1. Monte Thompson

    Monte Thompson Member

    Oct 6, 2013
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    The Cut and the Cards

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by Monte Thompson, Oct 13, 2013.



    Montgomery Thompson

    The ancient flagstones milled the pebbles beneath my feet as I turned in my stance to receive him. He was a streak of ochre against the high and hollow air. My right hand smeared sweat deeper into the suede of my rapier’s grip, my left stayed out front and high, ready for anything.

    My life started at this moment. Mother had seen it. Her art was the cards, father’s was the blade. Both had been forged into me. With passion-fire and tongs of the heart I was hammered, tempering my path to this place where I had only just arrived.


    Mother’s mild face looked into mine; the candle’s honey gleam illuminated our intimate lesson. ‘The swords are change, my son. First and always.’ She slid the card over the rough wooden plank of the table. ‘It severs us from the old so we can embark on our journey to the new.’


    Swords. Master needed no such props. His hands were rawhide mallets, immune to the terrible consequence of my edge. His eyes watched nothing but saw everything as he closed the distance between us. Breathe, I reminded my mouth.

    I had learned that the deadly point of my blade would not help me here. It was the primary strategy with rapier; keep the point out front and as small as possible in the view of your opponent. Many fools had rushed to the attack and died, underestimating how fast a tiny flick of the wrist could convert fury into vanity.

    The Master was no such fool. Mine was a scrapping sword, not overly long like the highborn fop’s. As wide as two fingers of a man, every inch of it’s thirty-six a measure of magnificently rigid and cruelly sharp steel arriving at the needle point in a delicate, diving taper. He would try to get inside it where I would have to practically turn the weapon on myself to stand any chance of hitting him. This was Master’s strategy and he had learned it from me.

    My name is Zorzi Guiseppe Morsicato Pallavincini. My father gave me his full name at my birth in the year of our Lord 1666. Only, he added Zorzi to the beginning to honor his most treasured friend and servant whom he killed as he pursued the refinement of his art.

    My father was a Master of Fencing, unparalleled in skill since the days of the great Achille Marozzo, one of Italy’s finest. But I surpass them all and that is why I am here, at the highest point in the world, facing the Master.

    They call him Bodhidharma and say that he is from China. They also say he has been alive since the 5th century. One thing I can tell you for a fact is that he neither eats nor sleeps.

    His domain is the ancient Bön temple Tönpa Shenrab Miwoche hewn out of the rock on the southern peak of Mount Yung-drung Gu-tzeg. It took me months before I could pronounce these names correctly. But then I had patient teachers. In a way, they remind me of her.


    ‘Swords make endings Zorzi, but every ending is a beginning. It is how God works.’ She put the card in front of me, ‘Now draw it for yourself. This is the first card and you will draw each one for yourself to make your own deck.’

    ‘What is the last one Momma?’

    ‘That lesson is for another day, for now you will concentrate on the lesson of swords.’


    Breathe. The air is sharp and frail at the top of the world, every draught brings a slight burn. It is to this place that I have come, but it was not where I had made plans to go.

    Italy is my beginning. I was born inside a treatise of fencing. Facsimiles of swords were constantly in my hands. Even as an infant it was my father’s obsession that drove him to constantly perfect my form. Lashing my soft bones to splints, he shaped them to give me advantages of posture.

    He designed me for the fight. The women and the priests thought he did this because I was brittle. Even into my teens I was spared the work of the field and left to my own. But I belonged to my father, so I toiled at swords.

    He trained me to best his students, then him, and then to beat him easily. He did not waste time on having me assist in teaching others. I was his project. He owned me in the day but she stole me away in the night, patiently wrapping me in a cocoon of protection and encouragement.


    ‘Why are we in the barn momma?’

    ‘Your father wants only training for you, but I have my own lessons to teach you. Tell me the lesson of swords.’

    I scrunched up my face and thought hard. ‘Change hurts?’

    She nodded, encouraging me to continue.

    ‘But it makes you better.’

    ‘Very good Zorzi.’

    The grace of her smile washed through me like the sun in a breeze, filling me with contented stillness.

