“The ending is the most important part,” Sifu says. “If you flub the ending you won’t be prepared for what’s next.”
He pulls one of the karate students out of the lineup, an older guy wearing an Orange belt who looks like he’s still in sponge mode.
“Shielding Hammer. Move.”
Sifu comes in low and slow with a left and the Orange freezes, momentarily stunned at being called out onto the mat.
“Come on, you know this technique. Defense against a left punch: slide back, parry, block, rake the face, elbow.”
A light goes on in the Orange’s eyes and Sifu comes in again. This time the Orange slaps Sifu’s hand out of the way, then bounces a block off of his arm before pushing him on the chin. Sifu falls back and away and the Orange drag steps forward, elbowing him in the chest.
“Better. Now listen up class, do you see where his left hand is? Dangling down there by his leg like a dead fish?”
A chorus of affirmative mumbling rises from the assembled karate students.
“He didn’t check with that hand, so all I have to do now is …” Sifu leans in and head butts the Orange very gently, “ … this, and his nose is broken. You have to finish it correctly or you’ll regret it.”
Sifu claps the Orange on the shoulder and the man falls back in line, rubbing his forehead. Definitely still in sponge mode.
“Alright, pair up and practice the kumite – right kick, right punch, palm heel – then move into either the lock-flow or techniques, depending upon what you need for the next belt.”
Sifu walks off the mat and motions for you to follow him into the practice room.
“Rachel, how are you feeling?” He closes the door. The vivid hum of the air conditioning unit runs heavy in your head.
You don’t tell him about the gnawing darkness in the pit of your stomach, the void that’s begun spreading out into your joints and muscles.
“I talked to your dad,” he looks down at you. The green knowing in his eyes pins you in place, like a mummified butterfly in one of those display cases from biology class.
The A/C snaps off, the tin slapping of the fan spluttering erratically down to nothing until it’s just the sound of your own breath, thick and slow and laboring in the cool dim air.
“Listen, I want you to know that we’re all here for you. Every one of us.”
You don’t say anything because the darkness is swelling, flushing up past your neck to invade your scalp like a rash. Fucking dad. Asshole fucking liar he promised.
“I had to tell the other instructors, Rachel. We need to know if you’re getting into a situation out there that you can’t handle.”
So here it goes.
“Listen, we’re going to speed things up a little. You’re already First Brown anyway. How would you feel about going for Junior Black in three months?”
The tide of darkness recedes a little. You hadn’t expected this – normally it would have taken a year, maybe more. Sifu’s probably just feeling sorry for you, throwing you a bone before you start gimping out on him in class. But you don’t care, because you want the Black. More than anything, you want the Black.
“We’re going to have to work with you every day after school though, Rachel. It’s not going to be easy. And I can’t promise you that you’ll pass the test.”
Sifu’s old school like that: he’s not going to just give it to you.
“Are you up to it?”
“How do you feel?”
Three years ago, when you were in third grade, Dad signed you up for Kenpo. He was scared, afraid you’d find yourself “in a situation,” as he likes to say.
“Girls need to be careful,” he says. “You need the tools to defend yourself, in case you’re ever in a situation.”
You hated going to the dojo at first: the uniformity of the place, the rote memorization required to learn the creeds, the repetitive back and forth of the techniques. And the forms, the way the Blacks moved together out there on the mats, dancing along to the soundless beat of what must be some kind of retarded disco house music, dipping and kneeling, twirling and kicking at nothing but the wide mirror running the length of the wall.
But then one day, you were only Orange then, Charlie Cavanaugh had tried to push you down at school, angry about something you’ve both long since forgotten. You went into Triggered Salute without thinking, accidentally breaking his nose when that first palm heel to the chin landed a few inches higher than intended. You got in trouble – they even threatened to expel you; but after feeling Charlie’s nose break so easily under your palm, you were hooked.
Sifu pulled you out of class that week, visibly angry. “What’s the third creed?”
“I will use what I learn in class constructively and defensively in order to help myself and my fellow man, and never to be abusive or offensive.”
“What does that mean to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Really. Well you better start figuring it out or I’m bumping you back a belt.”
You scrambled for the first answer that came to mind. “It means I’m not supposed to hurt people.”
“That’s right. The things you learn in here can be very destructive. Do you know what destructive means?”
