It was raining black that Sunday afternoon. Scores of fields of burning sugarcane could be seen bellowing in the distance, spitting ebony snow that covered every surface of the once colorful streets of the town.
La zafra had come and every able man, woman and child braved the crushing heat and the unending work of cutting sugar cane for a few meager cents a day.
It was a sight of awe.
During the days before la zafra, workers set countless fires in order to burn away the tough skin of the sugar cane, a skin that could cut the hands and arms of men almost to the bone. Rats, mice, serpents and assorted vermin fled for their lives and invaded every home in town like a giant tidal wave of flesh and fur. After this Hell had died down, the aching arms of a myriad men slowly made their way through the scorched earth, their wives making them lunch and an army of children taking this precious food to their exhausted fathers in the field.
And so the zafra came once a year forming the backbone of the Island ever since they could remember and so it would be when the sweet Empire remained in place.
Those same fathers came every Sunday, with a couple of pennies chiming in their pockets, to watch the sport of gentlemen and for a few hours forget their own pains by witnessing the pain of a lesser being.
They all came to see the cockfights.
Cockfighting was always very common in the Island. It was a tradition brought in by Spaniards and enjoyed by the masses. But the sport had been shut down officially by the Americans and their laws. Still, the allure of blood and the forbidden attracted many an adventurous spirit. Contests were organized deep within many haciendas and vigias were hired to keep a lookout for the newly founded police.
Libertad Monte had never seen a cockfight in her life. As she weaved through the crowd, tightly grasping Jesús’ sweaty palm, her heart beat a bit faster both from anticipation and from the knowledge that what they were doing was wrong.
Jesús had not wanted her to come. He knew it was dangerous for her to go to such a place without the knowledge of her grandparents. And, even worse, he knew that women were almost never seen in the crowds that gathered hollering around the vallas.
The sport of gentlemen was highly unlady-like.
But Libertad had heard about cockfights and was very curious, as she always would be throughout her life about things she didn’t understand, and she would refuse to give up her ambition. Jesús finally agreed, his protests defeated.
Jesús knew her really well, having shared with her most of his days since they had met. He knew two very important things about his companion. First, he had come to know the speck of wrath that Libertad had inherited from her grandmother. Although not en par with the ire of those fiery cold German eyes, Jesús knew that Libertad’s passion could be easily unfurled into anger, if just for a few seconds. Jesús also knew that Libertad was strong willed. He knew that once her heart was set on something she usually got it. As it was through her life, except for one time.
One very important time.
He tightly grasped her hand in determination, both to show her what she wished and to protect her if the need arose.
The pair was led by Angel Manuel, a friend of Jesús and, like Libertad, one of the few people that didn’t seem affected by the surreal green stare.
Libertad, having seen deep beneath his soul knew exactly why. Having witnessed so much sorrow in his short life, Angel Manuel’s heart had already turned hard. It is difficult to pinpoint where Angel Manuel came from. He most certainly lived alone since he was very young and at that time he was probably already living somewhere in the streets of town or surviving at the fringes of the civilization around it. His mother was long dead and somewhere along the way his father had disappeared never to be seen again. He, like many “realengos”, children that lived on the streets, had a hard life alone. He had been arrested many times before for petty things like stealing food. He had witnessed only a small act of kindness in his life, a young boy with sad green eyes offering him half of his treasured dulce de coco when hunger was at its worst. Ever since that single act, he had become Jesús’ friend and, until the end of his short days, his protector. Wearing tattered clothes and a faded red cap, Angel Manuel was the guide of this particular expedition.
Behind Libertad and Jesús, lagging like usual, was Benito, his tired, awkward walk keeping him last in the small group. He had come with his father Beno to the cockfight, their rooster Pitirre tightly packed in an old burly sack tightly grasped by the older jíbaro. Benito’s feet ached and his back hurt as he desperately tried to catch up with his friends with his clumsy bunny walk.
Benito was the only one of the friends who worked. He helped his dad Beno cut sugarcane in Alfonso Alfredo’s plantation. He lived in a small, dirty shack within the Monte hacienda. Libertad had met him a few years before while accompanying her grandfather on one of his many inspection walks through his lands. Seeing the innate man of the land goodness within Benito, she had struck a fast friendship with him. She was perfectly aware that while Benito tried really hard to hide it, he worshipped her. He trembled every time she was near and blushed every time she talked to him. He made her humble presents of birds and flowers made out of the leaves of palm trees which she accepted gladly and rewarded with a kiss on his cheek and one of her amazing smiles that only served to make Benito blush even more until his ears were the deep red of an amapola. In their unspoken understanding, Benito knew that Libertad’s true love was reserved only for that pair of sad green eyes. He had seen the way she smiled when she saw him coming her way. He had noticed that special laugh reserved only for him. He had spied on them during many afternoons when Libertad played her violin sitting on a dead palm tree while cradled by the boy’s loving arms. He, as the man he felt he was in his twelve years of age, respected that. But deep down he knew that even if Jesús wasn’t there, his arms wouldn’t have taken their place. Libertad Monte was the granddaughter of el Colono, who could knock down a caoba with his fist.
