After Ramon Roberto Rodriguez’s son, Roberto Ramon Rodriguez, was found dead, with his head in the cows’ waterhole, Ramon Roberto Rodriguez moved to the Escambray Mountains and he, like his son had, adopted the lifestyle of a monk. He left his wife, his home, his work, everything, to go raise his son from the dead. And he raised his son from the dead, through himself. He became his son resurrected: the monk on the mountain.
Like his son had since he’d left and lived in El Oriente for six years, he had renounced money. So in trade for two gallons of Fuerte Farm honey, he gave Gonzalo Fuerte a fighting rooster: a saintly bird who had reached the island via the Manila-Acapulco galleons. Gonzalo Fuerte brought the resurrected son’s holy bird down the mountain to his Farm.
Gonzalo Fuerte was thin, like the lizards in the aguacate trees behind his house: green on the aguacates, brown on the trunk. But he was hard to the touch, as strong as two men. And He believed in resurrection and in curses. He felt the Escambray bird had the spirit of resurrected sons in him and was connected to God. So he decided his godly bird should be taken to fight by someone close to los santos, cerca de Dios. “Men like me are cursed,” he thought as he walked down the mountain; “San Lazaro punishes those who maltratan sus animalitos.”
Gonzalo came down the mountain thinking about curses, about trying to be more kind. He walked through the fields of tobacco then cane, approached his home. He emerged through the thin hard cane and saw his two sons: his elder son up in a mango tree up close to the house, reading. Orestico was down in the dirt playing with a lizard: his marbles on the ground around him, the lizard in his marble jar with some dry cane leaves. He was about to light a match.
“Orestes!” Orestico threw the match on the ground and turned toward his father, and his prisoner worked his way through the leaves and jumped out of the jar, landed among the marbles, and sent some crashing into each other as he ran off toward the fruit trees.
“Cenen!” Cenen put his book down, wedged between crisscrossing branches, and started to climb down, and a green lizard on a branch above him said, “dalé.”
“I got this bird, he’s very especial. The monk from the mountain gave him to me, to realize his destiny, and I think that that should be done by my son.”
“Porque no tu?” Cenen asked, knowing that the destiny his father meant was the fights.
“Porque no!” Gonzalo didn’t explain. He offered Cenen the bird, but Cenen was different from boys in Manicaragua, very different from other farm boys, he was fourteen and he liked books, he was done with backward guajiro things.
“I’ll keep him, but he’s not going to fight.”
“Porque no, coño?!” Gonzalo yelled, angry.
“Because,” he said worried, “I want him to live here with us and not be hurt.”
Gonzalo paused and looked at his boy, and his anger left his body. You could hear the leaves rustle as it walked through the cane. He looked down at the bird in his folded left arm, and he looked at his boy and walked toward him, and he put his right hand behind Cenen’s head, pulled it close and kissed it.
“Dale, coje tu libro” he nodded toward the book up in the tree.
And Orestes, who they called Orestico, who was twelve years old and all guajiro, got the bird. He named him Cabron.
Cenen looked down on Orestico for wanting the bird, the fight, and Orestes disapproved of Cenen for not wanting to do things that men do, for reading all the time, like a girl. But they remained close. They were taught that no matter what, they always had to be so, because they were brothers, because they were their mother’s boys. Cenen, at night, when going to sleep in the sea green room they shared, would tell Orestico things he knew about their father.
“Papa believes in espiritus and curses. He believes Cabron is special, and needs someone more innocent, more holy, to take him to fight. And when you become more like papi, more interested in the kill, in the victory, Cabron will be killed, like a slave fighting to the death for his master: like papi’s birds.”
“No me digas esa mierda!” Orestico hated hearing that: it made him think that maybe his father, everything he wanted to be, was not good. He wanted to fight the bird, very much, but it made him sick to think of Cabron as a slave, killed. He would push those thoughts out of his head, with elephants sometimes.
Once, Orestes had seen a fight, the day he turned eight and got his first bicycle, and a gold San Lazaro. But he was not known in those circles. He lived his life with the men who worked the farm, and with the animals. At night the cucuyos would fly all around above him in the yard, illuminating him enough that he could play with his marbles into the night. And lighted cucuyo universes reflected from marbles, Universes Orestico sent crashing into each other as he played. And in the cane crickets played their maracas, and grasshoppers danced.
