Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You is rich with the music of the Southern mountains and the stories of their people. Jess Kirkman's grandmother is dying, and Jess remembers the tales she and his mother have passed down to hima chorus of women's voices that sing and share and celebrate the common song of life.
About the Author
Fred Chappell is the award-winning author of over twenty books of poetry and fiction. His previous novels include I Am One Of You Forever and Brighten the Corner Where You Are. He teaches at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where he lives with his wife, Susan.
Read an Excerpt
The wind had got into the clocks and blown the hours awry. It was an unsteady wind, rising to a wail at the eaves and corners of this big brick house of my grandparents, then subsiding to insistent whispers that rustled inside the room. My father and I listened to the wind and tried to talk to each other, but it was difficult and we fell silent for long stretches, forced to attend the wind we feared so much.
The room we sat in my grandmother had always referred to as the front room. There was a small black wood heater before us, its flat top handy for coffeepots and soup pans. We sat, my father and I, before this stove, which now held ashes and cinders and no fire, he in a wicker rocking chair and I in a cane-bottom straight chair. A little table where my grandmother took her frugal and often-solitary meals stood by the west wall. On our right-hand side loomed the door we were not going to open. It entered upon the long dark hall that led to the back bedroom.
In that room my grandmother lay dying while my mother kept watch beside her. A doctor had been called for, but long hours had passed since my father had telephoned, choking back his sorrow and speaking in a strained, hoarse voice. Now and then he would rise to go into the kitchen, where the black tulip telephone sat on the oak cabinet, and dial again. Each time he returned, he looked grimmer.
We were not allowed to be with my grandmother. My mother had given orders. "I want to be alone with her," she said. My father nodded and rubbed his eyes with his wrist. When my mother closed the door and walked down that long dark hall to the bedroom, her footsteps made a sound like she was marching for miles through a great deserted midnight warehouse.
Then my father and I sat in our chairs and stared at the clocks on the mantel behind the wood heater. A tall wooden clock stood in the middle; behind gilt-filigreed glass it showed a dingy face with sharp Roman numerals and suspended below that an ornate gilt pendulum. Beside it sat a fancy clock Uncle Luden had brought from Memphis; it had four brass balls that circled below a small face, and the whole was enclosed in a spotless bell jar. There was a little dull electric clock in a black housing; my father had brought it here last week because he didn't trust the other clocks to keep good time. Then there was a large silver watch encased in a velvet box with its face open to display the hour its owner — my grandfather — had died; it always read 12:12.
Only now it didn't. Now it read 2:03 or 11:00 or 6:15. The wind had got into it and blown the hours awry. Under the bell jar the four brass balls of Uncle Luden's clock turned one way and then another, whirling swiftly or barely moving. The pendulum in the gilt clock was as irregular as a cork bobbing on a fishing line. The wind had got into the electricity also and the hands of that clock pointed where they pleased.
When I told my father what was happening, he said, "Yes, time is getting ready to stop."
"Yes. For our family at least. Time will have to stop for us and it's hard to think how it can start up again."
"I don't understand," I said.
"If we lose your grandmother, if Annie Barbara Sorrells dies, a world dies with her, and you and I and your mother and little sister will have to begin all over. Our time will be new and hard to keep track of. The time your grandmother knew was a steady time that people could trust. But you can see for yourself that we are losing it."
The clocks read 10:21, 3:35, 9:06, 4:06.
"Yes, I see," I said, "but I still don't understand."
He seemed not to hear. "This is a solid house," he said, "as solid as your grandaddy ever built. But can't you feel it trembling in this awesome wind? If the wind that has come upon us can make this house unsteady, it's no wonder what great damage it can do to time. Time is so flimsy, it is invisible."
"Is grandmother going to die?"
"Your mother thinks so."
"What do you think?"
"I can't bear to think."
"Neither can I," I said, "but what are we going to do?"
