by Carmen Baca
"La Muñeca" was a runner up in the 2018 Extra Fiction Contest
See here to read the first, second, and third winning entries and stay tuned for this year's upcoming Extra Fiction Contest.
The redness of the flames stood out vividly against the blackness of the night. They rose from the open windows of the façade of the building front like multi-colored streamers from the Día de los Muertos celebrations in their varied hues of red, orange, yellow, even green and blue closer to the source of the fire. As if the Devil and his armies were celebrating some spectacular event in the old, formerly grand hotel, the sporadic flashes from within announced with small explosions that something else had just been consumed by the hungry beast. The roar was like nothing before heard in the town center, only on the outskirts if one stood close to the rail line when the Big Chief passenger train rushed through without stopping. If Hades could be imagined by humans, perhaps then this came close. Sudden flares rose through the roof and burst into flying embers and sparks rivaling the best Fourth of July fireworks display.
Flames rose so high in the sky that night that people who lived in the hilly area south of the town could see, and many a head of the household left their comfy casitas to rush to the rescue while others simply went to have first-hand reports to tell anyone who would listen in the days to come. That is the way of human nature: some true altruists rush into the fray without stopping to consider their own safety while others seek their fifteen minutes of fame by being the center of attention when news, mitote (gossip,) or innuendo of any kind presents itself. It wasn’t until these two kinds of people reached the town plaza that they discovered the majestic and historic Casa Encantada was so engulfed in flames that they didn’t think even one wall would survive.
Earlier, three permanent inhabitants of the hotel began their day in their normal fashion: conversation, introspection, and reflection. They wandered through the halls and rooms of the building without constraint and only caused small gasps or shivers in the people they encountered occasionally. The younger of the trio loved yerba buena which she found growing in the patio and enjoyed blowing a breath of mint-scented air in the faces of the people she passed in the hall just for fun to watch their eyes widen, their mouths fall open, and their bodies shake themselves like a dog after taking a swim. Aside from curling up in the window alcove with a good book, that was one of the ways she entertained herself since going to school or anywhere else was out of the question.
When darkness began to replace the dusk of the late afternoon, the girl’s two adult companions sat in the parlor of the suite they inhabited. The lady’s laughter trickling from the second floor was so lovely it sounded like crystal chimes in a light breeze to the young man walking below the open window. When he glanced up, she moved back into the room. “Not again,” she giggled. “Reminds me of how I almost gave myself away when you caused Nicola to stumble upon the staircase the day of the quinceañera. I was afraid she was going to fall and hurt herself—all because you wanted a better vantage point.”
“That was a close one,” her husband, Señor Theodoro Barela, agreed. “I tried to push against her with my arm so she wouldn’t fall forward. I was trying to get out of the woman’s view, but she still caught my image in her camera.”
“You are not the only one in the photographs,” Señora Romulda Barela added with sudden solemnity. “The photo of the three of us must have caused much consternation among Nicola’s people.”
The young subject of their discourse walked into the room, carrying her rag doll in one arm as she usually did. Had she lived with her parents, it was unlikely she’d still be attached to the special symbol of what she’d left behind. She sat on the settee, the very same one where she’d been pretending to sleep when the couple appeared before her and asked if she was ready to join them that night several years before.
“That’s the one action I still have difficulty feeling good about,” Nicola sighed. “That I caused my mother such pain by leaving with you that night.”
The couple exchanged a concerned glance.
Nicola looked out the window down at the plaza and the townspeople of Mariposa. “But I’m sure the pain she would’ve felt seeing me get sicker every day with an incurable illness would’ve been worse. I’m content to be here with you and to catch an occasional glimpse of her when she comes to the plaza.”
The three sat in pensive silence as they watched the people of the town come and go in the early coolness of the evening. They were unable to leave the confines of the hotel, but they spent much of their days by the windows looking at people doing simple activities like walking, window shopping, visiting with others on the park benches, or playing with their children and pets on the green lawns in the summers or in the pristine snow of the winters. The couple had inhabited the hotel for over a hundred years while the girl had only been there for five. They were ghosts of the people they once were, but they existed just as sure as any of the humans they observed. Theirs was a quiet afterlife, and they were as content as they could be, given their circumstances.
