Raking Leaves

From the Story Arc: Grandmaster in Name

Previous Story in the Arc: Moving Blocks by Grandmaster Te (Sunday, September 26, 2004)

(posted Friday, October 08, 2004)

When Grandmaster Te met People's Blade in the small compound's fenced yard, he was not surprised to find her approaching with a large leaf rake and colorful wooden bushel in hand. "Te, at least with your masonry skills we find Red Brigade's investment in your will not go completely wasted. But there are no more walls to build, you must make yourself useful in another way."

She passed him the rake and bushel and pointed to the towering maple tree in the compound's yard. Leaves drifted down from it like huge golden and ruby snowflakes, settling into an brilliant carpet underneath. "I want to see my lawn again, please keep the leaves off of it.".

Te smiled. Compared to moving concrete blocks, this task was going to be easy. As Fei Li returned to the headquarters building, he set into gathering the leaves with brisk strokes, periodically pausing to empty the bushel into the dumpster on the street. In only thirty minutes he was done, and was wondering what his next task would be. He sat deliberately on the damp lawn in lotus position and awaited the return of his teacher.

His wait was short and surprising. She flew from the building like a tornado and ran toward him in a red rage. "What are you doing?!", she stormed, "I told you to keep the lawn clean". He looked up puzzled. She continued, "There, and there", she pointed, "there another falls. Leaf after leaf."

"Ahhh", he said. "Continuously clean". He hurredly raked up the few leaves that had fallen while he was sitting, and as each new leaf fell from the tree, he caught it on the head of the rake and swept it toward the basket. Still, many leaves got through his guard when they fell behind him or out of his reach.

"Pitiful!", rebuked People's Blade. "Hand me the rake." She held it like her famous sword rather than as a mere rake. As each leaf fell, she the rake swung in a precise deadly arc, intercepting its fall and returning it to the basket. "There are five positions you must learn", she barked, each word like a bullet from a machine gun as she maneuvered quickly around the tree. "Observe! one! Two! three! four! five!" Each number found her swinging the rake in a different direction.

"And you must learn to use your eyes and your stance. See all around you, not just where you are staring. Focus in all directions. Move the feet, do not stand still. Now you practice as I have shown you."

It took Grandmaster Te two days to get to the level where -- with great effort -- he could catch the leaves before they hit the ground. She had done it as if it were as simple as cooking an egg. But then, she had been practicing for many years...decades... or centuries, depending on your point of view. After he was proficient at keeping up with the leaves, his leader approached him. "You are getting better, Te. The staff is the most basic of weapons beyond the body itself. It can be found anywhere and be made of anything. Used correctly, it is an extension of your own body; its use as natural as walking. It is time for you to learn it for real."

She kicked out rapidly and shattered the rake just where the handle joined the rake's head, and kicked the head into the bushel. "Now learn to do it right." Te stared at the rake handle in his hands and wondered if it could be done. As his teacher returned to her work, he swung out at the falling leaves, missing more often than not, but after a while he was hitting roughly half of them.

It was a week before he learned the secret. He stood under the tree, perfectly relaxed, eyes unfocused. As each golden leaf drifted down, he launched quietly into action, alternating between the five strikes, quickly, smoothly, and efficiently. He had even learned to control the strike's force so he could catch each leaf on the end of the rake handle and deposit it into the bushel, rather than shattering them into vegetable powder with too strong a blow. The staff moved in large, sweeping arcs, never stopping; spinning gracefully as Te maneuvered side to side like a ballet dancer.

People's Blade was obviously pleased. "There may be some hope for you after all.", she said as she approached the tree. "You look almost competent, compared to your clumsy start. Now, let's see how much you've really learned."

She walked to the tree's sturdy trunk, wrapped both hands around its bark, and shook. Leaves showered down, dozens.. hundreds at a time. Te launched into action without thought, a blur of movement, filling the bushel in only seconds. He kicked the bushel over to empty it, tipped it upright with the rake handle, and rolled to the left, all in one motion. He continued to fill the bushel until the cascade of leaves quieted. Fei Li laughed lightly, like the tinkling of a wind chime, until the leaf shower abated. "Very good, Te!" He stopped and stared at her as if she were a talking zebra, until he was suddenly aware that there was a world beyond the small reality of falling leaves. "What? Oh, uh, yes, thank you," he bowed.

"I have a small gift for you, as a reward for your progress", she spoke laughingly. Suddenly she became the serious General again. "This was mine, I need it no longer." She handed to him a slender tall staff, well-worn and polished with time and years of use. It was a strong, resilient wood and was stained black at the handholds by hand oils. On close examination, a dragon's head was visible on one end of the staff, and the wood's texture looked like brown scales. "It has been in the family a long time, use it with honor."

He bowed deeply and his eyes grew blurry with moisture, knowing that this must be a great and personal treasure to her. "You honor me," he said lowly.

She stood silently for a moment in thought, struggling whether to say something, but eventually decided against it. "Go and rest, Grandmaster Te. Tomorrow I will have a new assignment for you."