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Rocky Mountain News

New Mercies

BY SANDRA DALLAS

Natchez, Mississippi, in 1933 is a place suspended in time. The silver and china are still dented and cracked from Yankee invaders. And the houses have names…and memories.

Nora Bondurant is running away—from her husband’s death, from his secrets, and from the ghosts that dog her every step. When she receives a telegram informing her that she has an inheritance, Nora suddenly has somewhere to run to: a house named Avoca in Natchez, Mississippi. Before, she knew little about her father’s people. Now she’s learning that the lure of Natchez runs deep, and that, along with Avoca, she’s inherited a mystery. Nora’s aunt, Amalia Bondurant, was killed in a murder/suicide, and the locals are saying nothing more—except in hushed, honeyed tones.

As Nora becomes more and more enmeshed in the community and in her family’s history, she learns surprising things about the life and death of her aunt. She also learns that kinship isn’t always what it seems, loyalty can be as fierce as blood relations, and every day we are given new mercies to heal the pain of loss and love.

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Author’s Note:

When you walk down the streets of Natchez, Mississippi, you walk with ghosts. So it was no surprise that while visiting an antebellum mansion there with my daughter Dana, I seemed to be steered to a book about a 1930s murder. Without opening the cover, I told Dana that I thought the story would make a novel. Reading the book on the plane going home, I knew it would. As it turned out, New Mercies has little in common with the murder that inspired it, although both are the stories of elderly women who are murdered in their Natchez mansions and the next door neighbors are the primary suspects. In the actual murder, the killer turned out to be a burglar, but in my story, the murderer is indeed the neighbor, because he’s found dead beside the woman’s body, a gun in his hand. I realized as soon as I began writing New Mercies that, although I was born in Virginia, I am a westerner and couldn’t write from a southern viewpoint. So the story is seen through the eyes of Nora, a Denver woman, who has secrets of her own. New Mercies is two parallel stories.

AN EXCERPT FROM
New Mercies

In the odd citron light of dusk, the house appeared grand and elegantly proportioned. Four fluted pillars equally spaced across the front of the old place rose two stories, setting off porches on each floor-galleries, I later learned to call them. The pillars were optical illusions, tapering slightly just above their midpoint to give an exaggerated sense of their height and sending the house soaring into the Mississippi sky. Avoca must have been one of the grandest houses ever built in Natchez. Of course, that was years ago. This was 1933, so the house was seventy-five or eighty years old at least, built before the Civil War.

Peering through the window of the taxicab, I could tell that while grand, Avoca also was in peril of falling down. The house was set back two hundred feet or more from the dirt road, and looking across the expanse of weeds and rubble that passed for a front yard, I saw that the paint was gone, leaving weathered and splintered boards, many of them lying on the ground. Six chimneys jutted out of the roof; two of them had crumbled to almost nothing. Windows were broken, and there was a hole in the center gable of the attic. The railing on the second-floor gallery had crumbled, and a ladder was propped against the porch floor, replacing wide stone steps, which were now broken and scattered.

Branches from a low-spreading tree that was heavy with Spanish moss hung over the roof, softening the decay but, at the same time, giving the sullen house a slightly sinister, almost funereal appearance. The air was heavy with moisture, and the lush foliage that surrounded the house was wet, overripe. It had rained earlier, and from time to time, beads of moisture the color of lemon drops ran off the leaves, splashing onto the ground and adding to the smell of rot. But the overwhelming feeling of the place was of misery and great sadness.

“Will you wait?” I asked the driver.

The man shrugged. He’d said earlier that he had taken others to Avoca, and I knew he thought of me as just another morbid tourist. But he was agreeable. “I ain’t got nothing to do but die and stay black.” He gave me a sideways look. “Folks don’t go inside. They just want to see where the goat lady lived, where they found them shackly bodies. You sure you want to get out?”

“I’m expected.” I wasn’t so sure of that now. The old house wrapped in moldering foliage was not inviting.

“Ma’am? You what?”

“I may be spending the night.” The driver continued to stare at me, his eyes wide, so I added, “Or not.” The day was slipping away, and the house had become gloomier in the time the two of us had sat there. “Would you like to come inside with me?”

The driver looked at me as if he’d been invited to enter a tomb. He muttered something about “hants.”

“What?”

“Hants, you know, raw head and bloody bones.”

Haunts, I thought. Ghosts. “Wait, then.”

He got out of the cab and opened the door for me, and I started along what had once been a brick driveway. Wide enough for two carriages to pass, it curved in front of the house before returning to the road. The drive was broken through and uneven where tree roots had forced themselves under the bricks and pushed them up, a good twelve inches in places. Weeds and briers as high as my knees grew in the cracks. I should have worn sensible shoes instead of my good slippers, but I’d had a notion-a ludicrous one, as it turned out – that I should arrive properly dressed. After all, I had wanted to make a good impression–but on whom, on the haunts that flitted behind the broken windows? A brick crumbled under my foot, and I stumbled, righting myself and glancing back at the taxicab driver.

He was slouched against the car, arms folded, watching, and he waved me on. “Room over there on the right. That’s where they found ’em. She was murdered cemetery-dead.” He seemed to be amused at me, but whether that was because his passenger was a white woman or a northerner or a fool wasn’t clear. I’d encountered Negro porters and draymen all my life, but I’d never known any colored men personally, never thought about them really until today, when I’d arrived in Mississippi in the wake of my aunt’s murder and seen so many black faces. I’d never thought about Mississippi, either, until a week ago, when the telegram arrived summoning me from Denver to settle the estate of an aunt I had not known existed. There was a time when getting away unexpectedly would have meant canceling a dozen social engagements, but that was before my divorce six months ago. Now I was at loose ends, ignored by former friends and with only a few business responsibilities.

I continued down the pathway and climbed the ladder to the porch, then tried the massive front door – it did not occur to me to knock at that crumbling house–but the door did not open; it was locked or boarded shut. I’d read once that southern mansions did not have keys to the front door because guests were welcome day and night. Besides, there was always a servant, or slave, to answer a knock. Avoca was not one of them, not now, at any rate. There was no way to force the door; a cannonball would not have broken it down, although something had broken the fanlight overhead, as well as the leaded-glass sidelights that flanked the door. The openings were not large enough for me to slip through, which was a relief.

There were enormous French doors on either side of the main entrance, each set centered between two pillars. The doors that led to the room on the right were open slightly; a tattered drapery had caught in them and prevented them from being closed securely. With some reluctance, for I felt like an intruder, although I had as much right to be there as anyone–more, in fact–I walked across the porch. I tiptoed, but the sounds of my shoes reverberated on the boards, which gave a little, making me wonder if they would hold my weight or break, sending me through the floor into the foundation.

But they held, and I reached the room without mishap, pushed open the door, and peered into the darkness, wishing for a torch or even a candle. Of course, I hadn’t thought of either, since I had expected the house to be habitable, with someone there to welcome me. Perhaps it was just as well there was no light, because I did not care to explore the old house at night‹nor by day either, at least not alone. It wasn’t that I was fearful. David had remarked on it once, saying, “I’d bet a four-dollar dog you’re the bravest girl in Colorado.” Of course, that wasn’t true. Nonetheless, I didn’t frighten easily.

Still, I was not foolhardy and thus knew it would be best to return tomorrow with someone besides a cabdriver. One thing was certain: I would not be spending the night at Avoca, even if someone had received the telegram with my arrival date and was expecting me.

Emboldened by the thought of leaving momentarily, I took a step into the room, which was cluttered with black shapes–furniture.

“You git.”

The voice came from nowhere, and it was deep and soft and filled with loathing.