Short Fiction: The Blind Master
“Ying, you still rely too heavily on sight. If that one sense were taken away, even temporarily, how would you defend yourself?” Master Sere-Wei’s harsh admonishment fell like cold rain around the ears of his floored pupil.
Ying tried to resist staring at his feet as he gathered himself up off the floor. Once more, knocked down by his quicker and wiser master. Every lesson was a painful one, in the bruises to his body and backside, as well as those marring his ego.
Master Sere-Wei stood with his wooden walking staff tight against his side, perpendicular to the floor, though Ying knew the elder did not require it to move around with ease. His beak pointed straight forward and from Ying’s angle it partially obscured the blindfold that always covered his unseeing eyes. Master Sere-Wei stood a full head and a half higher than the smaller Ying, though the youth had seen his twenty-ninth hatching day.
The elder waited to continue his lesson until Ying had stood and composed himself. Ying smoothed his black feathers where they’d become ruffled and checked the positioning of his taloned feet. He clicked his beak together with a mixture of frustration and embarrassment.
Master Sere-Wei produced a second blindfold from the folds of his grey robe and held it out. His voice changed from opponent to teacher. “Today, you learn to stop relying solely on one sense. You have five others–”
“Five?” Ying interrupted and immediately caught himself. “Apologies, Master.”
Master Sere-Wei nodded in terse acknowledgment and took two measured steps forward, just far enough to take Ying’s right hand and place the blindfold in his feathered palm.
“There are six senses we use to interact with the world around us. Those six senses correspond with the elements that make up our world. We touch the earth with our feet and hands. We taste the water on our tongue. We hear the flame crackle as it burns. We smell the many fragrances of the wind. We see the splendors of nature’s glory. And we experience the divine aether with our spirit.
“Though the first five senses may be more obviously present to the unlearned, it is our spirit sense which is most important. Mastery of the spirit leads to mastery of the mind, and mastery of the mind is the mastery of self. That is the goal of every Avar.
“Your spirit sense is easier to perfect when the others are taken away. Now, redefine how you interact with the world around you.” Master Sere-Wei flourished his hand and waited.
Ying looked at the blindfold in his hands, nervous and uncertain.
“Put it on, doubting pupil,” Master Sere-Wei said, patience infusing his voice.
Ying glanced sidelong at his master, wondering how the elder always knew. Could he see more than he let on? That would explain how he always disarmed and defeated Ying like a squawking new hatchling. Or perhaps he could read Ying’s thoughts? Did he know what his pupil was thinking before Ying attacked? The young one’s eyes widened at that thought.
Master Sere-Wei waited patiently, impassively, somehow knowing Ying had not yet followed his master’s instructions.
As soon as the blindfold was tied in place over Ying’s eyes, blackening his vision and shutting out the visual world, Master Sere-Wei began to speak again. “Good, now your real lesson can begin.”
Ying stood tense and on edge. He had no idea how he would tell if Master Sere-Wei attacked until he was hit and probably on the ground. Ying’s already sore and bruised body trembled with nervous energy. He kept his hands raised, and swung out in front of him once, instantly feeling absurd for blindly flailing at empty air.
The dark silence seemed to stretch endlessly.
Finally, Ying lowered his tensed arms, confused and wondering if Master Sere-Wei were even still present.
A hard pole struck Ying’s shoulder — Master Sere-Wei’s walking stick — and the younger cried out despite himself.
“Why didn’t you attack me? Why did you drop your guard?” Master Sere-Wei voice came from behind him, and Ying spun to face him. The pole struck his shoulder again. “Answer, before can I strike again.”
“I felt silly swinging but not knowing where you were,” Ying sputtered.
“Why don’t you know where I am?” Master Sere-Wei prompted.
“Because I can’t see you or hear you. I tried to listen and heard nothing.”
Ying felt the breeze and heard the swooshing of air as Master Sere-Wei’s staff swung inches from his pupil’s beak. Ying flinched but no strike came.
“Did you see that?” his master asked.
“No, but I felt and heard it.”
“Good. Could you have stopped it?”
“No, it was already inches from my beak when I sensed it.”
“Why, Ying?” Master Sere-Wei demanded.
“Because I wasn’t listening hard enough?”
“Is that a question?”
“I’m not sure what you want me to do,” Ying said, frustration straining his voice.
“I want you to stop depending on a sense that is of no use to you. Stop looking for me,” Master Sere-Wei commanded. “Now hit me.”
Ying lunged in the direction of Master Sere-Wei’s voice, but as he expected, his master was already gone. The movement and the following realization earned him another crack from the walking stick agsinst his shoulder — the same shoulder, his left, and it began to throb where a new welt formed. He grunted but didn’t cry out.
“I said hit me.”
Master Sere-Wei’s voice came to Ying’s ears harsh, but not angry. The master never got angry. Ying made up his mind not to get angry either, no matter how much his shoulder hurt or how frustrated he was with his blindness.
He knew the master would have no sympathy.
Ying kept his hands up before him, in a ready pose. He swiveled his head back and forth, slowly, trying to collect what meager information he could with his ears. The slightest noise and a ruffle of the feathers on the right side of his face made Ying reposition, putting Master Sere-Wei in front of him once more.
As soon as the words left his master’s mouth, Ying struck. His palm made contact and Master Sere-Wei grunted and took a heavy step backward.
Then, the wooden pole struck Ying’s shoulder again, and it took all his restraint to not curse.
“Better, but not good enough. Are you guessing?”
“No, I heard you and felt the air of your movement.”
“Then, why was I able to strike you?”
Ying thought about it.
“Why?” The staff cracked against Ying’s shoulder blade.
“Because I didn’t guard myself,” Ying said quickly, hoping to stay another blow.
“Exactly. Why not? Did you assume I would not strike in retaliation?”
“I–” Crack. Ying flinched and growled.
“Why aren’t you protecting yourself?”
Before Master Sere-Wei had finished the sentence, Ying sensed movement arcing towards him. He did not understand how, but he followed the instinct to trust it and reached up. His palm caught his master’s staff with a satisfying smack against his palm. It stung, but not nearly as bad as his shoulder would have.
“Much better,” Master Sere-Wei said. He pulled the staff away. “How did you know where to grab at the staff?”
Ying tilted his head, and answered with honesty, “I’m not sure. I just knew where.”
“Excellent. You are learning. This is how we develop your spirit sense.”
Ying heard his master’s staff clunk against the hard floor and let out a heavy, relieved sigh, his shoulders slumping. They screamed with pain and stiffness. “May I remove the blindfold, master?”
“Not yet. I have one more thing to show you before today’s lesson is complete.”
“I want you to reach into that same place, that place where you sensed the staff.” Master Sere-Wei’s voice came to the younger’s ears calm and soft. “Are you doing that?”
Ying concentrated. He focused on the space just outside of himself and when he felt nothing there, he reached out further. He gasped, startled to find he could sense a glowing aura where Master Sere-Wei stood. He knew it was his master because the aura shimmered like an eclipsed moon, outlining him in bright white.
“Yes, Ying. Tell me what you sense.”
“I see… I sense you. I see a brilliant white aura where you stand.” Ying’s voice was quiet with awe.
“Now remove the blindfold.”
Ying did as his master asked. The light of the room made him blink and it took several seconds for Ying’s eyes to adjust. When he looked up, about to ask Master Sere-Wei whether they were done for the day, his words caught in his throat.
Master Sere-Wei stood before him, still outlined by the white, pulsing aura.
“Yes, Ying, now you truly see.” The slightest of smiles twitched at the corner of the blind master’s beak.