That everythingness of God was all Orestico had ever known. It was Orestico.
Gonzalo knew God was the dirt that took in their dead and created new life. Cane, tobacco, the flowers, the fruit born from the land were God, the trees that died to be resurrected as his home were God. Goats, sheep, pigs, all animals: the fireflies that illuminated his boy: God. His boy bringing the fighter would make the fight special.
People around the Fuerte farm felt a sense of fantasticalness from Cabron. He was tall and the color of copper and iron. There was deliberateness about him.
Viejitos in white guayaberas, who lingered outside church after mass and pretended to be serious people who did not care for things like cock fighting, had gone to see him. They said he was like a living painting, like his steps were God’s brushstrokes.
Cabron also had an impact on the animals. Other roosters followed him around – all the chickens followed him. Maria, a hen known for having adopted and raised five Cornish chicks, became especially close to him. He had gone straight to her when Gonzalo put him in the chicken yard, and at night he’d go in the coop and sleep under her wing, like he was her child. But Maria started bearing her chest. As the days went by she started walking in circles pecking at her chest feathers more and more mortified over Cabron’s destiny. The other roosters, the chickens, even the pigs, who usually didn’t care to pay attention, knew Cabron was headed to his death.
Orestico felt the pingu in him asking for a fight, and he was going to get it through Cabron. He hadn’t had reason or opportunity to let out his inner pingu in a long time. Not since he was ten and Doña Yuya, his mother’s tocaya, his mamá Africana, who’d delivered him and his brother and sisters out of their mother and into her world, decided to help him with an abusador, and she sent him to sleep in the rain, on the rock by the river: to pull, at dawn, the mushrooms that only came out between the rock and the river when the river rose in the rain and there was a boy waiting. Not since she made him his tea with those wild-haired mushrooms, rum, and smoke, and he drank it with his breakfast and felt the drumming grow in his chest and the gorilla strength swell in his arms, and he ignored the drumming in his chest as best he could to walk to school and make it to recess where he would put an end to Emilio Echavarria’s bullying. And recess came, and Orestes walked out and found Emilio Echavarria hanging upside-down from a tree branch in the yard, surrounded by his little come-mierdita friends. And he walked toward him, the drums pounding louder. Emilio flung an insult at Orestes that Orestes could not hear over the pounding, and he walked faster, reaching the upside-down boy who spat out soundless, upside-down words, and Orestes roared and smashed Emilio Echavarria’s upside-down face with his gorilla fist, so hard that the stupid upside-down boy lost the strength in his legs and dropped from the tree, and hit the ground like a ripe guanabana, and his blood abandoned him through his nose and entered the earth. Orestico wanted to feel the pounding again.
And he would. Gonzalo arranged to have Cabron fight a rooster called Pintintin on Saturday the 26th at 7:22 P.M. He insisted that the bout start at 7:22, not 7:20 or 7:25. Seven, twenty, two. He had dreamed that on July twenty-second, like a mariposa, God would fly into his yellow bedroom.
The Tuesday four days before the fight Orestes moved into the cowshed with Cabron. He knew some of the workers slept in the barn, because they were descendants of animals. It was something the workers had told him. They taught him that that was how their fathers got away from the evil of men. They taught him that and other things, like that the pig that’s to be fattened for slaughter has his testicles cut off because afterward he cares about nothing but eating, because there’s nothing else left to live for, and he gorges himself, he gets fat, and he gets slaughtered. They told him their ancestors walked in liberty as goats, sheep, iguanas, and they were one with the saints and God, and some walked into the sea, became fish, and swam home.
Still, at night, the humanness of some Fuerte farm workers was not certain.
Orestico thought that he was different from the workers, that he was staying with Cabron because it was important for the fight. But Asabache, Gonzalo’s mano derecha, who, with his wife Doña Yuya, managed the Fuerte farm and matters to do with animals and espiritus, told him he was there because he was becoming the rooster. Neither Asabache nor Yuya, who were of African skin the color of burned firewood and dressed in bright santero white, would tell him what his roosterness would save him from. But he was learning about oneness with saints and animals. Orestes would one day walk with the saints and animals in the wooded hills of the Sierra Maestra, witnessing revolution, an apocalypse. He would kill bearded guerrillas who would kill the Patria of his childhood but not Orestes, because he was one with the animals and saints in the forested hills of the Sierra Maestra. They couldn’t see him.