    ‘Now it is time for you to receive the lesson of the hammer.’


    As my confidence grew I ventured out to cross blades with highwaymen and bullies. I discovered that my skills so far outmatched them that I had pity. So I let them think they were winning just to give them one last joy before they died. They were my countrymen and honor demanded it.

    Death was part of the lesson of swords, but I would learn that it was woven into everything. I was not like them, those that acted as if they were the dealer of death, the master of it. Those poor idiots were not given any divine duty and the lesson for them only became clear as they succumbed to what they had claimed to master.

    The end was always the same; a small flick forward starting with the sharp, chiseled tip then down my arm as it straightened to the shoulder. The ripple turned to a small wave in an upper body rotation driven by a fraction of heavy drive from the hips. All of this happened in the time it takes for you to quickly touch your thumb to your forefinger. Go ahead, do it. You see? I am fast. The key to speed is inside the lesson of the hammer.

    The tip of the sword is too small and fast to see when it is coming straight at you. Your depth perception is confounded. Only when you see my shoulders start to move do your sharp reflexes respond to the instinct of your self-preservation. By then, my point has punched through your eye socket and out the back of your skull with a sound like two clicks of a Spanish castanet covered in wet cloth.

    I am told that most stay conscious for a few painless seconds before they pass into the arms of the angels. By this account it may seem to you that I am boasting or proud. I am neither. I learned the lesson of vanity from the blank stares on the end of my blade. Some day it would be me, but she knew the truth. She saw it all and still she went on.


    ‘Momma you are hurt.’ Black swelling bloomed around her eye. But they were full of grace and focus, intent on only me and the lesson.

    ‘It is nothing Zorzi, pay attention and tell me the lesson of the hammer.’

    ‘It is power momma. I can kill the bull or tap in a tiny nail. It is only useful if it is being used as a tool for the job at hand.’

    ‘You make me very proud Zorzi. Now you must apply the lesson of swords and the hammer to your own life.’

    She handed me the tattered little bag she kept her cards in. I felt the small weight of the deck and began to understand. It was always her gift and burden, to know and not tell. Father forbade her, but that did not keep her from teaching me.

    ‘I will not always be here my son. It is time for you to learn the lessons of each card for yourself. Our life here is too small to teach you such things. As you learn each lesson, burn my card and replace it for the one you have drawn for yourself. When the last card is burned I will be gone, I have seen it. Always remember Zorzi that even then, I will never stop loving you.’

    The next card was the rose.


    Father died like the others. His drinking had grown worse as had his abilities. With age came lethargy, there was no way to avoid it. When he came at momma and me in a drunken rage, I killed him with mercy. Standing at his grave I wondered what I would do. My life to that point had been constant learning and I was thirsty for more.

    I left for Spain before winter. The country was rough and I was challenged many times, but each time the outcome was the same. They died within the count of two, the castanets clicking their wet song like a soft knock on heaven’s doors.

    It was rare that I met only one. Unskilled men attack in gangs. Most fled after watching their strongest fall. Either way these were not my countrymen. Honor made no demands and I did not give them that last joy.

    Somewhere along the road a boy had witnessed one such encounter. He came out of the woods calmly munching an apple to tell me about a master of the Spanish school located close by. Supposedly he was the heir of the great Spanish Master, Caranza.

    I ate knowledge, slept discipline, worked practice and shat failure. Don Felipe Juan Frolián de Todos los Santos was incredulous. Within six months I was besting every pupil he had.

    In fencing, as with life, there are times when you lose or win by chance. Things happen. A bug flies into your eye, a stone rolls under your foot. I tell you truly, these are the things that I trained for.

    I tried to imagine anything that could happen while I was fencing and then worked to counter it. I had strategies for opponents throwing dust in my face, fighting from horseback, uphill, downhill, climbing rocks, running, sitting, for any possible scenario I developed a strategy and practiced it.

    The Don thought I had gone mad and ordered me to cease what he called my ‘ravings.’ I continued despite his order. It was this that caused him to challenge me, to teach me a lesson. He thought he would injure me and then give me a public beating to force me to his will.

