The tale of the enemy padrino | From Cormac McCarthy’s novel Cities of the Plain

Why would a man want an enemy for a padrino?

For the best of reasons. Or the worst. This man of whom we speak was a dying man when his lastborn came into the world. A son. His only son. So what did he do? He called upon that man who once had been a friend to him but now was his sworn enemy and he asked that man to be padrino to his son. The man refused of course. What? Are you mad? He must have been surprised. It had been years since last they spoke and their enemistad was a deep and bitter thing. Perhaps they had become enemies for the same reason they had once been friends. Which often happens in the world. But this man persisted. And he had the–how do you say–el naipe? En su manga.

The ace.

Yes. The ace up his sleeve. He told his enemy that he was dying. There was the naipe. Upon the table. The man could not refuse. All choosing was taken from his hands.

The blind man raised one hand into the smoky air in a thin upward slicing motion. Now comes the talk, he said. No end to it. Some say that the dying man wished to mend their friendship. Others that he had done this man some great injustice and wished to make amends before leaving this world forever. Others said other things. There is more than meets the eye. I say this: This man who was dying was not a man given to sentimentality. He also had lost friends to death. He was not a man given to illusions. He knew that those things we most desire to hold in our hearts are often taken from us while that which we would put away seems often by that very wish to become endowed with unsuspected powers of endurance. He knew how frail is the memory of loved ones. How we close our eyes and speak to them. How we long to hear their voices once again, and how those voices and those memories grow faint and faint until what was flesh and blood is no more than echo and shadow. In the end perhaps not even that.

He knew that our enemies by contrast seem always with us. The greater our hatred the more persistent the memory of them so that a truly terrible enemy becomes deathless. So that the man who has done you great injury or injustice makes himself a guest in your house forever. Perhaps only forgiveness can dislodge him.

Such then was this man’s thinking. If we may believe the best of him. To bind the padrino to his cause with the strongest bonds he knew. And there was more. For in this appointment he also posted the world as his sentinel. The duties of a friend would come under no great scrutiny. But an enemy? You can see how nicely he has caught him in the net he has contrived. For this enemy was in fact a man of conscience. A worthy enemy. And this enemy-padrino now must carry the dying man in his heart forever. Must suffer the eyes of the world eternally on him. Such a man can scarce be said to author any longer his own path.

The father dies as die he must. The enemy become padrino now becomes the father of the child. The world is watching. It stands in for the dead man. Who by his audacity has pressed it into his service. For the world does have a conscience, however men dispute it. And while that conscience may be thought of as the sum of consciences of men there is another view, which is that it may stand alone and each man’s share be but some small imperfect part of it. The man who died favored this view. As I do myself. Men may believe the world to be–what is the word? Voluble.


Fickle? I dont know. Voluble then. But the world is not voluble. The world is always the same. The man appointed the world as his witness that he might secure his enemy to his service. That this enemy would be faithful to his duties. That is what he did. Or that was my belief. At times I believe it yet.

How did it turn out?

Quite strangely.

The blind man reached for his glass. He drank and held the glass before him as if studying it and then he set it on the table before him once again.

Quite strangely. For the circumstance of his appointment came to elevate this man’s padrinazgo to the central role of his life. It brought out what was best in him. More than best. Virtues long neglected began almost at once to blossom forth. He abandoned every vice. He even began to attend Mass. His new office seemed to have called forth from the deepest parts of his character honor and loyalty and courage and devotion. What he gained can scarcely be put into words. Who would have foreseen such a thing?

What happened? said John Grady

The blind man smiled his pained blind smile. You smell the rat, he said.


Quite so. It was no happy ending. Perhaps there is a moral to the tale. Perhaps not. I leave it to you.

What happened?

This man whose life was changed forever by the dying request of his enemy was ultimately ruined. The child became his life. More than his life. To say that he doted upon the child says nothing. And yet all turned out badly. Again, I believe that the intentions of the dying man were for the best. But there is another view. It would not be the first time that a father sacrificed a son.

The godchild grew up wild and restless. He became a criminal. A petty thief. A gambler. And other things. Finally, in the winter of nineteen and seven, in the town of Ojinaga, he killed a man. He was nineteen years of age. Close to your own, perhaps.

The same.

