The night before the last cockfight in the village of Santa Eurosia, a storm thrashed the sugarcane fields and snapped palm trees like chicken necks. In my sixteen summers, I had seen storms send dense sheets of rain to plunder the soil and uproot trees, storms that lifted our goats and dropped them split-ribbed onto rocks. I had seen chicks killed just by the wind forcing itself into the tissue-thin pockets of their lungs. But this storm was different; its fury was almost human. I looked out our house’s one window and I saw the cane bending to the wind, palm trees scattering leaves. I saw the ghost of my cousin Lucia weightlessly straddling a sugarcane stalk, eyes bright as copper and skin charcoal-dark, her lips curled around the cane as she sucked out the sweetness the way we used to when we were little.
I woke the next morning to the land slowly releasing its breath. The hard knots of Nando’s knees knocked into my calves as he stretched and yawned. Mama came in to our room, her hair already smoothed and braided even though the sun had just risen. She stood over our bed, breathing coffee steam and smelling of the lunch she had already begun cooking.
“Soledad, Nando, get up! Abuela’s been awake since before dawn.”
Ever since Papi left for the factory, Mama spoke mainly in commands. When Papi came to visit, she spoke in questions, her voice shrill and hurt and calling through the fields: Where are you going? Are you fucking some city slut? Why are you taking your daughter to another cockfight? Don’t you have any shame?
“Check the chicken coop after breakfast. I think the roof blew off.”
Mama spoke in signs even though Nando could read lips. A fever took his hearing as a baby, and since then, Nando had invented an entire dictionary of signs. He repeated his words until we learned his language of fists and finger spelling, until our spoken words were accompanied by hands that danced and fluttered like birds.
In the kitchen, Abuela cut us thick slices of guava paste from the yellow tins that filled our cabinets. Since Papi got work at the factory in San Juan, our kitchen had been stocked with island food that was shipped to Miami and New York for Puerto Ricans who missed the taste of plantains. When Papa came home every six months, he brought big crates of dented cans the factory was going to throw away. And then, after he had left, I would eat them and imagine his hands gluing on the labels.
“Can I help cook?” I asked Mama.
“And spill the eggs? Give me nothing but eggshells? Nando can help. You, go outside and check the coop.”
Nando was good with his hands. Mama said the Virgin blessed Nando to make up for his deafness. Abuela said he had the soul of a poet. I had no special blessings and I was no help in the kitchen. I could hear a restless chick rustle inside its egg but my soul was not the soul of a poet. It was the soul of a fighter, of a rooster queen. Lucia and I had been training roosters to fight since after Papi brought us to a cockfight in town and bought an old one-eyed fighting rooster to train our chicks. When Mama protested, he told her that I needed something to occupy my hands and mind.
“She’s a smart girl. An angry girl,” he had said. “Better the roosters fight than she does.”
Lucia and I had learned from the one-eyed rooster how to urge the birds to fight, to funnel all our own frustrations into their battles. Lucia’s anger was her father and his drunken prowls, it was her nervous, bedridden mother. My anger was Nando being so good while I was bloodlusting and clumsy.
Since Lucia died, I was the only girl in who went to the cockfight in town, the only girl who raised roosters for the fights. But still, I knew I was not alone. The first fight after the fire that killed my aunt and cousins, our prizefighter rose from the dead, the wound at his throat stitching itself closed. That was the first time I saw Lucia’s ghost. I saw her tarnished silver skin and seed-black eyes as she stood above him, tracing her charcoal fingers over his wounds. From then on I called the rooster Lazarus and at each fight, Lucia kept him alive.
The fight tonight carried a prize of ten dollars. I was going to bring Lazarus and we would win enough money to run away, me and Lazarus and Lucia’s ghost. We would go to San Juan and live with Papi, and Lazarus would fight in the city where hundreds of people would cheer for him. Lucia would be there keeping him fierce and immortal, and in some way it would be as though she never died.
Abuela gave me a mug of thick black coffee and I drank it fast, watching her and Mama hover around Nando, kissing his head and giving him tasks for his elegant fingers. My own fingers were calloused and bruised from training Lazarus, who bit and pecked at me until my knuckles bloomed with blood. I finished my breakfast and went to look for him. I had left him outside during the storm. I knew that the winds and rain would only make him angry and stronger for the fight.
