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Creeping dread overcomes a grappler in search of his missing master!

Read part one of THE EXTRA DIMENSIONAL DOJO right here.

Training with Professor Combs started out of sheer boredom. Outside of the occasional High School basketball game, the town of Sopris offered little in the way of recreation. I had boxed in Combs’ gym once or twice, but even then he was losing interest, more often entangled in a matted corner, practicing Jiu Jitsu with an unwitting partner. Bentley was there too, red-faced and motormouthed, a raw nerve looking for combat.

Bentley liked fighting but lacked control. Sparring with him in the boxing ring was frustrating as he was prone to explosions of fury, abandoning technique in the heat of the moment to damage and frustrate myself and others.

Bentley made a great student for Professor Combs, who after a few short months of studying, was able to quickly defuse Bentley’s barrages of unfocused striking, bringing him to the ground and subduing him into a grappler’s rhythm.

By then we were all devotees of this newer, gentler art. My grappling sessions with Bentley slowly became my favorites, because I was forced to corral his intensity, ramping up my passive energy to match his alpha attacks.

Often we would roll together and lose time. Professor seemed excited when this would happen, and day by day, training session by training session, he brought more and more meditative elements into the gym. One day he would play droning chants from faraway lands on the HiFi system. Other days, he would chant himself, repeating odd mantras in tongues that had never been uttered in small Sopris Colorado. Strange vials and singing bowls made appearances as well, and with their appearance came wires and amplifiers to enhance the sound.

And it worked. Our rolls slowly gained a more meditative flavor, allowing us to explore technique without being overly tethered to meddlesome ‘off-the-mat’ thinking.

Such was our focus that we stopped noticing when our Professor spent less time on the mat. More time tinkering with his electronics, twisting knobs and observing the reactions. Sometimes he watched us as we happily rolled, other times he seemed to be looking past us and past Sopris, fixated on some unseen action, slack-jawed with glassy eyes, until one of us shook him and reminded him to close up the gym.

“Professor is gone. Long gone.”

And now Bentley was standing behind me, telling me that Professor wasn’t just out for the night, he was “long gone”. I turned and greeted my former training partner warmly. The years had not been kind to him. His face was redder, his skin sagging. He seemed slump-shouldered and disaffected in place of his usual mile-a-minute verbal patter.

He was also mildly drunk. The smell of BJ’s cheap liquor wafted off of him as we embraced. I bellowed an “Oss!”, and he returned it with some hesitation, as if the word had atrophied from disuse in his vocabulary.

We stood for a moment, unsure after our greeting. I was not sure if this was a jovial reunion or a sad one. The sounds of BJ’s continued faintly through the door and solitary window. The light hum I heard was fading, while the sounds of crickets mingled with the nearby rushing river. I kept an eye on the small places around us, and felt them eyeing me back.

BJ’s Bar was trying its best to be jovial. The music from the jukebox was upbeat and the lamps at each table provided oases of warm light, though the glow of neon beer signs created a reddened air of oppressive hues. A chalkboard countdown hung behind the bar: DRINK UP, WE’RE UNDERWATER IN 48 DAYS. The only patrons besides Bentley and myself were a few members of the Army Corps of Engineers, drinking to celebrate their relatively simple job of preparing this small ex-mining town for the flood.

The Hydroelectric Dam that was coming would provide power for many larger neighboring towns, enough power that drowning Sopris seemed like a worthy sacrifice. There were no protests, most of the town had moved on after the mine closed anyway. The few residents left had busied themselves for relocations to prefab homes with sodded lawns in Trinidad, Colorado, courtesy of the Rushing River Energy Concern.

Bentley had no interest in leaving. He seemed to be staging a one-man protest, saying he was “more likely to paddle out of this town than drive”, his jokes and bravado barely masking a deep connection to the town he had never left. It was reassuring knowing that at least one person would miss Sopris.

He filled me in on what he knew of The Professor. For one, he hadn’t seen him in weeks. Two, he hadn’t heard the humming, even when we were standing right outside the dojo. And three, he believed himself to be the last person to roll in the dojo.

His account of that final roll was also painfully vague (specificity seemed to be in short supply in Sopris), but what he told me makes my heart ache, knowing that if I had paid closer attention to his tale, I could have prevented his horrible horrible fate.

He told me that Professor summoned him to the dojo late one night, talking about “thresholds” and “ancestors”. It seemed to Bentley that Professor was talking about studying the old ways of Judo and grappling, and that he believed himself to be a direct descendant of some ancient practitioner, almost suggesting that he had found a way to communicate with the entire lineage of great combat artists, from Carlos Gracie on down to the legendary ancients whose names were lost to time.

But according to Bentley, “Ol’ Combs said he couldn’t communicate with these folks unless we were rolling. Pure language wasn’t good enough see, it was a conversation that could only happen with our damn bodies.”

After entering the dojo, his memory faded quickly. He remembers Professor bringing him downstairs into the office, where there were mats and “big machines, weird vials, yards of wire and shitloads of audio equipment”. Professor then activated the machines and initiated a roll with Bentley. The next thing he knew he was in his bed, waking up in the bright of day as if from a long sleep. That was the last time Bentley or anyone else had seen Professor Combs.

His account shook me, and between his rantings and the strong drink at BJ’s, I needed a moment to myself. I retired to the bar’s restroom for a splash of cold water to the face. 

As I attempted to control my maddened thoughts, one part of his tale stuck at the forefront of my consciousness. Bentley’s dreams that night. He didn’t remember much, but spoke of “a bridge”, “a doorway”, and “a procession”. I will never forget those three words.

As I left the restroom, I heard the humming again. There was no question that this was the same humming I heard outside of the Dojo. It seemed to be coming from beneath me, and before I consciously took a step, I was already through the door and halfway down the stairs into BJ’s keg room.

The cement room was mostly bare save for a few kegs, holiday decorations and boxes of returnable bottles. I pulled the cord on the single lightbulb and let my eyes adjust. As the room came into focus, I discovered that BJ’s had quite a large basement, actually extending beneath the neighboring hair salon, now abandoned.

Contemplating this fact, a slow realization chilled me to my core: BJ’s basement shared a wall with Professor Combs’ Dojo. And yes, the closer I walked to that shared wall, the louder the humming became.

I approached the edge of the lightbulb’s jurisdiction, the humming calling me into the darkness. The wall was only just visible to me now, cement and solid, slightly damp with nothing to break up its dim uniformity. I scanned and scanned, staring for minutes into the darkness.

I was almost ready to retreat to my barstool when a flash of pale white caught my eye. A flash that I wish I had ignored. I wish I had turned around, climbed the stairs, walked to the train station and slept on the platform until the next train arrived. 

It was near the base of the wall, where it met the concrete floor. It was fabric, a dirty white. I bent down to touch it and felt a familiar texture, a texture I had handled daily for years in my grappling practice.

It was a belt. The belt of a grappler.

Professor didn’t believe in belt rankings. We all wore white belts and let their wear, tear and discoloration display our experience.

What I saw on the wall was clearly Professor’s belt. I knew its dingy and ragged texture well. But it was only a piece, roughly six inches worth. I pulled, hoping to take it with me, and found it securely stuck, not to the wall, but in the wall, as if the cement had been poured around it.

Getting on my knees, I got as close of a look as I possibly could to examine it. Within the dirty white thread there was another color, a rust color that could only be blood. Deeper red near the concrete, fading in a brutal ombre toward the tip of the belt, as if the blood had slowly been absorbed into each thread over time.

I dropped the belt in horror. I turned to run as the humming grew even louder. 



Words: J.W. Hopper

Images: Jeffrey Weber