Bless Me, Ultima | Study Guide

Rudolfo A. Anaya

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Bless Me, Ultima | Chapters 20–21 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 20 (Veinte)

Despite taking communion each Saturday and going to mass every Sunday, Antonio "was not satisfied," because God is not with him. On the last day of school Antonio goes to the bridge, determined to race the Vitamin Kid. Antonio is amazed to see the Kid is walking with a girl. The Kid is more interested in her than in racing. That's never happened before.

Antonio is looking forward to the summer days when he can spend more time with Ultima, with whom he feels comfort and solace—in contrast to the Church. One night Antonio hears the owl cry out an alarm, but Ultima says not to worry. Antonio fears it's Tenorio coming to kill Ultima because Tenorio's middle daughter has died from her illness. It seems a curse has also been put on the Agua Negra ranch, and Téllez, the owner and Gabriel's friend, comes to seek Ultima's help. Strange things have been happening on the farm, in the house—and on the house. Téllez tells how stones fall from the sky onto his roof. Téllez says they called the priest to exorcise the demon who has cursed his house, but the priest's blessings did no good. Antonio's family is a bit skeptical so Gabriel goes with Téllez to see for himself what is happening.

When Gabriel gets back from Agua Negra he seems shocked. He says what he saw with his own eyes amazed him. He does not believe in spirits, but he has seen a curse befall Téllez. Gabriel says Téllez's house is haunted by the spirits of Comanche who were murdered and unburied long ago. Maria agrees they should help Téllez. She asks Ultima to help lift the curse, and Ultima agrees.

The next morning Gabriel drives Antonio and Ultima to Agua Negra. There is beauty and magic in the blooming landscape they travel through. Téllez runs from his simple adobe house and kisses Ultima's hand. Téllez cries with shame because the evil curse has left his family so impoverished he cannot offer Ultima anything to eat or drink. As they talk inside the house they notice the sky has become very dark. "It's here," Téllez says. His wife prays. The stones begin falling and pounding on the roof. It is a terrifying, evil noise. As suddenly as it starts the stoning stops, and the sky clears again. They go outside and find stones the size of melons lying all around.

Ultima has Gabriel build a raised platform and cover it with juniper branches. Antonio helps collects juniper. By twilight the platform is completed. Ultima comes out of Téllez's house carrying three bundles. She puts them on the platform and says, "Set fire to it." A match put to the platform turns it into a ball of raging fire. Ultima goes back inside and Gabriel and Antonio continue feeding the fire. Téllez and Gabriel realize he platform is built in the burial tradition of the Comanche. When the platform and the bundles have burned to ash, Ultima says, "It is done." Ultima says she would like her body to be buried this way. Then she announces, "The curse is lifted."

As they leave, Ultima tells Téllez to stay away from Tenorio. Then Téllez says he ran into Tenorio a month earlier. Tenorio was bad-mouthing Ultima, and Téllez defended her and the "pride of those from Las Pasturas." He says the evil struck Agua Negra within a week of the encounter. Téllez thanks them all, and they drive home.

That night Antonio has a dream about his three brothers. They seem lost and cry out Antonio's name mournfully. They are exhausted from the wandering the "sea-blood in their veins" has impelled them to do. Then the dream changes and his brothers are disemboweled. He uses their livers as bait to catch catfish. The brothers call on him to use the power of the Church or the golden carp to save them. Antonio throws their livers into the pool where the golden carp lives, and the brothers are at peace.

Chapter 21 (Veintiuno)

It is summer, and Antonio and Cico wait for the arrival of the golden carp. They crawl to the edge of the pool and wait. While waiting, Antonio wonders why God has ignored him even though he's taken communion. He even begins to wonder if God exists. Antonio and Cico talk about God and the Church, and about the existence many gods. Cico says they must not tell others about the golden carp because those not prepared to believe would kill it. Cico tells Antonio he has to choose between the Church and the golden carp.

They see the golden carp glide gracefully through the water. Its beauty is godlike and empties Antonio's mind of all doubts and questions. After watching the golden carp for a while, Antonio suggests they tell Florence about it because "Florence needed at least one god." Cico agrees Florence is ready to see and believe in the golden carp. Antonio is thrilled as he envisions a more widespread "adoration of something simple and pure."

Eventually the two boys walk along the shore to Blue Lake. They avoid a treacherous spillway and a deep pool congested with weeds. As they walk they hear shouts of alarm and know something's wrong. They hurry toward the voices, and Bones says, "Florence is down there ... He hasn't come up" after diving into the deep water. The boys are distraught. As Cico takes off his clothes to dive in after Florence, they see Florence's dead body rise to the water's surface. Together the boys manage to pull Florence's body from the water. Almost automatically, Antonio says an Act of Contrition and crosses himself over Florence's body, even though Florence was a nonbeliever. It was an accident, and the boys had waited too long before attempting a rescue. Antonio feels sickened by the accident, and he runs away. He feels lonely and cries for his dead friend.

