The Thirteenth Strike
by Jamey Toner
The stick, and the hilltop. The stick brings the stick-bearer back to the hill. Renny, like the others, came and comes and will come, and she always bears her stick. Her best friend Amador bears his own, and tonight is their bonfire. They start the dance, the battle-dance, swinging their sticks with every spark of power and speed in their bodies, cracking their sticks together as the warm stars kindle overhead. The others clap in time, and dance around them, and the hard rattan wood rings and clatters till the friction makes visible smoke. Then Master Cresas calls, “Break!”
When she touched her first Escrima stick, she knew. The folk of the Philippine Isles were long accustomed to wielding machetes for clearing jungle and harvesting bamboo; so when the strange-eyed Spaniards came sailing in their ships of war, the natives lost no time in adapting their techniques to the harvesting of limbs. The old grim art of Escrima was in Renny’s blood, and the only life-path she cared for was that of a warrior. She worked at the inn, enough to feed herself, and she slept on a battered mattress with the ants. Her life was only this: training with Master Cresas.
“Renny!” shouts the master, and she snaps to attention. “Amador!” Her burly friend does likewise. “For three years you’ve trained with us.” The Escrimadors and student Escrimadors form a circle around them. Behind Cresas, the bonfire strains exultantly toward the windy skies. “Tonight, you become Escrimadors. Tonight, you become members of the body of our people.”
Renny will bear a child one day, long hence. She’ll come to this hilltop with her precious love, her Miriel. They will plant their feet beneath the same majestic moon and raise their Escrima sticks. Master Cresas will be fast asleep in the bosom of the earth, but remembered with honor whenever two Escrimadors bow to one another—just as his master will be remembered, and all masters, back to the beginning.
“Renny, why do you fight?”
She bows. “Sir, I fight for my homeland.”
“Burn your stick.”
She steps toward the fire. It’s as tall as a man, a million flickering shades of orange. For three years, adream or awake, she has never not held a stick in her hand, for that is how the Escrimador learns the blade. But the stick itself is nothing, she’s broken a hundred sticks. Her hand makes the stick an Escrima stick.
“Amador, why do you fight?”
“Sir, I fight for my homeland!”
“Burn your stick.”
She met Amador and Manes in her first week with Master Cresas. The broad-shouldered farmboy and the whip-quick twist of sinew from the North. There were twelve strikes in Escrima, and the three of them used to practice those strikes over and over, for hours, marching up and down the cobbled courtyard side by side, forever slashing at the airy target of the almost-attainable.
“We—will—be—masters!” panted Renny.
They hit twelve with the last word, and all three paused for breath. “You know,” Amador said, stretching his arms out wide, “my old dad was an Escrimador. Now we raise beef cows. There’s not much money in bein’ a master.”
Manes grinned. “Plenty of women and power, though.”
Renny jostled him. “None of that’s the point. We’ll all have to work when we get out of here, but we’ll go through the day being Escrimadors. Even if we’re just shoveling manure for a living. It’ll make everything—I don’t know. Different. Better.” Luminous, she wanted to say.
“Yeah, I guess,” Amador said. “Be nice to know I could protect my family if a raiding party came around.”
Manes shook his head, and sweat drops sleeted from his hair. “You’re both crazy. You can’t learn something like this and then go back to being ordinary.”
“It’s not like that,” she insisted. “We can take this place with us. Life won’t be ordinary, because we won’t be. It doesn’t matter if we go out and conquer the world or stay home and raise kids.”
“The world, hell. A good punch doesn’t stop till it’s beyond the target. I’m gonna conquer the cosmos.”
In the dewy grass, Amador and Renny take a knee. One of the others comes forward and hands Master Cresas a long thin bamboo box. He paces toward his students, grave and slow. In the firelight, in the corner of his eye, Renny can almost discern the crinkle of a tiny smile. The old master pulls two machetes from the box.
One of those machetes will return. On this hill they will make a fire of their own, Miriel and her mother. They will dance the battle-dance. And after, when the sun is gone, the child will ask, “Is this where you fought him, Mama?”
And Renny will slowly nod. She’ll reach into the pack and draw forth her old machete. The burning logs will glimmer on the steel. The memory will come flowing like the summer wind, redolent of woodsmoke, redolent of subtlety and strength. She’ll rub her left shoulder thoughtfully. The fight will be complete when it’s looked back on.
And as Renny rises to accept the hilt of her machete, the weapon of an Escrimador, she feels a familiar presence drawing near with the inevitability of sundown. A stir in the ranks: the circle parts. Amador exclaims, “Manes! I thought—”
“When? When did you ever think, Amador?”
Suddenly weary, suddenly old, Master Cresas lifts a hand for silence. “What do you seek here, Manes?”
“Only to say that I was right. There is a thirteenth strike.”
