Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
The story opens with the people of the small adobe village of Las Animas discussing the state of Rafael, a young rancher in the llano, the desolate plains country of northeastern New Mexico. The llano is nearly empty of people, and the villagers of Las Animas claim its silences can steal a man’s soul. This has happened to Rafael.
Rafael’s life on the llano has been a rough one. When he is fifteen, his parents die while traveling to town in a blizzard. Left alone to fend for the livestock, the young man loses half of his cattle to vicious winter storms.
In the spring, Rafael travels to Las Animas and tells the priest his parents have died. The villagers and other ranchers gather for a funeral mass, and then all go on with their lives except for Rita, a young woman who became orphaned as a child and has grown up behind the church. She falls in love with Rafael, and they marry. The two are very happy in their isolated existence on Rafael’s ranch. He tends the livestock and improves the adobe house while Rita plants a garden and revives the neglected peach trees. Soon Rita becomes pregnant, and the young couple look forward to starting a family in their prairie paradise.
However, Rita’s pregnancy is troubled, and in December, when the baby is due, she begins to bleed and feels unnatural tensions in her body. She tells Rafael to get Doña Rufina, the midwife and folk healer who lives in Las Animas. The old crone helps Rita give birth, but the healer is powerless to stop the hemorrhaging.
Rita dies, and Rafael, bitter over his beloved wife’s death, will have nothing to do with his new daughter. Doña Rufina stays at the ranch and raises the daughter, also named Rita, and loves her as if she were her own child. Meanwhile, Rafael says few words to either Rita or Doña Rufina, preferring the silence of the llano where he can brood over his feelings of emptiness.
After seven years, Doña Rufina dies, and Rafael continues to avoid Rita, who raises herself. She becomes a child of nature, adding to her rudimentary Spanish the language of the animals because they are the only creatures with whom she speaks. Meanwhile, she matures into an attractive woman, innocent and lovely.
Around this time, some hunters drive by the ranch, and after slaying a deer, they pound on Rafael’s door, demanding to meet his virgin daughter. Rafael refuses them entry, but a few weeks later, he is out mending fences and becomes uneasy when he sees a dust devil formed by an automobile heading for the ranch. Quitting work early, he returns to find Rita has been raped, the blood of her lost virginity an echo of the blood of her birth. In a plea for help and understanding, Rita calls Rafael by name for the first time.
Unfortunately, the shock and fear of the situation overwhelm Rafael, and he flees the ranch, as he did the day his wife died. That night he sleeps in the tool shed, and in the morning, he sees an apparition of his wife at the woodpile, for his daughter, by calling his name, has torn open the wound of his beloved’s death. Trying to outrun the manifestation, he rides off again, only to be pursued by the vision of a woman riding a whirlwind. Back at the adobe house, he stands on the hill and watches his daughter bathe in the watering tank. The memory of his wife performing the same action pours through him, and he rides to his daughter. Using Rita’s name for the first time, he gently bids her to plant a garden next to her mother’s grave by the peach trees. At last, he has acknowledged his daughter and reopened his heart to the world’s beauty.