Very early in the morning, too early, through the partition, he hears her trying to jump rope on the cement floor of the gym, the gym that serves as their house and her training center. He wakes to the slapping of flesh against floor, and the swoosh of rope cutting through still air. The sun is shining directly onto his face. Already it is too humid to move—he is sweating. Her breathless counting as she jumps—never more than three times in succession—and her mutterings for strength keep him awake. He gets up and ambles to a wool material draped across wire to peer out at her. He made the door for them when he noticed the men watching her budding breasts.
She is diligent this morning, meticulous in her preparation. She is every day. This is the quality he lacked as a fighter. He didn't have the humility she has. They share fragility, however. He judges, from the way she is favoring her right leg, that she is carrying an injury.
She is his only family, his only grandchild, a girl: the unfortunate female inheritor of his propensity for combat; his cast-iron will to win; and his tendency toward soft, pliable bones. She is on a self-induced, highly concentrated exercise program—twice as hard as usual—to prepare for her next bout in the gambling capital of the country. The purse will be more than ten times her total earned prize money. Fighting in the poor, rice-farming Thai heartland is not a lucrative endeavor. She told him once before that she wanted to be the first female Muay-Thai fighter to become a national hero, the pulse of a passionate nation, much like he was nearly half a century prior. She has been doing morning and evening workouts since she was four years old. Now, she is the big-ticket draw around the countryside, fighting girls twice her size, nearly twice her age, and winning convincingly. She is only twelve.
For the past two weeks she has been punishing herself, eating only one meal and swallowing gallons of water to fill her stomach. With the intensity of her training, six meals a day would sustain her. He's afraid of her being malnourished, but he trusts her resolve. According to Thai folklore, bad luck haunts any female who enters the ring. He has a recurring nightmare that she will be killed during a bout. Every day he wants to force her to retire. Yet, he is fascinated watching her ruthless mastery of the sport. For him it is strange to see the beast that had lived inside him so many years ago thrive inside this little girl host cell.
The goal she has set for herself in the next match is realistic and attainable: win the fight by knockout and earn at least 20,000 baht, all of which will be put aside to fund the move to Bangkok to find her father. A family reunion, she has told her grandfather, is the outside hope. What she hasn't told him: finding her father is the sole reason she has not retired from the sport in search of a more feminine way to earn money. When her grandfather is not around she listens to the conversations of the men in the gym. Girl fighters are accepted. Women fighters are retired. She has never been defeated. Consensus in the countryside is that she is the best—male or female. But she is worried that her body is betraying her. No matter how brilliant a fighter she is, once she matures the money will dry up. She knows the betting public is fickle and especially critical of female Muay-Thai fighters, even if she is Tuk Yao-Yun, granddaughter of once beloved warrior Tao Yao-Yun.
Tao accepted his handicap some time ago. His leg may have well been wooden: stiff from too many operations, too many well-placed knee attacks by the opponents. The pain is constant. This morning it is more pronounced. But he pushes past the dull ache. He must transition from grandfather to trainer quickly. Their morning ritual is simplified by the fact that there is nothing to eat. He folds his cot and dresses quickly. When it was painfully apparent that he could not work in the fields to support himself, Tao swallowed his pride and came to the countryside to live with his daughter and her husband. That was a decade before Tuk was born. After successfully giving birth, her mother disappeared.
Tao had never really considered his daughter Mai until after she was gone. She was pretty, so she was taken advantage of and robbed away from home, most likely by a man who recognized her beauty and fragility and wanted to make her his wife. She probably didn't put up a fight if he was rich. Tao never blamed her for improving her station in life, if that were the scenario. After what he had done to her, his own flesh and bone, she had a right to be angry; if absconding was her measure of exacting revenge, he had been masterfully duped. After Mai's absence began to feel normal, and he learned to soothe his granddaughter, the old man envisioned his daughter living an opulent life. It was the only way he could lift his spirit enough to raise the child. Mai was alive in his imagination, wearing a silk gown and gliding from room to room in her castle until her being rich became his reality. This was better than thinking she was captured, raped and sold, or murdered.
