What I Learned from a Cockfighter
Feel like a fighting rooster—feel better than I ever felt.
–Bob Dylan, “Cry Awhile”
Hundreds of crowing cocks broadcast their territory in a neverending loop of five notes. A concert of noise that will either drive you mad or set you smiling at nature’s harmonies. And the birds, feathers glistening like bourbon in a glass, black and red and orange, the colors of scandal and sin. They waltz as far as their tethers will allow, their beady bird eyes watching me sideways. I’m out of my element, a city kid in the country, and I step lightly.
From the interior Sandhills just east of Columbia to the Atlantic coast, the South Carolina Lowcountry is built on the remnants of ancient Miocene dunes that have left the soil sandy. Towards the coast, the land flattens along the Lowcountry Highway. As you drive through small towns like Yemassee, with its remnants of Civil War–era fortifications and evidence of recent commercial growth, the air dampens and richens. From there it’s on to the narrow two-lane US 17 and its canopy of live oaks dripping with hoary tufts of Spanish moss. Roadside melon and tomato stands, maybe some boiled peanuts too, lead you to tidal marshes and finally the Atlantic, where the salty air hits you full on.
I haven’t seen my old friend MD for ten years but he feels familiar as family. He strokes his mustache, adjusts his stained and faded baseball cap (Corona), spreads his tree-trunk arms before him, and says, “My babies.” MD owns a cock farm, raising some of his roosters to fight on the Southeastern cockfighting circuit. There are over a hundred roosters enclosed in a large fenced yard next to his modest mobile home. He owns five hundred acres near the Edisto River, inherited when his father died, and leases much of the land to tenants, farmers, and the forest service. This is MD’s kind of place—isolated, wild, and financially productive. It’s how he makes his living. But he also makes money off of his birds—while he breeds some of them, others are gamecocks.
A sacred animal to many, the rooster has long been a symbol of power and pride, vigilance and bravery, masculinity and mortality. The double entendre we giggle at exists in other languages as well, the cock a measure of the man. But that’s no joke. When you see a rooster crowing and clucking, waltzing the yard, its neck extended and its head high, you see its majesty, its royal comb and bulldog-like wattle, the arrogance and authority we’ve imposed on this fancy-feathered chicken. A beautiful animal. But the rooster is no cuddly pet, no puppy or kitten. It is an animal that will instinctively beat trespassing roosters to death. It is life and death.
According to the Humane Society, “in a cockfight, two roosters fight each other to the death while people place bets. Cockfighters let the birds suffer untreated injuries or throw the birds away like trash afterwards. Besides being cruel, cockfighting often goes hand in hand with gambling, drug dealing, illegal gun sales and murder.” Cockfighting is among the most ancient of sport. Many suppose it began with the rise of ancient Persian and Indian societies; even then it was a spectator sport linked with gambling. Humans domesticated the fowl and pitted cock against cock even before we took to eating the meat and eggs of the hen. The death match came first. The Greeks adopted the sport; the Romans too. The Chinese and the sons of Israel. The Buddhists and the Hindus, Christians and Muslims. The Africans, Europeans, and Southeast Asians. Later the West Indians and the Americans, north, central, and south.
I knew that MD had been into cockfighting for years, but I don’t see him much and didn’t know how serious he’d become as a “cocker.” I’d never seen him fight a gamecock, an insider and illegal event. Yet it was not hard to imagine my old friend slinging a bloodied and lifeless rooster into a fire pit behind his mobile home. In the past, MD and I had disagreed over beers about the ethics of what is commonly called a blood sport. As a good liberal I felt certain the issue was black and white, and that I had the moral leg up. I’m not a pet person—no dogs or cats or bunnies in my house, not even pretty birds or a quiet fish or a turtle in a tank. I don’t like zoos and aquariums, and I don’t hunt. I don’t mind eating animals, as long as I don’t have to see how they live and die. But I don’t abide those who abuse animals; I believe we should generally leave them be. Putting two birds in a closed ring and relying on their natural instincts in order that one animal will kill the other ain’t right. It makes compelling sport and money for some, but it ain’t right.
