Marcos stared at the long, slender neck sparkling in the sinking Casma sun, and he couldn't help but marvel at the animal. Even tied by one leg, his gamecock was as graceful as any he'd ever seen, thrusting his head out with every step as if to announce his authority, dipping down to peck at the ground at anything savory. He reminded Marcos of Ares from his father's days when the fights had been held in secret behind the municipio. The same breed too.
No way my Malayo can lose, Marcos thought. He's the one. The one that'll fix everything.
The day that changed it all never left Marcos' mind. The day he let his emotions get the better of him. The stupidest day of his life so far. That day, while Marcos' father toiled on the chacra and helped harvest the yearly batch of ripened paguas for sale at the local market, waiting for his son; that day, Marcos and Selene watched a movie after school instead, in his bedroom, and Selene's hair had smelled, had tasted, had dripped sweet sweat like the juiciest mango.
In the end, they'd both giggled at their tired, twitching legs.
But a few weeks later, with Selene at the plaza, her revelation she hadn't suffered her monthly blood loss. Marcos thought hard, and his gamecock became the only answer. He convinced Selene like this: We're young and can't handle this…And what about our future?...Don't you want to travel and see the Estados Unidos and the world?...I do…I'll fight…I'll win the money and we'll take care of this…Don't cry, pues…An early morning trip to Trujillo on the Tres Estrellas, you and me, and it'll all be over, quick as a blade…You'll see…You won't feel a thing…Don't cry…I promise…No one will ever know.
And Selene agreed, but in tears.
Marcos unscrewed the cap off one of the water bottles he used to store his peanut oil. He poured some of the oil onto one hand, took hold of Hércules, smothered the cock's coat completely, and the cock shined like a newly minted Sol. Though the sun was lost behind the tall houses to the West a single heavenly gleam fell upon Hércules from somewhere, and his dampened amber and black-blue tail feathers glinted as the cock seemed to pose for its owner and trainer, turning to the side so as to stare at Marcos with one unflinching eye.
Perfect, Marcos thought.
He wiped his hands on his pants and screwed the cap back on the bottle. He took out his pocket knife. From under a wobbly wooden table, Marcos took hold of a cardboard box and poked holes in the sides so his animal could breathe. He untied the slippery Hércules, took hold of him carefully, and placed him in the box and headed out.
Outside, on the corner, in front of the purple home of the archaeologists, Doña Fanny sold her usual hamburguesas beneath the hum of a light post while stray dogs sniffed and loitered nearby, waiting patiently for the first dropped morsel from any of the hungry customers having their fill. Marcos flagged down the first moto-taxi he saw and it came to a halt on the curb. Those mutated motorcycles—handle bars, driver's seat on an engine, a passenger box welded to the rear, covered, the entire contraption propped on three wheels—had been the primary mode of transportation in Casma ever since Marcos could remember. They sliced through traffic on a busy day like guinea pigs through grass. On the moto-taxi in front of him, on the driver's windshield, as if to taunt Marcos, was stickered the phrase—El Abortado.
The young driver wore no shoes. "¿Las Poncianas pues?" he asked Marcos and his cardboard box matter-of-factly, flipping the back door open, and the boy sneezed without covering his mouth. "Two Soles."
"Vamos," Marcos said. He loaded Hércules onto the seat in the passenger cab. He climbed in right after, and the seat froze the back of Marcos' thighs through his jeans. He closed the door. Black, everywhere—the steel framing, the plastic lining all around—and the only sight of the street outside came through a grimy, see-through portion of the plastic intended as a window behind Marcos. He could barely make out Doña Fanny's enterprise anymore or the light post or the famished dogs. Inside that man-made cocoon, light and images and sounds and the world outside warbled through the plastic, through the slits in the sharp corners, like everything that made up a hazy dream. Like falling in a hole, Marcos thought. He contemplated walking to Las Poncianas, but he knew he wouldn't make it on time. "Vamos," he said again loud, slapping his knees a few times, and the driver sneezed once more and sped off.
