Richard, a Filipino tricycle motorbike driver, agreed yesterday to drive us from Alona Beach, where we are staying, to the Sunday afternoon cockfight just outside of Panglao. He’s a quiet man, but patient with my gaggle of questions. I take to him right off the bat. Are there snakes here? Have you lived here always? There are and he has. Are you Catholic? Do you have children? He is and does. Do they like the beach? Who taught them to swim? They do and he did.
Richard is youthful, but not young. When he smiles, wrinkles form tributaries at the corners of his eyes, betraying his boyish brown face. Like the tires on his bike his hair is inky black except for the salt and pepper gray beginning to overtake his eyebrows. Richard doesn’t drink and declines my offer of a beer when I return from the convenience store, though back on the road he points out the Tanduay rum posters we keep passing.
“You like to drink? It’s very good,” he tells me.
I imagine a younger, childless Richard, hanging with the boys, barefoot in the street, passing a soccer ball—and maybe a bottle—back and forth as daylight wanes and the salty breeze picks up. Though my friends and I offer to pay his way, Richard refuses to join us at the fight.
“I don’t like the fighting,” he says as he lays back on his bike, positioning his head in the shade. A ball of guilt like a thought I’ve bagged, weighed down, tied, and sunk to the bottom of my gut drops in my stomach. The beer doesn’t chase it away, but I move on. The four of us—three boys and I—agreed before we came to the Philippines that we wanted to see a cockfight. Our reasons were varied, but mostly boiled down to the fact that cockfighting is a little like forbidden fruit. Cockfighting was outlawed in my home state when I was fifteen years old. We indulged a thirst for adventure, something we could excuse by being in another culture. So off we go for hours while gentle Richard snoozes in the shade, feet on the handlebars, a bony arm hooked over his eyes.
The Panglao Cockpit Arena is set back from the road, obscured from view by hundreds of motorbikes and a mess of shrubbery and trees. If it weren’t for the signage noting its location, passersby would have little idea what goes on there past the rickety wooden fence and through the homemade turnstile. After paying a nominal admission fee, visitors—mostly locals—move through the gate and into a courtyard lined on both sides with wooden stalls. Everything here is built of wood stained with years of rain, blood, and dirt and smells damp, with a hint of mildew. In the stalls where women sell coconut juice, fried breads, beer, Cokes and single cigarettes, the wood is worn, a dingy dark grey.
Crowing cocks call out from opposite corners of the arena, each cry hails louder than the grunts and bawls of men. The winged creatures are everywhere, every which way—tied to posts, wandering the grounds, blocking the path to the bathroom, in between legs, in men’s arms. Not one cock is caged. Here, the earth is moist. Dirt, dark and damp and soft, sparsely covered by splotches of grass and scattered drops of blood. Filipino men and boys carry the gamefowl like women carry toy-sized dogs—the birds’ ribcage resting on the forearm, the hand cradling the breast. And like women with small dogs, these men talk to their pets, stroke them, pamper them, clutch them like a beaked purse. These cocks, bred to fight, are more like the pit bulls of U.S. animal fighting lore. Affectionate and loving even to their masters, these pets turn carnal in a second, revealing a ferocity and a hidden strength. Men examine each others’ fighters with eyes made larger and brighter and more intense by the burnt sienna brown of their skin and the golden, purple-black, deep red feathers of the cocks.
At the back of the courtyard sits a vaulted open-air barn. Palm tree trunks serve as pillars to a rusting, corrugated metal roof. Visible through the slats of wood, men stand shoulder-to-shoulder on bleachers, waving their arms placing bets, flicking their hands back and forth, exclaiming words and numbers rapid-fire, as indecipherable as the cocks’ crows. One makes his or, in my rare case, her way into this roofed structure through a small doorway on the courtyard end or by climbing over a railing at the back. Sunlight seeks whatever gaps it finds and falls onto the raised dirt floor of the cockpit. Sweat glistens on the men in the ring; light turns their grey hair silver and black hair hematite. Rays of light and spokes of darkness alternate like keys on a piano; jagged lines of faces are illuminated throughout the arena. I push through the crowd of shouting, smoking men to find a place to stand, elbow-to-elbow, front to back, knee to knee. A slight breeze chills the beads of sweat on my neck. I raise my head, still working my way through the congregation, and come to a bit of a clearing. The arena floor comes into clear view. In this instant, the shouts of men and cries of roosters swirl together with perfume of tobacco and blood, rum and sweat. The afternoon air seethes with sharp impressions of life and death, of an urgency made more immediate by startling each sense.
A fight is about to begin and I am bewitched. Forget that I’ve lost my friends, forget my sunburned skin and the sweat trickling down my back, forget Richard on his bike, my family across the world—there is nothing else at this moment but the vibrating surges of excitement lighting up this small patch of dirt in Panglao.
The handlers each grip their respective fighters by the hackles while the referee also secures them. Because the cocks wear a gaff—a razor shaped like the blade of a scythe—attached to the back of one ankle the handlers are careful to hold them at arms’ length. The referee says something indistinguishable and the handlers shove the birds towards one another headfirst, close enough that a strike could peck the opponent’s eye out. Their wings—so richly colored they might be paint—flutter and the crowd’s collective voice dies down to a hush, enough to hear the whoosh whoooosh of feathers. A crow erupts like a battle cry if I’ve ever heard one, as if the bird has picked up a bugle to sound its aggression. The handlers drop them to the floor and they rage. Puffs of dirt are kicked up as the birds flip over one another. Light glints off of the gaff—glittery and tragically beautiful. Their wings slash and I hope one might get away but then remember cocks don’t fly. Instead, those wings swoop and slice through the air and dust, boomerangs sailing through the leafy crown of a tree. The sight is both brilliant and bleak: a flurry of feathers, streaks of red and yellow and black. I find it impossible to keep an eye on just one bird as they lash out relentlessly at one another, aiming for a kill zone.
They will kill or be killed; theirs is a stark and simple existence.
And then it happens.
I hold my breath.
The loser—now only a bird in form, no longer a tumble of color—shudders, stumbles, and spits up blood. The gaff penetrated his lung beneath the wing. His neck lurches forward, his head follows, lilting to the side, and he falls limp to the floor—a lifeless, feathered pile that, despite the heat, will quickly turn cold.
I had never seen a living thing die before, much less get killed, and I wonder again at that dull feeling in my stomach, at the human delight in obvious suffering. Voices pro- and anti-cockfighting sound off in my head, but I hush them, take in the scene: the men huddled over fences, watching from bleachers, arms waving, faces zealous, bets placed, cries bursting forth. This could be the cocksure horde on the trading floors of Wall Street; fight night at the Coliseum. When the bird lands that fatal blow to the other—the blade piercing a kill zone, which might mean the heart, a lung, a slash through the neck—and the loser staggers, goes limp, twitches, it’s the ultimate show. Nothing commands an audience like a killing. To behold life leaving the body is like watching someone you love drive away—growing smaller and more remote with each heartbeat. It is water gone down the drain; it is downy dandelion wisps floating away with the wind.
Cockfighters talk of destiny. They say cockfighting fulfills what a cock is born to do: fight to the death. And, possibly to the envy of some men, the gamefowl meets its destiny head on. Cocks lack both doubt and reservation; their presence and intent in the here and now are unadulterated. They don’t tax themselves with thought of money or career or of right versus wrong. They are bound by no sense of time beyond this heartbeat—no past, no future; there are no meetings to attend or dates to uphold, only this one which is happening now, thus receiving full attention from the little being. Indeed these are qualities to admire—and they have been admired throughout the sport’s nearly 3,000 year-old history. The Greeks used cockfighting to engender bravery and vigor among soldiers before battle. Soothsayers warned Marc Antony of Caesar’s power, citing the fact that Caesar’s cocks always beat Antony’s. A spectator feels the breath of history raise the hairs on his neck when he views a cockfight, old as history itself.
