Hua Mulan (386-557) Chinese warrior during the Wei Dynasty, practitioner of martial arts
I slept soundly that night and woke up feeling glowing and refreshed: time to try out the new sword! I was excited, but also a little nervous, so I watched a few videos on YouTube first to pick up some tips. Once I felt I was well enough versed in fades and lunges, with a little fancy sword spinning thrown in for good measure, I decided to give it a go. The videos recommended starting off with a wooden or foam sword, but I didn’t have time for all that. I headed out into my tiny garden with my sword and unsheathed it dramatically, pausing to watch the polished steel gleam impressively in the early morning sunlight. I felt like Mulan! And I was on the cusp of an exciting new adventure.
I swiped the metal blade through the air and grinned at the satisfying swishing sound it made. Unfortunately, I hadn’t accounted for the weight of the thing, which I wasn’t yet quite used to, and I dropped the blade. It stuck fast in the earth. Undeterred, I yanked it out with some force, only to topple over backwards, sword still in hand. I narrowly missed slicing my entire face in half.
OK. So this might be a little harder than I thought.
I remained sanguine: I can do this!
I pulled myself back up to my feet only to discover that I had an audience: next door’s cat, Suki, was perched on the fence watching with impassive interest and flicking its tail impatiently, as cats do (it should be noted that I hate cats, especially ones that pee in my garden and mercilessly maul all the poor birds that visit, but let it be known that this is not an attempt to excuse or in any way justify what happened next). I tried to shoo her away, but she would not budge, which was strange, since we both hated each other with equal measures of antipathy and usually she stayed well out of my way, or scarpered as soon as she saw me come running at her wielding a spray bottle. She didn’t seem threatened by the sword in the least though, even when I made a mock attempt at an advance, making jabbing motions with the sword towards her. Nothing. Maybe she could sense my ineptitude with the weapon. Or maybe she was just stupid as well as evil.
‘Oh well, it’s your funeral!’ I joked.
She twitched an ear.
I ignored her and decided to practice a few more lunges, but more carefully this time. I managed not to drop the sword, or fall over, and I expertly deadheaded a rose bush. I was pleased with my progress and I bowed ceremoniously to my singular audience, who showed her appreciation by circling around on her post fastidiously and shuddering her back into an careful arch. I then decided to attempt a sword spinning finale (which to be fair had looked easier on YouTube) before heading back in for a cup of tea. The spin itself went well enough, but I fumbled at the end and lost control of the sword, missing the hand placement on the hilt. I screamed and jumped back, not wanting to lose a limb. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that in that short time the cat had relinquished its lookout post and chosen to jump down into my garden and take a nap on my geraniums, which were now well past their best, but it was a prize spot of sunlight and obviously Suki had decided it was favourable to a cold, hard fence post. The sword spiralled manically in the direction of the cat (of course), which, at the last moment opened a lazy eye, and seeing it corkscrewing towards her, yelped in fright, springing back up with lightning speed towards the safety of the fence.
I was impressed by her agility. Perhaps she was not so stupid after all.
‘Phew!’ I wiped my sweaty brow. ‘That was too bloody close! Thank goodness cats have such quick reactions. And nine lives. Sorry Suki, I didn’t mean to scare you!’ I called out sheepishly.
But the cat was still yowling. She also had blood dripping from her tail, which was now at least six inches shorter than it had been before the sword spinning incident. Obviously she had not quite been quick enough to save her tail from the spinning sword of death.
It’s OK! I can fix this!
I quickly scooped up the howling cat and fumbled in the geranium bush for the rest of the tail, and then I ran inside and attempted a botch first aid job of bandaging the two parts back together.
It didn’t go well.
The cat was (understandably) very angry; she bit and scratched me with desperate shrieks of abandon. I dropped her several times and had to coax her out from underneath the kitchen dresser. When I eventually managed to catch her she recommenced with the biting and scratching. The kitchen looked like the aftermath of a deadly skirmish: there was blood sprayed all over, across the walls and kitchen cupboards. Suki was wrestling noisily in my arms, stumpy tail flailing wildly and I (covered in scratches and blood) was desperately trying to affix a tail appendage to the end of it with bandages and plasters. Every time I managed to grab hold of it and tried to apply the bandage she would yank it away again and more blood would splatter across the room. It appeared losing the end of her tail hadn’t made it any less mobile; it was surprisingly strong.
In the end, I gave up with the re-attachment efforts and put the end of the tail into a tupperware box. I took a deep breath and carried squirming, screeching Suki, and the tail, round to my neighbour’s house.
Time to face the music.
My neighbour is a very nice seventy-three-year-old lady called Maureen who loves her cat dearly.
She lives alone.
I rang the doorbell and listened to it chime neatly.