Mai's mother died during childbirth. When he had to bundle Mai up and take her home without his wife, Tao tried to love her; but every time he saw her, he saw her mother. Past his prime, fighting gave him the excuse to give the child to his barren sister. Mai had written him letters as a young girl to which he seldom responded.
Tuk's father remarried and moved to Bangkok before she learned to crawl, leaving Tao the responsibility of caring for his granddaughter alone. Because he could not work, Tao agreed to train young fighters at the village training facility by day, giving him and Tuk a place to sleep at night. Life with no money and no earning capacity got the better of him. On a hunch he put Tuk into the ring before she was ready for school, and he taught her nearly everything he knew when he was in his prime. She came with virtues he wished he could have known—the patience needed to defeat a skilled opponent; conservation of energy; improvisational skill. With his experience and strategic approach she flourished. It was he who challenged local parents to bring their kids to the gym to fight Tuk; he who, balancing himself on the wooden cane, wagered the very first baht on his tiny granddaughter. Her success made him want to pretend that she was his grandson; when her arms were raised in victory he saw himself. In those moments he could not love her more.
When he emerges from their room ready to begin the morning workout Tuk is already sparring with her partner Nham-Pet, a sixteen-year-old girl. Nham-Pet is beginning to develop a reputation. On many a balmy night, Tao has seen her sauntering out of the rice fields with young men from the next town over. The old man knows enough to start a search for another sparring partner before this one can teach Tuk her brand of womanhood.
Nham-Pet is standing flat-footed and throws a slow left jab. Tuk spots an opening and counterattacks with the daze kick: grabbing Nham-Pet's arm in mid punch, she throws her strong leg over the girl's arm, and issues fast, hard blows to the side of her head. Letting go, Tuk immediately launches an offensive attack, the blitzkrieg: three sharp jabs and a spinning back fist to the jaw. Stunned, Nham-Pet drops her guard and is vulnerable. Tuk rises from the ground, completes a 360-degree revolution, and lands the definitive blow—a foot to the girl's face: the crescent kick. Nham-Pet is on her back.
The old man is envious. This three-part attack his granddaughter executes flawlessly was his own finishing move. He was never disciplined enough to complete it regularly. Tao told her about his finishing combination but never expected her to perform it better than he ever had. He thought she would respectfully ask him to teach her what he considered his signature offensive onslaught. This is stealing, he thinks. It's emblematic of the unruliness the sport encourages and evidence that she is becoming calcified, like a man. Today she is intense, bloodthirsty, as if she is racing an imaginary clock.
In the second round there is no noise from physical exertion save for slap of skin-on-skin when Tuk attacks. Tao watches the narrative of the silent film unfold. The girls' cheeks are ruddy with effort. The warm morning has taken effect: Tuk's short, black bangs are plastered to her forehead, and her shoulder blades swim in pools of sweat at the back of her shirt. He thinks she looks like a boy standing next to Nham-Pet, whose hips are wide. He had contemplated making Tuk fight as a boy for a handsome purse, but she would never have passed the entrance physical into a legitimate tournament.
Tao finds himself studying Tuk's changing body on a daily basis. Mature girls fight, but they don't make nearly the money men make. With breasts and hips Tuk will be slow, weak, a shadow of her ferocious warrior self. Little girls are successful because they are indistinguishable from their male counterparts: the same level of testosterone courses through their veins. The girls in particular have hips that are narrow and strong, yet supremely flexible; their strength-to-weight ratio is astounding; and their reflexes are on par with that of a predatory animal. In a sport that requires strategy, a girl athlete can read the situation and respond accordingly. This is where she trumps her boy counterparts. Outside of men, young girls are the best athletes in the world. A coach would only need to shore up the emotional shortcomings that all children work to control. Because Tuk has never known her parents, she is steely, stoic, and desperate to prove her worth. These physiological and social elements have combined to create a staggeringly perfect Muay-Thai storm. She is the best, bar none. So, it is profoundly unnerving for Tao that Tuk is straddling a gender fault line that she will soon cross. Her career, as far as he is concerned, will die once she cannot conceal her womanhood. Any day it will happen.
