The Journeys in Between
by Roberta Gibson
You hear a sound downstairs and, as you round the corner of the hallway to find out what the cat has knocked over this time, a man steps through the dining room window. The image of the blond hairs on his calf glowing in the sunlight freezes in your memory as you register that something is very wrong. You scoop up the toddler who followed you and fly back upstairs. You call 9-1-1 from behind the locked bathroom door.
After the police catch golden-hair legs running down the street, you wonder what would you have done if he hadn’t fled.
* * *
She is writing a fight scene for her novel. Following the advice of a bestselling author who took up taekwondo to ensure his main character’s actions were realistic, she searches “martial arts near me.” A free trial for Wing Chun? That is exactly what she needs. She makes the call.
* * *
Embarrassed more than hurt, he shrugged when the doctor asked him about his scraped knee.
“Did you fall?” the doctor asked.
He said, “It was nothing. Some loose gravel.”
“You should take up tai chi. I do it every morning. It’s great for balance.”
He grimaced at the thought. “I’m not old.”
The doctor smiled. “Give it a try anyway.”
The Journeys Begin
You are wearing the t-shirt with the logo of the school on it and new running pants, trying to blend in. The room smells of the sweet tang of sweat. You eye the bulging arms of the man next to you, whose biceps look like he stuffed basketballs into his arms. The man on the other side is well over six feet tall. He doesn’t have an ounce of fat.
Sifu summons you to the mat. He explains that the members of the Choy Li Fut class line up in order of seniority. You are grateful to stand in the back of the room. Ready for another quick exit.
* * *
Comfortable in her bright red yoga pants, she is eager to get this over with. Absentmindedly, she rubs her wrist, tired from long hours of typing. She hopes she isn’t developing carpal tunnel. A friend of hers had surgery a few months ago and was still using software to dictate her stories. She couldn’t afford to lose that much time with the deadline for her next book looming.
The class starts with a form. She makes a fist, opens her palms, then rotates her wrist. Later on, she learns how to apply each of those moves. She focuses. She feels alive and alert as punches fly toward her face.
She is surprised how much fun the class was. Plus, her wrists feel better. The free trial is for a week of classes. Maybe she will try one more.
* * *
Squinting into the morning sun, he tried to follow the moves of the young woman with Olympic-gymnast-level flexibility. For the most part she gave no instructions, except for an incomprehensible phrase or two. With a mixture of surprise and annoyance, he realized how difficult it was to move slowly and smoothly. He wobbled on one leg as the instructor said something about a golden rooster. Then turned around to shoot his leg out and move his hand along like a snake in the grass, going in the wrong direction with the wrong leg. He was athletic. He had played a little ball in college, and still ran five miles every other day. In this tai chi class, he was a newborn learning to walk.
After class, he was about to sprint to his car and never return, when he glimpsed the instructor practicing movements with one of the students. They appeared to be sparring. He stood and watched. The random moves began to make sense. That move was a block. That move was a trap. The instructor beckoned to him. She showed him a move and the response. As she blocked his punch, he hesitated and missed. He tried again and stumbled. The young woman gave him a correction. The third time his body responded. He felt the ground under his feet, his core, his arms, shoulders, and his brain all working together. It was like awakening from a long nap.
The Journeys Continue
You miss the first martial arts class since you began training, to go to the appointment. The doctor’s face says it all. Cancer. Not good, but you know what to do. If you can defend yourself against Mr. Huge Biceps and bring Mr. No Fat to his knees with a perfect ding guek, you can fight this thing, too.
Back then, running from the guy who was breaking into your house had been the right thing to do. Now you can stand and fight, as well.
* * *
Writing fight scenes forgotten, at first she goes to Wing Chun because of the physical benefits. She is stronger, more agile, even her bones are denser from repeated impacts. Over time, however, her reasons change. She studies Cantonese to understand the Wing Chun terms, like taan, biu, sup. Even English words like “gates” take on whole new meaning. She has become an insider in a community that speaks in a private code.
She explores the history of the art, too. She finds that the position of a hand can be a challenge to a foe, that the placement of a teacup relative to a teapot can send a message. In China, people practiced Wing Chun in secret for generations and the concepts were passed down in families, closely guarded. In the lineage she practices, to this day only the chosen few are allowed to learn the entire system. She’s not one of the few in her class who will become a sifu, but she doesn’t mind, at least much. She is part of something with deep ties to the past and to another culture. Practicing Wing Chun grounds her and gives her life deeper meaning.
* * *
Hurrying, he caught his toe on a tree root and stumbled. He shifted his weight and quickly righted himself. Not bad for someone who had celebrated eighty-one birthdays. He credited his tai chi training.
Thinking back over the years, practicing tai chi wasn’t always easy. When he first started, the guys at his workplace teased him. After he explained tai chi was a martial art grounded in combat, most of them stopped. Over time, a few admired what he was doing and joined him.
It was most difficult when his wife passed away. He found himself welded to the mattress of his bed. But his tai chi instructor had called, texted, and showed up at his house again and again, until he dragged himself to practice. Gradually he recovered, until one day when he brought his left foot to meet the right at the end of a form, there was a brief moment of peace. It gave him the hope he needed to carry on.
He wasn’t late after all. When he arrived at the meeting spot, he greeted everyone in the group. He walked to the front as the others spread out behind him
“Today, we are practicing Chen-style Taijiquan,” he said.
Roberta Gibson came to writing after a career as a scientist. Her flash creative nonfiction “Sharp Memories” was published in Hippocampus Magazine and her mystery short story “Fine Lines” was included in the Desert Sleuth’s anthology, SoWest: Love Kills in 2021. She has studied Hung Fa Yi Wing Chun for six years and started Tai Chi last year. She is a blogging addict and links to her many blogs may be found at https://robertagibsonwrites.com/ or on Twitter @RobertaGibson.