Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES

The gods have pinched the idea from Dionysius the Elder and suspended a sword over my head. In the original version, however, it was for the duration of a single evening. Damocles must have sat there rather nervous and without his usual appetite but knowing that the danger would be over with the feast, as soon as he left his seat, unless the single hair from which the sword was suspended snapped before then. In my case the thing has been hanging over my head for the past six months, day and night, wherever I go, without showing any signs of disappearing.

I woke up one morning after a good night's sleep ( I had been sleeping alone that night) and, with my eyes still closed, took in large lungfulls of pure cool air coming in through the window open onto the garden and listened to the song of birds in the trees. Then I opened my eyes and saw a short naked sword suspended above me under the ceiling.
There is a borderline of sleep, when you are already awake while still seeing the end of a dream. I closed my eyes again, taking, however, the precaution of rolling to the other side of my wide bed. After a while I opened my eyes again and let them focus on the bedroom window and the tree behind it first. It was a beautiful morning. The green leaves were stirring in a light breeze, and, high above them, small white clouds were sailing in the sky. I was wide awake by now, and looked at the ceiling again.
The sword was still there. It had shifted exactly the distance I had rolled and was pointing at my chest again.
I took my eyes off it, went to the bathroom, took a cold shower, and dried myself vigorously with a coarse towel. Then I came back and looked at the tall ceiling above my empty bed. There was nothing there. I looked directly upwards.
The sword was above me, pointing at my head.
I picked up the phone and called my doctor. He is into research now, but, to support his work and his life style, keeps a few rich and not too hypochondriac patients. We are also good friends although he is older than me.
He was worried to hear my voice on the phone so early in the morning.
"No," I told him," physically, nothing wrong. Are you interested in hallucinations?"
"Yes, I am," he said."You, of all people?"
"Yes, all of a sudden. Just one object, but very clear and realistic."
"You haven't been drinking or taking any drugs?"
"No."
"And feeling allright otherwise?"
"Never better."
"I am on my way; be with you in half an hour."
"Thank you."

I rang for my butler and he entered carrying the morning glass of orange juice on a silver tray. He said "Good morning, sir" in his usual voice and walked towards me raising the tray as if to offer me the glass, but went on raising it and stopped right against me, with the tray over my head like a shield.
"Please step aside, sir," he said."I apologize for having suddenly fallen prey to hallucinations, but with your permission I would like to make quite sure that it's imaginary and not a real danger to you."
"You mean the sword?"
"Yes," he said with surprise."Do you see it too?''
"It may be a group hallucination. My doctor is already on his way here."

The doctor came in smiling, with his hand outstretched, then stopped in his tracks and the smile disappeared from his face.
"What on earth are you up to?" he said."This could be dangerous!"
He asked questions and we experimented. He agreed that the atmosphere was not conductive to mass hallucination - a bright blue morning, strong sunlight, nothing seemingly wrong with me. We called the servants one by one and each gave an identical description of the sword. The doctor went to the phone and asked several scientist friends of his to come over at once.
This sword is of the straight, short, wide-bladed type, and appears well made. There are no precious stones or metals in it, but it has breeding discernible to an expert at once. Its point looks sharp; backed by the sword's weight it should have no trouble killing me on the spot if it fell, even if it had to pierce the skull first.
The single hair from which it hangs is a long white one, probably a horse hair, stretched tightly under the sword's weight; its upper end seems to fade into thin air.
The committee of scientists took Polaroid photographs of the sword first of all. It came out as clear as any other object in the room, thus weakening the hallucination theory. Then they began to experiment with it. One of them got up on a chair and tried to touch it. He got something like an electric shock, not a sudden nasty one but a sort of tingling sensation starting about a foot away, growing stronger as his hand got nearer, and becoming unbearable an inch or two from the sword. The same happened when you brought a pair of scissors near the hair, an experiment to which I objected but was overruled in the interest of science. When one of the scientists put a pebble in a rubber catapult and took aim, the sword shifted momentarily from me to him. He did not shoot. The scientists visited me a few more times, without reaching any conclusion.

For a few days, all the papers carried pictures of me and my sword and I attracted a lot of attention wherever I went. After a while, however, everyone, including myself to some extent, got used to the sword, and the papers turned to other news. If anyone still questioned me about it in the street, I would pretend hardness of hearing, cup a hand to my ear, and bring my face close to his. As the sword always followed me, he would jump back in alarm and hastily end the conversation.

I also carried out some experiments of my own. First of all, I wanted to see what happened in a room not tall enough for the sword.
Under the staircase of my villa there is just such a room where your head almost touches the ceiling. I keep my old sporting equipment and similar stuff there. When I came in, the sword was nowhere to be seen. When I left, it was waiting for me outside.
The message was both clear and complimentary. The sword had no use for cramped victims and did not expect me to remain cooped up for any length of time.
I left the storeroom with my old army helmet under my arm. I had come across it in a corner and it gave me an idea for another experiment.
The helmet was dusty and I took it to the kitchen and went over it with a damp rag. Then I put it on and buckled the chin strap. The helmet and the dents in it brought on memories of the war. It had been a good helmet and had saved my life on a couple of occasions. It was certainly not going to be penetrated by a sword, and I wanted to see how mine would react to it.
The sword shifted slightly to the front and began a slow pendulum swing: towards me, away from me, towards me, away. If the hair snapped on a forward swing, the weapon would go into my chest or shoulder at an angle, bypassing the helmet. It was obviously no use trying to fool it.

