by Thomas R. Grable
Focus. Find your hara, your center. Concentrate your being on that point, two fingers width below your navel. Breathe in the air. Let all tension and stress, all worries and distractions, drain from you into the air in your lungs. Exhale, and let your body and mind be free of them.
Togashi Shintaro sat on the rock in the lotus position. He felt the coarse texture of the granite beneath him, but mentally strove to erase it from his mind. The sands of the garden were raked in a series of concentric circles, as ripples on water from a cast stone. Shintaro let himself be one with the moment, becoming just one more element in the pattern.
Or so he tried.
I can feel them moving. The wind stirs the cherry blossoms on the branch. The lion’s throaty rumble is like distant thunder in an empty canyon. And the tiger… oh, the tiger…
Shintaro twitched, the muscles no longer relaxed, his mind no longer tranquil. He fought to restore the peaceful calm he had briefly found before. He inhaled deeply, concentrated, and let the breath flow out of him, taking with it the tension and doubt. He waited for the Void to fill him.
A fly buzzed by, circling his head. The sound of its wings was an annoying distraction, one that he strove to ignore. It landed on his cheek.
It is nothing. I am focused. I am calm. I am one with the Void.
He felt the delicate, feather-soft tickling as the fly walked up onto his eyelid. An involuntary twitch sent it buzzing away, but it quickly returned. The thing landed in his ear. He waved it away reflexively, irritated at its persistence.
It would not leave. He concentrated his thoughts, attempting to focus his chi into a burst of mental energy that would drive the thing away. It steadfastly ignored his efforts.
Dappled sunlight on high grass. A striped form that pads silently through it, now a half-hidden shape of orange and black, now invisible altogether. The tiger stalks, in search of prey…
The fly alighted on his nose. For a moment, he was still; then a gutteral snarl erupted from his throat as his hand flashed up in a blur of motion. His eyes were still closed, but his fist was held before his face. His eyes opened, as did the hand.
In his hand lay the crushed body of the fly, dead. He contemplated it for a time, without emotion, then dropped the carcass on the sands.
I had felt the dying struggles of the fly, as I squeezed the life from it. I felt neither pity nor remorse, only savage satisfaction.
I am unworthy.
Shintaro arose from where he sat, and left the garden. He would find no solace there this day.
Stretch. Let your muscles relax. Reach to the point where pain begins, then hold. Breathe. Tense the muscle, and count to thirty. Exhale and relax, then extend the stretch yet more.
Stripped to his loincloth, the squatly muscular tattooed man went through the preliminary warm-up before his training. As always, there was some stiffness about his chest and abdomen, from the long burn scar that ran from left shoulder to right hip, but even that began to loosen with the stretches. He moved into a series of calisthenics, calculated to work each of his muscle groups.
After some twenty minutes of hard exercise, he felt ready to begin practicing the forms. He fell into a basic stance, his feet shoulder width apart, his weight evenly distributed upon the balls of his feet. His legs were bent, coiled springs ready to propel him instantly in any direction.
He threw a reverse punch, his breath exploding from him in a fierce kiai shout. He stepped forward, throwing an identical punch with his left. Another step, and his body twisted as he threw an elbow strike, his hips turning to give the blow devastating power. This was followed by another such strike, and then a series of brutal knees and elbows that would leave his opponent a broken husk upon the ground.
A quick spin upon the ball of one foot, and he faced an attacking horde. Strike one, block another, duck, dodge, spin, kick. He executed a series of attacks and defenses, envisioning in his mind the moves of his attackers. Here a sweep to take his man’s feet from him; there a leaping kick to the head; there a thrust of stiffened fingers to the throat.
Perspiration beaded his forehead as the moves flowed one into another, fluid and graceful as a dancer. Now his opponents were armed with bright swords and long yari. His moves became faster. His blood raced, his breath came in great pants, and his face contorted in a fierce snarl .
Here the spearpoint passes by, missing by a finger’s breadth. There the bushi’s sword swings; intercept the wrists and twist. There the two attack as one; roll beneath their blades and lash out, shattering their ankles with twin kicks.
The satisfaction of energetic exercise flowed through the tattooed man; the endorphin rush was almost addictive. But more, a savage energy flowed through him, and an equally savage desire.
Shatter their bones. Crush their skulls. Rip out their throats, and feast on their blood.
