“Vincent?” From the upper level of Vincent’s chamber, the one that lead toward Chinatown, a small, soft voice called. “Vincent, are you awake?”
Vincent unbent his arm with reluctance, revealing the eyes he had been hiding behind the crook of his elbow. His head lolled on his pillows and uttering a deep sigh, he looked up toward the voice.
“Lin. Nǐ hǎo. I didn’t expect to see you today.” He allowed gravity to pull his arm back across his face and returned to the dark mood in which he was wallowing. I didn’t expect to see anyone today.
“Nǐ hǎo ma, Vincent?” The girl started down the ladder, one arm clutching a cloth-wrapped bundle to her chest. Despite the handicap of having only one free hand, the six year-old girl scampered down with the dexterity of a spider on her web. “Grandfather sent me with some of his special tea for Father, and I came to surprise you!”
As soon as she got to the bottom of the ladder, as she turned to face Vincent, Lin pivoted the bundle around behind her back to keep it concealed from his view. Through a sliver of space between his arm and his face, he saw her study him, saw her shoulders slump, no doubt in response to his lack of curiosity about what she was hiding.
“Lin, I always enjoy our visits together, you know I do.” Vincent struggled to be polite, his face still mostly hidden. “But today I’m afraid I’m not in a very good mood. That’s why everyone is leaving me alone.” Perhaps you should, too.
He couldn’t – or didn’t – control the grumble in his voice. Lin pursed her lips and crossed his chamber tsk-tsk-ing him as she went. She leaned on her stomach against the side of his bed and tilted her head to peek into the tiny space between the bend in Vincent’s elbow and his nose. A tiny finger patted the tip of Vincent’s nose: once, twice, three times. “I know just what you need, Vincent.”
That made Vincent’s eyes pop open. No one has tapped my nose like that since … He had to think about it. The last one to tap him on the nose that way had been Devin one morning shortly before his brother’s disappearance, and that was a full three years ago. That thought depressed him even further.
But Lin had sparked his curiosity. Vincent’s arm rotated upwards across his forehead. “Is that right? And what is it you think I need?”
Lin set down her bundle on the floor and climbed up onto the bed beside him. She stood on her knees near his side and hurled herself onto his chest, her arms flailing out to cover his shoulders. “I’ve got to squeeeeeeeze the grumpies out of you!” She hugged him with all her tiny strength and her bright laughter vibrated against his ribcage.
Vincent’s arms reflexively braced the little girl who threatened to wriggle off his chest in her exertions.
She leaned back on him, her nose nearly touching his own. “And if that doesn’t work, you know what I hafta do?” An impish smile played on her lips, her eyes wide with faux threat.
“What?” Vincent allowed himself to be drawn into her game.
She grabbed both sides of his face between her pale fingers. “This!” She began covering his cheeks with scores of sweet wet kisses.
“All right, all right!” A grin broke through his resistance. “The grumpies are all properly exorcised, I promise.”
“I didn’t know they could exercise.” Lin poked her small bony elbows into his sternum and leaned back. “But I’m glad I could chase them away. That always works when Grandmother does it to me.”
Sitting up, she tucked her long raven hair behind her ears. “What made you grumpy, Vincent?”
Vincent lifted her beside him and sat up, curling his long legs under himself. At fifteen, he was like a newborn foal that hadn’t yet grown into its body. He was all legs and arms which had a tendency to stick out at awkward angles at the most inopportune times. He’d taken to holding his elbows near his sides lest they bump things, which he had been often doing of late, much to the chagrin of William’s mixing bowls and Father’s books. Even Mary had had to scold him for knocking over her knitting basket.
Vincent looked into her wise, obsidian eyes and knew that he shouldn’t burden her with too much of the truth. Nonetheless, he found himself admitting, “Pascal, Rebecca, Bobbie, Olivia, Liam, Winslow … everyone … they all went Above this afternoon to a street fair in Little Italy. Only the littlest children stayed here Below. But I cannot go.”
“Oh. And it’s not because you’re too little, is it?” Vincent blinked and shook his head, surprised at how rapidly Lin had comprehended the situation. “I’m sorry, Vincent.” Lin’s palms patted Vincent’s cheeks.
He knew he should remain quiet now. He should change the subject. Happier topics should be spoken of with his young friend. Yet looking into her face so full of innocent wisdom, he felt acceptance and love, both unconditional and pure. Eyes as blue as daytime skies gazed into eyes as dark as midnight, and he could not keep his heart closed.
“These tunnels are my home, Lin, and I love them. But they also feel like my prison sometimes as well.” He bent his head, drawing a veil of amber hair between himself and his young confessor. “And those times, like now, I hate them.”
His whispered admission was met with tiny strong arms that slipped about his neck and held him in comforting silence.
Lin sat down in his lap, one arm still around his neck, and she patted the back of his hand. It was oddly comforting to Vincent. There was no condescension in the gesture, only recognition of a friend’s pain and a willingness to share and ease it.
“Tunnels aren’t all bad,” she began. “I like coming here with Grandfather. They might be my favorite place. Remember, Vincent, when you read me Babar and the Professor?”
“Remember how King Babar’s daughter, Nadine, found a cave? And she led the other children there and then they made it a playhouse. Remember how the grown-up elephants found them there and they all followed a tunnel that Alexander discovered? They all loved the tunnels and the caves! They even sold tickets so that everyone could enjoy the tunnels, too. See? Tunnels can be good. That could happen. It could be a ... a ...”
She floundered for a word. Possibility, he almost offered.
“It could be a might-be, couldn’t it?” She looked up at him with expectant eyes.
