Ultima comes to stay with Antonio's family in the summer of his seventh year. "When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth." The magical time of childhood stops for Antonio. The mystery of the earth's pulse enters into Antonio's own blood. When Ultima takes his hand, "the magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun's home." As Antonio walks barefoot, he feels the earth's throb. "Time stood still, and it shared with me all that had been, and all that was to come."
Antonio begins his story in the beginning. He does not mean the beginning of his dreams from which he learned the story of his birth and the people to whom his father and mother belong, and the story of his three brothers. He means the beginning of Ultima.
Antonio sleeps in the attic of his home. He sleeps in one room and his two sisters, Deborah and Theresa, sleep in the other. The steps from the attic lead to the kitchen. Antonio's mother's kitchen is the heart of the home. From his place on the top of the stairs, Antonio would see Chavez bring the news of the sheriff's murder. He would see his brothers rebel against his father. He would frequently see Ultima return from the llano where she had been gathering herbs that had to be harvested in the full moon by a curandera.
On the night before Ultima's arrival, Antonio hears his parents speak of her as he lies in bed. His father speaks of her with great respect. He says she has always served the people of Las Pasturas, the village of his home. Antonio's father has been a vaquero all his life. The vaqueros date back to the time of the Spanish conquest of New Mexico. Antonio's father stayed on even after the big ranchers and the European-American Texans came to fence the llano (the grasslands). His father and other vaqueros (cowboys) feel free out on the llano. When Antonio's father says Ultima is now alone, his mother says it is a pity that she should be so.
Antonio imagines what his mother must be thinking when she pictures Ultima living alone on the llano. Antonio's mother is not from the llano. She is the daughter of a farmer and she cannot see the llano's beauty and cannot understand the vaqueros. After Antonio's birth, his mother convinced his father to leave Las Pasturas and move to the town of Guadalupe so that the children could go to school. His father lost the respect of his fellow vaqueros when he did so. His father had to sell his small herd and give his horse to his friend Benito Campos. His horse refused to be penned up, so Campos let it run free. It would not allow any vaquero to rope it.
Antonio's father sees less and less of his vaquero friends. He works on the highway and when he gets paid on Saturdays, he drinks at the Longhorn bar. He never forms a strong attachment to the men in town. On some occasions, the llaneros (the men of the llano or grassland) would come to town for supplies and visit Antonio's father, men like Bonney or Campos or the Gonzales brothers. Antonio could see a difference in his father. He would brighten up as he and the men talked and told the old stories. However, when the men left, Antonio's father drank alone. He would wake on Sunday mornings hung over and annoyed at having to go to early mass.
Antonio's father talks about Ultima. She says Ultima has served the people all her life. Now the people are scattered by the war. It takes boys oversees and families move to California for work. Antonio's mother calls on MarÃa PurÃsima (the Virgin Mary) and says they cannot let la Grande (a term respect for an old and wise person) live alone in her old age. She tells her husband about the first years of their marriage when she went to live with him. She says she could not have survived without la Grande's help. She thinks of them as hard years. Her husband counters her and says they were good years. She thinks of how Ultima helped every family when needed. Nothing would keep Ultima from doing her curing work for the people. She tells of Ultima's help at her own child labor. When she tells her husband, Gabriel, that they cannot let her live her last days alone, he agrees and says it is "not the way of our people." She says it will be a great honor to provide la Grande a home. Antonio explains that his mother calls Ultima la Grande as a term of respect. It means she is old and wise. Gabriel tells her he has already sent word with Campos that Ultima will come to live with them.
Gabriel asks his wife about how the children will fare with a curandera living in their home. Antonio explains that a curandera is a woman who knows the herbs and remedies of the ancients. She is a miracle worker who can heal the sick. Antonio had heard that Ultima was able to lift the curses of the brujas. Ultima could exorcise the evil planted in people by the brujas and make them well. Because of her power, the curandera was often suspected of practicing witchcraft. Antonio shudders with fear at the thought of brujas, the stories of whom he has heard in cuentos (stories). Antonio's mother replies to his father's question about bringing a curandera into the household. She says a woman who brought her children into the world can only be good. Gabriel tells her he will drive to pick up Ultima in the morning.
Antonio is pleased with his parents' decision. He knows it is customary to provide for the old and sick. "There was always room in the safety and warmth of la familia (the family) for one more person." Antonio lies awake and repeats the Hail Mary over and over. He drifts into a dream. He remembers telling his mother about his dreams one time. She was happy and told him they were visions from God. His mother wants him to become a priest one day. After that point, Antonio never told his mother of his dreams any more.
He has a dream in which he flies over the hills of the llano until he comes to a village of adobe huts. It is the village of Las Pasturas. He moves toward a hut with a light in the window. A birth is taking place. He cannot see the mother's face, but he sees the old woman who tends to the baby. He sees her tie the umbilical cord and bite off the loose end. She wraps the baby and lays it beside the mother. Then she cleans the bed and wraps the cord and afterbirth and lays them at the feet of the Virgin on an altar. People are invited into the room to deliver gifts to the baby.
Antonio recognizes his mother's brothers from El Puerto de Los Lunas entering the room. The old man pronounces that the baby will be a farmer and keep the Lunas' customs and traditions. They hope the baby will become a priest. They rub earth from the river valley on the baby's forehead and place items from their harvest around the baby. Then the vaqueros burst into the room with shouting and gunshots. They call out to Gabriel that he has a fine son who will become a fine vaquero. They smash the fruit and vegetables and place a saddle, horse blankets, whiskey, rope, and a guitar. They rub the earth off the baby's forehead "because a man was not to be tied to the earth but free upon it." Antonio recognizes these as his father's people who live their lives "wandering across the ocean of the plain."
The old man of the Lunas announces that he must return home. He says he must
take the afterbirth to bury in the fields to renew their fertility and
to make sure the baby follows the Lunas' way of life. The llaneros protest
that they want to take the afterbirth to be burned and the ashes scattered
on the llano. The farmers view it as "blasphemy to scatter a man's
blood on unholy ground." They insist the child is a Luna. The vaqueros
insist he is a MÃ¡rez, whose forefathers were conquistadors (Spanish
conquerors). Finally, the old woman stops the fight by saying she will
bury the baby's afterbirth and the cord "that once linked him to
eternity." She says only she will know the child's destiny.