Blood Meridian, Chapter Four – “[D]eath seemed the most prominent feature of the landscape.”

The chapter begins with the kid on the dead Missouri boy’s horse, and life (i.e. death) goes on.  “Following” seems an important concept in this chapter; pay close attention to who is following whom, and when the following stops.  The kid follows the riders and wagons on the journey south.  They cross “del Norte” (in Mexico the Rio Grande is known as the Rio Bravo del Norte), and enter the “howling wilderness.”  You get the distinct impression that, whatever has come before, what lies ahead is somehow more wild and ferocious.

IMAGERY

McCarthy utilizes some vivid imagery in this chapter.

The Soldiers

The group is described several different times in similar but different ways: a ghost army in a white noon, like shades of figures erased upon a board, an army asleep on the march, a strange party of elders with the white dust thick on their mustaches and eyebrows, and “elect, shabby and white with dust like a company of armed and mounted millers wandering in dementia.”

Did you notice the skinners?  They were a creepy bunch.  The sergeant shoots the antelope at some distance, then the wagon takes off to pick them up where they lie, “the skinners jostling and grinning in the bed.”  When they return, they build a fire, and are “laughing and hacking in a welter of gore, a reeking scene.”  Like the skinners love their bloody, gory, smelly job.

The way they treat their weapons, these are definitely men that live by the sword and die by the sword.  You get the feeling that they enjoy the sport of killing animals from the beginning of the chapter, and would view other killing as sport as well, as evidenced later in the chapter.

Colors

The land is white, the men on the land are white or ghost-like.  The nights are blue (remember the “soft blue fire” (electricity)).  The day is red.  The sun is red, blood red, described at one point as:

[rising] out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.

Bones

At the very beginning of the journey, they pass Castroville where the coyotes have dug up and scattered the bones of the dead.  Later in the journey they bury their dead with shovels made from antelope bones.  Still later, they come across bones in the middle of the plain, including a whole mule.  When they come upon the solitary hut, there are bone palings everywhere.  And then of course there are the quenas.

The Pale Sutler (Cholera)

This was a powerful image.  In the heading, you see that they are pursued by cholera.  But there is no mention of “cholera” in the chapter body.  What is mentioned is the “pale sutler” (see below for “sutler” definition).  The sutler makes no dust and leaves no track, though.  Why is he/it described as a “wry and grinning tradesman”?  And what does it mean that he/it is “good to follow every campaign or hound men from their holes in just those whited regions where they’ve gone to hide from God”?  Creepy.  Four men die.  But then even the sutler/cholera stops following them.  As do the wolves or “great pale lobos.”  How evil/dangerous is the place they are going if even wolves and cholera will not go there?

Nature

The land itself seems to be alive.  The “white hot stars go rifling down the dark,” “stars jostled and arced and died beyond the inkblack mountains.”  Nature is alive (wild horses “pounding their shadows down the night”), but the soldiers are already the walking dead, white and colorless.  This is also described a couple times as “alien country.”

FEAR

Notice how the land is described at night, where its true geology is “not stone but fear.”  Why is the captain disgusted by the old man they find in the otherwise abandoned dwelling they uncover?  They pull him out and bring him to the captain, and he is covering his eyes and pissing himself, as if he is terrified and has seen something awful.  It reiterates several times that the captain is disgusted by this, and wants him taken away immediately.  In the morning, he is “gone” (dead/killed/run away?).  Is it the fear the captain detests?  Has he never been afraid?  It’s coming!

CANDELARIO

We don’t see much about this character word-count-wise, but McCarthy is giving us all we need.  Candelario is the Mexican guide, who Captain White seems to only tolerate because of his usefulness on this journey (we know how he feels about Mexicans generally, and to say it’s “not good” would be a gross understatement).  Candelario is a Spanish name and means “candles,” signifying the Catholic feast that commemorates the day the Holy Family brought the baby Jesus to be presented at the temple.  When they see a dust cloud on the horizon, the sergeant gets someone to call Candelario.  The sergeant hands him the telescope, and Candelario looks at what is coming.  When Candelario puts down the glass, it hangs at his chest like a crucifix.  We gather from his name and that image that he is God-fearing.  When asked what the dust might be from, Candelario says “I think maybe horses.”  But is that all he thinks?  He hands back the glass, and disappears.  As the first of the herd starts to pass them, and then the herd of ponies behind approaches: “[t]he sergeant looked for Candelario.  He kept backing along the ranks but he could not find him.”  Candelario knew what was up.

