Memoirs of a Master
Disclaimer: I don't own Kung Fu Panda anymore than I have two heads and raise alpacas for their wool. (Psst, that means I don't own it).
Well, since the feedback has been especially kind, I'll go ahead and continue this. It won't be as long as "Present" but its something I hope will be successful nonetheless. Posting mid-week because, well, I'm proud of this chapter and I can't wait until Friday to share.
When the gong sounded the next morning, all six warriors, as was their habit, emerged from their rooms and shouted "Good morning, Master!" before they realized they had completely forgotten he was gone. They cast confused looks around before Mantis said, "Oh wait…"
Tigress rubbed the back of her neck. "Ah…force of habit?"
"Good call," Crane said.
"Okay…breakfast?" Po offered.
They all paused, looking at each other; they knew with Shifu gone—and Tigress in charge—that not training was out of the question. But the feline surprised them:
"Why not? I'm starved. And actually…I'm still a little sore from yesterday. Why not take the day off?"
Jaws dropped up and down the hall. All five stared at her incredulously, each thinking who is this tiger and what has she done with Tigress?
Po stared at her. "Are you…feeling alright?"
She glared back, "I'm fine, Panda. I'm allowed to be hungry, aren't I? Now, are we eating or am I going to change my mind?"
Po was down the hall in an instant, at a speed no giant panda should possess. Viper turned to her only female friend with an accusing stare, "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were up to something…"
Tigress noted the suspicious looks on everyone's faces. "Up to something? Me?"
Monkey sputtered out laughing; he smirked when Tigress glared at him. "Please, I've been here longer than you, I was here when you first started training," he said. "I know you…Shifu trained you; heaven knows you're as devious as he is."
Tigress looked insulted, "Monkey, I am not planning anything. I'm hungry, tired, and my muscles are still sore. I'm mortal; that happens to mortals…"
"No, something's up," Mantis said. "You never want a day off. You could be delirious with fever and still be training."
"NOTHING is up!" she suddenly snapped. Taking a deep breath, she started to walk down the hall, fixing the long sleeves of her red robe. "Now let's go get some breakfast."
But she waited for them all to leave the dormitory, lagging behind a little. Then without their noticing, she slipped back into the dormitory and straight to Shifu's room…
Monkey had seen it all.
Tigress found the loose floorboard with minimal effort. She tore it off the floor, finding the cobwebs disturbed, cleared away from recent use. Reaching down into the cubbyhole, she pulled out all the scrolls that were hidden inside. She started opening them, searching for the knowledge she craved.
She knew what she was doing was wrong. She knew this was grounds to being kicked out. She knew what the consequences would be.
But she had to know. The little part of her soul that still held on to that small child inside needed to know if Shifu had ever loved her, had ever been proud of her. She needed to know if all her years of training had been wasted. Damn what accomplishments she had done, to hell with every victory, every battle, every bloody knuckle, broken bone, bleeding cut and smarting bruise! All she wanted was to know whether or not he ever gave a damn about her.
And the answer to her question lay inside one of these scrolls.
"Not up to something, huh?"
The feline froze, dropping a scroll. Monkey picked it up, fixing her with a look. "I expected better…"
"And what would you have me do?!" she demanded.
Monkey sighed, "I know what you're looking for…"
"Then why are you trying to stop me?"
He took the other scrolls from her arms and placed them in a basket he had brought with him. "Because you won't find the answers you're looking for until you know the whole story. You're not the only one in this palace who wants to know why he is the way he is. You're not the only one who ever craved his approval." When he looked up at her, he was surprised to find tears had sprung into her eyes. "Tigress?"
She sniffed, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, her voice wavering, "There's…just a lot of dust in here. It bothers my eyes."
"Of course." He left it at that. "Well," he picked up the basket, heading for the door, "We're going to sit in the tea room. Crane's lit the brazier and the fire in there."
"Fire? This early?"
"Haven't you looked outside? There's snow on the ground."
She glanced out the window, and indeed, a thick layer of white covered the world outside. How very surprising, the snow was early this year; she silently sent a prayer to heaven that Shifu was safe in this weather.
"Come on," Monkey said. "You'll feel better once we get started on the next chapter…"
I had been at the Jade Palace for a year before Oogway decided the time had come to officially begin my training. He waited until the fifth anniversary of my birth; this was his tradition, he later explained. 'Let children enjoy being children' he would say. 'They are only young once.'
