Peggy Shinner’s essays and stories appeared in The Southern Review, Colorado Review, The Gettysburg Review, Daedalus, TriQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Bloom, and other publications. As a trained martial artist, she taught Seido karate for seventeen years. You Feel So Mortal, in which “The Knife” appears, is her first book. Photo credit: Yesica Barrera.
In my martial arts training I’m learning to use the knife. The is the operative word here: the knife. The definite article, underscoring the definitive nature of the thing itself. That’s how we talk in my dojo: the knife, the bo, the jo, the sai. All the weapons made preeminent by language: no indefinite a for any of them. But the knife, well, the knife is in a category of its own. Bo and jo—the long and short stick, respectively—and sai—a three-pronged, trident-like instrument—have their origins in agriculture; at least that’s one version of martial arts history. Originally tools used by Okinawan farmers—the bo, for instance, a pole for carrying water, the sai a dibber for making holes in the ground for seeds—they were secretly transformed into weapons to oppose the conquering Japanese. The domestic made lethal—that’s the legend. The knife, however, is, and always has been, an instrument of cutting. On the dojo floor I hold it in my hand.
I buy into the myth. Nobody employs the bo or the sai as a weapon today. They belong to another time, another era—I can learn their use guilt-free. I am merely delving into history. Of course, I can see that a bo and a baseball bat may have similar martial application. A baseball bat, benign against a ball, is crushing against a skull.
Homeowners hide them under their beds. And baseball itself, the sport I have long loved, acknowledges the bat’s potential in a funny kind of way. Why was Frank Thomas, former designated hitter for the White Sox, nicknamed the Big Hurt? Because when he hit the ball out of the park, he crushed it. The ball, it might be said, making its way across the sky, sees stars. In black belt class, we practice an overhead bo strike to the top of the head and another, diagonal, strike to the temple. Sometimes we say that the arc of the bo is similar to that of a baseball bat. I’ve heard myself say that. I picture the bat slicing through the air, the bat I held in my own hands once, on summer nights when my father tossed a sixteen-inch softball over the makeshift plate, and the stars, emerging one by one, dotted the sky overhead; and the point at which, in my mind, the bat makes contact and the ball flies off—that’s the point where I focus my bo strike to the temple.
But a woman who carries a knife? That gives me pause. Unlike the bo, the knife is not a relic. Its function has not been consigned to history, although, in an impulse both romantic and distancing, I do remember seeing West Side Story when I was ten, the Jets squaring off against the Sharks, each wielding knives. My mother took me to see that film. I learned the words to “I Feel Pretty.” Like Maria, I primped in front of a mirror. And though, at the end, Maria was reputedly killed by a rival gang member, and Tony, upon learning of her supposed death, inconsolably begs for the same, it is not lost love or feuding factions that are forever fixed in my mind but the Rumble, thrilling, threatening, nimble, acrobatic, accompanied by the chill glint of blades.
Years later, at nineteen, I went into a downtown sporting goods store for a backpack and a knife. I was going to Costa Rica; the backpack—army-green vintage, brown leather straps—was for jeans, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a six-month supply of sanitary napkins because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get them so close to the equator. The knife would fit into a side pocket. Be independent, my mother used to tell me. She meant: Don’t worry about what other people say, listen to me. Even if I wasn’t sure how to be independent, I knew how to shop. Knife, pack, map, stamps, flashlight, mosquito repellent: I’d be ready for anything.
It was hard to buy a Swiss Army knife; there were so many lined up under the counter, with so many attachments. Did I need a corkscrew? But I hardly drank. A nail file? A pair of those tiny, baby scissors? The knives were beautiful, a dark glossy red, stamped with the signature silver cross. The blades fit snugly inside the handle, each incised with a moonlike notch curved to fit your fingernail. Some of the blades, jaunty with precision, were already pulled out, at the ready. I was hesitant, confused. The salesman waited silently on the other side of the counter. Suddenly, his silence felt like all the reasons I might need a knife to begin with: as a counter against fear and contempt and scorn and judgment and accusation; something I could put between myself and the world, the world’s perceptions of me, and my perceptions of myself. Finally, I chose a streamlined one, with a can opener. It had a teepee-like tent and the word camping etched in silver. I’d never been camping before. The closest I’d come was sleeping next to an open window.
