Never Look Back

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Chapter 16

“Faster, gai-jin,” Kira’s father urged after she landed two consecutive strikes. “No hesitation. Explore fear like a new house. Look into each corner and into the attic.”

Even without men (grilled headgear) we were dead ringers for medieval Japanese warriors. Our (stomach armour) reminded me of Buddha’s bulging belly. We swung blunted katanas whose edges lacked polishing ― a Japanese process that produced surgical sharpness. Kira and her father rotated between the longer and heavier practise bokken, and the shorter and lighter blunted katana. Nevertheless, blunted katanas wielded by a master caused bruises when they struck creases between padding. Kira had probably swung each weapon before she had taken her first step. Those liquid-silver-fast strikes hurt worse than a moose at full charge, padding or not.

“Again. Take fist on shoulder, katsugi-waza. Three inches, gai-jin.”

Duelling with katanas can be likened unto batting baseballs. Catch the ball near the hands or in the middle of the bat and it did not sail overly far. Connect three inches from the end of the bat and it flies out of the park. Three inches inside the tip of Kira’s sword and she would cut a home run. Three inches beyond its tip and I was safe. To take the opponent’s fist on the shoulder, I must suri-ashi (glide step) inside the arc of her descending sword. Successfully stepping inside allowed her two stars (fists) and tsuka (hilt) to hit my shoulder. There was not much power and momentum. Virtually no pain. First three inches, then glide step. Sounds easy, or so I thought. Patience. When we danced close, l entered the three-inch margin and slid forward.

Kire!” shouted Kira.

Thud. Thud.

Three feet of metal attached to a sharkskin-wrapped hilt, propelled by greasy-fast muscles, connected solidly with my bamboo-padded shoulder. Pain rang out like a rancher’s dinner triangle, fast and loud. The laws of physics joined with Kira’s training to propel monouchi, the last three inches of her katana, at incredible speeds. Velocity times mass equalled pain. My pain. Right shoulder went numb. Rolling waves of tingling sensations trickled up and down my arm. I attempted uke-nagashi (flowing block) and failed.

Again.

Thud. Thud.

Twice more the she-devil landed blows. Mercifully, she chose migi- and hidari yokogiri, right- and left side stomach cuts, which my Buddha bulging stomach padding protected. The last two cuts only wounded my pride, which by now was nearly non-existent, so as not to be more than a mild niggling. Kira mercifully long-stepped backwards out of range to allow time for pain management, to convince myself that my shoulder was not going to fall off. Time that permitted me to regain my centre and to analyze my failure.

“Clumsy gai-jin. Block katana,” her father offered helpfully. “Again. Take fist on shoulder. Disguise glide step. Harmonize fear and doubt to walk the Way. Prune opposing thoughts as you would husk layers to unveil a corncob. Begin.”

Kira’s concentration never faltered. She knew my objective. She was ready for me. How does one disguise a step their opponent anticipated? As usual, Kira rarely spoke. Success for me was the reduction of doubt, fear and pain. Success for her was exploiting suki, openings that fostered doubt and fear. I had yet to learn how to prevent the memory of pain and the awareness of potential pain, from injecting doubt and hesitation into my strike. With unmitigated ease, she thrived on exploiting trivial hesitations that lasted mere tenths of a second. Plenty of time for her katana to flick out, for her overabundance of fast-twitch muscle fibres to propel that weapon cobra-fast.

How could I undermine her readiness, glide step unsuspectedly, and force her body into a position that benefited my goal?

Students paid heed to three points when duelling: the two stars (fists), peak and valley (elbows), and the distant mountains (shoulders). Those focal points were essential to kan-ken no metsuke, to predict intent. To observe the opponent’s whole body was to perform enzan no metsuke. Looking only into the eyes was Hollywood glam. Anybody can learn to strike while keeping their eyes blank, to look in one direction and strike in another. Repeatedly, the wrinkled gnome had instructed me to focus on the three points and let instincts predict intent. Katanas could not threaten without the two fists moving, elbows unbending, and shoulder muscles bunching. His instructions cycled through my mind when Kira’s elbows opened. Only instinct-driven reflexes and a spiritual connection countered that kind of speed. Our neocortex, the front brain that performed intellectual functions, was unequipped for the task. Rational thought processes were too slow.

