The Witch's Magic Ball
Illustrated By: Jacob Below
Listen to the story while you read along!
Many years ago in the Andes Mountains there lived a cold-eyed witch. All through the summer she slept. But at the first snowfall she awoke, 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. They saw the magic ball at the foot of a little hill. Delighted with the shiny bright ball the girl, Natalia, ran to it. But to her surprise, as she drew near to it, the magic ball rolled away. Then a little way off, it 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 Natalia followed the ball, always seeming to be on the point of catching it but never quite doing so. As she ran, her older brother Luis followed her. The strange part was that every time the magic ball stopped, it rested close to some berry bush or by the edge of a crystal-clear spring, so that Natalia, 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, Natalia with Luis right behind her, came to a place in the valley where a wide river ran between two great hills. The land was strewn with mighty broken rocks and here and there were patches of snow. Soon great snowflakes appeared in a 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 magic ball still rolled on, though slower now, and the children followed it. The air grew colder and the sun weaker, so they were very glad indeed when they came to a black rock where at last, the magic ball stopped.
Natalia picked it up. For a moment she 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 by reaching out to hold her hands. Finding them icy cold, he 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 near the rock, 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 carved 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. Natalia gave a little cry of pain and awoke. She tried to rise but could not.
Natalia's 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. But he was not able to reach her, for you see the old witch had bound Natalia with a spell. There was now an invisible wall around the rock through which her brother could not pass, try as he might.
"Brother, come to me!" 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 as high as I can, but the wall that I cannot see goes up and up. But I will stay here with you, so don't be afraid."
Nearby came the voice of a great white owl, that sung:
Things of the dark and things without name,
Steer clear of the blaze from a torch's red flame.
"Luis," said Natalia. "Did you hear what the owl said?"
"Does it mean anything to you?" she asked.
"Not really," he replied.
"Listen," said Natalia. "It said 'Things of the dark and things without name, steer clear of the blaze from a torch's red flame.'"
"I heard it, Natalia," said he. "But what does it mean?"
"It must mean that the things in this horrible valley fear fire. So that's what you must bring back here. Leave me and go find some fire. And please hurry back as soon as you can!"
Luis was in no mood to leave his sister all alone, and stuck inside a magic bubble that could do her no good. Still she urged him, saying, "It's okay, Luis. Please, I need you to go so you can bring back the fire!"
Still, Luis didn't want to leave her. Just then an Andeas condor, a very large flying bird, flew overhead. In a great dive, it swooped over the rock. 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. It must be true. You must go quickly so you can return before it gets too dark to find me again."
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, and trying to remember the way he was going. Luis knew that the great bird was leading him somewhere, and he followed. Soon the condor led him to a river, the Rio Chico, and he followed it until he reached the great place where two rivers meet by a marshy, swampy lake.
And there was a house, a poor structure made of earth and stones snuggled in a warm fold of the hills. No one was home. The condor flew high and then circling in the air, he became a small speck to Luis. So he knew that he should stay for awhile and see what might come. Pushing open the door, he saw by the ashes in the fireplace that someone lived there, for there were red embers neatly 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.
The man who lived there must have come into the house somehow, because when Luis turned around there the man was, sitting on a stool and nodding his head. He offered Luis bread and yerba tea. As they ate and quenched their thirst, Luis told the old man what had happened to his sister. The old man said, "Wicked is the old witch of the Andes Mountains. There is only one way to defeat her. Tell me, lad, do you know what it is?"
"Could it be this?" said Luis, remembering what the condor had said. "Fire will conquer frosted death."
"Yes, that's it exactly," nodded the old man. "And trust me, there is no time to lose. Look, here comes your friend the condor." As the condor swooped low by the door, it said:
Now with the cold, grows faint her breath,
Fire will conquer frosted death.
The old man reached down and took the dry end of a branch lit by the fire, and gave it to Luis.
Off the brother sped with the blazing stick, running right through the marshy, swampy lake. 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. Sadly, Luis returned to the old man and dropped the wet stick at his feet.
"Please give me a second stick," the boy despaired. "My sister must be freezing cold by now. And who knows if the witch has already come! Please, I'll be more careful this time. I'll run around the lake, even if it takes a little longer."
The old man gave Luis a second blazing stick. Then the condor flew up toward the witch mountain. At once, the brave lad set off. Around the lake, along the river's edge, over snowclad burrows and small hills he ran, pausing only to catch his breath. But -- alas! -- when he tried to get a better hold of the lighted branch, he dropped it in the snow. 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 will bring her frosted death.
Having said it, like an arrow he shot up again into the sky.
A third time, Luis took a burning stick by the end. 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, 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 while her wings protected the flame. Luis held the flamingo tight and the flamingo shot up into the air like an arrow. The blazing fire grazed her neck and breast until it became pink and red, but that she heeded not, and flew on.
Straight up the valley and over to the rock where Natalia was bound went the flamingo and Luis. At once Luis tipped the blazing stick into a heap of dried moss near his sister. Up leaped the dancing flames. With a tremendous noise, the rock that had entrapped his sister by her hair flew into a thousand pieces and the enchantment that had surrounded her was broken. The power of the old witch of the Andes Mountains was gone forever. Natalia was freed! With her gentle, cool hand, Natalia stroked the breast of the flamingo so that the bird's burns were healed. But as a sign of its bravery, the flamingo 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. 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.