We start by lighting parts of ourselves on fire that are easier to put out than our faces. Hands, to begin. Arms outstretched, palms toward the darkening sky, I watch as a flaming torch is wiped across my hand from wrist to fingertips and for one, maybe two seconds, I am on fire. The flame trail is two inches high. My hand warms. It doesn’t burn exactly, but it feels like touching black leather after it has been in the direct sun, a heat I impulsively want to move away from. I close my fist around the flame and put myself out.
The Oakland evening does not notice me. Buses sigh and hiss, a kid across the street accuses another of a basketball foul, old women roll their groceries behind them beside a chain link fence. I smell slow cooking meat and exhaust. This is not a time to pause, close my eyes, and try to take everything around me in to remember it, but I do anyway. I won’t be here much longer, and I have very little idea about where I’m going.
From the moment it became clear that I needed to learn to eat fire, I’d hoped there was some magic involved that meant you didn’t really have to do the thing it appeared you were doing. Maybe there would be a flame retardant solution I’d spread inside my mouth, like on hotel curtains. Perhaps there was a little machine you wore behind your ear that shot fire-squelching foam onto the flame as it approached your face. Maybe the entire act was an illusion. The most disappointing moment was the revelation that there is no trick. How you eat fire is you eat fire.
I am in an “Introduction to Fire Eating” class at a fire-arts collective in Oakland because I’m running away with the circus sideshow. On account of the fact that I am now a grown woman at the end of her twenties with a master’s degree and full set of kitchen knives, I’m trying to run away in a rehearsed and respectable manner. There will be no stowing away on a train in the middle of the night and waking up with a swift kick by the ringmaster in an Iowa field only to be put to work shoveling the tiger’s cage. No. As a lady of the twenty-first century, I’m preparing for my circus flee.
Among the first things Shaina, our teacher, says when she opens her mouth on the first day is, “Look at my severe burns!” She rolls up her sleeves and points to a series of scars on her arms with delight, like she is identifying constellations for a child. “This was from Japan, this one Rio. Sometimes, you burn yourself really badly in a performance,” she says.
“What do you do then?” I ask, imagining a fireman lubricating my body in healing salve from the Himalayas.
“You put yourself out and keep on smiling.”
Shaina details teeth cracking from heat, tongue blisters, and gasoline burps, which I experience later that evening while trying to close-talk a bartender into a free drink. She warns me sternly not to get pregnant while sucking in gasoline fumes.
The class is in a massive warehouse full of a variety of fire artists. We trudge past the welders and blacksmiths and ceramicists into an outside yard full of huge gas canisters with NO SMOKING, DANGEROUS, and FLAMMABLE signs everywhere, and light our first torch. The first lesson: how to put yourself out.
There is only one other student in the class, a video-game guy with small gauges in his ears and an easy smile who is a stilt walker at Burning Man. I ask him why he’s taking the fire swallowing class and he tells me that he feels too ordinary as a stilt walker, too common among the many stilt walkers who have overcrowded Burning Man. He wants something special. This I understand.
Shaina hands me a wet kitchen towel, wipes her pants down with camping gas, and ignites herself. Pustules of sweat bloom along my hairline and upper lip. Her legs, from mid-thigh down to ankle, are on fire. She is looking at me, smiling. I dive toward her legs with the wet towel outstretched between my hands as she’s saying, with firm encouragement, “Smother, smother, smother.” I’m quite sure my hands will go up in flames the moment they near the fire. I pat the wet towel against her legs, up and down, and though I feel a little bit of warmth on my hands, they do not melt or blister and, as I bring the towel away, I realize I have, indeed, put Shaina out. “Nice,” Shaina says, and I feel a greater sense of success than I have about anything in a long time. “But that was way too gentle,” Shaina says. “If I’d really been cooking, I’d be singed by now.” We practice again, this time with the stilt walker and me really smacking Shaina’s legs with the towel to put her out. At this point, I’m thinking about a break, or some words of wisdom, or a bit of secret sharing from an insider, but it’s time for us to get lit on fire.
