INTO THE FIRE
from Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment (Mountain State Press)
Nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize
About the Pushcart Prize: The Pushcart Prize Best of Small Presses series has been published every year since 1976, and is the most honored literary project in America. Each year's volume presents the best poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot published in the small presses in the past year.
INTO THE FIRE
I used to play with fire. It was a strange thing for a teenage girl to do, but seventeen is a strange time in a girl’s life. And I was a strange girl.
I had been a strange kid, too—doing my best to fit in, but I never did. My clothes were the wrong clothes, my religion the wrong religion, my family odd in the insular, tightly-wound way of abusive households. To escape reality, I retreated to the world of fairy tales where everything that went wrong went right eventually. Cinderella was my favorite, not just because she got her Prince but because her situation was sad and hopeless and ended up better than she ever dreamed it could be. It was an instructive story for me. I wanted my life to change. And I needed to believe it could.
In the seventh grade, something happened that set in motion my own Cinderella moment. I played the lead in the school production of The Crucible and crushed it. I was so convincing that kids called me the name of the character in the play for weeks. Usually, I would be ashamed of that—and I was some—but as a girl who felt she was invisible, I was also rather pleased to be seen. There was something else that happened on that stage. I escaped into the character, became her. It was incredible not to be me for a while. A plan began forming in my head. I already knew I could sing and now that I could act, I would use my talent to transform myself from nobody to somebody. An actress. A singer. A star.
The dream kept me going through difficult times. Someday, I kept telling myself, someday I would be bigger, brighter, better than anyone. Now that I was seventeen it was time to put the plan into action. My fairy tale had morphed into an intricate fiction involving rock and roll music, long-haired boys and adoring crowds, but the end game was the same. I still wanted to be a star. A big star.
And for that, I needed magic.
I waited until everyone in the house was asleep and dragged my nightstand out into the center of my bedroom. As instructed in Sybil Leek’s Diary of a Witch, I placed a candle on the nightstand-turned-altar, lit it and watched the sputtering wick spring into full flame. Into the fire I went, carrying my secret selves—the girl of silence, the child of pain, the almost-woman I was. My eyes fixed on the flickering blue heart of the flame until I had the guts to bring my index finger close to the candle, then closer, then into the flame.
I watched my finger disappear into the flame with a kind of detached fascination. The instructions made clear that maintaining the same slow, steady pace was vitally important—no hesitation, no stopping midway. I willed myself to stay the course, guiding my finger slowly towards the wick, past it and through the flame until it exited out the other side.
For a moment, I couldn’t move. It should have been impossible to go through fire and not feel a thing, but that was exactly what happened. I tried again. Like before, my finger sailed through without any sensation of heat or discomfort. I examined it from all angles; there were no burn marks, only a faint circle of black char that disappeared when swiped across my tee shirt. The skin was perfect, as if it never touched the fire at all.
But of course, it had…
Read the full essay in Fearless, available through Mountain State Press
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