The Book of Sorrows
"The Book of Sorrows" is the sequel novel to
Walter Wangerin, Jr.'s The Book of the Dun Cow. Published by Zondervanin 1985, it was received quite well by such known publications as the Washington post, who called it, "A beautifully written fantasy anchored starkly in reality." Fact|date=July 2007 Readers noted it for its melancholy tone, with one of the main themes of the book being sorrow.
The Book of Sorrows begins almost exactly where the last book ended. It has only been a short while since the great war, and Chauntecleer and his animals are all still attempting to mend all the damage that it left in its wake. The animals no longer have their coop since Wyrm reduced it to ruins when he broke open the earth. Chauntecleer manages to keep them in order by leading them on a journey to find a new resting place, while the climate is slowly changing from summer to autumn. During the first part of their journey, though, the animals are obligated to care for Russell the fox, one of the main characters from the last novel, who's mouth suffered poisoning from biting into too many basilisks during the conflict. Russel's injury has caused his lips and nose to crack and ooze. It seems that it will never heal simply because the fox has trouble keeping quiet and always wants to converse with someone. Pertelote, Chauntecleer's loving wife, is reduced to drugging the fox with a potent narcotic in hopes that she can keep him from moving his mouth just long enough for it to heal. It seems to work for a time, but there comes a night when the fox awakes groggily to see one of the young mice brothers sitting next to him, and he immediately wants to tell him something.
Freitag, the mouse brother who is closest to Russel, tries continually to get him to stop, but- of course- he doesn’t listen. The fox instead brings Freitag to a nearby stream where he shows him how to catch minnows with his tail, narrating his actions all the while, until his lips and nose begin to crack and bubble with mauve colored poisons and crimson blood. The fox eventually breaks down during his lesson to the mouse and cries out, "God, God, it isn't too much to ask! I only want to talk!" The animals hear him crying and come to calm him down. He is near death when they find him, and his injuries have retrogressed to how they were when he first sustained them. From there on it seems that the fox has lost his will to live, for he is no longer speaking even though he isn't being drugged and refuses to eat. It is obvious that Chauntecleer has imparted his guilt over Mundo Cani onto the fox, for he appears willing to do anything it takes to help heal the fox. Chauntecleer goes so far as to help Russell eat, by first placing the food in his mouth, and whispering loving things to him as he mechanically grinds the fox's teeth with his own wings. Eventually he sees the error in this, for the poison has rotted the roots of his teeth, which loose during one of Chauntecleer's feedings. Refusing to let go of him, Chauntecleer begins chewing the food with his own mouth, and then spitting it into the fox, but it soon becomes apparent to him that he is only feeding a lifeless corpse.
Completely devastated by his death, Chauntecleer and his company decide to move farther away from the land where the war took place. Along the way they contact a beetle named Black Lazarus who makes his profession by digging graves. Chauntecleer requests a special grave for the fox, one by the great ocean Wyrsmere, which requires that the beetle first line the grave with stone, lest the body be washed up. The animals have a service for their fallen comrade and then they continue on, looking for a new resting place, which eventually brings them to pleasant hemlock tree rooted near a river. There the animals make their new home, bringing life to some small shadow of what it was before the war ever happened.
Meanwhile, in a canyon nearby, two coyotes are attempting to make a new home for their soon to be children, where they find a crippled bird who, mysteriously, can only say two things: “Jug Jug” and “Tereu.” What is unknown to the coyotes is that the bird is actually guarding a hole that is somewhere in the canyon- one that, when the bird descended, led her to the center of the earth where she found Wyrm. Even with his limited power there, Wyrm managed to trick her into drinking some of his putrid essence, causing her tongue to rot out and crippling her form and speech.
When the book returns to the animals at the hemlock tree it is soon discovered that Chauntecleer is on a downward spiral into a deep depression brought on by the loss of Russell and Mundo Cani. At one point the rooster walks down to the river, where he stands over it and watches his reflection in the water. After a few moments of that he simply decides to let himself fall into it, and be swept away into the more violent currents. As he is drowning the rooster actually begins to think that his end would only be for the better, considering his horrible guilt. Just as he is about to die, though, he is rescued, pulled ashore by the Dun Cow, who begins to clean him lovingly. Chauntecleer questions why she decided to save him, and feels that he cannot stand her cleaning him, for he is completely undeserving of compassion. The Dun Cow eventually leaves him, and so, the rooster resolves to simply lay there, and sleep, for as long as he could stand.
