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The Egg-breaking Champion

2006-07-13 23:41

  “Juke, aren't you going to the fair this evening?” Mother asked late one afternoon.

  “Of course I'm going, Mother. After all, the temple fair comes only once a year.”

  “And this year the fair is quite special, you know,” Mother said. “There're all kinds of shows-movies and singing troupes and folk opera, and even shadow puppet plays. Why, there won't be time enough to see them all.”

  “How long does the fair last?”

  “There days, I think,” Mother said. “And what are you so busy doing there?”

  “I'm boiling an egg for the egg-breaking game at the fair.”

  Already Juke was thinking what it would be like. The temple compound would be very lively. Great throngs of people would come, not from their village alone but from other villages nearby, all dressed up in their best clothes and finery-necklace, earrings, and all kinds of other gold ornaments. The temple fair was a good chance to show off one's possessions. After all, it is not often that one has such an opportunity. And the boys would bring duck eggs from home or buy them at the fair to play the egg-breaking game.

  Soon it began to get dark. Putting his boiled egg carefully in his pocket, Juke went to meet his friends, whose names were Saeng, Koon, and Jorm. The four of them went to the temple.

  For a while they just walked around the compound, enjoying the sights and the bustle. They stopped to see a Manora dance that was just about to start. The dancers were supposed to be very good, and their performances always attracted many spectators, most of whom brought with them straw mats that they spread on the ground in front of the stage for their seats.

  After watching the dancing awhile, the four friends moved on to see a shadow-puppet play. Most of the audience here was made up of older people, and the boys didn't stay long. Somehow they seemed to be thinking of something besides plays and dances and they kept walking around.

  Presently they reached the stall that had boiled duck eggs for sale. This was the place they'd been aiming for all the time. Here many other young boys and children were crowding around the bowls of hard-boiled eggs, waiting their chance to buy. Were they all that hungry? Not a bit: the eggs were not for eating but were rather for the egg-breaking game, a kind of contest, a betting game for children using eggs instead of money. To contestants would each take an egg and hit them against each other. Usually one egg would be cracked, while the harder egg would stay whole. And the boy with the whole egg would win the cracked egg from his opponent. Occasionally both eggs would be cracked, and then the game would be a draw, each boy keeping his own egg.

  “Come on,” Jorm said, “let's get eggs and start the game.”

  “How much are the eggs?” Koon asked the stall owner.

  “Only one baht each,” answered the woman.

  The boys tried to choose the hardest eggs with the thickest shells. They examined many eggs closely before making their choices, and finally each boy bought the egg that looked best to him. Everyone picked an egg except Juke, who had brought his own egg from home.

  “Come on, Juke,” said Jorm, “I want to have a try against that egg of yours.”

  “All right, but who'll be bottom egg?”

  “I will,” said Jorm. So he placed his egg carefully in one hand, with the big round end up and held it out to Juke.

  Juke grasped his egg firmly, with the big end down. “Here goes!” h cried, raising his egg in the air. He was the winner, and he took Juke's broken egg as his prize.

  Turning to his other friends, Jorm said: “And who'll challenge me next?”

  “I will,” shouted Saeng, holding up the egg he'd chosen. “Just look! See how greenish my shell is? That mean's it is mighty hard. It'll break your egg for sure.”

  “All right,” said Jorm, “Just let's see. You be bottom egg.”

  So Saeng held his egg out. Smiling, Jorm stroked his egg lovingly and then brought it down hard on Saeng's egg.

  “Crack!” And it was Jorm's egg that was broken.

  “Ha!” cried Saeng gleefully, taking Jorm's egg. “I told you mine was better.”

  Juke brought another egg from the stall owner, and for a time the four friends kept playing the game. Nobody won or lost very much, but they kept buying new eggs and gradually accumulated quite a lot of broken eggs that they'd won from each other. Finally, gathering up all their broken eggs, they went to a food stall and had a delicious meal of rice, curry, and boiled eggs.

  When they were ready to make their separate ways home, they agreed they'd all bring their own eggs from home and meet at the fair next evening to continue their game.

  Late the next afternoon Juke built a fire in the yard and started boiling his egg. He was so absorbed in the process that his father asked: “What on earth are you doing, Juke?”

  “Boiling and egg for the egg-breaking game this evening.”

  His father laughed softly, casting his mind back to the days of his youth when he himself had been an eager player of the same game. Now, he loved juke dearly, always looking after him and teaching him with loving care what he ought to know. His dearest wish was that Juke should grow up to be a good man. So at this moment he was filled with hope that Juke would win the game that evening. He asked: “Do you think you have a good chance of winning?”

  “I'm not too sure, Father. Last night I lost my very first egg.”

  “Shall I tell you how to win?”

  “What, Father?”

  “When I was a boy I used to play this game, too. Whenever there was a village gathering, we boys would take boiled eggs along. It was really great fun in those days because we played against boys from other villages, too. Sometimes I would win dozens of eggs in one evening.”

  “You must have had some secret, Father,” Juke said excitedly. “What was it? Tell me.”

  “The secret is in the way you boil the egg. If you want your egg to be tough, not brittle, you must boil it for a long, long time. Keep it boiling as long as you can, and the shell will become hard as rock. Of course, it won't be very good to eat later, but you'll win so many other eggs that you won't care about that. Take my advice, and I promise you'll be the champion this evening.”

  That evening Juke met his friends at the egg stall. “Well, now Jorm,” h said, “I'm ready for a return match.”

  “Sure,” said Jorm. “If you think you're so smart, you can certainly have a try. But let me warn you that I have something pretty good here.”

  So the game began again. Juke was bottom egg. Again came the “Crack!” and Juke's face was wreathed in a broad grin: his egg had won this time. Jorm looked quite put out, because he had been so confident of winning.

  “Who'll challenge me next?” said Juke, looking around at his friends.

  “Me,” said Koon, taking an egg out of his pocket.

  Once more Juke's egg was on the bottom, and again Juke won. He went on playing with other friends from his village, winning many, many eggs. Finally he felt so bold that he decided to challenge someone from a different village.

  “Hey, big brother, how about having a go with me?” he said to an older boy from a nearby village.

  This boy had been playing the game with friends all evening and winning constantly. Evidently he was an old and skilled hand at the game. “Delighted,” he said, taking Juke's egg and weighing it in his hand. Then he said: “Well, it feels heavy enough, but mine's harder.”

  “Let me be top egg, please, big brother?”

  “All right,” said the older boy holding out his egg.

  Juke lost no time. Down came his egg, and there was a usually loud “Crack!” How the faces of Juke and his friends fell when they saw that his egg was broken. But in a moment they all starting smiling again: the older boy's egg was broken too. So the game was a draw, and neither boy lost his egg.

  The older boy smiled, patted Juke on the shoulder, and said: “We too are the champions tonight, and you're just as good as I am, young brother. But you can have my egg, because you're really one of the best egg breakers anywhere.”

  How proud Juke felt. Walking in front of all his friends, he led them to the eating stall and shared his eggs with them all. Everyone kept asking Juke what his secret was, but he only smiled knowingly and shook his head.

  As he walked home that night, still smiling, he told himself: “Father's secret really works.” And he went to bed that night thinking of all the egg-breaking games he'd play in days to come. Thanks to his father, he'd be the champion of the countryside; he was sure of it.

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