A Winterfest Tale

by Nan Dibble

"One of the tables was in need of repair. Cullen and I carried it to his workshop." --"Dead of Winter."

[Written for the January 1994 Winterfest of the North Jersey Tunnel Community.]

Having labored to the top of the Long Stair, they stopped to rest.

Leaning on the long dining table, out of breath, lanky Cullen remarked, "No criticism intended, Vincent, but right now I really miss Winslow."

"So do I."

"Me and Winslow, we had this down to a science, I'll have you know. Every year, checking out the Great Hall, all the furniture. Lots of things we teamed up on--carpenter and blacksmith. What I couldn't fix, he could, and vice versa. And it didn't hurt that he was strong as an ox, besides. He'd have just tucked this baby under his arm and strolled away with it."

"Winslow...was a good friend," Vincent agreed abstractedly. "Good...to talk to. I miss him."

They still weren't comfortable with one another, he and Cullen, after what had passed between them during the unpleasantness about the buried ship and its disruptive contents. Though this shared chore should have been a good opportunity to heal the remaining breach, Vincent was preoccupied with another problem and couldn't seem to find anything to say. Peacemaking would have to wait for another time, he supposed.

"So," Cullen said, gazing at Vincent expectantly, "have you asked her yet?"

Unprepared for the blunt question, Vincent found himself bending his head and looking aside. "You mean Catherine."

"No, I mean Queen Elizabeth. You haven't," Cullen deduced accurately. "What's the problem: she got other plans for tomorrow night?"

"Not," Vincent admitted, "that she's spoken of.... Perhaps she has."

"Perhaps," Cullen echoed, mimicking Vincent's tone, "she can't understand what's been holding up her candle. Saw Rebecca at supper--the last batch goes out tonight. So is there one with her name on it?"

Vincent didn't quite know how to respond to Cullen's persistence. The problem about Winterfest wasn't the sort of thing Vincent discussed. With anyone...now that Winslow was gone. Over the past few days, Vincent had felt that loss particularly keenly.

"She won't be expecting a candle," he felt compelled to explain. "She knows nothing of our custom."

"So what she doesn't know won't hurt her, is that the angle?" Alert, sardonic, Cullen waited for a reply. When none came, he asked, "So what's the hold-up: Father?"

Vincent shook his head. "No, he assumes Catherine is coming. She is a helper, after all. All our helpers are invited to Winterfest. But...."

"But what? What you gonna tell Father when he wonders why she didn't show up--that she was washing her hair or painting her toes or something and couldn't make it?"

"I will tell him," said Vincent, and drew a deep breath, imagining that conversation. "I will say she.... I don't know what I'll say. Perhaps he won't ask."

"Ahuh. Right. So it's you: the hold-up."

"It's...difficult," Vincent responded. "There are...ramifications. Implications."

"Like what?" Cullen asked, expressive eyebrows raised, and waited.

Again, Vincent didn't know how to respond without rudely implying the matter was none of Cullen's business. Besides, he'd very much wanted to talk the problem over with somebody. Father was out of the question; he could hardly confide it to Catherine; naive, monkish Pascal, who'd never in his life ventured Above, wouldn't have understood the problem, and Vincent would have been paralytically embarrassed to even try to explain it to him; Devin and Winslow were, each in their way, gone. Which left him feeling alone, constrained, and silent.

Cullen went on, "So Catherine's a helper, and this is the time, once a year, we throw a party for the helpers. Everyplace you look, wall to wall helpers. What's one more? What's the problem here?"

"A helper...isn't all that Catherine is. To us. To me." Abruptly Vincent took hold of his end of the table, to end this uncomfortable conversation by resuming the task at hand. But Cullen just folded his arms, oblivious to the hint. And Vincent couldn't manage the table alone through the tight turns ahead.

Cullen formulated, "You figure that if you just wait long enough, the problem solves itself, and Winterfest's over, and she's not down here all that often so maybe she won't even find out what she missed, or mind that she missed it if she does. Something like that?" Vincent bent his head, ashamed by the accurate rendition. Cullen went on, "Then I'll tell you, firsthand, it doesn't work. You can duck only so long. Sooner or later, you have to square up and face the thing head-on."