Tao expects a roadblock that will send them falling backward once again, but tries to preempt it.
"I saw you favoring your right leg in your finishing move. You are hurt from the last fight," he accuses. If Tuk cannot fight and win he knows they will never recover their savings and she should consider marriage.
"I'm just trying to prevent injury," she reassures. She has overheard the men talking and knows he wants to leave the farmland for good after the fight. She also knows there are no opportunities, besides prostitution, for women in this pastoral place and her fighting days are numbered. No Thai man wants to see a budding Thai woman fighting. If she leaves the ring, she'll have to entertain marriage offers.
Nham-Pet told her to start binding her chest before her grandfather noticed the swelling. She also showed Tuk how to purge to stay slim and androgynous. "Be careful," the girl told Tuk. "Never trust a man."
Tao surveys the girls. Nham-Pet is crass and unpolished: from her hunched shoulders to her wide, smacking-sugarcane mouth; and the way she makes direct eye contact with men. Her large breasts have slowed her considerably. She is not the same fighter she was before puberty. But she spars because she can stay in shape and earn a few baht without having to shuck rice. Tuk overcame her challenges rather easily today. Tuk has a double advantage, he believes: she has the brawn of a warrior but the cunning slipperiness of a snake, too. When they spar, Tuk exemplifies the mastery of a man at the height of his craft: she is calculated and unrelenting and supremely skilled. In the ring, Tuk becomes someone the likes of which he has never seen. He isn't sure where it comes from; it is not just his competitive spirit but a fire that is innate. It intimidates him.
The walk to the bus stop from the training center is two kilometers on red clay road. Tao accompanies his granddaughter every morning, and he picks her up after school. He wants to keep watch to make sure the conversation with Nham-Pet is predominantly ring strategy. Tao has been waiting to talk to Tuk about her father, but does not know how she will react. With every fight, he sees her harden a little more, pace to and fro like a caged tiger, become more resolute and self-assured; and it is harder to connect with her.
Tuk knows he wants to talk, so she initiates. "Have you sent the letter I wrote last week?" she asks.
"Yes. How was the last letter you received from him?"
"Very nice. My father has a son and a daughter. Lucy is six. Joey is two. I get to be a big sister," she says, excitedly. "Can you believe it? I wonder if Lucy is a fighter. I can teach her some moves," she says, the exuberance of youth bubbling to the surface.
She told her grandfather once that she had to concentrate on shaping her fighting mentality and didn't have time for mindless chatter, but today she is making up for lost years.
She looks up, waiting for his response, but there is nothing.
Tuk recognizes the glazed over look in Tao's face: his mind is occupied with some other narrative. He has been drifting away more regularly. Tuk is afraid he may have spotted her breasts and given up on her as a fighter. She fought as hard as she could this morning. Partly, she is training for the next fight; partly, she is trying to recapture her grandfather's attention. Her world is changing and she's frightened. Her body has never belonged singularly to her; it belonged to the sport, to her grandfather's legacy. Now that it's changing, people are suggesting the next logical step will be to promise her body to a man. She'd like to discuss her next move, talk about how long she can sustain fighting at a high level before she becomes a woman. Tuk thinks she can fight and win for three to six more months before she has to make a decision. She'd also like to discuss how marriage works. But the only thing she can do right now—she reasons—is fight for her life.
"Having a family will be nice," she says wistfully.
Tao's mind wanders above his granddaughter's chatter. He's wondrously reliving that beautiful combination Tuk unveiled this morning and questioning how long she worked to perfect it in secret. If he had mastered that move, he would have a different life. He would have a house in Bangkok with a wife and a mistress, and money at his disposal. He would have become an ambassador or a state official after his fighting career—this was the fate of the great fighters before him. With Tuk's temperament, he would have easily been there, in his alternate reality, instead of poor and languishing in this rural place. His manhood—his heart and independence—is nonexistent now: it rests in the girl. He is fully aware that Tuk is the breadwinner in the family. He is ashamed to be dependent on her. Outside of being her trainer, he can see no concrete evidence of how he enriches her life. Tao suspects she would have become a skilled fighter without his tutelage, because at her core she is an intrepid competitor. She doesn't need him.
