A Dark Gift of Freedom and Love

Zanna

The sure-footed child sprinted his way through the carefully sorted baskets of cloth in Maryís work chamber without disturbing any of the sometimes precariously stacked containers. "Would you like some help sorting through the new materials, Mary?" Vincent loved the colored cloth. It let him touch and see the colors that came from the world above.

Mary eyed the eager, bright blue eyes that lit up the boyís unusual face. "Thank you, dear. You are the best color sorter I have ever had. However did I manage before you started helping me? These materials will be ready for sewing in no time with your wonderful eyes carefully inspecting and arranging the cloth by color and texture."

"This sewing chamber has more light than most chambers. I like seeing all the colors," Vincent replied.

Nodding her head in agreement, Mary added, "All of these colors remind me of a spring meadow with many beautiful colored and scented flowers."

Vincent closed his eyes and imagined such a place. Then he remembered Devinís request. "Devin wants a purple shirt for his birthday. Is there much purple in the baskets?"

"Well, first letís see what our helpers sent us. After we sort the new cloth, we will see about some purple cloth for Devin. Gracious, you two boys like bright colors for your clothes," the tunnel seamstress said.

"Olivia said that my new Winterfest shirt looks like the summer afternoon sky. Itís my favorite shirt. Can the sky really be that color blue? Maybe when Iím older, Father will let me go above sometimes in the afternoon, the boy said wistfully. "Iíve been practicing moving quickly and silently so that no one will notice me."

Mary looked sad for a moment but swiftly smiled at the child. "Vincent, I donít think anyone can move as quickly and as quietly as you do. How ever did you get so good at it?"

"All the boys practice sneaking in and out of Williamís kitchen when heís making muffins or cookies. William has good ears Ė you have to be pretty fast and quiet to leave the kitchen with a treat. If you get caught, itís carrot and potato peeling and trash runs for a week."

"Oh, so thatís why Mitch ends up working in the kitchen so often."

*****

As a hero worshiping younger brother, Vincent was content to see the world through Devinís eyes and through the objects that Devin would bring him. After Devin left, Vincent lost his periscope to the world above. He moved deeper into the world of literature, the only world not closed to him. In this world, he could travel on great adventures and be the hero to many a damsel, beautiful and in distress.

Vincent was growing into a strong young man. Lisa noticed him and sought his attention. She enjoyed his gentle company and he was a most polite and enthusiastic audience. His joy when she allowed him to hold her hand or guide her step through rough passages thrilled and excited her. Lisa was just discovering how to use her femininity when dealing with boys. She practiced her manipulative skills on Vincent who forgave her selfish behavior. He was inconsolable after scratching her in the Great Hall. Vincent was desperate to know if she had suffered permanent injury and to beg her forgiveness.

After Lisa left, Vincent began going above after the other boys went to sleep. At first, he searched for Lisa, but soon he realized that she no longer lived in the city. He resigned himself to living a solitary life, like Father. By then, Vincent had developed a liking for walking alone in the dark, mostly deserted alleys and back streets of New York. He memorized every tunnel entrance and access point that connected his world to the world above. He found hidden places to enjoy the sights, colors, music, and other sounds of this foreign world.

But eventually, Vincent was caught returning to his chamber from a nightly walk. Mitch told Father that Vincent often went above late at night. Father called a council meeting to deal with Vincentís evening journeys. The Council members questioned Vincent.

Vincent said quietly, "Our world is hidden from above, but it is not a prison. Tunnel dwellers can come and go between the worlds as long as the secrecy of the tunnels is maintained. I have not compromised our secret. No one has ever seen me. I keep to the shadows and am never far from tunnel access."

Most of the council agreed that Vincent could move very silently in the dark. The sentries often asked Vincent to sharpen their guard skills by trying to slip through their careful watch. He was nearly always successful in getting past them.

Father hated to deny Vincent this freedom to walk above, but shuddered when he imagined the horrors that awaited his son if Vincent were ever captured. "Nonetheless, if you were ever caught aboveÖ Itís too dangerous to risk. Some chance stray light could light your long blonde hair or bright clothing. Even in the shadows, they could show.

Mary asked, "If Vincent could somehow be less visible, surely you would not deny him the right to go above at night, as we all may do?"

"Mary, be reasonable, how could someone with Vincentís size and coloring successfully hide in the shadows?"

"Father, if there was a wayÖ" Mary asked again, thoughtfully.

"IF Vincent could go above at night and move like a shadow about the city streets, then I would not forbid it. I just donít see how it would be possible," Father said.

***

Mary had watched Vincent grow from an intelligent, jovial child to a pensive, serious young man. She missed his ebullient giggles and clever, innocent antics. Sadly, she noticed that he had even stopped wearing bright colors, especially the blues and greens which had so delighted him. Vincent now favored darker tinted clothing, shades of dark brown, deep gray, and black. Mary knew that Vincent continued to practice moving silently in the dark. He asked Mary to make clothing with ties rather than buttons, snaps or zippers as these items made noise if banged against each other or other things.

Vincent had not left the tunnels for almost two years. He had become expert in evading all the sentries. Next, he practiced entering and leaving occupied chambers without detection.

