We practice again, this time with Stilt Walker and me really smacking Shaina's legs with force. We're winded and flushed and
ready for a break, but it's time for us to get lit on fire.
Shaina tells us to reach out our hands, palms up, like bad schoolchildren in old movies readied for the switch. My heart is
starting to pump fast. I haven't felt any fear about running away with the sideshow until this moment. But Shaina is approaching my skin with fire. Excuses for leaving build in my throat, and though every instinct in my body encourages me to bail, I do not withdraw my palm. It is shaking. My upper lip is coated in sweat.
"See yourself on fire," Shaina says. "Let the flame dance. And then squelch it."
She wipes a torch across my skin. My palm is alight. I immediately close my fist and kill the flame.
She hands me the torch.
I hold it in my right hand and dab it to my left palm, but it doesn't catch. "Longer, firmer," she says. I try again. I am okay
getting the fire to my hand, but keeping it there, pressing it into the flesh, that's the hard part. It's also what distinguishes fire
performers from children who run their fingers through candle flames. But watching fire rise from your own skin is distressing.
Why shouldn't it be? Evolution has trained us to flee from fire threatening our bodies.
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 scar-crossed arm.
Stilt Walker 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 coils and blackens, then disintegrates. "My hair!" he yells. "It's burning!"
"Yes," Shaina says calmly. "It is."
He is wide-eyed and trying his hardest to fake a smile. I look down at my blond arm hair and imagine it growing back in thick black tendrils, like poison 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 too quickly. I wipe my hand across my arm. Smooth as a baby's.
"In Turkey," Shaina tells us, "a barber singes his customer's face after he shaves it for ultimate smoothness. They find it relaxing."
I touch my arm again. I would not say this is relaxing, but there is something satisfying about how quickly we're building intimacy with an element most people fear. With an element that, just twenty minutes before, I'd been scared of. But here I am. Letting it rise on me.
* * *
Next, it's time for the tongue. Because he is a human with naturally developed survival instincts, Stilt Walker does not get the flame all the way to his tongue the first several tries. His tongue is stuck as far out from his body as it can go. I can see the muscles at the base of it quivering with effort. His neck is taut and the thin tendons protrude with strain. He turns the torch toward his mouth and lowers the flame. It is a foot away, six inches, four, then moves swiftly away from his face with a flame trail like a comet. He laughs nervously, shakes out his neck, and resumes his pose, head tilted slightly back, tongue out, a lizard mid catch. He begins lowering the flame toward his tongue again. Somehow, he's trying to back his body away from the flame at the same time he is bringing the fire closer to his face. Again, it's five inches, three, one inch away, and a retreat.
It's not surprising. Shaina tells us nobody puts the fire right into her mouth, right onto her tongue. There are too many years of
learned behavior in the way.
At the end of his turn, Stilt Walker has attempted five or six times and brought the flame very close. I'm impressed, though my stomach clenches a little each time, worried for his face.
"Your turn," Shaina says.