Benito knew his place.
And although Libertad couldn’t reciprocate the young jíbarito’s feelings, she always held a place in her heart for that dirty little kid with the funny walk, destined to fall for what he believed in, even after the image of his blushing cheeks had faded in her memory.
Angel Manuel navigated fast in that sea of heads bobbing up and down and they were starting to lose track of him. Jesús looked back and motioned Benito to walk faster. Benito was having trouble maneuvering through the crowd for fear of having his foot crushed by the much taller men. The boys walked barefooted while Libertad was wearing a pair of shiny, black leather shoes, her white dress flowing around them. Finally, Libertad swung back and, without letting go of Jesús’ hand, grabbed Benito forcing him to keep pace with them as they tried to catch up with Angel Manuel.
As they walked a smell became clearer and more prominent. Nobody could identify it yet except Angel Manuel. He instantly knew that what they were smelling was blood.
It seemed to Libertad that, though the sounds of the crowd, she could hear dozens of whips crackling in rapid succession.
Finally, after pushing through a wall of flesh and sweat they were in front of the vallas. It was a spectacle unlike anything Libertad had ever seen. There was a circle marked with pieces of wood in the densely compacted dirt. It was surrounded by screaming men, their eyebrows covered with sweat and the veins in their necks almost bursting. Some men carried sacks of different colors that twitched in jerky movements. It was obvious by the sound of their voices and the expression of their faces that their world had been reduced by a small circle of red dirt, some fifteen feet across. It the middle of the circle, almost imperceptibly moving what was once a wing, and being circled by the victor, was a red mass of stained white feathers and ripped flesh.
Libertad instinctively clung to Jesús’ arm. Jesús put his arm on her shoulder in a sign of comforting Libertad although he was fully aware that her reaction was really due to surprise and nothing else. Libertad wasn’t scared of blood. Benito noticed the movement and instantly felt ashamed of the surge of jealousy climbing within him. Angel Manuel cheerfully smirked at the sight of blood.
Two men entered the circle and picked up two bloodied roosters. The first one picked up the circling rooster, who was gurgling softly, one of his eyes gone during the battle. The loser’s neck hanged limp from the brown arms of the second man. His throat was slashed, his white neck bone clearly seen through the red.
Even the victor had seen his last morning, for that night the jíbaro’s family was probably going to have a roast of champions.
There were a few kids their age roaming around the illegal valla. Some, like Jesús, came here on their own, trying to take flight for brief moments from the dullness of their daily lives. Others accompanied their parents in their weekly pilgrimage of escape. There were just a couple who had made the spectacle a part of their lives, ingraining within them the struggle of survival.
One such kid was Angel Manuel, for whom the short years he walked on this earth, every day was a struggle to survive.
Jesús recognized a number of the kids attending the event. He could see Andres, the son of the town’s baker standing next to his dad. Both father and son had huge strong arms, their fingers colored in the unnatural white of flour. Some paces away, happily chomping on an alcapurria, stood Wilson López, a friend of his who lived at the outskirts of town near el barrio Coquí. Wilson was the son of an official at the alcaldía. His mother was a schoolteacher like Libertad’s father had been. He had nicely cropped dark hair, a goofy smile and bright brown eyes hidden by a pair of round glasses that made people grin by just looking at them. Wilson loved to make people laugh.
Jesús waved at his friend in the distance. Wilson saw him and wildly waved back with a grin, his fingers stained with grease. Somewhere in his mind, Jesús could have sworn that Wilson’s eyes suddenly sparkled with a strange brightness, as if he had seen something he had never seen or noticed before, as his gaze separated from Jesús’. Little did Jesús know now about the betrayal that would happen afterwards.
As the owners of the last two combatants left, shoeless men entered the arena, exchanging coins, honoring their bets like gentlemen should. As money exchanged hands, some men were still shouting, in anger or perhaps joy. Voices mixed in Jesús’ head.