I figured the real reason was far more practical. China may have medical advancements far surpassing other civilizations, but many children still died before their fifth birthdays. Keeping children from training until five years of age was just to ensure their survival, to make sure they were strong enough to withstand vigorous training.
My training began slowly, I thought, though I have always been rather impatient. Oogway started with meditation, tai chi later in the morning, an hour of practicing forms then a break for lunch. After that, more forms, more tai chi, and ending the day with another hour of meditation. You may wonder why anyone would bother beginning with something like that but it was very intelligently designed.
When we are young, we are much more flexible than when we are older, but it still takes years to develop one's flexibility. Though only five, I was nimble enough as it was; as I see it, the true strength of kung fu lies in the body's ability to move. If the body can not perform even the basic actions, then any attacks are essentially worthless. The tai chi was a way to introduce the stretches to me; the forms were the very basic movements I would learn later on. The meditation was, of course, to help me focus. But what five-year-old is able to focus on something for longer than five minutes? Even five minutes is generous.
Difficult as it was, I wanted to impress my master. I wanted him to be proud of my accomplishments, but in order to do that; I needed to show how dedicated I was. Sometimes—well, most of the time—my "dedication" resulted in one too many injuries; later in my life, two students of mine, just as stubborn and dedicated as I was, had similar temperaments. To this day, I swear that Tai Lung and Tigress were more stubborn than I ever was. But I am getting ahead of myself.
A year after I began my training, Oogway pulled me aside before tai chi practice to give me a piece of news.
"I have decided to take on three new students."
I should have been excited. I was devastated. After being his sole concern for the past year, he was replacing me with not one, but three others? Had I not performed well enough? Was I doing too little, not trying hard enough?
He seemed to be able to read my thoughts. Patting my shoulder, he assured me, "Ah, Small One, do not fear. I have not forsaken you. It is my fondest wish to see you happy."
"But I am happy, Master!" I said. "Every day, I am happy!"
"But lonely," he pointed out. "These three students, I am bringing on to be not just my students, but your friends. You will get along well with them, I can tell you that now."
"How, Master?" I asked. His ability to foretell future events was—and still is—a mystery to me.
He just chuckled and led me to the main gates of the Palace, where we were to meet my new comrades. "You shall see, Small One. You shall see."
Naturally, it took us a long time to reach the gates. A tortoise only moves so fast. As tempting as it was to just go on ahead, I respectfully stayed five steps behind my master. He had never asked me to do that, but the geese and pigs that served us did so, and I assumed that I needed to as well. Besides, I was his student, not his equal; to do anything else would have been downright disrespectful. You see, young as I had been when I left home, I still held on to my family's traditional teachings.
By the time we reached the arena, I was itching to run on ahead. That was, until I saw the six people waiting for us there.
The first one—and most imposing—was a rhino. He towered over Oogway, and certainly over me. I imagined this was what being an ant felt like. Standing next to this rhino was a smaller one, his son, perhaps? I didn't initially like this one's look: he had a hard face for someone so young, and I could tell from his eyes he had a lot of metal in his personality.
Next to the rhinos stood a wolf—I had never seen one, but had heard of them, and as much as I knew I should have been afraid of him, the way Oogway greeted him—with a hug, of all things!—and the wide grin on his face told me that he could be trusted. He was not like the bandits surrounding my village. He had an austere posture but a fair look in his eyes, and bowed in respect. Hiding behind him, however, I saw the second student.
He was a fox, as small as I, and much slighter. His red tail seemed bushier than mine, and he held onto it nervously. He looked back at me with nervous brown eyes, but cracked a smile; I smiled back. I didn't know why, but I liked him instantly.
As Oogway greeted the rhinos, I saw the third and final pair at the end of the line, and was astounded. Two cats, dressed in fine clothes, stood tall and proud, their fur the color of fresh-churned cream, but hands, feet, and face were a deep brown color (like they had dipped their faces and limbs in ink), with startling blue eyes. But it wasn't the fine clothes, higher social rank, and the fact they were feline that surprised me: they were both females.
Oogway greeted them, the older female hugging him tightly and smiling with closed lips—as was expected of women—and then he turned to me.
