The noise is everywhere. Like heat. Dozens of cocks crowing. The voices of scores of men shouting above the loud, scratchy, amplified voice of the announcer. Only the two cocks in the middle of the ring are silent as they circle and jab, neck feathers fanned, blood beginning to stain their heads and shoulders.
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. On a cement porch painted pink, a woman rocks and watches.
There are cockfights almost every weekend all over the island, each as important as any other. And 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—accommodates many of the same birds and bettors as a ring in San Juan. The same amount of money changes hands in a constant free-for-all of wagering done with shouts and gestures around and above the battling roosters.
I met Eddie yesterday at the seaside shrine of Saint Carmen, patron saint of fishermen. We got to talking near his small boat puled up on the beach under rattling palms. I bought a red snapper. Eddie mentioned the cockfights, allowed as how I could see one I I wanted. Now it strikes me there’s something familiar here, though I’ve never sat on peeling bleachers waiting for one to begin.
The men come here early. The roosters, which have been raised from chicks on their personal recipes of corn and bananas, vitamins and meat, are fasting today. They are carried tucked under an arm, close to the chest, stroked. The shiny birds seem calm, almost docile. Each is weighed and the matches are arranged. The men draw chips out of a glass jar hoping their birds will fight early while they’re still fresh. The cocks are then 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 shorts and shined shoes. The man beside me was a cabbie in New Jersey. He’s back here now for good, doing a little fishing and planting a garden. His wife may or may not come down to join him.
Everyone is talking intensely, 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 then hung on a scale to demonstrate their equal weight. The crowd moves into the stands. The handlers remain, thrusting the birds at each other. They make kissing noises and the roosters brighten, become alert and wary. Around them, the betting proceeds, each man shouting his wager at another until a deal is struck. Then more bets between new pairs.
One man brings his bird forward, holds it at arm’s length. The official examines it, then 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 have been poisoned against its opponent, the bird itself will 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.
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 are two seats, like a cobbler’s bench or a stationary seesaw. At one end of the wooden platform 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. This way 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 in the cafeteria. Another man waits, holding a bird and a can of Medallia. No one seems to mind me.
A school bus comes and goes, leaving off a young girl who enters the bar to but a single cigarette. A policeman stops by and climbs to a stool next to three men he knows. 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 prices 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 loved the fights and I loved to be with him. That was all I cared about…that and the strange sense of excitement I felt in the presence of something that seemed to have so much power over him. I wanted to learn what made him seem so alive and why he would share that with me. Perhaps he would reveal something about the mysterious world of men. If I hung around long enough, he’d make it all clear to me.
Fighting cocks in cages and domestic roosters in neighboring yards crow in turn. The heat is tempered by a breeze off the distant ocean. 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.
(A version of La Gallera appeared in TURNSTILE Magazine, Vol.II No.1; 1990)