24. The Furies Settle in the Rafters

When she rises at dawn, Lucius is still not there. She bathes and dresses hastily, checks on Camilla and Claudius, who are in trance. She finds Lucius in the library, curled up on the couch like a kitten. She feels real affection for him, the way he’s hunched one shoulder, wrapped his arms arounds himself. 

She kisses his face, bringing him out of trance. He blinks at her wordlessly, much like Claudius does. “You stayed down here?”

“Yes. I must have been very tired.” His eyes slide from her face. He rubs his eyes, and she notices how fragile his hands and wrists are. “I’ll be up in a moment,” he says. He looks like little Claudius: Fresh-faced, delicate, somber.

“If you’re OK, I’ll leave you. I was worried you were ill.”

“Oh, no,” he says vaguely. She leaves.

That day, it becomes clear how impossible it is to hide their actions, and how different their situations are. Lavinia knows Tereus is unfaithful, expects nothing else. It might be bitter that he’s settled upon her sister for his next chere amie, and that they’re all trapped under the same roof, but she’s inured to his talent for domestic drama. She’s sick and angry, but unsurprised.

Lucius has always trusted and relied upon Valeria. Their marriage has  provided a calm, stable refuge for both of them. She’s never given him a moment’s real worry, and has been affectionate, loyal, devoted. He knows what’s happening — he must. He’s as perceptive as Tereus is, though much more quiet. He cannot bear to speak of it or acknowledge it, but he suffers constant, terrible agony, like a toothache. 

That morning after breakfast, Valeria is washing dishes while Lavinia dries them. Lavinia hisses, “You’re not special. Do you know how many women he’s screwed?”

“No,” says Valeria flatly. She glances down at Claudius, who is playing at their feet.

“Scores. Hundreds. He goes through women like after-dinner mints, throws them back like drinks. He’ll eat you and shit you out.” Her face is contorted with spite. Valeria can be proud now — her gorgeous sister is livid and haggard, unlovely.

There’s nothing to say, so Valeria gropes through the water, starts to wash another plate.

“You’re a whore. You stink of him,” Lavinia snarls. 

For an instant, Valeria is cowed. Lavinia is older, has always been fawned upon and spoiled, not least by her little sister. There truly is nothing to say. They finish cleaning the kitchen in silence.

A stunned silence settles over the farmhouse, as if the Furies have settled in the rafters. Ancilla is grave and withdrawn, and even Septimus is subdued. The children look perpetually startled and occupy themselves quietly, though the adults strive to be kind and reassuring. 

All that day and the next, Valeria works hard and silently, and avoids her brother-in-law scrupulously. Lucius sits quietly and blankly in the library for hour after hour, barely speaking or moving. Lavinia alternates between taking to her bed and flouncing around the house, hissing vile things under her breath. Tereus, Valerius and Septimus work far from the house, striving to harvest the last field before the summer rains begin.

That second night, Valeria seeks out Lucius in the library. “Are you coming up to bed?”

“No,” he says. “I can’t.” His voice is slow and flat, as if it’s difficult to speak.

“Lucius —” she kneels down in front of him. His gaze passes through her. “Please come to bed.” 

There’s a long pause, as if he has to translate her words from a language he barely knows. Finally he says in a choked voice, “Please go.”

She does. She puts the children to bed. Claudius is agitated, and Camilla is solemn. Claudius curls up for trance, but he can’t stop chattering anxiously about how he broke a toy, his stomach aches, he’d prefer to keep the lamp lit, his hands and feet hurt, it’s hot in here. She kisses him and smooths his hair.  He’s so very much like his father: Delicate and haunted.

She finally lies down alone. The farmhouse is silent. The rest of the men are still out — they’ll be in the barn quite late. She lies there, in the hot night, listening for their return. She misses Tereus desperately. Through the window she can see lighting flickering on the horizon.

After some time, she hears Claudius’s voice, calm and clear. “Mama?”

She sits up. “What is it, sweetie?”

“Father is lying down in the bathroom.” 

“What?” She scrambles up, fumbles to light a candle.

“You know, by the library,” he says helpfully, as if she doesn’t know where the downstairs bathroom is. He takes her hand, and they trail downstairs together, barefoot and in their nightclothes. 

As they approach the end of the hall, Valeria sees a pale form huddled on the ground. The floor looks shiny, wet. “Claudius, honey,” she says, “Go to your Aunt Lavinia.”

He says anxiously, “I’d rather not. She’s angry at me.”

“Go to her right now. She will need you. I’ll be along presently.”

He toddles off, shoulders hunched, trailing one finger along the wainscoting. She distinctly hears him say, “I am not happy about this.”

