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Authors: Marc Bojanowski

The Dog Fighter

BOOK: The Dog Fighter
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THE DOG FIGHTER

Marc Bojanowski

Dedication

for deva,

to make good on an old promise

One

I
n Mexico I fought dogs. I fought on a rooftop surrounded by bougainvillea and colorful shards of broken glass. Before the fighting I waited in a small room where bloodstained ragmen came hunchbacked from shadows to wrap my forearm in a heavy rug. Over my hand they placed a glove made to have metal claws. The leather of the glove softened with the blood and sweat of each fight and with each fight the claws were made more dull. When the ragmen finished wrapping the heavy rug they led me from the small room to a ring surrounded by yelling men. On these nights the sky of Canción darkened too slow for the eyes to see. The last of the sun always in the eyes and teeth of the dogs. Reflected into the ring from the broken glass buried in the walls. When the leashes were undone the yelling men stood shaking the metal fence of the ring. I crouched in silence and waited for the dogs to bark and show their necks. And then I tore at their necks with my claws. I let the dogs bite themselves onto the heavy rug so I could better put in their eyes with my thumb. Many times I snapped the bones of the small legs with my hands. I beat them in the heads with my fists. Once when a dog took me to the ground and went for my neck I caught her by the ears and dragged my teeth down between his eyes to the end of its nose.

I was a young man when I fought dogs in Mexico. There were many dog fighters then but none as great in size or as quiet. Then I was unsure of my words. But the fighting always was a language I spoke well. And the old men of Canción the men who have known fighting for as long as there have been dog fighters to admire placed upon me their most respect. These men spoke of my fights often and the stories they told of me then they still tell today. Of this I am sure.

 

A
s a boy in Veracruz my grandfather spoiled me with bedtime stories of men fighting beasts whose teeth were sharp as obsidian shards and whose eyes were lit by fire. The old man sat on a chair by my bed and the words of the old mans stories took the flames of candles and danced over the walls of my room shadows of men who wrestled sharks and wore the teeth of jaguars around their necks. He sat with his ruined hands wrapped in quilted cotton blankets laid between two charcoal braziers. Comfortable in my bed I studied the pinched wrinkles of his mouth until my eyelids closed. Lured by his whispering each night I followed my grandfather into violent dreams of glistening snarls and musky breaths. Dreams that were always the most beautiful and difficult thing to see. And each night in his whisper the desire to hear my own name in these stories of violent men grew strong within me.

Orozco went alone into the jungle with his dog and a one shot rifle and a miners candle lit on the brim of his hat. At noon into a jungle so choked with limbs the candle flame his only light. Orozcos dog went ahead following the scent of the beast. And when he heard his dog cry and ran to it curled with its soft belly torn open over the ground Orozco slit the dogs throat to save his bullet and knew the beast was very near and not afraid of him. But Orozco also was without fear. He knew that he would have to wait until the jaguar pounced from above from one of those wet black limbs and so he pressed on farther by licking his finger and thumb and putting out the flame and chose to rest his back against the trunk of a tree in that dark to wait.

And did the jaguar come then? I begged my grandfather.

You will have to wait until tomorrow. The old man teased. Then I will tell you what became of Orozco.

When I awoke the next morning he had placed in the palm of my hand a jaguar tooth. Dipped in silver and held by a leather strap.

Can you see Orozco waiting? My grandfather asked the following night. Looking to the shadows over the walls of my room whose shape I changed with the squinting of my eyes. My grandfathers whisper a warm hiss in my ear. The silver of the tooth cool against my chest. Can you hear him listening for the jaguars claws sinking into soft wood? Can you see him searching the dark for the light of the jaguars yellow eyes?

Yes.

Good. Now follow him to your dreams.

But my mother did not approve of these stories my grandfather told. And because of this he threatened always to take them from me if I ever shared our secrets with her.

I share my secrets with only you. My grandfather whispered. To everyone else I lie.

