It’s been years since I really thought about going home. The sense of being out-of-place has become comfortable and familiar, like a heavy blanket in a cold room. It’s the old world that has started to seem strange. I can’t remember anymore the crisp cool air of those nights when winter is marshalling its strength for siege. I can’t really recall a world without sticky, sweat soaked sheets, without falling asleep watching the blades on the ceiling fan turn like hands on a clock.
The circuit here is mostly a second chance for washed up British and Australian fighters. Those left by the war or those who turn up on their own. It’s a simple, coarse sort of race war happening in the ring each night. The most popular bouts are those between British and Chinese fighters: hirsute, muscled giants tumbling about the ring trying to tag a smaller, darker version of themselves.
In seven fights, not one hand was ever laid on Cheuk Kei Ho. The bookies said he was a willow in the wind: floating, gliding away from every attempt to reach him. They said he had a halo of light around him that you could see in the dark; a magic shield that kept him from touch.
The first hit he took was also the last and I was there for that too. I saw Nichols duck under the ropes and pick up the stool. I saw it rising up behind Cheuk Kei’s head as his gloves were being untied. I saw him go down; saw his eyes roll back into his head and the shadow under his bony shoulders as they held his back up off the floor.
His brother Funza was born slow and his parents told him that he owed his gifts to his brother’s deficit. Accepted at seven to the Shiritah Temple, he was the youngest full student in memory. The perception of children is unhindered when compared to adults, but Cheuk Kei was more than merely free from obstacles to perception. From that tender age he demonstrated a focus – a stillness – which monks with a lifetime of study and meditation fail to achieve. They hoped he would become a great spiritual light. Instead, at 16, he left to care for his brother after a fire orphaned them both.
I didn’t see his first three fights. When I heard about a ‘monk’ who wasn’t even old enough to shave, whose only corner-man was a retard half again his age, who had finished three fights without having a single hand laid on him, I assumed it was a fiction. A persona built like others: to raise attendance, to push the odds on him to more profitable territory.
His fourth fight was his first one in the main ring, in my realm. The others had been in the back rooms, the ones with wooden penned walls and low rows of benches covered in cigarette burns and stained with spilled beer. The main ring had ropes, not wood, tied into a square ring around the girders that held up the roof. There were real bleachers and fair sized crowds most nights. When the corner-men first came out to the floor, I couldn’t understand why the water boy was climbing into the ring. It was the water boy who raised his hand when the announcer introduced the fighters. There was no exaggeration. His ribs showed through the soft skin of his chest. His hair was cropped short and his eyes had heavy lids as though he was struggling to stay awake.
The best fighters have an almost mechanical tick to them, a quick-wired jumpy motion that lets them stop and start, duck and dodge from side stepping hooks and lowered jabs. Cheuk Kei’s motion had no feints, no testing. He was still. He flowed around the punches like water around a rock; his own attacks half-committed after-thoughts to his elegant motion.
The fight dragged out because his punches were too weak to make much of an impact. I could see why other fighters were angry with him, why they said he was mocking them. Lying on my med table after the fight they were utterly exhausted, but not really hurt. The harder they worked to put their hands on him the further off balance they found themselves. His fifth fight, against an Irishmen twice his weight, ended when the man knocked himself out, swinging so hard he tripped into the corner pole.
I examined Cheuk Kei before his sixth fight. He sat on the prep table, his legs hanging down, his eyes closed. His pulse and breathing were barely present and I checked my stethoscope on my own chest before returning it to his. For an hour before each fight he sat this way: waiting the call to be taken to the ring.
He told me that there are levels of awareness. Another way of saying that the existence of the world is richer or poorer for the manner in which we perceive it. Depth and detail depends on the manner in which we open ourselves to the world.
Cheuk Kei’s gift was the clearing of his mind. The ability to strip himself of filters and obstacles to experiencing the moment as it is. In this state, minutes could be like hours and each color divided into a thousand different shades, each strikingly distinct from the moment before and after. The red of his gloves under the ring lights changed as he dropped back and to the side around a cross. The red renewed brilliantly and beautifully as it moved through the air and again as it dully impacted his opponent’s side. Even the sound of the impact collapsed in his perception, dividing into a thousand distinct parts.
This was how he fought, how he wrapped himself around the violent motion of his opponents. He told me that with each fight his perception was only growing more vivid, more detailed. His difficulty now was not perceiving the blows before they struck him, but concentrating long enough to move himself out of the way. Twenty minutes of fighting passed for him as hours of constant and deep effort to move limbs whose nerves could not respond as quickly as his perception commanded.
Perhaps he heard the stool moving through the air as it came up behind him. I though he closed his eyes just before it struck. He was hit behind the left ear and dropped straight to the floor: his skull bouncing with a sickening pop off the concrete.
