Have you heard the phrase before? If you’ve ever wondered about “trip the light fantastic,” it’s from Milton! But it was popularized in the old song “Sidewalks of New York.” It refers to nimble dancing. Which is what fencers like Jonathan do.
18. Trip The Light Fantastic Toe
As the end of October neared and the foliage around Parnell shifted from green to brilliant yellow and orange, Jennet drafted her publication of the papyrus and submitted it to Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, a small Classics journal devoted to first editions of new texts. She worried that given the nature of the document, the editors might demand carbon dates or ink analysis before putting their reputations on the line by publishing. Certainly they would require her to outline the document’s provenance, in order to demonstrate that it had not been recently and illegally exacavated.
Jonathan gave her photocopies of everything he could find in the way of records— two church bulletins mentioning the Bishop’s ownership of an “unpublished papyrus thought to be an Early Christian document,” and both wills in which the papyrus was mentioned. It had entered the country in the early years of the twentieth century, although nobody knew where Bishop Sebelius had obtained it. Probably he purchased it from a dealer whose wares, looted or otherwise, originated in the antiquities markets of Cairo. Yet as an item that had entered the country before 1970, it fell under the protection of the UNESCO convention on antiquities sales. She felt reasonably confident that there would be no repatriation claims, like those that had so bedeviled US museums in recent years. Greece, Italy, Turkey and Egypt usually focused their energies on recovering celebrated art objects rather than papyri, but one never knew.
On the off chance that Bishop Sebelius and his collection might be mentioned in some other archival records, she tried several Google searches, and instead turned up Jonathan’s name. Sebelius, it seemed, was not that common a name, once she excluded Kathleen Sebelius, a prominent Democratic politician who was also Swedish by ancestry. Jonathan was fencing in a regional tournament that culminated in the USA Fencing North American Cup competitions, and he was classified among the “Veterans,” which meant people over 40. Jennet was a little surprised to learn this; she had assumed that Jonathan was in his late thirties. The tournament, she read with interest, was to be held that very weekend in the Hutchinson Gymnasium at the University of Pennsylvania. She was free on Saturday, and she was curious. She had some errands to do in Philly, and decided to visit the campus at 11:00 am, the posted time of Jonathan’s event.
When she arrived in the gymnasium, she was surprised to find the bleachers only sparsely populated. She had pictured a good-sized crowd, and thought she would easily be able avoid notice. Immediately, however, she recognized Stefan and knew that he would see her too unless she ducked out quickly. She made her way over and sat beside him.
“Jennet! What an unexpected pleasure.” The old man looked thrilled at her sudden appearance, and took her hands as he greeted her. “How did you know about the tournament?”
“Serendipity,” she said. “Jonathan certainly didn’t tell me.”
“Of course not,” he replied, shaking his head. “He’s very good, you know. Jonathan was within a hair’s breadth of making the Olympic team in 1996,” he boasted. “Circumstances… got in the way. It’s been a lifelong regret for him, but he still loves the sport.”
“I don’t know a thing about fencing,” said Jennet. “It seems very romantic,” she added, looking on as some of the competitors milled about on the gym floor in their form-fitting white breeches and coats.
“It goes back to the Renaissance,” replied Stefan. “Jonathan uses the epée, which is the modern descendant of the rapier, the typical civilian sword in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”
“A dueling sword?” she asked. Stefan’s expression changed, as though he felt a sudden pain, and she looked at him with concern.
“Yes,” he finally said. “The epée has been an Olympic event since the beginning, though they only introduced the women’s epée about fifteen years ago. It’s a heavy weapon compared to the foil or saber, almost two pounds.”
Now the first bout was beginning, and the two combatants donned their steel mesh masks and stepped onto the piste, the long narrow strip that formed the field of combat. It was only slightly wider than a sidewalk. Each fencer was tethered to a reel of wire that extended and retracted as he moved forward and backward on the piste.
“What are those wires?” she asked. The fencers had wires sticking out the backs of their breeches as well.
