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Sport 4: Autumn 1990

Elizabeth Knox — The Sword

page 99

Elizabeth Knox

The Sword

For many years I kept quiet, spoke sparingly, never laughed too loud for fear of dislodging the thing hidden under my tongue. Only on those days when I felt abused and out-of-sorts; when walking through the brittle woods at evening my step would send the birds up out of the branches, I might whisper under the cover of their black snapping wings or the frost crackling beneath my feet, 'I am here,' to the deaf wood.

The sword turned up as an important property in a movie — at climactic moments shining white in the hero's hand. It was discovered by a properties woman with an eye for oddities. Not a genuine artefact, it was explained to her, being too light, an alloy of many metals: silver, tungsten, titanium — I forget the rest. She found it in a bric-a-brac shop in San Francisco, and paid twelve hundred for it, thanks to the tiny diamonds in its hilt.

There's always a sword in a sword-and-sorcery movie. The director, Bill Tourney, said it wasn't exotic enough. Then, handling it, he felt its strangeness sing into his skin, a toxic melody. And pictures: a dome of masonry topped by this sword, like a crucifix; the sword wrapped in silk and buried; or left in a cell, or flung from a swift ship's side.

This is what happened to me.

I went to the cinema with my wife Patty, who is a minor celebrity, the daughter of a rich and powerful man; happy, flattered and ten years my senior— she thinks. We bought four seats for the two of us and sat down with our cokes. The lights went down into rose darkness. I said, 'I like this, and Patty laughed and took my hand.

The film had a slight plot and pretty effects. It was shot in Ireland (green turf and wet stones, heavy-hoofed horses, riders in rough woollen cloaks). I sat there, in the full dark, lonely, pierced by the images on the screen: coarse blond grass against an off-white sky; a broken tower on a hilltop; a fire flattened by the wind — the stained light making cut-purse passes at my mouth.

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Twenty minutes into the film the red-haired hero, his face sweatglossy by torchlight, found the sword in a burial cave by a dead divinity's long skeleton. His friend the thief (there's always a thief, who brings trouble on himself and others through his greed) stole the divinity's golden torc. His theft was the point from which the plot proceeded. But the sword was magic, as white as ice. The hero stepped out of the cave, straightened and planted his feet. The sword wove, hissing, through the air. Then he held it up, a pledge to the heavens, the music swelled, the shot tracked in, and I was sure. My eyes ached with sudden brightness, the crossed hilt's corrosive light. I was naked in a wind full of scoria and snow. The brightness was a gap in the screen, a valve opening on another world. A warm world: warm like my body held by a bigger body; two cats in a patch of sunlight on an unmade bed; like a bowl of cherries, or cheese with brown bread. The valve closed and, thereafter, the sword was only magic for the purposes of the plot.

When the movie was over Patty and I walked out under the yellow bulbs studding the veranda, past people talking on the pavement in small groups. The sweet smell of ice cream drifted out of the doors. With Patty on my arm, I was half a couple in a public place — innocuous. I closed my eyes, opened them (same scene) and said, 'I loved that film!' She looked surprised — Fairway, who reads good books and speaks three languages likes a Dark Ages/Buddy/Industrial Light and Magic/Latex Monster movie. 'I'd like to meet the director, I said. (Work it Patty, call people, mention it to Mr Morgan Webb, your super-celebrity Dad.) She didn't answer because she was wondering why I'd said it, and whether it was worth her while since I'd forget it by tomorrow.

But the next day, when we drove out to Bene Clarita to see her Dad, I sang the film's praises to everyone — how terrific that sword was, I'd buy it if it was put up for sale in one of those AIDS/ Animals/ Betty Ford/ Ethiopia auctions. They got embarrassed for Patty; her young husband was acting his age. That didn't matter. I had a job hiding how I felt. I sweated impatience; it leaked from my mouth whenever it was open. Still — I got results.

A month later they turned up at a Saturday barbecue. Tourney wore a silk suit. The Star was tan, inconsequentially good-looking, with muscles like lathe-shaped wood. Tourney was carrying a long brown leather case. The security men — supposedly inconspicuous in polo shirts and white cotton jackets — checked the case, and there was some banter, my father-in-law welcoming Tourney in his soft burring voice, quipping page 101 about make-up calls for movies and press conferences.