RELIGION

I have been following the religious references because that is one of the themes that seems to be jumping out at me as I read.  The land they are traveling through seems to be a  “Godless country,” and yet this chapter contains a prayer for rain, and that rain comes.  Candelario, we get the impression, was religious.  As the reality of what is approaching comes to light, the sergeant says “Oh my god” (note the lowercase).  And what has come refers to a “christian reckoning” (more in discussion regarding the attack).

ANTICIPATION

McCarthy is so good at building up to a point of tension.  Page-wise, from the first sighting of the dust cloud to the end of the chapter is just a couple of pages.  But you, as the reader, are instantly anxious for what is coming, and it seems to take forever.  The dialogue is brief and short, but you gain so much from it:

Captain: I suppose they’ve seen us.

Sergeant: They’ve seen us.

Captain: How many riders do you make it?

Sergeant: A dozen maybe.

Captain: They dont seem concerned, do they?

Sergeant: No sir.  They dont.

Captain: (smiling grimly) We may see a little sport here before the day is out.

In just these few short lines, we learn so much about the attitudes of the soldiers.  And you find yourself asking “why aren’t the riders concerned?”  Turns out they are unconcerned with good reason.

COMANCHE ATTACK

This was one of the most powerful, disturbing, well-written, gruesome passages I have ever read.  I almost want to just quote the whole thing, but am assuming that anyone who has read this far has their own copy to peruse.  There is the dust cloud in the distance, then you can just barely make out this mismatched herd of cattle and mules and horses, and then behind them you can eventually make out this herd of several hundred ponies.  And the way he writes it, you, as the reader, can almost feel all of this coming towards you, emerging, like as if you were there seeing this coming yourself.

Then the ponies begin to veer off from the rest of the herd, and the few visible riders start charging straight at the soldiers.  And still you don’t know what’s coming, but you can tell it’s not going to be good.  Then you see, just barely, that the ponies are covered in war paint.  And you hear these flutes made from human bones.  And then, all of a sudden, from the offside of these ponies (so previously out of sight to the company) rise “a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers,” “a legion of horribles.”   Each of these ponies had a rider on its back, and they are now charging straight at the company.  And they are so close and this is such a surprise that pandemonium ensues.

The Comanches are “half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream.”  There are too many to get into all of them specifically, but of course the white stockings and bloodstained wedding veil stand out.

Did you notice their faces, “gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious”? And later “like funhouse figures.”  And the way they walk, they move, they are the aliens, this their native land, “trot[ting] like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion.”

One pony with a clouded eye leans out of all this mayhem to snap at the kid like a dog.  What a detail!  How completely terrifying is this whole scene?

And getting back to religion, they are further described “like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than brimstone land of christian reckoning.”   A horde of demons from a place worse than hell?  Who thinks of this stuff?  Needless to say, the soldiers are annihilated, the scalped left to lie “like maimed and naked monks.”

It is morbid and horrifying, but I don’t think anyone could deny its brilliance.

VOCABULARY

filibuster- an irregular military adventurer; specif: an American engaged in fomenting insurrections in Latin America in the mid-19th century

buckbrush-  the common name for several species of North American shrubs that deer feed on; any of various shrubby No. American plants that furnish browse for sheep, deer, and other animals

scabbard- a sheath for holding a sword, knife, or other large blade

bipod- a stand having two legs, as for the support of an instrument or a weapon

boss- a protuberant part; a raised ornamentation

vernier- a short scale made to slide along the divisions of a graduated instrument for indicating parts of divisions; a small auxiliary device used with a main device to obtain fine adjustment

tang- a projecting shank, prong, fang, or tongue (as on a knife, file, or sword) to connect with the handle

micrometer- an instrument used with a telescope or microscope for measuring minute distances

dragoon- a member of a European military unit formerly composed of heavily armed mounted troops; cavalry

pommel- the knob on the hilt of a sword or saber; the protuberance at the front and top of a saddle

