The Master’s Golden Arm
by Darius Dolphy
The monastery was a dead building, resuscitated only after a master entered. Traditional pagoda, red and orange cake of tri-tiered imperial eaves. Double doors, meant for giants. The high ceilings eerily did not bounce the noise like Manny remembered. The shrines dedicated to the many Bodhisattvas—statues of sacred men from Grandmaster Hui’s former temple back in China. But no one ever prayed or meditated in its rooms, so Manny wondered why it was only purposed for sad occasions. It reminded him of an ancient mortician’s funeral home, where departed things were to be dressed for the living’s rituals.
The motorcade ride from the crematorium to the procession gave him time to compose himself. Waiting in a corridor that led to a stage, Manny, the eldest student at age thirty-nine, would speak on the late Grandmaster Hui. Unfolding his eulogy notes, he reviewed his edits, lines struck through words like legend and was our teacher. Cyrus, the second oldest student, looked over Manny’s shoulder to read aloud the last paragraph:
“Grandmaster Hui, like the famed story of the ancient monk, Dazu, gave his left arm to learn the truth about his art. The art that we practice—” Cyrus paused. “I think all of the students already know the story. You said we want to give everyone a chance to talk.”
Manny scanned his own handwriting:
It goes, that famous Indian monk, the patriarch of Kung fu, Bodhidharma, was meditating in a cave for nine years when he visited China around 300 BC. The story isn’t always explained clearly, but Dazu went to this monk and asked to be a student. When Bodhidharma refused, Dazu insisted with an act of dedication, cutting off his left arm to prove he would be a devoted student. And that is why we bow with one arm, one palm, in prayer, giving homage to Dazu.
“We have plenty of video,” Cyrus said. “You can thank Greenbrush, but not everything needs to be said. You know what student imaginations do when they hear stories of monks.”
“You’re right, but who is the second speaker again?” Manny adjusted his black tie.
“Somebody from Greenbrush Research. Is that okay, or do you want it to be one of our guys?”
With a pen, Manny made last minute incisions in the fat of his eulogy. The meat would be the video of the Grandmaster.
There were still a few things about Greenbrush Research he didn’t understand. The will. The estate. The golden prosthetic, ensleeved in translucent silicone, with jointed fingers like some sort of action figure Greenbrush had given the Grandmaster as a ‘donation.’
“No, that’s fine. I forgot Dr. Sandhu is coming. Said he’ll explain the research a bit. Everyone will get a chance to say something.”
Most of the familiar faces were already seated. Manny’s students sat near the front row. Some faces of confusion, some of existential dread, sadness, and mystified joy for having known a war god.
He approached the low stage under a high ceiling. Then a podium. Facing a congregation of what appeared to be somewhere near fifty head count:
“Grandmaster Hui was our teacher. Some of us were privileged to learn from a legend. There were many truths about this art that he didn’t share with us. Some of you are more recent students. Maybe you learned a few techniques. Maybe an entire form. Either way, all of us got a quarter of the knowledge that Grandmaster had in just one hand. Some of us are old enough to remember when he was a mean SOB.”
A portion of the crowd laughed.
Several tales later and he felt as his students had felt—still knowing little about the Grandmaster. Manny recounted how the title of Grandmaster was not easily achieved, and how Manny, and everyone else, was lucky enough to be born in a generation what Hui called ‘less formal.’
Of how in the second month that Manny joined the Kung Fu Academy, in his early teens, Hui asked him to recall the most important thing about learning his first form. Manny’s dumb answer, what he assumed was the element of respect and veneration: the bow? For that he was hit on top of the head. The bamboo cane leaving a stinging reminder.
Manny unconsciously rubbed his head while telling the story.
“The bow?! We must cut down everyone in the room. The first cut is most important. The bow does not get you respect—the cut does.”