But the trio didn’t know their happy ethereal existence in the historic hotel was about to come to an end. Left unattended for but a few minutes, hot grease in a skillet bubbled up and splattered on a dish towel someone had carelessly left by the stove. The chef and his two assistants were in the stockroom nearby taking inventory and preparing a grocery list. None knew a grease fire was searching for oxygen in the kitchen. By the time one of the men smelled the burning oil and they scrambled back into the cocina to tackle the flames, some had already begun to consume the nearby window curtains. The busboy opening the swinging door to the dining area created just the right amount of air flow to fan the hungry beast. With a sudden whoosh, the starving fire flashed into an explosion and before anyone could take action, the blaze engulfed the entire room.
The conflagration found more air through the open door to the dining area and the sparks jumped like lively, devilish creatures from furniture to carpet. Freed from any constraints, the embers soon followed, rolling along the wood floor and leaving more sparks to ignite. The employees at and around the reservation desk heard the roar of the hungry monster. Just as their attention flew in the direction of the wide entrance to the dining room, they felt the heat and saw the rising swirls of black smoke coming toward them at the same time the tongues of searing flames burst through. Cries of alarm rose in crescendo like the fire truck would only a few minutes later. Everyone rushed to the bar behind the reservation desk and ran through the exit to raise the cry of “Fire!”
The fire department was just down the block, but by the time the small engine got into place, the entire first floor was rapidly being devoured by the hungry conflagration. The guests and employees in the upper four stories evacuated quickly through the exterior fire escapes, so not a soul was lost that they knew of. Most of the back of the building suffered most of the damage when all was over. But the water damage and the blows of the bomberos’ axes made the building uninhabitable. The Casa Encantada closed its doors that day, leaving the three spiritual inhabitants alone.
Afterward, it stood abandoned but fenced in to prevent hoboes from attempting to live there and to deter any of the neighborhood adolescents from daring one another to explore, to vandalize, and most importantly, to become hurt by the fragility of the frame. Of the former classic and sophisticated building, only the front remained, like a painted façade of a movie set with nothing much behind to hold it up. The rear was reduced to a skeleton; in some areas only the basic framework of the exterior walls still stood. The wood was blackened, charred so badly in some places one had only to give a slight push and it cracked, splintered, and fell. During the night sometimes in the slightest breeze, neighbors heard the crash of another piece of lumber and shook their heads in dismay that the city leaders didn’t just tear it all down before someone was hurt.
Several months later Señor and Señora Barela and their young charge, Nicola, sat in the small space left relatively untouched by the fire, the parlor where they’d been conversing when the blaze began.
“Are we to reside here in this one cramped room for the rest of eternity?” Nicola asked, plopping down on her favorite window seat with her doll in her lap.
“Since we can’t leave this building, I don’t see any alternative, mi hita,” the elder man replied. “You know we have tried to go beyond our limited confines and what happens when we do.”
The lady sighed and shook her head. “Esposo querido, I cannot stay here, not like this.” She stood and waved her hand to the charred and water-damaged walls. “I am sure this frame will fall before long or will be torn down by the town fathers. It is time to leave this earth and welcome what awaits us in the next phase of our existence. Please, join me in this, mi amor.”
Sadness came to his face and made its home in the dying sparkle of his eyes, the downward turn of his lips, and in the resigned shrug of his shoulders as he finally nodded in acquiescence. “You are right. I know you are. We’ve spent too much time here already and have been of assistance to only a few others from this place.”
He recalled the custodian whom they’d saved over seventy years ago and who had already made his way to his own afterlife. There was also the hobo who’d come into the patio nearly fifty years before and also left his earthly existence for what came after only ten years later. There were several others, but nowhere as many had they been in a larger city and been able to leave the confines of the hotel. So much time had passed, neither he nor his wife could even remember why they were restricted to the walls of the previously large and comfortable building they called home for over a century.
“When would you like to go?”
“Well, we’ve made up our minds. What’s wrong with tomorrow? Let us enjoy our last night here, for we don’t know whether we will be together after we leave.”