"We will watch the clocks at their strange antics," my father said. "We will listen to the wind whisper and weep and tell again those stories of women that your mother and grandmother needed for you to hear. We will hope that this house stays rooted to its earth and is not carried away by the wind into the icy spaces beyond the moon."
"Do you think that can happen?"
"I don't know," he said, "but I am going to hang on here as tight as I can."
It was true. When I looked at his hand on the arm of his rocking chair, his knucklebones shone as white as if his skin had been peeled off them.
THE TRAVELING WOMEN
Jesus Jesus O now Jesus, they said or thought, now show Your sweet face.
O daughter, my grandmother said or thought, the hardest is to know that you must come this way, too, sometime.
We must all of us die, my mother said or thought. I cannot bear it you are going away. After you are gone and if I can learn to live with that, it will be easier for me to die.
Nothing will make it easier, my grandmother said. Not even having you by my side right now makes it easier. No matter how much you are with me, I am still alone.
I'm right here.
Yes, but I'm alone. I can't well say how alone I am. Do you remember once when you climbed up into the big poplar in the back pasture and stayed there all day and didn't come down and nobody knew? And then just about dark you showed up in the yard and looked in through the window at us eating supper. You commenced crying then, tears as big as seed corn, and I heard you and came out and you hugged my waist and said you were crying because you thought none of us remembered you. You said it was like you had passed away to another world and was not one of us any longer.
I had forgotten, my mother said or thought, but now when you remind me, I remember. You were still wearing your apron and I pressed my face against the pocket and there was a paring knife in it and a ribbon of apple peel and I stood back and began pulling the apple peel out like I was untying a present and forgot all my sorrow.
Did you, now? I don't remember that part.
There was always something in your pocket. A spool of white thread with the needle slipped down the side. A little ball of string or sea-grass twine. A rusty spoon. Daddy's old hawk-bill knife that wouldn't cut butter, gummed up with tobacco tar. A thimble, that old dented tin thimble you said you hoped you'd lose and never did. Your first pair of eyeglasses that wouldn't see good anymore. Or the black steel case for them, and you'd left the glasses somewhere. One time there was a little mouse in your pocket. It was dead.
Yes. I remember. I took it away from Quadrille. I couldn't stand to watch that cat playing with it and then I forgot it was there. I got busy doing something else, I reckon.
When I ran up to hug you, I put my face on that mouse. It was a frightful thing to me.
Yes, but you didn't cry that time.
"I put my face, I guess, to everything you had in your pocket when I was a little girl," my mother said.
"O Cora," my grandmother said.
Mama, I'm right here, my mother thought or said.
O Cora, you were the skinniest little girl. I speculated sometimes when I saw you hoeing in the fields that it would be a miracle if you ever grew up. Rowe was as spindly as you and just as pale. He was the one I lost. That was before you were born.
I know, Mama.
He was the sweetest child.
You always said.
His eyes were so big in his face, you know, and they looked up at me lonesome and watery. He was looking at me that way when I held him in my arms and he breathed his last.
You told us about that.
It was the gentlest thing. He didn't shiver or pee on me. He just closed his eyes and went away. I couldn't even feel sorry for him; I felt sorry for me. I said to myself, Annie Barbara Sorrells, you have lost the most precious thing that you will ever have. That was August 8, 1911.
That was the day Joe Robert was born. What did he die of?
"Joe Robert?" my grandmother said. "Is Joe Robert all right?"
"Hush, Mama. Lie back," my mother said. "Joe Robert is all right. He's in the front room with Jess." I meant Rowe — what did he die of?
It was nothing they ever gave a name to. These days now the doctors would know what it was and I reckon might could cure him. But that was a long-ago time and we lived over in Hardison County, where the medicine was mostly homemade. Horses and cows and sheep got better doctoring than people did. If it was a different place, Rowe would be alive with us today.
I'd like that. I'd like to have another brother.
He might could have kept Luden in line a little bit. He would be three years older than Luden and might set an example for him.
Luden's all right. He's coming to see you, Mania. He's on his way, flying here from California. Luden's a good son to you.