I knew he’d dabbled in the sport, like a hobby, but he was now into raising champion cocks on his farm. At fifty-five my old friend had gone pro. But drug dealing? Selling assault rifles out of the trunk of his Toyota? No. A small crop of marijuana, maybe, and for personal use only, and a shotgun or deer rifle traded here and there over beers on someone’s back porch. I recall snapshots of roosters in his yard, mysterious weekends away, hints of another life, but never chose to really see. Nor did he offer particulars, always keeping the most intimate details of his life close. To me MD has always been invulnerable and wise—hulking, with hands like hammers, but a gentle soul who understands the difference between right and wrong. And because we came from such disparate worlds—me, a suburban kid who went to college and labors occasionally on weekends, planting an annual or edging a lawn; him, a Lowcountry farm boy who never went to college and has labored most of his life. I trust his understanding of the natural world. Who let me hold my first and only alligator? Who taught me not to fear what feared me more? Took me out in a boat tossed by Atlantic waves the night after drinking too much Beam and taught me how to throw a net for shrimp? Demonstrated how to dig a ditch and not kill yourself doing it (because ditch digging will kill you)? Showed me that nobody should be too proud to pick up trash or clean a toilet? Proved that you could get what you want and still be nice to people? That you didn’t have to like them, but you could be nice to them. I’m still a nature wuss, but intellectually I understand the need to both respect and embrace the natural world, despite its seemingly perpetual desire to kill me, or at least fuck me up a little.
Dozens of roosters strut as far as their tethers allow around blue barrels turned upside down, each with a tiny doorway cut into them, shade huts for the roosters like a cookie-cutter suburban development lined up in neat rows. A bowl of water sits beside each barrel. The roosters crow and crow, endlessly. It’s a myth that they only crow at dawn. They crow all goddamn day. But I like the sound, the racket soothing me, and I turn on my digital recorder to capture the craziness. It’s a sound I find exotic under the circumstances. There is romance in the noise, the blast of nature. I am excited by and curious about the scene because I just don’t see shit like this in the city. I see curious things but not this.
MD is proud of his birds and eager to show me around. When I express an interest, he talks even more, revealing a conviction beyond financial reward that I have trouble understanding. Or maybe I understand the sort of philosophical conviction better than I do the one in which he’s purely in it for the money, which seems opportunistic, benefiting from the destruction of another, even if that other is a bird. A natural-order sort of rationale. For the moment, I try to see what he sees.
MD gives me a quick tour of the farm, roosters scurrying as we walk by, their feathers glistening in the noon sun. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of a petting zoo (city kid): animals everywhere, including hens and chicks in abundance, a flock of sheep, several piglets, and a pack of dirty dogs in all sizes and (mixed) breeds pacing the outside of the fence, both shepherd and predator, of which I’ll see evidence later.
The South Carolina Lowcountry spans from the lower midlands all the way to the coastal plains. This part of the world is a special place for me. Mostly because I have invented a deeper past and relationship with the Lowcountry than I can really claim. I try to visit once a year and I know the various beaches and tourist attractions. I can speak imaginatively and romantically of the coastline. Much of my mother’s family is from nearby and has been for over three hundred years. I spent part of my summers swimming in the black waters of the Edisto, like my mother did when she was a child, and her mother and father before her, and probably further back, something I should know but don’t because I’ve never bothered to read what is written about my family. Something I’d like to correct. I can’t even understand why I haven’t but I haven’t. Laziness, probably—even that reasoning lazy. Instead I imagine I have history here, though I don’t really know what it is. I have to make up a past that is no more romantic and compelling than the real thing. I just don’t know the real thing. My link to this sandy soil relies not on actual roots but an invented mythology—or a pastiche of the selective history I do know, or at least think I know, no longer sure which is mythology and which is history.
I spent one charmed summer on a barrier island near Beaufort, South Carolina, as a young man on my own. I worked in the sun by day and drank beer under the stars by night as the ocean rolled before my girlfriend and me, whoever she was then. I, a recent reader of Thoreau, aimed for simple living and self-sufficiency, that was my plan, driven by both the austerity and the wildness, wanting both, getting mostly wildness, though you could certainly not call my life then complicated. It has never been so simple. But I was reckless, indestructibly stupid—a gift primarily of the young and curious. And I met MD, like a young uncle who had returned from great adventures full of knowledge.
At six foot seven, he towered over even my tall frame. His bushy mustache and ever-present Wayfarers made him look like Magnum, P.I., which in 1987 was very cool. When he spoke, you believed he’d already known the wider world. In fact, he was barely thirty years old, recently a father and divorced, and had hardly left the state his whole life. Married young out of love or obligation, I don’t know, as that part of his life, like many others, was already placed out of reach and rarely discussed.
