Never Look Back

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Chapter 5

Two weeks of floor scrubbing, absent a single kendo lesson, had made me less accepting of the old man’s motives. On every other night but this one, he had shown himself to inspect my work. Faded smudges, faint shadows of shoe scuffs and random hairs kept my floor cleaning GPA in the basement. Only once had I earned a passing grade. On that night he deemed my work adequate. I accepted his criticism as a janitorial contract and suggested that he reduced my monthly fee accordingly. He guffawed politely, scratched himself impolitely, and walked away with instructions for me to return at six AM Saturday. Where was the wrinkled raisin?

When I exited the janitor’s room, the dojo was silent. Scratching brush bristles were all that normally kept me company. Silence produced a palpable thickness. The air felt muffled and hushed, as though I walked through a forest during a snowfall. It became possible at those moments to detect disruptions in the fabric of the space I occupied, to identify a presence before sound waves broke across my eardrum.

Someone approached.

As if by magic, the Japanese woman I had glimpsed on previous evenings passed through the curtain separating the dojo from what I guessed were private quarters. Wearing a red and black silk kimono, hands clasped at her waist, she glide-stepped over the floor with hardly a silk shimmer. Appraising the woman’s impossible loveliness made me understand why Michelangelo sculpted in marble: he wanted to immortalize his subject. I let out the breath I was holding. Strength, beauty, and mysteriousness encompassed this woman. Humble but self-assured. Submissive yet tenacious. Meek but strong. Yin and yang dualities radiated from her being to create undeniable dichotomies. An infusion of European genes had narrowed her face and plumped her lips. Jet-black eyebrows and long dark eyelashes contrasted with her lightly rouged cheeks.

A large, stained-glass butterfly pin, wings laid opened to display a decoupage of vibrant reds and yellows intersected by grey lead veins, confined her black glossy hair in a bun. Obi, the knot in her sash, which kept her kimono closed, was flawlessly tied and wrinkle-free. Obi held saya, the scabbard. Perhaps her obi meant nothing. Perhaps it was traditionally worn, a throwback to more savage habits. Hands, though clasped at her waist, possessed long and elegantly tapered fingers capped by immaculately polished short fingernails that contrasted with the ridged calluses at the base of her index fingers and thumb pads. Fingers delicately feminine, yet capable. Female instructor? Taller than the gnome. Similar bone structure. Had to be his daughter. Interesting.

She stopped four arm lengths from me, a discrete distance if a person held a katana, a long sword. She bowed from the waist at fifteen degrees not once taking her eyes from mine. I copied her bow exactly; less depth assumed superiority, deeper admitted subordination. Intrigue lighted her eyes. I saw her processing, wondering if I was aping her. At that moment, I decided there was nothing ornamental or accidental about this exotic beauty.

In nearly perfect English, in a whispery voice that was honey upon the ear, she said, “Father invites you into our home for tea when duties allow.”

Medieval warriors had been wooed into pledging their service and their lives to such enticing melodies.

“I see.”

“May I bring word to him of your decision?”

“I have completed his instructions.” It would be rude to ask her name. I was in her establishment, a student. She was off-limits. “I’m at his disposal.”

“Please to follow me,” she said closing her eyes and dipping her head.

When my eyes lifted, she executed that unique glide-walk; hands clasped in front, head level, spine straight. My larger feet and less graceful stride must have sounded like a strutting a moose in comparison. When she held the curtain open for me to pass from public dojo into private living space, I removed my shoes and pretended indifference while noting her incredibly dark eyes had widened slightly. Surprise had nearly slipped into her expression. Surprise would have denoted that she had expected me to be ignorant of polite Japanese behavior, which would have been presumptuous.

