from Blood Jelly
My first day on the island, no woman will show herself to me. In the open, under the sun, no matter where I look—the backs of motorbikes, the curbs, the spaces behind the counters of the sari-sari stores are empty. Only a few boys look back at me, sitting back on their heels or swatting at flies with rolled-up newspapers. I search their heavy creased brows for some indication of what is going on but cannot read their expressions. It feels like standing among the dollhouse-sized lean-to’s lined up in rows behind the houses of the barangay, the shelters of the roosters bred for fighting. How the prizefighters can’t look at you with both eyes.
I wonder if I will ask my mother about the roosters when I find her. Or maybe it has nothing to do with her. “A pretty bird is like Miss Universe, perfect body, well balanced,” a neighbor and small-time breeder says to me as I stand snapping pictures among the rows of proud cocks atop their little houses in the back of the barangay, the birds bred for fighting. He is handling one delicately, examining its haunches. “Like a person, beautiful, sexy.” It is clear from the way he talks that the sport, with its small furious battles to the death staged in stadium arenas, is as much about beauty as it is about blood. Blades are tied to the ankles of the birds. Bets are placed by throwing crumpled bills in a flurry to the kristos, bookies nicknamed for the way they stand among the rows of spectators with both arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, catching the till and memorizing wagers. I’ve seen it in videos: crowds of hundreds and even thousands of men in plastic chairs surround the pit in concentric circles, shouting and spitting, throaty for the kill. But once the birds are let loose in the ring, a hush descends. The breath of the stadium is held.
In the yard each rooster preens and fidgets, rustles shining feathers atop his small triangle house, or emerges jerkily from the shade beneath it, a space that is like a depression or dark thumb-print in the heavy moisture. I look from the cord around one bird’s ankle to the sheen of its deep green, red, blue-black feathers like jewels, their wide eyes empty and ignorant of their own dazzle. In the strange stillness and the absence of the women, something is a sparkling jewel and plain as day and surrounds me on all sides, and when I turn to look it slips away.
But the neighbor points to each bird and tells me its name: Blue Face, Grey, Dirty Grey, Gilmore, High Action, Frost Grey, Lemon, McClean, Flurry Eye, Right as Rain, The King, Legs, Abraham Lincoln, Banshee, Lip of Smoke, Neck Breaker, American Psycho, The Machine, Sparta, Sweater, Wet Gold, Claret, Roundhead, Dom, Rottweiler, Ladyfinger, Heneral Luna, Armada, White Claret, Irish Dom, White Dom, Spangled, Hulsey Lemon, Freedom Lemon, Butcher.
I remember visiting the small family farm of a college boyfriend. We walked toward the chicken coop and from a distance the hens looked fat and content, almost glowing in the autumn light. It wasn’t until we got close that I saw that the hens were actually ragged, several with gaping bald spots on their coats, one bleeding. The boyfriend’s grandmother explained that it was the rooster, whom we could see strutting around the far side of the yard, green-black feathers smooth, “He’s mean like you wouldn’t believe, pecks the shit out of the girls.”
My second day on the island, I wake up to a voice booming, inexpert and offkey, high-pitched and careening over the electric green vegetation and the red wet dirt. The sun has only just cut through the morning damp, and no human or animal is moving. No other sounds can be heard— not of cooking or gossip or laughter, no vehicles bumping over the rocky pathways between houses or kids playing basketball in the DIY neighborhood court next door. Even the lapping water in the small bay behind the neighborhood is silent and still, but the karaoke singer is magnified to the decibel level of a large outdoor concert. The song is an old reggae tune that makes me cringe to here, which has recently resurged in popularity on the island thanks to a hit national singing competition staged in the capital and judged by the voice of a cartoon princess.
On my desk I have a massive hardcover book titled The Book of Symbols. This is what it says under the entry for Rooster in The Book of Symbols: The rooster was a form of the Roman god Mercury in his function as the psychopomp who can see his way to conduct the souls of the dead to the underworld. The rooster’s connection to Mercury, to the shuttling of the dead to the other side, is related to the comb on the rooster’s head, specifically its resemblance to human fingers. The comb is a gift often found in Bronze Age graves, a guiding hand for travelling souls. Mercury the psychopomp is also Hermes the thief, trickster god of luck and loss.
I learn later that this is a young man’s wake. This is why no one moves but the singer, and why the birds have been so proudly and recently groomed. I learn later that the body now lies in state in a nearby front room, where it will remain for nine days as is the custom on the island. But for now, from where I sit at the open bedroom window it's impossible to tell from which direction the sound is coming. In the evening they will fight, to mark the occasion, but for now even the rustling prizefighters are still.