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Long Upon the Land
Read by Margaret Maron
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LONG UPON THE LAND
On a quiet August morning, Judge Deborah Knott’s father Kezzie makes a shocking discovery on a remote corner of his farm: the body of a man bludgeoned to death. Investigating this crime, Deborah’s husband, Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Bryant, soon uncovers a long-simmering hostility between Kezzie and the slain man over a land dispute. The local newspaper implies that Deborah’s family may have had something to do with the murder-and that Dwight is dragging his feet on the case.
Meanwhile, Deborah is given a cigarette lighter that once belonged to her mother. The cryptic inscription inside rekindles Deborah’s curiosity about her parents’ past, and how they met. For years she has wondered how the daughter of a wealthy attorney could have married a widowed, semi-illiterate bootlegger, and this time she’s determined to find the answer.
But why are Deborah’s brothers so reluctant to talk about the dead man? Is the murder linked to Kezzie’s illegal whiskey business? And could his courtship of Deborah’s mother have something to do with the bad blood between the two families? Despite Deborah’s promise not to interfere in Dwight’s work, she cannot stop herself from doing everything she can to help clear her brothers and her father from suspicion . . .
Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
— Exodus 20:12
Let’s close our eyes and make our own paradise…
— “Let’s Fall in Love”
She first notices him because he always sits at a table off to the side of the USO club and he usually sits alone. For some reason, he reminds her of her father, the only person in Dobbs that she misses. Not her mother, not the friends she had gone to school with, and certainly not the boys who joined up as soon as they turned eighteen and who think she is counting the days till they return.
KEEP UP THEIR MORALE! the posters urge; and to do her part, she writes weekly letters that give them news from home yet promise nothing, no matter what they might think. If they survive the war—and one has already died in the Battle of Corregidor—they will come back and become doctors, lawyers, or bankers like their fathers before them. They will be good men, pillars of the community, and they will live in big houses and buy their wives fur coats or take them to Europe every three or four years once things settle down over there, but she never plans to become one of those wives herself. Turn into her mother? Devote her life to maintaining a perfect home, to keeping up appearances?
She drops out of Saint Mary’s after one semester. “It’s a debutante school!”
“So?” says her mother. Ever since Sue and Zell were toddlers, Mrs. Stephenson has dreamed of seeing her daughters make their debut together and she will never forgive the Germans for a war that has cancelled all debutante balls for the duration.
“You keep saying what you don’t want,” her bewildered father says. “What is it you do want, honey?”
“I don’t know,” Sue cries. “I don’t know! I just want to live a real life,” which is the closest she can come to articulating this nameless yearning to be needed, to make a difference.
“Do you want to teach?” he asks.
In his world, teaching is the most popular choice for women who do not immediately marry. “What about music?”
The organist at their church is a woman, a woman so pale and timid that he immediately searches for a more vigorous alternative and thinks of Margaret Mitchell, a distant cousin. “Or perhaps you could write?”
She is honest enough to know she has no true artistic talents. No desire to pour out her soul on paper and no deep interest in classical music. After years of piano lessons, she mostly plays Cole Porter and Irving Berlin by ear, while that one lackluster semester at Saint Mary’s only confirms that she is bright but no intellectual.
In eighth grade, a fiery and dramatic teacher reads them Wordsworth’s stirring call to action—“Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal.” That’s when a restlessness first takes root in her soul, a sense of time inexorably passing, a feeling that there is a life she is meant to lead, things she is meant to do, things that have nothing to do with the war, although it is the war that has let her mother be persuaded that they could contribute to the national cause. Mrs. Stephenson feels vaguely guilty that she has no sons to send to battle, which is why she finally allows Sue and Zell to go to Goldsboro in their stead.