He knows how desperate Tuk is to reunite with her father, but the old man can't help but feel entitled to a hefty recompense for being conscripted as her caretaker. He had thought about letting her die alone, after her parents disappeared, but he stayed. Daily he reminds himself of the struggle that is his life because of a moment of compassion felt when looking into a baby's face. With the window of her prime fighting years closing before his very eyes, he desperately wants to get her to Phuket for one last bout. She has been good for a very long time and is due from the universe her just reward. He can't help but feel expectant for the moment in Phuket as if it is his own. The bout at the casino will be her crowning glory, the fight of her life.
In a flash, Tao is faced with his culpability in the situation:
Tuk's father sends all of her letters back, unopened. He wants nothing to do with his little girl. She is the sole representative of the life he left behind. Tao is the one who responds. He is the one who tells her how much he loves her and that he is saving baht for her to move to Bangkok; the one who tells her to stay in the ring to earn money for her reunion expenses. He is the one that signs all of the letters, "Love Daddy," and the one who calls her "Tukky." He is the culprit. The most painful part for Tao is not that Tuk is unwanted, but that he has to witness her joy each time she receives another forged letter.
Tuk's humming brings him back to their conversation.
"What will you do if you lose?" Tao asks somberly, shaking the guilt from his conscience. "Will you retire from fighting?"
Before she can answer he offers his own dour advice: "If you do not win, you should quit."
Accustomed to these swings in his mood Tuk is diplomatic: "Fighting for me is not about winning or losing. I love it with everything I have," she says earnestly. Then, as if it is occurring to her for the first time, she whispers, "It's my art."
"But you are a girl. The fighting is not the same. You are disgracing yourself by fighting through the transition from masculine to feminine. You are disgracing me. Worse, you will taint my name if you lose. And what will become of your career when you meet a man and he wants you to stop fighting? You are almost marrying age. Fighting is not a woman's work," Tao chastises her.
"In the ring, I do my best as a fighter: I kick, I punch, use my elbows and knees like a boy. But once I get down from the ring I transform into who I am, a girl," she answers apologetically, head down, the giddy talk a distant memory on the clay road.
"But when you find someone to take care of you, someone who wants a wife, he will not want a wife with bruises and cuts, and a hurt right leg," he says, raising a graying eyebrow.
Tuk pauses momentarily, wrestling with her thoughts before responding respectfully, yet pointedly:
"My scars are my beauty marks. They are reminders of how I had to battle to survive. I'm a fighter; not a girl, not a boy: a warrior. It's nonsense to change myself for a man I don't even know. Marrying a man doesn't mean he'll love me enough to take care of me. I love me. Why can't I take care of myself?"
The bus stop is a cleared patch of flatland alongside the road of red clay. There is a bench under a shelter constructed to protect the children from the rain as they wait. This deliberate space overlooks an expansive rice field where the old man spots younger, more able-bodied men working in the paddies: a bucolic scene, peaceful. They are enforcing the walls lining various sections of rice that guide water to sectors situated on sloping land.
Distantly, Tuk hears the symphony from this morning's sparring session: the percussive slap from a timely strike; a chorus of grunts highlighting effort; rhythmic patter of bare feet on the mat. Muay-Thai, she believes, is her birthright. But it is an arena controlled by domineering men. She realized she had to understand them. Talking with Nham-Pet, Tuk learns about the ways of the opposite sex. The older girl explains the way they smell, the sturdiness in their shoulders, and how they use their tongues. Tuk always listens, enraptured, hoping she never has to have her own slippery-tongued man. The boys at school are beginning to treat her differently, like a toy. They dote on her; ask to hold her sweaty palm in theirs. There was a time, she remembers, when she was bigger and stronger than them all.
