"It was the 12th of January, the coldest day in the year". How different her life might have been, Catherine couldn’t help but sigh, if not for that day. All the joys I would have missed, all the love that would have been absent from my life, and I never would have known. All that I would have lost, if not for a mother’s decision so very long ago.
As she had on every other January 12th since she’d first learned of how Vincent had come to be a part of the world Below, Catherine made a point of stopping in front of St. Vincent’s hospital to reflect on all that he meant to her life, and to give a prayer of thanks that such a vulnerable and ill child had survived to grow into the wonderful man that she loved.
She knew that she was not the only one who made this yearly pilgrimage. She had seen, on more than one occasion, a Helper or two come by, some even leaving flowers or a small toy in front of the hospital. ‘I wonder what the staff must think,’ she couldn’t help but wonder as she smiled and shook her head at the thought. No doubt, that someone had died on that very spot, or perhaps at their hospital on that particular day. Oh, she thought happily, how very wrong they would be! No one had died that day; rather, a wondrous life had been born, one that created wonders in the lives of so many others.
Just as Catherine had decided that she had best leave to get Below in time for the birthday surprise that the children had planned for Vincent, she spotted a woman standing in the shadows, staring at the place where she knew Vincent had been left. She smiled in anticipation, and started to walk toward the lone figure, wondering which of the Helpers she was going to see there this year. As she approached, she was surprised to realize that the woman was crying, not soft tears of gratitude or love for the life that had been saved by Anna’s kindness, but rather tears of grief and pain.
"Are you all right?" Catherine asked softly, hoping that her presence would be seen as a comfort, and not an intrusion on this poor woman’s grief. "Can I get you something, call someone for you, perhaps?"
"No, no, my dear, thank you. This is just a hard night for me, that’s all." The woman, who looked to be in her 60’s, looked up at Catherine with blue eyes that shimmered with the tears that continued to fall down her face..
"My name is Catherine Chandler. I’d really like to help, if I can. I’ve often found that just talking can lessen the pain that we’re feeling, even if only for a moment." Catherine paused here, uncertain if she should go on. There was a fine line between being helpful and being nosy, and she wondered which way this woman would view her act of kindness. "Did you lose someone here tonight?" she asked softly, placing her hand gently on the older woman’s arm.
"My loss wasn’t tonight", she said just as softly, her eyes taking on the far away look that comes when one is seeing something that is miles away, or in ages past. "My son…" she gasped, and started to weep anew. "He was so small, so very ill. My husband had died not long after we found out that we were to have a child. The grief of that…it was almost too much to bear. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that I was carrying our child, that within me a part of Thomas lived on. How I longed to hold that babe in my arms, to tell him of all the plans that his father and I had for him!" She bravely smiled then, her face looking up at the stars. "My Thomas was a dreamer, a believer in the idea that all things were possible, and that if one just worked hard enough for something, loved well enough all that life had to offer, then wonderful things were bound to come your way." Her smile fell away then, and as she looked at the ground, she said in a voice barely above a whisper, "I wonder sometimes if Thomas would have understood, if he would have agreed with my decision, if he would have forgiven me". She took in a shaky breath, her voice breaking then on a sob, "or if he would have hated me for the choice I made that night."
"I don’t understand", Catherine said, her sorrow for the woman’s tale giving way to puzzlement. "What decision did you make, Miss…?"
"Hanson. Sarah Beth Hanson. As I mentioned, my little boy was very ill. My husband and I barely got by financially before his death, and well, afterwards, things naturally got worse. My baby was so sick, born so very, very wrong, and it was all my fault!" At this Sarah Beth lost her voice entirely, and it was several minutes before she had calmed enough to resume her tale.
"Sarah Beth, I can see how much your child meant to you. I can hear it in your voice." Catherine’s own voice broke now, at the pain and guilt that this poor woman felt. "I know you wouldn’t have done anything to hurt your little boy. How can you say that what happened to him was your fault?"
"Oh, Miss Chandler, you don’t understand. If only I had been a stronger person, maybe if somehow I could have loved my Thomas a little less…maybe then…" She broke off, her voice shaking in the growing silence of the winter night.