But how can we ever really know what something is born to do? A cock is born to fight because we control its upbringing. Might we also say it is born to laze about the yard and welcome the rising sun, surrounded by a brood of hens pecking at scattered seeds? Or is it born to strut about proudly and serve as a symbol for handsomeness, dignity, and a no-fear attitude?
A man in torn jeans and sandals lifts the dead bird by its feet. The head flops, no longer working against gravity. Blood drips onto the floor and death, with its peculiar energy, fills the air. A boy looks on, perched in a tree outside of the arena. His eyes meet mine and I am overwhelmed by his stare.
My thoughts take leave of the arena and the repeated deaths of these flightless birds. They go to Richard napping in the shade. Was he born to drive a trike and wait on wide-eyed tourists? “Everyman’s work,” wrote Samuel Butler, “whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” But a portrait is very different from purpose—it is an observation rather than intent. I can look at a bird and essay a portrait. I can look at Richard and see a gentle man waiting patiently for money to take home to his wife and children—the children he taught to swim in the ocean—the ocean which engulfs this tiny island where men play at life and death in different ways.
After several hours we leave the cockpit and return to Richard for the ride home. He looks refreshed and smiles at us. From the time we come into his view to the time we reach him, he stretches a smile full of grace that cleanses the world for a moment and brightens an already vivid afternoon. He seems genuinely happy to see us and his smile makes me self-conscious at the same time it comforts me, like when someone loves you and you’re grateful for it, but feel a bit undeserving.
“Did you like it?” he asks.
“Yeah, it was fun,” I say, but as the last word leaves my lips I know I did not get it quite right. Gripping, might have been a better word. Intense, even. We drive back over the dusty roads that have baked all day in the sun that is now setting behind us, and home to the rest of our group and dinner.
Just over a week later I am in another town on another island having a glass of beer with strangers. My friends and I walk into an open-air bar and we are each immediately greeted and grabbed by different groups who want us to sit down and have a chat. I watch, sort of bewildered, as my friends are divvied up as if the bar crowd had divined our arrival and chosen who they wanted where. I am the last to be invited to a table and it is one made up entirely of men. They are jovial; most have great big bellies that heave as they laugh, which they do immediately after their friend summons me and I accept. Certainly they are as surprised as I am. The man to my left asks for a cup with ice and he pours me some beer. He teaches me words in their dialect of Tagalog and writes them in my journal.
“You should come teach English in the Philippines,” he says. “You should marry him, he’s an architect,” he tells me, pointing at the man across the table from me. “You should visit Dumaguete again and come to one of our cockfights.”
“Do you raise fighters?” I ask.
“I’m the pit manager.”
“I went to a cockfight on Panglao.”
He tells everybody at the table. They are surprised and laugh again. And I understand their surprise, but my appreciation of the event is no less real, no less awakening than theirs. Their world of cockfighting is, most often, a world separate from women. Like many cultures and communities, that has changed some, but for the most part cockfighting is a man’s domain. This was apparent when I entered through the wooden gate in Panglao and took my place standing among the men in the bleachers. Light and dark cast the same shadows on my softer features that it did on theirs. I may have winced more, but I never shut my eyes. What these men are dealing in—basic matters of life and death—cannot be separated by gender.
We have more beer and conversation and when I try to excuse myself from the table to leave, he asks me to give him something so he can remember me. I sit back in my chair and look down, trying to think of a thing to give. I pull off the only accessory I have—a small bracelet made of wooden beads carved in the likeness of skulls.
“Here,” I say. “You can have this.” He puts it on, pulls it near his face and peers at it through squinted eyes in the dim light.
“What are they?” he asks, maintaining his puzzled expression.
His big shoulders move sharply and quickly at an angle away from me.
“Well, I guess to remind us that we will die, but we are alive now.”
“I don’t like it,” he says with shake of his head and flick of the wrist. I look at this man and smile slightly, unsure what to say, what to think. That he is more disturbed by my style than I am by his lifestyle will strike me only later.
Perhaps jewelry is a woman’s domain. Or perhaps this man, surrounded by death daily, carries around enough reminders.
Art by Matt Monk