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 probably 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.”
“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 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 fourdollar 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.
The voice came from nowhere, and it was deep and soft and filled with loathing.
I put one hand on the door, touching the drapery, which was velvet. Thick and very expensive, it was worn and probably covered with dirt. I should have retreated then from that murderous place, with the smell of damp and decay that clung to it. The man inside might have been a tramp or an intruder set on robbery and rape. It was doubtful the cabdriver would hear my cries.
But I was more surprised than scared. Besides, the man did not seem to want anything except for me to leave.
The disembodied voice spoke again. “Git for home. You got no right to step by here, dishonoring the dead.”
Just then, there was movement, and an animal wandered into the center of the room. It was the size of a large dog, but it bleated softly; the animal was one of her goats. For an instant, it seemed that the voice had come from the goat. But I was not much for apparitions—no believer in haunts, except for those that I had brought along with me—so I looked into the depths of the room for the man.
He emerged slowly and went to the goat instead of to me, pushing the animal toward the French doors. The goat took a few steps and stopped to nuzzle me, then went outside, its hooves clicking on the porch before it bounded off onto the ground. The room gave off a smell that was more than just rot, a fetid animal odor. The goats must have wandered through the house at will, I realized. The strangeness of the place and its stench, more than the man, tempted me to back out, but I feared that might make whoever was in there think that he had frightened me. And I still was not really frightened, for this was only a man in a dark room who wanted me to leave. Besides, the scene was so surreal that being there was a little like watching a picture show, one of those old movies back before talkies, when everything was exaggerated.
“What you want?” the man asked when it was clear that I would stand my ground. He moved toward me. He was an old man, and in the darkness, it was unclear whether he was black or white.
“Who are you?”
“Ezra, Miss Amalia’s old boy. I take care of things. You got no business here.”
He waited for an explanation, and when none came, he asked, “You come looking for treasure? Or maybe you another one of them newspaper peoples, mislaying the truth?”
I shook my head, then realized he couldn’t see the gesture in the dark. “No,” I said.
“Then what?” He took another step or two toward me, and up close, he gave off a smell that was not of goats, but a piney scent.
“This is Avoca, the Bondurant place?”
“You know ’tis.”
I straightened my back. “My name is Nora Bondurant.” I nearly added Tate, which had been my name for ten years but wasn’t anymore.
The man was still for a long time, making me wonder if he had not heard me. But of course he had, so I did not repeat myself.
“You Mr. Winship’s girl.” It was a statement, not a question.
The name seemed wrong. Whenever she spoke of him, which was not often, Mother called my father Wink, which seemed to me now like his given name, Wink Bondurant. But of course it was Winship Bondurant.
“Your name ain’t Bondurant no more. It something else.”
I was astonished that he knew of my marriage. “It’s Bondurant now—again, that is.”
“What you doing here? Why you come around too late, after all these years?”
“There was a telegram from a lawyer. It said that my aunt Amalia—that is, Miss Amalia Bondurant—was dead, that I was her heiress. There was something in the newspaper at home about her murder, but I don’t really know what happened, only that a neighbor shot her, then killed himself.” I stopped, a little annoyed at having to explain my presence to a caretaker, who, if he thought about it, worked for me now.
“So you come for the leavings.”
“I came because I was summoned by an attorney.”
Ezra snorted. “Where was you when Miss Amalia have need of you, when you can ease her years?” He came close and looked into my face. His skin was pale, and his nose aquiline; he was a white man. “You thirty-three years old. You should be here long time since.”
I did not remark on the extraordinary fact that he knew my age; instead, I said, “Not that it’s anyone’s business, but I’d never heard of Amalia Bondurant until a few days ago. And I don’t know a thing about her now except for what was in the newspapers.” The stories had caught my eye because the woman and I had the same last name. Of course, there was no reason at the time I read them to think that we were related.
“You never heard of her?” There was sadness in his voice.
“We didn’t know my father came from Natchez or even Mississippi, only that he was born somewhere in the South.” In fact, my mother said, Father really wasn’t southern at all, because he’d gone to boarding school in the North, probably had never lived in the South for more than a few months at a time. “Until the telegram came, we didn’t know he still had family,” I added, annoyed with myself for telling the man something that was none of his affair. “I’m all in and need to find a hotel. It’s clear this place is uninhabitable.”
“Not for Miss Amalia. This her bedroom.”
“That’s fine, but I don’t intend to sleep with goats.” I was a little ashamed of the remark, so I added lamely, “I mean, you weren’t expecting me. I’ll find a place to stay and come back in daylight.”
While it had grown dark outside, there was a little light from the moon now, and as the man followed me out onto the porch, his face became clear. It was devoid of expression. “I’ll come back in a day or so.” Impulsively, I held out my hand. After a moment, he took it. His hand was rough and calloused, moist and warm—and limp. Perhaps women in the South didn’t shake hands with retainers.
“You do that. I be out back, me and Aunt Polly.”
“Aunt Polly? You mean Aunt Amalia had a sister?”
He laughed, although there did not seem to be humor in the sound. “White folks call old colored ladies ‘aunt.’ You ask them why.”
For some reason, I felt relieved for this unknown Aunt Amalia that a woman had lived nearby. Not that in the end it had helped her.
As I walked back across the bricks to the taxi, the rankness of the house faded, replaced by the scent of some night-blooming flower. The air, so heavy with humidity that I did not know why it had not turned to rain, was oppressive with its sweet smells, different from the clean, dry air of Colorado, which always seemed cleansing. The southern air was like a blanket, heavy around me, slowing me down.
The driver still leaned against the taxi, one foot on the running board. He had not moved, and he waited until I reached the vehicle before he straightened up, unfolded his arms, and opened the door for me. When he got into the driver’s seat, he said expectantly, “Well now.”
The familiarity was unwelcome, but perhaps he realized that he had me at his mercy. After all, he could leave me there to find my own way back into town. I could wander off the road into the thicket of foliage, perhaps fall and hit my head and die, then decay before anybody came looking for me. Nobody else but Ezra would ever know I’d been here. I was not morbid, however, and the idea of my flesh rotting into the damp Mississippi earth almost amused me.
The more immediate problem was finding a hotel room, since I knew nothing about Natchez. “I won’t be spending the night at Avoca. No sir.” I shook my head. “Is there a place in town to stay?”
“We got two, three hotels and some guest houses, too, nice places where old ladies put out signs saying ‘Rooms to Let.’ ”
The idea of encountering another old house, even one in decent shape, did not appeal to me, so I told the driver to take me to a good hotel. If the accommodations were not to my liking, I would ask the lawyer who had contacted me to recommend a better place.
The driver turned the car around and started back toward town at a leisurely pace. “Look like you got in that house without no mishap,” he said, inviting me to tell him about what had transpired inside.
“Yes.” I did not relate the details.
“You meet old Ezra, I reckon.”
“The caretaker. He was there.”