When thou walkest through the fire,
thou shalt not be burned.
THE FIRE pit was about twenty-five feet long by ten feet wide, and perhaps two feet deep. The fire had been burning for hours. The bed of coals gave off a blast of heat almost unbearable even back where I was seated, fifteen feet from the side of the pit, in the second row of tourists.
I had given up my front-row seat to one of the ladies from the ship, delighted to accept the shielding offered by her well-fed carcass. I was tempted to move still farther back... but I did want to see the fire walkers close up. How often does one get to view a miracle?
'It's a hoax,' the Well-Traveled Man said. 'You'll see.'
'Not really a hoax, Gerald,' the Authority-on-Everything denied. 'Just somewhat less than we were led to expect. It won't be the whole village - probably none of the hula dancers and certainly not those children. One or two of the young men, with calluses on their feet as thick as cowhide, and hopped up on opium or some native drug, will go down the pit at a dead run. The villagers will cheer and our kanaka friend there who is translating for us will strongly suggest that we should tip each of the fire walkers, over and above what we've paid for the luau and the dancing and this show.
'Not a complete hoax,' he went on. 'The shore excursion brochure listed a "demonstration of fire walking". That's what we'll get. Never mind the talk about a whole village of fire walkers. Not in the contract. 'The Authority looked smug.
'Mass hypnosis,' the Professional Bore announced.
I was tempted to ask for an explanation of 'mass hypnosis'- but nobody wanted to hear from me; I was junior - not necessarily in years but in the cruise ship Konge Knut. That's how it is in cruise ships: Anyone who has been in the vessel since port of departure is senior to, anyone who joins the ship later. The Medes and the Persians laid down this law and nothing can change it. I had flown down in the Count Von Zeppelin, at Papeete I would fly home in the Admiral Moffett, so I was forever junior and should keep quiet while my betters pontificated'.
Cruise ships have the best food and, all too often, the worst conversation in the world. Despite this I was enjoying the islands; even the Mystic and the Amateur Astrologer and the Parlor Freudian and the Numerologist did not trouble me, as I did not listen.
'They do it through the fourth dimension,' the Mystic announced. 'Isn't that true, Gwendolyn!'
'Quite true, dear,' the Numerologist agreed. 'Oh, here they come now! It will be an odd number, you'll see.'
'You're so learned, dear.'
'Humph,' said the Skeptic.
The native who was assisting our ship's excursion host raised his arms and spread his palms for silence. 'Please, will you all listen! Mauruuru roa. Thank you very much. The high priest and priestess will now pray the Gods to make the fire safe for the villagers. I ask you to remember that this is a religious ceremony, very ancient; please behave as you would in your own church. Because -'
An extremely old kanaka interrupted; he and the translator exchanged words in a language not known to me Polynesian, I assumed; it had the right liquid flow to it. The younger kanaka turned back to us.
'The high priest tells me that some of the children are making their first walk through fire today, including that baby over there in her mother's arms. He asks all of you to keep perfectly silent during the prayers, to insure the safety of the children. Let me add that I am a Catholic. At this point I always ask our Holy Mother Mary to watch over our children - and I ask all of you to pray for them in your own way. Or at least keep silent and think good thoughts for them. If the high priest is not satisfied that there is a reverent attitude, he won't let the children enter the fire - I've even known him to cancel the entire ceremony.
'There you have it, Gerald,' said the Authority-on-Everything in a third-balcony whisper. 'The build-up. Now the switch, and they'll blame it on us.' He snorted.
The Authority - his name was Cheevers - had been annoying me ever since I had joined the ship. I leaned forward and said quietly into his ear, 'If those children walk through the fire, do you have the guts to do likewise?'
Let this be a lesson to you. Learn by my bad example. Never let an oaf cause you to lose your judgement. Some seconds later I found that my challenge had been turned against me and. -somehow! - all three, the Authority, the Skeptic, and the Well-Traveled Man, had each bet me a hundred that I would not dare walk the fire pit, stipulating that the children walked first.
Then the translator was shushing us again and the priest and priestess stepped down into the fire pit and everybody kept very quiet and I suppose some of us prayed. I know I did. I found myself reciting what popped into my mind:
'Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep-'
Somehow it seemed appropriate.
The priest and the priestess did not walk through the fire; they did-something quietly more spectacular and (it seemed to me) far more dangerous. They simply stood in the fire pit, barefooted, and prayed for several minutes. I could see their lips move. Every so often the old priest sprinkled something into the pit. Whatever it was, as it struck the coals it burst into sparkles.
I tried to see what they were standing on, coals or rocks, but I could not tell... and could not guess which would be worse. Yet this old woman, skinny as gnawed bones, stood there quietly, face placid, and with no precautions other than having tucked up her lava-lava so that it was almost a diaper. Apparently she fretted about burning her clothes but not about burning her legs.
