Lady with the Cane (May 2009)

Lady With a Cane

By Cynthia Bergen
Edited by Dr. Jeanette Passty/Kristie Graf
From The Vintage Club (Doc #20080395338)

Fire brings mysterious souls together. Fire performers are drawn to each other and can feel like a family. My "family" is a fire performance group called Nocturnal Sol. We are one of several fire spinning troupes in San Antonio, Texas. Our troupe was put together by Amanda and Mandi, who then brought in Ryan, me (Cynthia), and others.

The unique art that we perform consists of Poi, rope dart, and swords. Of course, these are all weapons in their own ways. But we set them on fire. Poi is a Maori word meaning "ball on a cord," which we light on fire with a wick made of Kevlar. The Maori people from New Zealand used it to increase flexibility and strength in their hands. For the Maori women, it kept their hands flexible for weaving. For the men, it increased their strength to prepare for battle.

The rope dart is a flexible weapon in Chinese martial arts. A metal dart is attached to the long rope, ten to sixteen feet in length. We use a six-inch wick to fire it up. Created in ancient times, this weapon allows the user to throw the dart out at a long range, hitting the target, and pulling it back. When skillfully used, it can easily trick an opponent by shooting out very suddenly.

Our last weapons are swords, which are pretty self-explanatory and, like our other weapons, we set them on fire.

At 6:00 on a warm Monday evening I am on my way to practice in a parking lot near the Pearl Brewery. I stop for gas at a convenience store. As I'm pumping fuel into my silver Mazda Miata, a middle-aged man in jeans and polo shirt, walks up to me. "I ran out of gas," he says. He points to a late model car parked in front of the store, with a little girl in the back seat. He says he has his young daughter with him and they need to get back to Houston.

I tell him, "I'm sorry, but I can't help you right now."

There is a disappointed look on his face. I do think with concern about his daughter, but in my heart, I know it is a scam. How could he use his daughter like that?

As I drive off, I look into my rearview mirror. The man that asked me for money gets into a different car. No child in the backseat!

I arrive at practice early, so no one is there yet. The asphalt is still radiating the South Texas heat, so I decide to get a drink at the corner store down the road. The store is within walking distance, but I take my car instead. I make my selection and pay the clerk. As he's handing me my change, this homeless man seems to materialize out of nowhere, asking me for a dollar. Okay, is this "Ask Cynthia for Money Day"? Crazy! Immediately, I tell this guy, "Sorry, nothing on me." I'm pretty sure he saw me getting change. Right now, he's probably cussing me out under his breath.

I drive back to the practice site and decide to just wait for the others in my locked car. In a matter of minutes, Ryan and Amanda pull up next to me. I'm so glad I didn't have to wait too long. I get out of my car and give them both a hug when they get out. There's a burger joint across the street called Scotty's that we venture to frequently if we need to get water, or if some of us haven't had dinner yet. While we're waiting for the others to arrive, Ryan leaves to buy himself a bottle of water. Amanda and I stay behind to chat. As we are talking, a diminutive lady with a cane appears. She can be no more than 5'4". She has brown eyes behind black framed glasses, and a slight hunch to her shoulders. She is neatly dressed in ivory blouse, beige slacks, and brown penny loafers.

She comes up to us and says her car ran out of gas, can we spare some change? Now, you know how my day has been going. I have had it with people asking me for money, so I quickly say, "No, I'm sorry."

Amanda backs me up by saying, "Sorry honey, but I don't have it."

"Okay," sighs the lady with the cane, slowly turning around and walking away between our parked cars without another word. I'm still staring at her as she's leaving. There is something mysterious about the way she walks. Like she's on a mission of some sort. Okay Cynthia, snap out of it. Her mission is asking for money, I tell myself. I turn toward Amanda to complaint, "This is the third person within an hour that has asked me for money."

Ryan returns. Slowly, everyone else starts arriving. These Monday practices are always in combination with other groups who like to show off their individual talents. The sunlight fades but is replaced by illuminated poi waved in flaming arcs by exuberant fire dancers. But for our troupe Monday is mostly a time to learn new fire dance moves and socialize. Tuesday night is really our time for practice and that is when Nocturnal Sol comes to life, performing with incredible blazing pyrotechnics.

On the way to practice Tuesday, I don't make any stops. I don't want anyone asking me for money. I think to myself, I do give people money. Things do happen in life that you have no control over. I'm sure I don't want to be in that situation.

I'm sitting in my car just looking at the sign of the Historic Pearl Brewing Company which is across the street from the parking lot waiting for everyone to arrive. I don't have to wait long. Ryan and Amanda pull up beside me. We do our usual hugs ritual. Amanda and I decide to stay behind and take out our fire equipment, while Ryan says he will go to Scotty's and get water for all of us. Amanda and I are talking when, out of nowhere, the lady with the cane shows up. Again she tells us she ran out of gas and could we spare some change.