    I faced him in the courtyard of his home. His students and family all stood smugly, eyeing me with disapproval. The Don emerged in his best court attire. I thought him over dressed to learn the lesson of the impotence of vanity.

    We began as the Spanish do, swords extended from the shoulder, pointing straight at each other. By the count of two his left eye was gone. The castanets had played to their native son. I was cleaning my blade before his body collapsed, coiling like a rope on the ground.

    Evening washed the scent of olives and sage over the close heat of the ground. I made my fire and drew my lesson.

    ‘I have learned the lesson of the rose. What is beautiful must eventually perish because of the thorns. For every sweet scent that touches the nose there is a scratch for the skin.’

    I burnt her rose card and replaced it with my own. Then I drew a new card; the pig.


    Germany was my next destination. They brawled there, using swords as levers and clubs. I rolled in the mud, drank beer and shouted, twisted and charged until I learned how to avoid the charge, twist away from it and strike before it came. Germany is where I learned my most valuable lesson: the retreat.

    Now I tell you, the best way to win is to hit your opponent without getting hit. The best way to not get hit is to not be there when the blow is struck and the best way to do that is to back up.

    When the blow misses, your opponent is many things; frustrated, off balance and busy thinking of what to do next. That is when to strike. Strike the same every time, not excessively, for if you miss you too will be off balance. Strike with your next and next and next move in mind, but remain in a state of committed neutrality, ready to respond to your opponent.

    Only initiate a strategy, never just a movement. Do these things in life as in fencing and you will do very well.

    I did not have to kill my teacher in Germany. My friends there understood my quest for knowledge and skill and blessed me when I decided to leave. They are very proud, but they are smarter even than that.


    The pig is a wonderful lesson. Get messy, twist up your sleeves, revel in the sheer joy of life and tumble in it.


    I crossed into the Middle East and then spent several years in Africa but found very little that was new. I picked up a few special maneuvers to add to my strategies but it wasn’t until I travelled to China that I truly experienced a paradigm in knowledge.

    China floats in an emerald mist somewhere between famine and fantasy. Hard cruelty lives in the same house as compassion and love but they seldom temper each other.

    I struggled with everything. The language was unfathomable to me. I had difficulty reckoning with their combative style. They would reach out and slap my sword away or quickly wrap a sash of cloth around their arm and parry with it. I adapted but I had to apply all of my lessons to keep my life.

    I stayed to the remote areas. Nonetheless, I was waylaid by brigands almost daily. Most of these were unskilled men who had been exiled or who were simply starving. Sometimes I had to kill, but most of the time I simply put a hole in an arm, leg or cheek and they would flee. Little did I know that soon I would be the one playing the brigand.


    Green and wet the evening settled into the woods around me. The cards were burning quickly now. The star, tree, snake, rat, and ship - all of them subtle and interwoven vines of wisdom but there was no card for connecting them. I began to express each one with a sword form; bending, thrusting and slashing with blade and body until the sound of my movement became wind music.


    Morning called the mist to gather in the forest. Bamboo and Banyan made my path as I wound down into a shallow valley. A necromantic breeze blew up the path in a sudden gust and parted the fog. I reeled with awakening as the fog cleared like a vision. I was standing in the center of a circle of dull-orange clad men. Like a series of images in a mirror they stood, mid-pose, their bald heads gleaming with dew.

    Without a word they sprung into action against me. Retreat was my only course. Untrained men fight one at a time, even in groups. These came all at once in a choreographed barrage of swirling movement, a landslide of orange and fists and feet. I needed mercy and fast.

    My rapier slammed into its scabbard as I dashed backwards, facing them. It had taken years of practice to learn how to retreat this quickly over tricky terrain without looking behind me. Now it was saving my life.

    I threw my hands up in a gesture of defenselessness then together as in prayer. The horde slowed as they caught up with me. I dropped to my knees and bowed my head. I was theirs.

    To my surprise they clapped me on the back and smiled as they chuckled and nodded. I stood in wonderment. Who were these happy men who fought like a raging river? They seemed to be trying to tell me, but I could not understand their language, so gestures took over where words failed.

