Red light and blue mix with the gold sunlight that fills the ring. The air is a carnival of color and body odor hovering in the heat and dust. There’s a young Thai athlete in front of me; his round shoulders and individually packaged abdominal muscles glisten with sweat above the pallid grey of the shorts that make up his uniform. He reminds me that we’re fighting by popping his knuckles against my teeth. The sharp blow makes my nose tingle and teeth feel soft. He’s taking it easy on me, probably because of the bruises on my belly and scabs on my shoulder, but that just makes me angy. I don’t care to be babied.
We’re in the club’s only ring, beneath a hole in the thatched ceiling that lets in dust-delineated streaks of sunlight. The scattering of onlookers hoot and holler at my hastily launched offensive. Jab, jab hook. This is fight number two. The first one lasted only a few seconds and I feel a little guilty; the smiling athlete I fought probably had some skill, but he wasn’t expecting my capacity for sudden overwhelming aggression. He went down with a dislocated knee right away. The crowd didn’t like it. They’re all friends here, and that wasn’t a good-natured injury. The knee may never properly recover.
Opponent number two evades my attacks with relative ease, but apprehension tightens his movements and cheek muscles. He’d like to keep his knees.
Colors swim around me like a swarm of gnat souls, hungering for a nibble at my sanity. His fists, alight with emerald green, brush my protective arms. His body flickers neon shapes that bound out of his skin like I’m in the grip of a bad trip. The dominant tone is red; a shifting quagmire of red bleeds like vaporous sweat to haze the air. It gathers in rivers down his arms as he prepares to strike, painting a path his fist will soon follow through the air between us. It signals his intentions, tells me where he will go. I lean out of that warning haze and his knuckles miss my ear, letting me weave past his right straight to land a hard counter-punch. He steps back, eyes wide in surprise.
It’s hard to think. The weird world claws at my eyes and blinking doesn’t clear them. But the surge and move of muscle beneath my skin teaches me I’m still here, in a body, in a room, in a fight, alive.
I’d forgotten how much I love fighting.
Every contusion infuses a dose of life, and losing myself in that trip is as easy as cutting loose with a battery of blows, hooking close, tight circles to add bruises to my knuckles and wrists against his meat and bone. Face, body, rib, face. He’s a satisfyingly dense obstacle to strike. The flurry ends when he kicks back. My guts clench around the hard body-shot. Inflicting the pain or taking the pain, either way, it feels like a victory.
This is that nectar that kept me looking for one more dance, one more high, one more lie, one more night until I woke up dead.
Marcus Summanus, professional heart beat up broken sinner singing the song of meat and flesh.
I am alive; a bleeding knuckle. The other fighter slaps my face with a kick. I stagger, but the pain merely wakes me.
Over my opponent’s shoulder the doors to the club open and green eyes move through. She stops on the threshold as a kid in homespun shorts asks her to pay the entry fee. When our eyes meet she sways like a flag in a sudden breeze.
A river of red cuts between us and I duck an instant before a fist follows it.
A patch of purple light floats beneath my opponent’s armpit like a target on a shooting range. It’s too tempting – an angry advertisement I want to wipe away – too bright against my eyes. Before he can bring his arm back to guard I tag the spot with a light body shot. His rib pops like a fire-work and he crumples in a spray of sparkling sweat.
I can’t hit that hard. His rib shouldn’t have broken. Maybe he was sick.
“Are you alright?” I ask, panting, as his people crawl under the ropes to worry over him.
He doesn’t answer, but turns onto his side and spits blood. His legs and arms look like a piece of paper squeezed into a fist.
“Is he going to be alright?” I ask the room, but they’re chattering tersely, and one calls for a stretcher.
I stagger to the edge of the ring and lean on the ropes, my breath a burning sandstorm in my chest. Next, the tournament’s final round. It would be vindicating to win this; I need the cash and I could use a win. Making it all the way to Bangkok was worth an injection of confidence but getting killed was kind of a bummer. I still rattle all over just thinking of it. Besides, Nash told me to fight.
But with my opponent laying like a busted toy, my victorious heart beat drums hollow.
The referee calls my victory and holds my hand up to scattered applause, but nobody talks to me until I’ve sat next to Jenny. A skinny fellow I don’t know offers a nod and the cursory words in Thai: ‘Good fight.’ Then he gets up for a drink of water and sits back down someplace else. The crowd eyes me uneasily.
