Out came Jenny Balak, and out came the knives. Within seconds there was a cloud of them in the air above her head, at centre court of the school gymnasium, and the children were riveted. Clinking around among the rafters and asbestos-furred piping, the knives flashed silver in the gym’s yellow light, that whole great razory cluster hovering and thrashing like some airborne metal beast.
Ten more knives went up, twenty, thirty. From what seemed like nowhere, Jenny Balak conjured another fistful just as the whole thing looked ready to plummet, and up the fresh batch flew, and chink chink chink all those blades collided, the ones from below clanking into the ones about to tumble down, and the whole great tangle was swept aloft: slashing, jingling, alive. All those knives in the air, and still more knives in the air. Eighty, ninety, 100 knives in the air.
How’d she do it? The children didn’t dare ask. Not one of them, grades K to six—nearly 300 students in all—made a peep. Each and every kid just sat there cross-legged on the gymnasium’s parquet, agog and spellbound by the knives of Jenny Balak, a grinning figure in a cyan velour jumpsuit and pumps. Even Yusuf Abdullah, the hysterical malcontent who once threw a stapler at Miss Wong for calling him Joey, who panicked during a math test and barfed into his desk, who wept so often he had a pocket just for tissues, was rapt. Right at the front he sat, with Miss Wong behind him, her hands on his shoulders, as silent and still as the white, dead winter outside.
Jenny Balak herself seemed barely to move; the trick was all flicks, and the flicks were all wrist. There were two sets of knives: the ones she had thrown up first in a ringing scuttle of metal, and a second, bottom layer. It was the latter she juggled, resolutely, to keep the other knives up. And so it went, more or less, Jenny Balak’s trick of a hundred knives in the air.
The gym smelled of socks and pee and the salmony tang of lunches past. The children sat in two neat rectangles with an aisle down the middle and their teachers around the periphery in folding chairs. From the hallway, the custodians, Newton and Brocklehurst, peered through the wire-meshed window in the gymnasium door, expressions of wonder surrounding their moustaches.
With the miracle suspended above clanging like a gamelan, at last Jenny Balak spoke: “Did you ever hear the story about the knife that couldn’t cut? ”
A few of the younger kids shook their heads.
“Well! There was this knife that couldn’t cut anything,” said Jenny Balak, flipping a bejewelled kirpan to catch a tumbling Ginsu. “The knife’s name was Gregory, and because he couldn’t cut anything Gregory felt lousy. All of his friends and family could chop through pretty much anything—lettuce, pork, cardboard boxes, you name it. And here was poor Gregory, who couldn’t even slice his way through a loaf of bread.”
The children nodded. They knew how Gregory felt.
“No one was mean to Gregory. This was a nice community of knives. Everyone slept together on a long magnetic strip, and during the day they would work together at cutting. Gregory was still a young knife, so he was enrolled in cutting school—a school just like this one, with classrooms and lunchtime and recess and field trips (though to places like the sharpening depot rather than, say, a museum), but instead of learning how to add and subtract and read and write, the students were taught cutting. And poor Gregory failed every class, every exam, every pop quiz and test. No matter how good his teachers were, he just couldn’t learn how to cut.”
Up she chucked a machete into the clattering swarm.
“But,” she continued, “this was a nice community, and everyone was very supportive. The other young knives and his teachers would say, ‘Don’t worry, Gregory, we love you just the way you are.’ And so it wasn’t anyone else who was making Gregory feel lousy. But he sure did feel lousy. It drove him crazy that he couldn’t do what came to everyone else so easily. What was the point of being a knife if you couldn’t cut?
“At home, Gregory’s father decided to take things into his own hands—or, you know, blade. He was confident that all his son needed to do was cut something—anything—just once, and he’d get his confidence up and soon be acing all his classes and cutting with the best of them. As a youngster, Gregory’s father had struggled to peel apples and pears, always too eager and chopping right through to the core. Cutting was a learned skill. Perhaps all his son needed was a little boost. And so his father left a pat of butter on a windowsill, where it sat in the sun for an entire day. By the time Gregory came home from school the butter was basically mush. ‘There’s no way he won’t be able to cut this butter,’ thought his father. ‘I could cut it with my handle!’ He showed Gregory how to slide into the butter and ease down. A pat sheared away just like that. Then—whoops!”
A sickle rattled to the ground and lay there glinting between her pumps. A dropped knife! The mass above wobbled; the children exchanged worried glances. But Jenny Balak calmly kicked the sickle to a place between her feet, wedged the handle between her high heels and snapped her ankles together: it popped up to chest level and from there was whisked into the cloud. The children cheered wildly and stomped their feet. This Jenny Balak was really something!