“Listen, when I tell you about the importance of discipline, and control, I’m not just flapping my mouth to hear myself talk. These things are important. Because what I’m trying to teach you in here has the power to help you. But Kenpo can only help you if you use it for the right purposes. That boy … what was his name?”
“Charlie. He’s bigger than you?”
“He’s a bully?”
“Well he probably deserved what you did to him. Did it feel good?”
“I bet it did. But what I’m telling you is that sometimes, doing what’s right doesn’t feel good. You’ve learned enough in here to seriously hurt someone out there on the playground. And if it ever happens again, I’m kicking you out of class until you can prove to me that you’re ready to use karate in the right way. To control what’s in here,” Sifu tapped you then, hard, on the forehead. “Not what’s out there,” his hand shot out in a wide arc, indicating the dojo, the parking lot, the whole wide world beyond.
You “applied yourself” after that, as Dad likes to say, poring over the arcane names painted on the walls of Sifu’s dojo as you learned the techniques. Grip of Death: step forward, check the knee, double hammer fist, turn, knee the groin, palm heel, hand sword to the neck, palm heel. Cross of Destruction: grab the hands, step through reverse, twist the arms, kick the knee, land in a neutral bow, pull down with the left, push up with the right, break the elbows. Sometimes you stayed after class, reading the names of the more advanced techniques, imagining what the upper belts had in store for you: Dance of Death, Thrust Into Darkness, Broken Gift, Leap from Danger, Unfolding the Dark, Twirling Sacrifice. Each one rolled like a promise off your tongue, hinting at something beyond your understanding; something untamed, flickering in the periphery of everyday life, waiting.
You remember, almost to the day, when it all started. It was after you’d broken Charlie’s nose, after you committed to getting the Black, when the cramps moved in. You were in fourth grade by then. Mom brushed it off to growing pains.
“You’re so tall for your age, honey,” she said. “Look at how strong your calves are! Your body’s just having trouble keeping up is all.”
Eventually you learned to work through it, the viselike tightening in your legs that woke you up in the middle of the night. You were still soaking it all in – “sponge mode” as Sifu calls it. You’d breathe in the ache until it was almost too much, then let it ooze out of your nostrils, warm and damp and slow, letting the murky isolation of your bedroom absorb the throbbing uncertainty of it. It was not unlike taking a direct hit to the nose during sparring class: if you try to fight it, the panic blinds you in a hot, white flash … and then you lose.
Stop. Breathe it in. Let it run its course. Breathe it out. Let it go.
The pain never really went away, you just learned to move through it, realizing that it would give way against the force of your will. By then you’d graduated from Orange to Purple to Blue. Sifu started calling you Man-of-War, which you had to look up on Google.
“You’re starting to process the movements,” he said one day after practice. “You’re pulling them apart, then reassembling them for your own purposes. You’ve graduated from sponge stage to jellyfish stage.” He tried to explain his theory to you, about how all Kenpo karate students started out like a sponge – a blank slate with little knowledge or control of body mechanics – evolving as they moved up in rank much like the animals did: from sponges to jellyfish to worms to insects to people, backbones and all. “By the time you’re Black, you should have developed a spine,” Sifu said. “And you should begin to question everything I tell you. Until then, you do what I say, when I say it.”
But biology isn’t your best subject, and you ignored everything but sponge stage. And the backbone you’ll get at Black; that’s becoming more and more important.
There was Green, then Third Brown, then Second Brown – the malignant shadow of your pain dogging along at your heels the whole way.
Then one day during sparring you took a punch to the sternum – a “love tap,” as Sifu would say – and couldn’t catch your breath for three days. Mom took you to the doctor and there were tests, more office visits, and more tests. Then there were needles and biopsies and scans and peeing into cups then more needles, needles everywhere, measuring your every move. By the time they had it all figured out you’d graduated to First Brown – only one away from the Black.
Of course the Doc laid the news on Mom and Dad first. You walked into the shuttered tension of the Doc’s office and sensed it straightaway – you were a goner; the bloodshot turbulence in dad’s eyes told you everything you needed to know. As Doc mumbled on about the symptoms all you could think about was the Black.
Doc gives you eighteen months before you’ve gimped out past the point of no return, maybe six more before lights out. He tells you to take it easy in Kenpo, drink lots of water, take lots of breaks. He sounds like one of those Yoga instructors on Mom’s workout DVDs.
