Content Warnings: Street harassment
"Blaze" by Andi C. Buchanan
3,100 words, Short fiction
CW: street harassment
I stand on the edge of the lake of fire, silently reciting the incantation that will keep me safe. My focus is hard to maintain in the face of the crowd that surrounds me; mostly young men, shirtless, glowing paint smeared across their bodies, their breath reeking of alcohol and greasy food.
“You reckon she does extras?”
“I wouldn’t. Barely legal this one.”
“That’s how I like them. No legal stuff out here.”
I close my eyes and continue my silent chant. My ancestors bellowed these words out across the lake, syllables snapped up by the crackling of flames, ancient words finding their way atop tongues of fire before they sailed out each morning in their metal fleet. But half of this crowd are recording my performance, and all my people have now are our secrets.
I concentrate furiously. One mistake and my death is certain. And yet that’s not even my biggest worry because Egan is beside me, a bucket in one hand. As the tight field forms around me, I slip off my rubber shoes and hand them to him.
Egan is twelve and should be in school, but we both know there’s little point in that. He’s been robbed a few times out here—we suppose it comes with the territory—but I fear worse, the crowd scuffling or surging, him falling into the fire. We live between the earth and the fire, yes, but we cannot make the transition unprepared. We burn as you burn.
I raise my arms above my head ready to dive, push out my breasts. I’ve chosen my outfit carefully; a red bikini on which I’ve stitched strips of sheer fabric in red and orange. My blonde hair is tugged up into a high pony tail. Aside from some patches of scaling on my thighs and neck, I pass for human.
“Told you the fire type were better than those fish ones. These ones have legs you can get between.”
And I drive. I split my legs above the flames and glide into the fire below. The incantation holds, a thin layer protecting my body from the flames, though the heat is unpleasant. I push back up, one arm first, keeping my body sleek, making sure to form my lips into a mysterious smile. I raise a knee and then a leg above the flames. In front of me I see only orange, but I know beyond the fire, at the lake’s deepest points, are the fire-formed gems my ancestors dove for.
When I next emerge I’m close to the crowd and I cast my face around so each one thinks I’m smiling, individually, at them. I hold my breath and turn upside down, resting my hands on a jutting shelf of rock I know from experience and point my legs into the air, stroking the inside of each leg in turn with the edge of my feet.
When I rise into the air again, slip on my shoes, shake off the spell, Egan is already shaking the bucket round. The takings don’t sound too bad but the crowd disperses quickly. I grab him and we leave, me grabbing a shift dress from where I stowed it in the rock, and we make our way up the heat-soaked path to home. Give it two hours and we’ll be ready to do it again.
Our home is, like all the oldest here, a series of interconnected rooms carved into the porous black rock. Down by the lake they’ve built glass fronted towers and little villas but this place has been in our family for generations.
I pull on a pair of cotton trousers and a shirt, shake down my hair, tell Egan that if he’s not going to school today (and I can hardly fault him, I left at eleven—but then he’s smarter than I’ll ever be) then he can at least count the money. I make us some toast. Our parents will be in the restaurant until late. We know how to look after ourselves.
“Why do they come here?” Egan asks, looking up from his neatly stacked piles of coins of at least three currencies. “I know the lake is pretty; I think if I didn’t live here I’d like to see it, too. But so many of them, every year, for so long?”
I shrug. “They think the rules don’t apply here. That they can do what they like and suffer no consequences. They’re basically right. Oh, and some of them think the lake has some kind of magic that’s going to transform their lives. Or that the fire manatees have special healing powers…”
“The fire manatees grunt, and look ugly.”
“Oh hey, I think we may have discovered your future career. Egan the Fire Manatee: special skills in grunting and…”
Egan responds by chucking a volley of coins at me. I leap to one side.
“Now you’re going to have to pick those up and count them again. Have fun!”
“Fine!” he says, already off his stool and crouching on the woven mat. “Was worth it.”
I pour myself a glass of juice as he returns to his seat. “Is that why they give you all that sleazy shit?” he says. “Because they won’t get any consequences?”
“Yup. And also that they’re dicks. It’s ok. Not much people say bothers me anymore.” But I’m uneasy. The one thing that does bother me is my kid brother seeing it all.
“Dad wants you to quit, you know.”
“I know. You get worse waiting tables, though. At least with this I’m in control—y’know, no-one can make me do anything here. If I don’t smile enough I won’t earn anything, but it won’t get me fired. And I don’t have to worry about reviews. I have to take their shit, but I don’t have to be nice to them.