In Costa Rica, I carried the knife with me over the mountains. Leave me alone, I learned to say. I practiced under my breath. Déjame en paz. But when the police picked me up at two o’clock in the morning—an American woman walking alone on the Inter-American Highway—I had no words to explain to myself or them what I was doing. It’s my birthday, it’s my birthday, I kept repeating in my truncated Spanish, as if that would account for why, four hours earlier, driving back to San José with friends, I’d decided to walk and gotten out of the car, buttressed only by a cautionary phrase and the Swiss Army knife in my pocket.
The police held me for several hours. In a nearby town a man had been found dead, and I was, after all, suspicious. I sat in the backseat of their car while they alternately asked questions and ignored me. They talked among themselves in rapid-fire Spanish made more isolating by the frightening circumstances. At one point someone offered me a glass of water and a banana, and although I’d been told to drink only bottled water in Costa Rica, I accepted gratefully. Waiting for my innocence to become apparent, or at least my foolishness—it’s my birthday, it’s my birthday—I felt the weight of the knife sitting in my pocket; I had a weapon, a concealed weapon, on my person, and while I hadn’t used it, or used it only as a prop, a lucky charm, the dead man wasn’t so lucky. Would I be searched? The knife discovered? Night turned into day, and in the light of dawn the police revealed that the man had not been killed—he had taken his own life, a suicida, and though we did not have a shared language to express our subdued relief that life’s burdens had not overtaken one of us that night, we fell into a close and oddly comforting silence on the drive back to San José, until one of the policemen turned to me and said, with avuncular consternation, Do not do such a thing again.
Istarted my martial arts training the day the Gulf War began. Driving to the dojo for my first class, I listened while public radio broadcast the first accounts of American fighter-bombers raiding Iraq. It was early evening in Chicago, and already dark; early morning and still dark in Baghdad. The city shook from the force of the explosions, one reporter said. I parked the car, upped the heat; the sky was like a fireworks finale on the Fourth of July, the report continued. I felt afraid, imagining the low flight of planes over my neighborhood. Would I be safe in the basement? Then I felt ashamed for hoping the war would stay over there; for hoping I could oppose it from a safe distance. We’ve just bombed Iraq, I said to the person at the front desk, compelled to tell someone a war had started.
During the next few weeks, as the war continued, I learned how to make a fist. Scud missiles landed on Tel Aviv. Turkish soldiers threw frozen chickens at the Kurds, striking many in the head. I’d used my fists one time before, punching a pillow so hard I bloodied knuckles on both hands. You are defeating your weakness, the long-haired Gestalt therapist pronounced, as others in the group looked on. I never went back. Now I had other teachers. This is your weapon, they said, the first two knuckles at the base of your fingers, the knuckles of your index and middle fingers. This is what will strike your target. On the dojo floor, a polished wood surface overhung with Japanese curtains called norens, the body became a battlefield. Targets: solar plexus, floating rib, temple. Weapons: back fist, hammer fist, sword peak, knife foot. We did pushups on our knuckles to toughen them. What did it mean—if anything—to study a martial art when American military personnel referred to Iraqi civilian casualties as collateral damage? Do not be glib, I told myself. Do not look for easy metaphors. Kiai, the instructors said, and on the last punch we yelled—not unlike a war cry—together. The sound was exhilarating.
In 1982, Ann and I were robbed. We lived in the first-floor apartment of a three-flat. Ann came home first, four-thirty in the afternoon, the front door slightly ajar. It was stupid, she says. She says that now, but then she walked right in. They had taken the usual stuff—stereo, jewelry; it’s what they left I remember. Our underpants tossed across the bedroom floor; a knife sitting on Ann’s antique walnut dresser. It was our knife, from our kitchen; what I think of as a butcher knife. The robbers had, obviously, carried it around with them, and when they were done, dropped it on the dresser.
Ann is a cook. By profession she’s a graphic designer. She likes tools. She’s proficient with a compass and an X-Acto knife. She likes to strip woodwork, cane chairs. On our first date she served me rabbit stew, sort of like beef stroganoff. It’s French, she told me. The knife on the dresser was hers, a Sabatier; French too. Large, heavy, with a polished black handle. Sabatier is a family name, famous French knife makers, cream of the crop.
