Tag Archives: short stories

Decameron 2020: Pestilence

Pestilence
by Art Cerf

If statuary can wear a mask, so can you. This pandemic is still in its early stages, folks.

Hello. Let me introduce myself. I’m Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death, of course, is our leader. War is a bit of a blowhard but is always busy. Both Famine and I are background players but believe me, we do more than you can imagine.

I go back thousands of years. I like to say I put the Hit on the Hittites. Through the years I come and go. Back in the 14th Century was one of my triumphs…the Black Plague. I won a Golden Tombstone for that one (sort of like your Oscars). Got another for the great flu of 1918-19.

Through the centuries, I spread cholera, smallpox, typhus and so many more. I’m particularly proud of AIDS. But now, I’ve come up with Covid-19. I hate the name…it should be something catchier like the Black Death or The Spanish Influenza. Oh well, it’s an international triumph.

I want to give thanks to the Chinese communist government for covering up the disease long enough for it to spread…and even disciplining the doctor who tried to point it out. Also kudos to the American President who denied at least two months of warnings and then dismissed it as nothing to worry about because we had it well in hand.

People keep asking when will we get back to normal.  My friends, this IS the new normal.

Decameron 2020: Leo Ledbetter

Leo Ledbetter
by Art Cerf

This is a chipmunk, not a squirrel, but it is still cute.

Leo Ledbetter started his day like any other since his wife, Miriam’s, passing last summer. He’d shower, have a little breakfast and then dress in his suit and tie. From there, he’d take a train and then two buses to get to the cemetery where his beloved was buried…and hour and a half trip.

He’d spend an hour or more seated on a bench beside her grave, talking and recalling their golden memories. Over time, he noticed a little squirrel hanging around the area. So the next day, he brought some peanuts to feed the squirrel.

This went on for months, rain or shine, blistering heat or icy winter days. It got so the squirrel would eat right out of his hand.

Then came the pandemic. Leo paid it no attention. He figured if he died, he’d die…and maybe then be reunited with Miriam.

And as expected, he caught the virus and he died.

The little squirrel missed his visits until one day another squirrel appeared in the cemetery and from the first moment, they got on terrifically and stay together for the rest of their days.

Decameron 2020: Elementary Human Nature

Nope, again this has nothing to do with the story, but it is a beautiful swampy nature preserve in Wisconsin.

Mrs. Peebles loved her first-grade class. Each of her 20 students was a clever little sponge soaking in knowledge, exploring and learning in their own ways. High-energy and mostly adorable, she wished she could protect each one from all of the dangers in the world.

To help keep them safe, near the end of the school year, she’d have a special class to warn them about the dangers lurking within their own homes. She explained how bleach and ammonia could be wonderful cleaners for their homes, but they could also be deadly poisons if drunk. Just getting the chemicals on their skin could hurt them, if they didn’t wash them off quickly. She let the kids come up and give a quick little sniff of each chemical to make sure they knew what they smelled like and should avoid.

Next she warned them of other dangers, such as hot stoves and space heaters.

She would wrap up the discussion with a dire warning never to stick anything other than an electric plug into a light socket. Electricity was vital to powering their lights, TV and computers, but it also was deadly when touched directly. She explained how a shock could stop their hearts or burn them.

After answering the children’s questions and reassuring them that all of these dangerous things could be very safe if only used properly, she began to put away her sample chemicals in a locking cabinet behind her desk.

At the very second she knelt down, there was a loud pop in the classroom and the lights flickered.

She stood up and screamed when she saw little Johnny Whozit lying unconscious next to an electric outlet on the other side of the room, a small pair of scissors clenched in his hand.

***

Dear Friends,

It is easy for us, as adults, to see that Johnny had a severe lapse in judgement when he was just told that the very thing he was about to do could kill him. The vast majority of us don’t need to stick things in an outlet to know it is an insanely terrible idea. The overwhelming majority of us have never stuck anything other than proper plugs in an outlet.

While quarantine totally blows goats, for the life of me I cannot understand why grown adults think it is suddenly a good idea to drink bleach, break quarantine and stop wearing masks in public, in close proximity to other people.

With increasing repetition, I’m hearing all manner of virus conspiracy theories, as if Covid-19 has ideological intentions.

It doesn’t. The virus isn’t liberal, conservative or even political. It is a mindless microscopic thing that isn’t even a complete single-cell structure that scientists define as only being on the “edge of life.” It isn’t living in the traditional sense that we understand living to be…but it isn’t quite not-alive, either. No wonder it is difficult to treat. It only has two goals: quasi-live & replicate. It sickens and kills everybody equally, regardless of politics, race, religion or wealth.

I am blessed to count many EMTs, nurses, doctors and police officers among my friends and customers. Many of them have told me how insanely contagious this disease is. Most of them have seen people die of the disease…many people, in some cases.

Many of the best scientific minds in the country are working on cures and vaccines to save the rest of us from this plague. At the moment, we have no known, proven cure. We’re mostly keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t kill us. True, for as many people who get it, only a small percentage of them die. Who wants to take that risk when a cure or vaccine might be just around the corner?

