Obedience: A Novel by David Ward-Nanney
Stockard Griffin awakes from a nightmare to find that her Uncle Abe has committed suicide, causing her to move from Sefer Farm, the family’s retreat just outside of Nashville, to New York City. Later she attends Stanford, and finally settles in Boulder, where her decisions put her at odds with her grandmother’s upbringing.
Stockard’s grandmother is the legendary Margaret Griffin, who discovered as a child “that the Old South still saw her as ‘baseborn.’ There was nothing she could do about it, and once she realized it, she found in herself something more independent and fierce.”
Margaret Griffin rescues the family lumber business in 1920s Tennessee using the native wits that a Vassar veneer cannot suppress. She emerges as the ruthlessly capable protector of her family.
Fifty years later Stockard must sift through her grandmother’s actions as a businesswoman and a wife. It is a strange and particular obedience that allows her to reconcile the family’s past with what lies ahead.
Obedience is about three generations of powerful Southern women.
It is David Ward-Nanney’s first novel.
Release Date:: 20 August 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9562639-0-2; Format: Paperback, 282 pages;
Price: US $14.99 / UK £14.99 / E 14,99€
ISBN: 978-0-9562639-2-6; Format: Kindle and ePub;
Price: US $6.99 / UK £6.99 / E 6.99€
From Section I: Our Granddaughter
Stockard woke up one August morning in 1963 in a sweat. It wasn’t just that her grandmother had no air conditioning at Sefer Farm, where she spent her summers. It had been the dream, like The Nightmare. Not a nightmare, but The Nightmare, the painting by Henry Fuseli. She had seen it just last week in one of her mother’s art books.
The dream itself was nothing like the painting, in which Fuseli depicted a woman asleep on a couch, a gargoyle sitting on her chest. It was not a restful sleep. A horse peeked through a curtain in the background.
Her dream had been set in Sefer Farm’s barn. She had wandered into the barn on a pitch black night and found herself unable to leave. There was someone else in the barn. Or something else in the barn. She could feel the presence. It was dark. What little light there was could have been made by candles, although she could not see what exactly made the light. She could not see what was there.
She was terrified. Whatever was in the barn approached her from one side. It enveloped her like a dark forceful blanket, and it covered her from all sides. She felt it pressure her chest and her breathing came in gasps. It had a hold of her. It was going to kill her. Just when she reached out, to try and grab something for leverage, just when she felt her lungs begin to labor painfully and her heart beating hard, she awoke.
Her heart racing, she looked down to see her t-shirt and boxer shorts soaked with sweat. Her summer brown legs lay out before her. She had thrown the sheet aside.
It was her room at Sefer Farm. She was safe.
She lay back down, her heart easing off its pace. The dream had not been at all like Fuseli’s The Nightmare. Except maybe the horses. But there had been no horses in her dream. She had been in the barn. That was the only similarity, which was not similar at all. But she had felt a tremendous pressure on her chest as if someone had been sitting on her chest. There had been no gargoyle in her dream, either.
Despite the dissimilarity, Stockard could only think of The Nightmare. She got out of bed. It was a single four-poster bed, dark stained wood like everything else at Sefer Farm. It appeared to be an extension of the floor, the staining of the two so similar that Stockard wondered if the man who had stained the floor had not also stained her bed, although it had not always been her bed. She had some framed Monet prints on the walls and some pictures on a chest of drawers. There was one of her mother, her grandmother, Rose and herself, the only people in the house on this morning.
She remembered The Nightmare and decided to pay the house library an early visit and look at the print in the art book. She could not get it out of her head. Why had her dream led her to the picture?
When she opened her bedroom door and peered down the hallway, there was an unusual stillness in the house. Early mornings in the summer of the South. Nothing moved. The heat of the night had so completely drained the landscape of energy that it slept peacefully only in the early morning. She would take a left into the main living room, a massive cavern of a room with a fireplace so big that you could park a car in it. The irony, she thought as she passed it, was that the stones in the fireplace were probably the coolest things in the house right now. Come the first autumnal chill, Rose’s husband, Ebern, would be stacking wood next to it, and there would be a fire in it from early morning until almost midnight.
That was months away. Stockard passed through the living room, where sofas and armchairs and wingchairs were grouped into sitting areas. She had seen the room full of people for Thanksgiving parties, for Christmas parties, for birthday parties. When it was only her family they congregated around the two sofas that faced each other, the fireplace on one side. She then entered the old part of the house, the part that her great-grandfather had built as a hunting lodge, when her grandmother came out of the kitchen. She looked gaunt.
