"You're going to really hurt him. Stop!"
The voice seemed a whisper from a distance. He felt a hand on his shoulder and, seizing it with his own, rose from the side of the crumpled body at his right and moved his shoulder toward the hand’s owner. The hand on his shoulder was bent painfully back, fingers toward the elbow. Now, the voice became clear — a quiet plea.
"Robert, now you're going to hurt me," Edward said.
He stopped moving, releasing the hand to see a friend's face. On the ground lay a boy, larger than either Robert or Edward. The boy was crying and mewling, holding his arm as if he were awaiting a blow, at the same time asking for mercy. Robert turned a full circle to await the next attacker. From the small crowd encircling them, none came.
"He's had enough." Edward again.
Robert's rage began to subside. He said to the whining lump on the ground, "If you lay a hand on that kid again, I will leave you with only one working arm." He took a step toward the older boy now curled into a fetal position and knelt, whispering, "Do you believe me?"
The boy shuddered and whined, "You're fucking crazy. You broke my arm."
Again a whisper, "I asked if you believe me."
The boy, almost free of tears, now nodded. Robert finished with him. "If I wanted to break your arm, I would have. You don't even have a mark. You need to stay on the ground until I'm gone." He looked at the other two boys who had nearly met the same fate as the one on the ground. "Then, your good friends can help you up."
"Come on, Rob," Edward said, "let's go."
Robert looked around for the much smaller kid whose treatment at the hands of the whimpering asshole and his friends had started the whole battle. That boy had fled in the first seconds of the fight. Edward took him by the elbow and led him away, resuming their journey to the dojo. Robert’s head had stopped throbbing.
Robert looked at his friend. "Shit."
"Don't worry, man. It was three against one. Everyone saw it."
"I know, but I just lost it."
"Well, you sort of have a personal reason to lose it."
Robert smiled and stopped, thinking about the sessions that he and Edward had outside the dojo. Edward looked hard at his friend. "What?"
"I guess I do." They continued the walk, and after a few blocks, Robert said, "I'm going to tell him."
"You tell him everything anyway. You can't hide anything from him."
At his talk with the old man he would reveal his embarrassment at loss of control and his shame at the episode. He didn't think he had been wrong to fight, but his state of mind during the fight disturbed him. He had been practicing for eight years now, and he still couldn't maintain an inner quiet in all circumstances.
To understand the trepidation Robert felt about telling the old man requires patience. He had come to the old man as a nine-year-old, young enough that he was impressed only by spirit — immune to politics and reputation.
As he became a senior student, he had learned that the man he and everyone in the dojo addressed as Sensei, teacher, was in fact a living legend in the koryū, the method, of aikijutsu practiced in their hall. The old man had received the menkyo kaiden license from the official heir of the founder, menkyo kaiden meaning "license of total transmission." The license signified that the old man knew everything there was to know and could pass it on. Shortly after he turned sixty, he had been awarded the honorary title Hanshi, which was another big deal. He was for Robert confessor, teacher, and father.
At the dojo, Robert and Edward bowed toward the kamiza before going to the changing room. From little cubbies, they took carefully folded clothing — the gi and dark-blue hakama worn by senior students and teachers. As they shed their clothing, Robert looked at his friend and long-time partner in practice. Edward and he were partners almost from the beginning.
He turned over in his mind thoughts of Edward's attitude toward him. He remembered the first time they played naked together. Edward had been unsure afterward until he had seen Robert's smile: nothing between them had changed. Somehow Edward accepted as perfectly natural Robert's inclination to sex and love with both boys and girls. Now, Edward was tall and, although slender, tightly muscled. They had girlfriends now, but they still liked to play occasionally, Edward confiding to Robert that he was the only boy with whom he had ever had sex. Their relationship was no one else's business.
Having dressed and looked each other over, they walked into the hall, Edward bowing to the kamiza and the embujo, the main practice area, before beginning practice, while Robert walked to the old man's room. "You're not interrupting," the deep musical voice he had grown to love announced. He walked in to find the old man as he usually found him, in the formal seated posture with a low, portable writing desk at his side as well as an inkpot and three brushes. He took his seat in front of his teacher and bowed.
The old man looked at him a while, finally asking, "All right, what have you been up to?"
Long experience told Robert to be direct and accurate. "A fight."
"Oh? And not here, I take it?"
"No, Sensei." The old man shrugged. If a discussion was to occur, Robert would have to guide it. He explained the circumstances while the old man listened with closed eyes. "I was so angry. I told him I would break one of his arms if he touched that kid again."
The eyes slowly opened. "Who was speaking?"
"I was, Sensei."
"No, you misunderstand the question. Who was speaking?"
Robert waited and thought about the question. He didn't usually threaten people, and he doubted that he would actually carry out the threat. Why would he make it then? Looking toward the floor between them, he turned matters of justice and injustice, anger and fear, over in his agitated mind for he could not say how long. He heard the whirr and then felt the sting of the shinai descending on his shoulder. Startled into silence, he spoke the truth: "Someone has to stand up to them."