Back on my table his heart and breathing maintained their snail’s pace and we built a bed around him. When he woke two days later the powerfully rich perception that blessed him in the ring persisted. He was unable to stem the flood of details that poured into his mind. In the afternoon of the second day, I helped his brother take him home.
The two shared a room at the top of a seventh floor walkup in the shipping district. For the monks of Sheritah, seven is a mystical number. I visited them every few days, before the nights bouts. Cheuk Kei told me that with each passing day his perception only grew richer and fuller, his movement in the world feeling slower and slower. After a week even the walk down the stairs was too much. By the time we returned again to their room the toll of commanding his sluggish and uncooperative body had exhausted him. The colors and sounds and smells had overwhelmed him. He leaned against my shoulder and fell instantly asleep. Awaking an hour later, he was wholly refreshed. A day’s effort and rest in an early afternoon’s walk in the market. When I returned the following week, he had taken to his bed.
I began to visit each night after the benches emptied and the fighters had been patched up. The plaster ceiling was sagging and dark from a leaky roof. The lights of the city shown through the blinds, casting bars of light and shadow across Cheuk Kei’s face. With each visit his pulse and breathing slowed even more. His blood pressure dropped and circulation fled from his extremities. His voice diminished to an incomprehensible moan as syllables piled atop one another.
Sitting at home, I pressed my finger down on the center ring of a record as it spun, imagining what it must be like for Cheuk Kei to hear my voice. To attempt to pull words and phrases out of the endless groaning noises that emptied from my mouth.
Cheuk Kei ceased to speak or respond to speech the following week. At intervals he would try to communicate: brief, cluttered and strangled gasps, but chiefly he lay there while his eyes bounced tirelessly about their sockets absorbing the endless detail that unfolded to him in that dark and closeted room. Towards the end his hands and legs joined his eyes in the unconscious and compulsive twitching of a world dominated by perception.
We forget that our movement is neither exact nor precise. Our physical, kinetic existence is a constant process of adjustment; an interplay of sensory input and muscular output. There is an ongoing calculus of miniscule adjustments to throw a punch or say a word. Each movement is a test as well as a decision and we are constantly adjusting to the ball as it approaches, to our words as they leave our throat and enter the air. Remove or disable a part of the loop and the rest falls apart.
It wasn’t merely the length of focus that was necessary for coordinated movement that kept Cheuk Kei silent and still. It was the inability to hear in a comprehensible way what his body was telling him. He could no longer smooth all those individual moments into a single fluid movement. As his perception raced ahead each action was adjusted again and again, so many times that the end result was uncoordinated and broken. Like the deep and incomprehensible moan of the slowed record, his senses brought in information at a slower and slower pace relative to his consciousness which ran far ahead.
Our ears and eyes and nose are tools in the most basic physical sense and poor ones at that. It’s the mind that fills in the gaps. The mind constructs experience from the isolated inputs of our senses. Whatever had happened, Cheuk Kei’s tools were no longer calibrated to work with his experience of time: his world became a slow progression of increasingly detailed moments.
In the seventh week, on the seventh day, his brother helped him out the window. I wonder if he found some relief in the effortless movement of the fall or if even that had been reduced to a set of frames clicking past at a painfully slow pace.
I hope also that he was mistaken about the nature of his state. We spoke about it only once, the third day after he came home, the last day we walked in the market. He stood with his back to the sinking sun staring down with a somber look that seemed half horror, half wonder. At his feet an infant boy in a basket was wrapped tightly in blankets, tucked at the edge of a stall overflowing with fabrics and rugs. The baby’s eyes the sole movement of it’s tightly bound body. They clicked from object to object as each entered and exited his field of vision. Cheuk Kei stared as he often did: his eyes wide and unfocused, absorbing whatever vivid details were available only to him. The infant closed his eyes and Cheuk Kei turned away.
I believe that Cheuk Kei imagined the same future I did: a progression to a state of unchanging present; a world of such endless vibrant minutiae that the fluid action of human life would be lost.
The passage of time is the reduction of details. It’s a practical ignoring that allows us to act upon and in the world. For Cheuk Kei, each passing moment became more distinct. It was being parsed into smaller and smaller bits and as he drowned in those dazzling details, the ability to be something distinct from the world that he perceived was lost.
How many years passed by Cheuk Kei’s view in the seven weeks between his last fight and the window ledge? Did he ever reach the street at all? The end in sight, an inevitability except in terms of his own brilliant, dizzying experience of the moment? Was Cheuk Kei’s penance to hang suspended above the street, as time ground to a halt?
Whatever hunger or thirst, small ache or blinding light was momentarily present in my mind, was a constant state for him. The final grasp of his brother’s hand. The smell of the street wafting up from below. The dim light of the stars over the city. And as my life continues, as the seconds and minutes of each day move inexorably by, does he still hang there? Sleeping with eyes open and awakening to the same people and cars, street lights and pavement, release just out of reach?