Sue has pushed Zell to come with her, but she has no illusions that her job here at the airfield is vital to winning the war. Clerk-typists are at the bottom of the paper-pushing totem pole, and there is an endless stream of paper that must be pushed. Anybody who knows the alphabet can file. What raises her up an extra pay grade is her typing speed and accuracy. In the department where she and Zell work, every document requires four carbon copies. Make an error on the top sheet and each has to be carefully corrected with two separate erasers while all nine sheets—one bond, four carbons, and four onionskins—are still in the machine so as not to lose the alignment. Most of the girls in the typing pool average two errors a page; she averages one error per three pages and her slender fingers hit the keys so squarely and with such force that the fourth copy is almost as legible as the first.
The material itself is boring, though—reports and requisitions that are as dull as the deeds and depositions she types for her father in the summer when she fills in for vacationing clerks at his law firm.
After three months in Goldsboro, she tells her sister, “Let’s go to Washington. That’s where all the fun is.”
“Washington? Don’t be a goop, Sue. Mother barely agreed to Goldsboro and it’s only sixty miles from home. She’d never let us go three hundred miles away. Never in a million years.”
“We don’t need her permission.”
“Yes, we do,” Zell says logically. “I do anyhow.” Zell is bookish. She shares none of Sue’s troubling doubts and looks forward to becoming Mrs. Ashley Smith when Ash comes safely home. “Please stay here. I couldn’t stand it if you went and left me behind.”
“Who’s leaving you behind?” asks Beulah Ogburn, who shares the top floor of the boarding house with her brother and the two Stephenson sisters.
“Sue wants to go to Washington.”
“What’s in Washington?”
“Life!” says Sue. “Excitement! People! Bright lights!”
Sue gives an impatient wave of her hand. “You know what I mean, Beulah. Don’t you ever get tired of J.C. bird-dogging us?”
J.C. is their self-appointed chaperone and protector. A slight deafness has kept him out of the army, so he, too, works at the airbase. Night shift in the machine shop. He’d rather be farming, but he adores his sister and figures she’ll be ready to go home as soon as he’s saved enough money to buy a tractor.
Next day Beulah brings them a flyer calling for volunteers at the USO club. “They need girls to entertain the boys who’ll soon be going overseas.”
“Entertain how?” growls J.C.
Beulah reads the flyer. “Serve them coffee and doughnuts. Dance with them. Or just talk to them.” Beulah is outgoing and gregarious and her feet were made for dancing.
J.C. disapproves, of course, especially as it means they’ll be going out at night while he’s working. Sue laughs at him. “Zell will chaperone us, J.C. She’s practically an old married woman.”
And indeed Zell would be quite happy to continue their quiet nights, reading a library book and writing long letters to Ash, but she’s a good sport and Sue can talk her into almost anything. “At least it isn’t Washington,” she writes Ash.
They are popular additions to the club. Zell is a sympathetic ear for homesick young farm boys learning to fly, Sue augments the jukebox’s outdated selections on the piano, and Beulah can convince the most uncoordinated left-footer that he’s Fred Astaire. Like Sue, Beulah writes chatty letters to her brother’s best friend, a boy who plans to marry her as soon as the war is over. “Not going to happen,” says Beulah. “Footloose and fancy-free. That’s me!”
(Except that she will go and fall head over heels in love with a boy from Nebraska who will be killed in action so that she winds up marrying J.C.’s best friend after all, but that’s in the unknowable future. Right now, it’s laughter and fizzy ginger ale and Friday night movies.)
But Captain Walter Raynesford McIntyre, US Army Air Corps, has the same sad eyes as her father and she wonders if he is unhappily married, too.
“He’s too old for you,” her sister Zell says the first time Sue meets him away from the USO club. “Besides, he’s probably married.”
“He’s only thirty-four,” she says. “And he’s not married. I had someone take a look at his personnel file.”
They go to a club at the edge of the airfield. He drinks bourbon on the rocks and she pours a little into her ginger ale. They talk about the war at first, then she tells him about Dobbs with its small-town social constrictions and suffocating standards. In return, he tells her about growing up in New Bern, down toward the coast. New Bern may be bigger, he says, but its people are just as narrow-minded and Raynesfords lead the pack, so he understands her frustration at not knowing what she wants from life.
