By Jessica Z.
Have you ever seen something so agonizingly beautiful that it cuts your heart like knives? I have. It changed me forever.
It was a bitterly cold day in the city. It wasn't snowing, but the whole sky was bleak and colorless, one great, solid pall over the world. The icy, pitiless air slashed me with its ruthless, furious claws. I hurried down a broad, crowded sidewalk with my head down and hands stuffed into my shallow pockets. Funny how easy it can be to shut the world out when you try.
I was haunted that day, as on so many other days, by phantom thoughts of what it would be like to be whole. I was born with a bad left arm - there's some medical explanation, but I never bothered to understand. All I knew was that for longer than I could remember, that arm had hindered everything I undertook. I was perpetually broken.
As I passed the mouth of a narrow alley, my furtive eye glimpsed something alluring and bizarre. I turned back to investigate. The sight before me was so terrifyingly unbelievable that I wondered for a moment if Casey had spiked my punch. In the middle of the long alley burned a bonfire that was as wide as the alley and stories high. Its immensity was impossible, its beauty intoxicating.
The thing about beauty like that fire is that it draws you. Before I even knew what I was doing, I had begun walking down the empty alley, coming nearer with every inexorable footfall to the shimmering, dancing flames. I squinted my eyes and turned my head to one side because of the fierceness of the blaze. It was roaring and snapping like a campfire gone berserk, the sound so loud I couldn't hear myself call for help, but I could see no fuel for it to consume. When I was close enough to blow the giant tongues of flame with my breath, I reached out a hand in the fire, trying to grasp it and hold it. I was driven by a similar instinct to the one that impels the two-year-old to touch the pretty red stove, despite his mother's imparted conviction that it will hurt. I cried out in pain, my voice swallowed by the fire, but did not draw back. Just as beauty can be painful, pain can be beautiful. It all depends on the source. I knew that the fire was beautiful and good, and I longed for something beautiful and good in my empty life, no matter what it cost me.
I stepped into the fire completely, letting the flames lick my plain face and weak body, bathing me in burning radiance. It hurt more than anything I had ever known; I felt like every inch of me was dying a slow and agonizing death. Tears came to my eyes and poured out, only to be turned instantly to steam by the intensity of the furnace. I would have screamed if I could have found the strength. My arm, my hateful gimp arm, was burning with the heat and pain and terrible beauty of a thousand suns, shining so brilliantly in the midst of all that brilliance that I thought my eyes and head would explode from the brightness. I opened my eyes to welcome the piercing, shrieking light; I opened my mouth to drink in the scorching, searching flames. My arm hurt beyond hurting, pulsing and throbbing and stabbing throughout the limp muscles, defective (but still pain-receptive!) nerves, and twisted bone. I thought I would die; I hoped I would die. But I just kept walking through the flames, putting one searing foot in front of the other for an infinity of painful steps. To the small part of my brain that could still form thoughts through the agony, it seemed that the river of fire would never end. That darkening part of my mind told me to panic, that I couldn't bear this suffering a moment longer, but something within me held on to those beautiful, shining flames, prizing them more than life itself.
I kept walking for what felt like years. I finally reached a point within myself where I knew that I couldn't take one more step; I resigned myself to die in the beautiful, horrible fire. As I put my foot down for the last time, though, my bare foot (my clothes and shoes had long since burned away) met cool stone. There was a ripping explosion of pain in my left arm; I passed out, falling out of the fire like a tree hewn down in the forest.
When I came to my senses, I was too weak to even open my eyes. I just lay there on the cool, damp ground of the alley, naked and vulnerable, convincing myself I was still alive. After some hours? days? of resting like that, I was finally able to stir. At first I just enjoyed the sensations of movement, of quiet, of darkness, and then fear and wonder gripped me with a stranglehold. The pain was gone. Except for a dull, throbbing ache in my left arm, I felt completely normal - no, better than normal! I had just walked through a fire as hot and intense as the sun; I should have died. I should at least have been covered with crippling third-degree burns. I shook my head in puzzlement, then realized with a start as I felt something brush against my back that, against all laws of science and sense known to me, my waist-long hair had survived the blaze.
As my eyes adjusted to the twilight of the alley, I inspected the rest of my body to see what other miracles I would find. I raised both arms to feel my face... but no, it couldn't be! Only one hand touched my cheek. I slowly turned my head to look at my left arm, dreading what I might see. With a sharp gasp and subsequent struggle against hyperventilation, I incredulously stared at what had been my arm. That loathed limb, which had been my curse for all my life, was gone. A raw-looking stump was all that remained.
Once I had overcome my initial shock, I got to my feet slowly. Finding a heap of trash against a wall, I hunted through it, searching for something that could serve as clothing. I eventually settled on a large, coarse, not-too-smelly blanket and wrapped myself in it as well as I could. Again, I noted with surprise that there was no pain where pain should have been unbearable. As I turned around to look back through the perilous path I had taken, I saw that the fire was gone without a trace. Bewildered my mysteries that I could not understand, I wheeled around to the opposite direction and hurried out of that fearsome alley, into the open street.
In the big city, something has to be freakishly bizarre to make people stop and stare. Apparently I met and exceeded that qualification, for I was clearing a path for myself through the pedestrians who hastened to get out of my way. At the time, I just assumed that they were gawking at my blanket-dress, though I didn't think my strange clothing alone merited such unwonted behavior from hardened city-dwellers. When I got home, though, I found the reason for their wonder. The reason radiated at me from the faces of my mother and brother. It was reflected in the mirror in our living room. Suddenly the world went still. I was gold.
As I write this, I've already lived some time as a product of the fire. I still get strange looks from people I don't know, but my friends and family have learned to get used to me. I can't explain it to them - can't explain why I walked straight into a consuming fire, can't explain why the fire didn't kill me as it should have, can't explain the substance of my body is a purer gold than my mother's wedding band. But I know that it happened. That fire changed me. I am strong and beautiful as I was never strong and beautiful before. But the fire also marked me. Once people have gotten over the fact that they are speaking to a person of gold, I see them glancing at the stump of my left arm when they think I'm not watching them. I can tell they think I'm a cripple. But the truth - a truth they would never understand - is that I am better off without that arm. It held me back, but now I have been set free. I have been refined by the fire; I have come forth as gold.
''But He knows the way I take;
When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.''
- Job 23:10