Parry, Riposte, Recover

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The blade of Sara’s foil whispers as it slides around my guard, bending delicately as the tip jabs into my ribcage and sets off the angry scream of the buzzer that also resonates in my skull.

“Disengage from the left arrives,” the referee announces above the clash of weapons in the room, “Touch left. Four-Zero.” Blood rushes through my cheeks as I notice Coach Steve watching my exertions. All the people fencing in this elimination bout and his eyes follow my movements. I’ve only fenced for a year and half. Why is he so interested in my actions? I shudder as a crimson haze slides like a curtain over my vision.

Then the ref calls my attention back to the task at hand. Ready? I nod out of habit.

Sara moves forward with all the grace of a tiger, all the speed of a snake, how can I ever hope to match her finesse? When have I ever won when fencing a leftie? I can’t, so I slip back into the rhythm of drills, hand executing maneuvers without thinking. Parry. Riposte. Recover. My mistakes amateur and easily countered, damning my chances of winning the touch.

Again, the harsh screech of the buzzer tumbles through my ears. Touch left.

En garde? Ready? Fence.

Touch left. Touch left. Touch left. Eight-Zero.

Who attached the bars of lead to my blade? Who slathered glue on my soles? Who smothers my breathing like a choking embrace? Why can’t I hit her? Please let me hit her.

Eyes pleading, I glance at Steve through the mesh of my mask. ‘Help,’ my expression says, ‘what do I do?’

“Try a prise-de-fer,” he walks away then, each footstep causing me to blink after his retreating figure. Seize the steel, not a bad idea.

Ready? Fence.

The blades in our hands dance as they spin a web of silver and tinkling metal. We advance, retreat and lunge in time. The strip in front of my eyes blurs; neon wrapped tip the only part of her blade that I can see as it fuzzes in my vision, which flicks back and forth like a lion’s tail as it stalks prey. Parry. A tear of sweat from my complaining muscles rolls from my forehead onto the varnished wood floor. My foil drops and winds itself around Sara’s, sliding down its length with a sigh and a clink. BZZZZZ!

Touch right. Eight-One. I grin tiredly.

Fourteen more touches to go.

Steve smiles at me from across the room as my point blinks onto the electronic display above us.

Sara begins the next attack with newfound vigor, and eventually my adrenaline just can’t keep up. Nine … ten … eleven … twelve-one. One more time I am lucky, but the chant of ‘touch left’ again fills my crimson tinged vision with the deep blue-black of despair. What hope do I have?

That’s right. None.

None.

Fifteen-Two, and the bout finishes. Sara stands with her mask under her left arm, extending her right to shake mine as custom dictates. Her face blanks like a sheet of paper wiped clean. What thoughts run through your head? Are you rejoicing in managing to grab the least proficient fencer here? Are you happy that you could move on to the next round so easily? That’s right. I’m the useless one.

Her hand drops and I jerkily detach myself from the electronics that count our touches. Steve approaches me after I’ve mostly finished sulkily hanging my gear up; slamming hangers back onto rods and hooking my mask on the shelf with a bang and clunk.

“So what did you think of your first tournament?” Steve’s eyes twinkle underneath bushy eyebrows and the fluorescence of the ceiling light reflects off the dome of his head.

“I got eliminated. I’m not good enough to compete in tournaments yet.”

“And the fact that you realize that tells me you’re ready.”

“What—” I choke out, astonished.

“Did you have fun?”

Scowling, I don’t reply.

Steve claps me on the shoulder. “Always remember to have fun, kiddo. It’s not all about winning. I’d like you to join the intermediate class. It’d be good for you.”

Suddenly my jaw drags on the floor as I gape at him. “But—”

I’ve only attended level two for four months; most people wait a year or more to move up a level. I don’t deserve this. I don’t.

He just smiles that grin of his; the one where he knows something you don’t and rejoices in it.

“Trust me, kitty Kat, you’re ready. Class starts at five thirty, Mondays and Wednesdays. Be there.” He gently reaches out with a withered hand and pushes my jaw closed with a snap. “Remember to have fun.”

I haven’t forgotten, not in all the time I’ve fenced since then. For a year, I’ve kept those words wrapped around my heart. The fact that I came in last that day no longer sends chords of worthlessness through me.

I parried, riposted, and recovered—now here I am, right back on track to fence through high school, college, and the rest of my life—without shame.

Katherine E. Gray

Katherine spends most of her time writing short stories, poems and novels.

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