The Burning Plain and Other Stories

The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary

The short story “Macario” is actually more of a monologue. In it the orphaned town idiot Macario describes in a flowing narrative style some of the aspects of his everyday life. He begins by talking about how his Godmother, with whom he lives, who has asked him to squash the frogs by the sewer which keep her awake at night. He then goes aspects of his life in her home and his relationship with Felipa, the other woman who lives with Godmother, in one long paragraph. We learn he suffers from being bullied by other townspeople who throw stones at him, and that he likes to bang his head on different surfaces to listen to the sound it makes. He also has an unusual relationship with Felipa who used to feed him her breast milk and tickle him in bed all night long.

“They Gave Us the Land” involves four men (the narrator, Esteban, Melitón and Faustino) who are crossing a portion of the “Big Plain” somewhere in central Mexico. The men have been given this land by the government in order to cultivate it, but it consists entirely of sterile, desert terrain. As they cross the plain they recall a conversation they had with the official who gave them the land. He took their guns and horses and set them off walking to claim their plots. As they walk, they sense for a moment it is going to rain, but it doesn’t. Only one drop of water falls. The narrator also notices that Esteban is carrying a red hen under his coat. Esteban doesn’t keep it for food, but rather just because he cares about the animal’s welfare and didn’t want to leave it at home. Eventually the party gets to the other side of the plain where the town and river are, and they go their separate ways. They will presumably find whatever work they can and not return to the useless land they have been “given.”

In “The Hill of the Comadres” a man describes his relationship with the most powerful family at the Hill of the Comadres, the Torricos. He explains how although the Torricos (more specifically Remigio and Odilón) weren’t liked by most who lived there, they were by him — at least initially. He tells us that the people who lived in the village feel the need to hide their possessions when the Torricos are around, and that they are always on the lookout to rob those who pass by the town on the road below the hill. One time the narrator participated in the robbery of a mule driver and discovered to his surprise that Remigio and Odilón had killed the man. The narrator decides not to participate again. He then tells us that he killed Remigio Torrico. This happened one night when Remigio came to him and accused him of killing his brother Odilón and taking the fourteen pesos he had on him at the time to buy a new blanket. The brother had actually been killed by the family in power in the nearby town of Zapotlán, but Remigio wouldn’t listen and picked up a machete to kill the narrator. The narrator had been mending a sack with a harness needle and managed to stab Remigio in the belly first. Remigio then dies an unpleasant death. The narrator remembers that the event happened during a festival because every time rockets were shot off he would see a flock of buzzards rise up from the place where he hid Remigio’s body.

The story “We’re Very Poor” begins as the narrator describes how his family’s fortunes have taken a tragic turn. Torrential rains have begun to fall and have ruined his family’s rye harvest, which they did not have time to bring inside. Then, the family discovered that the cow (La Serpentina) the narrator’s sister Tacha had been counting on for her dowry has been swept away by the rising river. They are still uncertain as to whether its calf survived the flood. This is the last hope for Tacha, because if it is lost no good man will want to marry her and the father is sure that, like her two older sisters, she will succumb to the advances of local men and becoming a “bad woman” or a prostitute. As the story closes, Tacha watches the river and cries. The narrator notices that her breasts rise and fall with her sobs and observes that these signs of her impending womanhood are likely to be the cause of her ruin.

“The Man” is a dark and relatively disorienting story told in two parts. The first part of the story is told in third person from two alternating points of view — that of a “man” (José Alcancía) and “the one pursuing him” (Urquidi). We learn the man killed the pursuer’s wife and two sons with a machete while they were asleep in their beds. This occurred while the pursuer was away from home mourning the death of his infant son. The man’s goal had been to only kill the pursuer (as an act of revenge for the murder of his brother), but since it was dark and he didn’t want to give himself away he killed all three of the people in the house to be sure. Since the pursuer was not at home, he decides to track the man down and kill him. Most of the first part of the story narrates the lost and confused man’s attempt to flee a labyrinth-like riverbed, while the pursuer tracks him. The second part of the story is told in first person to government authorities by a shepherd who has found the body of José, riddled with bullets (presumably killed by the pursuer). He explains that he saw José alive as he ran around the riverbed and even talked to him a few times before one day finding him dead. The shepherd is anxious now because the authorities have begun to accuse him of helping the dead man.

The story “At Daybreak” is also told from multiple perspectives. It begins with a description of the city of San Gabriel at dawn and Old Esteban who is driving cattle to Don Justo’s corral. When they arrive there he begins to kick one of the calves until his boss, Don Justo, intervenes and instead begins to beat him until he loses consciousness. When the perspective shifts to Esteban we learn that Don Justo somehow died in the scuffle, although no one knows if Esteban killed him in the fight, if the man slipped and hit his head or simply died of rage. Margarita, Justo’s niece and lover, was the person who discovered his body. In any case Esteban ends up burdened with the blame and seems fatalistically prepared to accept whatever verdict the authorities will render. The story ends twenty-four hours it began with yet another eerie description of foggy San Gabriel “at daybreak.”

