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Charles Frazier, Cold mountain

[Inman, deserting the Confederate army, heads back to Cold Mountain on foot. One day, in the middle of nowhere, he comes across an old woman.]

Inman stretched out on the wet ground litter and looked up through the tree limbs and their dripping leaves. The clouds were thick and grey. Blue patches of fog, fine and pale as powder, moved through the overstory of chestnut limbs and oak limbs clutching bright autumn leaves. A grouse drummed off in the woods, a deep violent sound like the beat of Inman's own heart in the moment before it shattered within his chest. He cocked his head up off the ground and listened, thinking that if this was his last day on earth he might at least be alert. But in a moment, wingbeats burst and spluttered and faded off into the woods. Inman looked down his length, and it was with mixed feelings that he found himself mostly there. He tried to wiggle his feet, and they answered the call, He rubbed his face hard with his palms and pulled his twisted clothes into place. He was wet to the skin.

He crawled to fetch his sacks from the tree and sat back against it and uncapped his water flask and took a long pull. All the food he had left in his haversack was a cup of cornmeal, so he drew together sticks to make a fire for cooking mush. He lit the tinder and blew on it until little silver orbs danced all across his vision, but the fire only flared up once and threw considerable smoke and then went out altogether.

-- I'll just get up and walk on and on, Inman said, to anything that might be listening.

After he said it, though, he just sat there for a long time.

I am stronger every minute, he thought to himself. But when he sought supporting evidence, he could find none.

Inman climbed up from the wet ground and stood, wavery as a toper. He walked awhile and then, involuntarily, he bent over. His middle was wrenched with dry heaves so strong he feared some necessary part of himself might be fetched up. The wound at his neck and the newer ones at his head burned and throbbed in conspiracy against him. He sat awhile on a rock, and then got up and walked all morning through the dim woods. The track was ill used, so coiled and knotted he could not say what its general tendency was. It aimed nowhere certain but up. The brush and bracken grew thick in the footway, and the ground seemed to be healing over, so that in some near future the way would not even remain as scar. For several miles it mostly wound its way through a forest of immense hemlocks, and the fog lay among them so thick that their green boughs were hidden. Only the black trunks were visible, rising into the low sky like old menhirs stood up by a forgotten race to memorialize the darkest events of their history.

Inman had not caught sight of a single mark of human being other than the path through this wilderness. No one to puzzle out his locale from. He felt fuddled and wayless, and the track gyred higher and higher. He still moved one foot before the other, but little more. And even this he did with no confidence that it advanced him one jot toward any mark he wished to hit.

Near midday he rounded a bend and came up on a pinched-off little scrag of a person hunkered down under a big hemlock. There was not much but its head and shoulders showing above a bed of tall bracken burnt by frost, each brown fern tip adangle with a bright drop of collected fog. From the person's posture, Inman's first thought was that he had interrupted some old coot in mid-shit. But when he drew closer he saw that it was a little old woman, squatting to bait the sweek stick of a bird trap with a suet gob. Not coot but crone, then.

Inman stopped and said, Hey, mam.

The little woman looked up briefly but waved not a hand. She stayed hunkered down, adjusting the trap in great detail, blissful-looking at her task. When she was done, she stood and walked around and around the trap, examining it until there was a perfect circle beat into the ferns. She was quite old, that much was clear, but aside from the wrinkles and wattles, her cheek skin glowed pink and fine as a girl's. She wore a man's felt hat, and the white hair hanging below it was thin and hung to her shoulders. Her clothes -- voluminous skirt and blouse both -- were made of soft tanned hides, and they looked to have been cut to pattern with a clasp knife and stitched up in haste. She had a greasy cotton apron tied around her middle, the butt of a small-caliber pistol sticking out from the sash of it. Her boots appeared cobbled by a newcomer to the trade and curled up like sledge runners at the toes. Propped against a big tulip tree stood a long-barreled fowling piece, remnant from a previous century.

Inman regarded the woman a breath or two and said, You'll not catch quail one in that snare if they smell people all around it.

-- I don't throw much scent, the woman said.

-- Suit yourself, Inman said. What I'm wondering is whether this road goes somewhere or if it just closes down shortly.

-- It turns to nothing but a foot trail in a mile or two, but it goes on and on as far as I know.

-- Westward'?

-- Generally west. It follows the ridges. Southwest would be more accurate. Old trade trail from Indian days.

