Noli Me Tangere: Chapter 46 – The Cockpit

To keep holy the afternoon of the Sabbath one generally goes to the cockpit in the Philippines, just as to the bull-fights in Spain. Cockfighting, a passion introduced into the country and exploited for a century past, is one of the vices of the people, more widely spread than opium-smoking among the Chinese. There the poor man goes to risk all that he has, desirous of getting rich without work. There the rich man goes to amuse himself, using the money that remains to him from his feasts and his masses of thanksgiving. The fortune that he gambles is his own, the cock is raised with much more care perhaps than his son and successor in the cockpit, so we have nothing to say against it. Since the government permits it and even in a way recommends it, by providing that the spectacle may take place only in the public plazas, on holidays (in order that all may see it and be encouraged by the example?), from the high mass until nightfall (eight hours), let us proceed thither to seek out some of our acquaintances.

The cockpit of San Diego does not differ from those to be found in other towns, except in some details. It consists of three parts, the first of which, the entrance, is a large rectangle some twenty meters long by fourteen wide. On one side is the gateway, generally tended by an old woman whose business it is to collect the sa pintu, or admission fee. Of this contribution, which every one pays, the government receives a part, amounting to some hundreds of thousands of pesos a year. It is said that with this money, with which vice pays its license, magnificent schoolhouses are erected, bridges and roads are constructed, prizes for encouraging agriculture and commerce are distributed: blessed be the vice that produces such good results! In this first enclosure are the vendors of buyos, cigars, sweetmeats, and foodstuffs. There swarm the boys in company with their fathers or uncles, who carefully initiate them into the secrets of life.

This enclosure communicates with another of somewhat larger dimensions, –a kind of foyer where the public gathers while waiting for the combats. There are the greater part of the fighting-cocks tied with cords which are fastened to the ground by means of a piece of bone or hard wood; there are assembled the gamblers, the devotees, those skilled in tying on the gaffs, there they make agreements, they deliberate, they beg for loans, they curse, they swear, they laugh boisterously. That one fondles his chicken, rubbing his hand over its brilliant plumage, this one examines and counts the scales on its legs, they recount the exploits of the champions.

There you will see many with mournful faces carrying by the feet corpses picked of their feathers; the creature that was the favorite for months, petted and cared for day and night, on which were founded such flattering hopes, is now nothing more than a carcass to be sold for a peseta or to be stewed with ginger and eaten that very night. Sic transit gloria mundi! The loser returns to the home where his anxious wife and ragged children await him, without his money or his chicken. Of all that golden dream, of all those vigils during months from the dawn of day to the setting of the sun, of all those fatigues and labors, there results only a peseta, the ashes left from so much smoke.

In this foyer even the least intelligent takes part in the discussion, while the man of most hasty judgment conscientiously investigates the matter, weighs, examines, extends the wings, feels the muscles of the cocks. Some go very well-dressed, surrounded and followed by the partisans of their champions; others who are dirty and bear the imprint of vice on their squalid features anxiously follow the movements of the rich to note the bets, since the purse may become empty but the passion never satiated. No countenance here but is animated– not here is to be found the indolent, apathetic, silent Filipino– all is movement, passion, eagerness. It may be, one would say, that they have that thirst which is quickened by the water of the swamp.

From this place one passes into the arena, which is known as the Rueda, the wheel. The ground here, surrounded by bamboo-stakes, is usually higher than that in the two other divisions. In the back part, reaching almost to the roof, are tiers of seats for the spectators, or gamblers, since these are the same. During the fights these seats are filled with men and boys who shout, clamor, sweat, quarrel, and blaspheme–fortunately, hardly any women get in this far. In the Rueda are the men of importance, the rich, the famous bettors, the contractor, the referee. On the perfectly leveled ground the cocks fight, and from there Destiny apportions to the families smiles or tears, feast or famine.

At the time of entering we see the gobernadorcillo, Capitan Pablo, Capitan Basilio, and Lucas, the man with the sear on his face who felt so deeply the death of his brother.