And finally how when Manny reached his mid-twenties, Grandmaster Hui began to emphasize the bow; there was heritage in the bow. Towards the end of one notable match of Manny’s first tournament, he bowed with one arm extended to accept a trophy sword. He had earned second place, losing to a more efficient fighter, yet the judges claimed that ‘his bow,’ had scared several challengers from competing.
The crowd of students, family, and associates, had heard some of the stories before. Some stories were never meant to be retold, yet it didn’t stop the years-long game of telephone or the myth making of some of the younger students:
Grandmaster climbed out of a pit when he was just eight years old. Grandmaster participated in death tournaments. Grandmaster voluntarily cut off his left arm after he had killed a monk in combat, promptly vowing to never kill again. Grandmaster was simply born with one arm, but despite the disability, learned Kung fu anyway.
The only factual tale that became somewhat unclouded by the end of the procession, was that Grandmaster had lost his arm in ‘the war.’
The second speaker, an elderly man, hunched over, approached the podium.
“Good evening, I’m Dr. Sandhu. I am the lead investigator at Greenbrush Veterans Project, Research and Robotics. I did not know Master Hui Cai well—excuse me—Grandmaster Hui. Manny, being an alumni of Greenbrush, came to us. We were developing the first prosthetic of its kind. Not all of you know how much pain Grandmaster Hui was in.”
Manny took a chair in the audience, legs crossed, reflecting on how healthy Grandmaster Hui had seemed. Only two months ago, the husky old man, seventy years old, gray beard and superficial stress lines under eyes, was moving around spritely, kicking and punching hard, like he would be around for another hundred years.
The doctor continued, “Several months ago, we gave Grandmaster Hui a state-of-the art prosthetic that could take inventory of his cortical map and transmit nerve activity through muscle contraction. Normally I’d have slides explaining the science, but maybe I should let the video speak for itself. Manny, if you would display the video demonstration, we can show him using his arm—both arms. Like you said Manny, it’s a privilege to have known Grandmaster Hui, even for our short time. I don’t know anything about Kung fu, but it was beautiful to watch him perform in front of my colleagues.”
Cyrus, sitting in the audience, pressed a button on a small remote. A large projection screen came down at the back of the stage.
The screen showed Grandmaster Hui standing in a dark lit corridor, hands akimbo. The only thing clearly visable was his left arm, the obvious golden prosthetic, jointed lines of each finger and tendon reminding Manny of some sort of over sized G.I. Joe hand. The room had gone completely silent. All eyes transfixed on the figure filling the screen. The last echo of a legend.
The Grandmaster broke from complete stillness into a ballistic pattern of clawing and punching, stepping toward the camera like a feral yet controlled drunkard, kicking invisible enemies to his left and right. The prosthetic arm moved with just as much natural control and verve as his biological arm. If the enemies had been real or visible, they would no longer be breathing when he completed his form set.
The enchanted students stood up and gave an immense applause as the screen went black.
“That, unfortunately, was all the late Grandmaster Hui would allow us to record,” The doctor saw that the advanced students were just as impressed as the layperson.
Just minutes after the doctor left the stage, Manny made a quick escape to the parking lot. He wanted to avoid any incoming questions from his students: When do we learn the form? Where is Grandmaster Hui’s Golden arm. How did he actually die?
Manny was grateful for Cyrus, because who else would be left to deal with everyone’s grieving, inquiries, and testimonials?
“Everyone wants to have dinner at the ol’ place.” Cyrus appeared behind him, escaping too, earlier than Manny predicted.
Manny was silent, mind a mile away but eyes focused on the gravel in front of him. “We don’t really know how he died,” he finally said as they reached Cyrus’s black sedan.
Cyrus paused, caught off guard by the remark. “I thought it was his heart?”
“The death certificate says one thing. They’re still not sure.” Manny looked up at Cyrus over the roof of the car. “In his will… he wanted the arm burned—melted—with him.”
“I don’t know. You know how he was. He’s old school. He didn’t want Shaolin secrets to get to the profane.”
“What does that have to do with the prosthetic?”