The animals manage to get by without him for a while, even when Chauntecleer is awake he does not truly shepherd them as he used to. Instead the rooster simply walks about in a fog of delirium and self pity. Even when he is sleeping, he suffers, for in his dreams he hears horrible singing that taunts him in his sorrow, predicting only pain for his future. Chauntecleer only becomes more conscious when he comes upon the sight of Chalcedony, one of his hens, feasting on nothing but locust shells, for the fatter hens have, by accident, left her nothing in the way of seed or grass, and thus she has become emaciated. The rooster seeks to console her, though Chalcedony is a very humble hen, so she can barely stand to have this much attention paid to her by her lord Chauntecleer. The rooster knows that she is his responsibility and that he has failed her. He promises to set things right, and to care for her until she is well, for he feels that this may be the only thing he can actually do to earn any sort of redemption; is to try to help others in the present. Unfortunately, though, the rooster is quickly pulled away from the animals again, for the remains of Russell the fox have reanimated due to the dark influence of Wyrm on his body.
Pertelote, upon hearing this bizarre report from Chauntecleer’s general, John Wesley, rushes to the ocean side, where Russell’s grave is. She manages to get there in time to see Chauntecleer, bruised and cut, committing the twice killed body to the ocean Wyrmsmere. Pertelote tries to comfort him by holding him and stroking her husband, but he admits that he cannot stand it, for even the love of his subjects is more than he thinks he deserves, again, considering his guilt. Ultimately, though, Chauntecleer decides that he can at least do his best to restore most of the order to his people, and thus keep Chalcedony from starving.
The rooster returns with his wife to the hemlock tree where he instates upon his kind a new law. Chauntecleer intends for them now to live in socialism, each animal scouring as much food as they can, and then laying it down in food bins, where it will be distributed evenly among them all. This new form of order comes as a great revival to the animals, which causes their quality of life to improve, and their sense of leadership to return to them. Soon, animals from all over begin to come to the hemlock tree, for the cold winter months have made them desperate and hungry, and they all seem willing to file themselves under this new law in exchange for enough to feed their families.
The forest comes alive with brotherhood and order, yet the rooster still holds on to a deeply seated depression. This becomes increasingly hard on his wife, as any affection is rejected by Chauntecleer in his guilt. The rooster’s dreams also become increasingly worse, as the evil songs he hears begins to sing of Russell and Mundo Cani. Chauntecleer begins to think that these dreams are actually the product of Wyrm. In the background he can always hear a woman’s wretched sobbing and two completely indistinguishable sounds. Chauntecleer eventually stops sleeping as much, and instead spends his nights stalking around his territory, still shrouded in a mist of sorrow.
Chauntecleer’s redemption finally comes to him in the form of a coyote named Ferric, who has come out of the canyon and into the forest to find food for his newborn children. Upon finding Chauntecleer’s kingdom, he integrates himself and begins quietly taking sufficient provisions for his family. Ferric does this a few more times before he and Chauntecleer actually communicate, and though Ferric is extremely soft spoken, the rooster manages to gather a few bits of information from him. He learns about the coyote’s home, his children and wife, and the bird with no tongue. When he inquires the name of that bird, Ferric only knows to repeat the only things that the bird can say: “Jug Jug” and “Tereu.” These also happen to be the words that Chauntecleer can hear in his nightmares, which lead him to believe that the bird would know how to travel into the earth.
Chauntecleer’s mood immediately improves, for upon conceiving that he now has found a way to actually combat Wyrm he is overpowered with joy and begins crowing in triumph and rallying the animals together to his cause. He promises them all that he has the ability to go and rescue their savior, Mudo Cani, and thus bring back to their society the greatness of the times before the war had even happened.
At first, Pertelote is overwhelmed with excitement and enthusiasm over her husband's newfound passion for life, but that is all soon replaced with dread when she comes to truly understand her husband’s plan. Her fears that Chauntecleer's mission is nothing short of suicide are confirmed when he confides to her that this attempt to rescue Mundo Cani and defeat Wyrm are an attempt to redeem himself of his sin, yet he knows that his chances of survival are slim. Pertelote is struck with grief, yet the next morning she sees him standing by the hemlock with a band of animals that have agreed to go with him into the canyon where the coyote lives. Chauntecleer mounts a black stag and rides off in his antlers as the herd of animals set out on a journey to redeem their leader.