“It’s important to listen to your body now, Rachel. If you get short of breath, or if you get tired, it’s important to stop what you’re doing, and to rest. Your heart is very fragile now,” he says. “And too much strain could be … well. Just take it easy, okay?”
Who’s he kidding, anyway? How is eighteen months any better than six? Or four? One?
Stop. Breathe it in. Let it run its course. Breathe it out. Let it go.
Three months to Black.
Dad picks you up early from school now, nearly every day, and drives you to the dojo for private lessons with Sifu. He tries to hide his worry behind stuttering bursts of small talk.
“So how was … how was your day?”
“What did you have for lunch?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Come on, you must remember what you ate. That was only, what, three hours ago?”
You fidget in the air-conditioned cocoon of the car. “I don’t know. Pizza.”
“What kind of pizza?”
“What about for dessert?”
He eases on the brakes and pulls the car gently into the dojo’s parking lot, where it glides to a soundless stop. “Pick you up at six?”
You flee the muffled pressure cooker of the car and jog into the bright distraction of the studio. The dojo is shaped like a shoebox, with a wall of mirrors running the length of the place and makeshift bleachers along one side where the parents and bystanders can sit during classes or promotion ceremonies. Most of the square footage is covered by spongy red mats. You wave absently at some older Blacks sparring on the mats as you make your way back to the locker room. You change quickly into your gi and tie the Brown around your waist. Only a few months ago it was all you could think about, the Brown. But it’s already getting old, its utter lack of Blackness weighing around your midsection like an anchor.
Out on the mats you sit down in front of the mirrors and stretch, slow and deep like the Doc told you to do. Sifu has painted the entire belt progression on the walls above the mirrors, a bright panoply of colors overlaid with artistic etchings describing every technique and form required for the belts: Yellow, Orange, Purple, Blue, Green, three different shades of Brown, varying degrees of Black, and finally Red. A few years ago he refined the program and was forced to repaint the entire wall, erasing the elaborately drawn calligraphy with a coat of gray primer then hiring an artist to paint each belt and technique again, from Yellow to tenth Black, in a faux Chinese style that you have to admit is pretty slick.
Sifu’s a sixth Black now, higher than anyone you’ve ever seen (at least in real life). You asked Sifu about Red once and all he said was “everyone should have a goal.”
“Are you ready Rachel?” Sifu’s done with the other Blacks now, and walks over to where you sit stretching on the mats. You stand up, ready for your lesson. The other Blacks begin practicing their own forms, more advanced techniques you can’t quite follow yet.
“Alright,” he says. “First things first. We’re doing pretty good on techniques but it’s going to be hard work for the next couple of months. The black belt requires that you jump through a few extra hoops. In addition to the techniques, the forms and the sparring, you’ll need to start working on a thesis, and start preparing a personal form.”
“What’s a thesis?”
“It’s kind of like a book report.”
“About … ?”
“Anything you want. It just has to sum up why you’re ready for the black belt.”
“You’ve seen the other students perform their personal forms during the black belt tests, right?”
“Well, to get the black, you have to create your own. Take five of the techniques you’ve learned, modify them in some important way to fit your own style, then make them work together in a unified whole to create the form. You’ll need to come up with a name for it, too.”
The homework assignments doled out, Sifu begins working the techniques with you. The defense against a roundhouse club attack, Calming the Storm, gives you some trouble. Sifu slows it down, breaking it into little pieces for you to digest.
“You’re getting spooked by the club coming at your face,” he says, “which is understandable. But that’s exactly what the attacker expects you to do. You have to embrace the fact that moving into the threat will actually get you out of harm’s way. If you step back, you’ve got to move about three feet to get out of range.” He tosses you a stick. “But if you move forward, you only have to go about six inches – right into the empty spot between us. Now try and hit me with that,” he says.
You swing the stick at half-speed in a wide arc towards Sifu’s head and he steps forward, deep into your personal space. He blocks your attacking forearm with his own and you feel the bony attack of his knee checking against your leg. He shoves in slow motion at your face with his free palm and you both freeze.
“See how that nullifies the attack? The club doesn’t have anywhere to go now … it’s dangling out there in mid-air. Then you can finish it out …” he resumes the technique, crossing his arms to simultaneously check the club and punch you in the sternum before stepping in further to elbow you in the stomach. You double over against the force of the elbow in your gut and Sifu twists the club from your hand, “… strip the club.” He steps quickly away, “and escape from danger.”
