What Feet Remember

Christin Nice-Webb

© Copyright 2020 by Christin Nice-Webb

Photo by svklimkin on Unsplash
Photo by svklimkin on Unsplash

The floor now under my feet is a deep red wood. Its rough smoothness reminds me of my dojo. Two years have come and gone since I left my first college’s Shotokan Karate Club, but it still feels wrong to cross such floors barefoot, without gi or belt, with no ceremony whatsoever. Here, in this room, I slide, rather than step, to the window, just to feel the raw friction against my soles. It would be almost worth the splinters to do a kata right now, sliding into stance, blocking invisible opponents, countering, turning, advancing. “Yoi!” I hear my sensei bellow. Steady on my feet, I ready my fists at my sides. “Hajime!” My eyes shoot left and I step out into a low stance, my forearm rising to block the first attack to my jaw. Now, looking out this dorm window, I remember the promise I made to myself and to Sensei.

His name is Jared, but it’s Sensei in the dojo. On day one, the club assembled in an old room in the gym’s basement. The floor was a waxy yellow. We backed against the wall at Sensei’s command, damp towels in hand, before leaning into a sort of crouch-sprint, the wood skinning our knees as we ran the wet cloth over the floor. My bare feet kept slipping on the slick wood. We learned how to make a fist, how to bow, what to say to whom and when. Yet, at the end of the hour, I was surprisingly sweat-free. “It gets tougher,” Sensei assured us. “Come back Wednesday ready to train.” We lined up according to rank, black belts at the far end in their well-worn gis, novices in our T-shirts and gym shorts closest to the door. We kneeled. “Dojo Kun!” announced the head black belt. “Seek perfection of character!” We repeated in chorus. “Be faithful!” We held our backs straight and alert. “Endeavor!” Our hands rested crisply on our thighs. “Respect others!” I trained my eyes on the mirror ahead. “Refrain from violent behavior!” But I kept my peripheral vision on Sensei’s unflinching posture, his thick sideburns, how his big toes crossed as he sat on his heels. Later, we would learn how to deliver thrust kicks, hammer fists, and elbow strikes, but that day, we learned that the dojo is more than four mirrored walls and a stack of old wrestling mats; it’s an attitude. We would remember it in our sore muscles that night, and the next morning in the fresh scabs across our knees. You bow. Then, you enter.

Outside the dojo, Jared was an unexpected personality, like a mischievous uncle. He was dating one of the black belts. But wasn’t she a student like us? He wouldn’t tell us his age. Twenty-eight? Thirty-five? One Thanksgiving when I couldn’t afford a bus ticket home, Jared took me to his girlfriend’s family’s house for dinner. I thought I’d nap in the car, but Jared was restless for conversation. “Tell me about the first time you had sex,” he said, casually, eyes gleaming in the rearview mirror. He and his girlfriend’s casserole contribution sat warm in my lap, their dog’s snout resting on my thigh. I evaded the question, spouting general, expected responses, anything that might inspire the conclusion that I actually had something apparently worth hiding to say on the subject, but Jared found other ways to embarrass and irritate me. “OK, when was the first time you went to jail?” Though I'd never been to jail, I felt my cheeks flush. Was this how all senseis broke the ice? I glanced back at the rearview mirror. His eyes were laughing, but not at me. Just laughing, inviting, encouraging. I waited for the embarrassment to lift and my nerves to settle. The dog swallowed in its sleep. Gently, I loosened my grip on the casserole and let one hand rest on the dog’s soft gray belly.

Ninety minutes later, we were there, crowding around two small tables with the Italian family who offered me sausage and cheese appetizers and a glass of red wine. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins bantered and reminisced freely, questioning and addressing me as if I were one of their own. In the lazy, full moments after dessert, an aunt began clearing the table, but the talking hadn’t died down. Two younger cousins escaped to the living room. I followed Jared into the kitchen. His arms swept, naturally, into blocks and strikes. “Wanna know what really hurts?” We, the outsiders, stood by the refrigerator while his lover’s Italian family bustled in and out, pouring more wine, chatting in the next room. “Sure,” I said, watching his hands contort in ways I’d seen only the black belts try. Then, he made a fist and raised his middle knuckle to form a sharp point. Holding my wrist, he rammed his knuckle between the thin bones on the back of my hand. I didn’t wince. From a semester’s worth of trainings I’d learned not to show it on my face, but even though he’d restrained himself from using full force, the pain from the bruised pressure point shot up my arm. You bow. You fight.

That night, he trained me in his own dojo, an extension of the small house he shared with his girlfriend. I recognized this as a rare privilege. Sensei handed me an old, sweat-soaked gi. It was too big. I had to roll the pant legs up several times before my feet were free. I wrapped the fraying belt an extra time around my waist. The long, rectangular dojo held a soft, cold silence, a distilled power distinct from the cement brightness of our old wrestling room in the gym basement. Sensei held a wooden staff level with my chest. He meant for me to practice the distance of my blocks. This was a first. We rarely used equipment in the dojo. My fists rose and fell in haltingly ill-timed strikes. Easily discouraged, I fought to keep my eyes from the floor, masking my shame with humility. When he’d exhausted my range of blocks, Sensei grabbed a kick guard and positioned it a few feet from my chest. “Pull back your toes,” he said, teaching me to press at the same time with the sole of my foot. “So you won’t break them,” he said. Our training finished, I knelt on an imaginary line behind him. As the highest ranking kohai in this dojo of two, I knew my responsibility. “Dojo Kun!” I announced. By then, I’d learned it in Japanese. “Hitotsu! Jinkaku kansei ni tsutomuru koto!” I felt my big toes overlap behind me. “Hitotsu! Makoto no michi o mamoru koto!” There were no mirrors in the room, but I knew well the contained ferocity in Sensei’s eyes. “Hitotsu! Doryoku no seichin o yashinau koto!” How strange to hear his booming voice repeat after mine! “Hitotsu! Reigi o omonzuru koto!” But in this soft, cold dojo, my voice boomed, too, with a strength I hadn’t heard before. “Hitotsu! Kekki no yu o imashimuru koto!” You bow. You say, “Domo arigato gozaimashita, Sensei.

One week we trained outside, in cold, dewy mornings. Our feet slid through grass and dirt, as we ran to line up, paired off to spar. One semester we were stuck with the new wrestling room, the bottoms of our feet rubbing against the permanent mats. And one day, my last day, I made stance in the corner while the entire dojo attacked me one after the other in its sendoff ritual. I’d only just earned my green belt. I didn’t want to go, but out-of-state tuition was digging me deeper into debt than I could stomach. So I steadied my feet and braced for the attack. Sweat flew from hair falling free from worn elastic bands. Yellowing gis loosened at the neck from two hours of intense training. Sensei’s deep kiai, his spirit-yell, pressed like a force in the air as he stepped in stance to attack, sending a blow to my solar plexus, a strike perfectly aimed and harder than usual. My feet gripped the floor as the breath oomphed out of me. I steadied for the next attack. The ceremony complete, we lined up at the familiar sound of Sensei’s “Training finished!”

You form line, you obey, you recite because it’s what you do in the dojo. You don’t think about what you’ll feel like when the calluses smooth over, when the bruises fade back to flesh. There is a memory deeper than muscle that will not let you forget. You bow. You go.

I wrote this story about my experiences training in a Shotokan Karate Dojo in college. 

I live in the mountains of Western North Carolina with an aloe plant and a sewing machine. I earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. I work as a production specialist in a manufacturing plant and enjoys the process of transforming hodgepodge into usefulness and beauty.

Contact Christin

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher