He handed it to Inman and said, Come on, cite me one instance where you wished you were blind.
Where to begin? Inman wondered. Malvern Hill. Sharpsburg. Petersburg. Any would do admirably as example of unwelcome visions.
But what Inman did not tell the blind man was that no matter how he tried, the field that night would not leave him but had instead provided him with a recurring dream, one that had visited him over and over during his time in the hospital. In the dream, the aurora blazed and the scattered bloody pieces—arms, heads, legs, trunks—slowly drew together and reformed themselves into monstrous bodies of mismatched parts. They limped and reeled and lunged about the dark battlefield like blind sots on their faulty legs.
Cookery had become a pressing issue for Ada. She was perpetually hungry, having eaten little through the summer but milk, fried eggs, salads, and plates of miniature tomatoes from the untended plants that had grown wild and bushy with suckers. Even butter had proved beyond her means…
Teague and his Home Guard roaring around like a band of marauders. Setting their own laws as suits them, and them nothing but trash looking for a way to stay out of the army.
Even now, return to Charleston was a bitter thought and one that her pride rejected. There was nothing pulling her back there. Certainly not family. She had no relatives closer than her cousin Lucy, no kindly aunts or doting grandparents welcoming her return. And that state of kinlessness too was a bitter thought, considering that all around her the mountain people were bound together in ties of clan so extensive and firm that they could hardly walk a mile along the river road without coming upon a relative.
As Inman walked, he thought of a spell Swimmer had taught him, one of particular potency. It was called To Destroy Life, and the words of it formed themselves over and over in his mind. Swimmer had said that it only worked in Cherokee, not in English, and that there was no consequence in teaching it to Inman. But Inman thought all words had some issue, so he walked and said the spell, aiming it out against the world at large, all his enemies. He repeated it over and over to himself as some people, in fear or hope, will say a single prayer endlessly until it burns itself in their thoughts so that they can work or even carry on a conversation with it still running unimpeded…
After Ada made her decision known, Ruby wasted no time. She knew who had excess animals and produce, who would be willing to trade favorably. In this case it was Old Jones up on East Fork she dealt with. His wife had coveted the piano for some time, and knowing that, Ruby traded hard. Jones was finally made to give for it a pied brood sow and a shoat and a hundred pounds of corn grits.
Looking back on her life so far, she listed as achievements the fact that by the age of ten, she knew all features of the mountains for twenty-five miles in any direction as intimately as a gardener would his bean rows. And that later, when yet barely a woman, she had whipped men single-handed in encounters she did not wish to detail.
—Listen to me, Laura, he said. That preacher does not speak for God. No man does. Go back to sleep and wake up in the morning with me just a strong dream urging you to put him behind you. He means you no good. Set your mind on it.
Inman had dealt with gypsies before and thought them possessed of a fine honesty in their predatory relationship to the rest of mankind, their bald admission of constantly seeking an opening. But they were benign-seeming in this quiet bend of the river. It was no concern of theirs how the war concluded. Whichever side won, people would still need horses. The contest was no more to them than a temporary hindrance to business.
And, as with most things, Monroe had an explanation. He said that in their hearts people feel that long ago God was everywhere all the time; the sense of loneliness is what fills the vacuum when He pulls back one degree more remote.
He made a motion as if to backhand the preacher, but the man did not run or fight or even try to raise his staff to parry. Rather, he hunched his shoulders to take the blow like a cowed dog, and so Inman pulled up and did not strike. He reasoned that lacking the will to drive the man off, he'd just walk on and see what came about.
When Odell finished talking he was drunk and sat blotting at his eyes with his shirt cuff.
—It's a feverish world, Inman said, for lack of better comment.
He wished Claire not to marry before her eighteenth birthday. I agreed. Two years seemed not too long to wait, and a fair request on his part. Within a few days he took me home to dinner as his guest. My introduction to your mother was at his hand. I could see in her eyes that she knew me from the night in the yard, but she said not a word of it. I believed from the beginning that my feeling toward her was returned.
The months when we knew you were to come seemed a strange blessing for a pair such as we were: old and marred by the past. When Claire died in childbirth, I could not hardly think that God would be so short with us. I could do little for weeks. Kind neighbors found a wet nurse for you and I took to my bed.
—Come eat supper with us, the man said. And we've a hayloft that's good for sleeping.
—Only if you'll take that saw off our hands, Inman said to the man.
—I expect two dollars federal. Fifty in state scrip, Veasey said, perking up.
—Take it on, Inman said. No fee.
Junior raised up his face and looked at him but seemed not to recognize him. Inman stepped to Junior and struck him across the ear with the barrel of the LeMat's and then clubbed at him with the butt until he lay flat on his back. There was no movement out of him but for the bright flow of blood which ran from his nose and cuts to his head and the corners of his eyes.
—Here is far enough, she said. Go on back. As you said, I'll see you when I see you.
—But I hope that's soon.
—We both do, then.
—What is it you do in those books? Inman said.
—I make a record, the woman said. Draw pictures and write.
—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.
To Ada, though, it seemed akin to miracle that Stobrod, of all people, should offer himself up as proof positive that no matter what a waste one has made of one's life, it is ever possible to find some path to redemption, however partial.
—If I was to ask you to do something, would you do it?
Inman considered that he should frame an answer here on the order of Maybe, or If I can, or some like provisional phrase.
What he said was, Yes.
—If I was to ask you to come over here and lay in bed with me but not do a thing else, could you do it?
Inman looked at her there and wondered what she saw looking back. Some dread shape filling the clothes of her husband?
He would come walking up the road into Black Cove, and he would be weary looking. What he had been through would show in his face and in his frame, but only so much as to suggest heroism. He would be bathed and in a clean suit. Ada would step out the door onto the porch without knowing he was coming, just going about her doings. She would be dressed in her fine clothes. She would see him and know him in every feature. She would run to him, lifting her skirts above her ankle boots as she came down the steps.
—I'm ruined beyond repair, is what I fear, he said. And if so, in time we'd both be wretched and bitter.
Ada had tried to love all the year equally, with no discrimination against the greyness of winter, its smell of rotted leaves underfoot, the stillness in the woods and fields. Nevertheless, she could not get over loving autumn best, and she could not entirely overcome the sentimentality of finding poignancy in the fill of leaves, of seeing it as the conclusion to the year and therefore metaphoric, though she knew the seasons came around and around and had neither inauguration nor epilogue.