But I never bothered to learn more about him. I was as self-absorbed as I’ve ever been. So I romanticized him then, and do so now, without ever really understanding him. We’re old friends, something special and probably tied only to that summer on an island working together in the sand and dirt. But I don’t know five verifiable things about him.
I return to the Lowcountry whenever I can to see the ocean, smell the briny air, and walk the sandy soil beneath palmetto trees and Spanish moss in the scenic marshlands. There is romance here, of a time and a place and a person I’ll never be again. Others have described the South Carolina coast better than I can. But I like the idea of being from this region—and have said so, that I am from the “Lowcountry” more than once—even if I’m not really. When I’m there I feel at home, though I’m not. I feel and strut like a local who doesn’t care for tourists, though I’m not one but the other. I feel like I’m adventuring when I’m only a few hours from home. But what I saw this time on my old friend’s farm was the disarray of small, impoverished Southern towns, a stereotype: a truck on cinderblocks, a massive bolted shipping container with Evergreen on the side parked like an eighteen-wheeler and holding a mystery, various rusting and forgotten tools, an abandoned ATV, tires (always tires), hens and chicks scurrying around the weedy yard, and his dogs lying lazily in the shade of a scrub pine. This doesn’t surprise me. MD has always lived like this, like a country boy. And he is one. He doesn’t mind the disorder or the dirt that comes from living close to the land. He doesn’t mind that nature doesn’t give a shit about us, yet he gives a shit about nature. A guarded man who respects his environment but will kick it in the shins when he has to, just because that’s the way of it. We’re very different.
As I step lightly to avoid sheep and dog shit, MD scoops one of the roosters off the ground and holds it before me, a handsome bird whose feathers glisten (there really isn’t a better verb for what these feathers do) in the sun. Because the birds are bred to fight, the comb and wattle (the red bits on top of their head and under their beaks) have been removed, as they can be detrimental in a bout. Again, I’m not an animal guy, so arm’s length is as close as I want to get to a fighting cock. But MD insists I hold my arm out, palm up. With his looming frame—he actually blocks out the sun in the sky as he towers over me—he’s convincing.
But it’s more than that. I don’t want to be chickenshit in front of my old friend. While MD has always forgiven me my wussiness, it’s a matter of pride. He already knows I’m a nature wimp, but he’s never said anything. He just grabbed a rattlesnake by the head or handed me a baby gator. Or peeled a deer from my front fender and said, “There’s fifty pounds of deer meat here, perfessor.” One year his Christmas card showed him on the beach with an alligator the size of Jaws on a leash. Seriously. He’s that kind of badass. He does this all behind dark shades. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen his eyes.
I inch my hand out, not sure I want a rooster there. MD offers the mean-looking bird, who clucks and ruffles its feathers, then settles in my palm. And there it sits, beady eyes blinking away, head bouncing in anticipation of whatever the hell roosters anticipate. Bird in hand, I reach up to stroke it, and realize MD has vanished.
This pattern I recognize, his ability to come and go without notice, to step off the grid until he pops up a few years later with a few generalities as if he’d never been gone. He discards cell phones and changes telephone numbers. He doesn’t bother with the Internet. No e-mail either. But once a year I’ll receive a Christmas card, the recent ones invoking Christ’s birth. I know nothing about one of my oldest friends beyond what I can see. About fifteen years back a woman collared him, dragging him across the country to California to grow fruit and nut trees and live off her real-estate investments. He tried to make a go with the trees, sending photographs of his orchards, standing proudly before an almond and apricot grove. When he finally left California and her, I didn’t know for three years. He turned up at his cousin’s house back in South Carolina.
