It was one of those lean years of our lives. Our rice field was destroyed by locusts that came from the neighboring towns. When the locusts were gone, we planted string beans but a fire burned the whole plantation. My brothers went away because they got tired working for nothing. Mother and my sisters went from house to house, asking for something to do, but every family was plagued with some kind of disaster. The children walked in the streets looking for the fruit that fell to the ground from the acacia tree. The men hung on the fence around the market and watched the meat dealers hungrily. We were all suffering from lack of proper food.
But the professional gamblers had money. They sat in the fish house at the station and gave their orders aloud. The loafers and other bystanders watched them eat boiled rice and fried fish with silver spoons. They never used forks because the prongs stuck between their teeth. They always cut their lips and tongues with the knives, so they never asked for them. If the waiter was new and he put the knives on the table, they looked at each other furtively and slipped them into their pockets. They washed their hands in one big wooden bowl of water and wiped their mouths with the leaves of the arbor trees that fell on the ground.
The rainy season was approaching. There were rumors of famine. The grass did not grow and our carabao became thin. Father’s fighting cock, Burick, was practically the only healthy thing in our household. Its father, Kanaway, had won a house for us some three years before, and Fathers had commanded me to give it the choicest rice. He took the soft-boiled eggs from the plate of my sister Marcela, who was sick with meningitis that year. He was preparing Burick for something big, but the great catastrophe came to our town. The peasants and most of the rich men spent their money on food. They had stopped going to the cockpit for fear of temptation; if they went at all, they just sat in the gallery and shouted at the top of their lungs. They went home with their heads down, thinking of the money they would have won.
It was during this impasse that Father sat every day in our backyard with his fighting cock. He would not go anywhere. He would not do anything. He just sat there caressing Burick and exercising his legs. He spat at his hackles and rubbed them, looking far away with a big dream. When mother came home with some food, he went to the granary and sat there till evening. Sometimes he slept there with Burick, but at dawn the cock woke him up with its majestic crowing. He crept into the house and fumbled for the cold rice in the pot under the stove. Then, he put the cock in the pen and slept on the bench all day.
Mother was very patient. But the day came when she kicked him off the bench. He fell on the floor face down, looked up at her, and then resumed his sleep. Mother took my sister Francisca with her. They went from house to house in the neighborhood, pounding rice for some people and hauling drinking water for others. They came home with their share in a big basket that Mother carried on her head.
Father was still sleeping on the bench when they arrived. Mother told my sister to cook some of the rice. The dipped a cup in the jar and splashed the cold water on Father’s face. He jumped up, looked at mother with anger, and went to Burick’s pen. He gathered the cock in his arms and went down the porch. He sat on a log in the backyard and started caressing his fighting cock.
Mother went on with her washing. Francisca fed Marcela with some boiled rice. Father was still caressing Burick. Mother was mad at him.
“Is that all you can do?” she shouted at him.
“Why do you say that to me?” Father said, “I’m thinking of some ways to become rich.”
Mother threw a piece of wood at the cock. Father saw her in time. He ducked and covered the cock with his body. The wood struck him. It cut a hole at the base of his head. He got up and examined Burick. He acted as though the cock were the one that got hurt. He looked up at Mother and his face was pitiful.
“Why don’t you see what you are doing?” he said, hugging Burick.
“I would like to wring that cock’s neck,” mother said.
“That’s his fortune,” I said.
Mother looked sharply atme. “Shut up, idiot!” she said. “ You are becoming more like your father every day.”
I watched her eyes move foolishly. I thought she would cry. She tucked her skirt between her legs and went on with her work. I ran down the ladder and went to the granary, where Father was treating the wound on his head. I held the cock for him.
“Take good care of it, son,” he said.
“Yes, Sir,” I said.
“Go to the river and exercise its legs. Come back right away. We are going to town.”
I rand down the street with the cock, avoiding the pigs and dogs that came in my way. I plunged into the water in my clothes and swam with Burick. I put some water in my mouth and blew it into his face. I ran back to our house slapping the water off my clothes. Father and I went to the cockpit.