“Well, he didn’t even want me to know the long form. I only recognize some of the motions. With the shiny new arm, it changes everything.” Manny entered the car.
“The form doesn’t even have a name,” said Cyrus, getting into the driver’s seat. “This is why the Kung fu world keeps losing to other martial arts—all this mystical, not till you’ve taken the pebble, fortune cookie bullshit.” Cyrus immediately regretted his flippant statement, expecting penalty in the form of a sharp rap on top of his head from his older Kung fu brother. He began turtling his head into his shoulders, looking around to see if there was a cane nearby.“There are a lot of things we don’t know about the human body. Or the human spirit.” Manny paused. “Confucius say… go fuck yourself.”
Cyrus laughed, relieved.
“That old man knew things you can’t learn from other schools,” Manny said. “Hui took his secrets to the grave.”
Manny was somewhere else again.
Cyrus could tell as soon as the word grave was pronounced.
“You didn’t keep the arm, did you?”
“What would I do, take it to a pawn shop?” Manny compressed his lips. “Seriously though, Hui didn’t leave me with much direction in his will. Do you know how much money we owe on the Monastery?”
“We’re losing students. And you’re right about Kung fu. As far as the martial arts world is concerned, Kung fu is soft style, and not real self-defense. And it isn’t forms that convince people otherwise. It’s fighting. It’s tournaments.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying we need more students or we lose the Monastery.”
Cyrus started the car, silent.
The following day Manny stood just outside the Monastery. He had arranged to dwell here until all of Grandmaster Hui’s belongings were situated, then he could go back to his apartment in the city. Coming back from a jog, he had found a letter in the mailbox—an invitation. Tearing open the envelope, the first words he read were Styles Tournament, printed at the top of the cardstock. The heading was familiar. Why hadn’t he taken his students before? He read on:
Accepting any and all open styles. Full contact. Stand-up and ground fighting included. Read participation guidelines.
Manny entered his quarters and went for the closet. The prosthetic arm rested—palm flat, fingers together—on a display stand resembling a metal coat tree.
“Probably call the team, right Hui?” he said to the arm. When it came to addressing the Grandmaster, Manny was the only one who could skip decorum, and call his teacher by first name alone. But what to make of Hui’s arm? Is this what grieving people did, talk to an inanimate object as conduit to the dead person?
As the executor of the will, Manny was responsible for ensuring the arm disappear with the body; and of all of Grandmaster’s instructions, this was the only one that gave him pause. He knew that the Grandmaster was excessive when it came to personal possessions. From all the regimes that Grandmaster Hui had escaped, he would rather lose something permanently than ‘give them anything.’ Manny stood rationalizing his mischief, not realizing he had been staring at the arm for nearly fifteen minutes.
First, Manny would call the team—tell them to review the tape of the last tournament. Then he would study Grandmaster’s demo again, frame by frame. After that, dictate to Cyrus what to go over with the boys: hotel expenses, list of fighters participating. Finally, he’d schedule a sparring session.
As far as Manny could tell, Styles Tournament meant that the promotors were trying to fix fights. The Kung fu man would be a good foil to some other martial system. Just so long as Kung fu remained scissors, they would set up a rock and never let paper—whoever their star to be—anywhere near his team. Styles make matches. And rules establish styles. Under no condition would the tournament want for a Kung fu placement.
He’d show the Karate world, Muay Tai world, Judo, BJJ, and any other system with a claim to savagery.
In a zero-sum game, the invincible hand was staring him right in the face.
Manny made several attempts to reach Dr. Sandhu over the phone. The Greenbrush Research building wasn’t far; if he left now, he might catch the doctor by the end of office hours.
Manny got there just in time to find the doctor, about to take up jacket. Photographs and certificates collaged the wall of the doctor’s cozy office. One of the framed photographs, Manny saw, was of Grandmaster Hui fitting his bionic arm for the first time, just some months ago.
“How can I help you, Manny?” Dr. Sandhu stood from his plush desk chair.