"Everyone, this is my newest student, whom I call Small One."
"Aptly named," the large rhino said, arms crossed over his chest.
Oogway slowly shook a finger at him, "Now, Terbish, you know as well as I not to judge a warrior on size alone. It is a lesson your son Ochir will learn as well." The smaller rhino looked up at his father then regarded Oogway suspiciously.
The wolf, his fur grey and speckled white with age in places, smiled and me and bowed a little; the fox kit did so as well. "A pleasure to meet you, Small One. I am Master Jian Qiang, and this is my student, Li."
"If he is your student already, why bring him here?" I asked, and rather impetuously. He just laughed, grinning at Oogway, "You weren't kidding when you said he was a curious one, Master! He must be an attentive and dedicated student."
I blushed, hanging my head; didn't this wolf know it was rude to compliment children in front of their elders, especially with the child present? But Oogway didn't mind, so, I gathered, neither should I. He patted my head fondly, "One of the most promising I have trained; he reminds me much of one student I had many years ago."
Master Jiang Qiang smiled a secret smile, and presented his own student with a bow, "And Li is just as dedicated to learning the art from a true master…"
"You give yourself so little credit, Jian," Oogway shook his head.
"His potential far exceeds anything I could teach him. His star would shine brighter if he were your student, not mine."
How gracious of him! I credit Master Jian Qiang—who, I found out later, was quite the hero in the Northern provinces for fending off the Huns and other barbarians single-handedly—for teaching me my first lesson: the mark of a true warrior was, and always will be, humility.
The older female feline bowed gracefully to the tortoise, speaking softly and elegantly, "My daughter, too, has much to learn from you, Master."
Oogway smiled and beckoned the little kitten, who responded immediately, if not hesitantly. She was as curious as she was pretty, with wide innocent blue eyes. She smiled when Oogway did and bowed respectfully. "I humbly beg you teach me your art, Master," she said in a small voice.
"Girls don't learn kung fu," I said.
That was a huge mistake, and I could tell immediately. The four adults went gravely silent, and even the huge rhino, Terbish, and his son, Ochir, looked worried. The mother cat was shocked. The female kitten looked livid.
"What?" she hissed.
"Girls don't learn kung fu," I repeated. "A woman's place is in the home, and they're not supposed to show their teeth when they smile, and only speak when spoken to. The men in their families are their masters, and girls must always follow the Four Vir—"
She didn't let me finish.
She socked me, and hard. And it hurt. I lost four baby teeth that day thanks to her. She socked me, and then threw my sorry butt over her shoulder, throwing me onto the arena floor. She stood over me, seething, "Why you ignorant farmer's brat! Don't you ever say that to me again or I'll put your lights out!"
"SONG!" her mother scolded, "That is enough, young lady!"
"He had it coming, Mama!"
Master Jian Qiang shrugged, "She has a point."
"You mustn't blame Small One," Oogway defended me. "He is still young, and impressionable. It seems I have forgotten he came from a very traditional family. Recall, you three—especially you, Terbish—used to believe the same."
"Yes," Terbish said, "But Miao Li never punched our faces in."
The mother, Master Miao Li—yes, that Miao Li—just smiled slyly. "Not unless you deserved it."
Well, that explained where her daughter got it. I pulled myself back up, embarrassed and ashamed, my cheeks burning. Master Jian Qiang smiled at me though, "Do not be ashamed; how do we learn if we do not make mistakes first?"
After exchanging a few more pleasantries, the three masters—former students of my master—all bowed and departed, leaving us four children in the care of the creator of kung fu.
Oogway bid us all to stand in line. He looked over at us, smiled and nodded, "Excellent. I can see you all perform splendidly. Who wants to begin?"
To no surprise, the rhino Ochir raised his hand, looking very eager, Li and Song just stood still, looking unsure.
Oogway smiled and beckoned us. "Then let us begin…"
"What'll we do first, Master Oogway?" Ochir asked. "Kung fu forms? A ten-mile hike? Dodging arrows in a field? An obstacle course…"
What in the world was he talking about? I hadn't been trained in any of that—not to mention, the prospect of having to dodge arrows being fired at me terrified me to no end.
"Oh no, nothing of that sort," Oogway said. "We are going to lunch."
"Lunch?" Ochir sounded disappointed.
