Rune’s boots crunched through the snow’s thin icy surface, his legs pushing deep into the powder underneath. The top layer of the snowpack had melted in an hour of bright afternoon sunlight, then froze quickly as the temperature dropped at dusk. It was difficult walking, Rune’s trailing leg unable to bend at the knee until it was almost completely free, and he knew the direction he was headed, down and into the woods east of his family’s house, would likely be even more difficult. He lurched along, determined.
Ten feet from the tree line, Rune found himself wading through a waist-high drift. He looked to his left, saw in the pale moonlight an area where the snow didn’t seem as deep. His hips shuffled forward, crunching the layer of ice-crust and billowing the soft snow underneath; three to four steps further he began to feel less resistance, his legs breaking free and clearing the crusted surface, and he began stepping forward more briskly, reaching the area he had seen, the snow now barely above his ankles.
The edge of the forest lay immediately ahead. Frosted evergreens and denuded poplars stood darkly in a silent field of white, like headstones in a graveyard. Rune recalled a memory from summer, how different this place not only looked but sounded, cicadas and bees during the day and crickets and tree frogs at night, the busy fluttering of birds, squirrels and possum rustling among the underbrush. Rune held his breath. Listened. A sharp breeze, branches of a pine tree swaying and releasing snow to the ground, flumpf. Nothing more.
Rune exhaled, watched the steam rise past his eyes. Then he walked forward, not really sure where he would end up, why he was going there, or when he would come to his senses and turn around, go back to his warm home. He was going away — that was all he knew at the moment, and that little knowledge was all he needed to continue into the dark, cold woods.
The first Tuesday
Tennis balls. Any time they saw tennis balls at practice, the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing squad knew Coach Dan was about to introduce another of his unorthodox drills.
“Where’s the rope?” Annie scratched the back of her head, pony-tail quivering as a half-dozen fluorescent yellow globes bounced on the tiled floor of the cafeteria, poonka poonka poonk-poonk-poonk.
“This isn’t a point control drill.” Coach Dan thrust an arm into the maroon equipment bag from which he had just dropped the tennis balls. A moment later, he pulled out a tube of gray cloth.
Rex’s laugh echoed across the large room. “A sock?”
“Yes, my friend!” Coach Dan held the sock by its cuff high above his head, like a hunter displaying a pelt. “Who can tell me — ” Coach Dan’s teaching moments were always punctuated with a purposeful stare that scanned above their heads — “what you should be focusing on during a fencing bout?”
“Distance.” Rex’s response was as swift and sharp as his riposte.
“Yes — ” Coach Dan swept his arm across his body — “but what’s the best way to judge the distance between you and your opponent?” Still holding the sock in his left hand, he pointed his right index and middle fingers at his eyes. “What should you be looking at?”
The members of the fencing squad looked quickly at each other. Rune saw a knowing-yet-eager-for-someone-else-to-answer expression from both Rex and Annie, confusion from both Butch and The Bird, and what looked like boredom among Juan, Big Paul, and Micky. Growing uncomfortable with the silence, Rune decided to throw out a guess.
Coach Dan pursed his lips, nodded at Rune. “Interesting!” He extended an open palm, as if offering Rune a present. “Explain, please.”
Rune hated the way Coach Dan always asked them to explain their answers. “I don’t know. I guess… their arm’s closest to you, so it’s easier to judge distance that way.” His eyes brightened. “And if they extend their arm, you know they’re about to attack!”
Coach Dan tilted his head sideways, his telltale sign that he didn’t like the answer he’d just heard. “Some sound logic there, yes. But — here’s the problem.”
Coach Dan touched his right arm with his left hand, as he walked among the squad. “Your opponent’s arm can do all kinds of things during a bout — it can extend, retract, move up or down. And if your opponent knows that’s where your focus is, he can do all kinds of things to distract you, like twirl his blade.” He brought his right arm forward, swung it in a circular motion, like he was winding a garden hose onto a reel.
He then pointed suddenly to Rex. “What’s the other problem — for foil fencers, anyway.”
Rex answered again with riposte quickness. “Arm’s off-target.”
“Exactly!” Coach Dan continued pacing among squad. “The purpose of keeping distance, is as much offensive as it is defensive. You need to know, at all times, whether you’re in or out of attack range.” He stopped, left foot stomping the tiled floor for emphasis. “Annie, what area on your opponent’s target can you look at, to gauge your distance?”
In the split second before Annie responded, Rune noted how Coach Dan had stopped almost directly in front of him. “The front shoulder.”
As if following a command, Coach Dan reached across his body with his left arm, and tapped his right shoulder. “Correct! The front shoulder provides a far more stable focus than the arm, and has the added advantage of being within your opponent’s target area. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be free of distractions.” Again, he raised the sock he was holding. “Which is where this comes in. Big Paul — a ball, please!”
A moment later Coach Dan had a yellow tennis ball in his right hand, the sock transferred to his left. He called for Butch to stand in front of him, then held the tennis ball in his right hand, out from his body at chest height.
“All you have to do — is take the ball.”
Coach Dan blinked. “Now would be a good time.”
Butch took the ball from his fencing coach. “Good — now, put it back. No not there — ” Butch had begun walking towards the maroon bag his coach had carried into practice — “back in my hand.”
