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.


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