"Yes, lunch. I'm quite hungry, as I'm sure you all are."
"But…we're only supposed to get two meals a day. Aren't we?" the young rhino asked. He was perhaps seven or eight, so he must have been training since he could walk, was my guess. If this was his idea of training…well, I thought my father was harsh!
"You are still growing," Oogway said. "Besides, so many children go hungry in this world…I refuse to have any go hungry here, under my care."
During the midday meal I got to know my fellow students a little better. A sow who worked in the infirmary treated my black eye before I sat to eat. She had to put a compress over my eye and fixed it in place with an eye patch. The fox, Li, turned to me and grinned, giggling, "You look like a pirate!"
I grinned back, thanking him when he helped serve my plate. My appetite failed me for several reasons though. I was excited, obviously, and couldn't wait to get started training with these new students, and I was nervous, because I had been thrown into this situation with three people I did not know at all. Thirdly, you would be surprised how quickly only being able to see through one eye can make you nauseous. I had to close my eyes during that meal, but Li was very helpful.
"Did you want some more vegetables, Small One?" he asked me.
"Yes please. Thank you, Li."
"Is that what your family calls you, Small One?" he asked.
I shook my head; Oogway answered for me while I was chewing, "His birth name is 'Fu'. In a few years, after you have completed your training and become masters, you will receive new names."
"So why don't you call him Fu?" Ochir asked. I didn't like his tone at all, or his impetuousness. He behaved very disrespectfully to my master—our master—every question carrying an accusatory tone, biting and caustic to my ears.
Oogway sensed my dislike for him, surely. The tortoise just chuckled and said, "I suppose I could call him that…but he has not told me if 'Small One' is bothersome to him."
"I don't mind!" I said quickly. "I like it!" I did, in all honesty. Oogway had only called me by my birth name once—and only once—and it was after I had done something particularly naughty. I was five, and I got into something I shouldn't have; no, I will not say what it was. It's still too embarrassing to think of it. He hadn't raised a hand to discipline me as my parents would have. He just said my name—"Fu"—sternly, and that did it. Having him call me Small One was an endearment, which meant I was important to him. And what child doesn't want to feel they are the most important part of their caretaker's life?
Ochir just frowned and went back to eating.
The kitten, Song, ate slowly and reverently, with a grace that was too grown up for her small body. It was comical the way she lifted her chopsticks to her mouth that I couldn't help but laugh. If all rich people were so weird, I thought, who wants to be rich?
I noticed early on, though, that Oogway would not give her any special treatment. He spoke to all of us as he spoke to me, in riddles and rhetorical questions. We never spoke of serious subjects at the table. Oogway's rule was to avoid talk of politics, money and religion. But we were all under the age of eight—what did we know of these things?
By the time we were finished eating and the ducks that were attending us began to clear away the dishes, Oogway stood. "It is getting to be late in the day, and you must all be very tired from your journey. Small One, if you would show them to the dormitory, let them get settled in?"
I jumped at the chance, bowing in respect before leading them off. Song and Ochir were understandably silent, but Li was as curious as I was, asking many questions.
"How long have you been here?"
"Not long, only a year," I said. "I really like it here. I'm learning a lot. Master's taught me to read and write, how to meditate, and do tai chi and kung fu forms…"
"You've only been doing tai chi for a year?" Song said incredulously. "I've been doing it since I was three!"
"Tai Chi's a waste of time," Ochir said stubbornly. "He should be teaching you how to throw punches, and kicks. You should be learning to fight already."
I could feel my ears and cheeks burning with embarrassment. These three had to be far ahead of me in training already; I thought I had been doing very well. It never occurred to me that kung fu could be taught to someone as young as three.
Li glared back at the rhino, "It is not a waste of time—Master Jian Qiang says that the strongest house has a firm foundation. You need a firm foundation before you can learn kung fu."
Ochir just snorted. Song, however, looked thoughtful. "I never thought of it like that…"
"It's true," Li said. "I don't know how to fight yet, but Master Oogway will teach us soon, I just know it. Right, Fu?"
I was startled he'd called me by my real name. He looked worried when I didn't answer right away. "He will," I said. "He doesn't think we're ready yet. But soon…"
"Soon," I shrugged.
