My Invisible Foes Fear Me: On Swordplay and Storytelling

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You’ve never fully lived until you’ve leapt across Brooklyn rooftops with a sword in your hand. In retrospect, midday beneath a hot summer sun, it was not my cleverest idea, but at the time it seemed like the only thing that made any sense. I was renting a top floor apartment with three of my best friends in the late nineties, a period both glorious and deeply dysfunctional—hence the thinking it fine for me to leap over the low walls between buildings with a Thai short sword. I guess I was going through my fantasy hero stage. For better and worse, I’m not sure it ever ended.

I’d bought the sword on the streets of Chiang-Mai while on a spoiled-kid trip to Thailand in high school—meant to teach me about the world as I learned the value of service working in a refugee camp. I learned all sorts of things, and got into all sorts of adventure along the way. Broke my collarbone playing musical chairs; made out for the first time on a beach in Ko Samet; chewed beetle-nut with a group of monks and town elders as they laughed at me; got my palm read by the most convincing psychic I’ve ever met. I had, until that point, spent much of my time in a distracted fantasy, focused on worlds within books, movies, myths, and RPGs. I think that trip, and specifically that sword, introduced me to the glorious potential of reality—but only part way.

Back home, I took the hand guard off the sword with a hacksaw, reinforced the wobbly hilt with green duct tape, and set to wielding it against my invisible foes. It was not sharp or well crafted, but the balance was just right and it was mine. That little blade and I became as one, except when it spun out of my grip to clatter across the floor or clipped an unintended inanimate object. By the time I’d made it to those Brooklyn rooftops, I was seven years deep into my fake training and ready to find my way to the world next door.

I’d made it across four buildings and had started to get cocky with my slash-and-stab routine before a concerned homeowner decided to see who was dancing about his roof like a moron. I have little doubt that if I’d been a person of color, the guy would have called the cops or worse when he found me leaping between his topiaries with the 19″ blade cutting my unseen foes with satisfying snicks.

As it was, the poor fellow freaked out pretty hard, ill prepared to face the crazed, four-eyed white boy that greeted him with sword in hand. There was an edge of panic in his voice as he began shouting. I promptly dropped the blade, put my hands in the air and started apologizing. I talked him down from calling the police and quickly slinked back the way I came with the blade dangling limply at my side. I like to believe that he thought I was pretty impressive with my moves before he’d interrupted, maybe even wondering, who was that guy as I retreated, but in a cool way.

I was not dissuaded. In fact, a cohesive blend of fantasy and reality, myth and the here-and-now, seemed like the answer to all of my big questions. One Halloween, a year after that, I dressed in a tattered rabbit costume and brought the blade into Prospect Park at night to look for monsters. I’d rigged a way to strap the wooden sheath handle down beneath my burnt and torn bunny suit, ready for an underhand draw. I crept through the woods and across fields just because I thought I could. Always half-cognizant that I was surely to be seen as the very monster I was hunting were anyone to notice. Luckily, nobody but the invisible goblins saw me that time, and they didn’t live to tell the tale.

On another mission, I spotted a car thief from my regular perch on the roof and stopped his nefarious deeds with the haunting words from above, “I see you, car thief”. That was the best I could do in the moment, but you know, heroism.

You should see the way the blade almost cuts through a tissue box. And a balloon, forget about it! I’ve learned the height and reach of every ceiling and wall I’ve lived between, and no roommate or the wife has ever commented on the nicks in the drywall I’ve left behind from my battles.

The scabbard has long since broken, and I tried and failed to give the blade a proper sharpness a few years back, but that trusty sword still rests against the wall within arms reach of my desk. I’m not saying it’s a magic sword, but I’m not saying it isn’t either. Every famed blade deserves a name. I named my sword Li’l Bastard after my dear dead cat and the cursed Porsche 550 Spyder that James Dean died in. I’m sure Freud would have plenty to say about all this.

Perhaps I believed in the fantasy a little too much, convinced that if I tried hard enough, trained right, and searched it out, that I would find real magic along the way, and that when I did, I would be ready to answer the call. I thought that maybe I was destined for grander things, other worlds calling to just me—places and beings that I could almost see and feel, but not. My understanding of the ratio of effort and expectation was always a bit light on the former and tipped to the ladder, and the slow comedown was filled with plenty of claws and self-evisceration as the years ticked by.

Somewhere along the way I settled a bit, stopped tilting at windmills quite so much, and figured maybe I should try to write instead of struggling to live a story that never quite came into focus. In time, that ratio balanced out and then finally tipped toward productivity. My thirties have come and gone, wife, kid, couldn’t afford to stay in Brooklyn and write—the cookie-cutter standard. I’m still not even sure if I’m a better fake sword fighter or writer, but the writing thing seems to make more sense these days. Lot of stuff I hope to get down on paper, many invisible enemies yet to kill…but I still like to keep my sword arm on the cusp of ready, you know, just in case.

I may not have become the super hero I probably am in an alternate universe, but my pre-arthritic carpel tunnel wrists can spin that little sword with deft cuts that would have wowed both the unsuspecting man and the idiot boy on that Brooklyn roof twenty years back.

I never found my battlefield to become the hero, but I suppose I’ve found a new way to slay the army of goblins and dragons in my mind. And I’m pretty sure my invisible foes are more scared of me than ever.

Top image: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

cold-counsel-thumbnailChris Sharp grew up in the suburban wonderland of Alexandria, VA, where he cut his nerd teeth playing role-playing games and making gore movies with his friends. He studied English Literature and Anthropology at Brown University, and Mayan Archaeology at the Harvard Field School in Honduras. He then spent sixteen years in Brooklyn, NY, where he worked in film and commercial production by day, and was yet another wannabe novelist by night. His epic fantasy novel, Cold Counsel, is forthcoming from Tor.com Publishing. Chris now lives in Concord, MA, with his wife, daughter and an insufferable cat named Goblin.

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