“Can't sit still, that one,” great aunt Avril would say. “Destined for the circus.” Of course, she also used to say that a half-pint of gin was good for the soul, and look where that got her: six feet under in a coffin made of cardboard.
Her son Herman insisted on the cardboard coffin. “But what would Avril have wanted?” I’d made the mistake of wondering aloud within his earshot. I quite liked the idea of a cardboard coffin myself, but Avril had always been one for show: pearls and bright wigs.
“Your great aunt Avril was responsible for a great number of environmental catastrophes,” Herman answered. “The least she can do is rot in peace.” I didn’t have the foggiest what he was talking about, though aunt Avril’s shady past was often skirted during family conversations.
Herman’s the one that signed me up for the circus, and my can’t-hold-still limbs. When he got with Anastasia she’d already bought a tent and an elephant and was on the lookout for other acts. Herman and Anastasia would whistle me on during lessons in the yard behind the shops on the high street. I’d be in my school uniform. I’ll try anything once. If I survive it usually means it’ll make a good trick, Anastasia says. I keep surviving.
The vapour gushes from my mouth like vomit. A flash of gold and
copper-red fills my vision. I'm supposed to keep my eyes closed. I could go blind this way, but it’s beautiful. I think I'm addicted to it: the gold, the warm beat on my cheeks. The gasp of the crowd as I spin around in the centre of the ring, a human flame thrower, a human flame. That’s why I keep doing it. That and the fact I have no choice: when Herman took me to ask my parents if he and Anastasia could borrow me for the circus they’d mysteriously vanished and I haven’t seen them since. It’s been years. There’s a pair of rats in Anastasia’s petting zoo with my parents’ eyes and I sometimes confide them my secrets.
I thought I was cool, swallowing fire after school. Now I've eaten fire by the ton, by the pint, by the mile – however you want to measure it. I've eaten fire until my nostrils burn, my cheeks split and my lips scab. You can eat all the fire you like, but you never get full. I sometimes think I see a life I might have had in the flashes of yellow and red that linger on the inside of my eyelids once the flames subside.
When the big top’s lights come up, Herman and Anastasia are waiting in the wings. Anastasia taps her feet, scanning the audience to see if they’re the tipping sort. Herman mutters something as I smoulder past: “Not good for the environment, all this burning.” I wonder how he’ll make me pay.