Wielding The Knife

by Damon Shaw
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (5 votes, average: 4.40 out of 5)
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Faina was going to complain the dust would stain her dress but the falcons took her breath away. On every rock, every dead bush, they perched and preened, eyeing each other with savage intent. Inez pursed her lips and spat between the stones at her feet.

“Watch,” she ordered.

After six long months with her Grandmother, Faina knew that tone of voice. She turned and scanned the hillside. The sun was almost directly overhead. The birds were sharp and stark against the sky.

“Like princes,” she breathed.

Inez spat again. “Stop dreaming girl. See what’s there.”

Faina bit her lip. The falcons were beautiful, like gypsy men with golden eyes. Like princes.

A tide of movement swept the hillside. The birds shifted in their hundreds, feathers flicking in the hot breeze. They pulled back, crouched, held the moment for a hushed breath and then leapt as one into the sky. The air was suddenly full of grit and twigs. Faina closed her eyes. She got a whack on the head for that. “Watch, I said.”

“Granny,” whined Faina, but she opened her eyes again to see the air full of kites. Black shapes hung and swept silently above her. They turned in the updraft, ever spiraling, ever higher. Soon they were too high to be seen.

“Come on then,” said Inez, turning away and hobbling down the track to the village below.

“Granny. Inez, wait. Why –”

“Don’t ask. Think.” And Inez would say no more until they reached the social club.

Faina should have tried to puzzle out another of Gran’s “lessons”, but was distracted. She had never been in a bar before. Inez had scoffed but this morning Faina had chosen her best dress. It wasn’t too dusty. She tidied her hair. Several old cars and a tractor rusted outside. Faina headed for some empty tables under the corrugated tin roof. She straightened from brushing the dust off a plastic chair to see Inez march through the dark doorway and into the bar.

Faina’s heart suddenly thumped, high in her chest. She could see her house from here. Three streets up, red tiles and white walls leant out into the square. She could just see the corner of her bedroom and there, there was her bike, still leant against the water barrel where she had left it, six long months ago. Did no one care enough to take it inside? Was her bed still unmade? The last of her dolls still lying in the dust? A dog barked in the distance.

Inez didn’t return. Faina looked down at her dusty shoes. Strangely enough the thing she missed most was the heavy enameled bath that Pa had ordered from South. In Gran’s hut she didn’t have her own bed, let alone hot water. She sighed, pushed her unwashed hair back behind her ears, stood tall like an adult and followed her grandmother through the doorway and into the bar. It was dark inside. A few old men sat quietly at a table playing dominos. A fly-specked shaft of sunlight crossed the room, slipping through the shutters to splash onto the red tiles of the floor. “Oy! Dreamer! Help me with this,” called Inez from the shadows.

Faina’s heart sank. Gran was actually behind the bar helping herself to a bottle of rum. A collection of colas, tapas and even some cigars was already heaped on the bar before her.

“Get some glasses and some forks.” Inez waved the rum, nearly hitting Lame Luis the barman. “Come on, girl. Move!” Cheeks burning but trying hard to smile, Faina went over to the corner where Luis was cleaning glasses. He looked at her blankly, frowned and then limped away. The smile hung on her face and then fell softly into her empty hands. She collected two glasses and some cutlery from the tray on the bar. “And get some bread!” Inez had already poured herself a rum and opened a couple of cans of cola. She kicked out a chair and pushed a can over. “Here. You want a straw?”

“Granny!” Faina scowled. “I’m nearly twelve!”

Inez smirked. She produced a little flask, opened it and carefully let three drops fall into her rum and coke. Then, raising one eyebrow and half smiling, she reached over and let one drop fall into Faina’s cola too. “Almost an adult.” She sat back, closing the flask.

Was Gran joking? Faina couldn’t tell. She sipped eagerly but the cola was so sweet, cold and full of fizz it made her face hurt and she had to blink to clear her eyes. The bar came into sudden focus, shadows deep and rich, the gleams of light on the ranked glasses clean and almost unbearably sharp.

“Now, watch.” Inez held up a hand. The room suddenly darkened.

There was a clatter of tools and buckets being dumped in the doorway and three young men spilled into the bar. The air was suddenly full of movement and voices, dark skin and light denim. Laughing and boasting, they dragged up stools and shouted for beer as the shaft of sunlight gilded their hair and licked at the corners of their mouths.

Faina watched the muscles in their forearms and the play of light in their hair. She saw the shadows in the hollows of their throats. She saw the bulk of their thighs in their jeans. She drank them in.

“What they talking ‘bout then?” Inez had crumbs of bread in the little hairs at the corner of her mouth and her chin was shiny with grease. She noticed Faina’s distaste and grinned, popping a last olive between her lips.

