By Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly, 1997
(CNN) -- In this blockbuster first novel, former college lit instructor Charles Frazier weaves a tale of two Civil War journeys; Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, deserts the military to walk home to his love, Ada, a Charleston-raised preacher's daughter struggling to discover her own destiny in the remote hills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. The novel has had a considerable journey of its own, spending almost every week of its first eight months since publication on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
The Shadow of a Crow
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman's eyes and
the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and
the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters
in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital
ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot
of his bed to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily he could see to the
red road and the oak tree and the low brick wall. And beyond them to a
sweep of fields and flat piney woods that stretched to the western
horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having
been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early yet for
a vista. The window might as well have been painted grey.
Had it not been too dim, Inman would have read to pass the time until
breakfast, for the book he was reading had the effect of settling his
mind. But he had burned up the last of his own candles reading to bring
sleep the night before, and lamp oil was too scarce to be striking the
hospital's lights for mere diversion. So he rose and dressed and sat in a
ladderback chair, putting the gloomy room of beds and their broken
occupants behind him. He flapped again at the flies and looked out the
window at the first smear of foggy dawn and waited for the world to begin
shaping up outside.
The window was tall as a door, and he had imagined many times that it
would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there.
During his first weeks in the hospital, he had been hardly able to move
his head, and all that kept his mind occupied had been watching out the
window and picturing the old green places he recollected from home.
Childhood places. The damp creek bank where Indian pipes grew. The corner
of a meadow favored by brown-and-black caterpillars in the fall. A
hickory limb that overhung the lane, and from which he often watched his
father driving cows down to the barn at dusk. They would pass underneath
him, and then he would close his eyes and listen as the cupping sound of
their hooves in the dirt grew fainter and fainter until it vanished into
the calls of katydids and peepers. The window apparently wanted only to
take his thoughts back. Which was fine with him, for he had seen the
metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought
into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he
counted important had been banished or had willingly fled.
By now he had stared at the window all through a late summer so hot
and wet that the air both day and night felt like breathing through a
dishrag, so damp it caused fresh sheets to sour under him and tiny black
mushrooms to grow overnight from the limp pages of the book on his
bedside table. Inman suspected that after such long examination, the grey
window had finally said about all it had to say. That morning, though, it
surprised him, for it brought to mind a lost memory of sitting in school,
a similar tall window beside him framing a scene of pastures and low
green ridges terracing up to the vast hump of Cold Mountain. It was
September. The hayfield beyond the beaten dirt of the school playground
stood pant-waist high, and the heads of grasses were turning yellow from
need of cutting. The teacher was a round little man, hairless and pink of
face. He owned but one rusty black suit of clothes and a pair of old
overlarge dress boots that curled up at the toes and were so worn down
that the heels were wedgelike. He stood at the front of the room rocking
on the points. He talked at length through the morning about history,
teaching the older students of grand wars fought in ancient England.
After a time of actively not listening, the young Inman had taken his
hat from under the desk and held it by its brim. He flipped his wrist,
and the hat skimmed out the window and caught an updraft and soared. It
landed far out across the playground at the edge of the hayfield and
rested there black as the shadow of a crow squatted on the ground. The
teacher saw what Inman had done and told him to go get it and to come
back and take his whipping. The man had a big paddleboard with holes
augured in it, and he liked to use it. Inman never did know what seized
him at that moment, but he stepped out the door and set the hat on his
head at a dapper rake and walked away, never to return.
The memory passed on as the light from the window rose toward day. The
man in the bed next to Inman's sat and drew his crutches to him. As he
did every morning, the man went to the window and spit repeatedly and
with great effort until his clogged lungs were clear. He ran a comb
through his black hair, which hung lank below his jaw and was cut square
around. He tucked the long front pieces of hair behind his ears and put
on his spectacles of smoked glass, which he wore even in the dim of
morning, his eyes apparently too weak for the wannest form of light.
Then, still in his nightshirt, he went to his table and began working at
a pile of papers. He seldom spoke more than a word or two at a time, and
Inman had learned little more of him than that his name was Balis and
that before the war he had been to school at Chapel Hill, where he had
attempted to master Greek. All his waking time was now spent trying to
render ancient scribble from a fat little book into plain writing anyone
could read. He sat hunched at his table with his face inches from his
work and squirmed in his chair, looking to find a comfortable position
for his leg. His right foot had been taken off by grape at Cold Harbor,
and the stub seemed not to want to heal and had rotted inch by inch from
the ankle up. His amputations had now proceeded past the knee, and he
smelled all the time like last year's ham.
For a while there was only the sound of Balis's pen scratching, pages
turning. Then others in the room began to stir and cough, a few to moan.