I was thinking I had spoken too rashly to the lady last night, and today no one has asked me for money. But like last night, I right away say no, sorry. Amanda says, "Sorry, hon, don't have it."

The lady thanks us and starts walking away with her cane, between the cars, still on a mission.

I look at Amanda. "Okay, what just happened here? Are we not the same people she asked last night? And she had the same line, she ran out of gas."

Amanda asks, "Do we look different? Or maybe she thought we had a change of heart?"

"I guess. But when somebody turns you down, why would you ask again?"

Amanda nods, "Yes, you're right."

I say, "At least she's not rude about it. She just goes about her business."

Ryan returns and pretty soon Mandi arrives. We start practicing our movements and learning our new routines. The sun is slowly disappearing behind the Alamo City skyline and soon we will be able to start practicing our fire performance.

After practice, we have our usual meeting at Scotty's. We all discuss our issues and other troupe business. Then we return to our cars, which are the only ones left in the parking lot. We make sure everyone gets in safely and drives off. Here in the parking lot, you have a little bit of everything roaming around, like the homeless or some people partying a little too much looking for a good time or trouble. You have to keep your eyes open. You can never be too safe.

A week goes by, and before I know, Monday is here. And so is practice. That night, after practice, I tell Amanda that I'm surprised our elderly Lady friend hasn't shown up, asking for money.

Tuesday practice is here and so are the "Apprentices," non troupe members who join in our practice to keep up their training in this art. As practice ends, Amanda and I start talking. The lady with the cane materializes again. But this time she just asks us for a dollar and does not say anything about running out of gas. However, her attention is really fixed on Amanda.

Amanda responds, "Sorry, hon, but just I don't have it."

The lady turns around, doing her same routine, darting between the cars.

I look at Amanda. "You know, this is getting creepy. In her eyes, we must be different people."

"Maybe she thought we had a change of heart," Amanda offers.

I say, "I guess you are right."

I now think that I'm starting to fixate on this lady. There is something about her, but I just can't put my finger on it. Maybe I should follow her. There's no sign of her through the following week. But she shows up before or during practice. Never after.

Our next Monday practice in Scotty's parking lot which is located under the 281 overpass seems like a circus. There are so many people there, showing off their amazing talents, like hula hoop, parasol, staff, whips, etc., and of course they are spectacular, blazing with fire. I look for my own troupe among them, and finally spot Ryan. But Amanda isn't with him and she usually rides with him. Then I see her, she talking to someone. I walk toward her and freeze in my tracks. She's talking to the lady with the cane. What the hell does she want from Amanda? She then turns around and walks off. Out of all of these people, she never approached anyone else. She just continues walking through the cars.

I slowly walk up to Amanda. "I saw you with your friend."


"Come on! I don't understand. Out of all of these people here, she only spoke to you. I watched her."

"Yeah, Cynthia. I'm with you. I don't understand myself."

I stand there, perplexed. Do I have a story here? Maybe I should follow her.

Tuesday is practice as usual for Nocturnal Sol. I go up to Amanda and ask, "Where is your friend?"

She gives me a puzzled look. "Marcus?" This is the guy she recently started dating.

"No. The lady with the cane."

She replies, "No, I haven't seen my friend tonight."

"Wouldn't it be scary if you go home and there is a knock on the door. You are alone, you are expecting Marcus. But the knocking sounds different. Not with knuckles, but an object, maybe a cane!"

Amanda is looking at me. I know she's thinking to herself, You're really sick, Cynthia. Instead she says, "But I thought I did hear a knock at the door last night. I was really annoyed because I wasn't expecting anyone." She always likes people to call ahead of time.

I continue, "So you open the door. No one is there. You call out Marcus's name. No response. 'Marcus, come on! I know it's you!' Nothing. Just like in the movies." Amanda is staring at me intently while I tell the story. "So then you close the door. As you lock it, there's the knock again. You open the door. It's the lady with the cane! She is saying to you that she ran out of gas and can you spare some change!"

Amanda seems deep in thought as I finish the story, like she's trying to remember something. Finally, she snaps out of it. "Yeah, Cynthia, that could be a little eerie."

"Come on, Amanda! That is scary as hell, considering she has her sights set on you." But little does Amanda know that I am very interested. Who is this lady? Where does she live? What is she about? Next practice I have to remember to bring my camera. Maybe I do have a story here.

Next Monday, we practice as usual. I see Ryan, but no Amanda. I ask him, "Where is she?"