‘Oh hello dear, what a nice surpri— Oh… goodness… oh my… oh golly! What has happened to you? Are you OK dear?’ And then, she noticed the cat. ‘Is that my Suki? My dear Suki? Suki? Why is she making that awful whining noise and is that— is that… blood?’ Maureen drew a sharp intake of breath and went suddenly pale; she had to hold on to the door frame to steady her weight. I was a bit worried she might pass out.
It’s alright! She’s fine!’ I sung brightly. Too brightly. I realised this was not reassuring, so I tried again: ‘Well, OK she’s not fine, but what I mean is… well it’s not life-threatening anyway. Just a, um, small – I mean very minor really – accident in the garden. I promise I tried to shoo her away…’ At this, Maureen put her hands to her face and actually turned ashen. Of course I had said entirely the wrong thing. Again. ’No-no-no-no-no… NO… look … sorry… I meant before. Before. Before all of this (I gestured to poor Suki’s bandaged tail) happened I tried to shoo her away so she wouldn’t get hurt. But she refused to go – she just stayed there! You see I’ve been seeing this guy and he— oh no not like that Maureen! I mean he’s been helping me. He gave me a sword – to help me – because, well I’ve been very low and depressed and today I feel better than I have done in years! Or at least I did before… before… this… ’ I looked down poor wretched Suki whose yelping had now subsided into a low and constant mewling, ‘… it’s wonderful really, (this was still not helping, I was aware of that, but somehow I couldn’t stop the words from tumbling from my tongue like mini hand grenades, each one sending tiny explosions of shock through poor Maureen, who had now grabbed the fated kitty out of my pernicious clutches and was smothering her with kisses and making tiny little declarations of ‘oh goodness’ and ’oh my’ and clutching her closer and closer to her breast with every terrible word I uttered) I mean not for poor Suki, obviously; although I really think she will be ok, Maureen, don’t fret, it’s just her tail after all – hardly a vital organ or anything? But you see I had to try the sword out and that’s when… well that’s when this, erm, unfortunate incident… that’s when it all happened,’ I finally stuttered to a full stop, bracing myself for the onslaught.
‘Unfortunate! You call slicing my Suki’s tail in half unfortunate!’ she screamed as tears ran down her face. You ought to be jailed for cruelty to animals you— you horrible woman! Please leave us be! At once!’
I remained standing there, dumbly, because I still had the wretched tail in the tupperware box. I offered it up to her meekly, attempting a kindly-but-remorseful smile. But she refused to look me in the eye as she grabbed it from me. The inexpertly applied bandage had come loose and there was blood dripping all the way down her cream skirt and onto her cream hallway carpets as Suki mewed mournfully. I didn’t think she had noticed and decided it was probably best not to point it out.
‘I’m really so so sorry, Marueen. I hope Suki gets better soon! Oh and please don’t feel you need to return the tupperware, you can keep—‘
The door slammed in my face.
I sighed heavily, suddenly feeling the dull weight of my armour pressing down on me.
I knew it was what I deserved though.
So much for living the questions. So much for finding the light. I had found only enemies and I had hurt a poor defenceless creature in the process! This was not a satisfactory resolution to my new adventure.
I decided I needed to find an alternative ending, so I went to visit Ben.
Dex was there waiting for me by the ladder. He was friendly enough, but a little more subdued than normal. As he led me through the darkness I attempted to make conversation, but he either responded to my idle chatter with one word answers, or ‘yes, miss; no miss,’ so I gave up in the end.
When we arrived at the shop I felt my stomach pitch. I could see immediately that Ben wasn’t happy with me. He had a stern look on his face. I guessed he must have heard on the grapevine what had happened with Maureen and Suki. I hoped I looked suitably contrite as I sat down. There was no tea waiting, and his eyes were dull black coals. I knew I was in for a talking to.
‘You do know you are not Hua Mulan, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I replied sulkily, staring at my shoes, ‘look, I’m sorry, OK? I was stupid.’
‘You brought discredit not only to yourself, but to me and the armoury profession. You must learn self-control. Restraint. And you must learn that this is a journey you are on. You must have patience.’
I looked up at him. I was hurt and confused. ‘Then why did you give me the sword if not to use it?’
Ben sighed. ‘I gave it to you to protect you.’
‘But you didn’t teach me how to use it properly? You just gave it to me and sent me on my way! No instructions. Nothing. What did you think would happen?’ My voice had risen to a high-pitched whine. Tears smarted at my eyes. I didn’t want to cry in front of him, but I couldn’t stop the tears from sliding down my face.
