THE TOSS OF THE CLEAVERESS • by J. Everett Feinberg

“And now, for our next act, please welcome to the stage… Gertrude, the Cleaveress of the Rhineland!”

The attending crowd clapped politely as a stout and simply-dressed woman took the steps onto the circular platform. Spotlights of reflected candleflame lit the stage, highlighting her deep red hair, matching the color of the tent overhead. Hanging from the hooks around her waist were a great many swaying cleavers.

“That’s a lot of woman,” Sticks noted. “I like her.”

“Not my type,” said Weyland.

“I say if one woman’s good, one and a half is better.” He chuckled.

They were sitting side-by-side in the audience benches — old peanut shells underfoot, the smell of ale thick in the air. Sticks had to dodge and crane his neck to see the stage.

“Watch!” the stagemaster cried. “Witness Gertrude’s unerring aim! Her shocking power! Her prodigious speed!”

There was a target on the stage. In one efficient movement, Gertrude retrieved a cleaver from its hook, pulled back her arm, and threw. It struck two-inches deep into the red-painted bullseye.

“Who ever heard of a cleaveress?” said Weyland.

“Quite a talent, really,” Sticks admitted. “Look at her go.”

A stagehand placed another target behind Gertrude. She turned and threw — another bullseye.

“Yes,” the old stagemaster declared, his tailcoat garish, his hat tall and black. “Poor Gertrude’s is a tragic story.” He leaned upon his cane. “Oldest daughter to the village butcher; responsible, punctual, always taking tender care of her little brothers and sisters, always there to help dear Father in the work of his trade. She was to be wed to the chandler’s boy at eighteen.”

“That’s funny,” Weyland said. “You know, I had a thing with a butcher’s girl once.”

“Did you?”

“Dark-haired girl. Wasn’t more than a cut of rump roast off Gertrude there.”

Sticks laughed and slapped his knee.

“Yes, young Gertrude’s life was set on its proper course — everything accounted for, all the details planned. Until a day came when all her moral rectitude and faithful industry were overcome at once — by one, simple trick.” The stagemaster smiled wistfully. “Love.”

More targets had been placed around the stage. The Cleaveress was throwing steadily, alternating between them, filling the spaces in their centers.

“I’d like to see what you looked like as a lad,” Sticks said. “I bet you did pretty well.”

“You want to see, just look,” Weyland said. “I haven’t aged a day.”

“Lean, handsome, and tall,” the stagemaster pronounced, “the young country swain was desired by every womanwest of the Rhine.” He held up a slow finger. “But he had eyes only for Gertrude.”

The speaker made a show of turning away, abashed.

“They had their… dalliance,” he said. “But when the moon had passed and rose again — when Gertrude realized the full nature of her… embarrassment… her young love was not to be found.”

“So what happened, then?” Sticks asked.

“What happened what?”

“With the butcher girl.”

“Her?” Weyland said. “Nothing. Just sowing oats is all it was.”

Targets were being placed on stands, hung up onto pulleys and cranes. Two low tables were brought out, each covered with gleaming cleavers. Gertrude undid her belt of empty hooks, tossing it aside to be caught by a harried stagehand.

“With no one to wed her, poor Gertrude was left with no choice. The child could not be hers. She would have to give up the baby, her precious baby boy. It was to be the price of her youthful transgression.” The stagemaster shook his head sadly, tapping his cane upon the stage. “And so the young babe was taken — taken for some other woman’s miracle.”

The targets began to move — slowly, circling the stage, orbiting the cleaveress high and low, as the pulleys squeaked and the wood supports groaned — and as they went Gertrude threw, wide blades flashing in flight. The targets thunked and shuddered with each blow.

And the eyes of the Cleaveress flicked in Weyland’s direction.

“Did you see that?” Weyland asked.

“I’m watchin’. She sure can throw the hell outta those things. Impressive cleavage, you might say.” Sticks laughed alone. He looked to Weyland, faltered. “Did you get it?”

The speaker began to move across the stage, his gestures growing broader, even as Gertrude’s blades flew to either side of his head.

“In her shame Gertrude’s hate found its foundry,” he said, his voice burning. “She could stay no more! She had to leave, leave her home. To get far away from those whose scorn fell upon her each and every day.” He struck his cane to the floor. “And in that way she came to the stage. Knife throwers?” The stagemaster sneered. “A dime for every dozen.”

The targets began to move faster; the stagehands pumped their pulleys and turned their cranks, and around and around they went. The Cleaveress found a fresh blade for each, sweat beading her forehead.

Weyland noticed that the woman’s hair was actually colored with powder. It was the sweat — a reddish-pink tint now dappled her brow. In fact, he saw, the roots of her hair were black. Black. Black like…

And then Weyland took a good, long look at the face of Gertrude the Cleaveress.

Weyland stood suddenly, sweat running down beneath his arms. He turned, pressing his way quickly through the seated crowd, pushing past knees and stepping on feet, bringing curses and indignant cries.

“Where you off to?” Sticks called. But he didn’t stop.

“And it is Gertrude’s burning shame which propels her arm to this day,” the stagemaster cried, as the blades flew all around him. “That, and the hope that she might, one day, find the lover who left her loveless, with nothing.”

Weyland struck a boot and tipped forward; an angry man shoved him back and he righted, turning to face the stage. Helen was staring back at him — her chest heaving, sweat pouring, the final blade in her hand. Helen, the butcher’s girl.

“And to cleave him to her at last.”

J. Everett Feinberg is a writer and poet based in Denver, Colorado. He enjoys staying home and avoiding adventures whenever possible. You can find him on Twitter @JEverettFein.

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