Eventually the light swelled so that all the lines of the varnished
beadboard walls stood clear, and Inman could cock back on the chair's
hind legs and count the flies on the ceiling. He made it to be
As Inman's view through the window solidified, the dark trunks of the
oak trees showed themselves first, then the patchy lawn, and finally the
red road. He was waiting for the blindman to come. He had attended to the
man's movements for some weeks, and now that he had healed enough to be
numbered among the walking, Inman was determined to go out to the cart
and speak to the man, for Inman figured him to have been living with a
wound for a long time.
Inman had taken his own during the fighting outside Petersburg. When
his two nearest companions pulled away his clothes and looked at his
neck, they had said him a solemn farewell in expectation of his death.
We'll meet again in a better world, they said. But he lived as far as the
field hospital, and there the doctors had taken a similar attitude. He
was classed among the dying and put aside on a cot to do so. But he
failed at it. After two days, space being short, they sent him on to a
regular hospital in his own state. All through the mess of the field
hospital and the long grim train ride south in a boxcar filled with
wounded, he had agreed with his friends and the doctors. He thought he
would die. About all he could remember of the trip was the heat and the
odors of blood and of shit, for many of the wounded had the flux. Those
with the strength to do so had knocked holes in the sides of the wood
boxcars with the butts of rifles and rode with their heads thrust out
like crated poultry to catch the breeze.
At the hospital, the doctors looked at him and said there was not much
they could do. He might live or he might not. They gave him but a grey
rag and a little basin to clean his own wound. Those first few days, when
he broke consciousness enough to do it, he wiped at his neck with the rag
until the water in the basin was the color of the comb on a turkey-cock.
But mainly the wound had wanted to clean itself. Before it started
scabbing, it spit out a number of things: a collar button and a piece of
wool collar from the shirt he had been wearing when he was hit, a shard
of soft grey metal as big as a quarter dollar piece, and, unaccountably,
something that closely resembled a peach pit. That last he set on the
nightstand and studied for some days. He could never settle his mind on
whether it was a part of him or not. He finally threw it out the window
but then had troubling dreams that it had taken root and grown, like
Jack's bean, into something monstrous.
His neck had eventually decided to heal. But during the weeks when he
could neither turn his head nor hold up a book to read, Inman had lain
every day watching the blind man. The man would arrive alone shortly
after dawn, pushing his cart up the road, doing it about as well as any
man who could see. He would set up his business under an oak tree across
the road, lighting a fire in a ring of stones and boiling peanuts over it
in an iron pot. He would sit all day on a stool with his back to the
brick wall, selling peanuts and newspapers to those at the hospital whole
enough to walk. Unless someone came to buy something, he rested as still
as a stuffed man with his hands together in his lap.
That summer, Inman had viewed the world as if it were a picture framed
by the molding around the window. Long stretches of time often passed
when, for all the change in the scene, it might as well have been an old
painting of a road, a wall, a tree, a cart, a blind man. Inman had
sometimes counted off slow numbers in his head to see how long it would
be before anything of significance altered. It was a game and he had
rules for it. A bird flying by did not count. Someone walking down the
road did. Major weather changes did--the sun coming out, fresh rain--but
shadows of passing clouds did not. Some days he'd get up in the thousands
before there was any allowable alteration in the elements of the picture.
He believed the scene would never leave his mind--wall, blind man, tree,
cart, road--no matter how far on he lived. He imagined himself an old man
thinking about it. Those pieces together seemed to offer some meaning,
though he did not know what and suspected he never would.
Inman watched the window as he ate his breakfast of boiled oats and
butter, and shortly he saw the blind man come trudging up the road, his
back humped against the weight of the cart he pushed, little twin clouds
of dust rising from beneath the turning cartwheels. When the blind man had
his fire going and his peanuts boiling, Inman put his plate on the
windowsill and went outside and with the shuffling step of an old man
crossed the lawn to the road.
The blind man was square and solid in shoulder and hip, and his
britches were cinched at the waist with a great leather belt, wide as a
razor strop. He went hatless, even in the heat, and his cropped hair was
thick and grey, coarse-textured as the bristles to a hemp brush. He sat
with his head tipped down and appeared to be somewhat in a muse, but he
raised up as Inman approached, like he was really looking. His eyelids,
though, were dead as shoe leather and were sunken into puckered cups
where his eyeballs had been.
Without pausing even for salutation Inman said, Who put out your pair
The blind man had a friendly smile on his face and he said, Nobody. I
never had any.
That took Inman aback, for his imagination had worked in the belief
that they had been plucked out in some desperate and bloody dispute, some
brute fraction. Every vile deed he had witnessed lately had been at the
hand of a human agent, so he had about forgot that there was a whole
other order of misfortune.
--Why did you never have any? Inman said.
--Just happened that way.
--Well, Inman said. You're mighty calm. Especially for a man that most
would say has taken the little end of the horn all his life.
The blind man said, It might have been worse had I ever been given a
glimpse of the world and then lost it.
--Maybe, Inman said. Though what would you pay right now to have your
eyeballs back for ten minutes? Plenty, I bet.