Unlike most adults, he does not suggest possibilities.
“You’ll know when you see it,” he says. “I did.” There’s sadness in his voice and bitterness, too.
He’s a flight instructor and she thinks he means that he wants to join the action, that he chafes at being kept stateside.
When he lights her cigarette, she takes the lighter from his hand. It’s a brass Zippo with his initials engraved inside a frame composed of a vaguely familiar design.
“Greek keys,” he says. “They’re supposed to symbolize the flow of life…or love.”
“Did your girlfriend give it to you?”
He slips the lighter into his pocket without answering. The sadness is back in his eyes and such a No Trespassing look on his face that she jumps to her feet as the jukebox plays a popular fox-trot. “Let’s dance!”
She falls a little in love with him and he’s sensitive enough to realize it. Nevertheless, it’s two months before he tells her about Leslie’s suicide and the dreams the two of them had of making a life together. He continues to badger his superiors—“I’m not a penguin, for God’s sake. Let me fly!”—and orders finally come through. The night before he leaves for Europe, they drive out to the river to watch the moon rise. She drinks too much and starts crying because she’s sure he won’t come back.
He swears that he will and gives her his lighter to hold for him until he does. “But if I don’t, promise me that you won’t be afraid to break the rules if they get in your way. We only get one life, Sue. Don’t waste it playing safe. Promise me that you’ll have the life Leslie and I didn’t get to have.”
Her tears glisten in the moonlight and she holds the lighter between her two hands as if swearing on a Bible.
“I promise,” she whispers.
Now there are diversities of gifts.
— I Corinthians 12:4
I almost forgot,” my brother Will said. It was only the first week of August, more than two weeks till my birthday, but he pulled a small, brightly wrapped box from his pocket. “Got another present for you.”
“Aw, you didn’t need to do that,” I said. “The trellis was more than enough.”
Will’s an auctioneer and does estate appraisals, too. Somewhere or other, in his ramblings around the state, he had found a beautiful wrought-iron trellis that someone had scrapped. All it needed was a good sandblasting to get rid of the rust and Dwight had gladly taken it to a body shop in Dobbs. He and Will said it was a birthday present for me and yes, I would enjoy its beauty once it was in place, but we both knew who was the more enthusiastic gardener. This trellis was seven feet tall with graceful leaves and bunches of iron grapes and once it was set in holes filled with concrete, it would support the scuppernong vine that Dwight had already begun to root from one over at the homeplace.
When he’s not digging trees out of the woods or transplanting flowering bushes to turn what once was a tobacco field into our own Garden of Eden, Dwight is Sheriff Bo Poole’s second in command. I’m a district court judge and I should have been prepping for the heavy workweek coming up. Our benighted state assembly keeps slashing the court’s budget, so in addition to my usual workload, I’d been asked to take a day out of my rotation and hear a case down in New Bern next week. Since the trellis was ostensibly for me, though, it was only fair that I help set it in place. Besides, helping Dwight erect a trellis was a lot more fun than reading depositions. But first Will and I had to wait while Dwight and another brother ran down the farm’s posthole diggers. Seth thought Andrew might have been the last to use them when he expanded his dog run a few weeks ago.
Our son Cal and his Bryant cousins never miss a chance to ride in the truck bed, so they’d gone along, too.
We had wrestled the massive weight from the back of Will’s van and while we waited for the posthole diggers, I took the little package Will had handed me and tore off the paper. Inside was a flip-top Marlboro box and inside that was something small and hard, wrapped in white tissue paper that fell away as my fingers fumbled with it.
A brass Zippo lighter.
I stared at it in surprise and my eyes filled with involuntary tears.
He gave a self-conscious shrug and his own eyes seemed to glisten for a moment. “Adam and Zach never smoked. You quit almost before you started and I quit last year. I thought you might want to keep it.”