He seemed obsessed. For months he tinkered with the angles of attack. “Listen,” Renny said one day, “you’re already faster than me and stronger than Amador. Why is it so important to out-fight Escrima itself?”
“Because there’s no other way to be the best. If I don’t go beyond what I’m given, then I’m nothing.”
“Well. . .”
“And Cresas knows it, Renny. He’s hiding it from us, all the masters are. It’s their trump card in case their students should ever betray them.”
“Manes,” she said.
“Manes,” she says.
“I told you, Renny. He wasn’t teaching us. He was holding us back.”
The leatherbound hilt of the master’s machete creaks in his grip. “You must not challenge me, boy. Do not do this.”
“It’s done, old man. What, frightened of facing someone who knows your secret?”
“He’s trying to spare your life, you idiot!” Amador shouts. “If you challenge him, he won’t have—”
The rasp of a scabbard: Manes has brought a machete of his own. Master Cresas sighs.
“No,” says Renny. “No! You can’t fight him, sir, I. . . I challenge him!” She turns. “Manes, I challenge you.”
She will turn the blade, tenderly, and offer the hilt to her beautiful daughter. Miriel, somber in the starlight, will raise her small hands and take the Escrimador’s weapon from her mother. The same glade, the same blade. Same wind, same earth. Same fire.
Crickets and flame. Silence. The ring of fighters widens to give them space. Cresas’ face is somber, Amador’s rent between anger and anguish. Renny raises her brand-new machete, and the keenness of its edge is nearly audible. When Manes bows, when he swings at her neck, the crash of metal is the crashing-together of all the times of battle and of dance. All that she is, all she has chosen to be, connects in the sweet spot two fingers down from the tip of the blade. In the healing art of Bone-touch, the students learn that every nerve point in the body reacts uniquely to pressure on any other point; and so it is with the body of their people. All the fathers and mothers of Renny and Manes have come careening to this moment of impact, and all their descendants will feel the shock when one of them ceases to be. The resonating clang ripples out through every Escrimador, every Filipino—through every woman, every man, through time and space and all the burning stars.
“I will find the hidden strike!” Manes roared at Cresas. “The old ones cannot keep it to themselves forever.”
“No one wise enough to find it would be fool enough to share it with you!” the master bellowed back. It was terrible to see him lose control.
“Then I’ll find someone who will. I’ll walk among the people of Spain. They’ve made a study of our ways for generations, and I’m sure they’ve spied out your little trick by now.”
He’s faster than Renny, and stronger. And if he’s telling the truth, he’s got the thirteenth strike. She has no time for thought: she acts directly from will, from the uttermost profundity of self, forged in a lifetime of choices. Diving, rolling, parrying, she eludes him through the grass, around and around the bonfire, and their weapons sing and smash together, breaking patterns, making patterns, influencing the movements of the galaxies. Her breath is rasping in her throat. Her body is supremely conditioned, but she can’t keep this up much longer.
“I give you my strength, Mama,” Miriel will say. “I send my strength to you, back then, when you needed it.”
Renny will smile and touch her little face. “Thank you, my love. Thank you.”
She stumbles, and her enemy hacks. A ragged chunk of muscle and flesh goes spinning into the darkness; her shoulder sprays. All things merge and fade. She sees his coming victory as if already present. He has earned it: he was right. Not content with what he was given, he has pushed beyond. She’ll never learn the thirteenth strike.
The blade of Manes is rising, rising. Floating in the universe, poised above her spine. All of eternity is focused into now. And here at last, in this place of all-time-no-time, she understands. The secret is a movement, not of body, but of soul. The strike aims beyond the enemy, into a cosmos free of space and time. The thirteenth strike is death.
As the machete descends, she accepts it and offers her own. She will not dodge, nor block. She will thrust into Manes and he into her, and they will die together. The circle is closed.
When she touched her first Escrima stick, she knew. It brought her to the hilltop, and Cresas taught her the dance. This is who I am, she thought. I choose the stick, and the stick chooses me. And our choice shines backward to my mother’s womb and shapes me there. It will shine forward to my daughter, and through her to all who come after us. The stick in her hand was the World-Tree; every warrior held it with her. Through the stick, and the hilltop, her story became one with all.
The machetes stop. Both warriors freeze, their glittering bladepoints half a millimeter from each other’s throats. The wind stops to listen. Even the crickets fall quiet. And finally, slowly, Manes begins to smile. And through the dawning pain in her arm, Renny smiles as well, and then she laughs, and laughs, and weeps for joy.
My training is complete. I am a warrior, then and now and evermore. I am an Escrimador.
Jamey Toner holds a black belt in Kenpo-Jujitsu and Escrima. He is the author of The Kai from Mater Media, the true story of a lost young man who finds purpose and faith through the martial arts. Toner lives and works in Massachusetts with his wife and three children.