The voice of a referee called Rex’ name, and after a quick nod to his bearded coach the tall teen departed for his bout. Left alone at the center of the gym, Coach Dan rotated his body towards the two other strips behind him. He saw Annie, talking with Juan as he unhooked from his reel. Juan had been a surprise addition to the team for today’s first tournament of the season, after only attending a handful of practices that fall. Next to Myles, Kwon Joo-Won had been the team’s most accomplished foil and saber fencer the prior year, and if it had been his coach’s call he’d have been team captain this year. But Juan had said that spring he’d be focusing on his grades and test scores as a senior, and Coach Dan had no choice but to tell him to Come back whenever you have time.
Juan looked in his coach’s direction, and the two made eye contact; Coach Dan raised his chin, How’d it go? Juan raised his right thumb, an action imitated by Annie. Soon joining the two students was Butch, a broad smile on his even broader face.
Footsteps from his left, Coach Dan recognizing from the sounds that he was being approached by Jimmy Saunders (light footfalls, long strides) and Pat Williams (heavy, rapid steps), fencing coach at Midland.
“Since when were you able to hire a saber and epee coach?” Pat’s question sounded more like an accusation.
Coach Dan waved a hand in Jimmy’s direction. “He’s getting paid the same as you and I, my friend.”
Pat grunted, like he had just pulled muscle. “What ya teach?”
“I don’t,” Jimmy’s voice as smooth as a pane of expensive glass. “Run a catering business. Squisito.”
“Ah!” Pat’s dark eyes brightened. “Heard about you guys.” Confusion crossed his face. “Thought you guys were Italian.”
Jimmy smiled, held the blink of his eyes an extra I get that a lot moment. “Yes, black men from Louisiana know how to cook pasta.”
“Been meaning to ask about that.” Coach Dan waited until Jimmy made eye contact before proceeding. “Why Italian, not creole?”
“Because I’m a smart businessman, Daniel. Tried creole, Cajun when I first moved up here ten years ago. Year later, almost went bankrupt.” Coach Dan heard Jimmy’s native accent rising. “By then, made some contacts with other caterers, so I started asking questions, confirmed what I’d already pretty much figured — people round here, don’t have a taste for what I was cooking.” Jimmy shrugged. “So I looked up a few recipes, came up with a new menu. Made more in my first month than the entire year before.”
“In other words, you adapted.” Coach Dan’s face beamed with satisfaction. “You analyzed your situation, found the flaw, and made the necessary correction. Exactly like I ask my team to do on strip.”
Pat snorted, shook his head. “Fencing’s not a metaphor for life, Dan. It’s a sport. Their skills’re the only things your students have with them on strip that do them any good, and the only thing they take with them when their bouts’re over is their score.” The fencing coach of Midland then turned, and left abruptly.
Jimmy tilted his head in the direction of Pat’s wake, his eyes following as his head remained facing Coach Dan. “Reminds me of my fencing coach, back in the day. Guys like him, were the reason I got into fencing. And the reason I quit three years later.”
Coach Dan smiled so broadly as to make the thin curls of his black beard seem to straighten, and slapped his right hand firmly on Jimmy’s shoulder. “James, I think we’re going to get along beautifully.”
A loud buzz from a scoring machine was followed by a referee’s command to Halt; the two men turned, began walking in the direction of the sound, stopped upon reached the strip where Annie was fencing. They watched Bark Bay’s new captain parry an attack from her taller, stronger male opponent, her riposte landing on his weapon arm, the scoring machine buzzing and illuminating the white off-target light. The referee waved Annie and her opponent into position on the strip, commanded them to fence. A moment later the scoring machine buzzed, red light illuminating on the side of Annie’s opponent, who began removing his mask before the referee had finished his call. Coach Dan instantly recognized the face.
“Francis.” Coach Dan turned to Jimmy, pointed to the teen’s legs. “Francis Pine. Been fencing at the Academy since I’ve been coaching.”
After saluting each other and the referee, Annie and Francis met at the center of the strip for the obligatory hand shake. Annie caught Coach Dan’s eyes as she spun and retreated back to her cord reel. “Got two this time!” Coach Dan lifted both thumbs up.
“This Pine character that good?”
Coach Dan nodded. “Nobody on the team’s been able to beat him.”
“That’s right.” Annie’s tone was calm as she unhooked herself from the cord reel, her pony-tail drooping lazily down her back. “Not in pools, or a DE, even when we practice.”
“Not even Myles.”
Annie looked over her shoulder, saw Francis walking away from the strip, Coach Gavvy talking in excited tones at his side. “He’s always been Bark Bay’s nemesis.” She let go of the cord, which retracted swiftly down into the reel.
“Anyway.” Annie spoke in a commanding tone. “Tuesday. Anyone speak to Double-J yet?”
“Dunno.” Coach Dan smiled back at his team captain. “Have you?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, he’s not entirely open to my suggestions.” Jimmy asked what was going on — “Coach is taking us to see a play. ‘Hamlet.'”
Jimmy’s eyes widened. “‘Hamlet?'”
“I know the fight choreographer.” Coach Dan sounded uncharacteristically pleased with himself.
Jimmy shook his head. “Didn’t sign up for no Shakespeare.”
“No worries.” Coach Dan turned back to Annie. “If Double-J’s not coming, maybe somebody can ride up with The Bird, and her mother.”
“The Bird?” Annie explained to Jimmy that she was the thin, quiet girl at the holiday party — “her mother’s playing Gertrude.”
“Ah.” Jimmy’s response made it clear he had no idea what a Gertrude was. “Why ain’t we seen her today?”