What I see: A man who can just as easily show me how to operate a backhoe as how to steal gasoline from the company tank, open a beer bottle with a lighter, and appreciate good moonshine. A man who takes in stray alligators and kittens, nursing them the same. A man who drinks pints of Jim Beam “for the pain,” and grows weed in the jungles of his backyard just because he can. A man who used to charm tourists daily with local stories that, when necessary, were dramatically enhanced to satisfy the tourist’s need for a compelling tale to return home with and to minimize whatever work or favor the tourist was asking of him. A man who knows where to get the best sunset shot (over the marsh) and writes articles for The Gamecock, a hundred-year-old journal for the amateur and professional cocker. A man who is well versed in both the Bible and Hunter S. Thompson. A man who has moonlighted as a construction foreman, painter, landscaper, critter catcher, house sitter, earth mover, real-estate agent, and shrimp-boat crew. A man who distrusts the government and makes the majority of his income in cash. A man who smiles more often than he frowns. A man who will always be your friend first, while waiting for you to give him a reason not to be, which you probably will eventually. A man who hides behind dark glasses but gives you the feeling that he is opening his life to you, though he isn’t, not at all.
I’ve never met or heard MD speak about anyone from his family, except for an adult daughter from an early marriage. I didn’t really know where he was from until this visit, my first to the family farm. He’s never spoken of a childhood, though he must have had one. I know almost nothing about his past other than snippets I’ve picked up over the years, some of which I don’t trust. Or maybe I’ve filled in the gaps and don’t trust what I’ve substituted. Some of those snippets involve a history in the boxing ring, which may just tell me more about MD’s interest in cockfighting than anything else. I found a few articles online from the early eighties that told me my friend had indeed enjoyed a short and not so celebrated career as a heavyweight boxer. I found a photograph from a local newspaper that showed him sparring before he and another heavyweight featured in a match that night. Another article told me that MD lost his fight.
MD’s career as a boxer (according to BoxRec):
won 2 (KO 2) + lost 3 (KO 3) + drawn 0 = 5 career
Rounds boxed 8 KO% 40
If MD were a gamecock, he’d be dead.
In the photograph MD looks much the same, shock of curly hair, bushy mustache (I imagine he was born with the thing), tall and lean with railroad-tie arms that seem able to beat back anything that comes his way. I try to imagine him in the ring, but despite the powerful frame and cool demeanor I can’t see him pounding an opponent. I can recall him removing the head of a rattlesnake with a swift blade and gutting a deer. But beating another man with his fists, even if those fists are gloved—
Still, it’s also hard to conceive of my large friend losing any sort of fight. I’ve heard tale of later fights in the nineties, what would have been well past his prime. Rumors of an amateur caged fight and bearwrestling. But why would he bother, a former professional boxer? For another stab at some tarnished glory, or was it simply for the amplified prize money? MD never turned down an opportunity to make an extra buck or two. And why have I never heard these stories before? Why does my friend guard his past so closely? I want to ask but some questions just don’t come out easily. Or maybe I prefer the mythology to what is likely a less romantic version of the truth, like that career boxing record.
When MD returns he carries another bird. And orange rubber caps that look like thimbles.
“You put two of these birds in front of one another,” he said, “and they’ll fight until the other one is dead. That’s all they know. Nothing unnatural about it.”
Roosters fight not because they’re mean, or bloodthirsty killers, but because they are born to protect and proliferate the species. They will sacrifice themselves to a predator to protect their brood. They will fight anything they perceive as a threat, from a human to a dog to another rooster.
He fits the orange rubber caps, called boxing gloves, over the roosters’ natural spurs.
“So they don’t kill each other.”
In other places, MD tells me, where cockfighting is a significant and more accepted part of the culture, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Thailand, fighters augment their birds with “blades” they fasten to the rooster’s feet to ensure a bloodier fight. In North America, this practice of arming the birds is generally unpopular, he says, but he shows me some of the knives used in other countries. He shows me one the shape of a curved ice pick, its end sharpened to cut. I’m not sure why he has them.
“The birds will do the job without these blades. No need to give them weapons,” he says, running his thumb over the razor-sharp blade until blood bubbles on his skin. “This one’s Mexican.”
Later I learn that so is his assistant, a middle-aged man who serves as MD’s pitter, the one who handles the birds at a fight. All MD has to do is watch over the heads of the other gamblers like a prizefighter’s promoter.
“I’m going to let them spar with the gloves on to show you how they fight. The gloves will keep them from goring each other. Of course, if we let them, they’ll stomp on each other until one’s dead. Doesn’t matter if their spurs are covered or not. They won’t stop. Roosters will trample, peck, and scratch each other to death. Whatever it takes.” He watches the birds as they flap and burst at one another, striking like snakes.
“Why?” I ask, nervous that what he says might come true. But he is only being practical. Protecting his investment from unnecessary harm. This is commerce. Not art. Not a philosophical stance. And I’m pretty sure I don’t want to watch a bird die.