Yes, the economy is in rough shape. Absolutely, people need money to continue on. All of us would love to gather with friends and family once again. We all want life to return to normal as soon as possible…and I hope with as little suffering and death as possible. OMG! Warm weather and a beautiful springtime make it even harder to stay indoors. I get it.

But these are extraordinary times, and they call for extreme measures to protect our family, friends and neighbors as much as humanly possible.

One of the most dangerous parts about Covid-19 is that you can get it and never know it. You can also get it and spread it for up to 14 days before coming down with symptoms. Why put yourself at risk? Why put your family and friends at risk? Why pass it on to some friendly elderly person you accidentally bump into at the grocery store? Who knows how many people someone you might infect can then turn around and infect?

Until we have a cure or vaccine, the only thing we can do for ourselves and everyone else is stay home…and wear a mask if you have to go out for supplies. It totally sucks, but it is the only way to stay safe…minimize the spread of the disease…and buy the many doctors and scientists working around the clock to find a better way to kill, cure and prevent this disease a little more time.

Regardless of politics, for the health and lives of our families and friends, we need to unite as a nation and a planet. At no other time in human history has it been easier to be a hero that helps save humanity. All you have to do is continue to shelter in place.

With great love, health and respect,
Nathaniel

Decameron 2020: The Story of Job—Part 2

The Story of Job: Part 2
by Art Cerf

Here’s a photo of a birch tree that is quite lovely and has nothing to do with this story. I just felt like sharing.

God and Satan were having their weekly meeting and would banter about who was the best dresser, who had the best haircut and the like.

Satan suggested a contest on who was more popular. God agreed but then asked who would be a fair judge. Satan thought for a moment and then said, “Why not Job? Remember he stuck with you when you killed off his family and covered him with boils. He might still be loyal…or he might be rather pissed.”

God thought it over and agreed to resurrect Job…without the boils…and would send an arch angel with him just to help him adjust to the 21st century but in no way tip the scales.

So Job arrived in America, and he could hardly believe his eyes. Planes overhead…rolling carts in the streets…towering buildings. He loved the fact the clothing was more comfortable and you could have more than just one set. And he loved that almost everyone lived inside…and could turn up the heat or cool the air. And food? It was everywhere.

But on the other hand, the air always smelled. The angel told him that was car exhaust and air pollution from factories, whatever they were. They went to the beach where the shore was littered with all sorts of refuse.

And when he was shown television, he couldn’t believe how immodest women were and how violent the men were. And then there was this orange man on the box every afternoon, telling everyone how the pandemic was under control and what a good job he was doing when Job knew that was bullshit.  He saw the death figures rising every day…he saw people afraid to leave their homes…and he even saw ambulances carry two bodies away from the building where he was staying.

He asked the angel if the orange man was king. The angel said, “No, he was elected.”

Job asked, “By whom? Religious leaders and town mayors?”

The angel said, “No, in America, everyone can vote and pick their leader.”

Job said, “And the people voted to pick him?”

“Not exactly,” said the angel. “The other candidate got three-million more votes but through a technicality called the Electoral College, the orange man won.”

“And will he be the leader until he dies?”

“No,” said the angel. “There will be a new election in November.”

Job said, “And everyone can vote?”

The angel said, “Well, in theory, but the party supporting the orange man is trying hard to keep those who don’t like him from voting.”

Job said, “I’ve seen enough.” And in a whisk, he was back before God and Satan.

“Well,” they said, “Who did the better job?”

Job looked at both of them and said, “Satan, you placed the plague upon the earth which was a really shitty thing to do. And you, God, allowed all those people to suffer. Shame on you.”

God and the devil looked at each other, nodded, and in a wink, Job exploded into a billion pieces.

God turned to Satan and said, “So who do you see in next year’s World Series?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy birthday, Dad! Thank you for this most dad-liest of stories.

Decameron 2020: Caleb Connor

Caleb Connor
by Art Cerf

Just another bird photo that has nothing to do with the story. Looks nice but is meaningless, just to catch the eye. Nah-nah.

Caleb Connor had the visage of a young man. But he was there when the pyramids were built.

He marched with Roman legions and sailed with Vikings. He survived the Black Death in the 14th century and was good friends with Henry VIII…his daughter, not so much.

He stood with the rebels on Bunker Hill and played cards with Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

He watched Pickett’s Charge from Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg and he rode with the 7th Cavalry to the Little Big Horn.

36 years later, he was on the maiden voyage of Titanic and a few years after that, watched his friends die from the Spanish influenza.

He watched Babe Ruth in the ’20’s and lived through the Great Depression.

He watched Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbor and fought at Iwo Jima.

Connor traveled in JFK’s motorcade in Dallas and watched Nixon’s operatives arrested at the Watergate.

He was in New York for 9/11 and still there in 2020 when the Corona virus struck.

He tried to follow self quarantine measures but the boredom got to him so he roamed New York’s hospitals at night. He could actually see the virus…little red dots wafting through the air. And he could see death on the faces of patients, nurses and doctors…an almost invisible circle on their foreheads.

