The orange of the golden carp appeared at the edge of the pond. As he came out of the darkness of the pond the sun caught his shiny scales and the light reflected orange and yellow and red.
When María’s youngest brother, Lucas Luna, is near death that summer after having fallen ill the previous winter, neither a Las Vegas doctor nor the local priest can cure him. When Pedro, Lucas’s brother, asks for Ultima’s help, he explains that Lucas saw the daughters of Tenorio Trementina dancing the Black Mass, a blasphemous satanic ritual. When Lucas challenged them with a cross made from two sticks, they fled the scene. Within the week, Lucas fell ill.
Ultima says that she will need Antonio’s help to cure Lucas. Antonio states that he will be proud to assist a curandera. As they approach El Puerto, they see the horned day moon, the moon of the Lunas, between two dark mesas at the end of the valley. When Ultima arrives in El Puerto, she forbids the Lunas to kill the coyotes that will surround Prudencio’s home when she works her cure. When Ultima takes Antonio to confront Tenorio to warn him that his daughters must lift the curse or suffer the consequences, Tenorio makes the sign of the cross. Ultima declares that his daughters gathered Lucas’s hair for their curse after he came to Tenorio for a haircut. Tenorio denies her accusations and calls her a bruja, or witch.
Ultima closes herself and Antonio in Lucas’s room. After she forces a mixture of kerosene, water, and herbs down Lucas’s throat, she asks Antonio if he is afraid, and Antonio says that he is not. She explains that the reason for his courage is that good is always stronger than evil. Antonio hears Ultima’s owl attacking the coyotes surrounding Prudencio’s home. Antonio enters a trance and finds that he cannot move or speak. When Lucas writhes in pain, Antonio feels pain as well. Ultima makes three clay dolls covered with wax and forces Lucas to take more medicine. Afterward, Antonio drifts to sleep. When he wakes, he vomits green bile. Ultima catches it in rags that she stores in a bag. Afterward, Antonio is able to keep down some atole, a gruel made of corn meal. Lucas screams in pain, vomiting a squirming mass of hair. When Lucas successfully eats a bowl of atole, Ultima declares the cure finished. The house fills with happy people, but some whisper the words bruja and hechicera (meaning “witch” or “sorceress”). Ultima burns the mass of hair and dirty linen in the grove where Lucas challenged Tenorio’s daughters.
Cico offers to take Antonio to see the golden carp. After confirming that Antonio has never fished for a carp, Cico asks Antonio if he believes the golden carp is a god. Crestfallen, Antonio replies that he cannot believe in any god except the god of his church because he is a Catholic. At Cico’s request, Antonio swears by the cross that he will never hunt or kill a carp. Afterward, Cico and Antonio visit Narciso’s garden, where they eat carrots. Cico explains that Narciso’s magic and an underground spring make the garden so lush. Narciso plants by the light of the moon.
Antonio’s group of friends invites Antonio and Cico to play ball. Ernie claims that there is a witch living in Antonio’s house. Horse asks Antonio to do a magic trick for them. Angry at Ernie’s taunting, Antonio agrees. He vomits the carrot juice on the ground, frightening his friends. Cico and Antonio run to a hidden pond where the huge, beautiful golden carp makes its appearance. Cico explains that the carp lives in the Hidden Lakes, a place with a strange power like the presence of the river, but stronger and hungrier. A mermaid lives there, trying to lure men to their deaths. Cico warns Antonio never to go there alone.
Cico explains that the golden carp prophesied that the weight of people’s sin would cause the land to sink and be swallowed by the underground lake beneath it. When Antonio replies that it is not fair to the men who don’t sin, Cico tells him that all men sin. The story saddens Antonio, and he feels burdened by the knowledge. When he returns home, he learns that Ultima already knows about the golden carp. She tells Antonio that he must find his own truths in adulthood. That night Antonio dreams about the conflicting beliefs he has encountered, as well as the conflict between his parents’ wishes for him. Ultima tells Antonio and his parents that the water of the moon and the sea are the same water and that each family member is part of the same cycle.
