Practice 2E

“Fencing is — honest,” continued Kassie. “No matter how much you learn, how long you practice, it doesn’t make getting in a bout any easier. It’s like life, all the stuff you learn in school doesn’t matter, you just have to live it.”

“But aren’t all sports like that?” asked Bernie.

“Fencing’s not like other sports. Like basketball — think about Friday, what happens during the game?” Not seeing an immediate response from her teammates, she continued, “It’s not just five kids from Bark Bay against five kids from — I don’t know where, it doesn’t matter. There will be a couple hundred people in the stands, watching, cheering. It won’t be a game, it will be a performance, and the kids on the court aren’t just competing against each other, they’re representing their towns. Fencing’s not like that. How many people show up to tournaments?” she asked, looking at Annie.

“Outside of fencers, coaches — some family perhaps.”

“No bands, for sure,” Bernie interjected.

“Right. It’s just you, alone, competing by yourself and for yourself, not performing for anyone, not representing anyone else. The success you have is the result of your own hard work, your failures showing you how much you still have to do.”

“Yes,” Annie replied. “It is cool, like that.”

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The Confession

My post today, Practice 2D, is inspired by Maggie Mae, a wonderful poet. Please visit her blog if you get a chance. Her latest post, The Confession, is especially powerful, dark yet life-affirming, and its works like these from Maggie which are finally helping me find Kassie’s persona. Of all the central characters in my novel, Kassie’s the one I understand least — and perhaps the reason why is that I’ve been asking her to speak my language, haven’t allowed her to speak with her tongue. I don’t expect Maggie to be my translator, but I do hope that by listening to her, I can finally begin to hear Kassie’s voice in my ear.

Practice 2D

“Not that hard?” Butch exclaimed. “Everything about this sport is hard.”

Bernie stepped forward, joined the conversation. “I don’t think Kassie was talking about fencing.” Annie nodded as she turned her attention to Kassie.

These were the moments that Kassie always greeted with eager dread. Yes, she was among a small group of friends, but the comfort of her setting was offset by the knowledge that, yes, everyone was looking at her and, yes, they were expecting an answer but, no, they could not see beyond her surface, they saw her thin black hair and pale skin and they would reach for easy words like loose change in their pockets, shy, geek, weirdo, Goth, and, yes, they would listen to her words but, no, they wouldn’t be able to hear the voice inside her because they could not see who it was inside her that was speaking, yes, the voice in her was screaming to be heard but, no, they would hear her words but not her voice.

She looked at her teammates, waiting anxiously for her words. Yes, they were her friends and she knew instinctively they would accept her, yes, they were different. But. No. They were not different, no, they only saw surfaces, they would not hear her voice, no. They were like all the rest, with eyes that made them deaf.

“Yes, fencing is hard,” Kassie said, her words soft. “That is why I like it.”

Practice 2C

“Wow,” Butch replied. Annie scanned his face, could find no trace of sarcasm. “That’s awesome. How’d you figure that out?”

Annie paused, not knowing how to answer the question. “It’s — I never really thought about it actually. It’s what I was taught, and it seemed right to me, so I went with it. When I saw you doing it — backward — I just — ”

“You just paid attention,” Kassie said, stepping into the discussion. “You saw what Butch was doing, compared it to what you do. Saw the differences, thought about the impact they’d have during a fencing bout.”

“Yeah,” Butch said.

“It’s not that hard.”

Practice 2B

“OK, Butch,” Annie called. “Take a look at your legs.”

Butch looked down at his front leg, angled straight out in front of his body, then at his back, pointing straight out and bent at the knee. He looked back up at Annie.

“Now take a look at Kassie,” she said, glancing quickly in the direction of the teen girl, legs and arm beginning to shake as she held the position which Annie had put her in. She turned back to Butch, saw him nodding slowly.

“What’s different?” Annie asked.

Butch looked at Kassie, and a moment later it became evident he was not seeing the difference. “She’s lunging forward — see how her front leg’s bent, back leg’s straight? You’re lunging backwards — your front leg’s straight, back leg’s bent.”

“But isn’t that better defense?”

“Well yes, it would probably greatly reduce your chance of getting hit. But — stick out your arm.”

Butch extended his arm. “Where’s your hand now?”

“Here,” Butch said, waving his right hand. Bernie and Kassie laughed.

“No, I mean in relation to your body,” Annie said impatiently, coming forward and grabbing Butch’s hand. “Look down — see how your hand is just over your foot?” Butch nodded. “Your foil’s a little over three and a half feet long.” Annie continued as she stepped in front of Butch, got down into en garde position. “If I’m coming at you like I normally would, I’m going to be about — this far away,” she said, stepping back, then stopping. “How far away from each other now?”

Butch shrugged. “About — five, six feet.”

“Exactly. That means there will be about two feet between the tip of your weapon, and my target area. That’s a lot of ground to make up in an attack.”

“But,” Butch protested — “you’re the same distance away, from me. You’ve got the same problem.”

“But I’ve got an advantage. Watch this,” she said, her arm extending and body coming forward, front leg landing several inches in front of her. “I was already coming forward by the time you noticed my intent. If you weren’t paying attention, I’d hit you easily, even if you were leaning back.” She went back into en garde, and commanded, “Now you, do the same thing.”

Butch shifted his weight to his front, right leg bending at left leg straightening, but before he could lunge Annie held up her hands. “Stop! You’ve started your motion forward so I know what your intent is, but you’re still not close enough to hit me. By leaning back, you’re giving me too much time to react to your attack. It’s just not going to work.”

Invisible

“Today,” my fencing coach announced last Monday as she walked into position in front of her line of fifteen students, me comfortably in the muddle neither at the center or one of the ends — “is all about Kenny.”