After I’ve showered, we head down again. A musician of no particular talent—a middle-aged man who lives only a few homes away from us, but whose name I can’t recall—has taken my favourite launch spot, so we head round the lake edge a bit. The crowd is smaller this time, and I can’t really be bothered, but the money’s worth it. After we’re done, and I’ve washed and hung up my outfit for the next day, I cook up some sausages and beans with rice for Egan and tell him to stay home ’til our parents get in. Then I’m off out, a bottle of beer tucked under my arm. The clubs and bars are too expensive for us. We get weird looks as we walk in—especially those of us with facial markings—so we spend our evenings at each other’s homes.
Sorcha’s mother—like most of our parents—works late into the evening, and so the front room is ours. It opens out onto the lake; we are high above the tips of the flames here, and we watch them below us against the dark of the rock and the neon of the town and the dying night sky.
Sorcha’s behind me, looking over my shoulder. “Do the stars over that way seem brighter to you?” she asks, pointing. I shrug.
“Maybe? Probably it’s to do with it being closer to the centre of the lake so there’s less contrast.”
“Hmmm,” is all she says in response.
We drink, and we share gossip. We’re seventeen, and we don’t know what else to do. We would dream of our escape, but how can you when you live in the one place that young people the world over escape to? And when you are bonded to the fire by history and biology you don’t quite understand.
Still we mention it now and again, talk of disguising ourselves in the world’s cities, living amongst towering buildings. Others have done it. But I don’t think we will.
I add ice and refill my glass. The flicker of the flames reflects around the cave. I walk to the edge and scan the paths below. “Don’t think there’s anyone else on the way yet.”
“And why would you be concerned about that, Caia?” she asks, a smile flickering across her face.
“Oh, just that they might be overwhelmed by how pretty we are,” I say, leaving my glass on a shelf and sliding myself next to her.
“Of course. We wouldn’t want to inflict that on them. So cruel.”
Sorcha places her lips against my giggling mouth and I swallow my laughter to meet them. She smells of apples, no doubt a shampoo that her mother stole from the hotel, but it’s a far cry from the sulphur that permeates near everything around here, so I lean back and pretend that she’s been lying in an orchard somewhere. I feel her warm hands reach round the back of my neck, entangling themselves in my hair.
We’re interrupted—we always are, can’t keep anything to yourselves round here—by footsteps. Bryonia and Ashur each with bottles and a bag of snacks. Sorcha and I put enough space between us to appear innocent. Though it’s been three months and counting, we’ve no desire for our relationship to be the centre of local gossip.
We proceed to engage in said local gossip; I never said that it was wrong, only that I wouldn’t want it to be about me! When it gets late we say our goodbyes. Sorcha hugs me. We linger just a moment, and then I’m heading down the rock paths with the others, still feeling the clutch of her arms, so glad to have her.
The next day I see Sorcha in the fire. I emerge, plumping up my breasts in my hands to the delight and abuse (oftentimes, they seem to be the same thing) of the waiting crowd, then dive back in and there she is. I didn’t even know she went in the fire—we all have incantations handed down through our families, of course, but not everyone uses them—but there she is, grinning through the flames. I lose my balance, flail against the fire, and she rights me.
“I just wanted to see you,” she mouths, cheekily, and I curse her under my breath, but she’s filled me with a warmth that is stronger than that of all the fire around me. When I raise my head above the flames my smile is, for once, genuine.
Afterwards I tell Egan to go to afternoon classes, that one performance is enough for the day and school should be his focus. When he’s gone I walk with Sorcha round the edge of the lake. There are few private places we can go these days—any time a tourist guide gets a hint of them they publish them with words like quiet and secluded, thus ensuring they become anything but. Still, we know the lake better than they do, and we haul ourselves up to a small alcove in the rock, far enough from the lake that sitting doesn’t burn your legs, to watch the fire dance.
“We’re going nowhere here,” she says. It’s a familiar topic. I wonder if it’s just our ritual. In other places, people leave; here we talk about leaving and never do. Once we stayed and worked in the quarries and dived for the precious stones that formed deep below the fire. Now we stay here and serve generation after generation of tourists.
“How could we get away? What would we do? I can only just read and you can’t work in cities without reading.”
“You know how to make men give you money…”
“Only because the fire diving is a novelty. Without that my looks are average…no…” I wave away her protestations. “No really. And I won’t keep those forever.”
“Well,” she says, after a pause. “My grandfather still has a boat. It won’t take us away forever, but we can take it for the night.”
Once everyone here had boats, setting out on the lake in the morning and returning as a fleet in formation as the sunset. I’ve seen only a few paintings of that sight. But a few hours with Sorcha is not something I want to turn down.
She unlocks the doors of the boatshed; they’re rusty and we have to tug in unison to get them open. I frown at the vessel that awaits; it’s certainly seen better days.
“Safe?” I ask cautiously. Sorcha shrugs—not exactly the reassurance I was looking for.
“It’s got plenty of magic on. Can’t you feel it?”
