Foto por Claudina Diego
The air was humid and metallic, like rusting iron. The carcasses of the three gutted chicken that lay outside the circle of people were already attracting flies. Chaow was no stranger to these Barang rituals set in poorly-lit back alleys, yet an oppressive force sat upon his chest. The man in the center stirred the pot over the small improvised fire, the swirling motion creating a dynamo that pulled them in with tantalizing promises of strength, courage, vitality. The blood had no hue of red. It was of a deep matted black and its color reminded Chaow of Rahu, the demon who had swallowed the sun. Chaow too had defied the gods. While still in the womb, his hungry spirit had devoured his mother from the inside; death was forced to take her instead of him. He reached for one of the wooden cups.
It wasn’t the heat of Bangkok, unbearable in these nights of March, nor his incoming fight that left him hyperaware of his heartbeat today. It was his own shadow, magnified by the flickering flame, an effigy of the void that stood between him and the world. Today he was drowning it, filling it to its brim. And tomorrow, victory would help wash down the revolting taste in his mouth.
Third round. Another right hook that came dangerously close to his jaw. Music howled menacingly – feints and misses weren’t going to curb its ravenous hunger for violence, and the fight picked up the pace. Chaow got pulled into his opponent’s badger-like grip, and immediately an array of sharp knee strikes drilled into his ribs. Breathing was agonizing, breathing had to be avoided altogether. Chaow hurled a promising overhand punch, but failed to see that the move left an opening. A spinning elbow strike filled the gap, meeting the side of his head. The world swayed violently – Technical KO. The customary ceremonial bows, the announcement of his opponent’s win – all but fragments of a dreamlike sequence. But as soon as he got off the ring, a boiling ache in his midsection yanked his reluctant consciousness back into his body. His insides roared accusingly. He vomited all the ingested blood from the night before at his trainer’s feet.
Mali bathed the old man’s frail body in the appeasing waters of the ocean. Sacred chants, ritualistic ablutions – a futile struggle; his pale body ravished by disease stayed beyond reach. Yet, what disturbed Mali the most was how firmly clasped his hand remained around her wrist, a reminder that she too was being shoved into that very edge and soon she’d be staring into that same abyss.
Chaow inhaled deeply. The coastal air roamed freely through his entire being, purging him of the remnants of the fight. The sand under his knees shifted as he bent his torso towards the ground. The movement brought his stretched-out arms from behind his back, pulled them along his sides, drawing a perfect circle before having them meet in front of his bent head. Again. Again.
Mali read his movements from afar. He’d arrived at break of dawn; she had watched the small local boat drop him off. No older than sixteen, no luggage and alone – most likely a pro fighter from the city, momentarily staying in Koh Mak, the nearest island. Her steps were cautious; his disciplined ferocity heightened by the static surroundings intimidated her.
“That dance-”, Mali managed to blurt out when she was close enough for him to hear her.
“-Is called Wai Kru and it’s the only thing I’m allowed to practice here”, he said playfully, but without disrupting the fluidity of his movement. He could guess what she was about to ask. “Let’s say I’m on a… Imposed spiritual retreat. No fighting nor training for a week.”
“They take losing seriously at your gym.”
“Only if you try really hard to insult the spirits.” He shoved regret aside, as her presence was pushing him to clear some much-needed space in his mind. “You’re the shaman I saw with the old man. I can tell you’re the real deal.” A cocky smile, to which she smiled back.
Mali sat down, studying his exoticism more thoroughly. Sak yant tattoos hanging from his shoulder blades, yan amulets inserted into his arms, a few more dangling from his neck – he was a walking shrine. She wondered what he was trying to bury underneath it all.
“You should try practicing closer the sea.”
“I don’t want my picture to be up in these walls.” The photographs scattered across the room – single portraits of smiling women, all of them sporting Mali’s signature braid – seemed to mock her distress. Previous lives, previous vessels from previous cycles, victims of the serial revival of her soul.
Chaow observed her in silence, seized by the moment. That anguish over an unwanted verdict had been the first thing he had felt in his life.
His voracity for life had seeped into her during their morning walks spent gathering supplies for her rituals, awakening in her the need to trace her own path. “I’m stuck, I’m bound. Cut me loose.”
The island bathed in the ethereal glow of dawn, its sharp golden rays stretching across the shore, nudging it awake. Chaow’s body swayed gently, an echo of the swelling and pulling of the waves. Mali adjusted her firm grip on his shirt with her left hand, while her right supported his back – almost done. For the past week he’d let her swim regularly in his inner turmoil and their bonding had made his void recoil and deflate – a small bundled gob withering away. All that was needed now was for Mali to make the final plunge and retrieve it.
She pushed down. Bubbles rose upwards immediately, eager to free themselves from the water’s restraints, but she could tell he was still holding his breath. Breathing to him had always been a right to be conquered, but in order to reattach his strings into the all-encompassing web of the world, he’d have to put his fate into her hands. Mali thrusted her hand into his chest violently. A black flimsy substance flowed from his wrists, momentarily staining the water.
Night had fallen, granting the fire full unrestrained creativity – shadow puppetry on the silky sand. “She seems happy”, Mali said, after picking up one of the portraits that laid in the pile next to her. She tenderly wiped the dust off the picture before casting it into the purifying bonfire. “I like to believe they all were.”
Chaow, kneeling behind her, had started undoing her braid. His hands ran through the interwoven hair, easily disjointing it. Yet, even if unbounded, each individual strand retained the wavy pattern. He picked up a pair of scissors and light danced along its blade. “This reminds me of my gym. When I was younger, they used to shave our heads every week. I miss it.”
Mali felt the metal brush the skin of her neck, followed by that unmistakable crunching sound of hair being cut. She was free.
“Shall we burn another one?”