By Michael A. Gosalia
"These new shoes are great, but I've replaced the new laces with my old ones," said Ken.
"Why?" asked his friend, Norio.
By the way Ken shrugs and puts his new shoes into his locker Norio knows and says something before Ken can speak.
"Don't speak, I already know. No reason, huh?"
"Don't worry I do things sometimes without any reason too. There was this time at my Aunt's house when..."
"Okay everybody, let’s get ready!"
Both Ken and Norio had to hurry as they were late for their sparring session at the dojo. They both took karate lessons and for their age were advanced fighters.
They sparred and as was the usual case, Ken won. It was easy for Ken. Everything the master of the dojo taught Ken picked up with grace and ease. It was much harder for Norio and the others, some of whom were jealous of Ken. It hadn't always been this way, but like an ugly duckling Ken had turned into a fit and durable swan in the past year or so. After ten minutes they had worked up a sweat and after twenty they were getting into it. The match between Ken and Norio lasted only for twenty five minutes. They had to go for an hour anyway, so Ken decided to let up.
"Okay okay Ken, you win, stop torturing my arm."
Ken released Norio's arm out of a strangle hold and got up.
"Help me up, man."
Ken helped him up and they were off on another round. To make things different for Ken, the master asked Ken to practice in a different, slightly more challenging style. When he could do this and still defeat Norio, the master became really surprised, knowing then that he too could be defeated by Ken.
"You've improved. Keep up the good work," he told Ken.
Overhearing the master's generous appraisal of Ken, another one of the fighters asked, "Hey, what about me?"
"Focus on yourself," the master instructed.
The students of the dojo had become so skilled that they could spar without really hurting each other, and so, reckless as teenagers are, they started fighting on school grounds. They knew by now how to control a punch and could test their strengths, who was quicker for example, or who had a better style. By now they could do a series of moves without the punishment of serious injury. By the time Ken got into it a few fights had already taken place.
Late one afternoon, as Ken left the library, he was approached by three members of the dojo. One was the same youth who overheard the master talking to Ken. As there was not much rotation in sparring, the youth knew it would be a long time before he could face Ken. He wanted to see for himself how good he was without waiting, how well he could match up to him, and this was the only place he could do it. Ken didn't want to lose, so he fought. It's funny, Ken thought if he didn't accept the challenge he would lose. He had a long way to go before his maturity matched up with his talent. Nevertheless, in five moves he had his opponent on the ground.
The young fighter, Ken, was not an arrogant type but sometimes he enjoyed the fight a little too much. Some will always become angry at seeing someone else display so easily what they struggle to achieve. And so it was that Ken became the participant of more and more fights.
Ken's parents lived away, but when they found out about this they had a talk with him. They tried to explain to Ken over the phone that he didn't have to take part in these matches and that his breaks were there for him to relax and to get ready for his next class, not to fight.
"It was fun for a while, but now I'm tired of it. I fight, and it's no fun. I even fight my friends. I don't want to practice at my dojo anymore because every week I have to fight at school, but I cannot lose.”
“Why don’t you lose,” Ken’s mother asked. “Then maybe they will stop bothering you.”
Ken became aggressive. “I cannot lose. It is against everything I’ve learned at the dojo.”
“Then you have not learned much,” said Ken’s father.
“I will simply quit the dojo,” said Ken.
Ken's parents explained to Ken that quitting his dojo was not an option and that he had to find a way not to fight.
"I'll try," said Ken. "But it won't be easy..."
It’s true. It wouldn’t be easy for him. He had the heart of a competitor.
"No need to try," his mother said. "Just do...
It was November now. The leaves were falling from the trees and it was raining off and on. Many times after Ken left the library he found himself facing yet another opponent, only to witness the same outcome, himself winning. The fighting started to affect his schoolwork but there was not much he could do about it, no one would dare tell the principal. Even Norio, who was worried about his friend's well-being, would not do it. It was simply common practice for the kids to fight like that. It showed interest in a field of study that was revered and respected throughout the land.