I wish he'd quit the whiskey.
I know you do, Mama.
Many's the hour I've spent on my knees by the bedside praying for him to leave the whiskey alone.
He doesn't drink as much anymore.
And the trashy women, too. I wish he'd leave off running with them.
He's married again now, Mama. I don't think he fools around. I hear Bessie keeps him on a tight rein.
I would say, Jesus, please help Luden to quit his awful thirst. Send the spirit of Rowe to help him quieten. Send the spirit of his older brother that You took away to succor my son Luden in his troubles. O please ...
"Hush now, Mama. Lie back. It's all right. It will be time to take some more medicine directly."
Cora, the medicine ain't no good anymore. I'm past all help of that kind now. I'm getting ready to see the face of my Maker and to be joined again with Rowe and my mother and daddy and Aunt Tildy and Uncle Lige Goforth and many another soul that belonged to the times of my youth. I'm getting ready to meet ...
"Lie back now. Everything's all right. Soon you can take some medicine and the doctor will be here."
I don't put much stock in doctors. Do you remember Holme Barcroft? He said he was the kind of doctor who couldn't even pull a splinter out of your thumb. I really am a doctor, he said, but not a medical doctor. It's just some initials a university tacked onto my name. What does this university think you're a doctor of? I asked him. Music, he said. Is that right? I told him, I hadn't heard that music was sick. He smiled when I said that and it looked like his blue eyes got even bluer. I never saw blue eyes like that again. Well, maybe it's not sick, but then I'm not through doctoring it yet, either, he said, and it pleasured me that he would be so nimble to come back with a remark after I'd said the sassiest thing to him I knew how. Holme Barcroft, there was never another man like him.
I remember Dr. Barcroft, Mama. The second time he came I was eight years old.
He was just smitten with music the way Samantha Barefoot always was. It made him a sweet man, the music did, the way it made Cousin Sam sweet, too. Music will get in your soul, I believe, and dampen down the rage and sorrow to be found there. Some people love horses the way she loves the fiddle and the bow.
I used to have a saddle mare. You-all called her Bella, but I called her Princess. Princess was her secret name. I rode her to school.
We always had a saddle horse or two in those days. That was the only way sometimes to get where you needed to go. People still have saddle horses, I reckon, but you don't see buggies anymore.
I used to simply worship that horse. Time and again I thought Princess was the only friend I had in the world.
Nowadays they have cars and folks tear around in them day and night like they were mad at somebody.
One time, though, I was riding her to school on a warm morning in April and Princess ran away with me. I don't know what got into her. She rared around in a circle and took off back down the road where we came from. I pulled and tugged to no avail. I don't know I've ever been so scared for my own life, and it was all I could do to hang on. All I could think about was Dessie Hawkins and how her horse had run away and pitched her against a fence post and broke her back.
It seems like the world has gone wild sometimes with cars and airplanes. All this killing, too. People killing one another all the time.
And I would have been hurt bad and maybe crippled if it wasn't for Tim Dollard. He was coming up the road toward me and he just turned that dapple gray of his crossways in the road and Princess had to stop. It took a long time to gentle her down and then we turned and trotted off to school as docile as you please. And I was never afraid of her, not even after that time. I still trusted her and she never ran away with me again. Do you remember what Uncle Dave said one time? You and that horse, he said, you're a matched pair. There couldn't anybody have said anything that would please me more.
They say Uncle Dave Gudger killed a man one time, but it was never proved on him, because he went away. Or something happened. Maybe he died, too, because his wife, Chancy, took to wearing his old hat as black as sin. Her mind went weak at that time and was never strong again. Cousin Samantha I sent to play her music, but what good it did, I never heard. I always hated the sight of that old black hat on Aunt Chancy's head. They say when she died they found a man's cutoff private thing tangled up in her hair, hidden underneath that black hat. I don't know as I believed that talk.
