The third person narrator begins with a separated eerie description of the town of San Gabriel. The town “emerges from the fog laden with dew,” and the narrator describes a number of elements that serve to obscure it from view: clouds, rising steam and black smoke from the kitchens. The narrator is describing sights and sounds of daybreak in a very peculiar way: “an earth-colored spot shrouds the village, which keeps on snoring a little longer, slumbering in the color of daybreak.”
The description then turns to the protagonist of the story, old Esteban, who advances up Jiquilpan road riding on the back of his cow, followed by his milking herd. The toothless man whistles to his cows, and when he hears the San Gabriel bell that rings at daybreak he gets down off the cow, kneels, and makes the sign of the cross with his arms extended. Esteban then climbs back on the cow, removes his shirt “so the breeze will whip away his fear,” and continues toward San Gabriel.
He counts the cows as they enter the town, and grabs one of them by the ears. He says to her “Now they’re going to take away your baby, you silly one. Carry on if you want to, but it’s the last day you’ll see your calf.” The cow ignores the man and continues on. The narrator then speculates on the uncertain origin of the swallows in San Gabriel that constantly fly back and forth in a zigzag pattern.
Old Esteban explains in first person that he arrived at the corral and that they wouldn’t open up the gate even though he was banging on it with a stone. He thought his boss, Don Justo, was asleep. The cows were waiting behind him so in order to keep them from following him he crept around the corral and entered it through a low point in the fence. Then he opened the corral from the inside. Just as he was doing this he saw Don Justo come out of the attic carrying his sleeping niece Margarita in his arms. The man crossed the corral without seeing Esteban, “at least that’s what I thought.”
The narrator then describes how Esteban then milked the cows, letting them into the corral one by one, and leaving the mother of the calf for last. He speaks to her and tells her that he’ll let her in to see the calf one last time. He tells her that she is about to give birth again and yet she is still worried about the older calf. He says to the calf that he ought to enjoy his mother’s milk while he can because it is actually meant for the unborn calf. Then the narrator says that Esteban kicked the calf when he saw it sucking on its mother’s teats.
The narration then shifts back to Esteban’s first person testimony, as he explains that he would have broken the calf’s nose if Don Justo hadn’t kicked him and started to beat him. He explains that the beating was severe and that he still has a great deal of pain. Esteban then says: “What happened next? I didn’t know. I didn’t work for him any more. Nor anybody else either, because he died that same day.” He tells us that some people came to his house — where he was recovering from the beating under the care of his wife — to tell him that Don Justo was dead. They accused him of killing his boss, but Esteban says he does not remember doing this. He notes that since he is now in jail, perhaps that means something about his guilt. All he remembers is the moment after he hit the calf when Don Justo came towards him. After that he just recalls waking up and being cared for by his wife. Esteban explains that they have accused him of killing the man with a rock. He says that this information is relatively plausible because if they’d said he used a knife he would know if was false because he hasn’t carried a knife in years.
The narrative then shifts back to that of the third person narrator. He describes how Justo Brambila left his niece Margarita on her bed in the room beside that of her crippled mother. Dawn is the only time when the mother sleeps, but she wakes up when the sun rises. The mother calls out, asking her daughter where she was last night, but “before the yelling started that would end by waking her up, Justo Brambila silently left the room.”
At six in the morning Don Justo went out to the corral to open the gate for Esteban. The narrator tells us he also thought of going back up to the attic to smooth out the bed where he and Margarita had slept. Don Justo thinks to himself: “If the priest would authorize this I’d marry her,” but “He’ll say it’s incest and will excommunicate us both. Better to leave things in secret.” Don Justo then saw Esteban kicking the calf in the head and sticking his hands in the animal’s nose. The calf’s back seemed to already be broken, since its legs were flopping around and it could not get up. He ran down to Esteban and began to beat him, but then felt himself blacking out and falling back against the stone pavement. He tried to get up but was unable to, and as darkness enveloped him he stopped feeling any pain.
Esteban began to move when the sun was high in the sky. He stumbled back to his house with his eyes closed, dripping blood as he went. When he arrived he lay down on his cot and slept. The narrator explains that at eleven in the morning Margarita entered the corral looking for Don Justo. When she found him dead she had been crying because her mother had accused her of being a prostitute.
The narration then shifts back to Esteban’s confession. He once again affirms that when the others accuse him of killing his boss, it could be true. Esteban says the man might have died of anger however, since he had a bad temper. He muses that now the authorities have him and will judge him for killing his boss. Esteban speculates that perhaps they were both blind and didn’t realize they were killing each other.
The narration then shifts back to the fog which advances on San Gabriel at night. That night they didn’t turn the lights on because Don Justo owned them. The church was lit up with candles for Don Justo’s wake. The church bells rang until dawn, hereby closing the twenty-four hours that the story covers.
This story shares a number of similarities with “The man.” In both stories the discourse shifts back and forth between multiple narrative voices and perspectives. While “The man” shares three different perspectives with the reader, “At daybreak” presents two: the narrator and old Esteban. In order to approach an understanding of both stories, it is necessary to gather information from both narrators and combine it in order to fill in the gaps. We learn in both cases that complete knowledge of the nature of the events narrated will inevitably escape us.
Beyond the narrative style of these two stories, Rulfo seems to outline two different forms of violence. In “The man” violence is willfully committed, and where it rears its head it inevitably begets itself and sets in motion a cycle of destruction which eventually hurts even the most innocent. In “At daybreak” violence is something that lies dormant inside us and is often beyond our control. It is determined by our environment and basic instincts. As a result, the protagonist in this story is almost “innocent.” Esteban’s senility is one possible explanation for his mistreatment of the calf, and it sparks his boss’s anger. When Justo is found dead, Esteban can also no longer remember exactly what happened. For his part, Justo is clearly subservient to his instincts since he maintains an incestuous relationship with his young niece Margarita. We also learn he is perpetually “angry.” Perhaps this is what drives him to react forcefully to Esteban’s beating of the calf. If stories like “We’re very poor” or “Macario” exhibit a tendency toward “unconscious” eroticism, in “At daybreak” the reader encounters the theme of “unconscious” violence. Violence has become so second nature that the protagonists cannot pinpoint what motivates their actions or even claim full responsibility for them.
As in “The man,” there is certainly a cyclical nature to this violence, however. The story begins and ends with a somewhat dream-like description of daybreak. Nature is described as beautiful or even idyllic, but its tranquility is ominous because we know Rulfo’s fatalist vision will soon take over. This nagging sense of foreboding reinforces the notion that—unlike in “The man,” where violence is transferred back and forth through causes and effects across a chain of relationships between people—the protagonists of “At daybreak” do not know what the next day will bring and how or where violence will interrupt the peaceful dawn. Indeed, Esteban’s killing of the calf seems quite unprovoked. Perhaps it is as a response to the unpredictability of violence in San Gabriel that the narrator enigmatically claims old Esteban removed his shirt “so the breeze will whip away his fear” that fateful morning.
Like “The man,” “At daybreak” also deals with the theme of “official” justice. In both stories we find “confessions” or “testimonies” of characters who defend themselves from the accusations of the authorities. In “The man” we know the shepherd is innocent. In “At daybreak,” the truth is more difficult to determine, although one interpretation of the story is that Justo died when he suddenly blacked out and hit his head on the corral’s stone pavement. However, when people show up at Esteban’s home, they tell him right away that he killed Justo without a doubt. In both the stories we realize that when the institutions of post-revolutionary justice are involved the guilt of the accused is assumed from the beginning.