A Wall of Flames

by Carol-Ann Lane

The crimson red wall cracked, spluttered, and hissed. Flames leapt and danced with power and beauty, breathing life. Black-grey mist puffed out from the flame’s core.

As my sister and I walked. We stood back from the crowds.

The blazing inferno matched the scorching mid-day sun. The long flowing white cotton dress I wore gave me little relief as it swept along the marble stone path. My new wide rimmed matching white hat flopped over my eyes, but it was the only to keep it from falling off.

A stench of sweat, dried tomatoes and herbs wafted to my nostrils as I squeezed my way through the crowd of onlookers.

“Por favor, signora, signore,” I said. It was my version of Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. I figured someone would understand but the empty looks and half-glares told me to not push my luck.

One woman ahead of me wore a red and black floral handkerchief around her hair. The next one beside her braided her dark black thick hair. Their blouses had puffy sleeves with half frayed on one side. Their skirts, dark in color, and attached to the front was a small red apron, embroidered with flowers. One of the aprons was half-stained with remnants of what looked like food and wine. She gave me another look and nudged the one beside her, half sniggering. I only caught a fragment of what she said “stupido, che ragazza!” The other woman looked over her shoulder at me and shrugged. “Bella, tourista?”

I stepped back, careful not to bump into the man behind me, then inched my way around the edge of the crowd nearer to the black railing. The heat was more intense on this side but there was no time to waste. The intensity of the heat was incessant, drawing a constant crowd closer rather than a safer distance. This breathing inferno, at every moment cracking, popping, and snapping at its’ onlookers. Deep orange, auburn flames danced, cracked, and popped along the massive wall. The myriad of oranges and reds intensified against the backdrop of the powder blue sky.

The crowd did not recoil instead they inched forward in unison, paused, and inched forward again. The fiery inferno’s infinite beauty mesmerized them. Adjacent to this wall of flames, high above, on a connected building, four white doves nestled motionless but faced the everlasting flame. Edging closer, the crowd’s emotions matched the rhythm of the dancing flames.

A man ahead of me collapsed to his knees, beating his breasts. Others stood reverent while others cried out. Hoping for a sign. A sign from God. The man stood up, moved closer to the railing, then moved on. The crowd inched forward again. I glanced to the other side of me and saw another man. He wore a well weathered, half-bent straw hat. With quiet reverence, he stared at the flame. A single tear glistened on his deep tanned skin and lodged itself between the ripple of wrinkles. He smiled. I wondered. Had his prayer been answered? Did he feel closer to God? The doves spanned their wings as if to fly off but moved along the edge only to nestle once more. Each time the flamed wall cracked, splattered, and hissed, a great black smoke flowed out, like layers of chiffon and lace reaching out and upward. Shades of orange, auburn, and red folded in layers, making a rippling effect along the vertical fiery wall, then cracked and snapped out at the crowd like hundreds of flamenco dancers dancing in rhythm to the beat of their popping, cracking castanets.

Again, high above, the doves perched on the edge, the silk white doves were motionless. As the sparks cracked and popped one or two doves stirred, sometimes stretching their wings ready for takeoff, ruffling their feathers, but then would net themselves back in a comfortable position close to the edge. Once and awhile, they would peer down at the growing crowd, nodding their head and beaks from side to side, then peering over at the raging wall of flames, then back at the crowd as if to warn them of impending danger. They remained on the edge, so close to the walled flames, but not close enough for its constant heat to singe the doves. As if a thin, layered curtain of air protected them from the flames. They remained steadfast, cooing, watching, waiting, facing the crowd and the flames.

This rising inferno was constant. The heat was incessant. Sparks, pops, cracks, and smoke on one side. On the other side, peaceful silk white doves resting on the edge with pure contentment, close, yet far enough for protection. Eternal serenity and calm on the one side, raging, fiery stress on the other side. The blazing orange and crimson flames never consuming the wall.

The myriad of flames intensified as they danced up the side of the fiery wall, only to snap at the mesmerized crowd. The long wait was over, it was finally my turn to approach the burning inferno. One at a time, I began to toss each thick candle over the wrought-iron railing. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, pray for us. Are you there God? Can you hear me, God? The crimson and orange wall cracked, snapped, and splattered as each five-foot candle melted like butter in hot oil, feeding the flames into new life. Snapping and cracking, the raging embers danced. Ripples of flames danced up and down the wall and a grey haze seemed to float in front of me.

Suddenly, a dark well-tanned woman pushed in front of me. I had not noticed her because she wore canvas sandals. She wore a white short-sleeved blouse. She had a red headscarf embroidered with flowers. Her scarf hung down on each side of her face and covered most of her dark, flowing hair. She threw a couple of large candles into the flame, then rubbed her large, calloused hands. My ears began to tighten. The heat intensified as the smouldering flames danced and leapt around the wall then snapped inches from my face. I freed one of my hands from my stack of candles and rubbed my eyes.

The razing blaze made a thunderous clap as it devoured each pilgrim’s long white candle. I began to toss my candles again. One, two, crack, splutter, snap. The flames twisted and melted each one, breathing new life into the unceasing inferno, springing forth a new cavalcade of flames. The sweltering heat of the day was no match for the is living inferno. Candles cracked, spluttered, and snapped, blending into the fiery wall. Some of the wax dripped onto the railing, sizzled, then disappeared.