"Later...would be better. A year from now, who knows...?"

"If she'll still be around, you mean? That's true, the helpers come and go. If we're just talking helper, here...."

"There are ramifications."

"You know me," Cullen said. "Still half a topsider, one foot up and one foot down. Some of these fine nuances still get by me. What ramifications?" Yet again, Cullen waited, then said, "You've taken in a couple of concerts together, right? And there for a while, there was talk about Connecticut--a visit?"

Against the tug of Cullen's sympathetic persistence, Vincent felt his hold weakening on the heavy load of silence he'd been supporting. "I couldn't. I promised her. To try. But...it was impossible."

"All I'm getting at," Cullen said patiently, "is that if you've been trying to pretend Catherine's just a helper, you been doing a real bad job of it. You haven't been fooling anybody."

"The other helpers...haven't met her yet. Don't know her. Except Peter, and--"

"Sure, Peter doesn't count: like Father."

"--and the concerts," Vincent continued, "they were private. Winterfest...is public. She'd be seen, Cullen. With me. And there'd be those...who wouldn't understand. Who might draw the wrong conclusion and perhaps even say something to her that would...embarrass her. Make her uncomfortable to be seen, that way, in my company." Vincent's hands closed into tight fists. "And if that happened...even the possibility-- I couldn't bear it, Cullen. For her to be shamed. On my account. Everyone knows: I've never asked anyone to Winterfest. Not since I was a child, making my share of the usual deliveries. Never asked anyone to be...my particular guest. The occasion never arose. No one ever imagined. I never imagined. Even our helpers, who are accustomed to me, they'll find it--" Vincent stared blankly at a wall, searching for a word. "--unexpected.... For myself, it doesn't matter, but...the ramifications. In public. Because I am...as I am. And perhaps...she wouldn't even want to come, knowing it's so public-- I'd have to tell her the whole community and all the helpers will be there-- And of course she'd come if I asked her, but if she were at all uncomfortable at the prospect, I'd know. I would feel it. And...."

"And you're dead scared to even try," Cullen concluded for him in the gentlest of voices.

"Yes," Vincent admitted, very softly--enormously embarrassed and relieved to be seen through so easily.

"Scared she wouldn't come, and twice as scared she would."

"Yes," Vincent responded, on a sigh.

Very carefully, to protect the table's cracked leg, Cullen settled his hip on a corner. "Vincent, you're really something, you know that?"

"Something," Vincent echoed, without emphasis but with much meaning.

"I mean, you're not proposing to the woman--just asking her to a party. Make it easy on yourself: have Father invite her. Or have one of the kids drop off the candle while they're delivering. With maybe a note--"

"No," Vincent interrupted forcefully. "If anyone invites Catherine, I will invite her."

"But you haven't invited her," Cullen pointed out. "Because you're scared to be seen with her in public. Not that you asked me, but that's a lousy reason. All hanging on maybes and ifs. If a person freezes up every time something maybe, possibly, might go wrong, nothing would ever get done."

That was true. But it didn't solve the problem.

"There's another thing," Vincent responded, with constraint. "Beyond that."


"I have tried my best...to ask nothing. Of her. Not to...fetter her in any way. With conventional expectations of...what is between us. Of what it can be. It's not only the helpers' expectations that concern me: it's Catherine's. Even the concerts are a risk--a kind of implicit promise. One that again may come to sadness and disappointment when it's not fulfilled. Like Connecticut. I think, wouldn't it be kinder and...and wiser not to even raise the possibility? I have tried to hold a certain distance. You know that I visit her, Above. But I have never passed her threshold. Never gone beyond her balcony."

"You're kidding: never?"

"No." Then Vincent corrected himself: "Once. But that wasn't...social."

"What, then?"

"She'd...been attacked. And was afraid to sleep. I watched over her."

