From The Heroes of San Esteban
Gerardo Montejo awoke with an evil foreboding, an empty feeling in his stomach, but one which nonetheless must have had its origin in his soul, wherever it was hidden. He left home early, without saying goodbye to his wife or eating breakfast, convinced that that day, Holy Wednesday, during the hottest time of the year, would be the last one for poor Orpheus, the best of his gamecocks. He was a splendid animal, brave and proud like very few, and in any other circumstances, he would have preferred not to expose him to be sacrificed, but there are luxuries a man cannot allow himself, and one of them is to jeopardize his reputation as a man. This is what he had always thought and said, and as you can see, this was not a time to change his mind. With the fighting cock under his arm, he hurriedly walked the eight blocks from his house to the cockfighting arena with the edge of his hat over his face so he would not have to look at anyone, so he would not have to say hello or distract himself with conversations and explanations for which he was not in the mood. Many of those that ran into him on his journey hurried to place bets in favor of the other man, Narciso Reyes, because Gerardo’s evasive attitude told them quite clearly beforehand that he was going to be defeated. Whoever is knowledgeable about the subject knows that gamecocks bring their wings, spurs, and beaks to the fight, but they acquire the rage and ambition necessary to win from their masters, through contagion, and that morning, Gerardo did not seem to be the die-hard winner he usually was, but simply a man who was being carried along by circumstance. It was not that he questioned the ability of his gamecock, who was the final result of a long and studied series of crossbreedings, or that the animal had not given him enough reason to be confident: nineteen victories by knockout in less than four months. It was the premonitions that the nightmares had planted in his heart.
From the moment he knew the fight would be unavoidable, he experienced the same dream on three occasions: He saw himself walking in a cold, deserted valley, heading towards some hills of stark stone that stood out on the horizon against a dark, stormy sky. All of a sudden, the profile of Orpheus appeared, performing the acrobatic stunts of a falcon. The gamecock glided freely above the valley, descended towards him, circled above his head, and when he was about to land at his side —his large wings and curved beak like those of a bird of prey—he writhed in convulsions, screeched in a terrifying manner, and ended up exploding in cascades of blood and multicolored feathers. On each occasion, the dream was repeated identically to the previous time, and Gerardo awoke with his chest pounding and with something in his throat that was like a desire to cry and to run away. That is why, because of the dreams, he was convinced that Narciso Reyes would also humiliate him in the arena, just as he had tried to do at everything else.
What could he do to avoid it? To evade the fight would have brought even greater shame, as he himself had issued the challenge, and no one in San Esteban would accept as an honorable excuse that he had acted in haste, drawn in by the bait of a provocation… because that, and only that, was what the twisted handiwork of Narciso Reyes had placed in his path. Someone less cunning would have challenged him directly, and Gerardo could have responded “I’m not interested,” “he’s not in my league,” or something along those lines. But Narciso had made it a point to go to The Lookout Bar at the appropriate time, to wait for the jukebox to die down, and to speak in a tone loud enough so everyone could hear him.
“Gerardo Montejo,” he said, “is nothing but a big mouth. He thinks he’s a great breeder of fighting cocks, but even my least experienced gamecock would break his famous Orpheus’s neck.”
An hour later, those words had reached Gerardo’s ears and flowed through the streets like floodwaters. Once news of the offense had leaked out, what options did he have? Certainly none, because he could ignore an insult proffered in public, but that is not the way to earn respect, and without respect, it is difficult for a man to survive. It is a possession as essential as land or a pistol, but unlike those two things, which can be bought with money, respect is only obtained by demonstrating courage, with integrity and a sense of honor. For those reasons, it was logical that Gerardo Montejo would respond with his natural laconism and without thinking about it twice: “Wednesday at ten in the arena, and bring your gamecock.”
Upon entering the cockfighting arena, punctually, that day at that hour, the noise from a hundred throats suddenly became silent. He slightly raised the brim of the hat he wore covering his face; it was never known if this gesture was meant to be a greeting to all those present or to exchange with his rival that tough and fleeting look which only the most attentive and observant could detect. Without further ado, he headed to the center of the ring, to the small arena for the plumed fighters, and on his way there, a large, viscous wad of spit exploded on the carpet of sawdust, accompanied by a gesture which was difficult to describe but easy to understand. Someone casually spitting, a simple expectoration that the rain washes away without any consequences, is not the same as spitting in the presence of one’s enemies with the conscious intention to offend, walking rhythmically and smiling with only one side of one’s mouth in that mocking manner that is a challenge in the code of Olancho Province.