I could almost see our mother’s strong slender fingers closed around it, cupping it in her hands to light a cigarette. She was never a chain-smoker—four or five a day was her limit, but I never saw her use a match. This lighter was always in her pocket, the brass smooth and golden. The engraved initials were almost worn off from the constant turning in her fingers whenever she was in deep thought. We should have hated it. After all, she died of lung cancer when I was eighteen. But it was so much a part of her that all the boys wanted it after her death. Not just her sons but her stepsons, too. Indeed Andrew was almost ready to fight the others until Seth stepped in and decreed that Will, as her oldest son, should be the one to have it.
It might have amused me had I been around at the time, because I was the only one who knew whose initials—W.R.M.—were engraved on the case inside a frame of Greek keys. By then, though, I was in such deep denial, so angry at the world, at my whole family, and at Mother for dying that I eloped with a sweet-talking car jockey, a man I almost killed with a rusty butcher knife, and didn’t come home for a few years.
The first time I saw the lighter in Will’s hands, I almost lost it, but for once I’d kept my mouth shut.
Now I opened the lid and flicked the little wheel with my thumb. It sparked, but the wick didn’t catch fire.
“Must be out of fluid,” Will said and reached to take it back. “Who was Leslie?”
He pulled the lighter apart to show three lines of engraving on the inner casing: 11/11/1934—Happy 25th. Below that was the name Leslie followed by four notes on a bar of music: C, G, E, A, a mixture of half notes and quarter notes.
“I never saw this,” I said. “Mother told me that the man who gave it to her was a flight instructor at the airbase over in Goldsboro. I think the W stood for Walter, but I forget what the R was—a family name—Raynor, or something like that. His last name was McIntyre, though, and she called him Mac.”
“Was he her boyfriend?”
I shook my head. “She said she could have liked him, but he was carrying a torch for someone who committed suicide.”
“Maybe. Mother never mentioned the woman’s name.”
“It would go with that scrap of music.” Will hummed the notes and I recognized one of the old songs she used to play on the piano she had brought out to the farm with her when she and Daddy married. “Let’s Fall in Love.” When she was feeling sentimental or flirting with him or making up with him after one of their infrequent spats, this was the song she always played. What he used to play, too. I suddenly realized that he hadn’t played it since she died. Not that I ever heard anyhow.
I looked at the date again. “He would’ve been in his early thirties when Mother met him.”
“So why’d he give her a lighter his girlfriend had given him?” asked Will.
“I think she was supposed to hold it for him as a sort of guarantee that he’d come home safely from the war. Only he didn’t.”
“So she did like him.”
“Not the way you mean. But she did say he changed her life.”
I shrugged. “It was one of those things she started to tell me, but then Aunt Zell or somebody came to sit with her for a while and we never got back to it.”
There had been a terrible urgency about Mother’s last summer. She had been too busy living to keep a diary and it was as if she felt that her life would be completely lost if there was no one who knew her stories. So between bouts of nausea and diarrhea, she told those stories to me.
Most of them anyhow.
Only later did I realize how much she had left unsaid. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I remembered all the details and nuances of the things that she did tell me.
“Would Daddy know?”
“We could ask him, but…” I didn’t have to finish the sentence.
Will nodded. “Yeah,” he said.
Daddy’s never been one to talk about his feelings, but we know how deep the hurt goes. He’ll smile with the rest of us when we talk about her—the house parties that lasted for days, the way she could play any song she’d ever heard, the time she lured his best looper away from the barn with better wages than he’d been paying, the way she teased that she fell in love with his eight little boys before she fell in love with him. But we knew not to probe deeper than those lighthearted family legends and anecdotes. Mother probably would have told me about their courtship had I been mature enough to ask, but I was as self-centered as any teenager back then. More interested in whether to go to a ball game with the team captain or with the coach’s son.