He walked into the men’s room, wondering when will all this pain and suffering end? He splashed some cold water on his face and looked up into the mirror and had his answer.

Decameron 2020: Jason Turnberry

Jason Turnberry
By Art Cerf

Jason Turnberry was a jerk, but he had a marvelous cat name Hector.  Well, actually, Hector belonged more to his wife, Mary, who adored him. The cat and Jason kept a wide berth of each other. Yet, if anyone else came into the house, Hector was happy to greet them and curl up in their laps, purring.

One day while Mary was out shopping, the doorbell rang and it was Mary’s great Aunt Agatha who Jason had met only once at the wedding. She was in town from California to visit with Mary’s mother and dropped by to say hello.

Jason invited her in and told her Mary would probably be returning within the hour.

As she entered, she spied the all black Hector, sleeping in a sunbeam. She said, “Oh, a black cat…that’s bad luck.” She then smiled and added she knew it was a silly superstition but she couldn’t give them up.

Jason smiled and started inventing a story.

“We got Hector from a nursing home. He was a very solitary animal but he became famous within the building because whenever he’d go into a patient’s room and hop on the bed, that person would die within a few hours. It’s like he knew beforehand. ”

He added: “The nursing home had to find a new home for him because there were so many pandemic deaths.”

At that moment, Hector woke up and trotted into the living room to greet the guest. As per usual, he hopped up on Aunt Agatha’s lap.  She screamed, fearing Hector had spotted death in her, too.

She made quick apologies and fled the place. Later that night, Mary received a call from her mom that Aunt Agatha had passed away of an apparent heart attack. Jason knew in truth, she had been scared to death but he wasn’t about to tell that to Mary.

As he sat on the couch consoling her, in came Hector and jumped on his lap, something he had never done before.

Mary said: “Well look at you two…I swear, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Hector was smiling.”

Decameron 2020: July 2021

July 2021
By Art Cerf

Sunset Behind the Wisconsin River. Wausau, Wis. April 2020. By Nathaniel Cerf

By now, billions of people, indeed, half the world’s population had succumbed to Covid-19a.

A year ago, people got tired of sheltering in place and ignored all the scientific warnings to stay in place and keep social distancing, much to the virus’s delight (if viruses can feel delight.).

Then in the fall, the virus mutated once again and became ten-twenty times more deadly and masks and PPE no longer worked.

Billions died…economies collapsed…governments fell. And of course, half of all the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and scientists perished, too. There was no vaccine, and it looked like there wouldn’t be one.

On the other hand, skies hadn’t been this clean since farmlands in the 19th century. Rivers ran pollution-free. Animals on the endangered species list made a strong comeback. It was as if Mother Nature was cleansing the planet…of humans.

I walked back to my car, marveling at how I now could see the stars at night and how the earth had changed so.  If we survived this plague, would we learn any lessons about protecting the planet? I truly hoped so.

I was headed home and hoped to find an open gas station on the way. So many had closed. Still I only had less than a quarter of a tank full on my Hummer.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 2

Among my many careers, I was a fencing portrait photographer. The following are photos I used as advertising and pose options. I own the copyright to all of them, so please don’t steal them, without permission.

Latching the floor cord to the D-ring just above Jill’s left hip, Dan took a moment to appreciate that he was standing in her shoes only 20 short years earlier.

When Jill finished plugging in her favorite electric foil that she named Annibelle the Cannibelle, she rushed to get to her en garde line and start the final bout of the women’s national foil tournament.

Seeing her haste, Dan grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him.

The 18-year-old was bright and smiling from the joy of fencing for the title, but Dan could also see the nervous tension around her eyes. He had butterflies in his stomach, but he didn’t show it.

Placing his hands on her shoulders, he looked deeply into her brown eyes for a second before speaking.

“It feels just like yesterday that I was teaching some skinny little 11-year-old girl how to kick the asses of 2 17-year-old boys twice her size.”

She exhaled a laugh, and the tension left her face. “If they could see me now.”

“They’d shit their pants and be grateful you didn’t kill them.”

She laughed, again.

Now that her nerves were steadied, Dan helped her focus: “Don’t think about the title. Only think about the touch in the moment.”

She nodded.

“How are you going to beat this girl?”

“First, I’m going to figure out how the director calls right-of-way. Then, I’m going to test her distance, comfort zone and weaknesses.”

“Good,” Dan encouraged. “What else?”

“Fence for only 1-light touches. There’s no trusting the call on double-light actions,” Jill replied. “Oh, and listen to her coach give away her strategy.”

“Excellent,” he said. “What do you do if your attacks stop working?”

“Play defense.”

“And if your defense isn’t working?”

“Go on attack.”

“Perfect,” he said. “So, in other words, this is just a normal bout for you.”

She nodded.

“Good. Just keep in mind one more thing. Give yourself a little extra space until you know her reach and abilities. Never hesitate. You have the best instincts in the game. Trust yourself.”

“Got it, Coach.”

“Good. Stay grizzly.”

She gave him a low, menacing growl with a lop-sided grin.

He winked back at her. “You’re ready. Go kick her ass.”