Capitan Basilio approaches one of the townsmen and asks, “Do you know which cock Capitan Tiago is going to bring?”

“I don’t know, sir. This morning two came, one of them the lásak that whipped the Consul’s talisain.” [127]

“Do you think that my bulik is a match for it?”

“I should say so! I’ll bet my house and my camisa on it!”

At that moment Capitan Tiago arrives, dressed like the heavy gamblers, in a camisa of Canton linen, woolen pantaloons, and a wide straw hat. Behind him come two servants carrying the lásak and a white cock of enormous size.

“Sinang tells me that Maria is improving all the time,” says Capitan Basilio.

“She has no more fever but is still very weak.”

“Did you lose last night?”

“A little. I hear that you won. I’m going to see if I can’t get even here.”

“Do you want to fight the lásak?” asks Capitan Basilio, looking at the cock and taking it from the servant. “That depends–if there’s a bet.”

“How much will you put up?”

“I won’t gamble for less than two.”

“Have you seen my bulik?” inquires Capitan Basilio, calling to a man who is carrying a small game-cock.

Capitan Tiago examines it and after feeling its weight and studying its scales returns it with the question, “How much will you put up?”

“Whatever you will.”

“Two, and five hundred?”



“For the next fight after this!”

The chorus of curious bystanders and the gamblers spread the news that two celebrated cocks will fight, each of which has a history and a well-earned reputation. All wish to see and examine the two celebrities, opinions are offered, prophecies are made.

Meanwhile, the murmur of the voices grows, the confusion increases, the Rueda is broken into, the seats are filled. The skilled attendants carry the two cocks into the arena, a white and a red, already armed but with the gaffs still sheathed. Cries are heard, “On the white!” “On the white!” while some other voice answers, “On the red!” The odds are on the white, he is the favorite; the red is the “outsider,” the dejado.

Members of the Civil Guard move about in the crowd. They are not dressed in the uniform of that meritorious corps, but neither are they in civilian costume. Trousers of guingón with a red stripe, a camisa stained blue from the faded blouse, and a service-cap, make up their costume, in keeping with their deportment; they make bets and keep watch, they raise disturbances and talk of keeping the peace.

While the spectators are yelling, waving their hands, flourishing and clinking pieces of silver; while they search in their pockets for the last coin, or, in the lack of such, try to pledge their word, promising to sell the carabao or the next crop, two boys, brothers apparently, follow the bettors with wistful eyes, loiter about, murmur timid words to which no one listens, become more and more gloomy and gaze at one another ill-humoredly and dejectedly. Lucas watches them covertly, smiles malignantly, jingles his silver, passes close to them, and gazing into the Rueda, cries out:

“Fifty, fifty to twenty on the white!”

The two brothers exchange glances.

“I told you,” muttered the elder, “that you shouldn’t have put up all the money. If you had listened to me we should now have something to bet on the red.”

The younger timidly approached Lucas and touched him on the arm.

“Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed the latter, turning around with feigned surprise. “Does your brother accept my proposition or do you want to bet?”

“How can we bet when we’ve lost everything?”

“Then you accept?”

“He doesn’t want to! If you would lend us something, now that you say you know us–”

Lucas scratched his head, pulled at his camisa, and replied, “Yes, I know you. You are Tarsilo and Bruno, both young and strong. I know that your brave father died as a result of the hundred lashes a day those soldiers gave him. I know that you don’t think of revenging him.”

“Don’t meddle in our affairs!” broke in Tarsilo, the elder. “That might lead to trouble. If it were not that we have a sister, we should have been hanged long ago.”

“Hanged? They only hang a coward, one who has no money or influence. And at all events the mountains are near.”

“A hundred to twenty on the white!” cried a passer-by.

“Lend us four pesos, three, two,” begged the younger.

“We’ll soon pay them back double. The fight is going to commence.”

Lucas again scratched his head. “Tush! This money isn’t mine. Don Crisostomo has given it to me for those who are willing to serve him. But I see that you’re not like your father–he was really brave–let him who is not so not seek amusement!” So saying, he drew away from them a little.

