The first Tuesday
Feet shoulder width apart. Front pointing forward, back foot perpendicular, heels in line. Bend the knees, half squat. Front forearm parallel to ground, elbow bent hand-width away from body.
“Annie, please tell me what Rune’s doing wrong.” Coach Dan, standing on a line made by the border between white and black tiles on the Bark Bay High School cafeteria floor, followed his command by waving a hand from Annie (standing along the line to Coach Dan’s right) towards Rune, standing a few feet away on a rectangle of white tile, the greasy-haired teen’s body still in the en garde position he had been demonstrating to Butch (standing along the line to Coach Dan’s left), bewildered annoyance creeping onto his face.
Annie stepped forward and coughed, then examined Rune’s stance. “Well . . . his front elbow’s really too far from his body, and he’s leaning forward.”
“It’s all in the back arm, my friend.” Coach Dan walked behind Rune, whose eyes followed the coach as his body remained still, like some would-be hero immobilized by a villain’s paralysis ray in one of the cheesy sci-fi movies he enjoyed watching. Grabbing the boy’s back arm, which was extended high above his head as if he had been asking permission to go to the bathroom, Coach Dan brought it down in line with the shoulder, pointed straight back. He then bent the elbow, pointed the forearm up, then forced Bernie’s wrist to bend down, fingers pointed back at his body. “Keep the wrist limp,” Coach Dan’s voice calm but commanding as he walked back to his previous position. “Don’t let your back arm become a distraction, but don’t let it be a hindrance either. You can’t use it to block — ” he looked quickly down at Butch — “that would be a penalty. But you do need it to help keep your body in balance.
He clapped his meaty hands, the sound echoing in the large, nearly empty cafeteria. “Annie, please demonstrate.”
The athletic teen walked over to the position held by Rune, who backed away both embarrassed are relieved. She turned her body to face her coach and new teammate, attending his first ever fencing practice. Butch noted where she planted her right foot — her toes pointed in line with her body instead of twisted inward line Rune’s had been, heel slightly forward of her shoulder. She shifted the heel of her back foot about a step and a half behind the front, Rune noting her heels in line with each other, where Rune had several inches of space between his heels. Her feet, Butch imagined, seemed to form a perfect right angle, an unnatural position for the human body, yet somehow Annie seemed comfortable, relaxed.
Annie then extended her right arm forward, elbow bent slightly and close to her body, forearm tilted up so that her hand was slightly below chest level. She brought her left arm behind her, elbow bent deeply so that her forearm leaned toward her body, her limp wrist nearly touching her shoulder.
She then bent her knees, her upper body lowering in a smooth motion like a car on a hydraulic lift; she only came down a few inches, stopping several inches before reaching a full squat, but Butch saw the dramatic impact it had on her appearance. Annie seemed to instantly become a different person, no longer the pleasant girl who had been solicitously helpful to him earlier that afternoon (try this jacket, step through the strap first then put your arms in — other arm, the zipper goes in back — wait, you’re putting it on inside-out), but an aggressor, a human weapon, coiled and anxious for someone to give her a reason to unleash her attack. Although she was merely extending her index and middle fingers together in mock imitation of a threat, Butch easily envisioned a sword extending threateningly from her hand. She bounced in her crouch, and catching Butch’s gaze, winked at him; her knees seemed to be on springs, her body stored with a martial energy that waited to be released, up through her arm, into her invisible weapon, charging into the tip of her blade and finally releasing, striking her opponent, hitting, scoring.
“Oh!” Butch’s face as round as his hushed utterance, his short crop of blond hair seeming to stand on edge.
“That’s the en garde position, my friend.” Coach Dan clapped Butch on his shoulder. “Give it a try, show me what you got.”
“Oh!” Butch blinked, looked up at his new coach. “Wait — don’t you ‘on guard’ instead?”
Coach Dan glanced away, then back at Butch. “It — we say en garde. It’s a French term.”
