Blood Meridian, Chapter XXI- “Terrible incubation in the house of the sun”

dunce academy blood meridican cormac mccarthy book review[H]e seemed some degenerate entrepreneur fleeing from a medicine show and the outrage of the citizens who’d sacked it.

(p. 298).


We’re almost there, my fellow travelers/McCarthy enthusiasts.  This is a short chapter, so I figured I’d keep the momentum going before 2016 gets the best of me.  Onward.

Not much happens, but the writing is still beautiful.  Tobin and the kid continue westward, and the judge and the imbecile continue to follow.  The expriest is in such bad shape at this point, he hardly seems to know or care that they are still being followed.

Again there are the “save yourself” admonishments, but the kid sticks with the expriest (significantly, whenever McCarthy refers to Tobin in the text, he refers to him as the ex-priest, but when the judge addresses him, including in this chapter, he calls him “the priest”.  For me, this reads like an open disgust that the judge has for the church/priesthood, even if it’s technically past tense).

The land is bleak, spare.  There are no landmarks.  Just a flat nothing.  They run out of water again.  They are hungry.

There are still traces of failed wagon trains.  The path to every watering hole is littered with the bones of dead things that did not make it.

They come to an esker, or ridge of sand.  The kid has an idea.  Between the wind and the thin sand, their footprints disappear after a short time.  Still being tracked by the judge, they decide to hide.


Tobin is skeptical at first, but again, what choice do they have?  The judge has horses and guns.  The expriest again encourages the kid to kill the judge, that he’s only a man, but as the kid points out, the judge has two rifles to his one pistol (and thus more ammunition and a longer range).  The kid is down to four shots.

They find the perfect spot under an abandoned wagon where the mules lay dead in their traces.  The kid starts digging.  This is a great line: “they lay prone in the lee of those sour bones like sated scavengers and awaited the arrival of the judge and the passing of the judge if he would so pass.”  (p. 297).  So much going on.  Such a great piece of writing.  Will he come?  Will he pass?  Is this the end?

They don’t have to wait long.  The judge appears, and he is quite a sight.  He is carrying the two rifles of Brown, seemingly all of Brown’s former belongings.  The idiot is with him.  Creepily, the judge has fashioned a parasol out of bones and some kind of animal hide.  His clothes are “little more than confetti” because he’s so big, he needs part of several pieces of clothing to cover himself.  He’s got the idiot on a leash.

The kid can still see where their footprints are.  The judge stops just 100 yards away.  Will he see them?  It is a very tense and wary moment.  The idiot is naked except for some crude pampooties (a shoe of untanned cowhide worn in the Aran islands, County Galway, Ireland).  It’s almost as if the judge is using it to track them.

The kid realizes that the judge has passed the place where they turned off.  The wind has taken their footprints away.

The kid had had to pistol cocked, but did not fire.  There is a discussion about why the kid did not shoot, and what they should do next.  They realize the judge could just be waiting for them at the next well.  They discuss going back to the previous creek.

But then the judge is coming back.  He stops at the top of the esker and addresses the countryside (i.e. the kid).

An Address

The speech the judge gives is very interesting. He says he knows the kid could have shot him already if he wanted to.  He accuses him of not being an assassin and of having reserved clemency for the indians.  Very interestingly, he claims he hasn’t killed Brown and Toadvine (though he has all their stuff), and tells the kid to ask the “priest,” adding that the priest knows and would not lie.  He tells the kid that maybe he has pictured this place in a dream and seen that he will die here.  Then he leaves.


It’s cold.  They sleep.  The winter stars watch from overhead.  When they wake, it’s like many season have passed.  They are surrounded by new indians.  The kid still has his gone and the indians seem hesitant to approach.  They are Diguenos (an Indian people of southern California), not the dreaded Yumas.  They are kind, giving them water and food (though the food doesn’t sound too appetizing; lizard and mouse stew and mashed up grasshoppers; I guess if you’re hungry enough, anything sounds good).  The people where shirts, just shirts, from ill-fated argonaut parties that had passed before.

One indian reaches for the kid’s pistol while the kid eats, and asks to see it in Spanish.  He seems more curious than aggressive.  But insistent.  The kid finally pulls the gun and points it at the curious indian’s head.  But they resolve the matter without violence.  The indians want to know what their story is and whether anyone else is with them. They say they had an encounter with the Yumas, and the Diguenos agree that they are very bad.  The kid tells the indians that they have a much larger group and that the rest are coming, probably for their protection.

They bathe and venture back out, continuing west.  It’s cold.  The elevation is increasing.  There are new animals here, bears and eagles.  Mountains surround them.  They kill a deer.  Eat what they can, dry some of the rest to take with them.  They are careful of the bears.  Sleep.  Keep moving.

They see the ocean.  Make their way down to it through the foothills.  They reach San Diego a day later.  Tobin heads off looking for a doctor, of which they are both in dire need, but the kid heads through the town towards the ocean, following that same primal pull it has for all of us.

Kelp.  A dead seal.  The ocean.  The clouds out over the horizon.  Some of the most beautiful imagery in the book.  Everything is old, elemental, timeless, the barren earth they have come from, the sea.  There is a horse on the beach and a young colt playing around it.  The sea is a thing alone, it’s black hide heaving in the “cobbled starlight.” (p. 304).

It’s evening and the kid turns back towards the light of town.  But the horse is still there, and this is a perfect image to end on:

The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

(p. 304).  That last line would make a good tattoo: “out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”  Love it.

Are they safe?  Have they made it?  Where’s the judge?  What comes next?  Something tells me we won’t have to wait long.

The next chapter is just ten pages long.  Then just one more.  We’re going to make it!  There were times where it seemed it would never come.  Yee-haw!


shale- soft, finely stratified sedimentary rock that formed from consolidated mud or clay and can be split easily into fragile slabs.


  1. a small arcade (as in a balustrade)

  2. a blind arcade; especially :  one that is decorative rather than structural


  1. 1 a :  the place where something is situated or occurs :  site, location <was the culture of medicine in the beginning dispersed from a single focus or did it arise in several loci? — S. C. Harvey> b :  a center of activity, attention, or concentration <in democracy the locus of power is in the people — H. G. Rickover>

  2. 2 :  the set of all points whose location is determined by stated conditions

  3. 3 :  the position in a chromosome of a particular gene or allele

esker- a long ridge of gravel and other sediment, typically having a winding course, deposited by meltwater from a retreating glacier or ice sheet.

scalloped- : one of a series of similar curves that form a decorative edge on something
portmanteau- a large trunk or suitcase, typically made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts.
replevin-  recovery of personal property said or claimed to be unlawfully taken.
  • 1.
    the equipment for a particular purpose.
  • 2.
    a carriage and horses with attendants.


  1. 1 :  a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially :  one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance

  2. 2 a :  a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy b :  a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines

clemency- mercy; lenience.

Sirius- a star of the constellation Canis Major that is the brightest star in the heavens —called also Dog Star

Cetus- an equatorial constellation south of Pisces and Aries


  1. 1 [Latin (genitive Orionis)] :  a constellation on the equator east of Taurus represented on charts by the figure of a hunter with belt and sword

  2. 2 :  a giant hunter slain by Artemis in Greek mythology


  1. a variable red supergiant star of the first magnitude near the eastern shoulder of Orion

sprites- an elf or fairy

pinole- a sweetened flour made from ground dried corn mixed with flour made of mesquite beans, sugar, and spices.

ossify- turn into bone or bony tissue.

thunderstones- any of various stones (as a meteorite or an ancient artifact) regarded as having been cast to the earth as thunderbolts

 combers- a long curling sea wave.

6 thoughts on “Blood Meridian, Chapter XXI- “Terrible incubation in the house of the sun”

  1. Glad to see you are finishing this. Have been following this since it started. Of course, I’ve actually finished the book a long time ago at this point, haha.

    • Thanks, Frank. I know, it has taken way too long. But it takes time to give each chapter the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, I vow to see this through. We are so close. And I hope, once completed, it will provide a valuable resource for readers and re-readers. It’s now been so long since I read those first chapters, by the time I’m finished with the analysis, I’ll probably want to start reading again. Ironically, the analysis I wrote now years ago will probably help me better understand as I read it again.

    • Great! Of course I’m biased, but I think it’s a great resource. Blood Meridian is a challenge. A fun and beautiful challenge, but sometimes we need some assistance.

  2. I thought the reference to thunder stones was interesting. I don’t know why I got hung up on that term in a chapter that ends with a description of whales carrying souls through the sea. But at any rate the thunder stones are there. Some stones cast down from heaven as thunderbolts. Very pre-Christian in its imagery.

    I think definitions only go so far. There is dennotation and connotation. What does the image connote. I see, in my mind, hailstone sized grayish smooth stones scattered about, out of place, from some foreign origin, like eggs from an ancient bird. That’s what it connotes, I think. Just otherworldly objects strewn about.

    Earlier in the book, very early on, the kid enters a church with the doors hung “awap.” I think McCarthy made this word up, and though I can’t absolutely define it, I think I know what it means. It connotes a door hanging maybe by one hinge instead of two or three. Partly open. Leaning out. I see awap in my mind, though it don’t know what it means. The thunder stones are the same. And I think there are other words similar. Knowing the definitions is important , but not quite sufficient, for understanding the text. It’s sort of a postmodern stance on a postmodern epic I guess.

    • I really appreciate this comment. One of the things I like most about Blood Meridian is how rich and deep the text is. There are multiple levels, layers upon layers. The definitions were at least as much for me as anything else. McCarthy simply uses words that I do not know. But the first time I read Blood Meridian, I did not have a dictionary close at hand, and I just read it straight through. The words have a feel, even if you’re not familiar with their exact definition/denotation. “Awap” does have a visceral, almost onomatopoetic sense to it, even in the absence of a dictionary. I agree with your assessment.

      I liked the thunder stones as well. Your comments bring me back to one of the most visually beautiful chapters in the book.

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