Between the Shelves: In the City of Failing Knives by Tara Campbell

Between the Shelves is a showcase of Archive of the Odd stories outside of the main zine.

This story is by the extraordinary Tara Campbell.

Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University. Previous publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and CRAFT Literary. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and four collections: Circe’s Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, Political AF: A Rage Collection, and Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Connect with her at www.taracampbell.com or on Twitter: @TaraCampbellCom


“I cut you, I cut you, I cut you”: Contemporary Wedding Customs in the City of Failing Knives

Popular Sociology, September 2112

Luisa Benevides, PhD & Jonathan Phillips, PhD

“I cut you, I cut you, I cut you.”

These are the wedding vows in New Morristown, the City of Failing Knives.

In this city, knives do not cut. They lose their edge as soon as they are used. You will sooner sharpen a knife down to a metal thread than get it to cut. Other things cut: scissors, razors, even the side of a fork or a spoon, but in this city, knives continually fail.

Not only do they fail to cut, but they actually go one step further: they knit things together. Take a knife to a cake, and the pastry will bind into a dense, inedible seam of pastry. The rest of the cake will be salvageable, but you’ll have to break the remaining pieces off a newly indestructible swath of sweetness right down the middle.

In this city, knives do not cleave in the usual manner: they cleave things together.[1] Wedding cakes are cut with spatulas, which makes for easier serving anyway.

But before cake: the ceremony. The couple will stand before the officiant, staring into each other’s eyes, get prayed over if that’s their custom, poet-ed at if that’s their preference, serenaded by a friend if that’s their thing—you get the idea. Then the couple will exchange rings and vows. Even in cases where couples have written their own, they always end in the traditional phrase: “I cut you, I cut you, I cut you.”

At this point the couple will clasp hands and turn toward the officiant. A knife-bearer will approach the altar with the instrument (and here there is great variation: for formal affairs, the knife will be silver and filigreed, perched on a satin pillow; for rustic weddings, a hunting knife might lie in a basket of wildflowers; fantasy fans have been known to arrange for a sword-like knife to arrive stuck in a “stone” crafted artfully of papier mâché. Whatever the implement is, for safety’s sake, it may only have one slicing edge, so as to be classified as a knife).[2]

The officiant will take up the proffered knife (usually from an adorable toddler in a tuxedo, a cat in a bolo tie, or a dog dressed as a dragon, depending on the theme) and ask the couple if they wish to be knifed,[3] to which they must reply yes, freely and without reservation.[4] The officiant then raises the knife and utters the phrase again—a variation of “by the power vested in me by the [appropriate authority], I cut you, I cut you, I cut you”—then plunges the instrument downward toward the clasped hands of the couple, careful to not actually make contact. It is a delicate balance, because the more vehement the downward motion, the more potent the bond. The officiant must, however, stop before touching the clasped hands, to avoid the melding of flesh, or as in the infamous Atwood-Walters case, the severing of it. Because both power and precision are of such importance, many couples prefer to hire a professional officiant rather than entrust (and perhaps burden) a well-intentioned but nearsighted pastor or a close but potentially intoxicated friend with the task.[5]

In rare but unfortunate cases where contact is made, and fusion occurs, hours of surgery and months of physical therapy may be required to achieve re-separation of limbs with full recovery of function. A tepid swing employed out of an abundance of caution, on the other hand, has been known to cast a pall over the rest of the day, and in some instances, has been cited as a reason for subsequent divorce, particularly when the union lasts fewer than five years.[6]

In one particularly interesting variation on the ceremony, no officiant is used at all. Each member of the couple instead takes up the knife and pantomimes stabbing the other in the heart three times, speaking the phrase “I cut you” with each false thrust.

Imagine what it would take to stand before the love of your life and open up your arms to absorb the plunge of a knife headed straight for your chest. What would it be like to grip that handle yourself and, in front of Deity and everyone, bring the blade down, aiming right at the heart of the person you love most in the world while proclaiming, “I cut you, I cut you, I cut you”?

Could you do it? Could you swing with all your might, knowing your future depends on putting your whole soul into the blow—and missing?

Could you stab with enough love to make it last?


[1] We must note here that the goal of this article is not to explain the phenomenon of failing knives, for this has been well-documented as part of the history of alchemical weapons testing in the western United States in the second half of the 21st century. Our concern here is sociological, namely: how communities around the radii of the testing have survived and evolved.

[2] For further background on the importance this requirement, reference the startling account of the Atwood-Walters wedding. The most comprehensive account to date: Johns, Edward. “Perilous Love: Wedding Customs in the Western Territories,” NewUS Cultural Studies Vol 25(1):52-64 (2108). Fortunately, both parties responded well to surgery and recovered full use of their limbs.

[3] Many may wonder at the variation here—why the officiant says “knifed” whereas the wedding vows refer to “cut.” This may be due to vestigial traces of linguistic convention that have carried into the current century. It is not difficult to comprehend how “I cut you” bears a greater similarity to “I love you” than it does to “I knife you,” and may therefore be more reassuring to hear from a partner in the presence of sharp objects. Reference: Marks, Hailey. “Laughing All the Way to the Altar: Evolution of Ceremonial Vows East of the Mississippi,” Topics in NewUS Linguistics Vol 12(1):13-20 (2097).

[4] Older variations on this practice will include a query to the attendees as to whether anyone has objections to this knifing, but in modern times this portion of the ceremony is rarely followed. Marks, 2097.

[5] It was determined that the alarming error with Atwood-Walters was the result not only of improper equipment (knife-like sword instead of sword-like knife) but also of an officiant who had availed himself a bit too heartily of the prenuptial flask in the groom’s dressing room. Johns, 2108.

[6] Center for NewUS Marriage, 20-year Survey 2090 – 2110, http://www.StayMarried.nuus/20yr

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