We walk in with different attitudes. Trey is eager, I dubious, Alejandro, alert. He’s pretending to be an old hand. Trey has been talking about cockfights for months, and we’ve strolled in on his pesos—I planned not to have enough for this. We are tight from earlier and hoping not to sober up fast. We aren’t sure we have the money to stay this way, and at one-thirty in the morning, tomorrow’s workday looms. I spent last night with Lupe, so it’s two vigils in a row, though the focus is more on death tonight than what comes after.
Alejandro tells us we’ve missed the first set of fights and we keep our seats through a half-hour of arcane Mexican lotteries. Trey’s itching to put money on a bird, but he’ll wait until the raffle girls have finished. I expected a farmyard smell but it’s the same here as outside, the air untainted but as wet and heavy. The arena is tiered and while there are chairs around the broad flat top, most are sitting like us on the concentric concrete ledges that circle down to the pit in the center.
A pudgy campesino looks to be the referee, pacing in a sweatstained button-down open to his navel, stopwatch hanging like a narco medallion. Serious characters make the innermost ring, elbows propped on the retaining wall. They whisper to each other in confidence under black felt Stetsons wearing pressed jeans and entertaining girls who are either too old or much too young to be out this time of night. When the birds come out, they are thinner than I expected, looking more like young chickens than the roosters who strut through town. Svelte their whole length, most of their combs and dangling flesh has been shaved off.
The first is in the arms of a thin young man from the countryside, his plaid shirt tucked into too-light jeans that climb towards his armpits. It seems like his only bird, and he cradles it, talking and combing its feathers with one hand. The other owner’s is white, one of what seems like a big stable. The man looks drunk and his guayabera is open and discolored. A third man brings his contender into the ring to rile up the fighters. He shoves his bird at them, and then the owners hold them by the tail while they charge each other in place, feathered cartoon bulls.
The man and the kid turn and start to prep the birds. A slow process. Bandage from the lockbox, trim and cut, first one half on the leg and then the other. Their assistants open the knifeboxes and both owners consider one before taking another. They press them to the birds’ legs and start to bind them on with colored floss, green for the kid’s corner, red for the man’s. What the fuck, says Trey. They’re putting razors on ‘em. I shrug and nod.
It’s a bloodsport man. I expected some blood. Alejandro adds that without the knives, the fights would be too long.
Se necesitan las navajas.
Trey casts about for bets on green because Alejandro has told us the kids’ bird is the favorite, but it must be old news—everyone’s looking for the same wager. Vas por rojo, guero? One hundred, blondie? Trey lets them know that green’s his boy and they leave off. When the fight starts, we can see that the kid will win. Red blooms over white feathers, peeking from a new wound with each pass. The blows are impossible to see, flaring wings obscuring the knife at work. But each time the birds flap and tussle, new blood drips onto the sand, adding to the rusty archipelago in the pit.
When the fight ends, the kid’s chicken has its foot atop the other. It looks for all the world like a bewildered David astride a tiny patchwork Goliath. Trey asks for a cigarette and I pass two out along with matches. Well. I say. I thought that was going to last longer.
Yea. Trey says, and asks Alejandro when the next one is. Alejandro looks around and says he thinks now, probably. I make my way to the rancid bathroom and when I get back, one of the raffle girls is there hawking another set of numbered tickets. I ask her when she gets off work, but she doesn’t hear.
Mande? She tilts her head to one side. I buy some cigarettes. As two more trainers walk down to the ring, I pull out my phone and start taking notes.
Qué estás escribiendo? Alejandro asks. I twirl my finger around. I’m writing this. He nods and looks thoughtful. You wouldn’t rather use paper? I twirl the finger again and raise an eyebrow. I ask if he brought his school supplies. He smiles wide and says no, but starts to scan the crowd like he might know somebody who has. Alejandro is into me. Sometimes he hides it better.
There doesn’t seem to be a favorite between the two new men in the arena and Trey starts taking bets on green. He shares a bank account with his wife and I worry about the morning, but as long as I’m broke and he’s buying, I figure he’s got a better handle on his finances than I do.
The first rounds of each fight are quick and sad. The losers submit before we can pick them out, red now having to stain the dust before we can see it in the roosters’ greens and browns. The rules confuse us—the rounds continue when it’s clear who’s won. The referee shouts for reasons we can’t discern, and the hovering trainers snatch their roosters up and away. The referee calls again, and they place the birds at opposite sides of a chalk square in the center of the pit. By the start of the third round the losing bird is always dying. The trainer has to prop it up for the bout to start again, straightening its head over and over until it holds. We ask Alejandro what gives and he says it doesn’t matter who has lost. The fight can only end when one is dead. When a bird is bleeding badly, his trainer will pick him up. Will put his mouth to the beak, eyes, suck the blood away. Feathers will come off on his tongue. He will spit and blow across what’s left of the comb. By the fourth rounds, the crowd is with us, the old hands shouting that it’s already over, to let it be, move on to the next one. But the rounds continue, the referee shouting pin counts and starting over until the victorious bird lands the knife somewhere vital and ends it.