Cassandra Wernick (known as Sandy (although she was still called Cassie by friends who remembered her from grade school, when she had chosen (after deciding in the summer of her twelfth year that any name that ended in an -ie (or -ie for that matter, or even -ee or -y) sounded like a child’s name) to be called by that name) by the students and teachers at Bark Bay High School) sat at the kitchen table of the house where she lived with her mother and her grandmother.
Kaw. The sound of the crow outside the window caught her attention. She watched it swoop down onto the hard brown dirt of the house’s back yard, talons brushing the thin dandruff of snow as it landed. It pecked at the dirt, and again — then looked up, black eye making contact with the gaze of the girl, who then thought of the school’s fencing team, because when she went to practices on Tuesday afternoons they called her The Bird, the name Double-J had given her at her first practice after commenting how she jerked her head around like a bird, and when Annie told him to stop being a jerk she’d said it was OK. Because she actually liked the name. The crow then unfolded its broad wings and flapped twice, snow whisking along the ground as the bird lifted, disappearing into the gray sky.
She had almost asked her mother and grandmother to call her The Bird, at dinner last night, when her mother called her Cassandra, and asked her to pass the vegetables. Please call me The Bird. But as the words were forming at the back of her mouth and her right arm was lifting the bowl of vegetables, she’d remembered they didn’t know she was called The Bird, and also remembered how last week Butch (the fat one, blonde, the son of the preacher) had passed her in the hall and said Hey Sandy. So the time hadn’t seem right for her to announce her new name.
Kaw. The crow returned, or perhaps this was a different crow, landing on the dandruffed dirt and pecking with its black beak. It pecked with renewed vigor at the dirt — it must be the same crow, she thought, it was pecking at the exact spot as before. The crow raised its head swiftly, kaw kaw, and resumed pecking at the dirt.
A moment later The Bird rose from chair, then stepped with light feet covered in white stockings into the front room of their small home. It was the room that lead to the front door, too large for a foyer and too small for a living space yet somehow fulfilling both functions. One of only three rooms on the house’s ground level, the kitchen and dining space and the house’s sole bathroom being the others. A short flight of stairs directly across the front door lead to three small bedrooms, one each for Cassandra (no, she was The Bird now), her mother, and grandmother.
The Bird sat on a small orange sofa, its floral design faded through use and exposure. The television across the room caught her eye, and she considered turning it on, to provide a distraction from the lonely winter afternoon.
The image of Double-J lunged into her mind. Wiry hair exploding from his scalp, the sneer of his black mustache, the skill and speed he displayed with his saber — television was one of many topics on which he would often openly, and loudly, express his opinion during practice. “Boring and predictable. Has to be that way. Entertainment’s just a reflection of society, there’s no room for original thinking, it’s too dangerous. Much safer to keep rehashing stories from twenty years ago.”
I know how you feel. Staring at her dim reflection on the powerless television screen, The Bird remembered wanting to say those words to Double-J. I don’t like television either. But for a different reason, she’d wanted to explain. There’s always somebody talking on the television. It never stops, before you can think about what they’ve just said, somebody else is talking. You don’t have time to think, it’s like drowning in a waterfall of words.
But she hadn’t said anything to Double-J. He was driven, competitive, as macho as any of the boy athletes she feared and avoided at school. The other boys on the fencing team weren’t like that, they seemed to follow the lead of their coach, Mr. Jacobs, so very masculine yet not in a way she had ever experienced before. But Double-J was not anything like Mr. Jacobs, and The Bird found his defiance both intriguing and intimidating.
The Bird heard the approaching hum of a car engine, coming down the Mill Road. haaaaaaaAAAAAAAHHH. The sound increased in volume as the car approached the driveway to her home, then passed, AAAAAAAAAhhhhhaaaaaaa, on its way towards Bark Bay.
She didn’t have to be alone that afternoon. Her mother offered to take her to rehearsal, but there was never anyone her age at the theater, and while the staff was always polite she never felt she really belonged there. She had wanted to visit her grandmother’s sister (a friendly woman with a gift for baking) in the city, but she had decided that attending her neighbor’s weekly canasta game sounded like a good idea.
And there had been a third option. The fencing tournament, at State. “You should come.” She’d been expecting Mr. Jacobs’ offer, and looked down at the tiled cafeteria floor when it came. “No really. Not to compete, but to watch.” Annie then joined their conversation, saying she had been a spectator for a few tournaments last year before finally competing in the spring. “It’s cool. You’ll meet a lot of people, see a lot of good fencing.” She shook her head again, and after Mr. Jacobs had encouraged her to think it over and get back to me, the team had moved on to the next drill.
The Bird hadn’t gotten back to Mr. Jacobs, hadn’t said anything to him the rest of that week, indeed had avoided him 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 she really just thought that word? She blinked twice, rose from the sofa. It had gotten darker since she had sat, the winter sunlight disappearing behind a gray cloud. She turned on a floor lamp, feeling somehow warmer as light bounced off the white ceiling, filling the room.
The people at the fencing tournament today — Mr. Jacobs, Annie, Double-J — were a team. And she’d been attending that team’s practices every week since November. But, teammate — the word sounded foreign to her, like a term used in a doctor’s office. The Bird didn’t know why she’d showed up to that first fencing practice two months ago, and couldn’t explain why she kept going, but knew for certain she had no interest in being part of a team, being anyone’s teammate. She hadn’t gone to today’s tournament, because that was something a teammate would do.
The crunch of gravel under rubber — her mother’s car engine was quiet. The Bird walked to the front door, flipped the switch for the outdoor flood light, then walked back to the kitchen to help prepare for dinner, during which she would certainly let her mother know that the girl her mother knew as Cassandra, the girl called Sandy at Bark Bay High School, now preferred to be called The Bird.