Asoka flashed a smile, baring his long eyeteeth, at the young girls, a catfolk and her kitsune friend, from across the training grounds. His thick eyebrows waggled as he waved to them with his tail, having passed off the cup of tea he was holding it in to his foot. The girls coyly retreated, and Asoka sat there on the stone floor in the morning sun, sure of himself. He had gone back to holding the cup with his prehensile tail again and was about to enjoy another sip, when a shadow fell on him from behind.
Asoka sighed with a smile. “Master Kyoku, have you come to congratulate me again on yesterday’s achievements?” he asked without turning around.
The tengu, at first, said nothing. He was looking down his beak at Asoka, and his wings were folded loosely against his back. It was only the two of them in the courtyard.
“You have indeed, again, demonstrated quite the feat of agility,” the teacher began, before Asoka cut him off. He had risen from sitting with a tumbling roll while the master was speaking, unfolding to a standing position, drinking his tea from his tail and holding up a furred hand to pause his speech.
“I know. Because I’m awesome!” he said smiling, arms cast wide.
The tengu’s stern expression did not change. “Hrm, yes. ‘Awesome’ may not be the way I’d describe it, but you have demonstrated some natural skill that exceeds the other students here for ninja training.” Asoka had breezed through all the other obstacle courses, finishing the milestone Level Ten course just yesterday afternoon. Most of his triumphant runs involved too much showboating for the teachers’ tastes, but he had made a name for himself around the training grounds for the dashing speed with which he darted about the courses, and the number of superfluous flips and tumbling rolls he put into the performance-like trials. He made even the harder courses look too easy.
“Well of course! No one’s as acrobatic as a monkey! And no monkey’s as acrobatic as me!” he boasted.
“It appears to be your specialty,” Kyoku continued, ignoring Asoka’s arrogance, “which is why, despite your coming just three days ago, I am nominating you to test your skills in Training Course Eleven.”
“Eh?! I thought you said there were only ten levels?” he exclaimed, pointing with an accusatory finger.
“… I never said how many levels there were,” Kyoku replied. Though his face was inexpressive in a mask of indifference, on the inside the master was regretting letting him in to train. Perhaps ‘letting him in’ was inexact, as he simply barged in while scrounging for food one day, and declared himself a student to get a free lunch. Just this morning Kyoku swore he saw a few gray feathers in the mirror. “For the record, Obstacle Course Twenty is the most difficult we have currently installed.”
“Oh, well, since I finished Level Ten yesterday, I’ll just have to beat Level Twenty. I should have that done inside the week.”
“Levels Sixteen through Twenty are reserved only for grand masters like myself.”
“Like I said, inside the week.” Asoka was distractedly staring at the bottom of his empty tea cup in disappointment, ignoring the teacher’s growing scowl and narrowing eyes. Asoka threw the cup aside, heedless.
“So, Level Eleven, you say? Awesome! Oh! I wonder if any of the girls will be watching?”
“I must warn you, though,” Kyoku said as they walked, “the increase in difficulty between Levels Ten and Eleven is severe; it is no incremental increase, and very few students ever manage to complete the course.”
“You said the same thing about Levels Five and Six, which were a breeze, if you ask me.” While the tengu teacher walked with the calm steadiness of a master, Asoka scuttled about, darting this way and that, letting some of the other initiates who he’d outpaced know where they were headed.
“It remains true regardless,” Kyoku insisted. “You should not expect to breeze through it.”
They eventually arrived at the training ground. It was like many of the other obstacle courses at the temple. On this side of the mountain, the large wooden and bamboo structure had been set up with ropes, ledges, platforms and a variety of rotating shafts with sticks coming off them, to simulate incoming attacks. Asoka noted the water pits beneath, which were not that deep, and that the starting platform was only a measly ten feet off the ground. Already a small number of people had gathered around, some of them from training. He recognized a couple who had wiped out on the easier courses, and smirked at those ‘rivals’ he overshot. He blew a kiss to a few of the girls there in the crowd, and winked to them.