You practice it a few times, Sifu attacking you in slow motion at first. You begin hitting him harder, eventually letting loose with everything you have, your wimpy arms flailing against the stony perspiration of his arm and stomach. He doesn’t seem to notice, speeding the technique up in increments as you both work. Once you overcome the initial flight reflex the space beneath his upraised arm becomes a pocket of opportunity, a void ready to be filled with your darting movements.
“Good,” he says, rubbing out the red spot on his chin you’ve been using for target practice. “Now just do that a thousand more times over the next three months and you’ll have it.”
You used to hate the karate uniform, the leveling effect the gi had upon your features, making you indistinguishable from everyone else in class. But since the diagnosis you’ve come to relish the relative anonymity found in the dojo. It’s a welcome escape from the uncomfortable wave of sympathy directed your way from teachers and friends. Not to mention your parents, the way Mom frets over every breath, her wide-eyed unease at even the most commonplace of bodily functions; the clearing of your throat has the potential to send her into paroxysms of worry.
School’s not much better, where you navigate a minefield of suspicion and rumor, sidestepping huddled bunches of classmates as you walk the halls between classes. You’ve noticed a dead zone of about fifteen feet radiating outwards from your person, inside of which the conversations become less animated, the glances increasingly surreptitious.
Your favorite subject is fourth period – Social Studies – where your teacher Miss Young explains the evolution of human civilization, her soothing voice somehow making sense of the ebb and flow of dead and dying over the centuries. You take comfort in the way that seemingly minor things – farming, the wheel, the alphabet – can dramatically impact how people think and act for thousands of years afterwards.
“Turn to page two hundred and seventy six in your Social Studies book,” Miss Young says. “What do you all see there?”
A static symphony of flipping pages fills the classroom.
A collective snicker rises from your classmates.
“Enough,” Miss Young says. “These are called cave paintings, some of the first examples of written human communication in the world. These were painted onto the walls of a cave in Lascaux, France more than seventeen thousand years ago.”
“Why?” asks Charlie Cavanaugh.
“I’m glad you asked, Charlie. Some anthropologists think that very special people, called shamans, would paint these images onto the rocks in order to perform a kind of religious ceremony. Does anyone know what a shaman is?”
You raise your hand.
“It’s like a Dumbledore, from Harry Potter. Some old guy who can do magic.”
“You’ve got the gist of it, Rachel,” Miss Young laughs. “Rachel’s basically right, class. Shamans were like – well, like magicians, to their people. These paintings were done before humans had invented the written word, before organized religion, before the evolution of complicated speech patterns. To them, the world was a very violent, scary place. People still believed that things like thunder and lightning, drought and fire, were a sort of magical occurrence that they could harness and control with their behavior.”
“Why didn’t they paint thunder and lightning then?” Charlie asks. “All I see is horses and cows.”
“Well, we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that the people living in these hunter-gatherer societies,” Miss Young writes the words hunter-gatherer on the blackboard, “spent most of their day looking for food. They hadn’t discovered farming yet, and so they were at the mercy of the rains and their own hunting skills to feed their families. If they couldn’t kill a horse or a bull, they couldn’t eat. Some people believe that these paintings were part of a kind of ceremony that was intended to bless the hunters with strength and skill, so they could be successful in a hunt and come back with food to feed the whole tribe.”
“That’s stupid,” Charlie says. “They’re just stick figures.”
“Well, it might sound dumb to you and me, but remember – these people were very different from us. They believed that by painting the rocks with their visions of the future, they could embed a kind of transformative power within the cave walls, which they could then draw upon to become more powerful. There’s a term for it, called sympathetic magic,” she writes sympathetic magic on the board. “It means they believed the painted rocks held an intrinsic ability to affect their lives and livelihoods. The caves were a sacred place, and the magic in the walls was meant to continue – even after a particular shaman or hunter passed away.”
“Forever?” You ask.
“Forever. It’s very similar to the concept of voodoo dolls, or … what’s another example …”
“The Horcrux,” you hear yourself saying.
“The Horcrux,” you reply. “From Harry Potter. It’s something – like a book or a necklace – that a wizard can put a piece of his soul into. To try and live forever.”
