By Wendy Wilson
There was a fire in my feet, and I couldn't stop moving. Well, more accurately, there was a fire beneath my feet and I sure as hell was gonna keep going. Before you go on about how a middle-aged Caucasian woman has no business performing a walking on fire ceremony, let me give you some background.
First, I'm only 'middle-aged' if I live to over one hundred and ten, but don't you give me lip on this. Age is a mindset, not a number. These are my feet and I'll take 'em where I want.
Second, contrary to accepted beliefs, it isn't only the Polynesians who perform the fire walking ceremony, although, admittedly, they are the most famous. Lots of cultures perform a fire pit, most are some sort of ritual rite of passage from one state of being to another, kinda like passing on to another life.
Third, my specialty is anthropology and studying primitive ceremonies is all part of the game. Putting them into practice is fun and something my college students look forward to. Every year at the end of term, I invite my students to a party where we reenact some aspect of a culture we studied. This year we focused on Polynesia, and we're doing a fire walking pit.
When I left for the woods behind the house, telling Alfred that I was digging a ditch, he didn't say a thing. He just sat there, staring at the book on his lap in dead silence. I cranked up the AC and closed the curtains against the morning sun. Alfred sure wasn't gonna get up and change the dial. That was a stone-cold fact. Lazy bastard, I scoffed as I closed the door behind me.
I scraped open the screeching door of our cheap metal shed, all corroded and eaten away by rust. Only the largest of rats would be deterred by the gaping wounds of the structure. The pickaxes and shovels hung from bent hooks and dangled from the walls. At least they hung from their hooks and didn’t lay on the ground waiting for my feet to find their pointed ends.
Choosing the shovel and pickax most likely to survive the demanding task of tearing tree roots and dislodging rocks, I shouldered them and set out down the trail. Early summer growth sprung back where I pushed the boughs aside, the dew stippling my face.
I entered my little clearing far behind the house and dropped the tools to the ground. A bunch of stumps dotted the clearing where I had cut down any tree not an oak. Taking a seat on the largest, I fanned my face and puffed my shirt and bra. Boob sweat is uncomfortable and there was still a lot of work to do.
Shade from the early morning sun lingered in the circle of the cleared spot and I murmured a prayer to the towering giants. Using my feet as measuring devices, I gauged the hole. Luck was with me, and my first penetration avoided any surface roots; for the first blows at least. A tremor producing jab told me the easy part was over. Time to bring out the big boys. The ax was heavier and cut through the roots until nothing-but-dirt lined the now six-foot-long dig. Most ritual fire pits are longer, but this length was perfect for my needs. Besides, it was the depth that was important.
Sunlight glinted in my glasses; the sun had moved across the clearing. I’d spent enough time digging, time was running short and there was still a lot to do. I walked back to the house and opened the fridge. Cool air enveloped me as I grabbed a cold beer and cracked the can open. The first bubbles went down with a tickle and a burp. Even the tatas felt refreshed.
Faint odors rose to my nose; could it be the left-over fish from last night? God knows the fish was almost on the turn then and Alfred probably hadn't taken the garbage out either. I opened the cabinet under the sink; sure enough, the trash bin was overflowing. My pulse pounded in my ears.
I crashed through the door to the living room and snapped on the light. The smell of copper pierced my nose as the door banged open and sprung back, hitting my shoulder. Close on its heels was the odor of human shit. Alfred sat rigid in his chair; the book fallen from his rigid fingers to the dark stained rug. A fly strolled across his right eye and paused to groom its feet. Oh, yeah.
Two chimes from the mantle clock reminded me I still had stuff to do before my students arrived. Going back into the kitchen, I unrolled a large plastic leaf bag, extra strong. Hesitated a moment and then grabbed another.
Rigor mortis had set in, and it took all my strength to unfold Alfred from the chair and lay him on his back on the floor. I flattened the legs only to have them fold again when I crossed the arms. My heart stopped when he sat up while I worked on the legs, his face inches from mine. My vision spun in circles.