Asoka and Kyoku ascended the ladders to the green starting platform. Across the way he could see past the other yellow ones to the familiar distant platform that was red – his destination. In-between were several ropes connecting the platforms, and towards the end was a high-jump segment of nine feet. Fortunately it looked like he would have a running start.
“No problem,” Asoka said, arms crossed, tail curling and wagging. He turned around, seeing that there was a monk wielding a long hooked pole, on the end of which was a sizable pot that was being hoisted up toward them. Kyoku carefully hefted it off the hook and held it with one hand by the handle. He bowed thankfully to the monk, who put down the pole to join the dozen or so onlookers.
“Student Asoka, are you prepared to attempt Training Course Eleven?” he asked.
Asoka cracked his knuckles dramatically, and began shifting from foot to foot. “Oh, you betcha! This will be a piece of cake!”
“Then take this,” Kyoku said, handing Asoka the pot. He took it by the handle, and in gauging its heaviness raised a bushy eyebrow, uncertain. “What’s this for?”
“You are to carry it, obviously.”
“Right, like the satchel from the earlier courses. What was that, Course Seven?”
“Courses Six through Nine,” Kyuko replied. “You are to take your soup with you to the destination. If it does not make it there, you are considered to have failed the course. And you should be able to do it without losing a single drop,” he said, punctuating the win-condition by taking the pot’s lid away. The distractedly delicious aroma filled the platform; it smelled better than nearly any meal Asoka had eaten since arriving and becoming a student monk, and perhaps long before as well. The steam rising from it and the heat radiating from the metal sides let him know the soup was extremely hot.
Asoka looked uncertain. He remembered the crowd, and put on a garish smile, all teeth, and raised his fist with a shout. “Yeah! Course Eleven, ready to go!” he yelled jubilantly to the skeptical throng beneath.
“Then you may begin, if you like,” Kyoku said, standing off to the side to watch.
Asoka stepped onto the rope connecting the green starting platform and the first yellow one. The tightrope was pretty standard fare, and even carrying the soup in one hand, he was able to keep balance with the other hand and his tail. He shortly hopped off the rope to the next platform with a slight theatrical spin.
He stepped onto the second rope and nearly fell clear off.
“You greased the tightrope?!” he asked back angrily. There was a chuckle from some of the older students in the crowd.
“Lightly,” Kyoku responded. He said nothing else.
Asoka stepped forward onto the rope again, much more cautiously this time, and was able to maintain his balance. It was slow going, and several times he had to actually stand still to try to steady himself. Just before reaching the safety of the next platform he nearly spilled some of the soup, but with a few gesticulations managed to keep hold long enough to dash to the other side, narrowly avoiding falling off.
Wiping the grease off his hand-like monkey feet on the wood, he looked over at the next section. The rope had that same slick sheen to it, but the angle was much steeper up to a higher platform. He passed the soup to his tail, holding it by the handle, and walked cautiously upwards. The tightrope swayed back and forth under his steps, erratically. Suddenly he lost balance, and began falling to his left – before he knew it, he was hanging from the underside of the rope by his hands and feet, sliding slowly backwards. He realized he heard a splash below, and that the pot was a little lighter in his tail’s grasp. He climbed slowly up the rope to the next platform.
This platform was easy, comparatively: a gauntlet of spinning pillars, with offset shafts that were supposed to represent incoming strikes. He wove his way through them with finesse, dodging and sidestepping, until he chose to jump up on top of one. He had hoped to bypass the challenge by skipping across them, but half of them were crowned with spikes to prevent exactly that. He got down and dodged his way through like he was supposed to, but with the soup in tail he found he could not roll out of the way like he liked to do. Reaching the other side, he actually found he had been hit twice. He made it to the end with a ten-foot long-jump with no running start, nearly missing the ledge.
He checked the soup. He still had half, no, three-quarters of it left.
He saw a blur of red color headed towards him, and dodged just in time, or so he thought. His bushy sideburns on his right felt wet, and he saw red paint on his hand when he checked. Another painted bean bag was shot at him.
“Hey! What’s the big idea, huh?!” he shouted.
“Any ninja in training must be able to handle being shot at while traversing uneven terrain,” Kyoku called back to him. “Surely you can handle both at once?”
