TAYLUR THU HIEN NGO
I Am My Rooster
At seventeen, Francis Joven had a way with chickens, but not girls. His mother, Mae Joven-Valencia, held her only child like a small bird in the palm of her hand. Francis built a chicken coop with loneliness and a red hammer. She made him finish high school. He accepted that she would one day return to the Philippines to die. Together mother and son collected eggs with sweet yolks of every color, powder blue and newborn pink, sold them by the dozen or served them with meals. Flan called for ten eggs.
Francis Valencia, Sr., had left them ten years ago, said he was going out for banana ketchup; ever since, the house has been without it.
Raising chickens meant a simple moral code. Collect droppings before dusk. Don’t let the hens annoy the neighbors or you owe them free eggs. When a hen takes to eating eggs, sell her to the Vietnamese family on the street who will slit her throat, collect the blood onto a curved platter, and chill it with a sprinkle of mint leaves.
The decision to skimp on heavy gauge meshing for the pen cost Francis two hens. One morning he found the half-chewed carcasses strewn around the backyard and counted six frantic hens remaining; the word fuck slipped low and parched from his mouth. Under the sun they were quickly turning into expired poultry. Raccoons had left a gaping hole in the mesh fencing and one pissed yank from Francis detached it from the beams.
It made sense now why he had woken up strangely anxious that morning. The muffled noises from his dreams were those of the overnight attack. A hen’s good eyesight allowed her to face her killer with an awful clarity, but for all the daily squawking, chickens choked once cornered.
His mother let out a scream when she saw a severed chicken foot in her sandals. A tightly-wound woman, she steadied herself against the rusty pole of the awning and spouted hard breaths through her mouth. “Aysus Maria Joseph,” she whispered. The rise and fall of her voice seemed full of the need to soothe herself. Over their years of raising chickens, other casualties had occurred: one died of old age, another was lost to accidental rat poisoning, and four to possum and raccoon ambushes. Yet these killings still surprised Francis’s mother and she would call for quick fixes—a higher fence or more chicken wire.
“Careful with your hands, Ma. Raccoons carry diseases in their mouths.” His gloved hands scooped chicken bits into a trash bag.
“Hate those stupid raccoons. I want a rooster,” she said.
“They’re illegal around here.”
“My god, what about the chickens? Just let the raccoons get them?”
“No, Ma, I’ll fix the coop,” Francis said, slinging the bag over his shoulder. “I don’t want no fines from the city.”
His mother clutched the gold cross around her neck. “Laws don’t protect us, son. I don’t feel safe when we don’t have a rooster.”
Before Francis could make it to the trash, she shook her head at him causing his stomach to twist. It didn’t take much to get what she wanted.
After an hour’s drive the land began to pour open on both sides, and the air hung fresh and renewing. That’s when Francis knew he was nearing the Soledad County Poultry Farm. He made a point of stopping by the local filling station for a corned beef sandwich and large Oreo milkshake, eating on the picnic bench with his legs propped up. He ran his hands through his close-cropped hair, chick-fuzz softness. No explaining why Francis felt ten inches taller on the soil. It didn’t matter that he slouched and had the dark curly lashes of a girl; in Soledad he felt every bit the man he would soon be.
Inside the supply store, he grabbed a bag of feed and a roll of meshing off the shelf, lugging them by his side. These purchases required little planning but when it came to picking out his first rooster he wanted some time to think. An old farmer with a sunburned face led him to where they kept two-month-old cockerels. Francis watched the young roosters walk, leaning his slight frame against the pen. While he looked out for the right cockerel—wise for his age, thoughtful, with a healthy coat of feathers—a little red-and-white cockerel snuck up to the fence and stuck his beak through to stab Francis in the ankle. The pain shot up to his howling mouth.
“See you found your rooster,” the farmer said.
“This guy’s a punk.” Francis gripped the puncture wound and teared up.