Orestico seemed uninterested when approached by his mother or his siblings who, like the curious people from town, came to see him at the barn. He was not disrespectful; he still kissed his mother’s hand when he said good morning, but he no longer fed the pigs or ate breakfast with the workers or walked his sisters to their music lessons. He no longer teased them like a normal boy would. He was not interested in human things. He and Cabron had shiny eyes, wore spurs, ate corn. They went ahead with their roosterness and no one said anything about it.
Six of his seven sisters thought he had lost his ability to stop and listen and talk. Elgida was the exception. He and Cabron listened to and spoke with her. She did not distract them with people things. Elgida was five and a half and not yet people. In the farm, until children stopped eating things off the floor and they learned reading and simple math, they were closer in spirit with the goat’s kids than they were with people. Elgida had been eating at the table more and was beginning to try addition, but she still spent most of her time outside barefooted. The goats still saw her as theirs.
On the Thursday two days before the fight, she walked into the barn and found Orestes sitting cross-legged on the floor, Cabron standing in front of him, close.
“I see me in his eyes” he said to her. “Stand behind him, put your head right behind his head, look into my eyes and tell me if you see Cabron.”
Elgida did what Orestes asked, and knelt, her head behind Cabron’s head. She knew that Cabron was in Orestes; it was obvious to her in the shininess of his eyes, in the spurs on his boots, in his dawn crowing.
“Si,” she said.
Orestico only spoke of Cabron and the fight, he forgot about his duties around the farm. It was harvest season. The school was closed. Haitians had been shipped in to help harvest hundreds of acres of cane, tobacco, coffee, rice, honey. Gonzalo told the family that Orestes was excused. The boy and the bird were on a corn and coffee diet. He drank his coffee brewed by his mother. Cabron ate coffee beans. Orestes received his mother’s coffee from Doña Yuya who brought it out to him in the morning. He kissed her hand like he did his mother’s, took his coffee and walked it to the cows. The eleven cows that produced milk for the farm lived in the barn. Calves who were kept away overnight were brought in to trigger the flow of milk in their mothers. Before the milking began, the boy squeezed milk into his coffee straight from the cow’s teat. He always went to a cow he called Mamita, who was the color of dirt and her milk was sweet.
It bothered Orestico that the calves were kept away from their mothers, and then brought in the morning to watch humans (even if just part-time humans) take the milk that was rightfully theirs. The calves pleaded all morning to be reunited with their mothers and they eventually were, but after their mothers had been depleted, and so they had to wait for their mothers to swell with milk again, but they were happy to stand close, rubbing their faces on their mothers’ sides, feeling the touch, scent, warmth they dreamed about at night.
Saturday morning Orestes woke-up to the sound of rain. The afternoon rain fell in the morning. Water that had once been sweat in a cane field and evaporated and went to heaven, returned to earth to bless a boy as he walked to his mother’s kitchen.
Julia Fuerte–Estrada had café-colored eyes and brown hair she wore in a bamboo hair-band like her mother used to wear. Orestes thought she was beautiful in the same way he thought God would be. He came in, kissed her hand and received a kiss on his head: another blessing. He sat down to eat his breakfast and hear his father read aloud about the Amateur World Series, which would happen in Cuba that year. Orestico ate his arina de maís sitting at the kitchen table his father and Asabache had made, from wood of fallen mahoganies that Asabache blessed with puro ashes and songs about dark skinned saints. Orestico ate and listened to his father, whose words glided across the blessed fallen mahogany floor, up cielo blue walls, out the windows above the black stove to tell the animals and spirits that he was soon coming. Gonzalo read and had his breakfast of café negro and a puro of tobacco planted by his father’s father, that he had rolled the night before. And as Orestes finished his arina de maiz Gonzalo started reading about the war.