“Well, I had a question regarding the taping of Master Hui.”
“That was the entirety of what Master Hui allowed us to record,” Sandhu seemed to predict one of Manny’s questions.
“I see… Can you tell me about the prosthetic?”
“I was happy to see the technology work. We can always make another, but we were disappointed to learn that the arm was to be cremated with the cadaver. I understood the request was—”
“I still have it.”
Dr. Sandhu’s brow firmed. “Go on.”
“Well, from what I remember you explaining about the uniqueness of the model, was that after you conducted the phantom limb experiments to relieve Hui of pain…” Manny pulled up a chair, directly facing Sandhu. “I remember you saying something about muscle memory?”
“Our older prosthetics could detect muscle contraction, capturing sensory signals going from brain to arm, at the site of the amputation. But the prosthetic that we gave your master not only maps onto fascia activity, through our novel multifilament fibrous technology…” The doctor stood up. “But it also records all the activity. So yes, in the simplest of terms, the arm contains muscle memory from Master Hui.”
“Is there a way to look at the activity?”
“Not without a galvanized body. Somewhat how your arm works. If you were to lose it, it would retain some of the information, like reflex, but for how long? A few minutes?”
Manny nodded along.
“If you bring it in, we can run some diagnostics in a computer simulation—” The doctor became distracted, as if by a sudden idea, before turning to the photograph of the Grandmaster, no bigger than a postcard. “But if Master Hui wanted it to go with him… I’m not religious, but in many cultures, it is tradition to leave the dead with their prized possessions—to bring with them into the afterlife.”
Manny studied the photograph again, silent.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to overstep my bounds,” said the doctor, returning to his desk. “However you choose to honor him.”
As he left the office, several thoughts vied for his attention, none of which included tradition.
One of Manny’s rituals, before bed, was to turn off all electronics, ensuring a deeper sleep. In the weeks leading up to the Grandmaster’s death, he had experienced a dream that, though he could barely remember it, had impressed upon him a feeling of unease.
Tonight, he had another experience— a dream he could remember.
Faceless shadows were following Manny through the halls of the Monastery. Then there was Grandmaster demonstrating his form. The apparitions parted, observing the grandmaster move. Noticing Manny, the shadows encroached upon him:
Spindly shadows—fingers like rolling clouds over the hills of his body.
A thunder wailed out from each stretch of nimbus.
Subtly draw back reach—
—reappeared thicker, darker.
Appendages of lightning shocked him, as electricity gripped, he felt a cadence of stinging needles prod all his nerve endings to utter paralysis. As he lay on his back, to breath meant substantiating the dream as reality—
Manny awoke covered in perspiration, body aching all over, several hours before normal waking time. Several missed calls. One from Dr. Sandhu.
Opening the closet, he found the arm on its rack, yet noticed a slight bend at the elbow. The hand, not flat as it had been hours prior, but fingers curved inward, as if trying to grasp something.
He stared a moment.
No, the fingers were already like that…
He straightened the fingers. “Hui, the secrets go to the next generation, otherwise why teach at all. Why give only half. All that wisdom…”
The tournament was in a week. He needed to prepare, needed a winning hand. In the afternoon Manny met with Cyrus and the team, in proper training attire, at the nearest park—a shaded area away from street traffic, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.
He thought of his paralysis in the dream. There was no rule against an attack of the sort he was thinking in the upcoming tournament, at least not in the way he would teach it to his students. As long as the initial move didn’t break or dislocate something or tear a tendon, it would be seen as any obligatory submission hold.
Facing his students, Manny replayed the dream in his head, though doing his best to focus only on Grandmaster Hui’s movements. The student’s curious faces watched their teacher watch them as a biologist would examine specimen in an involuntary experiment.
“Why this tournament?” asked Cyrus. “Kinda late notice?”
“Tournaments provide notoriety,” Manny whispered. “What part of we need students do you not get?”
