Dec 1 2010 9:30am
The Man with the Knives
We hope you enjoy this reprint of a story by Ellen Kushner set in the world of her classic Swordspoint and originally published by Temporary Culture as a limited edition chapbook earlier this year. This appearance of the story features two Tom Canty illustrations not found in the chapbook; you can click on each of the illustrations for a closer look.
Her father had told her a story about a sailor who fell out of love with the sea, so he put his oar up on his shoulder and walked inland far and far, until he finally met someone who looked at the oar and said, “What’s that thing you’re carrying, friend?” and there he stayed. Her father told her he had done much the same thing himself: crossed from the mainland to the island, and then walked inland through the hills and forests until he found a place where no one could read a book, and settled there with his little daughter. He gave the villagers what he could in the way of physick, and taught Sofia to read and to do the same. Her father was gone, now, and here she was, alone with them all, with her goats and her garden at the edge of a village full of people who had never read a book.
And so she remained, not getting any younger, until the man with the knives appeared.
He was going to die here, he was going to cough up his lungs and shiver away to nothingness in a place where no one knew his name. When he fled the house by the sea he had taken his rings with him. They told the story of who he was, but here they were a book no one could read. He kept them in a pouch inside his shirt, along with his surgical knives and two books on anatomy, plus a hunk of dry cheese he was too weak to chew. He was going to die here in the forest of someone else’s land, like an old crow or an abandoned dog. Then he saw the light and thought, “Under a roof, at least.”
The man on the doorstep could barely breathe, let alone talk. She was used to sick villagers turning up at odd hours, but this one she didn’t recognize. He was not young. His face was grey, and he was soaked and shivering. He couldn’t hurt her.
“Come in,” she said.
For a moment he took his hands away from his mouth and his chest, held them open to her in an odd gesture that seemed to say, “I have nothing.” Then he doubled over onto his knees, hacking and gasping for breath. She practically dragged him to the fire, where water was always boiling. “Take your clothes off,” she said, and he laughed, pounding his chest for air. She handed him a dry blanket and turned pointedly away from him, rummaging for syrups and compounds. What she gave him to drink made him fall asleep right there by the hearth, clutching her old gray wool blanket, the one Eudoxa had given her for saving her baby, who was now a mother herself.
He was in the earth he was in the earth someone was trying to bury him and pouring earth strange earth into his lungs he couldn’t breathe and Shhh, said the sea washing over him, Shushh, it’s all right, sleep now…. It was only sleep, not death.
She touched his head. His hair grew thick , but was all patchy and uneven on his head. She checked to see if he had mange, but that wasn’t it. Someone had cut chunks of it off, with a knife, maybe?
They brought his lover up from the sea, from the rocks under their window. He had heard nothing, would never know if he had cried out as he slipped from the rocks. The sea roared too loudly there. It had been their bedtime music for years, the sea at night, and by day, the bees in the wild red thyme in the mountains above the house.
They told him, He’s dead, lord, and he said, No, never. He is not friend to death. Death fears him. They told him he could look, and he moved through the colonnaded porch and suddenly Marina, the housekeeper, stood in the way saying, Lord, don’t look, but he looked past her and saw, no blood, no blood no blood, just something very very broken, and no blood at all so he took the nearest sharp thing and ran it down his arm, and they bound his arm saying it was too much, too much too soon, time enough for that at the burial and he started shouting, What? What? Are you insane? but he was using the wrong words; their faces showed they did not understand him.
Usually she touched her patients only enough to diagnose and treat them, leaving the nursing to the women of the family. But here, alone, she was all there was. And so she bathed his body, like a mother, or a wife. He was modest; he’d tried to stop her. But he stank, and she wasn’t having that. She told him he’d like being clean, and she put wild red thyme in the hot water for him, to help clear his chest. He wept as the scent rose.
Everyone let out their few drops of blood, and clipped a bit of hair to lay on—to lay on the— He’d let his blood already; he took the knife and hacked at his hair, the hair that had lain across his lover’s breast, tangled in his hands and covered his eyes—
“Do you like it?” he’d asked, when they came in sight of the island for the very first time.
“I can see colors, some. It’s beautiful.”
“Where do you come from?” she asked the sleeping man, who coughed as he slept. To her alarm, he turned his head to her, opened his eyes, and said clearly: “I have knives.” But that was all; he’d been dreaming her and her question. His eyes closed again, his head turned away.
The knives were not to sever him from his past, or even to separate him from other people They were to go deeper, see more, know more. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, not even himself, anymore. Not here. Not on an island where honey ran sweet in the comb, where the bees sang one kind of song in sweet-smelling thyme, and the sea sang another against black rocks below the white house they made together, a long porch to shade them from the sun, and windows open at night for the crash and hiss of the waves, to remind them that they were on an island, that it would take a ship with sails to find them, or to take them away.
It was strange to find she did not ask his name. She thought he would not willingly give it to her. Maybe she simply didn’t need it, since there were only two of them, alone there in her house away from the village. It was a quiet month, with no babies born, no sudden fevers or falls from rocks. After his storm, the weather was benign.
If he could have torn out his own eyes to stop the visions coming, he would have done it. But he saw more sharply with his eyes closed: his lover under the earth, in it, part of it, defenseless and undefended. With nothing else to see, that’s what he saw.