Friday afternoon in Puntas, a tiny town in the hills above Rincón. Cars are pulled off the twisting road at haphazard angles under falls of purple vines and wild hibiscus. Thin hairless dogs thread through the traffic. As we file into the small stadium, a woman rocks and watches from her pink cement porch next door.
I met Eddie yesterday at the seaside shrine of Saint Carmen, patron saint of fishermen. We got to talking near his small boat pulled up on the beach under rattling palms. I bought a red snapper. Eddie mentioned the cockfights, allowed as how I could see one if I wanted. Now, in this small cement block building with its blue-and-white grandstands, its smoky cafeteria, and a bar with bottles arranged beneath a mirror in bargello fashion, it strikes me there’s something familiar here, though I’ve never sat on peeling bleachers waiting for a cockfight to begin.
The men arrive carrying their roosters tucked under an arm, close to the chest. The shiny birds seem calm, almost docile. The men draw chips out of a glass jar hoping their birds will fight early while they’re still fresh. The cocks are placed in plastic boxes stacked in rows.
The shallow ring—a pit measuring twenty feet in diameter—is filled with milling spectators waiting for the next match. Some are young men in jeans and fluorescent t-shirts, but most are older, sober in their pressed pants, embroidered cotton shirts and shined shoes. Everyone is talking, moving about, gesturing like brokers on the floor of a tropical stock exchange. Two men in their midst put their birds into two blue cloth bags, which are hung on a scale to demonstrate their equal weight. The crowd moves into the stands. The handlers remain, thrusting the birds at each other, making kissing noises. The roosters brighten, become alert and wary. Around them, the betting proceeds, each man shouting his wager at another until each deal is struck.
One man brings his bird forward, holds it at arm’s length. The official dips a square of cloth in water and rubs it along the bird’s shaved legs, along its wings, around its shoulders, opens the beak and squeezes a few drops down its gullet. The bird drinks to its own health, for if its feathers had been poisoned against its opponent, the bird itself would die. The process is repeated on the second bird. Then a clear cage is lowered from the ceiling, coming to rest on the dusty red rug of the ring. The official blows his whistle into the mike. The cage ascends. There is an instant of quiet before the cocks—one white, one black—fly at each other with beak and spur. Then noise is everywhere. Like heat. Men shouting above the loud, scratchy, amplified voice of the announcer. The two cocks in the middle of the ring circle and jab, neck feathers fanned, blood beginning to stain their heads and shoulders.
I go to buy a piña and look around. There’s an outer ring behind the stands and a room walled off by slats in one section. In it there is a wooden platform like a cobbler’s bench or a stationary seesaw. At one end sits a man with matches in his mouth, surrounded by little pots of glue, thimbles of thin twine, a knife. At the other end an old man turns his rooster on its side and proffers it. Skillfully, the man with the matches puts a spur—a natural one or a metal gaff depending upon the agreement between opponents—deep into the spot on the rooster’s leg where its own spur once grew. The new spur is secured by hot glue and wrapped with gauze and twine. The rooster will not risk a broken spur in a fight; this one is removable, replaceable. The smell of glue mingles with the waft of empanadillas frying. Another man waits, holding a bird and a can of Medallia. No one seems to mind me.
Eddie isn’t fighting a bird today. He appears happy to instruct me. He sips his beer while he details the ingredients in an ideal rooster diet, the techniques of massage to toughen the skin, the price of vitamins, the intricacies of betting, the techniques of training and exercising a young bird, the time it takes to nurse a victorious cock back into fighting condition. I’m learning. Eddie smiles when he sees this.
“Look at that!” my father would cry as we sat together in front of the black-and-white TV late on a Friday night. “Did you see that jab? Look at him move!” But it wasn’t the boxers who kept me riveted to the set; I could never really tell one from the other as they danced in the ring, dodging and feinting. It was my father. He was all I cared about. And if I hung around long enough, perhaps I would discover the secret about the mysterious world of men.
Fighting cocks in cages and domestic roosters in neighboring yards crow in turn. The sky is huge and pale over the greens of palm trees and the light greens of cane fields. All afternoon I have watched bloody birds flying at one another. The spectacle does not alarm me. I accept it the same way I accepted the sight of glistening young men pounding each other with gloved hands.
The woman on the pink porch turns and goes indoors, perhaps to prepare a meal.
Marie Harris was NH Poet Laureate from 1999-2004. She co-produced the first-ever gathering of state poets laureate. She has been a Visiting Writer at the Vermont Studio Center, where she has also been granted fellowships. She is the author of 4 books of poetry, including the prose poem memoir, Your Sun, Manny (2nd edition, with Epilogue; White Pine Press, 2010). She is co-editor of An Ear to the Ground: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (with Kathleen Aguero; Univ. of Georgia Press). Her children’s books include G is for Granite & Primary Numbers (Sleeping Bear Press) and The Girl Who Heard Colors (A Nancy Paulsen Book; Penguin, 2013).