“Let’s take him up, what’s the difference?” said Bruno. “It’s the same to be shot as to be hanged. We poor folks are good for nothing else.”

“You’re right–but think of our sister!”

Meanwhile, the ring has been cleared and the combat is about to begin. The voices die away as the two starters, with the expert who fastens the gaffs, are left alone in the center. At a signal from the referee, the expert unsheathes the gaffs and the fine blades glitter threateningly.

Sadly and silently the two brothers draw nearer to the ring until their foreheads are pressed against the railing. A man approaches them and calls into their ears, “Pare,[128] a hundred to ten on the white!”

Tarsilo stares at him in a foolish way and responds to Bruno’s nudge with a grunt.

The starters hold the cocks with skilful delicacy, taking care not to wound themselves. A solemn silence reigns; the spectators seem to be changed into hideous wax figures. They present one cock to the other, holding his head down so that the other may peck at it and thus irritate him. Then the other is given a like opportunity, for in every duel there must be fair play, whether it is a question of Parisian cocks or Filipino cocks. Afterwards, they hold them up in sight of each other, close together, so that each of the enraged little creatures may see who it is that has pulled out a feather, and with whom he must fight. Their neck-feathers bristle up as they gaze at each other fixedly with flashes of anger darting from their little round eyes. Now the moment has come; the attendants place them on the ground a short distance apart and leave them a clear field.

Slowly they advance, their footfalls are, audible on the hard ground. No one in the crowd speaks, no one breathes. Raising and lowering their heads as if to gauge one another with a look, the two cocks utter sounds of defiance and contempt. Each sees the bright blade throwing out its cold, bluish reflections. The danger animates them and they rush directly toward each other, but a pace apart they check themselves with fixed gaze and bristling plumage. At that moment their little heads are filled with a rush of blood, their anger flashes forth, and they hurl themselves together with instinctive valor. They strike beak to beak, breast to breast, gaff to gaff, wing to wing, but the blows are skilfully parried, only a few feathers fall. Again they size each other up: suddenly the white rises on his wings, brandishing the deadly knife, but the red has bent his legs and lowered his head, so the white smites only the empty air.. Then on touching the ground the white, fearing a blow from behind, turns quickly to face his adversary. The red attacks him furiously, but he defends himself calmly–not undeservedly is he the favorite of the spectators, all of whom tremulously and anxiously follow the fortunes of the fight, only here and there an involuntary cry being heard.

The ground becomes strewn with red and white feathers dyed in blood, but the contest is not for the first blood; the Filipino, carrying out the laws dictated by his government, wishes it to be to the death or until one or the other turns tail and runs. Blood covers the ground, the blows are more numerous, but victory still hangs in the balance. At last, with a supreme effort, the white throws himself forward for a final stroke, fastens his gaff in the wing of the red and catches it between the bones. But the white himself has been wounded in the breast and both are weak and feeble from loss of blood. Breathless, their strength spent, caught one against the other, they remain motionless until the white, with blood pouring from his beak, falls, kicking his death-throes. The red remains at his side with his wing caught, then slowly doubles up his legs and gently closes his eyes.

Then the referee, in accordance with the rule prescribed by the government, declares the red the winner. A savage yell greets the decision, a yell that is heard over the whole town, even and prolonged. He who hears this from afar then knows that the winner is the one against which the odds were placed, or the joy would not be so lasting. The same happens with the nations: when a small one gains a victory over a large one, it is sung and recounted from age to age.

“You see now!” said Bruno dejectedly to his brother,

“If you had listened to me we should now have a hundred pesos. You’re the cause of our being penniless.”

Tarsilo did not answer, but gazed about him as if looking for some one.

“There he is, talking to Pedro,” added Bruno. “He’s giving him money, lots of money!”

True it was that Lucas was counting silver coins into the hand of Sisa’s husband. The two then exchanged some words in secret and separated, apparently satisfied.

“Pedro must have agreed. That’s what it is to be decided,” sighed Bruno.

Tarsilo remained gloomy and thoughtful, wiping away with the cuff of his camisa the perspiration that ran down his forehead.

