Justina Moore Cooper walked back and forth in front of the picture window, holding a cell phone in one hand. She paused, trying to focus on the live-oaks and scrub pine outside streaked with a cold rain that beat through the branches and formed rust-colored puddles on the muddy driveway in front of her house. At her heels was her dog, Harper, a terrier mix. He yipped once, trying to get her attention.
Justina looked down over her shoulder. “Don’t bother me now, cutie-pie,” she said to the dog. “Go play with Swan.” Swan was Justina’s large marmalade tomcat, now curled comfortably in the middle of one of her sofas that faced a wall-mounted fifty-inch LCD television. Harper continued to sit at her feet, staring up at her nervously, as Justina turned and contemplated her spacious living room. She knew how lucky she was. She enjoyed her independence, her status, and her material comforts. All her possessions down to the smallest object, were expensive and had been chosen with care. Her house, with it’s five bedrooms and plantation-style architecture and in-ground swimming pool, was paid for and the deed was in her name. She had reached a position in the family that few ever survived to attain. Partly by luck, partly by skill, but mostly by the grace of God, as she knew, and said to herself daily, “But for the grace of God go I….”
Justina held the cell phone out in front of her. She inhaled as she gathered her resolve. Then with a vocal sigh, she entered the phone number of her only child, Julia, in New York City.
After several ring-tones that sounded like chimes, Justina was almost relieved that Julia didn’t pick up. But then, she heard the sound of her daughter’s melodious voice, cheery but strong-willed with the lilt of a South Carolina accent. “Hey, Momma!” she said.
“Hey baby. I need to talk to you. It’s important,” Justina said, trying to keep her voice steady, trying to control the tears pricking at her eyes.
“I don’t want to hear any more about the family thing, okay?”
“Jules, honey, they’re coming for you. Uncle Tristram’s boys, Eric and Scott, and Great-Aunt Polly’s grandsons, Daniel and Franklin. You know the rules. You have no brothers!”
“Momma, this is 2009, and I’ve left South Carolina, and I don’t give a damn about all this family drama any more.”
“I could be killed for calling you, Jules. I love you, I’m giving you a fighting chance! I can’t do anything more. They won’t stop. It’s going to be either you, or them. They’re of your generation.”
There was static crackling on the line as Julia remained silent. Then she said in a subdued voice, “Are you telling me, they are coming up to New York?”
“Baby, I’m telling you what I told you. Take all precautions. Move out now. If you keep on running, they’ll keep on trackin’ you. At some point you’ll have to take a stand.” Despite her efforts at self-control, tears began rolling from the corners of her eyes. “I may never see you again, or talk to you again. I love you more than I can say, my baby, my Julia. Remember everything your daddy taught you about hunting, about how to use a rifle. He was a stupid son of a bitch, but he knew how to ….”
“Momma, I have a baby, a husband. I have a job. I have a nice apartment….”
Justina’s heart jumped as she noticed the silver Ford truck creeping slowly like a panther in the rain up her muddy driveway. The water pilled and flowed over it’s heavily waxed surface. Harper began yiping and barking. She dropped her hand holding the phone, stepped quickly backwards behind the curtains that framed the window. She flattened against the wall, watching through the rain-spotted plate glass as the pick-up came to a stop directly outside, with a slight squeak from its brakes. She raised the phone hurriedly, whispered urgently, “Julia, I won’t be able to talk to you again. Not until … whatever happens. Baby, take care. Remember what you were taught. I love you, sweetie.” The door knob and locks of her heavy front door jangled and rattled as they were tested by her visitors. Justina heard the word “Momma” one last time, a question without a question-mark, as she ended the call.
“Justina, open this door,” boomed an enraged male voice from her front porch. She slipped the phone into one of her ornamental Japanese vases, and walked through the living room, into a long hallway, and to the foyer. Her patent-leather skimmers clicked along the cherry-wood floor. She recognized the voice of Daniel Thornwell, her aunt Polly’s eldest grandson.
She opened her door. Daniel thrust himself in, followed by his brother Franklin, then Eric and Scott Moore. Justina stood tall and lean and unafraid, facing the four. Harper sat at her feet, growling. Justina said “Hush now,” to the dog, and then said to her cousin,”You don’t demand I do anything, Daniel Patrick. Do you hear me, son? I can do what I like now, and it’s not for you to say.”
“We don’t lock doors,” Eric Moore sputtered, pulling at his baseball cap spastically.
She inspected him, this high-strung and hyperactive first born of her brother, Tristram Moore. “I changed the locks. I haven’t had a chance to get you the new keys.”
“If you was callin’ Julia to warn her, you’re dead, Aunt Justina,” Scott Moore added.
“I know the rules,” Justina answered calmly. “You do what you have to do. Like our family’s been doing for one-hundred and fifty years. Now what do you want with me? I can’t interfere, but that doesn’t mean I have to put up with your rudeness and disrespect.”
All four young men stared at her, caught up short, their own insecurity and fear beginning to show from beneath their pumped-up aggression. They had expected a confrontation with Justina the matriarch, but now they faced a middle-aged woman dressed in lavender corduroy slacks and a white cotton blouse trimmed in lace and a little heart pin at the collar. Her hair was naturally graying, but coiffed and neatly sprayed, with a little purple bow tucked above her ear on the left side. She was the vision of a sweet as sugar Southern lady.
