“Stray, please stay for a few minutes after the others have left. I’d like us to speak about something.”
Mistra Septa made the remark sound offhanded, as if it was just a passing thought, so the other kids didn’t pay it any heed. Even Stray thought it was probably just a minor favor or a correction to some answer he had given. Only Edzie, sitting next to Stray in the pavilion, could tell that this meeting was purposeful, probably having something to do with Mistra Septa’s recent conversation with Elkansa.
Edzie followed Stray up to the stage, as was her habit when she didn’t have anything else to distract her. Stray stood a bit straighter than usual when he encountered the Mistra… her bearing seemed to demand it. The last of the other students had left, and Mistra Septa nodded to Luna, who took her leave of the stage.
“Stray, I wanted to talk to you about some of your affairs outside of our sessions. I think it would be best if we talked privately, and besides, I don’t think it would interest Edzie much.”
Stray looked back at Edzie and shrugged, effectively dismissing her. She hesitated a moment, her curious and protective instincts tethering her to this mysterious situation. Still, she knew the Mistra was an authority figure, and whatever was happening, it was sanctioned by her mother.
“Okay, I’ll head home,” she said finally. “Come find me later if you want, Stray. We can practice a little.” With that, she departed through the front entrance, leaving Stray and the Mistra alone in the pavilion. Stray, now much more circumspect, returned his attention to the Mistra.
Septa led Stray to the edge of the stage, where she sat down in the chair normally occupied by Luna. Now nearly face-to-face with the boy, she spoke gently and deliberately. “Stray, your mother… Elkansa spoke to me yesterday and told me about your fight with Edzie. I know there was a lot of discussion about it among the grown-ups, but I’d like to hear your take on it, before I go any further. Would you care to tell me what happened?”
Stray took a moment to collect his thoughts, which were colored by embarrassment and resentment: annoyance with himself, anger toward Edzie, and bitterness toward Elkansa. He had put the situation largely in perspective, and he thought he was sufficiently contrite; nonetheless, he sensed that Mistra Septa genuinely wanted to listen to him, and it made some of those suppressed frustrations bubble up.
“Well, Edzie and Ghada were sparring at Ghada’s house, and Ghada was better than Edzie, so she cheated. I got mad, and Ghada made her say sorry, but she just wanted to keep fighting, so…”
“How did she cheat?” Mistra Septa interrupted.
“She asked him to take a break, and then hit him when his guard was down.” Stray paused to get his story back on track as the Mistra shook her head, both disgusted and amused. “Anyway, they kept going. And I was already kind of mad. But then she cheated again – she threw some of his makeup powder in his eyes – and I guess I went crazy, because I pushed her, and then broke her katsun.”
“Tell me about that. How did it break?”
“I… grabbed it from her, and took it over to the wall, and stomped on it, and it broke in half.”
“Okay. Did anything else happen?”
“No, Ghada’s father came in, and Edzie ran away, and Ghada and his dad talked to me for a while, and then I went home and Elkansa yelled at me.”
“Okay. Thank you for telling me. So why do you think you got so angry?”
Stray was momentarily bewildered by this question, which he had been made to answer so many times, on a point that he felt was perfectly clear. “Because she cheated! It was mean and pointless. Ghada was helping her learn, and being fair, and she kept tricking him!”
“Okay, I understand,” Mistra Septa said, “but don’t you think what you did went too far? Was that really the best way to handle it?”
“If I hadn’t done it, nobody would have done anything. Edzie never does that stuff in front of Elkansa. Am I just supposed to let her break rules whenever she wants?”
“I understand, Stray. I’ve seen this side of you before, in small doses… you’re very sensitive to cruelty and unfairness. But there are a lot of people… Elkansa, Boyle’s mom, even Ghada and Kosef… who think your temper is a problem. So I told Elkansa I would try to help you with it.”
Stray remained silent, processing this revelation, so Mistra Septa continued. “I told her we would have private lessons, twice a week, two hours each lesson. You can help me decide what days… on those days, our private meetings will be immediately after my last lesson of the day. I’m going to teach you some special techniques to help you control your anger, and maybe we can also figure out where it comes from.”
Stray considered this, and found it agreeable… he found Mistra Septa severe, but unlike the other children in the tribe, he didn’t resent her for it. Occasional private lessons with the Mistra might be fun, he thought, though he had no idea what they would entail. He agreed with little hesitation, and he and Mistra Septa selected two days each week for their meetings.