‘I— I thought I could trust you to be sensible… I guess I should have spent more time with you. You are right – this is my fault,’ he admitted as he took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. I noticed how tired he looked. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Look. It’s OK.’ I wiped my face and smiled weakly at him, blinking away more tears. He looked alarmed. Embarrassed. Perhaps he wasn’t used to emotional women in his shop. ‘Really.’
He was silent for a while.
‘Would you like some tea?’ he offered eventually.
I managed a grin. ‘Id love that, thank you.’
He left the room for a short while and returned with two cups of tea. We sat and drank, enjoying the silence.
‘It’s not all lost,’ he said after some time.
‘No! Of course not.’
‘I can teach you how to use the sword. How to use it to protect yourself. With a calm body and calm mind. It takes patience though. And practice. Some people learn quicker than others.’
‘I promise I will listen, and be a good student,’ I said earnestly.
‘After all, a diamond with a flaw is better than a common stone that is perfect.’
I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but then I saw the twinkle return to his eyes and we both laughed.
Later, he told me the secrets of the sword, which were really so simple that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t realised them by myself. It turned out it wasn’t a weapon after all, but it had the ability to reach those spaces; the ones in-between, which let the light in. That was its power: strong, yet supple; powerful yet subtle.
When it was time to go, I paid him (I had come prepared this time) and he led me outside.
‘Oh, he’s busy.’
My heart bolted. ‘How will I get back? I can’t find the way alone!’
‘You can, you have the sword! And light.’ He handed me a paraffin lamp. ‘Take it with you: better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.’
‘OK, I hesitated, but why is it always like this when I visit, Ben? A permanent state of twilight?’
‘Don’t you like it?’
‘Well it’s a bit obscure and sort of curious. I get the sense there’s something going on I don’t know about… something hidden… something biblical and terrifying and dramatic; a bit like living a Byron poem, or Dante’s purgatory.’
Ben looked confused, so I plucked a quote from my memory: ‘The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air, and the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need of aid from them – She was the Universe…. that sort of thing.’
He looked thoughtful.
‘I mean, you don’t live entirely in darkness, do you?’
‘Oh no. No we don’t,’ he stretched out his arms, gesturing around him, ‘but this, all this is yours. It’s entirely your state of mind. Everyone who visits is different. The scene changes.’
‘Wow, I expect that must be exhausting for you.’
Ben shrugged his shoulders. ‘One adapts,’ he said simply. Besides, I suspect it won’t always be dark.’
‘I look forward to that day.’
‘Me too… well goodbye now! Go safely.’
I found my way through the shadows easily enough with the lamp and the sword hugging my back. I was surprised how much I had remembered when I thought I hadn’t been paying attention to the route at all.
After that, I kept the sword in its cotton bag so it remained inconspicuous. I was much more cautious. But I still carried it with me everywhere because it made me feel so powerful, much more so than my armour (which I hardly noticed at all any more). I didn’t try any more swashbuckling antics; it was enough just to have it with me, to feel its weighty presence. At first it felt heavy, but over time I got used to it and found it comforting. I also noticed how other people treated me differently when I carried it. They smiled at me, stopped to chat even. I had a conversation with the check-out lady at Waitrose. She told a funny, sweet story about buying onesie for her granddaughter at Marks and Spencer’s. The whole time I listened and smiled and didn’t get bored or anxious at all.
As winter marched on and Christmas approached, I went back to visit Ben several more times; each time he gifted me his wisdom and taught me something new about the sword. We chatted and laughed and drank tea, sometimes for longer than an hour. I always felt lighter when I left.
One time, he asked me again about my armour:
‘Why don’t you take it off?’
‘I tried a while ago, but it was impossible. I still have the scars on my hands to prove it,’ I held them out to him, as proof. ‘I’m afraid I’m stuck with it,’ I said, shrugging my shoulders. I had hoped that Ben would tell me how to take it off, so I was still a little bit cross about that.
He seemed to sense this.
‘Hmm. You do realise don’t you that you now have the power to get rid of it?
‘Really?’ I exclaimed with mock incredulity, ‘Alright then, tell me how!’ I challenged.
He chuckled at my testiness. ‘I can’t do that. As I said only you can remove it. You must find your way to the answer.’
I was irritated by his enigmatic sagacities. Couldn’t he just tell me straight, just for once?
I glowered at him, and thought for a while.
Swords. Armour. Questions. Answers. Light. Darkness. Weight. Lightness. Power. Strength. Weakness. Sharp. Pierce. Cracks. Gaps. Spaces…
All the words jumbled frantically in my head.
Then they stopped, suddenly, and seemed to shift into place, like solving a rubik’s cube or slotting in the final piece of a tricky puzzle.
