The Burning Plain and Other Stories

Summary and Analysis of “The Hill of the Comadres” ("La Cuesta de las Comadres")

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Summary

The narrator begins by talking about the Torricos, the controlling family of the Hill of the Comadres who, despite being good friends of his, are the enemies of the other residents of the hill and of those who live in nearby Zapotlán. He does note, however, that he was friends with them up until shortly before they died, a detail that foreshadows the ultimate outcome of the story.

He tells us that the Torricos were constantly quarreling with those who lived on the Hill of the Comadres. The Torricos owned all the land on the Hill, though when the land was distributed most of it was divided equally among the sixty who lived there and the Torricos got just a small piece like everyone else. Yet, the Hill still belonged to them. The narrator’s land belonged to the brothers Odilón and Remigio Torrico, and he acknowledges no one ever bothered to protest, “Everybody knew that’s the way it was.”

However, people began to periodically leave the Hill, simply crossing the cattle guard and disappearing among the oaks. The narrator thought of doing the same, but he liked the hill and was one of the few on good terms with the Torricos. The narrator is proud of his simple though rugged plot of land on the Hill, especially of the corn he grows at a gully called Bull’s Head, which does not require salt to taste good. He observes that the Torricos put salt on everything, but they never needed it for his corn.

Even after the Torricos died, nobody came back. At first the narrator mended their houses for them, but abandoned the task after a while. He describes the natural environment of the hill in vivid terms, especially the view of nearby Zapotlán, which has now been obscured by the jarillas (flowering bushes) that blow back and forth in the wind. When the Torricos would sit and look in the direction of Zapotlán the narrator always thought they were thinking of possibly going into town, but he later discovered they were actually watching the sandy road below.

The narrator says that from time to time Remigio Torrico would lead his brother away from the Hill to pursue something interesting he spotted off in the distance. When they did this, everything would change on the Hill of the Comadres, because all the residents would bring out the animals they had been hiding in the caves and hills and put them in their corrals. At these times you could see how everyone had sheep, turkey and corn that was invisible before, and it seemed as though the Hill had always been a peaceful village.

Then the Torricos would return, signaled by their dogs who would run out to greet them. The residents could tell how far away they were and in which direction by the sound of the barks. At these times everyone would hide all their things again. The narrator reiterates that while “this was the kind of fear they spread,” he never was afraid of them because they were friends. Sometimes he wishes he wasn’t so old so he could join in on whatever they were doing.

He tried one time to help them rob a mule driver, but he realized that night that his body wasn’t what it used to be: “like the life I had in me had been used up and couldn’t take any more strain.” When they got to the mule driver he didn’t get up to see who was coming. The narrator assumed he was waiting for the Torricos and that’s why their arrival didn’t surprise him. However, as they were moving the sacks the driver didn’t make a sound and just lay on the grass. The narrator pointed out to the Torricos that he seemed to be dead, but they told him the man was just asleep. The narrator then kicked the man several times but it was clear he was dead, though Remigio said he was just stunned since Odilón had hit him with a piece of wood. The narrator says that’s how he found out what the Torricos were looking for as they sat by his house on the Hill.

The narrator then stops the narration “dead” with the isolated statement: “I killed Remigio Torrico.” He explains that this was when only a few people were left because frosts had continually destroyed the crops. The people didn’t want to put up with both the weather and the Torricos. As a result, there weren’t any people left when he killed Remigio.

The narrator had been mending a sack in the moonlight when Remigio came to his house drunk. He said he liked to tell things like they were and wanted to talk with the protagonist, who kept mending his sack because it required all his attention to see the harness needle with which he was sewing in the darkness. This angered Remigio since he thought the narrator wasn’t listening to him.

When Remigio finally got the narrator’s attention he accused him of killing his brother Odilón. The narrator hadn’t committed the crime and knew who did, but it looked like Remigio wouldn’t listen. Remigio said that he and Odilón fought a lot and wanted to know from the narrator if his death had come about because of some sort of argument. When the narrator shook his head Remigio then accused him of taking the fourteen pesos Odilón had in his pocket and buying a new blanket with them. The narrator explains to us that he had bought the blanket with the money from two goats he’d sold. Remigio then said he intended to get even with the person who killed Odilón, and the narrator said “So it was me?,” to which Remigio responded in the affirmative, angered not that he killed the man — something the Torricos had done before — but that he had done it for so little money.

Remigio went and grabbed a machete and then came towards the narrator in the moonlight. However, when he came close, “the moonlight shone brightly on the harness needle I’d stuck in the sack,” and “when Remigio Torrico came up to my side, I pulled out the needle and without waiting for anything stabbed him with it near his navel. I plunged it in as far as it would go. And I left it there.” This begins a short but vivid description of Remigio’s last moments. The narrator describes how “his one eye filled with fear” and how he had to stab him once again in the heart to kill him.

