PART IV

"Secrets"

Given the late hour, Valerius kindly insists that we should call a halt to further conversation. I readily agree, disturbed by his obvious fatigue. My pressing question is left hanging. He takes it for granted that I will stay overnight at the villa: it’s becoming a second home for me.

While the circumstances would dictate such a cordial invitation, I also detect a deeper motive. He needs me as a corporeal connection with his daughter, and is reluctant to let go, a reciprocity of sentiment which I understand and moreover, share with him. We have struck up a bond, beyond friendship, and ‘Servilia’ is her name. Nor can I forget the unequivocal fact that he saved my life.

Unspoken, we now cling to each other in joy, love, and loss. It is true that nothing in life is wasted, not ever pain and suffering, since these are the means by which Valerius and I have come together, a closeness which I would have thought unimaginable only a short time ago.

At my request, he allows me to sleep in Servilia’s room, infused with her longing and despair, that had served for months as her solitary retreat from the world. It may be a melodramatic contrivance, but I need to feel close to her by any possible means. Yet healing sleep is denied to me, and lying in the dark, savoring her lingering perfume with each breath, my restless mind wanders over the day’s events.

I have come to accept as I must, that Servilia is lost to me, at least for the near future. She is alive, as am I, so that hope still remains. Furthermore, Valerius promises to tell her of my miraculous ‘resurrection’ at their next meeting, in several months. I begrudgingly agree with him that a personal meeting with Servilia at present would likely be too much, all at once, and plunge her into a febrile state from which she may not recover.

I don’t want to be culpable for regressing her backwards to that catatonic, fragile condition that I have previously witnessed. Nor do I wish to place her in a conflictual situation in which she is ‘torn’ between her past love and her present vocation. The shock of responding to me, all at once, could mean undoing the newfound stability and sense of identity she has achieved at the sanctuary.

I must reluctantly, place her safety above my own feelings. She will need time to digest the fact that I am alive, at which time a later meeting may become possible. Meantime, I need to get on with my life, albeit a desolate one without my beloved Servilia.

Come the morning, Valerius and I breakfast together, somewhat awkwardly, keeping our conversation light and positive. I sense that we both recognize the abyss into which our feelings could readily sink. I provide further editions of my ‘adventures’; he describes the many vexing issues involving the management of his estate and army of servant-slaves; we both lament the greed and tyranny of our Macedonian overlords, and so on.

All good-natured chatter of course, on every topic other than the array of questions I had put to him yesterday regarding himself, Servilia, and most intriguing of all, whatever amorphous matters that had been hidden from me ‘for so long’. Avoidance however, creates its own demise: the more we suppress the obvious, the greater the dynamic tension set up by this suppression, until the dam bursts, and the obvious breaks through with a deluge. So it is with Valerius, and he is the first to break the taboo. I think we are both privately relieved, and I know that my impatience has taken on seismic proportions.

“I will start with the first of your questions, the ‘hidden’ matter,” announces Valerius, the businessman, coming strait to the point, “since the answer to that question, a long, uncomfortable, regrettable answer, will color all your other questions.”

“I’ll try to keep this brief. As you know, my beloved Hypetia died in childbirth, though baby Servilia survived, the remaining joy in my otherwise empty life. What you don’t know is that I have another child, a boy, or I should say, a man now. Following Hypetia’s death, I fell into a deep melancholia, not unlike Servilia’s recent bout.”

“I couldn’t make even simple everyday decisions, whether to put on one tunic or another. I just stood there, paralyzed, until a servant dressed me. I slept in snatches all day, then spent my nights wide awake in worry, regret, and grief. Nothing made me happy, my appetite became outrageous, and a large amphora of wine would be gone in a week. I isolated myself from people, even servants, and thought about following my wife to Elysium, or wherever we go after death, probably the underworld of Hades in my case.”

“Hades wouldn’t have you,” I say, as consolingly as I could manage, “but worse still for a Roman, would be your rebirth as an Athenian.”

He appreciates my weak attempt at humor, laughs heartily, and fires back a salvo.

“Oh, no please! Better in Hades, amidst the Gorgons and Harpies, than to be an Athenian! We Romans always ponder the warning told by your own Sophocles concerning the treacherous Athenian victory over your Trojan cousins. Instead of honest and manly battle, you employed the insidious trick of using a gift to gain entry into that fair city. So no gifts of solace please, lest I end up like your cousins.”