One day Ken heard that a few of the guys were going to have Ken face one of the school's bodybuilders, Daiki. Actually, Ken knew the guy. He knew him to be arrogant and funny, someone who wanted to be the best at everything but not in a mean-spirited way. He would not hold a grudge if Ken played a prank on him. Early the next morning, in between classes, Ken rigged a water pistol in the bodybuilder's locker to go off when the door opened. The class that was going on at the time passed by and when it was over Daiki approached Ken.
"Hey Ken, listen. I need to talk to you about something."
"Okay," said Ken.
“I want to fight you to see how good you really are. You will bow to me before this match is over."
Ken smiled. "Sure thing," he said. By this time Ken agreed with everything that his opponents would say to him, so that when he proved them wrong he could secretly gloat. It was a way for him to get by, to keep with the fighting as it offered no other enjoyment now.
Daiki suddenly attacked Ken. He tried to wrestle him to the ground but Ken was too quick and got away. He got out of another hold but Daiki was too big and the space was way too small to fight and move around. Ken knew Daiki had the upper hand and that he would have to face embarrassment. Daiki forced Ken on his knees and stood by him, pushing the back of his neck down with the great strength of his arms. For a while Ken fought the strength of Daiki, his head wavering in a state of tension, but eventually he had to put his hands on the ground to protect himself from being crushed under the weight of Daiki’s body. It was then that he bowed.
"Now you know to respect your friends," said Daiki.
Daiki, in so many words, tried to explain that Ken had to lose sometimes to keep the peace, just as he had to show his strength every now and then to prove his might. It was yet to be seen if Ken had learned his lesson.
After Ken had left, Daiki opened his locker and was sprayed by some water. Daiki shrugged.
"He's lucky no one saw that," he thought to himself.
Ken still fought, and he fought hard. He hadn't learned his lesson until Norio mentioned something to him one day. One afternoon Ken was standing under an archway waiting for the rain to stop so he could get back to his dorm. It was somewhere near his college. He stood there motionless, gazing at the steady stream of water falling off the rooftops of the buildings.
"Ken, I think I know why you keep your old laces."
Ken looked at Norio and then he took a seat on a bench and looked down at the ground. He sighed. He decided to tell Norio, his closest friend, the truth.
"I didn't want to lose my old shoes,” said Ken. “My mother made me get rid of them. I could only keep the laces."
"That's right," said Norio. "You are afraid to let go of your old things and you cannot accept change. In the same way you cannot stop winning your matches. Pretty soon someone is going to break your arm."
Ken wiped a tear from his eye. "You are right Norio, but I do not know how to stop. My love for fighting is too strong."
"You're love for winning is too strong, and your pride is too great. You should listen to what I say. It is only because we are friends that I tell you this. You do not know the anger of your classmates. You do not even think too teach them. They look up to you."
Now Ken felt really bad. His stomach started to turn over. He never realized that his classmates might want to learn something from him. He just thought they always wanted to fight.
Crying, he told to Norio, "Okay, Norio, I will try."
The weekend came around and Norio found Ken packing his things in the evening after classes were over.
"You’re not leaving school, are you?” asked Norio.
"No, I'm just leaving for the weekend. I need to get away from things so that I can think. I'm going to my native place to visit my temple, where I can remember myself. The past two months many things have happened. A lot of trouble has started," said Ken.
"Can I come with you?" asked Norio.
"If you want," said Ken. "Hurry up and pack your things. I don't want to wait for you."
Norio knew why Ken was in a hurry. The Girl's College was hosting a social for the boys near their campus, and Ken would have to walk that way to get to the bus. He probably didn't want to see anyone, or to get into any fights.
As they walked by the Girl's College they could see that the social had begun.
"Did you ever think of going to the social, Ken?" asked Norio.
"Did you?" Ken replied.
Norio shrugged and said, "No. I am not interested in girls."
