The Ace of Knives

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail

by Tonya Liburd

Tonya Liburd’s poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling Award. She is the Associate Editor of Abyss & Apex Magazine. The story included here is frequently used in courses on dialect as an example of “code switching.” You can find more on Tonya at http://Spiderlilly.com; her Twitter handle is @somesillywowzer.

~~~

The Ace of Knives remembers the first time she saw the card.

The Ace of Swords, the signifier of change.

Back then she imagined the Ace of Swords to be a sign of hope. Hope that her life would improve. Instead it had been an indicator of the change she was about to undergo, that her time was coming.

It was after that reading that she became The Ace of Knives.

~~~

The Ace of Knives has an audience.

She wishes they would leave. They should. After all, they’d already been dodging her knifeplay with the other blades she’d made; the sharp things would enter their personal space, their eyes would widen in alarm. Now they were staring at the most recent blade she was honing without any tools, a former can of soup, logo still visible on the handle. A child could be heard asking, “Mommy, how does she do that?” “Hush,” says the mother.

She starts singing a song the blades suggest to her.

He blocks out the sun, this black man, that’s what makes The Ace of Knives look up, sitting on the grass in College Park.

She stops singing at the top of her voice. Other patrons in the park cheer, probably because she stopped the noise. The Ace of Knives ignores them.

He has a camera around his neck. “So it is you.” He looks like he is about to cry. “She have she voice, you know….” he says softly to himself, looking away hastily, wiping at one eye, touching the camera around his neck.

The Ace of Knives lands him one of her best cutting stares.

“An’ I can tell yuh off yuh meds…and yuh ain’t bathe.” He looks pained. “Oh god, little gyal. Oh god.”

This man was beginning to anger her.

“Wa’ da FUCK you want?” she asks him.

“Yuh don’t remember me at-all.” He looks like he is about to cry again.

“I ask you a question.” She sits up. What the hell is his problem?

“Nah-nah, nah. Yuh parents deserve better than this. This ain’t right.” He flips open a cell phone and talks into it. Sunlight flashes off rings on his fingers as he walks away.

What did he just say?

“Who the fuck do you think you are, talking about my parents? WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?! That’s right! You better walk away!!” She throws after him every acid-tinged invective she knows, Canadian and West Indian.

He sits in the distance, at a chair opposite the waterfall, looking back at her occasionally.

She grips the grass in angry fists, blades coming away, green staining her fingers. “What you doin’ sitting ‘dere, looking at me?! Come standing in my face, talking about my parents….WHO DA FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE!”

He’s off the phone now. Still occasionally looking her way.

“Okay now, come along.” Officers walk over to her.

“YOU! YOU CALL THEM! I’ll make you pay for this!”

The officers sigh, faces hardening into fists. They charge forward, grabbing arms, legs. Like zombies all clustered around her, all reaching, pulling, and she fights, squirms, can’t get away.

She keeps right on flinging insults, obscenities, anything she can think of, at the standing figure of the man staring after her in the distance, camera around his neck, while the officers cart her off.

~~~

The Ace of Knives has finally been pushed over the edge.

The magic in her blood demands that she kill something; the man who’d gotten her committed had just volunteered for the position.

But first, she must get out of the hospital.

From her bed she hears footsteps approach the door of her darkened room. Probably nurses at this hour.

“Poor girl,” says a female voice from the doorway behind her, the tone high, light. “Every time she comes in she’s always so…sick….”

“Is she talking?” asks another female voice, the tone leisurely, low.

“No.”

One of them tut-tuts in sympathy.

“Do you have any idea how the blinds were cut that way?” asks the leisurely-toned one.

“No,” high-tone says. “She was checked for sharps when she was admitted, then again earlier today….” Her voice fades off.

“Hm.”

Under the covers, The Ace of Knives’ ringed fingers search for reassurance. They touch the thin blade, embedded in her copper-toned flesh. It is still enchanted by her touch.

Leisure-tone speaks up again.

“She was furious when they brought her in, eh….”

Really?” A chinking of bracelets. “She’s normally so… quiet….”

“Mmm….” the note drawn out in sympathy. They finally shuffle away.

The Ace of Knives lets out a soft, exasperated breath.

Her nose ring, a former circlet pendant, flashes in the corner of her eye; it reflects the annoying light from the antiseptic hallway. Her eyes move to the window, the slashed blinds now giving an unrestricted view of the stars, outside.

Wide, free outdoors.

She closes her eyes against her racing mind. The hours will pass slowly, in this sterile, confining space. Everything, everything in her screams no more medication. But she had to be a good little patient and take the bitter pills, or they won’t let her leave.

But medication will mess with The Ace of Knives, and with her magic, she is certain of it.

And she needs her magic right now.

~~~

The Ace of Knives is annoyed. Again.