We finally reached the dormitory and we found that their belongings had been left outside the doors to their rooms. Song opened her door and was amazed. So were Ochir, and especially Li, who asked breathlessly, "We…we get our own rooms?"
"Yup," I said confidently. I could understand their astonishment. After sharing a single room with as large a family as mine, the concept of having my own room—my own personal space—the size of our house was as frightening as it was exciting. I barely slept the first few nights because I was not used to sleeping alone in such a large space. Usually I would share a bedroll with my brothers; when I explained this to Master Oogway, he gave me a smaller room. After that, I was at least able to sleep through the night. To this day, I feel more comfortable in smaller spaces.
Ochir was given the largest of the rooms, Song and Li taking rooms right across the hall. My room was at the end, closest to the door, and right next to Ochir's. Song and Ochir closed their doors immediately, a silent signal they wanted to be left alone. Li, however, still wanted my company. I happily obliged, helping him arrange his meager belongings. I hadn't brought much with me, either. Over time, Oogway had shown much kindness, such as allowing me a stuffed animal to keep me company at night. It was little kindnesses like this that only cemented my love and loyalty for my master.
I found out early on that Li was a persistent daydreamer. He was lucky there was so much wood in his personality that it kept him firmly rooted to the ground. Otherwise, he would no doubt have flown away like a bird from its nest.
He loved stories; Master Jian Qiang was a gifted storyteller, and had given the kit a scroll of his favorite tales and epics. Li put them reverently on a low shelf, next to a prayer candle. He pulled out two ancestor tablets too. I had never seen ancestor tablets up close. My family's tablets were in the village temple back home, but I was never allowed close enough to see them. Now that I knew how to read, I could read the names on the wooden tablets with red dots at the top.
"Who are they?" I asked as he set up a small altar. Li froze for a moment, his ears drooped.
"They were my parents," he said sadly. "I don't remember them. Master Jian knew them, though. He kept their tablets for me, and taught me how to honor them before he brought me here."
"Your master sounds very kind."
He nodded, "He is. I'm sorry I can't train with him anymore. I know he wants the best for me, but I really didn't want to leave…" He started to cry, sniffing and wiping away tears with the back of his hand. I hugged him; back then, I wasn't afraid to show affection. Children have an easier time of it than adults, clearly.
"It's okay," I said. "I cried too. But you'll like it here. Once you start training, everything will get better, you'll see. The Palace is now your home."
He sniffed, looking at me with tear-filled eyes. It was the first time I realized he was younger than me—this was harder for him than it had been for me. "My home…I like the sound of that."
I grinned, "See? It'll be okay." I paused, noticing how uncomfortable he was at his new surroundings. I saw in him what I felt the first time I slept alone. "Do you want me to sleep in here with you?" I asked.
Li's face lit up, "Would you?"
"Yeah, I don't mind. If it means helping you settle in, I don't mind at all!"
"Sure," he smiled. "I'd like that."
I hopped up to get my bedroll. When I returned, he and I stayed up past our bedtime, chattering away as small children do. One of the pigs who looked after us finally scolded us for staying up so late, so we lay down to sleep.
Before I dozed off, Li whispered in the darkness, "Fu? Are you asleep yet?"
"No. What's up?"
I could tell he was smiling, even though I couldn't see him. "Do you want to be friends?"
"You bet!" I said. "Do you feel better now?"
"Yeah. Thanks for sleeping with me."
"You're welcome," I yawned, turning over. "Good night, Li."
I heard the smile in his voice, "Good night, Fu."
Though he fell asleep almost instantly, I was excited beyond description. I couldn't keep the grin from my face. Finally, I had my first real friend!
I woke Li early, before the gong sounded. I thought that, jumpy as he was, hearing the gong might startle him. We stood outside our rooms, awaiting Master Oogway. The tortoise appeared early, smiling at us. He sent a special look towards me and I puffed out my little chest like a proud rooster. He was proud of me helping Li like that! But it was eerie how he knew; how could he have known what I had done?
The gong sounded, and Li followed my example: "Good morning, Master!"
Ochir and Song's doors didn't open right away. I smirked; serves them right. Oogway was sure to discipline them for being late, though in all honesty, I wanted to see them punished for being so rude to him.