“Brother,” said Bruno, “I’m going to accept, if you don’t decide. The law[129] continues, the lásak must win and we ought not to lose any chance. I want to bet on the next fight. What’s the difference? We’ll revenge our father.”

“Wait!” said Tarsilo, as he gazed at him fixedly, eye to eye, while both turned pale. “I’ll go with you, you’re right. We’ll revenge our father.” Still, he hesitated, and again wiped away the perspiration.

“What’s stopping you?” asked Bruno impatiently.

“Do you know what fight comes next? Is it worth while?”

“If you think that way, no! Haven’t you heard? The bulik of Capitan Basilio’s against Capitan Tiago’s lásak. According to the law the lásak must win.”

“Ah, the lásak! I’d bet on it, too. But let’s be sure first.”

Bruno made a sign of impatience, but followed his brother, who examined the cock, studied it, meditated and reflected, asked some questions. The poor fellow was in doubt. Bruno gazed at him with nervous anger.

“But don’t you see that wide scale he has by the side of his spur? Don’t you see those feet? What more do you want? Look at those legs, spread out his wings! And this split scale above this wide one, and this double one?”

Tarsilo did not hear him, but went on examining the cock. The clinking of gold and silver came to his ears. “Now let’s look at the bulik,” he said in a thick voice.

Bruno stamped on the ground and gnashed his teeth, but obeyed. They approached another group where a cock was being prepared for the ring. A gaff was selected, red silk thread for tying it on was waxed and rubbed thoroughly. Tarsilo took in the creature with a gloomily impressive gaze, as if he were not looking at the bird so much as at something in the future. He rubbed his hand across his forehead and said to his brother in a stifled voice, “Are you ready?”

“I? Long ago! Without looking at them!”

“But, our poor sister–”

“Abá! Haven’t they told you that Don Crisostomo is the leader? Didn’t you see him walking with the Captain-General? What risk do we run?”

“And if we get killed?”

“What’s the difference? Our father was flogged to death!”

“You’re right!”

The brothers now sought for Lucas in the different groups. As soon as they saw him Tarsilo stopped. “No! Let’s get out of here! We’re going to ruin ourselves!” he exclaimed.

“Go on if you want to! I’m going to accept!”


Unfortunately, a man approached them, saying, “Are you betting? I’m for the bulik!” The brothers did not answer.

“I’ll give odds!”

“How much?” asked Bruno.

The man began to count out his pesos. Bruno watched him breathlessly.

“I have two hundred. Fifty to forty!”

“No,” said Bruno resolutely. “Put–”

“All right! Fifty to thirty!”

“Double it if you want to.”

“All right. The bulik belongs to my protector and I’ve just won. A hundred to sixty!”

“Taken! Wait till I get the money.”

“But I’ll hold the stakes,” said the other, not confiding much in Bruno’s looks.

“It’s all the same to me,” answered the latter, trusting to his fists. Then turning to his brother he added, “Even if you do keep out, I’m going in.”

Tarsilo reflected: he loved his brother and liked the sport, and, unable to desert him, he murmured, “Let it go.”

They made their way to Lucas, who, on seeing them approach, smiled.

“Sir!” called Tarsilo.

“What’s up?”

“How much will you give us?” asked the two brothers together.

“I’ve already told you. If you will undertake to get others for the purpose of making a surprise-attack on the barracks, I’ll give each of you thirty pesos and ten pesos for each companion you bring. If all goes well, each one will receive a hundred pesos and you double that amount. Don Crisostomo is rich.”

“Accepted!” exclaimed Bruno. “Let’s have the money.”

“I knew you were brave, as your father was! Come, so that those fellows who killed him may not overhear us,” said Lucas, indicating the civil-guards.

Taking them into a corner, he explained to them while he was counting out the money, “Tomorrow Don Crisostomo will get back with the arms. Day after tomorrow, about eight o’clock at night, go to the cemetery and I’ll let you know the final arrangements. You have time to look for companions.”

After they had left him the two brothers seemed to have changed parts –Tarsilo was calm, while Bruno was uneasy.






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