I remember Uncle Dave, my mother said or thought. He frightened me when I was little, his face looked so mean. The way it was when he'd hold a match to light his pipe.
"What do you mean, Mama? Do you want the light turned on?"
"Light" in the window there, what was that flash? Is there a storm? But it wasn't like lightning, not sharp. It was a great and sudden glow, all golden, and it washed against the sky like the surge of a flood on the river.
"I don't know what you want, Mama. I don't know what you mean."
What time of day is it? What time of year? I thought I was lying here in the dark of the night with the silence all around me except for my daughter, Cora, doing the best she can to go at least partway with me up this steep and stony path that I am traveling lying down. My body is lying down, but my soul is trying to make it up this rugged Ember Mountain path like the dry bed of a stream with all its rocks bare and jagged in the parched sunlight. She is doing the best she can, Cora is, but there's nothing anybody can do. This lonesome road, you've got to travel it all by yourself. That's what all the preachers said, every last one of them, but things like that don't mean much when they say them. It's only when it happens to you at last that you understand what they were talking about. But how would they know? They have to do it the same way as me and everybody else and I expect they're just as surprised and scared as anybody to find their words have come true.
"Do you want me to turn the light on? I thought it was hurting your eyes."
"No." No light now, the golden light is gone. But there is a wind beyond the window there; I can hear it singing. I've heard it singing sad and fierce time out of mind. My husband, Frank, built this house and many another and pitched them all stout enough to stand till doomsday, but this one has got turned crossways to the wind and there are winter days and days in the springtime and autumn when it hums and moans like a sorrowing widow and won't let up. Sometimes it will get in your mind so sad, you think there's not a smile of hope left anywhere in the world. It's a good stout house, right enough, but the wind that swarms it comes from a place where there are not any human people and the house that a man has built cannot keep the sorrowful feelings out of that sound, him being only a human man.
"All right. I didn't think you really wanted it on. It shines right down in your eyes." This old fixture, just a bare bulb hanging here in the room. It's got a gilt chain that's kind of pretty with the wire twisted through it, but it makes a harsh and ugly light and shines right down in Mama's eyes. I can hardly bear to look at her with that light on. It makes her look like a dead person, with her eyes so dark and sunken now and her cheekbones sticking out and her skin all blotched like a potato peel. Her hair has gone dull, too. I wish I could think of a way to wash it for her. That part maybe hurts the most. Her hair was her glory, dark russet hair that reached down her back to her waist. She always took special care of it, with a balm she knew about and her tortoiseshell combs that held it in place. On a farm, she told me, a woman's hands and face are going to turn rough, but she can still keep her hair pretty if she will look after it and take thought.
There are many things happening outside the window of this room. There is light and music and sobbing and spirits. But I don't know if this dry, rocky creek bed goes all the way up to the window.
Excerpted from "Farewell, I'm Bound To Leave You"
Copyright © 1996 Fred Chappell.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Traveling Women,
The Shooting Woman,
The Figuring Woman,
The Silent Woman,
THE WIND WOMAN,
The Shining Woman,
The Feistiest Woman,
The Helpinest Woman,
The Remembering Women,
Books by Fred Chappell,
Praise for Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You,
Reading Group Guide
A magical novel of women's wisdom passed down through generations of storytelling.
Fred Chappell has written a novel of lyrical grace, rich with the music of the Southern mountains and the stories of their people. Jess Kirkman's grandmother is dying, and as her family gathers around her, Jess remembers the tales she and his mother have passed down to him. We meet the "Fisherwoman," the "Traveling Woman," the "Feistiest Woman," the "Silent Woman," the "Wind Woman," and others, in a range of ghost to detective to comic to love stories. In preparing Jess to come of age, these stories assemble a chorus of women's voices that sing and share and celebrate the common song of life.
1. The title is a line from the Southern ballad, "O Shenandoah." How does the tradition of folk song relate to Chappell's method of telling his story?