MD holds the roosters, one in each hand. Already they’ve begun to peck at each other. But as soon as he drops them, they’re at it before their feet hit the dirt. The great feathered coronas around their necks, called hackle, flare for a fight. The birds use their feet like some medieval iron claw. They stab with their beaks. They jump and fly, each aiming to top the other. Dust rises around them. They jab like a needle on a sewing machine. They aim their claws for the throat, the chest, and other meaty parts. When one finds flesh and draws blood, MD pulls them apart again and holds them on either side of his body. Just as quickly as the birds became enraged, they calm. Like most fights, it’s over in seconds, but not before somebody gets bloodied. If you’ve ever been in a physical fight, no matter how short and spastic, which most are, you understand the rush of adrenaline that leaves you shaking afterwards. Almost embarrassed at how you’ve lost control and hurt somebody, been hurt, or both—but emboldened too. The only fights I’ve ever fought were chaos, fists windmilling, mouth open dumbly, eyes closed. No craft at all, just survival and surprise that such energy waits within.
“They’re vicious, but not so bright. Like babies who forget you’re there if they can’t see you.” MD grins beneath his bushy mustache.
My instance of witness is heightened as over a hundred birds crow their passion and swagger. Like inmates in a prison yard, they can smell a fight.
Confession: it was riveting watching these two beautiful animals go at each other, so intent on harming one another. I was both terrified and in awe. Not the first to be drawn by the primal. A fowl fight club. I saw no blood, no eyes dangling from sockets, no exposed white flesh. No dead birds. Just a few loose and ruffled feathers, some twitchy roosters, and a small dust cloud in the air at our knees. MD didn’t let the fight last long—these were his birds and he had no intention of letting them get hurt. I’d enjoyed a surge of adrenaline and discovered something beautiful in the brief bout. Why was I drawn to the fighting cocks? Perhaps I envied them their purity, in the way they attacked. The birds reacted from instinct. There were no evil intentions, just an innate need to protect what is theirs. One will win and one will lose. There were no agonizing rituals of self-examination or ethics. They don’t seek each other out, they don’t attack out of malice, but defend as they were born to do. I enjoyed the simplicity of the fight for survival that governed their lives.
I needed a reason to find beauty, which I did, in the fight. For no such simplicity exists in my life. I’d seen the savagery of instinct in the birds themselves, but I’d also witnessed the savagery of intellect, man’s need to manipulate the world, to cage and control the chaos. Or, as too often occurs, witnessed another news cycle that details a mass shooting in a mall, church, or elementary school. One man’s desperate attempt to create order through what he can more easily destroy. While my life is generally governed by knowledge, experience, general intelligence, rules, ethics, and limited chance, these birds relied almost entirely on instinct and chance to guide them. But I’m the one who wears a night guard when I sleep/don’t sleep to keep from grinding my teeth to nubs, leaving them rocking in my gums like trees in loose soil. I’m the one who needs three drinks each night, and whatever else it takes, to smooth out the ruffled feathers. I’m the one who tosses and turns in bed as I go over and over the lists in my head: of things to do and problems to solve. I’m the one who fears for my family’s safety every time they leave the house without me, as if by somehow acknowledging and fretting over it, I can protect them from harm. I’m the one who paces my house as I gnaw on a fingernail, already gnawed to the quick, when things go awry, frantic to fix the problem immediately, to make it go away so that I can return to some sense of order, some sense that I’m in control. A lie I find comforting, if only temporarily.
“There will be blood because it’s in their blood,” MD says when he catches me brooding.
Did he really say that? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure. It sounds both like something he would and would never say.
His reply sounds like a rationalization to me. And I am prepared to walk away, to say I’ve seen enough. Twist open the bottle of Beam’s Choice and work through some nostalgia. I am there to see my friend—the birds aren’t a part of the deal. But now I’m thinking about them and my old friend and am I scrapping out survival and what the fuck am I doing every day? Is MD the bird? Am I? Does somebody have to be the bird? Am I fucking dying?
“We’re no better. We tear each other apart every day. People spend their whole lives figuring out ways to hurt each other,” he says.
MD returns the birds to their tiny plots of dirt and grass and blue barrel, and we leave to grab dinner and drinks.
