Erikson lunged at me like a ferocious beast, snarling, claws spread wide. A sideways duck would have still left me in the range of his arms, so quickly I ducked low. His lunge missed, his arms wrapping clumsily around empty space. Another roar from the spectators. The crowd was exuberant to suddenly realize the prey was not going to be an easy kill. Eriksen was faster than I had expected, however. I was just lucky that he too had underestimated his opponent’s speed. He would not make the same mistake again and his next attack would be more controlled. What I had to do now was not be where he expected me to be when he turned around from his failed dive. So in the same motion as the duck, I twirled my body around and stepped closer to him. By the time he had twisted around I was already on the inside, ready to push him out of balance again. As he fell backward, eyes widened in surprise, he grabbed my sleeve and we both fell to the floor in a furious tangle.
The crowd circle widened and narrowed with the convulsive rhythm of our battling. As we rolled on the floor, he kept pummeling my sides with his powerful punch. That was a mistake on his part, because now I knew that my best chance against him was to keep him on the floor. As painful as his punches were, just one of them would be my end if Eriksen was standing up and could put a full swing behind the blow.
It is well known that wrestling is one of Iran’s fortes in the Olympics. Perhaps this is because wrestling is one our favorite games as kids. Cousin Daryoosh and I always went at it the moment there were no parents around to chide us. Like Eriksen, he was a couple of years older and quite a bit stronger than me, so every defeat had taught me that the weaker opponent’s legs could overpower the stronger opponent’s arms. Eriksen’s body did not move with this awareness; his culture had not naturally trained him as a wrestler; he was a natural boxer. Iranians, on the other hand, regard punching as unsportsmanlike. It revolted me to see Eriksen fight so unfairly.
“Don’t punch, you ninny. How would you like it if I scratched and bit?” I hissed in Eriksen’s ear as I rolled momentarily on top of him. The proximity of my mouth to his ear was a clear warning that his next punch could lose him an ear.
“Good luck with that, Shrimp!” Erikson grunted as he quickly rolled me off and pounced to sit on my chest. He pinned my arms to the floor with all his weight. Suddenly the crowd went silent in tense anticipation. They knew from Danger Man that Eriksen would now lift his punching arm way over his head and bring it down hard on my nose, accompanied by a harsh and abrupt chord from the orchestra. The end!
But this was not Danger Man. Before Eriksen could lift his punching arm, my legs, which he had unsuspectingly left free, were already lifting up from the hip to lock ankles against his throat. Like the descending end of a seesaw he rolled back, his head thumping hard against the floor. Banging his head, was not my intention; Eriksen just didn’t know how to fall. Instead of bracing properly for the impact, he lost all control of his body. This would have been the end of the match if it had been Daryoosh and I wrestling; the moment one of us got hurt, the game was over. I disentangled and stood up. Eriksen got up groggily, but by the time he was fully erect the fight was back in his eyes.
It was useless trying to knock him to the floor again. He had learned to avoid that trap. Now we were fighting on his terms, and all the quick thinking and natural training was coming from his side. No wonder the head blow had not ended the fight for him. Boxers are trained to take blows to the head and keep fighting. Instantly, he moved into the perfect perimeter and I saw one arm snap back for a nose punch, then suddenly something invisible caught me hard below the jaw. A well executed feign!
The sneaky hook sent me stumbling backward, my head stuffed with cotton candy, my teeth numb with shock. I reeled back into the pool table and only kept from falling to my knees by bracing against it. Colors and stripes went flying. I couldn’t see Erikson behind me, but he would be rushing over to finish me off. He would twist my arm behind my back and make me eat the eight ball.
Unfortunately for him, my donkey senses had been awakened. I had grown up with donkeys. Vendors selling salt, onions, fruits, and such carried their wares on donkey back. It was important for the Iranian in his day-to-day life to know where not to stand while making a purchase. My long-eared compatriots had mysteriously taught me exactly what I needed to know in this moment of crisis: without being able to see, somehow I knew exactly where Erikson was relative to my hooves. “All right, if you want to fight like an animal, I will fight you like an animal,” I thought. At the right moment, I planted both arms against the felt, simultaneously leaping and tucking my legs into my body. Hoisting myself up on the pool table like a gymnast, I sprang straight with all my strength.
When I looked back, Erikson was still in the air, his trajectory targeting the rack of billiard cues at the far end of the room. He fell with a crash that would shame a Danger Man stuntman. There was blood coming from his nose, and he was gasping for air. The crowd did not know what to make of this maneuver. It looked like kicking, which is dishonorable; on the other hand, it was no ordinary kick that had launched Erikson into such a graceful parabola.
Suddenly Rusty cried exultantly, “Persian judo!”
