IT WAS IN AUGUST that he had found the sparrowhawk on the mountain road, crouched in the dust with one small falcon wing fanned and limp, eyeing him without malice or fear—something hard there, implacable and ungiving. It followed his movements as he approached and then turned its head when he reached out his hand to it, picked it up, feeling it warm and palpitant in the palm of his hand, not watching him, not moving, but only looking out over the valley calmly with its cold-glinting accipitrine eyes, its hackles riffling in the wind. He carried it home and put it in a box in the loft and fed it meat and grasshoppers for three days and then it died.
Saturday he went into town with Mr. Eller, holding the bag in one hand and sitting up high in the cab of the old truck watching the fields go by and then houses and more of them and finally stores and filling stations, the river-bridge, and beyond that the shape of the city against the hot morning sky.
How you gettin back? Mr. Eller asked.
I’ll get back, he said. I got some things to do.
He was standing on the running-board, one foot in the street at the corner of Gay and Main. Here, Mr. Eller said, leaning across the seat, holding his hand down.
I got money, he said. It’s okay.
Go on, damn it, the man said. He was shaking the quarter at him. Behind them a horn sounded.
Okay, he said. He took the quarter. Thanks, I’ll see ye.
He slammed the door and the truck pulled away, Mr. Eller lifting his hand once in parting; he waved at the back of his head in the rear glass, crossed the street and went up the walk to the courthouse, up the marble stairs and inside.
There was a woman at a small desk just inside the door fanning herself with a sheaf of forms. He stood for a few minutes looking around the hall and reading the signs over the doors and finally she asked him what it was that he needed.
He held the bag up. Hawk bounty, he said.
Oh, she said. I think you go in yander.
Over there—she pointed to a hallway.
Much obliged, he said.
There was a long counter and behind it were other women at desks. He stood there for a while and then one of them got up and came over to him and said, Yes?
He hefted the ratty little bag to the counter. From the sweat-crinkled neck exuded an odor rich and putrid even above the stale musty smell of the old building. The woman eyed the package with suspicion, then alarm, as the seeping gases reached her nostrils. Delicately with two fingers she touched the pinked mouthing of the bag, withdrew. He upended it and slid the malodorous contents out on the polished wood in a billowing well of feathers. She stepped back and looked at it. Then she said, not suspiciously or even inquiringly, but only by way of establishing her capacity as official:
Is it a chickenhawk?
Yesm, he said. It’s a youngern.
I see. She turned sharply and disappeared on a click of heels behind a tier of green filing cabinets. In a few minutes she was back with a little pad of printed forms, stopping further down the counter and writing now with a pen from a gathering of inkstands there. He waited. When she had finished she tore the form from the pad and came back and handed it to him. Sign where the X’s are, she told him. Then take it to the cashier’s office. Down the hall—she pointed. He signed the two lines with the pen, handed it back and started away when she called him back.
I wonder if you would mind, she said, wrinkling her nose and poking a squeamish finger at the little bird, mind putting it back in the bag for me. He did. Holding the slip of paper delicately in one hand and waving the ink to dry he went to collect his bounty.
He left through the open door with the wind hollowing through into the hall and skirmishing with the papers on the bulletin board, warm wind of the summer forenoon fused with a scent of buckeyes, swirling chains of soot about on the stone steps. He held the dollar in his hand, folded neatly twice. When he got outside he took it and folded it again, making a square of it, and thrust it down between the copper rivets into the watchpocket of his overall pants. He patted it flat and went down the walk past the grimy trees, the monuments, the poised and interminably peering statue, and out to the street.
A band was playing, wavering on the heat of the city strains of old hymns martial and distantly strident. Rows of cars were herded in shimmering somnolence beneath a vapor of exhaust fumes and at the intersection stood a policeman at parade rest.
He crossed the street and the music came suddenly louder as if a door had opened somewhere. When he got to the corner he could see them coming, eight and ten abreast, a solemn phalanx of worn maroon, the drill-cloth seedy and polished even at that distance, and their instruments glinting dully in the sun. In a little knot to the fore marched the leader, tall-hatted and batoned, and the four guidons bracing up their masts, the colors furling listlessly.
