A RIGHT TO DREAM
By Rosemarie Hauer
He could feel her unrest. For hours he had been sitting by her side, watching over the fragile form sleeping in his bed. Catherine. How could it be that her name made his heart beat faster? It was just a name after all, but when she had told it to him -- almost reluctantly as it seemed -- he had felt a warmth float through his veins and a giddy joy surge against his senses. He was well aware of the fact that talking still exhausted her far too much, but her eagerness to learn more about the unusual place she had found herself in, was too overwhelming to be denied. Vincent smiled at the thought of how she had struggled to fight off sleep, yet it had finally claimed her.
Now she was stirring and he sensed how her mind drifted slowly toward awakening. Suddenly her left hand moved across the bedcover as if searching for something to touch, to hold onto, and his heart turned over at the sight of that lonely gesture. After the briefest pause of hesitation he covered her small hand with his large, warm palm. Her agitation ebbed immediately, and she turned her bandaged face toward him as she awoke.
A sickening feeling clenched around his stomach, and he knew that she was reliving the horror of what she had been through. It still puzzled him to sense her so clearly within himself, and yet it was the most wondrous thing he had ever experienced. How he longed to hold her and take all of the terrible pain into himself, and yet he knew he must withdraw even the small comfort of his hand, because she was reaching for his arm, and he remembered all too well how she had reacted the day before when she involuntarily touched the fur on the back of his hand.
"Vincent?" she whispered hoarsely, and he watched her fingers close searchingly around the empty space where his hand had been a moment ago.
"I'm here, Catherine," he whispered soothingly. "Don't be afraid." He wished so fervently that she might not be afraid, but she was, and he knew with painful certainty that she would be even more so, should she ever come to see his face.
"I didn't mean to fall asleep," she apologized quietly. He knew she couldn't see his smile, and yet she seemed to return it.
"You need to rest," he advised. "You must heal."
"I know," she conceded, "but I also need to understand where I am and who the people are who live in this place. Sometimes I think I'll go crazy if I don't get answers."
"Then what I told you earlier about my world didn't help you?"
"Of course it did, but, Vincent, I feel so restless...and so helpless." Her despair pierced his heart and he gasped under the weight of it.
"Shall I take you back to your world then?" he asked tentatively. He had to struggle for his voice to formulate the question. The mere thought of having to let her go all but crushed him.
"No!" She flung the single word at him, and the vehemency of her reply caught him off guard. It was as if heavy wooden doors fell shut and locked him out. The silence that suddenly engulfed him was more painful than the short glimpse he had seen of the agony and the confusion that overcame her before she had been able to hide them so quickly and effectively. Fleetingly he realized how accustomed he had become to her steady, if still tenuous, presence in his soul.
"Catherine!" Before he knew it, he was down on his knees beside the bed, drawing her small form into his arms. She came willingly into his embrace, and when her arms stole around his neck, he could feel the first healing sobs starting deep within her. He held her tenderly while she cried, careful not to touch her injuries. A slight sting of guilt startled him from the quiet comfort of the moment, because he couldn't help but respond to her unexpected closeness, and the incredible feel of her soft body in his arms left him weak inside.
Her voice jerked him into immediate alertness as she whispered emphatically, "I'll never go back. Never, ever."
He continued holding her until finally her quiet breathing told him that she had cried herself to sleep. Carefully he shifted her weight and laid her back down onto the pillows. His heart went out to her as she lay there, so small and still. The wetness of her tears stained the bandages that covered her face, and he knew that they needed to be changed. He would have to ask Mary to do it, for should she awaken and see him ... His large hand went to his chest as the pain of the thought tore through his heart.
He watched from the upper level of his chamber as Mary began to gently remove the damp bandages from Catherine's face. She met neither support nor resistance, so deep was Catherine's exhausted sleep after her emotional outburst. Of course, Mary understood Vincent's request for help. She had always been like a mother to him. Ever since his childhood, she knew his heart and shared his joys and his sadness. From the way Mary had looked at him earlier, he could tell that she was well aware that his concern was not only for Catherine's fears, but also for himself, because his feelings for that young woman went deeper than he had allowed anything to go in a very long time.