I stare at my hands.
Is fighting better than dope? Or is it no different?
“I saw your name on a flyer,” Jenny says, quietly enough the crowd muttering hides it, and without looking my way. “Foreigner fighting, it said. Summanus. Come see. I thought you were gonna lay low. Is this part of a cunning plan?”
“Cunning. Yes.” I tell her. “Say, it’s good to see you. Any news?”
“I’m being followed,” she answers in a terse whisper without moving her mouth, and without looking away from the ring. It’s still empty. Behind it the few athletes still in the tournament look uncomfortable. Several of them argue with the owner.
I take her cue and focus on the ring, pretending I don’t know her, but before I can answer, the big fighter from yesterday comes close to speak to me. The garland which was a ghost yesterday is really there today. I wonder what it means.
“Hello. Where you learn?” He asks.
“Yes.” He nods, masticating a flower with his fingertips.
“Behind the outhouse,” I reply, “or in the gutter. But mostly city college boxing club in Manhattan. Why?”
He frowns, listening with the intensity of someone with a broken understanding of the language.
“Where?” he asks again.
I try to answer in Thai: ‘My father teach.’
He turns his troubled gaze to the ring, where some of the athletes lift the downed fighter over the ropes.
“Should not hurt people so bad,” he admonishes. “Not sport.”
One of the owner’s friends sets a beer on the bench next to me and makes a little gifting motion, then turns back toward the bar.
“Not sporting,” I agree, absently. It’s true. I have no idea why that guy was so badly hurt. I didn’t hit him all that hard. He must have had a glass rib. “I feel bad about it,” I say, and mean it.
“Again?” He asks. “My english is not so good.”
“I am sorry.”
He bobs his head, then sits down on the bench in front of us, facing the empty ring.
Jenny whispers: “What’re you doing?”
“The owner knows of Bitter Flower, but he won’t tell me. I’m hoping winning the tournament might win his confidence.” I offer her the free beer.
She rejects it. “Is it safe here?”
“Well it’s public,” My shrug encompasses the growing crowd. I sip the beer, then add: “If you’d like, I could duck out of the tournament to try to shadow your shadow?”
Jenny rolls her eyes, but I can see her gears turning as she weighs the possibility of getting information about Bitter Flower against my help with whoever’s following her. Once again I experience a pang of admiration; I’m privileged to have lived abroad from a young age and this trip is, for me, a return to what’s comfortable. On the other hand Jenny has probably never left her home country before, yet here she is, making choices and taking risks, going after what she wants in the face of enormous uncertainty, and she doesn’t look at all uncomfortable. What’s more, I usually navigate in a fog of intuition and past experience, but I see Jenny thinking carefully and then acting sharply, and I wish I could be a little more like her. She hisses “Finish up. I’ll try to wait,” then scoots a place away from me on the same bench.
The room has been filling as bystanders trickle in through the red door. Half a hundred faces buy drinks and talk. The sulfurous caramel smell of kingfruit has finally been crushed to the background by sweat and stale beer. Laughter and bacchanal shouting fill the hall. The crowd, swelling swiftly, begins to chant for the fighting to continue.
The man in the suit who for a moment I had thought was my father, watches from the corner, chewing the stub of a cigarette. Our eyes meet but he looks away. His hands are in his pockets and push his suit jacket open like the mouth of a wallet. I can’t be sure but he might have a shoulder rig and a pistol under his arm. His shoulders are broad, his bearing tough. He holds himself like a military man. He’s watching the owner argue with the fighters.
The owner gestures broadly at the growing crowd. His eyes sparkle with greed. Two of the fighters nod and agree to take to the ring. As they enter the crowd cheers and they, smiling, start a slapstick routine of pratfalls and stunts. The crowd endures but they’re here for something more real.
The owner looks around, spots me, and then heads my way. His smile turns waxen.
“Marcus?” he asks, massaging his belly with palms that leave streaks of sweat on his shirt.
“My name Khonom. This is my place.” He offers one of the sweat applicators for me to shake. “Two fighters quit. That leaves you and champion. You fight champion? You win, big money! Yes? You ready for big money?”
It’s hard to hide a smile. “How much money?”
