Dispatch from the Carnival #4: Taking in the Sword


July 2013 (1 month in)

The Giant is hunched on a stool with hands as big as truck tires and two streams of black snuff running from the corners of his mouth.

“Tess,” he shouts. “Time to learn.”

He’s the big boss, our show’s co-owner, former chimp trainer and knife-thrower.

“Stand here,” he says pointing beside him. His legs are stretched straight and wide from the stool. Maybe this should be a moment of hesitation. I do not hesitate.

He puts one hand on my clavicle and one hand on my forehead. Presses.

“Stand up straight,” he says. “Straighter.”

He pushes my head back until I am staring straight up at the nipple of our tent’s center pole.

“You’ve got to be lined up perfectly straight,” he says, “or you’ll never get the sword down.”


In India, Fakirs, beginning as early as 2000 BCE, swallowed swords and walked across hot coals, handled snakes and stepped on broken glass as ascetic tributes to the divine, assertions of power, connection, invulnerability. What is this body if you take its power over you away? In the torture arts, you are both the creator and recipient of your pain.


It feels good to put the blade down my throat.Taking in the Sword 1

Loose carnie children, dripping, peek under our tent’s sidewall. It’s pouring. The fair is closed until the storm passes so that nobody gets struck by lightning at the top of the Ferris wheel and the Giant, on the road with us for only this week, has decided it’s time for me to swallow swords. It’s the only act I haven’t yet learned, but we all need to know every act in case anything happens to anyone, the Giant says. In case we need to fill in.

Good isn’t the right word, exactly, for the metal inside. It feels gagging. It leads to gagging and the rise of bile. There are three sphincters to pass in the throat and esophagus. A body’s emergency brakes. I’ll tell you the secret to all the sideshow acts right now, for just a small price, which you won’t pay until later. Ready? Untrain your instincts. Undo self-preservation. Don’t try this at home, of course, I have to say, but maybe try it a little. What you should be afraid of, stop. Who you should take care of, don’t.

There are five big, caged lights hanging from the tent’s center poles that emit a soft buzz against the storm-dark. The wet earth smell has, for a moment, overtaken the funnel cake and corn dogs whose grease hangs hungry in the air all day.

Maybe good is the right word. A wrong wrist twitch and the sword inside might pierce my lungs. Might knick my heart. What feels good is to stop imagining the pain of others, and instead, live inside my own.

“Think of the blade going down your throat like it’s a big stiff prick,” Red, the Sword-Swallower, tells me. He’s sitting beside the big boss Giant and can slide 12 down his throat at once. He holds 7 Guinness World Records. It says so on his van.

“And the gag reflex, think of that as just the pubic hairs tickling your throat,” he says, winking. They’ve handed me a coat hanger bent into a sword. I lick both sides and tilt my head back. I let the metal rest on my tongue. Choose a little pain.

Anything can happen to anyone. Last season, the knife-thrower flung his blade at the knife board and it landed in his longtime partner’s thigh. She was taken to the hospital for stitches, but thirty minutes later, when their act came around again and she was still gone, another cast member had to go stand on the board. Had to know how to go stand on the board as if she didn’t now know how blood looks falling down the angles of fishnets. Had to know how to immediately erase memory. Or perform it. That’s the predictable kind of anything in this business, of course, and the predictable anyone for that anything to happen to. Taking in the Sword 2But there was a whole carnival of bodies being whipped through space on big machines and sex and meth and the momentary elation of being the object of attention under those bright stage lights. It was all possible.

I heave. My throat’s gag keeps catching and I cough hard, waiting for the vomit to rise. The metal has flecks of white and clear fluid on the tip.

“Relax your throat,” the Giant says.

“Some people are naturals,” the Sword-Swallower says. He watches me attempt a few swallows and cough. “Some people aren’t,” he says, staring me down. Rain is falling up from the ground.

“This is the one,” I say. I lick, puff my chest as I lean back and the tip hits my sphincter and I keep shoving it in anyway, and then I feel something rising and pull the sword and double over and wretch.

“Quarter-inch down,” the Giant says. I try to hi-five him still buckled-over, but my hand doesn’t even reach his plane of vision.


January 2011 (2 ½ years before)

I will paint her nails midnight. Midnight isn’t surrender. It’s a purple-blue with sparkles. That is the task I will complete next.

I made this plan as I closed the door. San Francisco.

I could touch all four walls from where I stood making the nail color plan. The door was locked to my right. This one had a deadbolt. Many of the other bathrooms in other hospitals just had doorknob locks, and one had a sliding vinyl curtain that opened like a mistuned accordion. I spent a lot of time here. The whole great world falling apart down the hall and this small place with a lock and space for just one person.

Maybe midnight was too dramatic. All of this was too dramatic. Maybe coral. Powder blue.

It was hard to remember I had my own body when I was in with my mom and her body. Her brain swollen and shut off, an induced coma following massive strokes and, I hoped, traveling in some exquisite dream.

I put my hands on the bathroom sink and made myself look straight into the mirror. This was my body. Swollen nose. Pink patchy skin and mascara smears.

“Human fucking history,” I said out loud. Why out loud? I just did.

“This is the cycle of human history,” I said, like the reasonable person I could be. My chest and guts were full of a throbbing, acute pain—I hate to write that, but what is language but a failure to get it?—a hot pain, maybe, like a searing or a burning. I did not want that kind of pain.

I took one hand and, using my nails, started pinching the skin between thumb and pointer finger on the other hand. It is a fact that people lose their parents and carry on. Human history. We must have some biological coping mechanism that enables the numbing of grief from this old story. This wound must be mendable over time, because it has to be, because everyone goes on, because a death happens and eventually it’s Wednesday, and then Thursday, and somebody has got to buy coffee filters and time is happening.

Is there a diaper in this bathroom trashcan? The smell is of rot and excess. The air is too hot to live in. I bring my face closer to the mirror. I’m doing a thing I’ve seenTaking in the Sword 3 people do when they need to get serious with themselves.

“This is not special,” I make myself say, looking myself hard in the eyes. My face blurs. Idiot crying baby.

Down the hall, my mother is not dead. The table beside her bed is full of nail polish. Reds. Glitter. I can choose anything. To stay or to run. To orchestrate pain. There are four different tubes going into her head.

I didn’t know for sure then, now, at this story moment, that I’d never hear her speak again. I didn’t know that eight months from now, after her trach tube is finally removed, I’d get an audio recording attached to an email and for 22 seconds, over the beep of hospital monitors and a nurse speaking an island language, she’d very, very softly hum me happy birthday.

“You are not special. You are not special. You are not special,” I say to the mirror.


Rumpus original art by Xavier Almeida.

Tessa Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts (FSG, May 2018). Her writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere, including Hayden's Ferry Review, where her essay that won the AWP Intro Award was published. She has been teaching in prisons for five years, and founded a Writers in the Schools program in Salt Lake City. Find more: www.TessaFontaine.com. More from this author →