Jill turned on her heel and strode confidently to her en garde line, her sweaty brown pony tail swaying with each step.

He watched her from the coach’s box like a proud father. Jill was not his daughter, but she had become very much like the daughter he never had.

***

Upon winning the silver medal at the national championship, Dan was more determined than ever to take home the gold. He trained like a man possessed. He won countless tournaments and defeated many world-class competitors, but, at the following national foil championship, he failed to make the semi-finals.

And so he would preserver in the years to come. Through bad romances and good, economic boom times and bust, his love of fencing never wavered. Back in college, he assumed adulthood would be glamorous. With a professional career would come professional paychecks that would finally pay for the travel and gear that he could not afford in college.

What he did not count on was that a professional career also required far more time out of his day. The more he succeeded at work, the less time he was able to devote to training. While he remained one of the most gifted naturals in the sport, the general effects of age and the inability to train and travel as much as in college cost him his dream of a national title.

Still devoted to the sport and fly-over country, Dan began helping out more at a local park district club, like where he first learned.

Fencing had changed over the years from a mostly adult sport to a mostly kid sport. On the circuit, 12-year-olds just getting into the sport were practically too old to have a chance. The kids who started at age 8 were nationally rated and winning major circuit events by age 12.

Teaching had moved on from classical fencing where students were taught all of the moves until they learned each to perfection and also taught how to think and react under pressure to teaching kids a few basics and then one or two power moves. The power moves were dominant and won tournaments, but the kids knew nothing else and became proud and arrogant in their ignorance.

Most flicking had been eliminated from the sport by stiffening the foil blades, but directors still based their calls almost entirely on footwork, regardless of the way the rules remained written.

Poor sportsmanship was promoted to appalling levels. Dominate young fencers were encouraged as young as 9 to create their own victory dances and war whoops after every touch scored. The days of fencers winning and losing with stoic grace, dignity and honor were long dead.

As Dan began teaching kids, he taught them the old ways. Realizing 90% of the kids he taught were only interested in living out their pirate and Jedi fantasies, he had fun with them, adding more advanced classes for the kids that actually wanted to learn something and try competition.

Dan didn’t remember meeting Jill. She was just another scrawny 11-year-old who was rather shy and quiet. He never really took notice of her until he noticed two of his nearly grown high school students going way too rough on her in the advanced class.

“What on earth are you guys doing over there?” Dan called out across the gym. He left the two younger kids he was helping.

One of the older boys stammered, “She wanted to fence us. She said for us not to go easy on her.”

Dan looked at him doubtfully and asked the girl.

“It’s true,” she agreed enthusiastically. “I’m tired of beating everybody else in the club. These are the only guys I can’t beat, and I want to learn what they’re doing that I can’t beat.”

“You mean you’re beating all of the other students?” he asked doubtfully.

“Haven’t you noticed?” she asked, hurt in her big, brown eyes.

Dan felt horribly because he hadn’t.

“Aren’t these guys hurting you?” he asked.

“Yeah, but it is the only way to see what they are doing so I can beat them.”

Dan looked at her thoughtfully, as she gazed up earnestly. Dan placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the boys, and they walked a few steps.

Squatting in front of her he whispered, “You can’t beat them fencing them like they fence you. You’re too small.”

“I hate being little,” she said. “I can’t wait to grow up.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dan asked. “Being small and fast are the two best things for a fencer to be.”

“No, they’re not,” she dismissed him.

“Yes, they are. You have no target area to stab when you’re small,” he said. “Put your foil down and go en garde.”

She did, and, crouching down to her level, he went en garde, extended his right arm and index finger, gently poking her leading right shoulder.

“Now, extend your arm and finger.”

She did, poking him in the bicep.

“Who is going to win this fight this way?”

“You are,” she said.

“Now, how are you actually going to beat me?”

Jill thought a second and cautiously bent her arm, parried Dan’s arm—which he kept rigid—, stepped closer to him, resting his straight arm across her belly, extended her arm and finger and poked him in the right shoulder.

“Very good,” he said, genuinely impressed, as he stood back up. “You made yourself safe from the tip of my foil and put yourself in a position to stab me repeatedly with impunity. Go over there and kick those boys’ butts.”

Jill smiled and ran back to her en garde line.

Dan stood in the director’s position and loudly told the boys, “I want you to fence your best against Jill and not give her any easy touches. BUT, you also can’t fence to hurt her. There is no reason at your size and skill level that you can’t beat her without ever letting her get close enough to you that you even accidentally leave a mark.”

One of the boys volunteered to go first. Jill scored the first two touches and was beaming at Dan. She then lost 5-2, when the boy changed tactics. Still, that first boost of confidence was there and Jill dug in. At the end of a month, she was an even match against the older boys. At the end of two months, she dominated the boys, who were now taking special instructions from Dan on how to beat her.

Dan added more classes for the kids who wanted to go even further in competition. Plenty of boys and girls signed up, and the group gelled as a team, working together to always get better.

Over the years, several qualified for the national tournament.