He says, "she's coming with Marcus." Thirty minutes later, they pull up. She's barely out of the car, when I see the lady with the cane approaching Amanda. Same routine, then she starts walking off between the cars. I look at Amanda. She is talking to Marcus and also being greeted by others. I try to look for the lady, but she's gone. Where the hell did she go? Okay, tomorrow, picture time. Damn, I wish she would come after practice so I can follow her.

I'm deep in thought when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around, startled. It's Amanda. She gives me a big hug. She immediately says, "You are not gonna believe this."

But before she can say anything else, I say, "I know. I saw her when you were getting out of the car."

"She keeps asking me the same thing, but I don't have any money to give her."

It's Tuesday again, and as usual I arrive before everyone else. I go across the street to Scotty's to get some water. When I return, I see the lady with the cane walking between the parked cars. I forgot my camera, but I have my cell phone. I start to take the picture and she looks at me like a deer in the headlights. I'm trying to steady my cell and wait for it to adjust to the lighting. She looks dead in my direction, like she is staring straight into my soul! I look down at my phone, checking the settings. I look up. She's gone! Damn it! I didn't get shit.

Everyone starts to show up for practice. Before we start, I tell Amanda, "Hey, I saw your girl."

She looks really puzzled. "Who?"

"You know." She's still confused. "The lady with the cane."

She looks like her mind is somewhere else. Then, "Oh! Did you get her picture?"

"No, I forgot my camera. I had my cell phone, though. As soon she saw me, she seemed to panic and ran. Very weird."

While we dip our fire equipment in a large can of kerosene, Amanda pulls out palm torches, which are shaped like tea cups. These are usually used by belly dancers, to show off their hand gestures with fire. Julie, who practices with us every now and then, takes the cups from Amanda, pours the fuel into them, then hands them back to her. Amanda asks me to stand safety. I stand there with a fireproof safety blanket in hand and a fire extinguisher at my feet. Julie approaches Amanda, lighter in hand, and sets the palm torches on fire. Amanda slowly starts moving her hands, the lids of the palm torches up. She goes through the motions and gestures just like a belly dancer. She makes every move so gracefully! I'm watching her and thinking I need to get a set of these very "harmless" instruments.

While Amanda is moving through the routine, her back is toward me. Now I'm waiting for her to turn around so I can see more of her performance. Suddenly, Amanda cries out in pain. With her back still to me, I run toward her with the fireproof blanket open. I maneuver to the front of her and see flames are running down her hands going toward her arms. She drops the cups and they are burning on the ground. I quickly start covering her hands with the blanket. Amanda bends over in agony and slowly sinks to the ground.

She is obviously in great pain. She looks to Julie and accuses her, "You put too much fuel in the cups." This must have caused the fuel to spill over the cups and run down her hands. Thank God she dropped the cups before it crawled up her arms.

I look at Julie. She seems clueless as to what just happened. But then she asks me if she can play a CD in my car. She has a routine she has to practice for a performance coming up. Okay, either this girl is really stupid or just stone-cold heartless. She is kind of responsible for what is happening here and all she can think of is practicing her routine?

We open the first aid kit and begin administering care for burns. Ryan runs across the street to Scotty's and brings back a plastic bucket of ice and water. Amanda submerges her hands in the bucket. It slightly soothes the pain, but she is still in agony. That just goes to show that something can seem cute and harmless, but be incredibly deceiving.

Amanda is still sitting on the ground with Marcus now by her side. She's still in a lot of pain. I look across the parking lot. Julie is practicing her routine. I can only think, What the hell is wrong with this girl? Accidents do happen, but have a heart.

We still have to finish our practice with fire, but do we really want to after what just happened? It's different when one of your own is hurt. But then you wonder, Will I hurt myself? Mandi, Ryan, and I gather together.

Mandi, in a low voice, says, "Hey, I know we are concerned about Amanda, but don't you think we should continue our practice?"

For tonight, that means fire spinning. There is a long moment of silence. I speak up first, "Knowing Amanda, she would want us to."

Mandi and Ryan agree. The show must go on. I light up my Poi, renewing my knowledge of this dangerous art. But I need to do this to build my confidence, to keep my passion for the fire, and for Amanda.

After I finish my practice, Ryan follows with his performance. Then Mandi completes the set. Amanda congratulates us for continuing, in spite of what happened. We start to pack everything up, ready to go home. But Amanda still wants to have our regular meeting. This girl is fearless! We walk across the street to Scotty's, Ryan holding the bucket of ice water with Amanda's hand in it. Julie is leaving.