“Los gringos will take that one too,” he said as thick, slow smoke poquito-a-poco spilled from his mouth, to linger in the Fuerte home and then rise to heaven. Julia Fuerte-Estrada loved the puro smoke floating in her kitchen. When she heard Gonzalo’s morning match strike her kitchen floor, Julia paused and closed her eyes and let the morning’s first humo de puro slowly fly to her, and she breathed it into her mind, and it put her in her mother’s kitchen, kissed on her head by her Godly mother. Julia, like her husband and children, believed that the espiritu of their mothers and fathers, every day, was resurrected in the smoke from the tobacco of the land where they were buried, and every day they again rose to heaven.
“Those hijos de putas lied their way into our war, and now they’re staining a French beach to do it again.”
“Ay Gonzalo, por favor, read about the weather, o un poema.” Julia said with her back to her husband, grounding coffee, summoning light.
Orestes imagined a red beach and thought the gringos staining it maybe had mothers who liked making them breakfast. But he shook the gringos off his head. He was concerned about his own war and had to see Asabache about it. He ate his breakfast then went out to find the rain gone, and he went to the barn, got his cock, stroked his feathers, and told him he was an assassin.
“Tu eres un assesino. Pintintin dies today.” He wanted to fight the bird, very much, but he also loved his bird, and deep inside his twelve-year-old head Orestico knew that fighting birds, even Godly ones, died in violence. “At the hands of a fellow slave,” his brother Cenen had described it to him; “they were slaves fighting to the death, for their masters.”
Orestes didn’t want to see his bird killed. He didn’t want to think of Cabron as a slave. He’d dreamed a dream in which Cabron was killed in a fight and he couldn’t go to him because he’d been chained to a tree. Thoughts of death and dreams of madness burned holes in his mind, filled him with the unfamiliar scent of fear, doubt. He needed to sacarse esa mierda from his head, put it away like the little cigars he rolled in the pre-dawn night (the way Asabache had taught him) and then hid in his yellow Partagas box. Cabron had died in his dream and yet here he was alive and strong in his arms… he called upon elephants.
Asabache was far out in the cane fields, on the other side of an ocean of dirt that would become cane. Beyond him tall, thin palms swayed like underwater wild-haired mushrooms. He was feeding the two plowing oxen gobs of molasses, a byproduct of the farm’s sugar mill that the oxen loved. He was talking to them.
“Sin ustedes no hay cosecha.” He was preparing them for work. He stroked their heads and fed them molasses. They loved Asabache, rubbed their faces on him.
“From the cane comes the molasses,” Orestes heard Asabache say as he approached. He felt the oxen understood Asabache’s words and were ready to work for him, to get the field ready for the new cane that made molasses.
“Cabron va pelear hoy.”
“I know,” Asabache responded. No cock fighting happened that was not approved by him…. He reached for Cabron.
“A ver,” Asabache said, gesturing to Orestes with his hand to hand him the bird.
Orestes handed Asabache the rooster. Asabache held him in his left arm and let him peck the molasses in his right hand.
“Dejalo libre. After he’s been free in the fields where the Africans and Indians are buried, take him straight to the fight, and don’t put the spurs on him until the last moment.”
Asabache’s words, the undercurrent of old voices flowing beneath them, gave the fight a sense of inevitableness, like the sun — it is going to set, it’s what it does.
Orestico peppered the fields with handfuls of corn and coffee beans. Cabron ate some, but mostly wondered the fields until the evening when his boy picked him up and carried him the nine hundred yards to the west, toward the sunset, to the fight house. The fight house was circular, made of walls of mahogany trunks and a palm roof. It was crowded with men: thick-skinned guajiros who’d spent the day cutting cane or hauling tobacco or slaughtering pigs: men who sacrificed plants and animals for their Gods and their children, hoping the ones will help the others.
The walls were narrow. Every two feet there was a window, and then two feet and a door, two feet, window then door then window. It was unclear where (or if) the windows and doors began or ended, and there were no actual windows, no actual doors; they were just openings, opportunities. The fight house felt al aire libre. Air and animals and people flowed in and out. Goats and sheep walked among the men. Bright green iguanas lingered on the walls near every other windowless window. The room was hot, the breeze entered through countless openings but it died, powerless against the heat coming off of Spaniards and Africans and mulatos and trigueños who were there for a fight, who were there for a sacrifice.