    One of them wanted to see my sword. I was theirs and so was everything I had. I handed it over. They marveled at it for several minutes then handed it back to me. Smiling and pointing, they wanted me to demonstrate its use on a small stand of bamboo.

    I obliged and soon several stalks of bamboo were riddled with holes and cuts. I described to them how the point was built for piercing skulls. They nodded to each other very solemnly then began to make a complex series of hand movements in an attempt to tell me something. It took a bit longer for me to understand that they were saying that I could go but I wouldn’t be safe. I could instead, come with them and they would feed and shelter me. I chose the safety of their pleasant company.


    The hand. Cousin of the hammer, son of the rose, bearer of the sword. Raise the pig, reach the star, climb the tree, catch the snake, trap the rat, steer the ship – they were beginning to connect.


    The monks preached and prayed, joked and sparred through each town and village. The first thing they taught me was their language. I listened carefully and as time passed I began to understand more and more.

    I was given an ochre robe to cover my foreign garb. Hooded and holding a religious carving I went in silence while we were in towns. Curious children and people who were brave enough to inquire about me were informed that I was under a vow and was not to be disturbed.

    Their display was both acrobatic and lethal. I began to learn. I was versed in many forms of hand combat but this was new. Like anything truly foreign it was familiar in a way that is difficult to understand but different in a way that seems like it should be understandable. One snake is the same as another until it bites you.

    My new color was purple. It covered my body in bruises like spots on a leopard. Unlike other training I had received there was no machismo, no warrior camaraderie, just brothers on a quest to know and share. The monks looked after me like an egg, desperate to know if I had gleaned the lesson from the movement. The language came slowly but I began to be able to express my progress to them.


    The sword was at work again that much was clear. But how do you use a hammer with a rose? Mother’s deck bore me the next card; belt. I found it humorous at first. Yes, I was definitely in a situation where I needed to keep my pants up. But I needed a place to… oh, yes of course… hang my tools. Integration. Was this the one that brought the lessons together? No, there were more cards. I picked another. Never had I pulled more than one. I felt like I was violating a trust. With a heavy heart I turned it over.

    Blank, but with a small note slipped between it and the next card: My perfect son, now you are confused about what is next. You struggle to carry all the lessons forward. It is not possible, only God has the strength to carry them for you. These lessons are your toolkit. Hang them on your belt and carry them with you consciously into everything you do. There are several more cards - some are blank. These you will have to draw in for yourself for my cards are mine and they are made from my experiences. You will have to recognize some of your lessons for yourself. That is your next lesson, listen to your heart, pray for guidance and then draw.

    The time is growing nearer for me to leave you my son. Though we have already said our goodbyes our final one is not yet at hand. When it comes, remember that I will never stop loving you.


    I had settled under a tree by a large stream sitting in mediation as the monks had taught me. Momma’s words whispering, ‘Listen… pray…’ The answer was there, it had to be. Where was it? Why didn’t she just tell me?

    Try as I might I found I couldn’t concentrate. The breeze kept blowing my robes into my face, twigs fell from the branches of the tree I was under and an incessant buzzing noise was ringing in my ears.

    The monks looked up from where they sat and smiled at me. I looked back in frustration. They began to laugh and point. It didn’t help.

    I stood and glared at them. An abrupt pain stabbed into my neck. I reacted so suddenly I punched myself in the face. Staggering on the moss covered roots I teetered on the bank, flailing.

    As I began to pitch backward I made a final desperate reach for a flower bush hanging over the water. But the thorny defense of the roses lashed my hand with painful sings and I fell in my transgressions into the rushing waters.

    The chill choked the breath from my chest. I was borne away from the monks and the tree, the roses and the bee. Pushed into the middle of the river I floated helpless on my back, the cold numbing the pain in my neck and the thorns in my hand.

    I came to peace. The pace of the river slackened as it washed into a wider place. I let myself be carried, swirling slowly to the sand. Eyes closed and crying, I gave the river my sorrow and frustration. I had found the lesson.


    Water. I drew the card and placed it in the deck. There was no card it replaced and nothing to burn.


