Bless Me, Ultima | Study Guide

Rudolfo A. Anaya

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Bless Me, Ultima | Chapters 9–10 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 9 (Nueve)

Antonio has a dream in which three ominous figures (his brothers) beckon him to enter a brothel. Rosie opens the door and invites Antonio in. In the dream Antonio thinks of his mother's body and then says he will not enter the brothel because "I am to become a priest." His brothers say, "even priests are men," and insist one day Antonio will visit the brothel. Antonio cries out for his innocence. Ultima appears to him and says his innocence is in La Pasturas. Then she disappears, and Antonio wakes up.

Antonio's brothers are in the kitchen telling their parents they want to leave and live their own lives. Neither Maria nor Gabriel understands their decision. Maria weeps, saying, "You are forsaking me." Gabriel is stunned; this means there is no one left to go to California with him, so he must abandon his dream. Eugene says the brothers "are men now" and must do what men do.

The next morning Eugene and León are gone. Andrew has decided to stay because he's been offered a job at a local food market. Andrew tells Antonio he's thinking of finishing his schooling because "it's the guy with an education [who] gets ahead." He says whatever he becomes will be up to him, not his parents.

For some reason, all the kids in the area are "wait[ing] for the world to end" that year. They wondered how the end of the world would come—some said with fire, others with a flood. The day the world is supposed to end comes and goes—nothing happens. The year is notable for Antonio because he's learned to read and write. At the end of the school term the principal tells Antonio he's done so well he'll skip a grade and go into third grade next year. Antonio is happy, and his mother is proud.

The school year is over, and Antonio is looking forward to the freedom of summer. He sees some vatos (dudes) from the area race past in joy. Antonio walks along a goat path and up a hill. He meets Samuel and the Vitamin Kid, who have also passed their grade in school. Antonio and Samuel go fishing together at the river, called the River of the Carp. Despite its name, the locals know it's bad luck to fish for or eat the large carp in this river. Samuel tells Antonio why it's bad luck. His story is about the original people of the land. Their gods allowed them to have anything the land offered except the carp from the river. Yet during one years-long drought the people disobeyed the gods and ate the carp. The gods were so angry they wanted to kill the people. One kind god took pity on them because they had been starving. Instead of killing the people, the gods turned them into carp—the carp in this river. It is a sin to fish for or eat these carp because they are "part of the people," Samuel explains. So the boys fish for catfish.

Samuel asks Antonio if he knows about the golden carp. Antonio does not, so Samuel tells him about it. After the people had been turned into carp, one god felt very sorry for them. This god asked the other gods to turn him into a carp so he could help care for and protect the carp-people. The other gods agreed. They made him a king carp—very large and golden. He became the "lord of all the waters of the valley." The golden carp still lives in the river. Samuel promises Antonio he will see the golden carp with Cico one day during the summer. Then Samuel quickly disappears, and Antonio goes home. Antonio wonders if Ultima knows about the golden carp. Then his mother has the family pray.

Chapter 10 (Diez)

The story of the golden carp haunts Antonio's dreams, so every day he goes to the river to wait in case Cico shows up. Antonio also helps Ultima in the garden, planting herbs.

Gabriel is depressed because two of his sons have left. He starts drinking more than before. Maria, too, is unhappy because her brother Lucas, Antonio's tio (uncle), is ill. Rumor has it witches put a curse on him. Lucas has been sick for a long time, but no doctor has been able to cure him. Even the priest could not exorcise the demon curse. Antonio hears his parents talking about how Lucas had seen witches—Tenorio's three daughters—doing a Diablo (devil) dance during a Black Mass. Lucas had challenged them to "prepare to meet a Christian soul." The sisters tried to attack Lucas, but he made a cross out of two sticks and repelled them with it. Then the sisters put a curse on Lucas. The Luna brothers are desperate, and they come to ask Ultima to cure Lucas. Ultima agrees to go to Lucas if the uncles say they understand curing Lucas may alter the "chain of events" and set in motion unforeseeable things. The uncles say they understand and take responsibility for whatever alterations in fate Ultima's cure may bring. As she gets ready to visit Lucas, Ultima says, "Be ready Juan." Antonio is confused when Ultima refers to him by his middle name.

Ultima is ready to leave, and she insists Antonio accompany her because she "has need of him" if Lucas is to be cured. She tells Antonio the cure will be hard, but he says he doesn't mind. Antonio and Ultima travel to El Puerto de la Luna to heal Lucas. The town is quiet, as everyone is fearful of the terrible curse. Grandfather Prudencio comes out and Ultima greets him, saying she's there to cure Lucas. Prudencio offers her $40 to cheat la muerté (death). The brothers bring Ultima the things she will need for the healing.

Before the healing can begin, Ultima and Antonio go to see Tenorio at his saloon. Tenorio is "as ugly as his dark soul." Ultima says. Tenorio calls her a witch and crosses his fingers to ward her off. But Ultima is not a witch, so his sign of the cross does not bother her. That shocks Tenorio. Ultima asks Tenorio to tell his daughters to lift the curse on Lucas. Tenorio says Ultima is lying about his daughters. Ultima accuses the girls of collecting Lucas's hair clippings when he got a haircut and using the hair to work their black magic. Tenorio continues to threaten her, but Ultima says her great powers come from "el hombre volador" (the flying man)—a great healer from the region. Ultima tells Tenorio she will use powerful magic to cure Lucas; this magic "endures forever" and will have dire consequences for him and his daughters. Still Tenorio sneers at her. Ultima and Antonio leave the bar and return to Lucas.

A violent storm is brewing, and women pull their mantas (blankets) over their heads. Ultima and Antonio enter Lucas's small room, which smells of death. Ultima has Antonio build a fire as she lights incense. Ultima bathes Lucas and prepares her first remedy of herbs and roots. She murmurs incantations as she mixes the potion. As she forces Lucas to drink he chokes and moans in pain. Lucas sweats and shivers but finally seems to sleep. Ultima makes food for herself and Antonio because "it might be the last meal we will have for a few days." Antonio says he's not afraid, and Ultima says this is because "good is always stronger than evil." She explains Tenorio's daughters have turned away from God, which is why they now practice the dark arts.

Ultima makes more medicine and forces Lucas to drink it. Again, he moans and convulses. Antonio seems to experience the same pain as his uncle. Antonio hears an owl hooting outside and sees its "wise face ... at the window." Ultima comes into the room carrying some black clay. Lucas's fever has broken, and Ultima says, "we have beaten the death spirit," but Lucas still must "vomit the evil spirit." To this end Ultima prepares a different remedy, which she leaves to simmer over the fire. Then she begins to work the clay. She breaks the large chunk into three pieces and molds each piece into a doll-like shape. She covers the clay with melted wax and adds bits of cloth from her bag. Then she chants a spell and holds each doll to Lucas's mouth so he can breathe on it. Ultima sticks one pin into each doll before putting them aside.

Ultima forces Lucas to drink the new potion. Antonio falls asleep and when he wakes he sees Lucas is sleeping peacefully and breathing evenly. Ultima says Lucas will be fine; he has vomited most of the evil from his body. Just then Lucas awakes and starts screaming. Ultima holds him and cries, "Let the evil come out." Lucas vomits the last of the evil from his body, including the ball of hair Tenorio's daughters had used to curse him. Lucas is feeling better, and he is hungry: "He ate like a starved animal" and then he slept. Ultima is finished; she has cured Lucas.

Antonio and Ultima leave. As they get in Pedro's truck, Ultima asks him to take her to the grove where the witches danced. Pedro is reluctant but goes anyway. Pedro and Antonio wait in the truck as Ultima, carrying a sack with the hair ball, dirty linen, and other items, walks into the witches' grove. Ultima burns the sack and its contents in the grove. The scent of sulfur fills the air, and Pedro crosses himself. Ultima returns to the truck, and Pedro drives her and Antonio home.

Analysis

Antonio's dream conveys his concern about sin and innocence. Despite his protestations that he is to be a priest, his dream-brothers laughingly insist he will be a man too and as sinful as they are. Only dream-Ultima tells Antonio his innocence can be protected in the fertile lands of Las Pasturas. This might be a case of Ultima predicting Antonio's future, but Antonio is still a young boy and unfamiliar with the desires that will challenge his innocence.