Once he’s turned the corner, she forces herself to approach the bathroom quickly, candle held high. 

The linoleum floor is pooled with blood and water. At the far end of the room, Lucius has collapsed, deadly pale. The washstand is overflowing with pink water.

She hears herself make a whining noise of repressed terror. She sets the candle down carefully on the floor, feels for Lucius’s pulse. It’s fast and weak and thready, but present. She’s trembling, blank. There’s a lot of blood. His razor is open on the washstand. His shirt sleeves are rolled back, and she sees two neat, deep, parallel cuts down the length of each forearm. They’re still bleeding sluggishly. His skin is cold and clammy to the touch. She searches through the hamper, finds spare neckcloths, uses them to bind his wounds as best she can. Hands trembling with horror, she rinses his blood from the razor, folds it, replaces it on the washstand. She knows she’s not thinking clearly. His skin is terribly cold, so she fetches a quilt from the library and covers him. 

She climbs the stairs to the back bedroom, hears herself saying in a cold, decisive voice, “Ancilla, Lucius has had an accident. Please ride out and find Tereus and Septimus.”

“What happened?” she sounds groggy, suspicious.

“Please go immediately. He’s lost a lot of blood. Please.” Now her voice is sharp with terror. 

Lucius is too heavy for her to lift, and she doesn’t want to drag him. She waits for an hour or more, crouched on the bathroom floor, stroking her husband’s wet hair. She starts to smell rain, and fears that Tereus will insist on finishing the harvest. Stupidly, she also worries that the hay will be ruined.

After some time, Claudius comes trailing around the corner, sniffling. She snaps, “Go back, Claudius — stay with your aunt. Your father is ill.”

He stops, lingers. He hears her draw breath to speak again, and says, “I’ll go. I was a bit afraid, that’s all.”

Finally she hears the bustle of the men arriving, Tereus sharply ordering Valerius to bed the horses down, then go to Lavinia and the children. He’s there, curt with worry, smelling of hay and the outdoors. “What’s all this?”

“He cut his wrists. I’ve bound him up, stopped the bleeding.”

He nods, turns to Septimus, who is standing in the hallway. “You take his feet. We’ll move him to the sofa in the library.”

She starts to follow them, and Tereus says, “Valeria, you will oblige me by fetching a darning needle and button thread, clean towels, cold water, and a blanket.”

When she returns, they’ve got Lucius arranged on the sofa. Tereus is probing the cuts, and Septimus is standing irresolute at the foot of the sofa. “Septimus, please thread the needle and hand it to me,” Tereus says. 

Septimus steps forward, sees the cuts, and sinks to his knees. Valeria leads him to a chair, forces his head between his knees. It takes a moment for her to still her hands, thread the needle, and hand it to Tereus. 

“Thank you.” He begins to stitch the cuts neatly. They’re still oozing blood, and a yellowish substance bulges out. Tereus glances up. “Are you OK?”

“Me? Yes.”

“Dampen a towel and — yes, like that.” She blots the blood and hands him items as he stitches and bandages his brother’s wrists. “Please tuck the extra blankets around him. He’s still cold.”

When he’s done, he rearranges the blankets, smooths back his Lucius’s hair tenderly. “He’ll do,” he says. “It’s bad, but not as bad as it looked.” He glances over at Septimus, who is sitting up. “If you’re good to walk, go up to bed. It’s been a long day.”

Septimus starts to apologize, and Tereus cuts him off, saying, “It’s a common reaction, and involuntary. Go up to bed. Everything’s fine here.”

Once Septimus has left, Valeria asks, “Will he live?”

“I think so. He lost a fair amount of blood, but I’ve seen worse cases pull through. You should go to bed, too. I’ll stay with him tonight.”

She nods. “Do you need anything before I retire?”

“My tobacco pouch. It should be in my jacket pocket. A pitcher of water, and a glass.”

As she returns with these items, she sees the two of them from a short distance. She’s reminded that they look much alike: Pale, fair-haired and dark-eyed, with high cheekbones. Lucius’s nose is perfectly straight, while Tereus’s is slightly crooked — it was badly set after being broken in a boxing match with an enlisted man. Now, when Tereus is tired and grave, and Lucius is injured, they’re unmistakably brothers. 

She places the pitcher and tobacco pouch on a side table, pours out a glass of water. “Thank you,” he says. “Come to us when you wake. We’ll have to nurse him in shifts.”

“Did you get all the crops in?”

“Yes, thank God. Septimus can finish up. It will be OK. Soon there will be little to do but mend tools and work the soil.”

She leaves them, returns to bed, numb and exhausted.

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

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