“Where was I? ” she said. “Oh, yes—the butter. Gregory very much wanted to impress his father, but he looked at the butter, and it didn’t look soft or easy to cut at all. When he placed the edge of his blade where his father showed him, it felt as hard as a windowpane. ‘Go on,’ said his father. ‘Cut.’ But Gregory knew it was hopeless. Try as he might, the butter simply wouldn’t give. His father ran Gregory against a sharpener until his edge glinted as fine and deadly as a guillotine. ‘Try it now,’ he said. But it didn’t matter how sharp Gregory was; he couldn’t cut the butter, which by now had melted into a gooey yellow puddle that Gregory was just spreading around. His father sighed. ‘That’s okay, son,’ he said. ‘Not everyone was born for cutting.’ ”
A trickle of sweat was threading its way from Jenny Balak’s temple down her cheek. She dipped her face to the side and rubbed it against the shoulder of her jumpsuit, staining the velour navy. Then she was right back to the knives, which continued to thrash around, thirty feet above. The clock by the door said 11:05. For almost ten minutes now there’d been a hundred knives in the air.
“A few days later, Gregory’s mother decided to have a go,” Jenny continued. “She knew the teachers were busy at the cutting school, what with all the other young knives, so perhaps some extra tutelage was all her son needed. She suggested some exercises: sawing and slashing and dicing and slicing. Gregory, being a dutiful son, did the exercises every morning for a whole month. At the end of the month his mother brought him a piece of string, stretched it as taut as she could, and gently told her son to cut it in half.”
Jenny Balak was starting to slump a little at the knees. Her voice sounded gaspy. Was she slowing? Was she getting tired? And had the cloud of knives sunk a foot or two?
She continued: “Gregory thought about the exercises he’d done, straightened his blade, positioned himself above the string, swung down as hard as he could—and bounced off the string and fell with a clang onto the countertop. But after all that extra work, it seemed silly to quit so easily. He picked himself up and tried again—and again, the string sent him flying away. ‘Try sawing it,’ suggested his mother. So Gregory settled his blade upon the string, which was so taut it twanged, and began sawing. He sawed and sawed and sawed. He sawed so hard that the string began to smoke, and his mother had to jump in before a fire started. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Maybe that’s enough for today.’ Although he’d left a black smudge on it, Gregory hadn’t so much as dented the string. That night, all the other knives slept deep and happy sleeps, exhausted from the triumphant cutting they’d done that day. Way at the end of the magnetic strip, on his own, Gregory lay awake, wondering what use it was being a knife if you couldn’t cut anything—and it seemed you never would.”
Something had changed. Jenny Balak had a heavy way about her now. Why had her story gotten so sad? The children began to wish she hadn’t told it. Instead, the knives could have had some musical accompaniment—an accordion maybe—or she could have tap danced, or told some jokes. Why depress people with something that wasn’t even real?
It was 11:15. At 11:30, all the classes would return to their homerooms. Lunch was back in the gym at noon. At the thought of lunch, the children’s stomachs growled. The parquet was hard and cold. They grew restless and began to squirm, their thoughts shifting to food and escape.
But Jenny Balak kept going: “And so Gregory gave up trying to cut anything. He became withdrawn and sombre. His blade lost its shine. He stopped going to school; he just lay around on the countertop all day. He began hanging out in the cutlery drawer with some ill-matched rusty forks who bullied the teaspoons. Gregory’s parents were at a loss. ‘I don’t know what to do with that boy,’ said his father. ‘If only his life had some purpose,’ said his mother. But neither of them could think what this purpose might be. All they knew was cutting, and if a knife couldn’t cut—well, there was spreading, they supposed, but that was a bit like using a cheese grater to prop up a cookbook, as the saying went.”
A knife fell just then. It was a big one, a ten-inch butcher’s special, and it nosedived out of the cloud and stuck point-first into the parquet, where it shuddered and thrummed. Jenny Balak glanced down at it, then up at the ceiling, then back at the knife. To fill the gap, she shuffled a box cutter into the cloud’s lower hemisphere—and another blade fell, a butterfly knife that unfurled and scuttled away. Sweat flowed from her temples and dripped once, twice, onto the floor.
Miss Wong stood. “Why don’t we all scoot back about three bum lengths, everyone,” she said in her singsong teacher’s voice. “Let’s give Jenny Balak some room.” Miss Wong swept her arms in a herding motion, and all the children moved, and the teachers moved with them. The only person who stayed put was Yusuf Abdullah, a little island up front with no one else around.
