As I Lay Dying Part One: Pages 3-79
Addie and Anse Bundren live in a small, rural farming town in Yoknapatawpha County, a poor section in Mississippi with their children Cash, Darl, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Addie's son Jewel from another affair. Darl walks fifteen feet ahead of his illegitimate brother, Jewel, who stands a full head taller, up a path, through the cotton fields, to their dilapidated house. Tull, their neighboring farmer, is manning the wagon, while Cash is sawing wood. He is making a sturdy, fine coffin for their mother, Addie Bundren, to lie in when Darl continues forward inside the house.
Cora busies herself frantically baking a cake with saved eggs, her mind and body moving quickly for townswoman Miss Lawington's order. However, when the cakes are no longer necessary, her daughter Kate rants about the wealthy townspeople not paying for their orders. "Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart" Cora, p. 7. Kate tells Cora she won't even make two dollars a cake if she tries to sell them at Saturday's bazaar. Cora responds by saying it cost her nothing to make the cakes in the first place.
When Cora and her two daughters, Eula and Kate, see Addie Bundren lying by the window watching Cash, they remember the cakes she used to make.
"The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candlesticks. But the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her." Cora, p. 8
Darl watches Anse and their wealthier farming neighbor Vernon Tull sitting on the back porch chewing tobacco. As Anse looks for Jewel, Darl ponders the wonders of a fresh bucket of water. Jewel tries to calm his horse by feeding and wrestling with it. It kicks at Jewel, hitting the wall instead, and Jewel responds by kicking the horse in the stomach and ordering him to eat.
Jewel bitterly wishes that Cash would not carve his wood so overtly in public for everyone to witness. He believes Cash does it only so that Addie will praise him and thank him for being so worthy a son. Angrily, he dreams of a world in which only he and his mother live, without the presence of the others. Jewel is sick of the redundant sound of the adze and saw piercing through the household and community.
Anse and Vernon discuss a possible lumber job for Darl. However, due to the possibility of rain, they don't initially leave with the horses. Anse continues to chew tobacco despite his fallen cheeks and lack of teeth, and persistently reprimands Darl for not caring enough about his family. Darl bickers with Jewel over their mother's desires; however, Anse reminds them that it is her wish to be buried in Jefferson with her family and to lie in a box made by her kin, carried in her own wagon. Although the wagon and coffin are not yet ready, rain is imminent. Darl and Jewel leave with the horses on the job for Vernon and plan to return the following evening. They will hurry to come home in time to appease their mother's dying wish.
"I know her. Wagon or no wagon, she wouldn't wait. Then she'd be upset, and I wouldn't upset her for the living world. With that family burying-ground in Jefferson and them of her blood waiting for her there, she'll be impatient. I promised my word me and the boys would get her there quick as mules could walk it, so she could rest quiet." Darl, p. 18
Cora overlooks Darl staring at his mother and expresses her abrasive opinions on the Bundren family. Cora gossips over what she believes to be the truth about Addie's dying wishes and cannot believe that the supposedly cruel Jewel would want to leave his dying mother for a mere three dollar job. She praises Darl for being a good-natured boy and reminds herself that she is a good upstanding woman who comes to visit her dying friend each week. She cannot believe that Addie's family is carting her off to be buried before she has even died. Tull tries to explain the truth to Cora about Addie's true wishes. Yet, Cora's mind is fully established with the false notions that a good natured Darl truly cares for his dying mother, and his horrible brother Jewel forced them to leave home on a job while their mother lay dying. Cora falls back on her faith in God to cement her strong desire to help Addie, who in her opinion is desperately lonely. Dewey Dell asks Darl what is troubling him as he watches his dear mother lying almost dead.
Dewey Dell recalls the time she went harvesting with Lafe. They were together for the first time that day and were later discovered by Darl. She pictures that day as she catches Darl on his way out with Jewel. Realizing that their mother is going to die, she questions how he is going to tell their father about the future loneliness.
Vernon Tull attempts to appease Anse, for he is still unsure about taking the job. While they talk, Vardaman comes to the house to display a large fish he caught that day and brought home. Anse tells him to wash it before he brings it inside to show to his beloved mother. Soon, Vernon's wife Cora prepares for the evening as they discuss the Bundren's unfortunate predicament with their children, Kate and Eula. They continue to offer their help in any way possible.
Anse is frustrated with the road, the rain, and his boys. He is perplexed on how he plans to move Addie on the road in the rain to Jefferson, and at the same time wants to honor her. He is convinced that roads are not meant for living, but for traveling, and rambles on miserably against the road on which they live, blaming it for Addie's illness. He vents about Cash constantly sawing away on the coffin and Darl for making him pay for the road, trip, and burial. As Anse tends to his tired wife, Peabody enters, offering his medical assistance. After Anse orders him away, he ponders his bad luck in life:
"I have heard men cuss their luck, and right, for they were sinful men. But I do not say it's a curse on me, because I have done no wrong to be cussed by. I am not religious, I reckon. But peace is my heart: I know it is. I have done things but neither better nor worse than them that pretend otherlike, and I know that Old Marster will care for me as for ere a sparrow that falls. But is seems hard that a man in his need could be so flouted by a road." Anse, p. 37
Vardaman returns to Anse, with blood smeared all over his legs, claiming that he chopped up all the fish. Anse orders him to clean up, and then praises Addie for raising them as best she could.