His breathing was interspersed with low growls and snarls, like a feral beast. A straw practice dummy became a deadly foeman. The ise zumi leaped upon it; he ripped it apart with hands curled into fierce claws. Straw scattered like leaves in the wind, as he rent his foe limb from bloody limb.
The voice of his sensei brought him to a halt. He looked up, his eyes still those of a beast. Togashi Oe looked on the visage of a man gone mad, a man that bared teeth and roared in savage fury.
The beast sprang to attack, his claws outstretched to rend and tear. The woman did not attempt to dodge the attack, but rather stepped into it, executing a powerful elbow strike to the man’s solar plexus. The leaping man’s own momentum added enormous force to the strike.
The breath whuffed out of the man, his diaphragm momentarily paralyzed by the blow. Oe seized the opportunity to clinch with her opponent. Her head rose up beneath his armpit as she slipped towards his back, and her left leg extended to trip him.
The two went down to the ground. The beast was frantic, as it strove to strike, to escape. Oe remained calm, and let the man roll beneath her, staying loosely atop him. As he rolled to his knees, she slipped her legs around his waist, anchoring her in place as her right arm slid under his chin and around his throat. She locked her hand in the crook of her left elbow, and left forearm went to the back of his neck to complete the choke hold.
Oe flexed her biceps, squeezing the carotid arteries of her opponent,cutting off blood to his brain. He scrambled madly, but her heels were hooks set in deep, and he could not dislodge her. His frantic struggles to escape became weaker as consciousness began to leave him. Just as he was about to black out, she relaxed her hold, allowing blood to flow to his brain once more.
“Shintaro! Listen to me,” she commanded. “Focus yourself. You are a man, not a beast. Can you hear me? You are Togashi Shintaro, of the Dragon. You are ise zumi. You must take control of yourself.”
Gradually, the eyes of the animal became those of the man. She felt him tap three times on her leg, the signal of surrender on the practice mat. She released him, coming to her feet, but he remained on the ground. His breaths became sobs, as he wept with the shame of what he’d become.
“Shintaro, listen to me. The power of the Tiger is great, but you must be its master, or it will master you.”
“Sensei, I am not worthy. They should have cast me from Togashi Mountain to die upon the rocks below. I cannot control the power of the tattoo; it is too much for me. Better that I should die.”
She clouted him on the head. “Dolt! It is not your place to judge such things. I am the teacher; you are my student. I will not let you fail, Shintaro.”
She lifted the man’s face, to peer deeply into his eyes. “Do you think you are the first Togashi to experience this?”
“I… no, sensei. They told me that some are overwhelmed by the power of the tattoo. That some go mad, and are destroyed.”
“Hai, Shintaro. And some of those find within them the strength to master their power after all. You will be one of those. That, student, is an order.”
Shintaro bowed his head. “Hai, Oe-sensei. Hai.”
Later, garbed again in his kimono and hakama, the man bowed to his teacher. “Sensei, have you eaten rice today?”
Oe smiled at the traditional greeting, for her ocean tattoo obviated the need for such. “Iye, Shintaro-san, I have not.”
“Would you care to share a rice ball with me?”
Shintaro produced a ball of steamed white rice. He extended it in one hand, and placed his other upon it. His brows knit in concentration, and his hands twisted in sudden motion. He looked in disappointment at the two crumbling halves in his hands.
Oe giggled. “Did you think you were Togashi Mitsu? Not yet, young ise zumi, not yet. Give it time.”
Chagrined, the man handed over half the rice. Oe took a bite, and her mouth experienced the rush of flavor. It had been too long.
Still chewing, she observed, “You do not fight as a Lion, Shintaro. I remember when you faced the Agasha. Your form was very different then.”
The man chuckled with ironic humor. “The first step kills your parents,” he quoted. “The second step kills your teacher.”
“… and the third step kills yourself,” she said, finishing the quotation.
“Hai, sensei. I was a different man that day.”
He looked Oe in the eyes. “Ikoma Hijoru died when the Agasha cut me down with his katana of fire. His potion resurrected a man with no family, no clan, no name. I was merely a blank slate, upon which the masters of Togashi Mountain would write a new identity.”
Oe chewed thoughtfully. “When you faced the Agasha, I seemed to sense that your heart was not in the fight. Was I wrong?”