“Roosters are actually faithful creatures, by nature.”
He kicked his work boots against the fence to scare the cockerel. “Get away, freak!”
But the cockerel remained chirruping, a fleshy pink comb bobbing over his head, and his dark eyes flashed without a note of doubt. Francis had already begun to give in.
“He’s tasted your blood,” the farmer continued and rubbed the peeling skin on his nose. “You’re his master now.”
Francis, who had never been anyone’s boss, gave the cockerel the name he had outgrown by finishing high school: Junior.
At first, Junior was the one that needed protection. Frightened by new surroundings, he stayed under the shade of the awning, far from the section of backyard that was a six-foot pen and a bright yellow coop on stilts. Francis carried Junior around to teach him to lord over the hens. They, in turn, wanted to peck him to bits.
When Francis ended his shift at the mall he would rush home. The days of hanging out with the guys at work were far behind him. They liked to spend money when they went out and Francis didn’t have money, only eggs. In his backyard he nursed a Coke and sparred with the excitable Junior, who had grown larger and stronger, recently chasing a tomcat away. By six, the hens got locked inside the coop for the night and with Junior nudging them in, the process took only seconds now.
Junior began to follow Francis inside the house for dinner. A crooked stool became his perch where he watched them eat. He knew to be quiet while Francis’s mother said grace. She pretended to ignore the rooster beside her—not a glance—until he crowed in his arrogant and unmistakable pitch, which startled her, and she clutched her side from laughing, as if caught off guard every time. Francis washed dishes then led Junior back outside to make sure he settled safely and slept elevated, necessary for a proper rooster. The pale-orange rooftop had always been a couple shingles away from being run-down, and yet it was the only home Francis knew.
It was on the rooftop of their small home that he had learned how to hear what others didn’t. Years ago, his father had come home unannounced; the back of his white truck jiggled with empty beer bottles. Laid off from the factory again. At that moment, Francis was retrieving a ball from the roof. He wanted to shout out “Daddy” but knew he would get the belt for using the ladder again, and so he laid low against the shingles and discovered how painfully attentive his ears were. His parents met in the living room then quickly moved to their bedroom. They did what they often did, but it seemed his father wanted more, more than was possible, as if he wanted to push Francis’s mother out of herself. Adults called it pleasure but Francis heard otherwise.
Soon after, his father left for the banana ketchup.
Not so unusual for the Valencia men to come and go. Depend on them to deliver gifts, borrow money, sire another child, and throw a barbeque, but not to stay. Still, it had been ten years and not a word from Francis’s father. They said he’d been in jail all those years; some bet he’d drunk himself to death, but only last year an Auntie claimed to have seen him driving a yellow convertible around Tijuana.
Back in the Philippines they called Francis’s mother a brown-eyed beauty. Women keep their hair long for their husbands, his mother told him. And what if they don’t have a husband, he had asked her. She made Francis swear never to move out. At seven, he agreed, finding the thought of life without a mother unbearable. She asked him again when he received his driver’s license, “Are you going to leave now?” “No,” he promised her—even taking her last name—“not with you and the chickens here.”
One day their neighbor Barney asked for Francis’s help in throwing out a fifty-gallon oil drum. They hauled the drum from his garage, where Francis took a closer look at the relic. Empty for years now, the rusty drum had no top or bottom. Barney planned on selling his house and driving through the country in a Winnebago.
“What about your sons?” Francis asked.
“Those bums?” The old man often talked without his dentures.
“Can I keep the barrel?”
“Makes no difference to me where it ends up,” Barney said, mutely working his jaw between words.
Francis rolled it to the backyard by himself. What his plans for the drum were, not even he knew, other than that it reminded him of the giant dome from his old playground. Kids congregated at the swings, tether ball court, or monkey bars, but Francis, a thin child with full lips, felt pulled to the solitude of the dome. A one-guy only hideout painted terra-cotta, like a life-sized flowerpot toppled over. He would situate himself in the center, curl into a half moon, or stretch his body from one end to the other. There he lived in peace during recess and lunch. He liked how the voices of other children became muted, and meaningless, when inside the dome.