The sunlight was murky after the storm and the air cooler than it should have been in August. My bare feet pushed up puddles in the mud. I walked to the coop and saw the felled chicken wire and the roof’s straw and palm leaves scattered and trampled into the ground. The hens puffed their mud-stained feathers and pecked at my toes. I heard Lazarus’s call from our roof and I turned to see him standing atop the house, enormous and proud, his feathers brushed with dust but still vibrant, the colors of a fighter. His neck was craned and searching. I followed his stare and saw the edge of the field. For four months, the scorched shell of Tío Roberto and Tía Maria’s house had stood and reminded us that Tía Maria, Lucia, and Carlitos had burned to death while we slept. The storm had swept it clean, and now there was only scrubby grass where the cane had burned.
Mama came outside and I heard her gasp.
“It’s gone. The Virgin took it away.”
My uncle, Tío Roberto, had been burning the sugarcane to quicken the harvest. The fire caught their house and lapped at a tank of propane. We woke to the smell of kerosene and burnt hair, the house pouring smoke over the fields. Tío Roberto had gone missing that night. Mama thought he drank himself to death, but there was talk in town of him creeping around, harassing the bartender’s wife and pissing himself at the cockfights. I thought I had seen him at a fight once, but when I turned to look again, he had vanished. I never told anyone. I wondered if maybe I had seen his ghost.
I looked at the emptiness where the house had stood. Somehow, a concrete wall and some beams had remained after the fire, visible across the fields like a far-away shipwreck. Mama had insisted that the souls of our cousins were trapped until they fell down.
Mama squinted over the field, as though the charred frame could come back if she stared hard enough. She crossed herself again. Since the fire, Mama had gone outside each night to pray for our aunt and cousins’ spirits, lingering amongst the ash and rubble.
Mama looked at me and then to the space where the house used to be.
“You shouldn’t go to the cockfight tonight. There’s too much work to do.”
“I have to go. All of the village is coming to see Lazarus. He’s ready to fight.”
“The Virgin took Roberto’s house. She wants us to spend the day in mourning. Your cousins’ souls are finally going to God.”
I wanted to tell her that at least Lucia’s soul was still in the fields, still lingering at the cockfights. I had never told my mother that I saw Lucia. I worried that she would pray until my cousin left us.
“Lucia would have gone with me. She loved the fights. She’d stand in the front and curse with the men.”
“Don’t talk about the dead like that. Today we mourn the family.”
“And tonight Lazarus will win. He’ll win for Lucia.” I knew I had her. Papi teased my mother for her superstitions, for believing roosters could bring good luck, that saints could protect us from storms. Still, I knew that even if she didn’t like me going to town and watching the fights with the men, she believed that Lucia’s soul would follow me to the fight, that the bloodshed might cleanse us both.
Mama sighed and wiped her hands on her skirt. “Go to the ruins and pray to Lucia for forgiveness. Pray for Tia Maria and Carlitos.”
I wanted to tell her that I didn’t need to pray to Lucia since I could see her, right then, in the middle of the field, her braid unfurling and whipping like curls of smoke off a cigar. She was burning the tips of sugarcane stalks, the flames sparking up and then disappearing into smoke. I nodded and told her yes, Nando and I would go to the house and we would search for signs of restless souls.
Nando and I walked through the fields, and I talked to him as always, walking backwards so I could see his hands fly up in their elaborate patterns. For the cockfight, he smashed his fists together.
“Tonight is going to be the best damn fight we’ve ever had, Nando. Lazarus is unbeatable!” I hadn’t told Nando about Lucia’s ghost, but since the last miracle, he had been suspicious of me, drawing further into his quiet world of caresses from Mama and Abuela.
Nando looked up at the sky. This was how he ignored me.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want to come tonight? You know Mama won’t let me go alone. I need big strong Nando to be my chaperone!”
I tried to cheer him, but as we got closer to where the house had stood, Nando walked slower, his fists clenched into shapeless words. We hadn’t gone to the house after the fire because Mama thought we would stir up the spirits. Now we could see the outline of black ash on the ground and the pile of beams that the storm knocked over. I stared at the ruins and imagined Lucia sleeping, the fire swallowing her in one gulp and driving her spirit out to the field.
