The “Kiss of Fire”

Last Tuesday was my 27th birthday. I celebrated, in part, by participating as a demo model in a workshop on branding.

It was fucking awesome.

The workshop was taught by Fakir, who also teaches a longer course on branding several times a year, at the Citadel. We learned about and saw all kinds of different methods of brandings done across a variety of cultures, but focused on three main types: (1) strike; (2) fire direct; and (3) electro-cautery. I was fascinated to learn about strike branding, which turned out to be significantly different from my expectations. Fakir showed us some brands that had been fashioned for use in the SM community by a cattle rancher — simply smaller versions of the iron brands commonly used on livestock. Fakir explained (and showed, through a series of photos) why this doesn’t work: when brands heal, the scar is generally two to three times larger than the initial brand. Lines that are close to each other smudge together, and thus such a brand usually results in a big blob. Instead, Fakir uses very thin pieces of straight or curved steel, which he combines to form a larger image, initial, or other pattern. He explained that a small gap has to be left between the strikes: during the healing process, the scarred tissue will expand to connect the segments.

Interestingly, because the temperature of the metal is so hot (around 2500 degrees, if I remember correctly), the pain of the actual strike really isn’t that bad — all the nerve endings are cauterized in a fraction of a second. But the psychological intensity of it, at least for me, was huge. My strike was done on my chest while I lay on my back, arms and legs weighted down with sandbags to keep me from moving. I got to watch the metal under the flame of the blowtorch, inches from my face, and saw it gradually turn bright red. And then — the sizzle, and the smell of burnt flesh. The concept of it was far, far scarier and nerve-wracking than the physical sensation, which I actually found to be pretty nice.

Even better was the second type of branding, fire-drect: this involves the use of a type of incense, left on the skin to slowly burn down to ashes. This practice is also called moxibustion and is used extensively in Eastern medicine (using dried sticks of moxa or mugwort). After placing the lit incense on my skin, Fakir let my partner gently blow on it to keep it burning. It felt pleasantly warm, until it started to burn down to the skin — I could feel it getting hotter and hotter, and suddenly I felt the heat burning throughout my chest, not just on the spot where the incense sat. It was dizzying.

The fire-direct branding was actually a very emotional experience for me, and left me with a memory I’m going to always treasure — my partner’s face, smiling, gently blowing the fire down into my chest. It was a moment that really synthesized tender love and exquisite pain, and just blew away all of my previous associations with being burned (through self-injury): panic; numbing depression; self-hatred. Even more than the strike, which I felt somewhat detached from, the fire-direct was a beautiful and almost meditative experience, and one I’d really like to have again.

The third type of branding, electro-cautery, was done on a woman who’s had extensive work done on her back: beautiful spirals, which on her skin had keloided and left slightly raised patterns all over her. More intricate designs like this are made with the electro-cautery pen, a device used first in hospitals to cauterize arteries and the like. The pen has a tiny, curved piece of metal on the end that is electrically heated up, and then gently drawn over the skin in strokes. The woman being branded said that she really liked the consistency of this kind of branding, the searing heat being drawn over her rather than simply struck for a fraction of a second here, a fraction of a second there.

A week later, the first scab is starting to peel off, and I’m picking at it as much as I can. It’s much more painful now than it has been — the first few days were practically painless — and it’s going to be a chore to keep peeling off the scabs as they appear, to ensure scarring. The scar seems to have quadrupled in size, and I’m afraid that the end result might be, despite all precautions, just a big blob. But then, that’s the thing about branding — it never works quite the same on any two people, and you can never predict exactly how it’s going to heal. I hope it turns out the way I’d expected it to, but if it doesn’t, I won’t be incredibly disappointed. After all, it will only be a slightly lighter patch of skin on my chest, and will likely be virtually unnoticeable by those not looking for it. And really, for me the real satisfaction came in the experience itself: the sensation of the hot metal and the fire on my skin, and the knowledge that I had consciously chosen and taken these things for myself.

2 comments so far

  1. meta on

    This is something I’ve never thought about doing and I haven’t had a desire to do. (Yet! …My desires, I’ve notice, are constantly changing and they often end being things I’d never imagined I’d want.) But it was very interesting reading your experience with it, and I’m glad to hear that it was a good one for you.

    Do we get a picture when they’re healed? 😛

  2. subversive_sub on

    No pics on the blog, at least not at the current time…but I have a few photos that were taken right after the brands were done. If you want to see, email me and I’ll send ’em to you.

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