26. Sympathy and Longing

Fall sets in. Winter is coming. There’s little work on the farm. Tereus and Valeria divide it between themselves silently and efficiently. Lavinia cooks on occasion and watches the children. Camilla continues to help her mother. Valeria tries to teach Claudius his letters, but he’s restless and can’t be made to practice with his chalk and slate. It doesn’t matter, she thinks.

She misses Tereus, not as a lover, but as a companion. Her other losses are much greater, but this one nags at her. They keep entirely different schedules, cooperate to avoid each other gracefully. She misses him, and thinks of the long, golden hours they spent talking. He’s such an interesting companion.

Once, after dinner, she goes out to empty the dishpan, and he’s in the garden, smoking. She pretends not to see him, but he says quietly, “Valeria, come sit with me for a moment.”

She obeys him, as she always does; sets down the dishpan, wipes her hands on her apron, perches next to him on the low wall where he’s sitting.

After a moment he asks, “Are you OK?”

“Yes, under the circumstances.”

“Valeria —” He breaks off, puffs on his cigarette instead.

“They blame me, you know.”

He looks over, surprised. “They do?”

“Of course. They forgive you, and blame me.”

He thinks about it, nods. “Of course. They know what to expect from me, but feel you betrayed them. I’m sorry, darling. It really is the way of the world.” He looks thoroughly miserable. He finishes his cigarette, stubs it out, buries it. “They’re wrong, of course. It’s not like you would have seduced me. None of this would have happened if I could have kept my dick in my pants.”

Her shoulders slump and she buries her face in her hands. “It wasn’t just that.”

“Of course not,” he says softly. “That was the least of it. But that’s how people see it. They always do.” He doesn’t touch her, but he studies her carefully, sympathetically. “Did you love me?”

“I still do,” she says, her voice harsh with misery

“I love you, too. I’ll never say it again. Some things can’t be fixed.” He strokes her hair, so gently that she barely feels it. “I wish I had someone to care for me like you care for Lucius.”

She looks up, startled, almost horrified. “He hates it. He can barely stand to look at me.”

“I know.” The sympathy between them, and the longing, is terribly strong. He wants to comfort her and defend her, and hold her while she cries. Finally he says, “If it helps, I’m thoroughly punished for my crimes.”

“So am I. So are Lucius and Lavinia. All of us.”

“Pretty much, yeah.” He takes her hand and kisses it, presses it to his cheek. “Goodbye, Valeria.”

She looks alarmed.

He gives a bark of laughter. “Good God — not like that. That’s not my style at all.” He stands up and strolls over to the stables. Presently she sees him lead Paris out saddled and bridled. He mounts up and rides off.

Though he is present every day, he is entirely gone.

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

 

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