I looked over to the crowd. The crowd pressed together tight, like a woven lace. I squinted my eyes to search for my sister. I tossed in more large candles. Crack, pop, snap, and hiss. The flames moving up and down the wall, dancing about, fluttering like flamenco dancers, stomping their feet, and knocking their castanets. The flames, like wide floral skirts fluttering out towards the crowd.

I tossed my tall candles in, one at a time, watching the flames break, snap, twist and melt each candle, breathing new life into the inferno space. The heat of the day now was no match for the raging fire, candles cracking and wax dripping, disappearing in the flames. I turned to look over toward the crowd, so tightly pressed together, as if a tight woven lace. I squinted to search for my sister.

I continued to toss in more candles. Crack, pop, hiss. The flames reached out grasping the candles. I looked to the left of the crowd where I remember my sister had been waiting for me. It was all a blur. I kept squinting my eyes to decipher the figures. I was sure I could see my sister. She looked like she was trying to yell something, but I could hear nothing. She started to jump up and down and point towards me. I looked in front of me but could only see a haze rising. My long dress clung to my legs. I threw the last set of my candles into the inferno. Pop, pop, crackle, hiss. Flames were reborn again rising high above me in the wall. The smoky haze danced around me. I looked in front of me, my dress swaying from side to side in a gentle motion. I threw the last set of my candles. Pop, pop, pop, crackle, crackle. The flames rising high above me in the wall, smoke circling above.

I stepped back and walked towards the crowd. A quiet deafness steadied me, engulfed me, between the smoke and the flames. I looked to the left of the crowd where I remember my sister had been waiting for me. It was all a blur. I should have been scared, full of anxiety, but I felt as though God’s presence was at my side. I kept blinking my eyes until I could start to see my sister. She was still pointing and jumping up and down, and the crowd seemed to follow in the same manner. My ears started to pop, and I could hear a faint cry from my sister. Tanned men wore straw hats and woman wore bandannas tied around their neck. Some bare-footed children there were stretching out their arms.

The crowd also moved their mouths, opening and closing in slow motion. Arms flapping in rhythmic motion. It was like a dream sequence where you are looking at a scene unfold from a distance. You feel helpless, disoriented. You can’t move and you are not sure what’s happening. Motionless and powerless, images fading in and out. My sister pushed aside the crowd and rushed toward me.

“Oh my God, are you alright?” she shouted.

“Your arm, your arm, was, was on fire, sis. Didn’t you hear me and the crowd screaming?” she gasped. She was touching and stroking my arm up and down.

“What are you talking about? I’m fine,” I said in a calm voice.

My sister flushed.

“But your arm, your arm was on fire, didn’t you hear all of us screaming at you?” she shrieked. “I couldn’t get past those people; I couldn’t reach you. We need to get you some help,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

“Really, I’m fine, I don’t know what the fuss is about. I don’t have any pain sis,” I said. “I still don’t know what you’re talking about. Look here.” I showed her my arm. There were no burn marks. My arms and hands had no pain and no signs of any flames. It was then I wondered, something must have happened.

Our conversation came to a sudden halt. The crowd began to move in on us and some of the women and children, even the men, were pulling at my dress. I could feel them behind me, around me touching my arms and trying to take off my hat. The men, women, and children, all speaking Portuguese, came close to my face and tried to touch me.

“O signorina, che bella,” touching my arms. I thought they liked my hat and dress.

My sister grabbed my hand and yelled, “RUN!” in her familiar high-pitched voice.

We ran and they ran after us. “Aspetta, aspetta, signorina!”

My dress fluttered about, and I held my hat with one hand.

“Come on, over there!” my sister shouted.

We leaned at the side of the wall, quivering with fright.

“Are, are they gone?” I gasped.

“I don’t think so, we may have lost them. I see a door over there. We can go in there to get away from them,” she said, wheezing.

I could hear faint voices “dove signorina, signorina, dove signorina?”

We clenched the side of the wall, panting and gasping. We didn’t want to take any chances to peer around the side of the wall to see if the crowd was approaching.

“Do you think… we’re… safe now?” I gasped. “Why were those people running after us?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” my sister moaned. We felt like spies. Although I trembled knowing we were foreigners here, I felt safe. Protected. As if God was with us the whole time. Caught up in the fear that shrouded me moments ago seemed to fall away from me like a soft mist moving along the meadow. I felt God in our midst. I was on fire. My arm was engulfed in flames, it really was, and my sister saw it. It wasn’t some strange phenomena. It really happened. God was with me in this very place, protecting me.

We slipped into the side door of the little old Fatima chapel and took our place in one of the pews and knelt. I closed my eyes and prayed. My anxiety had disappeared. I was calm. A warm glow grew inside of me. My heart was on fire. God, I thank-you for all of the Graces I have received. Jesus, I love you with all my heart.

Carol-Ann Lane is an author, storyteller, and poet. She graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario in June 2018; she is an Ontario Certified Teacher in good standing since graduating in 2012. She has taught university lectures for over four years and taught both elementary and secondary school for over seven years. Her previous careers and schooling included journalism, finance, and management. Other qualifications include a few years as Chair of RCIA program, and past discernment to the Salesians of Don Bosco order. She is an editor of an academic global handbook of research (two volumes) recently published in Jan. 2022. She had been diagnosed with advanced stages of colorectal cancer in 2017. Although her cancer was in remission and has resurfaced, she has a strong faith and continues to write.

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