We drive with the windows down as twilight descends, cold beers between our legs, the salty air at our faces. I want fried seafood, and the best is always found in places that call themselves shacks, so that’s where we head. I feel far removed from the sidewalks of Atlanta, my tidy home, my day job behind a desk and before a classroom, my wife and daughter. I feel like I haven’t lately—like I am adventuring again, like I can leave the day to chance, which I pretty much do since MD rarely tells me what comes next. I have only the clothes I’ve flown in, a cell phone, which I’ve turned off, and I don’t care where I sleep, mostly. I’m not in the jungles of Chile or exploring the narrow alleys of Tangier, but it is far enough from the responsibilities of my daily life to feel foreign.
On paper my life has little romantic flair at all. I’m a writer but a quiet one. A public persona is not a requirement of my art, though it seems to be more and more necessary, something to which I futilely pander and alternately resist. I prefer off rather than on the grid, my privacy, my (former) lack of presence on the Internet, my hermit life. I spend a great deal of time at home and have no complaints. By day I teach and take care of my daughter, by night hang with my wife and daughter, read (aloud and not), and write, sometimes watch an episode of Louie on Netflix. I have lived and recalled more adventurous times of travel and life abroad, but lately, in a global culture with easy access to the rest of the world, travel and life abroad are rarely adventurous or without a clear and knowledgeable path. And like most fathers, the unexpected no longer has the same romantic appeal. It now means hospitals and illnesses, car accidents and bad weather, ruptured plumbing and infestations, odd pains and scary lumps, the late-night-jolt-you-from-sleep bumps and telephone calls: the commonplace but feared.
The unexpected has a way changing your life entirely in seconds. You know this. And everything happens so fast, life and death, life and death just inches from each other. And you know this: that you will one day suffer in some way, large or small, and lose this fight. Once you’ve hit middle age, seeing old friends after some time away can be an unsettling reminder that you too have aged, that you too have changed in ways you aren’t aware of but everyone else can see, especially those who haven’t seen you in a while. You don’t get to see yourself age but through others. Getting old sucks and there is nothing like finding your reflection in your aging friends to remind you of this. But there’s comfort there too. Over dinner we talk more about the birds and the fighting circuit.
“Take me with you to a fight,” I say, feeling brave, feeling like those roosters in the yard. “I’ll help.”
“All right,” MD says.
And there it is. He will show me what goes on at a real cockfight, and I can write about it. I want to do this. I need to get close to this primitive act. “In an objective way,” I qualify.
“Just see what you see,” he says.
I want to see what a real fight, without the gloves, looks like. I want to smell the birds and the people—those I imagine in cowboy boots, flannel shirts and mustaches, lots of mustaches. I want to hear the shouts of the cockteaser and the squawking, clucking of the cocks. I want to smell blood in the air and the earthy stink of dogs and hay, the whiff of a new cigarette, and taste the tinny bitterness of cold beer from a can. I want to spread hands dirty with mud and grass across my blue jeans, wipe a bandanna across my sweaty face in the heat and humidity of Lowcountry air. I want to feel the pulse of pure instinct, the surge of adrenaline that comes with a fight, the rubbery legs and shaking hands. Too much of my life is removed from the physical. I need to get my hands dirty.
From across the table, MD looks older. His knees are shot—from boxing or a lifetime of labor, I’m not sure. But it has left him hobbled and slightly bent. I don’t remember him like this. His hair, still a curly shock, has grown out to his shoulders, a wiry, indistinct gray, like a weathered Parrothead with blown-out flip-flops and a fading tattoo. He’s bent more at the shoulders. His mustache is still there, bushy but drooping and seeded with ash and that weird yellow color that usually comes with older smokers, though MD has never been one. There is Mark Twain in that mustache. Crow’s feet cut rivers from his eyes, what I can see of them. He wears mirrored sunglasses until he switches to reading glasses for the menu. His skin is tanned and coarsened by days in the sun. His massive hands are scarred, scabbed, and calloused. I imagine him shucking oysters, the oyster knife slipping and slicing into his palm. Hands that have toiled and fought. He has lived close to the earth and under the sun.