He set the oil drum at the center of the coop where both ends would be unobstructed and visible, and to finish the job, tossed a handful of feed inside.
The hens didn’t take to the drum, which they found rather ominous. They loosened the dirt with their beaks and feet while pushing the drum away. It didn’t budge. Amused by their behavior, Francis moved the drum flush against the fence for the hens. As soon as he did, they rushed to forage the softened ground that had been revealed. The damn drum had been blocking their sweet spot.
For one week the rain poured and the yard soon became a marshland. Francis had a hard time getting his hens to walk the muddy grounds for exercise. He fussed, picked up juicy worms for them, and spent mornings with his arm down the egg door visiting with each hen. They stayed inside the coop sulking, shedding their plumage, and stinking up the stalls with droppings. “You spoil your girls,” his mother said. No eggs that week.
Finally, Francis had had enough and went to get Junior, who would be dropped into the coop to send the hens squawking onto the grounds. But he was nowhere to be seen. Francis searched the neighborhood without any leads, returning home soaked and exhausted. Cold rain fell relentlessly. He began to prepare for the worst: Junior hit by a car, mauled by a neighbor’s pit bull, lost. Then he heard a sound, nearly undetectable, under the rainfall: a lonesome cooing.
There Junior stood preening himself, rather innocuously, inside the belly of the drum. He seemed surprised he was needed and acted snappy when Francis tried to grab him. The rooster flapped his wings and struck with his beak, just missing Francis’s thumb.
“Bite me and it’s over, vato,” he said, but backed off.
The tiny black eyes flashed triumphantly then closed shut, as if mesmerized by the beating of the rain.
The cockpit stood at the center of the Santiagos’ backyard, gleaming with a new layer of red dirt, which maintained the smooth appearance of the circle. Francis noticed the piles of crushed feathers swept outside the perimeter.
“It’s in their nature to fight,” Old Tomás said glancing at his son Elian. He petted a fat rooster under his arm. “And it’s a tradition.” The rooster bore a resemblance to Old Tomás, supporting a proud, hefty midsection. Had his own face, Francis wondered, morphed over time into a chicken’s?
Elian approached the cages. “We’re not going to put the blades on. You just get a taste today.”
In ninth grade, it was hazel-eyed Elian who maintained they weren’t different—You Filipinos are just like us Mexicans, only your English is better. Last year, Elian and his father opened a carpentry business and moved to a large house in the hills. Residents could have a farm in this area. During the week, Elian worked alongside Old Tomás then spent every moment possible caring for their roosters. Stacked cages along the fence of the Santiagos’ backyard kept twelve roosters in all. Each one was a magnificent creature with shiny plumage, fat combs, high tails streaming from their bodies. Such features marked the expensive breeds Francis wouldn’t dare buy with his paycheck. How could he explain their cost to his mother? Then again, his chickens weren’t winning cockfighting bets. The Santiagos kept a block of knives around to sharpen beaks and talons.
Elian nudged Francis and boasted, “This orange one, Diablo, likes to go for the eyes.”
“Not him, mijo. He’s tired,” Old Tomás said.
“Papa!” moaned Elian, and he closed Diablo’s cage with a flick of his wrist, then crouched by another cage and retrieved a brown rooster with a white tail.
“Ah, Fidelito.” Old Tomás approved this time. The fat rooster in his arms went still, pumped up his chest and let out a deep, ringing crow. Inside this animal lived a man.
Francis wished victory for the smaller Fidelito.
The roosters lunged at each other, only to be pulled back by their handlers. Elian and his father did this several times to tense up the fighters. Upon release, the roosters shot forward in the air. They could have taken flight but dropped on their legs, as their training had taught them, and fought.