Reflexes drove me forward.

Having extended a rear leg too far, Kira opened her stance excessively wide. As I stepped forward, she transferred weight from her front leg to her back leg. By the time I completed my step, Kira had retreated beyond my reach, but when I lifted my right foot, she reversed her movement, counterattacking while I was in transition, having created an opening. Katanas clashed. My instincts had registered her unfolding elbows, but my midbrain lacked sufficient training to decode the deception. Faking peak and valley had lured me in.

“That cheap trick only works once, Blossom.”

“What is Blossom?”

“You are. Named for each welt raised beneath your instruction. Those black and blue blossoms stand as reminders of my indebtedness to your instruction.”

If she extended her leg again, I’d perform okuri-ashi, step in and away from her on an angle, and then hiraki-ashi to slip beneath her weapon. I stole an admiring glance. Her white cotton hakama skirt, worn thin from many washings, outlined her backside attractively. Its contours reminded me of two ostrich eggs, plump and firm.

When my glance lingered, she shouted, “Kire!

Kira unwound, uncoiling in a series of three lightning-quick blows. Each time my reflexes took control. Each time she found my katana waiting. Each blow blurred through the air, too fast for the thinking brain to react. As training clarified my front brain, reflexes more and more often controlled my limbs. After nearly two years of lessons, they had kicked in semi-regular. Cracking a half-smile, I let my gaze drift back to her backside where it tensed and relaxed under its thin cotton shroud. Salacious enjoyment entered my expression. Female gluteus maximus muscles lifted fluidly as she circled closer, each step outlining a tapered and muscular thigh. Stolen glance detected an avalanche building on distant mountains. Patience. Eyes on her backside. Wait for it. One more half-breath. Her shoulder muscles tensed.

Now!

Kire!” she shouted.

“Dragonfly evades.”

I flowed beneath her descending blade.

Her two fists and the hilt hit my shoulder with little effect. Now what? Never expected to be here this quick. By the time my elbow lifted to ground her with a stiff arm across the chest, she had pivoted out of reach. Twin, liquid silver leg kicks lashed out at my hip, and then swept my feet. A katana smote my chest on the way to the floor. The next half-heartbeat found me flat on my ass, soundly thrashed, a dulled katana rested on my chest.

A Charlie horse had me removing my right kote to rub the pain out, ruefully happy as I met Kira’s gaze. She let slip a quick grin and offered a delicate hand with immaculately polished fingernails. I scooped up my glove, clasped her hand in mine, accustomed to its callused, iron-hard grip. My paw very nearly swallowed hers as she tugged me up, followed that with a little congratulatory hand squeeze while fighting unabashedly to stifle laughter while I looked at her sideways studying her suspiciously.

“Now, I’m Blossom. Your hip will blossom in glorious colours. Very creative deception using stolen glance, Bruce, but cheap trick only works once!”

Woefully shaking his head, her father stepped between us to steal my thunder.

“Gai-jin had a flash of mediocrity, followed by usual epic failure. Use instincts and foot speed to defeat sloppy daughter who allowed emotion to invade technique. Become smooth and short step inside, gai-jin.” Kira’s father slapped the back of my head gruffly. “No thinking. Bring empty brain to practise. Smoothness exercise demands the absence of doubt and the transformation of fear. Strike through opening, not deception. Using deception avoids facing daughter’s weapon. Do not avoid fear. Fear will assist you when you transform it. Hold it close to let it go.” He jabbed my temple with an index finger that was as hard as an iron rod. “Strategy comes later. Ancestors laugh at your hippopotamus feet. Begin again!”

After wiping my hands on the tails of my keiko-gi, I performed a set of sonkyo (deep knee-bends) to remove the hip cramps that Kira’s kicks had induced. Afterward, I signalled a break and made for the stainless-steel water fountain. While I drank, I repeatedly replayed my fears and examined my doubts. One by one they lost a portion of their potency. It was a beginning. If I stepped inside Kira’s guard once, I could slide there again. She knew it as well. That might be all the edge I needed.

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