Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549
In this story of initiation, a Woman from Berkeley—the reader never learns her first name—the mother of two children, is restive and dispirited; her marriage to Lederman, a strong-willed rancher twenty years her senior, has long since lost its physical and spiritual vitality. Devoted to work, Lederman once morally swayed her, “kept her in an invincible slavery.” Now she yearns for adventure. Beyond the confines of her ranch live the Chilchui Indians, and she determines to ride out, alone, “to wander into the secret haunts of these timeless, mysterious, marvelous Indians of the mountains.”
In part 1 of this story in three parts, the Woman, on horseback, comes on three Indians who seem like figures of fate. One of them, a young man with eyes “quick and black, and inhuman,” agrees to guide her to the Chilchui, so that she may “know their gods.” Controlling her horse, the Indian leads her to a shelter where other Indians, wearing what appear to be loincloths, are indifferent to her. After a sleep in the “long, long night, icy and eternal,” she is aware that she has died to her former self and can never again return to her civilization.
In part 2, she follows the young Indian, descending the slopes until she comes on a green valley between walls of rock. There, an old chief (or medicine man) questions her. After assuring him that she has not come to bring the white man’s god, she is led by her guide to an old Indian, who again questions whether she is willing to bring her “heart to the god of the Chilchui.” Again she assents. Ordered to take off her clothes, she is ritually touched by the old man, then offered new clothing of cotton and wool. Later, while naked, she is given a liquor to drink, made with herbs and sweetened with honey. At first ill from the potion, she soon lapses into a langorous consciousness in which her senses are sharpened and purified. Although fascinated by the “darkly and powerfully male” young Indian who still guards her, she never is made to feel “self-conscious, or sex-conscious.” Instead, after weeks of captivity, while she continues to drink the ritual emetic cup, she is prepared to learn the mysteries of the Chilchui people: They await a white woman who will sacrifice herself for their gods, and then the “gods will begin to make the world again, and the white man’s gods will fall to pieces.”
In part 3, increasingly distanced from her past life, numbed by the potion (perhaps one containing peyote), she has visions of the Chilchui cosmology. Dressed now in blue, she prepares herself for sacrifice so that the Indian “must give the moon to the sun.” Drugged, weary, she is nevertheless unafraid. When the old priest, the cacique, comes to her with two flint sacrificial knives, when she is stripped even of her mantle and her tunic, fumigated, and laid on a large flat stone, she acquiesces to her fate. She understands—she assents: “When the red sun was about to sink, he would shine full through the shaft of ice deep into the hollow of the cave, to the innermost.” At that moment, the priest would “strike, and strike home, accomplish the sacrifice and achieve the power.”