Darl and Jewel discuss their work on the road and Dewey-Dell's secret desire to go Jefferson for personal reasons. She has not told Anse, but needs to get rid of a baby she is carrying from her harvest with Lafe. They cannot believe that Addie is going to die.
Peabody complains of his last minute medical request by Anse to check on Addie. He thinks Anse is low class, low on luck, and always too late. "I knew that nobody but a luckless man could ever need a doctor in the face of a cyclone" Peabody, p. 40-41. When he arrives at the house, he must be pulled up the mountain on a rope to get to the top, because Jewel and Darl have the horse that would normally carry him up. He is seventy years old and weighs two hundred and fifty pounds.
He sees Dewey-Dell fanning Addie, who he claims has been dead already for ten days. Once the mind and spirit are dead, the body is nothing. His youthful idealism has long since passed and he sees Addie as a bundle of rotten sticks beneath a quilt. She eventually cries out to Cash.
Addie asks for Jewel to come to her on her deathbed, when Anse tells her that he has left with Darl to earn three dollars on a lumber job for Tull. Her eyes are completely drained of life. She calls to Cash outside and watches his stationary impression as a carpenter. She looks at Vardaman one last time until her eyes lie still. Dewey Dell cries to her mom to stay alive, while Anse and Vardaman stand over her pale as ghosts. Anse curses his missing boys. Cash comes inside to see his mother take her last breath and then returns to his perpetual sawing outside. Dewey Dell drapes her body over her mothers while Anse soberly desires new teeth. He tells her to start cooking dinner. Although not present, Jewel and Darl sense that their mother has just passed away.
In shock of his mother's death, Vardaman runs around the porch of the house, and through the road to where he cut the fish. All that remains is blood and 'not-fish', causing Vardaman to become nauseated and upset. He wants to cry and vomit and blame everything around him for killing his mother. Cash comes behind him and Vardaman complains about the chopped fish that Dewey Dell is about to cook.
Dewey Dell contemplates her pregnancy and relationship with Lafe, hoping that they will not be interrupted again, as they were with Darl. She feels alone, despite the living person inside of her. "It's because I'm alone. If I could just feel it, it would be different, because I would not be alone. But if I were not alone, everybody would know it. And he could do so much for me, and then I would not be alone. Then I could be all right alone" Dewey Dell, p. 56-57. She thinks that Peabody can help her as a doctor, and invites him to dinner. Cash comes into the kitchen looking for Vardaman and Dewey Dell neglects to cook the fish he has just killed. Anse pushes away the food and Dewey Dell leaves to milk the cow before it rains. While in the stalls, she finds a frightened Vardaman, crying that his mother has been killed. She shakes him, brutally asking why he is in the stalls, and tells him that he has no idea what worrying truly is. She doesn't even know if she can cry. She prepares to milk the cow, again think of how Peabody can help her.
Vardaman, still upset and confused by his mother's death, asks Cash if he plans to nail their mother up in the coffin like a rabbit. He remembers the fish he cut up and recalls how everyone saw the fish guts and blood on the ground. Again he thinks of his mother, in disbelief of her passing.
Because of the noise by Peabody's team, Tull realizes that Addie Bundren has died. Vardaman knocks on their door, dripping wet and speaking of fish. When Tull comes back inside, he finds Vardaman speaking with the pious Cora, over his misfortune. The three go to the Bundren house, where they place Addie in a coffin and nail it shut. He accidentally bores two holes into Addie's face through the wood. Tull thinks of his wife's good nature and overweening need to help in others' business.
"I reckon if there's ere a man or woman anywhere that He could turn it all over to and go away with His mind at rest, it would be Cora. And I reckon she would make a few changes, no matter how He was running it. And I reckon they would be for man's good. Leastways, we would have to like them. Leastways, we might as well go on and make like we did." Tull, p. 70
Darl and Jewel run the wagon into a ditch, forcing Darl to return home for an extra wheel. It begins to rain as Darl watches Cash complete the coffin. Cora and Tull arrive at the Bundren home and Cash sends his father away. Everyone works hard to finish the coffin, and just before dawn, it is compete. The rain has stopped and Peabody, Tull, Anse, and Cash carry the coffin inside. Jewel and Darl leave, once again, to complete their job. Darl, however, lies awake the following evening, remembering home and his family.
Cash states thirteen reasons and rules by which he makes the coffin using the bevel.
Vardaman says that his mother is a fish.