Billy Codrow peered over his gloves at Marty Gibson. He waited for the feint. He thought it would come from his right hand. Marty’s left foot moved. Billy was all nervous energy. A front kick! He stepped back and blocked the kick across Marty’s body. He moved to follow through with a sweep of the right leg, but the kick was the feint. Marty used the energy of the block to start a spin. As he came around he swung the back of his fist into Billy’s right ear. The force of the blow crumpled him.
“What the hell was that,” Danny Rincon yelled in protest.
“What’s your problem, Marty,” Billy moaned from the floor.
“I want the next match,” Danny said in a vengeful tone. He was a bit bigger than Billy, stronger too. But Marty was much bigger than either of them. They were all on the football team, but he was on the defensive line and they were only backs.
Sensei stepped in and growled. “Sit down.”
Emily was watching from the side through the whole match. Marty and his buddy, Jeff Schenk, joined the dojo last week. It was a special promotion: first two weeks free. They seemed wrong, somehow insincere. They already had some skills, especially Marty. But they had roughed up everyone they were paired with, apologizing each time for their seeming lack of control. It was getting to be quite annoying. The monthly sparring party was supposed to be rather more convivial. But for Danny this was the last straw.
“C’mon, Sensei. They’ve been punching through the target all week,” he said.
“And you think you can do something about it,” Marty said with a sneer. Jeff snickered in the background. Danny leapt to his feet again. Sensei stepped over and placed his hand on his chest, guiding him back down. He was still fuming, but somehow he couldn’t resist Sensei’s hand. Emily smiled at Danny and nodded to Sensei.
“I think it’s my turn,” she said picking up her pads.
“Yeah, right,” Marty said with a snort. “Am I supposed to hit a girl?”
“Don’t worry about me, big fella. I’ll take my chances.” Everyone in the room went silent. A moment later Sensei dropped his hand between them in a sharp gesture starting the match. Marty looked perplexed. Clocking Billy was one thing. But he didn’t seem prepared to hit her. They circled around each other for a few seconds. He looked for an opening. She pushed out a long breath and let it seep back in.
Her breath moved in and out, back and forth: an endless cycle. It was soothing. Just beneath the sound of her breathing the beating and sloshing of blood in her veins was audible. The hum of the day drifted into silence. Time crawled along. Underneath it all was a cavernous emptiness, cool and dark at first, then gradually filled with a warm glow. It grew more intense until becoming a white hot intensity, then faded into a crystalline clarity.
The muscles in Marty’s neck and shoulders were tense. His eyes moved restlessly over her body. Behind them a chaotic energy peeked out, visible to anyone who knew how to look for it. It was anxious and fearful, and filled with sneering arrogance all at once, the usual contradictions of adolescence. His jaw clenched, then unclenched. His breathing was uneven.
It was plain, he wouldn’t move until she did. He wanted to block an attack, to figure out how to touch her by blocking her. Then he might feel more comfortable hitting her.
“Don’t be shy,” she said with a smile.
“Ladies first.” The last word had barely left his mouth when Emily kicked him lightly on his left knee. Before he even had time to block the first kick, she flicked her foot up to the side of his head. The ball of her foot gently nudged his headgear. It was obvious to almost everyone there if she had wanted she could have knocked him off his feet with that combination. His eyes were wide as saucers.
Sensei dropped his hand a second time. Marty jabbed urgently with his left hand and followed with a right hook. Emily leaned out of the way of the jab and slapped the hook across his chest. He had lifted his right foot off the floor, perhaps for a roundhouse kick that was no longer possible. Before he could put it back down she kicked it out from under him. He fell backwards and tried to roll out of it. As he came up he found the heel of a sidekick just in front of his nose. She pulled back her foot and stepped away.
