Ready for Paper

Master Aichi is always patient but today Yonaka stares at the practice stone with the last remnants of the final wet brush strokes fading away. He hasn’t yet been able to fully form the kanji before the first stroke dries and disappears. Very different from practicing on a wax tablet, the stone is unforgiving and demands an elegance that eludes Yonaka’s hand. He knows the characters and their order very well, but simply knowing how to write does not carry meaning. The lines are still too rough, too much hesitation between strokes, his hand just not steady enough to commit to the lines with confidence. If these were sword strokes he would not be thinking so much about his breathing, his hand position, the finish of the stroke and the coordination of his other hand.

He realizes he has lost track of whether he last inhaled or exhaled and is holding his breath. Embarrassed, Yonaka exhales as he looks up to see Master Aichi shake his head quietly and close his eyes for a moment before rising. With a single gesture he indicates both that Yonaka should hand over the brush and stay behind to reflect.

As his sensei leaves the room Yonaka’s attention wanders towards the small stack of untouched papers. Cheaper practice washi, easy to produce and too thin for fine characters, nothing you would send an important note on, and until he has mastered the water and stone it is too fine for Yonaka to write on.

One corner of the top sheet is slightly curled, a distraction, a temptation. His mind too clouded to meditate upon kanji Yonaka removes the sheet and trims the offending edge on a cutting block. He pauses, considers the size and shape of the paper, and trims another edge to make a perfect square.

The last months have been so filled with events and meetings, ceremonies and courtesies, troops and training. Never a moment of peace, especially in peace time. He realizes this is the first time since returning to Rokugan that he has been truly alone. It wouldn’t do for anyone to know how the idea disturbs him, but recognizing it as a possible gift from his sensei makes him realize he shouldn’t waste it.

There have been times when Gaisofu Kito would have watched over him, nodding slightly at certain folds, making a short polite cough before an incorrect crease. Right now he is on his own, and no one needs to know that Yonaka takes this moment for himself as he meditates upon the fibers of the washi, seeing already which cross-fibers will need more coaxing during the folds.

There is almost a sense of relief as his fingers commit to the first crease, unsupervised, unfettered by expectation, the possibilities unending. The lines within the paper lead his folds, he follows.

At first he forms a mountain, the two peaks and sloped sides are easy and basic. He knows the shape well but then takes each of the slopes to create a different set of creases, unfolding and refolding here and there, creating pockets where needed until the familiar cat shape appears without his bidding.

The paper is making his decisions for him so Yonaka counters, asserts his thoughts of self. Half of the folds are undone before he starts to turn them under again, a building of sorts, a temple.

Yonaka almost absently lets the bottom edge fold into an angle, he removes a few of the doors, makes one into a dorsal fin and another part into a mouth. A fish? No, a carp, like in a temple pond, or a castle pond.

Yonaka’s mind turns towards being unbound by recent events and duties, letting the water flow away from the Carp he goes back to a simpler time, one not so long ago. His hands know this pattern well and the unused creases fold under without binding the places where new folds need to be placed. The figure is one of surprising comfort, of legend and a thousand miracles, of blessings after tragedy, and when he finishes he sets it down before him on the practice stone.

It is a Crane, and Yonaka does not know if he has won or lost this duel with the paper.

Yonaka only has a moment before he hears Master Aichi returning. He keeps his head lowered as he waits for the reprimand that must surely follow.

“Your teacher is very good. Tell me, when you were giving spirit to this creature of air, did you hold your breath?”

“No Sensei, I… I don’t even know that there was moment where I stopped breathing in to start breathing out.”

“Do the dead need to breathe?”

The last question brings unbidden remembrances to Yonaka’s mind, but he pushes them aside to focus on the moment at hand.

“No, Sensei, they do not.”

“And how, student of the sword, would you win against one who strikes between breaths?”

“I would live so there is no moment without breath. No moment when the stroke truly ends.”

Master Aichi gracefully lays the brush in front of his student. Yonaka looks to the water bowl and practice stone and notices the almost imperceptible look of calm expectation from Master Aichi. He takes up the brush again, his other hand readies his sleeve, his mind clears all other thought. He feels his hand steady as he breathes in a continuous flow between his mouth and nose.

He draws one character, the six strokes flowing like a kata, and the form breathes spirit into the kanji.

“Now you are ready for paper.”

Breath op

(created with the Zen Brush practice app)

Ready for Paper

L5R : Jade Winds Chickenhat