It was the fifth Winterfest. Vincent was seven, Devin was eleven. It had been almost one year since Vincent had lured Lisa into the tunnels, bribing her with chunks of cheese. She’d been wild, living with feral dogs. They could only guess at her age, perhaps five. Her skin and scalp had healed, her hair grown in, but her learning was a little delayed. She didn’t speak very much, at all. She was watchful. She would only leave Vincent’s side when compelled to do so.
The other children were coming along as most children do, suffering but surviving all the normal dramas and traumas of childhood, but all the joys and magic as well. Daily life was fairly well balanced in the tunnels, and even revenue and expenses were beginning to balance. This year’s Winterfest, their fifth Winterfest, was supplied with plenty of food, decoration, gifts, friends, Helpers and the warmth of love and fellowship. The children were ready to begin the performance they’d been rehearsing for weeks. Goldie, the mutt who was a mix of so many different breeds that Devin finally declared her to be a short-haired, golden, retrieve-a-hound terrier, sat quietly beside Father. She gazed up at him, warm brown eyes full of love, panting, long tongue lolling out the side of her mouth. She never quit trying to win him over. She was the one exception to the ‘no pets’ rule. Father glanced at her, resentfully. She had to be tolerated, because she and Lisa could not be separated. Lisa had to be tolerated because she and Vincent couldn’t be separated. The pianist began playing Mozart’s Turkish Rondo; the performance was starting.
Winslow stood straight and tall, holding a tree branch that had been blown bare of all but a few dried-up leaves. Pascal stood far to Winslow’s left, holding a stratocumulus-shaped pillow high above his head. Vincent entered the scene, his hair powdered blue. He stood next to Pascal; he puffed up his cheeks, and pantomimed blowing hard. Winslow shook his branch and rattled his leaves, and Pascal began to move slowly toward him.
Devin entered next, running with short steps past Vincent and Pascal, a dozen preschoolers in tow. They all had snowflakes cut from construction paper pinned to their chests. Devin led the children on a circuitous route, all the way to where Winslow stood; then he doubled back. Restarting the circuit, the children somersaulted, cartwheeled and spun, arms spread wide open; one of them separated from the pack and moved forward, executing flips, back-flips, and aerial flips—Father recognized Lisa with something like distaste.
Vincent, the blustery winter wind, noticed that Lisa, the smart-alec, non-conforming snowflake, had distinguished herself, and directed his might at her. Lisa was not deterred. She started executing ballet-like moves, spins, leaps with her legs at a perfect 180-degree angle. She didn’t dance on point, but she did dance on tip-toe. After annoying the wind for sixteen bars, she stopped and faced him; she skipped toward him, and swung him around for an eight count. And with that, she won him over.
He raised his knee, and she used it for a platform to launch into a back-aerial flip; landing, she spun around; Vincent put his hands on her waist, moving them with her turn. He lifted her up while she held her pose, and she was a beautiful flying snowflake. She sat on his shoulder while he took a few steps. Then she slid down into his arms, and he held her while he performed a few spins. Rebecca entered from behind Winslow as the golden, shining sun. Pascal stood close to her. And then the music ended, with the snowflakes sprawled on the ground, giggling, and Vincent holding Lisa cradled in his arms. “‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do nothing but that,'” he whispered to her.
The applause was a heartfelt expression from their audience. Most of the community pressed in to congratulate all the dancers, but especially Lisa.
“Where did you learn to dance like that, Lisa?” asked Miriam, the midwife. She spoke gently and softly. One needed to take care in speaking to Lisa; she startled easily. Vincent still held her, and she was resting her head blissfully on his shoulder. Vincent gave her a final squeeze, and let her slide out of his arms.
“We’ve been watching the ice skaters,” she answered, pronouncing each word carefully, glancing at her hero for reassurance. He was radiating his pride and adoration.
Miriam knelt down to Lisa’s eye level, and said, “Well, you were just amazing.”
“For a child your age to perform like that—you have a special gift, Lisa,” said Sebastian.
