I started firewalking after seeing a picture of a monk burn himself to death, but of course it’s more complicated than that. The monk came to history class where we were studying Vietnam, talking about what a mistake it had been, and about the protests against the war, in our country, and over there, where they took it a lot more seriously. You see, in Vietnam they’re Buddhist, and they’ve got monks, and to make their point these monks didn’t carry signs or pass out flowers; instead they’d go to busy city streets, douse themselves with gasoline, light themselves on fire, then just kneel down and burn, not moving a muscle, not flinching, or even gritting their teeth. They’d just burn and melt and die. In class we were looking up at a slide of one of these monks in flames. Maranda was in class with me, sitting across the darkened room, and I glanced over to see the side of her face catching the light from the screen. Her eyes were fixed ahead like the others and then she asked, “How did he do it? Not feel any pain?” Our teacher said it had something to do with meditation, detachment, letting go, some kind of crazy Buddhist trick he didn’t quite understand. The room was quiet for a few more moments then somebody mumbled something about paper cuts, another mentioned toothaches, and most everyone agreed that this guy was not like us, not even close. But I knew they were saying that because they didn’t understand. And though I didn’t understand either, how he did it, I knew we weren’t that much different from each other, that monk and me, it was just that he’d figured it out, how to control his thoughts, shut off his mind.
* * *
That night I was sitting in my friend JD’s basement playing poker. It was about ten o’clock, I had a pair of jacks, and was wondering if it was good enough to win the four dollar pot. Then I realized I didn’t care either way. I folded, then at the end of the hand got up and said I was leaving.
“What?” JD asked. “Why?”
“I just don’t see the point in it.”
“Come on, Owen,” he said. “We’re having fun, hanging out, there doesn’t have to be a point, does there?”
“Maybe not, but I just …”
“Is it Maranda?”
“What do you mean, is it Maranda?”
“Something happening with you two?”
“Come on,” I said. “We’ve been friends since first grade.”
“You’ve been acting funny around each other lately,” he said.
“They haven’t even been talking to each other,” my other friend Pete added, and I looked at the both of them incredulously, as though they were confusing me with someone else, though really I couldn’t believe they’d noticed, that they’d been paying attention at all.
“I’m just tired of playing cards, that’s all,” I said and left.
* * *
On my way home I walked past Maranda’s house. She lived on the same block as I did, our big backyards touching at the corner. I saw the light on in her bedroom and slowed but didn’t see her. We’d been friends, like I said, for a long time. She’d never been a tomboy exactly, but had always liked to play—kickball, soccer, ghost in the graveyard, that was our favorite. Base was the cedar deck on the back of her house, and there were lots of good hiding spots in the evergreens that ran between our yards. Some days if it were just the two of us we’d race back and forth from one end of her yard to the other. Maranda was faster than I was when we were kids and usually won, but neither of us cared. It was just fun to race.
We weren’t quite kids anymore though. That had all changed the last weekend of summer. Maranda had been gone July and most of August, to her aunt’s farm in Gettysburg, where she went every year. When she returned, I didn’t recognize her. I was at a party and I saw her profile from across the room and I said, “Wow, who is that?” When she turned and smiled at me I realized it was Maranda, but she looked taller, thinner, with her cheekbones higher on her face. Her skin had a new glow to it, and she’d let her hair go long; it was down to her shoulders, and lighter than its usual brownish-red. She walked up to me smiling and gave me a hug, which was something new. As she held me, I felt her breasts on me, and this was new too.
“Owen,” she said finally. “How are you?” Even the sound of my name coming from her mouth was different. This was a new Maranda.