Analysis

Antonio continues to struggle with his spiritual identity. He feels the God of the Church has abandoned or rejected him as He does not communicate with or answer any of Antonio's questions. Antonio recognizes he's "searching for something, but sometimes ... didn't even know what [he] sought." He is seeking his identity within a spiritual belief system. Antonio is drawn more to Ultima than anything or anyone else; with her he feels "solace and peace."

A similar, and also exultant, feeling fills Antonio when he sees the golden carp. It fulfills his longing for a spiritual identity in ways the Church cannot. "Seeing [the golden carp] made questions and worries evaporate, and I remained transfixed, caught, and caressed by the essential elements of sky and earth and water." The golden carp helps Antonio identify with the spirits of the earth. Antonio's love of the golden carp may come, in part, from his father's love of the earth. Here again, there's the implication Antonio is trapped between the belief systems of his father (earth spirituality) and his mother (the Church).

Here the golden carp becomes a pure representation of goodness. It "accepts all magic that is good," "make[s] the world peaceful," and brings beauty into Antonio's life. Antonio imagines a new religion with the golden carp as its deity—the "beginning of adoration of something simple and pure." However, being in the presence of the golden carp seems to erase from Antonio's mind the dismay he felt when he learned the golden carp one day will drown the entire town because of its inhabitants' evil ways. Perhaps the golden carp is a good alternative to the Christian God, but it's not as good and peaceful as Antonio imagines in this scene. Yet its divine justice is far fairer and milder than that of the God of the Church.

Cico says unlike the wrathful and punishing God of the Church, the golden carp is not "a jealous god." This implies the golden carp accepts there are many deities in the world. In contrast, the God of the Church "does not accept competition" and would have His adherents kill the golden carp. Recall Florence was punished by the priest not for being late—Antonio was equally tardy—but for being an atheist. The God of the Church punishes those who challenge Him and His absolute authority. Recall, too, the boys beat Antonio for not punishing Florence. The Christian God demands punishment and punishes those who fail to righteously punish.

Despite his attraction to the golden carp and his doubts about the God of the Church, when Antonio finds Florence dead he immediately assumes the role of a priest. He says the Act of Contrition for his friend and makes the sign of the cross over him. It almost seems as if Antonio does this out of some innate urging, some deep priestly core impelling him to give Florence the Christian blessing for the dead even though Florence is a nonbeliever. The reader, like Antonio, remains uncertain exactly where Antonio's true spiritual identity lies. The reader might also consider whether Florence's death is purely accidental or if the author intended it as another example of God punishing a disbelieving soul.

Christian and magical spirituality collide when the curse on Téllez's house is lifted. The priest had come and blessed the house with holy water, which "no evil can withstand." When the priest's blessings fail to dislodge the spirits haunting the house, the man of God accuses Téllez of making the whole thing up. Antonio thinks, "Again the power of the priest has failed." He asks why God can't work His power against the evils besetting the Téllez family. Ultima's wisdom and good magic are equal to the task of appeasing the spirits. Her white magic, good spirituality that honors the burial traditions of the Comanche, is able to overcome black magic.

The lifting of the curse on Téllez's house is deeply enmeshed in tradition—the tradition and culture of the Comanche who lived in the area before they were displaced. By re-creating the spirits of the three lynched Comanche, one in each bundle, Ultima is able to free their spirits and lift the curse. The burning of the platform re-creates a traditional Comanche burial, or freeing of the spirit.

Tradition is also central to Ultima and Gabriel. As they drive to Téllez's house, Antonio thinks about their culture and traditions, which originate in Las Pasturas. For them "the greater immortality is in the freedom of man ... best nourished by the noble expanse of land." From these two Antonio learned "to love the magical beauty of the wide, free earth." Antonio realizes how different the vaquero culture is from his mother's culture, in which people are connected to the earth through planting but seek a "measure of safety and security" in their more sedate lives.

It's important to note, however, how different the vaquero tradition is in Antonio's dream. The dream-tradition is of Antonio's three brothers who are "driven to wander[ing]" by their father's blood and legacy. Rather than liberation and freedom, his brothers have found only weariness and exhaustion in their ceaseless wandering—caused by the "wild sea-blood in their veins"—their vaquero blood. They beg Antonio to free them from the vaquero tradition. They find peace only when Antonio feeds their livers to the carp in a sort of blood sacrifice. It's curious Antonio would think the holy carp requires such a sacrifice—as if to appease a divine judgment—before granting his brothers peace.

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