“Half of tickets. Pretty good!” he says. “We spend more time rousing. Bring in more people. More people is more money. Summanus is good name, lots of people come to see foreigner Summanus fight Champion Drydus.”
“Drydus?” I ask. “Who’s Drydus?”
Garland turns around to join the conversation, his smile a shining crescent. ‘Drydus will fight?’ he asks in Thai.
They exchange a few words in Thai and Garland nods in satisfaction.
“They try to find Drydus,” Garland says to me with a note of apology. “If he agrees, you fight him. If not, you fight me.”
“You? Drydus didn’t fight in the rest of the tournament?” I ask.
He shows me his palms, “Drydus is champion. He fight if he want. Otherwise, me.”
I sigh. “That all sounds swell but do either of you know a man named Agafya?” I risk changing the subject, and am met with blank looks. “How about Hilda? Bitter Flower?”
Sweatbelly nods, “Yeah. Sure. He want to meet you if you fight Drydus.”
“Really?” A smile twists my lips almost painfully. It was a shot in the dark. Sometimes shots get lucky.
“Yeah. Sure. You go to Bitter Flower if you fight Drydus. Fight good and get in no problem.” Sweatbelly nods and bobs his head simultaneously.
“Swell,” I say, elated. “Lets do it.”
Konom’s grin is almost a bow and, rubbing his belly, he walks away toward the door, shouting at the teenagers who’ve been stationed there to take money.
Garland scrubs his chin and glances at me. He turns to face me over the bench.
“Drydus say no. Always say no. You will fight me. Listen. You fight mean,” he leans forward, “I fight mean.”
“We’ll just see.” I give him my best lazy smile and look away.
Garland stands, nods past my shoulder to someone behind me, then heads for the adjacent space the athletes use as a changing room. Something about his bearing makes me think he wasn’t planning to fight today.
I turn to see who he nodded to.
An ascetic monk in a ragged smock sits cross-legged on the bench behind me. At first blush he looks bhuddist, but the clothing seems more Hindu – a single spare piece tied at one shoulder and the waist, stitched of dozens of scraps of yellow and red in a pattern like peacock feathers.
“Suwarika,” comes the traditional greeting in a sweet voice barely audible above the ruckus.
After a moment’s staring, I question every one of the assumptions I made in labeling this person an ascetic, a monk, a Thai, and a ‘he’. I’ve never seen a Bhuddist in such a robe, but Hindu ascetics aren’t allowed to wear clothing with stitches in it, and in a further mockery of asceticism, gold bands glint on supple wrists and ankles. Skin dark enough to be Indian, a bhindi dot that might be an incense burn, angled, handsome features, and a costume conforming to no religious scripture I know of, that’s so sheer from long use it floats like a fire over a body of striking beauty in its gentle curves. So strong is the glow of good health and that ephemeral saintly charm from this person that I find myself arrested and a little entranced by their apparition, which seems at once ancient, peaceful, and a little barbaric.
“Suwarika,” I reply, and then I try to think of how to ask who they are, or how they came to be here. I open my mouth to try my luck in languages but no words come.
The glittering eyes drink my expression. One bangled hand draws a long-stemmed pipe from the fold of the robe and lights it. The smoke stinks of vinegar and cologne.
I turn toward Jenny, but she doesn’t notice my look or the newcomer. Her eyes are hard, and the hands that grip the board she sits on hold it like she’s afraid she’ll fall off. Her khaki shirt has sweat stains that collect the dust from the air and she’s wearing ankle length trousers I don’t envy in the heat. She’s still got no hat, and sweat beads on her forehead.
She keeps furtively scanning the audience. It would be less conspicuous if she just stared – people crowd-watch all the time, but they seldom try to hide it. The acrobats in the ring pull a prat-fall and she forces a laugh.
Across the ring, Garland chuckles at the antics. He’s shirtless, and divested himself of his garland, but in my second-sight it remains, ghostly, glowing like gold around his neck.
In the corner, the man with the gun chews his cigarette and stares unsmiling at me or the holy one behind me, I can’t tell.
When I turn back to the gold-bangled ascetic their eyes have turned to mirrors and from every pore of that vibrant body red smoke rises as if the flesh were afire from within. Opium smoke flows from their opening mouth: “Fight, then. I have found you.”