Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Legacy -- Part I

by Renee Holland Davidson

The log cabin stood on the north shore of Lake Stoddard, lined on three sides by groves of pine and redwood. For two years, it languished unoccupied--since the day Elliot Murdock took his shotgun to his golden retriever, Max, then turned it upon himself, splattering the gray matter of his gone-mad brain all over the crazy quilt handed down by five generations of Murdocks.

That wasn't the first time a Murdock had fallen victim to a violent end in that log cabin--the family Bible only lists dates of births and deaths, but local legend fills in the rest.

In 1902, Samuel Murdock fell off the sloped roof, narrowly missed a bed of redwood branches, and dove headfirst onto his just-sharpened axe that had somehow gotten lodged in between a tree stump and the three-quarters full rain barrel.

Twenty-three years later, seventeen year-old Susanna Murdock was strangled in her bed two nights before her intended marriage, her fiancé nowhere to be found.

And now, I, Casey Murdock, granddaughter and sole living descendent of the aforementioned Elliot, had come to claim my share of Stoddard Mountain.


When I arrived, the Starving Students moving van was parked outside, next to a dust-covered Toyota pick-up. The two movers, both unshaven and beer-bellied, looked well past student age and far from starving. They eyed Bear warily, taking a half step back as he jumped from the passenger seat.

One-hundred-fifteen-pound Rotweilers tend to provoke that kind of reaction, but in Bear's case, it was only for show, since he fully lived up to his given name of Teddy Bear.

The taller guy hooked his thumb at the cabin, doubt wavering over his face. "This it?"

I gave the cabin a once over. "Yep, that's it." I knew what those two were thinking--From a luxury high rise in the city to an eight-hundred-square-foot hovel constructed of rotting Lincoln Logs. Boy, did this lady get the shaft.

The scent of Lysol and lemon oil assaulted me as I opened the door. The janitorial crew I'd hired was finishing up a two-day cleaning junket. "Ma'am, you sure you don't want us to cart this stuff away?" A nervous-looking stick of a man pointed to the far end of the room, where a dozen boxes were stacked.

From where I stood, I could see a chair leg, a rusted toaster, a small wagon wheel, and a faded garden troll poking out from one of the boxes. "No, thanks. I'll take care of it." Any armchair detective knows there's no better way to get to know a person than to dig through his trash.

"Hey, lady, where do you want this?" The movers were inside the front door straining under the weight of my old steamer trunk.

The smaller one dropped his end of the trunk and muttered, "What the hell's she got in here?"

I knew I wasn't meant to hear, but answered anyway, "Books."

"Books?" they both asked incredulously, their eyes roaming over the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined three walls, jam-packed with books of every subject and genre.

"I'm a writer." I didn't add that I'd never been published. "There's no room in here, please take it out to the shed."

There wasn't much more for them to bring in. The only furniture I'd brought was a sofa and bed. Grandpa Elliot's massive oak desk was an antique treasure, and I'd make do with the linoleum-topped kitchen table and mismatched chairs. Add to that a few boxes of household and personal items, and three suitcases of clothes, and that was that. I was officially moved in.

After everyone left, I settled myself at the desk and placed my laptop on the cracked leather blotter. I released a contented sigh and gazed out the window. The magnificent view of the lake and the mountain beyond made me feel at once powerful and insignificant.

Much as I hated the way it sounded, I'd come up to the mountains to “find myself.” No, I wasn't into New Age mumbo-jumbo, or any of that touchy-feely stuff. But when you get home early from work one day and find your husband of sixteen years sliding between the sheets with the woman you thought of as your best friend--well, let's just say it changes a person.

I didn't tell anyone I was going up to Stoddard. I no longer had a family; I was an only child and my dad died before I entered kindergarten, my mom just last year. If told, my friends--the few that I had--would have pestered me, spewing garbage about running away from my problems and all that. And so what if I was? I didn't plan to stay forever, only until I finished my novel, or depleted my savings, whichever came first.

Some might have called it bizarre--moving into a madman's home--but strange as it was, this was my history. My dad's family had been a mystery all my life. Mom had told me he'd had a troubled childhood. He ran away from home at sixteen, then returned a year later to find his father alone, his mother having disappeared three months earlier. Dad left immediately, never to speak to either parent again. When Dad died, Mom had written to Grandpa Elliot, but she'd never heard a word in response.

Behind me, I heard Bear yawning, then the click of his nails on the hardwood floor as he walked to the door. He sat down in front of it, then turned to look at me.

"You want out, huh?"

Bear wagged his tail and let out a small bark.

I walked over and opened the door, "Okay, buddy, be good and stay close."

While Bear was foraging through the forest, I pawed through the contents of Elliot's desk. A quick survey of the top drawer revealed a broken key chain, a Band-Aid box filled with used stamps, an empty disposable lighter and a single eyeglass lens, along with the usual clutter of pens, pencils, paper clips and other assorted junk. The drawer wouldn't open all the way and when I stuck my hand inside, I felt the sharp corner of what felt like a picture frame. One hand wedged inside the drawer, I lifted the front of the drawer to release the frame.

I took one look at the photograph, and almost dropped it in shock. This was the face I saw in the mirror each morning--round with almond-shaped eyes, a small pointed nose, and the slightly jutting chin I hated. If I'd mysteriously gotten the urge to curl my hair into a teased-up flip and donned a Peter-Pan collared blouse, I could have stepped right into that pewter frame, and no one would have known the difference.

She sat at that very desk, the family Bible open in front of her, wire-rimmed glasses hanging from a thin gold chain looped around her neck.

A sudden knock at the door startled me.

Jeb, the proprietor of Stoddard's Sundries and my nearest neighbor, stood on the porch. He was the grizzled caricature of an aging mountain man--coarse features on a weather-beaten face topped by white hair poking out from beneath a grimy John Deere cap. Without a greeting, he said, "Got your load of wood stacked in the shed. I'll add it to your bill." With a quick nod, he turned to leave.

"Wait! Please come in, I want to show you something."

When I handed him the picture, he gave me a quizzical look. "This is..." He stopped, looked up at me, then back down at the picture. "Well, I'll be--you're the spittin' image of her."

"My grandmother?"

"Yeah, your Grandma Rose."

"Did you know my grandparents?"

"Much as anyone did, I guess."

"What were they like?"

"Mostly kept to themselves." His face reddened. "Don't mean any disrespect, but your grandma could be downright spiteful, and your grandpa didn't have much of a spine. Many a day I heard her caterwauling at the poor man. Sometimes your grandpa gave as much as he got, sometimes he just didn't seem to have the strength. When Rose left, Elliot took to drinking and taking potshots at anyone within shotgun range of his property." Jeb looked to the place in front of the fireplace where Grandpa's body had been found. He shook his head. "Guess the booze finally pickled his brain."

"Did you know my dad?"

"Little bit. He was a few years behind me in school. Seemed like a nice enough kid, considering. Suppose these days, child welfare would've snatched him." He shrugged. "No one was surprised when he ran off."

When Jeb left, I sat on the sofa, staring at the freshly laundered and sanitized crazy quilt that hung over its arm. Trembling, I reached out and ran a finger over a square of faded blue flannel, wondering how much bad blood had filtered down the years to run through my own veins.

continued on 4/5

read part II

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