The police dusted the knife for prints, but when they were done with it we put it back in the kitchen. They never caught the guys or found our stuff, though later we did get some money from the insurance. We called our friends to tell them we’d been robbed. Other than that, we wrote down the serial numbers of electronic and other equipment, and put the numbers in an accordion folder labeled Important Papers. We went on. We cooked a lot in those days. It was part of our early romance. Russian vegetable tart, popovers, Finnish rusks, croissants, calzones, polenta pizza, zuppa inglese. We grated, peeled, minced, chopped.
In the years since then, we’ve let our knives grow dull. I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that, inadvertently, we’ve abused them. Like life in general, I guess, with equal measures of neglect, despair, surprise, wonder. Once my great-aunt, then ninety-four, said she wanted to buy us something. What do you need? We went into Bloomingdale’s, the housewares department. She hung heavily on my elbow. Get what you need, she repeated. The salesman, a handsome guy with a name tag that said Carlo, talked about all the knives, Wüsthof-Trident, J. A. Henckels, Sabatier, Kitchen-Aid. Some were factory stamped—and here he took a tone of offhand dismissal—others—nodding in approval—hand-forged, high-carbon stainless steel. He spoke with enthusiasm and knowledge. Which one do you recommend? We sell a lot of these as wedding presents, he pointed. My aunt threw him her winning, blue-eyed smile. Sabatier, I said, the basic set: chef, bread, boning, slicer, parer. Get the sharpener too, my aunt insisted.
Some people like their knives dull. They feel safer. My friend M. is that way. She prefers kitchen knives with no bite, no grip; she’ll hack away, no matter. Recently, however, she moved to a new city, a new job, and, perhaps in celebration of the fact that she was not required, for the time being, to live a life of vigilant downscaling, bought a new set of knives.
But having bought them, she was afraid. Arrayed on her kitchen counter, they were a hazard. A threat. She moved the knives to an inconvenient corner of the kitchen, a place where she would not have ready access; where she would have to pick one up with deliberation,
not impulse. She would break these knives in, but slowly; she would wait for them to become blunt and reassuring.
She told me this over lunch at a café. Her dark eyes had an expression both wry and wounded. When she wasn’t looking, I’d noticed how thin her legs were, how she ate her Caesar salad cautiously, almost leaf by leaf, chewing slowly, as if she couldn’t quite afford the pleasure of gusto. Dimly, I remembered how years before on a drizzly London street, she’d asked me if I ever felt like giving up, like I couldn’t go on. We’d just passed a wall covered with graffiti, Dance to the Death slashed across it. I hadn’t felt that way, but I didn’t feel immune either. I sensed that her despair could be mine, momentarily. Now, in the café, I thought I knew what M. was afraid of. Once you have a tool, you’re likely to use it. One swipe of the wrist, or two if you want to be sure, that’s all it would take. Better to keep the knife at arm’s length.
Let me say something about the knives in my dojo: they’re fake. We call them practice knives. Rubber or wood, the blade edge is decidedly dull. The pliant rubber one—I saw a similar version in a toy store, complete with cape and mask—reminds me of Halloween. The wooden knife, smooth, polished, heavy, grained, is beautiful, in its way. We have a weapons wall in our dojo where the practice weapons, in an expression of sincerity, are mounted and displayed. There are two other knives, not displayed, with tooled-leather sheaths and ornate handles, that a student brought back from Africa as gifts. One of the handles is a carving of a woman with a scarified face. Once, feeling the grooves on the woman’s cheeks, I wondered how these cuts were made. With a knife such as this? I ran my finger along the blade, unsharpened, and realized, with a start, that for a second I’d been lulled into thinking this was a real woman, real flesh. Real knives, we keep these hidden away in the shinzen, our dojo altar.
Karate means “empty hand.” First we learn to kick and punch, block and parry, and only after several years of empty-handed practice do we pick up the knife. It’s an earned responsibility. Whenever one of our teachers says Go get a knife, a jaunty nervousness fills the dojo. The knife is the weapon of our nightmares. It is our oldest weapon. One night Ann dreamt that she was slashed across the back, all the way from her hip to her shoulder. She felt an enormous rush of air, and woke up cold and trembling.
We wield the knife in order to learn how to defend against it. To be good defenders we must be good attackers.