They came to the Pan-American Highway three sneezes later. Marcos could tell when the ride smoothed from the constant jolt and tremble of the unpaved city streets to the steady purr of the engine on rubber wheels on the leveled asphalt road. He'd learned in school that the Highway began as far north as Alaska in the United States, cut through North America, hugged the western coasts of Central and South America, sliced through his own town of Casma and her sand dunes and mango groves and asparagus fields and archaeological sites; ran down south into Chile and Argentina, and ended at the southernmost tip of the continent known as Tierra del Fuego. A long, winding road, full of memories. Suspended in that rumbling, steel-framed and plastic-covered womb, Marcos' mind gave birth to his own life story. He thought of the old days; the days of the old peleadores like his father when the fights had been more about honor than anything else. Marcos remembered how he'd follow his father in secret and take the shortcut through the old market past the fish and guinea pig vendors and into his usual hiding place to enjoy the fights with the other boys. He remembered learning early by watching and the lists he made in his head:
1. Cut the comb and file down the spurs at a young age
2. Plenty of hierbabuena twice a day for stamina—IMPORTANT!!!
3. Tie the cock often to strengthen the left leg, the striking leg
4. Use peanut oil on the day of the fight to make the cock shine
5. Cuts to the neck and torso (some of them) can be healed on the spot rubbing the wound with resin from the ceiba tree
6. Most cuts run deep and kill
And it wasn't long after that the boys started fights of their own. Marcos bought and trained his first gamecock, Atlas, and he was proud when he saw his bird win twelve fights in a row. "Atlas the Champion," everyone chanted. The reigning champion until the day Jaime arrived.
Jaime came from Carrizales where his father owned a tire shop just off the Pan-American Highway. He showed up out of nowhere one day with a cock tucked under his arm.
JAIME: Who's the champion here?
MARCOS: I am.
JAIME: (shoving his cock in front of Marcos) Fifty Soles pues.
BOY: (to Marcos) That's Fujimori. Be careful.
MARCOS: (to Jaime) Let's do it.
And the boys all gathered round to form a circle and they protected their legs and groins with makeshift bamboo boards held in front of them.
And the cocks were let loose.
And "Atlas!" the boys cheered before Atlas lost a leg.
And Marcos lost his fifty Soles.
And the Earth held Atlas up until he bled to death.
Then, of course, Selene came to Marcos' mind. Pulling the box with Hércules close while the black pressed around and suffocated him, while the driver sneezed outside, Marcos went back to the time he first met his girlfriend: Independence Day, four months ago, at the Casma Plaza, the entire town there, and squibs and sky rockets that hissed and crackled and popped into a potpourri of sparkling sounds and colors off the tall bamboo castle, wrapping the beautiful nutmeg-skinned girl in a saint's nimbus. Marcos remembered those barefoot, feet up, bareback-on-the-tile-floor evenings when the fragrance of wet feathers saturated his skin after tending to his cocks in his backyard pen, and how Selene never failed to offer up her dreams of that nursing school in Lima and her fascination with traveling to the Great Barrier Reef someday. And there was the undressing of Selene that day too. That day. The undressing. The assisted molting of Selene's clothes with the same fury he usually reserved to rip the labels off the empty water bottles he used to store his peanut oil. Sliding on Selene's chestnut body. Dancing on her. That day. And the taste of her cinnamon breasts. And the cocks that crowed outside the window.
The driver slowed and turned and stopped. Marcos wasted no time and thrust himself out of the moto-taxi, and the cool air welcomed him like a midwife's arms. Delivering himself to the outside world, grabbing Hércules tight, he handed the boy two Soles from his pocket.
The driver sneezed and sped off. Marcos watched El Abortado all the way. He watched that emptied, three-wheeled womb wobble and shrink away down the road until it turned and disappeared on the highway.
And Marcos sighed.
A long line of spectators filed into Las Poncianas when Marcos arrived at the entrance. Giddy fingers sprinkled Soles into a locked wooden box before going in. Marcos knew he wouldn't have to pay. Peleadores like him signed up at the entrance and went straight into the vivero and stored their cocks there until their fight came up. But for the Final, for the grand prize, Marcos needed to speak to Fausto, the owner of Las Poncianas. After looking around, Marcos caught him greeting people on their way into the arena.
MARCOS: (to Fausto) The Final. I'm good for it.
FAUSTO: You know the rules, chiquillo. You haven't fought in a while.
(to people) ¡Bienvenidos!
MARCOS: I want in.
FAUSTO: It's Jaime, you know.
MARCOS: I know.
FAUSTO: It's El Pelado.
MARCOS: I know.
FAUSTO: And to the death.
MARCOS: I know that too.
FAUSTO: Follow me.