“Now, now,” chided Father, “let’s not give her a big head! You were quite good, Lisa, as were you all,” he directed to all the children.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t have been the same without your leaf rattling,” Pascal snarked at Winslow. Winslow yanked his pillow away, and swung at Pascal’s head. “Hey—give it back! I have to sleep on that tonight!” he said, laughing.
“Lisa did the choreography, too,” Devin chimed in, suddenly at Father’s elbow. “And she had to teach the kids how to do somersaults and cartwheels.” A murmur of amazement ran through the gathering. “You did a great job, Lisa. And you’re a great dancer.” He reached out to pat her shoulder, and for the first time, she didn’t flinch. “And you, too, Fuzz,” he added to Vincent. “You didn’t miss a step.” He smiled at his younger brother. He turned back to the little ones. “Who wants a drink?” he called out. They swarmed him, and he allowed himself to be carried to the punch bowl.
Father anxiously made note of the unblinking eye contact between Lisa and Vincent. It was as though they were reading each other’s minds. Then without a word, their hands slid together, and they joined the others at the punch bowl. He looked up and started to see himself alone with Miriam, and she regarding him with concern.
“Jacob,” she ventured tentatively, “you’ve denied disliking her and trying to keep her separated from Vincent—”
“Not this again,” muttered Father as he started to turn away.
“—you’ve been running away from this conversation for months,” she said, gripping his upper arm. “Enough running. You withhold your love from her while giving it freely to all the others, and it’s hurting her. Why, Jacob?”
“I just finished complementing her!” he attempted with the lopsided grin and shoulder shrug that conveyed the masculine lament of ‘how can these women be so unreasonable?’; then he gave up the attempt. His beleaguered facade fell away; desperation replaced it. “Don’t you see how she manipulates Vincent? Look at her now!”
Miriam followed Father’s gaze. One moment, Lisa was giggling with the other children; the next, she glanced over and caught Father’s high beams honing in on her. She stepped behind Vincent to block the view. Miriam’s shoulders sagged. “As much as you watch her, don’t you see how she looks at you? She’s on guard against you. She feels your incessant disapproval of her. She’s not manipulating Vincent, she’s trying to hide behind him.”
Father’s thoughts began to spin…….wouldn’t I love to tell you exactly what I’m thinking? Wouldn’t I love to unburden myself? Because the enormity of the responsibility he bore was stating to wear on him. Leading the community was a great weight, but not near the magnitude of being Vincent’s father…..unimaginable guardianship I never looked for……..an enterprise that forces me to find solutions to problems that never existed, answers to riddles never asked, several times a day…I am tired……what harm could come of sharing a small piece of the weight, for just a moment? Can I trust her? He looked deeply, hopefully, into her face, her eyes. Courage…..strength…….love……pain…….
“Come with me to the library. We’ll talk,” he said.
Lisa watched Father and Miriam exit, and exhaled her tension in a long sigh. Vincent turned to her with a smile. “What was that about?”
“Father hates me so much……and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The words were a knife thrust in Vincent’s stomach. “No, Lisa……how could that be?”
“Don’t worry about it, Lisa,” said Devin, “Father’s jealous of how much Vincent likes you.”
“No, Devin!” yelled Vincent. The thought was too horrible to be endured. Two members of his family, two parts of his heart, at odds with each other over him? It couldn’t be true. Yes, Father had hesitated before allowing Lisa to stay with them, but he was coming around. Father wanted to help everyone who needed help. And Lisa needed so much. People who grew up with mothers had no way to understand people who didn’t. Once faces and hands were washed and clean clothes achieved, they mentally brushed their palms together and declared, ‘problem solved!’ They didn’t see the ever-present cloud of paralyzing anxiety people like Lisa and Vincent walked under, raining fear down on their heads every moment of every day. They didn’t understand how that anxiety colored every interaction, every step, every thought.
Devin sighed, a little exasperated with his little brother’s utter confusion. He looked lost. He took him and Lisa each by the hand, and led them to a sofa in the corner. He sat down between them. “Okay, look,” he started. “Maybe I didn’t say that right, or maybe you just don’t understand what I mean. Father thinks he has to protect you, Vincent.”