Earlier, in a misguided attempt at conversation near the glassy office, The Ace of Knives endured yet another indignity. She’d indulged someone’s need to talk: the nurse with the high-toned voice from last night. High-Tone had promptly assumed that The Ace of Knives’ family were blue-collar, working as laborers or something unskilled. The Ace of Knives smiled thinly, and said without a touch of emotion, “They’re white collar.”

The voice of an older male inpatient, seated in the hospital’s common area, snaps her back to the present. “What are you?” he asks.

With her head’s layer of downy black-brown hair, The Ace of Knives was blessed with the good fortune of being hard to place, thanks to being dougla: having both black and East Indian parents. This fact garnered its own share of annoyances, as evidenced today.

“I’m sorry?” she almost snaps. “What am I?” Not a good question to be asking at this time, for more than one reason.

“I can’t tell,” the man says in a barely softer tone, continuing, oblivious. “Where’re you from?”

“I’m Canadian,” she snaps this time, and moves away from the eating table to clearly indicate the conversation is over.

As she walks away, High-Tone nurse says, “Good. You’re talking, and not just with me. That’s faster than usual.”

The Ace of Knives says nothing to this woman. She locates a spot on the plastic of the blue-grey couch and flops down, focusing on the television.

Involuntarily, a ringed finger, laced with emotion and magic, finds the thin blade under her skin, tracing its path.

The older gentleman also flops down at the opposite end of her couch, slight scent of body odor, slight amount of graying facial hair, slight potbelly, slightly balding, pale skin, pale gown like the one she wears, the type worn by those who either wanted convenience, or didn’t have privileges yet to wear anything else, as was her case.

She hopes there will not be a third annoyance today.

~~~

A fellow patient wants to do a Tarot reading for The Ace of Knives.

“Let me do you,” Rochelle says, wrapped in her concoction of pink robes: a pale gown for a shirt, fuchsia bedroom slippers, headwrap and an assortment of bracelets. She sits across from her at one of the smaller tables in the ward’s common area.

“All right.”

A pale, delicate hand places the Ace of Swords, her wrist jingling with the motion.

Again, this card. Change was coming.

She needed to get out of here; yet there’d be no way she could hide not taking her medication. For now. Medication which brought about its own changes. A dulling of the mind. A sluggishness of the senses, the spirit. This The Ace of Knives cannot abide.

For The Ace of Knives fears all drugs, be they “self medicating” — like those her parents took — or prescribed. She will live with her magic unaltered on the outside, for good or for ill. And no over-the-hill person in a park who couldn’t mind his own business, rubbing salt in the wound that was her waking life so far, would get away with his interfering ministrations.

Not anymore.

She stares at Rochelle’s display of cards, and again at the key card that mattered, absently fingering her nose ring.

So, change was once again afoot?

Then, soon. Perhaps soon she would have to start hurting others. The magic in her blood had been demanding it, after all.

If she couldn’t have another’s blood, then for now, her own blood would have to do.

~~~

The Ace of Knives knows pain.

The marks on her body are milestones of pains past.

In the damp heat of the running shower, she asks herself, where to put a new one?

Here? A knee injury, from a cousin; killing any dreams of a promising track career. No.

Scratch marks, scars, looking like an animal had a go at her.

A burn mark, like a cigarette, or maybe a cigar. She breathes in the clean scent of soap in the stall to push that memory away. No.

The only mark not self-inflicted was from the fight that ended her parents’ lives, that one night.

Then, everything changed: that one day, that one time. That one period of pain. Thoughts to fingers, words to mouth, tears to eyes.

Blood to skin, to air, to blade.

They say that the manifestation of one’s magic is determined by the crucial events and influences — internal and external — surrounding one’s “special time” which happened during puberty. Signs and markers can help point out specifically when one’s special time will manifest; but The Ace of Knives was alone. No supports, no people trained to detect.

In other cultures, one might undergo a rite of passage, perhaps by spending time alone in the woods until a wolf spirit or similar animal’s essence made known its affinity. The only thing she ever felt, however, was constant emotional pain, and the desire to relieve it.

That one day, that one time. That one period of pain.

And she’d found that she could sharpen metal, hone blades, enchant them with words, either deliberate or spawned from the heat of passion.

Only afterward did she realize why she was able to score her skin with a once-blunt object.

She cannot quite control her magic yet. But when the emotions are there, when she is laid bare, and the time is right, magic happens.

Banging from the next stall. Voices from outside; was her time in here nearly up?

She chooses a spot now along the edge of her chin.

The red of her blood washes away in the shower stream, swirling down the drain.

