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Dead Angle

By John Donohue

Editor’s Note: “Dead Angle” is an excerpt from Donohue's new martial arts thriller "Deshi," available in’s Estore. “Deshi” is Donohue’s second martial arts thriller in a series which features the Asian scholar, martial artist and student of the sword Conner Burke who studies under the iron tutelage of the master swordsman and teacher Yamashita Sensei. The novel draws reader into a tale of murder, investigation and intrigue where Eastern values clash against Western culture. The excerpt posted below, chapter two in the novel, is set within the kendo dojo of Asa where Burke and his teacher,Yamashita, were visiting. It is here that Burke is first tested by a young swordsman Travis Stark. In chapter one Edward Sakura, a Japanese businessman had been brutally executed, shot through the temple while engaged in calligraphy at his Brooklyn home. The only clue was the product of Sakura’s last conscious act, a hastily drawn piece of Japanese calligraphy which just might include a cryptic clue to his murderer. Also, see excerpts from Donohue’s first book “Sensei,” titled "Intro To A Thriller" which included the Prologue and Chapter 1, “Ronin.”

I wasn't thinking about a murder. I was thinking about killing.

The Japanese martial dojo is training hall remarkable for its beauty. Clean lines. A lack of clutter. The warmth of wood and the stateliness of ritual. Don't be fooled. Look closely at us as we move in that space. We watch each other warily, alive to the sudden rush of attack. We're controlled and focused. But there's a murderous ferocity running like a deep current in us all. It gets exposed in many small ways.

Most dojo, are big spaces. Sound bounces around in them in a jumble of shouts and thuds. But if you have enough experience, you can hear things distinctly. Asa Sensei was a kendo teacher of the old school. When you find a really good group of swordsmen training together, you can hear things in the quality of the noise they make. We were in Asa Sensei's dojo, and the chant of the swordsmen was fierce, a pulse of sound generated in a circle of swordsmen that rang throughout the cavern of a room. It created an energy that I could feel as I swung my sword and shouted along with them.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see both Asa and Yamashita standing and watching us. Their dark eyes glittered, but beyond that, they could have been carved in stone. My teacher's shaven head sat on his thick body like an artillery shell. Asa was thinner and had gray hair swept back from a wide forehead. But the way they held themselves, the thick, muscled forearms that were visible beneath the sleeves of their indigo training tops, the dense, rooted silence of both men, made them seem almost identical.

They were watchers, those two. It's how you must get after a while. They drink in their surroundings until they can feel it on their skin, taste it in their mouths. Until the breath flows in and out in the rhythm of what surrounds them. And then, when ready, they strike.

When you see them as they truly are, these men are frightening. They hold so much back, measuring you, judging you. They dole out knowledge in grudging bits, forcing you to struggle for each morsel. Looking back, you reluctantly admit that maybe it was necessary. But while you eventually come to trust them, it makes you wary.

I struggle with this. Yamashita is my teacher and I had once thought him perfect. I knew better now. He was still my sensei, but the relationship had changed. He looks at me with flat, emotionless eyes. And sometimes, I look back in the same way. I've learned a great deal. Not all of it is good.

The first time I stood across from Yamashita, any confidence that a black belt in two different arts had given me vaporized in the blast furnace of his intensity. Yamashita knows what you are up to before the nerve flash of your latest bright idea leaps across a synapse. As far as I can tell, he is without technical flaw. And without remorse. With Yamashita, every time you step onto the training floor, you are being tested. Over the years, you accommodate yourself to it, but it's still a reality that hovers, just out of sight like a prowling animal, both feared and resented.

Today, the animal was out in the open.

Yamashita and Asa had gleefully discussed their plans with me. They told me how the great swordsman Tesshu would test his pupils through something called seigan, or vow training. There were different levels, but each level required a certain period of practice--one year, two years, three--after which the trainee would face a set number of opponents, one after another. You could fight fifty people. Or a hundred. Or more. The idea was to exhaust the trainee until all conscious thought was burned away and only pure spirit animated the sword. This, they believe, is a type of seishin tanren, spiritual forging.

Yamashita related to me how one trainee, on his third consecutive day of fighting, had to be helped to stand up. His fencing gloves were so encrusted with blood that they made it hard to grip the sword. There was literally nothing left of the poor guy.

