The other kid. Older, stronger, more skilled than me. Yet, Sifu insists on the bout. No rules, no stoppage until one quits. I am ready to drop, but he won’t let me. “What’s the point?” – I ask. He answers: “Obedience.” I know it’s not. He does care about my discipline, but would never taunt me like that. Too vulgar for an enlightened man.
I peek at my hands, they rattle. My liver is frozen and I am almost leaking. Beneath the shadow of the giant kid, my muscles coiled and my ears went numb. I am ready to eat so much embarrassment, so much suffering, I may never have to feed again.
“Go” – says Sifu. We go.
The first round was a feast of pain. And this girl ate it all. So many blows, I can feel the heart pounding around every inch of bone. The spirit is worse though: bleeds humiliation.
They stop us, briefly. “For water and air,” they say. Then send us back.
That’s when the boy scowled, victoriously. A piercing disdain that aches more than his fists and feet. So I return, dark blood surging through the pores. The knees no longer shake. Neither do the hands. They are fury. Sifu smiles and commands us to start. I go straight to his head. A powerful haymaker, every joint perfectly connected and synched, all the way to the floor. Pure leverage. I can knock him out, as long I don’t miss.
I did. Fench, the name of the big guy, drops then bounces back up quick, once my arm had passed, and pushes my body with his. A broad trunk grows in my direction. Fast. My eyes are sealed and jaw clinched, bracing for the impact. I hit the tree with a dry thump, the thick bark printing its veins through my exposed skin. But pain, none.
Fighting numbness. Good news, at last. I rebound, that and many times more. In every turn, he blocks, dodges, and evades my attempts; then pushes, kicks and punches. The smirk still there, yanking me back, angrier and angrier. Until he hits my chin and the sand finally carved the side of my face.
It’s been one hour since we started. There is dirt in my mouth. My cheek burns. The world swings like drifting boat. Suddenly, there are people around me. I close my eyes, using the chaos to breathe. With my tongue, I check the teeth. All there. They wonder if I am alive. “Enjoy the break” – I think.
A few gasps and I am ready. The most I’ll be, at least. So I command my carcass to move. It doesn’t. My arms, nothing. Fuck, I am really out. Focus on breathing, Yinyin. Feel your bones, your muscles, your skin. Rebuild your chi. Time goes slow when you struggle with your own body. As movement starts to come back, I seat up. Dizzy and confused. Behind the ring in my ear, someone calls out the bout.
Next day, Fench was back. Same confidence, same taunting smile, asking who else from my school wanted to fight. I stare him down, pointlessly, raise my hand.
He gives me another epic, unobstructed beat. The kind a twelve-year-old should not be taking. But I stayed there until one of us couldn’t do it anymore. Myself, of course.
Later that day, Sifu brings me tea. He speaks soft now, like a… father, maybe. “Did you learn something?”
Too much pain to come up with snark. “Sometimes you can’t win?”
“You learned that today or yesterday?” – he insisted.
“Yesterday. Today I just wanted to show the bastard I wasn’t scared of him.”
Master seats next to me. A long gust of air, and he tells me a tale of a time past. When the first leaves began to fall in the magic forest, and a hand-tall bird challenged the magnificent dragon for a fight. Frail but brave, she huffed her feathers and lifted her wings as if she was a big white crane. The fire breather laughed. So loud, he was heard on the other side of the world, for each of his scales were bigger than the puny fowl. So hard, the mere air bursting out of its mouth threw the bird against a rock and she passed out. Next autumn, the senseless tiny one was back. A bit fuller, but still diminutive compared to her foe. Another defeat. The same the following year, and the next, then the next and each year, until a day when the challenger was as big as the dragon. “Here I am again.” – said the bird, as she posed a stance. They battled, and people say it was the most wonderful fight ever fought in this or any other land. Through clouds, hills, flames and waves, the dragon attacked. His best moves. But the bird, who had already seen them all, avoided each blow. Even managed to hit the mighty opponent a couple of times too. The battle remained for eight consecutive autumns, until the dragon, old and wise enough to understand the state of things, paused. “Perhaps we should call it a draw.”
Stunned, she bowed. “Thank you, Master Dragon. For only your kindness allowed me to get better each year.”
He nodded. “How about you? Were you never afraid?”
“Every single time.” – the bird answered.
The dragon twisted its ancient beard. “Interesting. What’s your name, master bird? So people can tell your noble story through the ages?”– And she said, “Phoenix.”
From that day forward, they became inseparable. The most dynamic of all harmonies.
I glare at Sifu, struggling to grasp what he is trying to say. Is he telling me to marry the brute? The tea comes rushing back from my stomach but I hold it. Desperate, I try something instead. “OK, I’ll face him again, tomorrow.”
He pats my shoulder. “No need, Tigress. You defeated the enemy already.”