Ceremony begins with a group of short, untitled poems that invoke the act of storytelling. In the first of these, the Thought Woman and her sisters create the universe; the story that follows is apparently "the story she [Thought Woman] is thinking" (1). The poems that follow explain that storytelling is not mere entertainment, and in fact possesses therapeutic powers; storytelling, indeed, is related to a body of rituals and ceremonies that continue to evolve and expand. The final, short verses call attention to the idea a ceremony can be a "cure" (3) and invoke the sunrise.
As the main prose narrative of Ceremony opens, Tayo, a young man who is living on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, has just passed an uneasy night. He remembers some figures from his life in the United States, such as his deceased Uncle Josiah and two of his living relatives, Auntie and Old Grandma. Tayo, however, also harbors anguished memories of his experiences fighting the Japanese in World War II. He was deployed alongside his cousin Rocky, but he and Rocky had different attitudes toward their military duties. While Tayo found himself unable to execute harsh orders (such as shooting Japanese prisoners), Rocky saw the shedding of blood as his duty as an American soldier.
Tayo gets out of bed and attends to a few light chores; scarred by his wartime experience, he is now staying at an outpost, remote from his family and from the rest of his community. Times of drought have returned to the area where Tayo lives, and this fact reminds Tayo of another dramatic turn of the weather that he had observed: the relentless jungle rains that he experienced while fighting the Japanese. With the memory of these rains, Tayo also remembers being captured by the Japanese and making the journey to a prison camp. He and a corporal had attempted to carry Rocky, who was placed on a blanket, along the drenched path to the camp. Tayo, during this ordeal, had passionately prayed for the rains to stop.
Once he returns to the Laguna reservation, Tayo muses that his praying had dried out his people's land. His own experiences after the war had been full of psychological suffering; Tayo had stayed in a hospital, where he struggled with the sensation that he had become invisible, barely a part of the world. Eventually, he had recovered somewhat, but everyday occurrences continued to trigger bad memories. For instance, while waiting for the train that would take him home from the hospital, Tayo catches sight of a Japanese family, speaking Japanese. The words and the vision return Tayo to the jungles where he had fought in the war and bring on on a spate of vomiting. Thinking over his weakness after his vomiting spell passes, Tayo reflects that the entire world has been thrown off-kilter, not just his own life.
The narrative then returns to Tayo's life at the outpost; he reflects on the vast physical distances that surround him and, briefly, on when he had explored the area's mesas with Rocky. Eventually a figure appears in the distance. It is Harley, a fellow veteran, who is riding a stubborn black burro and trying to find beer. Harley's own activities after the war have been more outrageous than Tayo's. At first, Harley tried raising sheep, but tired of this task; he wandered off and got arrested, and the sheep were scattered. Since then, Harley has been consorting with other veterans, such as Emo and Leroy, who mostly lounge about and drink.
Tayo and Harley agree to ride off and get some beer, Harley still on his black burro and Tayo on an old mule that is being kept at the outpost. It is a windy day. The two young men ride along for several hours, and Tayo is haunted by a new memory. He recollects that Rocky had intended to buy Old Grandma a kerosene stove with his army pay; the deceased Rocky was never able to fulfill this goal, or any of his other life goals (attending college, becoming a football star), and the memory of Rocky's promise makes Tayo tearful and weak. He falls from the mule. Harley attends to Tayo, but Tayo begins to vomit.
Silko then depicts Tayo's return to his relatives after the war. Tayo had been incapable of leaving his bed in Auntie's house, and had felt nauseated by light. Auntie proved to be a stern but attentive caretaker, while Tayo's other relatives, Old Grandma and his uncle Robert, treated him pleasantly but tried to stay at a distance. At one point, Tayo woke up in a crying fit. This event spurred Old Grandma to suggest bringing in a traditional healer, and to insist on this measure despite Auntie's objections, particularly the fear that gossip would spring up. At Old Grandma's prompting, a medicine man named Old Ku'oosh comes to visit Tayo.
For the most part, Old Ku'oosh's treatment of Tayo involves talking through Tayo's problems; the old man explains that the world is fragile, listens to Tayo's fears (particularly his fear that he had killed someone in combat), and voices concern about the young men of Tayo's generation. But the narrative soon pivots from these somber topics to more raucous events that had followed Tayo's return. Eventually, other young men such as Harley, Emo, and Leroy came around to take Tayo drinking with them; while indulging in alcohol, they would remember the sensation of being appreciated as soldiers and the spectacle of admiring women in cities well beyond the Laguna Pueblo reservation.