“Oh!” Coach Dan flexed the fingers of his right hand, and Butch laid the ball back from where he had taken it. “Now I want you take it again — but with a difference.”
And suddenly the sock in his left hand seemed to come to life, flying up and to the right, coming down just beyond the reach of his right hand, then coming back up, over, down, forming a garmented circle in front of the tennis ball. “Your job — is to take the ball, without the sock hitting you. This drill is about focus, and peripheral vision.” Coach Dan continued twirling the sock in front of the hand holding the tennis ball. “Your eyes are better able to see movement around the edges of your vision, instead of straight ahead.”
“It’s like baseball.” Big Paul was an outfielder on the high school team. “The hardest fly ball to judge, is the one hit straight at you.”
“Very good.” Coach Dan returned his focus to Butch. “All I want you to do — is take the ball.”
“While you’re spinning the sock?”
“Oh! So am I allowed to look at the sock, or is that cheating?”
“It’s not cheating, but if you look at the sock, how are you going to get the ball?”
“Oh!” Butch scratched his head. “But if I don’t look at the sock, how can I stop it from hitting me?”
The Bird stepped forward, her soft feet not hitting the tiled cafeteria floor loud enough to cover Annie’s groan, and said she would like to try. Unable to conceal his relief, Coach Dan waved her forward. She stood in front of him, Butch to her left, the rest of the fencing squad looking on as Coach Dan resumed twirling the sock. The Bird studied his hand for one, two, three sock twirls — then snatched her hand forward, grabbed the ball, the sock hitting the underside of her arm as she pulled it back.
“A little late, but you get the idea.” Coach Dan commanded The Bird to try the drill again. “Keep your eye on the ball, and watch for the movement of the sock with your peripheral vision.” And this time the slender teen snatched the tennis ball from her coach’s hand, without being hit by the sock.
“Excellent!” He held his palm up and flexed his fingers, The Bird reading his cue and tossing the ball up for him to catch. “Now, let’s add another element — Annie, if you would.”
The pony-tailed former ballerina took The Bird’s place in front of her coach, who began twirling the sock in front of the ball again. “Now, let’s add movement.” He took a quick step back, Annie shuffling forward with him. “Don’t go for the ball unless — ”
And suddenly Annie was holding the ball in her hand, holding it at eye level and peering at it as if she were about to eat a freshly-picked apple.
“It appears you were in distance.” Coach Dan then walked over to the maroon equipment bag and retrieved several more socks — “I assure you, they’ve all been laundered in the last six months” — handing them to half the students, with instructions to retrieve the other tennis balls that had rolled onto the cafeteria floor.
A few minutes later, he had the team in pairs. Rune had lined up opposite Butch at the start of the drill, but Coach Dan switched the pairings, had Butch work with Big Paul, leaving Rune with The Bird.
Rune held the ball with his fingertips up to The Bird, who asked Rune if he wanted to go first. “Sure,” Rune shrugged, “I don’t care.” The Bird replied that she could go first — “I said I don’t care, just take the ball already.” The Bird asked Rune why he sounded so upset. “I’m not upset. I just wanna get this dumb drill over with.” Fearing Rune was about to throw the ball at her, The Bird took it from his fingers.
Following the instructions of her coach, The Bird held the ball in her right hand while spinning the sock with her left. She stopped when she saw Rune’s hands on his hips. “You’re doing it backwards.” The Bird replied she was left-handed, it was easier for her to spin the sock with her left hand.
Rune shook his head, his greasy hair quivering from the motion. “Whatever. It’s a stupid drill, anyway.”
Unable to heed the cautionary voice in her head, The Bird asked why he thought that way. Rune waved a dismissive hand in the direction of Coach Dan, whose back was turned toward them. “He spent all that time making fun of me for what I said about looking at the arm, look at the shoulder instead, and then he has us do a drill where we never look at the shoulder!”
The Bird suggested he was missing the point, that the drill was about using your peripheral vision.
“Like I said, whatever.” Rune squatted down into en garde position with an air of resignation, as if he were being pushed down by a giant invisible hand.
The Bird began twirling the sock. “That’s too fast, he said not to go too fast.” The Bird apologized, began spinning the sock so slowly it could barely loop up and over. Rune reached for the ball, but the sock struck his hand. “Like I said, you need to go slow.” The Bird offered a reluctant apology, like a student asking forgiveness for another student talking in class. She resumed twirling the sock, her arm movement more up and down than circular. The sock was hanging limply from her fist when Rune finally reached for and grabbed the ball.
He grinned with satisfaction as he handed the ball back to The Bird, who resumed the sock spinning while taking a step backwards. Rune did not follow, but put his hands back on his hips. “What are you doing?”
Coach Dan, moving among the team as the drill proceeded, was near them now, so The Bird called him over, asked if they were supposed to be moving. “Of course, my friend! Judging exactly when you’re in distance for an attack is one of the points of the drill. Is there a problem?”
He was looking directly at Rune now, as was The Bird. Rune felt like a game show contestant who didn’t know the answer to a lightning round question. He shook his head, looked down. “This drill, it’s not… I can’t… ”
He looked up. “Can we change partners?”
Coach Dan called for everyone to move one person to the left (“Your other left,” Annie said to Butch). As The Bird shifted left, Rune looked for some sign of hurt in her eyes, yet found none, leaving him with an odd feeling of disappointment.