“Good morning, Stockard,” she said. “Did you sleep well?” She looked Stockard over, from head to foot.
Stockard was aware that she had not brushed her hair. She had not brushed her teeth. She was a mess, her long brown hair breaking off at various points like tributary rivers. Her face was still sticky and shiny from her nightmare. She was just about to say no, she had not slept very well but caught something from her grandmother. Her grandmother was not really focused on her. She had taken only a cursory look at Stockard and then stood in the doorway of the kitchen, distractedly fingering her black reading glasses. Stockard nodded and was about to say she had slept fine when her grandmother, skinny and already dressed in khaki trousers and a white shirt, said, “Your Uncle Abe is dead.” Dead? What do you mean dead? Stockard nodded her head, feeling it go sideways, a horse asking a question.
Dead? “Yes, ma’am,” she said.
They looked at each other for a long moment. “An accident. On their farm.”
Stockard had been on her aunt and uncle’s farm. It was nothing like Sefer Farm, which was part monument to carpentry, part monument to her great-grandfather, Seth Griffin, who had made the family money with a sawmill and then a full-blown regional lumber operation. It was also her family’s full-time retreat from the world, just thirty minutes from Nashville, the only place where her grandmother wore trousers and allowed herself a cigarette on the porch. “Ladies do not smoke in public,” she had said.
Uncle Abe and Aunt Evelyn’s farm was an hour-and-a-half drive from their Upper East Side brownstone, set in rolling Connecticut hills. It was a big-city person’s version of what a farm should be. No actual work happened on their farm, just horse riding and weekend guests being entertained.
What kind of accident could happen on that no work farm? What kind of accident could kill Uncle Abe?
“You’ll want to pack a bag after your bath,” her grandmother said. “A black dress. Do you have a black dress?”
Stockard stood there, blinking, slowly understanding what her grandmother was saying. She would need a black dress for the funeral. “Yes, ma’am.” She did have a black dress, a sleeveless light wool one. She could wear a cotton cardigan over it. “And you’ll need some other dresses. It’s the city. Remember.”
Her grandmother always said this when Stockard was packing to go see her cousins in New York. “What about Eve and Emily?”
“In shock. Evelyn said they were in shock. They don’t know…”
They don’t know their father is dead? But they are in shock over it? What was her grandmother talking about?
“They don’t know,” said her grandmother again, “about it. They know their father is dead, but they don’t know the circumstances.”
It came to Stockard like a lightning flash. It was her grandmother’s use of the word “circumstances.” It was the way she hesitated. “Grandmother, what is it? How did Uncle Abe die?”
The deal between grandmother and granddaughter was a simple one. They were honest with each other. Stockard’s grandmother had never candy-coated anything for her, not like her grandmother had done for Stockard’s mother. There was an understanding between the two, as if early on Stockard and her grandmother had known they could tell each the truth, no matter how harsh or silly. It did not mean they told each other everything, but what they did tell each other was unfiltered. Stockard had been on the verge of telling her grandmother why she was on her way to the library to look at Fuseli’s The Nightmare when her grandmother had blurted out that Uncle Abe was dead.
Now her grandmother took a step forward as if to say something secret, to say something softly. “Your Uncle Abe committed suicide last night. He used a shotgun on the sofa.”
It would be months before everyone realized that Abe had used one of Seth Griffin’s shotguns for his final act. Seth Griffin, the man who had built Sefer Farm, who had made their money. It was a Browning single-barrel twelve-gauge, a heavy old thing, ironic because Abe had been a Wall Street investment banker, Jewish, educated to within an inch of his life, and was uncomfortable with guns. Stockard’s grandfather had never made it past sixth grade, was only vaguely aware of the Old Testament God, and had spent most of his life with either a gun or a fishing rod in his hands. Two different men used one gun for such different results.
Stockard had seen paintings of suicides. She imagined Uncle Abe taking his shoe off, probably one of those handmade oxfords that he wore to work. It was Wednesday. He took off one of his black wool socks, shoved the barrel in his mouth and then pulled the trigger with a toe. That’s how you committed suicide with a shotgun. With a toe.
“I’m not sure, dear child.”
They stood in the hallway for an eternity, looking at each other, Stockard finally saying, “I’ll go get ready.”
She would not open her mother’s art book that morning and stare at The Nightmare, wondering why the dream had been so terribly frightful and why there had been a pressure on her chest when she awoke and why all she could think of was Fuseli’s painting.
Excerpt © 2009 David Ward-Nanney