Grinding Herbs

By Natasha Ramoutar

 

Fabric coils around the fighter’s hands like snakes, slithering around bruised knuckles, passing through the space between each finger until it finally rests at the wrist. She pulls on her gloves and jumps over the ropes. Her opponent does the same, and soon the two are circling the ring, pausing to pray at each corner. She kneels, placing each boxing glove to the mat before bowing. This is a standard opening for any Muay Thai fight, something she has done twenty-one times before.

Her headband hugs her head tightly, resting just above her eyebrows. She blinks, her mascara coated lashes tapping gently at her cheeks. The Wai Khru is so routine that everything blends into one. She doesn’t pay attention to her lunges, her high knees, or the way she rolls her hands.

What does catch her attention is her opponent. He rests his eagle eyes on her, ready to snatch her up and rip her to pieces. With the ritual done and her headband removed, she walks over to greet him. His goal is to beat her to a bloody mess.

Her goal is the same, and with eighteen previous wins, she’s the fan favourite.

 

Many years ago she was a youth draped in orange Buddhist robes, surrounded by others similarly clad in the garment of spirituality. She peered into a lake, looking at her puffy cheeks, baby fat that she had not yet outgrown.

She glanced around quickly before retrieving her most recent purchase, a vial of lip gloss, from her robes. Her reflection mimicked her movements as she applied the sticky substance to her lips. The shimmery shade of pink was fitting, even for a child as young as her.

There was a monk at her monastery with a stern face, one that always looked displeased as though he had bit into a sour mango. He approached her on this day, his frown more prominent than ever. “Where were you yesterday?”

She looked away unwilling to answer, seeking solace once again in the lake.

The monk lowered himself, nearing his face to hers. “Where were you?”

“At the market.”

“Doing what?” 

Again she met his interrogation with silence.

“Selling flowers I bet,” he spat. She was always skipping class to make money. It was for her family, but that didn’t excuse her frequent absences, at least not to the monk. She quickly slipped the vial of lip gloss into her robes, hoping to avoid further trouble. The sun gave her away, its rays bouncing off the vial and catching the monk’s eye.

“What are you hiding?” His outstretched hand was just short as she dashed away. Her victory was short lived as her foot caught into a tree root, sending her tumbling to the ground. The vial toppled out of her robe, soon to be retrieved by the monk. After holding it up to the sun to examine it, he said, “You have to leave.”

“But-”

“You must choose–the monastery or the market.” He tossed the lip gloss to her. “And it seems you’ve already made that choice.”

 

The sounds of the two oboes intertwine, rising in the air as the fight begins. She hears the steady chime of the cymbals, the beating of the Thai drums.

As with most fights, they begin with their gloved fists up. The opponent is the first to test the waters, using a jab to check his distance. He takes a small step forward, following a second jab with a cross. Both his fists connect with the fighter’s gloves, her defence strong.

The fighter also tests her distance, instead using a side kick. She expects it to be deflected, and it is. She alternates her punches, none of them doing any damage.

The pair exchange intense gazes. Neither wants to act to quickly. Neither wants to use anything powerful without first testing the other’s defence.

The tempo of the sarama begins to increase with the oboes’ rapid succession of notes. The drums and cymbals chime in double time. This is a prompt–they must move faster.

The opponent starts with another jab-cross combination, which the fighter mimics back. She uses a front kick. Occupied by fending off this kick, he fails to notice her roundhouse as it connects with his body.

 

The students had just been dismissed from school, and today there was a special treat–a temple fair. The fighter stood by an outdoor ring, watching a pair fight. The fighter in blue gear was powerful, but she could see that the fighter in red had a strong defensive stance. Every jab, cross and side kick rolled off him like rain from a roof. Her eyes were fixed on the fight until she felt a shove from behind.

“You’re like a little girl,” one student sneered, a youth of just twelve years, as he loomed over her body.

“I’m not!” She began to rise, but another student kicked her hands out and she fell once more. 

“You’re weak,” he said.

“I bet you can’t even fight,” said another.

The fighter rose, dusting the dirt off her body. “I can!”

“A sissy and a liar,” they hissed.

She narrowed her eyes, her nostrils flared. While she had trained in Muay Thai before, she had never done intense training in a camp like so many others. She was no professional.

The fight had finished by now, blue hanging his head in defeat. The red fighter stood victoriously in the ring. “Do we have any challengers?” asked the referee. “Five hundred baht goes to anyone who can defeat our five time reigning champion!”

“Give me your gloves,” she said to the blue fighter. He protested even as she snatched them out of his hands.

She slipped them on, standing in front of the red fighter. She released a quick jab. As with the blue fighter, it was deflected. She let out a rapid succession of another jab, followed by a cross with the opposite hand. Again the same result. The red fighter countered with a jab to set his distance, then attempted a front kick. The fighter was too fast, and she used her gloves to repel it with ease.

Swiftly she let out another succession of jabs and crosses, followed by a hook from the side. The red fighter hadn’t expected that, and her glove connected with the side of his face. She followed this with a knee to his stomach. As he reeled back towards the ropes, she bashed her elbow into his skull. A thin line of blood trailed down from his temple as he slumped to the ground.

The referee darted over, raising the fighter’s blue gloved hand into the air. “We have a winner!” Cheers rang out all around, and the group of previously taunting students looked at her with dismay.

Returning the gloves to the blue fighter and collecting her money, the fighter headed home to share the good news with her family.

 

While the opponent is slightly thrown off balance by the roundhouse, he soon regains his composure. He was lucky that her roundhouse was just a little too short. His shoulder is red and sore, but his face is safe.

The fighter is moving quicker now, goaded on by the sarama. She’s relinquished her jab and cross combination, instead going for crosses and hooks. They’re much more powerful punches, which the opponent can feel even through the padding of his gloves.

He too adheres to the swifter tempo, throwing several kicks in a row. Side kick, round house, front kick, they all blend into a quick progression. He attempts an uppercut, but the fighter manages to avoid it.

“Kill him!” the crowd cheers. They drive the fighters just as the music does, their chants just as rhythmic.

“You can do it!” others shout.

Surprise grips her as the opponent switches his stance. He’s not a southpaw, she thinks. Regardless, he stands in a left footed stance now and throws a roundhouse. She manages to stop it, but he’s gotten in close, much closer than she expected. Their gazes connect, her own eyes wide and bewildered.

 

At first it started as a way to make money, a way to support her family and save for her operation, but she slowly grew to love the art of Muay Thai.

She thrashed her shin into the sand-filled training bag producing a sound that seemed like a loud clap. She was pleased with her progress, pleased with how her shins were hardening and how her muscles began to show below her tanned skin.

As the sun began to dip below the horizon, she could see her coach approaching. “You’re doing great,” he said, patting her on the back. “Relax. We’re done for the day.”

But the fighter was not done for the day just yet. She turned to retrieve a small scrapbook. “Look at this.” Upon opening the book, they were greeted with a young man who had leapt in the air, his elbow poised to attack. It was a clipping from an old kickboxing magazine, accompanied by the caption, Rue See Bod Ya.

“Hermit grinding the herbs,” said the coach, peering at the caption. “That’s some move.”

“Teach it to me.”

The coach rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Are you sure you want to learn this? There are other moves that might be easier and just as destructive.”

The fighter did not love Muay Thai merely for its violence. She loved its beautiful aesthetics, the precision of the limbs as they snapped out. She loved its roots in history, the way it was used long ago to defend her homeland. She loved the way it seemed like a ritualistic dance with its grace and poise. “Yes. This is the one I want.”

The coach sighed, seeing that she wasn’t about to change her mind. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll start on it tomorrow.”

 

The opponent drives his elbow into the fighter’s rib cage. He wraps his hands around her head forcing it downwards, his forearms pressed against her collar bone. She struggles like a fish swimming upstream, thrashing about. With his arms secure he whispers one word: “Kathoey.”

Kathoey has many translations, the most well known being lady-boy. It’s a complicated word, like a maze that collapses on itself as people try to navigate it. Sometimes it refers to an effeminate gay man. Other times it’s a transgendered woman. Still other times, it’s considered a third gender.

Although the fighter’s passport lists her sex as male, she fits in none of these definitions. She might identify herself as a woman, might call herself a kathoey, but fails to know where she falls on this spectrum.

The way she uses the word is different than the opponent. He spits it out like venom, a poison that begins to seep into the fighter’s bloodstream. She feels her cheeks flush with anger, and places her hands at his chest. With one great heave she pushes him away, following it with a knee to his abdomen. He stumbles back, but is not down and out yet.

Two quick steps are enough to propel her into the air, and she drives her elbow into his face on the way down. This is rue see bod ya. This is how the hermit grinds herbs, as she reduces her opponent to red scraps on the ground.

The referee stops her before she can do more damage, raising her hand in the air. Like so many years ago, she hears the words, “We have a winner!”

 

A week later she stands outside the regional hospital. “You’re sure you want to do this?” asks her coach.

“Yes,” she says without hesitation. “This is what I’ve wanted my whole life. You know that.”

“And I’m sure you know that this means no more fights. Women aren’t allowed in the ring, definitely not here.”

“I know.” She looks thoughtfully down at her bruised knuckles. “I don’t need to fight anymore.”

Back at home, her gloves are tucked away her closet, slowly collecting dust.

______________________________________________________________

Natasha Ramoutar is a third year student at the University of Toronto – Scarborough Campus. She is currently studying English and French. Her short stories have been published in UTSC’s creative journal Scarborough Fair. In addition to being an avid reader and writer, Natasha loves martial arts.

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