Winterfest and Vincentís twenty-first birthday approached. At the open council meeting, Vincent addressed the council and again spoke about going above at night. Most of the council were convinced that Vincent could travel anywhere stealthily, but Father was steadfast in his disapproval. Mary noticed that Vincent looked just as determined as Father.

During the next private council meeting, Vincent managed to enter Fatherís chamber; leave a note as evidence of his clandestine visit hidden among Fatherís notes; and depart the chamber without any of the council, including Father, being aware of his presence. Before the meeting ended, Father discovered Vincentís message among his meeting notes. Vincent had written, "You might well ask,Ď What man art thou, that, thus bescreened in night, so stumblest on my counsel?í " The tunnel patriarch was amazed and disconcerted. Vincent had made his case.

Vincent received various well-considered gifts for his twenty-first birthday. Fatherís gift of a beautifully printed, leather-bound edition of Shakespeareís Sonnets was especially appreciated. Then Mary placed a dark bundle of cloth in Vincentís hands. "Happy Birthday, Vincent. This isnít like the bright colored clothing you once loved to wear, but, I think you will make good use of its dark colors."

Vincent carefully unfolded the dark package. It was made of various shapes and patches of cloth and leather. Vincent continued to unfold the cloth until he held a large, full-length, hooded cloak. The patches of cloth in various dark shades and irregular shapes acted like a camouflage pattern when Vincent put on the cloak. It broke up his outline and his cloaked body no longer appeared to have the shape of a man.

"Mary, thank you for such a wonderful gift! You found a way to hide me and make me a part of the nightís shadows as Father required. Father, you now know how silently I can move among people. With this night colored cloak I can be hidden in the darkness as well."

Father suggested, "Tonight there will be a full moon. If you can travel the streets undetected by the watchers I send above, then perhaps you can occasionally journey above for short periods of time."

After Vincentís cake was eaten, Father dispatched ten of his best sentries to watch for Vincent in a specific area of the city. Several hours later, the sentries had been unable to report any sign of Vincent in the city. Father spent a frantic night worrying and waiting for any word of Vincent.

 

Just before dawn, Vincent returned to Fatherís chamber. For Mary, he brought a stem of delicately scented, pale pink and white Winter Daphne from the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. For Father, Vincent had Earl Grey tea from Doctor Wong in Chinatown. For his beloved tunnel family, he delivered a large package of bagels and cream cheese from Sal, a helper who owned a bakery in Queens. With such evidence of undetected and distant traveling, Father grudgingly admitted that Vincent had proven his ability to travel about in darkness.

After that, Vincent traveled frequently over the city, gaining even more skill in speed and stealth. Vincent silently left offerings of food, clothing, and blankets for the homeless sheltering in the dark alleys. Though he was unseen, the forgotten inhabitants of New York began to speak of an invisible guardian who protected and aided them. Eventually, Father heard of these whispers, but decided that the stories of the homeless were ignored or disbelieved. Over the years, Father continued to worry over, but became used to Vincentís nightly walks through the city.

***

After the closing the Great Hall doors, Vincent asked, "Catherine, would you like to walk with me? I always take a walk in the Ramble after Winterfest."

"I love to walk with you anywhere, Vincent."

The stars in the night sky provided little illumination since the moon shown with its waxing crescent. They strolled pleasantly enjoying the crisp winter weather and the relative quiet of the park. Vincent took a deep breath and smiled. Then he veered off the path guiding Catherine effortlessly through Central Parkís man made wild garden landscape. Vincentís night vision far exceeded Catherineís capability and he gallantly protected her from any possible misstep or errant branch.

Vincent seemed to have a goal in his travels. Catherine was curious, but was enjoying Vincentís account of a Devin story and waited to see their destination.

Vincent was telling her about the Winterfest that Devin was given the job of cleaning and polishing the Great Hall tables and chairs. "Instead of using the polish that he had been given, Devin found a can of spray on polish that promised to save time and the effort of hand rubbing. Unfortunately, the polish was fish oil based and could only be used in a well ventilated area. The Great Hall began to smell like a fish market. Devin ended up having two large chores. First, he had to clean up the Great Hall after airing it out using the fierce corridor winds. Then he still had to wash and polish the tables and chairs with the old, reliable and laborious polish."

He stopped in front of a large evergreen bush bearing delicately scented flowers. Catherine stared at the blossoms. "Vincent, Mary embroidered these flowers and roses into our wedding quilt. They smell wonderful."

"For many years, I have come here to pick a stem of Winter Daphne from this bush. This bush was grown from a cutting I gave Mary many years ago on my birthday. Mary carefully rooted the cutting and tended it until it could be planted. I have watched over the bush ever since."

"It must have very special meaning for both of you."

"These flowers remind Mary of a small boyís yearning for bright colors and open skies and reminds me of Maryís quiet wisdom and the gift of freedom she gave me." Vincent quickly cut a long stem with his sharp, claw-like nails and carefully placed it in a hidden pocket inside his cloak. "Without Maryís gift, I may never have found you, Catherine."

As the night slowly reached for the dawn, they walked, hand in hand and shadowed in dark cloaks, back toward the tunnels and home.