Never Look Back

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Chapter 4

A porcelain-skinned woman stepped onto the dojo floor through a curtained alcove. She wore a red silk top set off by black silk pants whose wide legs were embroidered with green vines and leaves. Flat-bottomed, black canvas shoes encased narrow and slender feet that carried her fluidly across the wood floor.

“You allowed the gai-jin to capture your shinai, father.”

“To learn if he would strike, most precious cherry blossom.”

He lifted a gnarled and calloused hand to cup a smooth and flawless cheek.

“Sacred father, what would I do if you followed mother beyond to live with ancestors? That gai-jin too strong,” she chastised lightly, appraising the cracked wall and retrieved the discarded shinai from the floor. “He issued a mighty one-handed crosswind.”

“Yet, here I stand.” He raised his arms out from his sides as if to say ‘No big deal.’ “Did you observe how he channelled pain? And his footwork. Gai-jin walked across water. Almost he performed suri-ashi the sliding glide step. And, of course, you are correct, his crosswind, though a poorly chosen strike, was impressive nonetheless.”

Tilting her head toward the floor, she waited for her father to do the same. As her head came up, so too, did her shinai. Raised into jōdan-no-kamae, high guard, called the fire stance when the spirit was strong enough to scorch the opponent, the shinai waited. Wide silk sleeves allowed her arms to go parallel to the ground. Cocked and coiled, her shinai yearned to be set free. An indomitable spirit radiated from her being as if to say, ‘Come and strike at me if you dare!’ Hands separated high and low on the hilt ― one up close to the tsuba, which kept the fingers off the blade and caught an opposing blade as it slid down towards the hands. The other hand held near the end at tsuka-gashira, provided essential power and follow-through. As her shinai descended, her elbows moved towards each other, her forearms relaxed, palms rotated inward on the hilt, wrists flexed but stayed firm, eyes intent. Thrumming bamboo blurred through the air, gathering momentum and speed, singing through air currents.

Father’s shinai waited. They clashed and clattered, vibrated and bent as power dissipated.

“His speed to block was real? You never withheld?”

She flowed backward and to the side smoother than water poured from pitcher to glass. Those elegant movements were flawlessly simple, deceptively fast, a product developed by ten thousand hours of disciplined practise, a lifetime’s commitment to excellence, to honing a skill in pursuit of perfection that she knew she could never achieve, but which remained a worthwhile aspiration that would not be in vain if she spent her entire life seeking it.

“That gai-jin burned hi-no-kamae?”

Hai. He exuded Jōdan. Dwelled within its flames, daughter. Lingering on the periphery of its promise, drawing strength and sustenance from it as you do. His eyes flamed emeralds, yet coldness quenched his fire. Doubt and fear dim his spirit and cloud his soul. Confusion wars within him. Only stubborn anger gave him focus.”

The old man’s shinai, now held low in gendan-no-kamae, pointing down and left, rose to lash out dragon from water, and then slid through the exchange, transitioning through kami-hasso to issue shōmen (head strike) from above, swung down from eagle dives upon prey.

At each threat, his daughter floated into block, effortlessly sliding low to high, deflecting stunning blows without a large outlay of energy, all done with an economy of lithe movement. Everything about her was harmonious. Arms and legs came together and separated, glided into a new form, transitioning through one exchange into another, chin level; all performed in equal time scales as though she danced to music played out with bamboo on a dojo floor instead of on ivory at Beethoven’s piano.

Standing slightly above average height, she moved on a dancer’s confident feet, seeming to at first glide, and then to float from one position to another, from one quadrant on the floor to the next. Calmness and serenity graced her face, accentuating classical Japanese catlike eyes. Long, jet-black hair flowed halfway down her back where it spread out behind her like ruffling flames when she moved, at times hiding her shoulders behind its black curtain, letting her seemingly rematerialize from one spot to the next in the blink of an eye. A Western influence had softened and elongated her face, rounded her eyes and broadened her mouth until she exuded a rare beauty and grace at a magnitude that was difficult to turn away from. It stole one’s breath to behold her dark and bottomless eyes for the first time, made all the more potent because she did not project her physical self. Neither narcissism nor vanity played any part in her being.

“Despite this imperfection, you offered him instruction.”

“He refused to strike at me. His spirit is salvageable. Self-learning exists in this gai-jin. He adapted without thought, flowed into form without pause.”

“You take risks, honoured father.” She released from jōdan-no-kamae.

Oily black flames ignited deep within her smouldering, dark liquid eyes. Both of her father’s arms rose straight out from his sides until he stood with his chin held high, spirit calm and serene. Shinai flamed through the air, singing with building momentum, cutting the air, and then rattling and clattering as the woman halted her burning strike centimetres from an unprotected shoulder. Palpable heat dissipated from her eyes. Lethal dove grace gave way to traditional Japanese humility. All that was dangerous and indomitable folded from sight. Hi no kamae slumbered. Peace and harmony abounded.