Asoka growled, gritting his teeth. He moved back onto another rope section, which was slippery with more grease, but thankfully only in sections, as he dodged back and forth to avoid being hit with more of the bags. He made it to the other side, and then to the next section, still dodging. His stomach lurched on this tightrope when it suddenly became less tight, the rope slackened, and he lowered with it a good three feet. A moment later it was rising again; rising and falling, up and down, all the while Asoka struggling to keep his balance and not fall while avoiding the paint shots.
He realized too late the soup was about to slosh out, and overcompensating had swung too far to the side. He steadied himself to stay on the rope, but in standing still, was shot in the side of the face with a bean bag. Wiping the paint out of his eye, another shot hit him in the back, and recoiling in a spasm, he tumbled off the rope. There was nothing nearby the tightrope to slow his fall, and he crashed into the water below, a muddy mix of cold standing water and spoiled hot soup.
As he sat there, his fur wet, a roar of laughter started and then grew in the small crowd. Asoka, gritting his teeth, shouted, “Shut up! I’d like to see any of you do better!” He turned his wrath skyward back towards Kyoku. The teacher was not laughing; he seemed neither smug nor angry, only watching.
“Especially you! What’s the big idea, Master Kyoku? This is ridiculous! I challenge you to run this course, without any flying obviously, which would be cheating!”
“Cheating, he says,” a lizard in the crowd commented. “Like that prehensile tail isn’t cheating.” Much murmuring followed as Asoka dredged himself out of the water.
Kyoku raised a hand, and the assembly fell silent. “Very well, student. I accept your challenge.” Without needing instructions, the same monk was back with his hooked pole and another pot of soup, which Kyoku took in hand. Asoka was a ways apart from the rest of the crowd, but he could still see the teacher at the starting position. He held the soup pot with two hands, and moved his wings around his shoulders, drawn up like a cloak.
Kyoku walked calmly and swiftly across the first and second ropes with no problem, and the third a little slower for its steepness. Everyone watched as he wove effortlessly through the field of rotating striking poles, and with momentum carried himself across the jumping gap with grace. As the first shot came at him, he dodged in up-and-down and back-and-forth motions along the rope – never side-to-side. His steps where rhythmic on the next rope, hastening on the slackening down, and slowing on the tightening up. Continuing on past the part where Asoka, and many other students before him, had failed, he gained a little speed, sliding down the greased rope on a descent, dodging another three bean bags and used the momentum to carry himself up the high jump, landing on the red platform.
He held up the soup pot in one hand and opened his wings again, wide in a display. He bowed low, and applause came up from the crowd. When he raised his head again, Asoka was gone.
* * *
Asoka sat on the branch of a tall pine tree, tossing a coin in the air and catching it. He was overlooking the outdoor commons, where the students were eating their midday meal under the open roofs.
“I figured I would find you here,” Kyoku said, above him. Asoka yelped, nearly falling strait out of the tree, and found himself hanging by his tail from the branch. He never heard the grand master approach.
“Yeah, well,” Asoka began, climbing back up, “No sense sticking around when they refused to give me anything to eat today.”
“Well, you did spill your soup.”
Realization dawned on Asoka. “Wait, you mean that was my soup, my meal, for the day?!”
“I told you, ‘You are to take your soup with you to the destination’,” Kyoku repeated. “Perhaps I should have made that clearer in the challenge – regardless, I only ate half of mine, and a student should never go hungry needlessly.” Kyoku held it out for him to take.
Asoka took the soup wordlessly, staring into the pot. Remembering to be angry, he retorted, “I don’t need your charity!”
“Then give it back.”
“No!” he said, after the aroma made his stomach growl, and the monkey wolfed it down like a pig.
Kyoku sighed. “Asoka, do you know what your problem is?” the teacher asked candidly. He watched the wild-man stuff his face, displaying no knowledge of table manners.
“Of course I do! Those ropes were greased, and there were too many nasty surprises throughout! Greased tightropes, honestly! – it’s a great way for one of your students to fall and snap their neck. I bet that’s really great for the school.”
“Sometimes, as a warrior, you need to be able to handle slick surfaces. The higher-level challenges are deliberately difficult to an unrealistic, contrived degree, so that out in real-life deadly situations you are more than prepared.”