Eventually, the animals are led to the crippled bird by Ferric the coyote, who Chaunteleceer kindly asks to reveal the location of Wyrm. The bird complies by leading him behind two bushes that she had been guarding, where he finds the opening that leads to the center of the earth. Chauntecleer enters the darkness, not knowing that he is being followed by his general John Wesley. John Wesley traverses the cave all the way to the bowels of the planet, where he finds the skeletal remains of Wyrm, covered in small glowing worm-like parasites that act as a light source so far below the earth. The weasel finds Chauntecleer sitting inside of the Wyrm’s skull, clutching a smaller skull in his wing. John calls out to him in the darkness asking if he had defeated Wyrm, to which Chauntecleer replies that Wyrm had been dead when he found him, and that his essence had been consumed by the parasites all around them. He then reveals that the skull he is holding is the head of Mudo Cani, who died after three days in the earth. Chauntecleer feels that he is robbed of his only chance to redeem himself, and therefore feels that he should simply lay in the earth until he expires. John Wesley refuses to give up on his master, however, and attempts to coax him back to the surface. The Weasel eventually steals the precious skull from Chauntecleer’s grasp and run all the way to the entrance with it, taunting Chauntecleer to keep him following.
The two animals emerge from the hole in the earth; the weasel first, and then Chantecleer. Chauntecleer attacks the weasel with his spur, cutting at John Wesley’s haunch, which he just brushes off and continues running through the canyon. The rooster in all of his rage, leaps onto the black stag that had carried him there, and commands him to take after the weasel, reinforcing it with a sharp jab of his other spur, deep into the stag’s side. The animal reacts to the pain by starting a stampede of all the confused animals that had come along with Chauntecleer. The weasel manages to stay ahead of them just long enough to reach the coyote’s den where one of the young coyotes comes to John Wesley's rescue. The Weasel tries to warn the young coyote of the incoming danger, but not before his mother, Ferric’s wife Rachel comes out to see him as well. In the end, the stampede of animals comes rushing after John Wesley, and though he manages to escape with his life, the coyotes are crushed under the stampeding herd. The animals scatter, and the rooster reclaims the skull from where John Wesley left it and begins his long walk home, leaving the two dead coyotes and a hidden general alone.
Meanwhile, the animals at the hemlock tree are facing an oncoming snow storm, and with Chauntecleer away, the full force of leadership begins to bear down on Pertelote’s head. The weather continues to grow harsher, and although Pertelote crushes any rebellion with the memory of Chauntecleer, the unity of the paradise begins to fade.
Eventually the rooster returns home in very poor shape, for the long stormy path that he’s taken has left him dirty and cold. The animals are indifferent when they see him, as they were expecting to see the glorious party return with him alongside Mudo Cani yet find only a tattered rooster with a skull. Pertelote confronts Chauntecleer about his journey, and is solemn when she hears bout Mundo Cani and Wyrm’s death. Chauntecleer says that now the only thing left for him to do is give Mudo Cani a proper burial, and with that he leans in to embrace his wife, who is taken back as one of the glowing string-like parasites comes climbing out of his nasal passages. Chauntecleer feels shunned by his wife and decides to rest in the hemlock tree.
By now the bird can hear the voices of the worms inside his head, even when he is not asleep. As he sits on a branch of the hemlock tree, they tell him that the animals are plotting a revolt for his unfulfilled promises. In fact, the wolves in the area are actually trying to turn the animals against their ruler, threatening to kill anyone who is loyal to him, but the paranoia that the parasites instill in Chauntecleer only makes the situation worse. It is when he is sitting in the tree that he begins to notice the scared accusing look in all the animals faces, and combined with the voices’ subliminal suggestions, their staring causes him to leap up in a bit of rage and crow,
“What have I ever done to you?”
After this outburst the animals begin to disperse to unknown fates, and soon, all but the original hens have left. In a bout of insanity the rooster leaves the hemlock and goes with the skull of Mudo Cani to bury it. Pertelote goes after him, following him all the way to the ruins of the fortress that was built during the summer’s war, knowing that the wolves would surely find him there and kill him. She tries to confess her love to him, and explain her revulsion earlier, but he disregards it all, saying that she must have been a liar from the beginning who never loved him.
Eventually the wolves arrive to kill Chauntecleer, but he manages to defeat them in a glorious battle, using only his wits and war-spurs. He is left quite ravaged by the fight, though, both mentally and physically. The rooster can see that all of the animals that had forsaken him before have returned to see his great battle- even Ferric, whose wife and children were killed by Chauntecleer’s actions. The rooster’s pain climaxes when he discovers that Ferric is so quick to forgive him, and begins to lick him where he has been wounded. Chauntecleer cannot stand to accept the love of the Coyote and recoils from him. In the end, Chauntecleer is in so much pain from the suffering he has caused, confusion he feels over his people and his wife, and sick influence of the parasites inside of him, that he can only resolve to take his war-spur and cut himself open, and let all of the evil worms within him drain out with his blood.
Pertelote comes over to him and holds him gently, singing to him, and trying to comfort him in his last moments of life. Chauntecleer appears to have some sort of relief in death, and the last thing he says before passing on is that he could not manage to bury the skull of Mudo Cani, because his nose was far to big to fit in any of the holes he dug.
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