The boys were all off starting their own lives that summer. College. New jobs. Marriage. Having babies. And all of them were unnerved by her losing battle with death. Daddy was in such fierce denial that he drove himself to exhaustion with farm work from first light to last dark. Even though Mother was dying, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself. It seemed monstrously wrong that her day-to-day care fell squarely on me. I was supposed to be looking forward to college, not mired in bedpans and soiled bed linens and torn between grief and guilt.
I know now that those last two months were a gift and more than once I’ve wished that I’d listened closer or asked more questions, but she and Daddy were so right together that it never occurred to me to wonder how she could have married a roughneck bootlegger who barely finished grade school and who had eight little boys to boot.
She was a privileged town girl. Had it not been for the war, she would have made her debut in Raleigh wearing long white gloves and a virginal white ball gown.
He grew up in rural poverty, the son of a small-time moonshiner.
Her father was a prominent attorney whose associates tried to get him to run for governor.
His father had died in a car crash while running from a bunch of revenuers.
She had studied Latin in high school.
He spoke the Queen’s English—Queen Anne’s English, as filtered through three hundred years of informal usage.
She was forever correcting our grammar. Although she never completely broke the older ones from using double negatives, none of us could get away with saying ain’t in her hearing.
“It’s not fair,” Adam once grumbled. “Daddy says ain’t all the time and you never correct him.”
“When you’re the man your daddy is, you can say whatever you like,” she told him. “Till then, you’re fixing to go to bed without your supper if you keep arguing about it.”
At the sound of a motor, we looked up toward the house, but when the truck came into sight, it was Daddy’s, not Dwight’s.
“Speak of the devil and up he jumps,” Will said with a grin.
I slid the lighter into a pocket of my jeans and went forward to greet him.
Without cutting his motor, he yelled, “Call the rescue truck! Somebody’s been hurt bad and I’m scared to try and move him.”
I patted my pockets, but of course I didn’t have my phone on me.
Will already had his out, though, punching in 911. “Where is he, Daddy?”
“Down in the bottom, where Black Gum Branch cuts back from the creek. Somebody’s smashed his head like a rotten melon. Where’s Dwight?” He threw the truck in reverse and I scrambled to catch up with him.
“Wait! I’ll come with you. Is he bleeding? Should we bring some ice?”
“Might help,” he agreed and slowed to a stop by my back door.
I darted inside, scooped up some clean dishtowels by the refrigerator, emptied the whole bin of ice into a large plastic bag, grabbed my phone from the kitchen counter, and was back out to the truck in only seconds.
Will roared up in his van. “The ambulance is on its way. I’ll go get Dwight,” he said and dug off toward Andrew’s house.
“Who is it?” I asked as we fishtailed through the sandy lanes that led down to Possum Creek.
“He was throwed down with his face in the dirt,” he said grimly. “I won’t sure if I should move his head, but I turned him so he could breathe. Leastways, I think he was breathing.”
Our family farm is crisscrossed by lanes, some of which lead out to a couple of nearby roads that also cross the farm or serve as boundary lines.
“I was on my way to the food store,” Daddy said by way of explanation, but I knew it was only a partial explanation.
A lane might be a shorter drive from point A (his back door) to point B (his destination) than the road, but the lanes also let him check up on parts of the farm he might not have visited recently. Most farmers still walk or ride their boundaries regularly, keeping an eye on crops, on fences, on drainage ditches that might need cleaning, or for a dozen other reasons. As a boy, he could have walked the family’s hundred acres in an hour, but over the years, he and I and my brothers have added so much land to the original holding that wheels were a necessity. He’s never cared much for what he calls “stuff,” but let an acre of land come up for sale anywhere near the farm and he’s right there with an offer, cash in hand. Last time my brother Seth totted up all the non-contiguous bits and pieces, too, we were surprised to realize that together we own close to twenty-five hundred acres.
We had been driving along the northern edge of Possum Creek. Now, as we neared the turn by the branch, Daddy put the truck in four-wheel drive and edged off the lane into the field.