His eyes grew distant and sad. “Do you know what it means to be a Lion, sensei?”
She shook her head. “No.”
He turned back to her. His voice was a whisper. “Neither do I.”
A long, painful silence fell. Finally, he said, “The Lion revere many things: honor, loyalty, courage. But most of all, they revere their ancestors. Each Lion strives to honor his ancestors, so that they will look with favor upon him.”
He paused, to gather his courage to speak on. “I was third son to Ikoma Watanabe. When my father brought me to the temple of my ancestors, he sought their blessing for me, so that my life would be guided by their wisdom. The priest invoked the ancestors, and they…”
He momentarily choked with the emotion, then, through gritted teeth, continued. “They told him that my father had only two sons, and both of those had already been blessed.”
Oe could find no words to answer this.
The two walked up the trail as it wound its way around the mountain side. Oe was still wrapped in thought, contemplating her student’s revelation.
“Shintaro-san,” she called.
“Why do you think that Togashi Gaijutsu chose the tattooes that he did for you?”
Shintaro was pensive for a moment. “I have thought about this, sensei. The cherry blossom is the symbol of the samurai, of his honor. It reminds me that, though my head is shaved, I am still samurai.”
She nodded. “Very good. Go on.”
He continued. “The lion symbolizes the clan of my birth. It is courage in battle, charging to the forefront. It reminds me of what I was, and what I was not. Its power lets me be the warrior that I yearned to be, yet could never be.”
“Hai. And the tiger?”
Shintaro paused, then, in a low voice, he whispered, “The tiger is the symbol of ferocity. I fear it symbolizes the inner rage I felt at being denied by my ancestors. When that rage is released, it is so great that it threatens to consume me, and everyone around me. It is pitiless, merciless. And it moves…”
Togashi Oe suppressed a shudder, as she felt the octopus slide along her skin. “I know what you mean, Shintaro-san,” she said quietly. “Believe me, I know.”
Oe was silent for a while. “Shintaro-san,” she began, “do you have any recollection of how you were subdued?”
“My memories are hazy, sensei. My thoughts were drowned in the raw passions of the beast. I remember…” He reached for the image. “I remember seeing… prey. I remember the hunger, as I leaped to rend and kill and… eat.” He hung his head in shame. “Then I remember a stunning blow, and being trapped, unable to escape. After that, I remember your voice, bringing me out of the darkness.”
Oe lifted his chin. “We have practiced kaze-do together, ne?”
“In our bouts, Shintaro-san, who has usually emerged the victor?”
“I have, sensei,” he answered, almost apologetically.
“Your martial prowess has become phenomenal since you returned from Togashi Mountain. You should be proud of this; the Lion enhances your bugei skills to extraordinary levels. But I defeated you with ease. Why do you think that is?”
“You are very skilled, sensei…” he began, but she cut him off.
“Iye. I defeated you because you were an unreasoning beast. So long as the Tiger possesses you, your power and ferocity are unmatched, but your skills are for naught. You are my student, Shintaro-san, not because I am your superior in the martial arts, but because I can teach you how to master your tattoos… and yourself.”
He bowed deeply to her. “Hai, sensei.”
“When you have done this, when you can command the Tiger, and not lose yourself to it, then you will be a force to be reckoned with.”
He sat up straighter, the pride evident in his eyes. Her voice became an iron lash, taking the pride from him. “You will truly learn what it means to be ise zumi. You will have food, water, or rest, only when I allow it. When you think that you have reached the limits of your endurance, then the real training will begin. I will strip from you everything that is soft and weak, and leave tempered steel in its place. Do you understand?”
“Remember, student, that which does not kill you, makes your stronger. If you live, you will be strong indeed.”
He smiled, but her eyes took on a dangerous glint. “But if you are not strong enough, if the Tiger proves greater than you, then I will kill you myself. The Togashi cannot allow such power to go unchecked.”
The smile vanished, as he realized that she meant every word. He bowed low to her.
“Hai, Oe-sensei. Hai.”
“Now, show me your stance.”
She took him through a series of katas and forms. He removed his kimono, working in hakama pants only. She watched him execute them with precision, watched his muscular body take on a sheen of perspiration.
She saw the cherry blossoms sway in the wind, felt the low rumble of the lion. And the tiger… oh, the tiger…