truculent- feeling or displaying ferocity; cruel; savage; deadly; destructive; scathingly harsh; vitriolic; aggressively self-assertive; belligerent

sutler- a civilian provisioner to an army post often with a shop on the post

saddlebow- the arched upper front part of a saddle

welter- a confused mass, jumble, confusion, turmoil

raillery- good-natured teasing or ridicule; banter

loomshafts- a big (I’m assuming noisy) device for weaving

mortice- a hole, groove, or slot into or through which some other part of an arrangement of parts fits or passes; especially : a cavity cut into a piece of material (as timber) to receive a tenon

felloes- the exterior rim or a segment of the rim of a wheel supported by the spokes

duledge- one of the dowels joining the ends of the fellies which form the circle of the wheel of a gun carriage

panniers- a basket, esp. one of a pair carried by a beast of burden; each of a pair of bags or boxes fitted on either side of the rear wheel of a bicycle or motorcycle

cordilleras- an extensive chain of mountains or mountain ranges, especially the principal mountain system of a continent [from Spanish, from cordilla, literally: a little cord, from cuerda mountain range, cord]

jornada- expedition; day’s journey; working day

astrolabes- an instrument formerly used to make astronomical measurements, before the development of the sextant.

hasping- ??? (definition I found would not apply in context “to secure a door with a pin, latch, or padlock”)

jacal- a hut in Mexico and southwestern United States with a thatched roof and walls made of upright poles or sticks covered and chinked with mud or clay

wattles- a material for making fences, walls, etc., consisting of rods or stakes interlaced with twigs or branches.

palings- one of a row of upright pointed sticks forming a fence; pointed sticks used in making fences; a fence made of pales or pickets.

purlieu- (we have had before)

bistre- yellowish brown to dark brown

sotols- any of several plants belonging to the genus Dasylirion,  of the agave family, native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, resembling the yucca.

cantle- the upward projecting rear part of a saddle

fodder- feed for livestock, especially coarsely chopped hay or straw

bivouacked- a usually temporary encampment under little or no shelter; encampment usually for a night; a temporary or casual shelter or lodging

farrier- a person who shoes horses

archipelagos- an expanse of water with many scattered islands; a group of islands

canted- angular deviation from a vertical or horizontal plane or surface; an inclination or slope; slanted or oblique surface.

kerf- 1. A groove or notch made by a cutting tool, such as a saw or an ax. 2. The width of a groove made by a cutting tool

traprock- any of various dark-colored fine-grained igneous rocks (as basalt) used especially in road making

anticlines- a ridge or ridge-shaped fold of stratified rock in which the strata slope downward from the crest

bole- trunk of a tree

trapdyke- the best I could come up with is that it is an old term rather loosely used to designate various dark-colored, heavy igneous rocks, including especially the feldspathic-augitic rocks, basalt, dolerite, amygdaloid

chine- the backbone or spine, especially of an animal; cut of meat containing part of the backbone; a ridge or crest

auguries- a sign of what will happen in the future; an omen

quarterwise- at a forty-five degree angle; perhaps also kitty-corner

agoggle- uneven?

quena- a primitive vertical reed flute of the So. American Indians (here made out of human bones)

bedight- (archaic) equip; array

pneumatic- of or relating to air or other gases; spiritual

fletching- the feathers of an arrow, used for flight

frieze- a plain or decorated horizontal part of an entablature between the architrave and cornice; a narrow strip around the walls of a room/building, near the top, usually decorated with pictures, carving

withers- the highest part of a horse’s back, lying at the base of the neck above the shoulders

viscera- the internal organs in the main cavities of the body, esp. those in the abdomen, e.g., the intestines

Anareta-  termed the Killing, Interficient or Destroying Planet; a planet that is capable of signifying destruction and therefore offers a threat to the hyleg, (‘giver or life’), at birth and by direction; the lord of the eighth house; the killing planet

3 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter Four – “[D]eath seemed the most prominent feature of the landscape.”

  1. The Comanche attack is something I have recurrent dreams about. The fury of the attackers is made even more horrible by their wearing of the accoutrements of those they have previously killed, in a fashion that was never meant to be.

  2. I actually noticed the horse with the clouded eye in the midst this attack as well. It reminded me of a shark that appears in the water and is suddenly gone.

    Good summary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *