I turned at the sound of my name, startled. I had not managed to find Ku Min, I had been too absorbed in the bloodletting to look for him, but somehow he had found me. He hadn’t even been looking for me, which made his accomplishment an impressive one. On the other hand, his was the easier task. He looked, to my untrained American eye, an awful lot like everybody else in the hall. I, on the other hand, was as hard to miss as a black satin sheet at a Klan rally.
“Is great sport,” he said. “Yes?”
“No,” I said.
“No? You do not like?”
“I’m just not sure it’s a sport,” I said. “Why not let them bring machetes into the ring with them? Or chainsaws, that would be sporting.”
He shook his head. “Is boxing,” he said. “No weapons allowed.”
“Well, then that’s the only place they draw the line,” I said. “I’m not sure I understand why they bother to stick a third man in the ring. The referee doesn’t have anything to do. Because there aren’t any rules for him to enforce.”
“There are rules.”
“But what are they? There doesn’t seem to be anything you can’t do. If there are rules, they must be about as effective here as the Geneva Convention is in Bosnia.”
“I do not know Geneva Convention.”
“Neither do the Serbs, apparently. Never mind. Look, Ku Min, I have to talk to you.”
“I need your help.”
“Can we go someplace?”
“After,” he said firmly. “Plenty matches to go. After last match we go somewhere, we talk, I help. But first we watch boxing.”
“And I explain rules,” he said. “So you understand.”
There were rules, after all. And the participants observed them scrupulously. All in all, what I saw gave force to the argument the Libertarians have been advancing for years – i.e., the fewer rules you have, the less inclined people are to break them.
Biting was against the rules. So was kicking or striking a floored opponent. Kicks to the groin were not allowed, or punches either. Eye gouging was out, and strangulation was also against the rules.
Just about everything else was fine.
In essence, you could use just about any part of your own anatomy to belabor just about any part of your opponent’s. You could kick him above the waist, as you are allowed to do in Thai boxing and karate, and you could also kick him below the waist, as long as you took care to avoid the groin. You could use your elbows and your knees, and it was entirely kosher to employ your head as a battering ram.
You could grab with your hands to facilitate any of these other stratagems. You could clutch your opponent’s ears prefatory to butting him in the face, as I’d seen in the first bout, and you could also cup his head in your clasped hand and bring his face down into your upraised knee, which I saw done to spectacular effect toward the end of the evening.
Knockdowns didn’t mean much, but blood did. The object was to draw blood, and a fighter could wipe away the blood twice, but the third time it flowed the bout was over. There were other ways a fight could end. If one fighter was unable to go on, the ref could end the bout even if no blood had been drawn. If a fighter was knocked out cold, that too meant the bout was over. And any fighter could call it quits on his own initiative, but I never saw that happen. My guess was that, if you had a well-developed instinct of self-preservation, you wouldn’t have gotten in the ring in the first place. Once there, you just stayed at it until they made you stop.
I think I must have watched seven or eight bouts. Some of them lasted a good long time, while others were over in hardly any time at all. Early on I just wanted the whole thing to be over. Watching the fights was something I had to do to win Ku Min’s cooperation later, and it was a small enough price to pay, and he was the only game in town. The so-called sport we were watching was a scant notch up the evolutionary ladder from the Christians-versus-lions stuff that diverted the Romans way back when, but at least these guys were in the ring of their own volition, which was more than you could say for the Christians – or, come to think of it, for the lions, either.
It was bloody, and it was brutal, but it wasn’t my blood that was flowing, so what did it hurt me to watch it? And watch it I did, and after three or four bouts something curious happened.
I started to get into it.
Ku Min was a help, not only explaining the rules but filling me in on the fine points. And, because he was betting avidly on each bout – everybody in the place, as far as I could tell, was gambling feverishly – I had at least a vicarious stake in the outcome. He would let me know which combatant he was supporting, and I would root ardently for our guy, and groan when he took a fierce elbow to the ribs, and exult when he planted a knee in the pit of his opponent’s stomach.
It didn’t hurt, either, that we were on the winning side in all but one bout. It’s always more satisfying when your man wins, of course, but this meant that Ku Min was making a small fortune for himself. That would put him in a good mood, and I wanted him in a good mood.
The final bout ended with a bang, when our guy launched a roundhouse kick that caught the other fighter flush in the mouth, spraying blood and teeth over the ringside spectators. Ku Min collected his bets, clapped me hard on the shoulder, and steered me toward the exit.
It was my bad shoulder that he walloped, but I barely felt it.
“All you must do,” Ku Min said, “is get to Shan state. There the Shan people will help you.”
“And from there I can get to Thailand.”
“With ease,” he said. “Shan forces control the roads.”
“I thought they made peace with SLORC.”
“Peace,” he said, and spat, and grinned. We were in a tea shop, drinking Tiger beer, and spitting on the floor beside one’s table was probably not recommended by the Burmese equivalent of Miss Manners, but no one took any notice. “There is no fighting since the peace was made,” he said, “or not too much, but our Shan rebel army is still in control of the territory. They leave us alone, and we leave them alone. Someday there will be war again, but for now there is peace.”
“It’s that way everywhere.”
“Yes,” he said. “The great army of the SLORC patriots” – he paused and spat – “is still strong in the western part of the Shan state. But when you cross the Salween River you will be among friends.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“But from here to the other side of the Salween,” he said, “is a great distance.”
“I know,” I said.
“You must go north and east. There is a boat that could take you north from Rangoon to Mandalay. But I think you will not ride all the way to Mandalay. I think you will leave the boat at Bagan.”
“The old city,” I said, “with all the ruined pagodas.”
“Yes. I could get you on the boat. It is a cargo boat, you understand. The passenger boats on the Irriwaddy are forbidden to tourists.”
“No one knows. They just tell you that you would not like it.”
“Ah,” I said. “An-ah-deh.”
“Yes, an-ah-deh. But you will be on a cargo boat, hidden in a load of goods bound for Mandalay. But when you leave the boat at Bagan, how will you make your way eastward?”
“It’s a long way to the Salween.”
“You would need to get to Kalaw,” he said, “or to Taunggyi, the capital of the province. People there would help you. But from Bagan to Taunggyi-”
“How far is that?”
“Perhaps two hundred and fifty kilometers.”
Say a hundred and fifty miles. It would take a week to walk it. Longer if the terrain was rough and the weather adverse. Longer still if I got lost along the way.
“But to walk the road without papers, a foreigner in Myanmar-”
“And a wanted man,” I said. “A fugitive.”
“Yes. Government troops patrol those roads, Evan. They would insist on seeing your papers.”
I drank some beer straight from the bottle. I pointed to a man passing in front of the tea shop window. It may have been bad manners to point, but at least I used my hand. I didn’t point with my foot. I knew better.
I said, “I bet the patriotic government forces” – I spat – “would not ask him for papers.”
“But he is not a Westerner, Evan!”
“How do you know?”
“But look at him! He is-”
“I know what he is,” I said. “At least I know what he looks like.”
Ku Min looked at me.
“Clothes make the man,” I said. “Do they have that expression over here? Probably not, in the land of the longyi. But you see what I’m driving at, don’t you?”
“You are truly determined to leave Burma.”
“Vanya, I would do anything to get out!”
“It will be dangerous.”
“I do not care.”
“And there will be hardships. It will not be an easy journey, or a comfortable one.”
“It does not matter.”
“And we will have to travel light.”
“That is the best way, Evan.”
“Very light,” I said. “You will have to leave everything behind.”
“So? You know my family history. Every generation has left everything behind and fled one country to start anew in another.”
And every generation, I thought, has managed to choose the wrong side.
“Besides,” she said, “look around you, Evan. What is there that I would regret losing? I have nothing. You think it will sadden me to leave these four walls? Or these ragged clothes? Or anything else in my possession?”
“We’ll really be traveling light,” I said. “You’ll have to leave more than that.”
“But I have nothing else! Evan, tell me what else I have to leave. I will be delighted to leave it, but there is nothing else that I own.”
I looked at that beautiful face, that rich and exotic blend of East and West. Kipling was proven wrong; East was East and West was West, but the twain met spectacularly in those high cheekbones, that arch of brow, those almond-shaped eyes, that luxurious curtain of straight blond hair.
“This,” I said, reaching to touch her hair. “I’m afraid it has to go.”
“You think,” she said, wielding the scissors savagely, “that because I am a woman I am overly concerned with my appearance.” Snip! Snip! “But I do not care about superficial things.” Snip! Snip! “Hair is just hair. You cut it off and it grows back.” Snip! Snip! Snip! “It is true I like my hair” – Snip! – “and perhaps I take some pride in it” – Snip! Snip! – “but it is a small sacrifice if it will get me out of this godforsaken country” – Snip! – “and give me a chance at a new life!” Snip!
“That’s great,” I said.