To everyone else my grandfather winked and smiled and shuffled from room to room of my fathers great house muttering to himself and scratching his head. When my mother asked for these stories I answered her only with silence. And for this my mother beat me while my father chose to read his books. But I did not care because I understood that her beating me only made my grandfather more proud and then as a boy my grandfathers stories meant more to me than my mothers happiness.

You cannot continue to deceive him. My mother yelled at her father. Our family has suffered enough.

But when my mother yelled at her father like this he only winked and smiled and shuffled from the room muttering to himself and scratching his head. And after she had beaten me always he came to my room and leaned over my bed and asked if I wanted a story. My answer a great smile in that candlelight. And before my grandfather kissed me on the forehead to say good night he reminded me each time.

Your blood is the blood of the men in these stories. This is a secret you and I share alone. Follow these men from the corners of your dreams and you will be them in the dreams of other boys to come.

My mother did not approve of the stories my grandfather told. When she was a young girl her brother fought a snake for money put on the bar between himself and another man.

The money to fight the snake was enough for only one drink. She told me.

But when I asked my grandfather for this story he hit me sharp on the ear.

Your blood is the blood of the men in the stories I give you. Do not listen to your mothers lies. He hissed. She believed that the mind of your doctor father would tame this blood in you. But I will not allow this. My grandfather leaned close to my face. And with the light of the candle flame dancing over the dark bronze of his wide flat nose he asked. Comprendes?

The snake struck your uncle on the face. My mother said. Come with me and I will tell you the story your grandfather does not want you to hear.

On this day my mother took my hand and led me from my fathers great house past the painted balconies and iron shutters along the side streets of our wealthy neighborhood. In the east over the Gulf of Mexico clouds the threatening gray of armor mounted the sky as my mother led me past wood walls built on stone ruins. She took me from my grandfather because it was a small game he and my mother played over me. Telling me their stories.

In Veracruz salt scarred gargoyles perch above foreign sailors who once called to my mothers beauty in words we did not understand but understood the meaning of. She pinched my neck to keep me from fighting men like these and hurried us on toward the zócalo down hard packed dirt alleyways where a borracho stinking of pulque urinated on blue and white glazed azulejos. His palm flat against the tiles to brace himself. My mother led me past the large square teeming with the destitute and starving dirt farmers in from the country without work or food idle in the shade of cedar trees. The days in Veracruz hot and muggy. Tram cars and American made automobiles at the heart of the city honking their horns at mestizo men hauling refuse carts sweet smelling from the rot of sugarcane and goat and pig innards. Past the clanging cowbells of the ice men who also sold milk in large tin cans slung across the backs of skinny mules. She led me past the cemetery filled with only dead Spaniards and past the cigar factory where my grandfather worked for years rolling tobacco leaves. His fingers gnarled and difficult now to move. Past a peeling customshouse and farther past iron and sheet metal depósitos at the harbor and then down to the sandy beach where dark skinned boys dove into green water from concrete rompeolas built by hand by African slaves and mestizo and nativo slaves to protect the trade ships anchored in the harbor from hurricane waves. My mother sat in the sand and her soft pleadings were quickly lost to the sound of the Gulf collapsing tired on the beach.

Your uncles cheeks went swollen over his eyes from the bite of the snake. My mother told me. Her slender fingers dug a small hole in the cool sand. Her eyes unable to look at me but at the clouds threatening a warm rain. A dirty cargo ship staggered across the horizon. Your uncle. She continued. Died surrounded by light in some terrible unknown dark. Those once beautiful sad eyes in my dreams nothing more now than knife slits in a swollen face. Promise me that you will not grow to haunt my dreams like this?

Taking the leather strap she brought the jaguar tooth from under my shirt and into her hand.

Please bury this here and promise me?

And because the jaguar tooth was not the secrets my grandfather and I shared. And because in this moment I was angered by her soft voice I said to her.

I promise.

