The Sapper

By Alan Prout

Deep in the Thai countryside, ubiquitous with meticulous rows of rubber trees, is the ring. The square muay thai boxing ring rests tranquilly sheltered from the glaring equatorial sun by a rough-hewn wooden structure. In the yard around the ring, the majestic junglefowl roosters with their shimmering red coral crests, orange and yellow manes, and dark turquoise breasts strut their jade-green elegant tails. Their modest hens peck the dirt with down-turned yet avid eyes. Dogs sleep in the dusty drive. A crested oriental garden lizard basks serenely amongst the thorny stems of a pink-flowered euphorbia, which attracts visits from the flitting rose butterfly. The ring with its well-worn four corners and surrounding frayed ropes looks sagely ancient having observed equal victories and defeats in its revered history. Pairs of blue and red fat boxing gloves languidly adorn the corners. Outside the ring, lashed to the open barn’s eaves is a chin-up bar salvaged from some sturdy industrial shaft. Alongside the bar a heavily worn kickboxing bag is suspended from the rafters; the lifeless dead-weight bag hangs forlornly dented by the barrage of passionate pummels and the relentless kicks of legions of aspiring pugilists. In its youth this bag may have laughed at many of the feeble punches of novices; but it has come to know the jabbing sharp knees and elbows, the powerful impact of precision kicks and the pulverizing poundings of real champions. So now it hangs with a sullen wizen grimace. A set of dead weights wait to the side of this rustic training forum, waiting to tone the muscles of more future champions.

As day’s light fades, across the road amongst the rubber trees quietly and diligently moves the sapper. Her movements are somewhat stealthy, as she seems to be instantly teleported from laboring at one tree trunk to the next. At each trunk she scores the diagonal groove with her sharp blade and then ensures that the coconut shell collecting bowl is properly placed to catch the white latex oozings. The sapper’s feminine form is largely hidden beneath long thick trousers, and long-sleeved flannel shirt. Only a hint of her lush full-bodied black hair is visible as it is tied up and covered by a heavy cloth, wide-brimmed hat. This modern day sapper even wears sturdy work-boots, but these do nothing to hamper her deft, spritely movements; ninja-like she expertly slices the regiment of tall rubber trees.

Back at the ring the dogs are told to shift, so to yield the training area to the tall, slim, but rock-like young athletes. Two boys obey the will of their grandfather who directs them sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued. Grandfather has built muay thai champions before; his own sons have held high the Champion’s Belt after defeating other highly trained, dedicated adversaries. In his own day, grandfather slew his own giants under the proud eyes of his father and grandfather. To be part of such a family tradition is an explosive motivation in itself and the kick-boxing warriors were formidable, possessed of steadfast confidence and eager zeal.

“Ten minutes right knee jabs,” grandfather coached imperatively looking at the taller of the two youths. With accustomed acquiescence the boy fell to rhythmically hopping on his left barefoot and administered sharp, solid, thrusting jabs with his right knee into the grimacing hanging sack. It would be a long ten minutes before he would hear the inevitable follow-up instruction, “Ten minutes left knee jabs.” While his brother hopped and jabbed with the precision of a band’s master drummer setting the beat, the shorter rock presented his palms, one at a time, to his grandfather; grandfather mummified each hand with long strips of gauze and then the boxing gloves were applied and laced up securely. Inside the ring grandfather took up the pads and fired out the commands: “Left upper cut, right upper cut, left hook, right hook, spin and right elbow jab; right hook, left hook, right block, left upper cut, another one, another five, right kick, another five, right hook, right knee jab, left hook, spin and left elbow jab…” Grandfather lowered the pads after the long sequence and told his grandson firmly to give him, “Twenty push-ups followed by twenty squats.” After the first ten push-ups, he clarified, “Make them clapping push-ups.” Beyond obedience the boy claps ten and then goes on to do an extra five one handed push-ups with the left arm behind his back, followed up with another five on the other side before he dashed out his squats. Glistening with wet beads of sweat the boy pops to his feet and jabs the air with a combination of punches; his stance is robustly sturdy and his focused gaze visualizes a ghostly opponent.

Grandfather hands each a water bottle; they rinse their mouth and spit the liquid towards the nearby papaya saplings. Positions reversed, the shorter rock approaches the grimacing sack and commences his ritual knee jabs. The taller rock presents palms to grandfather and promptly the mummied hands are in the gloves and the training resumes.

Twilight fades and the bare electric light bulbs come on. Geckos run along the rafters making meals of mosquitoes too intent on the heat of bulbs.

Soon the sapper comes in from her labor. Laying aside her knife and hat, she shakes out her luscious wavy hair and then ties it back with a simple elastic band. Discarding her long-sleeved shirt reveals a sleeveless T-shirt and an athletic trunk as rock-like as her brothers’ bronze bodies. Releasing her feet from the heavy work boots and slipping out of the baggy trousers, she slips into some red shiny satin shorts. The transformation from benign androgynous sapper to awe-inspiring Amazonian warrior was complete as grandfather applied the gauze around her hands and she limbered up with few head-high kicks and spins.

Lithely she entered the ring vaulting over the ropes. The taller of her two brothers squared up to her first. They held each others’ gaze as they circled each other with springing steps and gloves raised to prevent impending attacks. They were merely playing a game they played together many times before. She feinted to the left and he responded defensively. She feinted to the left again and again he was quick to respond defensively. Now she feinted to the right and he went to block. She was merely playing with him like the colloquial cat and mouse. He grinned and laughed because he knew what she was doing; he also knew he would be powerless to stop her when she decided to pursue her attack. He smiled again foreseeing his doom at her lightning deft moves. He smiled loving his little sister, respecting her for her unearthy superiority, thanking her for sparring with him; for he knew he would only get better by challenging the best. Today’s lost would be stronger foundation for him, for when he would go to Nakhon Si Thammarat and tackle the best muay thai kickboxers of the province. She smiled back at him, loving him for knowing her special talent. She laughed with the glee of a tree full of monkeys and then she launched her gracefully adept powerful assault.

January 31, 2020 06:48

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Martin Leigh
08:05 Feb 06, 2020

My favourite line...'barrage of passionate pummels and the relentless kicks of legions of aspiring pugilists'. Beautifully described and structured. Envious of your words that instantly conjure up imagery and patience. My writing always seems such a rush.


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Linda Herskovic
16:28 Feb 05, 2020

Beautifully descriptive and great use of language.


Alan Prout
02:03 Feb 07, 2020

Thank you for reading and your kind words Linda.


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