Bleak Midwinter
by Nan Dibble

(Written for the January, 1995 Winterfest of the North Jersey Tunnel Community.)

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Looking ahead to their sixth and bitterest--for a number of reasons--winter in the tunnels, Jacob Wells could see no realistic alternative to despair.

"I'm simply not the man John was," he admitted to himself. "I'm a maker of schedules and lists, not a leader. Not someone who can inspire others with their vision and their oratory. I simply don't have it in me."

Long after the pipes had stilled with the community's sleep, Jacob paced his study, limping to the spiral staircase and back to the desk, leaning on his stick and occasionally rubbing his half-gloved hands together against the tunnels' perpetual chill. John Pater, called "Paracelsus," had been expelled several months before. And all the decisions had descended on Jacob, his onetime partner, who more and more felt his own inadequacy to meet the extraordinary challenge of maintaining this extraordinary secret community.

But the lack of John's charismatic generalship wasn't the worst of it. As when rebellious Lucifer was cast out of high heaven, John had taken the allegiance of a third of the helpers with him. And those who remained simply wouldn't be capable of provisioning the community through the cold season.

Barely a week's food remained. Jacob had no idea what to do.

"Well," tiny old Elizabeth had said briskly, earlier that evening, during the weekly session of the tunnels' governing council, "if the worst comes to the worst, we can go back to the streets where we came from. Maybe even find work. You remember work?" she'd asked rhetorically.

The sarcasm had aroused a hrrumph from big Julia. "I know from work, girl. What you mean is, do I remember getting paid for it."

"Anyhow," bald Pascal, senior, put in practically, "we can't all go. Jacob can't." When they all looked at him, he in turn looked at Jacob, having assumed the problem was obvious.

Jacob had bent his head, acknowledging the problem. "Pascal is right," he'd admitted stolidly. "Even if I were willing to go Above, which I am not, I would risk arrest and summary deportation, if not worse. And--"

"--and there's Vincent," Pascal concluded simply, and thereby had produced the kind of silence only a plain and irreducible dilemma could provoke.

The others might leave if they chose, anytime they chose. But not Jacob. Because of Vincent, who could never be safely taken Above. Because of Vincent, the infant monster for whom Jacob had assumed a parent's responsibility.

They couldn't remain and survive the winter. Because of Vincent, innocently responsible for the break between Jacob and John that had left the community in these straits. Nor could the community disband and take their individual chances on the frigid streets...again because of Vincent.

It had been Julia who'd summed it up with her usual bluntness, telling Jacob, "Vincent can't go. So you're stuck. So we're all stuck, because no way are we gonna leave the two of you down here all by your ownselves."

Jacob's pacing had brought him to the stair that led to the outer passage. On impulse, he hauled himself up the steps to do something he normally did several times each night: look in on the children's chamber.

Devin, always a restless sleeper, had fought his way free of the covers and was curled into a tight, shivering ball. The boy didn't wake as Jacob drew the quilts over him again. But the flame of the guttering candle on the table was reflected red from two slanted, wide-awake eyes inside a sheltering cave of patchwork blanket.

Jacob had learned that Vincent never slept so deeply that the least sound or intrusion would not bring him instantly awake and watchful. In part a heritage from his time with John, when the wariness would have been justified; but also a demonstration of this strange child's own unknowable nature, of which the visible differences were merely the most obvious token. But the nightmares seemed to be getting fewer, which was a blessing, Jacob reflected.

"It's all right," Jacob whispered, propping more heavily on his cane and leaning to smooth the covers over Devin's shoulder. "It's only me. Go back to sleep, Vincent."

Instead, the child's tousled head emerged from the blanket cave. Rising in his blue flannel sleepers, he stood on the mattress, arms raised in a request to be picked up.

Jacob had discovered that even more than most children, Vincent needed the frequent reassurance of touch, physical closeness. And as soon as Jacob seated himself on the foot of the bed and Vincent dropped onto hands and knees to creep across his sleeping foster-brother and settle in Jacob's lap, Jacob found reassurance in the contact as well, patting the boy's sturdy back, feeling the slippery shift of the downy fur under the flannel.

"The only difference between us," Jacob whispered against the child's cheek, "is that you have the sense to reach out for it whereas I seem to think I must have a pretext."

The boy's catlike face, golden in the dim candlelight, lifted to look into Jacob's. A small, clawed hand patted at Jacob's cheek, as though Vincent somehow knew Jacob was the one in need of comforting and had reached out, not to take but to give what Jacob hadn't known he was in need of until it came to him, unasked and always vaguely surprising, like grace.

Vincent the insoluble abstract problem vanished into the living reality of the child, as it always did. Suddenly hugging the boy close, Jacob murmured, "It's not your fault. None of it. You are merely the catalyst--the touchstone that tests what metal the rest of us are made of. And it's your ill fortune to come from the care of one bad father to that of another I fear is no better. Ineffectual. Irredeemably ordinary. When nothing but the extraordinary will serve. Oh, Vincent, what's to become of us?"

Reacting to the tone, if not the words, Vincent again patted Jacob's face. Tucking his legs under him, he leaned against Jacob's chest--a warm, precious burden. For Jacob had come to love the boy most immoderately. Somehow, the boy's uniqueness and the problems his mere existence raised, the mystery and the fact of him, had aroused within Jacob an intensity of feeling he'd assumed long dead.

Though no one but he himself now knew it, Devin was his own natural son. But his feeling for Devin had nothing of the fierceness that sometimes swept over him when, as now, he held this found and chosen son who always required separate thought and attention, who never could be left out of account or taken for granted. The challenge of whose being, Jacob felt he must continually live up to, as though it were a test set to his deepest soul. A test he was now failing.

As the boy continued to look up at him, Jacob in turn regarded the strange countenance whose fascination he was sure would never dim into mere recognition, never cease to be exotic and (even to him, the most rational and prosaic of men) magical.

The slanted blue eyes, expressive of so much more than the child could yet put words to. The upswept brows that disappeared into the disarrayed coarse golden hair. The flattened, feline nose that by some alchemy seemed as dignified and aristocratic as any arrogant arch of Roman proportions. The slightly protruding muzzle and downturned mouth that showed, so endearingly, the tips of small fangs on those rare occasions the boy smiled.

Surely there could never have been another such child as this. Or one whose certain maltreatment by the cruel world Above, so intolerant of even minor differences, was so heartbreaking to contemplate.

"I won't let them hurt you," Jacob vowed, holding the boy close. "Never. Somehow, I'll keep you safe, Vincent. I swear it."

Vincent was a secret he'd kept even from the helpers. Perhaps, in the nearly two years since Vincent had been found and brought Below, some helpers might have heard mention of the boy; even, perhaps, his name. But Jacob, like John before him, wouldn't risk trusting more than the outermost secret, of the tunnel community's existence, to any topsider. This secret within the secret, now cradled in his lap, Jacob had never trusted to anyone outside the community except Peter Alcott, and then only by necessity--when, in first infancy, Vincent had been very ill and Jacob had turned to Peter, a pediatrician, in desperation. And after that first emergency, further contact had been discouraged. It had been at least a year since Peter had been invited Below. Because that was how both John and Jacob had wanted it. Their own lives, they'd put at hazard by confiding in a topsider. But not Vincent's.

Mistrust was safer.

The midwinter solstice, when it had become the custom to invite all the helpers to a party, Below, had come and gone unremarked. What kind of party could they have hosted on thin gruel made from cast-out potato peelings? How could the community have generated a festive atmosphere out of naked desperation and discouragement? Christmas, too, had been a grim affair. And the prospect of the frigid, unprovisioned new year was what had kept Jacob sleepless through this long, despairing night.

"John would have known what to do," Jacob muttered, as Vincent fell asleep against his chest. "He would have come up with some bold and outrageous plan, something no one else would have thought of. Fired others with his enthusiasm, carried them away with his rhetoric. Have I done well for you, young Vincent, that I insisted on staying and forced John into leaving? It seems so unfair that someone as remarkable as you must look to the care of someone as stupidly ordinary as I. But I'm not John. Cannot be John, even if I wished to, which I do not. The price of such brilliance becomes too high, in what it exacts of others. You suffered for it too, Vincent...perhaps you, most of all. For Anna only died whereas you must live as you are, bringing out either the best or the worst in those around you, people who might have passed a less demanding test of their tolerance and good-heartedness...."

And in that moment, as Jacob sat on his children's bed holding his problematic foster son, an idea began to be born.


There weren't enough boxes, so Jacob placed most of the books in stacks on his desk and the credenza.

Entering and looking around, Ray Ensign, whose knitted cap, scarf, and overcoat said he'd just returned from a foraging patrol, remarked with dubious amusement, "A little early for spring cleaning, isn't it?"

Jacob turned from the bookcase where he'd been debating between a medical text, large and expensive but common, and a treasured Kipling first edition. "Ah, Raymond, good morning. No, not cleaning. There are some books I think can be dispensed with. I wonder if you'd be good enough to take these topside and determine what can be realized on them."

Head tilted as he pulled off his cap, the tall Negro settled slowly into a chair. "You're selling your books?"

