ANTONIO A. HIDALGO
It was Monday. Felt like Sunday. Everyday felt like Sunday now. No schedules, no important things to do anymore. Just waiting. Waiting.
Martin Mayo stirred in his bed, but did not get up. He looked at the window. The curtains were closed. He imagined a bleak September morning out there. Overcast. Drizzling. He heard one of his cocks crow. He got up with much effort.
Passing by the living room on his way to the kitchen, he looked out the large French windows at the gentle slopes of his huge gamecock farm. He was right about the morning.
Susan, his cook and housekeeper, prepared breakfast for him as he sat, waiting, at the kitchen table. The smell of frying eggs and beef tapa sickened him. He ordered Susan to stop cooking breakfast and asked for a cup of chocolate instead. Even the chocolate turned his stomach. He almost retched. He thought ruefully about how he would rather take some Batangas barako coffee. But it would certainly make him vomit. He got up and left his unfinshed cup of chocolate.
He went into his bathroom to wash himself. Then to the bedroom to change from his pajamas. He put on a light blue Dunhill T-shirt, a dark blue pair of Givenchy slacks, midnight blue Christian Dior socks, and black A.Testoni walking shoes with serrated rubber soles. Dressing in expensive casual clothes gave him no more pleasure. It was a chore now.
On his way out, he noticed that his cell phone in the living room was off. He decided to leave it off.
He sat on the rattan rocking chair in his spacious porch and waited for Larry, his farm kapatas, to bring him Sultan. He heard some angry cackling from the scratch pens in the cockhouse. He briefly scolded Larry for being careless with Sultan when he came with the fighting cock.
Martin Mayo gazed intently at the squat, stocky, old cock, with motley white, blue, brown, and yellow feathers on his hackles, wings, and back. Sultan was lively this morning and greeted Martin with a series of full-throated crows.
“Are you very sure that Sultan doesn’t mount the hens anymore?” Martin asked Larry for the umpteenth time.
“Yes Sir, I have watched him closely as you ordered. He is too old. We did not get a single chick from his hens this past year,” Larry replied.
“Okay, move Sultan to the fly pen now,” Martin said, as he got up from the rocking chair to follow Larry to the fly pens.
Sultan tried to hit and peck Larry when the kapatas tried to get him from his tie-cord on the lawn. Martin went up to Sultan and gently picked him up. Sultan let him do it without a fuss. Martin brought Sultan to the fly pen himself, with Larry following them.
Once in the fly pen, Sultan immediately flew up the five-foot wooden roost, popped his wings hard and crowed. This gratified Martin, and he said to Larry: “Good, good. Sultan is starting to behave like a younger cock now. Keep up the regimen of transferring him every hour from scratch pen to fly pen to tie-cord and back again. This will stimulate him to keep moving and exercising. How long have you been doing this?”
“Everyday, Sir, since you told me to do it three weeks ago. I spend most of my time with Sultan now and let the other boys condition the rest of the cocks. Are we going to fight Sultan? He’s about nine years old, you know.”
“Maybe. Of course, I know how old Sultan is. I looked it up in my breeding notebooks. Pay attention to his special diet. Are you mixing the powdered vitamins and minerals with his grains? And the fresh meat and calf manna? Don’t feed him too much. Just one whiskey jigger-full per meal. Have you got that?”
“Of course, Sir. But it’s going to be hard to get Sultan in shape to fight.”
Martin smiled at Larry. “I know. But he deserves an honorable and dignified death as a great warrior. I don’t want him to just waste away from old age like a pensiyonado. You understand?”
He did not wait for an answer. Martin walked slowly back to the sprawling ranch house to take his usual late morning nap on the rocking chair on the porch. And to gather his strength to take some lunch. His damned bad liver had killed all his appetites, even his desire for women.
Martin thought of his father and his brothers and sisters as he tried to nap.
MARTIN WAS ENTERING his father’s old mansion in Malolos. He wrinkled his nose at the musty smell emanating from the perenially damp stones and mortar of the first floor as he went up the elaborate staircase. He tried to step lightly as he entered the upstairs living room, to minimize the familiar creaking of the three-foot wide polished narra floorboards. When he passed the windows of the living room, he was careful to look up, not down. He could not bear to look at the servants’ quarters below, where he had lived briefly as a young boy, while his father verified the story of the twelve-year-old boy who had suddenly appeared at his doorstep.