The man studied on the question. He worked his tongue around the corner
of his mouth. He said, I'd not give an Indian-head cent. I fear it might
turn me hateful.
--It's done it to me, Inman said. There's plenty I wish I'd never
--That's not the way I meant it. You said ten minutes. It's having a
thing and the loss I'm talking about.
The blind man twisted a square of newsprint up into a cone and then
dipped with a riddly spoon into the pot and filled the cone with wet
peanuts. He handed it to Inman and said, Come on, cite me one instance
where you wished you were blind.
Where to begin? Inman wondered. Malvern Hill. Sharpsburg. Petersburg.
Any would do admirably as example of unwelcome visions. But
Fredericksburg was a day particularly lodged in his mind. So he sat with
his back to the oak and halved the wet peanut shells and thumbed the
meats out into his mouth and told the blind man his tale, beginning with
how the fog had lifted that morning to reveal a vast army marching uphill
toward a stone wall, a sunken road. Inman's regiment was called to join
the men already behind the wall, and they had quickly formed up alongside
the big white house at the top of Maryes Heights. Lee and Longstreet and
befeathered Stuart stood right there on the lawn before the porch, taking
turns glassing the far side of the river and talking. Longstreet had a
grey shawl of wool draped about his shoulders. Compared to the other two
men, Longstreet looked like a stout hog drover. But from what Inman had
seen of Lee's way of thinking, he'd any day rather have Longstreet
backing him in a fight. Dull as Longstreet looked, he had a mind that
constancy sought ground configured so a man could hunker down and do a
world of killing from a position of relative safety. And that day at
Fredericksburg was all in the form of fighting that Lee mistrusted and
that Longstreet welcomed.
After Inman's regiment had formed up, they dropped over the brow of
the hill and into the withering fire of the Federals. They stopped once
to touch off a volley, and then they ran down to the sunken road behind
the stone wall. On the way a ball brushed the skin of Inman's wrist and
felt like the tongue of a cat licking, doing no damage, only making a
little abraded stripe.
When they got to the road, Inman could see they were in a fine spot.
Those already there had trenched along the tightly built wall so that you
could stand up comfortably and still be in its shelter. The Federals had
to come uphill at the wall across acres and acres of open ground. So
delightful was the spot that one man jumped onto the wall and hollered
out, You are all committing a mistake. You hear? A dire mistake! Balls
whistled all about the man, and he jumped back down into the ditch behind
the wall and danced a jig.
It was a cold day and the mud of the road was near frozen to the
condition of slurry. Some of the men were barefoot. Many wore homemade
uniforms in the mute colors that plant dyes make. The Federals were
arrayed on the field before them, all newly outfitted. Bright and shiny
in factory-made uniforms, new boots. When the Federals charged, the men
behind the wall held their fire and taunted them and one called out, Come
on closer, I want them boots. And they let the Federals come as near as
twenty paces before shooting them down. The men behind the wall were
firing at such close range that one man remarked on what a shame it was
that they had paper cartridges, for if they had the separate
makings--powder, ball, and wadding--they could tamp in thrifty little
loads and thus save on powder.
When he was squatted down loading, Inman could hear the firing, but
also the slap of balls into meat. A man near Inman grew so excited, or
perhaps so weary, that he forgot to pull the ramrod from the barrel. He
fired it off and it struck a Federal in the chest. The man fell backward,
and the rod stood from his body and quavered about with the last of his
breathing as if he had been pierced by an unfletched arrow.
The Federals kept on marching by the thousands at the wall all through
the day, climbing the hill to be shot down. There were three or four
brick houses scattered out through the field, and after a time the
Federals crowded up behind them in such numbers that they looked like the
long blue shadows of houses at sunrise. Periodically they were driven
from behind the houses by their own cavalry, who beat at them with the
flats of their sabers like schoolteachers paddling truants. Then they ran
toward the wall leaning forward with their shoulders hunched, a posture
that reminded many witnesses that day of men seeking headway against a
hard blowing rain. The Federals kept on coming long past the point where
all the pleasure of whipping them vanished. Inman just got to hating them
for their clodpated determination to die.
The fighting was in the way of a dream, one where your foes are ranked
against you countless and mighty. And you so weak. And yet they fall and
keep falling until they are crushed. Inman had fired until his right arm
was weary from working the ramrod, his jaws sore from biting the ends off
the paper cartridges. His rifle became so hot that the powder would
sometimes flash before he could ram home the ball. At the end of the day
the faces of the men around him were caked with blown-back powder so that
they were various shades of blue, and they put Inman in mind of a great
ape with a bulbous colorful ass he had seen in a traveling show once.
They had fought throughout the day under the eyes of Lee and
Longstreet. The men behind the wall had only to crank their necks around
and there the big men were, right above them looking on. The two generals
spent the afternoon up on the hill coining fine phrases like a pair of
wags. Longstreet said his men in the sunken road were in such a position
that if you marched every man in the Army of the Potomac across that
field, his men would kill them before they got to the wall. And he said
the Federals fell that long afternoon as steady as rain dripping down
from the eaves of a house.