“I guess I’m ready too,” Nicola sighed. Her face was a reflection of the man’s, her eyes sad and her mouth trembling from the cries which gathered in the back of her throat.
The older couple comforted her as best they could, trying to be optimistic about their future together even though neither knew what was ahead. They’d lived good lives on earth when they were alive and expected that surely what they’d done as spiritual beings would count for something. They never knew why they had been unable to move forward previously, only existing to help those whom they could without question. The burning pyre which had consumed their home and their inability to move elsewhere on earth left them no choice but to move on.
The three spent the rest of the night in more conversation, reminiscing about their pasts with equal parts of laughter and sorrow until the fingers of the dawn began to part the curtains of darkness and sunrise was imminent. They enjoyed one last group hug, holding one another tightly and then moving to the first floor to stand before the front doors with clasped hands.
“Ready, my loves?” Señor Barela asked.
With Señor Barela on the left and his wife between them, Nicola clutched her precious muñeca in one arm, wondering if somehow, some way, the doll would accompany her to her next destination. Not wanting to let either of his companions’ hands go, the Señor touched the tip of his boot to each door to get them to open. They stepped outside into the welcome warmth of the sun and lifted their faces to the rays which enfolded the three for the first time since each had died. For only a moment they stood still, waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, they took a few steps more, and a few more until they reached the center of the park. They were allowed to feel the sunlight on their faces and arms, to take deep breaths of the freshness of the air, and to enjoy one last time the feel of the grass beneath their feet, their sight of the green foliage and trees and the bountiful and beautiful hues and scents of the flowers—and they were gone. No fanfare of angels’ trumpets, no clap of thunder, no opening in the clouds revealed the stairway to heaven. But the gated doors opened wide, and the saints were there to welcome the couple as they passed.
Nicola was not so lucky. Perhaps the powers which govern life, death, and the afterlife decided it was not her time. Perhaps she had unfulfilled duties on earth. But when the señor and his señora ascended through the gates to meet their Maker and to receive answers to all their questions, she was not with them.
The neighborhood kids, Anselmo, Gabriel, and Guillermo, decided on a dare several weeks later to pass through a loose board in the fence which enclosed the remains of the hotel.
They were joined by the only girl they considered a friend, Carlotta, whom they called Charlie. Truthfully, she blackmailed them into letting her accompany them or they most likely would’ve left her behind. But there they were, the four of them, sneaking through the opening and prowling amongst the ruins for any treasures they might find. Of course, there wasn’t much on the ground. And everything was soot-covered, so touching anything left them with black fingers.
When Guillermo was the first to wipe his hand on his pants, it was Charlie who reminded him to “wash” the hollín off with dirt instead. Otherwise, their parents would all know where they’d been, and they wouldn’t be able to get away with coming back.
Other than a few coins, a couple of candle holders only partially melted, and a little metal box, they didn’t find much of value. Charlie went in one direction and the boys went opposite. She came upon a fallen chest of drawers, opening first one drawer after the other until she came to the last. A raggedy doll with only a touch of smoke damage looked up at her from the folds of a baby blanket in which it had been wrapped. She joined the boys shortly after.
“Look what I found,” she announced and held the doll up so they could see.
The boys were unimpressed, hoping she had found something of value they could pawn.
“Let’s use it for target practice,” Anselmo made to grab it with one hand while holding up his slingshot with the other.
“No!” Charlie yanked the doll to her chest to keep it safe. “I’m gonna give it to myhermanita.” And with that, she left the boys behind, taking the callejones behind the houses all the way home so no one would see her carrying a doll. She had her reputation to maintain.
Her little sister, Augusta, was only four. But she rarely spoke. She wasn’t mute, according to the doctors, nor was she simple-minded. She simply chose not to communicate with words when her actions could convey what she wanted. She had no friends since to be a friend requires some kind of communication, but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she preferred her own company to that of others, except Charlie, and even then, only periodically, like when Charlie read to her at night or taught her to play jacks or some other game.
