18. The Carnal Pleasure of Work


Did I say the labor was unremitting? I had no idea. Now, in midsummer, all intellectual labor has ended, and leisure is a fond memory. We’re in the thick of manual labor, back-breaking at times. I have been canning for days on end, drawing water and chopping wood, standing for hours on end over a red-hot stove. I fall into bed exhausted and wake up sore. There are no weekends or holidays, and I’ve come to resent the mindless ripening of fruit and vegetables that must be cooked and canned, lest they rot on the vine or in the ground.

There’s beauty in all of this. The canned goods will feed us through the winter, and I enjoy the simple physical and mental challenge — the need to maintain endurance and calm in the face of an entirely new set of challenges. The children respond well, treating everything as a complex and absorbing game. Even little Claudius toddles after us in a determined fashion.

The men work just as hard, irrigating and weeding, and coping with the cows and pigs. The harvest and threshing will be very difficult, but I have no doubt that Tereus will master it. He’s very much in his element, organizing and driving the men through a rotating set of intricate, coordinated tasks. One can see how he worked well with soldiers. His charm is relentless and inspiring, and we all obey him cheerfully and unthinkingly.

Lavinia has been unwell, poor dear. She suffers from the heat, and feels that the work we do is fruitless and repetitive. I would not say this to her, but she makes herself ill by nursing resentments and grudges. She flatly refuses any dirty or difficult task, and then resents that Ancilla and I manage without her, and mainly ask that she occupy herself and refrain from complaint.

I have not spoken to her about this. I try to reserve my frustration for these pages. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for her at times. It would be hard to find someone less suited to rural life. I remind myself daily that she did not choose this life, and she can’t be expected to enjoy it. At the same time, it’s not a question of enjoyment. We’re doing housework to feed and clothe ourselves, not to pass the time.

Alas, the same is true of Lucius, for different reasons. He’s too fragile for much of the physical labor, and cannot be made to pay attention to repetitive tasks. He is a positive danger around farm equipment and livestock, and therefore cannot be trusted with even simple work. I will admit — again, privately, in these pages — that I feel real impatience with his basic incompetence. It surprises me that Tereus shows such patience and forbearance. He’s learned not to rely on Lucius, and works around him gracefully. I struggle mightily to conceal my impatience with both of them, and therefore tread on their corns daily. Tereus and I have spoken of this, and I strive to learn from his example — to grasp people’s abilities, use them when I can, and refrain from constant correction and instruction. It’s humbling to see how often I fail at this. I’m genuinely grateful to Tereus for his advice and guidance. More than anyone I’ve met, he excels at matching people’s abilities to the tasks available, and ensuring that work is completed.

The greatest surprise of our rural adventure is to see Tereus in his element: Thoughtful, calm and pragmatic. It helps to know that it doesn’t come naturally to him. Decades of campaigning moderated his expectations and taught him equanimity. I marvel at his patience and practicality. He’s not particularly kind or compassionate, but he’s very just. I truly never appreciated this side of his character — had always seen him in the grip of smoldering rage and frustration and boredom.

I cannot trust him, or forgive his previous cruelty, but I have come to appreciate his very real abilities. I have unwillingly progressed from respect to liking, and from there to real affection. I find that I do value this man for whom I once felt nothing but hatred and contempt.


The hay is coming in, and rain threatens. We work harder than seems humanly possible reaping and baling and stowing it; Ancilla and I joining the men in the fields on top of the usual cooking, canning, baking and washing. Lavinia has taken to her bed entirely, I think to avoid cooking for the rest of us. I cook and bake in the mornings and bale hay and help to stow it in the afternoons and evenings. I am happy.

When the first hay came in, I helped to load it into the barn. Tereus was unloading bales from the wagon. Each one staggered me as I tried to catch it, so he had to stop briefly to show me the proper way to position my body to catch them and pass them on. It’s a simple trick, almost fun once you learn it. Even so, I feel battered every night, and am sore in the mornings.


The hay is finally in! Now we turn to the other grain crops. I’ve continued taking shifts in the barn, and I find I enjoy it. The corn is itchy, and I feel tired, starved and thirsty, but it’s an entirely different use of my body and mind, and I find that it suits me. It’s pleasurable to find a working rhythm, an easy, unspoken coordination of limb and thought. There’s a real carnal pleasure in this work.

Tereus says I am good at it, that I have a knack for these kinds of tasks. I think he’s right. A year ago, I would have found the comment insulting. Now I am proud and pleased at my abilities. I could not have predicted this.

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

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