"Call lme Catherine, please," she said with a small smile, hoping to somehow get through Sarah Beth’s pain, to offer her some comfort to warm her on this cold night. "I don’t think we have a say in how much we love those who mean the most to us. The way we love comes from our heart, from who we are, from how much those we love mean to us, and to our lives." Catherine found herself smiling now through her own tears. "I know that I could never make myself love the man I’d chosen to build my life with any less, no matter how hard I might try. And how could loving your husband less have possibly saved your son’s life?"
"You don’t understand, Catherine. Loving him when he was alive was one thing, but once he died, I just couldn’t let go. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I spent my days at his grave, talking to him, trying to understand why such a wonderful man had to be taken so suddenly from our lives. I told him that I forgave him, that I understood why he had risked his life to save another’s, but oh, Catherine losing him hurt so!"
"Are you afraid that by not taking care of your own health, that you may have jeopardized the health of your unborn child’s?"
Sarah Beth shook her head firmly. "No. People have gone without sleep or proper nutrition and still managed to have a healthy child. No, it was my grief that marked that poor little one’s life. My doctor became so concerned about the state I had worked myself into that he insisted that I try a new medication, one that had only recently come on the market. It was said to help people who were depressed or overly distraught. He thought that it would help me get over my loss, that it would help me heal, but all it did was give me the greatest pain of my life, second only to the loss of my husband."
"The death of your child."
"He didn’t die."
"I don’t understand. You said you had lost him…"
"There are many ways to lose someone, Catherine. His loss was my choice, my pain. It was the only thing I could think to do, but oh, how it hurt to leave my little boy all alone on such a cold night." Sarah Beth wiped her eyes on an old lace handkerchief, took a shaky breath, and continued. "There was no money for doctors, specialists, whatever it would take to make him well. If he had just been sick, just born too frail or too small, I would have done everything in my power to make him well. I could have nursed him back to health, begged doctors or the hospital to give him enough basic care to keep him alive, to let my little boy live. But, Catherine, there was no way for me to heal all that was wrong with him." Sarah Beth’s eyes closed, her head lowered in grief once again.
"You said that there was something wrong with him, something beyond his weakened state. What was it?"
Sarah Beth looked at Catherine as though she was weighing her, trying to judge the way she might react to the next part of her tale. "I have never believed that someone should be judged by the way they look", Sarah Beth said, her voice now filled with iron strength and pride. "Thomas and I would have loved our boy, raised him as best as we were able, despite the fact that he had the face of a monster."
"A monster?" Catherine couldn’t imagine how strangled her voice must sound. The fact that her voice could be heard at all over the pounding of her heart was miracle enough.
Sarah Beth gave Catherine the coldest look she had ever received from another in her life. "He would have known the strength of our love from the moment he was born until the day he died. He had value as a person, as a life waiting to be lived. I’m sorry if you can’t understand that." Sarah Beth wiped her eyes again, replaced her handkerchief in her purse, and began to walk away.
"Wait!" Catherine grabbed onto Sarah Beth as though she were a lifeline, a last hope to a world of answers that could so easily be lost in an instant. She took a deep breath, knowing that whatever words she said next had to be chosen with the greatest of care. The wrong words could jeopardize Vincent’s life, his very world. As for the right ones, oh, if she could find the right words, what joy that could bring to Vincent’s life! It seemed like such an unlikely possibility, that of all the millions of people who lived in New York, she could really be talking to…and yet, how many boys could there have been, born on this day, born with a "different" face, abandoned at this hospital?
"Sarah Beth, please believe me when I tell you that I would never treat someone as less than a person simply because of the way they look." She saw the look of disbelief on the other woman’s face, and realized that she’d have to go a step further. "There is someone in my life, someone who is my whole life, and this person was born with a type of severe disfigurement. His appearance has often been compared to that of a monster or a beast, and that’s why your story has shocked me so. " Catherine paused here, waiting to see if her words had been enough, wondering how much more of Vincent’s secret she might have to give away to get the answers she sought.