Everyone was noisily impressed. Some even began immediate practice so that the recreation room looked like a stable of ornery English donkeys. Given a name with a tradition behind it, my dirty trick was now recognized on this Island as an ancient form of martial arts. We Iranians stuck together, didn’t we, Rusty?
Erikson sat sprawled liked a rag doll, knocked out once by the donkey kick and again by Rusty giving an illustrious heritage to the instrument of his downfall. Pitifully, he tried to stand up, billiard cues falling like quills off an injured hedgehog. I could read his mind. What a fool he had been to fall for my whining pretenses. He was merely being led to the slaughter. Since it was his mother’s sincere wish that he complete his education in the northern hemisphere, it did not seem prudent to tangle further with this Iranian that could send him back to New Zealand with one kick.
I went to finish him off with a few ritual bashings. His resistance was puny. He even began to whimper. He could barely manage to breath. I was going to stop and call it a day when all of a sudden his eyes glazed and he stopped responding to my blows. Not falling for that old trick, I pummeled him some more. But he hung unresisting like a punch bag. I looked up guiltily at the crowd to see if they thought I had killed him, but the same transformation had come over them. They all stood with glassy eyes focused at a point behind me. Slowly, I turned around.
Behind me stood Mr. Cherret, fully cloaked in his black garb, silent like a tall afternoon shadow. He held a cane partly in his robe sleeve. Then he said with dreadful calmness, “The office in five minutes.” He looked at his watch and left. He did not say who in the office in five minutes. We were to supply the details ourselves. Cherret was a calculating man, well steeped in the traditions of “British Diplomacy.” If he did not intend to use the cane until “the office in five minutes,” why did he bring it along? Was he giving pain time to prepare itself? Pretty itself up so that when it finally came, it would be memorable?
Soon after he left, the crowd animated like a stopped movie frame rolling back to life. Erikson and I were being coached on how to avoid the worst of the pain. “Cold water.” “Hot water.” “Think brick.” Five minutes later, Erikson, Hubble, and I sorrowfully trudged up to our doom. The crowd followed a good distance behind.
At the office, Mr. Cherret angrily nodded Hubble to a seat. Mr. Cherret never became angry in front of the boys. This looked like an act between him and Hubble. He picked up his switch and beckoned Erikson and me to follow him. The execution yard was outside in front of the locker room, where our jumping up and down and thrashing about would not break anything. A quick slice of the whip across the fingertips, then he left us. At first there was a numb message to the brain that something had gone wrong in the vicinity of the arms. Cherret had placed his whip exactly where the nerve endings are the most populous so that when the shock wore off, the maximum number of pain messages would be sent. Eriksen and I held our fingers between our legs and howled as we skipped about, trying to shake off the pain. While we pogo-sticked, I noticed that Erikson was trying to tell me something.
Hoarsely, with sheets of pain slicing over his teary, red eyes, he said, “Are you all right?”
Suddenly, I stopped being angry with him, making my tears run even faster. “Bloody hurts!” I said, laughing and crying at the same time. “Didn’t mean to kick you in the nose. Does it still hurt?
“Only my bollocks don’t hurt,” he smirked.
From then on, Erikson and I became the closest of friends, though I never joined his gang. Cracking pistachios, we discussed our families to our heart’s content, making the rest of that year in England some of the happiest days of my life. In the summer, we all went home. I told Mrs. Cherret that I would be coming back next year and that she should pack only my summer clothes. She said, “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” I said.
She suggested maybe she should at least pack my winter socks. I assured her I was coming back.
The BOAC craft came in for a night landing on a beautifully lit Tehran Dozens of my relatives were noisily waving at me from the visitors’ area. I waved back happily. Daryoosh was most enthusiastic in his huggings. As I was bounced and hugged and loved, I saw a child’s face in the crowd. How could I have forgotten him? He cold not write and I had not asked about him. As he caught my eyes I knew why. Suddenly, a year of blocked emotions burst to the surface. I rushed over and picked up my kid brother and hugged him and hugged him and hugged him, knowing that I had missed him so deeply that I would not have been able to bear it if I had remembered him.
He kept asking if I had seen Mother in England. They still hadn’t told him, hoping he would slowly forget. My brother and I were going to have a talk. I knew I would catch hell for it from Father. He had my respect, but neither he nor any of the relatives would ever bend me to accept that fearing his power is the same thing as surrendering to it. I would be sure to teach this lesson to my brother. It would be Mother’s gift to him from England.
I never went back to that boarding school. Life would lead me to other places in the world. Mrs. Cherret must have known that, for when I unpacked my suitcase, I noticed my winter socks had been packed, rolled into each other. One of the rolls was much bigger than the others. Curiously, I opened it and found tucked inside the ball that had been confessed.
From The Mullah With No Legs and Other Stories.
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