Bless Me, Ultima | Study Guide

Rudolfo A. Anaya

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Bless Me, Ultima | Chapter 11 (Once) | Summary

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Summary

Antonio is asleep on the riverbank. He's awakened by Cico who asks him if he's ever fished for carp. Antonio says no, and Cico says he'll show Antonio the golden carp. But first Antonio must say he believes the golden carp is a god. Antonio is conflicted because he is a Catholic who is allowed to believe in only one God. Cico is impressed with Antonio's honesty. Although Antonio is a non-believer he wants to believe in the golden carp. Cico has Antonio swear never to hurt or kill carp. Then Cico leads Antonio across the river to see the golden carp.

They walk past Narciso's house, in whose lush garden "every kind of fruit and vegetable ... seemed to grow." Cico says Narciso has magic and a hidden spring to make his garden so lush. Cico pulls a few golden carrots from the earth and gives some to Antonio, who had "never eaten anything sweeter or juicier in [his] life." Cico tells Antonio that Narciso has a special magic regarding plants, whose seed he sows by the light of the moon. Antonio understands Narciso is like a Luna, or member of his mother's family who is close to the earth.

They leave the garden to go see the golden carp. They pass some boys playing basketball but decline to join the game. The boys imply Ultima is a bad witch, and then they call out to Antonio to "do some magic," but he cannot and vomits. Then he and Cico run away and dash over a hill. They sit and rest for a few minutes, and Antonio asks why people are so insensitive and evil-minded. Cico says, "People—grown-ups and kids—seem to want to hurt each other," but he has no other explanation for why people are cruel to each other.

The boys walk along the path by the El Rito, a creek whose waters are clean and clear. They continue to a pond created by a beaver dam. Cico points to a spot where the golden carp will emerge from a shaded grotto. Cico watches the water intently. The boys wait a long time for the golden carp to appear.

The golden carp appears suddenly. The sight is so amazing Antonio thinks he "must be dreaming." The golden carp is huge, bigger than Antonio. Normal size carp look "like minnows" compared to the golden carp. The golden carp is bright orange, with sunlight "glisten[ing] off its golden scales." Antonio feels as if he's in the presence of God—a god he could reach out and touch. In a few minutes the golden carp swims away and disappears. Antonio feels like he's "witnessed a miraculous thing."

After a while the golden carp returns, its scales reflecting orange, gold, and red. The golden carp swims very close to Cico and Antonio, who is overcome by the "beauty and grandeur of the great fish." Then with one swish of its tail the golden carp is gone under the water. Cico assures Antonio the fishermen who come to El Rito cannot see the golden carp because they are not worthy of, or do not believe in, its divine spirit. So there's no danger they will harm it. Only the initiated—Ultima, Narciso, Samuel, Cico, and now Antonio—can see the divine carp.

Cico tells Antonio the carp swims upstream to the mysterious Hidden Lakes, where there is a mermaid. These lakes have a strange power, Cico says. "Like the presence of the river," Antonio whispers, and Cico knows Antonio understands the spirit of things. But the mermaid of the Hidden Lakes is dangerous; like a siren, she tries to lure people into her watery realm. Cico tells a story about a shepherd who was lured into the water by the mermaid but who survived. He described the mermaid to the townspeople, but no one believed him. The shepherd became so despondent he got drunk and went back to find the mermaid. He was never seen or heard from again. Cico warns Antonio to "never go to the Hidden Lakes alone ... it's not safe."

Cico then tells Antonio about the golden carp's prophecy. The people who live in the area have become so sinful their sins will weigh heavily on the land until it collapses and the water covers it over. The land will descend into the underground lake on which it now sits. The golden carp has predicted this fate because of the town's sinners. Antonio feels "a great weight in [his] heart ... [and is] saddened" by the prophecy. He leaves Cico at El Rito and heads home. Antonio feels an urgent need to tell everyone to stop sinning or else they'll drown. But he knows no one will believe him.

Back home Antonio tells Ultima about what he saw and learned. Ultima makes no comment but only smiles "as if she knew the story." When Antonio asks her if he should believe the story Ultima says, "as you grow ... you must find your own truths."

That night Antonio has a dream. He hears the mermaid singing, and he sees the golden carp in the water. Around the carp are people he had saved, but on the shore are the rotting corpses of sinners. Antonio sees the moon descend onto the water. He sees his mother shining in the moonlight. He cries, "we are all saved," but she says those saved have been "made holy by our Holy Mother the Church." Then in the dream Antonio's father says Antonio was baptized in the sea, not in the fresh water of the moon. Antonio begs to know which blood runs in his veins—his mother's or his father's. Both parents claim their blood makes up Antonio's body. Then the waters begin to churn as if they're in the midst of "the cosmic struggle of the two forces [that] would destroy everything." Suddenly Ultima appears and orders the raging waters to become calm, and they do. Ultima explains, "the waters are one": Water from the sea rises, falls as rain, and becomes fresh water on the land. Ultima's words bring Antonio peace and rest.