Sensei dropped his hand once more. Marty surged forward with a frantic series of strikes. He seemed to think a flurry of punches might succeed where a more careful approach had failed. Oddly, Emily didn’t seem to react. She didn’t block his strikes or step back. She merely leaned out of the way of each one. He was surprised to find her right up against his chest in the end. She was too close for his long arms and legs to kick or punch. By the time he thought to grab her, it was too late. She had already hit him with a short, hard reverse punch to the center of his chest. He staggered back, gasping for breath. She planted a side kick firmly in the same spot sending him sprawling across the floor. Match over.
This was the first time anyone had hit him with any real force. He lay on the floor for a moment looking at the ceiling. Emily stood over him. “How’d I do, Marty?”
“This is bogus,” Jeff said loudly. “She punched through! And he didn’t want to hit a girl.”
“Shut up, Jeff,” Billy snarled. Marty picked himself up and was trying to shake it off as Emily walked back across the room.
“Tell ‘em, Marty. That wasn’t fair.”
“You wanna try your luck against me, Jeff,” Emily said over her shoulder. He didn’t respond right away. His pal was still shaking his head.
“I, I… I, uh,” he stammered out.
“Shut up, Jeff,” Marty whispered.
“How about this: I’ll take you both on. Two on one,” Emily said. “You two think you can handle a girl?” There was more stammering and agitated whispering between them. Emily stood in the middle of the ring and waited for an answer. Anyone could see they had no choice but to face her.
Finally Sensei dropped his hand again. She listened for the sound of her breath, still reassuringly there. Always there. The somber blackness, the light, was such a contrast to the cacophonous energy of the boys. Their breathing was hasty, nervous, uncertain. It left no room for thought. It would be easy to kick her in the legs or the back, maybe knock her to the mat. Once she was down they would have won the point as far as anyone could tell.
The boys flanked her on two sides. The scene was surreal, she was so much smaller than either of them. She circled back to her right putting Jeff between her and Marty. They tried to flank her again, but she circled around the other way to bring them back into line. It gradually became clear that she could outmaneuver them indefinitely. Jeff lost his patience and lunged at her. She controlled his right wrist and twisted him down to his knees. Marty tried to take advantage with a roundhouse kick to the back of her head. Before he could bring his foot around she slipped a sharp side kick under his raised leg, striking the back of his thigh from below and lifting him off his feet. He fell backwards and hit the floor hard.
“Nice one, Em,” Billy yelled. “Not so tough now, huh Marty.”
Emily turned to shoot him a dark look. He sat back down quietly. Jeff saw an opening and swung a hard right hook into the side of her head as she was turned away. She spun down to the floor and rolled away from the blow. It was clear he had made solid contact. Everyone gasped. Billy stared fixedly at the floor.
Emily stood up and rubbed her jaw. She took off her head gear and the rest of her pads except for the gloves.
“I guess you’ve had enough,” Jeff said gloatingly. Emily ignored him as she pulled her hair back into a pony tail. She nodded to Sensei and walked back to the center of the ring. Her breath came in and went out. It filtered its way through the hectic breathing of Marty and Jeff, past the stillness in Sensei’s chest, to the rush of anticipation around the ring. Breath enveloped all.
Just as Sensei was about to drop his hand she turned to Jeff and said “Do you want me to hit you guys as hard as you hit me?” He seemed at a loss for an answer.
This time she let them flank her. Her friends looked worried. What was she up to? Marty looked like the same question had occurred to him. He was frozen by it. She turned to face him with her back to Jeff, who couldn’t resist the apparent opening. He stepped right in meaning to kick her in the small of the back. She spun away just before he made contact, kicking his other leg out from under him in the process. He landed flat on his back and lay groaning on the floor.
She sprang back up toward Marty who was now ready to fight. She looked him in the eyes. He blanched. Before he could react she used the same combination she had tapped him with earlier—a front kick to the knee and a quick roundhouse to the side of his head—but this time she hit him much harder. The force of the second kick sent him sprawling across the floor.