Mitch Denton dropped down to sit next to Vincent. Mitch was a fairly new arrival to the tunnels, still getting to know everyone, and everyone was getting to know him.
“Why would Father have to protect me from Lisa?” objected a muddled Vincent.
Winslow sat next to Mitch, Pascal sat on the floor.
“With those claws? Those teeth? It’s the rest of us that need protection!” smirked Mitch.
“I guess you think you’re being funny,” said Devin evenly, “but you make fun of him, and you’ll need protection from me.”
“Take it easy!” back peddled Mitch.
“Devin is the only one allowed to call Vincent, ‘Fuzz’,” advised Pascal.
“Yeah, Devin is the only one Devin lets pick on Vincent,” said Winslow with a gentle punch to Devin’s shoulder. Devin smiled wryly, and relaxed. Olivia sat next to Pascal on the floor.
“Sorry, Mitch,” Devin mumbled. Turning back to Vincent, he said, “but, see, Vincent? That’s how it is. We all think you need special protection. When you were a baby, you almost died, more than once. It makes all of us think that we have to watch you all the time, to make sure you’re not coming down with a cold or something, because who knows if you’ll pull through?”
“All the medicines that help us get well make you sicker,” added Pascal.
“Some of the food that’s good for us makes you get sick,” added Winslow.
Vincent’s face fell. “Hey,” said Olivia, patting his hand, “it’s okay to be different. Winslow’s mom can’t eat anything sweet or sugary. Pascal’s dad can’t see colors.”
The children chimed in:
“Narcissa talks to ghosts.”
“I like making soap; everyone else hates it. Winslow’s tall. Pascal’s short. It’s okay to be yourself.” She shrugged. “There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with that,” soothed Olivia. “and there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you. We love you.” Vincent smiled softly, and raised his chin.
“I think it scares Father that you can do so many things the rest of us can’t do,” continued Devin. “You’re the fastest runner, you can jump way higher, and you’re the best climber.”
The other children murmured assent.
“You’re smart, too,” observed Pascal. “Too smart for your age. Father keeps trying to figure out how and why you can do the things you do,” said Pascal.
“Yeah,” interrupted Winslow, “and it scares the hell out of him that he can’t.”
“Why should he get scared?” asked Vincent.
Devin shrugged. “Who knows?” None of the children could understand why Father didn’t just accept Vincent as he was. They did. “But he’s very scared, all the time, that you’re going to get hurt.”
They were all silent for a moment, digesting this reality.
“But what does any of this have to do with Lisa?” asked Vincent, breaking the spell. Lisa knew. Lisa knew all about fear. A little was good, too much could get you killed. A little made you sharper, faster. Too much paralyzed you. Having something precious was not entirely a good thing. You loved it, but you had to guard it. Because everyone else wanted it, too. People were going to try to take it away when you weren’t looking. It was almost easier to let go of the precious things you loved. But doing that led to loneliness, first stop on the downhill road to misery. You could get so lonely that you might even be thankful for a skinny, ugly, street-dog as a substitute mother. Lisa looked down, and stroked the golden head at her knee. She’d braved Father’s wrath when he discovered Goldie living below. She considered it a small price to pay, to return the favor of survival to her foster-mom. Lisa understood Father’s fear perfectly. He had too much, and it was making him sloppy; he tried to keep Vincent close to his side.
“He doesn’t trust Lisa to watch out for you,” answered Devin. “He thinks she’s going to lead you into trouble, and you don’t have a brain, and you’ll just follow her, and let her get you killed.”
“Devin!” objected Olivia. “How can you say that about Father?”
“Think about it—does he trust any of us to look out for Vincent? He’s always climbing all over my ass about it.”
“He jumped on me last week,” added Winslow. “My dad is teaching me the forge. I was showing Vincent, and Father yelled at me for letting him get too close.”
“I let him climb too high in the Pipe Chamber,” smiled Pascal. “He yelled at me.”
