A Personal History of Knives, part IV


During the fifth grade I realized the importance of distinguishing oneself. Whenever a class poster needed to be made I volunteered, to be known as the one who could draw. On the playground, among those who did not like soccer or kickball, I was the one who invented the games: narratives of morbid fantasy which often spawned more than simulated violence. And when a teacher intervened because our games grew too wild it was usually I who talked our way out of trouble. Precocious as far as vanity was concerned, I made certain everyone regarded me as the class expert on whatever subject momentarily interested me.

I found it difficult to keep friends, for anyone who lacked my interests bored me, and anyone who shared them I regarded as my rival.

Then in the fall this kid Eric transferred to our class. He did everything that I did. He made drawings of animals and battle scenes and imaginary planets. He expostulated on infinitely fascinating subjects like comicbooks and horseshoe crabs — and sometimes he called my specious statements into question. On the playground his imaginative wargames seduced kids away from mine. What pained me however was neither envy nor a sense of injust usurpation, but a feeling of trivialization. What sort of unique value could I possess when another resembled me so closely? He was a hateful mirror. An image so exact as to be worse than parody.

Perversely, I was very kind towards him — for if he was to hate me as I hated him that would only rob me of one more particularity. But he knew, and so we tacitly despised one another.

Thus the year trudged on. Then, at the height of our mutual rancor, the teacher divided the class into pairs for a project and Eric and I found ourselves saddled with a partnership. We had to give a presentation on a foreign culture. From the list of options we rejected the cultures that did not interest us, and then the ones that did from a revulsion to agree. Finally we wandered off separately around the library. As I sat at a table flipping through a picture book of ancient weapons Eric walked up behind me. I was dwelling on a page of Japanese katanas. “I like that sword,” he said. I frowned, but felt it would be too great a betrayal of my interests to disagree and said, quietly, “So do I.” He seemed puzzled. After a while he said:

“You know that kid Luke? He’s got one of those at his house. It’s hanging above the fireplace.”

“Why were you at Luke’s house?” I asked. Luke was diminutive, weak, asthmatic and unequivocally ugly. Everyone ridiculed him with good conscience because no one ever saw an insult register on his face, like flogging a stone. He was the kid you could persuade to pick up dead rats and birds with his hands, drink the putrid lunchroom concoctions, give you his things, fall for embarrassing pranks. Somehow, despite good intentions, he defeated any attempt one made to give him sympathy and kindness.

“He lives in my neighborhood,” Eric said. “I had to stay at his house once until my mom got home.”

“Would he lend it to us?” I asked.

“He’ll probably do whatever we tell him to do,” Eric shrugged.

“Then we should do our presentation on Japan.”

We found Luke sitting on the periphery of a group of kids, picking at a piece of gum mashed into the carpet. He looked startled when I said his name. While I asked him if we could come over that weekend he kept pushing his tongue against the inside of his bottom lip and sniffling loudly. When a rill of saliva began to run from the corner of his mouth Eric snapped at him: “Cut that out!” He looked at him blankly, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

Saturday afternoon Luke’s mousy mother greeted us at the door and kept saying, as she led us in, “Thank you, thank you boys so much for coming,” with a tone of desperation, like she was anxious we might turn around and leave. We found Luke in the family room in the back of the house, which was wainscotted with a vaulted, slanting ceiling. Columns of sunlight streamed through the windows and cast gold where they fell, yet everywhere else remained in shadow. Several chairs wrapped semi-circle before a big brick fireplace. The katana rested on the mantle. Luke was sitting at the hub of a vast city of card houses — some squarish, some pyramidal — spread out spoke-like along the floor. He must have been at it for days. Eric turned to me and said, “If you’re anything like me you probably want to kick the whole thing down.” I laughed, but said nothing.

Luke smiled up at us from his fragile city, genuinely happy. He said, “Wait, wait for me,” with the same tone as his mother as he tip-toed through the card houses. Then he cleared the edge and hopped towards us halting a foot away, and stood grinning, saying nothing for a very long time, just sniffling his snotty nose.

After a while I pointed at his creation and said, “what is that?”

“I am building a city,” he said, “to be its king.”

Eric was looking elsewhere and pointed to a strange wooden instrument hanging on the wall and said, “what is that?”

Luke beamed and said, “my father plays that; it’s called a hurdy gurdy.”

“Well what is that?” I asked, pointing to a statue in the corner.

“That is the god Shiva dancing,” said Luke. He seemed very happy to answer our questions, so we shrugged and went on.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing at a bookshelf.

“What is that?” Eric asked, pointing at a chair.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing at my foot.

And Luke answer every one, no matter how ridiculous, almost frantically like he was on the verge of crippling laughter.

“What is that?” Eric said finally, pointing at the katana. Luke stopped grinning instantly.

“We’re not supposed to touch that,” he cautioned.

“We just want to look at it,” Eric said and took the sword from the mantle. Luke did not look at either of us, but kept shaking his head and going, “No no, no no,” until I thought would cry. He insisted his mother would come in and find us.

“Put a blanket over it,” I said, “and we’ll take it into the woods to look at.” I turned to Luke and said, sort of consolingly, “she won’t find us there.”

