It was in January of 2022 that I threw my first axe. On an inescapably rainy weekend in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, myself, my family and my girlfriend drove up and down the main street looking for something to fill our time. Ruling out racially insensitive dinner theatre and vivid reenactments of the sinking titanic, our options were slim. Eventually, we settled on two hours of controlled indoor violence at Appalachian Axe Throw and Xtreme Cornhole.
The first fifteen minutes of the two-hour time slot moved slowly with the instructor's introduction to the weapons. Yes, weapons and not tools, as I was corrected. I didn’t appreciate his patronizing tone, but the respect with which he referred to the slew of knives, axes and throwing stars was something I would grow to understand.
We were taught the proper motions: two hands on the axe and feet together. Then, the right foot steps back while lifting both hands over the head. Finally, take a step forward and launch. He ran each of us through a practice run, our axes aimed at the splintered target before he left us to wreak havoc on our own. My father and brother caught on quickly, both experienced from their years of hunting and camping. My mother silently took her turns, mostly resigned to her role as a proud supervisor, and slung her axe with impressive precision and hardly a word.
My partner and I took turns in our shared lane, quick to catch on to the movements but slow to perfection. It was intoxicating to watch the blade lodge itself so tightly into the splintering target. With each throw, a piece of it was chipped away, and with it our inhibitions.
We alternated throws. Axe, then dagger, then throwing star, then back to the axe. At first, we cheered each other on. It felt fun and silly. When we missed, we laughed. When we hit the target we clapped. We carried on that way for a while, but before long we grew silent and waited impatiently for our own turn.
The dry wood of the axe handle was becoming familiar in my palm, and with each throw a burdensome and uneasy feeling began to rise to the surface. The weighted drag of the axe and the slender stealth of the dagger was empowering. After thirty minutes, we’d improved, hitting the target majority of the time and inching closer to the center.
With a dagger in my hand, I was reminded of a sermon I attended with my grandmother when I was nine years old about the sinful nature of anger. “The Lord created you in his image, and to be angry at all is to be angry at God for what he created,” the pastor declared. I remembered telling my mother what I’d learned that day with the hopes that she’d take it to heart. I remembered begging God to let my parents go to heaven, even though they got angry sometimes. Despite having abandoned religion long before my time at Appalachian Axe Throw and Xtreme Cornhole, I felt the pangs of those words still resonating in me. I realized how much I had internalized those teachings. My stomach tightened as the sickeningly addictive feeling of rage was unleashed—an emotion I had pushed down for too long—and with it came shame.
To be a woman is shameful, so it’s taught. Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” and I became more of a certain type of woman on the day of that sermon. I learned that I was meant to be resigned to silence, and what was expected of me as a woman of God. It would be another six years before I learned to be a different type of woman, or that I didn’t have to be a woman at all.
At the age of fifteen, I realized I was gay. At the age of nineteen, I realized I wasn’t cis-gendered. After all the time I spent unlearning my youthful definition of womanhood, so much of what I’d let go of was still lingering in my subconscious. So rarely did I allow myself to explore these feelings that it took a sharpened blade and a strong enough throwing arm for me to finally accept rage as something other than sinful.
The tense silence between my partner and I was stark compared to the jovial hollering from my father and brother in the stall next to us. After an hour, my partner and I were rolling our shoulders and cracking our necks. We knew that our arms would be painfully sore the next day, but the throwing had become lethargic and we felt actualized in our shared discomfort.
I watched my partner release three blades consecutively, and I was reminded of the world. Her eyes stayed trained on the blue rings in front of her and I noticed her firm grip on the tips of the blades before she flung them. She didn’t smile. She barely blinked, and when each of those blades lodged itself into the target she turned to me silently and nodded. In her eyes I saw the memories I knew of her childhood. The weight on her shoulders and the pain in her eyes had been carried with her through a strict catholic upbringing, and I realized that we were both understanding how we’ve been divesting ourselves of feeling.
I was also reminded of our visit to Dollywood a few days prior. It was late into New Year's Eve. The park was closing soon, and visitors were thinning out. We posed together for a picture after most of the crowd had dispersed. We held hands and shared a chaste kiss. Around us, children’s eyes were shielded. A passing couple stared and whispered to one another while shaking their heads. We didn’t talk about the interaction afterwards because it felt better to ignore it, but with a throwing star in my hand I thought about the picture we had been taking. I thought about everything outside of the frame and how my unseen hand had clenched the back of her jacket in grief. I was reminded who we were taught to be, and who we were in that moment, however different that might’ve been.
I left Appalachian Axe Throw and Xtreme Cornhole angry. Rain pattered lightly on the car windows. Illuminated manger scenes whizzed by every few miles, and I squeezed my partner's hand tightly.
Art by Alex Moon