"Eloquent, lyrical, and richly textured . . . There is no one quite like [McCrumb] among present-day writers. No one better either." ―San Diego Union-Tribune
With a career spanning decades, and superlatives from reviewers nationwide--whose bestselling novels have been named Notable Books by the New York Times and the LA Times--this is one of Sharyn McCrumb's most cherished novels.
The stage is set for family drama when Randall Stargill lies dying on his southern Appalachian farm, and his four sons come home to build him a coffin made from the special cache of rosewood he has saved for this purpose. Meanwhile, mountain wisewoman, Nora Bonesteel, prepares another box―to be buried with him. Among them, a real estate developer is hovering over the family's farm bringing secrets and tensions to the surface.
In a style both lyrical and beautifully detailed, with a narrative that flows from Native American lore and the burnished tales of Daniel Boone―up to the sharpest, and keenly realized landscapes of Appalachia today, The Rosewood Casket is a novel as hauntingly beautiful as the mountains that gave it charge--and a stunning addition to our collection of McCrumb Ballad novels.
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SHARYN MCCRUMB is the author of The Rosewood Casket, The New York Times bestselling The Ballad of Tom Dooley and many other acclaimed novels. Her books have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She lives and writes in the Virginia Blue Ridge, less than a hundred miles from where her family settled in 1790 in the Smoky Mountains that divide North Carolina and Tennessee.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Curiosity is natural to the soul of man.
—first words of The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone,
John Filson, 1784
Dying cost nothing and could be done alone; otherwise, Randall Stargill might have lived forever. As it was he turned loose of life by inches. In a span of months he narrowed his gyre from the woods and pastures of his hunting days to the yard and garden patch surrounding the small white-frame house. Then the brisk winds of autumn confined him to the back porch and, finally, to the sofa in the square of parlor in front of the old black-and-white television. The wild tabby cats, who lived in the otherwise empty barn, subsisting on field mice and table scraps, grew tired of the meager handouts that came at irregular intervals and went elsewhere. Randall called to them a time or two after that, then forgot them.
His letters to his grown sons, scattered now between nearby Jonesborough, Tennessee, and Cincinnati, Ohio, always brief and infrequent, stopped altogether. His writing sprawled with his dimming eyesight, and he filled page after page of a pad of lined paper with his thoughts, but he sent them to no one.
Randall’s journeys into town in his old pickup all but ceased, as his vision failed even in the strongest daylight. Finally he lost interest in his last companions, the undemanding friends on the television screen who stayed with him hour after hour, and whose faces he remembered even when those of his long dead mother and his late wife, Clarsie, faded from his consciousness. As winter set in, he could no longer walk up the hill to the family burying ground, and the graves went untended. His wife’s new granite marker stood close to the wrought-iron gate, a few yards down the slope from the rounded tombstones of the older Stargills, and well away from the rows of upright splinters of rock that had never been carved with names or dates. No one now remembered whose graves these rough stones marked. They were already old when the century began, and Randall had never asked his elders whose bones lay beneath them.
The farm had been Stargill land since 1793, not that they cared much for family history. No Stargill had ever stood for Congress or headed an army or attained sufficient prosperity to be a pillar of the community. All they had done was to claim their mountain, farm it faithfully, and keep it in the family through two centuries and a civil war. No matter what party was in power, the Stargills hunkered down and went about their business. They’d been draft dodgers in the War Between the States, because in the Tennessee hills the wrong side was to take a side. They got more from their Celtic forebears than blue eyes and short stature: in their blood was the knowledge that who you are is tied to the land, no matter which government wins the election or whose flag flies over it. The land stayed the same, and the Stargills mostly had, too. When they died, they and the land became one.
The one grave that was not there was that of Randall’s second son, Dwayne. He had been a wild, wilful boy, seldom in school, scarcer still when there was work to be done on the farm. At seventeen, he left home and hills for a drunken, rootless life that finally ended on a dark highway in Florida, in a wreck that killed four people—Dwayne’s fault. Clarsie wanted to bring him home, but Randall said no. They sent money for cremation, and Clarsie went down and spread his ashes on the ocean. It was the only time she had ever left Tennessee. Randall did not go with her.
And Fayre. Fayre was not there, either. Of course, she wasn’t a Stargill. If she had rested there, he might have found the strength to climb the hill, despite his failing health. But Fayre was not to be found in the family burying ground. There was a drawing of her in a dimestore frame tucked into one of the drawers of the walnut bureau, torn from an old newspaper, and so brittle now that the creases in the yellowed page had begun to split. The sketch showed a wraith of a child with strange, staring eyes too old for her tiny face. The newspaper artist had never seen his subject, so he had fashioned his drawing from descriptions and family resemblances, using the mother’s eyes, drawn from life—the same dark blue as that of her child, but holding a weary sadness that Fayre had been spared. Even before his eyes began to fail, Randall Stargill seldom looked at that drawing. He saw her plainly enough.
