Dec 1 2010 9:30am

The Man with the Knives

Ellen Kushner
illustration by tom canty

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.

1. wealhtheow
I've loved Richard and Alec for over a decade, so reading this was like finding out a friend had died. It's so beautifully told, which made it hurt even worse.

(The last line is absolutely awe-inspiringly perfect.)
Megan Messinger
2. thumbelinablues
For me, it was like finding out a friend had died -- except I knew he was missing, and I didn't know what had happened to him, so it was, in some ways, a relief to know. I always wondered how Sophia and Alec ended up together, and I was just glad that Richard and Alec didn't have (another) major falling-out after they left.
3. carrie80
What gorgeous pictures and a wonderful story (wanders off to dig out Swordspoint...)
Elio García
4. Egarcia
Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

Ditto wealtheow @1 and thumbelinablues @2 about how it felt to learn how Richard died.
Brit Mandelo
5. BritMandelo

That sums it up nicely. It's--good to know.
6. the Encaffeinated ONE
Looks like you have some issues with your RSS feed for podcasting. It doesn't validate (check, and iTunes won't even download it (claims it can't find it).

You should probably avoid spaces and punctuation in filenames. Filenames should really be easy and unambiguous for machines to understand - they don't have to be as human-readable, although they don't have to be opaque as well. Removing spaces, using CamelCase, and omitting all punctuation exception _ and - would probably be enough to satisfy both, and avoid casual interpretation errors..
7. EllenG
Absolutely lovely. I too have always wondered what happened to Richard and Alec - this is a gift!
I admit... I don't remember who was who, but what I do remember and LOVE about Ellen's work is the love that shines through every single word. Thank you for this heart-rending lovely piece. THank you.
9. del4
Just curious why the last couple stories haven't been available for download?
10. Lynn E H
Devastatingly beautiful.
11. KeriLynn
So beautiful. I love Alec so much. I wondered how he had ended up with her.
Megan Messinger
12. thumbelinablues
del4 @9, We don't offer downloads on reprints or excerpts because of the rights issues involved; all our original stories have downloadable versions, though.
Stephanie Ellis
13. Steph.Ellis
This was such a beautiful short story. It kept me teary-eyed from start to finish.
15. Sunday Artist
I was not familiar with this universe, but thanks for this endearing story.
16. Fengtianshi
What have always made Ellen's writing so special is how she can craft images out of words both poetical and real, and making you feel and know everything without having to put names in it. The particulars! Oh, they are so beautiful!
But how cruel to understand how good Kyros was doing to Alec just to tear away his happiness like that...
I loved this piece and cried and suffered and my heart aches so much for all the beauty and the sorrow that I think I'm not going to sleep. Only the best of stories manages to do that.
17. MariaMelee
Oh, Alec.

This is lovely, and so devastating, and so perfect.
18. polokid
Its nice to know how everything ended up. It definitely gives closure to such a strong beautiful story. This is one of the most realized and deeply felt love stories I've ever read.
[da ve]
19. slickhop
I know that this is also beautiful, but I can barely see it for the sadness of it. I'm practically bawling here.
Jennifer Fiddes
20. junefaramore
Intense story. Lovely story. Love the artwork, it works so well. I will be seeking out the Dragonsteel books.

Tried to go to the link to buy, but it seems to be broken.
21. EllenKushner
June: Thanks for the heads-up! We are trying to get that link sorted; meanwhile, there's also information here:
Craig Rumpel
23. technomage
There continue to be issues with this podcast in iTunes. This story will not load and gives a 404 error. The only one of the last 4 story posts which iTunes can retrieve was Ponies.
24. EllenKushner
Everyone: Thank you for your lovely words about my story!

For those having trouble finding words - these 2 reviews (by Robert Tilendis & Paul Witcover) blew me away with their articulate response:

Sorry to make you cry (well, not really) - so, glad to say that there's another Richard & Alec story coming in June, in Ellen Datlow's anthology *Naked City,* called "The Duke of Riverside," in which R&A meet for the first time.... I read from it last night at the NYRSF series, and at least one reader said it cheered her up a lot to see them young & bad & (relatively) happy again.

That's the nice thing about fiction, isn't it?
Scott Moore
25. Delta-Slider
Very cool story! The writting was fantastic. Thank you!
27. Meredith Milewicz
What a beautiful story! It made me sad, but in the way it was wonderful to know I felt so strongly about the characters. I'm very new to your world, but just bought Naked City for my Kindle. I hope any time you feel like writing about this world, and especially Richard and Alec, you go on doing it!
28. Gavinsca
Thanks for this. It's a brief peek into an interlude - sweet, nonetheless.
29. is60w
Thank you.
What I feel now is so real I am actually scared, and it's completely unexpected.
30. ylee
Hello, I'm in the middle of "Privilage of the Sword", which according to your chronology here
is +18yrs from Swordspoint.
And the above "Knives" story is +30years, which I'm finding a little confusing since Richard seems to have already passed away in"Privilage"? I haven't finished the book, but is the lover in "Knives" not Richard then?
31. EllenKushner
Ylee: I only just saw your comment. I trust by now you have finished TPOTS, and know the answers to all your questions!

Meredith, thank you so much! I have quite a few stories about these folks by now, and am glad to count you as one of their friends.

Everyone: Since this went up, I"m delighted to say that I have recorded both SWORDSPOINT and THE PRIVILEGE OF THE SWORD as audiobooks for "Neil Gaiman Presents!" Links to both are on my homepage:
and at
32. 8cookies
This is amazing. I just recently found the series (haven't finished it yet, alas, the last book remains out of my hands for now) but I've been devouring all the short stories I can find online. Having just finished The Death of the Duke, this hit really, really hard. Although a part of me really wishes Richard and Alec just lived a happy life together, the rest of me is aware that, well... that would never have happened in any universe. Still. Awr. Thank you for your writing, it is beautiful and exquisitely heartrending.

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