I’d forgotten to close his eyes and reached out with trembling hands to swipe them closed. This only worked part way; the eyelids crept back open. I pushed them again, this time hard enough to knock his head, and he fell over on to his side. Now he lay like an innocent child ready for a nighttime story. Classic prehistoric burial position, which triggered the anthropologist in me, and I chuckled. Alfred had recognized my expertise at last.
My chuckle threatened to devolve into a cackle, so I slipped the first bag over Alfred's head and then the other over his legs. Ensconced like that, Alfred was ready for his trip. Blessing muscles grown during my long-time field experience on digs, I hoisted the slippery bag over my shoulders. His head banged against the doorway, and I giggled.
"Oops! Sorry Hon, but you're a bit stiff today." Again, I had to swallow my giggles before they dissolved into a fit. Alfred's body slid down to my shoulder and I bounced him back like a burping baby as I walked through the hall, into the kitchen and out the door. The heat smacked me in the face.
I'd just gotten down the porch steps when I heard a bright "Halloo!" from the front of the house. Damn, my neighbor down the road, busy body Bobbi Jo was knocking on my front door, peering through the windows. Quickly stuffing Alfred under the decking, I ran back into the house, couldn't remember if the front door was locked and Bobbi Jo was not above walking right in. The doorknob was turning just as I reached the foyer. It was unlocked. I flung the door open and filled the threshold with my bulky body. I stared at her ridiculous metal butterfly barrettes pulling her hair tight in back.
"Hello, Bobbi Jo." I tried to calm my heavy breathing. "I'm really busy now, could you come back later? Getting ready for my annual end of term party."
"Well, that's why I'm here, Darling." She pushed her way into the foyer. "I've brought you some of my world-famous Mac and Cheese Bake for the festivities." Her eyes looked past me into the living room. "Is Alfred here? Didn't see him leave for work this morning. Such a nice man, always gives me a wave. And I know he loves my Mac and Cheese, among other things." She winked at me. I scowled at her, trying to give this clueless woman a clue.
I swung a bit to my left and saw that the door to the living room was open and the remnants of the earlier blood and struggle lay exposed to view. Helen's eyes widened, making my next move clear. With as little fuss as I could muster, I reached behind me and picked up the bronze statue of Hades and swung the heavy figure at the annoying head. A satisfying crunch of bone and metal butterfly sounded, and she collapsed to the floor, casserole dish still clutched in her hands.
"Damn, now I have two to take care of." I hauled Bobbi Jo's body deeper into the house and shut and locked the door. This body was a bit easier to fold into the garbage bags; no rigor mortis to deal with. I put the casserole in the fridge for later and turned to the task at hand.
Now, with two bodies instead of one, I had to expand the pit. Another hour of sweating and dragging dirt and the job was done. My watch told me there was less than three hours before the students arrived.
Alfred went in first, then Bobbi Jo. I quickly shoveled dirt over them and laid newspapers over the pile. Layers of kindling and then larger logs covered that until a rounded mound rose from the surrounding grass. For good measure I shook a twenty-pound bag of Kingsford charcoal briquettes in the gaps and sprayed the entire length with lighter fluid.
I lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. When the end was properly red, I twitched it at the pile. The whoosh of blow back flame almost singed my eyebrows. Fantastic. In a few hours it'll be ready. Still stuff to do, so I headed back to the house.
The doorbell rang as I got out of the shower.
"Be down in a minute!" I yelled out the window of my bedroom to my students standing on the porch. "Got a bit hung up on some unexpected stuff. Keys under the planter."
"No problem! We'll just drop our food in the kitchen."
Excited voices from below talked about the main event; the Fire Walk. A few boys boasted that they'd toughened their feet up and were ready. The girls didn't seem so enthusiastic.
"Are you all ready for the ritual?" I asked as I walked into the kitchen. A chorus of yes's answered me.
"Sure are, Ms. Paylay."
"Ready when you are, Miss."
"Great. First let's get the grill going and cook some hot dogs!" I reached into the fridge and pulled out a package of dogs and buns. "The rest of you grab the other stuff and follow me."
"Is Mr. Alfred coming too? Is he home?"
"Uh, no. He's not far but I doubt he'll show up."
The full moon rose over the rim of the treetops and spread a soft light on the blankets laid next to the burning fire pit.