Laying aside the split-bamboo staff, the old man asked, "So the person who made the threat is the person who will stand up to them? Who are they?"
"The ones who would kill us because we're not straight."
"I don't understand the use of the word, straight."
"Because I have sex with other boys." This was no revelation to the old man, who knew all the secrets of the boy's heart.
"Ahh, the opposite of gei, no?"
"How many of them are there?"
"A lot, I think."
"How long will it take you to wound them all?"
The question drove Robert to silence. He bowed to the old man and left the room rubbing his shoulder.
After evening practice, he folded his gi and hakama, taking the gi with him to wash. Ann picked him up at the front of the dojo. He loved Ann in quite a different way from the way he loved Edward. Edward didn't befuddle him the way Ann did.
Sandi, the sister of a gay friend his age, had introduced him to Ann, and although Sandi knew he was bi, she hadn't outed him to Ann before putting them together. In one conversation early in their relationship, Ann had commented about how close he seemed to Edward. He had let the comment pass, though he couldn't find any jealousy or hostility in the implied question behind the comment. He hadn’t answered it then, but he was determined to answer it now. As she drove, he arranged in his mind the course the conversation would take. He could see no path in which the talk would not end in disaster. He hadn't been afraid of anything for some time, but he was afraid now, as people are always afraid of losing something precious.
They parked at his house, went in briefly to say hello to his mother, and then dashed across the street and jumped over the seawall to sit in the white sand facing each other — to talk and make out as darkness approached from the east. Her hand eventually found its way to his lap and squeezed him gently. Without releasing him, she said softly, "I think you can love more than one person."
He teared up and struggled to tell her. Before he could get a word out, she moved her hand to his cheek and said, "It's all right, you know, as long as that boner is for me."
"How can it be all right with you? It's not just Edward. There's John, too."
"But no other girls, right?"
He shook his head. "No. No other girls."
"Then, let's try." She laughed, but not in a mean way. "I'll take my chance in the mix. Here's a secret I'll share with you — sometimes when I'm getting myself off, I think of you and Edward." He remembered being slightly confused when, during the talk so many years ago, his mother, his only parent, told him that girls masturbated. He wasn’t confused at the thought they did so but at how the mechanics worked. He was thankful that his mother, a pediatrician, had carefully explained female anatomy.
"Really? You think of me and Edward?"
"I think two guys together is hot. So we're both different."
He felt remarkably free, as if a door he had been trying to force had been flung open. He had no idea then that this girl was the doorway to his future. He only knew that she was okay with the secret. He leaned in to kiss her in the darkness now broken only by moonlight reflecting off the Gulf. "You sure are taking this better than I thought you would."
"I knew already, because I pay attention to you — I knew you were afraid and angry. Now you have to promise me not to beat yourself up about it."
He was alone, save one other, on the embujo, the expanse of woven straw tatami mats. The embujo was associated with earth, the last of the five elements — the others were fire, water, wood, and metal. The other man, standing a few feet away, was shorter than he and entirely in repose, though standing and not waiting so much as quietly watching. Robert closed with the other, the other who had taught him everything he knew about this art. He feinted high and attacked low. One day he hoped he would find some place in the old man to purchase. But now again, he grasped at emptiness as if he were piercing smoke, and pain shot through his wrist into his arm and shoulder as he wheeled through the air and fell into emptiness. In a breath he was rolling onto his side and then to his feet. Sometimes he thought the old man did this to remind him that, although Sensei had taught the boy all that the boy knew, Sensei had taught only a fraction of what Sensei knew.
As he righted himself, the old man sat before him in seiza, the formal seated posture. Robert immediately dropped to the tatami, snapping the legging of his hakama under him, in the same posture. "Did you feel my deep affection for you?"
He almost smiled at the question. "No, Sensei."
"What did you feel from me?"
He tried to remember the instant before he was defeated. "Nothing at all, Sensei."
"Do you know why?"
"Because if I confused my action with strong emotion, I would not have been able to feel your approach. Out of emptiness, compassion. We are always redirecting those who would harm us."
He was about to ask for more explanation when the old man began to bow. He followed suit, and then the old man left him alone on the embujo.
Later, at home, he thought about compassion — feeling sorry for someone. Then he took his Latin-English/English-Latin dictionary from the shelf. To bear or to suffer with. Not to be sorry for, but to join with someone's suffering or bearing of the world. No, he felt nothing but hatred for the ones, like the lump, who themselves felt no compassion for the weaker or the different.
No sex tonight. Edward and he were at his house while his mom was pulling a night shift in the Emergency Department. They had staked out a patch of isolated beach across the road from his house and watched the thunderstorms wane in the distance as the sun set. The smell of the saline Gulf water permeated the air, and the waves rhythmically beat the shore. The sky overhead was clear, and the moon was close to new.