When she was finished with her task, Mary nodded for Vincent to come down. He complied willingly, never taking his eyes from Catherine while he thanked Mary, and thus never noticing the furtive gesture with which the older woman wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. "I think she'll sleep for another couple of hours, Vincent. Why don't you go and get some rest? I'll stay with her."
There was so much warmth and concern in her voice, and Vincent knew that she was right. He squeezed her arm gently. "Thank you, Mary," he whispered before he turned to leave the room.
When he returned, he could feel that Catherine was still asleep, in spite of the not too quiet voices that reached him from within his chamber. Unsure of what he should do, Vincent stopped just outside the entrance.
"But he only did what you have taught him all his life, Father. You were the one who nurtured his heart and encouraged him to be selfless and compassionate."
"I seriously doubt that it is mere selflessness or compassion that makes him respond to that woman the way he does, Mary."
Through the shame that washed over him as he found himself eavesdropping, Vincent could suddenly sense the soft stirring that he had come to identify as Catherine's presence within himself. She was about to awaken, and there seemed to be nothing he could do to spare her the humiliating exchange of words between Father and Mary.
Mary's voice, calm but determined, reached him. "What is that supposed to mean? Do you honestly think that Vincent is acting out of self-interest?"
That stopped Father's agitation. "No, of course not, Mary. You know how much I love my son. All I want to do is protect him, spare him the pain of longing for something that can never be for him."
"But that is no reason to constantly accuse him of having endangered our world. What he did by bringing her down here is no different from what others, and you as well, have done many times before. You know that."
Father's voice was steady and calm as he responded, "You are right, my dear, as usual. If Vincent trusts...this woman...so completely, then there is probably no danger."
Vincent could bear no more of it. Catherine was awake and had been listening to them for quite a while, but neither Father nor Mary were aware of it. Father's words had bewildered her and Vincent could sense the hurt she felt because of them. Without hesitating any longer, he entered his chamber. "Her name is Catherine, Father," he reminded his parent, "and you two shouldn't talk about her as if she weren't here."
Neither of them noticed the slight tremor that went through Catherine's body as they looked down at her, but Vincent did. His entire soul reverberated with the emotional turmoil she was in. "Please leave us alone for a while," he demanded quietly.
The silence after Father and Mary had left was all-encompassing. Vincent was at a loss as to how to approach Catherine, and so he stood quietly in front of the bed, waiting for her confusion to ebb. He didn't want to compel her to confront what she had just heard. He knew that she must find her own pace through it, and that she must go step by step.
Her voice was barely audible when she finally spoke. "Why would I be a danger to your world, Vincent?"
"You are not," he answered, "and Father knows that." Willing to wait patiently for whatever might come now, he sat next to her on the bed. The silence that followed was not an uneasy one. He knew she needed it to sort through her thoughts.
"And why would I be a danger to you?" she asked softly. He hadn't expected this question, this one least of all. Not so soon.
"Father doesn't want to see me hurt," he began cautiously, and he was so absorbed in his attempt at stalling the main issue, that he found her hand on his own where it rested on his knee before he could do anything to prevent it. This time it wasn't Catherine who flinched at the contact. She didn't withdraw her hand, although he was certain that she felt how much he was shaking.
"Vincent, what can I do to avoid hurting you?" she asked in a low voice. The way she put her question showed him her incredible insight into his soul. She seemed to know so much more about him than he would have thought possible. He was suddenly at a loss for words. Tears stung his eyes, but he fought to hold them back. His attention focused on the cool and comforting touch of her palm against the furry back of his hand, and he couldn't seem to get any semblance of order into his whirling thoughts.
When she finally spoke again, there was apprehension in her voice. "There, I already did it. I hurt you, didn't I?" He covered her delicate hand with his free one as he carefully searched for the answer she deserved. Oh, God, why did this have to be so difficult?
Her next question interrupted his thoughts and forced them in an entirely different direction. "What did they do to my face? I know that they slashed it, but how badly? Please, Vincent, I need to know."
He tried to swallow the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat, but before he could answer she whispered, "Is it that bad?"
He wished he'd had some time to consider his answer more carefully, but he knew that she needed the truth now.
"There will be deep and long scars, Catherine, and learning to live with them will change your life forever."