It was Sunday, but there were many loafers and gamblers at the place. There were peasants and teachers. There was a strange man who had a black fighting cock. He had come from one of the neighboring towns to seek his fortune in our cockpit.
His name was Burcio. He held her our cock above his head and closed one eye, looking sharply at Burick’s eyes. He put it on the ground and bent over it, pressing down the cock’s back with his hands. Burcio was testing Burick’s strength. The loafers and gamblers formed a ring around them, watching Burcio’s deft hands expertly moving around Burick.
Father also tested the cock of Burcio. He threw it in the air and watched it glide smoothly to the ground. He sparred with it. The black cock pecked at his legs and stopped to crow proudly for the bystanders. Father picked it up and spread its wings, feeling the tough hide beneath the feathers.
The bystanders knew that a fight was about to be matched. They counted the money in their pockets without showing it to their neighbors. They felf the edges of the coins with amazing swiftness and accuracy. Only a highly magnified amplifier could have recorded the tiny clink of the coins that fell between deft fingers. The caressing rustle of the paper money was inaudible. The peasants broke from the ring and hid behind the coconut trees. They unfolded their handkerchiefs and counted their money. They rolled the paper money in their hands and returned to the crowd. They waited for the final decision.
“Shall we make it this coming Sunday?” Burcio asked.
“It’s too soon for my Burick,” Father said. His hand moved mechanically into his pocket. But it was empty. He looked around at his cronies.
But two of the peasants caught Father’s arm and whispered something to him. They slipped some money in his hand and pushed him toward Burcio. He tried to estimate the amount of money in his hand by balling it hard. It was one of his many tricks with money. He knew right away that he had some twenty-peso bills. A light of hope appeared in his face.
“This coming Sunday is all right,” he said.
All at once the men broke into wild confusion. Some went to Burcio with their money; others went to Father. They were not bettors, but inventors. Their money would back up the cocks at the cockpit.
In the late afternoon the fight was arranged. We returned to our house with some hope. Father put Burick in the pen and told me to go to the fish ponds across the river. I ran down the road with mounting joy. I found a fish pond under the camachile tree. It was the favorite haunt of snails and shrimps. Then I went home.
Mother was cooking something good. I smelled it the moment I entered the gate. I rushed into the house and spilled some of the snails on the floor. Mother was at the stove. She was stirring the ladle in the boiling pot. Father was still sleeping on the bench. Francisca was feeding Marcela with hot soup. I put the nails and shrimps in a pot and sat on the bench.
Mother was cooking chicken with some bitter melons. I sat wondering where she got it. I knew that our poultry house in the village was empty. We had no poultry in town. Father opened his eyes when he heard the bubbling pot.
Mother put the rice on a big wooden platter and set it on the table she filled our plates with chicken meat and ginger. Father got up suddenly and went to the table. Francisca sat by the stove. Father was reaching for the white meat in the platter when Mother slapped his hand away. She was saying grace. Then we put our legs under the table and started eating.
It was our first tatse of chicken in a long time. Father filled his plate twice and ate very little rice. He usually ate more rice when we had only salted fish and some leaves of tress. We ate “grass” most of the time. Father tilted his plate and took the soup noisily, as though he were drinking wine. He put the empty plate near the pot and asked for some chicken meat.
“It is good chicken,” he said.
Mother was very quiet. She put the breast on a plate and told Francisca to give it to Marcela. She gave me some bitter melons. Father put his hand in the pot and fished out a drumstick.
“Where did you get this lovely chicken?” he asked.
“Where do you think I got it?” Mother said.
The drumstick fell from his mouth. It rolled into the space between the bamboo splits and fell on the ground. Our dog snapped it and ran away. Father’s face broke in great agony. He rushed outside the house. I could hear him running toward the highway. My sister continued eating, but my appetite was gone.
“What are you doing, Son?” Mother said. “Eat your chicken.”