If you’re gonna swallow a sword, you need to be learning it for years. Because parts of you will want to close up over the blade’s sharp regardless of what you try to tell them. The shine of it can swell up in your lungs, can twist your larynx into pretty pieces of ribbon. Toro knows because he’s been sitting outside the sideshow booth all morning, watching Madame Veruschka practice. The yellow painted wood is saving his eyes from the sun, so he doesn’t see the way the metal strikes up sparks in the light. But he doesn’t need the extra light to know the point of the thing.
Eating fire, it’s a whole other type of fish in the kettle. There’s no trick in that, no learning. You’re just supposed to light the damn match and stick it in your mouth and hope you’ve got enough blisters that you can’t feel it so much anymore. Toro knows because the Alexanders’ve told him so. They seem like a nice enough couple, he thinks, but when he closes his eyes he still sees the train-wheels spinning off their tracks and the lines of people’s bodies sticking every which way out of the wreckage. In the flames, and in the twilight, all the iron cast monstrous shadows across the ground: claws and points and other choked-up things. He pretends he doesn’t remember much about the crash, but his parents are gone and that can’t be wished away so easy. Which is funny, because sometimes, for the barest inches of moments, he does forget. And then the remembering comes back in like a mean saltwater tide, and there’s nothing for him to do but bow his head and cross his heart.
Which is the reason he wants to stick his mouth full of burning twigs in the first place. Oh, sure, that Ellie woman can talk up a swell pitch, but he wouldn’t be following along except that he really needs something to follow along with.
Yet when Toro first tries to pass something fiery through his lips, it doesn’t taste at all like he expected. It is white and large and full of syncopations and he can’t quite figure what to make of that. All his hurts are so brand-new that he knows no fresh part of him has grown over them, to cover them up. His tongue isn’t brave enough for blisters, so he wonders why there ain’t no pain that comes.
Steve sees murals on every brick in the complex, and when he pauses sometimes he can feel his brush-hand swinging bright strokes of sky across the red and the mortar. But he doesn’t need to remind himself of where he is, or what he’s come for. His country sure needs somebody to play at guinea pig, and that’s all the math he’s got to know. Doesn’t matter if they’re running him ragged through about a thousand hoops, when just one would be enough to do him in. Doesn’t matter if he can barely curl himself into a sit-up, even with the special food they got him eating these past months.
His mother used to tell him that his lungs were too small for his ribs, or that his heart is too big for his chest. And that was why when he took a breath he could never feel it stretch down into the bottom of him. That was why it had always been easy for the other boys to twist him up like coat hangers from the cleaners, why he’s letting them stick needles in him from steepled angles, why he can’t just walk down to the enlistment office.
He still had to raise his right hand to the air and swear to protect and uphold. He still had to do that.
When the man came down with his clipboard and said that they’d picked him to go first, well, that was all there was to it. Done and done, without even the time to blink. And now they’re pouring down his throat something like the white of the orange chased with five different kinds of ice, something that’s supposed to fill him up from tip to toe. But what he notices, before the gunshot, before bones get broken and everything snaps to the floor, is the smell. And the air that comes in through the holes in his face, like it’s natural, like that’s how it’s always been. What he can feel, for one stretch of the second hand, is his breath going all the way down, fitting into him. It’s the first time he can remember being able to breathe so deep.
Bucky is sixteen years old. Sixteen years, five months, and twenty-two days. He isn’t sure about the hours—Dad had just said it was real early when he was born. And this isn’t his first time out, neither, just the first time he’s wound up alone with a German, a mission, and a knife.
They’ve told him about this, sure, how to wipe the grins from those bastard Kraut faces, but none of them he’s met so far have been smiling. Not many people have been smiling at all. Even so, Bucky needs these plans the way Abbott needs Costello, and if there’s someone in the way of them, well, that’s just rotten luck, is what it is. And he has to do it so that no one can hear or see or nothing, because they aren’t in the war yet, not officially. Oh, everyone back at Lehigh knew that something big was a-stirring, that cometh a tide in the affairs of men that’ll get everybody’s feet all wet. It’s pressing on the neck of every man in the service, the war. But it still ain’t official.
Which means, Bucky knows, that this man’s just gotta die.
Here’s a truth: killing a man just ain’t that hard. Nah, Bucky corrects himself, it just ain’t as hard as you’d like it to be. But you get a sharp enough cutter and you can put it through most of a person’s softer parts without really trying. It’s like slicing up a chicken, almost, except you don’t need to go through bone. For a second that is what he thinks. Then the bleeding starts.
So much blood comes pouring out of that tiny German, all alone in the stacks of Haefa crackers, that it stains the sides of Bucky’s shoes and not just his hands. He never knew how much red stuff a person had in ‘em, how much they needed to keep themselves full. And he wonders what part of himself is leaving him right then. Because it just seems like something oughta come rushing out of his own insides, to match the great mess the Kraut is leaving on the floor. That would be fair.
The man had blue eyes and three of the crates in the storage room came up to his chin. His pockets say that his name was Ludwig and that he was twenty-two years old that summer. Bucky promises himself he’ll never forget these things.
Given time, though, he forgets a lot more than just that.