    In small, continual steps our destination loomed ever closer; a mighty range of mountains that dwarfed the alps of my home. Week by week we walked, never trudging, towards them always climbing. Towns were replaced by small villages and then just a few tents. We were always welcomed and gave everything we had to the families we stayed with. We helped with herds, taught the children, repaired clothing and entertained the people. I was no longer relegated to silence and gave displays with my sword.

    I had integrated the monk’s kung-fu and tai-chi with German and Arabian pugilism to develop a hand-to-hand form that was entirely my own. The rapier had become an extension of my body. I had learned to throw it into the air while I was grabbing, rolling and punching then catch it and continue the movement. It had become one of the weapons I use instead of the only one.

    My movements had become fluid and blindingly fast. I often felt that time slowed for me as I wove my spell with deadly motion. I was like an exploding star, as unpredictable as a flag in a squall and as hard as heartbreak. Not even the monks, moving as one could make a mark against me. It was our fondest past time chasing one another. They were a him, I was a me and the two of us frolicked as we trained, every movement an expression of trust and joy.


    The couple. Two together. I drew the card onto the blank and placed it into the deck. There was nothing to burn but I burned some incense anyway. My mother was one of two, the two that had brought me here. My father had violated that trust, despoiled that joy and I had killed him for it. Now my glass had a hole in it and the joy was running out.


    We bade farewell to the last family and began to climb through the snow. They had given us fur and skins for the journey. It had cost them dearly so I gave them the last of my gold. Now all I had was the cards, my rapier and my clothes.

    Each mile the white got whiter. White upon white until even my thoughts were bleached. The monks were shadows in front of me as the mountain bellowed gales of ice shards into our stinging eyes. Time had slowed for my spell weaving, now it stopped altogether. It ground down like dulled aspiration in the face of insurmountable odds. The world seemed to have quit, given up and gone home, leaving only sorrow and waste.

    It was just like father had left me. He had bound my bones to boards, beat her and swam away into a bog of bottled excuses. But he came back. He looked at me through the wine soaked malice. It was him, returned in and for an instant. Then he watched with one eye as the blood of his apology poured from the other, onto my blade, running to my hand.

    I emptied my glass onto the mountain. Sobbing into the snow, paralyzed in my mortification. I had done this to myself. A soft shell formed around me and the wind was barricaded. My tears fell in diamonds with wave upon wave of prayer. Forgive me, forgive this dangerous fool. Let me make this last step in honor of you; father, mother, teacher, friend. This is your journey, my journey back to you. Please let me finish.

    I do not know how long I was there, curled up in a ball of ice. But as I returned to myself I heard at the edge of hearing, the sound of thousands of tiny glass bells. The sound grew louder and deeper, from far away, echoing off the mountain. I uncurled but met resistance.

    It was the monks. They had thrown themselves over me and now formed a kind of ice-covered dome. They moved away in a cascade of crumbling glaze, picking me up and lifting me onto my feet. All around me their smiling eyes looked into mine. We embraced as the sun smote the mountains.


    This is the face of forgiveness. The faceted eye of the snowflake is perfect and unique; only serving a purpose if it is falling. As water gives to the sky, the sky transmutes and returns it. Forgiveness has to be given to be received and even then, the burden is on the receiver. I drew its form onto the blank card and placed it into the deck.


    Against a lone peak in the close distance a temple shone like the nib of a refulgent crystal pen. It was from that place that the bells rang. They had seen us and were sending out the welcoming call.

    As fit as we were it was still an exhausting trek. The mantle of cloud rolled back over the peaks and beckoned the night as we approached the final climb. Undulating drifts of snow gave way to stairs of icy stone that twisted perilously up the long slope.

    The monks pulled woolen caps off from beneath their yak skin hoods and sat down to lash them to their feet. I nodded at the revelation; wool sticks to ice rather well. So we went, hobbling arm in arm, one woolen foot apiece, up the frozen stairway.

    A soft crack sounded above us as the inhabitants of the temple pried open the seldom-used gate. Soon we were stumbling across the snowy courtyard and into the arms of the monks who were waiting for us. Quickly they ushered us inside, dumping us onto the flagstone floor and stripping us of our damp garments.