Twenty two eyes turn in my direction, some not as quickly as others (oh so that’s Kenny). Yeah that’s me, folks. The old guy who keeps coming back.

There’s a comfortable anonymity to practice, one of the reasons I enjoy it more than tournaments (a sentiment I hear quite often, actually). It’s easy to blend in, become invisible, your flaws and errors lost in a sea of driils and scrimmages.

All about me? I make a casual observation during practice one day, about how I still can’t beat a straight attack — and literally the next day, coach is making it the focus of class. “How many of you have fenced Kenny?” About eight hands raise, and then she’s asking each one if they can beat me with a straight attack, and only one guy says no and I know he’s wrong.

By the tine she asks “Why is it so easy to beat Kenny with a straight attack?” I’m ready to tear up the floor boards and hide. The answers are honest and accurate – “he gets too close,” “his parries are too wild.” Hearing the truth surprisingly doesn’t exacerbate my self-consciousness. In fact, I feel relieved. I can face the truth, nod in agreement, and move on to that evening’s drills on distance and parrying.

The further I get into fencing, the less I’ll be able to hide. Guess I have to learn to get comfortable with my visibility.

Practice 2A

Annie looked over at her teammates, examined their lunges. Kassie was still mostly upright, as if she had stopped midway through her lunge. Butch’s front leg was straight, back leg flexed at the knee, as if he were lunging backwards. Bernie — Bernie actually looked good, back leg powerfully straight, front leg planted firmly, upper body balanced slightly to the back, shoulders level, weapon arm up and out.

She came out of her crouch, walked over to the line. “Kassie, come out more,” she called, walking over to the slender teen and lightly kicking at the heel of her front foot. “Little bit more — there. Bend that leg, straighten the back.” She walked behind Kassie, placed hands on her shoulders. “Straigthen your body — no, don’t move your legs. Get low. Now — straight. Keep the shoulders level.” Annie moved forward, grabbed Kassie’s right arm. “Elbow staight. Rotate the hand, thumb up and to the right, at 1 o’clock. Turn the wrist in a little, so your hand’s turning in to the opponent. Good. Now bring the arm up — and out. Hand should be at the level of your head, just below the ear.”

Annie come out from behind Kassie, stepped in front of her, looked her over. “There. Perfect. How’s that feel?”

“Weird. Like I’ll never be able to get into this position without you adjusting me.”

“It will come, just keep practicing,” Annie replied, moving on to Butch.

Practice 1Z

Annie shook her head, came out of her crouch. “Let’s try something different.” She got in line with the others, to Bernie’s right, turned in their direction and took a step forward, looking over her shoulder to verify she was in sight of all three. “Just follow me. Advance.” She took a quick step forward, heard three pairs of sneakers squeaking across the floor, judged by the sound that all were forward motions. “Retreat,” she commanded, stepped back, heard three pairs of sneakers going backwards.

She looked over her shoulder. Kassie, Butch and Bernie were all still at en garde, all relatively in the same line. (Good) she thought, (this is working), then turned her head forward again.

“Advance. Retreat. Double advance. Retreat, advance.” She turned her head — Bernie was in front of the others. She made eye contact with him. “Smaller steps, about half the length of your foot.” She turned forward again, “Advance, advance, now lunge,” she called, extending her right arm and lifting the toes of her foot, her heel gliding over the smooth tile as she pushed with her back leg, front foot landing as the back leg fully extended.

She checked her posture — front foot forward, leg straight up to the knee, shoulders parallel to the ground, upper body balanced slightly towards her back. Nice form, she heard her brother Si’s voice call in her head, the memory of her practices with him over the summer coming to her with pleasure.

Practice 1Y

Annie scanned the three teens in front of her, made sure they had at least attempted to retain their en garde position. With a quick nod of approval, she called “Advance,” and stepped backwards.

Bernie and Kassie took a step forward. Butch remained, unmoving, between them.

“Butch,” Annie called.

Butch shook his head, replied with a nervous “Sorry.”

“It’s OK. Just follow my movements. Advance,” she continued, stepping back again.

Bernie and Kassie took a step forward. Butch stepped back.

“No no, Butch. Follow me.”

“But you retreated.”

“I know, I know. It’s like in a bout, just keep distance. I step back, you come forward. I come forward, you step back.”

“Oh! OK.”

“Good, now get in line with the others. All right? Retreat.

Annie stepped forward. Bernie and Kassie stepped back. Butch stepped forward, immediately following with “Sorry!”

Practice 1X

Annie grabbed Bernie’s arm, positioned it in the same way she had with Butch.

“How should I be holding my hand?” Kassie asked.

“Thumb up,” Annie replied, “a little to your six side, at about 1:30.”

“Little hand, not big hand,” Bernie said to Butch, who smiled at the joke.

“What’s six side?” Kassie asked.

“Has to do with body position,” Annie explained, standing in front of the line again. “We divide the body into four quadrants — ”

“As opposed to six quadrants?” Bernie said, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“OK then — quadrants. Imagine there’s a horizontal line running across your stomach area” — Annie held the palm of her right hand down as she moved it across her stomach — “and a vertical line from head toe down the middle of your body.” She held her righ hand straight up, thumb towards her body, sliced down from her face. “There are eight parries in fencing, two for each quadrant, one with the palm up and another with palm down.

“We’ve only done the two most common parries, four and six. Four is where you come across your body,” she said, extending her arm forward and slowly turning her wrist over, “and six, which is to parry attacks coming over your weapon arm.”

“Why are they called four and six? Why not one and two?”

“Well, there’s a progression to the parries. It would take a while to explain, and I really don’t know all the details. And it’s late, so, one more time,” she said, crouching down into en garde position once more, palms pushing down, “let’s try to get in our footwork.”