Marcos following Fausto into Las Poncianas. Merengue music, booming. Chairs and tables circling the sunken, central arena beneath bright lights and a large Peruvian flag; and families sitting and sipping Inka Colas, waiting, chewing on home-made chips; and the regulars standing around, everywhere, little groups of them huddled in separate clumps and pouring Pilsen Callao beers into single cups to share, as per the custom in Casma, making bets with each other before the fights even start. Fausto strolling past all of this and waving, relishing the success of his enterprise the entire way, Marcos behind him, all the way to the bamboo bar in the rear where Jaime is sitting and drinking a heavy glass of chicha and waiting for his next challenger. And at his feet, still as death in his cage, El Pelado waiting too.
‘El Pelado de Transilvania'. The name of Jaime's champion. A full-blooded Jeresano, the breed was known for their featherless necks and their ugly, almost anemic appearance. Their savage fighting in the arena, too. Fifteen fights and eight neck wounds later had convinced the Poncianas crowd the animal was invincible. Supernatural, even. ‘Transilvania' was added. And the crowds loved to watch him make every other cock bleed.
Marcos brought the box with Hércules up to his lips. Right there, he whispered to Hércules through one of the breathing holes. Cut that pesqueso. You can do it, chiquillo. Cut el Pelado's neck and we'll watch him bleed.
And Hércules shuffled inside the box, so Marcos knew he understood.
Jaime grinned when Fausto mentioned the challenge.
JAIME: (to Marcos) You want to fight, eh?
MARCOS: That's right.
JAIME: (to Fausto) The prize?
FAUSTO: Three-thousand Soles.
The total cost of Selene's procedure, as Marcos had calculated it, would be half of that. His cousin at the Trujillo clinic verified it. The bus fare—thirty Soles. The prize would be more than enough.
Fausto, nodding. Jaime, gulping down the last of his chicha. The music booming, bouncing off Marcos. All the way to the vivero. The vivero next to the ceiba tree where a drunkard is pissing from his knees.
The vivero was an awkward adobe shack with a thin bamboo door, guarded by a hunched old Quechua with only one tooth to show. Seeing Marcos headed his way the old man curved his sandy lips and flaunted his pearl. Marcos passed him and entered the vivero. Inside, a pair of cocks crowed, over and over, one on top of the other, as if they argued about the dawn. Two rows of wood-framed squares lined both walls all the way in, each with its own miniature bamboo door and a bent nail to secure it. The next peleadores stood inside. Don Beto fed Bolivar, his Paisiño. Vasilio checked on Atahualpa's wound from the previous week. They both nodded as Marcos took Hércules out of the box and placed him in his own square.
VASILIO: (to Marcos) Against who, Marito?
Vasilio and Don Beto stopped what they were doing.
And Hércules crowed.
OLD QUECHUA: ¡Bashilyo! ¡Betho! ¡Ya shiguen pue!
The old Quechua slammed the bamboo door open and rushed in. He hung a large burlap bag on a thick nail set into the mud wall by the door. Don Beto and Vasilio grabbed their cocks and headed out. The Quechua closed the door behind them. The music outside died, and the thunderous Voice introduced the two fighters as the crowd cheered.
Marcos and Hércules remained alone in the vivero. With the fight raging outside, the trainer studied his fighter—his smooth, cut comb; his thick-feathered pectorals; his sinewy left leg; his long tail feathers that rainbowed up and over. Outside, a collective gasp. Hércules straightened up and stared at Marcos with an unblinking, penetrating look. Like a child studying his father.
Everything depends on you, chiquillo, Marcos said to Hércules. You can't lose. Don't lose!
And outside, the crowd broke into a frenzy.
The music started again. Vasilio bashed through the bamboo door seconds later, his forehead drenched, a red-stained bundle of white feathers in front of him.
VASILIO: He crowed three times! I should have known! I should have known pues!
And Atahualpa's head fell to the dirt floor with a light thump. And Vasilio kicked it out of sight. And the old peleador stuffed the rest of his cock into the bag by the door. And he turned to face Marcos before he staggered out of the vivero. And his white shirt, streaked with blood, reminded Marcos of the Peruvian flag.
And Hércules crowed.
OLD QUECHUA: Mauwo! ¡Ya shiguesh pue!
The Quechua replayed his role and opened the mouth that was the bamboo door into the belly that was the outside world. Marcos' heart, racing. He twisted the nail and took Hércules out of his square. He drew the sign of the cross on himself, on his cock; and the bloodied feathers of Atahualpa poked through a hole in the burlap bag and brushed cold against Marcos' elbow on his way out the door.