Waiting for the school bus, she smells of the peppermint liniment that he massages into her legs after workouts. Her bangs are plastered to her forehead again, humidity providing no respite after a tough training session at dawn. Silently, he can concede that at twelve years old and female, she is a better fighter than him. She will never get the respect she deserves because of her sex; and her season for prosperity is now. He grieves for her because this could possibly be the best time of her life—she has skill, purpose, and is celebrated wherever she goes. However, he is more present for her golden era than she is. She's only a little girl, but a Muay-Thai master: in his opinion, the best there ever was. Unfortunately, her fast-approaching womanhood is bent on undoing everything she's worked toward. Despite the brewing storm of uncertainty, Tao takes solace in what he knows to be true: Tuk is in full bloom.
The schoolhouse is a thatched-roof lean-to with four mud walls and matching square cut-out windows. The desks aren't desks—hollowed skeletons of once-living trees that had been chopped, split, gutted and smoothed. The teacher's desk—a traditional one—sits on four bricks and has many drawers to hold confiscated student possessions. Mainly, these children waft in through the front door glistening with sweat from morning work on rice farms; they are well-behaved and welcome the departure from manual labor under the antagonizing sun to sit, rest tired limbs, and learn.
Pakpao, the schoolteacher, is an unsmiling woman with a heavily lined forehead hiding under a thick, black mane. A frail woman in her thirties with a knit shawl constantly draped over her shoulders, she never gives the impression that she is fraying or distressed or empty. She simply presses forward day after day, through inclement weather, through celebration, sickness, or death. She has been the schoolteacher for at least a decade. Along the way she stopped counting the number of disappeared young women. She never chases the girls; that would be futile. They eventually reappear wading through rice paddies with newborns balanced on their hips. If you want to leave the impoverished countryside, you must take each opportunity—even if it is on the back of a broad-shouldered, shifty man with pockets full of baht. Unfortunately for the girls, most paths to freedom are oases that dry up when empty promises from lazy men stop flowing. If a girl is to leave for the city honorably, she must do so on the strength of her brain. This is why Pakpao watches Tuk carefully. Yes, the girl is making a name for herself because of her physical skill, but her cleverness will facilitate her leap from country to city. Her mind will be the muscle that sustains her.
Pakpao noticed when Tuk's mind began to wander to the windows instead of diligently focusing on algebra. She witnessed the boys' doting on Tuk and how her cheeks rosed in embarrassment. Pakpao spied Tuk's newfangled gait—hunched waist, bent hips—and she knew she was trying to hide her breasts. Up until this point, Tuk's path defied logic. Instead of being led into the paddies by boys, she fought all challengers and grew her legend to stand outside of her grandfather's shadow. The woman marveled at the gifted Muay-Thai fighter and had paid to see her compete on numerous occasions. According to Pakpao, Tuk's steely resolve transcends her age like she has lived before.
Pakpao had experienced her own blaze of warrior's glory. She was a good fighter but it was short-lived. Her own father retired her. But with her winnings he built this school to give her purpose while keeping her away from the hospitality business. He saved her life.
She knows how vengeful the men in the sport can be. After dismissing the children, she keeps Tuk behind long enough to hug her; to remind her of the importance of defense in the ring; and to crumple 4,000 baht she managed to save into the girl's knapsack.
"Don't tell him you have this," she whispers into Tuk's ear during one final embrace. "Fight like hell."
In Pakpao's eyes, Tuk is primed to make her break.
Because there are no major roadways in the Thai countryside, the 150 mile trek to Phuket is a circuitous two-day journey. The old man and his granddaughter arrive on Phuket Island by boat and elect to take a taxi ride to Phuket City, the gambling and resort capital, where she will fight. The cab driver is a nice man with an easy smile and expressive almond-shaped eyes. He takes time to ask Tao questions about his business in Phuket. When told that Tao is in the city for the bouts, the driver has a strong opinion.
