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Before 19, Volume 3, 2014

Needle and Thread

Needle and Thread By Anthony Cao The fencer's sword is an object of remarkable precision; the blade is wrought from an ugly hunchbacked lump of steel that is folded over itself hundreds of times into a single, perfectly square length of cold brilliance no longer than ninety centimeters, which at its widest point remains less than a centimeter thick. At the tip is a tiny metal plunger that must be able to support a minimum weight of exactly five hundred grams. Though it is an object of finesse, the foil is not born from it. Unlike a delicate vase slowly and lovingly coaxed into its shape by the caress of the glassblower's ever careful breath, the foil is forced into being, beaten, thrust into the forge's fiery maw and beaten again before being drowned in a trough of water from which it rises in its new form hissing like an angry snake, the brutal blunt force of the ore honed into the laser like precision of the needle. Despite its new body, the foil retains the raw power of its unrefined form. It lies dormant in the blade's grip until you reach for it, at which point it sparks into being between your thumb and index finger and you feel its coiled presence, like an electrically charged spring waiting to be released, like your own private tornado. Once, when I was a child, I saw a German Shepherd break free from its leash to run down a squirrel. I remember the bunching of its muscles and the arc of its head tracing the rodent's movement, the sudden and visceral sense of great force as the leash snapped taut, the trembling in the hound's legs as it strained to escape from its owner's grasp and finally, the explosive forward surge as the leash buckle snapped. When I replay the scene in my mind though, I do not see the tension in the dog's muscles, the spring of its legs as the leash breaks. Instead I am distinctly, physically aware of them. I can feel the power the leash struggled to contain, like the tense rigidity of a soda bottle recently shaken, and I can feel the rush of motion, the power not projected, but set free. The squirrel escaped in the end, scampering up into a tree beyond the German Shepherd's reach where it sat, eyes darting anxiously back and forth. I remember watching the hound slowly return to its owner and lie down at his feet, panting lightly from the sudden burst of exertion. The foil's handle is typically referred to as a pistol grip due to its shape. Indeed, one holds the foil like an old flintlock pistol, two fingers below what would be the trigger and two fingers above, the grip held firmly between thumb

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and index finger. The analogy of a pistol extends beyond the physical form of the foil, though. Just like the former, the foil carries the potential for deadly force. During the 1982 World Championships in Rome, a Russian fencer named Vladimir Smirnov was killed while fencing Matthias Behr of West Germany. During the bout, Behr's blade snapped during an attack. He was unable to stop himself in time and his momentum propelled the foil through Smirnov's mask and right eye to lodge itself in his brain. Smirnov died nine days later in a hospital. I had been fencing for only a few months when I first heard of the incident from my coach. My reaction was not one of shock or fear at what happened, but of inexplicable guilt. At the time, I quickly put the feelings behind me, but in retrospect, the reasons behind my sentiments seem obvious; the foil instills a sense of power in its handler and seeing the damages wrought by that power made me feel guilty for taking pleasure in it. The first time I held the foil, it was as a complete novice with no experience in any sort of martial sport. Even so, to my untrained hand the weapon felt alive and I was filled with a strange thrill of power. I took pleasure in repeating the basic actions Slava taught me, feeling surges of pride when he uttered a rare word of praise or approval or noted an improvement in my form. Now, four years later, I still feel the very same sense of empowerment when I pick up the foil. The feeling has not mellowed with age, but grown and intensified. My once slow and clumsy actions have grown swift and sharp, beaten into my reflexes through countless repetitions and hours of drilling. I can tell by the slope of someone's shoulders, the lean of their back, the bend of their knees and the light in their eyes whether they are committing to an attack or merely feinting; I have power over them in my awareness and that power brings with it a sort of intoxication. It is the intoxication of seeing an opponent struggle to catch your blade, his movements growing jerkier and more desperate with every missed parry, of knowing what action he will take next and knowing that you've already foreseen it. And it is this intoxication that made me feel so strangely guilty upon hearing of Smirnov's death, because I know that Behr must have felt that same heady rush of power as he lunged toward Smirnov, felt it as he landed the touch, felt it even in the fatal moment when his blade snapped and the jagged end tore through Smirnov's mask.


Before 19, Volume 3, 2014 To the observer's eye, the fencer's movements are smooth and precise, each action calculated, deliberate and executed with the effortless grace of a master dancer, the foil moving as a natural extension of the arm. To the fencer though, his movements are of a completely different nature, bursts of effort to control the blade rather than direct it. Like the cavalry rider upon his surging mount, the fencer’s mastery of his weapon exists only in appearance. It is the foil itself, not the fencer, that propels the blade toward its target and drives its point into an opponent's chest. The fencer does not project the blade's force. Rather, he is tasked with restraining it, bending and taming its violence to direct it as he, not the foil wills. In fact, if you watch carefully enough, you will see that when the fencer lunges into an attack, the blade precedes the wielder, rocketing forward by itself before the rest of the body follows, drawn along by the foil's force. What happens when the foil is freed from the will of its wielder then? When the German Shepherd breaks away from its leash? When the fencer fails to control the primitive energy of the blade, gives in and lends his own strength to its wild demand for action? Most of the time he will surge forward in a mindless charge, only to be stopped by the scream of the scoring machine's white off-target light as the blade meets an arm or leg instead of the chest. And just like the German Shepherd realizing that the squirrel is beyond his reach, the fencer will slowly return to the starting line, freed from his brief moment of insanity. Other times though, the blade's energy is too much to be contained and the fencer loses himself to it, his motions spiraling out of control like a propeller broken off from its rotor mid cycle. I imagine that is what happened to Behr in his bout against Smirnov. I can see him in my mind's eye, lithe and agile, clad in the white jacket and silver lame of the foil fencer, blade arm darting forward to score a touch upon Smirnov and I can see the foil snap and Smirnov turn around, shrugging with a rueful smile. Then, in that crucial moment, my attention shifts. I do not see Behr as he must have turned back, do not see the horror on his face as he catches sight of Smirnov, the blade lodged in his mask, a monstrous streak of gray and red upon the black mesh. Instead, I am following the fragment of the blade as it spins away through the air and I can see on the broken edge hundreds of tiny ripples where the steel was folded, folded, folded against itself.

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Needle and Thread

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