Sarah Beth looked at Catherine with a sad smile, and gently took her hand. "I’m sorry for snapping at you. You must understand how very protective of him I am, even though it’s been forty years since I last held him in my arms."
Catherine wondered how she was ever going to continue this conversation without screaming or fainting. Vincent’s age, this woman’s child was exactly Vincent’s age, born on the same night of the same year. What Vincent must be feeling from her right now! She knew that he must be worrying about her, given the strange emotions that must be making themselves felt to him through their bond.
"Why did you leave him at the hospital, if you loved him so, if the differences in his appearance were meaningless to you?" Catherine had always assumed that whoever Vincent’s mother had been, she must have been horrified, or maybe even ashamed, of the way her baby looked, and so had decided to give him away. Had she perhaps been wrong, could there be another reason, one that wouldn’t leave Vincent feeling that even his birth mother saw him as less than human?
"I told you that I didn’t have much money. I knew that there were surgeries that could be done to fix birth defects, but I didn’t have the money for those things. And what kind of a life could my little one have, going through life looking like that?" Sarah Beth gave Catherine a curious look now. "Your friend, didn’t kids tease him, call him names, hate him just because he was different?"
"Some did", Catherine admitted. "Even as an adult, he’s sometimes faced that same reaction from the people around him."
"Then you can understand how desperate I was to keep him from having to face that kind of life. I hoped that some kind doctor who worked at the hospital would find him and take pity on him, that perhaps he would be able to treat him, so that he might get to have a normal life."
"Even though it meant you might never see your baby again?"
Sarah Beth smiled sadly, and simply said, "I knew I’d never see him again. The pain of that was a small price to pay to make sure he’d have a good life."
Catherine stood quietly by Sarah Beth’s side for a moment, thinking about all that she’d just heard, of the devotion that this woman had shown for her young child. She couldn’t help thinking that Sarah Beth’s actions reminded her of the way in which Vincent treated others, always giving selflessly of himself, regardless of the possible cost.
"Sarah Beth, I told you that there is someone in my life that reminds me of your son. What I didn’t tell you, what I still don’t know just how to tell you is…" Catherine took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and tried to stop the trembling in her heart. "Sarah Beth, I think there is a good chance that the little boy you once knew and the man I know now may be the same person. They were both born the same night, both abandoned at this hospital…" Catherine gave up then, as her body shook with silent sobs.
Sarah Beth looked at her in shock. "It can’t be. Are you certain?"
Catherine shook her head. "How can I be? But the facts match. Is there anything else you can tell me about that night, anything else that you remember that might help us both to be sure?"
The older woman looked off into the distance as the years once again fell away. "I tried to bundle him up as best as I could. It was such a bitterly cold night. He wasn’t due for some time yet…I was so surprised when he came so suddenly. I didn’t have anything warm enough to wrap him up in when I brought him here, so I just used whatever I could find around the house. It was nothing more than rags, really, but I hoped it would help. I found a little place for him where he’d be sheltered from the wind, and I stood in the shadows and waited to see if anyone would care enough to help my little boy. I saw a woman walk up, look down at my baby, and take him gently in her arms. I heard her whisper oh so sweetly to him, "Don’t worry now, little one, Anna is here. I’m going to get you to a doctor, and then I’m going to take care of you forever." That was the last time I saw my son."
Catherine gently took Sarah Beth by the shoulders and turned her so that they were now facing each other. "Sarah Beth, the woman who found my friend was named Anna. She brought him to a doctor, and that doctor raised him as though he were his own child. If you believe nothing else of what we spoke of tonight, please believe me when I tell you that your son, the man that I love, has grown up knowing a father’s love."
"Are you that sure that he’s mine, that these two people are really the same one man?"
"Do you remember what your little boy looked liked?"
"Of course I do! But how would that help?"
"It just so happens that I know where I can find a painting of my friend that was done when he was just a baby…"
* * *
Father and Vincent waited for Catherine Below near the closest entrance to Elizabeth’s Painted Tunnels. "Catherine’s message said nothing else, Father?"
Father shook his head, and frowned for about the tenth time since Peter had come Below. "All Catherine told Peter over the phone was that it was urgent that we meet her here, that she was bringing someone Below that she needed me to meet. She also wanted you near, Vincent, so that you could listen to what was said as well."
