dojo_doorsWith a push, the dark wooden door to my uncle Setsuo’s dojo swung open with a long creak. A pale shaft of moonlight illuminated the entryway. The room beyond was deep in darkness. I stepped out of the cool nighttime air and stole into the room. My slippers made a soft scratching sound as they slid across the floor matting. I stepped out of them, leaving my bare feet to the mercy of the cold flooring. There were no windows to let in the ambient light from outside, so I left the door open. The cool autumn air swept in through the open doorway and filled the room with the smell of damp maple leaves and fragrant pine needles.

When my uncle was teaching battōjutsu and shinkendo, Japanese swordsmanship, the dojo was filled with students practicing body-turning movements and engaging in controlled sparring. Their shouts filled the room and echoed off the wooden walls. Now, the room was empty, quiet.

I pulled out a small torch that was tucked behind the obi belted around my hakama trousers and switched on the lamp. Dim yellow light fluttered across the floor in front of me, as I crept to the kamidana shrine at the back of the room. The katana at the shine was once carried by an ancestor six generations ago. As with tradition, it had been stripped of its furniture and placed on display in its naked form. The blade was cared for by my uncle Setsuo and it held a position of high value in both the dojo and within our family. The blade still had a high polish, whereas the bare tang was rusty. On the tang, the stamped signature of the sword maker was still visible.

I set the torch on the floor below the shrine and approached the katana, the wooden floor creaking under my feet. The wind blew in. I turned to check the entrance as a handful of pine needles whispered across the floor. With both hands, I lifted the blade from the wooden stand. It was lightweight and cool. My small fingers played across the tang and the blade, as I turned it over and over in my hands. I was amazed. This weapon was nearly two-centuries old and it still had all of its edge and polish.

There were many swords in the dojo… but this one was perfection. I was mesmerized by its power and potential. From my first visit to uncle’s dojo, I had longed to hold it in my hands. As I held it out by the tang and felt the true weight of the blade, extended fully from my arm, my heart beat faster.

The room turned suddenly dark. A cloud bank crossed in front of the moon and obscured the light at the entryway. As I turned toward the doorway, my foot knocked over the small torch and the dim light flickered toward the front of the dojo. I gasped. A tall figure stood in the doorway, his coat fluttering slowly in the breeze. A roar filled the dojo and the figure rushed toward me. I backed up against the shrine wall and dropped the blade to the floor with a metallic clatter. The figure stepped into the light of my torch and snatched the fallen sword from the floor. It was my uncle Setsuo. He stood before me, shaking his head and gritting his teeth, as he scrutinized the blade for damages. I had never before seen him angry. I trembled. My heart pounded in my ears.

Holding the blade in his large hand, he picked up the torch and shone the light down on the katana and me. “What have you done, Maxim?” he asked, turning the blade over, examining it carefully in the light.

I was ashamed and silent. I wished that I could shrink away to nothing and slip between the cracks in the wooden flooring.

“Answer me, Maxim,” he said, his voice booming in the empty room.

My whole body began to shake. “I only wanted to see…”

“No,” he interrupted. “We never touch the blade without proper preparation. You know this, Maxim.”

“Yes. I am sorry, uncle.”

“Are you?” he asked.

I had no response.

He turned the flat of the blade toward me and shone the light down on the surface. There were numerous rust-colored spots across both sides of the blade where my small fingers had touched the rusted tang and ruined the highly-polished finish on the blade.

“Maxim, what you have done here is disrespectful to both the history that this sword carries and to our ancestor that carried this great weapon. You must learn to treat the requests of others with more respect.”

“Yes, uncle.”

The shame was overwhelming. My heart was heavy. Uncle Setsuo placed the ancient katana back into its stand and stared down at me with great concern.

I turned my gaze to the floor.

My uncle stood before me in silence for a time. In the dojo, I recognized this quiet pause as his way of collecting his thoughts before issuing a lesson to his students. He drew a deep breath. “We cannot ask much of you yet, Maxim, for your hand is a shallow bowl. But with age you grow in size and soon you will be able to offer much more to those around you.”

“Yes, uncle.”

“There is a lesson to be learned here, Maxim,” he said, as he shined the light from my torch onto the katana. “I want you to sit here in the dojo and look at this blade and think about your actions. I will return for you in the morning.”

I stood silent.

Uncle Setsuo looked at me once more. This time, his expression was calm. He snapped off the light and walked toward the doorway. I took my seat in front of the shrine and stared at the katana. As he closed the door, all the light disappeared from the room.

“But I can’t see it in the darkness,” I shouted.

“Give it time, Maxim.” He said, as he turned the latch from the outside. “You will.”

As I sat there on the floor in front of the shrine, the darkness gently folded in over me. The night was long and the dojo was cold. But I did not move. I did not shiver. I did not sleep. I focused my eyes and stared through the darkness where the sword rested silently until the first rays of dawn peered through the cracks around the doors and illuminated the blade. It was brilliant.

And then I heard the voice.

“Maxim.”

It was distant but clear.

“Maxim, can you hear me?”

The light grew brighter and the dojo faded away.

“Maxim, can you see me?”

The light was intensely bright now. I saw some shapes moving before my eyes. I struggled to see through the haze, make out the figure calling to me. I gained some focus. I saw the shape, the face, and the eyes. It was… Dada.

Dada was leaning over me. I was lying on my back. I looked up and saw a tube running out of my arm up to a bag and a drip chamber attached to a pole next to the bed. I tried to speak but my mouth was dry and nothing came out but a soft croak.

Dada shook his head. “Maxim, you’ve been out for some time,” he said with a warm smile. “Welcome back.”

[Communication Relay: 16MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]