The old year didn’t end terribly well for me since I managed to burn three fingers of my right hand while removing a metal oven tray from a very hot oven, using a holed and damp oven glove. I couldn’t drop it on the floor in front of our guests who were awaiting their New Year’s Eve dinner. So I continued to lift it and it hurt – a lot.
I did the usual things – holding my fingers under cold running water, etc. But the next day I had large blisters, which have only just disappeared. Our guests, mostly French, didn’t realise how badly I had burnt myself since I stifled the expletive I would normally utter in such a situation. However, a conversation ensued about how you should treat burns.
Among other things, some people suggested that I should go to a person ‘qui enlève le feu’, i.e. who has the gift of drawing out the heat. Apparently, Mme. X mother of the boulangère at V. has this ability. This didn’t seem a realistic option as it was approaching midnight. I thought no more about it until I happened to mention to my hairdresser last week that I had burnt my fingers. It turned out that she also has this gift.
I had always thought you were born with it but this is not necessarily the case. I also thought that you needed to lay hands on the injured person to remove the heat: not the case, either.
“I can do it over the phone,” she said. “You just have to tell me where the burns are and how you did it. The sooner you contact me, the quicker the pain subsides. It doesn’t work if you’re too far away, though. My grandson burnt his arm with a cigarette lighter and phoned me when I was on holiday in Thailand, but it didn’t have any effect.”
Fascinated, I asked her to tell me more. She told me that a woman whom she knew well had given her the secret. Normally, it’s passed down to close relatives, but not in this case. Since it’s a secret, she wouldn’t say how it’s done. She also said that she can take away headaches, including migraines, but has to touch the person. Then she has to ‘discharge’ the pain by washing her hands and doing other secret rituals, otherwise she gets the headache.
I have come across ‘enleveurs de feu’ a number of times in French literature, especially in romans du terroir – novels about French country life. Christian Signol’s book, Marie des Brebis, is a fictionalised memoir narrated in the first person, based on a real person, I believe. She passed most of her life on the Causse de Gramat in Lot.
Marie discovered she had the gift of healing when her own young daughter pulled a pan of boiling water on top of her in the 1920s. While waiting for the doctor to arrive, Marie passed her hands over the burnt flesh and, miraculously, the pain and the blistered skin started to heal almost immediately. The doctor envied her skill. After that, people came to her from far and wide to have their burns and wounds healed. She never took money but people gave her presents of game, eggs and produce.
It all ended when she was put on trial in the late 1940s for practising medicine illicitly and without the necessary diplomas. This was against the law. Although she was let off, she never practised again.
I have not been able to discover if these practices are still against the law. However, my hairdresser told me that she was called to the local primary school one day, where a child had burnt herself. She did the trick and the doctor arrived as she was leaving. He seemed quite sanguine, even grateful, about her intervention.
These people are part of the spectrum of alternative medicine that ranges from the quite sensible to the downright eccentric. I keep an open mind about it: I have no personal experience of healing and I suspect that, at times, it verges on charlatanry.
I do not intend to burn myself again but if I do, I might just try an enleveur de feu – I’ve nothing to lose.
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