Only afterwards did he tell Remigio’s corpse that he didn’t kill Odilón, but rather that the Alcaraz family did. In Zapotlán (somewhere Odilón knew better than to be) they had all jumped on him and stabbed him. Odilón had spat mescal in the face of an Alcaraz and they all laughed and then pounced on him.

After the incident with Remigio, the narrator explains he returned to the Hill. He only paused along the way to wash the man’s blood off of his market basket, since he was going to need it and didn’t want to be reminded each time of Remigio. The story closes with the narrator recalling that this happened in October during the fiesta in Zapotlán. He says he remembered it in those days because they were firing rockets at the time and each time one went off a great flock of buzzards rose up from the place he had left Remigio. The narrator’s last words are “That’s what I remember,” reminding us that almost the entire story is narrated in the past, from the perspective of the present.

Analysis

Narrated in first person by a man who speaks in a matter-of-fact tone, “The Hill of the Comadres” is more typical of Rulfo’s literary production than “Macario.” In this story we get the impression that (like nearly all of Rulfo’s characters) the story’s narrator is uneducated and far from being a philosopher. Yet (also like all of Rulfo’s characters) despite his simple language he nevertheless is able to show us a high level of understanding of the ways of the world. His straightforward way of talking is not a sign of ignorance; he is simply a man who, through contact with life’s hardships, has learned that one simply has to accept the things the way they are.

This story touches again on one of Rulfo’s primary concerns in The Burning Plain: the failed reforms of the postrevolutionary period in Mexico. Land reform was one of the principal causes of the Revolution, and we learn in the second paragraph of “The Hill of the Comadres” that “most of the Hill had been divided equally among the sixty of us who lived there.”

Yet, although the Torricos “got just a piece of land with a maguey field,” they now apparently “own” the land in the town. As in other stories, the narrator does not tell us exactly how the Torrico brothers came to possess the town, but we slowly learn that although the narrator gets along with them, most of the town doesn’t. When he describes how the townspeople only bring out their animals and food when the Torricos are not around, the implication is that the family forcefully takes whatever livestock or food it wants. Despite his amicable relationship with the brothers, evidently even the narrator is subject to giving up his food to the Torricos, as we learn that they never need to put salt on his corn when they eat it.

This is therefore the dark story that bears witness to a high-minded Revolution with significant legislative impulse but little executive power to enforce the land reforms implemented. As a result, we see that slowly but surely the land redistributed to the peasants returns to the hands of the few—those bold enough to take it by brute force. The point of diminishing returns for the peasants — when they suddenly feel the need to abandon their land — is expressed in a quite moving fashion by Rulfo: “They didn’t go to Zapotlán, but in this other direction, from where the wind blows in full of the smell of oaks and the sounds of the mountain. They left silently, without saying anything or fighting with anybody.” This description of the peasants’ resignation over the loss of their land and their dreams is quite powerful, and contrasts quite a bit with the revolutionary zeal which got them the land in the first place. The narrator says these people “didn’t have the courage” to fight the Torricos, but we can also guess they had little motivation to engage in more fighting after all the violence they lived through between 1910 and 1920.

We cannot assume that the problems of these rural folk will be resolved by a simple change of surroundings, however. The situation of the Hill of the Comadres is not unique, and because of this, those who leave do not opt to move to nearby Zapotlán. Instead they elect to leave with no particular destination in mind, to evaporate into thin air: “they would cross the cattle guard where the high post is, disappear among the oaks, and never return again. They left, that’s all.”

As we learn at the end of the story, Zapotlán is not an option is because the Alcaraces, another family that rules by violence, live there. The narrator never tells us that the Alcaraz family are Zapotlán’s equivalent of the Torricos, but this is made clear by his explanation that the Torricos don’t like the Alcaraces and don’t have any urge to visit Zapotlán. Later on the narrator also tells us that Odilón should have known better than to go there and pick a fight when “so many people had reason to remember all about him. And the Alcaraces didn’t like him either.” Rulfo therefore clearly implies that violence and extortion are commonplace in most every rural town and village.

Perhaps it is also notable that the narrative voice of “The Hill of the Comadres” is different from the average narrator of The Burning Plain in a number of ways. Most of Rulfo’s narrators are interchangeable with the rural poor who surround them. In this case however, the main character is clearly different from the other villagers. He likes the Torricos and they like him, and — because he doesn’t understand why the townspeople would choose to leave — he ends up being the only person left in the Hill at the story’s end.