For a week now, the town talked only about this matter because everyone knew that, more than an ordinary cockfight, it was about an old grudge, a score to settle that had been put off for some time. The expectation was great because San Esteban had never known such virulent hatred: A wrath so putrid as that between Narciso Reyes and Gerardo Montejo, a hatred that can only germinate, as in this case, between those who had loved one another in a good sense and who had many things in common. Everybody knew the story, in greater or lesser detail, of that great friendship and how and why it turned into deadly animosity. There was no one in town who was unaware of that sordid background or that the origin of the rivalry had been a woman, and that women, Angelina Erazo, was the unfortunate wife of Gerardo Montejo. They were around nineteen when the bone of contention arrived in town from Catacamas and installed herself between the two of them as an insurmountable obstacle. From then on, what had been an unsinkable friendship drifted into a brutal competition for the favors of her love and, a short time later, when it became evident that Gerardo had won the battle, into open and destructive hostility.
It was an all-too-well-known story in San Esteban, and it was the cause of the unusually large crowd and the atmosphere of unhealthy curiosity in the air that Holy Wednesday in the arena. Almost a hundred men… and if there were not more it was not for lack of interest, but because many were afraid to ignore the warnings of Father Vicente, who had been trying to eradicate cockfighting from the town. A custom “inspired by Satan,” the parish priest would say to scare people a little, although he clearly understood—because in his position he confirmed it every day—that, when it comes to conceiving ruinous things, the human mind boasts its own inexhaustible resources.
The initial rituals were expedited because there was a sense of urgency in the cockfighting arena, a certain anxiety to see the outcome. Placed on the steelyard balance, the two animals weighed approximately the same; their spurs were put on them quickly after a vigorous massage of their thighs and torsos, which previously had been de-feathered. On the ground, they were briefly shaken back and forth to check their sense of orientation and balance. To complete the ceremony, before throwing them into the ring, the judge and his assistant presented the birds to the audience: the cinnamon-colored Orpheus, winner of nineteen battles, and the brilliant Snow White, victorious in fourteen jousts . This would be an encounter of champions.
Hopping towards one another, their tails straight up, their wings open and their necks held high, the gamecocks charged from two ends of the small ring and met each other more or less in the center with a brutal jolt that produced an explosion of feathers and shouting from the novice gamecock owners. After this initial confrontation, the combatants made gestures of mutual respect and began to move around in circles, thrusting sporadic and affected pecks at each other, their wings and tails displayed, raising their feet high as they walked in order not to wound themselves with the sabers of their spurs. At times, they looked like stylized ballerinas from a dance academy executing a pre-Columbian war dance. The air in the arena, in the meantime, began to fill with shouts placing wagers. “I bet one hundred on Orpheus,” shouted a man flashing the bills from the stands. “One hundred and fifty on Sleeping Beauty,” responded another from further down, following the custom of deliberately confusing, the animal’s name for fun. The bettor had not finished making his offer when Narciso Reyes’s gamecock performed a spectacular leap, seized Orpheus by the neck near the place where his crest had been and, in a movement imperceptible to the human eye, stuck his spur in his side, below the left thigh. The champion’s foot folded slightly, he stumbled for a second and, before Snow White attempted the coup de grace, backed away with his body leaning to one side in an instinctive move of survival. The aggressor appeared to be stimulated by the smell of the blood that began to flow from the open flesh, and he intensified his attack: His beak feverishly sought out the enemy’s neck, but Orpheus slipped away behind his wings, a move which produced many comments of praise for the astuteness of Gerardo Montejo’s gamecock.
“If he were a boxer, he’d be Muhammad Ali,” one of the peons said. “How well he avoids the strikes.”
“Yes, but if he doesn’t attack, he’s dead,” his friend asserted.
“I bet two hundred on Snow White,” another man, motivated by the evident superiority Narciso’s gamecock was starting to demonstrate, dared to bet.
In one corner of the ring, the tone of the spectacle was literally beginning to change. Snow White’s plumage was a soft pink color and Orpheus’s beautiful shades between grey and chestnut took on a burgundy color. Orpheus attempted to respond to his rival’s attack, but the critter was elusive and Orpheus’s spurs shook in the air without reaching their target. The battle began to prolong itself, and the volume of the shouting, which for the most part was for Narciso’s gamecock, increased by the moment. It was not just the professional gamblers who encouraged the white gamecock, but also Narciso’s many boisterous friends who had turned out en masse for the event. In the heat of those exhortations, once again, Snow White was able to immobilize Orpheus’s neck and, with an agile movement, he tore the skin beneath his wings. The animal fell down bleeding profusely, and he was already given up for dead, but the chief judge, who was accustomed to the tricks of some of the feathered animals, was not impressed by the clamor of those who asked him to halt the fight, and he started the stop watch that was tied to a chord that hung from the roof at one side of the ring.
“We have to give him the two minutes the regulations call for,” he said. “If he doesn’t get up, then yes, he’s out of action.”