Spaces. The spaces in between. That’s what the sword does: strong yet flexible; powerful yet vulnerable. It finds the point of weakness; the chink; the wound and opens it up; it’s where the light seeps in… so weakness can be a strength, after all…
‘The sword can help me!’ I shouted, suddenly realising, ’It can break the armour. But— but not with force or violence. I need to do it gently. I need to find the place of weakness, the gaps, I think?’ I was excited but still unsure, so I looked to Ben for answers, for reassurance.
He said nothing, but he was smiling encouragingly.
I took the sword and, trembling, slid it out of its scabbard, excited to feel its naked weight in my hands once more.
But I couldn’t do it. My hands were trembling. I was scared.
‘I can’t!’ I wailed, shaking my head. ‘I’m too nervous – I’ll stab myself!’ I handed Ben the sword. ‘Will you do it for me? Please?’
He took the sword from me. ‘Do you trust me?’
‘Yes. Yes I do.’ And I did, completely and utterly. ‘Please. Help me.’
Then he asked me to stand and he felt along my armour for the joins, along the sides of my torso, and carefully, he slid the sword underneath my armour. It yielded instantly and was surprisingly malleable. I felt its strength as it searched for the points of weakness. It did not hurt, or even scratch me. Then suddenly there was a hot stinging sensation and I was flooded with a gentle warmth which radiated throughout my body; then a clunking sound, like a latch coming loose. And that was it. The armour fell to the ground where its brittle form – a mummified version of me – shattered into a thousand pieces.
I was free.
I felt so relieved to be rid of it. And suddenly exhausted. And cold, despite the heat from the fire. I shivered, feeling instantly naked, though I was fully clothed. Ben carefully returned the sword to its mount on the wall.
After that, I hugged him and thanked him for everything he had done and then I left.
Outside, I pulled my coat around my frail body; it felt warm and cosy against the chill of the winter air. I was worried the pieces might come apart again, but they didn’t. My heart was beating slowly and steadily. It would be OK. The darkness had also lost its battle with the light and the sun shone brightly for the first time. I saw the busy bustling Curzon Street before me as I had never seen it before: I saw the flower seller at her stall selling pretty nosegays of violets and primroses and sweet peas; I saw the chemist, Mr Lyle of Lyle and sons, busy chatting with a customer on the doorstep and shaking his head at the pedlar across the street trying his luck with a new wonder tonic to cure all ailments; he had gathered a small enthusiastic crowd around him. Further down the street a group of carol singers were singing ‘O Come all Ye Faithful’, collecting alms for the work houses. The shops were decorated simply but gaily with garlands and wreaths of holly and ribbons in red and green. I saw Dex on his bike, whistling, running errands; he waved at me and I waved back. I saw all the glorious detail of life down here which I had missed before. It was wonderful. I could have stayed for hours to explore, but I knew I had to get back to my own life up there. I knew I had to start to learn to live again, as me, without my armour, and without my sword.
And so that concludes my tale, although of course it is not the end, but only the beginning; for every ending is the start of something new. You may be wondering what happened to me and if I managed to survive on my own. Rest assured, I am doing well these days. I even managed to strike up a friendship with Maureen from next door, although Suki the cat still eyes me with fierce suspicion (I don’t really blame her). I sustained the icy glares and the cold glances for days until I decided enough was enough and I had to do something. I knew she was lonely and I was lonely too, so I went round there with a casserole and a bottle of wine and we ate and drank and passed a pleasant evening together. Suki is doing well; her tail has quite healed and she now spends more time curled up on her doting owner’s lap rather than prowling the neighbours’ gardens chasing birds, so for that Maureen is grateful. And so am I. We even spent Christmas day together. Whilst we were eating our turkey, I asked Maureen whatever happened to the end of the tail in the tupperware box.
‘Oh!’ she made a little yelp of excitement, ‘Yes! I forgot to tell you. I had it made into a little keyring, so now I will always have a little piece of my Suki wherever I go.’ And she pulled said keyring out of her pocket to show me, stroking it proudly.
I tried to hide the alarm on my face and inched my plate away slowly from the mangy piece of tail, thinking about all the germs and diseases it was probably infested with. I hoped I had managed to cover up my horror. ‘How… um… wonderful, Maureen! What a special keepsake.’
‘Isn’t it? You see it all turned out for the best in the end. Now I have my Suki back, and this memento, and I have a new friend.’ She beamed at me with her grey rheumy eyes. I couldn’t tell if she was welling up or if it was a blocked tear duct; but either way it didn’t really matter: we both felt the warm glow in our hearts.
‘Well I’ll certainly drink to that,’ I enthused, raising my glass of champagne with a flourish.
Maureen raised hers too and we toasted.
‘To friendship… and to cats!’ she added resolutely.
‘To friendship. And cats. And new beginnings!
Wishing you all a joyful Christmas!
© Emily Hughes, 2017