“Many words in fencing are French.” Rune had stepped in front of Annie, who had come out of her crouch. “Like foil, it comes from the French word for blade — ”
“Flower.” Annie’s narrowed eyes forbade Rune from challenging her.
“Oh!” The look of wonder on Butch’s face gave way to concern. “I — I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”
Coach Dan stepped in front of the short, fat student who had been waiting in the cafeteria when Annie and Dan had arrived with the team’s equipment. “Neither do I, my friend. Other than a few words, which any of us — ” he turned to Annie and Rune, waited for them both to nod — “will be glad to teach you.
“But, for now — ” Coach Dan stepped back, his hands releasing from Butch’s shoulders — “show me a good — on guard — position.”
Advance. Lift the front foot, toes first, then lift the heel just off the floor; push from the back foot, bring the front foot forward, land the heel first, then the toes. Don’t raise the front heel too high; pretend your pushing a quarter along the floor. Lift the back foot, bring it forward, land it. Retreat. Lift the back foot, push backwards from the front foot, land the back foot, lift the heel of the front, bring it back.
“Shake it out, shake it out.” Coach Dan stood upright, extended his right leg and shook it, as if to drop a coin that had fallen into his pants from a hole in his pocket. Annie, Rune, and Butch, forming a loose line several feet behind their coach as he walked them through the footwork drill, looked at each other with shared relief.
“That was intense!” Butch leaned forward, placed his hands on his knees.
“Well, get ready, ‘cuz there’s gonna be more.” Rune’s voice filled with resignation. “Lot more.”
“You get used to it, really.” Annie hardly seemed tired.
Butch looked up at her. “You look — I don’t know, so graceful when you do that. I almost tripped over myself a few times.” Annie nodded, her face full of I know. “You looked like a dancer!”
“HA!” Annie threw her head back, her brown pony-tail reaching down the length of her back. “It’s all those classes my parents took me to when I was a kid. What was it — ” she tiled eyes upward a moment — “ballet at 6, that lasted about three months. I did tap for a few years, that was fun. And oh yes, hula — there’s some pictures of me in a grass skirt that I never want you to see!”
“Didn’t you do gymnastics, too?” Rune waved a hand through hair slick with grease.
“Oh yes, I’ve been going to Gandy’s gym at Riverside for as long as I can remember. Still go there once a week, to work out, not on the team, haven’t been for a couple years. Definitely helps with the fencing — the footwork, the balance. When you’re watching a bout, it kinda looks like all arm motions, weapons clanging against each other, but the reality is, you fence with your feet.”
Coach Dan had seemed ready to move on to the next drill, but backed away, turned towards the equipment sacks. “Oh!” Butch stood upright, held his palms up, his eyes questioning Annie. “So, if you do all that — what made you do fencing?”
Annie looked up at the ceiling, the calm look on her face suggesting she was not so much searching for an answer but rather waiting for the most appropriate words to convey what she already knew. “When I fence, I use the best parts of me. I use my intellect and creativity to come up with a strategy to defeat my opponent, my athleticism and agility when executing that strategy, my balance and poise to maintain control throughout the bout, my conditioning and perseverance to stay on top of my game at all times. Fencing requires me to use all my best qualities.
“All those lessons my parents took me to when I was a kid — ballet, gymnastics, swimming — helped me prepare for the physical demands of fencing, and my music lessons, and the chess and debate clubs I joined, all that prepared me for the mental demands of the sport. And yes, all of it was preparation, because while I enjoyed all the activity — I couldn’t get enough, and will always love my parents for taking me to all those lessons — I would end all of my lessons feeling there was something missing, as if I had appreciated a good meal but felt a spice or ingredient was missing that I couldn’t identify. It was not until I started fencing that I finally felt satisfied, that I’d found an activity that could challenge me enough to keep me interested, keep me from looking for new challenges.
“Why do I fence?” She smiled with satisfaction, her pony-tail dancing behind her head as she nodded toward Butch, a faint sheen of sweat reflecting the light from the overhead fluorescents. “Because when I fence, I feel complete.”