Keppan: The Blood Oath

A little sampler from my new work in progress–the latest in the Connor Burke series.

Daytime brings its own challenges. Saturday morning and they were all there: three ranks of expectant, eager students in the deep blue uniform of traditional Japanese sword arts. They kneeled, motionless, the white oak training swords resting by their left sides. To even gain admittance to this martial arts training hall, they had spent years mastering other arts. Some had been battered on judo mats, others on the hardwood floors of karate dojo. But they all had the keen eyes of fighters: they knew how to see, not just look.

And, knowing that, my job today was to fool them.

The dojo where we studied the Yamashita-ha Itto Ryu had been conjured up by the sheer will and mastery of our old sensei, Yamashita. His choice of Red Hook in Brooklyn as a location was a puzzler, as was his seeming commitment to ply his art in obscurity. He was the closest thing the New York City area had a to a real master of the old school arts, and yet he made no move to advertise his presence and admitted students only grudgingly. But over the years word had spread and each person in this room had eventually heard of Yamashita. We had all knelt before him with written introductions, trying to calm our nerves, asking to be accepted as students. The few who made it were forever changed.  He was a brutally relentless teacher, a conjurer, but also a surrogate father. His mastery of his art was total; his knowledge of each of our flaws and our potential was almost frightening. His passing had rocked us all, but I felt it perhaps more than any of the other students. And it was not simply because I was there in the chaos and noise when he had surrendered his life for others in a room on a cold December morning. It was because, in his passing, he had laid a heavy yoke upon me.

Every dojo needs a sensei: I was the one chosen to take his place.

Even on my best days, I’m not sure I’m up to it. I trained with the man for years, knew the level of his skill and the depth of his insight. I’ve struggled to emulate him, to take his lessons and make them my own. But even though I’ve learned to move like my teacher, and some of the students say I’ve even started to talk like him, I feel a nagging doubt. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be Yamashita’s equal. My own failings press on me with a gravity made more powerful by my shame that I lived and he did not.

And, of course, there are the wounds. Very few people in the room where Yamashita died had escaped unscathed. For some, it was simply the thrumming psychic aftershock of fear, pain, and sadness. Others had additional, more prosaic damage.  The gunshot damage meant that it took me over a month simply to be able to hobble with a cane and, six months later, I was still in physical therapy trying to regain full functionality. It’s frustrating. I know on a cognitive level that it will take time for the muscle tissue to heal and stretch to the point where I can move without the pull and burn that is with me every day like a bad memory. But Yamashita’s dojo has never been a place for the walking wounded. And the sensei is supposed to be someone to imitate, not to pity.


11 Comments Add yours

  1. Ken Roza says:

    I cannot wait to read more! When will the book be published?

  2. Eric says:

    I have the same question. It’s almost 4 weeks later, whomever monitors this website.

    1. johndonohue says:

      That’s all me, Eric. I’ve been on the road a bit with my job and haven’t been keeping up with the site.

  3. johndonohue says:

    It’s moving along slowly, what with my pesky day job. I’m estimating about 18 months although I’ll try to update the site with some further excerpts.

  4. Leo Delaney says:

    Hi, I have been lucky and only discovered the series last week on holiday. So all your work was devoured in 5 days. So this having to waitfor the next book thing, very frustrating!! As an aside and for a laugh, I write this with a heat mat on my back to help a recurrent Judo injury. I was a cop for over 20 years and I like the way Burke is not like Jack Reacher in the films (not read the books yet). If you’ve been fighting and biting, it hurts the next day!!!!!

    1. johndonohue says:

      Leo thanks for your comments. I can certainly relate. One of the issues I’ve always had with much of the action/thriller genre (and with portrayals of the martial arts in general in fiction) is the total disconnect between actual fighting and the toll it takes on you (win or lose). I’ve tried to inject a certain amount of realism into the series in that regard. Glad you’re enjoying the series. Spread the word!

  5. John Sensei,
    Ohisashiburi desu! I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but we conversed via e-mail some years ago concerning your Burke/Yamshita series. This is Michael Alexanian (Gennan Buhaku) of the United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu Gengou Hojisha no Kai based out of East Lansing, MI.
    As I begin my second journey through the Burke/ Yamashita novels, and having just recently hosted our Soke, Tsumaki Kazuo Genwa, and his Assistant, Endo Tsuyako Gentei Sensei, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of our organization, I wanted to let you know how much the relationship between Burke and Yamashita resonates with me with respect to the relationship between Soke Sensei and myself. So much of what you describe about the interaction between Burke and Yamashita very closely parallels my relationship with Soke Sensei over the last 24 years. I want to thank you for a series of books that always have something profound to offer the reader, whether they are a first-time reader or, like myself, on a second traverse. I am eagerly looking forward to the publication of Keppan:Blood Oath, and wish you all the best as you persevere on this project. Sorry for the long-winded post, but I wanted to express my thanks!

    1. johndonohue says:

      Dear Michael:
      I do indeed remember you and thanks for your most recent message. It’s always terribly gratifying for me to hear that my writing resonates in some ways with other martial artists, and your comments on the sensei/deshi relationship are music to my ears. Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of the organization! A real accomplishment. I myself am off next month to visit Yamada Soke of the Shinshin Ryu Iaijutsu with my son and some other students in the ryu. My son has been training in kendo since he was 9 and now is really enjoying his experience in training in koryu. He was invited by Yamada Soke to visit and participate in a Taikai, but his real role on this trip is to carry my broken body back to the States when it’s all over.

      Thanks again for writing!

  6. John Sensei,
    How was your trip to Japan?

  7. jayne Zehngut says:

    Your book title has already been registered with the Library of Congress on November 2, 2016 Registration Number TXu 2-032-486

    1. johndonohue says:

      Interesting. It doesn’t come up on the LC title search. It’s a working title anyway. But thanks for the info

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