I’d never wielded a knife before. I wasn’t the kind of kid who hid behind a mountain of dirt waiting to vanquish my opponent. I dressed up as a lady on Halloween. Ann played those games; she was that kid. There’s a picture of her, four or five years old, skinny as now, with long braids, straight bangs, overalls, a holster at her hips, six-shooters drawn and ready. The expression on her face is one of impish determination. I sat on the couch one night after a karate class, holding a table knife in my hand. The knife was from the set of flatware I inherited after my father died, but my mother was the one, a long time before, who’d selected it, and I thought of it as somehow reflecting her, stylish and classy. Plain, with a little scrolly flourish on the handle, a matte silver finish, engraved with International Stainless Deluxe on the back. I looked at the knife. I felt foolish. I gripped it, not like I was going to cut a piece of chicken or asparagus, but in simulation of a stab. I cried a little, just enough, even though I was alone, to feel embarrassed. Attack with a knife? How was I supposed to know how to do this?
We are very ceremonial with our knives. We are polite attackers. We have rituals of engagement. We bow, display our knives openly so as to harbor no secrets, assume a fighter’s stance. I love the bow, I appreciate that moment when I hold the knife, blade down and away from my body, in my extended right hand, the left over my heart, and I meet the eyes of my partner, who, earnest and empty-handed, bows back. There is a moment before attack.
And then? And then, we’re down to business. We learn the language, and mechanics, of attack.
There are grips. Regular grip, blade above the fist; reverse, blade below. Palm to palm, grip to grip. And strikes. Slash, stab. Horizontal, diagonal, left to right, right to left. Over the top, like Norman Bates in Psycho. Our teacher makes a rueful laugh. A knife strike, in order to be maximally effective, must be delivered with the whole body. Like this. Penetrate their space. Use the hip. It is a wild and awkward choreography, pairs of wide-eyed students skirting the room, yet even the most inexpert among us occasionally lands a hit.
I feel the knife as it lands, reverberating back in my hand.
Of course, there’s defense as well. That’s the point, isn’t it. Evade, hollow, redirect, disarm. Finish with a disabling blow. We guard with the fleshy undersides of our forearms turned away from the attacker to protect the veins from being slashed.
At the end we bow again.
Itake an informal survey. I have a sample of two. What does it mean to fight like a girl? To be uncommitted, S. says. To fight like a man means you’re not really trying to hit the face; you’re trying to hit the back of the head. To fight like a girl means you bounce off. You’re cringing. Demonstrating, S. throws a wayward punch, her thumn stuck on the inside, and I resist the urge to correct it.
Ann, a martial artist herself, says to fight like a girl means not even fighting. Hitting with the bottom of the fists, she adds, hair pulling, scratching.
B., who’s not part of my survey but knows about hair pulling and was, in high school, a greaser from Cicero—the Chicago suburb that wouldn’t let Martin Luther King Jr. march down its streets—once told me that some of the toughest girls in school ruffed their hair and then stuck in razor blades so that if anyone tried to grab it they got a handful.
For my part, I slapped my brother across the face when I was four and he was a baby. On Sunday mornings, our parents still sleeping, I waited for him to pull himself up by the bars of the crib, his blond head peeking over the top, and then I crawled out of bed in the room we now had to share and slapped him until he stared crying, and my father, in his boxer shorts and undershirt, groggily came to console him. When my father left the room, I hit him again.
Years later, I resorted to a weapon. Angry for a reason I no longer remember, I dug my braces—a blade of sorts and what I had available—into my brother’s forehead, previously unmarked and smooth and pink as porcelain, and hovering over him, both of us splayed atop my parents’ bed, I waited for the skin to pull apart, the parallel cuts, small and precise, to widen, the blood to bloom and bead up, the terror, on his face and probably on mine, to spread.
Does my brother have a scar? I’m not sure. His forehead is high, and his hair, still blond, is receding.
As we walked through Indian Boundary Park one night, a neighbor with half an index finger, a stub I stared at, started counting. He was twenty, I was sixteen. Overhead, the trees interlaced their limbs. The sound of our footsteps seemed to follow us. After each number he paused, a gap. I tried to stay a step ahead. My mother played mahjongg with his. One bam, two crak. Even now, I can hear them making their bids.
At three his hand, the one with the foreshortened finger, landed on my shoulder.