Old Lee, not to be outdone, said it's a good thing war is so terrible
or else we'd get to liking it too much. As with everything Marse Robert
said, the men repeated that flight of wit over and over, passing it along
from man to man, as if God amighty Himself had spoken. When the report
reached Inman's end of the wall he just shook his head. Even back then,
early in the war, his opinion differed considerably from Lee's, for it
appeared to him that we like fighting plenty, and the more terrible it is
the better. And he suspected that Lee liked it most of all and would, if
given his preference, general them right through the gates of death
itself. What troubled Inman most, though, was that Lee made it clear he
looked on war as an instrument for clarifying God's obscure will. Lee
seemed to think battle--among all acts man might commit--stood outranked
in sacredness only by prayer and Bible reading. Inman worried that
following such logic would soon lead one to declare the victor of every
brawl and dogfight as God's certified champion. Those thoughts were
unspeakable among the ranks, as were his feelings that he did not enlist
to take on a Marse, even one as solemn and noble-looking as Lee was that
day on Maryes Heights.
Late in the afternoon the Federals quit coming and the shooting
tapered off. Thousands of men lay dead and dying on the sloping field
below the wall, and by dark the ones who could move had heaped up corpses
to make shelter. All that night the aurora flamed and shimmered lurid
colors across the sky to the north. Such a rare event was seen as an omen
by the men up and down the line, and they vied to see who could most
convincingly render its meaning down into plain speech. Somewhere above
them on the hill a fiddle struck up the sad chords of Lorena. The wounded
Federals moaned and keened and hummed between gritted teeth on the frozen
field and some called out the names of loved ones.
To this accompaniment, the poorly shod of Inman's party climbed over
the wall to yank the boots off the dead. Though his own boots were in
fair shape, Inman made a late-night foray onto the field simply to see
what the day's effort had accomplished. The Federals were thick on the
ground, lying all about in bloody heaps, bodies disassembled in every
style the mind could imagine. A man walking next to Inman looked out upon
the scene and said, If I had my way everything north of the Potomac would
resemble that right down to the last particular. Inman's only thought
looking on the enemy was, Go home. Some of the dead had papers pinned to
their clothing to say who they had been, and the rest were just
anonymous. Inman saw one man squat to yank the boots off a body lying
flat on its back, but as the man lifted a foot and pulled, the dead man
sat up and said something in an Irish accent so thick the only
understandable word was Shit.
Later, many hours after midnight, Inman looked into one of the houses
scattered about the field. A light shone out from an open door at its
gable end. An old woman sat inside, her hair in a wild tangle, face
stricken. A lit candle stub stood beside her on a table. Corpses on her
doorstep. Others inside, dead in the attitude of crawling to shelter. The
woman staring crazed past the threshold, past Inman's face, as if she saw
nothing. Inman walked through the house and out the back door and saw a
man killing a group of badly wounded Federals by striking them in the
head with a hammer. The Federals had been arranged in an order, with
their heads all pointing one way, and the man moved briskly down the row,
making a clear effort to let one strike apiece do. Not angry, just moving
from one to one like a man with a job of work to get done. He whistled,
almost under his breath, the tune of Cora Ellen. He might have been shot
had one of the fine-minded officers caught him, but he was tired and
wished to be shut of a few more enemies at little risk to himself. Inman
would always remember that, as the man came to the end of the row, the
first light of dawn came up on his face.
The blind man had sat wordless throughout Inman's tale. But when Inman
was finished, the man said, You need to put that away from you.
--I'd not differ with you there, Inman said.
But what Inman did not tell the blind man was that no matter how he
tried, the field that night would not leave him but had instead provided
him with a recurring dream, one that had visited him over and over during
his time in the hospital. In the dream, the aurora blazed and the
scattered bloody pieces--arms, heads, legs, trunks--slowly drew together
and reformed themselves into monstrous bodies of mismatched parts. They
limped and reeled and lunged about the dark battlefield like blind sots
on their faulty legs. They jounced off one another, butting bloody cleft
heads in their stupor. They waved their assorted arms in the air, and few
of the hands made convincing pairs. Some spoke the names of their women.
Some sang snatches of song over and over. Others stood to the side and
looked off into the dark and urgently called their dogs.
One figure, whose wounds were so dreadful that he more resembled meat
than man, tried to rise but could not. He flopped and then lay still but
for the turning of his head. From the ground he craned his neck and
looked at Inman with dead eyes and spoke Inman's name in a low voice.
Every morning after that dream, Inman awoke in a mood as dark as the
blackest crow that ever flew.