“No, it’s okay,” said Jenny Balak, “everything’s fine.” But she sounded desperate. Gone was the steady assurance that had lulled her audience at first, replaced by something worried and worrying. The knives seemed even lower now, too, and they flashed at irregular intervals like stray electric discharges from a gathering storm. Beneath them, Jenny Balak performed the staggering two-step of a centre fielder negotiating a pop fly: over here to catch this knife, now over there, now back again. Her jumpsuit had darkened in all the most embarrassing places.
“Where was I? ” asked Jenny Balak in a strangled sort of voice. “Had Gregory tried to cut the string yet? ”
No one said anything. The gymnasium clock read 11:20. Newton and Brocklehurst were gone. The children longed for lunch and freedom. This Jenny Balak character, she was really getting them down.
“Oh, right, of course!” Jenny Balak laughed, but it was a thin, frantic laugh. “We’re—we’re well past that part, aren’t we? Let’s see, wasn’t Gregory off on his own—oh, wait, no, we’re not quite there yet! And now I’ve given that part away—”
A scalpel came pinwheeling free and Jenny Balak’s gasp, sharp and quick, could be heard all the way at the back of the gym.
Three knives had now fallen (four if you count the one Jenny Balak had so expertly re-lifted). The butcher knife stood with its tip wedged in the wood-panelled floor, and the butterfly knife lay ten feet to her right in a yawning Y, and the scalpel sat near it, clinical and severe. The ninety-seven remaining knives hung not much higher than the basketball nets. Without being asked to, all the children eased away from Jenny Balak another few feet—though again Yusuf Abdullah stayed exactly where he was.
“Okay,” said Jenny Balak, lunging to catch a rusty dagger—and dropping it with a cry. A line on her palm opened and filled with blood. The children looked at the dagger, lying there guiltily on the gymnasium floor, and back at Jenny Balak, who winced now as she caught each tumbling knife. When she flung them back up, blood spattered her jumpsuit, the droplets as red and glossy as rubies.
It was nearly 11:25.
From the back of the gym came movement. The kindergarten class was collected and shepherded out the door. As they left, Jenny Balak called, “Thanks for coming,” and dropped four more knives. One hit her foot, though thankfully it didn’t cut through her pump—a butter knife.
Next to leave were the grade ones and twos, who eased in soundless single file into the hallway. Their exit had the discipline and austerity of a fire drill—a regimented, careful escape. But Jenny Balak kept staring upward. She groaned slightly as a bread knife clattered to the floor behind her—and had to leap out of the way when a cleaver plunged straight for her face. As she moved, she dropped a half-dozen more knives. The parquet looked like a cutlery sale.
Blood speckled Jenny Balak’s jumpsuit. Her hair was slick and dark with sweat. She wasn’t telling the story of the knife that couldn’t cut. She wasn’t saying anything. Her performance had turned grim. Still more students left, the door wagging saloon-style: the grade threes, then the fours, then the fives.
By 11:28, the crowd had dwindled to only Miss Wong’s grade sixes, and nearly half the knives had fallen. With her students lining the back wall, Miss Wong anxiously watched Jenny Balak, the clock, and Yusuf Abdullah, who hadn’t moved, but sat in the same spot, right at the front of the gymnasium, alone and transfixed.
Jenny Balak went into her closing routine. She tucked the remaining knives away, one by one—where? It was unclear. They simply vanished, just as they’d so miraculously been conjured. And there Jenny Balak stood, surrounded by dropped knives, bleeding and sweating, her chest heaving. “Ta-dah,” she said weakly.
Yusuf Abdullah sprang to his feet. He whistled and hooted and clapped, the smack of his hands echoing through the gymnasium. No one joined him.
Jenny Balak bowed.
“Hooray!” shrieked Yusuf Abdullah. “Hooray! Hooray!”
“Thank you,” said Jenny Balak. “I wish—” but the rest was drowned by the bell. The grade sixes flooded into the hallway.
Yusuf Abdullah beamed at Jenny Balak—but someone was calling his name. Miss Wong stood at the door, holding it open. “Come on, we have to go,” she said, and nodded at Jenny Balak. “Very interesting performance. Very . . . unique.”
Stooping in a pained, slow way, Jenny Balak began collecting the fallen knives. She cradled her injured hand in her armpit, mingling sweat and blood in a slick, wet smear over her velour-covered heart. Yusuf Abdullah walked up to her and removed a stack of tissues from his pocket. “For your hand,” he said, and introduced himself.
“Much obliged,” said Jenny Balak, “Yusuf Abdullah.”
Miss Wong called again. But Yusuf Abdullah just stared at Jenny Balak. He seemed to shiver, and then he was reaching out to touch her. Miss Wong sprung forward and wrapped the boy from behind, pinning his arms to his sides. “Come now,” she hissed, and dragged him out the door, abandoning Jenny Balak to the empty gymnasium.