Jeff picked himself up. When he saw his friend go down he roared something incoherent and charged at her. Once again she parried his right hand and controlled his wrist. She twisted him down and then back up again. He yelped in pain and complied with the direction she was forcing him in, no doubt hoping he would merely end up in a hard crouch. But the movement only accelerated until he left his feet altogether, flipping head over heels. He landed on his back a few feet away. Emily loomed over him gigantically, her black eyes aglow with a dark fury. He shuddered at the sight of her. He was done.
Some of the boys stood up, as if to cheer. She glared around the room with an intensity that made them all sit down again. Her gaze lingered a moment on Billy.
She walked over to Marty and crouched beside him. He was staring at the ceiling again. The ferocity in her eyes had subsided. He looked up at her queasily. She looked into his eyes and spoke in a soft, firm voice.
“You only came here to make trouble.” He sighed. “Don’t come back until you’re ready to learn something.” She stood up and offered him a hand, then looked around the room sternly. Everyone sat in silence. She showed him to the door. Jeff picked himself up and limped out after him.
When Emily returned she looked around the room again. “That wasn’t sparring,” she said. “That was a fight. It was ugly and I hate it. I don’t want to hear a word about it in school tomorrow. No taunting. No bragging. Nothing” Everyone was dumbstruck. Was she angry at them?
There was some indistinct grunting and nodding. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then she disappeared into the office. A prolonged awkward silence hung over the dojo. No one knew what to say, or had the breath to push the words out if they did.
“Let’s take a few minutes, everyone,” Sensei said, breaking the spell. “We’ll start the chambara competition in twenty minutes, and then it’s pizza and cupcakes.” The group broke up, wandering out to the courtyard or milling about in the parking lot. He went into his office, where he found her sitting on the window sill rubbing her jaw.
“Well, it’s clear you can take a punch,” he said lightly.
“Did we really need more data on that point?”
“I guess not,” he replied sheepishly.
“You knew those guys weren’t on the level all along, didn’t you?”
“Yes. And so did you, right?”
“Yeah, but you could have kicked ‘em out a lot sooner, you know, like before I got sucker punched” she said in an increasingly annoyed tone of voice.
“I suppose so, and I’m sorry if it hurt too much,” he paused knowingly. “But your control was impressive even after their shameful behavior.” She stewed over this last remark. “Chi-chan, the people hunting you will fight much dirtier than those idiots. Your self-control will be your most important weapon against them.” Emily sighed, her shoulders slumped.
“I suppose it would be unrealistic to think the Chinese were my only enemies.”
“It would be wise to assume there are others.”
The mood was lighter after the chambara competition. This is a form of dueling, with lots of padding and foam covered pvc “swords.” Initially it looked like frenetic flailing. Soon enough the kids developed a subtler economy of attack and defense. The best among them even approached a taut serenity, moving the sword only to block or to exploit an opening.
Billy was glad to be able to celebrate several victories. Danny too. They all teased each other over pizza. Even Emily joined the mood. Afterwards she drove Danny home.
“Why did those guys even come,” he asked from the passenger seat.
“I have no idea.”
“Well, I think you got ‘em to see the light.”
“You know, I hate fighting. It’s about inflicting pain, and it sucks,” she said. “And it hurts, damnit,” she continued, smiling ruefully and rubbing her chin.
“Well you certainly have a flair for it. Is there no satisfaction in it for you,” he asked, in a tone that may have sounded more importunate than he intended. She shot him a withering glare, but there was also an air of uneasiness about her. He blanched a bit. She forced a queasy smile.
In the driveway his face looked like an unasked question. Was he still thinking about the sparring? He said goodnight and closed the door. Later, lying in her bed, she could hardly help musing on the irony of the day. Boys like Marty playing teen age intimidation games in her dojo, while she needed to guard against truly terrifying dangers. Still, she desperately wanted to fit herself into high school social life. It was apparently an open question which was more important to her.