The Bone Fire: A Mystery - By Christine Barber


Thursday Night

The lights flashed off, and a few people screamed.

A couple of teenagers nearby held up lighters as if they were at a rock concert. Someone yelled, “Freebird,” which got a slight swell of laughter from the crowd standing in the dark, open field.

Lucy Newroe looked at the family of four standing next to her. The dad had his arm around the mom. Two kids—both girls—stood in front, their eyes shining. The younger girl, who looked all of eight with brown hair down to her shoulders and big eyes, suddenly screamed, “Burn him!” into the night.

The parents laughed. The older sister playfully jostled the younger one before yelling, “Burn him!” The parents smiled. The two girls started to yell together, and the parents joined in; the dad cupped his hands around his mouth so his voice would carry, and the family chanted together, “Burn him! Burn him!”

The group of teenagers behind Lucy took up the cry and yelled, “Burn him!” even louder. Then more people behind her joined in. “Burn him!” Within seconds, the entire crowd of thirty thousand seemed to be screaming the words together. Lucy turned back toward the still-dark stage they were all facing. Lucy checked her watch: 9:02 P.M. It should start any minute now.

The crowd was still shouting, “Burn him! Burn him!” when the boom of fireworks broke out high above them. Everyone cheered. A bouquet of colored lights flashed on, illuminating a large effigy that stood on a dais in the front of the crowd. The puppet—or more correctly the marionette—was fifty feet tall, taller than a four-story building. Santa Fe schoolchildren had spent the last week constructing him of chicken wire, paper, and muslin. He was all white, except for a shock of blue hair and a black tie, which went nicely with the long white skirt he was wearing. He had pizza pans for eyes, huge ears that stuck out at least six feet, and big, full lips. He looked like a cross between Ted Koppel and Frankenstein.

The puppet had a name, Zozobra, and a nickname, Old Man Gloom. In a few minutes, they were going to burn him to death. This was an execution. He stood on a hill, arms outstretched on a cross made of metal. The monster must die for our sins.

Somewhere, a gong began to strike.

Zozobra started to move his huge arms in a floating resemblance of a Martha Graham dancer. His mouth opened and closed as he faced the crowd. Zozobra started to growl. It was like the deep noise an old man makes when woken from a good nap. It was like the sound of an engine revving on a Dodge Charger. The growling didn’t stop.

Lucy shifted from foot to foot in the dark, not sure what to expect next. She had to admit she was a little bit anxious. She had never been to Zozobra before, but then she’d only lived in Santa Fe for a year and a half. Her boss, Harold Richards, who had been city editor at the Capital Tribune for the past twenty years, described it as “a bunch of people standing around while they torch a big puppet.” She hadn’t believed him at first. It had sounded so silly—and so pagan in a city as Catholic as Santa Fe, whose very name means “Holy Faith.”

Still, Zozobra had been a Santa Fe tradition for more than eighty years. It was the opening salvo in the fiesta party arsenal. The actual Fiesta de Santa Fe didn’t begin until tomorrow. Like any good Catholic celebration, the weekend started with the fires of salvation and ended in acts of sin. Tonight was about redemption. Tomorrow was about partying your ass off. In a wholesome, family way, of course. Because fiesta was about faith, plain and simple. It was about the faith of one man—Don Diego de Vargas—who more than three hundred years ago said a prayer while encamped with his army outside Santa Fe. It was the eve of battle, so of course he prayed hard. He needed to retake the city, which the Spanish had lost to the Pueblo Indians more than a decade earlier. He prayed that he could do so without bloodshed. He said this prayer to La Conquistadora, a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, and he made her a promise. More of a bargain, really. If she would deliver the city to him without loss of life, he’d throw her a big party every year in thanksgiving. She delivered