In January, the plastic Christmas wreath on Clarsie’s marker faded and cracked in the cold, but Randall was not there to see the desolation. His oldest son and his wife had brought the wreath when they drove in from Cincinnati for a visit on Christmas eve. The next morning Robert Lee had taken the wreath up to the burying ground himself, and he’d come back from his mother’s grave red with cold, his cheeks crusty with tears. Then Robert and Lilah had sat on either side of him on the sofa, making cheerful chatter, and patting his hand, and trying to make him eat the cookies they’d brought, while he smiled faintly and wished they would go away.
Randall said over and over that he felt fine, and he thanked them patiently for the slippers and the shaving lotion, which now lay forgotten on the lamp table in the sitting room. The other boys called in on Christmas night: Garrett from overseas somewhere, and Charles Martin from a hotel in California, because he was on tour for the entire month of December, opening for the Statler Brothers.
Clayt, the youngest, had come by late that evening, and offered to take him down to the diner or to scramble some eggs in the kitchen that Lilah had just cleaned, but Randall said he was tired, not hungry. After a few more minutes of awkward conversation, Clayton wished him a merry Christmas and left. Randall was glad. He had never had much to say to the boys, except to straighten them out when they broke the rules, but when Clarsie was alive, it hadn’t been so obvious. Her passing left a great silence that neither side could be bothered to fill.
Nobody called on New Year’s.
As the weeks drifted by, he ate when he remembered—the contents of whatever can came to hand in the pantry, or the scraps of Lilah’s stale cookies—and his body grew brittle and wasted.
When the cold blasts of early March and his own infirmity drove him to his bed, he stayed there, curled up in a snowdrift of dingy sheets and sticky pillowcases, drowsing, unmoored from his house and his life, but not yet gone.
* * *
The white pillowcase became apple blossoms, and he was straddling the limb of an old tree in the high meadow. He was small—the ground seemed far beneath him, and the hands clutching the limb were the stubby, unveined hands of a child. The brown feet that dangled beneath it were bare, already toughened from a month of wandering unshod over rocky hillsides. At the base of the tree, a brown and white puppy barked up at him, but he paid it no mind. He was looking for Fayre.
He saw a movement and a flash of gold on the edge of the meadow, and she was there, waving impatiently. He swung down from the tree limb and ran toward her. She was seven years old—two years his senior—but she was reed-thin in her flour-sack pinafore, and her heart-shaped face, ringed in blond curls, seemed translucent in the morning sun.
“What are you doing playing around this old tree for?” she demanded, hands on her hips.
“I almost got to the top, Fayre.”
“You did not. You were on a branch bigger than you are. And you know Mama said you wasn’t to climb the apple trees. You’ll break off the blossoms, and then we’ll have no fruit come fall. You might break your neck, too.” She sounded less concerned about this latter possibility.
“I was careful.”
“Any baby can climb an old apple tree. Wouldn’t you rather go exploring?”
“We’re not supposed to wander off.”
“Well, what if we don’t go too far? If we can still hear somebody calling us, we’ll be close enough. I want to go look for that tree with the writing on it.” She nodded toward the dark woods. “I want to see can I read it.”
Randall shifted from one foot to the other. “By ourselves?”
“You’re not a-skeered, are you?” Her freckled nose wrinkled and she sneered at him. “You think a bear might get you?”
“Tree says there’s bears out there. If it’s real, and not just another fairy story, like the one about the beanstalk.” Randall tried to sound skeptical of the whole idea, but he was peering around her at the blackness beyond the chestnut grove.
“’Course it’s real,” said Fayre. “Mama told us, didn’t she? And she didn’t say once upon a time, like she does when it’s a fairy story. She said there was a tree on this here mountain with words carved on it by Boone hisself. She said she seen it lots of times when she was little. I reckon it ought to be close to the creek bed. You gonna help me find it nor not, Randy?”
He ducked his head, and thrust his hands into the pockets of his overalls. “Why couldn’t we ask Mama to take us there herself, then?”
Fayre gave him a scornful look. “She’s too busy working around here, now that your daddy’s gone. Besides, she never goes into the woods any more. I reckon girls just don’t have no fun after they grow up.”
The part of his mind that wasn’t five years old anymore stirred, and wanted to cry out, but the little boy in the meadow nodded. With only one glance back at the shabby frame house below, he took his half-sister’s hand, and walked into the forest.
It hadn’t happened that way. But after more than half a century he had told that story so many times that it had taken on a kind of truth even in his imaginings.
