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Blog

The Fifty Year Sword

Abby Jarvis

fiftyyearsword

In Mark Z. Danielweski’s novella The Fifty Year Sword, a recently-divorced seamstress named Chintana attends a 50th birthday party for her husband’s mistress, Belinda Kite. A storyteller at the party tells Chintana and several orphans the story of his epic quest for a mysterious weapon, the Fifty Year Sword. The invisible sword cuts every victim just like a non-magical sword, but with one catch; the wounds inflicted by the blade don’t manifest themselves until the victim turns fifty years old. Belinda Kite, in a bid to prove to the frightened children that the story is hogwash, slashes herself repeatedly with the sword. Later that night, as she and her guests toast her 50th birthday, Belinda falls apart piece by piece, a victim of her bravado and the Fifty Year Sword.

The story is full of images pertaining to the cutting, slicing, and severing of threads while characters try ceaselessly to bind up the pieces. Chintana heals a gash on her thumb and the wound of her recent divorce, the storyteller goes on a dark quest to heal an unknown grudge, and Belinda Kite falls to pieces while Chintana tries desperately to hold her together. The characters flounder in the aftermath of violence, haphazardly stitching themselves together before the next round of chaos or despair. Their efforts invariably fail.

It is interesting that Danielewski’s book deals so extensively with stitching and sewing. For millennia, mankind has been preoccupied with weaving, stitching, and mending. Some of the earliest recorded gods and goddesses in history were dedicated to those arts; the goddess Ixchel from the Mayan civilization, the Greek Muses, Frigg and the Norns from Norse legends, and the Navajo’s Spider Woman are all mythical weavers. They wove men, their destinies, and the universe itself. Thread and fabric are ancient symbols of life, and the severing of threads is symbolic of death or chaos. In myth, managing the fabric of a man’s life was the responsibility of his deity.

In the story, though, the act of binding and mending is left to the characters, not to any higher power. If art and literature are windows into the human experience, what does Danielewski’s novella say about our fears and beliefs? Chintana and the others are scarred by violence -- physical, spiritual, or emotional -- and they alone are responsible for mending their wounds. The fabric of their lives is repeatedly slashed and torn, but no intervening higher power helps them bind up the gashes. The cycle is exhausting and never-ending. They are truly alone.

And don’t we often feel alone? Our lives are often disrupted by our own actions or by circumstances beyond our control. The slashes come again and again; it’s easy to get caught in the endless battle to sew ourselves up again, alone, before we try to battle on. It is easy to forget that we are not alone; it is easy to forget the promises made by Jehovah Rapha, the Great Physician, who said, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” How much more hope we have than Chintana! We must strive to not forget it.