And Hércules crowed.
The music, still booming. And the crowd, thronging and clapping and cheering. Marcos shuffled through all of it, Hércules gripped tight by his side, all the way to the edge of the sunken arena. He counted nine concrete steps that sloped down into the bloodied, beaten dirt below. He found Jaime there already, El Pelado beneath his arm. And into that wide, illuminated chasm, Marcos descended with Hércules.
VOICE: ¡El Pelado de Transilvania!
And the crowd went crazy. And Marcos and his thumping heart and his pulsing body looked up in awe at the halo of spectators above him. And parents pointed down to show their wide-eyed children who they preferred. And most fingers pointed at Jaime and El Pelado, of course, including the finger belonging to Fausto.
VOICE: Three-thousand Soles!
The navajero was a young chibolo with a piece of string in his mouth and a small wooden box under his arm. He finished with El Pelado and moved to where Marcos stood. With the crowd in their uproar he opened his box and carefully removed a curved, two-inch blade that sparkled in the bright lights from above. Marcos turned Hércules toward his own chest. The boy grabbed the cock's left leg, the striking leg, and secured the blade just above the heel, tying it various times over with the string from his mouth until it was on tight. The chibolo sauntered away. Marcos turned Hércules around slowly. He held onto the bladed leg and moved closer to the center of the ring.
And it was time.
JAIME: (to Marcos over the noisy crowd) Ready to lose pues?
MARCOS: Are you?
JAIME: Not even a minute. You'll see. Just like before, cojudo.
VOICE: Ready the peleadores!
The chibolo-navajero returned to the ring with a large rectangular piece of wood resembling an oversized cutting board with a hole cut into one end of it. Both sides were sprayed pink with blood from previous fights. The blood of Atahualpa and all those before him.
Jaime and Marcos moved toward the boy and his board. Hércules' brilliant neck feathers rose on end instinctively, and he pecked wildly at El Pelado. The champion did the same, stretching out his combat-seasoned neck so far that his scars were barely visible.
There, Marcos spoke to Hércules in his head. He was sure his cock could hear him. Cut that neck, chiquillo! Cut that neck and make him bleed!
And the boy cut between Hércules and El Pelado and balanced the board on the ground.
And Marcos and Jaime crouched down.
And the crowd went silent.
And the boy looked up into the heavens that were the heavy lights.
And everyone waited for the Voice to start it all.
VOICE: ¡A pelear!
And the crowd roared.
And the boy pulled the board away and rushed back and out of the way.
And the cocks were let loose and the dance began.
El Baile de la Muerte. The Dance of Death. Hércules and El Pelado, catapulting themselves off the dirt floor, snapping wings against proud chests, against each other, like bamboo shutters in a ravenous storm, dropping their bladed heels like hammers onto each other. Hércules, shining and ruffling and bobbing out and into harm's way. El Pelado, squirming and stretching and stomping the dirt floor into dust clouds quickly destroyed by his outstretched, battering wings. Then, with a swift kick and pull, Hércules cutting into El Pelado, ripping into one of his old neck wounds; and Jaime, cursing as the crowd is gasping.
The chibolo-navajero rushed in with his pink-white board and thrust it between the enraged cocks and separated them. Marcos and Jaime grabbed their fighters from behind carefully.
That's the way, Marcos congratulated Hércules as he moved back to regroup, and he ran his hand from the back of Hércules' head all the way down his sweaty, peanut-oiled back. He brought his hand up to his nose and took a deep breath. If success has a smell, Marcos thought, this is it. That's an old cortada, he coached Hércules. Get him there again, chiquillo! You can do it! You can do it!
Across from him, beneath the din of the crowd that roared like the edges of the sun burned, Marcos watched Jaime assure the boy El Pelado could continue. The crowd roared louder. The boy and his board and the fighters and their cocks took the same positions as before.
And the Voice deafened every other noise around as the Dance began all over again.
Hércules, looking great, in a champion stance, dipping his arrow-tip head, backing up, waiting, waiting for the perfect time to strike. El Pelado, cautious, hurting, six toes and two heels firmly splayed out on the ground, kicking up dirt, with a vulture's stare, ready to spring. Marcos and Jaime, across from each other, fists and teeth clenched, mimicking Hércules' and El Pelado's moves, and hoping, hoping, hoping their cock comes out on top.
That's my chiquillo, Marcos shouted. Take your time! Quick as a blade! You can do it! You can do it!
Then a combined thrust. And wings in a ferocious flutter, snapping like whips. And Hércules and his kaleidoscope feathers and El Pelado's black ones suspended in the air in one compressed mass. Kicks and cuts in split-second space going nowhere but down.
And a prolonged "Whooa!" from the awestruck crowd.
And Jaime's fist in the air.
And Marcos' heart, like the sharpest blade, slicing through his very center.
Hércules fell to the dirt with a thump that only Marcos heard. His rooster lifted his head as best he could, flapped his wings feebly. Marcos swallowed. As El Pelado circled away, Marcos saw the thick blood trailing from his blade.
Get up, chiquillo! Get up!
Jaime, yelling. The crowd, urging El Pelado to give them all what they came to see with rumbling feet and insatiable hollers.
Hércules, still. Marcos felt an overwhelming desire to rush to where his cock lay, to break the rules of the match, to forget about the fight and the money and the procedure in Trujillo, to save the very animal he'd nurtured and trained and come to love, and to bear him off to safety. He imagined stealing Hércules from the ring and out of Las Poncianas and off onto the Pan-American Highway, running parallel to the sand dunes raked in the light of day by the grandest of all roosters, by God, whose invisible claws were said to be set into the wind that brushed the sand over into even rows. Running, running for dear life. He imagined reaching Selene breathless, Hércules barely alive but breathing, Selene's sweet mango hair welcoming them home, and his sore-backed father helping heal Hércules to fight another day. Everything, everything all right. But the pungent peanut oil brought Marcos back. He brought his hand up close again. And the success he'd smelled and been so sure of earlier rolled a taste in his mouth like stale, coppery blood.
Get up, chiquillo! Forget about winning! Just live!
And El Pelado finally turned and found Hércules again. And he charged. And his sable wings bore him high up off the ground like a dark, menacing shadow. And he lifted his heel—his left, his striking, his bladed heel—and the blade pulsed like a dying star.
And the crowd gasped.
And the weight of El Pelado sank Hércules into the ground.
And "¡Vaya pues!" yelled Jaime, both fists in the air.
And "It's over!" the Voice sounded.
And it was.
Selene didn't believe him. Close to ten o'clock, her mother would soon be home, and Marcos knew that. But he insisted it was important. She put on her favorite jeans, the ones getting tighter by the day, and her chompa to guard against the late-May chill. She headed into the night.
Casma, the city of zigzagging moto-taxis and peddlers and tethered goats on the curb by the butcher store, looked postcard serene beneath a grinning moon. Selene shuffled past the Chifa Hong Kong where fake gold doors closed shut and Marcos loved to eat the tallarín with fried rice. She rushed quickly by the entrance to the slumbering market, its large shadowy archway decorated with a frieze of an ancient Sechin warrior, the pride of Casma's past and the archaeologists with the purple home, a gamecock sketched wildly beneath his arm. Marcos always claimed to know the chibolo who vandalized the archway—a peleador like him, of course—but Selene had never met him. It didn't matter. She trusted her boyfriend now more than ever. She had to. He was right. They did have plans. With their future on the line, they were doing the right thing. What good are we to a child when we don't even have lives of our own, she thought. Besides, they were young. They would have another when the time was right. But not now. Not now. The thoughts put a spring in her step as she reached the plaza before the church where the couple agreed to meet.
Selene noticed the slouched figure on the corner right away, and she knew it was Marcos by his long neck and wide shoulders. Through the late-night garúa, through the chilly evening mist, she could see her boyfriend staring up at the illuminated statue of the Magdalene, the patron saint of Casma, encased in glass above the church entrance. She made her way across the street. Reaching Marcos, Selene could hear him slightly sobbing.
He didn't look her way. Instead, his gaze stayed on the Magdalene. On the skull in her hand. The skull of a small child.
He sobbed harder. Selene turned him around to face her. Sand sprinkled his face and hair and his breath embraced her. And pressed against his bloodied chest, Marcos held Hércules tight.
"I…," he slowly let out, and he fell to his knees.
Selene touched his face. She thumbed Marcos' sandy tears. She pressed his face against her belly where tiny jolts of existence surprised her from the inside. And they stood there beneath the saint, before the weeping church doors, and thought about tomorrow.