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Free Study Guide: Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya - Free BookNotes

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BLESS ME, ULTIMA: FREE LITERARY CRITICISM / CRITICAL ANALYSIS

CHAPTER 4

Summary

"There is a time in the last few days of summer when the ripeness of autumn fills the air, and time is quiet and mellow." Antonio lives that time fully. He becomes aware of a new world opening up to him. He walks with Ultima in the mornings in the hills of the llano and they gather wild herbs and roots for medicines. He carries a small shovel and she carries a gunny sack. When she sees a plant or root she needs she calls out about her luck in finding "la yerba del manso! (the gentle herb)." Then she leads Antonio to the plant and points out its qualities for him.

Ultima teaches Antonio that plants have a spirit. Before he can dig, he speaks to the plant and tells it why they are pulling it from its home. Ultima says and Antonio says after her "we lift you to make good medicine." Then Antonio carefully digs the plant out making sure the steel of the shovel does not touch the roots. The yerba del manso is the most magical plant they gather. It cures burns, sores, piles, colic, dysentery, and rheumatism. Antonio's mother often uses the plant herself. Ultima carefully lifts the plant and examines it by pinching a portion off and tasting it. She takes the same pinch and puts it into a bag which she has tied around her waist. The bag contains a pinch of all the plants she has ever gathered.


She tells Antonio that long ago before the train came to Las Pasturas and before the Lunas arrived in the valley, even before the great Coronado (one of the Spanish Conquistadors) built his bridge--, but before she finishes, Antonio's thoughts get lost in the puzzle of time and history he does not know. They walk on further and find some oregano, a cure for coughs and fever, but also a spice for beans and meat. They also find some oshá, a cure for everything: coughs, colds, cuts, bruises, rheumatism, and stomach aches. Antonio remembers his father's stories of sheepherders sprinkling oshá on their bedrolls to keep snakes away. Ultima had washed Antonio's face and feet with oshá the night of Lupito's death.

Ultima is happy out in the hills. Antonio recognizes a nobility in her walk. He watches her carefully and imitates her walk. When he does, he is not lost in the huge landscape. He realizes he is an important part of the llano and the river. Ultima cries out with joy when she comes upon a "tunas" (prickly pear). Antonio gathers them and they sit in the shade of poplars and eat them. The presence of the river watches over them. It makes Antonio wonder about Lupito's soul.

He tells Ultima he will soon go to visit his uncles in El Puerto. Ultima tells him she is old friends with his grandfather and that she lived in El Puerto years ago. He asks her why the Lunas are so strange and quiet while the Márezes are so loud. She tells him it is in the Lunas' blood to be quiet. She says only a quiet man can learn the earth's secrets for planting. The Lunas are quiet like the moon. She adds that it is in the Márez's blood to be wild like the ocean. After a while Antonio tells her they are near the llano and the river and that he loves both of them. He wonders which life he will choose. Ultima assures him he has plenty of time to decide.

They sit quietly and feel the wind. The silence speaks to them. He asks Ultima what it is and she says it is the presence of the river. Antonio thinks "the presence is immense, lifeless, yet throbbing with its secret message." He asks if it can speak and Ultima says it does if he listens carefully. He asks if she can speak to it and Ultima tells him he wants to know so much. As they talk, the presence leaves them. They head for home. Antonio knows Ultima did not answer his question because he was not yet ready to understand it. He is not afraid any longer of the presence of the river.

On their way home they find some manzanilla (chamomile). Ultima tells Antonio of how she treated his brother León when he was born. His mollera (the crown of his head) was sunken in and she cured him with manzanilla. She speaks further of the herbs and medicines they share with the Indians of the Rio del Norte (River of the North). She also speaks of the ancient medicines of other tribes, the Aztecas, Mayas, and those of the old country, the Moors. Antonio does not listen to her because he is thinking about his brothers.

When they arrive home, they dry the plants on the top of the chicken shed. Antonio knows Ultima has many plants she cannot gather in her region, but people who come to her for cures bring her herbs and roots from their area. She especially prizes plants from the mountains. When they finish placing the plants to dry, they go inside and eat delicious hot beans. María announces that it is time to help the Lunas with the harvest. Her brother Juan has sent word. The family visits the Lunas once a year to visit their grandfather and uncles and to help with the harvest. They bring María's share home with them. Juan has told María there is plenty of corn, red chile, and fruit. The Lunas' apples are famous in the state.