Oogway, however, had other plans. He simply knocked on their doors, gently rousing them from sleep. The rhino and kitten looked both tired and ashamed they had disappointed him. He waved it off,
"It is only your first day, I will not punish you. You must still be tired. Come, a little meditation will do you some good. If you need help with it, do not hesitate to ask for my help, and Small One's."
I beamed with pride. He was letting me teach them, as if I had mastered it already! I had no idea that this was a test; I didn't know until many years later that he had seen my future in a vision. My teaching these new students in something I barely understood myself was a test of not only an inborn talent, but also of patience.
Apparently, he already knew what names the four of us would carry as masters of kung fu. But, as always, he kept avoiding questions about our future no matter how much we asked.
We meditated for an hour, though most of it was spent teaching them the proper way to sit, the proper position for the hands. I helped Li, mostly. He was a natural, picking up the breathing technique immediately. I was amazed how smart he was.
Song struggled with it for a little while. She knew the proper positions, executing them flawlessly, for which I was a little jealous. How could a girl know more than me? You see, I still had a lot to learn about women. Needless to say, that wasn't the only black eye she would ever give me. She could be downright violent if she felt so inclined. As mean as she had been the day before, she nevertheless listened as I instructed her on the right breathing. In no time at all, she was off on her own, sitting next to Oogway in a perfect lotus position.
Ochir had the most trouble. But unlike Song—who, at first was opposed towards me—he seemed to downright hate me. I didn't know why; I had never done anything to him. The metal in his personality clashed terribly with the wood in mine. This was all a part of the test.
I felt Oogway's eye on me, and I was not going to disappoint him. But Ochir was making it very difficult for me.
"You're supposed to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth…" I said for the umpteenth time. I was quickly becoming impatient with him, but he wasn't being much better.
He snorted, "I know."
"Then why aren't you doing it?"
"Because I don't take orders from a little pipsqueak who doesn't even know how to fight!" he suddenly snapped. This brought Li and Song out of their meditation, and they watched us carefully.
I was shocked at the outburst, but I lost my temper and fired back, "I'm not giving you orders, I'm trying to help!"
"I didn't ask for your help!"
"Master told me to help you, and so I am!"
"You always do what Master says?" he asked mockingly.
"Obeying your master is not a weakness!" I growled.
"You still don't know how to fight! You're weak!"
"I am not weak!" I shot back, my temper flaring.
"You're small," he shot back. "And all small creatures are weak!"
I didn't care anymore. Despite my small stature, I pushed him, hard enough to send him onto his back. Song and Li gasped in shock; Ochir was just as surprised as I was. Before he could retaliate, Oogway's staff came between us.
"That is enough," he said sternly. "You two, come with me. Li and Song will go on ahead to breakfast. You two have one more lesson to learn this morning. Come."
Cowed by his disapproving look, the rhino and I wordlessly stood and followed him, matching his slow gait. I was ashamed at my conduct. How could I fail him like that?
He stopped at the well that supplied the Jade Palace with fresh water. He handed Ochir two buckets. "Ochir, for your punishment—"
"For what?!" the rhino interrupted. "I didn't do anything wrong!"
Oogway cleared his throat, instantly silencing him. He continued, "You are being punished for your disrespect to your fellow student. This is called the Valley of Peace for a reason. You are to take these buckets and fill them with water…"
The rhino nodded.
"From the well at the foot of the mountain…"
The rhino's face fell.
"And bring it up, empty it in this well," he tapped the bricks to his side, "and do this until sundown."
"How many trips do I take?" he asked dejectedly.
"As many as it takes to make you see the error of your ways." Oogway handed him the buckets in his outstretched hand and Ochir took them with a dour expression on his face.
I wasn't feeling much better. I'd had to do the Bucket Punishment before—it was no walk in the park, as they say. But I knew whatever punishment Oogway had in store for me had to be much worse. He knew that I knew better than to react in violence. Either I was going to get a lecture, a worse punishment, or both. I wasn't looking forward to either of it.
Ochir plodded to the gate to begin his duty; I cringed when I heard my master speak my name.
I looked down at my feet.
"Fu, look at me."
I raised my eyes, knowing I was in big trouble.
"I am disappointed in you," he said, not frowning, but not smiling either.
"I know, Master. I dishonored you."
"Do you know why I am disappointed?"
"Because I reacted in anger and pushed Ochir?"