A knotty pine pocket door waited at the end of a hallway. My escort slid it open and motioned me forward. It felt like I had stepped backward in time. Two knotted and twisted bonsai trees of indeterminable ages grew beneath a skylight in an alcove. Bonsais were coveted Japanese family possessions passed down through the generations from parent to child. The chunky thickness of their fat trunks intimated centuries of growth. Halfway down the hall, a sheet of slate now replaced a section of wall. Water, a three-foot-wide sheet of it, flowed over the surface to gather in a pool below before emptying into a narrow stream that traced the length of the wall and jogged left at the corner. Japanese koi fish, white-scaled with orange patches, lazily swam by. Fashioned out of aromatic cedar that infused the air with its woody fragrance, an arched bridge spanned the stream, separating inner foyer from their dwelling proper.

As though imitating a game show model introducing a prize to a contestant, her hand swept down and across her body and rose to mid-torso height, palm open and wrist straightening to invite me forward.

“Please, this way.”

“Peace and harmony abound, creating tranquillity.”

“May they be strengthened by your presence,” she said.

No hesitation whatsoever when I offered traditional compliments. Not to be surprised was an admission that we were equals, at least for this exchange. It defined me as human, no longer gai-jin, a barbarian, and foreigner. Japanese custom was all about face: shame, respect, discipline and politeness, all bundled together. It was natural for me to think in such terms. Both my short military career and my long prison stay had demanded that I followed those principles. After we had traversed a set of stairs and travelled down a hallway, we stopped by another pocket door comprised of twenty-four, individually framed, rice paper rectangles. The woman slid the portal open.

Garbed in yukata, a light cotton robe, her father stood beside a low square table with fat squat legs, whose black marble finish swallowed light. Plump red cushions provided seating for three. Twelve tatami mats laid end to end covered the floor of the room. During the Heian period, tatami mats were used to seat aristocrats. Japanese culture defined the size of the room by the number of tatamis it held. Had we been in Japan, twelve tatami mats equated to a large space. Each of the room’s corners was home to a waist-tall vase garnished with rice paper flowers. Embossed, twisting vines crept up the sides of those vases. Spider web-thick cracks marred the yellowing mother of pearl finish. But for the far wall where two framed pictograms containing Japanese calligraphy hung, no other furniture filled the Spartan space. Family heirlooms. Bonsai tree. How far back did they trace their family lineage?

The old fellow beckoned me forward as his daughter exited through a different door. Upon her departure, I sighted a scarecrow dressed in overlapping plate armour, capped by a helmet with kabuki, which resembled a scary looking Halloween mask. Ancient ancestral armour, I said to myself. Sheets of electricity sizzled along my spine as I considered the implication of that last thought. Resting horizontally on a dark brown rack, I had recognized wakizashi, short sword, and katana sheathed in saya.

The old Samurai bowed politely. “Konnichiwa.”

I bowed perceptively deeper. “Thank you.”

“Please to be seated. I trust your duties weren’t too onerous. Honoured daughter will join us shortly.” He pointed to a table surrounded by three cushions.

“Duty, like etiquette, can never be tedious. One need not thank duty for discipline.”

It was a quote from a Japanese scholar, and I was showing off.

In the spot allotted to me, the guest’s side of the table, I went to one knee, stretched the other leg back before folding both legs beneath me until I sat on my heels, knees forward, three inches from the cushion’s edge. I sat on my own tatami and at no time crossed the point at which our mats joined. He ignored my ritual conduct and seated himself similarly. We appraised each other candidly, waiting for the other person to begin a conversation, to flinch. Several minutes passed. Instincts told me not to speak, not to break eye contact, but to remain humble and patient, even though eye contact was normally considered inappropriate. Another minute passed and I began to second-guess my decision. Doubt very nearly propelled me to break silence at the same time as his daughter reappeared carrying a tray with the elements necessary to conduct a tea ceremony. I reminded myself not to rise, nor to acknowledge her presence. Unless I had missed my guess, he was about to formally accept me as a student.

“I commend your knowledge of our customs and traditions that must be tedious to enact,” he said.

Disguised as a compliment, he told me that he was wise to me ― was telling me that I would not surprise him. Beneath the first meaning, he also warned not to screw with him using etiquette. Disguised within that cloaked compliment, he laid the gauntlet for a social duel. Pride was one of my many weaknesses and I knew that I should resist his challenge, just as I knew that I would not heed good sense.

I said, “Graciousness has its own rewards and need not seek external value.”

“Like wisdom, few recognize its truest virtue of simplicity.”

“I beg your forgiveness for one transgression,” I told him and lowered my gaze.

“Transgression? I’m aware of none.”

His daughter watched us candidly while she whisked green tea, having assumed a subordinate role, yet there was that third cushion and teacup, and of course, she co-hosted the ceremony. And then there were those calluses and her attire that was not that of a simple household member, which must have meant her subordinate role existed in the dojo, but perhaps she performed household duties as required. Nothing anywhere indicated that she had a brother. At least no brother who trained under her father. No evidence of a mother, either. If correct, these deductions meant his daughter was his martial art heir. Intriguing.

“You are kind to make allowances for my disgraceful attire. These rags do this ceremony, and your tranquil home, an injustice,” I told him holding out a section of dirt-stained sweatpants. “Please forgive my slovenliness. If I could only erase my error and properly honour the significance of this event.”

Let’s see him wiggle out of ambushing me with this ceremony. I hoped it stung half as much as my hip, ribs and shoulder had ached. The corner of his daughter’s mouth twitched, which, of course, my smugness construed as a point for the gai-jin. Neither one of them could know I had spent hours researching Japanese culture and customs, and that, after our duel, I had studied the complex roles of student and sensei. Unintelligible Japanese instructions flowed out of him. His daughter nodded repeatedly before leaving through a different pocket door than the one we had entered, a door so cunningly camouflaged that it had perfectly mimicked the wall.

The old Samurai pulled his shoulders back and sat up straighter.

He said, “The disgrace is mine for assuming you’d be ignorant of our customs. This evening’s formality was intended to convey our sincerity toward your training. Even old men battle ego. A remedy is being prepared.”

Admitting to a loss of face greatly diminished his home, his daughter and the ceremony. Now I had to divulge my less than altruistic motives or live with the unspoken dishonesty that would forever taint our future interactions. Living a lie would foster regret and guilt that passing time would only magnify if I did not snip in the bud.

“When I accepted your invitation, I should have requested time to prepare for the honour you and your daughter granted. Instead, I thought only to engage in social battle to gain here what I failed to achieve in the dojo. I am called Bruce, and I beg your indulgence.”

“So, Bruce, we both thought less of the other. Young men may yet teach old men valuable lessons.”

As if orchestrated, his daughter reappeared.

“Please,” she motioned, “to follow me.” When I looked to her father for a clue that might explain the reason, I found a blank expression that professional poker players laboured their entire lives to attain. Once I had stepped into the hallway, she said, “I have prepared a bath and laid out fresh clothing for you.”

“You’ve done what!?”

“Benevolent father wishes to rectify most horrid oversight.”

Laughter in her voice matched the jocular crinkle in the corners of her eyes.

“Of course, he does.” I shook my head as her father chuckled loud enough for us to hear, sampling but an appetizer of a victory not yet fully realized. “Since I have no face left whatsoever, I am called Bruce.”

Now I may not be the quickest fish in the pond, but I seldom repeated a mistake. The old sensei had bested me twice with absurd ease. To ensure it never occurred again, I had only to resist his challenges and to curb my stubbornness. Sighing lightly, I reconciled myself to the certainty of providing the old fellow with future buffets of enjoyment.

“Maybe not gain face, Bruce,” shd said, “but you are about to show much leg. First, very tall person to wear very wise, but very short, father’s keiko-gi and hakama.” I groaned as I imagined my long-limbed frame fitting into those hakama, whose hem might reach my knees. “My name is Kira. Very pleased to meet you, Bruce. Towels on bench. Keiko-gi and hakama beside towels. Recommend you purchase two sets. Leave one clean set in locker. I wait here.”

She closed the door.

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