28. One Last Thing to Break

Soundtrack and Video: Frank Turner, “Recovery (Live)”

Six weeks later, Tereus presses a note into Valeria’s palm. It says, “Meet me in the hayloft tonight, if you can.”

Of course she makes her way to the barn, climbs the ladder into the hayloft. It doesn’t much matter what she does. It feels like her conduct can make things worse, but not better. 

He’s reclining there, smoking. He pats the spot next to him. “Join me,” he says. 

She does. He puts his arm around her. 

“I always have two thoughts when I see you up here,” she says. 

“What are they?”

“First, aren’t you afraid you’re going to burn this place down someday? You’re smoking and it’s crammed to the rafters with hay.”

“Darling, I’ve already burned everything down.” He grins at her. “What’s the other thought?”

She shakes her head dreamily. “It’s… I have this clutching sensation I can’t describe. The thought is something like, That should be illegal — you’re too sexy for your own good.”

He laughs. “Right on both counts.”

They lie together quietly for a moment, then she asks, “Why did you ask me to come here?”

He smiles down at her mischievously. “I just wanted to be with you. You know, I’ve never had a reason, or needed one.”

“Planning your headstone?”

He looks struck. “That is perfect: ‘General Field Marshal Tereus Shelawn: He Never Had a Reason, or Needed One.’ What will yours be?”

“I hope, ‘Loyal Wife and Mother.’”

“How’s that going?”

“It’s too early to tell. Marriage is a long game. So is motherhood.”

“If only being a husband and father were a series of short, decisive engagements,” he muses. “Like courtship.” He takes a drag at his cigarette, tries to blow smoke rings, fails. “I really am Alexander the Great — conquering Persia for the hell of it, then thinking, ‘Shit, what will I do with all these goddamned Persians?’”

“Are you really that bad at marriage?”

“I think the record speaks for itself. I ruined, not just mine, but yours.”

“Fair point.” She looks up at him, considering. “What did you want?”

“From you?” She nods. “A lot of stupid things. Pride of conquest, for one. I was bored and horny — that’s what should go on my headstone! The intellectual companionship, of course. That’s so rare, so precious.” He muses, gazes out into the distance. “I’ll tell you what it was — what got me. I wanted to be forgiven. I wanted a woman’s love — pure forgiveness. I wanted someone to see me, know everything I’ve done, and still love me and want me and care for me and trust me — place her life in my hands.” He glances down at her, but his gaze flickers away.

Her expression is both stricken and amused. “Congratulations.”

He shrugs. “I know. It was a pretty thorough fucking-up of everything.”

She turns to him, looking serious. “You had it. I forgave you for everything. All of it.”

“I know.” He draws her close, buries his face in her hair, an instinctive gesture, one she finds poignant. After a moment he loosens his grip, sits back up, reaches for his cigarette.  “What did you want?”

“I didn’t want anything. I was fine — as happy as I’d ever been. Things were good with Lucius, I was happy on the farm, engaged in a way I’d never been before, physically and mentally. I was satisfied.”

“But you were lonely at times — bored — intellectually isolated. None of them was your equal. Certainly not Lucius. You gave up your studies for him, for this.”

“Oh, Tereus, the cases are so different. It’s absurd to think I could have had everything I wanted. I had to choose. I chose Lucius, and I was happy with my choice. I really was.”

He smiles skeptically.

“How like a man,” she says impatiently. “You expect to have every little whim or itch satisfied, to take what you want without penalty, to break everything around you, and when you don’t get every last thing you want, you feel genuine self-pity — you honestly think you’ve been cheated! You break everything around you –” she breaks off.

“We’re not all like that,” he says quietly. “Lucius isn’t.”

“That’s why I love him,” she says fiercely.

“You loved me, too.”

“Yes, because I thought I could have something —” she begins to cry. “I’m sorry — I haven’t cried at all, not even when Lucius had his accident.” She wipes her eyes. He hands her his handkerchief, and she blows her nose. “I knew I couldn’t have it. I was stupid to want those things. I’m not beautiful like Lavinia. It’s the way of the world.”

He shushes her, tries to comfort her. “You are beautiful.”

“I’m not, and you know it. There’s a reason you picked her, and that any man would who could have her. Because no one gives a shit about good and loyal and kind. And as for smart — fuck that.”

He’s silent for awhile. He’s trying to remember if he’s ever heard her swear before. “Lucius picked you.”

“Because he couldn’t have Lavinia.”

“No.” He says it seriously. “That’s not true. I know that for a fact. He often said it — that he preferred you infinitely to her. He really did love you and want you terribly. He was afraid he couldn’t win you or keep you.” She looks up at him, wondering. He says, “In fact, he was afraid I’d steal you from him. It’s the kind of thing I did. Instead I took Lavinia.”

“So you went back and finished the job?”

“Apparently,” he says cooly. “One last thing to break.”

“Has he forgiven you?”

“I think so. At least, he understands. Has he forgiven you?”

A look of misery crosses her face. “It’s not a matter of forgiveness. I broke his heart.”

He kisses her. “Hearts mend. Poor Lucius. He’s lucky to have you. Oh, wait — that came out wrong somehow…” They both burst out laughing. “Oh, fuck, I miss you,” he says. “Every day, every hour, every minute. But Lucius needs you. I’ll be fine.”

