Inman follows the slave’s directions toward the Blue Ridge mountains. He takes safe roads and sleeps under the stars, often having the same nightmare about Fredericksburg. Inman wakes up every night from this nightmare and tries to convince himself, “I am stronger every minute,” but to no avail.
We’re more than halfway through this novel, and Inman’s growth and is still very shaky. Try as he might, he can’t stop returning to the battles where he endured trauma.
Every day, Inman gets farther and farther from civilization. Eventually, he’s walking through an area where the only sign of human civilization is the road itself. One day, he comes to an old woman setting up a trap for animals. The woman notices that Inman is wounded, and offers him food and care. Inman agrees.
The mysterious old woman takes care of Inman in return for companionship and conversation. In this case, the quid pro quo of hospitality is less literal, but still very present.
The old woman takes Inman to her home, which is nearby. On the walk to her home, the woman points out birds flying through the sky. She yells, “Hey there” to the ravens in the trees, and they caw back to her. At her home, the woman kills a goat and cooks it for herself and Inman. As the woman works at cooking, Inman inspects her home. It’s full of herbs, papers, and books.
This chapter is full of omens—or potential omens—including the birds we’ve already seen several times in the novel. Interestingly, neither Inman nor the old woman seems very interested in trying to understand what the flock of birds means. Indeed, the old woman seems to have a kind of mystical connection to them—they’re not symbols to her, but rather companions.
Inman and the old woman sit down to dinner. The woman asks Inman if he’s come from “killing men in Petersburg,” and she asks to see his “papers.” Inman shows the old woman his neck wound, and claims he lost his papers. The woman nods knowingly. She tells Inman she’s lived alone in her house for 26 years. She was once married, to a mean, much older man. She left her husband for her current home, and has no idea if her husband is still alive.
Like Junior, the old woman knows very well that Inman is a deserter, but she doesn’t care at all. She seems to feel a powerful connection with Inman, perhaps because she too is a “deserter.” Where Inman abandons his country and his military, the old woman turns her back on her husband.
It’s now Inman’s turn to tell the old woman about himself. He tells the woman about his neck wound—he received it while fighting with the Federals in Petersburg. Inman says that his newer wounds—bullet holes—come from “the other bunch.” The old woman nods and tells Inman that his life is full of danger. Inman is surprised to see kindness in her eyes. Moved, he tells her something he’s been thinking for a while: war is mankind’s natural reaction to the sameness of the world. The world is full of cycles and patterns—by declaring a war, humans create their own, unique event.
Inman and the old woman are clearly on the same page about the Home Guard, judging by Inman’s use of the phrase, “The other bunch.” Most importantly, though, Inman finds himself communicating with the old woman without actually talking to her—he can see kindness in her eyes, independent of anything the woman says or does. It’s for this reason that Inman feels comfortable opening up about his thoughts to her. As Inman sees it, war and violence are as basic a part of the human experience as nature itself—an unavoidable aspect of the cycle of time (even though humans like to think of war as a unique historical event). The upshot of all this is that, since war is “just” a natural part of human life, it can be recovered from.
The old woman gives Inman a strange ball, made of herbs, and tells him to swallow it. Inman does so. The evening moves on, and Inman is inspired to open up to the old woman about Ada. He tells her about Ada’s beauty, her personality, and his desire to marry her. The old woman finds fault with Inman’s desire to marry Ada for her beauty—she claims, “Marrying a woman for her beauty makes no more sense than eating a bird for its singing.”
At several points in this chapter, the way Inman behaves around the old woman is compared to how Inman behaves with Ada. Around Ada (and in every other scene he’s been in) Inman has been terse and reserved, but now he finally feels comfortable (or just weary) enough to finally open up and express himself. As the old woman suggests, there’s a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” irony about the romance in this book—Inman and Ada are basically two inexperienced young people experiencing a first crush, but because of external situations their “young love” becomes a matter of life and death.
The old woman shows Inman her papers—she writes and draws pictures all day long. She claims that she’s almost never lonely in her home, as she has lots of work to keep her busy. As the evening turns into night, Inman and the old woman fall asleep. He wakes up late the next day, feeling foggy from the medicine the woman gave him. He goes back to sleep, and when he wakes up, he finds that at least another day has passed.
It’s hard to totally believe the old woman’s (mostly unprompted) claim that she’s indifferent to human contact—especially as she seems to relish her time with Inman, enjoying their conversation and the opportunity to dole out advice to her young guest.
The old woman walks into the house and greets Inman. Inman tells the woman that he needs to be going soon. The woman nods, and points Inman on the right path back to Cold Mountain.
This ends one of the most positive of Inman’s “episodes” on the road, as he gets some much-needed rest and healing after all his previous encounters with danger.