Summary and Analysis
Part 4: 27-Feb
This chapter opens a week after Abel has returned to Walatowa and a month after his terrible beating in Los Angeles. The narration, in the voice of the omniscient narrator, picks up this part of the story at the point in the novel when we encountered Francisco in the first section — along the river. The poetic description here paints a midwinter scene, emphasizing the darkness of the water, the blanketing snow, and the lack of color in landscape and sky. The language evokes a world that is undifferentiated, silent and bare, lacking outline and definition. Like earlier chapters, this one is composed of short passages, which are set off by white space; they move across different time periods and points of view.
In the second of these brief sections, the narration moves to Father Olguin; he is at home in his rectory. The narrator describes the priest as having come to terms with his alienation and exclusion from the village and having arrived at a state of calm resignation and inner peace. His earlier eagerness has been tamed, and he believes the change has been brought about through his own efforts. The priest still occasionally consults the diary of his predecessor, Fray Nicolás.
The next section describes Abel as he watches beside the bedside of his dying grandfather. Abel has been faithful to this observance for most of the week, although he had gone out and got drunk after first arriving. As Abel sits by Francisco's bedside, the old man drifts in and out of a coma. Francisco talks and sings, but his speech becomes more and more disjointed — garbling English, Spanish, and Towan as he recalls random events from the past. His inclusion of the name "Mariano" and references to running suggest that the old man is remembering the same event that he had recalled in the first part of the book, his win over Mariano in the ceremonial dawn race. Listening to his grandfather in the small, dark room, Abel feels despair and confinement; he recalls that this is the room where he was born and where his mother and brother died. Abel is also in physical pain from his injuries and his drinking; all he is able to do is to make a fire to keep the chill off the room and to moisten his grandfather's dry mouth. He dozes throughout the night. Towards dawn of each morning, Francisco has spoken, and Abel now hears the old man begin to speak in this dawn.
The next six sections appear to represent Francisco's six dawn speeches. However, the italicized sections are presented as stream of consciousness rather than as oral speech. Note that the narrator continues in third person as Francisco's stream of memories is represented.
In the first of the six sections, the old man remembers taking his grandsons at first light to the cemetery southwest of the village center. His purpose was to instruct the boys in the practical and sacred lore of traditional astronomy. He had pointed out the place where the sun rose at the solstice and also the sunrise points that marked the days for particular events; these events would include ceremonial dances, like the July festival that had been a tragic turning point in Abel's life, and the day for clearing the irrigation ditches in preparation for the spring rains. Francisco had spoken with care, aware of how fragile tradition is, how easily some small piece of knowledge may be lost forever. He wanted to be sure that his grandsons knew the importance of this knowledge that he was giving them, and that they felt the rhythms of the earth in their souls.
The second of Francisco's recollections moves further into the past. He remembers riding out as a young man and, after climbing a sheer cliff face, coming upon a cave with remains of the Anasazi, the ancient inhabitants of the Southwest. He had noted in particular a beautiful, thin-walled pottery bowl, miraculously intact despite the intervening centuries. His reverie continues with a ride on up the mountain, farther into a profound and vibrant wildness, where he takes note of the tracks of many different animals, and where the animals take note of him. He had made camp and was awakened by the agitation of his horses; his camp was encircled by wolves, who watched him with grave curiosity and wonder. The young man had raised his gun, then lowered it in salutation to the animals. It seems that he had been hunting a bear. With the dawn, he had continued tracking the bear, picking up its trail ever more clearly until finally, in a small clearing, he confronted the animal. He had shot the bear cleanly and quickly butchered the carcass, taking care to make the proper offerings. On the return trip, the young hunter had trained his colt to conquer fear of the bear's scent, riding it while the experienced hunting horse carried the bear's carcass. Upon his return to the village, he had been welcomed as a hunter come of age, sharing his bounty with the community.
The third of Francisco's reveries carries him back to an affair with a beautiful young woman. His lover appears to have been the daughter of the old Pecos woman who was referred to earlier in the book, named for her facial hair and suspected of being a witch. The dying man recollects in vivid specificity the details of their lovemaking. He also recalls that his lover had reminded him of his position as apprentice sacristan and of the rumor that he, Francisco, was the son of the village priest, Fray Nicolás. The woman had carried his child, increasing in beauty as her pregnancy progressed. However, the child was stillborn, and Francisco had turned away from the woman.
The fourth memory, like the first two, takes Francisco back to an event of dawn and sunrise. The brief passage relates how he had taken his grandsons, when they were still young children, to the edge of an overlook where, just as the sun rose, they could hear the sound of the dawn runners, the men running the race of the dead, the race that Abel is running at the beginning and end of the story.
Francisco's fifth memory, like the recollection of the bear hunt, brings to mind the successful completion of an action carried out according to ritual prescription and his passage into a place of new status in the community. He had been the drum bearer for the squash clan in one of the ceremonials. Apprehensive at first, conscious of the scrutiny of the people, he had soon lost himself in the hypnotic rhythms of the singing and drumming. At a certain point in the procession, he had to change to a new drum. The change had gone as smoothly as handing off the baton in a relay race, and the old man's memory lingers on the perfection of the moment and the admiration of the people. After that demonstration, he had been respected as a voice in the clan and had begun to be a healer.
The last of these recollections is very brief and ends the chapter. Francisco recalls a time when he ran foolishly, competing with a runner, going at the wrong pace instead of husbanding his strength. He reexperiences the sensation of bursting lungs and of continuing to run beyond the pain and exhaustion that he felt. There is the implication that this evocation of the sensation of shortness of breath corresponds with the old man's expiring breaths.
rectory a priest's house; it belongs to the church.
kethá ahme I'm a little bit of something (Jemez).
frío cold (Spanish).
se dío por . . . much, mucho frío It's very, very cold (Spanish).
que blanco . . . diablo blanco how white . . . white devil (Spanish).
Sawish witch (Jemez).
y el hombre negro . . . muchos hombres negros . . . corriendo, corriendo . . . rápidamente and the black man . . . many black men . . . running, running . . . fast (Spanish).
yempah! What are you doing? (Jemez).
igneous rock that has been molten.
peneplain land worn down by erosion.
Ándale, muchacho! Hurry up, boy! (Spanish).
Arroyo Bajo An arroyo is a dry wash or gully; Arroyo Bajo is a place name specific to Walatowa.
Vallecitos little valleys (Spanish); a place name in New Mexico.
scarlet pods dried red chili peppers hanging from the beams of the adobe houses.
squash clan one of the priestly societies charged with conducting ceremonials.
queue a single braid of hair.