Martin’s father, Ambrosio, the five-term assemblyman and congressman from Bulacan, had just died from a heart attack at the age of sixty-nine. The entire clan was assembled for the ninth day ritual. Martin had just won his first term as congressman in Batangas and was feeling proud of having lived up to his famous father’s name.
“You hurt Papa very much when you refused his help in your campaign,” Ernesto, his oldest half-brother said quietly to him in a corner of the living room, away from the other guests. “He loved you too, you know, even if you quarreled with him all the time.
“Anyway, I have met with the other brothers and sisters and we have agreed to share the inheritance with you. We can only offer you a half share. Papa spent a lot in his later campaigns and there’s not much left. I hope you understand.”
The words cut Martin deeply—almost as if Ernesto had used a knife. Martin averted his eyes to hide the hurt. He said he would consult his wife, Conching. He came back to Ernesto and said: “Thank you very much for your offer, Ernesto. Now I finally know what I am worth—exactly half of each of you. But no thanks. Conching and I are doing very well and we don’t need it. Good night.”
Martin stormed out of the house, dragging Conching by the arm. In the car, he vented his anger with expletives directed at his legitimate half-brothers and sisters. When Conching tried to calm him down, he sarcastically insulted her for being the eldest legitimate daughter of the powerful and wealthy former Senator Mamerto Lacson of Bacolod City.
The affront had stayed in his heart all his life. In later years, whenever his profligate brothers and sisters came to him for help when on the verge of bankruptcy, he was careful to always be generous with them. And never to speak a word about his hurt.
“Sir, Mr. Tony Ayuyao is here to see you.” It was Susan gently shaking his shoulder as Martin dozed in the rocking chair.
“Oh, good, good. Show him in. We’ll talk here on the porch.”
“Good morning, Vice President. I heard that you’re preparing to fight your cocks again,” Tony said as he shook Martin’s hand. A tall, muscular man in his forties, Tony exuded strength and confidence despite his severely thinning hair.
“You know, Tony, I’ve missed it a great deal, the cockfighting. It has always been my way to relax. Even when I was a young boy in Mindoro, barely surviving as a bootblack.”
“How are your cocks doing now? I’m breeding the two trios you gave me and hope to get a bumper crop of chicks this year.”
“Not too well, I’m afraid. I’ve fought seven cocks this month. Six lost. I’m well over the hill now, and so is my breed.
“Lunch is ready, Tony. Let’s talk business while we eat.”
At the dining room table, Martin managed to swallow several mouthfuls with great effort, before he turned to business.
“I called you here to organize a press conference for me.”
“Oh? What’s the topic? Are you going back to politics?”
“No, no. I want to announce that I’m resigning as Chairman of the Molave Bank because I’m terminally ill with cancer.”
Tony was silent for a few seconds, absorbing the shocking news about his friend. “Tell me straight, Martin. How bad is it?”
“Very bad. All my doctors at the Stanford University Hospital and at the Makati Medical Center agree that I have only two to ten months to live. It seems that the cancer developed in my lungs and that it has now spread to my liver. I want people to know. I think it’s my duty after nearly a lifetime as a public figure.”
“I agree. Senate President Montinola’s refusal to confirm that he was seriously ill caused a lot of instability before he died.”
“Can you handle the press conference? I’ll pay your fees.”
“No fees, Vice President. It’s the least I can do, after you gave my ad firm that large contract during your recent campaign. I remember your remarkable press conference after you lost the presidential elections. The one where you said that you felt like going out on a deserted beach in Mindoro and swimming into the raging sea to let the powerful waves toss you to and fro like a piece of driftwood. That was a bit poetic. Can you be as candid as that in this conference?”
“I’ll try. What have I got to lose? Maybe I’ll tell them that I don’t want to lie in state at Malacañang because politicians will only deliver speeches full of lies over my casket. That I would rather be put in a cockpit, so my fellow cockers can pay their genuine last respects. Or in Mindoro ….” Martin said with mischievous eyes.
Tony laughed. “That’s good, Martin. Very good. Consider it done. Let’s do it on Wednesday next week at the Manila Pen in Makati, okay?”
“What will you do now?” Tony asked with concern.
“I really don’t know,” Martin said candidly as he paused from the conversation to ponder something.
WHAT SHOULD HE DO? Martin had already pondered over Tony’s question for the past month, since he had discovered that he was dying. He thought of all the overwhelming questions haunting the country, issues that he had fought over—development paths, decentralization of political and economic power, the role of civil society in governance, protecting the environment, our country’s role in Asia, all that jazz—and concluded that they no longer concerned him, for he could not do anything about them in the few months he had left.
He turned to history to comfort him with the thought that mankind would continue to march forward, regardless of what happened to him. It was a laughable exercise—he spent all of two hours in his library, trying to read Thucydides and Herodotus and O.D. Corpus, and got bored stiff. He concluded that a scholar he was not, though he had been a good student in law school.
What should he do?
Tony had moved to the French windows to look at the cocks on tie-cords in the yard when Martin finally spoke: “I guess I’ll put my accounts and land titles in order for my children. There’s the press conference. I’d also like to spend some time with good friends like you.
“And maybe I’ll fight my favorite cock, Sultan—who is an eleven-time winner but who is also nine years old. That’s like being seventy or eighty years old for humans. He is my greatest cock, you know. The very best in more than thirty years of breeding.”
Tony returned to the table and said: “I like the thing about Sultan. I will be there to watch the fight. Tell me when and where.”
“Of course,” Martin said with a smile as he motioned for Susan to take Tony to the door so he could rest.
As he lay in bed trying to sleep, he thought of Conching.
“YOU LYING PRICK!” she screamed at him as they rode in the back of his Mercedes Benz 500 SEL on their way to a rally in Lucena City, when he was campaigning for Vice President. “You told me you were in Pangasinan last night. But Nanette Salvatierra saw you last night at the Spices restaurant at the Pen, having a lovey-dovey dinner with a pretty young woman!”
“You believe that old gossip, Nanette?” he asked.
She ignored the question. “What do you tell those twits to get them to bed? I’ll bet you get their sympathy with that campaign story about roaming the forests of Mindoro to look for fruits and edible leaves for you and your labandera mother.
“I can’t take this anymore, Martin. You can’t help having your mother’s genes. You will always be a cheating, lying, little bastard, no matter how far you go in politics. I’m going home to my people in Bacolod, who are civilized.”
Martin slapped her hard on the face to shut her up. She screamed and it alarmed Capt. Berroya, who was driving, and Lt. Espinosa, who was in the front seat. Berroya pulled over to the side of the highway. The trailing Pajero carrying Martin’s security escorts stopped behind them.
Martin angrily told Berroya and Espinosa to mind their own business and to continue driving to Lucena City.
He had regretted hitting Conching then. He regretted it now. But when she was jealous, Conching could often wrench open the trap door in his mind that he had so carefully constructed in order to succeed in getting people to trust him, in order to succeed, period. All the black garbage within burst forth when this happened.
He also regretted that he was sleeping at the Lipa farm with a young and beautiful movie starlet when Conching died suddenly from a massive stroke in their Dasmariñas house three years ago.
He missed her, and wished that she were still alive so that he could, at least, attempt to achieve some kind of closure on that part of his life.
The press conference the following week was a great success. Tony had arranged it impeccably. Martin performed like the professional politician that he was. And the story hit all the front pages of the major dailies in English and Filipino.
Martin had to shut off his cell phone permanently after the story came out. He also instructed his former staff members at the bank and the servants at his large house in Dasmarinas Village in Makati not to divulge the location of his Lipa farm. Too many political acquaintances wanted to waste his precious time.
His lawyer, Atty. Ancheta Catindig, worked efficiently in the next two weeks putting his estate in order. When he had finished, Martin signed the necessary papers with relief. This left him with only the occasional chat with an old friend that he would summon to Lipa, when he felt strong enough. And the preparations for the final fight of Sultan.
Martin felt well that day, so he personally sparred Sultan against a mediocre stag. He insisted on putting the gloves on Sultan, even if his hands shook a little. And he did the tailing and pecking to warm up the cocks before pitting them.