Antonio steps out of the kitchen and goes to Jasón's house where he plays all afternoon. Then Antonio goes to the river and cuts wild alfalfa for the rabbits' food on the days he is gone. Late afternoon brings his father home from work. After supper the family prays the rosary every day. They gather in the sala (room) where the altar is. María has a beautiful statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe. It is two feet high. She is dressed in a long, flowing blue gown, and she stands on the horned moon. At her feet are the winged heads of angels who are the babies of Limbo. She wears a crown because she is the queen of heaven. Antonio loves the Virgin more than anyone else.

Antonio has often heard the story of how the Virgin presented herself to a little Indian boy in Mexico. She had performed miracles there. María has told Antonio that the Virgin is the saint of their land. Antonio knows of many other saints, but loves the Virgin the most dearly. Antonio finds it hard to say the rosary because of the long time he is required to kneel. While his mother says the rosary, he keeps his eyes on the Virgin and imagines he is looking at "a real person, the mother of God, the last relief of all sinners."

Antonio knows God is not always forgiving. God makes laws to be followed. If people break them, they are punished. The Virgin, on the other hand, always forgives. Antonio knows God has power, but he also knows the Virgin is full of quiet, peaceful love.

María lights candles for the brown Madonna and they kneel. She says, "I believe in God the Father Almighty--" and Antonio thinks of how God created people and can also strike them dead. He thinks God moved the hands that killed Lupito. María continues, "Hail Mary, full of grace--" and Antonio thinks of how God is a giant man and Mary is a woman who can go to Him and ask Him to forgive people. She and her Son can persuade the powerful Father to change His mind.

On one of the Virgin's feet the plaster has chipped off to reveal the pure-white plaster underneath. Antonio thinks of it as "her soul without blemish." He knows the Virgin had been born without sin while the rest of humanity had been born in the sin of their fathers that Baptism and Confirmation began to wash away. He knows it is not until communion when the believers "finally took God into their mouths and swallowed Him" that they are free of sin and do not need to fear the punishment of hell. María and Ultima sing some prayers for the safe delivery of María's three sons. Antonio is made sad by the voices. When the prayers are over María kisses the feet of the Virgin and blows out the candles.

Antonio goes up to his room and hears Ultima's owl singing. He dreams of his mother calling to the Virgen de Guadalupe to bring her sons home. He hears a voice saying the sons will return safely. Then María asks that her fourth son be a priest. The Virgin stands on the bright, horned moon of autumn and she is in mourning for the fourth son. Antonio screams out "Mother of God!" and he feels Ultima's hand on his forehead. He sleeps.

Notes

Ultima teaches Antonio how the gather herbs and roots and she also teaches him the history of that medicine that she uses. Antonio is not always able to take in her lessons. After all, he is a child of seven and although he is a precocious child, he is still a child. Anaya nicely balances Antonio's mentoring by Ultima, his innocent seriousness in learning her ways, with Antonio's need to play. Ultima tells Antonio that her medicine comes from the Indians of several nations and she tells him of a the history of the land's conquest and the peoples who left their traditions there. She even mentions the Moors, who conquered Spain long before Spain conquered the New World. She also tells him of the presence of the river, but only within a certain limit. Antonio, the wise child, understands she only tells him what he is able to understand. He has learned her lesson that knowledge comes slowly.

Antonio's child's mind takes the family metaphor of God the father, Mary the mother, and Jesus the son literally. He prefers Mary who is kind and forgiving. Like many children, Antonio experiences an idea of God based on his idea of his own earthly father. Antonio's father is a good man, but is morose, distant, and dissatisfied with his life choices, blaming others for them. His mother, on the other hand, is warm and loving, ever-present, and devoted to her children.

Antonio's third dream foresees that his brothers will return home, but it also provides the disturbing image of the Virgin mourning for Antonio when María asks that he be a priest. It seems that already in the novel, the reader is aware that Antonio will not enter the priesthood.


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