"Ahuh. Right. I can see that, how it wouldn't be exactly social. So, let's see if I've got this right. The foragers say it's freezing, now, up top. And you're telling me you keep her standing out on her balcony till all hours in the freezing cold because you don't want to impose on her hospitality?" Taking off his cap, Cullen pushed fingers through his hair. Replacing the cap, he remarked, "Well, that's sure a high in good manners. Or something."

"It's important," Vincent responded earnestly. "I've taken care to leave her...a private space, free of me. Catherine understands, accepts the limits and the conditions that allow us to be together at all. She does not ask me in, knowing I cannot. Must not. So I think, should I now...ask her into my world, so deeply into the community's life as Winterfest is, to us all.... To pass that threshold. To make it that much harder, afterward, for her to return again Above...where her life is. And must be. The love of music, we share, so a concert...is a simple thing. Not very different from reading aloud the poems we both love.... But Winterfest--"

"It doesn't seem fair," Cullen proposed. "Kind of like teasing: offer a thing, then yank it back."

"It's difficult."

"I know from difficult. Let me tell you something, Vincent. Generally, this job would have been done weeks ago--checking out the furniture. You know the reason it wasn't?"

"You've been occupied. And no longer have Winslow's help."

"Uh-uh." Cullen shook his head. "That's the excuses. The reason's something else. The reason is that I knew this year, with Winslow gone, it would have to be you. And so I ducked this job--put it off. Till the last possible minute. Till tonight. Because I knew I'd have to do it with you."

Their eyes met for a moment. Then Vincent looked away. "I have felt," he said slowly, "a distance between us...since Mouse was hurt."

"Since I stabbed him, you mean."

"Yes.... You know Mouse bears you no ill will. You must believe that neither do I. Truly, Cullen."

"You know me," said Cullen. "I've never been a hundred percent down here: never made up my mind that this was for good, for always. Always figured I'd rest awhile, be some help maybe. Do my fair share and earn my keep, sure...but then go back, try again. Back to the real world." Cullen made a wry face and shrugged, self-mocking. "Never quite made up my mind this was real. Never really figured I belonged. So I kind of held back. Anybody said a crosswise word to me, I figured that was a hint I didn't belong and ought to go back where I did belong. Topside. With the rest of the hustlers. I'll tell you something. After what happened, that's changed. I figure, this is for good. I'm here, and I'm going to stay here, and that means making things right with you again. Because if I'm not right with you, I'm not right with anybody. I put it off as long as I could, but it's gotta happen. Not because of Mouse: we're OK, me and Mouse. I know that. And I do know you don't hold what happened against me. For you, it's over, done, damn near forgotten. I know that too. You don't hold a grudge--that's how you are. But one thing still needs settling--"

"You owe me no apology--"

"Will you please shut up," Cullen interrupted pleasantly, "and listen?" Sliding off the table, Cullen began pacing. "What I said, in the meeting. About what you'd do if I crossed Father. Like--kill me?" Cullen's expression was strained as he quoted his own flip challenge. "And you backed off. Quit arguing. Shut up tight. Because that was true, or near enough, that it really hurt." Wheeling, he faced Vincent, radiating uncomfortable remorse and a kind of determination. "I can't make it not be true. You made up your mind a long time ago that whatever threatens Father, you'll do anything to stop. Anything. No question, no conditions, no exceptions. It's what keeps this place going--that what Father won't or can't do, you will. No matter what. Everybody knows it, nobody says it--not even Father. And I said it, right out in public. And it hurt. Didn't it."

"There are some truths better left unspoken," said Vincent slowly. "But I know...what I am. And must be. Yes. I have killed. And will again. Not for Father alone, though his is the guiding mind. Without this place, this community, I could not survive. So I protect it. However I can, however I must."

"And even with a gun sighted on your forehead, you stopped to keep a damn fool who'd betrayed you all, from going over the edge of the drop."

"You are a part of us," Vincent said simply.