I turned to Nando. His hands were flying up and twitching the crooked sign for ‘run,’ then he grabbed my hand and I felt his fingers drum scattered letters into my palm. From behind the pile of ash and wood, I heard the light clinking of glass, and I wondered if Mama had been right and the Virgin Mary was coming to set my cousins free. I heard an angry groan and then the pile shook as a man wearing rags lifted himself from the ground. He looked at me and stuttered and it was only because of the scar across his forehead that I recognized Tío Roberto. He had grown a patchy beard and his skin was stained from the sun. He stood in front of us and held out his hand to balance. He was clutching an empty bottle and it fell to the ground in a soft thud.
“You, girl. Lucia.” Tío Roberto looked straight at me but his eyes were charcoal-dark. He repeated Lucia’s name, staring through me. Then his voice rang out clear, like a prophecy.
“That cursed rooster. You cursed woman.”
“Are you a ghost?
“A ghost? A fucking ghost,” he said to his invisible audience. His skin was tight around bone. His torn guayabera hung off him like an old sheet.
“Why don’t you come to the house with me, Tío?” I say. I hoped that calling him uncle was enough to remind him I wasn’t Lucia. I knew Mama would beat him, would try to kill him for disappearing, for starting the fire and for being too drunk to control the flames. Nando dropped my hand and began to back away.
“Go to hell,” Tío Roberto said, “You’re all damned. I’ve seen you at the fights. I’ve seen your cursed rooster. You cheat, you steal Lucia’s money. You think you can steal from Lucia?” He swayed, his face contorted in what I mistook for anger until I saw tears cutting oily tracks. He dropped to his knees again and I saw his boots upturned behind the pile of charred beams.
I stood frozen for a moment, looking for Lucia, waiting for her to tell her father the truth. But since Lucia died, I had learned that ghosts would not speak. Nando pulled my arm and we turned and ran through the charred cane. I wondered if Nando could still feel the drunken drumbeat of Tío Roberto’s pulse.
“Don’t go to the fight.” Nando jabbed my side, poking me sharp in between the ribs.
“Why not?” I wasn’t afraid of Tío Roberto, even if he was haunting the fields. Even if he could have been watching us for the past four months. I had made five dollars from the fights so far, saved in quarters and dimes in a tin I hid in the henhouse.
“He wants to kill you,” He said, drawing a finger across his throat.
Nando ran ahead of me and I saw his curls flash through the tall stalks. I wanted to run back, to kick Tío Roberto for not saving his family, for lighting the cane and then leaving them all to burn. I wanted to throw my whole body on his and break his thin, wasted bones. But tonight Lucia and Lazarus would help, they would win the fight and we could leave. Tío Roberto would die in the ash, jealous and alone, and Nando would be safe with Mama and his private world.
When I got home, Nando was already in the kitchen with Mama and Abuela. His hands were sticky with mashed plantains and when he noticed me, he stared at me hard and fierce. He signed Don’t say anything. I told Mama that we had prayed for the family, that she was right–the ruins were bare of ghosts, free of spirits.
“Mama, where is Tío Roberto?” I asked. I wanted to hear the story again. I wanted to believe we had seen only a ghost, that my uncle was not rotting in the fields, that he was at the bottom of the ocean, weighed down and waterlogged.
“That man drank himself to death,” she said, as though reciting a fact.
Abuela shook her head. “He’s alive somewhere. But he’ll never come back.”
I could barely keep my secret, so I told them I was going to find Lazarus and left the house before Abuela could give me more food. I stood outside, the mud now dried and cracking. I heard Lazarus’s call, high and wailing from the roof. I turned around and he was standing majestic, his chest puffed as he called again. The sound boomed and rushed over the sugarcane. Then, I heard a human call in response, a lonely mockery of the rooster cry, a long wail that ended choked and mangled. Tío Roberto was talking to Lazarus, cursing him for killing his wife and children, cursing me for living while Lucia died.
I took out the wooden cage that Papa had built, and Lazarus eyed me, suspicious and arrogant. I would have to wrestle him to get him in the cage. Lazarus flapped his wings and disappeared from the roof, hopping down the slope to the other side of the house. I ran around back but he had disappeared. Abuela was at the window, her bone-white kerchief tied over her forehead. I mouthed Lazarus’s name to Abuela and she nodded and pointed to the field. He was hovering in mid-air, and then I saw the outlines of Lucia’s mottled hands holding him, stroking his feathers like the saint of prizefighters. She did not look at me, but dropped Lazarus and he came flying to the cage and settled in, waiting for me to close the door.
