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October 2018, vol 14 no 3

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Robert Baum

The Cock Fights

Mama said, “Hector is different than we are – he’s Puerto Rican. They’re dark and dirty and carry knives.”

“Hector doesn’t carry a knife,” I said to her. “Besides he’s only half Puerto Rican.”

Hector Murphy lived near the migrant labor camp. He was a year older, skinny with lots of pimples, and had barely passed Mr. Grady’s sixth grade. I saw him smoking cigarettes along the school’s back fence at lunchtime. I thought I might try cigarettes when I got to sixth grade. After school got out for the summer, I hung out with him around the picking fields once in a while where he spoke Spanish with some of the younger pickers.

One Saturday Hector and I camped out in his backyard, but later snuck out for the migrant camp, a cluster of low, whitewashed blockhouses where the laborers lived during the picking season. Just outside the glow of a campfire, we hunkered down and peered through the tall grass. The camp swelled to over a hundred men. We knew most of them by daylight, but at night it was “no gringos allowed” – that meant me and half of Hector.

indigo shadows the coolness of the woods

By eleven an almost-full moon rose to reveal shadowy figures at the edge of the compound unloading crates of chickens from the backs of several trucks – mangy cocks with tufts of feathers missing and many scars where their bare skin was showing. The moonlight reflected in silvery streaks from the broken razor blades strapped to the cocks’ ankles. A tight circle of men crowded in for the gore and betting.

Cash, gold chains, crucifixes, and the like were laid down. Betting ran heavy for a red-topped bird twice the size of its opponent and a lot meaner. The owners faced off with their birds and let them have at it. The heftier bird barely hit the ground before it leaped back up twirling in mid-air with its spurs extended. One spur slashed across the smaller bird’s eyes and the other cut its throat. The match was over in three second.

The next bouts were better matched. Round after round, birds flailed at each other with their razor-clad ankles. Feathers and blood flew. One gush splattered our two faces back in the shadows. A young migrant, Jesus, glanced our way, his eyes following the spray. He squinted once but then looked away.

Midmorning on Monday Hector and I wandered over to the fields. The migrants were taking a break. “Hola!” Hector called to Jesus. “Que tal?”

The space between Jesus’ dark brows narrowed. “I saw you,” he said in a barely audible tone but in English, so that I could understand. The pickers scrambled back to work; Hector and I were left to trudge home.

After Labor Day school started back up – I sat in Mr. Grady’s class, and Hector moved up to the junior high wing of our school building. He started seeing girls and riding in older guys’ cars. We lost our passion for the picking fields and never met there again.

gathering clouds
footprints in the dirt
coming and going