“What sorts of acts can you do?” the sideshow manager asked me in an email. Months before I’d found myself eye to eye with open flames, I’d been down to Florida a few times to write a magazine article on Ward Hall, the king of the last American sideshow. Ward lives in Gibsonton, a town once famous for housing the wintering sideshow performers. When I’d asked Ward to introduce me to some other sideshow performers, he told me to follow him to the cemetery. It wasn’t until later in the conversation when he told me he still owns the last American traveling sideshow, The World of Wonders, complete with live acts and a dime museum. He’s been in the business for 65 years. “You want to really understand what life is like in the sideshow?” Chris Christ, Ward’s partner, asked me.
“Then join us,” he said.
“Okay,” I told him, because I had decided to be a yes person.
A few months later, the sideshow season is about to start and I’m buying costumes, per instruction, from the stripper supply store. I’ll join them in two days.
In order to answer the sideshow manager’s question, I Googled “acts in a sideshow.” It was hard to know what skills to list without knowing the sorts of skill he might be interested in. I’d been hired in a traveling sideshow. I needed to seem worth it. I wrote a list of what I saw on Wikipedia’s sideshow page. “Juggling. Fire swallowing. Poi spinning. Magic.” I started feeling more brazen. What couldn’t I learn in a few months? “Bed of nails. Snake charming,” I wrote. “All animal charming. I’m very good with animals.”
I did not, however, include a few acts that felt out of reach, such as the human blockhead, a performer who pounds nails into his nose. Also, much to my initial displeasure, I was dissuaded from sword swallowing by each close friend I mentioned it to.
“Terrific,” the sideshow manager wrote back. “See you next month.”
Shaina tells us to reach out our hands, palms up, like bad school children in old movies readied for the switch. My heart is starting to pump fast. There haven’t yet been any moments since I’ve decided to run away with the sideshow where I’ve felt any fear. I’ve felt a little apprehension, some anxiety, but no fear. At this moment, however, as Shaina is approaching my skin with fire, I feel fear. I question every choice I’ve made in my life. Who do I think I am, pretending to be a circus performer? A litany of excuses for leaving the class at that moment builds in my throat, and though every instinct in my body encourages me to bail, I do not withdraw my palm. Shaina wipes a flame across it. I don’t die. Then, she hands me the torch.
I hold it in my right hand and dab it to my palm. “Longer, firmer,” she says. I try again. I am ok getting the fire to my hand, but keeping it there, pressing it into the flesh, that’s the hard part. Why shouldn’t it be? There is so much biological rejection occurring.
We move on quickly. The next step is to wipe the flame along the top of the arm. “Do not wipe against the underside of the arm,” she tells us, rubbing the blue-veined underbelly of her own arm. “It is very tender.” I see another landscape of her scars.
The stilt walker goes first. He is short and very hairy. The moment he wipes the fire against his arm with a jerky, nervous spasm, a wide swath of hairs instantly coil and blacken, then fall off. “My hair!” he says, “It’s burning!”
“Yes,” Shaina says. “It is.” He is wide-eyed and trying his hardest to hold a smile to his face. I look down at my blond arm hair and imagine it growing back in thick black tendrils, like poisonous fairytale vines. I take a deep breath and wipe the torch across the top of my arm. Heat spreads as all the hairs take flame and are quickly singed.
“Let it burn!” Shaina yells as I suffocate the flame immediately. I wipe my hand across my arm. Smooth as a baby’s. “In Turkey,” Shaina she says, eyeing me hard, “a barber singes his customer’s face after he shaves it for ultimate smoothness. They find it relaxing.”
We repeat with the legs, though my cuffed jeans offer the perfect rogue territory for a flame to “run away from you,” as Shaina puts it, and I’m quite sure I’m going to lose my feet.
About an hour after our class has begun, approximately ten minutes after I’m terrified to put Shaina’s leg fire out, Shaina tells us to touch the torch to our tongues. Stilt Walker does this first. Because he is a human with highly developed survival instincts, he does not get the flame all the way to his tongue the first several times he tries. His tongue is stuck as far away from his body as it can possibly go. I can see the muscles at the base of it quivering with effort. His neck is taut and the thin bones protrude with strain. He brings his arm in the air, turns the torch toward his mouth and lowers the flame toward his tongue. It is a foot away, six inches, five, four, three, two, then moves swiftly away from his face like a rejected comet. He laughs nervously, shakes out his neck and poses again, head tilted slightly back, tongue as far away from his face as I think it’s physically able to go until he begins lowering the flame again, and somehow, the distance between the tip of his tongue and the rest of his body grows longer in proportion to the distance closing in between the flame and his tongue. Again, five inches, three, one inch away, and a retreat. It’s not surprising, really. Shaina tells us so. Nobody straight away puts the fire right into their mouth, right onto their tongue. There are too many years of biology keeping us from completing this task. Every impulse evolutionarily perfected rejects this movement.