Wings. All Francis could make out were wings. The fat one had clout. His beak could strike like a mallet but Fidelito moved fast on his feet, peddling backwards with quickness. The hackles unfurled around their necks like furious petals. In flight, Fidelito curled his claws forward and plunged into his opponent’s backside but the fat rooster jerked his beak in time, stabbing Fidelito twice. Old Tomás snatched the fat rooster away before he went for the kill. It was over. Fidelito slumped on one leg, defeated, but kept his fighting stance. Blood oozed from a gash on his neck.
“It’s okay, Francis. They take pain better than us.” Old Tomás patted him on the back.
“Crazy, huh!” Elian cried. He misted Fidelito with a spray bottle, the smell of rubbing alcohol spread in the air. The injured rooster scampered off.
“How they know to fight like that?” Francis said.
“A will to keep your throat, pendejo. Anyone with one ball should know that.”
“When you want to bring your rooster over?” Old Tomás asked.
Francis sensed they had done all this for him, to make him know what winning felt like. A nervous laugh broke from him. “It’s too late for my guy now. Junior only bosses the chickens around.” He didn’t mention that Junior also ground his spurs into the ground, filing them down to useless nubs.
Retrieving drinks from an ice chest, Old Tomás tossed his son and Francis bottles of red sports drinks and then opened one for himself. “Never too late. Like I said, it’s in their blood to fight.” He took a gulp.
“Look at how this guy went at it.” Elian pointed to the fat rooster now resting inside his cage. “We got him when he was two and now he’s undefeated. My dad is a good trainer. It’s like God’s gift to him.”
“If I had more time, I still got work and the chickens—”
Elian shook his head. “Come on, Francis. You think those chickens are more important than Junior? Wait till you start fighting him, or any rooster, the chickens won’t matter anymore.”
“My mom likes the fresh eggs,” Francis mumbled.
Elian and his father burst into hardy laughter, setting off the roosters who crowed and bounced from their cages in unison.
During lunch Francis ate everything Elian’s mother put on his plate. He thanked her for the tamales to take home. “Just give the Tupperware to Elian when you see him again, it’s no problem.” Her soft smile made Francis shy. He considered running out to his car where he had packed a paper bag of fresh eggs, but he noticed the massive, stainless-steel refrigerator—probably with crates and crates of eggs—and decided against it. They watched Pride Fighting on cable. And in that way, the morning slipped into night, during which Francis felt pangs of guilt over leaving his mother and the chickens at home.
When he left, Old Tomás was standing on the porch smoking. They walked to Francis’s car.
“Hey Francis, you move out of the neighborhood yet?”
Old Tomás knew the neighborhood as well as anyone. He’d lived in an apartment down the street for years and had once had beers with Francis’s father.
“No,” Francis said. His eyes dropped. “Been meaning to.”
“I bet it’s getting crowded for you and all your animals.”
“Yeah. We’re saving up, but you know.”
“Yeah, it’s hard,” Old Tomás said. He tucked his hands into his jeans. “Think about cockfighting, Francis. It’s good money.”
“I know, Tomás. I will.”
“OK, you talk to Elian about it.” He gave Francis a firm pat on the cheek. “And that’s Old Tomás. I could be your father. Have respect.”
Francis dipped his head in a bow, eased off the brakes so that his car could slump down the long driveway. His cheek burned red and he couldn’t stop smiling to himself.
When he pulled up to his house, it looked like no one was there. Inside, the red altar candles released a sickening scent of artificial strawberry. Then he saw his mother sitting on the couch in silence, her eyes swollen pink.
“My god, Francis. Where were you?”
“What’s going on?”
“My god,” she whispered, “Barney had fight with his kids about the house. One of the sons—the mean one—he hit Barney and broke his head on the driveway. My god, it just happened like that.” She cocked her head to the side. “Say something, Francis. Don’t stand there like that.”