Inman returned to the ward, tired from his walk. Balis sat goggled in
the dim room and scratched with his quill at the papers. Inman got into
bed thinking to nap away the rest of the morning, but he could not make
his mind rest, so he took up his book to read. What he had was the third
part of Bartram's Travels. He had pulled it from a box of books donated
by ladies of the capital eager for the intellectual as well as physical
improvement of the patients. Apparently, the book had been given away
because it had lost its front cover, so Inman, in an effort toward
symmetry, had torn the back cover off as well, leaving only the leather
spine. He kept the book tied into a scroll with a piece of twine.
It was not a book that required following from front to back, and
Inman simply opened it at random, as he had done night after night in the
hospital to read until he was calm enough for sleep. The doings of that
kind lone wanderer--called Flower Gatherer by the Cherokee in honor of
his satchels full with plants and his attention all given to the growth
of wild living things--never failed to ease his thoughts. The passage he
turned to that morning became a favorite, and the first sentence that fell
under his eye was this:
Continued yet ascending until I gained the top of an elevated rocky
ridge, when appeared before me a gap or opening between other yet more
lofty ascents, through which continued as the rough rocky road led me,
close by the winding banks of a large rapid brook, which at length
turning to the left, pouring down rocky precipices, glided off through
dark groves and high forests, conveying streams of fertility and
pleasure to the fields below.
Such images made Inman happy, as did the following pages wherein
Bartram, ecstatic, journeyed on to the Vale of Cowee deep in the
mountains, breathlessly describing a world of scarp and crag, ridge after
ridge fading off blue into the distance, chanting at length as he went
the names of all the plants that came under his gaze as if reciting the
ingredients of a powerful potion. After a time, though, Inman found that
he had left the book and was simply forming the topography of home in his
head. Cold Mountain, all its ridges and coves and watercourses. Pigeon
River, Little East Fork, Sorrell Cove, Deep Gap, Fire Scald Ridge. He
knew their names and said them to himself like the words of spells and
incantations to ward off the things one fears most.
Some days later Inman walked from the hospital into town. His neck hurt
as if a red cord running from it to the balls of his feet were yanked
quivering tight at each step. But his legs felt strong, and that worried
him. As soon as he was fit to fight, they would ship him right back to
Virginia. Nevertheless, he was glad to be a man of leisure as long as he
was careful not to look too vigorous in front of a doctor.
Money had come from home and a portion of back pay had been handed
out, so he walked about the streets and shopped in the red-brick and
white-frame shops. At a tailor's he found a black suitcoat of tightly
woven wool that fit him perfectly, despite having been cut to the measure
of a man who had died during its making. The tailor sold it at a bargain,
and Inman put it right on and wore it out the door. At a general
mercantile he bought a stiff pair of indigo denim britches, a
cream-colored wool shirt, two pairs of socks, a clasp knife, a sheath
knife, a little pot and cup, and all the loads and round tins of caps for
his pistol that they had in stock. These were wrapped together in brown
paper, and he carried the bundle away with a finger hooked in the crossed
twine. At a hatmaker's, he bought a black slouch hat with a grey ribbon
band; then, back out on the street, he took off his greasy old one and
skimmed it away to land among the bean rows of somebody's garden They
might find use for it as scarecrow attire. He set the new hat on his head
and went to a cobbler's, where he found a good pair of stout boots that
were a close fit. His old ones he left sitting curled and withered and
caved in on the floor. At a stationer's, he bought a pen with a gold nib
and a bottle of ink and a few sheets of writing paper. By the time he was
done shopping, he had spent a pile of near-worthless paper money big
enough to kindle a fire from green wood.
Tired, he stopped at an inn near the domed capitol and sat at a table
under a tree. He drank a cup of brew said by the tavern keeper to be
coffee brought in through the blockade, though from the look of the
grounds it was mostly chicory and burnt corn grits with little more than
the dust of actual coffee beans. The metal table was rusting in a powdery
orange rind around its edges, and Inman had to take care not to scrub the
sleeves of his new coat against the decay as he returned his coffee cup to
its saucer. He sat a bit formally, back straight, fisted hands resting on
his thigh tops. To an observer standing out in the center of the road
looking back toward the tables in the shade of the oak tree, he would
have looked stern and uncomfortable in his black coat, the white dressing
twisted about his neck like a tight cravat. He might have been mistaken
for a man sitting suspended during a long daguerreotype exposure, a
subject who had become dazed and disoriented as the clock ticked away and
the slow plate soaked up his image and fixed for all time a portion of
Inman was thinking of the blind man. He had bought a copy of the
Standard from him that morning as he had done every morning lately. Inman
pitied the blind man now that he knew how his blindness had come about,
for how did you find someone to hate for a thing that just was? What
would be the cost of not having an enemy? Who could you strike for
retribution other than yourself?