But even as the other young men indulged, Tayo remained haunted by his memories. Images from the war (him lashing out at the Japanese soldiers who executed the ailing Rocky) return to him; even while he is with Harley, he cannot escape the past. While Harley and Tayo stop at a pool, Tayo is brought back to scenes from his earlier life (Josiah filling buckets of spring water). And even after Tayo and Harley finally make their way to a local bar, Tayo remembers hunting a deer with Rocky, Josiah, and Robert.
At the bar, Harley reminds Tayo of an earlier occurrence: a fight between Tayo and Emo that came close to sending Tayo to jail. During one of the young men's drinking sprees, Emo had begun yelling about the violence that white society had inflicted on Native Americans; he had then begun lobbing insults at Tayo, who is only half-American Indian. War, however, had transformed Emo himself into a ruthless killer. Even as he insulted Tayo, Emo played with a bag of teeth that he had pulled out of the mouths of Japanese captives, often in attempts to gain information through such torture. Finally Tayo flared up, yelling that Emo was a "killer!" Emo, in response, insultingly suggested that Tayo's mother had slept with white men. Tayo came close to stabbing Emo to death with a broken bottle in response to this insult, but was restrained by the other men who were present.
The first pages in Ceremony set the framework, stylistically and structurally, for the remainder of Silko's text—an important task, considering how idiosyncratic Silko's writing can be. Readers will quickly discern that there are no chapters (an intentional choice, as Silko explains in the "Introduction" to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). Instead, the narrative of Tayo's life is organized using sporadic section breaks and intervening poems. Often, Tayo's present perceptions of life at the outpost and his memories (of the war, of Josiah) flow together, but Silko keeps the prose from being disorienting by calling specific themes and symbols to the reader's attention. Tayo's grand story is prefaced with a poem about storytelling ("You don't have anything/if you don't have the stories," 2), while his memories of the harsh rains overseas are followed by a poem that abounds in water imagery ("She spent all day long/sitting in the river/splashing down/the summer rain," 11-12).
As stark as Tayo's emotions are even from the outset, Silko refrains from offering comprehensive explanations. We know, even from the first few pages, that Josiah is Tayo's uncle, and that he has passed out of Tayo's life; we know, too, that Rocky is a confident young man who accompanied Tayo to war. What Silko has not developed are these characters' backstories or their full symbolic significance. Later in Ceremony, the athletic and educated Rocky will come to represent modernity and progress, while Josiah (who attempts to raise Mexican cattle that are adapted to dry land) will embody hard work, nature, and tradition. For now, though, these two men stand out more on account of the role they play in Tayo's memory. For him, the loss of both of them is still painfully ripe.
In fact, one of the saddest features of Tayo's condition is how much he is overpowered by his memories of war and his perceptions of his surroundings. He sees the world with a vividness that at times is almost too much for his weakened body; some of his images (the vision of himself as "white smoke," for instance) carry an ominous, disturbing poetry. Yet through such descriptions, Silko both adds riveting details to her prose and indicates that Tayo may possess the sensitivity and dynamism needed for a recovery. Even as he drinks at a pool while riding along with Harley, he becomes attuned to his surroundings: "He closed his eyes and swallowed the water slowly. He tasted the deep heartrock of the earth, where the water came from, and he thought maybe this wasn't the end after all" (42). This small moment of peaceful contact with nature foreshadows the later moments of such communion, moments that collectively will heal Tayo.
Ceremony also uses its early stages to lay out the different societal and ideological forces that will compete for Tayo's psyche. On one side is Old Ku'oosh, a representative of the traditional ways who fears the destruction that modernity has caused. The other side is represented by Harley, Emo, and the other young men: an entire generation of Laguna Pueblo soldiers lost in drinking, irresponsibility, and empty reminiscences. Neither side is regarded with complete sympathy: Old Ku'oosh appears briefly and is regarded with some suspicion, while Harley emerges as a clownish figure and Emo as a callous, savage man.
It is worth noting that, even on the evidence of the first several sections of the novel, characters such as Harley and Emo seem beyond re-habilitation. This is not a lapse or a failure of sympathy on Silko's part. Instead, it is a sign that the ravages of war and alcoholism have been so thorough that they have rendered men such as Emo beyond any hope of change. At one point, Tayo listens to Emo and blanks out Emo's words: "Emo's words never touched him. The beer stroked a place deep under his heart and put all the feeling to sleep" (56). Emo, ironically, is the man who has had all his feeling "put to sleep" by warfare and beer. Tayo, in contrast, retains enough of his own failings and his own surroundings to leave room for awareness of his own incapacitation at that point, and for hope that he can change.