The dream also brings up the complex issue of knowledge, which is related to sin. Antonio's youth and lack of worldly experience, as well as his youth, make it impossible for him to truly understand the relationship between experience (being a grown man) and innocence. He is still convinced the Christian notions of sin are absolute, so growing up and tasting forbidden fruits—such as those on offer at Rosie's—must be denied. In his dream Antonio identifies himself with innocence and the Church.

Antonio's brothers break their parents' hearts when they identify as grown men who seek their own destiny far from their childhood home. "We just want to live our own lives," León tells his parents. "We are men now." By the next morning they've acted on their new identity and disappeared from home.

Antonio has mixed feelings about how growing up will change his identity. He understands experience changes one's identity, as the war changed the identity of his brothers. Andrew tells him, "Just don't grow up too fast" (as he and his other brothers had to do in the war), because then he may not be able to moderate the changes taking place in him. Antonio "yearn[s] for knowledge and understanding" about the world and his destiny. He admits that it was hard to grow up.

Antonio's notions of innocence and knowledge may reflect on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Like Eve, Antonio seeks knowledge even though it is forbidden and sinful. The same Bible story may be referenced in the tale of the golden carp. In that story the people eat the carp—the one thing they have been forbidden to do. They are cursed and turned into carp, but one merciful and forgiving god sacrifices himself to care for them. This god becomes the golden carp, a symbol of divine forgiveness and compassion. The people might have sinned, but they also found a type of redemption through the merciful justice of the god/golden carp. Adam and Eve were not so lucky. They sinned against a vengeful God whose punishment was irreversible. Because they sinned by seeking knowledge of good and evil (of life), their God punished them forever. The golden carp forces Antonio to reevaluate his ideas of divine justice, as well as to question the true identity of god/God.

The story of the golden carp impresses Antonio because it tells of a forgiving and compassionate god very unlike the wrathful, punishing God of the Christian Old Testament. Yet the very existence of the golden carp forces Antonio to reconsider the whole idea of what God means and is. Antonio realizes the golden carp is a deity in the same way as the Christian God is a deity, and wonders, "Is the golden carp a new god?" If so, then "who was the man on the cross? [Who was] the Virgin?" Antonio's questions about the nature and truth of the divine indicate he may have serious doubts about his identity and his future in the priesthood. It also suggests he is opening to the reality of the supernatural, likely because of Ultima's influence on him. Thus the golden carp also challenges Antonio's sense of identity: is he a good Christian boy destined to become a priest or is he an explorer in the world of the supernatural whose destiny lies—where?

Throughout the summer Antonio is haunted by the golden carp. His obsession with this deity likely reflects his growing attraction to the supernatural. Antonio seeks knowledge of the golden carp for spiritual reasons. Yet Antonio engages in the flip side of the supernatural—magic—when Ultima needs him to help her heal Lucas. Antonio is revealed to be highly sensitive to magic, a different face of the supernatural. During Lucas's healing, Antonio comes to feel everything Lucas feels. At one point Antonio reports he and his tormented uncle "dissolved into each other" and "shared a common struggle against the evil within." Clearly Antonio has a visceral as well as a spiritual connection with supernatural forces and magic.

Antonio's Uncle Lucas has fallen victim to black magic, the dark underbelly of the supernatural. In Lucas's healing, Ultima's good supernatural powers are pitted against the black magic of the Trementina witches. Lucas's healing reveals the supernatural less as a form of spiritual enlightenment or cosmic connection than as a battle between white and black magic, good and evil. Ultima's cure involves the physical removal from Lucas's body of "an evil spirit." Ultima's shaping of the three clay dolls into which she sticks pins harkens back to Uncle Pedro's remark that Tenorio's wife (also a witch) had used "clay dolls and prick[ed] them with needles" to sicken and even kill her victims. Ultima is not a witch—as proved by her immunity to a crucifix—but she has much in common with her evil adversaries, at least in terms of how she prepares her magic.

When Ultima takes the money from the Lunas in payment for healing Lucas she says, "Perhaps someday the men of El Puerto will save my life." This statement may foreshadow events to come later in the novel.

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