“Still, you could have given me some warning. Not that it matters,” he added, putting down the empty soup pot. “I’m not going to try it again.”
Kyoku took back the pot. “I see: just like your knife training, and your archery, and your code-work. It seems whenever you hit a wall, you immediately stop.”
“I’m just no good at code-work, or archery. I’m a genius at acrobatics,” he began, and then trailed off.
“See, this is your problem: you never train. You think you are just your talents. You test yourself to see how far you get in a given skill set, and when you see where your limit is, you think, ‘This is it: this is how good or poor I am at this thing.”
“That’s not true … I’m just more talented in acrobatics.”
“I’ve seen it in every one of your studies here since you showed up. Take it from me – there’s no such thing as talent. When you very young, were you always that agile?”
“Yes!” Asoka replied straitening up with slightly damaged pride.
“And what about when you were a newborn baby? I doubt you were never clumsy as a baby.”
“… Don’t remember,” he said evasively.
“Everything you can do is something you started out knowing nothing about. Nobody, not you or those people in the crowd today or me – especially not me, Lord knows – ever became good at what they do without effort. They had to work at it.”
“Yeah, okay,” Asoka replied softly.
“Asoka, look at me.” The monkey met the crow face to face. “I want you to repeat after me.”
“Fine,” Asoka said hotly.
“I …” Kyoku began.
“… can …”
“… can …”
“… not …”
“… not …”
“… do …”
“… do …”
“… it …”
“… it …”
“…” Asoka cast his eyes down, and said nothing.
Kyoku sighed. “Come with me.”
He led him out of the tree and discreetly around the lunch area to one side of the temple complex. There, inside, was a gallery of statues of various beings: a fox spirit, a tengu general, dragons, a buddha, and others, including a grinning monkey king. Kyoku led Asoka to a hall were five massive scrolls hung from the ceiling, each bearing a word in calligraphic script.
“Could you please read to me this assemblage of characters?”
“Sure: ‘Passion,’ ‘Practice,’ ‘Perseverance,’ and, ‘Patience;’ and the one in the middle is ‘Excellence’.
“Correct. Note that it says ‘Excellence,’ and not ‘Perfection’. To your credit, you certainly have Passion, at least with all your jumping around, balancing and climbing you do, as evidenced by the fact that you do it constantly. But you lack the will to persevere in the face of hardship, and the patience to see your skills through to higher potential: to Excellence. You can get there through practice. And only through practice. If you work at it, there is not anything you can’t do.”
“I won’t be able to fly like a tengu,” Asoka retorted smartly and immediately, pointing at the teacher’s wings.
“And just because I am a tengu was no guarantee that I would. I was a very late bloomer, you see, and did not fly until I was nearly an adult; most tengu fledge and learn to fly as a teenager.”
“You’re not just saying that to make me feel better, are you?” he asked, incredulous and slightly annoyed at the master’s pedantic pithy rambling.
“You can ask any of the tengu here who knew me in youth: I was heavyset as a child and flightless. People used to make fun of me for it; they called me, ‘the Penguin’.”
Asoka let out a snicker. “Ha, the Penguin!”
“In any case,” Kyoku said, returning to the matter at hand, “the truth still stands. You have come to a degree of skill in your life so far, and you cannot hope to rely on your ‘talents’ alone; they are not your powers, but your imagined limits. If you practice, if you train, if you try, then I have confidence you will succeed in all of your studies. You might even reach grand master rank someday.”
Asoka said nothing at first, staring up at the scrolls. “I don’t know,” he said.
Kyoku turned to go, then added, “Well, just remember: if your performance does not meet our standards or you should stagnate in what you can do, this training school has no reason to give you a place to sleep, or to keep feeding you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Asoka answered quickly.
They did not see each other the rest of the day, and through most of the next. But by the following evening, he watched Asoka running Course Ten again on his own, trying to ape the moves he saw his teacher perform, imagining himself dodging the things launched at him on his way to the end of the challenge.
(Featured image by Pushpendra Soni/”Optimistic pushpendra2″.)