Truman Capote – The Headless Hawk, 1946

Chapter 2.

For Vincent it was a holiday. No one had come by the gallery all morning, which considering the arctic weather, was not unusual. He sat at this desk devouring tangerines, and enjoying immensely a Thurber story in an old New Yorker. Laughing loudly, he did not hear the girl enter, see her cross the dark carpet, notice her at all, in fact, until the telephone rang. ‘Garland Gallery, hello.’ She was odd, most certainly. That indecent haircut, those depthless eyes – ‘Oh Paul. Comme ci, comme ca, and you?, – dressed like a freak: no coat, just a lumberjack’s shirt, navy-blue slacks and – was it a joke? – pink ankle socks, a pair of huaraches. ‘The ballet? Who’s dancing? Oh, her!’ Under an arm she carried a flat parcel wrapped in sheets of funny-paper – ‘Look, Paul what say I call back? There’s someone here…’ and anchoring the receiver, assuming a commercial smile, he stood up. ‘Yes?’

He lips, crusty with chap, trembled with unrealized words as though she had possibly a defect of speech, and her eyes rolled in their sockets like loose marbles. It was the kind of disturbed shyness one associates with children. ‘I’ve a picture,’ she said. ‘You buy pictures.’

At this, Vincent’s smile became fixed. ‘We exhibit.’

‘I painted it myself.’ She said, and her voice, hoarse and slurred, was Southern. ‘My picture – I painted it. A lady told me there were places around here that bought pictures.’

Vincent said, ‘ Yes, of course, but the truth is’ –  and he made a helpless gesture – ‘the truth is’ – I’ve no authority whatever. Mr Garland – this is his gallery, you know – is out of town.’ Standing there on the expanse of fine carpet, her body sagging sideways with the weight of her package, she looked like a sad rag doll. ‘Maybe,’ he began ‘ maybe Henry Krueger up the street at Sixty-five…’ but she was not listening.

‘I did it myself,’ she insisted softly. ‘ Tuesdays and Thursdays were our painting days, and a whole year I worked. The others, they kept messing it up, and Mr Destronelli…’ Suddenly, as though aware of an indiscretion, she stopped and bit her lip. Her eyes narrowed. ‘He’s not a friend of yours?’

‘Who?’ said Vincent, confused.

‘Mr Destronelli.’

He shook his head and wondered why it was that ecentricity always excited in him such curious admiration. It was the feeling he’d had as a child toward carnival freaks. And it was true that about those whom he’d loved there was always a little something wrong, broken. Strange, though, that this quality, having stimulated an attraction, should, in this case, regularly end it by destroying it. ‘Of course I haven’t any authority,’ he repeated, sweeping tangerine hulls into a wastebasket, ‘but, if you like, I suppose I could look at your work.’

A pause; then, kneeling on the floor, she commenced stripping off the funny-paper wrapping. It originally had been, Vincent noticed, part of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. ‘From the South, aren’t you?’ he said. She did not look up, but he saw her shoulders stiffen. ‘No,’ she said. Smiling, he considered a moment, decided it would be tactless to challenge so transparent a lie. Or could she have misunderstood? And all at once he felt an intense longing to touch her head, finger her boyish hair. He shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced at the window. It was spangled with February frost, and some passer-by had scratched on the glass an obscenity.

‘There,’ she said.

A headless figure in a monklike robe reclined complacently on top of a tacky vaudeville trunk; in one hand she held a fuming blue candle, in the other a miniature gold cage, and her severed head lay bleeding at ther feet: it was the girl’s, this head, but here her hair was long, very long, and a snowball kitten with crystal spitfire eyes playfully pawed, as it would a spool of yarn, the sprawling ends. The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky. It was a crude painting, the hard pure colours moulded with male brutality, and, while there was not technical merit evident, it had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed. Vincent reacted as he did when occasionaly a phrase of music surprised a note of inward recognition, or a cluster of words in a poem revealed to him a secret concerning himself: he felt a powerful chill of leasure run down his spine. ‘Mr Garland is in florida,’ he said cautiously, ‘but I think he should see it; you couldn’t leave it for, say, a week?’

‘I had a ring and I sold it,’ she said, and he had the feeling she was talking in a trance. ‘It was a nice ring, a wedding ring – not mine –with writing  on it. I had an overcoat, too.’ She twisted one of her shirt buttons, pulled till it popped off and rolled on the carpet like a pearl eye. ‘I don’t want much – fifty dollars; is that unfair?’

‘Too much,’ said Vincent, more curtly than he intended. Now he wanted her painting, not for the gallery, but for himself. There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? ‘I’ll give thirty.’

For a moment she gaped at him stupidly, and then, sucking her breath, held out her hand, palm up. This directness, too innocent to be offensive, caught him off guard. Somewhat embarassed, he said, ‘I’m most awfully afraid I’ll have to mail a cheque. Could you…? ‘The telephone interrupted, and as he went to answer, she followed, her hand outstretched, a frantic look pinching her face. ‘Oh, Paul, may I call back? Oh, I see. Well, hold on a sec.’ Cupping the mouthpiece against his shoulder, he pushed a pad and pencil across the desk. ‘Here, write your name and address.’

But she shook her head, the dazed, anxious expression deepening.

Cheque,’ said Vincent, ‘I have to mail a cheque. Please, your name and address.’ He grinned encouragingly when at last she bgan to write.

‘Sorry, Paul… whose party? Why, the little bitch, she didn’t invite…Hey!’ He called, for the girl was moving towards the door. ‘Please, hey!’ Cold air chilled the gallery, and the door slammed with a glassy rattle. Hellohellohello. Vincent did not answer; he stood puzzling over the curious information she’d left printed on his pad: D.J. – Y.W.C.A. Hellohellohello.

It hung above his mantel, the painting, and on those nights when he could not sleep he would pour a glass of whisky and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life: he was, he said, a poet who had never written poetry, a painter who had never painted, a lover who had never loved (absolutely) – it wasn’t that he hadn’t tried – good beginnings, always, bad endings, always. Vincent, white, male, age 36, college graduate: murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?

Truman Capote, 1924-1984    The Headless Hawk, 1946 (The Grass Harp and The Tree of Night and Other Stories)

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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