At the end of his turn, Stilt Walker has attempted a number of times and gotten the flame very close. I’m impressed.
“Your turn,” Shaina says.
I dip the torch in fuel and shake it out, and Shaina lights it for me. I widen my legs into a triangle, arch my back, tilt my head, bring the torch up with a dramatic turn of the wrist, and beeline it right into my mouth.
“Jesus Christ,” Shaina says.
My mouth tastes like camping. My lips tingle.
“You just lit your tongue on fire!” she says, and this is the only time I can imagine that being a congratulatory exclamation. I bring the torch back above my head, angle my wrist, and bring it down straight into my mouth again.
“Wow,” Shaina says, laughing. “You don’t have many instincts for self-preservation.” I think about the number of times I’ve woken up on someone else’s couch, in someone else’s bed, emptied boxes of wine all around, Venga Boys still playing from the speakers. The back of my teeth feel a little sooty on my tongue. “You’re doing this like someone who doesn’t have a choice,” Shaina says.
“Well,” I say, then think better of trying to explain, and stick the fire in my mouth again.
Traditionally, fire eating was used by certain Hindu and Muslim ascetics as a way to renounce the self. As sideshow and circus performers became more popular around 1880, fire eating and manipulation became a mainstay of touring acts. It has sustained itself as a dramatic act based on simple principles. When you are putting a flame into your mouth, if you attempt to blow it out with great force as it passes your lips, you have momentarily forgotten about chemistry. Oxygen feeds fire. My desperate attempt to blow out the fire approaching my mouth as I learned to swallow two torches at once did not, in fact, extinguish the flame, but instead grew the torches into a large fireball that spewed from my lips back along the torch to my hand. I am part of a tradition now of performers and mystics and childhood pyromaniacs, and I will honor them by burning myself as infrequently as possible.
In two days, I fly to Tampa with a suitcase of family-friendly stripper costumes and a tub of blue eye shadow. I’m deciding right now how many pairs of fishnets are necessary. My stage manager imparted a general sense of “many.” I thought maybe I could use my poorness as an excuse to wear ripped fishnets for a sort of ’90s-heroine-addict-turning-tricks look, but the manager instead encouraged sequins. Two days in Tampa, and I load into the caravan of trucks and trailers hauling our tents, set, and props, and drive north with the cast. We will live in a bunkhouse trailer in the middle of the fairs. We will be on the road for six months. First stop: Indiana.
Once the class is over, I can tell my mouth is burnt. Though, really, what’s burnt isn’t actually burnt as badly as it might be. There is dry skin, almost like little dried out blisters, on the corner of my mouth from one of my early attempts at double flame eating. I have a blind date the night after my second fire eating class. It looks like I have herpes.
The truth is, I used to be a chicken. My childhood is haunted by memories of feeling too scared to do everything, from taking the garbage out at night to lighting a match. I watched all the other kids be brazen and bold, thinking about how much I did not want to be the person I was becoming. For a while, I told people that I willed myself to stop being a fraidy-cat, but I think, as these things go, we develop personality traits in accordance with need. Frightening things occurred for which I did not have the freedom of choice. I see it in other people all the time. Courage born from necessity. I used to be scared, terrified, of losing my mom, and now that I am losing her, there is no choice but to face it with as much love and courage as I can muster, which is often very little. My mom is very sick. She has been toeing the line between death and life for almost the entire two and a half years since she had a massive stroke. She can no longer talk or walk. The way to get through the enormous and unending grief is to get through it. She was a yes person, a woman of adventure, and when I begin to doubt that I can pull this trick off, I stop and think of her. The only way to do it is to do it. There is no trick.
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.