-- Obliged, Inman said. He hooked a thumb under a pack strap, making ready to walk on. But rain began falling from the low sky, wide-spaced drops and heavy, falling like lead from a shot tower.

The woman held out a cupped hand and watched the water pool in it. Then she looked at Inman. There were no dressings on his wounds, and she studied him and said, Them look like bullet holes.

Inman had nothing to say to that.

-- You look faint, she said. White.

-- I'm fine, Inman said.

The woman looked at him more. You seem like you could eat something, she said.

-- If you could fry me an egg I'd pay, Inman said.

-- What? she said.

-- I wondered if I might pay you to fry me a few eggs, Inman said.

-- Sell you a meal'? she said. Reckon not. I'm not that bad off yet. But might be I'd give you a meal. I got no eggs, though. Can't tolerate living around a chicken. No spirit to a chicken at all.

-- Is your place night

-- Not a mile off, and you'd blithen my day if you'd take shelter and dinner at my camp.

-- Then I'd be a fool to say no.

Inman followed the woman, noting that she stepped with inturned toes, a style of walking often said to be favored by Indians, though Inman had known many a Cherokee, Swimmer among them, who walked splay-footed as mergansers. They climbed to a bend and from there they walked on great slabs of rock. It seemed to Inman that they were at the lip of a cliff, for the smell of the thin air spoke of considerable height, though the fog closed off all visual check of loftiness. The rain tailed off into a thin drizzle, and then turned to hard pellets of snow that rattled against the stones. They stopped to watch it fall, but it lasted only a minute and then the fog started lifting, moving fast, sheets of fog sweeping on an updraft. Blue patches of sky opened above him, and Inman craned his head back to look at them. He reckoned it was going to be a day of just every kind of weather.

Then he looked back down and felt a rush of vertigo as the lower world was suddenly revealed between his boot toes. He was indeed at the lip of a cliff, and he took one step back. A river gorge -- apparently the one he had climbed out of -- stretched blue and purple beneath him, and he suspected he could spit and nearly hit where he'd walked the day before yesterday. The country around was high, broken. Inman looked about and was startled to see a great knobby mountain forming up out of the fog to the west, looming into the sky. The sun broke through a slot in the clouds, and a great band of Jacob's ladder suddenly hung in the air like a gauze curtain between Inman and the blue mountain. On its north flank was a figuration of rocks, the profile of an immense bearded man reclining across the horizon.

-- Has that mountain got a name? he said.

-- Tanawha, the woman said. The Indians called it that.

Inman looked at the big grandfather mountain and then he looked beyond it to the lesser mountains as they faded off into the southwest horizon, bathed in faint smoky haze. Waves of mountains. For all the evidence the eye told, they were endless. The grey overlapping humps of the farthest peaks distinguished themselves only as slightly darker values of the pale grey air. The shapes and their ghostly appearance spoke to Inman in a way he could not clearly interpret. They graded off like the tapering of pain from the neck wound as it healed.

The woman swept an arm to where he was looking, gesturing toward two keen barbs on a distant edge of horizon.

-- Table Rock, she said. Hawk's Bill. They say Indians built fires on them of a night and you could see them for a hundred miles around. She rose and started walking. The camp is just up here, she said.

They soon left the main way and entered a narrow and heavily treed cut in the mountain, a dark pocket of cove, odorous with plant rot and soggy earth. A little rill of water cut through it. The trees grew stunted and gnarled and bearded with lichen, and they all leaned hard in the same direction. Inman could imagine the place in February with a howling downhill wind driving snow sideways among the bare trees. When they came to the woman's camp, Inman saw it to be a construction that had evidently begun life nomadic but had taken root. It was a little rust-colored caravan standing in a clearing among the canted trees. The shakes of its arched roof were spotted with black mildew, green moss, grey lichen. Three ravens walked about on the roof and picked at something in the cracks. Vines of bindweed twined in the spokes of the tall wheels. The sides of the caravan were painted up with garish scenes and portraits and crude lettered epigraphs and slogans, and under the eaves hung bunches of drying herbs, strings of red peppers, various wizened roots. There was a thin line of smoke coming from a pipe out of the roof.

The woman stopped and hollered, Hey there.