The village of Santa Eurosia was three miles from our house. The cockfight happened twice a month behind Cafeteria La Estrella, where during the day farmers and bus drivers sat at the bar and drank coffee, and at night their glasses were murky with rum. The roosters would fight on the hard-packed earth in the back, the outdoor arena surrounded with folding chairs. The rules of the cockfight were simple. The roosters fought until one was dead or bloodied enough that its owner scooped it up and lovingly broke its neck. It was prohibited to bind their legs with blades, except at the Christmas fight, which began at midnight and ended with a procession to the church. Sometimes people shoved spoons of cayenne down their roosters’ throats to blind them with anger, but with Lazarus I knew I wouldn’t need tricks, only Lucia.
As we walked to town, Nando stayed behind me, dragging his feet.
“Faster, Nando! Why aren’t you excited? Lazarus is going to win tonight and we’ll collect the prize.”
He kept his head down, his hands limp by his sides.
“What are you going to do with the money?” He asked, signs lazy and crooked because he must have known my answer.
“I’ll give it to Mama,” I said. I would have to lie if I was ever going to run away to San Juan. Nando wouldn’t miss me. He had his poet-soul and Mama and Abuela to dote on him.
“You’re going to leave like Papi left. Like Tía Maria and Lucia and Carlitos left.” He looked at me, accusing, and all I could do was stare down at our feet and readjust my grip on Lazarus’s crate.
When we arrived at La Estrella, the bar was filled with men crowding the tables, shouting to hear each other. The walls were papered with posters from fights before, vivid drawings of roosters circling each other, their wings spread out and their spurs pointed and gleaming with blood.
A hand clapped down on my shoulder so hard I almost dropped Lazarus’s crate.
“Ay, the witch has arrived.”
I turned around and saw Jorge, the owner of the bar. It was his rooster that was bested by Lazarus at the last fight. He shook my hand and tousled Nando’s hair.
“Brought the deaf-mute with you? How’s it going, boy?” Nando flinched but he nodded and held Jorge’s gaze. Jorge dropped to his knees to inspect Lazarus, who puffed his chest and paced in his cage.
“The rooster’s looking good,” Jorge said. “I’ve got a week’s pay riding on him, so he better be strong tonight. Did you bring your witchcraft?” I caught a nervous edge to his smile and I looked around the bar to see if Lucia was there. Instead I saw the ghosts of two hundred roosters hanging from the ceiling. I forgot Jorge and I saw their matted feathers, their beaks brushed with blood.
Jorge bounded away from us and jumped onto a chair, yelling “Vamos, chicos!” Almost immediately the men cleared the bar, bringing their drinks to the back arena. Nando and I took Lazarus and pushed through the crowd. The smell of sweat and cigars clung to my dress and my right hand clenched around Lazarus’s cage. When we got to the patio, Jorge took the cage and placed it at the center of the circle, next to another crate holding a pathetic thing without a chance of winning.
Jorge must have found the rooster on the street, with half its feathers missing and the ones that remained caked in mud and wilted. Before the big fight, Jorge would make Lazarus fight the scrawny rooster to rile him up and get the crowd’s bets settled. Nando and I found a place to stand close to the arena. The men fought to call out their bets, waving dollar bills at Jorge. Jorge collected money and wrote figures into a small notepad, shaking hands and welcoming the regulars. The men looked at me with recognition–many of them had been at the fight when Lazarus rose from the dead—and then pointed, nudging their friends and whispering about the girl-witch and her magic rooster. None of them asked me about Lucia, if I missed her, if she was here.
I looked for Lucia but did not see her. I studied Nando’s face in case tonight she decided to appear for him, but Nando looked serious, too serious for a boy of thirteen. He stared at Lazarus with only hatred, and when I went to rub his shoulder he shook off my hand. I wondered if Lucia could change that for me, if she could coax Nando from the silence of himself and show him the thrill of fighting, of raising a chick to become something fierce and beautiful, more powerful than he or I could ever hope of being.
Jorge stood in the middle of the circle and opened both crates, giving the scrawny rooster a kick with his boot. The first round was a quick flash of feathers, the rooster hardly putting up a fight before it was limp on the ground with Lazarus strutting over him and pecking at his under feathers. Jorge held Lazarus over his head and announced him the champion, then brought him to me to inspect before the fight.
“Clean him up,” he told me, pointing to a small wound near his spur. I handed him to Nando, knowing that his delicate fingers would itch to fix something, even if he didn’t approve of the fight. Nando bound the wound and threw Lazarus back into the arena.
“See? We can be a good team, Nando. You should come to all the fights.” It had been lonely without Lucia next to me, cursing like one of the bus drivers who came from the city, her face shining with sweat and excitement. Nando shrugged and kept staring straight ahead.
Jorge cleared the arena and brought out the second rooster, a fine fighter with a mango-bright beak. Lazarus and the other rooster began to circle each other, and then the rooster pounced and Lazarus lashed forward to attack.
The crowd edged close to the ring and the cheering started.
“Kill him!” they yelled in a drunken chorus. I felt my blood running hot in my face. The roosters pounced and dodged, leaping in the air and beating their wings in angry thrusts. I could think only of Lucia, waiting to hear her curse, waiting to see at least the pale outline of her face as she helped Lazarus fight. Nando looked disgusted.
The roosters were a tangle of bur on feather, squawking until the second rooster tried to flee, its wings matted with blood. As it tried to pull away, Lazarus kept mounting and slashing. Lucia had possessed him, I thought. I saw her anger in Lazarus’s jabs and spars, in the frantic flapping of his wings and the gold-yellow flash of his beak. The other rooster was bleeding heavily and it staggered and tried to strike again.
The cheering rose and I felt myself swell with pride. Then there was a yell above all the other yells and I looked up and saw a man prowling like a jungle cat, his skin coffee-dark and the scar running from his temple to his cheek. I felt Nando grab my hand and hold it tight. Tío Roberto hadn’t seen us yet. The packed earth was awash in blood. Jorge jumped into the ring and pulled the two roosters apart.
Lazarus beat his wings and landed on Jorge’s arm. Jorge yelled and pulled away and then there was more blood. I ran into the circle and saw it, a sharp, thin blade bound to Lazarus’s pointed spur. My first thought was Lucia, but she wouldn’t need knives to win. Then I remembered Nando’s fingers twirling around Lazarus’s ankle, and I saw him dressing the wound and tying a blade to his spur so fast it was almost invisible.
Jorge looked at his arm and shouted curses. All the men in the crowd turned toward me, the cheating witch, the liar. The blade was tied and bound by human hands, with Nando’s betraying fingers. Before I could turn to him, before we could run from the men who were calling off their bets, Tío Roberto ran into the arena and grabbed Lazarus. He charged towards us, swinging my prizefighter in the air, snapping Lazarus’s neck immediately. He knocked me over and then swung Lazarus in the air, bringing him down over Nando’s head, smacking his ears and shoulders, now stamped with blood. I threw myself on top of him but Tío Roberto kept swinging Lazarus and with each dull smack I felt the blade scratch the length of my back, I saw Nando’s hard bones pushed to the ground. The men’s voices were swelling in the chaos and someone pulled Tío Roberto off of us and hurled him to the ground. Tío Roberto staggered with yellowed teeth, with the whites of his eyes stained with blood.
“Cursed witch, murderer.” He snarled nonsense curses and bore his teeth at me.
Jorge and a group of men crowded Tío Roberto. I saw Lazarus’s broken body on the ground, smeared with blood.
Tío Roberto snarled, “She killed them. She killed my daughter. It was your witchcraft. Your evil eye. And now you want her money.”
The crowd hushed. There were two dead roosters broken on the ground. Nando was bleeding from the forehead. My arm had a long swooping gash. I looked for Lucia. I said her name over and over, and I looked for the ghosts of the dead roosters but they were gone too. The air was clean, heavy with summer salt but swept empty of familiar ghosts.
Tío Roberto heaved and hurled red-brown foam down his soiled shirt. Jorge let him go and he crouched to the ground, pounding the earth. I grabbed Nando’s arm so he could not run, my grip so tight I could feel bone and muscle. I could feel my nails cutting his skin but I could not release him. The men had started to talk about their bets. Someone had bet on a tie and he was telling everyone that he had won, since both roosters were dead.
I stood over Lazarus and I knew that Lucia had gone and would not resurrect him again. All the ghosts were gone, their spirits and scarred bodies spiraled up into the sky, leaving me here, with the betrayal of all things, with blood and feathers on the ground.