Now there’s a self-defense poster in the dojo locker room. I look at it while I’m getting dressed. “Learn How to Fight like a Girl,” it says, with a picture of a woman, palm heel extended, warding off her attacker. I catch a look at myself in the mirror. My belly, which should be taut from sit-ups—we do them regularly in class—is, instead, like a slab of clay stuck with thumbprints, making me look soft and doughy. Cellulite, and I feel embarrassed, not so much for having it but for having become, without acceding to it, a cliché. Shaking my head, I turn back to the poster. Learn how to fight like a girl. Another cliché, but stood on end. Once I took a self-defense class during a time beset by self-doubt and confusion, when I lived in a faded green apartment above an elderly Italian woman who complained that my footsteps were too loud. Once a week for six weeks I aimed my newly formed front kick at an imaginary attacker’s knee, while at home I padded softly across my living room floor. At the end of the class I was awarded a certificate, and several months later, carting boxes down the stairs, I moved out.
Ann and I need another paring knife.
This time I go, not to Bloomingdale’s, but to Chef ’s Catalog—overpriced, my aunt says, but she’s too frail to come with me, and besides I’m a sucker. It’s the store for the home chef. When I ask for Sabatier, the saleswoman—late twenties, robust, authoritative, a professional, she tells me—says they don’t carry that line anymore. Seems that somewhere along the way, the company sold its name to anyone who would buy it, and it was all downhill from there. She shakes her head with regret but perks up pronto and leads me to the Wüsthof-Trident. They’re the best. Before I know it, I’ve got a paring knife in my hand. Full tang, no-slip grip. She remarks on the perfect balance.
I ask the price, but it’s a diversion. How can I tell her I don’t want to buy a German knife? I’m uneasy about German products. When I was a kid, our next-door neighbors were German, and I didn’t think anything of it until their dog started barking incessantly across the fence. My father talked to the neighbor—by trade a baker who brought home stacks of confections in cardboard boxes—but the dog didn’t let up. The Germans have never liked us, my father said, his voice suggesting that this was the final and determining remark in a long, tiresome conversation; by us he meant Jews. I practically rolled my eyes, because history was the past and I was a modern, optimistic child, but all these years later, I’m his daughter. In the store, I make an easy connection between cutlery and the Nazis. I’d like to say I already knew about the Night of the Long Knives, also called the Röhm-Putsch, the Great Blood Purge, when Hitler ordered the murder of four hundred Brownshirts, but I only learned about that later. Did Wüsthof-Trident manufacture daggers for the SS? The saleswoman moves on to another knife, the J. A. Henckels, but it’s a lost cause. Yes, she says, when I ask if both companies are German, in an underhanded effort, I suppose, to point it out to her. Do I think, once enlightened, she’ll come around and disavow the product? And they’re located in the same town, a block from each other, she adds, like it’s a coincidence, but to me it’s a conspiracy.
Shamelessly I go on. Have the companies been around a long time? Since before World War II? I’m trying to re-create the lines of historical culpability, but the saleswoman can’t help me. By now her uninformed answers have taken on a bemused, cautious tone—uh-oh, this customer is a little loony—and I decide to drop it, exiting with what I know to be a lie. I’ll be back, I say. All our cutlery goes on sale at the end of the month, she informs me.
At home I head straight to the kitchen. Driving back in the car, I’d remembered another knife, one I bought several years ago, cheap, a manufacturer’s special. I bought it at Chef ’s Catalog. We keep the knives in a slanted wooden block on the counter, and there in the slots at the bottom, where they always sit, are two paring knives: the hand-forged, high-carbon, full-tang Sabatier and the other knife, the one with the flimsy blade—nicked, which is why we need a new one—and molded black plastic handle. I pick it up and look at the logo. J. A. Henckels.
I’m not done. At the library I learn that both Wüsthof-Trident and J. A. Henckels are headquartered in Solingen, a steel town in the Ruhr region. I picture Gary, Indiana, only prettier. There are rolling hills and maybe a child or two in lederhosen. The hills are supersaturated with green. Then I come across a book titled Collecting the Edged Weapons of the Third Reich. Solingen, the book says, is known as “the city of swords.” Most Nazi daggers came from manufacturers located there. I’m smitten by the alliteration—never mind that it’s a translation—which strikes me as happily convenient, like Solingen and swords were meant for each other, and what’s more, I’m about to discover something. I look at the photographs of bald-headed master craftsmen in aprons holding knives. Is there guilt, remorse, pride of product? The book has a list of manufacturers: Carl Eickhorn; Richard Herder; Ernest, Pack, and Sohn; Wagner & Lange; Alexander Coppel; Robert Klass; Karl Böker; C. Bertram Reinhr. There are even several Jewish-sounding names—Jacobs and Company, Joseph Wolf—but surely this is impossible. Yet there is no mention of Henckels or Wüsthof-Trident among the companies that supplied the Nazis with blades. Listlessly, as if exhausted by my spirited but fruitless efforts to assign blame, I turn a few more pages. Under a photo of blown-up buildings, a caption says that Solingen suffered grave damage from Allied bombing during the war. Alone at the table, I feel rebuked.