As the rush of the recent fight died down, and the men waited for the next battle to commence, the talk of men shifted to more current affairs. He could make out snippets of conversation, things like the recent election of the father of El Bate, as he would be known in a few years, to Congress in far away Washington; where his lone voice would be heard, but never his vote. And the boastful talk of a new party that favored autonomy for the island. It was clear that many men strived to make themselves look more important by talking about perceived important things.
Jesús, at the time had little interest in such occurrences.
Jesús felt a tap on his shoulder. He and Libertad looked back to see Benito’s grinning face. He made his way between them, gently placing his coarse hands of each of their shoulders and with his chin, pointed proudly at his father, about to enter the arena with the old, yellowish sack in his hand.
Benito told them of all the work and love that went into preparing Pitirre into fighting shape. He himself had spent countless nights rubbing the rooster’s skin to make it tougher and sharing what little food he had with the bird to make it stronger.
Benito talked proudly to his friends about the treasure within that cloth.
His frame seemed to be filled, his shoulders were high and his eyes gleamed.
Getting excited by the fight, Jesús leaned a few inches until his belly nearly touched the wood that marked the arena. Suddenly he felt a slight tingling in the wound on his ankle, the scar left by ancient teeth. Long ago he had learned the significance of such feeling coming from his foot and he scanned around with his gaze low looking for any sign that there was something wrong. Jesús had learned to keep his stare low so that it would not meet another’s glance. He had discovered that this would stave off many incidents and many unpleasant encounters. It was then that he noticed her. Across from them, looking remarkably out of place in a bright yellow dress and shiny black leather shoes stood Ofelia Monte.
Jesús had never actually met Ofelia. He had seen her from a distance when he scurried through the Calle Brau to meet Libertad. He had caught glimpses of her through the huge open caoba doors of the balcony of the big white house at the corner of Carbonell and Brau that Ursula sometimes opened in particularly warm days while Ofelia practiced the piano. Of course, Ofelia had never seen him until that day.
His intentionally low stare could not but meet Ofelia’s eyes. Ofelia was caught off guard by those commanding green eyes. Feelings swelled through her body, her feet tingled and that tickling swept through her body in an instant.
It was the blessing and the curse of the green stare.
Jesús, himself was caught by surprise, could not think what to do.
After the task of the barefoot men was done, while small patches of earth were barely moist with the killing, two men entered the arena, each holding a proud rooster tightly in their hands. One of them was clearly bigger than the other, but at that time weight was not really taken into consideration. With a hop, a third man entered the circle; he was dressed in the best clothes that he could afford. With a few movements of his hands, he signaled the crowd to be quiet. The talk of men died down in anticipation of the formal introductions and the fight to the death to come afterwards.
Without really knowing that he was doing it, Jesús squeezed Libertad’s hand twice and motioned with his head towards Ofelia. Libertad, at first puzzled, looked at the direction he was pointing at. Ofelia, noticing Jesús’ movement, came out of her trance.
The two sisters stared at each other across the arena.
The third man spoke with a booming voice similar to Alfonso Alfredo’s. To his left, he introduced the smaller rooster as Pitirre. The crowd cheered as Beno looked around the crowd, his warm smile displaying his few missing teeth. He then looked down warmly at Pitirre, who seemed eager to go into battle, his legs already swinging wildly. The announcer proclaimed the rooster at the right to be Águila. Nobody seemed to know exactly who the man holding the second rooster was. His clothes, nicely pressed and clean, marked a clear contrast to Beno’s worn shirt and shoeless feet. The man motioned slightly with his head to acknowledge the introduction without changing his expression. With the same ease as he entered, the announcer hopped out of the circle. Both men lowered the roosters, their willing spools finally touching earth. At the count of three, both men let go of their roosters rapidly making their way out of the arena and into the waiting arms of the crowd.
Libertad kept staring intently at Ofelia. They seemed to be attached by an invisible line that cut through the circle. Jesús was fully aware of the situation unfolding and, although his mind raced, he didn’t know what to do. Benito, always slow, finally realized what was going on and the gravity of the situation. He was perfectly aware of the treachery that Ofelia was capable of. His mind was full of the stories Libertad had told him about the extent of Ofelia’s jealousy and her capability to be perfectly civil to your face and then calmly and coolly stab you in the back. Benito knew that by just being there with Libertad, his father’s job was in peril. A single word from Ofelia and Beno would not only lose his job but his home as well.
Of the four the only one that seemed unaffected by all of this was Ángel Manuel. His eyes stayed on the roosters, his mouth and his mind thirsty for combat.