Sultan still moved unusually fast, for his age, and hit the stag solidly on the first fly and immediately followed this up with a murderous ground shuffle. He sidestepped perfectly when the stag rushed him after the shuffle. Sultan hit the stag with three more solid blows on the back before he tired and got hit on the head when he lost his focus. Martin immediately stepped in to stop the sparring after Sultan got hit.
“It’s unbelievable. The old cock can still fight. Had we heeled them with knives, the stag would be dead now,” remarked Larry, who had handled the stag.
“Yes, but so would Sultan. He got hit at the end. He’s not ready. He never got hit before. He needs another month,” observed Martin. “Give Sultan a young hen in his fly pen this afternoon. See if he mounts her. It might speed up his metabolism.”
Martin went back to the ranch house to rest. He dozed fitfully that afternoon as the chemotherapy was upsetting even his pissing and bowel movements. In his waking moments, he reminisced of his, and Sultan’s, youthful battles.
HE WAS TWENTY-ONE and fighting in an outdoor boxing ring during the Taytay fiesta to augment the meager allowance his father provided him. His fighting name was Fancy Dan and his opponent was Fighting Marlon, a taller boxer with an upper body chiseled from pure muscle, a narrow, hard waist, and strong legs. Marlon came after him from round one, showing disdain for his squat, stocky build and his shifty style, and hit him in the face with a good left hook and short right straight during the first minute.
His knees wobbled and he hung onto Marlon’s shoulders, as he smelled the pungent odors in the ring from the sweat, the cracked and dirty leather gloves, and the resin on their shoes. He resolved to turn Marlon’s cockiness to his advantage. He dissembled being more hurt than he actually was to encourage Marlon to rush him carelessly. Marlon fell for the trick and Martin frustrated him by slipping his blows while hitting him with off-rhythm punches. He hurt Marlon enough in the fourth and final round to win the decision and the five-hundred-peso purse.
It was 1990 and Sultan was barely a year old, fighting for the first time at the Roligon cockpit in Paranaque in a hack fight against a beautiful mahogany red stag of Esting Abello from Bacolod. Esting’s stag was so much taller and finer-looking, and he strutted with so much authority in the pit, that the odds were ten to six against the short-feathered, off-color, coarse-featured, and strangely quiet Sultan.
The Bacolod red flew to the lights on the first pitting and Sultan only stared and waited without moving from his mark. The red rushed Sultan two more times, each time lowering his flight in an attempt to reach Sultan with his blows. Sultan still did not move, he just turned to face the red on each pass. The red was fooled by Sultan’s dissembling, and mistook his deliberate immobility for fear. He rushed Sultan carelessly on his fourth pass. He came in too low. Sultan jumped barely a foot above the ground and sank his slasher blade deep into the red’s back to win with one blow.
After three months of conditioning under his strict supervision, Martin finally decided that Sultan was ready for his last battle.
Larry tried to dissuade him: “But, Sir, Sultan still won’t mount a hen. I’ve given him three of our best pullets and he doesn’t show any interest at all.”
“That’s natural at his age, isn’t it?” Martin replied.
“How about stamina? We know that Sultan is still strong and reasonably fast. But can he last in a tough fight against a top opponent?”
“Character will tell, when everything is on the line,” Martin said as he walked away from Larry.
He carefully selected the date of the derby—December 12. This would be four days after his last chemotherapy, so he wouldn’t feel too sick. He also painstakingly chose the venue—the Roligon cockpit. This was the closest major cockpit to his Lipa farm and he was a pillar in its cockers’ association. He informed his friends of the fight and he made it a point to call Tony Ayuyao himself.
Martin meticulously supervised the final conditioning of Sultan. He observed Larry carefully, to make sure that his kapatas put his heart into preparing Sultan, despite the reservations in his mind. He watched every feeding and personally sparred Sultan two more times, before he tapered off the cock’s training regimen.
Martin had new prescription glasses made so he could heel Sultan himself, though he had not tied a knife on a fighting cock in decades. He often practiced heeling his cocks with slasher knives a week before the fight. He supervised Larry’s cleaning and sharpening of Sultan’s own special slasher knife.
Martin was rather preoccupied the night before Sultan’s last fight. He hardly touched his dinner. He tried calling up Tony, but Tony wasn’t at home. He retired to his bedroom early.
But he couldn’t sleep. He lay awake in bed and thought of Sultan’s greatest victory. And his own.