“Talpa” is the story of three characters who make a pilgrimage to the city of Talpa from their home in Zenzontla. The pilgrimage is being undertaken by the leprosy-stricken Tanilo with the help of his brother the narrator and his wife Natalia. Tanilo hopes that the Virgin of Talpa will cure his illness. The narrator remorsefully tells us from the beginning, however, that the voyage is tainted by the fact that he and Natalia are lovers and know that the trip to Talpa will kill Tanilo rather than heal him. The voyage is long and difficult, and along the way Tanilo loses hope and wants to turn back but his brother and wife will not let him. They travel with other pilgrims and their only rest from the suffocating dust and heat of the road comes for a few hours at nighttime, during which time the narrator and Natalia make love in the shadows. When they finally reach Talpa, Tanilo needs his family’s help to drag his rotting body through the streets to the Virgin of Talpa. He dances before her with the other devotees and tries to emulate Christ with a crown of thorns, but he eventually dies of his exhaustion-exacerbated sickness. Along the way, however, the narrator and Natalia have begun to regret how they drove Tanilo to his death. When they arrive home Natalia cries in her mother’s arms and the narrator knows that the experience has made their relationship impossible.

“The Burning Plain” is the story of a band of murderers and thieves who call themselves revolutionaries and terrorize the Great Plain and its surroundings, burning and plundering nearly every town and field they encounter. The narrator, El Pichón, is a member of this band and he chronicles the men’s activities and relates them to the reader. The band is lead by Pedro Zamora, a fearless man who keeps the revolutionaries on their toes. Along the way they fight with Federal soldiers, winning some battles and losing many more, until their cruelty — specifically their derailment of a train — causes the government to more actively rid the Plain of them. At the end of the story nearly all the men have been killed by the soldiers, and Pichón is one of the few who has survived. He has been jailed “only” for kidnapping and rape, and when he gets out one of his previous female conquests confronts him with her child. The boy displays the same mean look Pichón so often bore, but the mother insists that her son is a “good person” and not a bandit or killer. To this the narrator can only “hang his head.”

In “Tell Them Not to Kill Me!” Juvencio Nava pleads with his son Justino to intervene on his behalf in order to stop his execution by firing squad. Juvencio is about to be executed by a colonel for the murder of a man, Don Lupe, forty years earlier. The conflict arose when Don Lupe would not allow Juvencio to let his livestock graze on his land, and Juvencio did it anyway. After Don Lupe killed one of Juvencio’s animals, Juvencio responded by killing the man with a machete. What Juvencio did not anticipate was the torment he would endure throughout the rest of his life as he constantly fled from the law in order to save his skin. He was successful up until his capture, now, at sixty years of age. It is only when he is confronted by the colonel that he understands that the colonel is the orphaned son of Don Lupe who has finally caught his father’s murderer. Despite Juvencio’s pleas that he has suffered enough for his crime, he is executed shortly afterward and his son Justino has to carry the bullet-riddled body home on the back of his burro.

The story “Luvina” involves a one-sided conversation between an older teacher who used to teach in the town of Luvina quite a while ago and a younger one who has been assigned to work there. Although the listener does not say anything in the story, the conversation takes place in bar in a town on the young teacher’s way to Luvina. What stands out most in this story is the narrator’s description of this ghost town (indeed, the inhabitants seem closer to death than life) — “the place where sadness nests” — and the imposing terrain it occupies. The most life-like aspect of the village is the wind that erodes everything from the high hill that it rests on to weather-worn people who live there. It is a town with no future where only old women live since their husbands and children move away as quickly as they can. Additionally, the townspeople were skeptical of the narrator’s idealistic suggestion that they appeal to the government for help since the government has no interest in a population as isolated as theirs. On top of this, the inhabitants say they cannot leave because someone must watch over their dead, who continue to live in the town. After living there amongst these people with his family for as long as he could bear it, the narrator moved away. At the end of the story the narrator (at this point drunk) falls asleep on the table.

In “The Night They Left Him Alone,” three Cristero rebels in the Cristero War (Feliciano Ruelas and his two uncles Tanis and Librado) flee an ambush they laid for the federal forces. The escape takes place at night in order to avoid the sentries, but the three men are exhausted so they proceed at a very slow pace. Feliciano, the main character, begins to fall behind and — in an act that seems at the time to foreshadow his demise — he eventually elects to spend the night sleeping at the foot of a tree beside the road. In the morning he wakes to the sound of mule drivers who greet him, but Feliciano is horrified that he might be turned in by them so he leaves the road and throws away his rifles to continue his journey in daylight. He vividly imagines the mule drivers telling the soldiers about having seen him and prays to God for help. Feliciano reaches the town of Agua Zarca and creeps along a fence in order to pass through it. As he does he hears soldiers discussing how they are lying in wait for him in the town and how he and the other Cristero rebels are headed to the sierra of Comanja. He also sees his uncles hanging from nooses from a mesquite tree. Feliciano creeps along the fence until he can move no further and then makes a run for it out into the open plain. Once he feels safe he can finally breathe.