The party was at Ginny Bauer’s place, which was an old farmhouse with a big barn, silo, and a few acres of property. Most of the houses in our town were built in the ’50s and ’60s, so when you went to Ginny’s you really felt like you were going somewhere, doing something different, and because her parents liked to travel, she had a lot of parties. This night just about everyone was there, and there was lots of beer, which I was drinking, and rum punch, which Maranda was drinking, but neither of us had ever been much at drinking, and we began to feel pretty carefree in a short while. It was a warm night, the house had a big in-ground pool, and most of our friends were hanging out there, doing cannonballs or complaining about being splashed, but Maranda and I found ourselves stealing away, walking back behind the barn where we sat on some old tractor tires and unexpectedly began to kiss. At first I couldn’t believe it was Maranda and me, but she was so warm and curvy, such a good kisser, that after a few moments I forgot about that. And as we kept on I forgot about everything else. I’d kissed girls before, but only awkwardly. This was different, it was like the rest of the world had disappeared, and I think I really lost track of myself for the first time in my life.
But I guess you can only kiss for so long, or maybe Maranda had drunk more than I, but after a while she stopped kissing me and was unbuttoning me, and all of sudden she’d taken us beyond just the kissing, and I guess I’d been dreaming about something like this happening, of course I had—daydreams, night dreams, all kinds of dreams—but I hadn’t expected them to ever come true. In a way, I was more awash in sensation, the tingling feeling shooting all the way to my fingers and toes, but at the same time the world had come back to me, and I opened my eyes, was looking around, trying to get my bearings, checking to be sure no one was watching, and then I guess I couldn’t resist looking down at Maranda, and she was pulling her hair back from her face, and like I said, this new profile of hers was absolutely beautiful, and I felt myself smile at the sight of us. But I guess she must’ve felt me looking at her because she opened her eyes and looked up at me, and from straight on she looked like the old Maranda, the old friend I’d played with all my life, and she must have seen something too, maybe the same thing, because she pulled herself back quickly, as if startled, and then we both looked away from each other. She got up and stepped away while I stood and buttoned up. She’d pointed herself away from me, and I felt I myself wanting to say something, but only let out a low “Uhhmmm …” She began to walk quickly back to the party with her long, loping stride, and I followed behind.
* * *
We’d avoided each other since then, not so much as looking each other in the eye, and I’d been doing all I could to stop thinking about her, but it was hard, because I didn’t know exactly what I was thinking. I only knew that I didn’t feel like myself when I thought about her and that I’d wake each morning before five o’clock, with the feeling that all the air had been sucked out of me. I’d try to fall back to sleep, but never could, feeling at turns dirty, raw, weepy, weak, or desperate, and this anguish was something I’d never really experienced before in my life, as everything had always gone along just well enough. My friends—who I’d always done most everything with—they and I didn’t do sports, or drugs, and we didn’t have girlfriends. I’d been getting tired of that, had hoped it might change that year, that something might actually matter, but then finally something of consequence happened, and it was only making everything worse.
* * *
When I got home that night my parents were out, gone as every Friday during the season to my brother’s football game. Our town was mad for football and my brother was the team’s starting center. He said it was one of the most important positions on the team, but I figured who’d want to be the center, having the quarterback putting his hands between your legs every play? Sometimes he wanted to practice snapping the ball to me, but after the first time I always came up with a good excuse to avoid it, and he’d get our dad to do it instead. I guess I didn’t understand football, or my brother, or my parents that well. But this had never been a big problem for me. It’s not like I thought I’d be better off with another family. My mom, with her television shows and coupons, my dad with his job and newspaper, my brother always hiking his football: They were my family. I couldn’t imagine things any other way. It just so happened that I was the one always on the outside. Sometimes I even felt like a visitor, like I was watching them be a family. But this was just the way things had always been. I was used to it.
I went to my room and started looking through some boxes of old papers and pictures and stuff. I knew I was too young to be sitting home on a Friday night reminiscing, but there I was, looking over old class pictures from grade school, wondering where the years had gone. And there were other pictures too—a big group of us eating popsicles on Maranda’s back deck on the Fourth of July, Maranda and me at Six Flags, smiling at the camera, not a care in the world. I wondered again how it had happened. There’d been no reason for us to wander off together, go sit on tires, kiss, any of it. We’d even talked about it over the years, when others had coupled up; we could see how silly it was: the handholding, the phone calls, the dates, the inevitable breakups. “Just gets in the way,” we’d agreed, though exactly what it got in the way of we didn’t say. I thought maybe we’d talked about others as a way of talking about ourselves, but it never felt like that. It just felt like, well, Maranda and me, like it always did. I shook my head and told myself I had to stop thinking about her. But I knew it wasn’t as simple as telling myself to stop. I had to keep my mind occupied.