But Orpheus showed no signs of being able to get up. Snow White pecked several times at his wings and tail, as if trying to ascertain whether his victory was complete and unimpeachable, and the other animal barely moved his head, which looked heavily bloodied. However, when the judge was about to call the fight, Orpheus rose from his ashes and swooped down upon his enemy in a spectacular manner. His beak pierced the neck of the other animal with violent force and his turtle-shell spurs deeply, softly penetrated the round and frightened eyes which Narciso Reyes’ gamecock would no longer have any need for. Snow White’s head slumped down like a useless sack before the rest of his small, rigid body fell to the ground, converted into a mass of viscous vermilion feathers.
Gerardo Montejo took Orpheus in his arms and caressed his torso, trying to prevent the murderous rage that still made him shudder from provoking his own death. The man, for his part, felt invaded by a wrathful joy, but he took care to make sure it was not noticed, and to maintain his composure and act as if he had just completed a routine task. That, he thought, rounded out his image as a winner and increased the humiliation of his enemy. He did not talk with anyone, and he barely accepted, with a quick handshake, several congratulations he received as he headed toward the door to leave. He lamented having naïvely given so much credence to the ominous power of dreams, and he promised himself he would never again allow himself to be influenced by silly superstitions, when a loud voice filled with bitterness rose above the ruckus.
“Nice little rooster,” Narciso shouted out. “Why don’t you let him pleasure your wife?”
Gerardo stopped in his tracks, unsure whether he had really heard what he thought he had heard. Sometimes words, like the things we see in dreams, get mixed up in our heads and throw us off the cliff of misunderstanding. It could also be a hearing problem. Maybe he had said “Take him to your wife so she can cook him,” or “Do me a favor and tell your wife the little rooster is very good,” or any other inoffensive expression. He thought all this in a fraction of a second, but something convinced him that nothing good or innocent could have been uttered by Narciso’s poisoned soul, and it was that somber silence produced by his words that the spectators reacted in unison in an instinctive movement to get out of the way.
Gerardo Montejo thought that it was a jealously guarded secret between him and his wife, but the situation of their marriage was public knowledge. Angelina Erazo herself had committed the breach of trust, although unintentionally, by seeking in her best friend a little of the compassion we all need in order to live.
“You should look for a good doctor,” her friend had advised her. “Many people are saying you’re not a complete woman, and that you should’ve already given Don Lucio grandchildren.”
This was not news for Angelina, because every day she felt pressure from her husband’s family and her own. But, it was the fact that Lucrecia, her dear friend, had come to reproach her in ignorance that seemed to be the greatest injustice of all.
“I’ve seen doctors,” the words came from the depth of her affliction, “and I’m perfectly fine. He’s the problem.”
“Gerardo is sterile?” She looked at Lucrecia with bulging eyes.
“I wish,” Angelina Erazo exploded in tears. “He’s impotent.”
She was just letting off steam. After all, she had kept silent for nearly four years. What damage could be done by allowing a third party, the one closest to her heart, help her carry her burden? She thought that everything would end with that healthy conversation, the same way Lucrecia thought that her sister Angelita would be the last one to hear about it…
“Nice little rooster. Why don’t you let him pleasure your wife?” Narciso Reyes shouted, and, at almost the same time, he began to regret what he had said. His loose tongue was the cause of many of his misfortunes; the lack of prudence in him was like an inner torrent that overflowed without warning, but which had never placed him, as now, at such a dreadful crossroads. If it had been of any use, if he could have prevented what he knew was about to happen, he would have apologized. But there are points of no return, and one of them is the questioned virility of a man who places great value upon being a man, even though he is a nobody.
Gerardo stopped in his tracks and slowly swung around on his heels as his right hand released the gamecock’s wing and moved toward the holster of his revolver. He could barely see or hear; all of a sudden, his senses had become deadened and his whole body slowly sank into a swamp of rancor and shame. However, when he was facing Narciso, his firearm pointed at his heart, an unexpected sentiment made him hesitate: It was a flash from the past, an ephemeral scene from that old friendship which made him think that, in spite of the cruel competition and reciprocated offenses between the two, Gerardo was still like a brother to him, and that by killing him, a small part of himself would also die. There were two seconds of hesitation, sufficient time for Narciso to draw his firearm and to fire a single shot.
Overcome by convulsions, Gerardo Montejo fell backwards as blood gushed from his neck like an open spigot. The last thing his eyes saw was a mad fluttering of wings and a rain of bloodied feathers coming to rest upon his dying chest.
Translated by Edward Waters Hood
Northern Arizona University
Oscar Núñez has authored several novels, including El teatro circular [The circular theatre] (EDUCA Prize and National Novel Prize,1997), Los gallos de San Esteban [The heroes of San Esteban] (2000), En clave de luna (2004, in English translation as Cadence of the Moon, 2007), La guerra prometida [The promised war] (2015), and En busca del gran tesoro [In search of the great treasure] (2016).
Edward Waters Hood has translated several Central American novels, including works by Rosario Aguilar, Manlio Argueta, Mario Roberto Morales, Linda Berrón, and Roberto Castillo. He has taught Latin American literature at Northern Arizona University since 1991.
In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.