We all get seated at a table and begin discussing future performances. Amanda tells us a nightclub phoned yesterday. We might have a gig coming up. This is fantastic news, but our main concern is Amanda. She is enduring so much pain, but still holding up to her responsibilities to this troupe.

Finally, our meeting ends. We walk slowly to our cars and say our goodbyes. Amanda is in bad shape. I'm pretty sure she and Marcus are headed to the hospital emergency room. I take a few minutes in the quiet of my car to think about everything that happened tonight. My thoughts drift to the lady with the cane. I had tried to take a picture and she literally ran. Wait a minute . . . Amanda's accident . . . is there a connection? But the accident was a fluke. It could happen to anyone, right? But tonight? Amanda is an expert at what she does. How can this simple thing damage her?

I start my car and look out the driver's side window. Someone is standing there next to it. I freeze. He leans in closer. I lock my doors.

"Are you okay? I'm security."

Relief floods through me. "Yes. I'm just leaving. Thank you for checking up on me." Thank you for scaring the death out of me. Is all of this really happening tonight?

At work the next day, I get a text from Ryan. We have a gig this Thursday at the Wax Lounge on San Pedro. I'm in shock. This is my first. I start questioning myself. I just started this because I was attracted to the art. It's very different. And to keep me in good shape. Am I really ready for this? It's because Amanda's hurt. That's why it's me.

I text Ryan back to find out Amanda's status. He doesn't know.

But it's not just me that's surprised. We all are. Even though it's not Amanda and Mandi's first gig. Other obligations have caused performers to leave the troupe. Now Nocturnal Sol has dwindled down to four members. Or maybe just three now, since one of us is hurt.

Later in the day, Ryan has to survey the patio at the gig site. We're performing there the very next day, so he needs to make sure the conditions are good for our act. The patio itself is half cement and half gravel. The part we will be performing on is gravel. Ryan comes up with a solution to improvise a platform on top of the gravel. He takes materials over there the same day.

On Thursday, Ryan and his friend arrive at the Wax Lounge early in the evening to assemble the platform. He needs Mandi and me to get there early to help out. I try to help as much as I can, but mostly I just feel like I'm in the way. Mandi shows up to help. If anyone would know how Amanda is doing, it's Mandi.

"Second-to third-degree burns," Mandi says. But the show must go on, even if it's just the three of us.

The really sad thing is that Amanda has worked so hard for this moment for all of us. And she is not going to be able to perform. At least one thing is going right, though. The platform is finally assembled. Ryan did an amazing job getting it together at the last minute.

Mandi lets us know the order we are going to perform. "For the first set, Cynthia, you're up first on Poi. Then Ryan, on rope dart. Then me, on swords. Second set, same order." But for this set, Mandi will be on Poi instead of swords.

I ask, "Is Amanda at least going to come and watch?"

"As far as I know, she said she might. It just depends on how she feels."

Ryan goes inside to tell the DJ we are about to start. Five minutes later the DJ is announcing us. I don't know about the others, but my nerves are beyond control. Before we start, we go over the safety rules with the audience. Mandi is our MC, she's the best at talking to people. She gets the point across, whether you like it or not.

"Now for the show," Mandi announces to our audience. "First on the Poi, Lady Cyn!" Lady Cyn is my stage name.

Mandi takes out the lighter and lights my Poi. My performance is a little shaky to start. Slowly, my routine starts flowing with ease. In the midst of my performance, I notice somebody opening the patio door. Still trying to concentrate on what I'm doing, I see the same person going toward Mandi, who is standing safety for me. This woman has Poi in her hand. Amanda! Okay, keep focusing on what you're doing!

My performance is coming to a close. Amanda will take over safety for Ryan and his rope dart. Mandi announces Lord Rabbit (Ryan's stage name). I run to the side. I will stand safety for Amanda, she is going to perform. I'm happy but surprised. She is hurt with close to third-degree burns.

Ryan finishes and Amanda announces Mandi as Seraphina (her stage name), our ninja on swords. When she ends her wicked moves on swords, she calls on Annelise (Amanda's stage name), the resident pirate on "Poi".

We are all tense, watching Amanda very closely, the other night still fresh in our minds. This woman is more amazing than I can say. She seems as though nothing has happened to her at all. Incredible!

We complete our second set to thunderous applause. We did it! We all did it! Just the four of us. Down from nine members to four performers. Nocturnal Sol.

We no longer practice in the parking lot across from Scotty's Restaurant. No more Lady With The Cane. I could probably still hang around there and follow her, but everything happens for a reason. The connection between our mysterious visitor and Amanda is still unknown. Was she looking over Amanda's shoulder when she got burned? Was she responsible for our gig at the Wax Lounge? Is this just the beginning for Nocturnal Sol? Only time will tell.