    Curiously, the floor was warm. My brother monks (as I will call them to differentiate from the other monks in the place) scrambled over to a massive, shiny bell that hung from giant beams. They held their hands close to it without touching, like it was the source of some kind of heat. I drew closer, my intrigue piqued.

    Immediately I understood. The bell was indeed hot, it hung only several feet above a grate in the floor from which heat rolled up. They had a furnace! As I would soon learn, the temple was carved into and out of the mountain. Ancient excavations had revealed a vein of coal. It was too high up to bring down to any of the villagers but it made a perfect place to build a temple. For the time being, I was just thankful for the heat but having a difficult time believing that I had survived the journey, for I felt certain that the end was looming.

    If that was so then my mother was nearing the end of her journey as well. I missed her terribly and meditated on my memories of her kindness, patience, forgiveness and understanding. In my eyes she was flawless. I prayed to God that he saw her that way too.


    As I meditated on these things I began to slip into a deep peace. It was a state beyond sleep but much more restful. Thoughts came and went as did the monks but nothing could disturb me in this place. I seemed to float in, over and around my body, conscious of everything that was going on but completely unaffected.

    I became aware of my surety in God’s promises for my mother, for myself and all of humanity. Suddenly I was aware of my faith. I had never thought much about it. I was raised with it, it was a part of my daily life from birth onward. I never thought to question it or even think of it as an It. Now I could see that indeed it was one of the greatest gifts that my parents had given me. I was awe struck that I had been carrying such a treasure with me the entire time.

    The cross. I drew the card and placed it in my deck. There was only one card left. I had no idea if it was blank or not. I left it in the bag. I would know when it was time to draw it.


    When I came out of my meditation it was nothing like waking. I had been as keenly conscious of my surroundings as I was at any other time. The room was long and narrow with tall, thin slits for windows along one wall. There was no glass in them, the thick stone kept most of the snow out and the warm floor made everything cozy.

    A small scroll had been placed at my feet by one of my monk brothers while I was meditating. I opened it now, it read (in my native Italian): Welcome, please come to meet me if you wish, at anytime that pleases you.

    It was typical monk-speak. There was nothing hidden, he really meant it. The result of their honest, open communication was infectious. I couldn’t wait to meet him. I bounded up off of the pillow and strode towards the massive wooden doors just as they swung open.

    A monk entered; orange robes, bald head and sweeping, broad smile, but he was somehow different, more… alive. His smile seemed to bear a weight telling me that to receive it was a gift. It did not lessen my enthusiasm for meeting him.

    He never broke stride but came straight on and embraced me. It was like finding a brother I never knew I had. We were instantly familiar.

    He held me by my shoulders and looked me up and down, smiling the whole time.

    ‘You are almost done! It has been strange and exciting to be sure. Some pain, just enough to push you, but you are alright eh?’

    He stepped back and looked into my eyes. My heart swelled and I thought I would burst into tears of joy.

    ‘Tomorrow we will meet outside and we will dance the last dance.’

    He patted me on the shoulders and turned back towards the door.

    I suddenly grew concerned. A shadow came over my mood like a crow. ‘Master?’

    He paused without looking back.

    ‘What if I win?’

    A small laugh shattered the shadow of concern. ‘Little Zorzi, you already have!’

    The tall doors closed and I sat in the wake of his departure, inhaling the peace.


    In the morning I followed my monk brothers to the courtyard. The main furnace had been stoked so that even the flagstones outside were heated and dry. Though a winter storm howled outside the walls, the temple remained a stalwart refuge of warmth and peace.

    The entire population of the temple must have been in attendance. There were over a hundred standing in a giant circle. I was brought to the center and told to make ready. My brother monks surrounded.

    They told me that the Master had seen everything they had seen along our journey. That was how it was with him; he shared a common knowledge with everyone in the temple. He had even seen my fall into the river and my collapse in the snow. He knew my fighting styles and all of the training I had been through. Oddly he had never seen rapier fencing and had learned a lot by studying me.