"I watch all kinds of Muay-Thai, but I can't gamble on the women. Women are weak. It's no fun to watch. It helps to see beautiful faces, but not bloodied beautiful faces," the cab driver reasons. "If they were like the girls in bikinis who carry cards in between rounds, I could watch that. But when they get aggressive with twisted mouths, it is unnatural."
"What do you think of little girls—the ones that are not women yet?" Tao asks, directing the conversation.
"They are fine, and some are amazingly skilled," the driver says, his voice rising in excitement. "I would bet on the pre-pubescent girls because that is when they are most like boys. That is when they are at their athletic peak. But, when they get older, they are polluted with estrogen and they are not the fighters they once were."
Tuk knows this type of man. She has seen him at her fights. He has placed bets in anticipation of her victories. He has come to watch her spar against teenage boys, given her words of encouragement. In the past she was comfortable with these men. She saw them as father figures and listened to their advice. On the trek to what she now considers will be her last competitive bout, with the feminine energy claiming her chiseled body, she has never felt more estranged from these once-familiar men.
"Yes, I see," the old man says.
"So, what is your direct business with the fighting? Are you a trainer or something? Or do you own a club of fighters?" the driver asks expectantly, trying to guess before the answer comes.
"My grandson and I are going to hopefully win some big money," Tao says.
Seeing Tuk's flustered expression he puts a hand on her knee for reassurance.
"If you know the fighter's ability you can win tons of money," the cab driver says, grinning. "There should be some really good fights this weekend. I hear there is some underground girl fighting, too. You will like that." He lowers his voice to a confidential whisper: "An American girl is going to fight a Thai girl. The Thai girl is supposed to be Yao-Yun's granddaughter. I have heard stories about him. He was the best Muay-Thai fighter in history. My father has told me many times."
Tao beams with pride. "Have you seen this American girl?"
"No. But she is favored three to one as of yesterday," the driver says. "I may go see if this local girl is really a descendant of Yao-Yun, and I'm going to take my camera just in case he is there watching."
Looking in his rear view mirror as if he's seeing the child for the first time, the driver asks, "How old are you little guy?"
Tuk, steadied by her grandfather's reassuring touch, plays along familiarly. "Nine."
"Have you ever been to Phuket before?"
"What do you think so far?"
"It's very big."
"Well, I'll show you some fun stuff along the way to Phuket City. There's Bang Pae Waterfall and Kathu Waterfall and Sirinart National Park."
"Okay," Tuk says, managing a half smile. She catches a glimpse of herself in the window and hunches over, concealing her new breasts. She didn't bind tightly enough before the trip as evidenced by her nipples poking through the tape.
"What do you think of female Muay-Thai fighters?"
"To be a good girl, you must have manners, speak politely, and help with housework," Tuk says, lowering her baseball cap over her eyes.
His granddaughter is last on the card. After she weighs in, Tao is instructed to take her to the locker room to prepare. The room is downstairs, in the basement, close to the Phuket Sea. Waves crash down on the expensive beach as he rubs Tuk's legs with peppermint liniment. When she was a small girl she said it made her smell like an angel. He takes her through the ritual: stretch, jump rope, shadow boxing, mental imagery. Tuk is sullen and unusually rigid after the cab ride. She didn't like pretending to be a boy or hearing everything the driver had to say about female Muay-Thai fighters. Maybe Tuk is trying to forget her breasts to fight with no inhibition, so he leaves her to concentrate.
Tao Yao-Yun approaches the betting station:
"What are the odds for the last fight on the card, the girl Muay-Thai fighters?" he asks.
"The American girl is favored 8:1 against the Thai girl," the gentleman in a red vest at the desk says, matter-of-factly.
"8:1? Don't these people know that this girl is the granddaughter of Yao-Yun?" he asks incredulously, thinking his legacy would carry more weight in the betting.
Betters bustle into lines counting money and praying to imaginary gambling gods, awaiting their turn to tempt fate.