Working through the hard knot in his throat, he muttered, “Ah, he’s gonna be fine.” He felt beaten now, as if the whole day had to be thrown away.
That night word spread that Barney had died at the hospital. A procession of neighbors made their way down to his house with flowers and half-used candles. It was another vigil against the blunt violence they had known here and would continue to know. Francis’s mother didn’t want to go over empty-handed. She attempted to piece together a bouquet but went outside only to find that the hens had foraged the life out of the flower patch. “Stupid rooster,” his mother mumbled, searching the yard again. She knew Junior had led the hens to the plentiful insects by her tuberoses and daisies.
Francis went over anyway. The lowered heads nodded at him and said hello, but no one talked for fear of choking up, especially the men.
“Why does this happen?” a woman started then sputtered tearfully, like a vacuum chipping away.
The candles swayed in their hands. They fell into a deeper quiet, the darkness rolled out before them. And in the distance a soft crowing began. Francis looked up; the pitch was unmistakable. Piercing, simple, and in a longing otherwise unexpressed, Junior crowed over and over again for Barney, and, Francis knew, for all missing fathers.
For years his mother cited the need of a little exercise for why she made quick trips to the market on foot. The incident with Barney’s sons ended this habit; now Francis insisted on being the one who went. She asked him to bring home three tilapias. He read the sign that marked the seafood section, We Fry Fish Free, Every Day. Francis pressed the cotton hoodie to his nose to keep out the reek of fish. The dead ones had glassy, frozen eyes and a slime coating their scales; the live ones were dumped into the crowded display tank, no room to curve their bodies in the murky water. The seafood section had always made Francis queasy. Some people said that about being around fowl, since pens were covered with feathers, shit, and feed, but they had not been to his pen, which, after cutting back on his hours at the mall, he now kept pristine.
Behind the counter, he spotted a fish cutter, a Hispanic man with brown skin lighter than his own.
“You Mae’s boy?” the fish cutter asked.
“Pretty good guess.” Francis was surprised the man knew her by name.
“I can see it in the mouth. So which ones for dinner, son?”
Francis quickly pointed to three random fish in the tank. He wondered if they knew what his fingertip meant for them. The butterfly net scooped them up. The man released onto the counter three gray fish, which glided across as if pulled by magnets. They leaped to life, seeming to aim for Francis’ face. He jumped back a little.
“Eh, you fish?” The fish cutter’s grin spread wide beneath his moustache.
“Fish I touch are already dead, man.”
The man tilted his chin at the bins filled with ice and fillets. “Pick those ones then. Frozen from Thailand. Easier for me. It’s your mother. Mae always wants the fresh, fresh fish.” He brought the mallet down on the bellies of the fish which made a dull thump each time. One fish flopped then lay flat, stunned.
“You don’t hit them in the head?” Francis asked.
“I hit their hearts and it bursts. They die faster.”
Francis surveyed the counter. He strained his ear for a pulse among the fish: nothing. Fish did not have the capacity for pain like people, and people were still not as good as roosters.
The fish cutter also surveyed the counter, hit the fish once again for neatness. His forearm swept them into the deep, metal sink.
Francis mumbled, “Call her by Miss Joven,” but the fish cutter was busy scaling the tilapias with a long blade.
Francis exited the store, not sure how high to hold his head. Above, the clouds looked punched apart into tufts of cotton. He kicked an empty beer can along for a while on his walk home. A pit bull was driven crazy by the smell of his groceries and followed him along a chain fence before being yanked back mid-leap by its worn leash. Around here, when Francis hit the pavement he felt it taking weight from his body. He badly wanted out of this place.
At home he phoned Elian and invited him over for dinner. Francis scrubbed banana leaves while his mother seasoned the fish with red chili and garlic; the two-tiered steamer was beginning to fill the kitchen with a mist of salty water. He sprayed vanilla air freshener in the bathroom and stored some Cokes in the refrigerator. “Go get ready for your amigo,” his mother told him, beads of sweat forming on her nose. On the couch, he reclined watching TV. At the sound of gravel stirring under tires, he looked outside. A beat-up white truck wobbled over the uneven ground. He half rose, not feeling the words form, and said to his mother, “Dad’s back.”