At her call, the ravens flew away cawing, and little delicate two-toned goats came from out the woods and around the side of the caravan. They were suddenly all about, two dozen or more. They walked up to inspect Inman and peered at him with upstretched necks, their slotted yellow eyes bright and smart. Inman wondered how a goat could look so much more curious and witful than a sheep when they were in many features alike. The goats clustered about him, shifting position. They shouldered one another, bleated, jingled the bells about their necks. Some in the rear rose to put their little hooves onto the backs of those before them so as to get a better view.

The woman kept on walking and Inman tried to follow her, but one big he-goat backed up a step or two, shoving lesser goats aside. The goat rared onto his back legs and fell forward, butting Inman in the thigh. He was weak from the hard walking of the past days, and his head was awhirl from lack of food, and so the goat butt drove him to his knees and then onto his back in the ground litter. The billy was colored black and brown and had long chin whiskers worn pointed in the fashion of Satan. He came and stood over Inman as if to examine his handiwork. The dizziness in Inman's head and the pain in his head swelled until he feared he might pass into a swoon. But he gathered himself and sat and pulled off his hat and slapped the goat across the face to back it off. Then he rose tottering to his feet and got his bearings. He reached out and slapped the goat again.

The woman had not even stopped in her walking, and she had disappeared around the side of the caravan. Inman and the billy and a number of the other goats followed her. He found her squatted under a lean-to roofed with pine boughs, putting kindling on the banked coals of her cook fire. When she had a blaze going, Inman went to it and put out his hands to warm. The woman threw larger chunks of hickory on the fire and then she picked up a white enameled basin and walked some distance away and sat on the ground. A little spotted brown-and-white goat came to her and she stroked it and scratched below its neck until it folded its legs and lay down. The animal's long neck was stretched forward. The old woman scratched it close under its jaw and stroked its ears. Inman thought it a peaceful scene. He watched as she continued to scratch with her left hand and reach with her right into an apron pocket. With one motion she pulled out a short-bladed knife and cut deep into the artery below the jawline and shoved the white basin underneath to catch the leap of bright blood. The animal jerked once, then lay trembling as she continued to scratch the fur and fondle the ears. The basin filled slowly. The goat and the woman stared intently off toward the distance as if waiting for a signal.

As the goat finished its dying, Inman inspected the caravan and its markings. A border of little blue people shapes, hand in hand, danced across the bottom. Above that, in no particular order, were various portraits, some unfinished, apparently abandoned part way through. One face, its features screwed up in anguish, was labeled Job. Below that was writing in black script letters, and what it said was partially covered by a stretched goat hide, so Inman could see only a fragment, which read, At odds with his Maker. Another picture was of a man down on his hands and knees, his head cocked up to look toward a white orb above him. Sun? Moon? What? A blank look on the man's face. Beneath him the question, Are you among the lost? One of the partial faces was merely a smear of paint with eyes. Its caption was, Our personal lives are brief indeed.

Inman turned from the pictures and watched the woman work. She split the little goat from breastbone to asshole and let the bowels fall in the basin with the blood. Then she shucked the goat out of its skin, and it looked strange and long-necked and goggle-eyed. She cut it into parts. The tenderest pieces she coated with a dry rub of herbs, ground peppers, salt, a little sugar. These she skewered on green twigs and set to roast. The other pieces she put into an iron pot with water, onions, an entire bulb of garlic, five dried red peppers, leaves of sage, and summer savory scrubbed between her palms. The pot had little legs, and she took a stick and scraped coals under it for slow cooking.

-- In a little bit I'll put us some white beans in there and by dinnertime we'll have some good eating, she said.

Later, the fog gathered up again and rain dripped on the roof of the caravan. Inman sat by the tiny stove in the dim cramped quarters. The place smelled of herbs and roots, earth, woodsmoke. He had entered it through the back door and passed into what amounted to a corridor, a narrow walkway three paces long between a cabinet and table on one side, a narrow sleeping pallet on the other. You came out into a place like a room, though it compassed no more space than two grave plots. There was a little iron stove shoved tight into one corner, and the body of it was not much bigger than a lard bucket. The walls behind were sheathed with roofing tin to keep them from catching afire. The woman had two little grease lamps lit, cracked teacups filled with lard, twisted bits of rag dipped down in them for wicks. They smoked as they burned and smelled faintly of goat.

The table was piled high with paperwork, its surface a shamble of books, mostly flapped open and layered facedown one on the other, page edges foxy from the damp. Scattered about and pinned to the walls were spidery pen-and-ink sketches of plants and animals, some colored with thin washes of mute tones, each with a great deal of tiny writing around the margins, as if stories of many particulars were required to explain the spare images. Bundles of dried herbs and roots hung on strings from the ceiling, and various brown peltry of small animals lay in stacks among the books and on the floor. The wings of a nighthawk, the dark feathers spread as in flight, rested atop the highest book pile. Thin smoke from the smoldering sprucewood fire rose through cracks in the stove door and then hung in a layer against the lath of the roof and the arched ribs of the joists.

Inman watched the woman cook. She was frying flatbread from cornmeal batter in a skillet over the one stove lid. She dipped out batter into sputtering lard and cooked piece after piece. When she had a tall stack in a plate, she folded a flap of the bread around a piece of roast goat and handed it to Inman. The bread was shiny with lard and the meat was deep reddish brown from the fire and the rub of spices.

-- Thank you, Inman said.

He ate so fast that the woman just handed him a plate of meat and bread and let him fold his own. While he ate, she swapped the skillet for a pot and began making cheese from goat milk. She stirred the thickening milk, and when it was ready she separated it through a sieve of twisted willow withes, letting the whey run into a tin pot. The remaining curds she tapped out into a small oaken keeler. While she worked, Inman kept having to move his feet to keep them out of her way. They had little to say to each other, for she was busy and Inman was eating with great concentration. When she was done, she handed him a pottery beaker of warm whey the color of dishwater.

-- When you got up this morning did you think before sunset you'd see cheese made? she said.

Inman thought about the question. He had long since decided there was little usefulness in speculating much on what a day will bring. It led a person to the equal errors of being either dreadful or hopeful. Neither, in his experience, served to ease your mind. But he did have to allow that cheese had not factored into this day's dawn thoughts.

The woman sat in a chair by the stove and took her shoes off. She opened the stove door and lit a briar pipe with a broomstraw. Her bare feet and the shanks of her legs sticking out to the fire were yellow and scaled like the lower parts of a chicken. She took her hat off and raked at her hair with her fingers, and it was so thin you could see through to pink scalp whatever sight line you chose.

-- You fresh from killing men in Petersburg'? she said.

-- Well, there's the other side to that. Seems like men have been doing their best to kill me for quite some time.

-- You run off or what?

Inman pulled out his collar and showed the angry weal at his neck. Wounded and furloughed, he said.

-- Airy papers to show that'?

-- I lost them.

-- Oh, I'd wager you did, she said. She drew on her pipe and cocked her feet back on their heels so that her smutched soles took the full benefit of the fire. Inman ate the last of the bread and washed it down with a drink of the goat whey. It tasted about as he had figured it would.

-- I'm out of cheese is why I'm making more, she said. Otherwise I'd offer you some right now.

-- You just live in this thing all the time? Inman said.

-- Got no place else. And I like to be able to move on. I don't want to stay in a place any longer than it suits me.

Inman looked at the caravan, its smallness, and the hard, narrow sleeping pallet. He thought about the vines in the wheel spokes and said, How long have you been camped here?

The woman held out her hands palm side to and looked down at her fingers and Inman thought she was about to count up years by tapping thumb to digits, but instead she turned her hands over and looked at their backs. The skin was wrinkled, crosshatched with fine lines dense as deep shadow in a steel engraving. The woman went to the narrow cabinet and opened the doors, which swung on leather hinges. She shuffled among shelves of leather-bound journals until she came upon the one sought, and then she stood and paged through it at great length.

-- It would make twenty-five years if this is sixty-three, she eventually said.

-- It's sixty-four, Inman said.

-- Twenty-six, then.

-- You've lived here twenty-six years?

The woman peered again into the journal and said, Twenty-seven come next April.

-- Lord God, Inman said, looking again at the narrow pallet.

The woman set the journal, binding up, atop a pile of books on the table. I could leave any time, she said. Harness up the goats and break the wheels out of the ground and travel on. Used to be the goats drew me around as suited my fancy. I journeyed all over the world. As far north as Richmond. All the way south nearly to Charleston, and everywhere in between.

-- Never married, I don't guess?