My interest in the sword was threefold. First the technical aspect. I thought about the cross-section and strength of horse hair, and calculated the acceleration and impact of a given mass falling from a given height and how deep it would penetrate into flesh or bone. (Deep enough.)
Then came the type of the sword, the period to which it belonged, and its country of origin. I could not place it exactly. Although devoid of decoration it had the lines and proportions of a very fine weapon with a perfect balance; something made to order for someone who.understood such things and could afford them. The horsehair which supported it rang all sorts of bells: its use for fishing lines and snares before plastics were invented; violin bows; horsehair ropes; peasants in Russia tying a strand of horse hair onto their penis to increase the woman's enjoyment of the sexual act.
But above all there was the sword and myself, this particular weapon in relation to this particular man. There were all sorts of associations, connections, memories. For example this sword was rather similar to the one I had carried during the war and which was now hibernating, well greased, in a dark corner of the storeroom next to my helmet; so that I knew, without having ever touched the one over my head, how it felt in the hand, how it sounded against armour and other swords, and how it cut through flesh and bone. A couple of similar swords had made the dents in my helmet, and a third one left the manly scar on my cheek.

I wondered why the gods had chosen me to suspend this sword over.
True, I had shown them a lot of disrespect in word and deed, but so had many others. Perhaps mine was tinged with a bit more persistence and cheek than they were ready to take. Or perhaps an example had to be made of someone and I just happened along, in which case my prospects were grim because, having failed to reform me, the sword would have to fall one day to drive the point in, no pun intended. To reform me it certainly failed. I remember that one of my first reactions to the situation was slight contempt, not unmixed with fear: gods stealing ideas from mortals, lack of imagination, and so on.
It was unavoidable that after a while I should get used to the sword to some extent. People get used to driving lorries with nitroglycerin, and the sword was no worse than that. I even began to look at it as a companion, not unlike a dog one takes for a walk on a leash.
At home, I would hold long conversations with the sword - monologues of course - and the fact that it did not talk back made me even more tolerant of it. I was careful to keep my remarks about gods within the limits of good manners, without, however, any arse-licking. From a comfortable armchair, a drink in one hand and a good cigar in another, I would inform the sword that human life is not measured in years but in what one manages to squeeze into them. A poor man can't buy the things he wants, and a famous and rich one has to watch his step. Being free, rich, and adventurous, I had already lived longer than most people my age, so that whenever the sword fell, it would fall too late. In the meantime, it had good influence on me. I found myself planning my life even more efficiently than before, and enjoying it more.

However, in one respect at least, the sword proved to be a damned nuisance: women. Being handsome, young, intelligent, and rich, I never had any trouble taking them to bed. But ever since this sword had appeared out of thin air, difficulties began to crop up.
So long as an intimate dinner for two at my villa was in progress, all was fine. Then, as I drew near, questions would be asked. Did I have any idea whether, if the sword was to fall, it would do so by day or at night? And if it happened at night, could it go right through me and, er, whoever happened to be below me as well?
"Nonsense," I would say. "This swift death, if it ever comes, is meant as punishment for me, for the disrespect I had shown the gods; but they are just, and would not let anyone innocent perish with the sinner, would they?"
Upon this, most of my fair guests would quickly pack up and go home, and the ones who stayed would make love frigidly and absentmindedly, paying more attention to the sword than me. There was one exception, however, an old mistress of mine whose visits the sword was unable to stop or spoil. Physically, she was one of the most beautiful women in the land, and mentally a match for any man. We had long been both lovers and friends, and our lesser love-affairs did not spoil anything between us. If I ever got married it would be to her, and I always imagined my children with her eyes and hair.
It was she who first challenged the sword. One night, as we were resting in each other's arms, me still on top and inside her, and the sword at its usual post under the ceiling, she spoke to it over my shoulder, in her lovely voice, always even sweeter and softer after lovemaking:
"Come on," she said,"fall. Do you think we are scared? There are worse things, you know; there's old age, and stinking diseases, and deaths in muddy trenches, and invalid chairs. Fall, we dare you. You are not falling? What are you - a goat tied by the leg? Look", she pushed me aside, " look at these breasts and legs; those who had sent had taken a lot of trouble to alight upon such things - as swans, as golden rain - come on, let's see you fall!" And then she laughed. I braced myself for a stab under my left shoulder blade, but nothing happened. The sword, silent as always, stayed under the ceiling, and a little later a nightingale began to sing in the garden.

The next morning I noticed some slight, almost imperceptible change in the sword. If it were a plant I would say it had wilted a little. There was a sort of tarnish to it, the kind aluminium or stainless steel take upon prolonged contact with air. And then I set to work.
I went into the junk room and brought out my own sword and a my rucksack. From the rucksack I removed the light metal frame with the shoulder straps. To this frame I attached vertically two light bamboo poles about six feet tall and joined them at the top with a shorter crosspiece, from which I suspended my own sword, using a single strand of horse hair, admittedly the thickest and strongest I could find. Then I carefully put the contraption on and went for a walk. My own sword was now suspended over my head side by side with the one supplied by the gods.

The people in the street stared at me with renewed interest, and after a while I met a friend.
"What on earth is this?" he asked.
"Tchah," I said nonchalantly."One sword, two swords, what's the difference? Let no one think they have monopoly on old ideas."
"What two swords?" he asked.
Very slowly and carefully, I looked up. There was only my own sword up there. The other one had disappeared.
"Help me to get this thing off," I asked him.
For the rest of that day, and frequently for a long time aftewards, I would look up, expecting the sword to return. But it never did.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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