Long paper banners ran the length of the buses proclaiming for Christ in tall red letters, and for sobriety.
A pair of tubas in the mass behind them bobbed and rode like balloons, leaped ludicrously above the marchers’ heads and belched their frog-notes in off-counterpoint to the gasping rattle of the other instruments. Behind the marchers came a slowly wending caravan of buses through the windows of which flocks of pennants waved and fluttered.
He watched, gathered up and pressed in the crowd, the people sweating in their thin summer clothes, a maze of shapes and colors similar only in the dark patches under their armpits, straining their necks, toe-standing, holding up children. The marchers passed them under the canopy of heat, sweaty and desperate-looking. He saw the near tuba player redfaced and wild as if perhaps he were obliged to puff at his instrument to keep it from deflating and drooping down over the heads of his fellows. They passed in an enormous shudder of sound and the buses came, laborious in low gear, churning out balls of hazy blue smoke, their windows alive with streamers, pennants, placards, small faces. Long paper banners ran the length of the buses proclaiming for Christ in tall red letters, and for sobriety, offering to vote against the devil when and wherever he ran for office. One by one they passed and again the multicolored flags in small children’s hands waving at the spectators who in turn mopped listlessly at their necks and faces with handkerchiefs. A blue and yellow card legended: Don’t Make My Daddy a Drunkard fell to the street like a stricken bird, leaving an empty hand clutching at the window. The next bus splintered and ground the flagstem and printed tiretreads over the sign.
Then the music stopped abruptly and there was only the uneasy shifting of the crowd, the slow drone of the buses. The pennants and signs came gradually to rest, to a collective embarrassment as if someone had died and they went on that way until the last bus was by, the little faces looking out solemn as refugees, onto the bridge and so out of the city. The crowds ebbed into the streets and thinned and the traffic began, the cars moving and the streetcars clicking past.
He was still standing on the sidewalk and now he saw the city, steamed and weaving in heat, and rising above the new facings of glass and tile the bare outlandish buildings, towering columns of brick adorned with fantastic motley; arches, lintels, fluted and arabesque, flowered columns and crowstepped gables, baywindows over corbels carved in shapes of feet, heads of nameless animals, Pompeian figures… here and there, gargoyled and crocketed, wreathed dates commemorating the perpetration of the structure. Rows of pigeons dozed on the high ledges and the heat rose in visible waves up from the paving. He patted the folded dollar again and started up Gay Street. When he got to the Strand he stopped and studied the pictures advertising the Saturday serial and fingered the quarter. Then he turned left and went up to Market Square. On the corner a man was screaming incoherently and brandishing a tattered BibIe. Next him stood an old woman strapped into an accordion, mute and patient as a draft horse. He crossed the street behind the half-circle of spectators. The man stopped screaming and the accordion began and they sang, the two voices hoarse and high-pitched rising in a sad quaver to the calliope-like creaking of the instrument.
He went up the far side of the square under the shadow of the market house past brown country faces peering from among their carts and trucks, perched on crates, old women with faces like dried fruit set deep in their hooded bonnets, shaggy, striated and hooktoothed as coconut carvings, shabby backlanders trafficking in the wares of the earth, higgling their goods from a long row of ancient vehicles backed obliquely against the curb and freighted with fruits and vegetables, eggs and berries, honey in jars and boxes of nuts, bundles of roots and herbs from sassafras to boneset, a bordello of potted plants and flowers. By shoe windows where shoddy footgear rose in dusty tiers and clothing stores in whose vestibules iron racks stood packed with used coats, past bins of socks and stockings, a meat market where hams and ribcages dangled like gibbeted miscreants and in the glass cases square porcelain trays piled with meat white-spotted and trichinella-ridden, chunks of liver the color of clay tottering up from moats of watery blood, a tray of brains, unidentifiable gobbets of flesh scattered here and there.
