Chapter 5 – January 5A

The third Thursday

Left hand both grabbing and pushing the steering wheel of her decade old compact (of which she was the third owner), Janet Wernick twisted and looked back over her right shoulder. The car accelerated, front wheels spitting dirty snow forward, as it careened backwards across the hard narrow surface of the driveway, in the direction of the county road. In the front passenger seat, The Bird watched as they pulled away from the house, and fought the temptation to tell her mother to stop, let her out, she’d rather stay home than go to the dress rehearsal.

“What time did you say your fencing team was going to be at the theater?” The Bird’s mother was still looking back as she spoke.

The Bird (for that was what she was called now, even by her mother) said she did not know, a response that was purely reflexie. Then she remembered that Mr. Jacobs had told them to meet at the school parking lot at four, and she conveyed this information to her mother.

“Four.” The car turned, Janet still looking out the back, and The Bird felt the rear tires gripping pavement with a noise that almost sounded like relief. Her mother looked forward, grabbed the wheel with her right hand, left shifting from the top to the side. “They’ll get there by five, five-fifteen at the latest. Good — they’ll have time to meet the cast.” She smiled contentedly. “Mr. Jacobs — that’s Coach Dan, isn’t it?” The Bird said yes, that was what he liked to be called during fencing practice. “So — ” keeping her eyes forward, Janet nodded in The Bird’s direction — “why do you call him Mr. Jacobs?”

The Bird did not feel like explaining that she really wasn’t into this whole team thing, so she replied that she was just used to calling him by the name he used when he was teaching.

Slow

Even when I fenced in high school and college, I was noticeably slower than my opponents. Thirty years later, that gap in speed has only increased, and I don’t think all the training in the world would make an appreciable difference.

So I want to follow the advice of my coach, who maintains that slow can be just as deadly as fast. It’s about drawing a reaction, waiting for the opponent to commit, and responding in a controlled manner. It is a game of planning, patience, and skill, not speed.

Figure I’ve got nothing to lose by following her advice. I’m certainly not going anywhere by attemping to be quicker and stronger; let’s try slower and stealthier instead, and see what happens.

Chapter 5 – January 4B

The voices and footfalls seemed louder to The Bird, as she stared back at Butch. No, she said, her name’s —

“Oh! Gertrude’s the character she’s playing! She’s the mother, right?”

Yes, replied The Bird, speaking slowly. My mother is Hamlet’s mother, she added, then immediately hoped Butch wouldn’t ask if Hamlet was her brother.

“Oh!” The confusion in Butch’s face seemed to ease, like a passing storm. “So am I supposed to ride up with you?”

The hall bell rang loudly, and the pace of footfalls increased. She’s picking me up right after school, so no. Mr. Jacobs told the team to meet in the parking lot at five.

“Oh! You mean Coach Dan, right?”

The Brid looked around her quickly. The class she needed to be in was close. Look, she said, I have to go.

“OK. You know he likes to be called Coach Dan at practice, right?”

The Bird had already turned, taken a step in her classroom’s direction. She stopped, partiallt faced Butch. Only the fencing team calls him that.

The grey cloud of confusion crossed over Butch’s face again. “But — you’re on the team, right?”

This time The Bird did not turn back to Butch. No, she almost whispered, I only show up at practice.

Chapter 5 – January 4A

The third Wednesday

“Hey.” Among the sound salad of the Bark Bay High School hallway (locker doors schu-shing opening and klack-klunk closing, wait up basketball Saturday no no NO shit!, a laughing scream, underneath the sound of clumping shoes on the tiled floor), The Bird was able to detect (perhaps because she seemed to recognize the voice) that one word uttered from behind was intended just for her.

She turned, a taller student brushing past her in annoyance. Approaching her was the round body of Butch, the tow-headed boy she knew from fencing. It occurred to her that she respond, but she did not know how she should respond, because she had never been called out in the hall like now, and did not care for this new experience. But not only had it happened, she had acknowledged it, and now that she stopped and turned and faced this boy Butch she had to say something. But she could only think of one thing to say.

Hey.

Butch stopped, smiled, took in a deep breath. He seemed winded. “Talked — to my parents last night. They said — ” another deep breath — “I can go to the play tomorrow.”

That’s great, The Bird replied.

“But — they can’t take me. I need a ride.” He looked at her plaintively.

The Bird blinked. Well, she said, Mr. Jacobs said everybody who was going should meet in the parking lot after school.

“Oh! Coach Dan, right?” The Bird nodded. “So he’s going to drive us up?”

Some of us, she replied. He doesn’t have enough room in his car for everybody.

“Oh! So some of us can’t go?”

No. I think somebody else is driving too.

“Oh! Probably Double-J. You driving with him?”

No, I’m — ”

“Coach Dan? You’re going in his car?” The Bird shook her head. “You’re not going?”

No. I mean, yes. I’m going up with my mother.

