Summary and Analysis
The following morning, Latour and Jacinto head off across the flat sand, out of which rise rock mesas, each with an accompanying cloud formation. They eventually see the Acoma and Enchanted mesas. Jacinto tells Latour of the Enchanted Mesa. A village had once existed there, where Indians protected themselves from other Indians. The stairway leading to the mesa, however, had washed away in a storm, leaving the Indians to starve to death. The mesa had been invaded successfully only once, when Spaniards wearing armor attacked.
Latour ponders that the mesa meant to the Indians what the Catholic church means to its followers: "hope of all suffering and tormented creatures@ — safety." He compares the mesa to Christ's disciple Peter, who is the rock upon whom the Catholic Church is built. He ponders further that the Israelites of the Old Testament considered "their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them." For the Indians, the rock is a literal sanctuary. For Catholics and Jews, sanctuary is to be found in spiritual faith.
Latour and Jacinto come to the base of the Acoma mesa. They see shelter from a storm under a ledge. The ledge vegetation includes Easter lilies and noxious datura, a poisonous species of nightshade. The lilies represent the goodness of the people of New Mexico, and the datura represents the corruption that Latour will need to defeat. This corruption is embodied by Gallegos thus far in the story, but Latour's run-ins with Fathers Martinez and Lucero and his hearing of the story of Friar Baltazar Montoya are also foreshadowed. Latour notes to himself that the storm blowing over the landscape with sunlight visible in the distance is what Creation might have looked like.
Latour celebrates Mass in the old Acoma church, but he feels as though he is ministering to prehistoric creatures. After Mass, he examines the church and wonders how and why it was built so expansively. Everything in the church had to be done by hand, and the size of the timbers meant that they had to be brought at great hardship from forty or fifty miles away. The only growth on the mesa is two half-dead peach trees and some offshoots of old vines. He recognizes that the church had been built by a priest who "was not altogether innocent of worldly ambition." On the way back to Santa Fe, Latour is told the story of Acoma by Father Jesus.
The description of the New Mexico landscape is a metaphor for the religious development of the people who live there. Cather writes that the
mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into landscape."
The same could be said of the Indians and Mexicans of the territory from the nineteenth-century viewpoint of a Catholic missionary. They are ancient people, consisting of the materials for fully developed human beings, but lack the unifying, completing principal of Christian spirituality. God has provided the materials in New Mexico for Latour to complete. This is underscored when Latour perceives the Indians at Acoma as antediluvian creatures, ancient rock-turtles.
antediluvian of the time before the Biblical Flood.
cisterns a large receptacle for storing water; especially, a tank, usually underground, in which rainwater is collected for use.
cloister a place of religious seclusion; monastery or convent.
loggia an arcaded or roofed gallery built into or projecting from the side of a building, especially one overlooking an open court.
nave that part of the church that is between the side aisles and extends from the chancel to the principal entrance, forming the main part of the building.
noxious datura a poisonous and rank-smelling species of nightshade.