Among overalled men and blind men and amputees on roller carts or crutches, flour and feed bags piled on the walk and pencil pedlars holding out their tireless arms, past stalls and cribs and holes-in-the-wall vending tobacco in cut or plug, leaf or bag, and snuff, sweet or scotch, in little tins, pipes and lighters and an esotery of small items down to pornographic picture books. Past cafés reeking with burned coffee, an effluvium of frying meat, an indistinguishable medley of smells.
Under the Crystal’s marquee of lightbulbs a group of country men stood gazing hard past the box office where a tired-looking woman sat beneath a sign: Adults 25—Children 11—watching the film through a missing panel of curtain. Sounds of hooves and gunfire issued onto the street. He couldn’t see past or over them and went on by, up the square, until he stood before a window garnished with shapes of wood and metal among which he recognized only a few common handtools. He held his hand up to one eye to break the glare of light on the glass and he could see them in the dim interior, hanging from their nail on the wall. He checked the dollar and went in.
The boy touched the oiled smoothness of it, pan, trigger, jaws, spring.
His footfalls were muffled on the dark oiled floors, bearing him into an atmosphere heavy with smells of leather and iron, machine-oil, seed, beneath strange objects hung from hooks in the ceiling, past barrels of nails, to the counter. They were hanging down by their chains and looking fierce and ancient among the trace chains and harness, bucksaws and axehelves. A clerk passed behind the counter and waited on a man idly turning a brass doorknob in his hand. Together they disappeared into the gloom, ducking under a fringe of dangling strap leather, to the rear of the store. A few minutes later a grayhaired man came up the aisle and leaned on the counter looking down at him.
Can I hep ye, son? he said.
How much are they? He motioned vaguely past the man as if there were but one item of merchandise displayed there. The traps… your traps there.
The man turned. Traps? Steel traps.
Well, he said, let’s see… what size?
Them. He pointed. Number ones.
The man studied the dull metal shapes as if aware for the first time of their existence, seemingly puzzled not over their price but as to how they came to be there in the first place. Then he said, Yes. And lifted one down and set it on the counter before the boy at a quarter-angle, straightening the chain, as one might show a watch or a piece of jewelry.
The boy touched the oiled smoothness of it, pan, trigger, jaws, spring. How much? he asked again.
Thirty cents, the boy repeated.
Lessen you buy by the dozen. They’re three dollars the dozen.
The boy turned that over in his mind. Thet would make em twenty-five then, wouldn’t it?
Well, the man said, twelve and three… four for a dollar… is right, twenty-five cents is right.
Well, he said, I aim to get a dozen but I cain’t get all of em together at the same time. So I wonder if I couldn’t get four of em today and then get the rest latter on…?
The man looked at him for a minute and then he smiled. Why I reckon you could, he said. Course you’d have to sign a pledge for the whole dozen so as for me to let you have the four at the dozen price.
The boy nodded.
He reached up and unhooked three more traps and put them on the counter, their chains rattling angrily, reached under the cash register and came up with a book of old order forms. He wrote in it for a while and then tore off two copies and handed one to the boy. Sign that, he said. He was holding out the pen.
The boy took it and started to write.
Better read it first, the man cautioned.
He read it, ciphering out the tall thin handwritings
I, the undersigned, do hereby agree to purchase 8 (eight) Victor no. 1 traps from the Farm & Home Supply Store prior to Jan. 1, 1941. Price to be @ 25 cents ea.
signed his name to the bottom and handed back the pen.
The man took the signed paper and handed him the other one, the carbon. Thisn’s your copy, he told him. The boy took it and folded it, then took the dollar from his watchpocket and smoothed it on the counter. The man took the dollar and rang it up in the register. Wait till I get you a poke, he said.
He pulled a sheet of brown paper from a roll and wrapped the traps in it and tied them with string. The boy took the package, hefting the weight of it in his hands. I’ll be back to get the othern’s afore long, he told the man.
Then he was gone, out into the blinding sunshine among the high-shouldered crowds, sped and well-wished by an old man’s smile.
Cormac McCarthy was an American novelist, and recipient of both a National Book Award, for All the Pretty Horses, and a Pulitzer Prize, for The Road.
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