Around the time I turned nine, Mother invented the Knife Game. She would plop something––a cucumber, an eggplant, or whole fish––and challenge me to slice, dice, or filet; choose the proper tool and make a masterpiece. I’d learned the art from watching her shave a pumpkin or flay shitakes until they resembled entire city landscapes or celebrities. It was my time to learn, hers to teach, what a cootie wasn’t, why boys weren’t gross.
When I was eleven, she gifted me my first wooden block, stuffed it with bayonets that we named. Michelin, the King, a regal forged chef’s blade; tapered to a point, she taught me to rock him back and forth for a quick mince or chop of herbs and used his versatile steel arm to slice thin sheets of tough meats. Slow and focused, that’s how you excel. The utility and knave, Lilith, her narrow tip handled less worthy tasks such as trimming and filleting. Don’t judge value by usefulness. We never confused her with Andre, the boning knife. His smaller stature lent preciseness ideal for separating meat from bone. Small gestures make a man. But due to my young, fumbly fingers, we relegated him to peeling and paring vegetables until I reached my teens. Don’t rush through life, enjoy each moment as it unfolds.
My favorite was Generosa, the bread knife––toothy, long, elegant––she sawed through crusty loaves and dense cakes with nary crumb nor squish, in direct contrast to bulky Timothy, the cleaver. His thick spine and wide blade crushed small skeletons, sliced hard-shelled gourds, pulverized fish carcasses, and flattened garlic. Their daughter, Mignon, the paring knife, a perfect foil with her speared tip like a tiny beak; she nicked splendid garnishes and offered precise peels. Strong families weather fierce storms.
At sixteen, we added Raoul, my first filletier. Not to be confused with Andre or Lilith, Raoul’s thin flexibility meant he was used entirely to cut sashimi-style fish slices. Thin blades make the deepest cuts. Finally, the soldiers, sibling steak knives who guarded the block, sitting sentry at the foot next to the overbearing shears whose usefulness I didn’t appreciate until adulthood and stopped the silly names; but if I had named her, it would have been something sturdy, versatile, and patient, such as Jane, or Mother.
Like memory, blades dull with age; mold settles in the hilts, arthritis in the joints. I relegated the block to a corner of the attic; Mother to the Everglades Home for the Infirm; both packed away with old quilts, dogeared books, and dusty letters. Last week, she’d been found roaming in a nearby park, naked. The week before, she’d claimed to be on the hunt for bigfoot. A month before, she swore iguanas fell from the sky, and that she’d returned a book to the library she’d checked out over eighty years ago. She speaks of these events as if they are true, and I can’t bear to teach her anything new.
Man, I wish my mother had gifted me knives. I built my collection over time. I love the care and specificity you take to describe each knife and imbue them with personality. The knives become family that gets shut up in the attic like the mother gets packed away to the Everglades. That final paragraph packs a punch!
Alex, I really love “Lifesliced”—I learned so much about knives and literally started thinking about how maybe upping my knife game would help my cooking and chopping expediency—but I was not expecting the turn the story takes in the last paragraph! I think maybe I should have figured it out a bit more, that this was supposed to prepare me: “the overbearing shears whose usefulness I didn’t appreciate until adulthood and stopped the silly names; but if I had named her, it would have been something sturdy, versatile, and patient, such as Jane, or Mother.” When I was going back to reread, that one modifier, “overbearing,” really stuck out in a way I hadn’t expected. There’s so much great writing when it comes to describing each of the knives, their names, and what their purpose signifies, that I saw it much more positively. Even that opening line: “Mother invented the Knife Game,” seemed delightful and fun—a way to participate in the kitchen and learn from a wise, talented, and competent woman.
And there’s so much wonder that the story inspires: “I’d learned the art from watching her shave a pumpkin or flay shitakes until they resembled entire city landscapes or celebrities.” And the skill! One of my favorite moments there was “with nary crumb nor squish” with Generosa and her teeth. Honestly, I could read you writing about knives, their purposes and names, all day.
And the mother’s words in italics struck me as very wise without being overbearing (I really liked the way you wove those phrases in—so elegant and seemingly effortless and so easy to interpret as the reader).
But back to that sentence about the shears! In addition to “overbearing,” there’s also “I didn’t appreciate until adulthood,” but the narrator is an adult and an appreciator. So why the sense of locking away the blades, the board, and Mother? Consider whether there’s something—a narrative beat or an explanation—that seems missing here in this exceptional piece of writing.
Thank you for sharing “Lifesliced.”
Alex I love the building of relationship through this activity. I had a similar one with my grandfather. He made matchstick houses, and while it wasn’t something I do, so much of my relationship with him is entangled with this activity. I agree with Wendy regarding the shears. Maybe worth looking at because this is so wonderful. Connie