“Okay, that’s a good example then, Rachel. It sounds like this Horcrux thing relies on the theory of sympathetic magic as well,” Miss Young taps the words on the board behind her. “The idea is that, until the object itself is destroyed, the person who has placed his energy into it can live forever.”
“They can be immortal.”
“You’re right, Rachel, thank you. That’s a better word.”
You’ve never really taken a shine to English, and the thesis weighs on you like the Brown hanging heavy on your waist. Sifu says he “only” wants five pages from you … double spaced, in twelve point font. But you’ve been starting, deleting, starting over, editing, deleting, and starting over again for weeks now, with only two paragraphs to show for the effort.
After school, you slip into the quiet comfort of the dojo and change into the canvas camouflage of the gi, the thick black cloth shielding you from the dead zone of sidelong glances which follows you everywhere else.
Sifu walks over once you’ve finished warming up. “How’s the personal form coming along?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“What are you calling it?”
“I’m not sure yet. I’m still working it out. The end is giving me some trouble.”
“Let me know when you’re ready to give me a dress rehearsal on it.”
“Today we’re sparring,” he says. “Did you bring your sparring gear?”
“During the test you’ll have to go up against three other Blacks and hold your own during three one minute bouts. We’ve got to start getting you ready for it.”
You suit up in padded headgear and gloves, girding your limbs with Velcro shin guards and worn foam sparring boots. The constrictive embrace of the body armor against your skin helps dispel the growing discomfort in your muscles. Sifu has asked several older Blacks to stay late tonight and help out; once you’re dressed you find them waiting for you there on the foamy brightness of the mats. You pop the bite guard into your mouth and shift your weight from one foot to another, waiting.
“Alright guys, we all know one another here,” Sifu says. “This is Rachel’s first time with the three on one format, so let’s take it easy at first.” The three Blacks surround you, two teenage boys and an older woman: a grab bag of taller, heavier and more experienced opponents.
“Are you ready, Rachel?”
You hunker down into a right neutral stance and raise your fists up to defend your face. The Blacks spread out in a circle around you on the mats and begin moving in, one by one. You block a half-hearted roundhouse kick with your elbow and move into the attacker, pummeling him with a quick combination of jabs before dancing back into the center of the circle. A fist hits you on the kidney and you spin around, dazed. The woman lands a roundhouse punch to your headgear and you push into her, unleashing a series of elbows and punches in her direction before escaping back into the center of the mats.
“Where are you, Rachel?” Sifu calls from the bleachers.
“I’m getting my ass kicked,” you shout back. Several attackers land simultaneous punches to either side of your body.
“Because I’m surrounded.” Another foot lands heavily on the thick part of your thigh. A dull pain registers in your brain. That’s going to leave a bruise, you think.
“Every situation has – at a minimum – two sides to it,” Sifu says. “Right now you’re on the losing side of this one. The key to changing that dynamic is all determined by your perspective.”
You don’t answer, your breath coming in ragged gasps as the Blacks tighten the circle around you. You hook an ankle with your own and push one of them off balance, spinning around to block a roundhouse punch with your upraised arm. You feel the weight of your blood coursing thick and heavy through the veins in your neck.
“I don’t know what to do,” you say.
“Change your perspective,” Sifu answers.
It comes to you then, like one of those scenes from the movies where the clouds part and the angels sing from on high. As the woman steps in to attack you duck under her upraised fist and grab her by the lapels of her gi, spinning around quickly to shove her back into the center of the circle. She falls backwards into another attacker and the two of them momentarily fumble with one another, distracted. You move in to work on the third attacker, doubling him over with a kick to the gut before stepping to his side and shoving him into the center of the circle, between you and the others.
“Good!” Sifu shouts. “Now you’re on the outside of the circle. Keep one of them between you and the rest, and keep moving to the outside of the circle.”
The sparring match continues until your vision pulses red behind your eyelids and Sifu claps his hands for the Blacks to back off. A bittersweet wave of emotion washes over you: you’ve jumped over an important hurdle, but the Blacks were pulling their punches. You could feel it in their strikes, see it in their eyes. Sifu’s told them about your illness, and asked them to be careful. You’re getting the sympathy vote.
In the real world you’d have been toast in thirty seconds flat … and everyone in the room knows it.