"Yeah. Yeah, I know that now. And when I quit being so ashamed I couldn't look anybody down here square in the eye, I appreciated it. Appreciated what you'd done. And I think it's time, and past time, that I said so, that's all. You saved my life, Vincent--in more ways than one. Gave it back to me, when I'd broken it, cut it, and tried my best to throw it away. I put it off, but now's the time to get it out: look you in the eye and tell you I can live with what I did now...because of what you did. I can even live with being forgiven, which sometimes is even harder. I'm not sorry I said what I did--I'm sorry it's something nobody talks about, as if it was something to be ashamed of. Something you ought to be ashamed of. It isn't. You go to the limit, maybe past the limit, for anybody down here. Even me. So the thing I finally have to say is, thank you. For just being what you are, doing what you do. Everything you do. If you run for king, you got my vote."

There was a silence between them...but not the same silence as before.

"This community," Vincent said, after a minute, "is founded on consent. Not force. Never force. But force is sometimes required to make that consent possible. To allow everyone to be free to choose, without compulsion or threat of compulsion."

"And I said you'd turn it on me if I didn't agree. If I didn't go along with what everybody else wanted. I was wrong about that. It's just...that I always felt different. Like I didn't quite belong...."

"I understand," Vincent said gravely, and Cullen gave him a sharp glance.

"I'll just bet you do. Yeah. And what I know now is that I got my place here. I'm a carpenter. I make things, fix things. People depend on me. Like they depend on you, in a way. We both belong, even if we don't always agree. Which brings us back to Catherine. You should ask her, and I'll tell you why. No, don't argue yet, let me finish. You're trying so damn hard not to impose on her that you're not giving her a choice. To say yes or no, and then live with whatever comes of it. You're trying so hard to protect her from the possible consequences of her choice that you're not letting her make any to begin with. She doesn't even know about Winterfest. Doesn't know that, just as a helper, she's entitled to come. You haven't told her. Haven't let her choose. And that's not right."

As Cullen stood, arms folded, looking at him, Vincent tried to consider the problem from this new angle. Was is possible that, in his determination to protect Catherine, he was nevertheless being unfair to her?

"After all," Cullen added, "you want her to come--don't you?"

"Oh, yes," Vincent affirmed, so fervently he was immediately embarrassed. "But--"

"That's enough buts for one evening. Tell the lady. Let her choose. And if anybody so much as looks at either one of you crosswise, know that I personally will draw them aside and tell them what's what, and if that doesn't work, I'll personally escort them out the door. That's a promise. I'll do whatever I need to but no fuss, no bother. It's my turn: this time, I'll run interference for you. Nothing will happen, Vincent--I promise."

Vincent found himself grinning. Probably showing every tooth he had, which he normally avoided. But somehow he didn't care. Cullen...was family. So it didn't matter that grinning called attention to Vincent's differences: the cleft and catlike upper lip; the fangs.

"You think I should?" Vincent inquired shyly.

"Absolutely. But--" Cullen added sharply, halting Vincent's move to slide between the table and the passage wall (almost, he vaulted over the obstacle), "after we get done hauling this table--right?"

"Of course. Yes. I wasn't thinking."

"No," Cullen responded kindly, smiling, "I guess not. Don't worry: there'll still be a candle or two left when you get there. And Catherine will still be up. Likely she's already out on the balcony, freezing for practice, waiting for you."

"Perhaps." Suddenly filled with impatience to finish this chore, Vincent heaved up his end of the table.

"No, no, no!" said Cullen. "You gotta learn how these things work. Lead man, that's me, lifts first or you're gonna shove me into something! It's gonna take me years to get you trained right. Me and Winslow, we had it down to a science. On three, lift: one, two, three."

As they started down the passage with the heavy table balanced between them, Vincent thought again of Winslow, that strong and unsentimental companion, following Cullen as he himself was doing now. Vincent still missed him. But somehow the sadness of the loss had been eased. His thoughts were too full of Winterfest and the prospect of candlelight sparkling in Catherine's eyes. Bolstered by Cullen's promise, he might even work up the courage to ask her to dance.

The End