Drops of the Night
Julia Nunnally Duncan
A Review by Mary Ickes
Drops of the Night, set in Milton (based on Marian in McDowell County, North Carolina), chronicles Nora Lynch’s journey from desolation to introspection. Since childhood, she has attended only the Pine Grove Baptist Church, yet prayed two faiths. Unlike her peers, pompously toting their Bibles everywhere in enormous handbags, Nora quietly prays before the mural depicting the kind face of Jesus as he baptizes John the Baptist.
School bullies chased Nora to Nature, her second faith. She discovered peace in the woods, made friends with her father’s farm animals, and visited with her mother (her best friend and confidante) as they gardened and canned. Gradually, the contacts with nature became an unconscious blessing. She decided to marry a farmer, because that was the only life she knew and ever wanted to know.
Nora, at age seventeen, quit high school to marry Roland Lynch. As they walked the land inherited from his grandfather, Roland promised, “We’ll take care of this land together and make my granddaddy proud.” Nora beamed; she had prayed for a husband who, like her father, intended to provide for her and their children. Instead, Roland considered her an equal partner. For seven years, “As long as Roland was . . . plowing the fields or working on the tractor . . . the farm was home.” The tension in Nora’s marriage erupts from the differences between Roland and her father concerning religion, drinking, and respect for inherited land.
Roland scorns religion, but Nora continues to attend church and change the flowers in the jar between her parents’ graves every week. One day, as she sat on the church yard bench, handsome Reverend Brooks gently unbraided her long hair, quoted Scripture, and spread Nora’s hair “. . . like a dark veil over her shoulders. His hands lingered on her arms.” Nora avoided “. . . his eyes that were as clear and blue as an October sky” but, starved for kindness, she reveled in his compliment, “So beautiful.”
The church fathers immediately transferred Brooks; the faithful manipulated Roland with “. . . lies that had stolen his trust and her happiness away.” His unfounded suspicions and sneers, over the next eight years, petrified Nora into emotional numbness and loneliness as she worked to regain his trust. More than ever, she prayed before the mural.
Nora’s parents detested alcohol, but Roland heads for the bar every Saturday night, often returning so drunk that Nora practically carries him to bed. Roland tries to justify his drinking with poker games to win money for their farm bills. Nora follows her mother’s advice: “. . . as long as he’s good to you, turn a blind eye to his drinking and let him do it in peace.”
Drops of the Night opens with Nora awaiting his return. Her relief that Roland is sober turns to incredulity as he relates the evening’s events. Burgin, a blond, green-eyed Indian, made each poker player swear a blood oath to honor the stakes. Roland, the last to lose his money, continues playing with Burgin for unnamed stakes. To Nora’s dismay, Burgin demands a night with her. She commands Roland to tell Burgin NO! and considers the matter closed. Relentless, Burgin vows to denounce Roland’s honor on the courthouse lawn, unless he forces Nora to consent. Preferring prison to sullied honor, Roland goes to the closet for his shotgun, intending to murder Burgin. Nora knows he’s not bluffing, because “. . . sometimes . . . she had wondered if Roland might be a little crazy, with his wild notions and pride that got ahead of his reason.” Nora leaves with Jeremiah Burgin the next night.
Selling the land entrusted to him never occurred to Nora’s father, no matter how wet the springs, dry the summers, or lean the markets. Roland, convinced that another dust bowl looms, goes to work at Milton’s textile mill, puts his land on the market, and plans their move to a mill house. In response to Nora’s offer to find a job, Roland sneers, “You ain’t never worked a day in your life, and you know how I feel about you working. If I can’t take care of my wife, I might as well hang it up.”
Her faith gone, Nora is trapped! Unable to pray before the mural
because of her shame, the loneliness and isolation that Nora had kept at bay now engulfs her. She’s never confided in Lucy Lee, her cousin and only friend, lest she betray Roland. Nora occasionally visits Lucy Lee because “… she’d come to see her cousin as a refuge and a protection . . . and Lucy Lee’s laughter was always a balm to her.” With earthy energy, Lucy Lee blows through Nora’s life and the story. She likes men; she smokes; drinks wine; adores Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, and saves her money to buy a video store. Lucy Lee never believed Nora’s pretenses about her marriage and doesn’t this time either. Too kind to pry, Lucy Lee, as before, provides Nora with an opening: “People like you don’t leave home for nothing.”
The prospect of a dingy mill house, surrounded by a chain-link fence endears nature to Nora more than ever. She still trusts the land and believes that the “. . . farm won’t let them down.” Each animal Roland sells departs with part of Nora’s being. Sonny, her horse, happily snoozes when she finger-combs his mane; no matter to Roland. For $300, out the gate goes Sonny. Symbolic of her plight, Nora rescues a June bug from Sonny’s water tub, gently returning the frantic creature to freedom.
Church precepts that Nora has accepted since childhood ensnare her. After the Brooks’ episode, she dutifully submitted to being prayed over by the church women, hypocritical biddies more eager to hear Nora’s confession than save her soul: “Talk to us, Sister. Confess your sins and they will be cleansed.” Nora finally consents to being prayed over for Roland’s drinking – their logic being that she drove him to drink. She schedules a night when Roland will be home, and then visits Lucy Lee. They practically demand to pray over her about Burgin, because, “We got you through that situation with our former pastor, and we’ll pray you through this, too.” The biddies are not pleased when Nora balks.
Finally, Roland unwittingly tightens Nora’s trap. No longer requiring her to help earn a living, Roland turns to his mill cronies for companionship and after-work drinks. Increasingly suspicious, he accuses Nora of daytime trysts with Burgin. Nora longs to meet with Burgin, but not for romantic reasons. She wants to confront his selfishness that shattered in a few hours the modicum of Roland’s trust she struggled for eight years to regain.
For the first time in her thirty-two years, Nora must independently decide her future: should she make the best of life with Roland in the mill house, demand new terms for their relationship, or strike out on her own? For a woman new to introspection, Nora is perceptive, thorough, and, fortunately, open-minded enough to follow an unexpected path to her answer.
Julia Nunnally Duncan grew up in a North Carolina textile community, playing in the hosiery mill where her parents worked. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the Warren Wilson College and teaches writing at all levels. Her other works include poetry, Blue Ridge Shadows: Stories, and Stone Carver & Other Stories. Her awards include a Blumenthal Writers & Readers Series Award. She currently lives in Marian, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter.
Mary Ickes was in heaven when she attended the Blue Ridge County Bookfest. She already has her calendar marked for next year’s Bookfest on May 18 and 19, 2012 and would like WNCW readers to mark their calendars also. OK! So it wasn’t really heaven, but darn close.