You spend weeks working on the personal form, practicing every spare minute of the day, working through the sore muscles and the shallow breathing. You’ve seen others perform their own forms during tests for the Black, and it always looks a little cheesy. You’d dismissed it as a necessary evil, a tedious hoop you needed to sail through to get the Black. Until now, Kenpo has been a very structured, almost scientific discipline: Sifu tells you what you need to know, you learn it, then you move up. But this is different; the sheer scope of the task looms like a thunder cloud on the horizon of your consciousness.
During recess, you leave the other kids behind on the playground, seeking out a secluded spot behind the gym to practice. You begin with Intellectual Departure, sliding back to avoid an imaginary right kick and moving into the threat, spinning around with a back kick into your invisible attacker. It’s coming together, but something’s off … and if you can feel that, Sifu will spot it in a heartbeat.
“Whatcha doin’?” Charlie Cavanaugh’s voice slices through your thoughts like a rusty knife.
“Practicing,” you turn to face Charlie, your face flushing red with embarrassment. Your breathing tightens.
“It looks kind of gay.”
“Whatever, Charlie. Shouldn’t you be bothering someone else?”
“Nope,” he says, walking over to you. “You’re not going to be around much longer anyway, so I figure I should get my digs in while I still can.”
The darkness covers you like a shroud. You step into him, breathing heavily. “You know what, Charlie?”
“What?” A nervous smirk plays across his features.
“Someday, thirty or forty years from now, when you’re really old … like fifty … you’re going to remember this,” the tears are welling up but you don’t care. “You’ll want to come back to sixth grade, and get a do-over on this day. Because you’ll realize that you’re about to die, and your whole life has been spent running away from it, from death. Your whole stupid life. And you’re going to wonder what it was that I knew, back in sixth grade, that made me look so fucking cool, so stone cold calm and ready for it.” The tears are running down your cheeks now. “And I won’t be around anymore to tell you about it. You’ll have to figure it out all by yourself. And by then it will be too late.”
Your turn and walk back towards the playground, leaving the shiny rivers of shame to leak down your face and into your shirt. There’s a gaping hole in the pit of your stomach, gnawing away at your insides.
Breaking his nose again would have felt better than this.
You print out the thesis and deliver it to Sifu one day after school. During sparring you see him reading through it in the practice room, a red pen moving slowly over the words. After class you sit quietly on the bleachers waiting for him, a sharp ache spreading from your right thigh out into your lower back and midsection.
“This is good,” Sifu says. “Sympathetic magic, huh?”
“It’s something we learned about in Social Studies.”
“You’re right, you know,” he sits down next to you. “No two Black belts are ever the same. Your personal form, the way you inflect each technique and form – nobody has ever received the Black you’re about to get, and nobody ever will. It’s completely yours. Completely personal.”
“There are a few spelling mistakes I’ve marked here,” he hands you the pages, covered in red ink. “Fix those and you should be all set.”
“How’s the personal form coming?”
“Not very well.”
“Do you want to practice it for me?”
“Not yet,” you say. “I need some more time to figure it out.”
“Alright. Other than that you’re looking really good. You’re doing great, Rachel.”
“Three weeks to Black.”
“That’s up to you.”
The outlines of the personal form are taking shape, but something’s missing. Every day after Dad drops you off at the dojo Sifu offers to help, asking you to practice the form for him. You get away with mumbled excuses for a few days, but eventually he forces the issue.
“Look, Rachel, it’s only two more weeks until the test,” he says one night after you’ve finished working techniques. “I have to be honest with you, I’ve never promoted someone to Black without seeing their personal form before the day of the test.”
“It’s not ready.”
“It doesn’t have to be ready. I’d be surprised if it was, to be honest. That’s why I’m here, to help you with it.”
“I don’t want any help!” The shrill scrape of your anger surprises you both.
Sifu nods. “Okay,” he says. “I get it.”
By the time test day arrives your rear kicks are starting to flutter out in midair like a dying bird, some important muscle fiber having wasted down to nothing in your leg. During the car ride over Dad and Mom share halting, forlorn looks in the front seat, trying to pretend like nothing’s wrong.
The dojo is full of familiar faces: family and friends, aunts and uncles and teachers and cousins all gathered in your honor. By now they’ve all heard about the diagnosis, and know you won’t make it to Second Black. There’s another guy testing today, a middle-aged Green going for Third Brown, and from the minute you take your place on the mats to warm up you can see he’s nervous. The two of you work on each other for a few minutes before the test, feeding techniques and going over the finer points of footwork.