“That’s for the scoring,” said Stefan. “The wire extends from the very tip of the epée all the way down through the grip, under their glove, and through the coat. It hooks up to the reel. When they score a touch, it sets off the machine.”
Now the referee said to the fencers: “On guard. Fight,” and they began to dance back and forth, weapons extended, each searching for an opening to land a hit on the other. There was much less clashing of swords than she expected, but the action, when it finally took place, was fast and vicious.
“No wonder they need the electric scoring,” she commented. “It all happens so quickly that I can’t see a thing.” After about ten minutes, Stefan grabbed her hand in excitement. “There he is.” Jonathan was standing on the floor, talking with some of the other fencers in his poule, the group within which he was competing. He wasn’t wearing his mask yet, but Jennet would have known him immediately, even if it had covered his face. The shape of his body, and the way he moved, were quite familiar to her now. She felt a visceral thrill at the sight of him. He cast a casual glance up toward the bleachers to acknowledge Stefan, and caught sight of Jennet. He stared for a moment, expressionless, and then donned his mask.
“Uh oh. He didn’t look pleased to see me,” she said uncertainly. “Should I go?”
Stefan turned his head to look at her. “Young lady, tell me what your feelings would be if you were a man, in Jonathan’s place.”
She considered this. “If I were a man? I suppose I’d want the woman to stay so she could see me win a match. And if I won, I’d want her to leave, just in case I started to lose.”
“You have good instincts,” he replied. “And never you worry. He’ll win.” Jennet laughed inwardly, thinking of how different men and women were. If she were a woman fencer, she’d want a man she was interested in to be there from start to finish— to cheer her on if she won, and comfort her if she lost. She wouldn’t worry a bit about impressing him, or dread being humiliated in front of him.
The bout began. Jonathan was matched against an opponent of similar body type, tall and lean. The long, muscular legs and shapely rear ends of both were shown to advantage in their breeches. Their tight coats were cut high at the waist in back, and descended in a V-shape down to the crotch in front. Suddenly the opponent lunged and tried to hit low, but made no contact.
“With all that stabbing going on, what’s protecting the family jewels?” she asked.
“They wear a cup,” said Stefan, chuckling. He didn’t seem abashed by her question. “At least, the ones who have any sense. I’ve seen a few who didn’t bother laid out writhing on the floor after a particularly well-landed touch to the groin.”
“Isn’t that unsportsmanlike, to hit someone there?”
“Oh no. With the epée, the entire body is the target area. Nothing’s off limits. They actually go very often for the hands and feet, since they’re extended, and closer as potential targets. Look!” Jonathan had just scored a touch on the opponent’s upper arm, or so she thought. The movement was so quick that she couldn’t be certain exactly what happened, but the machine buzzed and lighted up on his side. The referee started the bout again, and the pair continued their dance. According to Stefan, it would go on until nine minutes of competition passed, or until fifteen hits were scored.
The rivalry seemed to grow more intense now that both fencers had had a chance to size each other up. Each moved lightly on his feet, holding his torso almost sideways in order to present the smallest possible target area. The opponent scored a few touches, but Jonathan was by far the superior fencer, and very aggressive. Time and time again, he whipped his weapon lightly around to score on a toe, or parried a thrust by the opponent and immediately lunged forward with a stabbing motion, landing the tip of the epée on the opponent’s mask or torso. Once he moved all the way past the opponent so that they faced each other from opposite directions. His style on the piste reminded her, inescapably, of the way he made love. It was vigorous, athletic, aggressive… and yet there was delicacy and grace in all his movements. She began to feel aroused, remembering his touch.
Suddenly the bout was over and the two men removed their masks and shook hands. She saw Jonathan cast a surreptitious look at the bleachers to see if she had witnessed his triumph. Another pair positioned themselves on the piste and she turned to Stefan with a grin. “If he asks, tell him I was very impressed. It’s nothing less than the truth.”
He pressed her hand again, his eyes on his son. “Leave it to me,” he said.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: As you might guess, the research for this chapter was fascinating. Fencing is such an unexpected combination of tradition and modernity. Here’s a photo showing the electric wires they use to record touches in electric fencing.