"This is the birthplace of Muay-Thai fighting," Tao says. "What advantage could an outsider have over a home-grown girl?"
The man in the vest searches Tao's face for a hint of a smile, but realizes he's being earnest in his questioning: "Training facilities, medical attention, and a cadre of coaches—not to mention potential prize money, stipends, dormitories, endorsements, and sports agents."
The old man stands there stunned, as if he never considered his preparation and knowledge could be trumped. This, he learns, is the star-spangled machine that has crushed so many fledgling hopes before. He struggles to maintain his balance on the walking stick.
Seeing Tao's overwhelmed expression, the clerk leans forward and anxiously offers his personal opinion about the situation. "He is supposed to be his granddaughter's coach, but what does he know about Muay-Thai fighting now? He is obsolete," the vested gentleman says. "The American girl is reigning World Champion. She has 42 wins and 4 losses for her career. Smart money is on her because—"
"I want to put 9,000 baht on girl Yao-Yun," Tao says defiantly.
The man behind the counter is troubled but honors the wager. "Yes sir," he says, shaking his head at the foolish old man.
In the casino a graying gentleman, the one that arranged the fight, pulls Tao aside to finalize their conditional agreement. Tao evades, telling him to check with the front desk of the hotel because the hospitality business is a staple here. The man looks confused:
"No. I want you to verbally acknowledge our agreement."
"She is my granddaughter!" Tao protests helplessly.
"You understood the conditions when you accepted the invitation. You asked me for this, remember?" Smoothing over the situation, the man begins again. "As the owner of this establishment and out of respect for your impact on the sport, here are my terms: If she wins you'll get the winnings from the bet you placed and 7% of the money the house makes tonight; if she loses, I'll give you one million baht for her."
"She is not for sale."
"Don't pretend you aren't a selfish bastard the night of the fight," the man says, patting his pockets for a cigarette. "It's a little late for stage fright."
"This is wrong. I won't go through with this," Tao says, firmly.
"What other option do you have?" the man asks, firing his cigarette with a solid gold lighter. "Are you going to go back to the countryside to fight for peanuts? How long does she have left before you retire her? We both know you won't allow her to fight under your name when she becomes a woman. After you pull her from the ring, what choice will she have in choosing a profession? That'll be decided for her when she's kidnapped. If she's stolen, where will that leave you? Better to make sure you'll be taken care of by parting with her now. She's incredibly skilled and her beauty is on par with her talent. With her looks and athleticism—and with a hand-selected husband—the next generation of great Muay-Thai fighters will be housed in her womb. She's worth twice her weight in gold."
Tao only glares at the polished gentleman, his silence acknowledging the truths from the speech.
"If I didn't know you any better I'd think her fighting career was one long audition for a marriage whose terms you'd orchestrate," the silver-haired man says through puffs of smoke. "So it's a go then."
Tao exhales, resolute with the next step.
"I'll give you two million if she's not bloodied and beaten too badly. Nobody likes a beautiful, bloody face."
Tuk sits, draped in her robe, hands taped into boxing gloves, head in a meditative hang, waiting to go on. She is chanting when Tao enters. The flashing red lights outside advertising the casino give her a blinking halo. The image stops him in his tracks. He thinks she looks feminine, fragile, like her mother and grandmother; and he knows: she is a woman now.
Tao approaches Tuk solemnly. He would have liked this last solitary moment with his grandchild to mean something; he wants to express to her how special a fighter she is; how much faith he has that she will collect the scalp of the reigning world champion tonight. A talent like Tuk's cannot be replicated, he wants to reassure her.
Awaking from her trance, she is concerned by his pained expression: "What is it? Something's wrong."
His voice is a hollow monotone. "If you do not win we get nothing and we have spent our entire life savings just to get here."
"Yes, I know. I will do my best."
"If you do not win, your father will be disgraced and he will not want to see you," the old man says, his voice cracking a bit.
"Yes, I know. I will make him proud."
"If you do not win, you can't come home right away. There is a man I want you to meet. He has promised to show you the city lights up close."