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Cold Mountain

Charles Frazier

to live like a gamecock

source and root

in place of the truth; the doing of it

He had grown so used to seeing death, walking among the dead, sleeping among them . . . that it seemed no longer dark and mysterious.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary

Inman and Veasey come across a saw lying by a felled tree. Veasey steals the saw, justifying his actions by claiming that God shows little respect for property. The travelers eat the pods from a honey locust tree. They continue their journey, stopping to help a man who wants to remove a dead bull from a creek. Veasey unsuccessfully tries shifting the carcass according to his theory of fulcrums and leverage. Inman intervenes and uses the saw to dismember the bull. The men remove the body from the creek piece by piece. In gratitude for their help, the man offers Inman and Veasey dinner and lodging, which Inman accepts on condition that the man takes the saw. On their way to the man’s home, the travelers stop and share tales over a bottle of liquor. The man identifies himself as Junior and tells a salacious story about his roving youth before complaining about his promiscuous wife and her two sisters.

The men arrive at Junior’s tilted house, which has slipped its foundations. Inman and Veasey drink more and meet Junior’s daughter, Lula. Inman stands on the porch and looks at the planet Venus before Junior introduces his wife Lila. Junior leaves to check on a horse, and Inman drinks earthy-tasting liquor with Lila and her sisters. He thinks that the children look “stunned.” The women remove loaves baked in the shape of men from the fire. Lila explains to Inman that the disembodied light he sees in the forest is the ghost of a man Junior decapitated. Inman starts feeling dizzy and hides his haversack.

The women serve up an unidentifiable joint of meat for dinner “too big for hog, but too pale for cow,” which Inman has difficulty carving. Lila tries to seduce Inman, but Junior walks in with his gun and says that he has brought the Home Guard. Inman and Veasey are arrested and bound to a line of other captives. Before the group leaves, Junior forces Veasey to officiate a marriage between Inman and Lila.

The men march eastward for days without food. Inman is depressed at the thought of retracing his steps. One night, the guards decide to line up the prisoners and shoot them, but Inman suffers only a superficial wound to the side of his head. Inman drifts in and out of consciousness before he is pulled from his shallow grave by hogs. Inman uses a stone to cut the rope binding him to Veasey’s corpse. He commences walking westward and meets a slave, the yellow man, who gives him a melon. The slave offers the exhausted Inman a ride back to his owner’s farm. Inman accepts. When the two reach the farm, the slave hides Inman in the fodder. There, Inman rests and loses track of time. When he decides to leave, the slave warns him to head north in order to avoid Confederate patrols, which are out looking for Federals. The slave draws Inman a map, explaining that his master has taught him to read and write. Inman thanks the man and regrets that he has no money to give him.

Inman returns to Junior’s house, retrieves his haversack, and kills Junior by beating him in the head with his pistol. Inman walks westward all night and rests the next day under a tree in which three crows nest. Inman watches the birds and dreams of a world in which a man could transform himself into a crow and “fly from” or “laugh” at his enemies.

Analysis

This central chapter of the book is concerned with repetition, rotation, and rebirth. Inman’s identification of the planet Venus echoes Ada’s identification of the same planet in the previous chapter. Frazier uses this detail to indicate how the couple’s stories mirror and intertwine. More importantly, Inman changes his cardinal direction twice, sees Veasey die, and narrowly avoids death himself. Inman experiences a second resurrection when he is exhumed from his shallow grave. (His first resurrection was his extraordinary survival of the wound he took at Petersburg, related in “the shadow of a crow.”) Inman is a changed man following his directional reversals and his near death. Not only does he commence his journey westward, he does so with a clear desire for vengeance. Inman’s decision to kill Junior constitutes a moral climax in which Inman recognizes his need to kill in certain situations.

The novel’s motif of darkness and light continues as Inman and Veasey are introduced to a world of darkness and depravity in which people are killed and eaten. In one of the novel’s strongest parallels with the Odyssey, Lila appears in the same role as Homer’s witch, Circe, a seductress who attempts to drug that epic’s protagonist, Odysseus. Within this sinister environment, Inman seems preoccupied with light. In his drug-induced, hypnotic state, he can focus only on the fire and light in the forest. After murdering Junior, Inman asks himself whether people’s natures are all the same, with “little true variance.” Although his motives for killing Junior are sound, Inman is clearly troubled by his act and feels numbed by it. Frazier suggests that Inman has returned to the same state of spiritual paralysis he felt after the battle of Petersburg. Inman’s journey again turns back on itself, as he finds himself confronting deep psychological wounds that have not healed.

This chapter shows Inman searching for understanding in an increasingly chaotic world, as he struggles to leave the horrors of battle behind him. For Inman, the human world has begun to “scorn understanding”—even the patterns of the heavens no longer make sense. Frazier shows how close Inman’s mind comes to breaking as his experiences run counter to reason. Seeking some sense of order, Inman turns to an augury for help—rather than to conventional religion—and tries to divine his future in the patterns made by melon juice. This continues the novel’s theme of looking inward to one’s own spirituality rather than outside to some higher power. Frazier reiterates that Inman is undergoing an internal spiritual journey as well as a physical geographical one.

The crow takes on a new symbolic significance for Inman as he identifies it as a spirit of autonomy, a creature that has the freedom to defy and mock its enemies. This new understanding of the crow is important because, throughout the novel, Inman is held at the mercy of his enemies, although he tries to reassert his will against fate. Significantly, the chapter ends with a complete blackout. This ending suggests that Inman’s journey has become liminal: it has reached the threshold beyond which sensory perception fails. (Liminal means on the threshold of something, usually of some physical or physiological response.) The theme of liminality runs throughout the novel, reaching its apex in the chapter “spirits of crows, dancing,” in which sensory perception fails Inman altogether for the final time.

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