He let her think she had succeeded in her less than subtle attempt to cheer him. “You’re right, Lin. It might be. Many people might appreciate these tunnels if they knew about them.”
“Babar is what I came to show you!” Lin hopped down from the bed to retrieve the small silk-wrapped bundle she had brought with her. She placed it in Vincent’s lap and crawled back up onto his lap. “Open it!”
He unwrapped the crimson and saffron colored scarf to reveal a small white elephant, about five inches tall. Its diminutive trunk was held aloft as though it were trumpeting to its miniature porcelain herd. The glaze was crackled with age and wear, and there was chip missing from the elephant’s left ear, as if he had been in a fight somewhere along the line and lost. It wasn’t a valuable piece, as the Made in China stamp on its one rear foot testified, but it was clearly loved and treasured by the small girl on his lap.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Lin petted the elephant’s back and smiled down at it. “He’s the one I told you about. The one our neighbor gave me. She says his name’s not Babar, but that’s what I call him. She told me a really neat story about him, though. Wanna hear it?”
“Tell me.” Vincent was relieved that the conversation had moved to anything from the fact of his entrapment Below.
“She told me how Buddha’s mother met this white elephant, ok?” Lin took the elephant from Vincent’s hands. “She said his mother dreamt about it flying through the air, like this.” She stood up on Vincent’s bed and moved the porcelain statuette above her head like it was Superman. Little whooshing sounds emphasized the elephant’s flight, giving the impression that he was equipped with jet engines.
“Then it walked around her three times.” Lin demonstrated by walking around him, leaning against him as she stumbled on the mound of pillows at the head of Vincent’s bed. He smiled at his friend, the method actress, and held an arm behind her in case she fell.
“It touched her with its trunk.” Vincent saw the elephant coming toward his face a moment before its trunk rapped him on his forehead, making him blink in surprise. “And poof! It disappeared!”
Lin crossed her ankles where she stood and plopped back down onto the bed. “When Buddha’s mom woke up, she told the king – did I tell you that she was a queen? She was. She was a queen. She told the king about her dream, and he told all the wise men. And they all thought and thought and thought about what it meant. And they said the queen was going to have a baby boy who’d be really, really special.” She cradled the white elephant in her arms and rocked it back and forth like a baby.
“And they told the king that he had to keep the baby locked up in the palace all the time if he wanted him to grow up and be a great king like him. But, they said ...” She wagged her finger at Vincent’s face with a dramatic glower. “If the boy goes outside the palace gates, he’ll see all kinds of things, and that will make him into a wise man and he’ll change everybody’s lives.
“When she had the baby they named him Sid– … Sid– …” Lin’s forehead crinkled in concentration as she tried to remember the prince’s name.
“Siddhartha,” Vincent supplied.
“That’s him! Since the king wanted his son to be a king, too, he locked Sid up in the palace and he never let him out to go exploring. Hey, that’s kind of like you, isn’t it, Vincent? How you can’t leave here, even though this isn’t a palace, huh?”
Swept away as he had been in the child’s whimsical storytelling, Vincent was caught unawares by this comparison to his own life. He blinked at her in silence and before he could compose any response, Lin rattled on.
“Sid grew up safe inside the palace, and they gave him all kinds of good things to keep him happy. But one day, Sid did leave the palace. And he saw good things and he saw bad things, too, and he explored a lot and then …” She trailed off as though uncertain how to conclude her tale. “Then he became a wise man. Buddha.” She nodded as she concluded her story. “Maybe that’s what’ll happen to you, too, Vincent.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “I do not think that I will become Buddha, Lin.”
“No, not the Buddha part, silly,” Lin scoffed with a shake of her head at that notion. She handed him back the elephant. “But the someday-you’ll-get-out-and-go-exploring part. That could happen. That’s a might-be!” She smiled so brightly at him that he imagined that it must be what the sun would look like.
Lin continued talking, but her words became lost to Vincent. The phrase someday-you’ll-get-out-and-go-exploring kept echoing in his heart. It was a call far away and urgent, like a plea resonating through the Whispering Gallery.
The siren’s song of possibilities and potential resounded in his soul.
He looked down to see Lin watching him as he petted the white elephant in his lap. He hadn’t realized that he was doing that. He cradled it in his hands, careful to keep his claws from touching its surface, and handed it back to Lin.
She reached out for it, but then she stopped and gently pressed it back into his hands. “No, Vincent. You keep him. He can remind you of the might-be’s.” She scooped the scarf from the bed and kissed his cheek. “I’ve got to get home before Grandfather thinks I got lost. I’ll come back tomorrow with another Babar book, ok?”
“I would like that, Lin. Thank you,” he said to her back as she skipped to the ladder, the scarf trailing behind her. “I’ll see you then.”
At the top of the ladder, Lin turned and waved with the hand still holding the scarf. “Bye, Vincent!”
Vincent contemplated the porcelain elephant a long while. It should be kept someplace special. He looked at the ledge under his half-moon window, already cluttered with books and trinkets. His gaze caressed the chamber and lit upon the tall gable-roofed mahogany bookcase that stood opposite the main entrance to his chamber. He opened its elaborate wrought iron filigreed doors and placed the elephant on a clear spot inside. It looked wrong to him somehow just sitting there on the bare shelf. He retrieved a small, red silk pillow from the pile on his bed and placed the white elephant on top of it. There. That was better.
“A might-be.” He thought of his friends all Above at the street fair … of how it would be dark outside by now … of a certain isolated threshold in a quiet alley of Little Italy … and he looked at his cloak laying there on the chair by his bed.
“Who knows what might-be …”