Antonio’s friendship with Samuel initiates Antonio’s awareness of the conflicts in his own religion. The El Puerto priest’s inability to cure Lucas increases Antonio’s doubts. When Ultima successfully cures Lucas, Antonio comes to realize that Ultima’s spirituality is both valid and separate from the Catholic Church. Antonio’s realization that the church does not have the same kind of power as Ultima suggests to him that no single way of interpreting the world can ever comprehend everything; life requires a commingling of different perspectives, explanations, and beliefs.
In various ways, Anaya symbolically links Antonio’s character to the power of healing, showing that Antonio himself may possess some of the spirituality that he admires in Ultima. Mexican folklore traditionally associates Antonio’s middle name, Juan, with mystical powers. People who are named Juan are said to have special powers to resist witchcraft. Anaya offers us a vivid description of Ultima’s cure, but he does not explain her power. Her power is mysterious—recognizing and honoring its existence is a matter of faith and spirituality.
Part of Ultima’s authority in the community and in Antonio’s family comes from the fact that even though she is not a member of the Catholic Church, she rigorously follows a philosophy that highly values harmony and free will. She continually contrives to show Antonio how his radically different heritages can coexist harmoniously within him. When she asks Antonio to take part in the cure, for instance, she does so because she knows that he will incur a social cost for helping her, and she wants him to understand what is at stake. This respectful treatment indicates that Ultima believes that Antonio is ready to make independent decisions and accept consequences, the hallmark of adulthood.
Antonio’s friends represent the collective social voice, as many people in the community feel that Ultima’s cure is witchcraft. Although Antonio maintains his individuality, he still has to deal with social prejudice. Ernie’s mean-spirited teasing is Antonio’s first real taste of this phenomenon and represents simply another obstacle on his path to wisdom and adulthood. Whereas Ultima is able to understand the multiplicity of life and the incompleteness of any one way of explaining it, Anaya shows that many people are prejudiced by their own views and react to other views with suspicion and fear.
The inability to look past biased assumptions is especially visible in the townspeople’s treatment of Narciso. Most people simply view him as the town drunk, and only a few, like Cico, possess the perspective necessary to see that he is actually one of the magic people, like Ultima. Cico’s view that Narciso’s lush garden is drunk like Narciso illustrates his idea of tolerance and acceptance, ideals he generally shares with Ultima. Cico’s moral order does not condemn Narciso’s love of alcohol; instead, he has the ability to see beyond the blinders of social prejudice to see the good in Narciso’s magic, just as Antonio does with Ultima. His willingness to be open-minded brings him strength, but also a lot of conflict.
Cico’s decision to share the golden carp’s apocalyptic prophecy with Antonio illustrates the connection between Cico’s religion and Catholicism: both are concerned with moral decadence. The prophecy depresses Antonio because he feels that it burdens him with responsibility, implying that all men sin. As Antonio’s dreams about his older brothers reveal, he shoulders a great deal of responsibility for the moral well-being of people close to him. However, Ultima reminds him that he should concentrate on his own fate. She acknowledges the conflict he experiences between the pagan religion and the Catholic Church, but she does not tell him what to believe or what to think. Unlike Antonio’s mother, she regards knowledge as the best and most important asset in decision-making.
Antonio’s dream about the water of the moon and the water of the sea is a way for him to deal symbolically with the religious conflict between his parents. Gabriel’s spiritual beliefs are more like Cico’s pagan religion than like María’s Catholicism, and the result is even more tension between the parents. Antonio’s struggle to cope with competing moral orders is now a symbolic part of his struggle to cope with conflicting family traditions. Ultima, whose character demonstrates the possibility of the harmonious coexistence of opposites, calms Antonio’s fears in the dream by revealing the interdependent relationship of the sea and the moon, symbolic representations of his paternal and maternal traditions.