“The risk is not to teach those who need it most, Kira. This is our purpose ― our service. He journeys the Sinister Way, travelling the Left-Hand Path of destruction. Through the doctrines of bushido, using the Spirit Way, his spirit may yet prosper. The gai-jin can become tiger or sink into the jackal. Let us help him turn away from the jackal.”

“Us? What may I do?”

“You provide training. Already his instincts have advanced him beyond regular classes, and I’m too old to spar with him. Only his newness to the form allowed me to anticipate his strikes.” He used her elbow to steer them toward their living quarters. “I teach cuts. You teach kata. I would uncover what lies beneath.”

“He knows nothing. Not a single cut. What do you expect to uncover, father?”

“He flowed twice into block. Almost my block was late and I recognized his strike’s birth. He is jōdan-no-kamae. Your fire spirits may coexist, mine cannot. Although fire spirits refuse taming, the Sinister Way may twist them into its service and this we must not allow when it is within our ability to prevent. If he reaches the naming ceremony, he shall be known as Flamewalker.”

“Esteemed father, you taught that prejudices and close-mindedness of adult maturity begin the annihilation of spirit potential. What did the gai-jin reveal to you, oh wise and secretive one?”

“Most perceptive daughter, he was empty but rough. He will be much faster, more powerful. Teach smoothness. Teach humility. Teach him to recognize true form. Teach him to navigate the Way.”

“Empty? How is this so?”

“He embraced pain and absorbed anger; nothing invaded his focus. The Sinister Way seeks this one with tenacious gifts of nothingness. He is almost entirely instinct, but he does not realize the spring from which he draws his qi. Just as you once demonstrated, he enjoys freedom from learning. You teach kata discipline, how to be smooth. I’ll teach him to clarify doubt and fear.”

“You read much into one duel.”

“Gai-jin is already Flamewalker, it’s in his kehai (aura), he just doesn’t realize it,” her father chuckled. “Duty to provide assistance. This student will return no matter how much he hurts. He will return because he hurts, for he seeks relief from something, but he knows not what, or why, only that he must keep searching for fulfillment. He is like a paintbrush that draws many poor lines before the correct form reveals itself. Some of us earn a name and some of us grow into who we are. You were born Fireblossom. Your kihaku (spirit) proclaimed it. We had but to strip the petals away to reveal your true self. We shall help this gai-jin embrace his true self.”

“Westerners cannot understand the gifts and healing you bring, wise and cherished one.”

“We follow Bushido Law. It is our duty to serve, not to be recognized. We each owe a death. Forget not our heritage. Keep it before you bright as the sun to guide you in times of darkness. Honoured mother was Westerner who brought wisdom and insight into our lives. Service without reward. Reward without pride. Life without regret. This is our way, as it has been for past generations, and so it shall be for us if we honour our ancestors.”

“Forgive me.” Kira lowered her head. “I dishonour our heritage and Mother’s memory.”

“Nonsense. You are young. There’s no shame in that. And precious daughter, do not limit your speed and strength as you do with ancient father. Do not hold back. Be who you are. You will need all your qi and kehai with this gai-jin, for you shall find yourself burning within him and he within you. Such is the way of the fire spirit to feed upon itself.”

“How long have you known?”

“Since you were sixteen.”

“For thirteen years you never mentioned it.”

Kira planted a kiss on his cheek, followed by a hug and watched a warm flush paint his neck and face a dark rosy hue.

Although open affection was rare in Japanese culture, Kira’s mother had delighted in teaching their daughter to plague her unassuming father with hugs and kisses and endearments. Accustomed to her emotional outbursts, he gave her arm a gentle squeeze and a fatherly pat. His tender-hearted gaze conveyed thunderclouds of roiling devotion. Kira delightfully accepted what to him was a Capulet confession of loyalty and boundless love. But she could never reveal her delight, for that would shame her father and cause him to lose face.

“Please to explain, venerated father, why you deceived most trusting daughter.”

“Not deceived, cherished one. Exalted. It gave you pleasure to let me feel that I had something yet to teach. Most gratifying joy occurred on the day you surpassed the limitations of my training. Most rewarding moment as teacher to witness ultimate speed and control that comes from walking the Way. Ancestors have a worthy disciple. All that I am has been passed to you. May you accept this burden, and in time, convey it to your children,” he announced, bequeathing utmost praise a Samurai father may bestow upon a child.

“Dutiful privilege of unworthy student to aspire toward venerable teacher’s approval. Ultimate reward for a daughter to attain her father’s rich inheritance,” Kira acknowledged him with a bow and kissed the back of his hand before taking him by the elbow and escorting him across the floor. “Still, you could have said something earlier, Father.”

“Why? We both reaped rewards. Now. We must help you to become smoother and stronger. You shall please old father and gift the gai-jin many humility welts. Once we increase his conditioning and help him to walk the Way, his strength and speed will be impressive. Equal and greater even to yours when he learns to be less. Until then, his stubbornness requires discipline and pain, and then many repetitions of each. We shall turn his fire spirit back upon itself and see what we see.”

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