In the hallway, the tantrum began. Yusuf Abdullah went limp in Miss Wong’s arms, then collapsed to the floor. Lying on his back, he began to thrash and convulse, to punch and scream and kick. Miss Wong recoiled, calling for the custodians.
Newton and Brocklehurst arrived on the scene in identical low crouches, hands forming claws, like two mustachioed Lords of the Dance.
Something bright flashed in Yusuf Abdullah’s fist—a knife!
“Weapon!” cried Newton. “Weapon!” confirmed Brocklehurst, as per their training.
Not just any weapon: Jenny Balak’s butterfly knife.
“Stop him before he hurts himself!” screamed Miss Wong.
Newton nodded at Brocklehurst, and from either side the two men dove upon Yusuf Abdullah. Newton clutched the boy’s wrist while Brocklehurst wrestled the knife from his fingers. “Got it,” he panted, folding the blade and handing it to Miss Wong. “Another triumph,” grunted Newton, who then climbed off the boy and helped him to his feet.
Through the window into the gymnasium, Jenny Balak watched as Yusuf Abdullah was escorted down the hallway, the custodians flanking him like bailiffs.
In chairs outside the principal’s office sat Yusuf Abdullah and Jenny Balak, the latter awaiting her performance fee, the former his punishment—a suspension or worse. His father had been summoned. Behind the closed door, Miss Wong was explaining the situation to Mr. Abdullah, a small, tired man who had arrived trailing snow and had yet to remove his winter gear, even his gloves.
The office clock read 12:15. Elsewhere in the school, lunch would be happening, brown bags torn open and gutted, garbage bins stuffed until overflowing with plastic wrap and sandwich crusts and juice boxes. Trades would be made: a pudding cup for a yogourt, a baseball card for a pop. The sounds would be a burble of voices and the rubbery smack of lunch meat. But in the office, things were hushed.
Yusuf Abdullah’s eyes were red and swollen. The corners of his mouth were dabbed with white crust. Courtesy of the custodial medical kit, Jenny Balak’s hand had received disinfection and bandaging; Newton and Brocklehurst had supervised its wrapping until the fingers disappeared into a gauzy mitt. Then the custodians headed off to pilot their mops up and down the school hallways, leaving the floors glistening and slick.
“Hey,” Jenny Balak told Yusuf Abdullah. “Don’t worry, we all have our bad days.”
Yusuf Abdullah stared at her. “How’d you do that trick? ”
“It’s not a trick. Not exactly.”
“It’s not? Is it actual magic? ”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I learned it from my mom.”
“Yeah. Though she would have been ashamed of me today.” She held up her wounded hand, then let it fall in her lap.
“Is your mother dead? ”
“No, not dead. Just retired.”
“Oh. And your father? ”
“My dad? Retired or dead? ”
“No, alive. Is he alive? Is he nice? ”
“He . . . is.”
“Good,” Yusuf Abdullah nodded. “And the knives? What keeps them up? ”
“Hope, I suppose,” said Jenny Balak. “And a bit of luck.”
“But it’s bad luck when they fall.”
Jenny Balak laughed. “It is indeed.”
“And what do they mean? ”
The boy regarded her plaintively, eyes wide. He seemed almost fearful or, no—penitent. “They must mean something.”
“Sure—they mean something to me. Don’t they mean something to you too? ”
“Maybe, but do I have to tell you what? ”
“Absolutely not. That’s your business, friend.”
Yusuf Abdullah nodded. He seemed satisfied with this. “Can I ask you another thing? ”
“How does that story end, about the boy who was alone? ”
“The knife that couldn’t cut? ”
“Oh, it has a very good ending.”
“A happy ending? ”
Jenny Balak thought about this for a moment. “No. Not a happy ending, not exactly. But a good ending. The right ending.”
“I can’t tell you just the ending! I’ll have to start from the beginning, all over again.”
Yusuf Abdullah peered at the closed office door, behind which could be heard the faint, sombre murmur of voices discussing his fate. “Do we have time? ”
“To get to the end? Maybe not,” said Jenny Balak. She resisted telling him that, whatever you do, there’s never enough time.
The boy was lost in thought, pursing his lips and gazing at some indeterminate spot on the floor just beyond his knees. He looked up. “Tell it anyway.”
“The whole story? From the beginning? ”
“The whole story, from the beginning. Even if we can’t make it. But please, Jenny Balak,” said Yusuf Abdullah, taking her wounded hand gently in both of his own, “please, please, please—will you try to get all the way to the end? ”
This appeared in the July/August 2015 issue.