“Don’t know Gran. I can’t hear.”

“Go on over then. Find out why that boy has a bandage on his hand.”

Faina hadn’t even seen the bandage. She had seen broad backs and slim hips. She looked them over again. One tall and broad, one slim and wiry and one slighter, blonder and more lost than a child.

She wasn’t sure she wanted to go closer. She could feel their heat from where she sat.

“Go on. I want to smoke.” Inez began unwrapping a long cigar. Reluctantly Faina stood but didn’t dare make the first step. “Don’t forget your drink.” Inez winked at her and shook the silver flask.

Faina took the cold cola and drank, and again it brought tears to her eyes. This time when she blinked them clear, she saw the dust dancing in the shaft of sunlight and knew she could slip between the dust motes, could hide in the shadows of things far away and she would never be seen.

She took a deep breath, let it out and flowed with the slowly moving air towards the three men, her best shoes making no sound on the tiles as she crossed the room.

Behind her, Inez smiled, puffed out an enormous cloud of cigar smoke and settled back into her chair to watch. This close she could smell them, a heavy, dusky smell mixed with fish and sweat. Sometimes it made her feel sick; sometimes she wanted to get closer still, to fill herself with the smell of them. She leant forwards.

“I’m buying. No arguments.” The biggest man slapped some money onto the bar.

“Feeling guilty, Arcadio?” The gold in this one’s ear flashed to match his grin.

The youngest held up a note in his free hand. “I’ve got money.”

The others ignored him. The men were propped on the bar, facing the rows of bottles but even so, they towered over her. Arcadio was so broad; his T-shirt had actually split at one seam. He reached for his beer, his T-shirt riding up at the back. Faina could see black hairs leading down into the darkness of his jeans. It made her dizzy.

She was completely unprepared when the three turned, drinks in hand, and leant back against the bar. Straightening in confusion, she found herself eye to eye with Arcadio. He looked at her and frowned, then something Andres said distracted him and he looked away. Faina heard Inez snort behind her.

Blushing, she dragged a stool over, and perched next to the youngest of the three, who stared at his bandaged hand as if trying to remember something. His hair had fallen over his eyes but he swept it back and joined in readily enough when Arcadio ordered another round. Feet swinging in the smoky air, Faina sipped her cola and watched and she began to learn the stories of the three young men.

They were brothers, she should have noticed before, and they had been out fishing. Arcadio was the oldest and the boat was to be his. A rope on his freshly scrubbed deck had been coiled in two directions so it doubled up on itself as it went through the winch. The loop had caught Pablito’s hand, pulling it through the pulley and neatly severing half of his ring finger.

“It didn’t hurt. Feels like it’s still there,” he said, holding out his hand. They all contemplated the bandage gravely. “And the hell of it was, it fell to the deck and Arcadio stepped on it. Completely mashed it!”

Here Arcadio winced and looked shamefaced. The old men around the bar chuckled and nodded and supped their beers.

“It looked like a prawn,” said Arcadio with a grimace. “But you could see the bone.”

“And he,” Andres said, pointing at Arcadio, “wanted to sew it back on there and then with fishing line. But Pablito- he suddenly goes dead white and throws up and he won’t let anyone touch his hand.”

It was Pablito’s turn to look shamefaced. “But-”

“So we’re all sitting on deck, ” continued Andres, raising his hand and cutting him off. “And we’re looking at the finger and we don’t know what to do.” Andres grinned. “So we put it on a hook.” Laughter sprayed and bubbled around the room. “Well Arcadio did, I wasn’t going to touch it. It was him stepped on it.”

Arcadio shuddered. “It was the nail was the most trouble. Couldn’t get the hook through.” He drank again as if to clear his mouth.

“And?” the old men demanded. Even Luis had limped over from the bar to listen. “Did you catch anything?”

The boys grinned at each other. Oh yes, they had caught something alright. A marlin. Slipping on the deck in Pablito’s blood, they had fought the giant fish for hours, taking turns on the line. And the line had held. The fish was in the truck, on ice.

“Anyone want to see it?” asked Pablito, jumping to his feet. They did. The bar emptied quickly to general laughter. The air rang with the sounds of absent voices.

Inez beckoned Faina over.Faina sat, feeling strangely light and empty.

“Well, what did you see?” Inez pushed aside her empty rum glass. Faina placed her hands on the wooden tabletop and took a deep breath.

“Andres set up the rope,” she said. “He wants the boat. He got the wrong brother, and yet he feels no guilt. Only anger at a plan gone wrong.”

Inez raised her eyebrows but said nothing.

“These brothers, they use each other. Andres uses Arcadio. He has a stack of secret money saved. Arcadio uses Pablito because he is cheap and does as he says.”