So when Charlie got home, she slipped quietly into the bathroom, washed the grime from the rag doll, and hung it to dry in her closet until the following day. That morning after breakfast, she found Augusta in her room quietly playing with her Susie Q doll. She presented the homely but somewhat homey muñeca to the little girl and told her the doll was special. She told Augusta she could tell the doll her secrets and the muñeca would keep them. Thinking that perhaps the doll could help to get the little one to talk more and perhaps be a conduit to communicating with other little girls, she made up a detail which she’d come to regret years later. She told Augusta the doll was magical and would help her learn to speak better.
From that day, the muñeca became Augusta’s constant companion. Charlie’s plan had backfired. Augusta didn’t want any human company once the doll came into her possession. She named it Esther, and when anyone asked how she came upon such an unusual choice, she always replied that the doll told her. After a month her parents thought perhaps the way she cared for, spoke to, and carried the thing everywhere was unhealthy. Truly, it appeared the doll communicated in some way as the child would whisper to it and incline her head as if listening to a quiet reply.
If the adults tried to take Esther away, Augusta’s cries were so forlorn they ended up giving it back before too long. Thinking they were making too much out of it, her parents convinced themselves she’d outgrow the muñeca with time or it would eventually fall apart. After all, it was a rag doll.
Another year passed and still Augusta and her Esther doll were constant companions.
Though her parents were dismayed that their daughter was still too attached to the thing and that said cosa had grown no more tattered or ragged than it was when she got it, they welcomed the opportunity which arose that would allow them to separate the two. The little girl started school, and her parents insisted she leave her doll behind. Between them, Charlie, and other well-meaning family members supplying various reasons why Nicola couldn’t accompany her to school, Augusta finally relented. But she explained in as little words as possible the reason why, and it had nothing to do with any of theirs: “Esther says it’s okay.”
While she was away at escuela, her mother, Guadalupita, Pita for short, did what many mothers did in the fifties— cleaned, cooked, and enjoyed her hobbies: sewing, gardening, and crocheting. Her life was fairly uneventful, and she enjoyed it that way. Her adolescent and early adult years had had traumatic events, so she was content to have nothing of importance to contend with—nothing with life or death issues. Would that she had been able to see the future. Oftentimes, life’s lessons come in hindsight, and sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to our instinct, our own intuition to heed those little hairs that rise on the back of our necks or on our arms when we get that feeling people call “someone passing over our graves.”
So when a few days after Augusta started school and the strange phenomenon began, she tried to shake off any concern. Pita, leaving the room Augusta shared with Charlie, caught in the corner of her eye something moving. The act happened so quickly that when she turned, it had stopped. There was no window where she looked, nothing like a fluttering curtain to have captured her attention. Blinking her eyes and attributing it to exhaustion or imagination, she forgot about it.
Until the next time a week later. And the time after that. And... She noted that every single time, the Esther doll was the object of her attention. There were instances where she’d leave the doll in one place only to discover it had moved. Telling herself she only forgot she’d left the thing there and instead had left it somewhere else, she tried to convince herself the muñeca had no powers.
But then she stopped a few weeks later to reflect about that: powers. Powers? She knew from the first she’d sensed in the doll something so mesmerizing her own daughter clung to it like a drug. Never far from the Esther doll, Augusta always kept it in her sight, perhaps afraid they’d try to sneak it away from her. When she held it, her little girl seemed to be at peace.
When she whispered to her doll, she inclined her head to place her ear close to its mouth as though listening closely to whatever she imagined (and surely it had to come from her imagination). And she wore such an expression of contentment that one would’ve thought the angels of the Lord were speaking to her. That was the moment of revelation for Guadalupita.
The doll wasn’t cursed; it was blessed. She didn’t know how or why, but if the doll insisted it was Esther and had such a positive influence on her daughter as to cause her to wear that look of bliss on her face, who was she to say otherwise? The muñeca hadn’t done anything, had not endangered Augusta or any of them. She’d merely satisfied some need in her daughter that human interaction or contact didn’t.
That very day she entered the girls’ bedroom and picked Esther up. Staring into her cross-stitched eyes, Pita was surprised to see a sort of compassion and when she held the doll close, it actually felt as if Esther’s little arms moved, as if she wanted to embrace the woman back. But instead of fear, a sudden and overwhelming feeling of absolute contentment came over her, as if the doll extended her sympathy for Pita’s past traumas and tried to offer empathy for what was and for what would come.