"The study's become much too cluttered...." Jacob's explanation trailed off. He spent a moment removing and cleaning his glasses on the portion of his sleeve that seemed least dusty. Eventually glancing up again, glasses in place, he said evenly, "Some of them are fairly rare. Others, while ordinary enough, are in good condition. I hope we can raise at least thirty dollars on the lot. adequately provision a party."

"Okay. I'm listening."

"I've been thinking. Last night. And it seemed to me our situation can hardly be worse than it already is. If some of the helpers are frightened off by our need, others may be moved by it to share our privations to ensure our survival. And in any case, we owe them adequate thanks for their assistance this past, difficult year."

"A party."

"Yes. Day after tomorrow will give us enough time, I'd think. And it anniversary of sorts." When Ray just looked at him inquiringly, Jacob added, "January twelfth." When that still elicited no comprehension, Jacob thought how easily one became disconnected from the conventions of topside reckoning. "It was two years ago, that date, when Vincent first came among us."

"Does that mean...?"

"This community is what it is. And what it's become. Not merely an escape, but a sanctuary. Not merely a collection of vagabonds, but a community with a guiding vision. One which led to John's expulsion. But one which need not, I hope, alienate us from those of goodwill, Above, on whom we have come to rely. All of them," Jacob said, with a certain sternness that, he was sure, only emphasized his uncertainty.

"Ahuh. Paracelsus' people, too, you mean."

"All the helpers. I must talk to Pascal about having some sort of invitation delivered. And to Julia, about preparing the feast. Cabbage is inexpensive and can be made to go a long way. We still have a source of donated fruit on Thursdays. Timothy can be put in charge of readying the hall...."

Now that the decision had been made, Jacob was immediately absorbed in the planning and logistics: what he was good at.

The event would have to answer for itself.


What had come to be called the Great Hall was cavernous. The candles and lanterns created a small space of flickering light around the few tables, but beyond that was darkness. It was, Jacob thought, appropriate.

All but two of the helpers had come--an attendance that might have been taken as encouraging, but which Jacob cautiously interpreted as merely neutral. John, wherever he'd removed himself to, had either not been consulted or had raised no objection to "his" helpers' coming--that was all. At least half the helpers present had been originally recruited by John and had dropped all contact with the tunnel community when he'd left. Until now.

There had been a momentary awkwardness about the chair. John's chair, with the high back and the carved arms, thronelike, that he'd always occupied for similar occasions. Set, conspicuously, at the head of the table. Conspicuously empty.

In the haste of preparations, someone had thoughtlessly laid a place setting there, and as they'd all filed in from the windy Long Stair, Jacob had noticed the extra plate at the same time he noticed people watching to see if he'd take the vacant throne of leadership. Instead, looking aside, he'd quietly asked Pascal senior to remove the chair, and the place setting quickly disappeared into the shadows. That end of the table remained vacant as Jacob continued his conversation with Peter and they settled into adjoining chairs, observing no particular precedence. Others took places around them, tunnel dwellers mostly at one table and most of the helpers at another, as the first trays were carried up from the rear of the hall.

Everyone seemed to enjoy their dinner. The food Jacob's books had purchased was plain, but there was enough of it, and the volume of conversation rose, reechoing in the large, mostly empty space.

"You're not eating," Peter observed presently, in a casual tone. "Nerves?"

"I'm not your patient," Jacob replied testily.

"Agreed. And how is my patient? If that's not prying. I admit to wondering, from time to time, how he was faring."

"Please do stop trying to be tactful, Peter. It gets on my...nerves."

When the dessert plates were being cleared, Jacob decided it was time and rapped with a spoon on a water glass. He didn't have John's resonant, carrying voice: he pushed his chair back and rose, waiting until the conversations quieted and he felt he had people's attention.

"Thank you all for coming," he said, "and sharing this evening with us. Before any further festivities, please bear with me while I say a few words."

Dull, he berated himself. Dull, dull, dull. But the faces turned toward him were attentive, if resigned: some sort of speech was expected at these occasions. And it wouldn't be oratory that would determine things, the one way or the other, anyway.

Jacob said, "As some of you know, we've suffered an upheaval this past year, one from which we're only now beginning to recover. And this evening is about the past: about thanking those of you who have helped us through difficult times. Regardless of your willingness to continue that generosity into the future, know that you have our gratitude for kindnesses already performed. Nothing can change that."

Leaning both hands on the table, Jacob continued, "But this evening is also about the future. About where this community is going, and who our companions will be on that journey. And to that purpose, I wish to introduce you to someone." As he turned and gestured, Julia came forward out of the shadows and handed over to Jacob the child she held. Bracing his good hip against the table's edge, Jacob took a moment to assure himself that he was holding the child securely. Always shy in large gatherings (he'd had virtually no experience of strangers), Vincent had immediately ducked his head against Jacob's vest. Jacob held and patted the boy until Vincent would allow himself to be turned in Jacob's cradling arms. So everybody could clearly see that golden, inhuman countenance Jacob had at first found so shocking and yet come to love so well.