“What will you do?”

He shrugs, grins, takes a drag on his cigarette. This time the smoke rings come out perfect. He admires them for an instant, then says, “Let’s see, what will I do? Start a war, learn Sanskrit, get drunk on absinthe and puke chartreuse for three hours, burn down the city archives, cut my dick off, figure out how to sow clover as a cover crop, emigrate to Australia, hunt boar with a crossbow and a Bowie knife, prospect for gold in San Francisco. Did I mention cutting my dick off? That seems important.”

“It all sounds amazing. You could do any of it.”

“Yeah, except for the bit with my dick. I’ve tried.”

Now she looks skeptical. “What, like, with a knife?”

He laughs. “If you could see your expression right now… Oh, honey, there are lots of reasons to drink, but a big one is that it changes the kind of trouble you get into.”

“All you did was grope parlor maids when you were half-passed out!”

He frowns. “I think you’re wrong there. I don’t remember everything that happened, but I’m confident that I also argued loudly with people, rode around aimlessly hoping to break my neck, terrorized my wife and children, and — let’s see — fistfights, probably. Thank God dueling had gone out of fashion.”

“Why, though? Why do all that?”

He gazes off into the distance, not pensively, but as if he can’t bear to look her in the face. “It gave life purpose and logic. The purpose was simple: To blot out the world around me and the feelings within. It doesn’t matter what’s happening if you can’t see or feel it. When I stopped, of course, I felt joy and pleasure and pain and remorse and desire. The world seemed like a rich and glorious place, and I thought, ‘God, why did I do that to myself? Why did I waste so much fucking time?’

“I felt desire and intellectual sympathy and pleasure in your company. I wanted you. I felt I needed those pleasures. I destroyed everything, burned it all down, for pleasure and love and sympathy. I always have. I can’t understand how to get those things, so I take them. Not just with you.”

Genuinely puzzled, she asks, “With whom, then?”

“With all of them. It’s always been fraud and theft and extortion.”

For all of his defiance, Tereus never speaks directly of Philomela or Inglorion, even to himself. He never knew Philomela’s name. He never spoke Fabius’s name or allowed himself to think of it. He wants to speak of them, but in his shame and confusion, he can’t think what to call them. And even if he could, what would he say?

That he and Philomela were alike. That he respected her as he strove to break her. The two impulses were wedded in his mind: He wanted to crush her because they were alike and close, and he kept trying because he never succeeded. She never spoke, and she never became his, though he rammed his cock into her, beat her into submission, forced her to bear his child. His every act drove her further within herself.

And that strange, radiant boy. Clever and handsome, often cut and bruised, always burning with hatred. Tereus caught rare glimpses of him in his natural state. He remembers descending to the kitchen once to find the housekeeper and pass on some whim of Lavinia’s. The boy was sitting with Sieia in the corner furthest from the hearth. He was in his shirtsleeves, with his livery jacket lying on a bench nearby. She was holding her doll up for him to inspect, explaining something, while her brother listened and nodded. The boy’s grace and tenderness were striking — the incline of his head, his smile. She looked up at him trustingly, and he seemed entirely absorbed in her words. A silly daily confidence.

And then the housekeeper turned to Tereus and curtseyed. He tried to speak quietly, but at the sound of his voice, the children pulled back, turned away. The boy placed a hand on his sister’s shoulder: Protective, comforting.

Tereus finished his business and left.

Finally he says softly, “He was what I should have been.”

“Who?”

“My son. Not Marcus. The other one.” She looks confused. “You know,” he says impatiently. “You saw him.”

She genuinely struggles to remember. “The Drow boy?”

“Yes, him.”

To her, it seems like a bizarre and morbid fancy — the idea that Tereus should have been like that feral child. She holds him, but she does not understand. It seems impossibly strange and distant.

He continues, “There were so many things not to feel. But when we came here, to Xialo —” His expression darkens. “Yeah. That came back. Pure, clean desire. I thought about it all the time. I missed —” He makes a choking sound. “And so I courted you thoughtlessly. I wanted so badly — it was incredibly sweet when you came to me here. Valeria, it was so sweet and pure — I could fuck you like that every night for the rest of our lives — I wish to God I could. It’s like hunger or thirst or cold — such a basic comfort, losing myself in you.” He’s been speaking rapidly, with intensity and focus. He stops himself now, and his gaze softens. “Yeah. I wanted your love. I wanted you to forgive me, and to let me make love to you. Not just once.” He stops himself again. “I didn’t mean to speak of it.”

“I know,” she says simply. “I felt it, too.”

He draws her close and says in a low voice, “If you would let me, I would fuck you every night and into the dawn — I would fuck you and lick you and make you suck me, and you would have my children. All of it. Every bit.”

He’s so close. The smell and feel and taste of him. She remembers with an agonizing flash that instant when he paused on the threshold, how he slammed into her and filled her completely. She pulls away from him frantically, shakes off his grasp. “I should go.”

“Yes, you should.”

She leaves immediately, without touching him again, speaking to him, or even raising her eyes. He watches silently, and makes no attempt to stop her.

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

 

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