I can. It’s not my magic, but it’s still sending vibrations through my body. It will be what allows it to float amongst the flames, though it’s heavy and metal. Sorcha walks round it, studying it carefully, tries one phrase and then another. It wobbles and little then shifts out of the door.
“Woah.” We scamper after it, and Sorcha desperately comes up with the incantation to make it stop.
“I’m brimming with confidence now,” I say, trying to make a joke of it, hide the fact I’m shaking. We each recite our own incantations to protect ourselves from the flames and I realise that, for the first time since I was small, I’m saying the words out loud.
Magic may keep the boat afloat, but it’s tossed and turned by the flames, by small explosions of fire beneath us. Sorcha steers, but it’s hard enough for her to keep us upright. We’re bashed back and forth, and I cling on, terrified and bruised.
I lean over the edge and learn something new. What burnt vomit smells like.
When there seems to be nothing left in my stomach, I haul myself back inside and lie on the base of the boat.
“Shall I turn back,” Sorcha asks, in a tone that indicates she’s pretty much made up her mind. But as she says it she seems to get a better handle. The boat stabilises. I sit up.
We’re near the centre of the lake. The flames spit into the air all around us. I can see the shore in every direction; our homes, the tourist village, the mountains out to the west.
Sorcha points up to the sky. “I hoped we’d be able to see it from here.”
I look up. There’s a distortion above us, something not quite right, but I can’t tell what. “What is it?”
“Why we don’t leave here. There are force fields around this town, and round the lake, magic formed by long ago incantations reaching up to meet in a dome. What you see above you is where all of them, cast by different families at different times, meet.”
“And here was me thinking you wanted to take me on a romantic trip…”
“I’ve suspected for a while. Heard some stories. It was only with you that I had the courage to find out.” The boat rocks a little. “It’s like what we use on ourselves to protect us from the fire. We can still feel the heat through it, right? It’s not an absolute barrier. This works the same but on people. If you really want to leave, you can leave. If you really want to get here, because you’re young and determined and you’ve been looking forward to it all year, you can. But it discourages most people without them even knowing it.”
“And consequences…” I mutter.
“Consequences. Nothing these kids do have consequences when they get back to wherever they’re from. Does it shield them too…?”
We both stare above us. Away from the town, and now we know what to look for, the distortions against the sky which must have been there all our lives suddenly seem obvious. Segments fan out like those of an orange.
“That one’s weaker,” Sorcha says.
“I’m not sure it’s just that they’re determined to get through,” I reply.
Sorcha nods and returns us to shore.
There are eight of us from eight families in our front room that opens to the lake and the sky. Eight of us plus Egan, who I would send away, but this perhaps affects him more than anyone. We’ve drawn a map of the sky. For the first time, we’re sharing our spells, the incantations that our parents, though they may have left us to make our own meals and open our own doors, still found the time to teach us.
It’s like a puzzle. Similar effects set up in slightly different ways.
“What do we do now?” Ashur says. “We could strengthen the field, keep all the tourists out, take it back for ourselves.”
A couple of others nod in approval. But Bryonia says that this place has been like this as long as we can remember, that we know how to live here and maybe the past wasn’t as great as we’d been told.
I’m surprised to find myself agreeing with her. “But we know that it exists now. Now we know if we want to leave we just need to keep pushing through.” I turn to Egan. “You can do that. School first, then you get out. Ok?”
He grins. “And of course, with me focused so hard on study, I will need the financial assistance of my dear family to…”
I swipe the top of his head. “You idiot. You know we’ll do anything we can.”
“People abandoned the boats because there was more money in tourism,” Sorcha says. “But, I think that was a mistake. Sure, it was easy money at first, but look where it’s left us. We should be thinking about how we can do it better. Combining all the knowledge and power our families have handed down. Finding better ways of selling the gemstones.”
“I’m in,” says Bryonia, and after a moment Ayban agrees.
“You too?” Egan asks me.
I think of the leering and the insults dressed up as compliments, and part of me wants to say yes. But then I think about how much I love to push myself through the fire. How I have the power to captivate so many, to head down to the lake any time I need to and come back with at least a little money.
I also think of vomiting into the flames from the boat. That settles it. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing for now. I can help you out a bit while you get set up. Later…” I shrug. “Later there will be more possibilities.”
Sorcha pulls me into her arms. The nine of us look into the flames below us, imagining a small fleet of boats amidst the fire, imagining them sailing home.
Andi C. Buchanan is a writer, editor, and part-time space lobster based near Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Their work is published or forthcoming in Apex, Kaleidotrope, the Fox Spirit anthology Pacific Monsters, Glittership, and more. Andi also edits Capricious magazine, makes websites, and likes dinosaurs, cheese, and bookshelves. You can find them on Twitter @andicbuchanan or at andicbuchanan.org.