His mother stood motionless next to him. Her dark brown eyes seemed to register little of what approached from the driveway, as if it were happening in someone else’s life, when the car door slammed shut and she snapped back. Her hand responded first, digging into the pile of hair and ringing dark strands free from the clip.
“Now?” she asked. “Now he comes?” She caught her reflection in the mirror. “My god, not now.” With a plaid towel she wiped both underarms. “I’ve got to get ready!”
“Don’t do anything for him, Ma,” Francis said, tightening up.
“Junior, what are you talking about?” She rushed into the bathroom. Over the running showerhead, she shouted, “And if you love me, get your daddy a beer!”
The image of chicken wire popped up—he felt the urge to surround his home with the material. But the idea had arrived too late.
He darted out of the room and found that if he focused on one object at a time, the feeling of vertigo wouldn’t get him. He supported himself against the grainy walls, then kitchen cabinets, finally holding onto the tin-metal railing as he stepped into the backyard. “Here, Junior,” he called out in a choked voice.
From atop the faded green awning, Junior stood perched on the lookout. He jerked his head twice in recognition.
Francis held out his arms. “Come here, baby.”
Junior sounded his high-pitched call, a warning of a nearby threat. Right away the hens felt the danger and ran off. One hid inside the oil drum.
“Don’t worry. He’s leaving soon,” he assured Junior. He continued clucking his tongue to lure the rooster down.
Junior lifted his wings and descended, as if held by a tender and unseen parachute, into the cradle of Francis’s hold. They trembled and waited. When the first gunshot rang from inside the house, Francis started, and his fingers jerked in a fatal movement against the rooster’s head. God, he whispered. Junior’s claws punctured his forearm. At the second gunshot Francis heard a body slipping under the showerhead. Sweat poured down his hairline, the sides of his cheekbone and jaw.
The doorway swung open and in the center stood his father. He hadn’t aged, his father, except now he and Francis appeared the same height. He wielded a gun from one arm while the other clasped the doorknob.
“Dad?” Francis said faintly.
“Get in here, Junior.” He saw Francis’s arm. “Your arm’s bleeding.”
Francis caught sight of his father’s belt buckle loosened, dangling at the waist. He tightened his hold on Junior, afraid the rooster might slip out.
“Stop gripping that bird so hard.” His father pointed a fearful finger at Junior.
“He’s my pet,” Francis began, “It’s in his blood,” and his voice cracked. No one, other than him, knew that underneath the crest of feathers Junior owned a large and powerful heart.
“Put it down and get inside,” his father said. Over his shoulder something distracted him. “Your mom’s been hurt.”
Yes, he should go see about his mom. Soon they would all be together. But he couldn’t move other than to pet Junior’s limp head.
“Now, I said,” his father demanded. He stomped his boots on the doorsill with such force that Francis felt his own legs vibrate.
The weight of Junior’s body felt like bone in Francis’s hands. It came time to put him down.
“Is it true you took her last name?”
“Yes,” Francis answered, locking eyes. It was his father, and not him, who stood defeated.
As he bent forward to release Junior, a terrible pain struck him in the chest.
He collapsed. His legs jerked in a crazed one-man’s dance. From a small opening drained what was Francis’s life; he let it leave the way it wanted. Around him, the discord of home came down. He heard the chickens strain their beaks through the mesh wiring. His father stepped back inside the house. On the stove, the steamer rattled on its scorched base, and his mother lay pale and still. He wanted to call to her but his jaw was numb.
Junior lay facing him with his legs splayed. He looked uncomfortable and needed his help. With his nose, Francis nudged Junior’s head, a little at a time, until it faced the chicken coop.