Three men with poles had been straightening out the burning logs, making sure that the bed of the pit was a firm and fairly even footing for the fire walkers. I took a deep interest in this, as I expected to be walking in. that pit in a few minutes - if I didn't cave in and forfeit the bet. It seemed to me that they were making it possible to walk the length of the fire pit on rocks rather than burning coals. I hoped so!
Then I wondered what difference it would make recalling sun-scorched sidewalks that had blistered my bare feet when I was a boy in Kansas. That fire had to be at least seven hundred degrees; those rocks had been soaking in that fire for several hours. At such temperatures was there any real choice between frying pan and fire?
I Meanwhile the voice of reason was whispering in my ear that forfeiting three hundred was not much of a price to pay to get out of this bind... or would I rather walk the rest of my life on two barbecued stumps?
Would it help if I took an aspirin?
The three men finished fiddling with the burning logs and went to the end of the pit at our left; the rest of the villagers gathered behind them - including those darned kids! What were their parents thinking about, letting them risk something like this? Why weren't they in school where they belonged?
The three fire tenders led off, walking single file down the center of the fire, not hurrying, not dallying. The rest of the men of the village followed them, a* slow, steady procession. Then came the women, including the young mother with a baby on her hip.
When the blast of heat struck the infant, it started to cry. Without varying her steady pace, its mother swung it up and gave it suck; the baby shut up.
The children followed, from pubescent girls and adolescent boys down to the kindergarten level. Last was a little girl (nine? eight?) who was leading her round-eyed little, brother by, the hand. He seemed to be about four and was dressed only in his skin.
I looked at this kid and knew with mournful certainty that I was about to be served up rare; I could no longer back out. Once the baby boy stumbled; his sister kept him from falling. He went on then, short sturdy steps. At the far end someone reached down and lifted him out.
And it was my turn.
The translator said to me, 'You understand that the Polynesia Tourist Bureau takes no responsibility for your safety? That fire can burn you, it can kill you. These people can walk it safely because they have faith.'
I assured him that I had faith, while wondering how I could be such a barefaced liar. I signed a release he presented.
All too soon I was standing at one end of the pit, with my trousers rolled up to my knees. My shoes and socks and hat and wallet were at the far end, waiting on a stool. That was my goal, my prize - if I didn't make it, would they cast lots for them? Or would they ship them to my next of kin?
He was saying: 'Go right down the middle. Don't hurry but don't stand still.' The high priest spoke up; my mentor listened, then said, 'He says not to run, even if your feet burn. Because you might stumble and fall down. Then you might never get up. He means you might die. I must add that you probably would not die - unless you breathed flame. But you would certainly be terribly burned. So don't hurry and don't fall down. Now see that flat rock under you? That's your first step. Que le bon Dieu vous garde. Good luck.'
'Thanks.' I glanced over at the Authority-on-Everything, who was smiling ghoulishly, if ghouls smile. I gave him a mendaciously jaunty wave and stepped down.
I had taken three steps before I realized that I didn't feel anything at all. Then I did feel something: scared. Scared silly and wishing I were in Peoria. Or even Philadelphia. Instead of alone in this vast smoldering waste. The far end of the pit was a city block away. Maybe farther. But I kept plodding toward it while hoping that this numb paralysis would not cause me to collapse before reaching it.
I felt smothered and discovered that I had been holding my breath. So I gasped - and regretted it. Over a fire pit that vast there is blistering gas and smoke and carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and something that may be Satan's halitosis, but not enough oxygen to matter.' I chopped off that gasp with my eyes watering and my throat raw and tried to estimate whether or not I could reach the end without breathing.
Heaven help me, I could not see the far end! The smoke had billowed up and my eyes would barely open and would not focus. So I pushed on, while trying to remember the formula by which one made a deathbed confession and then slid into Heaven on a technicality.
Maybe there wasn't any such formula. My feet felt odd and my knees were becoming unglued...
'Feeling better, Mr Graham?'
I was lying on grass and looking up into a friendly, brown face. 'I guess so,' I answered. 'What happened? Did I walk it?'
'Certainly you walked it. Beautifully. But you fainted right at the end. We were standing by and grabbed you, hauled you out. But you tell me what happened. Did you get your lungs full of smoke?'
'Maybe. Am I burned?'
'No. Oh, you may form one blister on your right foot. But you held the thought perfectly. All but that faint, which must have been caused by smoke.'
'I guess so.' I sat up with his help. 'Can you hand me my shoes and socks? Where is everybody?'