I watched, willing Tourney to give me the sword, just as when I was a kid I used to walk behind people willing them to throw down their apples half-eaten. Tourney came over to me. We shook hands and I made some smart-asked remark about his cinematic style. He smiled, examining my face. I could see he wanted to rub my skin with his finger to test whether its evenness of tone and texture was natural or applied. Then he passed the case to me and I looked into his eyes, sober and unmasked, my gaze saying: 'This is all I wanted, you've been a means to my end, a courier . . .' I opened the case and lifted the sword out — then, incredulous, crest-fallen, said: 'This isn't it!' Thoughtlessly, since it looked the same; loudly, with a jagged edge to my voice. The guests turned, looked over their shoulders. Silence, and ice cubes rattling in glasses.

'But how can you tell?' Tourney asked, and I could see by his expression that he was making his own investigations for his own reasons. I feigned puzzlement. 'I don't know, I guess I'm just disappointed.' (Dead metal with the wrong balance and no stilled tongues waiting to speak.)

The security men were watching me, like vultures eyeing a tottering animal.

'I was making a little test. You're right, that isn't it. It's a copy. You see, I can always tell the difference.'

'It's the balance, Bill. . .' the Star said.

'No. I can tell them apart without picking them up, even in poor light, by just laying a finger on each. What I can't understand is how can you, who've never handled either the copy or the original?'

It's a trap, I thought. It's some zealot guarding the interests of the Webb Corporation. I said, 'I don't know, it's a mystery.'

He smiled at me again, as though we shared a secret, 'The original is in the car, I'll get it.'

My father-in-law's public relations councillor, Lowborough, went with him, nodding receptively, talking all the time. (That creep! Patty would say, having never recovered from a dream she had in which she overheard Lowborough coaching her father: 'Try it again Mr Webb, and this time with a little more warm sincerity.' Then her father's voice: 'I love you, honey. I love you, honey...')

The Star came up beside me. 'That one's not sharp.' He pointed at the copy.

The Mona Lisa, the Shroud of Turin, the Star of Africa, all rolled into one. First placed in my tired, miracle-troubled hands once upon a still page 102 midnight in the Sage's tower at Kemahn.

Tourney and Lowborough came back carrying it, not in a case, but in its prop sheaf with the blue and silver Celtic-style filigree. Lowborough said, 'Isn't it terrific?' And Tourney passed it to me.

What was I expecting? Thunder and phantom voices? I drew it out.

'Two of them?' My father-in-law's polite attention had been arrested. He strolled over and laid his arm across Patty's shoulders. She was watching me, mystified and afraid.

I held the swords, pointing away from my body, side by side, equal in weight, design and length. I twisted my wrists, like a duelist selecting a blade before a bout, and said absently, 'Yes, they're the same.' Up my left arm knowledge and recognition ran like an electrical charge. My whole being altered in density and direction, like a wheeling flock of the startled birds flung into the sky above the winter wood at Bene Clarita.

(May all your doors always be open.)

A critic of mine once wrote to me: 'Don't you realise that your dreams, your wishes, even your jokes, come true?' This was a joke, my recovery, an indecent joke. There is this interfering wanderer, who, after several hundred years of wearing out homes, friends, even causes, wouldn't lie down and die, because he was never really sure he'd lived at all.

Another sunset on an East Coast estate, the shadow of the mountain drawn up to cover the face of the lake, to close its eyes and bandage its mouth. The wind stooped. Steaks sizzled on the grill and the smell of scorched fat blotted out the scent of the clematis around the patio.

Both swords were only swords. And I was a sword too, all my life, part-drawn, several inches of steel gleaming threateningly. A bluff; the blade has always been broken.

How could I want back the things I ran away from because they made me so lonely and wild that I couldn't stand to be in a room with people without a window open, so, if I chose, I could fly away? How could 1 want to be sunk in the centre of an army, every word and gesture dressed and rehearsed, my voice magnified by its effectiveness, by others' fearful attention? When an old friend, who hadn't lost the habit, absentmindedly might touch my arm, I'd be flooded with weakness and longing — it was surprising their hands didn't freeze fast to me, a metal drawing the heat out of living flesh. The Great Leader. How could I want that again?

Patty said, 'Fairway?' That name, first to hand, years ago.

The swords' tips were touching the slate paving. I passed the copy back to Tourney. I looked at Patty, her bright hair swept back from her brow, held by the virtue of a good permanent wave in just the right place; page 103 Black and White Photographic Illustration page 104 her skin tan, fine-grained, silvered by sun-bleached hairs. Her eyes, which I could always meet because it cost me nothing more of myself than it would to look into the eyes of an animal or young child — a gaze which couldn't assess me, trying to. I said to her: 'When I was a kid, an orphan, this man adopted me. He was my first person, a brother, father, friend to me. I was grateful to him and, at the same time, afraid I wouldn't measure up. I felt I was on probation and had to adapt to everything new as quickly as possible. But I couldn't sleep in my new bed —I wasn't used to beds. So I'd wait until late, when it was quiet, and get out to sleep on the floor. Then climb back into it before morning. Doing this I was conscientious, alert, deliberate, even in my sleep. That is how I know that I'm still there, where I so carefully put myself, in that bed on all those mornings.'

'Fairway?' Patty said again.

(Between you and me, a story is a bridge.)

'My friend and his wife once had a terrible argument and were unable to talk to each other. I went back and forth between them like a shuttle on a loom, drawing them together. I'm always there between them, now too...'

(A story is an echo of that sound Eliot described: 'a key heard turning and turning once only.')

They stood beside me, distressed, embarrassed, bemused — Patty, Webb, Lowborough, Tourney, the Star, and a nondescript security man.

'I had a lover who, when he was with me, changed me from being myself into being a lover. He left me one winter and went to live with his parents in the high country. I started wanting him a month before I was able to seek him out. I had to wait for the thaw. Having to wait hurt so much I could hardly move . . .' I smiled at them then, and shared something, fumbling in my attempt to let myself down beyond their reach on a rope of nonsense. 'You see, it wasn't the sort of world in which a heroic Hallorann could make it up to the snow-bound Overlook Hotel in a commandeered snowplough. It was a world in which the only continuous sounds were the sea, rain or wind — fouled by tiny knots of noise like cockcrow, hoofbeats, bells, music with muscles behind it, and breath.'

(A story is a strung bow.)

'And I had a daughter, who at eight . . .'

Patty stepped back; how could I have had an eight-year-old daughter when she first met me? Was I going crazy? Talking nonsense with low urgency, a sword dangling in my grip.

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'. . . was frighteningly poised and self-possessed. She couldn't stop me taking risks — just look after her and let myself be loved. She could only watch me punished by the things I did, at eight already consumed by pity and helplessness. Just like me watching an "adult" world that wouldn't attend to me — the countries full of starvation, brutality, stupidity, disease.'

(A story is an open road.)

'I wanted to lie down and let people pass over me, travel wherever they needed to go. Only, in the end, it was armies who travelled me.'

Patty said, 'What is it, Fairway?' She reached out and wrapped her hand around mine on the hilt of the sword.

'Once, because this sword was orders I didn't want, couldn't obey, in a war I didn't understand — which my friends called my war — I gave it away to a poor lost woman. Yet I knew I hadn't given it away, since she'd follow me wherever I went, a sort of zombie armourer.'

I raised the sword. One of the nondescript men touched the edge of his jacket. Everyone was looking at me. I was hoping that the pressure of their scrutiny, my abruptly relaxed inhibitions, and our mutual embarrassment would force me out of this place. Embarrassment is prodigiously strong magic.

I stepped away from Patty and she lunged after me and grabbed my sword arm in both her hands. 'Fairway!' Both she and her father shouted together.

'I'm sorry, I have to do this so something can happen. Maybe that prick with his hand on his gun will shoot me. So what? The curtain comes down. No one will know. But I have to do something, faith must go out to faith. This sword is faith. People have put their dreams and wishes into it for ages and people have put their dreams and wishes into me.'

'You've had too much to drink.'

'Yeah, what are you on?' That from the Star.

'Ice.' I raised the sword. The security man pulled his gun. I laughed and tossed the sword up into the air. Up it went, spinning like a drum major's baton. Then I was knocked over. I didn't see the sword come down.

One of my arms wouldn't move. It was numb from the shoulder down. I propped myself up on the other arm. People were yelling. Patty was crying. I saw the sword lying six feet away in the dust, an exclamation mark, a prop without magic properties.

I said, 'I've done what I can, and lay down.

Patty was hauling at me. I could barely feel her hands. I drifted page 106 downwards slowly, light and empty. In the next moment everything became quiet.

Then I smelled the sea: pines, flax, flowering lupin, ozone. On an estate five hundred kilometres from the ocean, from any damp, salty wind.

I lifted my head and looked around. I was alone. Behind me were wind-sculpted trees, a stretch of grassy land, a stream and rising scrubcovered hills. Before me was a wide grey tidal flat, a group of black headed terns on the sandbar, velvet black-and-white, facing into the wind; a partly cloudy blue sky reflected in the myriad braided rivulets that led to the sea, where low waves rolled in, slow and white.

I stood up, nursing my arm. The sword wasn't there. It is people, not places or objects, who are open doorways. It would seem I was pitching in the world series again.