Almost midnight and the bell rings. A giant cold steak on my face, an ice pack on the shoulder and I wish there was something for the crushed pride. Not because of the fight I lost, only athletes care about stupid records. I’m no athlete, I am a fighter. Broken because I tried to call George. Shouldn’t have. Now he thinks I want to… I won’t. This is my life. If he wants to get back together, he needs to… The bell, yes, the bell. At fucking midnight.
Who is that?—I shout.
Damn. If those two nerds followed me here, I’m going to kill them.
It isn’t. In fact, it’s nobody. Just a hard paper box. Red with golden details, Chinese pattern. Couldn’t they have left it there for tomorrow? I rush to the window. A red fishtailed car, golden wheels, drives away and turns right on the first corner. Doesn’t seem rushed.
Back to the box. Whoever sent this took the time to make a very traditional wrap, with layers and layers of paper until I get to… The gift: a green stone. Sculpted and carved in the shape of a leaf.
No, a feather!
I rush to my side table, open the drawer. At that point, the pain is gone. I know it’s there. The i Ching book, no. My coins, no. A little blob wrapped in old Chinese newspaper. That’s it. I haven’t looked or even thought about that thing since I left landed here.
I flash back in time. A few years. In my memory, I am at the airport. Beijing. The air is so thick, I cannot tell if the orb in the sky is the sun or the moon. Going there soon, the sky. But now I want to feel the arms around me a little longer. It’s awkward. Sifu isn’t a hugger. “Do you want me to stay?” He seems so weak. The embrace is gone, and gives me a little jade sculpture over a piece of newspaper. A badly carved… leaf?
“A phoenix’ feather”—he says. I wrap it and shove into my pocket.
“When you arrive, look for my friends. In Chinatown.”
Wake up next day with the plane hitting the floor in San Francisco. Face swollen like a jujube from all the crying. My phone, Sifu doesn’t use one, but there are a few other students I can reach to let him know I am ok. He worries about me. And doesn’t trust planes, either. I turn it on and the screen shows two messages. I swipe the little window. “Sifu is gone.” The note says.
The Earth went so dark I could hide in there forever. Felt my skin melting, my head dissolving into the air I can’t breathe. In my head I was screaming at the pilot a mile forward. “Turn this shit back!”
“Don’t come,”—read the other message—“He said you should stick with the plan.”
Nobody ever answered my replies. None, ever. Like I didn’t exist.
Flash. Back to my apartment, the day I lost the fight. I look at the jade feathers. They aren’t a perfect match. Carved by different hands, that’s for sure. But the drawings, the shapes… seems as if they had both been copied from the same source. I was being summoned. By the folks I didn’t have the guts to contact, then felt too embarrassed to do, then finally forgot.
The problem was, all I learned about Sifu’s friends was that they were in Chinatown. I wonder if master knew that neighborhood is nothing like our little village near Wudang.
Next morning, I take the first BART from Oakland and drop out on Montgomery Station. From there to Dragon’s Gate, just a few blocks. The smell of dumplings, roast duck, incense. Hadn’t been here for a while. Almost forgot how hectic it is. Tiny shops everywhere. Harsh screams the whites misinterpret as fights, cars honking and the soothing notes of an Ehru somewhere afar. From all corners, a different cat waves, always that stupid happy face. I have a problem with smiles.
I walk, seeking some sort of sign. But everything is red and gold, like the box, the fishtailed car.
I walk more. So many people. So rushed. What kind of life is that?
I keep going. At times, I stop, show the jade feather to a street vendor, a shopper that seems local, ask if they know… they all titter and disappear inside. “Hey, what’s funny?” The old lady scorns, hits her head with a palm, calling me dumb. Then rushes in, locking the door behind her. I’m left outside, no answer. That’s when I see it, and it all makes sense. On the corner of Sacramento and Hang Ah, a tea house like every other. Except this one is called Fèngmáo. The Feather of the Phoenix. It has to be that.
“Nihao.” The old man serving a guest greats me and show him the jade feathers. He chain bows, “Yin Sifu, Yin Sifu. Xuéxiào.” and points at the little martial arts school across the street. Right behind the tailfish car, camouflaged among all that gold and red.
Dragon Scale Kung Fu School, says the window decorated with red curtains and carved wooden trims. Bodies overflow through the door. Tourists, locals, white people with cauliflower ears. I push myself through them. The place buzzes like a bee hive.
Inside, an old man does some clown shit. He moves his hands in circles as a bunch of idiots wave their heads in the same rhythm. Then he palm-strikes the air and they all fall on cue. The old fart defeats all his fake enemies without placing a single finger on them. The Chinese part of the audience applauds. This has to be in some sort of touristic parallel universe.
All on the floor, in fake pain, someone hits the gong. A young kid that behaves too serious for his age. The circus disbands in fear. Before the sound is over, there’s only the old man standing on the mats. Glorious, superior, fake. In Mandarin, he talks to the crowd. The gong boy translates.
“Today is another chance for ancient art of Chinese Kung Fu to be seen by America. May the challenger say his name?”
“Mark Landers”—says the redhead. He doesn’t look very smart. A white Japanese grappling kimono covers his torso and hangs over the orange board shorts and open fingers gloves. No dignity either. Hard to say who is the bigger joke at that point.
The old man and his translator continue: “Mr. Landers answered the challenge to anyone who dared to face Master Yin’s chi. In victory, the school will pay him five thousand dollars. In loss, Mr. Landers agrees to tell the world about the superiority of the Chinese arts.”
The American nods. They shake hands. Bow. Shake hands again. Bow. So awkward. The two build distance, then another gong. I can hear the kid’s feet brushing through the matt, slow, cautious. There is no buzz anymore. Like a crippled boxing, he faints a silly attack. Too far to be of any threat. Yet, the old master stumbles back, throwing one of those “vicious” magical hand moves. Unimpressed, the young man winks at his friends on the first row. They bark, the idiots. An island of amusement among a sea of insulted Chinese kids, all wearing the school’s uniform. Embarrassment everywhere..
One more faint and Landers attacks for real. The owner tries another hocus-pocus monkey crap, but instead of throwing his foe back, like he did with his zealous students minutes before, he gets hit with a punch, square on the face. “Oooooh!”—exclaims the crowd, in fear and shame.
A few in uniform rush to attend the master. They surround him, frenetic, loud, speaking an odd mix of tongues and throwing accusing looks at the challenger. The American walks in circles, chest up in a brag, the eyes skipping between his friends and the angry gathering around the host.
Gong! The master is raised back to his feet. Nose bleeding, inner tips of the eyebrows almost touching his frown. He signs and the students give him a pass, no chi needed for that. “Again.” Says the sifu, pointing at the gong boy. Reluctant, the kid thumps it one more time.
This turn, it was the Sifu’s initiative. A kick in the air, and a double hand strike onto nothing. Lander widens his arms and trades glances with his peers. They can barely stay up, so much they laugh. The master pauses, jerks his chin. The kid twists his neck back at where I am. We make eye contact. For only a second. He charges again at the owner of the Dragon Scale and throws a sloppy roundhouse kick on the ribs of the old man. He bends. Then a knee on his face. The kid was diving, fist up, body falling to finish the fight, when a startled crowd leap between the fighters. The white guys on the corner no longer laugh. They push, scream, point their fingers. But there are too many students there. A brawl, ugly in blood and honor, is about to break. Oh, the bravery of the fools. Unless the jocks are much better than their friend on the mat, they are about to get killed. A voice interrupts them all: “Stop!”, commands the Sifu.
We Chinese are good on respecting authority. A river of silent emptyness widens between the fighters. The host now stands ahead of the winner and his friends. Chin high, head tall, eyes wondering to the sides in uncontrollable betrayal. Behind, the eldest student shakes his head in disgust. He raises three overstuffed red envelopes, hands them to the winner. The ultimate humiliation.
With defiance and scorn, the outsiders accept the prize. I would have slapped them right there. Honor and manners you test in victory. But I am not there, have nothing to do with them, so I watch the brawlers depart, pushing the crowd with their vulgarities. So toxic, their path remained empty even after they were gone.
“Leave.”—begs the master—“All of you.”
His eyes are distant, the voice unsure. Nonetheless, the audience abides. I follow. Sad to witness an elder face his end. I think of Sifu, how heartbroken he would be the day he couldn’t defend himself anymore. In a certain way, I’m glad he departed before the fall. Someone holds my forearm. A short, bald Chinese man. He has the dark and rugged skin of a fisherman, the hands feel like stone. His rich silk robe says something else though: a man of possessions. So confusing. Behind him another elder also in silk, long white hair pulled into a pony tail, aristocratic moves.
They close the door. The window. It’s only the four of us there now. The bleeding host, the men in expensive robes and myself.
I say nothing. If anyone is to talk, it must be them.
“You have something that belongs to me.”—says the owner of the school.
I’m not ready to respond yet.
“I told you. She doesn’t know.”—says the short one. “Do you?”
In silence, I say no.
They take my backpack. So sure of themselves I don’t know how to react. Before I could, he is already pulling his thick fingers back out. The bag drop on the matt and his hands expose the two jade feathers I brought.
“My name is Chee Yue.”—says the tall one. He reaches his pocket and opens his hand. A green feather.
“Mine is Ho. Sam Ho.”—says the dark skinned fisherman. With the other hand, he shows his own feather too. “The ones you carry belong to Master Yin and… your father, I believe.”
“My Sifu.”—I respond.
They all bow in respect, and the host points to the back of the room, where a small octagonal table surrounded by richly adorned Chinese chairs await us.
“So you must be Yinyin.”—Says Master Ho—“Your father…”
This time it’s master Yue who corrects him: “Sifu.”
They all grin, I am not sure why. Sifu Ho continues: “So you came here to finish your training?”, then waves his hand in a circle towards my face, his expression lost between pain and disgust.
Having been raised to respect the elders, I avoid voicing my thoughts. I had just watched an unimpressive MMA thug defeat the so called master and they are mocking my bruised face? Saying they would train me? Sifu must had been senile at that point he ordered me here.
“I came to…” I give the host his stone feather. And you know what the mother fucker does? He grins again. Then he claps twice, above his forehead. Like a drunk rich monkey.
It didn’t take a second, and a blur rushes from behind a curtain. A pale young man, carrying a tray with tea for four. He bows to the masters, then me. That red hair… he rises. The MMA dude?!
“Sifu?”—says the flaming headed servant, still wearing the top of his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gi. The impostor fighter leaves and Master Ying asks: “What? Do you think that was real?”
From grins, they evolve into a loud, obnoxious laughter. The clown seems to be me. I stand up, trying to save face, just to be sat back by their kind hands and gestures again. “Wait, young girl. You are one of us now. But you have to complete your training.”
“Us, the Phoenix Society”—says Master Ho.
“I never liked the name”—interrupts Master Yue.
“Sounds like Harry Potter shit!”—continues the short one.
More loud drunken laughs, even I am disarmed. What do they have on that tea?
He proceeded: “There used to be more, but so much got lost after the bomb. Hiroshima. Something changed, lots of things our parents could do… wouldn’t work anymore. We were the only ones left. The Shadow Leap, you haven’t been able to do it yet, have you?”
“Me? I… I did… I mean…”
No deep wisdom needed to see through my stutter, yet I double down on my stance.
“No way. Too much yang.”—says Hue, and points at my face again. “And… this.”
Master Yin agrees. He turns my way: “No need to worry. You are young. And a woman. Women learn slower.” I must have gone red as a pepper cause the bald one had to jump in “But then become very good. Better than men.”
I try to stand up again. The pony tailed master holds me. This time more serious. “Listen, we all hold secret and traditions.” He points, first at himself—“his Iron body can hold almost any hit”. At the short one — “Water hits back allows him to absorb any blow and redirect back at the opponent”. At Master Yin — “his Storm hands let him project chi beyond his body”.
Then he pointed at me: “And then there’s your family Shadow Leap.”
So I say, “If my Shadow Leap is like your crazy magic spells I think I’m better off with my own training.”
“Not magic. Pure physics. Otherwise the bomb wouldn’t have disturbed us.” — he insists.
“You really want me to believe there is any science behind that shit?”—Yes, I actually said that, on their faces. And immediately regret. They are now quiet, somber. Trading looks, communicating in a silent language I can’t comprehend. I close my fists waiting for darts to come flying into my head, or a giant with a machine gun to turn me into a noddle drain. Too many mobstesmovies? Maybe. Nothing happened. I calculate my chances. These three old hacks, barehanded, I can take them down. My jade leaf is still on the table though. I reach, as slow as I can. Maybe they won’t see it.
PAK! The tall one slaps my hand. They are laughing again. Three deranged, senile kung fu frauds. No time for dotards.
I grab Sifu’s gift and storm to the door. Why would he send me to these people?
“Yinyin.”—says the owner of the school.
Not sure why, I turn. He has his palms facing each other, ahead of his protuberant belly, as if holding an invisible sphere. His weight shifts back to one leg, rather elegantly, I must say. Then the hands move to the side of his waist and I can swear the walls bent three or four inches. It can’t be. Did they put something in the tea? He shoots the imaginary ball of chi my direction, with so much poise I have to leap not to get hit. Immediatelly regret such foolishness. But then I feel it, crossing the air. Hot and cold, straight and fast. And BANG! The door busts open right behind me.
They stayed where they were. Staring with their friendly yet challenging smile. “If the bomb couldn’t destroy our secrets, attitude won’t do it either.” They bow, but I keep hearing them in my head: “Women learn slower.”
I storm through the exit, determined to never come back until I have mastered the fucking Shadow Leap. They will see.