Inman drank all but the dregs of his coffee and then took up his
paper, hoping that something in it would engage him and turn his thoughts
elsewhere. He tried to read a piece on how badly things stood outside
Petersburg, but he couldn't get a grip on it. And anyway, he knew about
all there was to say on that topic. When he got to the third page, he
found a notice from the state government to deserters and outliers and
their families. They would be hunted down. Their names would be put on a
list, and the Home Guard would be on alert in every county, patrolling
night and day. Then Inman read a story buried at the bottom of a page in
the paper's middle. It told that out in the borderlands of the state's
western mountains, Thomas and his Cherokee troops had fought numerous
skirmishes with Federals. They had been accused of taking scalps. The
paper opined that though the practice might be barbarous, it would serve
as harsh warning that invasion carried a stiff price.
Inman put the paper down and thought about Cherokee boys scalping
Federals. It was humorous in a way, those pale mill workers coming down
so confident to steal land and yet losing the tops of their heads out in
the woods. Inman knew many Cherokee of the age to be fighting under
Thomas, and he wondered if Swimmer was among them. He had met Swimmer the
summer they were both sixteen. Inman had been given the happy job of
escorting a few heifers to graze the last grass of summer in the high
bards on Balsam Mountain. He had taken a packhorse loaded with cooking
tools, side meat, meal, fishing gear, a shotgun, quilts, and a square of
waxed canvas for tent. He expected solitude and self-reliance. But when
he got to the bald there was a regular party going on. A dozen or so men
from Catalooch had made camp at the crest of the ridge and had been there
for a week or better, lazing in the cool air of the uplands and joying in
the freeing distance from hearth and home. It was a fine place, there on
the bald. They had sweeping views to east and west, good pasturage for
the cattle, trout streams nearby. Inman joined the men, and for several
days they cooked enormous meals of fried corn bread and trout and stews
of game animals over a large fire that they kept burning knee-high day
and night. They washed the food down with every manner of corn liquor and
apple brandy and thick mead so that many in the group laid up drunk from
one dawn to the next.
Soon, a band of Cherokee from Cove Creek had come up the other side of
the divide with a rawboned herd of spotted cows of no singular breed. The
Indians made their camp a short distance away and then cut tall pines and
crafted goals from them and marked off boundaries for their vicious ball
game. Swimmer, an odd big-handed boy with wide-set eyes, came over and
invited the Catalooch party to play, hinting darkly that men sometimes
died in the game. Inman and others took up the challenge. They cut and
split green saplings to make their own ball racquets, strung them with
strips of hide and bootlace.
The two groups camped side by side for two weeks, the younger men
playing the ball game most of the day, gambling heavily on the outcomes.
It was a contest with no fixed time of play and few rules so that they
just ran about slamming into each other and hacking with the racquets as
if with clubs until one team reached a set number of points scored by
striking the goalposts with the ball. They'd play most of the day and
then spend half the night drinking and telling tales at fireside, eating
great heaps of little speckled trout, fried crisp, bones and all.
There in the highlands, clear weather held for much of the time. The
air lacked its usual haze, and the view stretched on and on across rows
of blue mountains, each paler than the last until the final ranks were
indistinguishable from sky. It was as if all the world might be composed
of nothing but valley and ridge. During a pause in the play, Swimmer had
looked out at the landforms and said he believed Cold Mountain to be the
chief mountain of the world. Inman asked how he knew that to be true, and
Swimmer had swept his hand across the horizon to where Cold Mountain
stood and said, Do you see a bigger'n?
Mornings on the high bald were crisp, with fog lying in the valleys so
that the peaks rose from it disconnected like steep blue islands
scattered across a pale sea. Inman would awake, still part drunk, and
walk off down in a cove to fish with Swimmer for an hour or two before
returning for the beginning of the game. They would sit by the rushing
creek, stickbait and rockbait on their hooks. Swimmer would talk
seamlessly in a low voice so that it merged with the sound of the water.
He told tales of animals and how they came to be as they are. Possum with
bare tail, squirrel with fuzzy tail. Buck with antlers. Painter with
tooth and claw. Uktena with coil and fang. Tales that explained how the
world came about and where it is heading. Swimmer also told of spells he
was learning for making desired ends come to pass. He told of ways to
produce misfortune, sickness, death, how to return evil by way of fire,
how to protect the lone traveler on the road at night, and how to make
the road seem short. A number of the spells had to do with the spirit.