He wasn't sure what he had expected -- tears, complaints, self-pity -- but there was nothing of it. She merely withdrew her hand and lay still for a seemingly endless moment. The flow of her thoughts and emotions were resigned, almost peaceful, and he thought she would soon drift into sleep, but suddenly she asked, "What does Father fear, Vincent? What could I possibly do to hurt you?"
"No, Catherine, he doesn't think that you would do anything to hurt me. It is just that ... he thinks I might ... lose my heart to an impossible dream."
Oh, God, he hadn't meant to say it, to actually say the words. Everything in him wanted to bolt from the room and hide in the deepest cavern to die from shame. Involuntarily, he had risen to his feet, and now he stood in the middle of his chamber, breathing heavily, his hands clenched into tight fists.
Suddenly she was there by his side, holding onto his arm for support while she tried to soothe his desperation. Her giving nature overwhelmed him, and the tears he had been fighting were running down his cheeks now. She seemed to have felt it, for her hand came up as if to wipe them away, but he caught her wrist before she could touch him.
"No, Catherine, please! You mustn't ... do this," he said, his voice only a hoarse whisper. He could sense that she was hurt by his rejection, but she tried not to give in to this feeling. Yet, her words sounded slightly bitter as she said, "You are very fortunate, Vincent. You have a choice I didn't have when I had to let you see my face."
As the truth of her words sank in, he slowly led her hand back to his tear-streaked face, shuddering beneath the sensation of skin against skin. She brought up her other hand and cupped his chin before she felt her way upward across his cheeks and temples to his upswept brows and deep-set eyes. His heart skipped a beat as she found his furry nose, but she lingered there only briefly and then ran her thumbs down its length until they met his rather unusual upper lip. A part of him hoped against hope that she might not find the cleft, but she did, and he pressed his mouth shut in order to hide his canine teeth at least. He let out a sigh of relief and his tension eased as her exploration ended. Her arms came around his waist as she leaned her head against his chest.
Still hesitant and barely able to believe what was happening, he returned her soft embrace shyly. It felt like heaven to him. Never before had he been so whole, so contented, so ... himself. Her voice broke his reverie as she asked, "Does Father think I would hurt you by being repulsed by your appearance?"
"It's not only that," he replied with a quick intake of breath. "Father knows me well, and he knew from the night I found you that I ... that ... "
She put one finger against his mouth to silence him, a gesture so achingly familiar that it took his breath away. "Look at me, Vincent. I'm hardly someone to build a dream upon."
"Please forget what I said about that dream, Catherine. I have no right to..."
"You have no right to dream?" she interrupted him, "Is that what you're trying to tell me?"
"Perhaps it isn't a matter of right or wrong, but rather of peace or pain," he murmured sadly. Suddenly, fatigue surged through the bond that connected him with Catherine's emotions, and he disengaged her arms from his waist to lead her back to the bed and settle her safely amid the pillows. Solicitously, he covered her with the quilted blanket. He bent his head just in time to hear her mumble, "We will find out about that dream, Vincent. We will ..."
"She needs time, Father. Her physical wounds may be healing smoothly, but her soul is still bleeding and her spirit is badly bruised."
"But, Vincent, the people she belongs to will search for her, and that is a considerable threat to all of us. Surely, you won't deny that?"
"She isn't ready to leave us, not yet. She ... told me so herself."
The silence that followed Vincent's firmly spoken words, made Father pace back and forth uneasily. Finally, he spun around and pinned the calm eyes of his son with his own worried gaze. "The longer she stays, the harder it will be for ... all of us. Vincent, you have to make her see that."
Meeting the deep concern in Father's face with the steadfastness that was so much a part of his own personality, Vincent spoke softly, "Catherine is the one who needs our concern, Father. Please know that I will do what I consider the best for her without endangering our world any further." With that, he turned to leave, taking the steps that led out of Father's study with determined strides.
"I know you will," Father murmured quietly as he watched him go.
The amber light that filtered through the stained glass window cast a warm glow on the small figure on the bed. Catherine pressed one trembling hand against the bandages that still covered her face and head. Her feelings tortured Vincent and he closed his eyes briefly in an attempt to concentrate before he began softly, "It is time to take them off, Catherine." He knew she was afraid, and he could feel her rising panic through the inner connection that had so miraculously formed between them, the bond that seemed to grow stronger with every passing day. Yet, he wanted her to face her fear, to acknowledge it and then release it. She nodded mutely and grasped his hand as he started the delicate task.