“Oh! So she’s going to watch the play with us?”

The Bird blinked. No, she’s in the play. She’s Gertrude.

“Oh! I didn’t know you’re mother’s name was Gertrude.”

Chapter 5 – January 3E

“Double-J said he’d pick me up on the way, but I have to be back by nine, so we may have to leave early.” The hesitance in Rex’s voice made his face seem even longer than usual.

Mr. Jacobs blinked, the short dark curls of his hair and beard waving as he nodded and took a step in Rex’s direction. “Performance should be done by eight, so that’s fine. You can leave right after the duel ends.” He swept his gaze across the line of Bark Bay high school fencers. “I’m really looking forward to this. I met the stunt coordinator, guy named Ed Nestor — ” he leaned in The Bird’s direction — “said he knows you.”

Yes, replied The Bird. He met my mother back in Hollywood, moved to the city about the same time my mother and I moved to Bark Bay.

“You used to live in Hollywood?” Rune sounded like a child opening a Christmas present.

The Bird shook her head. No, she said, she moved away before I was born.

“Anyway, Ed showed me what he’s got planned for act five, scene two.” The Bird was relieved to hear Mr. Jacobs’ echoing voice cut short her conversation with Rune. “This won’t be like most stage fencing.” He grimmaced and, in a lilting voice that sounded almost painful, mimicked the sound of two blades lightly touching, twitching his head left and right quickly with each sound. “Ting-ting-ting.” He waved a dismissive hand. “This is going to look like a real fight, like Hamlet and Laertes are really trying to nail each other. Thank you, again, for making this happen.” Seeing that he was looking back at her, The Bird looked down with a shy smile.

“And to answer your question — ” Mr. Jacobs’ voice seemed to bend in the air as he turned while speaking to look at Mr. Saunders behind him — “yes, looks like we only have four today. So let’s get on with practice.”

Chapter 5 – January 3D

“Next tournament’s at the Academy, two weeks.” The Bird sensed that Mr. Jacobs was evaluating the team’s response before continuing. “Won’t have the college crowd this time.” She remembered Annie telling her parents at the team party how the Bark Bay fencers frequently competed against colleges, simply because there were so few high school fencing programs in their area. She felt Mr. Jacobs’ eyes focus on her. “But we have another team outing, a different one, planned before then.”

“Were you able to get a bus?” There wasn’t much hope for an affirmative answer in Annie’s question.

“Didn’t ask. School policy says we need a minimum eight students, and so far we’ve only got five — ”

” — six. Rune says he talked to Double-J at the tournament Saturday, got him to say yes.” Rune nodded in confirmation.

“All right, six. That’s still two short, so unless we get people like Juan or Micky — ”

” — both no, talked to them today. Big Paul’s also a no, Little Paul said he’d think about it.”

“O.K.? Coy?” The Bird wasn’t sure whether Mr. Jacobs was naming other students (she knew there were several occassional members of the team whom she had yet to meet), or making a comment about either of both of the Pauls.

“Told them last week, and Zeph too, but, nah, no way.”

Mr. Jacobs clapped his hands. “No bus, then! We’ll meet here, in the parking lot, Thursday at 5.” The Bird felt his focus shift towards her again. “Are you joining us?”

No, said The Bird. I mean, yes, she said, I’m going up with my mother.

Chapter 5 – January 3C

The Bird saw that Mr. Jacobs was now looking directly at her. “Too bad you weren’t there at the tournament Saturday, my friend. You missed some good fencing from your teammates!” The Bird heard a grunt from Rune standing next to her.

Mr. Saunders walked beside Mr. Jacobs, pointed toward the line of fencers. “Rex here — ”

” — took second in epee!” The exuberance in Annie’s voice was amplified by the joy of her smile as she looked up at the tall teen, who blinked at nodded with a shy grin.

Mr. Jacobs applauded, looked with seeking eyes at each member of the Bark Bay High School fencing team until they joined in the applause. “And Annie, you — ”

” — eh.” She did not sound pleased at all. “Shouldn’t have lost in the quarters.”

“Top eight, top eight! In a strong field!” Mr. Jacobs led the team in another round of applause. Rex cleared his throat. “Don’t forget, Double-J — ”

” — would have won saber, if he hadn’t run out of gas.” Annie sounded frustrated.

“Think about this time last year.” Mr. Jacobs had his hands extended in front of him, fingers fanning, palms down. “We were at the same tournament, and other than Myles, I don’t think we had anyone win a DE.”

“Micky.” Annie’s voice was overfilled with certainty, as if she were reading from the tournament results sheet. “Micky beat Jane in her first DE.”

Mr. Jacobs blinked. “All right, perhaps, but that was it for her.” All eyes in the room turned to Annie, who seemed momentarily uncomfortable with the attention before nodding curtly. “My point is, you all have come a long way since last year.” He paused, looked intently at Rune. “You did some good work in your pool bouts.”