“Are you ready?” You ask the Green.
“I guess,” he exhales deeply, his lower lip quivering.
He’s afraid of failing the test. You should be scared too, but a soporific calm has settled in, entrenching itself more and more firmly with each panting breath. Sifu hasn’t seen your personal form, and he’s not going to pass you just because you’re sick. But you don’t care. The Black is going to be yours, completely unique; unlike any other belt before or since. Otherwise it won’t work.
You look out at the assembled crowd, the background static of conversation and video equipment whirring in your head, like the distant sound of an ocean trapped inside a seashell.
They’re all afraid, you think. Every one of them.
A line of old men follows Sifu into the dojo from the practice room, wrinkled and stooped Kenpo practitioners with bars of red shining bright against the threadbare belts slung across their drooping stomachs. There’s an Eighth Black, a Sixth, two Fourths and Sifu, each clad in a dark gi faded to gray by years of sweat and abuse.
“Hello everyone!” Sifu shouts at the assembled crowd. “Please take your seats. We have two students testing today: an adult Green and a junior Black. Each student will demonstrate several advanced Kenpo karate forms, then we’ll feed them some specific attacks so they can show off the more advanced techniques they’ve learned. After that we’ll see their personal form, and end with some sparring – definitely the most exciting part of the day for most folks!”
Sifu and the older Blacks sit in a row of chairs placed before you on the mats, ready for the test to begin.
“Once we get started I’d like to ask you to keep the conversation at a minimum. If you have little children, make sure to keep them quiet during the test or take them outside so the students can concentrate,” Sifu says.
And just like that, it’s here.
They move you through Staff Set first. As you twirl and buckle the staff against a quartet of invisible attackers you can feel your heart thumping thickly beneath your gi, sweat beading like dew on the pale film of your skin. Your breathing quickens, sooner than you’d expected, but there’s nothing to be done at this point except push on through the test.
Sifu calls a line of students out onto the mats to feed you techniques, Greens and Browns and Blacks silhouetted against the light streaming in from outside. The colorful hieroglyphics painted upon the walls of the dojo flash like fireworks in the edges of your vision.
“Begging Hands. Move.”
A Blue grabs both of your wrists from the front and you step back into a left neutral, twisting your wrists to throw him off balance. You kick once at his groin and he doubles over. You follow through with another kick to the Blue’s chest then palm heel him with both hands in the solar plexus. He falls down with a grunt onto the mats and a Black steps in to take his place.
“Escape From Darkness. Move.”
You turn around so the Black can throw a right sucker punch high and fast from your left side. You jump forward onto your right foot and kick at his knee with your left leg, nearly missing when a twinge arcs from your Achilles tendon to your lower back. You finish out the technique quickly, twirling around to sweep him to his knees with your right leg. You grab his right shoulder from behind and punch quickly, raking down across his face with your left and then faking a neck break. Your chest is burning now.
Breathe it in.
A Brown moves in.
“Calming The Storm. Move.”
The techniques blend into one another, a numbing barrage of blocks and kicks, elbows and parries, the other students coming at you with everything that they have. Several times you miss an important kick, your foot dangling out in mid-air like a broken limb, and Sifu makes your opponent feed you again until it’s done right.
After you finish out Leap From Danger on a slow-moving Green belt, Sifu claps his hands, signaling that you’re done with techniques.
“Great job, Rachel,” he sits before you like a chieftain, the other Blacks ranged to either side of him in their seats, watching your every move. “Are you ready to show us your personal form?”
The clapping of your friends and family is drowned out by the roaring rush of blood in your ears.
Let it run its course.
“What’s it called?”
“Embracing The Void,” your voice answers.
“You can begin whenever you’re ready. Good luck.”
Breathe it out.
You close your eyes and the ghostly bright afterimage of the grizzled Blacks dissolves into an ashen kaleidoscope of shifting figures. You’re reminded of ancient shamans preparing for the hunt, drawing magic from cool, painted stones. Your heart sloshes frantically inside your chest; the hair on your neck stands on end. The neon pulsing of your arteries shines red against the tenebrous calm growing behind your shuttered eyelids.
Let it go.
You step into darkness, feeling the warm give of the mats against the soles of your feet.