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.
Inman wakes up in a hospital ward before dawn because his neck wound has attracted flies. The morning is too gray for him to see out of a window that usually provides him with a view of an oak tree, a road, and a brick wall. Inman gets up and sits in a chair. There he awaits sunrise. He imagines walking out of the window as he did when he first arrived at the hospital. Inman recalls a moment when he was bored with a history class at school. He threw his hat out the window. The hat was caught by the wind and landed at the edge of a hayfield, where it looked like a crow’s shadow. The teacher threatened Inman with whipping, but Inman walked out of the classroom, retrieved his hat, and never returned.
Balis, the man in the bed next to Inman, wakes and begins working on translating ancient Greek texts. His right foot was blown off in battle, and his leg has rotted increasingly along its length. More people in the room begin to stir as the room lightens. Inman counts flies on the ceiling and waits for the blind man he has been watching for some weeks to arrive. He remembers the wound he received in battle near Petersburg. No one thought he would survive that wound. Before healing, the wound “spit out” small fragments of clothing along with something resembling a peach pit that caused Inman to have troubling dreams. Inman also recalls how he played a game while convalescing that involved counting time until a change occurred in the scene outside, framed by the open window.
The blind man arrives, and Inman goes to speak to him. Inman learns that the man has never had eyes and would regret gaining his sight for a brief time if it meant suffering its loss in the future. Inman replies that he wishes he himself had been blind at Fredericksburg when his regiment shot down thousands of Federal troops from behind a wall on a hill. He remembers “heaps” of corpses littering the battlefield as he went scavenging for boots; he also recalls a woman turned crazy by what she had seen and a soldier who killed a line of fallen Federals by smashing their heads in with a hammer.
Inman returns to the ward and opens his copy of Bartram’s Travels at random. He loses himself in descriptions that remind him of his home’s mountainous topography. A few days later, Inman goes into town to buy supplies, such as clothes and writing paper, with money sent from home and his back pay. He drinks bad coffee at an inn and reads in his newspaper about army deserters and Cherokee troops scalping Federals (Federal troops). Inman then remembers a Cherokee boy, Swimmer, whom he met when they were both sixteen and grazing heifers on the slope of Balsam Mountain. While they fished by a creek, Swimmer told Inman folktales and spoke of the nature of the soul. Next, Inman’s coffee grounds and a flight of vultures make him think about divination. He remembers Swimmer saying that the mountains are gateways to a world above heaven where a “celestial race” lives. Responding to this comment, Inman pointed out to Swimmer that there was nothing at the top of Cold Mountain and other mountains he had climbed, although he could not discount the idea of a spiritual world invisible to the human eye.
Fiddle music draws Inman out of his reverie. He begins and then abandons a draft before mailing a letter that informs the recipient of his imminent return home. Inman returns to the hospital, finds that Balis has died, and reads Balis’s translations. The day’s sunset evokes in him a sense of grief. He adds his new supplies to his already-packed haversack and leaves that night through the open window.
Frazier opens the novel by introducing his brave yet haunted protagonist, a wounded Confederate soldier. He includes details of famous Confederate generals such as Lee and Longstreet to flesh out the historical framework of his narrative. However, the chapter focuses only indirectly on the Civil War and instead traces Inman’s personal experience of it. Inman is clearly engaged with the world and seeks out other people in it. He is aware of Balis in the hospital bed beside him, just as he notes the changing view from his window and the movements of the blind man. Yet Inman is as troubled by the world as he is fascinated by it. His nightmares and lonely visions of the future suggest that he suffers from a psychological injury that will not easily heal.
Inman is in need of absolution from his past but does not know how to find relief. Inman cannot forget the atrocities that he has witnessed, particularly those that occurred in battle at Fredericksburg. Although he tells the blind man some of his war experiences, he does not share details of a recurring dream in which piles of human limbs reform themselves into “monstrous bodies of mismatched parts.” Inman dreads the stare of a cadaver who speaks his name, leaving him to wake up “in a mood as dark as the blackest crow.” In this chapter, the crow symbolizes Inman’s independence, when he throws his hat out of the window as a boy, and it also symbolizes his internal disorder, when it is used as a simile for his dark mood. The crow reappears many times in the novel as an omen of doom, a symbol of independence, and a portent of change.
Inman is a man constantly on the move, a man who wishes to be reunited with his lover and who searches for the solace of human company. Despite his aversion to the “metal face of the age,” Inman battles his own despair. He moves from his bed to the outside world, goes into town, returns to the hospital, and finally passes beyond its confines by stepping through the window. Frazier returns to this theme of crossing boundaries throughout the novel as Inman enters and exits different earthly and spiritual realms. Inman’s flights of imagination and memories of a happier past are powerful tools that he uses to distance himself from the anguish he feels. Inman’s love of Bartram’s Travels, a book that he opens at random and gains comfort from, indicates his profound affinity for the natural world and for the movements of his book’s “lone wanderer” author.
Frazier’s contrasting descriptions of bloody battles and summer vistas underscore Inman’s troubled and divided worldview. Despite his horrific experiences, Inman hopes for a better future. Inman abhors the idea that the soul is weak and mortal since he learned it by “sermon and hymn.” This viewpoint juxtaposes Christian doctrine with a belief system formed from an individual’s own experiences and desires. Inman assimilates or rejects other people’s beliefs—be they the blindman’s, Swimmer’s, or Balis’s—on the basis of whether or not they accord with his personal philosophy. The individual’s evaluation of an idea’s truth is important throughout the novel, as questions of religious and philosophical truth resonate with Inman as he searches for his own spiritual conclusions.
The first chapter is an aggregate of Inman’s memories and experiences. It focuses on Inman’s past, his search for answers, his yearning for a better life. Hope, or the tentative search for hope, is forcefully conveyed in this chapter and will emerge as one of the most powerful themes within the novel.