"Catherine knows how important the secrecy of our world is, Father. I’m sure whoever this person is, he or she is trustworthy."
"I don’t doubt that, Vincent, or her, but you have to admit that the request is a bit extraordinary."
Vincent smiled at that. "So is Catherine."
Before Father had a chance to do more than smile at his son’s comment they heard the sound of footsteps entering the tunnels. Vincent quickly moved out of sight, while Father went to greet their guests.
"Father, thank you for agreeing to meet us like this." Catherine turned to the woman beside her, and gave her a reassuring smile. "I’d like you to meet Sarah Beth Hanson. She has a story to tell, one that I wanted you to hear."
As Father listened to Sarah Beth’s story, his face grew paler and paler, until it was all he could do to simply stand upright. As he listened, he glanced back from time to time to see how his son was taking all of this, to the revelations he was now hearing about his life. "Catherine, do you understand what exactly this means? What you’re both suggesting?"
"Jacob, Catherine has told me that there is a man here, a man that you raised whose story matches that of my son. Is this true?"
Father nodded his head slowly, blinking rapidly back the tears that he felt forming. "My son, your son I believe, is a fine and good man. I want you to know what an honor it has been to have him in my life, what a joy it has been to be able to call him my son."
"Catherine also said that there is a picture of him here. May I see it?"
"Certainly. There is a wonderful artist who lives among us, who paints the history of our world on these tunnel walls. There’s a portrait just along this path of me holding Vincent when he was still just a babe in arms. Come." Father smiled then as he took Sarah Beth by the arm. Catherine hung back for a moment, wanting to see if Vincent was okay. He nodded at her, and so she continued on, knowing that Vincent was following close behind.
"Oh, look, there he is!" Sarah Beth stood in front of a painting of a very young Vincent in Father’s arms, her face radiating joy and tranquility. "Oh, how safe he seems, and how much bigger he is here than when I saw him last!" She turned quickly to Father, a deep yearning apparent in her voice. "When can I see him? Is he nearby?"
"He is, but there is something you should know. " Father took her hands gently in his own. "The way in which he was born, the differences in his appearance…I know you were hoping that they were correctable, but they were simply too extensive. I’m truly sorry."
"Oh, don’t be sorry, Jacob. He has friends, family, a home." She turned and smiled at the young woman beside her. "And he has love. Those are the things that matter the most in life. You’ve given him all of that, created a world in which he could be accepted for who he is, and valued for all that he is worth. For all of that, for all that you’ve given him, I shall forever be grateful."
"And you, my dear Sarah Beth, gave him life, and sacrificed your very heart so that it might be a joyous one. Believe me, the debt is mine."
Catherine stepped into the shadows and took Vincent’s hand. "Are you ready?"
"Catherine, how can I ever be ready? This was not something that I ever imagined could happen. That my…my mother…that she should be here in our world, that she loved me, wanted me, that she left me in the cold not because she hated or feared me, but that she did it out of love." He shook his head, and swallowed before continuing. "There are no words." She took his hand, and the two of them walked together to where Father and Sarah Beth stood waiting for them.
Sarah Beth looked up to see Catherine walking hand and hand with a tall, strong looking man, one with a face that she remembered oh so very well. Her son came near to her, and the first words she heard him say were, "Please, don’t be afraid." Sarah Beth laughed at that, smiled up at her son, and said, "I could never be afraid of you. From the moment my Thomas and I knew you were coming into the world, you were our light, and the greatest love in our lives. You’re my son, my little boy all grown up…" Her voice failed her as her words dissolved in the falling of her tears. Vincent wrapped his arms around her, and for the first time in all of his memories, he felt what it was to feel the warmth of his mother’s embrace.
The four of them walked together through Elizabeth’s tunnels for some time, sharing stories and bits of the past with each other. Vincent had been pleased to learn that his biological father had been a caring and brave person, though saddened to learn that his caring heart had lead to his early demise, that he had given his life to save three young orphans from a burning building.
