Never Look Back

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Chapter 23

Dwelling on the potentially negative consequences of our relationship had magnified and distorted my reality, but I was too close to the situation to realize that truth. Influenced by feelings of isolation, I had complicated matters by refusing to speak to Odera except for work-related reasons. It required monster energy to treat her as if she was a stranger, to pretend that we were only co-workers. Each day I expected to receive walking papers from the boss. Each day I awaited Beck’s summons, anticipating the worst from a woman scorned. Feeling that it was only a matter of time before Odera spoke out. Three days after Vesper Lake, bands of tightness periodically constricted my breath. Irrational thoughts crowded out what little common sense I possessed. Having my freedom in the discretionary hands of another felt crazy-making. Familiar landmarks, restaurants and cafés, mocked my isolation. Songs on the radio seemed to be about us. And though I could not run away from myself, I kept trying.

Exercise brought momentary relief.

Kirioroshi (downward cut) I said to myself. The bokken rose above my shoulder. Bokkens weighed more than shinais and katanas. They are a practice tool, a hardwood substitute for the katana. The added weight prepared students to swing the katana and how to cut with proper form. To cut has a unique meaning, but sensei never speaks of this; he seldom acknowledges my questions. Form is his focus. His response to just about everything is more keiko (practise) — less front brain thinking and more midbrain doing. Proficient kendo requires one’s kihaku (spirit) to have proper form. By training one’s kihaku and executing keiko honestly and full of vigour, the human spirit is ennobled.

Kira and I performed kata, a predetermined sequence of strikes and counters, as opposed to jigeiko, free practise, which we executed at her father’s discretion. He challenged my skills by randomly assigning practise with a shinai, a bokken, or a blunted katana. I never knew which until the last moment. Each accomplished a specific task, he said, but chose not to enlighten me further. Jigeiko, free practise, usually came in the form of duels. Kira also held multiple weekly matches to improve my waza, my technique. On other days, she taught me how to be smooth, to perfect kata, and to improve kiroshi, (cutting technique). Smooth is greasy fast. Not rushing improves speed, which is counterintuitive, but true.

Following each lesson, I scrubbed the floor practising one of three breathing techniques. Cleaning the floor helped me to think about nothing. I had not worked out how a person could think about nothing since nothing becomes something as soon as it is considered. Another paradox. The military was easy. Soldiers followed orders with little room for deviation or individual thought. Prison was simpler yet. No thinking. No trying. Just waiting.

“Thick-headed gai-jin! Not cut so. Relax elbows. Wrists straight. Focus to banish doubt. Empty mind. Shouldn’t be difficult for you!” The wrinkled little gnome snickered behind one calloused hand while the other slapped a knee. “Kirioroshi!

“Take it on the road, Yoda.”

“Road no bassari kiru (cut you through). Hidari kesagiri!

Elbows nearly parallel, like a baseball batter’s stance in waki-gamae to conceal the right arm.

Right hand gripped high up the handle, against the tsuba ring that protected the fingers from an opponent’s descending blade; right hand guided the blade. Left hand, held near the end of the handle, provided power and follow-through. Breathe out. Uncoil without backward motion. The old guy had soaked green bamboo canes in water. Afterward, the canes were bundled into uchikomi-dai (practise bundle) the thickness of an average person’s waist and inserted onto a pole. For one entire year, I had practised kiroshi. For another year I had switched roles with Blossom to become her practice bundle.

I felt myself relax into the repetition of the exercise. The world receded a comfortable distance. Thwack! Drops of water knocked free from bamboo splattered me. A gateway in my consciousness opened. A mental tug urged me to relinquish all control, to relinquish the self, the ego, to let go of worldly matters. Clarity of thought and motion and intent awaited. It almost felt like coming home after a long vacation. I resisted the urge to surrender all control. A ship needed a rudder or it drifted off course. Relinquishing control to gain it seemed illogical. The doctrines of Zen Bushido were peppered with illogical paradoxes. Perhaps the old fellow was correct and I needed to stop thinking.

“Again! Embody jōdan-no-kamae, gai-jin. Kire! Let your fire spirit loose.

Kire, I said to myself. Jōdan-no-kamae, the fire stance. Bokken back. Elbows coming to parallel. Hands rotated slightly on the hilt. Cocked and coiled above my head, the bokken quivered like a tightly strung cable. Breathe out. Let go of the world. Uncoil. Rotate palms. Swing elbows in. Legs firmly braced. Gather qi energy. Expel. Perform all movements smoothly. As doubt and thinking receded, the gateway drew me forward before I remembered to resist. Everything slowed down. The floppy wide sleeves of my keiko-gi billowed like sails catching a northwesterly and rippled from elbow to shoulder. Life thrummed with a deep bass sound.

The universe had a voice.

Thwack!

Water droplets sprayed out from uchikomi-dai. Surrounded and encased in mist, wet beads arced in an umbrella pattern passed lazily through the fluorescent light sparkling and twinkling like diamonds that feather-floated to the floor.

Migi-dō-uchi!” he ordered.

Torso strike, right side, I perceived without translation, having learned to think in Japanese. Conceptualization immediately became action. Bokken tensed and torqued before unleashing. Elbows came in. Momentum increased. Bokken flashed past my chest. Palms rotating.

Thwack!

Uchikomi-dai shook and shivered, green stalks coughed out wet mist.

Even as the bundle vibrated, bokken reloaded. Misty spray drifted outward, seemed to hang in the air, refusing to obey gravity. It would be child’s play to navigate a katana through that mist without getting a drop of moisture on it.

Migi kesagiri!

Diagonal cut from up high, left to right. Breathe out. Uncoil. Thrumming, the bokken sung through the air. The air grew warmer.

Thwack!

Misty clouds scattered in a waterfall. The crackling and splintering uchikomi-dai rocked left to right. My five senses had come alive. A sixth sense that felt like a three-hundred-degree sonar pulsed outward from my core. Nothing was hidden from my senses. Clarity and acceptance washed away curiosity. My heartbeat boomed jungle-drum loud. Half a dozen canes leaned toward the floor like a half-peeled banana. Peace and harmony abounded. Nothing but the simplicity of kire. Kasumi gamae, I decided. A lifetime existed in this single moment.

Gai-jin! Enough!”

Kire,” I cried out, bokken cocked, body, mind and spirit were one.

Gai-jin!” The agitated hobbit slapped my shoulder. “Stop. Too tall for kendo. Put bokken away. Find a new sport.”

Of course, I had heard him the first time, but I did not wish to abandon the moment. What a rush. The gateway closed. Everything sped up. All of the restrictions connected to a three-dimensional existence returned. The bamboo bundle was a wreck. Bamboo splinters were scattered across the floor. Sensei and I wore bare feet. His were callused and horny. Mine were not, though my hands sported admirable calluses. Rough barbs that adhered to tender flesh carpeted the old guy’s shinshaga jacket. Extracting bamboo slivers was more painful than plucking sandpaper toothpicks out of one’s hide.

Gai-jin, what wrong with you? Now I must construct a new uchikomi-dai, new bamboo dummy. Bamboo brother is smarter! Know when had enough,” he snickered and cackled while I stared unimpressed. “Get broom, bumbling baboon. Clean up. Go now. Practise cloud breathing. Walk the Way while brooming.”

Incoherent Japanese dribbled out of him echoing throughout the dojo as he weeble-walked across the floor. What was a little bamboo? It probably needed to be soaked longer. Soaking kept the canes supple, so they would not easily splinter. Previously I had cracked a few, but nothing matched tonight’s slaughter.

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