Edzie caught up with Stray as he walked from the pavilion back to their house. He told her about the private lessons to help him with his anger, and Edzie agreed that they would probably be interesting. She did her best to act surprised at the news, despite already knowing just as much as Stray… having been huddled by the pavilion’s exterior wall, listening intently to their conversation.
… … … …
When Stray and Mistra Septa met after her lessons several days later, she instructed him to sit down in the empty chair, right there in the pavilion, and she pulled a crate over from the other side of the platform and sat beside him. They chatted about her lessons for a few minutes, and Stray told her about his plans for the fall, and then Septa suggested they get started. Stray, filled with curiosity, evinced eager agreement.
The Mistra started by asking Stray to tell her again about the situation with Edzie, which was still so fresh in his mind. He did so, starting with his arrival at Ghada’s house, recounting his interest in the sparring, remembering Ghada’s good manners and Edzie’s misdeeds, and finally culminating in his own show of retribution. He ended the tale with his arrival home to Elkansa’s wrath. When he was finished, Mistra Septa told him (now with less deference) to tell her again, in as much detail as possible. Stray asked what it was about the story that she didn’t understand.
“It doesn’t matter what I understand,” she said. “It matters what you tell me.”
So Stray told her again, trying to reproduce, as accurately as possible, his own remarks, Ghada’s minor points of wisdom and advice, Edzie’s forms and tactics, Ghada’s unassailable technical skill, and his own violent response to the whole situation. At the end of the story, he noted that he had apologized to Edzie, at Elkansa’s behest, and that he felt ashamed about the whole thing.
“You say you’re ashamed of it because Elkansa was mad, right? And because Edzie was unhappy?”
Stray nodded. Mistra Septa gave him an overtly skeptical look. “But do you actually feel ashamed? Do you actually think what you did was bad?”
“Edzie says she was just being playful,” Stray said, repeating the account of the situation that his seniors had provided to him. “I got too mad, and destroyed her things. I was mean.”
Mistra Septa accepted this rote confession without further comment. Instead, she asked Stray to tell her about the incident again. When he was finished, she started asking specific questions: what else happened that day, before he went to find Edzie? What did he do later that evening, after he suffered Elkansa’s reprimand? Did he remember any smells, specific objects, any of his own private thoughts from that day, from the time leading up to the fight? Could he remember the weather, how warm it was inside Ghada’s house, what sounds were in the environment? Why, of all things, did he choose to break the katsun? Could he pretend they were in Ghada’s room, and demonstrate where he was sitting, and show her where Ghada and Edzie were standing, and point out the wall where he had stomped on the weapon?
Stray answered these questions, each in turn, patiently at first. When Mistra Septa asked him to repeat things he had already said, or told him his answers weren’t clear enough and he should think harder, he started to feel trapped, as though this was some kind of interrogation or indictment. He started shifting in his seat and tapping his foot as he spoke. Exasperation slipped into his voice, and then defeat and frustration, and then resentful obedience, and these responses continued to follow one another, in a sort of a restless cycle. He started feeling an urge to ask impolite questions: where was this going? When would they be finished?
When Mistra Septa saw that Stray was sufficiently agitated, she asked him to describe the whole situation, one more time. He did so, meticulously, trying to bring this process to an end. In the middle of his account, she held up her hand to stop him.
“Now,” she said, her tone stern and unequivocal, “I need you to close your eyes and pay attention to how you’re feeling. Look very close. Note, especially, the tension in your muscles, the urge to move your hands, the tightness in your chest and stomach, the burden of drawing breath. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that should be a bit like – a very minor simulation of – the feelings you get when you get angry. Except in those cases, it happens much faster, and it gets much worse.”
Stray didn’t answer… his eyes were closed, and he was still as a stone, save for a rhythmic clenching of his hands. Mistra Septa continued. “There are a lot of techniques for managing your anger, but they all start with this awareness: knowledge of your own body, a complete understanding of these involuntary signals that you’re always responding to. Hopefully we can train you to be very sensitive to these signals, to navigate the underlying process at a moment’s notice. In the middle of a crowd, in the middle of a conversation… even in the heat of combat. If you aren’t an active participant in your own body’s behaviors, you will always be lost.”
Stray nodded. “How long does that take?” he asked.
“We’ll spend a few sessions on the basics… controlling your anger before you misbehave or explode at people. After that, I think we should take a longer journey together, to explore your emotional life. You’re going to become an adult very soon, and these things will get very complicated… and I think, before you get much stronger or more violent, we need to isolate the point of contact between your conscience and your anger. There’s some poison at work there, and we need to flush it out.”