I put the pictures away and went through some of my old schoolwork, finally pulling out a report I’d done on firewalking in junior high. According to my report, firewalking had been used as a ritual by lots of different cultures, as an initiation into manhood, proof of faith or bravery, or an act of penance. And even though the fire would be between 600 and 1200 degrees, the key was simply telling yourself you wouldn’t get burned. You had to be “in the moment,” and unafraid, which isn’t easy because we’re born with two fears—of falling and of fire.
I thought about that, and the fact that we acquired all our other fears over time, through living. It seemed to me that fear of falling and fear of fire were both kind of the same thing—fear of death. I figured that’s what all fears were based on and thought that would have been an interesting angle to add to my report, though of course I wasn’t thinking about that in junior high. I stopped and tried to remember what I had been thinking about then, what had kept my mind occupied, but I couldn’t do it. Then I thought back to that monk we’d seen burning up in class that day, and that’s when I decided maybe I should try it—not burn myself or kill myself—but firewalk. I needed to do something, and thought if I could walk on fire I’d kind of be like that monk; at least I’d have more control over things.
* * *
In our town you could burn your leaves, and the next Friday night, after my parents had gone to the game, I raked the leaves from the back yard into a ten by three foot section behind the garage. I covered them over with small pieces of kindling and mulch we got for free from the city dump, then doused it all with lighter fluid, threw down a match, and watched the fire burn. I couldn’t walk until the flames had died down and there were only coals, the embers. While waiting I tried to sit and relax, not meditating exactly, I didn’t know what that was, but I was just sitting there close to the fire, watching the flames dance, feeling the heat, listening to the crackles and hiss. All week I’d been thinking about it, preparing myself, imagining myself walking over the coals. Now I was going to do it.
I had a small tub of water set up at the end of the run, just in case. After the flames had died down, I got up and walked around the edge of the bed barefoot, figuring to build up to it gradually, like settling down into a steaming hot bath. I did this a few times, concentrating not on my feet or the fire, but my breathing like I was supposed to. Finally I told myself it was time to go through. I stood at the edge, and standing close like that, in my bare feet, it was easy to stay “in the moment” because all my senses were paying close attention. Survival instinct, I suppose, like peering over the edge of a cliff. I stood a few moments, took some deep breaths, looked ahead, exhaled one more time slowly, then took a step, then another, then a third. The coals felt crunchy, like eggshells. I could feel that, but not any heat, not any pain, and I felt myself smile at this realization, and then I felt it—sharp prickles of heat under me, and I lunged forward, getting off the coals in two quick strides. I stepped into the tub of water swearing quietly, but when I stepped out a minute later I couldn’t feel any pain. Back in the house I inspected my feet and saw there were no blisters or burn marks. I rubbed a little Aloe vera on them just to be safe, then told myself though I hadn’t made it all the way, it was a start. I’d walked on fire, and more importantly, I’d been “in the moment,” “let go,” and stopped thinking about Maranda. Of course, once I told myself this, I started thinking about her again. But still it was progress. And nice to have gotten away for a while.
* * *
The next Friday night I set up another fire. As it got going, I strolled around the perimeter again, breathing in and out, visualizing myself going through. When it was time to walk it, I did so without a thought, not feeling the fire at all, not even realizing I was moving until I was done and stepping back onto the grass. When I looked back over the fire bed I could hardly believe I’d just gone through it. I had no recollection. My feet felt fine. I waited a few minutes, then did it again. Same result. I did it again. Success.
“What are you doing?” a voice asked from behind me. I looked over. It was Maranda.
I was sure she’d seen me so there was no sense in denying it. “Firewalking,” I said.
“Why?” she asked, calmly.
“Something to do, I guess.”
“Can I try?” she said, coming closer.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “You’ve got to plan for it, you’ve got to think about it, you can’t just jump on and—”
“I’m going to try,” she said, taking off her shoes.
