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‘How to Sharpen a Knife’

 Kate Feld


Mother said that if you drop a knife it means a man is coming to the house. A fork means a woman is coming, a spoon foretells a child. Superstitions cross on the maternal line. Wherever we are in the world we all say ooh a man’s coming when a knife hits the floor.


I had a man who knew about sharpening knives. For many years the knives of the house were kept sharp. Now I live alone, and my knives are dull. Not long ago I bought a sharpening steel. I was also given another, smaller one as a gift after mentioning the knife situation at my place. I got out the steels and watched a video of a chef sharpening a knife while shouting about how important it was to keep all of your knives at a fine point of sharpness.

I tried to imitate his movements. My knives didn’t get any sharper. I did it again with some shouting, in case that was important. They stayed dull. I threw my knives back into the second drawer. That’s where they live. Jumbled up with zip-seal bags and sushi mats and trivets and many other things which have nothing to do with knives. Previously they’d lived in a knife-block on the counter. My knives know, to within a fraction of a millimeter, exactly how far they’ve come down in the world.


I wish a knife man would come to the back door, a gypsy tinker of the kind who’s always turning up in old novels to mend the pots and sharpen the blades of the household. He would come in, grinning rakishly, and I would hover. Afterwards a mineral smell would linger but my knives would sing with a stinging blaze. Precision, that’s what we needed.


Let me break it down for you: The knife comes first. Knife is the man: divide and conquer, gets straight to the point, the executive branch. Fork is the woman: bearer of good tidings, contains multitudes, does most of the heavy lifting. And spoon is child: gently rounded and likely to spill what they’re carrying all over the place.


My little girls have been taught how to use a knife but they’re not interested. They each did it once or twice, to show they could, and stopped so if anyone’s going to do the breaking down around here it’s going to be me. My hands automatically perform the operation of a woman should not be too sharp or too keen. Too many cutting remarks and why is she always so on edge? She has a lot on her plate. Is it better to teach them this or let them learn it or hope they never do?


When I was 22 I worked as a prep cook in a kitchen where every chef had their own knife. Big Japanese steel cleavers, each with their personal symbol burned into the wood of the handle, lined up on the wall like a roster. There were some hand-me-down service cleavers for prep cooks. The head chef, a tough dyke, had warned me that the job was physical. I had a knife-sharpening lesson but it didn’t take. I knew how to look strong but I didn’t know how to be strong. By the end of my month’s trial she knew it. It was agreed that I should go, that I would never be presented with my own Japanese steel cleaver, and never have to decide what my personal symbol would be.


Cleave: to cut, to part. And also to cling, to attach oneself strongly to something. Genesis: Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. Or Doris Lessing, our lady of the clean break: the theme of breakdown, that sometimes when people crack-up it is a way of self healing, of the inner self’s dismissing false dichotomies and divisions, has of course been written about by other people.


My girlfriend came over to cook. She said it wasn’t safe to use knives in this condition. She doesn’t know how to sharpen knives either. She has a man in her house who always keeps the knives at a fine point of sharpness, parading blade by blade along a magnetic strip he drilled into the wall.


Read the cutlery drawer left to right: knife, fork, spoon. Do you know which slot is yours? Your body knows, see: hands at the table pick one up, use it, put it down, lift another and it works until you start thinking about it. I learned to use woman tools expertly without questioning if I should or what they were or what it would make me if I did, what slot I would be putting myself in. No, they let me learn that myself and it took a long time but my thinking has broken the knowing. Now I’m staring down at my plate with a handful of cool metal which I can’t use.


Another superstition: if I learn how to sharpen my own knives, no man (maybe not an actual man) will turn up to take charge of these things (me.) Mother taught me to defer, envelop, hold space. To make an ornament of being unable to shift for myself which is a complicated kind of forgery. Now hold flat of blade to cheek and feel the story’s two sides warm and cool. On one side I yield. On the other I hold my edge. I want to run my own life but I like being taken care of. I can deal with the vulnerability. It’s the weakness I will not tolerate.


Sing it left to right: oh your daddy’s rich/ and your mama’s good lookin’/ so hush little baby


Alone in my kitchen I threw a butter knife so hard it embedded itself in the laminate flooring. It stuck there, shivering with rage, until I pulled it out. But I don’t think that counts, if you throw it. It has to be an accident. You have to drop it.

Kate Feld’s writing has appeared in anthologies and journals including The Stinging Fly, minor literature(s), Entropy and The Lonely Crowd and is forthcoming from The Letters Page. Born in Vermont, she has lived for many years in Manchester, UK, where she lectures in journalism at the University of Salford and runs creative nonfiction project The Real Story. She tweets at @katefeld.


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