“He yelled at me for getting soap in his fur,” said Olivia.
“I wish all he did was yell at me,” blurted Mitch. “I was climbing up, then jumping off some rocks. Vincent comes along and starts doing it with me. Father grounded me for two days, remember? He said I was daring Vincent, and he could’ve gotten hurt. What a laugh! I’m the one who twisted my ankle and skinned my knee!”
They all looked at each other—and laughed.
“He grounded me as he was wrapping my ankle,” said Mitch, recovering. “Remember, Vincent?”
Vincent nodded, then shook his head.
“So, Lisa,” said Devin, “it looks like you’re one of us.” He paused, then chanted softly, “we accept her, we accept her….one of us, one of us……. gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble.” The other children leaned in closer, and joined the chant, “…..we accept her, we accept her, one of us, one of us, gooble, gobble, gooble, gobble, ” The continued until they were in a tight huddle, and then collapsed, giggling.
Meanwhile, Father and Miriam were toe to toe in the library.
“You interpret her every action in a negative light. She barely speaks, but when she does, you’re right there to disparage her every word.”
“Dear God, Miriam, you make me out to be a monster! I correct all the children. It’s not doing them any favor to let them run wild, or not check them on their mistaken assumptions.”
“Perhaps, but you go too far with Lisa. It’s affecting her self-esteem, her self-image. You accuse her of manipulation attempts that a six-year-old mind can’t even conceive.”
Father leaned in, nose to nose with her.
“Why does she cling to Vincent? She never leaves his side!”
“He saved her life! The only place she feels safe is by his side! The rest of us are trying as hard as we can to create a safe, loving environment for her, but it’s all just a bloody waste of time so long as you direct your hostility at her! Do you think she doesn’t feel it?”
“My son’s life is at stake! Why can’t you see that?!” He took her by the shoulders and gave her a shake. She grabbed his forearms, and squeezed. They stared into each other’s eyes……..and each of them took a breath.
Father backed off, and sat down in an armchair. He scrubbed his forehead with his hand. “Miriam, please accept my apologies. You are one of my very dearest friends, and I’ve behaved awfully to you.”
“No apology necessary, Jacob,” she replied, and sat down in a chair next to him, “we’ve been through too much together for that. I can see how deeply you’re worried about Vincent.”
“It’s been so long since he’s been ill, we all take it for granted now that he’ll remain strong and healthy.”
“He is strong and healthy.”
Father sighed. “He is not human. We are judging him by human standards. We’ve taught him human behavior, but Miriam…….I can promise you, human behavior is a second nature to him.”
Miriam was aghast. “What are you saying? Are you saying you think he’s an animal?”
“I’m saying he is part human, and yes, part of him is not human.”
Miriam jumped out of her seat, and began pacing.
“Not animal, Miriam. I’m not saying he’s part animal. But part of him is not human.”
Miriam stopped. “What else could he be? He can’t be mineral, Jacob. Animal, vegetable, mineral. He’s not vegetable.”
“I don’t know what the other part is. I don’t know. But I do know that soon, very soon, as he grows, he will grow not only stronger than us, not only smarter than us—he will grow beyond us.”
Miriam peered sharply at him. “Are you afraid of him, Jacob?”
Father opened his mouth, but no words came out. His mouth closed, and he sighed. “I love him. With all my heart. I could not love him more if he were my own child.”
Miriam was at a loss. Finally, she spoke, “Vincent has the sweetest, most loving heart of any child I’ve ever known.”
“Then we must work very hard to keep it sweet and pure,” Father answered.
In the Great Hall, Sebastian was surrounded by children. He stuffed a bright pink handkerchief down into one fist, then opened his hands, and it had disappeared! But then, even more fantastic, he made a fist, and with the other hand pulled the handkerchief out! Lisa looked on in amazement, her jaw dropped open, her eyes popped open wide, and shining. She clapped her hands to applaud Sebastian, and looked over at Vincent. Bedazzlement shone from her eyes; he swore to himself that he would give her a lifetime of wonderment.