Father, I mean to tell Diana that I love her.
Vincent, I've long felt you ready to love again after all these years,
and it warms me to see you embracing it... embracing love, once
more. But does Diana share your feelings?
The two flowers, new and alive, lay on the cold stone of Catherine's balcony as Vincent thought, the words still echoing as he reached under his cloak again and pulled out a small white card, his elegant cursive written across it in expressive strokes. Vincent's clawed hand placed the card lovingly atop the two flowers. The card read, THO LOVERS BE LOST, LOVE SHALL NOT...
If she does share my feelings, she hasn't expressed them to me.
When I lost Catherine, she felt my loss deeply, and she would not
wish to trample those memories. Diana needs to hear it from me first,
or such is my hope.
Vincent, if she truly shares your feelings, then I'm positive,
in every way, that Catherine would approve.
AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION. Vincent turned and spoke to the empty balcony, his voice filled with emotion as the sun finally dropped behind a distant building, leaving the balcony bathed in the orange-red glow from the clouds above. His memories began to whisper and recede to the edge of his consciousness once more and his words evaporated on the chill winter air.
"Whatever happens, Catherine, whatever comes...know that I love you... forever."
With that he turned and in one quick and easy motion pulled himself onto the roof once more. Vincent moved away quietly, making no more noise than a shadow would make as it became lost in twilight. The two roses were left behind on the balcony floor when suddenly the front door of the apartment opened, filling the darkened space inside with light as a silhouetted woman walked slowly in from the hallway, not seeing his departing form.
Later, the great hall was filled with light as the now lit iron chandeliers blazed overhead with row after row of candles glowing from their raised position near the ceiling. Throughout the hall, people blew out the candles they had carried at the end of the ceremony as a rousing burst of music poured forth from the musicians in the corner. The crowded room buzzed with motion and conversation as the happy throng migrated towards the food tables, or searched for a dance partner, or just moved to greet old friends long missed.
Vincent bent down to give his son, Jacob, a warm hug as several other festival guests converged on him to say hello, their ardent voices overlapping each other in a press of well-wishing. Diana quietly watched as she stood near Vincent, smiling as she took in the pleasant feeling from the assembled gathering around her, even as they began to pepper her with polite words as well. Everyone expressed relief that Vincent had arrived in time, and as they came up to him, not a single person even blinked at his appearance. His face was as accepted as any other, and looking at him, Diana saw no reason for it to be otherwise.
"Glad you could come, Vincent."
"Nice to see you, Vincent. MY, how Jacob is growing..."
"Vincent, it has been too long. I wish you could see my new shop above..."
"Have you heard from Devin, Vincent? I heard he's managed to get himself elected to the city council above..."
"Vincent, I understand that Mouse is trying to build some sort of rail system again, right in the tunnels, to help transport supplies from the helpers. I hope he's not getting any parts by 'just taking' from above again..."
Vincent took it all in stride, exchanging handshakes and warmly greeting friends he hadn't seen in some time. Diana stayed near Vincent as she was approached from all sides, answering some of the same questions that had been asked of him and giving her polite take on the evening's festivities. Somehow everyone knew that she would be found near Vincent, as she always was.
Young Jacob, lost in the shuffle, fidgeted as he eyed another group of boys already racing through the crowd in play. He looked up towards Vincent, a question in his eyes.
Vincent looked down at his son. "Go. Be careful, but have fun."
"Bye Father, bye Diana, " Jacob said in a rush. Then, with a grin he ran off, his voice mixing into the crowd as he called out. "Hey, Timothy, wait up...!"
Slowly Vincent and Diana made their way through the tide of friends and new acquaintances, until finally they were at the foot of the staircase that led to the empty walkway above the hall. Without a word they moved up the stairs, quietly passing the hung tapestries that depicted old stories long forgotten. Images passed through Vincent' s mind of another Winterfest long ago when he had ascended those steps with a different face across from his, a different smile, a different glow. He wrapped those images carefully away, never to be forgotten, and turned to look at the woman across from him now. They moved out onto the walkway, and stood silently facing each other, with their faces turned to gaze at the crowd below. Music flowed up to them, mingled with conversation and laughter, which made their small walkway seem like a quiet oasis in a festive storm. The smell of food and candles floated on the air, and a familiar contented silence passed between them. Warm, but still slightly awkward with things left unsaid.
"Diana," Vincent began, "there is something I have needed to tell you... for a long time."
Diana looked straight into Vincent's eyes and spoke in one quick, anxious rush. "Vincent, I think I've loved you since the first time I saw you."
Vincent stood speechless. His rehearsed conception of how the conversation would go lay shattered before him. But then, slowly, a joyous smile spread across his face, which for him wasn't an easy thing to pull off physically. Stunned at what Diana had said, he was suddenly filled with an unexpected bliss. The worries and concerns of the past weeks melted away in an that instant, as he watched a smile play across Diana's face as well.
Diana reached out to take his clawed hand into her own as she looked up at him. "Maybe I wanted to be the one to say it first," she said as she smiled tenderly at him.