Jill had been qualifying since she was 13. Now, at 18, she had gone as far into the championship as her coach, who was barely competing and mostly focusing on his students.

***

Jill snapped a sharp salute with earnest intensity, as her coach had before her.

When the director said go, both women rushed forward.

Jill’s much taller opponent suddenly dropped down with perfect poise and form, scoring a touch on Jill’s 8, just below her sword-arm elbow.

Jill replayed the move in her head. For as surprising and perfectly executed as the move was, Jill noticed the woman’s hips seemingly unhitch, as if she were double jointed. Then the opponent kicked with her front leg and pushed off her back leg, extending it completely until the contours of her left calf and thigh lay flat on the floor, her left bottom cheek smacked the floor and her right thigh angled up to her knee positioned directly over a shin that was perpendicular to the floor. The competitor’s torso was erect, right arm straight as an iron rod that was holding a 35-inch long foil. This woman gracefully covered 10 feet of ground from her back foot to the tip of her foil.

The entire maneuver didn’t take more than a second to execute. When her back side tapped the floor, it gave her the momentum she needed to pop back up into en garde.

Before the director called the point in her favor, the woman unleashed an ear-shattering, primal shriek of a victory cry.

Jill’s parents looked at Dan from the stands, mortified. Neither they nor most of the audience had ever seen a fencer move like that and sound so intimidating.

Dan nodded reassuringly to them.

“Taylor Swift!” is all he shouted to Jill.

Jill performed a little hand-flicking dance move from the “Shake It Off” video, as she reset herself on the en garde line.

Given how closely they listened to opposing coaches screaming and yelling at their fencers, Dan only spoke in code to his fencers at tournaments. He taught them to think and act for themselves. Jill’s little dance move told him she’d seen the woman’s hips unhitch and that she knew what to do.

When fencing resumed, both women rushed off the line. Two steps in, Jill stopped as the other woman’s hips unhitched. Jill waited for what felt like an eternity, as she let her opponent overcommit to the attack. Once the shrieker’s arm was extended, Jill swept down for an almost clumsy parry 8, riposting for a touch in the middle of the opponent’s chest.

Jill was soundless and expressionless, her actions were more intimidating than any screaming.

Dan clapped three loud, rapid times, indicating nice touch. Get back to work.

Jill’s opponent looked back at her coach a little nervously. Nobody had previously denied her the long-lunge touch in 8. Jill heard him tell her to switch attacks, and she knew what was coming.

When her opponent rushed her, sword windmilling counter clockwise, Jill waited, feigned a parry, retreated a couple steps and picked off the attack with ease, riposting and then parrying one last time to guarantee 1 light.

2-1 Jill.

Clearly, this was the shrieker’s second favorite attack, as she did it again. Jill easily defeated it.

3-1 Jill.

The attack came again, but this time Jill skipped a step in her defense. The opponent landed and shrieked.

3-2.

“Don’t get overconfident,” is all Dan told Jill.

Emboldened, the shrieker renewed her efforts with the same attack. Jill recovered her form and defended it easily.

4-2.

Not willing to believe Jill, of Fly-Over Country, could beat her special moves, the opponent asked the director if she could test her foil on Jill. Both acquiesced, and the equipment worked perfectly.

The opponent’s coach was furious with the shrieker, yelling at her to change the direction of the attacks.

The shrieker tried three more attacks from the opposite direction. Jill was waiting for them, and when the first 3-minute period of play came to an end, she was up 7-2.

Jill swaggered over to her coach for the 1-minute break.

“Stop right there!” he reprimanded, handing her her favorite sports drink. “You’ve got nothing to strut about, yet. Right now her coach is plotting your demise, and she didn’t get this far by giving up. What do you think he’s telling her?”

“Play defense,” Jill said, sobering up.

“Right,” Dan said, softening.

“What should I do?”

“Well, do you want to try winning by risking running the time out or by mopping the floor with her dirty-blonde head?”

“Mopping,” she said, with a grim set to her jawline.

“Give her a dose of her own medicine. Finish her off before this period ends. Don’t give her time to think.”

The director called the end of the break.

Jill took a last swig.

“If you’re in such a hurry, old man, you better start filling that bucket with soap and water,” she called back to him, making her way to her en garde line.

Dan loved her moxie, but he hoped it wasn’t overconfidence.

When he saw Jill blaze across the strip, windmilling and flicking with a hard shot to the stomach, he knew Jill was focused and playing for blood. 8-2.

The next attempt had her opponent ready. Another shriek and it was 8-3.

“You’re a shark,” Dan shouted, letting Jill know she froze her feet at the end of her failed attack. After all, sharks and fencers have one thing in common, when they stop moving, they die.

Re-invigorated by the parry-riposte touch she just earned, Jill’s opponent went back to her own windmill attack. Jill was waiting for it. 9-3.

“Crazy Monkey!” Dan called out.

The Crazy Monkey attack was Jill’s own invention. It took the windmill attacks that were so popular to a whole new level. She could land the tip on all four corners of the body and on the back by windmilling, which all top fencers could do. Her special ability was to keep moving forward and reversing the windmill in a heartbeat while also stutter-stepping to throw off the timing of the attack…or more specifically, throwing off the timing of the defense, allowing Jill enough time to pick where she wanted to most safely land. To make it harder to defend, Jill would also change her height from normal to low to up on her tip toes, never stopping forward progression and losing right-of way. It was extremely difficult to parry, until you got used to it.

Jill’s opponent fought with desperation, hypnotized by Jill’s elusive foil point that connected with her again and again.

It was 12-3 now, and Jill was so locked into the zone, she couldn’t hear the spectators. She could barely hear the director. She couldn’t even hear Dan.

As she began running down her opponent on the next action, she noticed the woman backing up far earlier than previously. That’s when she spotted the woman unhitching her hips.

Although it wasn’t what she planned on in her attack, Jill was so focused, she didn’t hesitate to press on, sweep a parry 8, bind her opponent’s blade and throw the entire weapon out of her opponent’s hand before dropping in to lunge dead center on the shrieker’s sternum.

Jill held her lunge for effect, and her opponent stood dumbfounded.

The crowd roared at the thrill of the site. 13-3.

Jill was so focused, she didn’t hear the crowd. She didn’t hear the director. She stalked back to her en garde line, lost in her own thoughts of strategy.

Dan saw it the instant the foil flew out of the hand of the woman across from him.

Jill didn’t see it until after resetting en garde. As her tall adversary tugged at the body cord by her hip to pull her foil back to her hand, Jill could tell she had broken her opponent’s spirit.

For a true warrior, it is both a beautiful site and a little sad. It is fun to be a lion and take down a wildebeest. Yet, there is little joy in putting down a whimpering wounded animal.

“Stay grizzly,” Dan warned. Jill looked back and growled. All he could see were big white teeth behind her black-mesh mask.

Jill made solid attacks that were responsibly cautious, given that her rival was no longer putting up much of an obvious fight. It was quite anti-climactic.

When the director awarded Jill the 15th touch, Jill trotted back to her line, gave a sincere, crisp salute and walked up to her opponent for a customary handshake and whispered, “Good game.”

To the dismay of the fencing officials, Jill never shouted, danced or screamed. She didn’t need to rub it in, as her opponent wept at the side of the strip.

Wearing the biggest grin he had ever seen, Jill swaggered back to her coach, joy radiating. He offered her his customary high five, and she wrapped him in a bear hug.

He hugged her back, picked her up and swung her around. They were then mobbed by her family and teammates.

After the awards and photos, when things started to calm down, Dan asked to hold her medal.

He looked over the enameled front and read the inscription on the back. It wasn’t real gold, but he stared at it wistfully, as he hefted it.

“Thank you,” Jill said. “I never could have done it without you.”

“Nonsense,” he said, looking up at her with a wan smile. “All I said were silly things like ‘Be a shark,’ and “Taylor Swift.'”

“No,” she softly protested. “You took me all the way to the finish line.”

He shook his head. “I shined a flashlight down the path for you. You did all of the work, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

She attempted to say something, but Dan held up his hand to stop her.

“I’ve been chasing this damned thing all my life,” he said, as he gently placed the ribbon back around her neck. “And I have to admit that it makes me ten times happier to see it on you than on me.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I also never coached any national champions. The passion, strategy, changes and sensations in this story are all true. Fencing has given me 25 years of joy, which I hope I passed on to my students…and maybe you, with these stories. In the event you want to learn, you are never too old to start. Although I’m taking a break from the sport for a little while, I hope to be fencing into my 70s, like my mentor, the great Jack Warner of Spokane, Wash., not Hollywood. If he is still with us today, he’d be about 95 or so years old. Yet, at age 70, with 50 years of fencing under his belt, he’d mop the floor with us cocky 20-somethings who foolishly believed their youth would destroy his experience and strategy. Special thanks goes out to him, Blue-Hair Cathy, Maria D. and Bakhyt for teaching me so much as a competitor and Tracy for teaching me so much as a coach…and to all the many other wonderful friends, teammates and students along the way. It might not sound possible, but you are all the best.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 1

This is me on the left with my University of Montana fencing mates after we had just kicked the asses of our arch rivals at Montana State…on their turf.

Snapping a crisp salute by bringing his foil blade parallel to his unmasked face—inches from his nose—Dan’s grey eyes sharply gazed upon his opponent across the strip.

It was the final round of the men’s foil championship, and the winner would earn the national title.

Dan’s opponent returned a half-hearted salute without eye contact. It was dismissive and derisive of not only Dan but the moment.

This wasn’t another bout. This was the culmination of a lifetime of drills, learned strategy, conditioning, tournaments and the climax of a day of the most intense swordfighting against the best fencers in the country.

Both men were in peak condition and bone weary. Tired as he might be, Dan was elated to be 15 touches away from the national title. It was his life’s dream and sole desire since he started fencing in high school. He couldn’t wait to cram that weak salute down his opponent’s throat.

The director of the bout called the fencers to “en garde” and began the first of 3, 3-minute periods to 15 touches.