This is her answer to the magic’s demands, for now.

~~~

When you’re young, lived a life full of pain, it’s easy to think you can go all the while alone.

Better alone than in bad company, right?

But then you get older, and you realize you can’t really do it all alone.

Not only that, you get sick of the isolation. You figure there has to be a better way.

The man responsible for putting The Ace of Knives in the hospital probably thinks this. It is probably why he tried to help.

But The Ace of Knives does not consider what he did to be help at all. More like the act of an over-the-hill busybody. Someone messing with her life. Adding to her pain. Interfering. Besides, her magic was still crying out for blood; it might as well be his.

~~~

The Ace of Knives likes to cut flowers. If not fresh, out of slivers of wood.

A flower each left on her parents’ graves. A flower for anyone else’s grave she feels drawn to. Through rain or shine, fog or clear, she’s only comfortable there, outside. She feels safer under the gaze of the stars, a hard wooden green park bench beneath her.

Despite having an apartment, she still feels safer outside, even now. Her parents were murdered, inside.

Run for your life. Through a window, onto hard asphalt, never mind the pain, run, run. Blend in outside where they can’t find you.

Outside she stayed until the police brought her to the terrifying confines of the inside, kicking and screaming. Harsh hands. Pale faces, grimacing to hold onto her. Her fear; the murderers will get me, they’ll find me. The fresh, painful memories, like a wound: the insistent banging on their apartment’s white door, the elevated voices, the breaking bead curtain, her mother’s screams, the blood. Hoping and praying they won’t find her, hiding. The scuffle, the cut, the fleeing.

Here, she knows the names of virtually every person without a home in her area, some of them well. She’d sit on the pavement, or sleep in College Park, watching the night above, soothed by the rush and spray of the waterfalls. She’d only go home to wash up, then go back outside to be free again.

But she knew something wasn’t right inside her. She’d heard horror stories from her parents. Witnessed their passing. And everyone who lived outside agreed: you didn’t trust those who controlled everything on the inside, with their ways to maim, control, and hurt. At least you knew what you were getting living outside.

Life was hard. Life was unfair. But you got harder.

If only The Ace of Knives could become so. After her parents, after her family, after everything, she was more like beaten and abused fruit.

Maybe now, with this magic to aid her, she had a chance. Could become hard as…a knife. And as sharp.

~~~

The Ace of Knives is home, shaving her head in her seldom-used, overheated apartment.

It had been short before, but she’d felt it was time for a change. Others have been leaving their mark upon her life, right? Well, this man was the last one. Others did what they pleased, why shouldn’t she? Perhaps she should have been striking back sooner.

“Where the hell is he at?” she asks her magic, wiping away beads of sweat. The Ace of Knives eyes a map of the city pinned to a wall. She throws a sharpened blade; her magic guides it and the point slices deep into the wall, showing her his location.

She has found the person she needs to kill.

She grabs her shoes, shoving them on and lacing them up too tightly.

This nosy older gentleman will get a taste of comeuppance. He’s not the one that has to go to the hospital. He’s not the one that has to endure notions of superiority, mocking laughter, physical abuse by officers who enjoy being rougher than they have to be. He’s not the one who has to deal with hospital staff who don’t care, misdiagnosing you, locking you up, drugging you, suggesting solutions to problems you don’t have while not helping with the pain you do.

Well, vengeance is what happens when persons with misguided notions set things in motion, then put what they started out of mind.

She fingers her nose ring.

Plus, he sealed his fate by invoking the memory of her parents as some sort of pretense.

The Ace of Knives storms out the door.

~~~

The Ace of Knives is going to kill him. She is certain of this.

She is in the hallway before his door. Unpainted, varnished wood, a brass knocker. Nothing else besides the obligatory peephole.

Ringed fingers, rings that her parents wore, grip a knife. Your interference ends here, she vows.

Memories of humiliation flood The Ace of Knives’ mind; of being isolated, people not wanting, not caring, to understand her.

A stroke of the finger; the surface of the knife is rough. Filings clump to her skin.

Memories of cops slamming her against the wall, laughing at her discomfort, of curls of the lip and the holding up of noses.

A stroke of her finger; the surface of the knife becomes smooth.

Memories come of her parents’ faces, of their warnings, of her being beaten by subsequent guardians, of doctors who blame instead of help.

Her enchanted finger strokes the surface of the knife again. It becomes finer. Razor sharp.

Her hand bangs on the door. No one answers The Ace of Knives.

“Where is he?” she hisses under her breath. A trilling from the surface of the knife on her fingertip. “Is he inside?” she asks it. It warms to her touch. She inserts it into the lock. “Open the door.” The knife moves quickly, surely, the lock clicks. A well-placed punch and the door flies open, slamming against the inner wall, rattling on its hinges.

And he is there. Seated upon a fancy rattan chair. Waiting. Holding a painting of her circlet with a heart on it, back when it was a pendant, the pendant she now sports as a nose ring. A painting from home.

“What are you doing with that?!” she demands.