The woman pursed up her lips and worked her nose like smelling clabber. Yes, I was, she said. Might yet be, though I reckon he's long since dead. I was a little ignorant girl, and he was old. Three wives had already died on him. But he had a nice farm, and my folks next thing to sold me to him. There was a boy I had my eye on. Yellow hair. I see his smile yet about once a year in my dreams. Walked me home from a dance one time and kissed me at every turning of the road. But they put me under that old man instead. He didn't treat me like much more than a field hand. He'd buried the other three wives up on a hill under a sycamore tree, and he'd go up there sometimes by himself and sit. You've seen these old men -- sixty-five, seventy -- and they've gone through about five wives. Killed them from work and babies and meanness. I woke up one night laying in bed next to him and knew that's all I was: fourth in a row of five headstones. I got right up and rode out before dawn on his best horse and traded it a week later for this cart and eight goats. By now there's not enough greats to say how far these goats are distant from the first batch. And the cart's like what they say about a hundred-year-old axe, it's not had but two new heads and four new handles.

-- And been on your own since? Inman said.

-- Every day. What I soon learned was that a body can mainly live off goats, their milk and cheese. And their meat in times of year when they start increasing to more than I need. I pull whatever wild green is in season. Trap birds. There's a world of food growing volunteer if you know where to look. And there's a little town about a half day's walk north. I go barter off cheese for taters, meal, lard, and the like. Brew simples from plants and sell them. Medicine. Tinctures. Salve. Conjure warts.

-- A root doctor then, Inman said.

-- That, and I make a few brownies now and then selling tracts.

-- Tracts on what'?

-- There's ones on sin and salvation, she said. I sell a right smart of those. And there's one on proper diet. Says a man ought to forsake flesh and eat bread of Graham flour and root crops mostly. Another one on head knobs and how to read what they might say about a person.

She reached out to finger Inman's scalp, but he twisted his head away and said, I'll buy the one on food. When I get hungry I can just read it. He pulled from his pocket a wad of various scrip.

-- I take nothing but specie, she said. Three cent.

Inman jingled around in his pockets until he came up with it.

The woman stepped to a cabinet and took down a yellow pamphlet and handed it to him.

-- It says on the front it will change your life if you follow it, she said. But I'm making no claims.

Inman looked through the pamphlet. It was poorly printed on coarse grey paper. There were headings like The Potato: Food of the Gods. The Collard: Tonic for the Spirit. Graham Flour: Pathway to the More Abundant Life.

That last phrase caught Inman's eye. He said it aloud. Pathway to the More Abundant Life.

-- It's what many seek, the woman said. But I'm not sure a sack of flour will set your foot on it.

-- Yes, Inman said. Abundance did seem, in his experience, to be an elusive thing. Unless you counted plenty of hardship.

There was ample of that. But abundance of something a man might want was a different matter.

-- Scarcity's much more the general bearing of life, is the way I see it, the woman said.

-- Yes, Inman said.

The woman leaned to the stove and knocked the last of the fire out of her pipe and put it to her mouth and blew through it until it nearly whistled. She drew a tobacco pouch from an apron pocket and refilled the pipe, tamping the tobacco down hard with a callused thumb. She lit a straw in the stove and held it to the pipe and drew until it was going to her satisfaction.

-- How do you come to have that big red wound and them two little new ones'? she said.

-- I took the neck wound out by Globe Tavern last summer.

-- A dramshop knifing?

-- A battle. Below Petersburg.

-- Federals shot you, then?

-- They were making to take the Weldon rail line and we aimed to stop them. We went at it all that afternoon, fighting in pine thickets, broom grass, old fields, all sorts of a place. Awful flat scrubby country. It was hot and we sweated so bad we could reach down and roll lather off our pant legs with our hands.

-- You've thought a number of times, I guess, that if the ball had struck a thumb's width different you'd be dead? It near to took your head off as it is.

-- Yes.

-- It looks like it could bust open yet.

-- It feels about like it could.

-- And the new ones, how'd you come by them?

-- The usual way. Got shot, Inman said.

-- Federals?

-- No. The other bunch.

The woman waved her hand through the tobacco smoke like she couldn't be troubled with the confusing details of his wounds. She said, Well, these new ones're not as bad. When they heal up, the hair'll cover them and it'll be just you and your sweetheart to know. She'll feel a little welt when she runs her fingers through your hair. What I want to know is, was it worth it, all that fighting for the big man's nigger?

-- That's not the way I saw it.

-- What's the other way? she said. I've traveled a fair bit in those low counties. Nigger-owning makes the rich man proud and ugly and it makes the poor man mean. It's a curse laid on the land. We've lit a fire and now it's burning us down. God is going to liberate niggers, and fighting to prevent it is against God. Did you own any?