There is a photograph of MD, another friend, and me during my one summer on the beach—two college boys framed by MD’s massive arms. It’s late somewhere and we are in full beach-bum attire—locals, not tourists. We are tanned, unshaven, bleached, and shaggy-haired. We are young, lean and muscled in cut-off t-shirts and blue jean shorts. Our faces are red with drink. MD holds up the bottle of Jim Beam that will eventually do us all in, leaving my college friend in the road out front, luckily for him rarely used. The self-timed photograph captures a moment of our friendship, but it also captures young men, at least two of whom know little about the world. The third, MD, stares back with the same calm, the same veiled eyes. MD seemed old to me then. But he was hardly thirty. Ten years later we would recreate that same photograph: the same stance, the same expressions, the same Jim Beam. Only ten years into our future and little had changed. It is only when I look at the most recent reenactment that I appreciate the time that has passed. We are mature men now: no longer lean but loose and thick with age. We all wear our age differently, one paunchier, another more wrinkled, one grayer. We all have our hair, most of it anyway—that’s something, I suppose. I don’t know if we are more ourselves now or less. Are we truer to our nature now than we were then? Isn’t that what we all hope for in middle age, that we are the improved (not new) version of ourselves? That we should have found our truest selves by now? MD, a cockfighting, salt-of-the-earth, Lowcountry boy. Or, MD, a professional boxer, if a losing one, and a huckster. Me, a writer and a teacher who gets to read, write, and talk about books all day. Or, me, a lazier, fatter, safer version of the young man in the photograph.
My world is insular: my daughter’s elementary school, work (another school), nearby friends, and a few regular restaurants and bars. Lots of weekend trips and local events to look forward to, but with a nine-year-old in tow, absent the ability to pursue anything with too much of the unknown. When you’re with a child you don’t want things to unravel. With more at stake in my life now, and out of fear of what might and can certainly turn wrong, I insist on constant governance. Only when I’m alone, i.e., without my family, can I let life unfold as it will, no matter how much I try to contain it. I recall adventures of my twenties and thirties and marvel at the person I was then. Reckless, curiosity unbound, with the will to pursue my imagination wherever it led. Now I rely on rules, guidelines, and an understanding of my environment—the known versus the unknown—to ensure nothing foul happens to my family or me, that every undertaking goes well. There is just as much superstition involved as there is actual control. If I don’t anticipate what might happen, it will. I don’t gamble. Sure, some of my caution is that of a father and a husband, unease for a family on whom I keep a watchful eye. I don’t surrender and I don’t fear death, in whatever form it may take. My apprehension grows from my desire to live longer, to see my daughter grow up, to be her father for as long as possible. I’m not scared to die, I just don’t want to. I know the consequences are that I probably don’t allow enough mystery and spontaneity in my daughter’s life. That seems as tragic as other kinds of loss. But to believe that we are ever truly at the helm in this life is naïve and foolish, chasing the tail of some windswept fantasy of control. Nature bats us around like a balloon at a kid’s birthday party. How do we reconcile that? And what kind of shadow have I become?
Visiting MD I feel of the world again, not pressed to the bed for fear of what moves outside. I feel like MD’s roosters, my feathers ruffled, back to fighting strength, on the offensive, ready to take the helm and not lie down just yet, driven by a purely physical need to be in the world.
When we come back from dinner, MD pulls himself out of his rental car, no easy task for a man so large in a car so small. He rented the car for my visit. I have no idea how he gets around otherwise. He hobble-hustles over to the fence gate.
“Uh oh,” he says, pulling open the gate.
“Dogs got in the yard.” He points to something I can’t see. “Not good.”
And sure enough, a lamb lies on its side, blood smeared across the white fleece of its throat.
“Baby, just three weeks old.”
MD walks off without another word, searching the large yard. His gait is deliberate but sluggish. I stare at the animal. I don’t flinch. Blood stains its body but there are no other signs of violence. The lamb looks to be napping. The image holds me. This is no road kill, no photograph. I feel as if I stand upon an alien landscape. Just like that I am transported from the routine of my life to this extraordinary moment. The fleece where there is no blood looks soft and bleached. I want this moment, this life and now death. As if the lamb’s death brings me close enough that I don’t have to witness anything closer. I want to touch the lamb’s wool but when I bend my knees and reach for the softness of its fleece flies burst into buzzing around my hand. MD comes back carrying two more lambs by their hind legs. He tosses them beside the one that still holds my gaze.
“Dogs got ‘em. Nothing but instinct, doing what dogs do. Probably shook ‘em by the neck like a stuffed toy. They were just playing,” MD says as he stands over the three dead lambs. “Don’t know any better.”