Swimmer knew a few ways to kill the soul of an enemy and many ways to
protect your own. His spells portrayed the spirit as a frail thing,
constantly under attack and in need of strength, always threatening to
die inside you. Inman found this notion dismal indeed, since he had been
taught by sermon and hymn to hold as truth that the soul of man never
Inman sat through the tales and spells, watching the rill in the water
where current fell against his dipped line, Swimmer's voice a rush of
sound, soothing as creek noise. When they had caught a sackful of little
trout, they would quit and go back and then spend the day swatting at
each other with the ball sticks, shoving and shouldering and coming to
After many days wet weather set in, and none too soon, for on both
sides they were all worn out, hung over, and beat up. There were broken
fingers and noses, sundry flesh rents. All were mottled ankle to hip with
blue and green bruises from the racquets. The Catalooch party had lost to
the Indians everything they could do without and some things they
couldn't--fry pans and dutch ovens, sacks of meal, fishing poles,
rifles and pistols. Inman himself had lost an entire cow, a fact he could
not figure how to explain to his father. He had bet it away piece by
piece, point by point. Saying in the heat of play, I'll wager the
tenderloin of that heifer on this next point. Or, Every rib on the left
side of my betting cow says we win. As the two camps parted ways, Inman's
heifer was still walking, but various of the Cherokee had claim to its
As recompense and memento, though, Swimmer had given Inman a fine ball
racquet of hickory with bat whiskers twisted into the squirrel-skin
lacing. Swimmer claimed it would power its user with the speed and
deception of the bat. It was decorated with the feathers of swallows and
hawks and herons, and, as Swimmer explained it, the characters of those
animals too would transfer to Inman--wheeling grace, soar and stoop, grim
single-mindedness. Not all of that had come to pass, but Inman hoped
Swimmer was not out fighting Federals but living in a bark hut by a
From inside the tavern came the sounds of a fiddle being tuned,
various plucks and tentative bowings, then a slow and groping attempt at
Aura Lee, interrupted every few notes by unplanned squeaks and howls.
Nevertheless the beautiful and familiar tune was impervious to poor
performance, and Inman thought how painfully young it sounded, as if the
pattern of its notes allowed no room to imagine a future clouded and
tangled and diminished.
He raised his coffee cup to his lips and found it cold and nearly
empty, and he put it down. He stared into it and watched the dark grounds
sink in the remaining quarter inch of liquid. The black flecks swirled,
found a pattern, and settled. He thought briefly of divination, seeking
the future in the arrangement of coffee grounds, tea leaves, hog
entrails, shapes of clouds. As if pattern told something worth knowing.
He jostled the cup to break the spell and looked out along the street.
Beyond a row of young trees rose the capitol, an impressive domed pile of
stone blocks. It was only a scant shade darker than the high clouds
through which the sun shone as a grey disc already declining to the west.
In the haze the capitol seemed to rise impossibly high, its bulk large as
a medieval tower in a dream of siege. Curtains blew out of open office
windows and waggled in the breeze. Above the dome, a dark circle of
vultures swirled in the oyster sky, their long wimple feathers just
visible at their blunt wing ends. As Inman watched, the birds did not
strike a wingbeat but nonetheless climbed gradually, riding a rising
column of air, circling higher and higher until they were little dashes
of black on the sky.
In his mind, Inman likened the swirling paths of vulture flight to the
coffee grounds seeking pattern in his cup. Anyone could be oracle for the
random ways things fall against each other. It was simple enough to tell
fortunes if a man dedicated himself to the idea that the future will
inevitably be worse than the past and that time is a path leading nowhere
but a place of deep and persistent threat. The way Inman saw it, if a
thing like Fredericksburg was to be used as a marker of current position,
then many years hence, at the rate we're going, we'll be eating one
And, too, Inman guessed Swimmer's spells were right in saying a man's
spirit could be torn apart and cease and yet his body keep on living.
They could take death blows independently. He was himself a case in
point, and perhaps not a rare one, for his spirit, it seemed, had been
about burned out of him but he was yet walking. Feeling empty, however,
as the core of a big black-gum tree. Feeling strange as well, for his
recent experience had led him to fear that the mere existence of the
Henry repeating rifle or the eprouvette mortar made all talk of spirit
immediately antique. His spirit, he feared, had been blasted away so that
he had become lonesome and estranged from all around him as a sad old
heron standing pointless watch in the mudflats of a pond lacking frogs. It
seemed a poor swap to find that the only way one might keep from fearing
death was to act numb and set apart as if dead already, with nothing much
left of yourself but a hut of bones.
As Inman sat brooding and pining for his lost self, one of Swimmer's
creekside stories rushed into his memory with a great urgency and
attractiveness. Swimmer claimed that above the blue vault of heaven
there was a forest inhabited by a celestial race. Men could not go there
to stay and live, but in that high land the dead spirit could be reborn.
Swimmer described it as a far and inaccessible region, but he said the
highest mountains lifted their dark summits into its lower reaches. Signs
and wonders both large and small did sometimes make transit from that
world to our own. Animals, Swimmer said, were its primary messengers.
Inman had pointed out to Swimmer that he had climbed Cold Mountain to its
top, and Pisgah and Mount Sterling as well. Mountains did not get much
higher than those, and Inman had seen no upper realm from their summits.
--There's more to it than just the climbing, Swimmer had said. Though
Inman could not recall whether Swimmer had told him what else might be
involved in reaching that healing realm, Cold Mountain nevertheless
soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might
gather. Inman did not consider himself to be a superstitious person, but
he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer
thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go
there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not
abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when
it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a
better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to
be the location of it as anywhere.