Twice, I’ve gone under the knife. First a tonsillectomy and later a nose job. Slight changes to my personal topography. I have a pert nose, a nose I have long thought of as mine, although I have wondered if, confronted with my old nose—which my mother had regarded ruefully—acquaintances would still pause upon discovering I’m Jewish. This saddens me a bit, because I want to be recognized. I’d like to have something that gives it away. But then I was sixteen, and sought only favor.
As for the tonsillectomy, well, it doesn’t hurt, I told my brother when it was his turn, but I must have known that was a lie.
Still, in the long run, I have been more traumatized by cutting than being cut. I have not, given the opportunities, demonstrated either adequate precision or speed with the knife, and these skills are essential. You’re too slow, my mother once said when I was chopping an onion for the meatloaf, and as she grabbed the knife from me, taking my place at the cutting board, I sensed in her an exasperation so deep, so profound, I was helpless. She meant no harm, I tell myself, recalling the swift fury with which she dispatched the onion. Perhaps she only wanted me to be proficient.
In graduate school as an exercise physiology student, I took a human anatomy class, where in a basement lab we dissected cadavers. I could never, quite, make the cut. There are 206 bones in the human body, 22 in the skull alone, and over 600 skeletal muscles. I would look at the body laid out before me—in this case a woman whose pressed lips and bony feet and taut, wrinkled neck suggested a parsimonious old age—and wonder what prompted her to submit to our fumblings. When she signed up, had she imagined spending her final days under such unsure hands? Cadaver is from the Latin cadere, “to fall, sink, settle down, decline, perish”; to be, at the end, prone on this dissecting table.
In the dojo locker room, where the conversation not uncommonly turns to targets and weapons, a friend is talking to Ann about the sai, the arcane weapon Ann’s lately taken a shine to. It’s your weapon, the friend says with a nod. Ann demurs, but I know that she’s pleased.
Do I have a weapon?
I like the knife. I’ve gotten, if not good at it, better. I’ve acquired a certain flair. On occasion I strike with fluency. From across the years I’d tell my mother I can use a knife now—not to cut an onion, no, I am the same as before, slow and plodding—but in a way she never imagined: I aim it at someone, I try to hit that person, although the knife is fake and I am only practicing.
Why? she might ask, and with the decades between us since her death, what I hear is mostly puzzlement, not accusation or regret. She’s referring not only to the knife but to the fact that several times a week I put on my gi, that tailored, unstylish white uniform, and kick and punch. A kiai, to her ears, might sound like a grunt.
She doesn’t ask, but I do: Would I ever cut someone? Not myself, my terrors are not those of my friend M.’s, that the knife would make its way across my wrists, although when my great-aunt, ever more frail at ninety-five, says she would rather hurt herself than me, I know what she means.
Why? my mother repeats, waiting for an answer.
No cutting, the Japanese master said during a senior black belt test when one of the students, in a symbol of victory and vanquishment, ran the practice knife over her downed opponent’s wrist.
No cutting, Kaicho, my teacher’s teacher, said again.
Even in the grand theater that the martial arts can sometimes be, he did not want to see the knife wielded for purposes of vanity or revenge.
On another stage, another day, he and his son, the heir apparent, bowed to the crowd at Lincoln Center, the son in a black ceremonial robe, the master in a plain white gi and frayed black belt, itself almost turned to white; and while the father retreated to the side, the son, center stage, unsheathed his sword, flashing silver in the lights, and brought it down upon the three-foot-tall Japanese daikons flanking the stage, their tops rolling to the floor, while through the crowd rolled too an audible whisper, before he, the son, turned and faced his unarmed father, who was kneeling on the ground, and after a pause—when not a sound was heard—lowered the sword toward the top of his head, and the master, rising swiftly, clapped his palms together and caught the blade between his hands; and as he unfolded them, like bird’s wings, to show they were untouched, the audience, myself among them, let loose, applauding wildly.