"Me neither," said Ken.
"Only fighting, huh?" They both smiled.
Just then two guys with water pistols jumped out from behind some bushes and sprayed them with water. Norio instinctively put his arm over Ken's chest so that he would not move forward. Before they knew it the guys were off, shouting something or the other. Ken felt ashamed. He knew that those guys must have found out about his little prank on Daiki and that they must be following his example. He didn't say anything, though. He didn't want Norio to find out what was, ultimately, a show of respect for Ken plus it didn't seem like such a big deal. As they were walking down the street Ken walked into a pile of leaves and kicked them around. Ken could see the hills from beyond the numerous apartment buildings that surrounded them. Over those hills lay his home town, where he grew up and first learned the martial arts. The two kept walking. The bus stop was nearby now.
"You know, Ken, if we keep going this way we are going to walk straight through the Girl's College."
"I know, but it is the only way to the bus," said Ken.
After two minutes they were in a grand plaza where a group of students had convened. Everyone was dressed well and the girls were there.
"Hey Norio," one of the girls shouted, "Where is your friend going?" They all laughed.
"Going home to run away to mommy and daddy?"
It was hard for Ken to take this. He was the fighting type and a great martial artist. It was not in his nature to be humiliated. It was true, Ken knew that martial arts were an art of non-violence, but not every youngster of his age could understand this so easily. Ken dropped his bag down and ran back, back to his dorm. Norio was left to carry all of their things back to the dorm.
"What a night," said Norio to the crowd of people.
"Yeah, nice night for a walk," someone said.
"No, nice night to make friends," another said, and with that, Norio ended up staying for the social.
The weekend passed. Ken and Norio found themselves again sparring together at their dojo. Then, about halfway through, the master stopped the activity and made an announcement.
"It has come to my attention," he said, "that Ken has proved himself to be a great fighter."
"Yeah,” people said.
"Ken will now show what he has learned and fight me."
"But master, I cannot..."
"No, that is the end of it. If you want to stay in this dojo you will fight me. There is no decision you can make but this one."
"Either that or leave," said someone. That someone was surely one of the guys who had been defeated by Ken at school, so many of them were there. And so the master and the young fighter fought, and it was a good fight. What Ken must have been thinking? At a split second's notice he had to make the decision to fight hard or to bow out and lose gracefully, or even lose disgracefully for that matter. He thought maybe he could win but the truth was he didn't even yet know the limits of his own power. Ken was not really thinking about that, however. What he was thinking about was how bad it felt to have enemies in his own dojo, how Daiki forced him to bow at school and how he ran back home the other night, crying yet again.
With a front kick coming his way, Ken had a choice to block or take it. He made the right decision and took the hard hit, which knocked him ferociously to the ground. That was end of the fight. The wind had been knocked out of him.
Breathing heavily and on his knees, Ken said, "I'm sorry master, I didn't mean to fight you..."
With a bloody nose the master replied, "No, you fought well and therefore can stay amongst us in the dojo.”
A week had passed and Ken found himself eating some food at the local canteen. He didn't know that a famous master, even greater than Ken's master, master Ryu, was sitting with his group a few seats down from him, observing him.
After Ken had finished he had two of his men get up and attack Ken. Ken fended both off with an instant precision that only a fighter of great skill could have possessed.
Ken yelled, "What is the meaning of this?" But then he realized it was hopeless. Ken had learned a few good things recently that really changed his behavior. He no longer had a yearning to win all of the time, he could accept defeat. He sat back down.
Master Ryu got up from his table and walked over to Ken.
"Oh no, not again," Ken thought.
But this time it was okay, the master did not want to fight Ken, but only to sit with him. That day a great friendship had begun, and thus ended the reign of Ken, so to speak. Ken even removed the old laces from his shoes that day and put in his new ones. Norio was impressed.
Michael A. Gosalia is currently a non-matriculated student at the University of Washington. He holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.