-- No. Not hardly anybody I knew did.

-- Then what stirred you up enough for fighting and dying?

-- Four years ago I maybe could have told you. Now I don't know. I've had all of it I want, though.

-- That's lacking some as an answer.

-- I reckon many of us fought to drive off invaders. One man I knew had been north to the big cities, and he said it was every feature of such places that we were fighting to prevent. All I know is anyone thinking the Federals are willing to die to set loose slaves has got an overly merciful view of mankind.

-- With all those fine reasons for fighting, thing I want to know is why did you run off?

-- Furloughed.

-- Yes, she said, and she reared back and cackled as if a joke had been cracked. Man on furlough, she said. Nary papers, though. Had them stole off him.

-- Lost them.

She stopped laughing and looked at Inman. She said, Listen here, I lack all affiliation. I don't care no more than spitting in that fire that you've run off.

And to make her point she spat a dark gob of matter, arcing it expertly into the open stove door. She looked back at Inman and said, It's dangerous for you, is all.

He looked her in the eyes and was surprised to find that they were wells of kindness despite all her hard talk. Not a soul he had met in some time drew him out as this goatwoman did, and so he told her what was in his heart. The shame he felt now to think of his zeal in sixty-one to go off and fight the downtrodden mill workers of the Federal army, men so ignorant it took many lessons to convince them to load their cartridges ball foremost. These were the foes, so numberless that not even their own government put much value to them. They just ran them at you for years on end, and there seemed no shortage. You could kill them down until you grew heartsick and they would still keep ranking up to march southward.

Then he told her how this very morning he had found a late-bearing bush of huckleberries, dusty blue on their sunward faces, still green on their shady back halves. How he had picked and eaten them for breakfast and watched as a cloud of passenger pigeons darked out the sun momentarily as they passed over, going to wherever they wintered in the remote south. At least that much remained unchanged, he had thought, berries ripening and birds flying. He said he had seen not much other than change for four years, and he guessed the promise of it was part of what made up the war frenzy in the early days. The powerful draw of new faces, new places, new lives. And new laws whereunder you might kill all you wanted and not be jailed, but rather be decorated. Men talked of war as if they committed it to preserve what they had and what they believed. But Inman now guessed it was boredom with the repetition of the daily rounds that had made them take up weapons. The endless arc of the sun, wheel of seasons. War took a man out of that circle of regular life and made a season of its own, not much dependent on anything else. He had not been immune to its pull. But sooner or later you get awful tired and just plain sick of watching people killing one another for every kind of reason at all, using whatever implements fall to hand. So that morning he had looked at the berries and the birds and had felt cheered by them, happy they had awaited for him to come to his senses, even though he feared himself deeply at variance with such elements of the harmonious.

The woman thought about what he had said, and then she waved her pipe stem at his head and neck. Them hurting bad still? she said.

-- They seem not to want to quit.

-- Looks like it. Red as a damn winesap. But I can do something for you there. That's within my realm of power.

She got up and went to the cabinet and took out a basketful of withered poppies and set about making laudanum. She picked out the poppy heads one by one, pierced the capsules with a sewing needle and then dropped them into a small glazed crock and set it near the stove for the opium to sweat out.

-- Before long this will be about right. I'll take and add me a little corn liquor and sugar to it. Makes it go down better. Let it sit and it gets thick. It's good for any kind of pain -- sore joints, headaches, any hurt. If you can't sleep, just have a drink of it and stretch out in the bed and pretty soon you'll know no more.

She went back to the cabinet and took out a little narrow-mouth crock and ran a finger down in it. She daubed at Inman's neck and at his head wounds with what looked like black axle grease but smelled of bitter herbs and roots. He jerked when her finger first touched his wounds.

-- That's just pain, she said. It goes eventually. And when it's gone, there's no lasting memory. Not the worst of it, anyway. It fades. Our minds aren't made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do bliss. It's a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.

Inman first thought to argue and then he thought he'd keep silent and let her think what she wished if it gave her comfort, no matter how filled with error her logic. But then his mouth just started working and he said, I wouldn't want to puzzle too long about the why of pain nor the frame of mind somebody would be in to make up a thing like it to begin with.