The story “Remember” comes in the form of a monologue by a narrator who urges an interlocutor (or, more likely, the reader) to “remember” Urbano Gómez. In this very short story the narrator runs through a series of memories surrounding Urbano, including memorable figures in his family tree and some of the things Urbano did that make him worth remembering. The narrator tells us about how Urbano was one of only two children his mother successfully gave birth to, and how he was adept at swindling children at school by selling them fruit he had stolen or bought for less money elsewhere. The narrator and the unnamed person he is speaking with also drank the juice Urbano’s sister sold without paying for it. This distanced them from him and then when Urbano was caught fooling around with his cousin at school, his expulsion and the ridicule he faced definitively separated him from his peers. Urbano left the town but later returned as a police officer. By then he was a sullen, bitter man and one day he snapped and beat his brother-in-law Nachito to death for no apparent reason. The next day he was caught by the authorities whereupon he willingly put a noose around his neck and picked the tree from which he was to be hanged.

In “No Dogs Bark,” A father carries his injured son Ignacio in a sitting position on his shoulders across an arid landscape at night toward the town of Tonaya. The father asks the son (whose thighs are blocking his ears) every so often if he can hear the dogs of the town barking yet, announcing their arrival, but the son either says no or is too hurt to respond. As they proceed along the banks of a stream, the tired father talks to his semi-conscious son and criticizes his conduct. Through these words we learn he has turned into a highway robber and murderer who has even killed one of his father’s friends, Tranquilino. As the story develops we finally learn that the two men are in this predicament because the father happened across the gravely injured Ignacio (presumably from a robbery gone wrong) and — despite having disavowed and disowned him — decided to carry him to the town for medical attention. As the two men enter the town, the father finally hears the dogs barking, but the body of his son has started to slump lifelessly. Due to the dark tone of the story, we can be nearly certain they are too late and Ignacio has died.

“Paso del Norte” is a story comprised almost entirely of dialog. It begins with a son and his father talking about how the son wants his father to take care of his family and five children while he goes “North” to look for work. He needs to do this in order to earn money so his family can eat. They are currently eating weeds and starving to death. The father refuses to do this because he never approved of Tránsito, the son’s wife, and because he thinks the son’s family should not be his burden. The son becomes angry, however, because his father never helped him develop a solid profession but rather pushed him out the door as early as possible. The son explains that the father didn’t even teach him how to make fireworks or gunpowder because he didn’t want the competition. As a result the son has been working as a pig seller, but this work has dried up. The two argue for some time about who’s fault the son’s failure is, and finally the father agrees to take care of the son’s family. When the son goes North he has to work in Ciudad Juárez (formally known as El Paso del Norte) for some time to make enough money to cross the border. The narration then shifts forward to a second conversation that the son has with his father after his return home. He explains how he and a friend from home, Estanislado, paid for someone to take them across the border, but as they crossed the Rio Grande the group was fired upon from the U.S. side. Estanislado was gravely wounded and the son dragged him to safety but he died. The son had been shot in the arm as well and in the morning was confronted by an immigration officer who asked whether he killed the dead man. The son explained what happened and the officer told them it was probably Apaches who shot at them. He told the son to go home. The father then tells him that all his suffering was for nothing since, although the children are sleeping in the back, Tránsito has run off with a mule driver and the father had to sell the son’s house. The son says he will repay his father but first runs off to catch up with his wife.

In “Anacleto Morones,” Lucas Lucatero, the narrator and main character, sees that a group of ten old women dressed in black and carrying scapularies is approaching his home. He immediately recognizes them as the Congregation of Amula and desperately tries to think of a way to divert their attention from what he knows is the reason for their visit: Anacleto Morones. He greets them squatting on a rock naked, attempting to scandalize them, but he finds them to be persistent and they come inside. Finally he is forced to listen to their request that he accompany them back to Amula in order to testify that Anacleto, the “Holy Child,” is worthy of becoming a saint. Lucatero knows, however, that Anacleto is really nothing more than a devious rogue who, along with him, tricked many of these women into sleeping with him by pretending to be a miracle-worker. Lucatero turns down the women of Amula and they begin to chastise his lack of faith and the way he abandoned some of them after sleeping with them. Lucatero toys with them and returns their insults with cruel jokes about their age and status as single women. Eventually, infuriated, they abandon his house one by one until only Pancha is left. He asks Pancha if she will spend the night with him and says that if she does he will accompany her to Amula to testify. Pancha assents. Meanwhile, we learn that the narrator held a grudge against Anacleto and buried him alive in his home; grave stones still mark his final resting place. Pancha remains unaware of this, however. The story ends the following morning when Pancha remarks to Lucatero that he is a poor lover and that Anacleto was far better.