* * *
Randall Stargill had been dreaming for two days and a half when Angie Jordan began to wonder about him. She had pulled up to the mailbox with his day’s allotment of circulars and mail-order catalogues, and when she pulled down the metal flap to insert the pile of junk mail, she saw that yesterday’s delivery, and the one before that, was still there. At most residences, Angie would have attributed this lapse to oversight or absence. She would have shoved the new batch into the mailbox without a moment’s thought and gone on, but Randall Stargill was old and frail, and, besides, his truck was still in the driveway, exactly where it had been when she last drove by. She left the circulars, and drove on to her next delivery, but the unclaimed mail still troubled her.
When she reached the next mailbox over the ridge, J. Z. Stallard had walked down the hill from his farmhouse and was waiting for her, wanting to buy some more stamps for bill paying. She asked him about the old man, because the Stallards and the Stargills had been neighbors since their mountain was in the lost state of Franklin instead of the state of Tennessee. Besides, to Angie, who was twenty-four, the angular, silver-haired J. Z. Stallard, who was sixty-five, and scraggly old man Stargill, seventy-eight, passed for contemporaries. “Has Mr. Stargill gone visiting his sons this week?” she asked as she counted back his change.
J. Z. shook his head. “Not that I know of. He almost never leaves home since Clarsie passed on. He never was one to travel. Why do you ask?”
“I just wondered,” said Angie. “He hasn’t taken the mail out of his box in a couple of days. I thought he might have gone visiting, and forgot to have his mail stopped. Lots of people go off on vacation without telling the post office. You’d be surprised.”
J. Z. Stallard nodded, ready for the conversation to end. “I believe he’d come and ask me to watch out for things if he did take a mind to leave,” he said. “I’ll look in on him directly.”
As Angie’s station wagon eased off down the road, Stallard fished his keys out of his pocket and walked to his truck, hoping it would start. It needed a new carburetor, but he was trying to put off the purchase until his tax refund came back.
As he drove the half mile to the Stargill place, J. Z. Stallard tried to think of all the bad things that could have possibly happened to Randall Stargill—everything from a heart attack to armed robbers breaking in and tying the old man up while they ransacked the house—because he half-believed that if you thought of a bad thing in advance, it wouldn’t have happened. In his experience, bad luck was always the unexpected disaster, like the lightning striking the barn roof in October. The fire department had managed to get there in time to save the structure, but the roof was badly damaged, and there hadn’t been any insurance to pay for replacing it. These days farming was supposed to be a part-time job, but it was all he had ever done, and he was too old to change now.
If he had thought about it, J. Z. Stallard might have been forced to admit that he didn’t like Randall Stargill all that much. The old man kept to himself most of the time. Perhaps it was a habit that he had got into as a youth, when people still remembered the old tragedy and either steered clear of him or tried to pry into family matters. Whatever the reason, he seemed to expect people to take against him, and there was a wariness about him that made folks uneasy without knowing why, so they left him alone.
When Clarsie was alive, the Stargills went to church, and they had showed up at community get-togethers, where Clarsie talked and Randall stood around holding a plate of food and saying as little as possible, but now that he was a widower, he seldom ventured past the gate to his farm. Randall’s lack of charm and neighborliness was not an issue today, though. He was a neighbor—maybe even distant kin if you checked the family pages in the Bible to way back when—and duty required J. Z. Stallard to do all he could for the man.
He pulled his truck in behind the faded Ford F-100 that had been Randall’s vehicle for more than a decade. That it was still there did not rule out anything, in J. Z.’s opinion. Randall might have left the mountain in an ambulance, and robbers would not have stolen such a decrepit truck, regardless of what else they might steal. As he walked to the house, he looked for signs of broken windows or any evidence of forced entry. Maybe he should have called Sheriff Arrowood, he thought. At his age, J. Z. Stallard was in no shape to play hero against a gang of vandals. All seemed peaceful, though.
He found the back door unlocked, and after waiting a few moments while his knocking went unanswered, he let himself in. The kitchen was rank with stale food and unwashed plates, but he still didn’t see any sign of intruders. The only disarray was the ordinary detritus of a solitary man who had ceased to care how things looked, or even how they smelled. He walked to the living room, to get away from the kitchen stench, and cupped his hands over his mouth, calling out for Randall, but all was silent. Illness, then, thought Stallard.
He walked from one littered room to the next, praying he wouldn’t trip over his neighbor’s remains in the dimness. He found Stargill in the little back bedroom, burrowed under a load of quilts and blankets, eyes closed. He was pasty-faced and gaunt, but when Stallard pulled back the blanket he could see a faint movement of the old man’s chest, and he sighed with relief that he had not come too late.
Stargill wasn’t dead, but he wouldn’t wake up. J. Z. Stallard went back to the kitchen, intending to call the rescue squad. He had just lifted the receiver when he noticed the white envelope atop an address book by the telephone, addressed “To Whoever It Concerns.” J. Z. replaced the receiver and picked up the envelope. He reckoned that the act of intruding with good intention...
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