I Am One of You Forever

Fred Chappell's masterful novel I Am One of You Forever is about a young boy growing up in the mountains of North Carolina in the 1940s. Jess Kirkman lives on a farm with his mother, father, and grandmother. A young man named Johnson Gibbs assists the family on the farm and, from the beginning of the book, a cloud of doom hangs over his story. After World War II begins, Gibbs announces his enlistment in the military and his fate is sealed. When his death comes, halfway through the novel, the family must face a tragedy for which they are not prepared. A telegram arrives, bearing the terrible news. At the time, Jess is only in third grade. He has never before seen or known death. It is the almost indestructible telegram that illuminates the family's process of grieving for Gibbs.

Below, I have transcribed the entire chapter about Gibbs's death and how the family deals with it. The chapter is entitled "The Telegram."


The telegram was always there, not to be got rid of. It was never opened; we knew what was in it. The telegram told us that Johnson Gibbs was dead, that he had been killed in a training accident at Fort Bragg. A mortar round had exploded where and when it had no business to. Others were injured, only Johnson was killed, just a few days before he was to be shipped overseas.
There was an outburst of weeping at first, especially my mother wept, but later there was no more. A flinty silence descended upon the house, there was a hard gray feeling in us. Inside my throat it was hard as steel; I thought that if I rapped my chest with my knuckles it would ring like a suit of armor. We wandered about dazed and mechanical.
For a long time the telegram sat on the dining table, propped against the blue-and-white ringed sugar bowl. The telegram glowed yellow like an ugly pus, and no one would touch it. Neither could we bear to see it there, and we took two weeks of meals out on the porch.
Then someone--my father, it must have been--removed it but it came back. Everyone took it away, but it always returned to its place on the table, propped there to stare at us.
I found a proper hiding place for it, a rat hole out in the woodshed. It felt hot in my hands when I carried it, not like paper at all but like a burning slime. I stuffed it into the hole and sealed the hole with a rock. There were red and white burn streaks on my hand where I had carried the telegram and I had to wash my hands a long time before they went away.
Then that evening at sundown it was back on the table, leaning there against the sugar bowl. It was still unwrinkled, as pristine as when it had first been delivered.
But none of us could remember its being delivered.
Once I saw my mother bearing away a wooden tray heaped over with dish towels and I knew that underneath the towels lay the telegram and that she had formed a plan to get rid of it. I admired her bravery, but I thought that her plan--whatever it was--wouldn't work, and it didn't. The telegram reappeared, insolent and undamaged.
It was on the table there and none of us would so much as glance at it. But of course we kept gazing at it as if it were the only light on in the darkest night of the world.
My father took it to the top of a pasture hill and laid it in the grass and set fire to it with a kitchen match. It curled in slow agony and burned away smokeless, leaving an oblong of yellow sear that would never grow green again. By the time he got back to the house it was waiting for him on the red tablecloth.
At night it crept over our sleep like a great sheet of yellow ice, and we felt it was suffocating us in our beds and sat up dry-eyed but drenched with sweat.
One time this yellow ice came during the day, an endless glacier. We struggled upon it against the desperate winds and the sky's moaning. We held hands and guarded our faces against the wind and against each other's gaze and it was a long time before we made it back to the farm, to the house among the warm hills and fields.
The telegram had the power of becoming smaller, shrinking to the size of a postage stamp or to a mere speck, a mote. Then I would find it in my pocket or in the bedclothes. Often it seemed to have lodged in the corner of my eye, a yellow spot that would not go away and caused my eye to burn and water. That was the worst physical pain, when we couldn't wash it out of our eyes even with weeping.
Yet in all these weeks we never talked about it, never mentioned it at all. That seemed strange to me, that the telegram brought us so much pain and fear and we wouldn't speak of it. Perhaps we were afraid that if we talked about it, it would grow more omnipresent and we would never escape its power.
I prayed that it would be removed from us. I have never prayed so earnestly since, with such guileless passion. I knew that all of us were praying, my grandmother continuously night and day. But the prayers had no effect on the telegram, and seemed not even to alleviate the dead feeling in our hearts. It was then I found out that I could pray in despair and the despair might only deepen, that I could form the words and cling to the meaning of them even though my spirit had shriveled within me to a pinpoint.
Then one evening I pulled a chair to the table and sat down to stare at the telegram. Let it do to me what it can, I thought. It was just at dusk and the telegram was the brightest object in the room. I don't know how long I sat looking. The room darkened and stars appeared in the upper windowpanes. At last the telegram began to change shape. Slowly wrinkling and furling inward, it took the form of a yellow rose, hand-sized, with layer on layer of glowing yellow petals. It seemed to hover an inch or so above the tablecloth. It uttered a mournful little whimper then, a sound I had once heard a blind puppy make when it could not find its mother's warm flank. And with that sound it disappeared from my sight forever, tumbled spiraling down a hole in the darkness. I watched it go away and my heart lightened then and I was able to rise, shaken and confused, and walk from the room without shame, not looking back, finding my way confidently in the dark.
I think that my grandmother and mother and father each had to undergo this ritual, and I think that we each saw the telegram take a different transformation before it disappeared, but we never spoke of that either.
It was an agonizing rite to undergo, hardest of all for my mother.