She tried and failed to explain to her husband later and resorted to leading him by the hand to the girls’ room, pushing him to sit on Charlie’s bed and placing Esther in his arms. She left him alone. It wasn’t long before he joined her in the kitchen where he put the beer back in the fridge and instead opted for a glass of cold water. The look on his face told her what she needed to know.
Since the girls were still at school, they rushed the doll to their parish priest and had him bless Esther for their own peace of mind. Father Carlos didn’t feel any kind of trepidation when he held it, and nothing happened at the church to any of them. Any concerns they had dissipated, and they were instead convinced they’d been right. They never spoke of what they did to their girls; they never mentioned it to anyone.
So the first two years of Augusta’s education passed without incident. She found school delightful and indeed made a few friends. Esther was still an important confidante, and both Charlie and Pita laughed between themselves that soon Augusta would confide in her doll about which boy she should return attention to of the upcoming suitors she’d be sure to attract.
That was not to be, however.
On the very anniversary of the day Señor and Señora Barela had entered their heavenly home, Augusta disappeared from her swing under the large apple tree in her family’s backyard. She was gone without a trace. Investigations from every jurisdiction in the city came together; searches yielded nothing. The parents, clearly heartbroken, were cleared. So were her sister, friends, neighbors, and even acquaintances. No suspects came to light, no leads developed—there was no closure, as they say. The entire town wanted to know what happened, especially in light of the disappearance of the little girl for that ill-fated quinceañera of five years before.
When Nicola’s parents heard about Augusta, they paid the De La Cruz parents a visit.
Nicola’s mother, Hortencia, disclosed that Esther was Nicola’s third name, her confirmation name. Her full name as recorded in her birth certificate was Nicola Frances Esther De La Cruz.
As for the muñeca, it was the one given to Nicola by the quinceañera herself, Marguerite Quintanilla, her own cousin. They proved it with a photograph from the event. Pita nearly fainted at the confirmation. Hortencia saw how deeply she had been affected and gave her one of three similar photos as a gesture of comfort.
However, no amount of rationalization on anyone’s parts could satisfy everyone with a plausible explanation—not the two sets of parents, not the authorities, nor the priest or the bishop when contacted. Sometimes those of us who live by our faith in a higher power have to accept that there are certain aspects of life, death, or the beyond which we do not have the capacity to understand. This was one of those times. No one could confirm what happened with Nicola or Augusta, or even with Esther, the muñeca, who had disappeared with her owner. The town fathers brought in their heavy equipment and their city employees and cleared out the remains of the hotel, sifting through every little pile to satisfy everyone that the girls and the doll were not somehow there. Though no rational explanation of why anyone thought they might was provided, it was something everyone wanted done.
There were only two mothers who shared a secret the next day after construction on the rebuilding of Casa Encantada began, which was the day after they had exchanged a special photograph. Before bed that night, Pita had sat with the photo in her hand. After a moment she felt a weight lift from her shoulders, and her headache, which had arrived with a vengeance the day her little girl went missing, also went away.
She felt at peace and went immediately to bed. In her dreams Augusta came to explain that the muñeca had held the spirit of the little girl who vanished before she did. She made her mother understand that Nicola would have spent her short life in the agony of a fatal illness, and that angels had offered her a way to escape into heaven to avoid not only her own pain, but that of her mother and father.
They would have been helpless to help her, which would have hurt them in so many ways. And she was afraid they’d experience hopelessness and lose their faith. Departing as she did allowed her to leave her parents with their faith that what happened would be part of God’s plan and accept it.
Nicola’s spirit had remained in the muñeca to offer the same help to the next little girl who was fated to meet her. Nicola confirmed that Augusta was soon to have become ill; she would’ve died before the end of the year. Nicola had done what she needed to leave this plane and emerge whole and healthy in the next; she saved another as she had been saved. As for the muñeca, let’s just add a little warning here if we may. If you come across a raggedy-looking doll with cross-stitch eyes in the newly constructed Casa Encantada, you might think twice before picking her up.
Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano, a historical fiction based on her father’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.