“I probably already messed up any good tracks for how he got here,” he said as he stopped and cut off the motor, “but you never know.”
Mindful of his words, I was careful to step only on unmarked sand when I hopped out with my ice and hurried over to the body lying on the far side of the lane. Another two feet closer to the branch and he would have been hidden by a thick tangle of weeds and vines.
Praise for DESIGNATED DAUGHTERS:
In DESIGNATED DAUGHTERS, practically the whole clan shows up at the hospice where Aunt Rachel has interrupted the process of dying to deliver a rambling account of all the things that have been on her wandering mind. It's quite a lovely deathbed aria, narrated in the honeyed accents of the region. But someone must have feared Aunt Rachel might divulge a buried secret because that someone creeps into her room and smothers her with a pillow.
Maron knows how to adorn a solid murder mystery with plenty of ancillary entertainments. But her broader theme involves the way families flourish when they work together for the common good. While there are charming scenes of group projects like building a pond shed and assembling a bluegrass band, the clan members Maron really cherishes are those who devote themselves to caring for the elders of the family. Living saints they are, every last one of them.
—New York Times Book Review
Praise for DESIGNATED DAUGHTERS:
In MWA Grand Master Maron's outstanding 19th mystery featuring judge Deborah Knott of North Carolina's Colleton County (after 2012's The Buzzard Table), Deborah's elderly aunt, Rachel Morton, lies near death in a hospice. Rachel attracts a crowd of friends and relatives as she talks of "babies, fires, and unpaid debts, of someone who beat his wife and of cowbirds and vegetables and broken jars." A distraction allows a killer enough time to slip into Rachel's room and smother her with a pillow, thus ending her ramblings, which apparently concealed deadly secrets. Unraveling those secrets-some 60 years old-is a slow, difficult process with lots of suspects among friends and family. Maron achieves a delicate balance as she explores differences between mistakes, sins, and crimes, and shows that justice is not always arrived at by conventional means. Humor (e.g., Deborah outfoxes an unscrupulous auctioneer) and social issues (e.g., the difficult role of caregivers to the elderly) add to the warmth of a large family with all its foibles, squabbles, and quirks.—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
Praise for DESIGNATED DAUGHTERS:
When Judge Deborah Knott gets a call from the convalescent home about her Aunt Rachel, she expects to hear the worst. She arrives to find her aunt awake and telling stories from her past, including some that are new to Deborah. Yet within hours Rachel is dead, and it is obvious that she was murdered. While Deborah and her husband, sheriff's deputy Dwight Bryant, investigate, her family becomes embroiled in a dispute with a dirty antiques dealer. Alternating viewpoints between Deborah and Dwight, Maron weaves family threads together with current events that leave the reader wanting to know more about the Knott family tree.
Verdict: The author's 19th series outing (after The Buzzard Table) offers loyal fans a fresh look at her expansive family and community. Readers will savor the slow-paced Southern culture and layered story. Maron was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2013.—Library Journal (Starred Review)
Praise for DESIGNATED DAUGHTERS:[four stars] Maron is still going strong with the 19th installment in her Deborah Knott series. DESIGNATED DAUGHTERS is a solid mystery where Southern charm meets murder. Maron delves into some social issues of today, and readers can expect a small-town family atmosphere with a lot of heart.Judge Deborah Knott's beloved Aunt Rachel is expected to pass away at any moment--but she wakes up surrounded by family and friends and begins to reminisce as if she were a young woman again. The Knott family's happiness at Rachel's great improvement is short lived when she is smothered with a pillow shortly thereafter. As Deborah and her husband, Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant, look into what happened, their path continues to cross with a list of unlikely suspects. The pair soon realizes that the motive for murder was a secret told during Aunt Rachel's mixed-up ramblings before her death--a secret worth killing for.—RT Book Reviews
- On Sale
- Aug 11, 2015
- Hachette Audio