Analysis

Antonio is struggling with the nature of god/God, the supernatural, knowledge, and sin when he meets the golden carp. The golden carp is a massive and magnificent being whose presence makes Antonio feel as if he's "witnessed a miraculous thing, the appearance of a pagan god, a thing as miraculous as the curing of my uncle Lucas." Antonio "could not have been more entranced if [he] had seen the Virgin, or God Himself." His wonderment leads Antonio to compare the Christian God and the divine golden carp. In the presence of the golden carp Antonio feels "a sudden illumination of beauty and understanding"—a deep spiritual knowledge of the world. The Christian God failed to heal his uncle, but Ultima's supernatural gifts healed him. Antonio associates Ultima with the golden carp and its supernatural power and wisdom. Antonio sets a kind of test for the Christian God, hoping God will fill him with the same radiant understanding as the golden carp. If at his communion he feels nothing, then Antonio will know God is less powerful—or spiritual—than god. On the other hand, Antonio realizes perhaps his witnessing the golden carp is a sin in God's eyes, and therefore God will withhold illumination during Antonio's first communion.

So far in the book, sin has been associated with Christianity's unforgiving and punishing God. Antonio is upset when he learns the golden carp is not mercy incarnate. The golden carp can shed its benevolent and merciful aspect to punish people for their sins. In a way the golden carp's punishment for sin is far more devastating than the punishments meted out to sinful individuals by the Christian God. For the golden carp's prophecy promises the complete destruction of the town and its people as the weight of their sins sinks the land beneath the water. Antonio has a hard time coming to grips with the concept of sin and punishment. He had thought the golden carp was a deity of pure compassion and forgiveness. Now he realizes it too can be devastatingly wrathful. Antonio wants to tell the townspeople not to sin, but he knows this is pointless. As Cico says, "people [just] seem to want to hurt each other."

Cico says he'll be happy to be with his god, the golden carp, after the land and its people have been drowned. Yet Antonio can't square this wholesale destruction and death with his highly developed sense of divine justice. He says, "But it's not fair to those who don't sin!" Cico replies, "All men sin," and Antonio remembers his mother—and his dream—telling him manhood inevitably means becoming a sinner. These thoughts leave Antonio feeling "weak and powerless" to save himself or others.

The Christian God, through the teachings of the Church and the Bible, at least attempts to teach people how to act so they do not sin. The golden carp seems to have no prescriptions or guidance for non-sinful action. Perhaps only those who are spirituality attuned to it can absorb its knowledge of goodness and sin. Yet this leaves the vast majority of people ignorant of how to avoid sin and the final destruction it will bring to their town. Is the Church in its guidance against sin therefore more merciful and just than the golden carp? Cico says most people are not worthy of knowing about the golden carp because they would not recognize its divinity and would kill it. So which God/god is more just and forgiving?

Back home, Antonio asks Ultima what he should believe. She wisely tells him, "As you grow into manhood you must find your own truth." The paradox is that manhood also brings sin with it, so a man's sinful nature may influence his choice about what to believe. But Antonio has no choice. He must wait for the truth—for spiritual understanding—to mature in him.

Antonio also feels conflicted about the God of the Church and the spirituality of the golden carp, the god of the earth and nature. Cico asks Antonio if he believes in the golden carp's divinity, but Antonio cannot lie about his Catholicism. Yet Antonio is so conflicted about religion—and so disturbed by the nature of the Christian God—he says he "wants to believe" the golden carp is a god. Earlier, in Chapter 10, Antonio had disparaged the priest because "he wanted the mercy and faith of the church to be the villagers' only guiding light." Here the golden carp seems to be demanding a similar belief and commitment. So perhaps the two beliefs are not as mutually exclusive as they seem to be. It is also interesting to note the golden carp emerges from a shaded grotto in the water. In the Christian religion, statues of the Virgin Mary and of many saints are built in grottoes which are considered holy sites where Christians come to pray. Is the grotto a way of uniting the golden carp with Christianity?

Spirituality is intertwined with magic. The golden carp is associated with the mystery of the mermaid in the haunted Hidden Lakes. The siren mermaid lures men to their deaths not through evil, but through magic. Narciso, who is initiated into the mystery of the golden carp, also possesses magic. He is described as acting in a way reminiscent of the Trementina sisters because he dances under the moon when he plants seeds in his garden. Yet his dancing is benevolent, white-magic dancing, unlike the black magic of Tenorio's daughters. Even Antonio has become associated with magic since he helped Ultima cure his Uncle Lucas. The boys in the playground rib him about what they think are his magical powers, his "voodoo." Yet Antonio is attuned to the spiritual essence of things, such as the presence of the river he can feel. As Cico helps Antonio understand, learning about people lets him see "the strange magic hidden in their hearts." Antonio feels a spiritual bond, or brotherhood, with Cico and all people who recognize the spirit inhabiting everything on earth.

Antonio's dream presents to him yet again the conflict between the two traditions—and forms of spirituality—that are part of his body and nature. He is in agony trying to figure out if his identity lies with the tradition of his mother—the moon, Luna—or his father—the sea, Márez. In the dream the conflict seems to generate a storm that threatens to destroy the world—perhaps akin to the watery death the golden carp prophesies. Echoing the scene at his birth, Ultima resolves the conflict, saying, "The waters are one," and Antonio finally finds peace. Ultima says Antonio has been seeing "only parts ... and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all." The waters of the earth are like the spiritual brotherhood Antonio felt earlier with Cico. Antonio now has the wisdom to see all things are connected, and all are part of one spirit. He is still not sure if the golden carp and the Christian God are also, in some deep way, parts of the one universal spirit.

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