“Ah yes? The young one. What did you see?”

“Pablito?” Faina blinked slowly and smiled. “Pablito dreams of me.”

Inez sat back in her chair and her eyes narrowed.

“He dreams of my eyes and my lips,” said Faina. “He is waiting to meet me, and I him. Together we will own a small house, and I will take the children to school, and Pablito will work for Arcadio until one day, he can buy his own boat … .” Faina’s voice trailed away. She put her hand to her mouth.

“Yes, child. And once more. What did you see?”

Faina felt faint. The cola was sweet at the back of her throat. The voices from outside had faded but no one came back into the bar.

“Speak.”

Faina felt her mouth open all on its own and she spoke from far away. “On winter nights when years have passed and we know the taste of each others breath, he will make a doll. He will make a doll in his head of breasts and… parts of, of women and he will use me to fill the doll with life.” Faina’s gaze lifted and she stared into the shadows. “And I will know I am being used and will bear it, for how can we expect not to be seen as objects when they use themselves as tools? But Inez,” Faina blinked and looked down at her hands. Her lip trembled. “Is that all there is to be?”

Inez wouldn’t reply. Faina swallowed. A fat fly crawled through the air and landed on the table between them. Neither of the women brushed it away. Faina looked up and her eyes were dark and wide.

“I don’t want to be used, Inez. I don’t want to be worn away like my Ma. I don’t want Andres to do more harm. I want…”

“Yes?” asked Inez quietly.

“I want to use things. To be part of things. I want to be – important!”

Inez frowned but nodded. She raised her right hand into the air. The room darkened and Andres stalked in, his head darting as he searched the darkened tables. Inez beckoned and he sidled over, uneasy, almost sniffing the air. Fish scales peppered his arms and shoulders. He was beautiful.

For the third time, Inez charged Faina’s cola from her little silver flask.

“Drink. And decide. The power is yours.”

Faina took the lukewarm cola. Watching Andres all the while, she drank three large swallows.

Her head ringing with sugar and caffeine, Faina felt the power rush through her, lifting the hair on her arms and leaving her hollow. Her voice sounded out again, clear and pure. “Go to the kitchen, Andres,” she said. “Bring the meat knife. The big one.” She heard Inez draw breath but her gaze never left the man who had turned and silently padded behind the bar. He returned with the knife, though wouldn’t stand still, shifting from foot to foot, never knowing where to look.

“Put your hand on the table, Andres. And stop shuffling. Be still.”

A muscle began to twitch in his jaw but Andres slowly stretched his fingers wide on the scarred table top. “And now-” Faina paused.

Inez leant forward. “Wait.”

“The power is mine Inez. You said.”

“Without words, child. Try…”

Faina smiled. She concentrated on the knife, willed it to rise. Nothing happened. Inez tutted and rolled her eyes.

“Not the knife, Faina. Can the knife think?” Ignoring the heat in her cheeks, Faina switched her concentration from the knife to the hand holding it. What would make a hand like this wield a knife against itself? Guilt perhaps. Shame. Self-hate. Faina began to smile a cold, keen smile. Andres groaned. She pushed harder.

The fisherman began to tremble, and a drop of sweat ran from his brow down the dark of his cheek. His teeth were clenched but his hand was already rising and the blade caught the stray light as it slowly slit the air.

Faina softly laughed now. Inez frowned at that but made no move to stop her. The man twitched and jerked like a fish; his hand splayed wide on the table top, his other arm raised high. The silver blade hung, poised. Somewhere the fat fly buzzed in a shaft of light. A drop of sweat slipped free, swept down through the waiting air and splashed onto the back of a rigid hand.

In a high, coarse keening that wound around the empty tables, Andres began to cry.

The sound was like a slap. Faina stopped laughing and looked from the knife to the table and back. She clapped her hands.

Andres gasped and dropped the knife. With a _thunk_, the blade sank an inch into the wood below. The fisherman straightened, panting deeply.

“Get out,” said Faina in a flat voice. “Go. But remember-” She tried to find the power again and to let it fill her words. “Remember that you love your brothers very much.” She heard Inez snort but ignored it. It was the best she could do. The man staggered towards the bright square of daylight. He really did smell of fish.

“Well done,” Inez pulled the knife free with a grunt and held it out. Faina shuddered so Inez laid it flat on the table between them.

“What would have happened if I had done it?” asked Faina. “There has to be a price, eh Gran? Would I suffer threefold or lose the feeling in my left hand?”

“You would have to live with the knowledge it was you that did it.”

“Is that all?”

“There’s some can live with that and some that can’t,” answered Inez. “Now girl, it’s time to choose.” She laid a small stack of coins next to the knife.