'The bus left. The high priest took your pulse and checked your breathing but he wouldn't let anyone disturb you. If you force a man to wake up when his spirit is still walking about, the spirit may not come back in. So he believes and no one dares argue with him.'
'I won't argue with him; I feel fine. Rested. But how do I get back to the ship?' Five miles of tropical paradise would get tedious after the first mile. On foot. Especially as my feet seemed to have swelled a bit. For which they, had ample excuse.
'The bus will come back to take the villagers to the boat that takes them back to the island they live on. It then could take you to your ship. But we can do better. My cousin has an automobile. He wil take you.'
'Good. How much will he charge me?' Taxis in Polynesia are always outrageous, especially when the drivers have you at their mercy, of which they have none. But it occurred to me that I could afford to be robbed as I was bound to show a profit on this jape. Three hundred minus one taxi fare. I picked up my hat. 'Where's my wallet?'
'My billfold. I left it in my hat. Where is it? This isn't funny; my money was in it. And my cards.'
'Your money? Oh! Votre portefeuille. I am sorry; my English is not perfect. The officer from your ship, your excursion guide, took care of it.'
'That was kind of him. But how am I to pay your cousin? I don't have a franc on me.'
We got that straightened out. The ship's excursion escort, realising that he would be leaving me strapped in rescuing my billfold, had prepaid my ride back to the ship. My kanaka friend took me to his cousin's car and introduced me to his cousin - not too effectively, as the cousin's English was limited to 'Okay, Chief!' and I never did get his name straight.
'His automobile was a triumph of baling wire and faith. We went roaring back to the dock at full throttle, frightening chickens and easily outrunning baby goats. I did not pay much attention as I was bemused by something that had happened just before we left. The villagers were waiting for their bus to return; we walked right through them. Or started to. I got kissed. I got kissed by all of them. I had already seen the Polynesian habit of kissing where we would just shake hands, but this was the first time it had happened to me.
My friend explained it to me: 'You walked through their fire, so you are an honorary member of their village. They want to kill a pig for you. Hold a feast in your honor.'
I tried to answer in kind while explaining that I had to return home across the great water but I would return someday, God willing. Eventually we got away.
But that was not what had me most bemused. Any unbiased judge would have to admit that I am reasonably sophisticated. I am aware that some places do not have America's high moral standards and are careless about indecent exposure. I know that Polynesian women used to run around naked from the waist up until civilization came along - shucks, I read the National Geographic.
But I never expected to see it.
Before I made my fire walk the villagers were dressed just as you would expect: grass skirts but with the women's bosoms covered.
But when they kissed me hello-goodbye they were not. Not covered, I mean. Just like the National Geographic.
Now I appreciate feminine beauty. Those delightful differences, seen under proper circumstances with the shades decently drawn, can be dazzling. But forty-odd (no, even) of them are intimidating. I saw more human feminine busts than I had ever seen before, total and cumulative, in my entire life. The Methodist Episcopal Society for Temperance and Morals would have been shocked right out of their wits.
With adequate warning I am sure that I could have enjoyed the experience. As it was, it was too new, too much, too fast. I could appreciate it only in retrospect.
Our tropical Rolls-Royce crunched to a stop with the aid of hand brake, foot brake, and first-gear compression; I looked up from bemused euphoria. My driver announced, 'Okay, Chief!'
I said, 'That's not my ship.'
'You've taken me to the wrong dock. Uh, it looks like the right dock but it's the wrong ship.' Of that I was certain. M.V. Konge Knut has white sides and superstructure and a rakish false funnel. This ship was mostly red with four tall black stacks. Steam, it had to be - not a motor vessel. As well as years out of date. 'No. No!'
'Okay, Chief. Votre vapeur! Voila!'
'Okay, Chief.' He got out, came around and opened the door on the passenger Side, grabbed my arm, and pulled.
I'm in fairly good shape, but his arm had been toughened by swimming, climbing for coconuts, hauling in fishnets, and pulling tourists who don't want to go out of cars. I got out.
He jumped back in, called out, 'Okay, Chief! Merci bien! Au 'voir!' and was gone.
I went, Hobson's choice, up the gangway of the strange vessel to learn, if possible, what had become of the Konge Knut. As I stepped aboard, the petty officer on gangway watch saluted and said, 'Afternoon, sir. Mr Graham, Mr Nielsen left a package for you. One moment -'He lifted the lid of his watch desk, took out a large manila envelope. 'Here you are, sir.'
The package had written on it: A. L. Graham, cabin C109. I opened it, found a well-worn wallet.
'Is everything in order, Mr Graham?'
'Yes, thank you. Will you tell Mr Nielsen that I received it? And give him my thanks.'
I noted that this was D deck, went up one flight to find cabin C109.
All was not quite in order. My name is not 'Graham'.