I was twelve years old when my grandfather died in the night. His gnarled hands gone worse and worse until my mother had to feed him. But often even this he refused. In his last months I sat by his bed listening to the stories I knew already very well but now were told desperate with fever. I was terrified he would ask to see candlelight dance on the silver of the jaguar tooth one last time. But he did not remember. His mind was no longer his own but belonged to the fear of being forgotten.

You will not hear the lies your mother tells when I am gone.

I promise. I said to him.

Do not think that when I die I will not be able to hold you to our promise. His hiss that of a candle flame pinched.

The night my grandfather died from my room I woke hearing my mother run to him through the dark on bare feet after he yelled the name of my uncle from his fever and dreams. I listened to my mother cry as my grandfather cursed her. Cursing also my father who held me by the shoulders to prevent me from running to my grandfather when he yelled my name. My father the doctor who chose not to be with a dying patient but his only son.

When my grandfather was finally quiet my mother stood over him straightening the fingers of his hands and folding them across his chest finally able to touch her father but only now that he was dead. That night I cried listening for the hiss of his voice in the shadows of my room. I fought knowing that he did not approve of my weakness. Waiting for him to hit me sharp in the ear. But when I could not stop my crying I promised him.

If you forgive me I will never speak to her again. I will not speak to both of them again.

And only then did I sleep.

In the morning when I awoke my mother sat in my grandfathers wood chair by my bed with her fingers through my hair.

Those stories die with your grandfather. She pleaded in her soft voice. Can you hear me?

But I turned from her touch to face the shadows over the wall and from then was silent.

Still each night I searched for my grandfathers voice. Not knowing how it was growing strong within me. Other children soon laughed because of my silence and so I imposed upon them my great size. And when I fought and beat them slowly then did I hear his hissing whisper return some. And then one day sometime after his death when I threw a pillowcase full of kittens into the gulf and watching them tumble in the waves until they washed up on the beach drowned did I hear my grandfathers voice return completely. But now as my own. And in this silent voice again was the warmth of the candle shadows across the corners of my room. Of men who fought mountain lions armed with knives. Who charmed snakes with music. Now even more great than before.

But when my mother learned of the drowned kittens she pinched me by the neck and took me to my father sitting in his study. Behind him shelves heavy with books the damp heat of Veracruz ruined the ink of. My mother complained to my father about my behavior in a voice no longer soft but more similar to my grandfathers hiss. She held a length of sugarcane for my father to beat me with. Shaking it at him and yelling. But my father was a quiet man. Sure of the few words he spoke.

Do you believe that the decisions a man makes make him his own God? He asked me. My fathers light brown eyes serious over the top of his eyeglasses. These brave men of your grandfathers stories. Are the beasts they kill weak like kittens? I do not think so. He grinned. In fact I think your grandfather would be very disappointed in you today.

But my fathers questions were not enough for my mother and so she took me onto the stone patio of our house and told me to place my hands against the cool tiles of our fountain and there she beat me. But the pain was never as great as the shame that I felt from my fathers questions. Because of him I was terrified what my grandfather would hiss into my ear that night. I did not have the mind of my father then and my grandfathers stories were always more easy for a boy to understand.

 

I
n Veracruz my father stood taller than every other man. He was quiet but with great shoulders and large hands. A handsome light skinned Spaniard from Toledo where his fathers had made armor for conquistadors like those who first came to Veracruz with Cortés and his sixteen horses. Men the Aztecs believed grew from the spines of those horses. But from the stories his grandfather told him by the fires of those forges my father chose books and then medicine and then to return to Veracruz but carrying a different sword.

You were born in the first city of Nueva España. My father taught me. Each day a new lesson in the history of Mexico while I sat silent in his study. Moctezuma then was the emperor of the Mexican empire. To persuade Cortés to leave Mexico the emperor presented the conquistador with two disks. One of silver and one of gold. If not for these large coins history might have been much different.

BOOK: The Dog Fighter
7.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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