Justina sensed their doubts and their hesitation. “Now boys,” she intoned, her voice like honey, “I understand what you’re thinking. I know how hard it is for you-all. Normally, though, we let God show us the way. Now why don’t you come in and have some coffee?”
Six-foot tall Daniel’s breathing quieted, his demeanor softened. He removed his hunting cap. The others did the same. “I’m sorry Cousin Justina,” he said, lowering his eyes. “But we can’t stay. We just wanted to make sure … to see if ….”
“To see if the family rules abide? And you’ll be expected to play your parts? And I’ll be playing mine?”
“Uh, yes ma’am,” her nephew Eric answered. “I mean, she’s your only kid. No elder is left but you. If you said it’s over, maybe we could see it that way, reach a deal.”
“A deal? As in, divide the property? Divide the spoils?”
Daniel looked at his brother, and Franklin looked at Eric and Scott Moore. Scott spoke up, “Well, yeah. When our father … died … you got everything, not us.”
Justina clenched her jaw to keep herself cool. But anger was beating against her chest wall, thumping inside her brain. “That’s the way of it,” she said, her voice like cold stone. “Those are the rules. Now, get out of my house and do what you have to do.”
Hours went by. It was dark outside. Justina sat in her favorite easy chair, absently stroking Swan who had curled up in her lap. The television was flickering, set to mute. She rolled it around and around in her mind — suppose they were sincere? What if she had missed the chance to save Julia and future generations? But no, Justina accepted, it was most likely a ruse. If she had accepted such a deal, bargaining to save her daughter and end the family curse, the boys would have been able to kill her then and there.
Justina carefully came to her feet, setting Swan like a warm ball of fur into the depression she left in the seat cushion. She walked out to her expansive wrap-around front porch, a structure that once would have been called a veranda. She hugged herself to ward off the chill. She peered into the misty, drizzling dark as far as the illumination from her yard-spots could carry. She heard an owl in the distance, then a howl. She knew that on the other side of the woods immediately across from her property, lay the family cemetery. Filled to the brim, now. Generation after generation reduced and whittled away by the demands of blood and honor.
Justina recalled the family catechism, how everything began with Roland Hamilton and his two sisters, Alice and Emily. Alice had challenged her brother, had called him a devil. She had defied his plans to marry her off in a business deal with an equally evil man. She had run away to New Orleans. But Roland found her and shot her and brought her rotting body back home, telling neighbors and the law that she had become a whore, a witch, a disgrace, and he put her down like the dog he said she was. She was buried in their family cemetery, just beyond those woods, with a wall built around her grave, as a lesson to all. That was in the year 1860.
Justina watched as strange shadows and shreds of fog flitted in and out of her yard lights, and danced among the pine, oak, elm, and locust trees across the road. She didn’t doubt for a second that they were all there, the murdered and their murderers alike. Maybe that was why generation after generation continued to do what their fathers and mothers had done before; they were afraid of the unquiet spirits, afraid of their disapproval for failing to uphold the rules more than their vengeance. Vengeance is for the living, and too late for the dead.
Which was the first rule that Justina’s great-great-grandmother Emily Hamilton Meredith laid down, when she managed to disgrace and kill her brother Roland during the course of the War Between the States. Emily emerged a proud Confederate widow, and heiress, determined to use every means necessary to regain the family fortune.
Justina Moore Cooper shivered. People, she thought, don’t understand that evil is bright and white. And that good is what is quiet and dark and comes out of our subconscious minds in the night. For despite a life lived with perfect obedience to the rules, she had finally broken them, earlier that very day. “Who are you out there?” she whispered, more curious than afraid. Was her great-great-grandmother Emily judging her? Was it the next generation, Roland Hamilton’s son Charles, who killed three of Emily’s children, only to be burned to death while he slept in his bed by a surviving sister, Justina’s great-grandmother Evangeline Meredith? Was Justina’s grandmother Selkie Warren — the last survivor of the next generation of cousins; clever, beautiful, manipulative — was she floating and winding amid those trees, attracted to Justina’s infraction like a moth to a flame?
Justina remembered her own mother, Ruth Anne Moore — who taught her the rules. Strictures, regulations, instructions for living and surviving. Such as, you waited until each generation was grown, married, and had provided children to carry on the family name. And Momma Ruth Anne had waited, as her sister Polly killed their brother Madison, and then was murdered — bludgeoned to death — by Ruth Anne in turn. Just as she, Justina, had carefully let Tristram eliminate their cousins, then their sister Lillian, before Justina was able to remove him before he removed her first. Did Bradley, Justina’s uneducated, slow but adoring husband, ever suspect the true nature of the clan he’d married into?
Justina never questioned their way of life. She didn’t have time. She had grown up with a sense of fatality, of destiny, knowing she couldn’t leave her predetermined path even if she wanted to.
She steadied her breathing and turned, walked slowly back inside her warm, clean, and comfortable home. She closed the massive oak front door behind her. Harper ran to her, making happy noises, his stubby tail wagging, as he stood on his hind legs and licked her hand. Justina picked him up and gave him a kiss, set him down on the floor again. As she entered the living room, she saw one of her favorite commentators was on the television, on the cable channel Fox News. Watching Fox News took her mind off of her problems, on nights like this.
On a night like this when her only daughter, the center of her life, would either accept her heritage, or die.