“I don’t know, Maranda.”
“You just did it, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, and she looked straight at me and shrugged. This was how she’d always been. If I or someone else could do something, climb a tree, go off the high dive, bike around the block in under two minutes, she could do it too. Or at least she’d try. So I didn’t argue with her, but just watched as she stood on the edge of the fire and took a few deep breaths. “Just breathe,” I said. “And don’t look at it.” She gazed ahead, which gave me an opportunity to really look at her, and again I was amazed that this was Maranda, so regal and lovely and curvy. She was wearing a snug white sweater and blue jeans which she’d pulled up around her calves. She exhaled once hard, then took a step forward, then another. I walked backwards to the end of the fire, and looking at her face almost straight on I could see again that she wasn’t as beautiful as from the side: Her eyes were a little too close together, her chin a little square, there was still some of that obtuse matter-of-fact quality in her that had always surfaced when she was concentrating. She looked like the old Maranda again as she was making steady progress across the embers towards me. As soon as she’d finished though, and set her feet onto the grass beside me, she relaxed and smiled, and I was nearly knocked over by her transformation back to a beauty.
“Wow,” I said.
“I did it,” she said excitedly.
When she turned to go past me I could smell the shampoo in her hair. She went to pick up her shoes, turned halfway towards me, then said, “You know that party?”
“Yeah,” I said quickly.
“I don’t know what happened.”
“Me neither,” I said. “That was … strange.”
“I never, I mean, I never did that before,” she told me. “I don’t want you to think that I—”
“No,” I said. “Of course not. I didn’t think that. I just … well, I guess I don’t know.”
“We can just forget about it, right?”
“Yeah, we should. I mean, well, maybe …”
“You don’t want to forget about it?” she asked, turning towards me.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking down.
I could sense she was waiting for me to say something more to her, but nothing came to mind. “Well, I think we should just forget about it,” she said, then turned and walked back towards her house.
After she left I realized I’d been spending my energy trying to stop thinking about Maranda and what had happened, but hadn’t considered what she’d been thinking, or feeling, and I began to think about that, especially what she was thinking about me, and this was even worse. I didn’t feel just empty, but nauseous. I tried to walk the fire again that night but one step and my feet were burning. Concentrate, I told myself. Then I said, No, don’t concentrate. And then I gave up; I knew I was trying too hard.
* * *
During the week I tried to do other things to keep my mind busy. One day I went to the basement and tried to work out with my brother’s weight set. Another I went for a long walk to the park at the other end of town. I worked on some old card tricks I used to be able to do pretty well. One night I snuck two beers from the basement fridge and drank them while I played chess on my computer. But nothing worked. When I’d see Maranda at school I couldn’t help but watch her, but she never looked my way. When my eyes were on her I’d get those tingling sensations, but I could hardly enjoy them because as soon as I looked away it was like I was catching myself, and then I’d feel lost, adrift, like a kid left behind at the mall.
* * *
Finally Friday came and I could do my firewalking again. And Maranda came over again too, and we took turns walking the fire, not talking much in between, and when we did, it was just about the fire, or school, or something else unimportant. We didn’t talk about each other, or that night. We weren’t comfortable like we’d been before, but when I was with her I didn’t feel quite so beat up about things; everything in me just sort of quieted down. Still, we didn’t look each other in the eye, even when we said goodnight, and she went through the evergreens towards her house. After she left and I put out the fire, I tried to get to sleep as soon possible, because I knew if I waited too long, the swirling would come back.
* * *
We took turns walking the fire, not talking much in between, and when we did, it was just about the fire, or school, or something else unimportant. We didn’t talk about each other, or that night. We weren’t comfortable like we’d been before, but when I was with her I didn’t feel quite so beat up about things; everything in me just sort of quieted down.
Somehow news of our firewalking got out, and the next Friday night there was a small crowd of kids from school gathered in my backyard watching me set up. A few said they wanted to try, but most just wanted to watch. I’d never had much attention paid to me, so this was something new, and I kind of liked it, those dozen or so people, watching me get the fire going, asking questions, waiting to see me walk it. JD and Pete were there, and they were looking at me like they didn’t know me. “You should try it,” I said to them, but they just shook their heads.