“So. You take this money and you go back to your Ma with my apologies for a wasted six months and you marry Pablito….”

“Go back home?” Faina felt a pain deep in her breast. A pain she had almost forgotten. Inez ignored her gasp and continued.

“Or you stay with me and I show you how to wield that power of yours.”

“But Inez,” Faina smiled sadly, “The power came from your flask not from me.”

Inez held out the flask and pulled the stopper.

“Smell,” she ordered. It smelled of leather and tarnish.

“I don’t smell anything.”

“Water,” said Inez flipping the flask back into her pocket. “Nothing more. The power’s in you girl, like it was in your ma before you.”

“Ma?” said Faina, her hand rising of its own accord to play with her hair. “She wants me back?”

“Of course. She’s your ma. And she chose your father, many years ago. She chose you.”

“You showed her future, too?”

“She showed herself, as you did. She could have been – important.”

“She wants me back.” No more sarcasm, slaps or insults. Her own room with the window opening onto the square. An inside toilet, _por Dios_, and running water. And the warm smell, the eternal smell of Ma’s thyme scented arms….

“Well. Choose then.” Inez was sharp. “Wield or be wielded.”

“I would still be a tool. No, Inez? The power would use me as it uses you.”

The witch didn’t reply. She nodded slowly. The girl was clever. Well, there it was. She had done all she could. Now it was up to Faina. The coins gleamed dully on the table between them.

Faina looked Inez up and down, not missing a detail. Goatskin shoes. Torn cloak. Shrewd eyes, not kind nor hard but clear. A hut far from the village and a certain amount of wary respect.

But her Ma wanted her back. And Pablito had skin like honey and one day, one day she herself would be respected in the village, for longevity’s sake if nothing else.

The money or the knife. She had to choose.

Slowly she reached out and touched the money. She took a deep, shaking breath and her cheek glinted with tears. She stood, there was a chink of coins, her shadow blocked the doorway and then she was gone.

Inez sighed and slumped back in her chair. She looked at her hands. She looked at the knife. She looked up briefly as there was a shout of laughter from outside and then- time began again. The old woman collected together the used plates and cutlery. Footsteps approached, and Luis limped back in whistling.

“Doña Inez,” he nodded.

“Luis.”

“Was that Juanita’s girl there, Faina would it be? Couldn’t see too clearly.”

“Your eyes are so sharp they’ll cut their way out the back of your head, Luis.”

On another day, this might have been a threat, but Luis just shrugged. “Barmen, no?” he said. “They see things. You’ll be taking the rum with you?”

“Ach, I’m getting too old for rum.” And she felt it, too.

Luis started to laugh. Inez couldn’t muster up the energy to be annoyed let alone face the trek all the way back up the hill. She began to unwrap another cigar. “How’s the leg?”

“Bout the same as yours, I reckon,” answered Luis.

Inez put the cigar down and inspected the backs of her hands. She fished around in a pocket and pulled out a roll of money. Luis shook his head.

“You don’t pay, Doña Inez. Not you.”

“It’s an apology, you old fool.” She fussed with the matches and wouldn’t meet his eye.

“I’m sure I deserved it,” said Luis mildly. “Can’t remember now. Long time ago…. You going to leave her outside all day then?”

“What?” Inez paused with the cigar to the flame.

“The girl. Faina. She’s a wild one. Comes storming out into the sunshine, kisses Pablito full on the mouth, gives him something for her ma and runs off up the hill. Said she’d wait for you with the birds. Everyone was staring. Better off with you I reckon.” He winked.

Inez took a long drag on her cigar.

“Do you know something Luis? I’ll take that rum after all.”

As they climbed back up the hill, a dying falcon fell from the sky. It banked, spiraled and hit in a puff of dust by the side of the track. Faina bent to pick it up but Inez just spat.

“Stupid, beautiful things,” she said, spreading her cloak to catch the air.

They had to fly the long way back because a hot wind had come in from the East, laden with sand, and because Faina just could not fly silently. She whooped and screamed on the updrafts and choked with laughter when Inez was startled by another falling falcon. He had sacrificed a claw to the screaming cold and was blind in one eye but had flown high to where the sky shaded to black and the stars burned. Tomorrow he would fly higher still.

5 Responses to “Wielding The Knife”

  1. Kristen says:

    Wonderful story! The language is gorgeous, the tension palpable, the characters memorable. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

  2. Cliff says:

    Wonderfully descriptive; I could visualise the scene.

  3. Debs says:

    and for your next trick…..? Splendid xx

  4. Donald says:

    Great story telling. I hope we’ll see Farina and Inez again soon.

  5. Mark says:

    Best story I’ve read on here so far. Top stuff.

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