Inman took his new coat off and draped it across his chairback. He
commenced working on a letter. It was long, and as the afternoon passed
he drank several more cups of coffee and darkened a number of pages front
and back with ink. He found himself telling things he did not want to
tell about the fighting. At one point he wrote:
The ground was awash with blood and we could see where the blood had
flown onto the rocks and the marks of bloody hands on tree trunks....
Then he stopped and wadded up his efforts and started again on a fresh
sheet and this was part of what he wrote:
I am coming home one way or another, and I do not know how things
might stand between us. I first thought to tell in this letter what I
have done and seen so that you might judge me before I return. But I
decided it would need a page as broad as the blue sky to write that
tale, and I have not the will or the energy. Do you recall that night
before Christmas four years ago when I took you in my lap in the
kitchen by the stove and you told me you would forever like to sit
there and rest your head on my shoulder? Now it is a bitter surety in
my heart that if you knew what I have seen and done, it would make you
fear to do such again.
Inman sat back and looked across the capitol lawn. A woman in a white
dress carrying a small wrapped parcel hurried across the grass. A black
carriage went by on the street between the capitol and the red stone
church. A wind stirred up dust in the roadway, and Inman noticed that the
afternoon was far advanced, the light falling at a slant that spoke of
autumn coming. He felt the breeze work its way through a fold in the
bandage and touch the wound at his neck, which began aching in the moving
Inman stood and doubled up the letter and then put his hand above his
collar and fingered the scabbed slash. The doctors now claimed he was
healing quickly, but he still felt he could poke a stick in there and
push it out the other side with no more resistance offered than might a
rotted pumpkin. It still hurt to talk and to eat and, sometimes, to
breathe. Troubling as well were the deep pains on humid days from the hip
wound he had taken at Malvern Hill years ago. All in all, his wounds gave
him just reason to doubt that he would ever heal up and feel whole and of
a piece again. But on the walk down the street to post the letter and
then back out to the hospital, his legs felt surprisingly sturdy and
When he reached his ward, Inman saw immediately that Balis was not at
his table. His bed was empty. His dark goggles rested atop his pile of
papers. Inman asked after him and was told that he had died in the
afternoon, a quiet death. He had looked grey and had moved from his table
to the bed. He had turned on his side and faced the wall and died as if
Inman went to the papers and riffled through them. The top of the
first page said Fragments, and the word was underscored three times. The
work seemed a confusing mess. The handwriting was spidery, thin and
angular. There were more strikeovers and cross-hatchings than plain
writing. And what could be made out clear was just a line here and there,
sometimes not even a sentence but just a shattered-off piece of one. A
sentiment that struck Inman's eye as he leafed through the pages was
this: "We mark some days as fair, some as foul, because we do not see
that the character of every day is identical."
Inman believed he would rather die than subscribe to that, and it made
him sad to think that Balis had spent his last days studying on the words
of a fool. But then he came upon a line that seemed to have more sense
to it. It was this: "The comeliest order on earth is but a heap of random
sweepings." That, Inman decided, he could consent to. He tapped the pages
against the desktop to square their edges and then he set them down in
After supper, Inman checked the packs under his bed. To the blanket
and waxed-cloth groundsheet already in his knapsack he added the cup and
little pot, the sheath knife. The haversack had for some time been filled
with dried biscuit, some cornmeal, a chunk of salt pork, a little dried
beef that he had bought off the hospital staff.
He sat at the window and watched the close of day. Sunset was
troubling. Low grey clouds massed at the flat horizon, but as the sun
fell to earthline it found an opening in the clouds and shot a beam of
light the color of hot hickory coals straight upward. The light was
tubular and hard-edged as the barrel of a rifle and stood reared up into
the sky for a full five minutes before winking out abruptly. Nature,
Inman was fully aware, sometimes calls attention to its special features
and recommends them for interpretation. This sign, though, as best he
could tell, spoke of nothing but strife, danger, grief. Of those he
needed no reminder, so he judged the show a great waste of effort. He got
in bed and pulled up the covers. Tired from his day of walking about
town, Inman read only a short time before falling asleep while it was yet
He awakened sometime deep in the night. The room was black, and the
only sounds were those of men breathing and snoring and shifting about in
their beds. There was only faint light from the window, and he could see
the bright beacon of Jupiter declining to the western horizon. Wind came
in the windows, and the pages of dead Balis fluttered on the table and a
few of them curled back and half stood so that they caught the faint
window light through their backsides and glowed like runtish ghosts come
Inman rose and dressed in his new clothes. He added his Bartram scroll
to the knapsack; then he strapped on his packs and went to the tall open
window and looked out. It was the dark of the new moon. Ribbons of fog
moved low on the ground though the sky was clear overhead. He set his
foot on the sill and stepped out the window.
(C) 1997 Charles Frazier
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