Yes.” Annie had turned, placed a hand on Rune’s shoulder, the greasy-haired teen almost staggering under her grasp. “I saw some nice touches.”

The dismissive snort from the greasy-haired teen on The Bird’s left nearly echoed against the tiled cafeteria floor. “You mean, from my opponents, right?” A nervous giggle rippled through the line.

Chapter 5 – January 3B

“Watch your distance.” The Bird seemed to hear more of Mr. Jacobs’ echo than his direct voice. He was on the far end of the cafeteria, standing outside an area where Rex and Mr. Saunders, their faces hidden behind gray metal fencing masks, faced each other.

Har un hur. The Bird couldn’t make out the words coming from Mr. Saunders. She saw Rex step forward and lunge, his long thin arms and legs extending from his body like a giant pair of scissors. Mr. Saunders parried, his blade tinging against Rex’s, but the red rubber tip at the top of the tall teen’s weapon landed emphatically on Mr. Saunder’s left shoulder.

The Bird heard unintelligible yet clearly encouraging words from Mr. Jacobs, who stepped between Rex and Mr. Saunders and clapped twice. She had been to enough practices to recognize this was his signal to end the current activity. Rex and Mr. Saunders both took a step back, pulled their masks off from their faces, both glistening with sweat.

“Line up.” Mr. Jacobs was pointing down to the floor, at a line where the black tile gave way to white. The cafeteria floor was predominantly black, with rectangular islands of white that accidentally formed convenient fencing strips.

The Bird waited for Annie to approach the line that Mr. Jacobs had pointed to before rising, and walking to the line. She took a position at the right end of the line next to Rune, who had rushed next to the line to stand next to Annie, Rex at the far left.

“For today, Daniel?” The Bird didn’t understand why Mr. Saunders sounded disappointed.

“I guess. No one, for sure.” Mr. Jacobs’ answer did not make sense to her. “Thought we’d have Micky today, but she’d have been here by now if she was.” The Bird’s eyes widened in recognition, as she quickly scanned the line, one two three four. Mr. Jacob’s must have said Juan, not no one.

Chapter 5 – January 3A

The third Tuesday

“MY GRANDMA AND YOUR GRANDMA!”

The Bird had not paid attention to the sound of the cafeteria’s metal double-door klack open, but Rune’s ejaculatory bellow was too loud for her to ignore.

Sittin by the bay-ah. The Bird recognized the singing voice as Annie’s, sitting behind her. Although she didn’t recognize the last word, it definitely sounded like bay-ah.

Rune was now walking swiftly into the cafeteria, hand raised over the greasy curls of his long red hair. A manic snarl crossed his lips moments before his mouth erupted in another explosion.

“MY GRANDMA TOLD YOUR GRANDMA — ”

I’m gonna set your flag on fay-ah

“TALKIN BOUT — ” Rune was merely shouting, making no attempt to sing.

Hey now — There was a giggle in Annie’s singing response.

“HEY NOW!”

Hey now —

“HEY NOW!”

Iko iko un-day!

“WHOOA-OH!” Rune lowered his arms as he walked obliviously past The Bird, the manic look in his face gone. Anne continued singing behind them, Jock-a-mo fee-na ai na-ne, jock-a-mo fee na ne.

[1/27/14 — corrected the title, and added the date at the top]

Chapter 5 – January 2F

The Bird hadn’t gotten back to Mr. Jacobs, hadn’t actually said anything to him or anyone on the team the rest of that week, indeed had avoided them entirely, stepping quickly into a bathroom or unfamiliar classroom (can I help you?) when she saw him in the hall, or one of her teammates.

Teammates. Had that word really come to her thoughts just now? Yes. She blinked twice quickly, rose from the orange sofa with the faded floral pattern. It had gotten darker since she had sat, the white winter sunlight fading into a gray cloud. She turned on a floor lamp, feeling warmer for some reason as the artificial light bounced off the white ceiling, filling the room.

The people at the university fencing tournament today — Mr. Jacobs, Annie, Double-J, everyone else — were a team, the Bark Bay High School fencing team. And she’d been attending the team’s practices every week since November. But did that make her a member of that team? Teammate — the word sounded foreign to her, like a term used by a scientist to describe some mysterious object.

The Bird didn’t know why she showed up to that first fencing practice two months ago, and couldn’t explain why she kept going, but she knew for certain that she never had any interesting in being part of a team, to be anyone’s teammate. Yes, that was why she hadn’t accepted Mr. Jacobs’ offer to come to the tournament, because competing in tournaments was something the team did, and The Bird did not.

The crunch of gravel under rubber — her mother’s car engine was quiet. The Bird walked to the front door, flipped up the switch for the outdoor flood light, then walked back to the kitchen to help prepare for their dinner, during which she would certainly let her mother know that the girl her mother knew as Cassandra, and that Bark Bay High School students and teachers knew as Sandy, now preferred to be called The Bird.