Yes. Perhaps this was his destiny. Perhaps no padrino could have saved him from himself. No father. The padrino squandered all he owned in bribes and fees. To no avail. Such a road once undertaken has no end and he died alone and poor. He was never bitter. He scarcely seemed even to consider whether he had been betrayed. He once had been a strong and even a ruthless man, but love makes men foolish. I speak as a victim myself. We are taken out of our own care and it then remains to be seen only if fate will show to us some share of mercy. Or little. Or none.

Men speak of blind destiny, a thing without scheme or purpose. But what sort of destiny is that? Each act in this world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net. Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself an enslavement for it voids every alternative and binds one ever more tightly into the constraints that make a life. If the dead man could have forgiven his enemy for whatever wrong was done to him all would have been otherwise. Did the son set out to avenge his father? Did the dead man sacrifice his son? Our plans are predicated upon a future unknown to us. The world takes its form hourly by a weighing of things at hand, and while we may seek to puzzle out that form we have no way to do so. We have only God’s law, and the wisdom to follow it if we will.

The maestro leaned forward and composed his hands before him. The wineglass stood empty and he took it up. Those who cannot see, he said, must rely upon what has gone before. If I do not wish to appear so foolish as to drink from an empty glass I must remember whether I have drained it or not. This man who became padrino. I speak of him as if he died old but he did not. He was younger than I am now. I speak as if his conscience or the world’s eyes or both led him to such rigor in his duties. But those considerations quickly fell to nothing. It was for love of the child that he came to grief, if grief it was. What do you make of that?

I dont know.

Nor I. I only know that every act which has no heart will be found out in the end. Every gesture.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel Cities of the Plain.

Read an Excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s Script for The Counselor

The New Yorker has published an excerpt of Cormac McCarthy’s script for The Counselor, a film directed by Ridley Scott that will come out this fall.

An excerpt of the excerpt:

the kid rakes an object from under the paper into his helmet and puts down the paper and stands and puts the helmet under his arm and crosses the plaza to his bike and puts his foot over the bike and starts it and pulls his gloves from the helmet and lays them on the tank in front of him and pulls on the helmet and fastens the strap and then pulls on the gloves and kicks back the stand and pulls away into the traffic.

night. two-lane blacktop road through the high desert. A car passes and the lights recede down the long straight and fade out. A man walks out from the scrub cedars that line the road and stands in the middle of the road and lights a cigarette. He is carrying a roll of thin braided wire over one shoulder. He continues across the road to the fence. A tall metal pipe is mounted to one of the fence posts and at the top—some twenty feet off the ground—is a floodlight. The man pushes the button on a small plastic sending unit and the light comes on, flooding the road and the man’s face. He turns it off and walks down the fence line a good hundred yards to the corner of the fence and here he drops the coil of wire to the ground and takes a flashlight from his back pocket and puts it in his teeth and takes a pair of leather gloves from his belt and puts them on. Then he loops the wire around the corner post and pulls the end of the wire through the loop and wraps it about six times around the wire itself and tucks the end several times inside the loop and then takes the wire in both hands and hauls it as tight as he can get it. Then he takes the coil of wire and crosses the road, letting out the wire behind him. In the cedars on the far side, a flatbed truck is parked with the bed of the truck facing the road. There is an iron pipe at the right rear of the truck bed mounted vertically in a pair of collars so that it can slide up and down and the man threads the wire through a hole in the pipe and pulls it taut and stops it from sliding back by clamping the wire with a pair of vise grips. Then he walks back out to the road and takes a tape measure from his belt and measures the height of the wire from the road surface. He goes back to the truck and lowers the iron pipe in its collars and clamps it in place again with a threaded lever that he turns by hand against the vertical rod. He goes out to the road and measures the wire again and comes back and wraps the end of the wire through a heavy three-inch iron ring and walks to the front of the truck, where he pulls the wire taut and wraps it around itself to secure the ring at the end of the wire and then pulls the ring over a hook mounted in the side rail of the truck bed. He stands looking at it. He strums the wire with his fingers. It gives off a deep resonant note. He unhooks the ring and walks the wire to the rear of the truck until it lies slack on the ground and in the road. He lays the ring on the truck bed and goes around and takes a walkie-talkie from a work bag in the cab of the truck and stands in the open door of the truck, listening. He checks his watch by the dome light in the cab.