I should know better than to spar with Valerius, well-read, with his impressive library of scrolls. He appreciates the lightness of my diversion, though he tells his tale by halting bursts, and it is clearly painful for him. He continues, nevertheless.

“My servants became so concerned about me that at last, they sought the advice of an itinerant healer, skilled in medicinal herbs, who visited me with her clutch of potions and extracts.”

“While I resisted the interference at first, I nevertheless started to improve, gradually in the beginning, then more quickly, as life started flowing back into my soul. I asked her to come more frequently as I got to know her, then I asked her to stay overnight. She declined politely, saying that she was married, but I remained very fond of her. We continued to talk about everything and she became a close friend. She also helped me with managing Servilia, who had only just started to walk.”

He pauses to catch his breath, not without clutching his heart. I wonder why he is so forthright with me on such private matters, but he certainly has my undivided attention.

“Years came and went, and I became aware that her increasing familiarity with me was slipping into affection. We were still living at Samos: this was prior to the Macedonian exile of Athenians.”

“All this time, I continued to pay her for her visits, and I appreciated all that she had done for me. She was remarkably skilled with herbs, as well as a good listener. Talking with her over the years helped me to adjust to my loss, probably more than the herbs. We avoided discussing our personal feelings about each other.”

“Then one day, many years later, she arrived unexpectedly when it wasn’t one of her regular visits. I was alone, and she was distraught, crying inconsolably. She wouldn’t stop, so I put my arms around her, which helped. She told me that she had found out that her husband was having an affair. She had followed him, and caught him with another woman, who was also one of her close friends.”

“So it was a double betrayal for her,” I say, “She had trusted her husband, and trusted her friend. So you took her to bed to comfort her?”

I had never seen Valerius, the paragon of composure, so uncomfortable, so nervous. He avoids looking at me, but stares straight ahead at the wall, rubbing his brow. I speak for him.

“I’m guessing that it didn’t finish there,” I say, softly and gently, so as to avoid any impression of rebuke.

“Both of you began a relationship that continued.”

I hesitate to say what’s on my mind, struggling instead, to frame the right words: something descriptive, perhaps noble, that doesn’t come loaded with sordid judgement.

“It was a special friendship for both of you.”

He nods at the wall, pursing his lips, over and over.

Finally, he shakes his head vehemently, immersed in his own mental dialogue, as he wipes runlets of tears from his eyes. It’s a heart-rending experience to watch. Such pain, regret, loss, and sadness. I sit fixated, in stony silence, not without a few tears of my own.

Time passes and Valerius begins speaking once again, in a calm, deliberated voice.

“I finally told her that I loved her, but she wouldn’t answer. I begged her to leave her loveless marriage, which was very hard for her to endure. Her husband told her that he loved the other woman, but would remain as her husband, and not leave her. So she felt that morally, she couldn’t leave him either. They were in a stalemate, and went their separate ways at home, though apparently, it was a very tense, unresolved arrangement.”

“Did her husband find out about you?” I ask, hesitantly. It’s the obvious question to ask, but Valerius is fragile, also gravely ill, and I want to avoid any cutting remark. I don’t need to hurt the man whose timely intercession rescued me from crucifixion at Mytilene.

I didn’t need to worry. He looks up at me tenderly, bent over with dewy eyes, and if I’m not mistaken, coyly, I dare say, even lovingly. It’s a poignant moment, loaded with unsaid meaning. I feel awkward, perplexed, not knowing what to do, or say.

He replies, “He confronted her and screamed at her, but she locked herself in her bedroom, since they had separate rooms at this stage. I think he knew she was having an affair, but didn’t know who it was. She became very cautious in her trips to visit me, so that I saw much less of her.”

“You mentioned the Macedonians. Was she one of the early Athenian settlers on Samos?”

He nods. I knew most of the settlers, so I try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Now it’s my turn to be quiescent, as the pieces begin to drop into place ominously.

“You used a means of preventing children, I suppose?” I asked, as innocently as I could.

Valerius nods again, and I feel relieved, expressed as a heavy sigh. He pays particular notice, at which he also sighs, or possibly I’m mistaken, and it’s only a protracted breath due to his medical condition. Nevertheless, a very long and bothersome pause follows, after which he speaks softly.

“Despite everything, she became pregnant and once again I begged her to move in with me. She told me that there was no longer any sex with her husband, so the pregnancy had to be ours. I proposed marriage to her, but she would not budge. She was a very moral person and her vows, taken before the gods, were sacred for her. As she reached an advanced stage in her pregnancy, so her visits became less and less frequent. She told her husband that the child was his, that he had forgotten a tryst one night when they were both intoxicated, though apparently, he remained deeply suspicious. At last, the child came — a boy.”

“I only saw her once after the birth. She was very sad and hopeless, and told me that she would never see me again, which sent me into a panic.”

At this stage, I fear what may be coming, though I fight against it, clinging to the thin shred of coincidence, or hope, that it can’t be true. Our conversation has now withered to a standstill.

There is one more obvious question to ask that I should have asked much earlier, but did not. I must have known the truth intuitively, even at that early stage. I had kept up the conspiracy of denial between us, hoping that some new evidence would miraculously surface, steering my forebodings away from the precipice of despair that I saw looming ever closer, before me.

“What is the woman’s name?”, I ask, in a measured, raspy voice, not my own, articulating each word slowly and carefully.

The efficient businessman replies, without hesitation,

“You knew her very, very well.”

He uses the past tense, because…. she is dead.

Valerius must be my biological father,…… which makes Servilia my half-sister!

Mouth agape, I am struck dumbfounded!

A chill draught cuts through me. I manage a gasp, followed by a stream of guttural whimpers and murmurs, all incoherent, then throw my head back on the lounge, closing my eyes as if to shut out the doleful reality. My mind is reeling in overdrive, thoughts racing in all directions at once, disoriented in time and space.

This is why he had promoted my travel plans, hoping that I would find someone else. All Valerius’ suave arguments and philanthropic appearances served the purpose of concealment. While I was lolling about on the sunlit decks of the Hector, lost in a dreamy fugue, my intuition had sounded the alarm, knocking on the portals of consciousness.

I was right, but for the wrong reason. Though ambivalent, I had followed my intuition, encouraged by Master Panyotis. Only my reasoning was incorrect, but how could it be otherwise, when I had no inkling of such an unimaginable, unacceptable truth.

Sometimes, it just isn’t right to be right.

As if he is reading my mind, Valerius breaks the morbid silence that permeates the widening space between us.

“Yes, I admit that I had wanted to separate you both for obvious reasons,” he says, putting his paternal hand on my shoulder, “but you are also my son, my own flesh and blood, and I really believe in your talent. That much is true. So I made plans which I though were best for your future ambitions.”

After a fit of coughing, which sends servants scattering for water, Valerius continues.

“You changed those plans while they were in progress, and it is your right to do so, since it is your life. I rescued you from the serious accusations of those rabid Aristotelians, because I didn’t want you harmed in any way.”

Then he adds a rejoinder, brief but telling, that acknowledges his responsibility and sense of guilt.

“I owe you that, at least”

A few candid words that change everything for me. Adopting any attitude other than merciful, would be an act of cruelty, compounding the slew of misfortunate, misguided events, all too human.

Valerius pauses, takes his prune juice, a few olives, barley bread, and cheese, then settles back into his chair, rubbing his hands together, as if he was massaging his thoughts. Yes, it’s over, and come what may, the telling has been told! I don’t know if he is expecting a reply? I remain immobile, inarticulate. I think I’m still in shock, struggling to assimilate the unpalatable.

I wonder to myself whether Valerius’ ‘seduction’ of my mother was part of the ancient Roman attitude of having ‘an heir and a spare’, in which case I was ‘the spare’. As a male, I continue the line of succession. Servilia would not find the same level of ready acceptance by the Roman gentry of Colophon. Is this why she never felt that she could please him, and win his approval? Is this what she meant by her oft-repeated ‘father in my head’? I shake my own head, as if to push away such disturbing thoughts.

Time passes and we both sit staring at each other, mute and insensible, by all that has passed between us. I struggle to sort out my own thoughts: Valerius’ ‘seduction’, or my mother’s ‘infidelity’? I think back to the cliff and the sandals: my father’s mysterious disappearance on that dark, windswept night, and his certainty that my mother had leapt off the cliff. Thoughts tumble over each other. I startle. Abruptly, Valerius speaks up, surprising me with his steady, resolute voice.

“I will acknowledge that ‘I love you’ for the record, even though these words seem cheap, and are used so much that they lose all their meaning. In this case, you are indeed, my biological son….my only son. Whatever their misdeeds, know that your parents loved each other. You were….conceived in love. More than that, I like you, enjoy your company, and respect the accomplished man that you have become. I’m proud of you, though I can take no credit for that.”

He stops breathless for one of his frequent pauses, pauses that tug at my conscience, then picks up the thread.

“It must have been hard for you, without your mother. As for your father, as much as I know him, he is a hard man to like. Neither do I expect you to call me ‘father’. I have been mostly absent in your life, though I have watched you from afar. I don’t know where we go from here, or what kind of relationship we may have, or not have, in the future. That’s entirely up to you”

Another pause and several coughs.

“I have loved two women with all my heart, and they have both died tragic deaths. How many times have I wished it was I, rather than either of them”

“You may ask: why tell you now, even why tell you at all. Simply, my health is failing and I don’t want my legacy to be….one of lies. I kept it a secret all this time because Chaerestrata had wanted it that way. I promised her that I would do so, and to my everlasting regret, she sealed my silence with her unexpected death. Now, I have gout that’s becoming worse, as you have seen me hobbling about with my cane.”

He sips on a glass of wine, which seems to fortify his pallor.

“I use those symptoms however, to mask a greater illness: that my heart is congested with an excess of phlegm, or so I have been told, and I am not expected to live many more years. I told you now, despite your mother’s wishes, because I believe the living have a greater right to the truth, than do the dead. The dead should not control the living from the grave, or urn. I hope that you will forgive me — and your mother also.”

I listen intently to his explanations, whether confessional, apologetic, or testimonials of love, though I’m not sure what to make of them. At this stage, my reactions are mechanical. I don’t know what to think or feel. I suppose that I should feel angry, but I really don’t. I still have a remaining question however, like an annoying bee buzzing in my mind, especially about poor Servilia, my sister.

“Does she know? Have you told her?”, I quizzed. I miss her acutely, and a wave of longing engulfs me, though no one would know from my flat, wooden demeanor. I give nothing away, other than a rapid intake of breathe, a sigh of resignation.

Valerius tells me that he hasn’t done so yet, but will explain it all, as he has done with me, when she is sufficiently stabilized and secure in her new life.

“You were her lover, who then suddenly died,” says Valerius, “then you come back alive, and now you are her brother! Not forgetting that other perennial wound which never heals: baby Servilia who killed her own mother during childbirth. It’s a lot to swallow.”

Like me, can she trust anything at present? There’s no certitude. Everything is fluid. All those anchors that she and I took for granted, that kept us moored to reality, are gone in a flash. We are floating freely, directionless, at the mercy of forces that drive us one way, and then another.

Hither and thither we go, as we find out more about our lives that have been hidden from us. My thoughts are scrambled, as everything catches up with me. I feel like exploding.

Even now, she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, out there,…..

……waiting for her.

What more is there to come?

Valerius and I agreed to meet again in a few days time. My feelings towards him, though they may not be quite familial yet, are affectionate, perhaps endearing. I have come to see him as a generous, intelligent, and loving man.

I am still coming to terms with his newfound status not only as a blood-relative, but moreover, that of paternity. It’s a struggle for me to shift ground, and think of him as ‘father’. It seems that harboring ambivalence is not really a viable option for me either, overridden as it is by the pressing circumstances of our relationship, as well as his failing health.

Simply put, matters that were once merely casual, subject to the nuances of personal like or dislike, have now being placed irreversibly on a biological footing.

Then there is another issue to consider in the mix. Though he attempts to mask his symptoms in a manly display of nonchalance, I can plainly see that Valerius is struggling with a serious illness.

Whether friend or stranger, illness has always evoked in me, an immediate empathic response. I see it as a residual of my mother’s care-giving influence, when I would accompany her as a child on her rounds as an herbalist and folk healer. It is my lasting impression that her soft yet charismatic presence and sage advice were perhaps, just as efficacious as her herbal compresses.

Meanwhile, there is ample time to reflect upon Valerius’ startling revelations. He would have no reason to lie to me, especially about matters that compromise his honor. Furthermore, his ‘confession’, for such is its true nature, answers many questions that have long haunted my intuition: that some indefinably ‘thing’ was amiss. I have to believe that he now speaks the whole truth.

I do indeed, have a new father and sister, who now belong to me, just as I belong to them. Yet emotional inclusion doesn’t come so quickly as these loaded words would suggest. Such inclusion takes time, relationship time, in order to grow and flourish. It can’t be summoned up, with a blithe snap of the fingers, or by Valerius’ overarching goodwill that he uses to soften my ‘illegitimacy’!

Philosopher that I am, circumstances compel me to consider what ‘belongingness’ means for me. I see it as a state of being, an ineffable ‘something’ that permeates every thought, feeling, and action. If it is to be healthy, then it must be the opposite of possessiveness, defined as a behavior in which the assertion of control over another person is the paramount drive.

One may own slaves who belong to you as nominal possessions, yet interestingly, are treated without undue possessiveness. Marius, for example, who continues to be a slave, yet is included in our family, and treated accordingly. While it seems incongruous, he is an attentive slave, trusted friend, and personable companion, all at the same time.

Moreover, belongingness is not necessarily the preserve of families, as if by fiat, one state implies the other. In some families, for example, the obverse is the case. Belongingness is conjured up in name only, in which the notion of ‘family’ becomes a hollow trope for its antithetical state, abject loneliness. The latter was a common experience for me, growing up in my ‘family’ of origin on Samos. My mother did what she could while she was alive, and Melanchaetes was a loyal, playful companion.

When I think back to those distant times, I do so from a fresh perspective. I realize now just how much was happening around me, despite appearances, hidden and seething beneath the surface. This unspoken climate of mistrust and betrayal was deeply unsettling for a sensitive child.

I absorbed the feelings nevertheless, yet without the ability to frame those feelings into words, naming them, which is the first step in adjustment. Naming ‘feelings’ objectifies them, teasing them out from the fog of subjectivity, so that they become more objective, more controllable.

We call out our ‘sadness’ to ourselves, to examine, just as we do with our ‘joy’. This is what I have called ‘the swerve’, instead of responding blindly by instinct. Young as I was at that stage, I had no understanding of such things. I certainly couldn’t alter events, but nor could I come to terms with the chaotic feelings they evoked. This left me helpless and powerless, writhing in my own nameless subjectivity.

Regardless of my formative experiences, or maybe because of them, it seems to me that we all possess a powerful need to belong. This is where close friends like Hermarchus become important. They are not family, so they have no obligatory ties of blood, that may otherwise bind them to me.

Such friends freely choose to belong in my company, and are concerned for my wellbeing. It was this same spirit of belongingness, for example, that drove me to despatch a secured message to Hermarchus and my other friends in Mytilene. The message was relayed using one of Valerius’ galleys, telling my friends that I was safe, and will join them in the near future (though never in Mytilene again).

In my cycles of rumination, belongingness brings me back again to Valerius’ revelations, and that confusing meld between my family-of-origin and my new ‘secret’ family. While Servilia’s espoused father and mother are also her biologically parents, yet the same can’t be said for me.

This new knowledge makes me a bastard of sorts, which I think, interestingly, is the reason why I have always felt a profound sense of unworthiness and insecurity. After all these years living with one family since infancy, it is strange and unsettling to think of myself as a ‘bastard’ at my age!

Yet is it really ‘new knowledge’? Children are innately perceptive, like animals, before they are fully ‘civilized’ by society. I believe I have always known the truth, at some deep unacknowledged level, that I was an outsider. I couldn’t name it however, so I couldn’t examine it, and instead, spent so much time seeking approval, trying desperately to be an insider.

My very existence, the fruit of the womb, testifies to that conduit of connection between the two families. There is no other way to talk about it, other than to spit out the raw truth. Was I the unwanted outcome of a clandestine liaison between Servilia’s father and my beloved mother, Chaerestrata? Is that how my father saw me, reducing him to a cuckold? Nor could he throw any stones, much less, any accusations that would surely rebound on him!

Yet here I am, the living-and-breathing manifestation of that illicit connection between the two families. If only it stopped there! Instead, it manifests still further in the love-making between poor Servilia and I, both of us innocent pawns in a conspiracy of silence. Consanguinity has forever put an ignominious end to our physical union, better than any jealous lover ever could.

What an incestuous mess!

 

(To be continued next week)