Inman walks along the Deep River. He’s afraid that he’ll run into the Home Guard, a group that steals and kills indiscriminately in the area, all while supposedly hunting down deserters from the Confederate army. Inman sees a man dressed in black, walking with a horse. The man seems to be insane: he carries a torch, and can barely stand. Inman watches as the man cries out, “We once lived in a land of paradise.” Inman realizes, with horror, that the man is dragging a woman behind him.
As Inman proceeds with his quest, his experiences become increasingly surreal. The surrealism of this chapter reflects Inman’s confusion about his place in the world, and the general confusion of the United States itself at this time. To some, it must have indeed seemed that America was transitioning from paradise to hell.
Inman draws his pistol, rushes toward the man, and orders him to set the woman down at once. The man responds, “You’re a message from God saying no.” The man lets go of the woman, and her body drops to the ground. Inman asks the man if the woman is dead, and he shakes his head—he’s merely drugged her, so that he can kill her. He also claims to be a man of God—a priest—boasting to Inman that it would be a sin to shoot him. The man explains that the woman is pregnant, and he is the father. Inman helps the woman back onto the horse—she doesn’t speak, but she’s clearly alive. Then Inman orders the man to march to the nearest town.
The horseman could be said to symbolize the moral bankruptcy of authority in America at this time: there were two presidents, corrupt judges and senators, and hypocritical clergymen (of which this horseman appears to be one). In a state of civil war, the legitimacy of authority of any kind came into question: it was impossible to know whom to trust. Inman seems to have little trust in authority figures of any kind—for this reason, he doesn’t pay attention to the horseman’s claims of holiness.
Inman walks with the priest, the woman, and the horse. It’s late at night, and Inman can’t help but stare up at the stars. Inman knows many of the constellations in the sky, including Orion. He asks the priest, “How did you get in this fix?” The priest responds that the woman was lonely, and lived with her grandmother. He conducted an affair with her in secret for a while, knowing that if anybody found out about it, he’d be banished from town.
The priest first seemed like an intimidating, if hypocritical figure, but as the chapter goes on, the priest becomes more villainous (it seems that he was trying to kill Laura just to maintain his reputation in his community) and yet simultaneously more childish and pathetic.
When they’re close to the girl’s house, Inman takes a handkerchief and stuffs it in the priest’s mouth, gagging him. While the priest sits outside, tied up, Inman carries the girl into the house, in which an old woman (presumably the girl’s grandmother) is sleeping. As Inman is carrying the girl into bed, the girl wakes up. Inman asks for her name—Laura, she says. Inman warns Laura that the priest doesn’t “speak for God—no man does.” He leaves Laura to sleep, and finds some pork and corn bread in the house, which he takes with him.
As we move along, we get a sense for Inman’s moral code. Inman doesn’t seem to believe in any particular religion—on the contrary, he subscribes to a looser, more intuitive system of what’s right and what’s wrong, and yet within that system he is very honorable and moral. Thus, Inman captures the priest and sends the girl back to her home. While this would seem to be a “good deed” by any definition, it’s notable that Inman doesn’t do it for nothing—he rewards himself by taking some food.
Inman walks outside, where the priest is still tied up. Inman writes a long letter explaining that the priest is a hypocrite, and leaves it in a tree near where the priest is tied. He points his pistol at the priest’s head and ungags him. The priest complains that Inman has ruined his life forever, and damns Inman to hell. Inman shrugs and walks away.
Inman has his own code of right and wrong, and doesn’t feel the need to obey moral authorities, such as the priest. As a result, he feels no sympathy when the priest childishly complains that Inman has ruined his life.
Inman eats the cornbread and pork, and then sleeps under the stars. When he wakes up, he cleans his pistol. It’s a small Belgian model, not particularly powerful or deadly. Inman walks along a road, which takes him to a small town. As he walks through town, Inman smells fresh meat cooking. He eventually arrives at a group of gypsies, standing around a big stewpot. The gypsies allow him to eat from the pot, for which he’s very grateful.
Inman’s encounter with the gypsies is one of the only times in the novel when he gets something for nothing—as far as we can tell, Inman gets to eat for free, thanks to the gypsies’ generosity. The very oddness of this scene reminds us of how important the rules of “quid pro quo” are to this novel—on almost all occasions, Inman is forced to obtain food or shelter by trading something of his own.
In the afternoon, Inman walks through town and comes upon a young woman, riding a horse. The woman is beautiful, and wears a man’s sweater. She’s riding her horse near a riverbank, and splashes around in the water when the horse stumbles. The sight of the woman, Inman concludes, is “stirring.”
Once again, Inman experiences semi-sexual feelings, but doesn’t act on them—he’s essentially a young man, too inexperienced even to understand what he’s feeling for the young woman. In a sense, Inman’s journey back to Black Cove is really a process of sexual awakening, and for the time being, Inman’s still in the early stages of this process.
As dusk falls, Inman sees gypsy children playing near the riverbank. He also comes across a carnival show nearby, and Inman stops there, hoping to find food. A performer leads Inman to a large tent—inside, he finds a man throwing knives at a woman, entertaining a large audience. Another man plays the banjo, and still another plays the drums. There are many Native Americans among the performers—Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, etc. The performers ask Inman to join them for dinner, and Inman obliges. Together, everyone eats, talks, and jokes “as equals.”
Frazier’s novel is full of detailed recreations of life in the South during the 19th century. Here, we see the kinds of things that might have entertained an American in the 1860s: carnival attractions and banjo music. The scene is also notable for its somewhat idealized depiction of racial equality: even though Inman is white and his hosts are Native American, there appears to be little racial tension between them. (Frazier has been criticized by some writers for idealizing 19th century race relations—it’s somewhat unlikely that an actual encounter like this would have gone down quite so peacefully, or that the Native Americans would have felt like “equals” as Inman does.)
After the meal, the carnival performers tell Inman about their time spent traveling the country. They claim that the road is its own country: it has its own laws and rules, but it also gives all its travelers great freedom. One of the performers also says something strange: in the future, the word “slave” will only be a metaphor.
This is one of the most eloquent expressions of the “Freedom of the road” in the novel. The carnival performers are exactly right: there is a kind of freedom in not being tied down to any one place, and Inman seems to agree with this idea. The irony is that although Inman is journeying from place to place, often savoring the freedom of the road, he’s only doing so in order to get back home.
Late at night, Inman finds that he can’t sleep. He opens his book and reads about adventurers traveling through the wilderness. Then, when he’s very drowsy, he begins to think about Ada, four years ago, when she sat in his lap at the Christmas party. That night, he offered her his palm, and she tried to read his fortune, but couldn’t find anything to read. Inman dreams about Ada walking through the forest in a white dress.
Inman idealizes Ada, picturing her in white (the color of innocence). He has obvious sexual feelings for her, and yet his attraction to Ada seems to stretch beyond the merely sexual. In Ada, Inman sees someone with whom he’s brave enough to face the future (a future so cold and ambiguous that when Inman shows Ada his palm, she can’t find any signs written there).
The next morning, Inman wakes up early. He begins walking back toward his home, invigorated by his evening, and by his dreams of Ada.
Inman is clearly invigorated by his memories of Ada. There’s not much that could compel him to walk all the way back to his home, but Ada’s memory is enough to inspire him.