    My hopes for victory were fading. It seemed that the Master would indeed be my last duel, how could he say I had already won? Maybe he was referring to my recent encounter with forgiving my father and thus receiving forgiveness for causing his death. Obtaining forgiveness is critical before death. Maybe this was the victory he was referring to.

    He emerged from the crowd, appearing like a mist that coalesced, smile first, into form. I came on guard. The approach was swift. He stopped just within reach of my blade. Time slowed.

    I knew he was mine. In less than two seconds he would be eyeless. It was not what my heart wanted but my muscles had already responded. Bent bones and countless years of repetition built the instantaneous response. The flick, the shoulder, the hips and… he wasn’t there.

    I responded by retreating a step, putting my front foot to the rear and switching the sword to my left hand. My hilt came up and blocked his hand while I swept a crane kick towards his head. We were inches apart.

    I heard him laugh at my cleverness but not in a taunting way. He was truly surprised and pleased. This unleashed my pride.

    I came at him like a beam of light. In a flurry of blows that would have killed a herd of cattle I bore down on him. He blocked, dodged and rolled like a boulder being tossed before a mountain flood. The crowd moved back, giving us more room.

    I stopped as I ran out of strategy for that round. He was smiling and laughing, joy rolled off of him and swirled around me. I began to giggle. He held up one of his leathery hands and showed me where a series of cuts had scored the calluses. Trying to speak he only managed to laugh harder.

    In a gravity defying spin he rolled at me. My blade flashed in defense, frantically fending his blows as I moved back. The exchange started to take on a kind rhythm. It wasn’t the Tempo my father had taught me, this was different.

    We began to move in circles instead of chasing each other around. My constant parrying became a trade of attacks and defenses between us. Suddenly I recognized the pattern. It was the passo e mezzo, a dance from my homeland, but much faster.

    As the dance progressed we added acrobatic elements. Kung-fu and tai-chi mixed with the Spanish circle. We still challenged and pushed with our weapons of flesh and steel but we also passed the lead between us.

    The lessons began to materialize in front of me; sword, star, pig, tree all manifesting in martial metaphor between the Master and I. The belt became a swirl of blows and spinning robes faster than anything I had ever seen, let alone performed.

    Then the pace became slower but more intense as we hammered our way towards water. He struck my blade on the flat causing it to vibrate and shudder. I remembered the lesson of water and calmly proceeded. The vibration quieted with my mood and everything began to change.

    We were no longer sparring. Even though we were still punching, kicking and swinging to connect we had the confidence that the other would defend the blow. Like the sky that transmutes the water and returns it as a snowflake, our battle had been turned into a dance.

    Silently we whirled; grace and joy became our music. In the frenetic stillness I could hear mother; suspended at the edge of bliss as she lay waiting to draw her last. She whispered my name. She knew. She was there.

    We began to dance my cards, the ones I had found and drawn. We were the couple; my mother and I in heart, my father and I in mind, God and I in soul and the Master and I danced it.

    Together we slashed and kicked, rolled and laughed through the forgiveness of the snowflake. Then, in a final flurry of effort we collapsed against each other laughing like fools and laid head to head, spread eagle on the warm flagstones, each in the shape of a cross.

    I felt her fly, her voice filled me as my heart beat hard in my chest. ‘The last card is my gift to you my son.’

    The Master sat up and smiled at me. The monks came and gathered quietly around. He handed me my mother’s little pouch of cards and I reached in and drew the last one; the heart.

    For the greatest of these is love.


    I never went back to Italy. Some would assume that I stayed at the temple but then you and I know the folly of assumption. The truth is much more plain. I went back to Germany where my friends and I laugh and work the land.

    My sword only comes out to dance now, on special occasions or when I feel joy aching to burst out of me. Like when I met my Frieda and when she gave birth to our Antonio.

    I teach him the cards, not the sword, though this is Germany and I would not raise a boy who could not defend himself and the ones he loves. Soon he will have his belt and he will be able to read this story. Who knows, maybe he will seek the Master but then, if I am a good father maybe he won’t have to.

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