A Story From: Argentina
Read Time: 11 to 15 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
Many years ago, a cold-eyed witch lived in the Andes Mountains. All through the summer she slept, but when the first snow fell, she awakened, full of glee. For winter was her hunting time and her eating time.
By some strange magic she was able to draw children to her one by one, and how she did it no one knew. But the truth is that she had a magic ball, a ball bright and shining and of many colors, and this she left in places where children played, but never where a grown man or woman could see it.
One day near a lake, a brother and sister were playing and saw the magic ball at the foot of a little hill. Delighted with its brightness and beauty Natalia ran to it, intending to pick it up and take it home, but, to her surprise, as she drew near to it the ball rolled away; then, a little way off, came to rest again. Again she ran to it and almost had her hand upon it when it escaped, exactly as a piece of thistle-down does, just as she was about to grasp it. So she followed it, always seeming to be on the point of catching it but never quite doing so. As she ran her older brother Luis followed, careful lest she should come to harm. The strange part of it was that every time the ball stopped, it rested close to some berry bush or by the edge of a crystal-clear spring, so that she, like all the other children who had been led away, found at the moment of resting something to eat or drink to refresh herself.
At last, chasing the ball, Natalia and Luis came to a place in the valley where the Rio Chico runs between great hills. The land was strewn with mighty broken rocks and here and there were patches of snow, and soon great snowflakes appeared in the dark and gloomy air. Then brother and sister were terror-struck, for they knew with all the wandering and twisting and turning they had lost their way. But the ball still rolled on, though slower now, and the children followed it. The air grew keener and colder and the sun weaker, so they were very glad indeed when they came to a black rock where, at last, the ball stopped.
Natalia picked it up, and for a moment gazed at its beauty, but for a moment only. For no sooner had she gazed at it than it vanished as a soap bubble does, and she cried out in grief. Luis tried to cheer her and finding that her hands were icy cold, led her to the north side of the rock where it was protected from the wind. There Natalia coiled herself up and was asleep in a minute. Luis, sat down, thinking that as soon as his sister had rested they must find their way back home. He tried hard to stay awake so he could keep watch, even holding his eyelids open with his fingers, but that only seemed to make him sleepier. Then, with the pine trees slowly nodding about him and the leaves softly whispering, soon Luis, too, slept.
Natalia, being out of the blustering wind, was very comfortable in the niche carbed within the great stones, and she dreamed that she was at home. Her mother, she thought, was combing her hair and singing as she did so. But her mother, she thought, grew rough and careless and pulled her hair, so that she gave a little cry of pain and awoke.
Natalia tried to rise, but could not, and her heart was like stone when she found what had happened. It was this: While she slept, the old witch of the Andes Mountains had stroked and combed her hair, and meanwhile wrought magic, so that the girl’s hair was grown into the rock so very closely that she could not as much as turn her head. All that she could do was to stretch forth her arms, and when she saw Luis a little way off she called to him most piteously.
For you see, the old witch had bound Natalia with a spell, so that there was an invisible wall around the rock through which her brother could not pass, try as he might.
“Brother, come to me, I am afraid!,” called Natalia through the invisible wall, and she started to cry.
“Sister,” he said, “I try but I cannot. There is something through which I cannot pass. I can see you but I cannot pass through.”
“Can you not climb over, dear Luis?” asked Natalia.
“No, Natalia. I have reached high as I can, but the wall that I cannot see goes up and up. But I shall stay here with you, so fear not.”
Nearby came the voice of a great white owl, which sung:
Things of the dark and things without name,
Save us from light and the torch’s red flame.
After a while Natalia spoke again, but through sobs.
“Brother mine, did you not hear what the owl said?”
“Does it mean nothing to you?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Listen,” said Natalia. “These were the words: ‘Save us from light and the torch’s red flame.'”
“I heard that, Natalia. What does it mean?”
“It means, brother, that the things in this horrible valley fear fire. So that’s what you must bring here. Leave me for a while to find fire, and come back with it swiftly. I’ll be terribly lonely, so hurry, please.”
Hearing that, Luis was sad, for he was in no mood to leave his sister in that plight. Still she urged him, saying, “Speed, brother, speed!”
Just then a condor passed with a great swoop over the rock and the condor said as it wheeled low, “Fire will conquer frosted death.”