"This mac and cheese is delicious, Ms. Paylay. It's my Aunt Bobbi Jo's, right? She said she was gonna bring some by." Savannah declared.
"Nope, she didn't bring anything, she hasn't been here, didn’t see her. Uh, but she did give me her recipe last week. Yeah, she gave me her recipe." I hurriedly answered. "I'm not a bad cook, if I do say so myself."
Savannah eyed me, confused.
"My aunt is real close with her recipes."
"We're good friends." My voice quivered a little. "Shh...she wanted me to make the mac and cheese as a surprise for you." I changed the subject.
"Time for the raison d'etre." I announced, waving at the embers. "None of you have to do this, I told you it’s optional and won't affect your grade at all. But if you do, then you'll learn something about yourself. Ready?"
Fifteen heads nodded.
"OK. Let's do this." I guided them through the preparation, the calming deep breaths and meditation.
I checked the coals. Ready for the walk. My pants rolled up high, I stepped into the fire. Carefully choosing the blackened spots, I managed to walk the full six feet without injury.
The two boys I figured would be first stood up and, jostling each other quickly walked the fire pit. Whoops of jubilation rang through the clearing and the snap of beer cans being opened after each walk encouraged the next.
Last was Savannah. Her shorts hiked even further up her tanned thighs, she took a few deep breaths and placed her foot on the coals.
"Go fast." I directed her.
She turned to look at me, her eyes wide with fear. Another step. Too slow. The pain was starting, and it was clear she couldn't move fast enough. I grabbed her waving arm and pulled her off the fire, and we both collapsed upon the cool grass around the pit.
Savannah rolled face down on the grass. Something caught her eye and she reached for it.
"What's this?" Savannah held up the object. My mouth went dry. "What's my Aunt Bobbi Jo's butterfly barrette doing here? You said she didn’t leave the mac and cheese."
"Did I say that?" Sweat beaded on my face. "I don't know how that got here." I began to back away from the circle of students in front of me. Savannah held up the barrette.
"How come Mr. Alfred didn't come? He always comes to these parties. And I know my aunt made the casserole; Mac and Cheese is her special dish."
"Where's Mr. Alfred?" One of the boys asked.
My heart started beating hard, my breath caught in my throat. Fifteen pairs of eyes swiveled to me.
"Well, uhm," I started to cry, huge sobs racking my body. "Alfred-he... Bobbi Jo... I can't keep the secret anymore." My shoulder's squared and chin raised, I looked at the students. "There's something I should tell you. Alfred and Bobbi Jo-"
Savannah gave a wail. Everyone turned to her.
"I know what happened!"
"You do?" my voice cracked, dry with dread.
"They run off! Together!" Savannah held out the barrette. "Don't ya see? My aunt's always been sweet on Mr. Alfred. She didn't think anyone knew but I bet that's why she brought the casserole today. It's Mr. Alfred's favorite, ain't it?"
My head nodded; my mind too numb to do more.
"Well, that answers it. They run off. That's why you're crying, Ms. Paylay." Savannah gathered me into her arms. "You've been so brave today, having the cookout and fire pit and all, even with your husband gone away with another woman. You're the bravest woman I know."
The rest of the class gathered in a group hug around my trembling body. Murmurs of 'it's all right' and 'they deserve each other' and 'you're too good for him' drifted around my head. I broke away from the huddle and lifted the butterfly barrette over my head and threw the last of the evidence on the coals amid cheers and whoops from the students.
I kicked my shoes off and poised at the fire pit. No one would ever find the bodies now. No one would even think to look for them. The kids, led by Savannah, chanted 'Do it, do it, do it'. The barrette liquefied, melting into the red and black of the pit. I imagined the molten metal sinking down between the two bodies now little more than brittle bone and ash, coating the remains with melted glass and silver. Savannah stood apart from the rest of the class, her hands clenched.
"Come, Savannah. Fire walk with me." My hand reached for her. "For your aunt."
Savannah clasped my hand and balanced on the edge with me. Her fingernails dug into my fingers. I felt her draw in a deep breath and without looking at her, I stepped on to the fire.
One of the boys, the first to walk, asked; "Anyone got marshmallows?"