5. The Things She Overhears

Soundtrack: Korn, Shoots and Ladders

When Fabius turns 18, the atmosphere in the Shelawn household becomes much worse. Tereus’ sense of shame and failure have grown more intense. He’s restless, full of schemes that don’t pan out. Increasingly, his anger focuses on his beautiful wife’s shortcomings as a mother or housekeeper. Unexpected expenses, a poorly dressed joint of meat, the fact that she hasn’t produced a second son — the list her errors and shortcomings is long, and punctiliously maintained.

Some of the older servants speak of Tereus with respect and affection — they’ve known him to be charming, funny, dashing, a wit and raconteur, a man of power and influence. They remember when Lavinia was the great beauty of her generation, courted far beyond Liamelia. The older servants all share, to some extent, Tereus’ sense that he is a great man who was unjustly brought low by envious, small-minded enemies. They feel that his pervasive rage is natural, and to some extent justified. Fabius and Sieia have never seen that side of him. They’ve always known him as an angry tyrant, an embittered, disappointed man. They have never known Lavinia to be glamorous, fun-loving. Her days as a debutante and fashionable young hostess are behind her. She maintains her face and figure because it is expected, and it gives her something to do, but the joy and excitement that animated her beauty have vanished. 

Curiously, Fabius does not connect Tereus and Lavinia’s downfall with his own birth. He sees himself as a bystander or witness, not as an actor in this squalid family drama. To him, they are public figures with whom he has never exchanged anything other than accidental, formal speech connected with his role as a footman. He has no sense that they’ve followed his career. His education has been haphazard, informal, that of a servant. He’s free to behave like an alley cat with women, or to maintain shrines, light votives. He’s often faint or injured, but as long as he’s in his place in a clean uniform each day, no one cares. 

Of course, Lavinia has been showing up at breakfast with finger marks on her throat, burst blood vessels. No one tries to stop that, either.

It’s one of the bad nights. Tereus has holed himself up in the library drinking, and Fabius fears he’ll have to carry him upstairs to bed. So far Tereus’ worst bouts have happened when he wasn’t on duty. Once he had to help Tereus’ valet guide his reeling steps, get him undressed, put him to bed, all in Lavinia’s tight-lipped presence, and ever since he’s gone to some lengths to shirk this particular duty. Word spreads through the servants’ quarters that the master got upstairs under his own power, and Fabius lights his votives and prepares to enter trance.

For a few years, Fabius has had a tiny closet in the servants’ quarters to himself. The arrangement began because of his headaches. He’s been permitted to keep it into adulthood, even though it allows him the privacy to sweet-talk and seduce a rotating cast of parlor maids, laundresses and shop girls. It’s late — a bit before midnight — when he hears a scratching at the door. It’s Sieia, in her nightgown and carrying her doll, looking cold and frightened.

“Honey, what’s up? What are you doing here?”

“I’m scared. Father is hurting Mother — shouting at her and hitting her. He’s very angry.”

“Oh, honey. I’m sorry.” He crouches down to hug her, and she clings to him wordlessly. After a moment he pulls away, looks at her. “Are you sure you should be here? It’s late. Can you go to your governess?”

She shakes her head, looks miserable. “She’ll just send me back to bed. She’s scared, too. Please let me stay here with you a little while.”

“Okay, sweetie. Just for a few minutes. I don’t think they would want you up here with me.”

As soon as he widens the door to admit her, she scampers in, burrows down into the bedclothes for warmth. He joins her in bed, and she snuggles up to his chest, has a good cry, and promptly falls into a trance. It would take fortitude Fabius doesn’t have to dislodge her, push her out into the hallway. So, with a sense of inevitability, he embraces his little sister and enters his own trance to the sound of her breathing. 

Over the next four years, Sieia occasionally takes refuge in his room. He can tell that she tries to save it for especially bad episodes. They both sense that it would be considered wrong, and does sometimes cramp Fabius’ style as a lady-killer to have his sad, anxious little sister appear like a restless spirit. Her terror is so real, though, and she feels so alone. He hates to think of the things she must overhear: accusations, threats, tears, begging. Screams, the sound of blows. 

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