Dani's Flaming Head
In the summer of 1988, when I went to Basel to visit my Swiss girlfriend and discovered that I didn't have one, I lived with a group of anarchists, 'sandalistas' (i.e., Sandinistas), alternatives, and assorted revolutionaries of the EuroLeft who -- as a mixed gaggle of individuals -- were what Star Trek Commander Spock might have termed 'fascinating.'
Two of them were studying theology, so who says that the left doesn't have God on its side.
One of these two theologians-in-training, who went by the name "Dani," had even gotten himself elected to the Basel Landrat, a sort of canton-level parliament, so I called him "The Land Rat."
Although he was actually very shy, Dani had developed an extroverted persona and used exaggerated humor to fuel his confidence. In fact, he was quite funny and could make me laugh, but he also had an unfortunate predilection for practical jokes that were about as funny as typical German humor, and he hadn't yet learned where to draw the line.
I had been living with this group for about two weeks and had noticed that above each door in the building where we stayed hung a mask of exaggerated features reminding me of the theatrical masks that represent comedy and tragedy. In a quiet moment on a Friday evening, when most of the gaggle was gone, I was speaking with a couple of people, a German anarchist named Heinz and a Swiss fellow who called himself "Pitzschi" (nicknamed for the 'hero' of a children's cat story), so I asked them, "Why are there masks hanging above every door in this building?"
"That's to keep out ghosts," Pitschi 'explained.'
"You believe in ghosts?" I asked.
Pitschi reflected a moment, then said, "No, but Dani does."
"Dani believes in ghosts?" I said, and I must have sounded confused, for I already knew that he was studying Protestant theology.
"Oh," said Pitschi, looking surprised, "haven't you heard the story of Dani's flaming head?"
"Dani's flaming head?" I repeated, trying to fathom what this meant and imagining Dani awakening in terror from a nightmare and finding a flaming ghost-head hovering above his bed. "Dani saw a flaming head?"
"I think,"' said Heinz, intervening, "that we'd better tell you this story from the beginning."
So, Pitschi began again. "One time last year, Dani and Marcello were playing the way they often do."
"Pretending to fight?" I asked, thinking of how Dani enjoyed 'fighting' with the Swiss-Italian 'Sandalista' Marcello.
"Yes," Pitschi confirmed, "but this time it was different. Marcello was lying on the sofa, and Dani had just 'attacked' him with tickles, but Marcello wasn't laughing. So, Dani asked, 'Why aren't you laughing?' Marcello told him, "Because I have my body under control." So, Dani said, 'We'll see how "under control" your body is.' And he went to the kitchen to get a shot glass of whisky, coming back with it and a lighter. He held the glass over Marcello, lit the whiskey, and threatened to pour it onto him. Marcello reacted instinctively and kicked up with his leg. The shot glass flew into the air, and all of the flaming whiskey drenched Dani's face and hair. Dani sat down on the floor, his eyes closed, a blue flame flaring up from his head, and he was uttering 'Oh, oh, oh' as he tried to pat the flames out with the palms of his hands."
"What did you do?" I asked, fascinated.
"Well," admitted Pitschi, "at first, we could do nothing but sit and stare at Dani's flaming head. But then, we started throwing everything that we could find onto his head to try to put out the fire. Finally, Heinz picked up a blanket and tossed it onto Dani's head, and the fire went out."
"And Dani?" I wondered.
"He was okay," Pitschi assured me, "except that his face was red, like a sunburn. And his eyebrows were burned off, and his hair looked like it had been struck by lightning. So for the next two weeks, he refused to leave the house. Every day, he'd be sitting on the living-room sofa, looking like an old man and making cynical remarks to everyone as he waited for his eyebrows to grow back."
"Okay," I said, "but what does this have to do with the masks and ghosts?"
"Dani decided that a witch had cast a spell on the house," Pitschi explained. "So, he had us get books from the library on witchcraft, and he spent those two weeks reading about witches and how to counteract their spells. When his eyebrows had finally grown back, he went out and bought the masks and hung one above each door to keep out any ghosts that witches might send."
"I see," I said. Yet, I had a remaining question that only Dani could answer, but he was away for the weekend, so I couldn't ask for another three days.
When Dani returned, I checked with him about the incident and also inquired, "Land Rat, do you really believe in witches and ghosts?"
"I don't know," he admitted, "maybe not. But I'm told that these masks work whether you believe in this stuff or not."