16. I Wish You Could Forgive Me

Tereus wakes well before dawn, like he used to long ago in billets and bivouacs. The farmhouse is still, though the others will wake up soon. He urinates and masturbates, spending just a bit longer on the latter activity. He slips down the stairs and out the door in his stockinged feet, boots in hand.

The sky is overcast, and the air is almost oppressively warm. He leaves his shirt half-buttoned, strides down to the stables. The horses are still asleep, snuffling in their stalls, so he starts out across the fields on foot, heading for the creek a quarter-mile off. It’s that quiet moment before sunrise when the songbirds haven’t started up yet. He almost laughs with pure joy at the clarity of his perceptions, at his fluid and buoyant step.

Beneath his satisfaction he feels a restlessness unfolding. Though he took care of his erection, he’s still half-hard, and he still wishes that he were with a woman — almost any woman, really — a warm, willing, lithe body to explore. He’s quelled the physical urge, but a richer and more complex desire lingers. How delightful it would be to lose himself in a woman’s charms even briefly!

As he’s returning from the creek, a skylark launches into flight, filling the air with an inarticulate and thrilling rush of song. Though he cannot make love to a woman, he can sing. He launches into a half-remembered ballad, quietly at first, volume growing as he finds his way. This particular song fascinates him — it swoops up and down his entire range, and makes him think that he should properly be called a counter-tenor, because he delivers the high notes with ease and purity. He toys with it pleasurably —  experimenting with note placement, striving to match the vocal quality of his upper range to the song’s expressive demands — until he opens the farmhouse door.

Everyone is stirring now. Ancilla has prepared bread, butter, cold meat and coffee. He fixes himself a plate and eats. Just as he’s rising to leave, Lavinia enters. The children have been running to and fro, and Lucius keeps climbing upstairs to fetch this or that, and she can’t stay in trance. She’s cold and languid. Tereus gives her a chaste embrace, and offers her his seat. He knows she’s unhappy and feels unwell in some indefinable way. She looks unwell — pallid, slow, sad. Her hair is straight and lank, and dissatisfaction has made her bracket-faced.

Tereus rarely looks closely at his wife. If he looked, he might notice, and if he noticed, he would be forced to act. He knows he should attend to her misery, inquire about her mild ailments, perhaps solicitously offer to carry her plate and glass. She would probably recover entirely if someone showed her a bit of chivalrous attention. He’s satisfied to live parallel lives. There’s been so much suffering on both sides. They really have consumed every possible scrap of kindling.

He decides to saddle Paris and ride through the fields, planning the order and logistics of harvest. As he passes by the garden, he sees Valeria picking strawberries. The vines are heavy with them now: Tiny, crimson, shockingly sweet. He joins her silently and picks several.

“You’re doing it wrong,” she says.

“I’m sure I am. I notice yours are in much better condition. Show me how.”

She does. It’s a specific, delicate wrist motion. He masters it quickly, fills his free hand and her basket swiftly, almost without thinking. It’s a military habit, at least for him, to practice a small skill until he’s mastered it, and to do just a bit more than he must. He’s not sure where he picked it up — it’s perhaps connected with an early habit of occasionally joining troops to help with physical tasks. It pleased him to learn the knack specific to each one, and to prove to himself and to them that he wasn’t leading from the back, remote from their pains and pleasures. He was forced to give it up many years ago, when his rank became so exalted that it encumbered him and everyone around him.

“You’re quick,” she says.

He’s tempted to relate his train of thought, but instead simply says, “I had a skilled teacher.”

She withdraws from even those mild words of chivalry.

They used to fight every time they met. He delighted in provoking her, and in preserving her low opinion with even his smallest actions. He’s still reminded almost daily of her disdain. “I know why you hate me,” he says. “I wish you could forgive me.”

She turns away abruptly, sets the basket down. He can’t tell if she’s sad or angry, or frightened for that matter. He realizes that his words put her in the wrong, left her with little to say. He says quietly, “I’m sorry, Valeria. I spoke without thinking. I didn’t mean to cause you pain.”

He withdraws quickly. Absurdly, he’s still carrying a handful of strawberries. To unhitch his horse he must eat them quickly, throw them away, or return to add them to the basket. He crams them into his mouth, and is forcibly reminded of the awkward greed of childhood — the shameful, almost self-punishing feel of it. The flavor is exquisite, and the contrast between the sharp sensual pleasure and his sense of shame and failure is almost unbearable. He mounts Paris, and rides off without looking back at her.

As he rides, he resolves to understand her, and to earn her confidence and regard. It is a foolish, idle project, but now that his physical and mental faculties have been restored, he believes that he can win her over. She’s a woman, after all.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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