The two roosters stared, sizing each other up. All the conscious thoughts that they were capable of vanished, replaced by the instinctive bloodlust. Their tails curled and their necks strained forward. They fluffed their feathers in an always futile attempt to intimidate each other. Slowly, they began to move clockwise in unison, in a perfectly choreographed move. Each step taking an eternity. The dance of death had begun.
Jesús slowly moved closer to Libertad, cutting in front of Benito while clutching her hand tightly. Ofelia’s eyes narrowed. She understood what that move meant. She now realized what was going on. She knew that Libertad and Jesús were there together. In a flash, she realized what they meant to each other by looking at their faces. Caught in the spell of the green eyes, Ofelia’s gut twisted with rage and bitterness. All those feuds, all that bickering she had with her sister throughout their lives became meaningless and were suddenly forgotten. A new feud had begun, something more important, something much more valuable.
Libertad, with her ebony eyes like sugarcane fields embering in the night, could see through her sister’s thoughts. She could see that like many others before her, Ofelia was unable to help herself. Those sudden feelings that many others before and after had felt for that sad stare had hardened her determination to win the ultimate prize. Libertad felt neither anger nor hate. She took in the facts and simply knew that Ofelia had just raised the stakes of the sibling game.
Benito began wheezing in desperation. Jesús bent back to look at him and saw the sheer terror in his face. Benito took a couple of steps into the crowd and turned to Jesús. Jesús nodded an approval and Benito, blinking in acknowledgement with shame in his eyes, disappeared into the people around as fast as his crooked legs let him.
Meanwhile, as Libertad was desperately looking through the crowd for a way out, she suddenly saw a spark of white that beamed effortlessly through the crowd gathered some twenty feet from the arena. It was the commanding white suit of her grandfather, Alfonso Alfredo Monte. Surely, Libertad gathered, he was the one that brought Ofelia with him. Ofelia saw the expression in Libertad’s face and knew of her realization. Ofelia knew that Libertad was there without permission of their grandparents. She also knew of the severe punishment she would receive if she was discovered there. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Ofelia started to move through the crowd. Libertad began the same movement before realizing what her sister was doing.
The two roosters began pecking at each other. It seemed like their were kissing in friendship and love. Without warning, both roosters leapt into the air in unison. Their wings cracking into the air like whips, showering the air with feathers. The voices of the men became one roar that deafened all the people around there. Men cheered their favorite roosters giving them battle advice as if the roosters could understand them. The roosters, ignoring the noise, struck at each other desperately trying to gain an advantage in their struggle for life. Pitirre’s spool slashed at Águila’s shoulder in a defiant attempt to gain the open hand. His attack struck air and both roosters landed. It had seemed like an eternity for the combatants, but it had all happened in a few seconds. Both roosters gathered themselves up and leapt again, their claws in the air, hacking with their beaks what their legs could not reach. At every leap, every slash, the holler of the men became louder. Some men pounded their feet into the ground, others slapped the wooden fence in excitement. The toothless jíbaro wildly chanted words of encouragement to his rooster while the nicely dressed man watched the fight without forming any clear expression. Defiantly, each rooster struggled to end the other’s life before their own could be extinguished. The screams of the men around intensified to an unbearable degree. After barely taking in a breath, after a few seconds of pecking, both warriors leapt once again.
Sensing her sister’s movement, Ofelia dashed into the crowd. Libertad, without thinking, did the same with Jesús close behind her. Ofelia’s mind raced. Libertad, it seemed to her, always got what she wanted. She had a kind of freedom that Ofelia never dreamed of having. She knew of her tricks for breaking out of the big white house at the corner of Carbonell and Brau. She knew of the long daily escapes towards the freedom of town. She had always been envious, but she had always felt that her duty as a lady was to stay within the white bleached walls and behave properly.
Now everything had changed. She had known of her sister’s escapes. Now she knew why.
And she desired it, with all her heart, she wanted it. This time, Libertad would pay for her recklessness.
Faces melted together as Libertad and Jesús zigzagged through the crowd. Libertad was still unsure what to do. She didn’t know what her sister planned. She could try to escape the valla and make her way back home, that way she could conceivably challenge Ofelia’s account that she was there. Or she could try to get to her sister before she’d reached the white aura of their grandfather and try to reason with her or to bully her into submission. She couldn’t consider her options for long, time was rapidly running out.
Both roosters exhausted, their attacks became slower and less frequent. Their instinct to fight was the only thing keeping both combatants standing. Their pride was the only thing keeping them attacking. Pitirre, much smaller than his opponent, seemed to be the one worst off. His white feathers did little to camouflage the blood trickling from his neck and face . Águila, although tired and somewhat maimed, seemed to have his plumage mostly intact. Staring at them from just beyond the arena, stood their owners. The stranger’s expression was still a mystery while Beno valiantly cheered on his Pitirre with a tone that betrayed own his pain.