We have been nursing the beers we brought in, and when they run out, Trey leaves for the ATM. He says he’ll be back with more and smokes besides. Alejandro points out the kid from the campo and says that he’s fighting his father’s rooster, that the father is famous out in the country, that the boy is just an emissary. I wonder where he’s getting all this. A pack of the truly drunk move in behind us and I start to worry. I’ve seen one too many fights at this hour of the morning. They ask me where I’m from and we go through the litany of different states that I’ve seen and they’ve picked in or built on. When Trey gets back, they clap his hand and ask his name. He’s been winning more than losing on green and they are friendly and wary of his bets. He plunks down a six-pack of watery Tecate and says that everyone is out of cigarettes. When I check my pack, the dwindling few seem like a personal crisis, so I spend my last couple of pesos on another three from the little indian girls who sold us tickets at the door.
As my watch works its way to three-thirty and then to four, the crowd thins and changes. Gone are the girlfriends and farmers’ daughters, and the careworn men in their places are taking smaller bets with harder mouths. The quiet man named Juan at the center keeps looking for two-hundred peso wagers, his mullet twitching back and forth as he scans for takers. The raffle girl is gone too, replaced not by anything but the loneliness of men together in the early hours.
Alejandro comes back from the bathroom with a ballpoint pen and a sheet of notebook paper. I thank him and fold it in fours, using the side of my bootheel for a desk.
When we get down to the last few bouts, the kid comes back, and his rooster downs each of three opponents in the first. Their trainers carry out limp bodies that they toss into corners on their way to the door. Trey thinks they ought to be eaten and Alejandro agrees. I don’t venture as to the relationship between man and gallo fino. Maybe in America. Ave Colonel, morituri te salutant!
A lackey sweeps away some of the coagulated sand and the older men focus in. Alejandro tells us that this is the last round. The kid walks down again with his only charge, still untouched. The man from the first fight follows him in, no less grimy than before. He’s got hold of his sixth or seventh bird of the night, looking the villain just so for Trey and I. Trey reads some of my notes. This is good, he says. You should write this. I nod and rap the pen on my temple.
When both birds have run in place again, they pull out the knives and choose. They all look like glittering death from up here. The kid takes out his floss and starts to swaddle the knife to the leg. On each turn, the string catches on the backward talon. I will him to hold it out, to wrap it quick and clean. But he watches each loop as it settles, drawing it clear and pausing, checking. A dozen passes, a hundred, each as careful as the first. The man keeps up his foil, twirling the red floss around his bird’s leg like he’s reeling a kite in, the turns falling loose and sloppy before he tugs them tight and ties off.
A local taps me on the shoulder and asks which one I have got. I say my friend is the one taking bets. He asks again and the big man nods toward the kid. The Mexican shakes his head and looks elsewhere. Juan down in the center seems to hear and he points at Trey. Two hundred? For green?
Hell yes. The kid’s assistant sees, smiling wide. He struts around in last year’s Hot Topic and counts his chickens before they’ve died. We do too.
Every fight is a series of passes, the birds leaping, striking out with their talons, unaware of the wicked curving blade that decides the matches. The bird that passes over top seems to come out the better of each scrap, but it’s hard to tell under the blazing plumage. The first two rounds decide nothing, and the reasons for which the referee divides them when he does remain opaque to us. But by the end of the second, blood is dripping from both red and green, little runnels staining our contender’s floss.
At the start of the third, our bird flies over the other. He strikes out at the neck and we can see new ochre in the pit. The other bird lays down, but the kid looks sombre as ever, arms crossed high on his chest. His rooster walks over and plants a food on the other. Trey and I grin, and I pass out the last three cigarettes. The referee screams a count at the panting animal and the crowd kisses their lips at it, as if the dying bird could rise like Tinkerbell on the power of their belief.
But when the trainer sucks off the blood and spits it, the one in red stands and the referee decides the fourth can start. The wounded bird paces back and forth, eyeing the kid’s rooster with his good side, both of them prizefighters with little left.
Ours goes over top again and lands so I can’t see him behind the retaining wall. The one in red stands bleeding where it landed, its back turned to us, and I stare, willing it to go down. A smile lights the face of the older man, and when I look to the wall I can see gouts of blood pulsing out from behind. The kid picks up his bird and cradles it like before, but there is no fifth round, no prolonging. The kid walks up and out of the arena, his blue shirt already soaked red. As he passes through the door, the older man slaps hands all around. I don’t notice Trey paying out his money.
There was something beautiful there in that place on that night. But when the kid left, it left with him. He never turned around and I never went back.