With the sword wrapped up and tucked beneath Eric’s arm we ran across the long backyard and into the woods. Luke gasped asthmatically, trailing behind us. The woods were like the family room: patches of sunlight splashing in certain places — the rest was shadow. By the time Luke caught up with us Eric had already unsheathed the sword and was slicing through the low leafy boughs reaching towards us. He cut a path for us as we went along until we reached a small clearing where rocks sort of cropped up like rustic seats.

“The Japanese swordmakers used to test the quality of their swords by tossing a leaf in the air and cutting through it,” Eric said. “If it was a jagged cut they threw the sword away.”

“That’s not true,” said Luke, who was bent over, hands on knees, breathing heavily. “They tested them on a piece of bamboo wrapped in a straw mat, which felt just like cutting through flesh and bone.”

“Just throw a leaf in the air,” Eric said. Luke plucked one and tossed it which Eric cut through instantly. “Beautiful,” he said. “Throw another one.”

“I don’t think Luke’s parents will let us take the sword into class,” I said. “What are we going to do?”

“We’ll hide it here,” said Eric, slicing through another leaf as it fluttered down like a wounded sparrow. “I’ll pick it up on my way to the bus stop on Monday.”

“What if Luke’s parents find that it’s missing between now and then?”

“I don’t know; ask him.” Eric now had Luke throwing two leaves, one in front of him and one behind, so that he could spin and cut both in succession. “Whack, whack!” he cried.

“They won’t be happy,” Luke sniveled. “I don’t know what they will do.” He kept wiping his nose on the back of his hand.

“Now throw four leaves; front back, front back, like that,” Eric said, pivoting back and forth on the balls of his feet like a mechanical toy, the sword held rigid in his hands.

“We should come up with some excuse,” I said. “They might know it was us who took it.”

“Luke wouldn’t tell, would you Luke?”

“When I was a little boy my mom pressed my hand onto the hot stove,” he said anxiously, his face more expressive than I had ever seen it, “so that I would never want to touch it again. I remember nothing ever hurt so much. And now I’m touching my father’s sword . . .” He had a handful of leaves now which he was tossing at random, the greengold flakes describing awkward circuits in the sunlit air as Eric flailed about without method, yelling, “Whack, whack!” and multiplying their number. “I don’t know what they’ll do, I don’t know what they’ll do,” he kept repeating.

“He would never tell on us,” Eric assured me.

“All the same,” I said, “maybe we should come up with an excuse to help him out. It would only be fair.”

I was hopping from rock to rock and not really paying attention, pretending the earth beneath me was fire and I could not touch it. Then someone screamed horribly. I turned to see Luke curled in a ball in the dirt, gurgling with pain; Eric held the sword absently at his side. He bent over and picked something from the ground then showed it to me. It was a finger. “I . . . I didn’t mean to,” he stammered.

I ran over to Luke who was sitting up now gripping his left hand with his right. Both were such a bloody mess the wound could have been on either. “Let me see,” I said. He held out his left hand: the index and middle fingers were gone at the first knuckle. “Where is the other one,” I said to Eric. He picked it up and held both in his palm.

“What do we do?” he said. His face was white. “You won’t tell on us, will you, will you, will you? You won’t tell on us Luke, will you?”

Luke would not look at either of us, but kept shaking his head and going, “No no, no no.” His face glistened with snot and tears and when he wiped at them with his hand a long smear of blood spread across his livid cheek.

“What happened?” I asked, but it was obvious and no one answered. I looked in turn from Luke (who was sitting in the dirt, blubbering and holding his hand) to Eric (who held the limp sword in his right hand and the severed fingers in his left). “This is what happened,” I said, “We were moving those heavy rocks, trying to pile them together to make a wall or something. Then one slipped and took off Luke’s fingers.”

Eric looked at the pale loose stubs in his palm. “Wouldn’t they be smashed then, instead of cut cleanly off?”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said shrugging.

“We should smash them then.”

“Ha, perfect!” I cried. “I was just thinking that; let me go grab a rock.”

Really, it was incredible how much Eric and I were alike.

~ by Peter on May 11, 2008.

5 Responses to “A Personal History of Knives, part IV”

  1. I felt reading this like I did during We Need to Talk about Kevin……you know what’s coming but the momentum of the prose makes looking away impossible. The characterizations are excellent, I have known boys like these; the prose is taut, polished, all too believable — makes the reader (or this reader) vibrate like a plucked string…….brilliant writing, horrible tale. Very well done, Peter.

  2. ps, sensational last line

  3. I think I knew Eric, too… and Luke. Peter, the writing in this saga is so far beyond good that I feel inadequate in describing it… I thought Jo did a nice job of assessment, my thoughts run along the same lines as hers. Superb, my friend…

  4. That is such a clean cut, dont even see it just
    “Eric held the sword absently at his side.”
    Perfect! I bet you wept over that absently, I would have, it’s perfect, and then the smear of blood, but it is ruthless prose too, unforgiving in every way, absolutely brilliant,

  5. I think this is my favorite post yet.

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