Only a junior in college, Dan understood he was fencing two opponents simultaneously: the man with the foil across from him and the bout director serving as referee.

Although the governing body of the sport in the U.S. rarely admitted it, Dan understood that no two directors interpreted the rulebook the same way, nor did they usually call the rules as they were written. As he hadn’t seen this director all day, Dan decided to take the first couple touches to learn his director’s style of rule interpretation.

His opponent obliged in the most comically sloppy way—a blazing running attack, his arm raised and cocked so far back that the electronic tip on the foil aimed at the wall behind the running fencer, 180-degrees in the opposite direction of Dan.

Dan held his ground and extended his sword arm at the center of his opponent’s exposed chest. The opponent impaled himself, and then flicked his own foil over Dan’s shoulder, landing a touch perfectly at the center of Dan’s back, which was a valid target.

20 years later, some of us UM fencers reunited for an evening of laughs and impalements.

Both men’s scoring lights and buzzers went off, registering valid touches. It was up to the director to decide.

Any spectator could see that in a real duel Dan would have run through his opponent’s heart, without so much as a scratch of damage to himself.

Yet, this was the 1990s, and even though the rulebook still declared the all-important rule of right-of-way as the first person to extend his or her weapon arm and threaten his or her opponent’s valid target area would have right-of-way and win the point if both fencers scored valid touches at the same time, the director ruled in favor of the now-smug opponent. Dan knew from experience that it was because the other fencer moved his feet first, even though he withdrew not only his arm but his entire foil behind his head. It was a flashier move, and after the 1980s, style always trumped substance.

A purist devotee of the sport, Dan hated the ruling, but he smiled because it only cost him one touch to learn how the rest of the bout needed to be fought.

His rival attacked three more times the same way. Three more times, Dan extended…BUT…at the last possible instant retreated 2 quick little steps, raised his arm and sword into a high tierce parry, dropping his foil back down, ever so gently tapping the electronic button on the tip of his foil into his opponent’s chest in riposte. In the psychological warfare of the moment, Dan said a cheery little “Bink” with each tap, fearlessly antagonizing his opponent.

Stripped of his primary attack, the flick artist wisely held back when fencing resumed. His goal was to draw Dan out to play offense and see if he could handle reverse roles.

With the 3-1 lead in his favor, Dan could afford to run down the clock, but that was hardly honorable, nor the way he wanted to win. The only way to have satisfaction would be a 15-point victory or go down trying.

Dan was a classically trained fencer, and he preferred outwitting his opponents and dominating conversations of blades instead of all-or-nothing power attacks. His first attack was really a cagey defensive maneuver testing both his opponent and his director.

Dan rushed his opponent with perfect footwork and a simple lunge that he knew his opponent could easily defend. Although he triggered the flicker’s defenses, Dan deliberately fell 1 inch short. This allowed Dan to witness his rival’s reaction time and motions, while giving Dan all the time he needed to retreat gracefully out of the way and counterparry-riposte for the point. As an afterthought, Dan’s opponent reached out and tagged Dan without any right-of-way in a move called a remise.

Two valid hit lights went off, and the director called the point for Dan’s opponent without any hesitation.

Disappointed, Dan wasn’t surprised. He knew he had the fastest, tightest parry-riposte reflex in the country and quite possibly the world. This was far from the first director to miss it.

Okay, Dan thought, I’ll just need to make my actions cleaner to the director with a little more style and panache.

Across the strip, Dan heard a little “Bink” in rebuke.

Surprising his opponent, Dan reacted with a deep and genuine laugh that forced him to cock his head back like a defiant Errol Flynn.

Game on, he thought.

In the resumption of play, Dan repeated every move perfectly—only this time holding his opponent’s blade in a slightly prolonged proof of parry before riposting.

Again, the director called the point in favor of the opponent’s remise.

One more time Dan executed to perfection, only parrying his opponent’s blade to the floor where Dan trapped it, made eye contact with the director and then riposted his opponent.

Again, the director credited his opponent’s remise. 3-4 in favor of the opponent.

Dan inhaled sharply and let it out slowly, as he walked back to his en garde line. With another deep breath, he collected himself. There was no such thing as an instant replay in fencing then and he thought to himself, Not at this level.

Then he rationalized, Especially at this level, you idiot.

Dan came to the sport of fencing only a few years earlier. Attending a local park district class in high school and then an extracurricular group at his university, Dan was from what the governing body of the sport and the elites from New York and California callously dismissed as fly-over country.

There were no former Olympians watching over his young career. He was a natural, and he loved the sport. He had an insatiable hunger to prove himself to be the best. His friends would never have considered him an athlete. He was a slow runner and didn’t like team sports. In school, he was a brain. He loved academics.

It was his brain that loved the sport so much, as it was a sport where the physically strongest fencer rarely won. The smartest fencer usually did.

He only enjoyed the conditioning and drills because they allowed his body to do whatever his brain commanded. Unlike so many fencers, he studied the sport inside and out from its history to obsessing over each opponent’s every move and nuance, memorizing them for each future tournament. His memory was deep and agile enough to recall the most minute details about an action and reaction on the strip. If he lost a bout, he always asked his opponents what they did to beat him. Some people might have thought him arrogant, but he wasn’t. He was a sponge constantly learning and very accepting of his own weaknesses, as only they showed him how much more he had to learn and perfect.

