PROLOGUE: THE TRICK IS THERE IS NO TRICK
We start by lighting ourselves on fire. Parts 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. 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 baked in the sun, a heat I impulsively want to move away from. I close my fist around the flame and put myself out.
* * *
"What sorts of acts can you do?" the sideshow manager, Tommy, asked.
Before I wrote back, I googled "acts in a sideshow." I culled 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 couple of months? "Bed of nails. Snake charming," I wrote. Then, "All animal charming. I'm good with animals."
"Terrific," Tommy wrote back. "See you in two months."
* * *
I decided to learn one of the many acts I'd claimed to know, so now I'm in an "Introduction to Fire Eating" class at a fire arts
collective in Oakland, California, because, of course, these things exist in the Bay Area. The evening outside the fence does not notice me. Buses sigh, a kid across the street accuses another of a basketball foul, old women roll their groceries behind them. I smell slow-cooking meat and exhaust. This is not a time to pause, close my eyes, and try to remember all these sounds and smells, but I do anyway.
I'd hoped some magic was involved in learning to eat fire. Something that meant you didn't really have to do the thing it appeared you were doing. Maybe you spread a flame retardant solution in your 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 it was an illusion.
But the class is a total disappointment. There is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.
* * *
On the first day, Shaina, our teacher, all smiles, says: "Look at my severe burns!" She rolls up her sleeves and points with delight to a series of scars on her arms, 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.
"You put yourself out and keep on smiling."
* * *
The class is in a massive warehouse full of fire artists. We trudge past the welders and blacksmiths and ceramicists into an outside yard full of huge gas canisters and NO SMOKING, DANGEROUS, and FLAMMABLE signs. We light our torches. I try not to think about the waiver I signed detailing possible death and dismemberment.
The first lesson: how to put yourself out.
There is only one other student in the class, a video-game designer with small gauges in his ears. I ask him why he's in the fire-
swallowing class and he tells me that he feels too ordinary at Burning Man as a stilt walker. He wants something special. To be
Shaina hands me a thick, damp kitchen towel, picks up a can of white gas—the kind you use to refill lanterns on a camping trip, the kind I was never allowed to touch as a kid—and shakes some down both legs of her jeans. There is too much. Whole, fat droplets land on the fabric and soak right in, hundreds of them, a rainstorm from a metal canister never meant for such an offhanded joggle. She flicks a lighter and ignites herself.
Her legs, from mid thigh down to ankle, are on fire. She is looking at me, smiling. Waiting. 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 sure my hands will go up in flames the moment they near the fire. I pat the 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. 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. If I'd really been cooking, I'd be singed by now. You'll understand the kind of force that's needed once you have to put yourself out." It is hard not to picture self-immolation, a body barely an outline inside a small cosmos of flame.