Suddenly, as if he had been toying with his opponent all along, Águila fell on top of his opponent leading in with his spools. Caught flatfooted and exhausted, Pitirre did his best to fight off the final attack but the cold precision of the onslaught was too much and the difference in weight was too big. Pitirre fell, his back on the ground. He slowly moved his legs in a futile attempt at protection. Águila pressed on, hacking his fallen opponent with his beak His wings suddenly fluttered and in an instant, Pitirre ended his challenge, his throat cut to ribbons and his breast slit in half.
In a stroke of bad luck, as if the fates had conspired against them, when the cockfight ended the crowd thinned. Libertad realized that she had run out of time. She stood with Jesús in full view of Alfonso Alfredo. Her grandfather seemed to be conversing with a well-dressed man and was unaware of anything happening around him. There was nowhere to run, and Ofelia had reached their grandfather. As she tugged on her grandfather’s pristine jacket, Ofelia glanced at the defeated Libertad with a grin of victory on her lips.
Jesús knew that the blue eyed German wrath of Ursula would indeed be great. He looked at Libertad’s eyes and found them already staring into his. Libertad grasped his hand, her twelve year old mind expecting a fate worse than death. Ofelia almost screamed to her grandfather to look over there. Alfonso Alfredo was there discussing business and had no interest in either roosters or the little thoughts of his granddaughter. As her hand began to point and Alfonso Alfredo’s stare, willing to give only a few seconds of his time to Ofelia, followed it, the unexpected happened.
Jesús felt something strike him from the side. It was something big, like a whole body smashing to his frame. Losing his balance, he fell towards Libertad who, also caught by surprise, fell to the ground with him. When Alfonso Alfredo Monte finally rested his eyes on the spot that his granddaughter was pointing for him, he only saw the figure of a dirty boy dressed in rags wearing a faded red cap. He was grinning at him. Thinking that Ofelia was only feeling mildly threatened by the boy, he dismissed her telling her not to worry and continued his conversation ignoring her repeated pleas to listen to her.
Ofelia, having lost the only few seconds of attention her grandfather was disposed to give her, knew she was defeated. She let go of the white jacket and stared back at the grinning boy with hate in her eyes. Satisfied, he waved back.
As Libertad and Jesús lay on their backs, their clothes now dirty with red mud, they looked up to see a grinning Angel Manuel standing besides them waving at somebody across the crowd. Puzzled, Jesús turned to Libertad only to see her with a grin of her own. It was then he understood. It had been Angel Manuel that had knocked them to the ground in a desperate attempt to hide them behind the low wooden stakes that circled the arena and the stumping feet of highly excited men. Smiling back in appreciation and thanks, Jesús led Libertad out of the crowd.
And it would be that rogue grin that they would never forget when they saw it a couple of years later for the last time.
They would arrive half an hour later to the corner of Carbonell and Brau, their clothes dirty but safe. After he left Libertad in front of the big white house by the corner of Carbonell and Brau, Jesús made his way home trying to make plans of ways he could possibly repay his friend for his valiant actions that afternoon over the voices of four men, visible only to his eyes, scolding him for his carelessness.
Two men entered the arena. It was filled with a narrow streak of blood. The winner circled his defeated opponent in a gesture of defiance and strength until the stranger grabbed him tightly by the sides and rose him from the ground. Still, as his feet left the wet earth, the winner seemed to be heckling his fallen opponent.
Beno gently picked up his rooster from the ground. Slowly and with much pain, he straightened his back. Benito appeared besides him with tears already forming in his eyes. Grasping the dead bird in one hand, he gently placed his other hand on top of Benito’s head. He then bit his lip hard. The stranger had robbed him of his pride but he would not let him see him cry. The stranger approached him and whispered a proposal into his ear. Beno, looking down at Benito, whose tears were already streaking across his dirty cheeks, considered the proposals for a few seconds and then offered his worn hand to the stranger. Delicate white shook tattered brown. Without warning, one of the spotters shouted the coming of the police and as if by magic and after a brief but intense commotion, all the roosters disappeared.
Walking slowly to his batey, Beno tightly grasped his son’s hand in one hand and a bloodied old sack on the other, the future pressing hard in his mind. And as the night fell around him, the charcoal blades of the burning sugarcane fell from the sky mixing with red blood and covering the town. Cutting through the black rain, an old voice could be heard.