The ghostly garland swims in slow motion as its wearer’s right fist turns my cheek into a hard blossom of pain. Staggering back, I close my elbows before me to hide peek-a-boo behind my own fists. They’re hard to lift, as heavy as burlap sand-bags. The Garlanded Fighter kicks my thigh with a resounding smack, nearly knocking it out from under me and leaving behind an ache like too long a time spent running.
In the first round of this fight I discovered that I couldn’t afford to think about Jenny, about the strange holy person, or about anything except my opponent. Now it’s the second round and as I find my feet in the sinking swamp that is the fighting ring, I realize that may not be enough.
I close my guard and try to breathe. I know these aches. I’ve always known them. This is who I am.
My father taught me to fight with teeth and meanness, with hatred for your enemy and the petty spirit of minor injury that wears him down to wear him out. He taught me to misdirect, to lie, to mistreat, to confuse, and when the moment of weakness appears, to strike hard and without remorse. That was his way.
My mother knew another way, which she taught me in secret moments, stolen in the cold hours before dawn when my father slept. She danced with spear and shield, knife and club, in the manner her grandfather passed to her. “Your fist is the spear,” she would whisper, “my little hero. Your forearm is the shield. The stone is your root, your feet like the wind, your leap the falling hawk, your strike the lightning fork. Be bold. Be strong. Soar forward and shine like lightning at night.” And that was the way of her dancing, like a wild shadow leaping from spreading flame.
I was born when they loved each other, but I made myself out of the broken glass of their conflict.
My father practiced his art against my mother, but she would not use hers against him. When she was confused and mistreated to the point of questioning her own stories, she would draw me to her, stroke my hair, and whisper me the half-remembered songs of her grandfather’s wars as if they had been her own, or the history of her birth in the midst of a battle, as if it were mine. I believed her. Maybe she did too. I answered back with words from my imagination. The stories we told each-other became the name we shared; Marcus Augustus Summanus – someone who never was, but was part her Grandfather the old veteran; part her child, me, with eyes ever new; the part of my father we both loved; and the part of my mother she hoped to hold on to.
As I grew older, she stopped calling me Mark except in public. Summanus was my name – a gladiators name from old Rome, it means ‘night lightning.’
That is the identity I claim now; a warrior made of broken memories and hope.
Here in this ring, more than ten years and ten thousand blows later, I stand as one acquainted with the fight. I have known my father’s dominion which surges only when the foe, spent, submits before me. I know what it means to gamble body and pain against another, on the strength of my hand and anger, my art and purpose. I cannot say that I have always fought for the right reasons as my mother asked, or that I have always won, as my father demanded. But, I thought I was good at it.
On the other side of my sand-heavy guard dances a man who isn’t even breathing hard. The disconnect dizzies me.
My jab is a softball and Garland is a major league hitter – he bats my fist away with his elbow and pain crackles through my fingers as if I’d punched a brick wall. I go to hook his neck and he dances easily away, lashing me with a lightning kick. The colors are still there, out of the real like the black spots you see when you stand up too fast, but the red gusts which before presaged attacks are absent. I have no forewarning of his movements like I had against the others.
My burning breath has outpaced me and I can’t catch up. I have to press forward. I’ve got no chance if we dance but I might get lucky if I keep pushing hard. I advance, swinging right and left. His counter hits my guard so hard it drives my thumb into my mouth, knocking the leather teeth-protector out and salting my breath with blood. I duck and weave, pressing forward. He plants the ball of his left foot in my floating rib with a sound like a corn kernel popping. I drop my elbow to defend too late, and he sneaks a left straight over my lowered guard. His knuckles wrench my head sideways.
Colors explode from the air like flower blossoms shedding leaves in a wind. The floor hits my knees. In the back of the house, the one in the saffron robe rolls her bald head back in an opium laugh. Those gold eyes are impossibly wide, and the sexual smile bears pointed teeth stained red. The crowd roars and surges with red. Red light, red heat, red anger, red aggression, they cheer, laugh, scream, feral faces stretched with excitement.
I get my feet under me as Sweatbelly counts with his fingers. This isn’t worth it. That left will have pulled muscles in my neck that’ll be sore for days if not weeks. The teeth under where Garland’s knuckles kissed are loose as saloon doors. On the seventh count something angry settles in my gut and steadies me. I straighten sandstone legs, not because I have to win, but because I won’t lose on my knees.
Garland smiles and inclines his head. Salty perspiration goes up my nose with each ragged breath. My mouth fills with blood and saliva. Sweatbelly waves the crowd to its feet to cheer for my rising. He’s good at grandstanding; the audience shows their appreciation with a war cry from a half-a-hundred throats. Red flows from their open mouths as though their breath were colored smoke.
This isn’t a good fight. In a good fight two opponents of equal skill duel, matching training and finesse. Garland outweighs me by forty pounds, outfights me like an eagle to a snake, and the crowd likes that I keep trying anyway. Or maybe they like seeing the foreigner turned black and blue.
Over Garland’s shoulder I see the doors to the club open and Jenny darts out at a run. She’s gone.
“Wait,” I say.
A hand rises between us with its palm toward me. Annoyed, I try to push it out of the way, but then it drops, revealing Garland. There’s a large man in front of me. There’s a large, dangerous man, and he intends to harm me.
I close my guard, leaning into the fight, tightening muscles I don’t have to absorb blows I can’t. He moves like liquid. He moves like a clock counting down. Sadness floats in his brown eyes. He retreats a step and uncurls one of his hands to point its palm at the ceiling in an offer of quarter. The gesture opens his guard a little and my knuckles reach for the gap. His open hand becomes a blurring fist.
The ceiling turns. Sweatbelly looms above me while his fingers mix with their own afterimage. There’s blood on my face. I’m falling perpetually. Hands press against my body. Then splinters push into my back. Something cold and heavy lies on my face like an ice-blooded cat. People around me laugh. Viscous sand seeps from a crack in my scalp, from my nose, mouth and ears. Not sand. Blood.
I paw off whatever polar monster squats on my face. It’s a block of ice wrapped in burlap.
The room clamors and laughs as more fighters dance in the ring and Sweatbelly’s at the bar selling drinks and his broad smile. The strange robe of rags and the laughing stranger it clothed have vanished – gone as if they never were – leaving an empty pit of disappointment.
Jenny’s gone too. A white box as wide as my thumb waits where she was sitting; she left behind a matchbox, bearing the logo of a hotel – The Mandarin Oriental. Inside the cover handwritten letters scrawl: