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Carmen Baca

 

is a regionalist author with five books and over fifty short publications since 2017. Living in the mountains of New Mexico with her husband, she spends her days writing and caring for feral and adopted cats.

Balls of Fire

     In the mountains of Cañoncito, the moonless nights made walking without a light source into a life or death adventure. Ignacia didn’t feel like taking her life into her hands that summer evening when nature called, so she carried a kerosene lantern to light her way. Her usual grumbles berating the ancestor who had built the outhouse across the road from their house announced her presence to crickets and frogs which silenced as she passed. She opened and then went through the small gate in the fence, listening to the chorus as the insects and amphibians struck up their tune in her wake. She crossed over the low bridge of the acequia, the small, shallow stream diverted from the Manuelitas Creek for irrigation. She breathed in deeply the humidity caused by the clear, clean mountain water, went into the small enclosure to do her business, and exited, intent on getting back to the casa and tucking herself back into her warm bed to sleep in peace until daybreak.

     She would have done so in short order if she hadn’t caught movement out of the corner of her eye to her right, down by the gentle, flowing water. She lowered the wick before setting the lantern on the ground. A ball of fire, about the size of a basketball, hovered over the stream. It bobbed in a steady up-down rhythm as if to a song only it could hear. Her curiosity made her take a few steps toward the strange sight, but it sped away and disappeared around the corner of the barn.

     Ignacia returned to her house, tucked herself into bed, and stayed up half the night wondering what she’d seen. Finally, on the verge of falling asleep, she promised herself to ask her vecina first thing in the morning. Her neighbor, Doña Brígida—a curandera—was more than a healer, she was the eldest in the small community and therefore the source of much knowledge through experience. She would also be Ignacia’s future mentor if she had her way.

     In the morning, Ignacia walked the few hundred yards down the dirt road to her neighbor’s back door, the fireball incident prompting her early visitation. “Ah, si, las brujas,” the old curandera said when Ignacia finished her account.

     “¿Brujas? What do you mean, witches?”

     “When I was a child, I came across three of them bouncing down the ledge of Rowe Mesa where I lived at the time. Leaping and bounding over one another, it looked as though they were in a playful race to the bottom. I lost sight of them when they reached an arroyo and didn’t come up again. Mi madre told me they were brujas, and they turned into flaming balls to travel. I’ve never forgotten the way they looked, both fascinating and a bit frightening, even before I knew they were supposed to be witches. Since I never encountered them again and since I never met a bruja, I cannot confirm whether this is true. But I do know my mother never lied.”

     “Strange, don’t you think, that you never saw them again?”

     “Perhaps. But over the years, I heard more cuentos about them, and sometimes I still wonder if the stories were true and what a close encounter could mean for a person. You should leave the mystery a mystery, Ignacia, especially because you are named Ignacia.” 

     “What do you mean by that?”

     “Your name means ignite. Whoever named you must have known you would be ardent, a woman with a desire to burn bright in her life. But an encuentro with one of these balls of fire could burn you in more ways than one. Heed my warning; listen to your inner voice when it warns of danger instead of leaping toward it like you usually do.” 

     Try as she might, Ignacia couldn’t put the fireball out of her mind. She had to see it again, had to find out if Doña Brígida was right. Meeting a real bruja could be a life-changing event, for sure. And so, each night that month, Ignacia sat out in her yard and between star gazing, she took little walks around her casa with her eyes on the woods, the hills, and the meadows around her. In her thirty-four years of living, Ignacia had never shied away from discovering for herself answers to the questions’ life put into her path. When her conscience warned that curiosity killed the cat, her response that satisfaction brought it back more often than not made her ignore it. Sometimes she was sorry; mostly she was not.

     And so, night after night she waited and watched and was rewarded.

     The last week in July, Ignacia got her wish. She had been on the verge of falling asleep in her chair, a quilt wrapped around her against the chill of the summer night, when she glimpsed a lightening of her lids that made her eyes open wide. She stayed statue-still at the sight of the flaming ball hovering in the darkness a few feet in front of her—close enough for her to feel the heat it emanated. She sat up in a gradual movement, letting the cover fall from her shoulders. She waited; the bobbing of the ball slowed. Perhaps it could communicate, especially since it was supposed to be a person of extraordinary powers.

     “Can you speak?” Ignacia asked and then frowned at the obvious shaking in her voice.

     At first, the ball reared, like when a person who has encountered a surprise steps back. Then the fire sputtered, sparks flew in all directions, and the flames turned from yellow to vibrant red-orange, and finally blue-green—the hottest, most combustible stage. The intense heat made Ignacia rise and step away. And was she mistaken, or was the orb growing larger? Or was it because it moved forward when she moved back and appeared bigger? Ignacia didn’t know, but she also didn’t stand around waiting to find out. She grabbed the ladder-back chair she had been sitting upon and swung like a batter intent on making the ball fly out of the stadium. It struck the orb smack in the center and passed right through. The ball shuddered and glowed brighter. Ignacia ran for her back door and the safety of her thick-walled home.

     Slamming the door behind her, she braced the knob with a kitchen chair and then closed the curtains of her three windows. The light shining through the fabric kept increasing with the intensity of the orb, now glowing as though the sun had fallen from the sky. A loud pop like a firecracker made Ignacia jump, and a simultaneous burst of white light blinded her. By the time she blinked and slowed her beating heart with a few deep breaths, her eyes adjusted. Her house was on fire. Impossible as it should be, the flames surrounded the small casa. They worked their way in on all sides as though fed by the straw mixed into the two-foot wide adobes.

     Yanking the chair from the door, Ignacia barely felt the singeing of her skin when she turned the knob and fled into the night. Too late, she realized her hair had caught fire as had her clothes, and her flight only fed the flames. Her screams awakened her vecinos, but when her voice cut off abruptly, they merely rolled over or tucked their blankets around them more snugly and went back to sleep. In the morning those same neighbors were drawn to the gray smoke still filling the cañón. Upon exiting their homes, they saw where the smoke had emanated and ran to Ignacia’s still-smoldering house.

     They found her body, singed but not so badly burned that it would explain her death. She’d landed in the water. A few feet away was the body of another, a woman no one recognized. But the cause of death was obvious: a blow to the temple. Her end had been merciful and swift. A week passed before her identity came to light, only because a recluse from a village over the mountain had been reported missing. The mystery of what she was doing at Ignacia’s and what had sparked the inferno was never solved. Doña Brígida saw to that. No one would believe her anyway.

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