Open Wounds

On Writing

V is for Varvarinski

What happens to the Lefty's?

What happens to the Lefty’s?

Today could be about the volte (evasion from opponents blade by moving the back foot to the right (for righty) or left (for lefty) displacing the body away from the line of attack and creating a new attack line for yourself)… but it’s not. Voltes are cool. But so is Varvarinski.

Nikolai Varvarinski is a fencing master in my book, Open Wounds. Here’s how he describes his philosophy of fencing to the protagonist, Cid Wymann:

->—-
“Before I become master,” Nikolai said, “I go to Italy in 1908 and study in Rome. When I return to Russian court I can fence like no other. Russian nobles like devils to fight in duel. Want to be like French. Like devils to be French. Everything French. I call French fencing master coward and kill him in duel. His students come to me.”
“How many men have you killed?” I asked.
“Quiet! I not finished. I bring them fencing book, La Spada e la Sua Applicazione. Book by Greco. I show them to speak with sword must speak Italian. ‘First to be Italian!’ I say. My students live—opponents die.”
“But, how many men have you killed?”
“In war I lose count. It is what happen in war.”
“How many in duels?”
“In first duel I place my point in other boy’s chest”— he pointed to the center of his chest—“here. Into heart, I think. Blade go into body—go into body far. I let go of blade—stare at boy. He stare back at me but does not die. I think, why does boy not die? While I think, he put blade in my side and almost kill me.” He lifted up his shirt and showed me a thick puckered scar above his hip.
“How many did you kill in duels?”
“Six or seven.”
“You don’t remember?”
“There are many things I not remember.”
“What happened to your fencing school?”
He did not answer for a while, then his hand trembled a moment and he clenched it into a fist. “Enough talk. Now back to work!”
->—-
Nikolai is based on my mentor, Joe Daly’s description of a sabre teacher he had when he was a young man who had him take off his shirt for every lesson. “You will parry faster when you know a miss will hit your flesh.” I used this with Nikolai, whose teaching cry in Open Wounds is, “Too take off shirt!”

R is for Remise

Come on!

Come on!

Remise…

is one of my favorite fencing terms.

It means to attack and attack again. If your first attack misses or is blocked you do not retreat or recover. You attack again without pause. That is a remise.

It requires great confidence and nerve, sometimes leg strength for a double or triple lunge. If you pause after missing the first time and hesitate, even for a second, you lose the initiative. The remise is finished. So don’t pause. Keep going forward and attacking until you touch your point to his chest (or wrist, or arm, or head, or, or, or…). It is thrilling to do and a bit frightening to have done to you.

To defend against the remise you retreat, parry, stop thrust, or some combination of these three in order to stop the juggernaut. Cut into his attack. Get out of distance. Make him pause and hesitate, so that you can take the initiative from him.

My books original title was Remise. My publisher said it had to be changed. “It is a French word,” she said. “Nobody will know what it means.”

Open Wounds is more brutal but Remise is elegant violence.

Here’s my main character, Cid Wymann learning about the remise from his old Russian fencing master, Nikolai Varvarinksi.

->—

Open Wounds, by Joseph Lunievicz, Chapter 17

->—

“Aldo Nadi says—”

“I am not Nadi,” Varvarinksi shouted and threw his glove onto the ground. “You want to take lesson from Nadi you find Nadi!”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Kónchit’! No more questions. You learn. I teach! Remise is attack, then attack.”

“What do you mean?” We had been working on parry-riposté drills, Nikolai pushing me to parry later and later, and to riposté faster and faster.

Nikolai picked up his glove and épée. He cinched his leather wrist strap tight and secured the grip against his palm. “With foil you extend arm before attack. Da?”

I nodded and rolled my eyes, having heard his explanation of foil what seemed like a thousand times before.

“Good,” he said, ignoring me. “You know difference between foil and épée?”

“Yes, yes,” I said, nodding and mouthing the words with him.

“If you parry, I withdraw arm, extend again before I attack in redoublement,” he said, showing me with his blade in quick, sharply etched movements.

“That sounds French,” I said.

“Quiet!” he shouted and launched an attack at my chest so quickly I barely had time to parry. Only instead of relaxing his arm back into en garde he kept his arm extended and attacked again to my hip. I stumbled back just in time to parry his strike in seconde and retreated again, now off balance, parrying another attack to my shoulder in sixte, only the third time I was too slow and his point touched my upper arm. Nikolai didn’t stop. His momentum threw him forward and pushed his point into my flesh. I tripped over my feet and fell to the ground. My arm felt as though it had been pierced.

“Remise!” he said, looking down at me, anger seething out of his lips.

