Summary and Analysis
Part 1: 25-Jul
This chapter takes place on the feast of Santiago, or Saint James. The narrator reflects primarily the point of view of Father Olguin, with some elements narrated from Angela's point of view.
The chapter opens with a folk tale about Santiago. The story is attributed to Father Olguin, but it is not clear whether the priest is telling the story to someone or has written it down. According to the story, Santiago is a knight disguised as a peasant and is riding south from the Rio Grande valley into Mexico. He accepts the hospitality of a poor couple, who kill their only rooster for his supper and give him their only bed. When he reaches a royal city, he wins the hand of one of the king's daughters in a tournament, but the king, angry that a peon should marry his daughter, plots against the knight. The old couple's rooster emerges from the saint's mouth, warns him of danger, and gives him a spur; Santiago then defeats his enemies with a magic sword. At the end of his journey back north (back to Jemez pueblo), Santiago sacrifices his horse and rooster; from the horse's blood have come the horse herds of the Pueblo people, and the rooster's blood and feathers have been transformed into all the cultivated plants and domestic animals that the people use.
Following the tale, the narrator describes the hot, still afternoon. As Father Olguin and Angela walk from the priest's house to the ceremonial plaza, they pass an elderly man solemnly combing his long hair. The priest stops to chat, and Angela moves forward, aware of the increasing volume of the drumming and the sound of people congregating, singing, and talking. She breathes in the pungent smells of the animals and plants of the village. Finally, Angela and Father Olguin reach the Middle, an ancient dance ground like a shallow dish at the center of the village, and wait for the ceremony. Angela becomes caught up in the sound of the drumming on a nearby rooftop; it sounds to her like thunder.
Some fifteen or sixteen mounted men and boys enter the Middle; Abel is one of them, but he is ill at ease and awkward. Another rider is an albino man, wearing small dark glasses and riding a spirited black horse. The mounted men line up and take turns riding past and trying to grab a rooster that has been partially buried in sand. Abel fails, and Angela, watching, silently scorns his attempt; she is nearly overcome by the sensuous event but smiles deceptively at Abel as he passes.
The albino succeeds in grabbing the rooster. He rides back to the men, pausing briefly in front of Angela, where she takes note of his consummate ugliness. Back with the other men, he carefully decides upon Abel for part of the ceremonial game. The albino then stations his horse so skillfully that Abel has no choice: He must passively submit to being the albino's blood-lashed victim. The albino beats Abel with the rooster until it dies and its remains are scattered on the ground. Afterward, women complete the sacrifice by throwing water on the fragments. Angela is drained by the sensory and emotional extremes that she has experienced; the narrator compares her feelings with her first experience of sex, which had also been associated with sacrifice and an emptying of feeling.
The narrator then begins to follow Father Olguin, who returns to his rectory, changes into an old pair of pants and sweatshirt, makes a pot of coffee, smokes a few cigarettes, and starts to page through a worn, handwritten leather book. It is the diary of a priest named Fray Nicolás, and excerpts from this diary, from the years 1874, 1875, and 1888, follow in the text.
In the first entry, dated 16 November, Nicolás mentions his ill health: The symptoms appear to be of tuberculosis. He also reflects on the mischief of Viviano and Francisco, the altar boys who assist at services. Most of his diary entries are addressed to God. His language is reminiscent of early modern English, resembling the style of prose writers of the seventeenth century, like the colonial English diarists Samuel Sewall and Cotton Mather. The next entry, for 17 November, is a brief paraphrase of biblical verses. The following entry, for 19 November, mentions his worsening illness and a visit to a dying woman, Tomacita Fragua. The entry for 22 November describes funeral services for Tomacita, carried out with traditional offerings of pollen and feathers, a custom that the priest abhors. Later, the priest suffers debilitating symptoms and a nightmare. The entry for 12 December follows; it is only a couple of sentences commending Viviano and Francisco.
Another entry — this one written on Christmas Day — describes a Christmas Mass. Evidently the woodcarver who was to provide a statue of the infant Jesus did not complete his work, and an image of the Infant of Prague was used in its place. The priest names a number of people who took part in a living crèche and then records that he gave the statue to a man named Domingo Gachupin to keep in his house for two weeks. As he is writing, he notes that he hears the drums and chanting of the Indian celebration.
One entry from 1875 follows, dated 5 January. Fray Nicolás first recalls celebrating the feast of the Circumcision (January 1) and then visiting the tiny settlement of Cuba, where he ministered to several persons. Returning to Jemez, he heard about the birth of an albino child; after visiting the family, he advised immediate baptism of the sickly looking infant. His own physical condition continues to deteriorate. After this passage, the narrator intervenes to explain that many of the following pages in the diary consist of sermons and religious texts.