“I painted it,” he informs her, his voice a deep baritone. “For your parents. For you.”

The Ace of Knives doesn’t know what to make of this. The fire within her sputters, endangered by a strong wind.

Various pictures cover his walls. At a small shrine, sharpened objects, candles. A large photo of him with her as a baby, smiling beside her parents.

Who are you?

“My name is Clive. I’m related to you. I’m an illegitimate child in the family, so people act like I don’t exist. But I do.”

Clive. She remembered the name being spoken around the house. Clive, who disappeared, left her parents wondering. Clive who was important to them. Clive, who was missed. Uncle Clive.

He places the painting he holds next to the diminutive shrine, then looks back to her. “It’s been a few years since your parents died. A hard few years. But you’re still young.”

This makes The Ace of Knives freeze. You’re still young. Many a person abused their power or authority over her waving around that oppressive notion. Her finger stretches to the knife. What other misguided notions does he run on?

“And when I say you young, I don’ mean it as a bad ‘ting. I mean it in the sense that there’s still time.”

This man will not dissuade her so easily. “Time for what?”

He makes an expansive gesture with his free hands. Hands with rings similar to the ones she herself wears. “Time to heal. To grow. Time to still do what you really want to do with your life. You really want to be doing this?” He was speaking now like a Canadian, with deliberate, gentle tones, to add space, defuse the tension of the situation.

The Ace of Knives pauses. She’d thought she wanted to kill this man. But…maybe what she really wanted was to stop running. To stop being afraid. To stop hurting. To not be so alone….

Ringed fingers in the act of clenching give away her inner turmoil.

He shifts in his rattan chair, the wicker crackling. “Trust can be…the world to a child. The witnessing of the death of one’s parents is a terrible, terrible thing. It can destroy the fabric of everything you know.

“You couldn’t completely trust your parents…could you?” he asks.

It was true. But The Ace of Knives will say nothing.

“They got…high around you, kinda scared you, didn’t they? You knew things weren’t quite right even then, when you didn’t have the whole picture-”

But they were all she had.

“Look around. Please don’t see what you think you want to see. I hope that you see someone who wanted to be sure that you were stable enough for them to guide you, someone who had to make sure they had their own shit straight before they can take on the task of caretaking someone else’s child, someone who is here now, here for you, someone who will always be here, whose place, arms, and heart will always be open for you. Unconditionally.

“And I promise, if I fail in any of these things I am promising to you, you can do what you came here to do to me.”

One breath.

Two.

Three breaths The Ace of Knives takes.

She says two words: “Keep talking.”

Warm, gentle patois: “Yuh want to take a seat, Keisha?” He indicates another rattan chair.

Would she be making any signs of conceding? No, The Ace of Knives will not. She will, however, take a few deliberate steps inside. Closer to him. Hands clasped behind her back.

He nods. “You’ve been traumatized. Deeply. It will take years to overcome this kind of damage, my dear. It may always still be with you, but with the right help, it won’t cripple you. And you will need help, of various sorts. To complicate matters, you’ve inherited mental illness- it runs in the family. And you cannot do this alone. There will always be people in the world who can hurt you. But your magic won’t be affected by medications; I know this from experience with other people. It can be adjusted. It will aid you in thinking clearly. You can tell that already, can’t you? Even from that small amount of time you spent taking them at the hospital. And with clarity, you can direct your magic in ways to help it thrive.”

He fingered the pendant he wore that matched her nose ring. “I can also guide you. I can be there to protect you in times of pain, and…well, for your illness…there will be ups and downs. You will have to learn to prepare for them, and ride them so you don’t get smashed into the rocks. But it will take time. And, again…I promise, that if you accept my help, I will be there.”

He smiled gently at her. “How I doin’ so far?” he asked, slipping into patois again.

The Ace of Knives has to make a decision. Before answering, she takes her hands from behind her back, and puts the knife away. She closes the door, comes round the rattan chair and places it before him, before she sits down.

“Keep talking.”

~~~

The Ace of Knives is crafting wooden flowers on the sidewalk. Nearby are wood carvings of various patterns and shapes. People are standing nearby, slowing down to admire the work, watching. Purchasing.

She is putting her skills at cutting to good use; something…positive. Attainable. Useful. But she still likes to be outside. One thing at a time.

It seems like The Ace of Knives has found a friend. Not only that, an ally. A support, even. It would appear that the cards foretold an improvement to her circumstances this time around. She never seems to guess those cards right. That ability was obviously not her forte. But something else was.

What else could she do now?

Perhaps, look into the history and uses of her namesake.

Perhaps it was not such a bad thing that she did not have to kill.

Perhaps now she could actually live up to her name, and truly become, an Ace of Knives.

“The Ace of Knives” by Tonya Liburd originally appeared in Postscripts to Darkness 6, April 2015.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *