an Iaido short story
By Rachelle D. Lawrence
“Next, 八本目。” Shiomi Sensei took his place at the front of the Las Vegas dojo and faced two rows of students, waiting. “多数の敵。”
I was the last to sheath my sword with an awkward and echoing shiiing-thud.
“This last kata is a charge. Now, we practice it all nice and pretty, but in Toyama-ryu Iaido we must always remember the practical.” Lifting the curved blade overhead with both hands, he started walking forward, slashing down with each step.
Right diagonal cut.
Left diagonal cut.
Right diagonal cut.
Left diagonal cut.
Cut straight down through the fucker’s head.
“See? Very nice, very controlled. After the War, Morinaga-san thought this is peacetime, we are civilized. But in war it is different.”
Screaming, Shiomi Sensei charged swinging. His bad knee was gone and his white hair became a helmet of experience, not the dregs of old age. His voice, which had been so mild and polite, roared into life the dead officers of the Toyama Army Academy. I heard them in Shimoi Sensei’s scream. The ghost soldiers of the War gave me goose bumps.
The cloud of the martial gaze lifted, Shiomi smiled, again just a man in martial arts pajamas.
“That is where Toyama-ryu comes from. But we this is peacetime, so we do the kata. Now, everyone.”
Stepping off the dojo floor with a bow, Shiomi watched from us from the sidelines. I tried to clear my mind, to breath, to not just perform the movement but to fight.
I swung wide, almost clipping the woman to my right, my hands sweating so much I thought the sword might fly from my hands. I’d been practicing iaido for over a year, but only in front of Sorensen Sensei and a classroom of 15 students. This seminar was packed with students and teachers from several states. Shiomi Sensei oversaw all the US schools.
As the last kiai scream faded and swords were sheathed and eyes returned to the front in disciplined uniformity, USA director Shiomi Sensei reappeared.
And walked right up to me.
“Who were you attacking?”
Had he seen me almost hit Madison?
“I, uh, I don’t understand.”
“Who were you attacking?”
What is trying to say? My thoughts were a sobbing heap on the dojo floor. I pulled out the name of the kata form.
“What did they look like?”
“When you charged your multiple attackers, what did they look like?”
I glanced around, hoping one of the other students would give me a clue. They looked as confused as I was, or so was my hopeful thinking.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know because you don’t visualize anyone, right? You’re cutting at nothing.” He slashed his hand through the air like a sword.
He was right. I saw nothing. Even when I read a book, and I’ve read a lot of books, I don’t visualize the characters, the words don’t paint a picture in my head. But when I watched Shiomi Sensei fight alone I could see them, it was easy to see the pile of dead bodies after he had finished a form, after charging.
“How do you do it?” My eyes were level with the top of his head, but I knew a giant stood in front of me.
“敵 doesn’t mean just an attacker, it means an enemy, a danger. Imagine your enemy, a demon, yourself. Whoever you need to kill.”
“I have a hard time visualizing.”
“袈裟切りmeans a diagonal cut, right? No. If you break the word down, 袈裟 means the diagonal stole that a Buddhist monk drapes over one shoulder. 切りmeans to cut. So it means cutting down a monk’s sole. An image to describe the diagonal cut. Visualizing is the key. But imagining cutting down a monk is hard for you?”
“I’ll practice more.”
“You are testing today?”
“For 一級品 rank?”
“抜刀,” he said. I drew my sword. Without touching the blade, he guided my sword in a diagonal slash, tracing the diagonal cut of his uniform where it wrapped around his right shoulder. “Then look at me. When you slash right, follow my 襟, cut through my collarbone.”
Great. A David and Golith fantasy. David did cut off Golith’s head with a sword, so I guess it fits.
He smiled. “Just stop tilting at windmills, okay?”
The seminar resumed. Sound returned. The shuffle-shuffle of bare feet on the dojo floor and the swish-swish of the divided-skirt pants, the swoosh of swords cutting through air. Tilting at windmills.
That what my mom said to me. She was watching TV and I was reading, again.
“You read too much,” she’d said, “I just don’t want you charging at windmills like that Don Coyote.”
“You mean Don Quixote?”
“I saw a special about him the other day. He read too many romance novels and thought he was a medieval knight and did battles with windmills.”
“I think the term is tilting at windmills.”
To this day, I’ve never gotten around to reading The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
“Okay, we are running out of time.” Shiomi Sensei took his position at the front and the students merged back into their lines. “We need to start the testing, so those who are testing get ready.”
He bowed. We bowed. The seminar had ended.
I grabbed my water bottle, rummaged in my sports bag and pulled out a book, reading while I sipped some water. I didn’t want to upset my already anxious stomach.
“What’s that?” Sorensen Sensei hovered at my elbow. He has been anxious all month preparing us for the rank tests.
“Hagakure,” I said, flashing the cover of the medieval treatise on samuraihood. “I underlined a few passages to help get me pumped up.”
“Whatever you need to do. Good book, too.” Sorensen Sensei joined Shiomi, and I heard him say, “Rachelle reads nine books a day. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who reads as much as she does.”
My throat tightened. Shoving the book to the bottom of my bag, I grabbed my sword and sent to join the others who were testing. We didn’t say anything. The teachers judging sat down at the dojo front. We lined up on their right side.
The testing began.
I was third in line, and tried to shut my brain off but the damn thing kept thinking thoughts.
Tilting at windmills.
Mom had been right. Here I was, reading samurai books, literally swinging a sword at imaginary enemies, just like Don Quixote. I wasn’t even Japanese. I’d lived in Sendai for two years after college, but I was still as Caucasian as they come. How did Shiomi Sensei and the other Japanese teachers look out at the sea of our white faces and not laugh?
I bowed and took my place in front of the judges.
“Show us the basic forms.”
I took a deep breath. And another one.
Fine. I looked Shiomi Sensei in the eyes. I’ll kill you.
There are six basic forms. I cleaved through Shiomi Sensei’s head, a two-handed thrust through his stomach, parry and slash, killing monk technique, killing monk technique.
“Show us the advanced forms.” Shiomi Sensei pointed to the right side of the testing space. “But start from there, facing the mirrors.”
I nodded, my breathing still fast and high from the killing fantasy. Shiomi had been right about the visualization, about seeing what you’re killing.
It was only after I drew my sword that I realized I wasn’t facing Shiomi Sensei. I wasn’t facing anyone. Just air. Windmills.
The wall was one big mirror. I stared at myself. I looked ridiculous in the traditional Japanese uniform, gripping a Japanese sword with pale, sweaty fingers. My reflection stared back with disgust. And I stepped out of the mirror.
Mirror-me gripped her sword in middle stance, and attacked.
First form. Reverse diagonal slash and then I cleaved my face in two.
I killed myself, over and over. I slashed open my stomach, stabbed through my throat, cut off my right arm, my left, and mirror me got up every time, entrails gushing, attacking. I screamed and charged.
Killing monk technique, right, left, right, left, cut straight down through the fucker’s head. I stared at the ground, chest heaving, but there was no one there.
Shiomi Sensei was wrong. I don’t live in peacetime.
“A heroic warrior (kusemono) does not concern himself with victory or defeat. Without hesitating, he whips himself into a deadly fury (shini-gurui). This is when he understands; this is when he awakens from the dream.”
 This is a fiction based on the actual events of the Toyama-ryu Iaido Kai seminar and testing in Las Vegas at the Nevada Shotokan Karate Dojo on November 12, 2016.