"Your father loved children. There wasn’t a child in pain that he didn’t want to help." Sarah Beth smiled sadly at Vincent. "And if that child was alone in the world, had faced some of the worst kinds of pain that a child could face? Then he wanted to be everything to that child, to love him or her, to be there, as a father, as an older brother, to that poor little aching heart."
"How like you, Vincent," Catherine said, while smiling lovingly at him. "There isn’t a child here that you aren’t there for, a child here that you wouldn’t protect from harm if it were within your power to do so. It seems you have a great deal in common with Thomas Hanson, though…" and here she paused, stared at Sarah Beth, and then laughed. "Vincent…I think you have your mother’s eyes!" Vincent looked at his mother’s face in surprise, and then began to laugh. When she and Father joined in their laughter, Vincent knew that this would be only the first of many times that they would laugh together as a family.
* * *
Sarah Beth waited in the darkened alley, nervousness and excitement building within her. Catherine had told her that this was the closest way down from her home, and that one of the residents of the Tunnels would meet her there to guide her the rest of the way. She had also offered to meet her here, to wait with her, but Sarah Beth had turned down that kind offer. She knew the young woman would be happier spending the day Below, helping with the last minute preparations for tonight’s festivities. Besides, she thought with a grin, her son always seemed happiest when his Catherine was nearby. How wonderful that she knew that about him, that she had the chance to know anything about him at all! How quickly the past two weeks had flown by! She’d seen Vincent nearly every day, the two of them doing their best to make up for lost time. They’d sat together in her living room, looking through the old photo albums and mementos she had saved of the brief time she and her Thomas had shared together. Last night, she had given him a belated birthday gift, the first she had ever been able to give him. He had sat so quietly, lightly touching the glass of the picture frame that held a copy of her favorite photo in all the world. In it, Thomas stood behind her, his arms around her waist, his hands resting just above the swell of her stomach that was the beginnings of the son now sitting beside her. When Vincent had finally looked up from the photo, he had smiled gently at her, and the two of them had just held on to each other until the lightening of the night sky told them both that it was time for her son to return home.
"Are you Sarah Beth?"
Sarah Beth smiled at the eager young girl in front of her. "Hello! Are you my guide?"
The girl’s smile widened as she nodded. "I’m Samantha. It’s so nice to meet you, Mrs Hanson! All of us have been fighting over who would come to get you, but Father finally said that there’d be lots of chances to lead you down after this, that you’d be visiting a lot from now on. "
"Just call me Sarah Beth, dear. So, how did Jacob decide on who would come for me tonight?"
Samantha laughed at that. "Father said that since I was the fastest at delivering the Winterfest candles, I could run the fastest to get you, so that we’d both be back in plenty of time for the festivities."
Sarah Beth laughed, and said, "Well, we’d best not prove Jacob wrong, then. Shall we go?"
As Samantha guided her down, Sarah Beth tried to remember all her son had told her about his world, and the people who lived in it. "Samantha, once we get Below, can you help me with getting to know everyone? I have to admit I’m a little nervous. I know everyone here cares a great deal for Vincent, and well, some of them may be rather upset with me for leaving him at the hospital on the night that he was born."
Samantha looked at her companion in surprise. "No one’s mad at you. If you had kept Vincent, none of us would have had the chance to know him. Besides, Father’s even added you to the story."
"The story? What story?"
"Vincent’s story. We ask Father to tell it to us all the time. Do you want to hear it?"
"I’d like that very much."
"It was the 12th of January, the coldest day in the year…" Samantha’s tale took until they reached the stairs leading down to the Great Hall. As they began to descend together, she caught sight of her son, standing at the bottom of the stairs by Jacob’s side. Jacob saw her and smiled up at her in welcome, but her son only had eyes for the beautiful woman by his side, his Catherine. At Jacob’s nod, Vincent removed the heavy wooden beam that held closed the large doors before them, and then reached out to take Catherine’s hand in his own. Sarah Beth had been warned that the room they were about to enter would start out completely dark, lit only by the few torches they carried. But as her son reached for her with his free hand, Sarah Beth knew that the love in her son’s life, the joys that lived in his heart, were all the light she would ever need to guide her through the darkness.