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 and he succeeded, and so Fiesta de Santa Fe was born. Fiesta nowadays consisted mostly of parades and sitting around the Plaza eating Navajo tacos and burritos. There also was a pro cession honoring the statue of La Conquistadora, which was carried on a handmade wooden litter though downtown.
Zozobra was a newfangled event, comparatively. It was started mainly as a fund-raiser for college scholarships, but one that would have put the fear of God into Edgar Allan Poe.
Zozobra’s look and size had changed over the years. During World War II, he’d been only eight feet tall and made to look like a combination of Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito. Now he looked more like an old man in a nightgown. Even so, Zozobra was as hip as any teenager—he had his own Web site, and his fans could follow him on Twitter.
Lucy heard far-off music start to play and could barely make out a performer slinking across the stage in front of the puppet. Zozobra started to groan more loudly in anticipation. If a guy had made a noise like that in bed, Lucy would have checked to see if he’d broken something. The yelling of the crowd was constant now. Too loud to distinguish between words.
She tried to keep an eye on the dancer—who was only ankle-high to Zozobra—but the people in front of her blocked the view. At only five feet tall, she felt like a mushroom in a forest of sequoias. She jumped up to see what was going on, but she only caught a glimpse of the stage. She got jostled by the dad in front of her and could only see the chest of the man behind. On either side, there were just elbows and shoulders. She was in her own private cell with four walls of people. Her foot got stepped on. Her hair caught on someone’s jacket.
She needed to move to see better—and so that she wouldn’t be black and blue tomorrow. She made her way through the crowd, which was surprisingly easy. Most of the people were so intent on the figure ahead they didn’t even notice her passing by. She decided to get to the edge of the field and then figure out where to relocate.
The lights of the stage flashed blue, red, and green on the faces in the crowd. Occasionally, she heard another group start the “Burn him! Burn him!” chant. Every once in a while someone yelled “Que viva!” or “Que viva la fiesta!”
Lucy found the edge of the field, which was lined with booths selling soft drinks and Zozobra merchandise. The image of Zozobra adorned everything from T-shirts to temporary tattoos, shot glasses to earrings. She considered a Zozobra beer mug before her attention was diverted back to the stage by Zozobra’s growl getting louder.
She felt the current of the crowd change from relaxed to anxious. The tension became skintight as the pop, pop, fizz, fizz of fireworks faded into the background. She noticed a patch of short-looking people near the middle of the field and thought it best to join her own kind. She made her way to them, only to realize when she was a few feet away that they were in wheelchairs. Still, she could easily see over their heads.
The stage was now filled with people whirling and whipping torches. Another dancer in red and yellow started a complicated performance near Zozobra’s feet. The monster growled louder. A bunch of little bonfires flared up on the stage as careening fireworks started to go off again and the field boomed with their echoes. Tracers of red, green, and white sizzled into the sky. The crowd was going crazy, but they were drowned out by the fireworks, the music, and the growling, which was almost a scream by now. Lucy wasn’t sure how long she could take the noise and tension without some release.
It almost surprised her when Zozobra’s execution was delivered by a single flare launched directly into his open mouth. His head caught fire first, his face melting quickly away, while his eyes and mouth became hauntingly backlit by the orange flames. His skull spit sparks up into the night sky as his arms twisted and writhed uselessly at his sides. He was a demon caught in the flames of hell.
The rest of his body caught next as ash showered down onto his dress and fountains of massive sparklers came to life nearby. The brilliant strobes of light bounced off the faces in the crowd like a million camera flashes. Lucy could feel the heat from the flames that licked their way down his body. Zozobra snapped and crackled as the terrorizing flames scorched his dress.
Zozobra kept growling, the crowd kept screaming, and Lucy closed her eyes in a prayer of sorts. She tried to let the anxiety she’d been holding on to for months flow out of her.
Zozobra was a monster, but first and foremost, he represented a new beginning. He was burned every year so the problems of the past would go up in flames with him. He was Old Man Gloom, and the people in the crowd were the victors, the conquistadores. They would triumph over their troubles by burning their past mistakes. Zozobra was one big cleansing fire.
Lucy hoped it was true. She hoped the memory of the last few months would be wiped away in the white-hot fire. She opened her eyes again. Zozobra was a metal skeleton now devoid of his paper flesh. He still hung on his stand, a small bonfire burning at his feet. Fireworks burst into the night; the crowd laughed around her. She heard one of the teenagers behind her say, “That was a good burn.” Lucy hoped it was.
Part of the Zozobra tradition was for people to write letters that were put in the base of Zozobra before he was burned. They threw in old photos, divorce papers, police reports—any worry they wanted to be rid of. She had written a note that had been burned in the fire, as so many other people had.
Her note had been simple: Release me.
Excerpted from The Bone Fire by Christine Barber.
Copyright © 2010 by Christine Barber.
Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Christine Barber is an award-winning journalist as well as a certified emergency medical technician and firefighter. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has worked as an editor at the Santa Fe New Mexican and a writer for the Albuquerque Journal and Gallup Independent. She is the author of The Replacement Child.