Maranda came over just after I’d finished my first pass and she said, “What’s going on?” to no one in particular, and they filled her in, as if she had no previous knowledge of the firewalking, and she let them believe that was the case. After I’d gone, two guys who’d been suspended from the football team tried, but neither could make it more than two steps without yowling and jumping off. Then a guy from the soccer team tried and he made it across, but nearly ran doing so, and not surprisingly burned the balls of his feet. A couple of girls consoled him while a guy named Rob, who’d been a kid with us all along, but who’d been sent away to a juvenile detention facility that summer for winning a fight a little too decisively, tried next, and he moved across the coals gingerly, methodically, breathing loudly through gritted teeth, but he made it all the way across. When he was done he got high fives from the other guys and said it was just a matter of “tuning things out.” But I could see when he pulled his socks and shoes on that his feet were hurting a bit. I did another pass then someone got a call on their cell phone about a party starting up, and everyone split, and it was just Maranda and me.
“Why didn’t you walk?” I asked her.
She just shrugged and bent to take off her shoes. “I’ll go now.”
Because I’d run out of leaves to burn, and maybe because there’d been a crowd, I’d added extra wood chips and the fire was hotter than ever before. Though Maranda walked it without getting hurt, she said she’d felt it a little, the heat on her skin, and told me to be careful when I said I was going to go one more time.
I stood at the edge of the fire, looked down at it, then up at the night sky, the branches of the empty trees swaying in the wind. I took in a deep breath and even with the fire before me, I could smell October in the air, I could feel the chill of autumn coming, and then I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of it: walking on fire in my backyard. It was as if it were the first time I realized what I was doing, as opposed to just being bent on doing it, and I felt glad, like something had been lifted off of me. I looked over at Maranda, she was looking at me, and I felt myself smile at her. I looked ahead then, took a few deep breaths, and stepped forward. I took two, three steps and felt nothing. I was even able to tell myself I was feeling nothing, and still keep on. I took another step, then another, into the middle of the fire, the hottest stretch of it, then I felt myself coming to a stop and I began counting: one … two … three … four …. While before when I’d walked the fire successfully I’d had no clear thoughts, had shut them off, just a blank mind, this time I was still aware of myself, with even a dim recognition of the fire hissing below me. But I felt no pain, felt nothing, and just stood motionless counting: … five … six … seven …. I got all the way up to ten then felt something—Maranda’s hand grabbing mine. Then I felt myself grabbing back. And then the pain came rushing to me, the feeling of my feet getting seared, as if the skin were being peeled off. I jumped sideways towards Maranda and we got twisted around each other and fell onto the edge of the fire, her shoulder dipping into the coals, the ends of her hair getting singed. She let out a little scream as we scrambled together onto the grass. And then we just lay there, wrapped around each other. I had my eyes closed, then opened them to see Maranda looking straight at me.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Hurts a little,” I said.
“Me too,” she told me. She was looking right at me, and I realized she was beautiful, even straight on like this.
“But this feels good,” I told her and pulled her closer to me.
She sighed and pressed her head into my neck and shoulder. “Me too,” she said. “I feel good.” And we stayed there a few more minutes until finally she put her mouth to my ear and said, “Let’s go to my house.”
“Okay,” I said, and we got up and picked up our shoes. My feet stung a bit, but it was bearable, and Maranda and I put our arms around each other and went through the evergreens towards her house. When she let out another sigh, I kissed the top of her head and pulled her closer to me. Maranda, I thought. Maranda. I didn’t want to stop thinking about her after all.
* * *
Steve Nelson lives and writes in Milwaukee and Chicago. He earned his PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and has had work published in The Rambler, Storyglossia, eye-rhyme, The Absinthe Literary Review, The Rathalla Review, and elsewhere. His essay “Mind Wide Open” is included in the anthology The Runner’s High: Illumination and Ecstasy in Motion, and “Night at the Store” was published in Phantasmagoria and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.