“Remise,” I repeated, my own anger building in return. I touched the bruised skin of my arm. There was some blood where the point had hit. It was sore and would be black and blue in the morning. “Remise,” I said again, quietly. The world slowed down and my senses expanded. I heard the rasping sound of gravel shifting beneath Nikolai’s front foot and the dull thudding of my heart. His breath was ragged. A high-pitched buzzing floated by one of my ears and passed around to the other.

It seemed impossible for such a large and out-of-shape man to move that fast. In drills he pushed me with his own attacks, but they were timed and rhythmic, beautiful in their own way and mesmerizing in their patterns, but never blinding in speed. I’d thought he was fast enough to touch me only if I made a mistake. Now, watching him walk awkwardly away from me, his shoulders slumping forward, his belly hanging again over his pants, my anger grew. “Why don’t you try that again?” I said, the words seeming to elongate out in front of me as if in a dream.

Nikolai stopped in his tracks, then turned to face me. “You want to fight me?” His words were crisp, dangerous.

“Yes,” I said.

->— Open Wounds, by Joseph Lunievicz


Q is for Quarta

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The guard that protects the high inside line. Each of the guards – or ways you stand when you’re in on guard position leaves open some areas and closes off others. Terza is the most common guard and protects the high and low outside but as long as you stand sideways with your left shoulder back leaves little open. Quarta protects the torso strongest. It also looks cool. In the image to the left imaging his palm is up and swung a little to the left…

According to Camillo Agrippa’s Trattato Di Scienzia d’ Armes’ (Milanese fencing master from 1550s also a mathematician) the ward/guard is most useful against adversaries who prefer cutting attacks to your left side. The guard position is more defensive in nature although it is also used to engage your opponent’s blade and set up for gliding type attacks (glissades).


P is for Pommel

French for little apple. It is the metal fixture that locks together the different parts of the weapon and acts as a counterbalance to the blade. It also means to strike, beat, bash, hit with the pommel.

If you want to see how well-balanced a weapon is try to find the place you can rest the weapon on two extended fingers.  It should balance a little past the hilt and the ricasso (the part of the blade just past the hilt that is not sharp and begins the forte). A well-balanced sword will swing easily and be controlled easily. It will feel right, not tip-heavy.

Pommels can be plain or ornate, or somewhere in-between – just like your characters.

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O is for Open Invitation

I have an itch. Anyone... anyone... a little help?

I have an itch. Anyone… anyone… a little help?

Open Invitation is a deliberate placement of the blade which exposes the entire body, intended to draw an attack from an opponent. This is a tactic a more experienced fencer usually takes against an opponent to throw them off their game or to try and make them make a mistake by making an obvious or rash move.

For example, I was fencing Coach Wrak (that’s really his name) in his backyard salle (fencing studio) where swords of all sorts hang from the walls in addition to his wife’s clothing, luggage, various exercise machines in various modes of disrepair, ancient torture devises (a cement brick with a rope tied to it and attached to a dowel that you hold in your hands and using wrist and forearm power tried to roll up), books (of which mine is one), stacks of fencing equipment, and a greenhouse looking ceiling and three walls, one of which is painted as a school mural with now curling strips of paint hanging off it. So… I was fencing Coach Wrak last Friday night and I was doing well, getting touches off his wrist and arm (we were fencing épée and the whole body is a target), scoring twice on straight attacks and once off of a deceive – and then there was the stop-thrust to the head that always cashes in for morale points. I was feeling cocky and he was getting a little frustrated – at least that’s how I’m reading it looking back. Then he gave me the open invitation – he relaxed a little in his on guard, opened his arms to show me his whole body was unprotected, and smiled at me, inviting me to attack.

I got nervous.

I attacked and stopped half-way into the thrust at his chest, which he’d left open. He waited, didn’t even defend – nerves of steel. The corner of his lip curled up. “What are you going to do now?” he asked, his Polish accent thick.

“Good question,” I answered and lunged straight for his chest.

He parried four.

I deceived to three.

He brought his blade back and caught me in three, riposte to my chest – touché.

This happened three more times. He left himself open but he was far from defenseless. I did not score touches again until he changed his guard.

He got into my head with his open invitation and I couldn’t get him out.

I couldn’t think of what to do because I could do anything. Too much freedom gave me brain freeze. He set a trap and I fell into it.

Wait until next week.

As a writer this kind of positioning is a wonderful opportunity to show character through choice of guard (or the way you hold your blade in on guard – know that every guard shuts off a line of attack and opens up another. Only the open invitation leaves them all open.). What does Coach Wrak’s choice speak to of his personality, confidence, skill level? What do my reactions and choices show of me. Okay, let’s not go there. I’m neurotic enough as it is. Anyway, you get the idea…