“Did you hear that, brother?” said Natalia. “The condor says the same thing. You must go quickly and find fire and return before nightfall, before it’s too late for me.”
So Luis waved his sister a farewell and set off down the valley, following the condor that hovered in the air, now darting away and now returning. Luis knew that the great bird was leading him somewhere, and he followed, presently finding the river and following it until he reached the great place where the waters met.
At the meeting of the waters he came to a house, a poor structure made of earth and stones snuggled in a warm fold of the hills. No one was there, but as the condor flew high and, circling in the air, became a small speck, Luis knew that he should stay for awhile and see what might befall. Pushing open the door he saw by the ashes in the fireplace that someone lived there, for there were red embers well covered to keep the fire alive. So he made himself useful, which was the way of that country, and brought fresh water from the spring. He gathered wood and piled it neatly by the fireside. Next he blew upon the embers and added twigs and sticks until a bright fire glowed.
When the man of the house came into the room Luis never knew, but there he was, sitting by the fire on a stool and nodding his head. He offered Luis bread and yerba tea. After they had eaten and quenched their thirst the old man spoke, and this is what he said, “Wicked is the old witch of the Andes Mountains, and there is but one way to defeat her. What, lad, is the manner of her defeat? Tell me that.”
Remembering what the condor had said, Luis repeated these words: “Fire will conquer frosted death.”
“True,” said the old man, nodding. “And your sister is there. Now here comes our friend the condor, who sees far and knows much.” Said the condor:
Now with cold grows faint her breath,
Fire will conquer frosted death.
Having said that, the old man gave Luis a lighted branch.
Off he sped with the blazing stick, running through marsh and swamp in a straight line. Soon Luis came to a shallow lagoon. Straight through the water he splashed, and the spray dashed up on either side. He held the stick high, but not high enough, for the splashing water quenched the fire. Luis sadly returned to the old man, dropping the wet stick at his feet.
“Please give me a second stick, for my sister must be quivering with cold by now,” said the boy. “This time I will run around the lake, and the water will not put out the fire.”
“Yes,” said the old man.
Down again swooped the condor, who cried as before:
Now with cold grows faint her breath,
Fire will conquer frosted death.
then flew away again toward the witch mountain.
The old man gave Luis a second blazing stick and at once the brave lad set off. Over vega, across lagoon, and over snowclad hilltop he ran, pausing only to catch his breath. But — alas! — he dropped the lighted branch in the snow when he tried to get a better hold of it, and when he picked it up again it was but a charred, black thing. Luis was heartsick, and could do nothing but return to the house, bearing the blackened stick, and beg to be given a third chance.
“Ah,” said the old man. “Here comes the condor. We must hear his message.”
The condor wheeled low again, calling:
Fainter now grows the maiden’s breath,
Night must bring her frosted death.
and having said it, like an arrow he shot up again into the sky.
A third time Luis took the burning stick by the end and, running around the lake, he made straight for the mountain. He gripped the stick so tightly that his fingers hurt, yet he would not let up, not even for a second, and continued racing, racing, like a deer. A flamingo, seeing him, spread her wings like sails and ran by his side. On her back Luis placed his free hand, and with that help he sped as fast as the flamingo. Luis held the flamingo tight and in the air the flamingo shot up like an arrow. The blazing fire burned her neck and breast until it became pink and red, but that she heeded not.
Straight up the valley and to the rock where Natalia was bound went the flamingo and Luis. At once Luis dropped the blazing stick into a heap of dried moss by the rock. Up leaped the dancing flames, and with a tremendous noise the rock flew into a thousand pieces. The power of the old witch of the Andes Mountains was gone forever. As for Natalia, she was at once freed! With her gentle, cool hand, she stroked the breast of the flamingo so that her burns were healed, but as a sign of its bravery the bird has carried a crimson breast from that day to this.
As for Natalia and Luis, they lived for many, many years in the green valley, and about them birds of many kinds played and lived and reared their young, and the magic ball of the witch lived only in memories that grew more and more distant every year that passed by.
"The Magic Ball" is based on a story of the same name from Tales from Silver Lands by Charles J. Finger (Doubleday & Company, Inc.: New York, 1924) pp. 48-58.
Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998. All rights reserved.
This story is sourced to the Chubut region of Argentina.