I looked into his face, confused. "Huh?"
Oogway beckoned to me to come forward. When I did, he directed my gaze to the ancient tree that stood outside the training hall. "Do you seek that oak?"
I nodded. I didn't see where he was going with this.
"Try punching it."
"Punch it, hit it, kick it. Try to do harm to it."
Okay, now I was confused. But I did what he asked. I had no idea what I was doing; I didn't know how to actually punch anything. When he taught me forms, I did so as he instructed, I never thought of it as practice fighting. I tried to remember that lesson, then punched the trunk.
"OW!" I cried out; that hurt!
Biting my lip and nursing my aching knuckle, I felt Oogway rest his hand on my shoulder. "You see how difficult it is to try and take down such a large tree?"
"I bet I could if I was stronger," I grumbled. He'd heard me.
"You are still a novice. Your strength will come."
"But Ochir's right!" I exclaimed. "I'm small and weak, he's big and strong! How can you turn me into a kung fu warrior? I'm too small!"
"Stop," he ordered. I shut my mouth, wondering what I'd done wrong. He leaned down and picked something off the ground, placing it in my hand. I narrowed my eyes.
"Do you know what that is?" he asked.
"An acorn?" I answered.
"Mm-hmm," he nodded. "When you plant an acorn, what does it become?"
I glanced at the tree. "An…oak tree?"
He nodded again. "Remarkable, isn't it, how something so small can grow into something so strong."
I didn't get his meaning at first until he closed my hand over the acorn. "We all start out small, Small One," he explained. "We all start out small as seeds. Some of us become rice, vegetables and fruit, which nurture and sustain. Some become thorns and brambles, which harm and hurt. Others grow into mighty trees. The effect is the same. If a seed is nurtured and sustained, it can become strong. Improbable things come in small packages."
"But Master," I said. "I'm a red panda, not an acorn. I'm not going to grow into a tree!"
"Are you not?" he asked, a smile returning to his face.
"No, I'm not," I said. "I'm not like Li, or Song, or Ochir. I'm not big and strong, I don't have sharp teeth, or claws…"
"I don't think you understand," he said. "Yes, you are small, and yes, you may not grow to be taller than your own father…but good things come in small packages."
"Like what?" I asked, now genuinely lost.
"Well, a newborn child is a good thing, and it is small. The seed of a flowering plant will bring beauty and peace to someone…" I suppose he could tell from my expression that these things weren't giving me much comfort. He chuckled, "Yes, you are small…small like a stick of dynamite."
I grinned and giggled. Alright, I'll go with that. That sounded much better than being a flower or a baby.
"Okay…I think I get it now," I said. "Small things can become big things…"
"Or have big results." He patted my head and smiled at me. "I chose you as my student because I saw you had potential. What you lack in physical strength and intensity, you make up for in speed and intelligence.
"Song is like water, she can adapt quickly, mold into whatever vessel she finds herself in. She has the duality of being nurturing like rain, or a cold drink on a hot day, but she can also be like a raging sea or a monsoon. Ochir is like metal; he can be something positive, like gold or money, and negative, like a sword or ax. You and Li, however, are like wood…"
"We're firmly rooted to the earth?"
"Yes, but also, you are observers. Though you may not travel as far as metal or water, you watch the world pass by, and you learn from observation. You see? You are stronger than you think. No matter how hard the wind blows, that tree with never bow down to it."
"But don't some trees get knocked down in high wind?"
"Only if their roots fail them."
"I won't fail you, Master. I'll never fail you!" I said desperately, thinking this was what he meant.
"I am not concerned with that. What concerns me is you failing yourself."
I was six by that time, so this lesson was nearly lost on me. I wanted to meditate on it, but I felt his stare once again. "I still have a punishment?"
"Yes. You do."
I slipped the acorn into a pocket and bowed to him, "I will accept whatever punishment you see fit, Master."
"Ten laps around the mountain," he said after a pause. "Then run up and down the steps to the palace. Ten times up, ten times down. You will come see me when you are finished for the rest of your punishment. Use the time wisely to think about your actions."
Laps? Ten laps around the base of the mountain, and twenty laps up the thousand steps?! That would take all day! I sighed and bowed again, "As you wish, Master."