“What did you want us to practice for this tournament?” asked Ben, one of the younger students. “Some kind of secret weapon?” Ben had just turned twenty-one this week and was expecting an initiation of sorts, in order to become a black-belt.
“Just keep practicing and we’ll see if you’re ready for the advanced ring,” Manny replied.
“We’re practicing this…” Manny went for Ben’s wrist, twisting the hand over grabbing the points he remembered with his other hand and stepping behind him in one fluid motion flipping him to the grass. Ben lied there a moment, breathless from landing flat on his back. “I want all of you to be careful when using this. Did you all catch what happened?”
“Did you just throw, trip, or flip him?” Cyrus found himself asking, his hands trying to copy the motion. “More like you pressed one way and he flew the other…”
The following day went another session, this one taking attack scenarios into consideration. Training students for the upcoming tournament consumed Manny’s waking hours. Everyone seemed ready by the end of the week, yet he felt that something was missing. But he also worried that students might be overworked before the true fighting began, meditating on Grandmaster Hui’s obsessive quest for excellence, wondering if he would ever be as dedicated as his late Master.
The day of the tournament—a packed house at the local community college gym. Banners hung in the hall like homecoming decorations. A thousand people watched from the bleachers. The light-weight division staged first. Ben’s debut as a black-belt.
Ben’s opponent, standing six feet tall, stalky in comparison to Ben, who stood no taller than five foot nine. The first seconds of the match were sudden, with neither competitor waiting to suss the other out. Immediately Ben went for his foe’s arm, just as Manny had taught him. The timing was wrong, and the opposition hooked Ben’s jaw, sending him to the ring canvas.
“Get up. Draw him,” Manny demanded from ring side.
Ben did raise himself. A gray-haired referee quickly examined Ben and permitted the fight to continue. On the second attempt, Ben allowed his attacker in closer, then as another punch came in he blocked, grabbing the wrist and arm stepping in and through, sending the alarmed adversary spinning like a corkscrew to the ground.
It was delivered fast, the invisibility of the motion exactly what Manny had hoped for.
With Ben’s opponent writhing on the floor, unable to catch his breath, the referee called Ben the winner. Manny noticed Cyrus standing next to him.
“Is that even legal?” Cyrus smiled and shook his head laughing.
“It looks like his arm isn’t broken or dislocated. You know, when I send the rules over to the team, you’re not above reading them too.”
“I read them. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
Manny turned and glanced at him.
“You know, to them.”
Manny let out a slight smile.
A big man in jeans and white shirt displaying the words Styles Tournament approached Manny after Ben left the ring.
“That was a good fight,” said the stranger, who then extended his arm and gave Manny a slight bow. “They said your boys would show up, and they did. Everybody’s going to be reviewing your team’s highlight-reel before the next tournament. Hope to see what other surprises you have in store.
“We’ll think of something—knowing how fast trends come and go.” Manny bowed.
“Must be one of the promoters,” Cyrus commented, once the stranger sauntered away.
Although Ben was the only student to apply the technique with precision, the other’s matches ranged from fairly good to very good, and Manny’s team could save face after being invited to future fighting circuits by the promoters. The team decided to take their festive mood to a local Chinese bistro; Manny would buy the kid a drink and explain to the team that because Ben had something to prove in rank, he had taken the challenge most seriously.
“And for that, you are an official black belt in our system. The training wheels are off— you’re moving in seven-speed from now on, kid.” Manny raised his glass over the roundtable— buried in walnut shrimp, chicken, beef, and various rice plates—at the back of the empty restaurant.
After the seedy bistro’s neon OPEN sign flickered off, and everyone’s congratulatory farewells in the parking lot, Cyrus drove Manny back to the Monastery.
Once they arrived, Cyrus noticed Manny’s exhausted state. “You getting any sleep?”
“Aww, you worried about me?” Manny cooed as he opened the door and rolled out of the passenger seat. “We got a whole new curriculum for the week. Much work to do.”
“Hmmm. Yes, Sifu Manny.”