Trust, he thought, can only be bought with trust.

Over the sound of suddenly indrawn breath, Jacob announced clearly, almost defiantly, "This is my son. Vincent. And it's in part to introduce you to this son of mine that I asked you all here tonight." Jacob lifted his head, trying to meet the eyes of each helper. But he made eye contact with few: they were all staring at Vincent. Jacob continued solemnly, "Because of Vincent, we've discovered more clearly who we are. Why we're here. What our purpose is, as a community. We are, and intend to be, the sort of people who can cherish this extraordinary child. Be worthy of his trust--now, and as he grows. Create a safe haven and a nurturing place so that he, in turn, and all our children, may discover who they are and try to learn what is best about...being human. For they are each of them different, each of them unwelcome in the world Above. But they are welcome here. Welcome...and loved.

"I have no gift for rhetoric, as John had. But he said one true thing in this hall which I wish to repeat now. The child is the meaning of this life, the life we live here, Below. This child, in all his difference, merely makes more visible what we, as a community, have dedicated ourselves to protect and nurture. We wish to be the people who do this--Vincent's people. Loving parents to all our children, even though their differences be less conspicuous than his. He stands for them all. And therefore for us all, as well."

Bending a little, Jacob returned his attention to the child, shifting the boy's weight in his arms and patting him firmly as he did so. Vincent's eyes were wide and timid, but Jacob's attention was rewarded with a fleeting smile--a child's shy, hopeful smile...that showed the white tips of fangs.

"There's nothing particularly special about us," Jacob said, in what had become a general rapt silence, "that we should ask you to make sacrifices for us. We choose to be here. We choose to live as we do. But our children...have no choice. What we can give them is all that they'll have. And our children are special. They deserve well of us, as all children do. But these are the ones for whom we have claimed and accepted responsibility. What we have just eaten is virtually all we have. In two days, perhaps three, there will be no more. We shared what we had in trust that you will share with us. Not for our sakes, or the community's, but for the sake of what we and these children are trying to become together, I ask that you all truly be helpers to us: help us do whatever is necessary to come through this bitter winter together. If you can find it in your hearts to do that, this bitterness, with many others, will be turned to joy."

As Jacob turned, intending to find his chair and seat himself, he found Peter rising beside him and asking, "Could I-- May I hold him?" his arms already open in anticipation. With barely any hesitation, Jacob consented and stood back, watching the lanky doctor and the child solemnly inspect each other.

"What a big boy you've become," Peter remarked warmly, smiling, and Vincent's body lost much of its stiffness, resting more comfortably against Peter's chest. He ducked his head shyly, hiding within the curtain of his hair. "You must be--what: about two?"

"Today," said Jacob quietly, "is his birthday. Or the best guess at it we're ever likely to have."

"Well, then: even more of an occasion that I'd realized," Peter responded, and immediately, without self-consciousness, launched into, "Happy birthday to you, happy--"

By the second repetition, several other voices had chimed in--tunnel people, smiling: people who, like Ray Ensign (joining in loudly), had forgotten the date and its significance until now. People with genuine, unforced happiness in their voices and faces: for Vincent was much loved, Below. And by the point when the long, drawn-out naming of the birthday child came, everybody was singing. Without any exception Jacob could see. Drawn in by the familiar song of celebration of a single life, helpers and tunnel-dwellers alike sang "Dear Vin-cent" as though they meant it. And, hearing his name so loudly, in so many voices, Vincent hid harder within his tawny hair. But although uncomfortable, he didn't cry or struggle to escape as another child might have done. Though Peter would seem a stranger, Vincent would know his touch for that of a friend. Vincent knew such things, unerringly.

That was what had given Jacob the courage to plan this party, make or break--the realization that he didn't have to possess any special gifts of leadership or eloquence. Vincent was special enough for them all.

And what need to persuade others of some abstract vision when the golden reality was here, facing them--unique...and uniquely vulnerable?

When the song ended on its final long "You," with several voices attempting harmony, people's smiles remained, the former constraint wholly passing away.

Peter held Vincent higher to solemnly kiss his forehead. "Happy Birthday, dear Vincent, my former patient, now such a big boy. What do you say to that?"

It was soft, but Jacob and everybody nearby could hear it clearly: "Thank you."

Startled, pleased laughter erupted as Vincent proved what all the tunnel community already knew, that though Vincent seldom said anything, when he did it was to the point and unfailingly polite.

"Here," said Peter, turning back to Jacob, "you'd better take him. Vincent needs to meet his other new friends, and I believe I need to get at my checkbook."

The End