The old woman looked at the fire in the stove door, and then she looked at her forefinger, greasy from the medicine. She rubbed her thumb over it three times rapidly, and then she twisted it in her apron hem to wipe it off. She dismissed her hand from her thoughts and it fell to rest at her side. She said, You get to be my age, just recollecting pleasures long ago is pain enough.

She stoppered the salve crock with a cob and put it in Inman's coat pocket. Take it with you, she said. Keep it rubbed on thick until it's gone, but keep your collar off it. It don't wash out. Then she reached into a wide goat-hide purse and pulled out a handful of great lozenges made of rolled and bound herbs, like fat little sections of cheroot. She heaped them into Inman's hand.,

-- Swallow one of these a day. Starting now.

Inman put them in his pocket, saving one. He put it in his mouth and tried to swallow. It seemed to swell. A great soggy bolus like a chaw of tobacco. It would not go down, and it threw off a taste like old socks. Inman's eyes watered. He gagged and grabbed for his beaker of whey and drank it down.

Sometime in the evening they ate the stew of white beans and the pieces of the little goat. They sat side by side under the brush arbor and listened to the faint rain come down in the woods. Inman ate three bowlsful and then they both had little earthen cups of laudanum and fed the fire and talked. To Inman's surprise, he found himself telling about Ada. He described her character and her person item by item and said the verdict he had come to at the hospital was that he loved her and wished to marry her, though he realized marriage implied some faith in a theoretical future, a projection of paired lines running forward through time, drawing nearer and nearer to one another, until they became one line. It was a doctrine he could not entirely credit. Nor was he at all sure Ada would find his offer welcome, not from a man galled in body and mind as he had become. He concluded by saying that though Ada was somewhat thistleish in comportment, she was, by his way of thinking, very beautiful. Her eyes were down-turned and set slightly asymmetrically in her head, and it gave her always a sad expression which in his view only served to point up her beauty.

The woman looked as if she thought Inman spoke the greatest foolishness she had ever heard. She pointed her pipe stem at him and said, You listen. Marrying a woman for her beauty makes no more sense than eating a bird for its singing. But it's a common mistake nonetheless.

They sat for a while without talking, just sipping the laudanum. It was sweet and had thickened up so that it was not much runnier than sorghum, nor much clearer. It tasted some like metheglin, though without the taste of honey, and it clung to the cup with such determination that Inman found himself licking it out. The rain came down harder and a few drops made their way through the thatching of the arbor and hissed in the fire. It was a lonesome sound, the rain and the fire and nothing else. Inman tried to picture himself living similarly hermetic in just such a stark and lonesome refuge on Cold Mountain. Build a cabin on a misty frag of rock and go for months without seeing another of his kind. A life just as pure and apart as the goat-woman's seemed to be. It was a powerful vision, and yet in his mind he saw himself hating every minute of it, his days poisoned by lonesomeness and longing.

-- It must get cold in winter up here, Inman said.

-- Cold enough. In the chillest months I keep the fire hot and the blankets deep, and my biggest concern is that my ink and watercolors not freeze while I work at the desk. There are days so cold I sit with a cup of water between my legs to warm it. And still when I daub a wet brush in color, the bristles freeze before I can touch the tip to paper.

-- What is it you do in those books? Inman said.

-- I make a record, the woman said. Draw pictures and write.

-- About what?

-- Everything. The goats. Plants. Weather. I keep track of what everything's up to. It can take up all your time just marking down what happens. Miss a day and you get behind and might never catch back up.

-- How did you learn to write and read and draw? Inman asked.

-- Same way you did. Somebody taught me.

-- And you've spent your life this way?

-- So far I have. I'm not dead yet.

-- Do you not get lonesome living here? Inman said.

-- Now and again, maybe. But there's plenty of work, and the doing of it keeps me from worrying too much.

-- What if you get sick up here by yourself? Inman said.

-- I've got my herbs.

-- And if you die?

The woman said that living with such great scope of privacy had some disadvantages. She knew she could not expect help under any circumstances, nor did she much want to live past the point where she could fend for herself, though she calculated that date still to be writ on a fairly distant calendar. Knowing she was likely to die alone and lie unburied did not trouble her a whit. When she felt death coming, she planned to stretch out at the top of the rock cliff and let the ravens peck her apart and carry her away.

-- It's that or worms, she said. Of the two I'd as soon have ravens carry me off on their black wings.