SULTAN WAS TWO YEARS OLD and at his prime on his fourth fight—an international derby at the Araneta Coliseum. This one was for all the marbles—the pot of a million pesos and the title of Cockfighting Champion of the World—as Martin’s entry had won all seven previous fights and the final fight—Sultan—was against a five-time winner imported Sweater Grey of Ray Jumper, a leading American breeder whose entry had also won all of its previous fights in the week-long derby. Jumper’s confident grey was cackling in derision at Sultan and the odds were eight to twelve for the grey when the cocks were pitted.
The Sweater Grey measured Sultan perfectly on his first pass and jumped straight to where Sultan stood, his left leg viciously slashing its knife. Sultan turned ever so slightly to the left and got a billhold on the grey’s hackles as he passed. He flipped the grey on his back and quickly and cleanly slashed his throat to win the world title.
It was late 1986 and the widow of the martyred Jesus Garcia, Mary, had just assumed the Presidency after the dictator Floro Santos had fled the country. Martin was her Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources in her revolutionary government, by virtue of his close friendship with Mary’s late husband, who had become a national hero.
Martin was pacing the carpeted corridor fronting the Rizal study on the second floor of Malacañang palace.
“Secretary, the President is playing mahjong and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Is your business very important?” Maj. Santos, one of her aides, whispered to him.
“Tell her it concerns the future of the country. I will only need ten minutes of her time,” Martin answered curtly.
Maj. Santos showed him into the study after a few minutes. Mary got up from the huge desk at the end of the long room to shake his hand.
“Martin, how nice to see you again,” She said cheerfully. “Sit down. What can I do for you? I haven’t much time as I’m meeting a delegation of U.S. businessmen led by Ambassador McGrath in a few minutes.”
“President Mary, I have drafted a presidential decree for your signature which will ban all logging in the country. It will have the binding effect of a law, as we are in a revolutionary mode of government. Please sign it. It will stop, once and for all, the denudation of our forests and the attendant flooding which kills thousands every year. It will be a major achievment of your administration and you will be remembered forever as the president who solved a stubborn problem that the dictator and the other presidents before him could not solve,” Martin said quickly.
Mary Garcia thought for a moment before saying: “I’m sure you know what you’re doing, for you’re an old hand at politics. Will we get much flak from the businessmen?”
“Not any more than we’re getting now. And the press and the NGOs will love you for it.”
“Okay. I’ll sign the original now. We’ll do it again tomorrow for the press and the TV. My press office will make the announcement,” Mary said while she signed the decree.
“Just like that,” Martin thought happily to himself as he descended the staircase of the palace. “No discussions, no acrimonious articles in the newspapers, no marching in the streets. Thank heavens for mahjong.”
A few days later, Martin read a columnist who attacked him for his effrontery in banning logging after he had practically denuded the entire province of what is now Saranggani in partnership with Governor Chua in the days of the dictator, when Martin had left politics in disgust over the declaration of martial law, after serving two terms as congressman for Batangas and one abbreviated term as senator. He had lost all faith in the future of the country then and cared only about enriching himself. The same columnist also accused him of having used his gains from illegal logging to buy his thousand-hectare farm in Camarines Norte and his slightly smaller one in Mindoro. That same day, his own former partner, now citizen Washington Chua, sent him veiled death threats.
He did not care. He had just won a major victory—quickly and cleanly.
Martin got a lot of sympathy at the Roligon cockpit the evening of the derby. Everyone had read or heard about his terminal illness. He looked terrible. He had lost thirty pounds and most of his previously thick white hair on his head and beard. It didn’t take much to imagine his suffering. Martin gracefully accepted all the expressions of regret.
After an hour of watching the fights, he retreated to his cockhouse. He sipped orange juice while he waited for Sultan’s fight. Larry heeled and pitted the other cocks and Martin did not bother to watch their fights. Two lost and one won. As Martin had requested, Sultan’s was the last fight of his entry.
When Sultan’s fight was finally called by the pit runner, Martin took complete charge. He gently eased Sultan out of the holding stall and gingerly put him into the small scratch pen to adjust to the bright lights. Martin did the teasing with a catch cock to warm up Sultan’s muscles. Then he picked up Sultan to officially weigh him in front of his opponent’s owner, Joey Almendras from Davao City, in the heeling room. The weights of both cocks were in order and Martin heeled Sultan.