I didn't finish my punishment until well after dusk. My feet ached, my legs throbbed, my lungs and chest hurt. I trotted the rest of the steps, forcing myself to keep from collapsing when I reached the top. Ochir was waiting at the gate, panting with exertion. The two buckets sat on the ground by his feet, and he was leaning with his forehead against the closed gates.
Though my legs felt like buckling out beneath me, I stood next to him. "It's after sundown," I said. "Your punishment was done a long time ago…"
"They won't let me in, the door's locked."
I felt sick to my stomach; that's right, they closed and locked the gates at sundown, every day, without fail.
"Is there another way in?" he asked. "I can't fail this mission, but I don't know what to do…"
I had never heard anyone look or sound so defeated. He looked tired, worn out, and worried. "Master won't be mad," I said.
"But if I fail him, he'll kick me out!"
"Who told you that?"
I looked at him, confused. "Why would he tell you that?"
"He said a warrior needs to be disciplined and obey his master…"
"Master Oogway wouldn't kick you out for something as stupid as not putting two buckets of water into a well!" I said. Then I got an idea.
"Hey, if I can get over the wall, I can unlock the door and let you in."
He glared at me, "You'll just leave me here!"
"I wouldn't do that!"
"You can't get over that wall, you're too small."
He had a point, I couldn't just jump up—my legs were too short, and I don't think I could have mustered the strength in them to do that anyway. Looking around, I spotted a young tree by the wall. I grinned, "Over there!"
I trotted over and pointed at the top of the tree. "Bend it down, I'll get on top, and you can catapult me over!"
He looked unsure. "You sure? Doesn't sound very safe."
It wasn't. It wasn't very smart either, but since when did children ever think things through? "I'll be fine. I'll land on my feet!"
"I thought only cats could do that…"
"You want in or not?" I asked impatiently, crossing my arms. Sighing, he grabbed the tree trunk and bent it down. I jumped up and nodded. When he let go, I went flying, right over the wall and down towards the arena floor.
And I hit the ground. Hard. Pain shot up my arm, and tears stung my eyes. It hurt more than anything I had ever felt. But I wasn't going to start crying; I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry.
I picked myself up, took deep breaths to ignore the pain and trotted over to the door. I tried lifting up the heavy beam and discovered a flaw in my plan. I was too small to lift it.
"What're you doing?"
I turned and saw Song staring at me. I looked back at the beam and tried lifting it by shoving my shoulder under it and pushing up. "Ochir's still outside, and I'm letting him in…"
"You let him throw you over the wall to open a door?" she looked shocked. "Are you crazy?"
"I dunno. Maybe." I tried again.
"Do you need help?"
"I got it," I lied.
Sighing, she stepped over and mirrored me, and together, we lifted the beam. Song pulled open the door and Ochir stepped inside. He looked down at the both of us, especially me. I expected him to make a crack at my size and lack of strength, but he just nodded once.
"Thanks." With that, he set off to complete his assignment. I got up and felt my legs shaking. Song saw my whole body shuddering. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Another lie. I wasn't weak, I told myself. I'm not going to show her how weak I was feeling. Typical male bravado, I'm afraid; I learned it too young.
She huffed and took my hand. "Come on, its dinnertime, and we've been waiting for you two."
"Master said I still have punishment to…"
"Punishment? For what?" she asked. "If you hadn't pushed Ochir, I would have. Just because we're small doesn't mean anything. He's big and dumb, but that means we're small and smart."
Oogway's words from earlier suddenly made sense. Ochir impulsively leapt without looking; I held back, watched how things were done, then I made my move. Song seemed to understand this.
"Come on, lets go get dinner," she said. I followed her wordlessly. However, I didn't end up eating until much later. Oogway noted that my arm was not supposed to bend that way, and instantly sent me to the infirmary. Ochir, surprisingly, brought my dinner to me in my room. Though we didn't say anything, something had changed between us. Looking back, I now know why Oogway fixed those particular punishments for us: we were meant to meet at those locked gates, and we were meant to work together to make it home.
Years later, we would have to depend on each other in much the same way. Only, at that point in time, it was to make sure we made it home alive.
Note: Yes, I'm perfectly aware that the Chinese did not have dynamite. I know that dynamite was created by Alfred Nobel in 1866. The Chinese had gunpowder certainly, but I think my meaning should be understood.