These deaths are routine, something that goes on every day. This is the reality. That any moment nature can take over and change your life. I’m not crazy, I’m not a paranoid depressive. This is real. The first time I witnessed the crossing of this line was when my father died of lung cancer in the span of six very short months, not because he smoked, which he did, but simply because his cells mutated and turned bad. Animals kill other animals, both the pattern and chaos of nature, of which we are a part. Too often we separate ourselves from the other animals, the other parts of nature, the universe. How do we deserve such separation? Only in our ability to think it do we distinguish ourselves. Yet chaos still reigns, no more and no less because we fear it, because we know it will one day happen. We can no more control dogs outside a fence than we can the guy who drops his phone as he speeds through a red light, T-boning your wife and daughter as they drive for ice cream on a warm Saturday night. No more than the sad and alienated gunman who turns up in your shopping mall to spray the crowd with exploding bullets from an assault rifle. The flash flood that sweeps your car from the road, trapping you and your family inside as water fills the cabin. The bullet returning to earth after celebratory gunfire that travels from one neighborhood to another and into your yard on New Year’s Eve and lodges in the brain of your four-year-old who only wanted to stay up until midnight and light sparklers before she went to bed. The accidental poisoning of your best friend when he buys tainted ground beef at the grocery store. The blood vessel that bursts in your head as you wrap a towel over your daughter’s shoulders and lift her out of the bath.
So, as nature demands, we fight back, we keep our talons up and our coronas flared, not to die, but to live. I’m sure I think of a way I or someone I love might cross that line every day. Most concern car accidents and cancer, big killers for sure. But there is no shortage of ways to die, more than the imagination can conceive, always some shadow waiting to consume us. Children leave you like this—legless against the fear of losing them. Even fear of your own death is driven by a desire not to leave your child parentless. Being here again near the water with the old friend I still know little about reminds me to live a little closer to the line. Just as MD keeps himself in the ring.
The flock of sheep rests in the shade of a sprawling live oak. They chew at grass, nibble at fleas, and swish their tails at flies. There is no sense that violence has occurred here today. A ewe stares at me without blinking. In the last twenty-four hours, three of her lambs have been killed. Is she aware of this? Is there an intimation of the loss or even of the mortality that surrounds her? Or has she already forgotten, her memory of birth and life and death only as far as she can see and smell, only as real as the living things before her, the dead things by the fence no longer in her care?
We settle into the beers.
“That’s shitty about the lambs,” I say. I want him to help me make more of what I’ve seen, what I’ve photographed and already Instagrammed to embellish what doesn’t need embellishment, to make the death of three lambs count.
“Yeah, weakness in the fence somewhere. My fault,” he says.
“Doesn’t matter—they’ll get in one way or another.”
Is this true? Dogs get in fences one way or another? If so, why have lambs if they are just to be gotten by blood thirsty, playful dogs? Dogs who are supposed to be guarding the fence. And who’s watching my fence, I wonder? Are they the same ones who will also find a way in and rob you of those you love? Our best bet is to bob and weave at whatever is thrown at us, never stop moving, never let your guard down.
And understand that, even with a vigilant defense, the punches will get through. I feel as if this breach in the fence is my fault, as if my fear of the unknown and random led to this. Of course it’s not true but I want MD to know I’m sorry. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s nothing,” he says and pulls himself out of his La-Z-Boy like a giraffe, legs unbuckling and pushing his heft upwards. “Another day.”
I leave the next morning, vowing to come back in the fall when it’s cooler, to follow MD on the cockfighting circuit through a few stops in the Southeast. We shake and nod, neither of us really believing I’ll be back. And, sure enough, as I settle into my airplane seat and prepare for the short flight home, I know that I won’t. I’ve seen enough of the line between life and death for a while. Still, every now and then I need to be reminded that it’s there, to remember what’s worth protecting on this side.
MD is a good man. Evidence here might suggest another kind: callous, violent, and uncultured. But that is not my friend at all. Like the roosters he raises and fights, he is a creature of survival: bob and weave in the ring, duck and cover, kick up dirt for his life. A few months later I try to call him but the last number he gave me has been disconnected. Most of us live as if we don’t know we’re going to die. I will never see that cockfight. Though maybe the idea of the cockfight is enough. My fight is here.
This essay originally appeared in print in River Teeth 15.2.