There was a lusty cheer from the crowd as he entered the pit and he acknowledged it by waving both hands above his head. Joey Almendras was not cheered by the crowd when he entered with a pure white cock.
Martin scrutinized Joey’s cock carefully as he was tailed with a catch cock. He was well-conditioned and at the prime age of two years. He had the natural grace of the Zamboanga breed that Joey fought. He was also taller and better proportioned than the squat and stocky Sultan. Martin was satisfied that he was a worthy opponent for Sultan’s last fight.
Martin was very careful in pitting Sultan. He backed up all the way to the pit wall before letting Sultan go, to give him as much room as possible for maneuver.
The first minute of the fight was like entering a time warp for Martin. Sultan was simply fabulous and fought like he did the last time, five years ago. Instead of waiting for his opponent to break first, as he often did, Sultan risked all by meeting the white head-on in the first fly. The white broke too high for Sultan, so he quickly slid just under the white and stabbed him on the right leg from below. The white could not parry the blow as he had never been hit from below with such speed and accuracy before.
The white limped badly when both cocks hit the ground and the crowd roared its approval of Sultan’s magnificent maneuver. Sultan alighted lightly and instantly faked a blow to the white’s head. When the white dodged to his right to avoid the blow, Sultan got him in a flash with a punch to the white’s left side.
The white reeled from the powerful blow, but Sultan refused to come in with a killing shuffle. He backed away instead and they circled each other for a few moments. The white decided to take a risk, as he was behind in the fight. He faked a thrust at Sultan’s chest, but Sultan was not taken in and he stood his ground. So the white really went for Sultan’s chest. It was a mistake, for Sultan quickly flew just high enough to be able to jab the white on the back as he missed lunging at Sultan. It looked like a killing blow, at last, and the crowd roared once more. But Sultan’s slasher caught on a bone and he was unable to quickly pull it out.
It was the stroke of luck the worthy white needed—for Sultan to be momentarily immobile and off-balance. The white instantly turned on his back, forcibly pulling out Sultan’s knife, and slashed Sultan across his bottom below the lower end of the breast bone, spilling Sultan’s bloody guts in little pieces on the hard earthen pit floor.
Martin blanched, for he knew that this was the most painful wound that could possibly be inflicted on a cock in a slasher fight. Even the gamest breeds of American fowl had been known to stop fighting or even run with such a terrible wound. It did not kill instantly, but sadistically afforded a cock a few minutes more of sputtering life in unbelievably intense pain. And Sultan had not been bred for gameness, but for intelligence and wiliness. Martin prayed that Sultan would not die in shame by quitting.
Sultan could not stand from the pain of his chopped-up intestines. He laboriously dragged himself with his wings to the white, as moving his legs intensified his terrible pain. The white had also collapsed on the ground from his many wounds, but he raised his head to peck as Sultan approached.
The downed cocks fought desperately with wing blows and pecks for several minutes more. But they could no longer kill, for their legs were gone. During the frequent face-to-face careos by the referee, Sultan always pecked first and more aggressively. It often seemed as if Sultan might win the fight on sheer courage and determination, despite suffering from excruciating pain. He fought with such a clarity of will that it almost seemed possible that his bravery might momentarily staunch the bleeding in his exposed entrails. But he died just one minute before the clock signalled the ten-minute fight limit. The white won purely on the luck and staying power of his youth.
The crowd clapped and cheered lustily at the awesome display of courage by both warriors, but especially by Sultan, who had fought on without any hesitation, and with an admirably calm dignity, despite his terrible wound. Martin jumped to his feet and clapped his hands with all the strength he could muster.
Then he knelt reverently beside the fallen Sultan and gently picked him up. Martin gruffly waved away Larry, who tried to help. He insisted on covering Sultan’s bloody knife with its scabbard himself.
He proudly raised Sultan’s limp head as he carried him out of the pit. He looked up at the crowd as he reached the pit door. They had gone about their business of paying and collecting bets and were no longer looking at the pit.
Martin wished the same cheering crowd would watch as he grappled with the excruciating pain on his deathbed.
From Cockfighting Stories, by Antonio A. Hidalgo (Milflores, 2000).
Posted on November 20, 2008