Father Olguin then turns to a letter written by Fray Nicolás and dated 17 October, 1888. The text of the letter, addressed to Nicolás' brother J.M., first thanks the recipient for sending some books, then describes his worsening health, interspersing edifying comments on the inevitability of death. Then Nicolás complains that Francisco, his sacristan, continues to perform indigenous religious rites, which the priest regards as satanic. The priest is convinced that Francisco has impregnated a woman called Porcingula Pecos. The rambling letter then turns to an incident from Francisco's childhood, when he was hauled out of a freezing river and had to remain naked by the priest's fire while his clothes dried. The tone changes in the next paragraph as the priest complains querulously of his deprivations and mistreatment, suspecting his brother's wife of malicious gossiping about him. The last two paragraphs concentrate on his conviction of his closeness to God, stress his satisfaction in penitential suffering, and end with blessings for his brother.
After reading the letter, Father Olguin closes the book, satisfied to have vicariously participated in the holiness that he sees in Fray Nicolás. The narrator describes Olguin's inability to close his malformed eye.
The narration then returns to Angela's point of view. As she returns to the Benevides house, she sees it as part of the natural landscape; no longer a mere temporary stopping place, it will be, she believes, the scene of some secret exercise of her power.
peon peasant; fieldworker.
train a knight's retinue of squires, servants, and so on.
Pueblo people The Pueblo people are those Indians of the Rio Grande valley and other Southwestern sites who have traditionally lived in permanent villages of multi-story, multi-family condominium-type buildings constructed of adobe bricks, stone, and wood.
rectory the house of a priest or minister.
Middle the central ceremonial plaza of the village. The word also suggests the center of the world, as the Middle represents the place where, in the Native creation story, the first people, the Vigas, emerged from their journey up through the underground worlds.
white-skinned an albino. There is a relatively high incidence of albinism at Jemez pueblo.
centaur a creature of Greek mythology that has the head and torso of a man and the four legs and hind quarters of a horse.
chert a kind of quartz.
said his office the daily prayer prescribed for priests; the office changes each day in observance of the saint's feast and seasonal ceremonies.
Fray Spanish for "friar," a member of a mendicant, or begging, religious order.
soutane the black robe worn as an everyday uniform by Catholic priests at the time; it is often called a cassock.
María bear-HEE-nay et OMO FATUOUS A mispronunciation of the Latin "María Virgine et homo factus," which translates as "[Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the] Virgin Mary and made man." Fray Nicolás is characterized as punning in English, although presumably his diary is written in Spanish.
cassock a long black or red one-piece garment worn by priests and assistants at Mass, usually under a white pinafore, called a surplice.
Campo Santo "Sacred Ground," in Spanish; a cemetery.
War Captain a title belonging to the head of one of the traditional religious societies.
Nativity a religious name for Christmas, the feast of the birth or nativity of Jesus.
Sia one of the Pueblo nations near Jemez.
Don De Lay O a punning reference to the woodcarver who did not finish the statue of the infant Jesus on time.
Thy Mother Fray Nicolás refers to the statue of the Virgin Mary, which was completed by the woodcarver.
His Excellency's Conquistadora The reference is obscure. His Excellency could be the territorial governor (the diary is being written when New Mexico was a territory) or an earlier colonial governor. The Conquistadora probably refers to a statue of the Virgin. The "reconquest" of New Mexico by the Spanish after the Pueblo revolt of 1680 is celebrated annually with religious processions carrying statues of the Virgin and saints.
Blessed Infant of Prague Its origin shrouded in legend, it is a small wax statue of the infant Jesus, carried to Prague in the sixteenth century by a Spanish princess at her marriage. The original statue (as well as copies of it) can be dressed and undressed and has a rich wardrobe including jeweled crowns; it is venerated by many Catholics worldwide.
Epiphany a feast celebrated on January 6, commemorating the revelation of the infant Jesus to the three Magi, or Wise Men; it is also called Little Christmas.
Thy Patrons Little One Fray Nicolás is addressing the Infant, urging him to remember those devoted to him.
Circumcision On January 1, the Catholic church commemorates the circumcision of Jesus according to Jewish custom.
Cuba a small town near Jemez.
Tío the word means "uncle" in Spanish; evidently Fray Nicolás' horse is named Tío.
Lazarus The story of Lazarus and Dives is found in the New Testament; Lazarus, a beggar, is welcomed in heaven while the selfish rich man, Dives, is kept away.
Cor. I I Corinthians, one of the epistles of Saint Paul.
Sinister Angel a messenger or bringer of death.
Serpent According to Fray Nicolás, this is Satan, or the devil. Some kiva ceremonies, however, honor the plumed serpent that is associated with underground water sources and is believed to be a bringer of rain.
paten a small metal saucer that holds the wafer to be consecrated at Mass.
Host the consecrated wafer.