Manny sought the bathroom mirror. He didn’t feel tired. Passing the closet that housed the arm, he went for the door handle, but logic conquered impulse.
What am I going to do, talk to the arm? Thank it for Ben’s learning curve?
There was another reason, but he didn’t want to intellectualize what had occurred from the time of his dream to the time of the Styles Tournament.
At two in the morning Manny awoke from another dream, with no memory of tucking himself in and at what hour. Again—a feeling of unease—fragmented images of shadows in the Grandmaster Hui’s monastery…
No evidence of perspiration sheets, yet there existed an overall sense of urgency—but to do what? Letting his muscles relax, Manny knew he was missing another night of true deep sleep.
Moments later he was standing at the open closet, having expected to see the arm in a different position than he had left it—but there was no change. What Manny didn’t expect to see was his trophy sword, resting beneath the arm. When had he placed it there? For years, the sword’s home was the bookshelf in that part of the monastery most resembling a living room.
That was a thousand tournaments ago. My first. He unsheathed the trophy weapon, gently touching the edge of its blade and feeling the razor sharpness.
“How did you really lose your arm?” he asked aloud. “In what war?
Manny shook an image of blood, knowing he was crossing that odd threshold, the transition from eyes adjusting, barely awake, to a phase of brain arousal where the subconscious psyche intrudes into reality.
“That’s all this is,” he told himself. “You need real sleep, not a conversation with an artificial limb.” Manny re-sheathed his prize sword and took it back to the ‘living room’ where it belonged: on top of the book shelf next to the other trophies and hanging medals.
Okay, you earned the sword, but not that—thing. Tomorrow—the arm goes.
Closing his eyes, he reviewed the recording of Hui in his mindscape. In that instant, Manny decided he would attempt to move like his teacher. Stepping out into a fighting stance, his sight fixed on the imaginary foes in each corner of the room. His limbs stretched to these corners, striking with power. If he ran through the form quickly, he thought, the instructions of the dream would materialize.
The entire play, act and script could not be directed over in sequence—to choreograph each blow and swing required not dream, but some form of possession. His arms, after an hour of exertion, became encumbrances, something in the way of the continuity of memory that made him feel sunken and sluggish. Repetition did nothing for the remembrance of a ritual he never knew—a form that his waking state, by the minute, was losing definitude.
The body couldn’t hold the spell, Manny thought. Not his own body. Then he recalled what Dr. Sandhu said about ‘muscle memory.’ The arm had a memory of the Grandmaster, better than his own. Closing eyes again, Manny pictured the video of Hui. Anger—the magnitude of which he had never felt before—shrouded his thoughts. Why had the Grandmaster shown his entire form to a stranger like Dr. Sandhu, but not his longtime student? True, the doctor had gifted Hui the bionic arm, but after all those years of teaching—
—you cut short one final display?
Several hours later, well after dawn, Cyrus arrived at the Monastery. After parking, he noticed the giant doors ajar. Inside, a breeze entered through the corridors, as if inviting Cyrus towards Manny’s bedroom. Cyrus found his older brother still resting in bed. When he didn’t reply to his name, Cyrus pulled back the covers, revealing a reservoir of blood— and in the center of it—Manny.
Cyrus froze what felt like a full minute before reaching for his cell phone.
He felt his perception of Manny diminish—this wasn’t Manny. A stub existed where the left arm should have been. And the golden prosthetic laying next to him in the space where his missing arm should be, palm-up, fingers curled, clutching the sword. Cyrus turned his face from the gruesome display, yet peripherally, he could still glimpse a burgundy red stain on the edge of the blade.
Born in Western Washington, Darius spent his years out of high school at Evergreen State College studying creative writing. While at Evergreen, curious about martial arts and its role in fiction, he enrolled in a collegic Kung fu team. The story attached is about Kung fu’s traditions, concerns, and constant compulsion to modernize—reflecting on what of tradition we let go of, and what we hold on to.