The rain began falling harder yet, dripping fast through the roofing of the arbor. They called the evening concluded, and Inman crawled under the caravan and rolled up in his blankets and slept. When he woke a day had passed and night was again coming on. A raven sat perched on a spoke looking at him. Inman got up and daubed his wounds with the salve and ate his herb medicines and took another draught of laudanum and liquor. The woman fixed him more of the bean and goat stew, and while he ate they sat together on the caravan steps. The woman told a long and maundering tale of a goat-trading mission she had made down as far as the capital city once. She had sold a half dozen goats to a man. Had the money in her hand when she remembered that she wanted to take the bells back with her. The man declined, saying the deal was completed. She said the bells had never been part of the deal, but he called the dogs on her and ran her off. Late that night she had gone back with a knife and cut the leather collars and gotten the bells and had, as she put it, walked out through the streets of the capital just a-cussing.

Inman felt very foggy throughout the story, for he could feel the medicines working in him, but when she was done he reached over and patted the back of her etched and spotted hand and said, The heroine of the goat bells.

Inman slept again. When he awoke it was dark and no longer raining, but cold. The goats had crowded around him to get warm and their smell was so sharp as to about make his eyes water. He had no idea if it was the same dark he had fallen asleep to or whether a day had intervened. Light from a grease lamp fell in threads through cracks in the caravan floor, and so Inman crawled out and stood in the wet leaves on the ground. There was a sherd of moon partway up the eastern sky, and the stars all stood in their expected places and looked chill and brittle. At the ridge above the cove, an enormous pike of bare rock stood black against the sky like a picket watching for any siege the heavens might throw down. The strong urge to walk came over Inman. He went and knocked at the door and waited for the old woman to let him in, but there was no answer. Inman opened the door and stepped inside and found the place empty. He looked about the desk at the papers. He picked up a journal and opened it to a drawing of goats. They had eyes and feet on them like people, and the sentences of the entry below were hard to parse, but they seemed to contrast the behavior of certain goats on cold days to their behavior on hot. Inman leafed through farther and found pictures of plants and then more pictures of goats in every imaginable attitude, all done in a mute and limited palette, as if she painted with clothes dye. Inman read the stories that went with the pictures, and they told of what the goats ate and how they acted toward each other and what moods seized them from day to day. It seemed to Inman that the woman's aim was to list in every detail the habits of their culture.

This would be one way to live, Inman thought, a hermit among the clouds. The contentious world but a fading memory. Mind turned only toward God's finer productions. But the more he studied the journal, the more he wondered how it must be for the woman to count back through the decades, figuring how many years had passed since some event in her youth -- the romance with the yellow-haired farmboy she had wanted to marry instead of the old man, an autumn day of particular glory, a dance that evening after the harvest, later out on the porch an amber moon rising over the trees, kissing the boy with her lips parted while inside fiddlers played a piece of ancient music to which she had attached an unreasonable enthusiasm. So many years gone between then and now that even the bare number would seem unutterably sad even without some sweet attendant memory.

Inman looked about and found there was not a scrap of mirror in the caravan, and he therefore assumed the woman must go about her grooming by feel. Did she even know her own recent countenance? Long hair as pale and fine as cobwebs, hide sagged and puckered and folded about her eyes and jowls, brindled across her brow, bristles growing from her ears. Only her cheeks pink, the discs in her eyes still bright and blue. If you held a glass up to her would she wrench back in surprise and fright at the relic looking out, her mind still grasping a picture of herself in an incarnation some decades previous? A person might get to such a state of mind, living so remote.

Inman waited a long time for the goatwoman to come back. Dawn rose, and he blew out the lamp and broke some sticks to put in the little stove. He wanted to get on, but he did not wish to leave without thanking her. She did not return until the morning was far advanced. She walked through the door with a brace of rabbits hanging limp from her grip on their hind legs.

-- I need to be going, Inman said. I just wanted to see if I could pay you for the food and medicine.

-- You could try, the woman said. But I wouldn't take it.

-- Well, thank you, Inman said.

-- Look here, the woman said. If I had a boy, I'd tell him the same as I'm telling you. Watch yourself.

-- I will, Inman said.

He turned to walk out of the caravan, but she stopped him.

She said, Here, take this with you, and she handed him a square of paper on which was drawn in great detail the globular blue-purple berry cluster of the carrion flower plant in autumn.

(Charles Frazier, Cold mountain, New York: Vintage Books, 1998, p. 262-283)


Last updated 24.11.99
Burkhard Leuschner