In college, the upperclassmen soon taught him everything they knew. He returned the favor by analyzing the team’s performance and creating new drills based on the moves their opponents beat them with. Everybody contributed equally as best they could, and they had the time of their lives together, traveling and competing, working as hard as they could to get better. Dan was so obsessed with the sport he began examining all of his classes for better ways to understand fencing through the lenses of psychology, philosophy, literature, science and more.

Dan improved so quickly that he came to love losing, as it meant there was more to be learned and do better against. The only thing he really hated was losing to bad officiating.

Nevertheless, to prove himself as good as he wanted, he refused to lay all the blame for an “officiating loss” on the director. If he truly wanted to be as good as he could be, that meant he couldn’t give them an excuse to deny his greatness.

With the bout now 4 to 3 against him, Dan realized that this director was never going to award any double-lighted actions in his favor, no matter how well he executed his maneuvers. There was an unspoken bias for fencers from elite academies over nobodies out of nowhere. Only making the task at hand more challenging, and, ultimately, more rewarding, Dan bore down with gritty determination. From this moment forward, he could only engage with actions that guaranteed a one-light resolution in his favor.

His opponent might have been a dismissive snob from an elite New York fencing academy, but Dan had to credit the man with being an amazingly talented competitor.

Together over the next three periods of fencing, they darted, lunged and entwined like rattlesnakes fighting over a mate, immune to one another’s venom.

Dan didn’t win a single point on a parry-riposte exchange that ended with two lights, but he listened to his opponent’s coach’s instructions. More than half the time, the coach gave away his student’s next move, setting up Dan for an easy touch.

As they made their way to a 14-14 tie, Dan discovered his rival’s greatest weakness. He had trouble defending a quadrant of his body fencers refer to as the 8—the rib cage just under this right-handed fencer’s sword-hand elbow.

Dan scored two touches there before realizing what an Achille’s heel it was. He refused to exploit the weakness immediately because he needed an ace to fall back on if he found himself in this very situation.

Chests heaving, their lungs incapable of sucking enough oxygen, uniforms sopped in sweat and muscles fading, both men had reach absolute exhaustion with one touch to go.

Dan gave a little hop at his en garde line, trying to psyche his opponent into thinking he had more energy than he did.

The director gave the command to fight.

Dan fleetly covered the ground between them, measured clockwise circles of his blade timed to his footfalls.

Feigning high toward his opponent’s left shoulder, Dan drew the parry response he wanted. Dan then cut down to the open space below his opponent’s elbow and lunged. His opponent knew Dan had him and freaked out, starting a late counter attack with no right of way. Dan timed his move so well that when his tip hit his opponent’s ribs, it would time out the scoring equipment.

Euphoria flooded Dan’s body for a nano-beat of a time, as he realized he was about to become the national champion.

It seemed like a lifetime of waiting for the point to strike home, and then he recognized his incomplete muscle control from exhaustion.

Dan’s tip was skewing wide. Trying desperately to redirect it into his opponent’s torso, Dan couldn’t override the momentum of his attack.

Time slowed in his whirring head, as his foil missed by less than an inch and his opponent’s act of desperation landed on his uniform.

To the world outside Dan’s mind, it all happened in the blink of an eye.

Dan’s opponent drown out the director’s final call by screaming, fist pumping and dancing about his half of the strip in the worst display of sportsmanship Dan had ever seen…though the governing body of the sport encouraged, as it looked more exciting to the cameras not yet covering the sport.

Determined to lose with as much grace and dignity as he intended to win, Dan blocked out his emotions, returned to his en garde line, removed his safety mask and snapped a crisp salute—his foil inches from his nose—and held it until his opponent finally made eye contact.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many of you know I was actively involved in the sport of fencing for 25 years. While the truths of the sport are valid in this story, this story was in no way autobiographical. I was never close to a national title. The best I ever did was 25th out of 200 at the 2001 U.S. Nationals in Div. 3 Men’s Foil. I lost to an elite NYC fencer, and he was actually the nicest guy I met all day, and he went on to take the title. That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of elite fencers with attitude problems. A future (now former) olympian once brazenly mocked one of my students and cruelly rubbed in her 15 to 1 victory, even though my student was never going to be a threat to her under any circumstances. To my former student’s credit, she cheered on said olympian at the following summer games.

Decameron 2020: Carlotta

Carlotta
By Art Cerf

Carlotta was a killer. Ruthless, relentless and no regrets.

She had been that way it seems forever, and she never considered being anything else. And if she had children, she assumed that they would be killers, too.

And she showed no bigotry in selecting her victims, black or white, rich or poor, Christian, Muslim or Jew.

She had her next victim in sight. Sure, he carried a wicked-looking pocket knife and a concealed carry Glock but to no avail.

She’s simply sneak into his office or home and hide, waiting for him to accidentally brush against her.

Carlotta, the killer…virus.