Cigar smoke was thick in the room, unmoved by the breeze that pushed air in and out of windowless windows and doorless doors. Just outside what the men referred to as the eleventh door, large carbon-colored women in bright white dresses and bead necklaces sold pan con lechon and rum. Sacred rum made from cane from cane fields fed by slaves and Indians in the earth, rum that flowed into men’s bodies, its spirit rising into their minds. The casita de pelea’s tree-trunk walls and palm roof assumed the personality of something alive, breathing, it was filled with noise and rum and smoke and animals and saints. Cucuyos flew in, illuminated, grasshoppers and crickets and spiders, and mariposas found crevasses in the palm roof and sat and waited, to see. Goats and sheep raised their voices, iguanas speculated about the fight; men spoke loudly, placed bets, argued. Voices rose out of the circular house and kept the birds and the lizards in the trees informed about the fight.
Orestes, carrying his bird, came in through the eleventh door at 7:17 PM. He was something strange in that atmosphere of possessed men; he was a boy who had not sinned, who was connected to his bird and wanted to be a man, wanted to be like his father but didn’t yet understand the ways in which that was not good. He walked through the crowd in his own private silence, not hearing the noise of men and animals. He stepped down into the fighting pit, two feet below the ground: a dirt-floored pit eleven feet in diameter, ringed with stones. The men and the animals looked down at the boy and his bird, they gathered, began paying attention. Chickens sat on the beams above, below the thatched palm roof. They looked down on the saintly bird from the mountain as he prepared to fight. Orestes armed Cabron a moment before the fight, as Cabron stood still and watched his boy fit and tie razor spurs onto his claws.
Pintintin entered the pit already armed, strutted big and fierce, hurled insults at Cabron and his boy, but Cabron was fearless, didn’t hear him. He was focused on his boy, who tightened his spurs and softly, slowly, sang to him: “Babalúuu Ayéee, Babalúuu Ayéee.”
People around the pit put more money on Pintintin when they saw Cabron’s subdued reaction to his insults. Noise grew. Men made their final bets. The birds and the lizards in the trees, who have known these fights to the death for two hundred years, knew the birds were about to be set free, to kill each other. They have, for two hundred years, seen the spirit of the defeated rise through their trees.
Orestes and Pintintin’s viejo brought Cabron and Pintintin to the center of the pit at 7:21:44 PM. The noise died. At 7:22 PM they released the fighters and the crowd erupted.
Pintintin was big — a killer. People yelled his name, forgot about Cabron’s Godliness. He attacked Cabron immediately, relentlessly. Orestes saw through Cabron’s eyes, saw Pintintin eye-to-eye, began to feel the drums pound. Men cheered when Pintintin raised his wings and flew over Cabron to attack his head. He cut Cabron below the right eye, sending a drop of blood travelling down his face, to enter his beak and awaken vengefulness.
Forty-four seconds into the match Cabron’s bloodstained beak smashed the corner of Pintintin’s eye socket and Pintintin’s left eye abandoned him, hung down by a vein that continued to pump life into it, let it see. Pounding grew louder, faster; horror and thrill competed for the boy’s heart, intoxicated him. The men were silenced. Pintintin fought on with his eye hanging down his face, in a rage, but Cabron knew when and where to stick his razor spurs. Orestes’s pounding was strong, but he could hear, as if inside his head, the song of the birds in the trees, who sang loud as the lizards began to head home, their skin turning dark.
And as the sun did, setting behind the Escambray Mountains, leaving a monk in the dark, Cabron was doing, what God made him to do; he was killing Pintintin. He punctured Pintintin’s forward-looking eye, leaving him with only a view of the dirt where he would soon rest. Pintintin fell. Cabron ate his eye. The crowd was left in a state of noisy shock. Men settled their bets. Men and animals recounted to each other, as if the other hadn’t been there, the way en que ese pajaro de la montaña brought Godly vengeance down upon Pintintin. And Pintintin’s master, a white-haired viejito who lived behind the church, kept the garden, swept the church steps, gently picked up his bird. He would take him home and dig a grave behind his casita where he would lay Pintintin to rest.
Orestes, now more like his father, picked up Cabron, removed his spurs and carried him out a doorway flanked by bright green iguanas who contemplated him and his bird as they walked out into Cuba and the night. And the birds in the trees sang.