They love to curl your hair with these sorts of stories. Yamashita and his friend watched me carefully. I shrugged. "That's why I'm here," I said.

They both looked at me with the contained yet satisfied look of cats. I stared back.

Deep down, of course, my nerves jangled. Yamashita would watch me struggle under the pressure to perform well in an unfamiliar style. Deep down, resentment churned within me.

Don't let anybody fool you. Underneath all the Zen window dressing, there's still a great deal of ego involved here. You don't devote your life to something as demanding as this without developing a certain amount of pride. There is humility, sure. But students measure themselves as much against each other as they do against the more demanding standards that we generate from deep inside ourselves. The sense of being tested again in a new way, of having to prove myself again to Yamashita and his crony, was exasperating. I expected something different after all this time. To have the two teachers watching me like pitiless judges made the subtle competitive vibrations that were always present when you fought people feel almost unbearable.

So you don't think about it. You focus on the fight. You take the churning and spin it into ferocity. All the blood spilled today would be symbolic, but it doesn't change the mindset: you strive to kill your opponent or die trying.

The boom of the great drum of the dojo called the group to order. We lined up and knelt in the formal kneeling posture. The bamboo sword called a shinai is placed to the left side. The silent row of swordsmen was garbed in the body armor and the midnight blue uniform traditional in this art. We sat and waited. At a command, we placed our hands in the meditation posture and closed our eyes. The effort of centering began for me.

Control the breath. A measured pace of being that slows the heart. Focus on the present. Set aside resentment. Distraction. Fear. There is no line of swordsmen. No teachers watching your every move. Only the Art of the Sword, a sea of experience in which the separate drops of our individual selves merge together.

At least that's the theory.

I had run through fifteen opponents in the first hour. They were all testing for the last rank before black belt level. Some were smoother than others, some quicker, but they had the intense energy and unconventional mind-sets of novices and it made them a little dangerous. I was glad when the sensei called a break. They didn't let me take off my helmet: part of the whole idea was to create an ordeal. They were succeeding. The leather palms of my gloves were soaked with sweat, however, and they let me change them.

Now I faced the black belts. My awareness of time began to slip. These fighters were far more skilled. The psychic tension of fighting is as big a factor as mere matters of technique. I could exert a type of mental force against my opponents, but now they were capable of pushing back. It meant that the pace of the matches was different: a wary circling, a flurry of attacks. Manipulation of the tips of the swords. Deflections, feints. And pushing against me like a force field, I felt the psychic pressure known as seme, communicated through posture and the weapon itself.

After a time, you feel as if you inhabit a world where only heat, sweat, and the fury of the opponent exist. The rest of the world has fallen away. Which is what the sensei want. Total focus on the art. Nothing else. When my focus slipped, or I let fatigue begin to seep in, the sensei made the matches go longer. The message was clear: perfection was my only escape.

At the end of this section of the contest, they let me take my helmet off. It was soaked by this time, with the white wavy patterns of dried sweat forming in spots. I sat formally, put the sword down, and removed my mitts. I was permitted a sip of water. Yamashita glided up to my side and sat down in one smooth, flowing motion. He picked up my sword and began to inspect it, not looking directly at me, but speaking quietly.

"So, Professor. I think that your technique is not completely orthodox by kendo's standards, but you have managed your opponents relatively well."

It was typical, the grudging compliment that hinted that you were still lacking. My response wasn't immediate; I was intent on just breathing. When you get tired, or excited, the breathing is the first thing to go. You lose the rhythm and then everything else just collapses. So I sat there. A big bead of sweat shook loose from my nose. I wiped my face on my sleeve.

Yamashita leaned his thick torso in across my front and picked up my gloves to examine them as well. "What is important about this exercise is the stress it creates and how you react to it. How well you maintain your. . .," he thought for a minute, ". . .composure. This is important. Now you will face a student Asa thinks has some promise . . . And. . .we will see." He set the gloves down again, placing them palm down on the floor and resting the helmet carefully upon them.
" So who's being tested, him or me?" I said.

His head swiveled slowly toward me. "It is enough that there is to be a test. I did not say of whom . . ." His voice was cold in dismissal.

I don't know whether he saw the annoyed look on my face. After a moment, Yamashita nodded, as if in response to some interior discussion. Oblivious to my feelings. "I think this should be most instructive for you. But remember," he held up a thick finger, "in terms of pure kendo waza, sheer technique, this opponent will surely be superior to you." I took a breath to say something, but he reached out. For a moment I thought he was going to touch me. It would be an unusual gesture for my teacher. Then he stopped, as if halted by a troubling thought. We looked at each other in silence. Then, with an effort, he went on. "Be aware, Burke. The man you will face has trained for years in just this narrow band of swordsmanship. He will be faster. And more accurate." His head swiveled up to take in the students milling about. He didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular.

"But you must move beyond a focus on technique. And this is where things of the heart come in, Burke. You must keep your spirit strong. And open to things . . . And, if you cannot best this one using kendo techniques, you must use what you know."

I grunted in acknowledgement. My teacher looked at me. "The understanding is here," he said forcefully, clapping his hand on his stomach. "Consider: every art specializes in something. Which means it neglects something else. This is like shikaku."

Shikaku. The dead angle. Just behind and to one side of an opponent. Out of the range of vision. In the blind spot. And, for a fighter, the dead angle. If you could get there, you dominated your enemy.

A call from across the room notified us that the last match was about to begin. Yamashita gazed at me once, the look flat and without encouragement, and then flowed up and away like smoke. He was like an idol with dead eyes, demanding worship but giving little in return.

If it was a familiar feeling, it was irrelevant. I pushed it down and away, checked the knots that fastened my armor to me. Put on my helmet and gloves. Picked up my sword and waded in.

There really wasn't time to think. I parried and evaded, counterattacked and tried to hold on to the center. But it was difficult. My teacher was right. This man was well on his way to mastering the art. He drove in relentlessly, seeking a gap in my concentration, waiting to lash out with a decisive stroke.

My opponent used the small, snapping jerks designed to score points in kendo. It was blindingly fast and evading it made me sweat even more. If such a thing were possible.

He was pressing me. I could feel it. Is this what Yamashita had wanted me to sense? The feints were designed to get me off-guard, to break my posture. I used my sword to parry his gambits, watching for the telltale signs that warned of a lunging attack.

Everyone telegraphs something of their intentions before they come at you. But the better they are, the more subtle it is. With novice swordsmen, you can see the attack forming in the tilt of the head, a rocking back as if gathering momentum. The tip of the sword dips slightly. For this man, there was none of that. That I could see. There was just a sensed pressure. The knowledge of imminent danger.

The next attack didn't explode at me so much as it flowed in an accelerating continuum, a smooth, highly compressed generation of force and intent. My hands rose up slightly to cover the unfolding technique. It wasn't a conscious action on my part. But it was as if there were a wire linking his sword to mine: as his rose, mine rose with it. It made his strike less than perfect: he hit me, but not without the clattering of swords as I parried. Then he whipped his sword down, pushing mine with it. It was a subtle, tight force and it caught me by surprise. His sword tip made a small circle, and as it levered against my weapon it broke my grasp. My sword went flying from my hands. I was unarmed and at his mercy.

But here is where the killing fury comes in. You just never give up. Rationally, I was through. But I was operating with something else. I saw his sword wind up for the finishing blow and a strange part of me welcomed it. I shot in on a tangent. His attack took place simultaneously. We were moving so quickly that he was still focused on the mental image of me as a target. But he was focused on a place where I was no longer standing.

Because I had slid into his dead angle. I grabbed his collar with my left hand. I had stretched my right hand across his throat. His forward momentum carried his legs forward; my arm jerked his chin back and to one side. I pivoted and sent him crashing to the floor. He lay there stunned for a second, and I stood above him, panting. The he scrambled to his feet and came at me. And I was ready.

"Yame!" the order came to stop.

We backed warily away from each other, but the sensei had seen enough. At the command, we all lined up again to bow out. I took my helmet off and I'll bet you could see steam rising off my head. After the formal ending, I got to thank each person I had crossed swords with, sitting and bowing to everyone in turn. There was a faint roaring in my ears.

With his helmet off, I saw that my last opponent was a young man. His blonde hair was dark with sweat, but he had the square jaw and pale eyes, the good looks that I associated with high school athletes and actors. He smiled, and his teeth looked even and white. But the expression didn't touch his eyes. They were still burning with the desire to take the match to a real finish.

The hold of discipline is strong, however. We bowed, hands flat on the floor, torsos lowered over them. "Burke," I said.

He sat up from his bow and looked at me silently for a few seconds, without expression. Then the smile came again. It had a hard edge to it, tinged with a curious type of self-satisfaction.
" Stark," he said. "Travis Stark."

I watched him get up and move away. Slowly, the room and its details began to swim back into my awareness. Students were tying up their armor and congratulating each other. Asa and Yamashita were inking promotion certificates at a table.

By the door, two men entered and spoke to a student. They flashed police badges and looked around in that universally suspicious way policeman have. Both had bristly mustaches. The one with sandy hair was bigger and thicker. The other cop was smaller, thinner, and crankier looking, although they both had their professional cop faces on.

My teacher saw them and stood up quickly. He made a gesture at the cops as if trying to shoo them away. They paused. Then the two swordsmen came out from behind the table.

Yamashita and Asa sat down in the formal position and gestured for me to do the same. Then, Asa formally promoted me to the fourth dan--black belt rank--in kendo. I received the certificate he proffered, taking it in both hands as a sign of respect. Asa bowed to me and to my teacher, then rose and left without another word. Yamashita looked at me and then glanced at the cops, who were heading our way.

I held the certificate in my lap, silent. My hands trembled slightly. You might think it was muscle fatigue; in reality, it takes a while to bleed off the psychic energy of a match like that.
Yamashita nodded slightly to me. "So. An interesting performance. But it was not decisive. Perhaps if we had let it go on . . .one of you certainly would have won."

"It would have been me, " I said. My voice was flat, but I gave him a look that said there wasn't any argument.

"So?" he said, and broke into a smile. "I would expect no less. And now you see the point of the exercise." He bowed in dismissal and left me in a smooth, silent glide.

I could hear bits of the quiet conversation the two cops were having as they approached me. "I'm telling you," the bigger one was saying, "there's a stylistic link here. These costumes make these guys look like Darth Vader."

His partner didn't reply. He had a white streak in his hair and a disgusted look on his face. They hovered about me and I got up to meet them.

"Well?" I asked them expectantly. My tone wasn't the friendliest. This guy with the streak in his hair had bugged me way before he had started to go gray. He was my older brother Micky.
He smirked at me. "You look like shit," my brother the cop said. "But I think we need you."
I held a hand up to my ear. "What was that?"

"Stop dickin' around," Micky said.

I gestured with my hand at my ear again. "Huh?"

"We need you," he said, biting the words off one by one.

His partner, Art, was a bigger man. He smiled at me. He also enjoyed needling Micky. It was part of a very complex relationship.

"I'll bet it hurt you to say that," I commented to my brother, and winked at Art.

"Oh, yeah," Art said happily, nodding. Micky was silent.

I gathered up my gear and changed. My muscles felt loose and disconnected. People talk about a "runner's high" after exercise. But in the martial arts world of Yamashita Sensei, you often just emerged stunned, bruised and trembling. I've been at this for a while, however. Aside from the distant ache of new bruises I just felt slightly relaxed.

But I wasn't going to stay that way. When I came outside, the two policemen were waiting for me. We were heading for a place where the violence was less contained and all the bloodshed was real.

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About The Author:

John Donohue, Ph.D., is a long time kendo practitioner and a black belt in Shotokan karate who has studied various other Asian martial arts disciplines such as judo, aikido, iaido, and taiji over the last 25 years. A nationally recognized authority of martial arts, he is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts and has also written four books involving the arts: “Herding The Ox”, “Complete Kendo”, “Deshi: A Martial Arts Thriller” and “Sensei.” Donahue has also been a featured speaker at national and international conventions, as well as on radio and TV. For he has contributed an in depth article on kendo. A Ph.D. in Anthropology, Donohue is a Professor of Social Science and VP for Academic Affairs at D'Youville College in Buffalo, NY. Previously he was a Professor of Social Science in the Department of Social Sciences at Medaille College, Buffalo, NY, where he also served as a tenured professor, teaching anthropology, General Education, and other courses in both undergraduate and graduate programs. He lives in Youngstown, New York with his wife, the artist Kathleen Sweeney, and their two children.

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