"You know the lump and his crowd are saying they'll get you."
"He isn't that stupid."
"Don’t bet your life on it."
"I told Ann about me."
Edward knew what he meant. "You didn't."
"She's all right with it."
"No way in hell she is all right with it. Girls aren't like that," he said as he stood smiling and pulling his shirt over his head and then dropping his shorts and underwear to signal the beginning of a ritual.
Robert dumped his clothing on the sand and followed him into the Gulf. The water was a tepid bath as the air cooled slightly. They swam out twenty-five yards and stopped, bobbing upright in the water. "No, I think she was."
"I hope so. That would be great for you." He waited as if having to decide to continue. "You know that I'm all right with you?"
Robert laughed and splashed some salty water at him. "I think I get that." How could he not, considering all their explorations over the years.
While Robert was reminiscing, filled with affection for his friend, Edward circled him and pushed him under the water by his shoulders. He didn't feel Edward's approach until he felt the hands on him. He sputtered as his head surfaced, and a joyous boyish struggle ensued.
They swam back, picked up their clothes, wrapped their towels around their waists, and walked back to the house over dixie-mix asphalt, still warm from the now-hidden sun. In the shower together, they washed the salt off. When they finished and were still wet, Edward hugged Robert and smoothed his wet blond hair before they dried off and went to sleep in his bedroom.
He ached all over. When he woke from a fitful doze, he found the old man looking at him through the bed rails. He could at least move his head. He had difficulty clearing his mind, and then he remembered the pain medication. He was surprised to see Sensei at his bedside. He remembered waking from anesthesia in the recovery room — two days earlier, he thought, with his mother at his side. He remembered the pain of being transferred to a post-surgical, step-down unit and then to this room. He remembered the visits by his mother and Ann and Edward and John. His teacher's eyes were full of love and concern. "All right, what have you been up to?"
Laughing hurt: knife-like pain in his back and through his chest. "A fight." He looked around for other visitors.
"They'll be back soon. Your mother is on duty."
He knew that; he hadn't remembered. He had seen the old man in western clothes only a few times. Today he wore pressed pants and a dress shirt open at the collar with the cloth strap of his bag diagonally across his chest. He looked smaller than he usually did. Standing so that he could see his student's face clearly over the bedrail, he waited.
"I wasn't angry, just surprised at first."
"Once the attack began, you felt their approach."
"When he hit me with the bat, it was like you hitting me with a shinai, except it hurt a lot more. I was startled, but I didn't attach to the pain. I stayed quiet."
"Why not angry?"
He thought about the question for a moment in the silence of the hospital room, struggling through the drug-induced fog and the pain. "I could understand them . . . what they would do . . . I had no time to hate them. I didn't want to punish them; we were just partners in a dance."
The old man's laugh rang like a temple bell in the quiet of the hospital floor. A nursing assistant stuck her head in the door and then left. "What did you learn about them?"
"I sensed their fear. How can someone face the world afraid like that — that someone else's existence, my existence, could threaten him so? I led them to emptiness."
"Despite the fact that you left one of them with a concussion and the others with damaged joints, I think this time you acted out of deep compassion. Compassion does not require that you accept physical abuse. A good dance, all in all — you only lost a spleen. Better to lovingly redirect them than to destroy them, yes?"
"Storehouse burnt down —
I can see the moon"
The old man pulled two rolled papers from his cloth bag and handed them to the boy. Robert thought they must be get-well cards or something. When he opened the first he saw the old man's familiar calligraphy with Mizuta Masahide's haiku inscribed — 蔵焼けて 障るものなき 月見哉 (kura yakete sawaru mono naki tsukimi kana). He was instructed, and he understood that his teacher saw in their relationship the character of Masahide’s with his teacher, Bashō. He opened the second carefully, revealing Kanji characters flowing from the top overlying two red seals, one the old man's personal seal and the other the seal of his license. He focused on the Kanji, reading, tenjinshinyō ryū, the method of the willow's true heart, and then near the left side he recognized the katakana symbols for his name. He held his certificate as mokuroku and shidoin or assistant teacher. His age did not matter, nor his parentage, nor his place of birth, nor whom he loved. Menkyo kaiden vouched for his skill and character. Wherever he went in the world, disciples of his art would be able to find his name on the official roll. He had passed a test, not because he had defended himself and survived, but because out of emptiness, he had finally replaced rage with compassion for those who attacked him.
"You know, those are a dime a dozen. Put it away somewhere."
The old man didn't bow to Robert when he left because doing so would have required the boy to try to return the formality. Robert thought of the day five years ago when his first senpai, older brother, at the dojo had received his certificate from the old man's hand.
Holding the paper, Ramsdell with tears in his eyes and in his thirties then, had told the boy, "There are maybe fifteen of these with that man's seal in the whole world."