2. The first sentence of the book, "The wind had got into the clocks and blown the hours awry," suggests that time has changed, and we are about to enter into an unfamiliar world. What sort of world does the book open up for us? How does this world reflect upon the one in which we live oureveryday lives?
3. Each story Jess remembers contains central women characters. What is the role of women in Jess's coming of age? What wisdom do these stories contain that stories about men might not?
4. Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You is deeply rooted in Southern traditions of storytelling, and in its hill country. Yet the book has a universal feel, transcending its setting and colloquialism. How does Chappell's portrayal of the Kirkman family vary from more "urban" scenes of family life? What do we gain as a result?
5. What will Jess take from his grandmother after she passes on? In the world Chapell has created, how is it possible to keep the past alive for generations to come? If the novel begins as a death vigil, how does it become a celebration of life?
6. How does Chappell's style differ from most contemporary fiction? Chappell is also a poet -- how does that affect his use of language?
7. Jess's father, Joe Robert, is said not to be a good storyteller. In the logic of the novel, does that mean he plays a lesser role than his wife, or Jess's grandmother? What sort of role does he have?
Fred Chappell, in his own words:
On what he wants his fiction to accomplish:
"I was born in the 1930's, and it might as well have been in the 19th century because things have changed so much. If you take a sociology course, you soon learn that the great change in the United States, and certainly in North Carolina, has been the change from a rural to an industrial society, but that's just generalization. In my writing, my job is to make people feel the experience, which the history book doesn't need to do."
On the difference between poetry and fiction:
"If you get up in the morning and write poetry, your IQ rises 15 points for the whole day. Get up in the morning and write fiction, your mind slows down a little bit and you take things a little more philosophically and a little more steadily. Poetry has the intensity of walking through the woods, and fiction has the doggedness of riding a bicycle uphill."
On being a "Southern" writer:
"All writing is regional. It takes place somewhere. It either takes place in a real place, or it takes place in some place where you have had to imagine it . . . What was it that Archimedes said? 'Give me a lever, a place to stand, and I will move the earth.' Well, writing is my lever, the South is where I stand, and I have ambition to move the earth."
On fiction and life:
"Farewell is autobiographical, but it is almost impossible to say how much. What was real becomes fabulous, and what was mythical becomes extremely real . . . I think I've always worked in relative obscurity, and I've come to enjoy that. There's a lot of freedom in that. I always feel, when I sit down to write, the only person I really have to worry about failing is myself."
About his work, Chappell writes, "It's not to moon about the old times passing, but I wanted to write a kind of tribute for a different way of Life. I like the strength of character, the different flavors of speech and manner of living that was produced in the mountains." Chappell grew up on a farm near Canton, North Carolina. He is the author of six novels, two books of short stories, thirteen collections of poems, and three anthologies. His literary awards include a Rockefeller Grant, the Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Best Foreign Novel Prize from the French Academy, the Bollingen Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Award from the Ingersoll Foundation. He teaches literature and writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although the cover says ¿a novel,¿ Farewell, I¿m Bound to Leave You is really a collection of loosely connected short stories, bound together by a strong sense of place ¿ the small mountain hamlets of North Carolina.In the opening, Jess Kirkman¿s grandmother lies dying in the back bedroom, with her daughter by her side. Jess and his father have been banished to the front room, and in the silence of their waiting, Jess recalls the stories his grandmother and mother have told him over the years. The stories are all about women and aspects of being a woman, reflected in their titles: ¿The Feistiest Woman,¿ ¿The Helpinest Woman,¿ ¿The Remembering Women,¿ and so on. While many of the stories are about death, they are all about the love of women ¿ particularly the love women have for one another.Chappell¿s stories remind us that he is best-known as a poet, as his writing has a simple but lyrical quality that precisely evokes the places and people he describes. One of my favorite stories, ¿The Wind Woman,¿ reads like a dream and is about the process of creation itself, in which we learn that young Jess is a writer and is collecting these old stories in order to save them. The other stories range from funny to horrific to tragic, but they share an appreciation for the strength and beauty of women.