"Vincent, I ... I don't think I'm ready to look at my face. Not yet. I ... "
"You don't have to, Catherine, not immediately," he said, pulling her trembling hand against his chest. How strange, he thought, that everything seemed to be reversed now. She was afraid of her own face instead of his, and yet he couldn't let go completely of the deeply rooted fear that his appearance might frighten her. She leaned her head against his shoulder, and the sudden contact reminded him of her gentle exploration of his face the day before. He knew that she was about to speak when her breath caught briefly and a warm wave of affection washed over him. "Is this how you feel when someone is about to see you for the first time?" she whispered. "Oh, God, how I wish you would never have to feel this way again."
All of a sudden, he found it hard to breathe, and tears welled up in his eyes. "I will never have to feel this way again," he replied softly, "because of you, Catherine."
She sighed and slowly withdrew her head. "I want to see you, Vincent," she said, bringing his hand back to her upturned face. Carefully, he removed the bandages, observing her every reaction with gentle concern. When he finally took the last strip from her still closed eyes, he held his breath in silent expectation. Her lids fluttered hesitantly, and then he found himself in Catherine's eyes for the very first time. He wasn't prepared for the clear depth he met there, for the warmth and tenderness that floated towards him from the core of her heart. Neither of them was aware of anything else than the true and pure presence and nearness of the other. There was so much beauty in the way she looked at him, the way her lips parted slightly in wonder, in the innocence that stared at him with unveiled admiration. He couldn't resist the impulse to stroke her chin with the back of one furred finger and tenderly follow the smooth line of her jaw. Too late he realized his mistake, for his thoughtless action had brought back her own awareness of her ruined face. She dropped her eyes, unwilling to meet his contrite gaze.
"Catherine, please, I didn't mean to offend you. I ..."
She stopped his words by shaking her head and capturing his hastily withdrawn hand. "I know, Vincent, I know. It's just so hard for me to believe ..."
"...that I find you beautiful?" he completed the sentence for her. "Your doubts are the mirror images of my own when you first looked at me with your hands, and yet there wasn't the slightest trace of fear or repulsion in your heart." He gathered all the courage he could muster and slowly, gently, lifted her face to his gaze before he continued, "I couldn't believe it either, and yet, I feel in my heart that it 's true."
There were tears in her eyes as she nodded solemnly. She looked so forlorn as she sat there before him so silently, and his heart ached with the knowledge of the thorny path that lay ahead of her. He couldn't help but draw her into his embrace and hold her against his heart, wishing fervently that he could take this cross away from her. Feeling worthy of being loved was a difficult struggle for many people. But being burdened with a deformed face in a world that was unaccustomed to seeing beyond the surface, demanded a source of inner strength and light that wasn't easily accessible. A tiny flicker of hope that she would let him be that source of strength and light to her, sent a shiver through his soul.
As if she had felt it, and maybe she had, she leaned back in his arms and searched his face. Slowly, she lifted one hand to stroke his brow and temple in so intimate a caress that he had to close his eyes to be able to contain the intense joy that flooded his senses.
"I have to go back, don't I," she said, and his eyes flew open to meet a thousand questions in green pools of utter sadness. "I know I must," she added, "but I don't know how to find the courage and the strength."
"You have the courage," he assured her, "and the strength. I know you. You must never forget that."
She shook her head. "I won't. How could I forget that you believe in me? How could I ever forget you?"
Taking her hands in his, he sighed and lowered his head in a gesture of dejection. "One day you will, Catherine, and maybe that will be the day when your healing is complete. There won't be any reason to remember me then. It would only bring you pain."
She said nothing in reply, and his puzzlement grew when he suddenly felt a strong confidence and certainty within her. As he hesitantly raised his gaze, he felt her lips brush his forehead. Before he could recoil, she was on her feet, smiling down into his stunned face. There were no words between them, but her eyes held a promise deeper than words could ever convey. Unmistakably, her eyes said, Let me prove to you what you wouldn't believe even if I told you in so many words.
But he just heard her ask, "You don't happen to have a mirror down here, do you?"