Chicken and Rooster

February 2023

The air was thick with the smell of chicken blood, the putrid scent of iron coming from the wooden kitchen shack where Yunis’s mother Yadira was preparing to deplume a fat bird. The boy’s stomach churned as he imagined the chicken dangling upside down, dead after surrendering to the downward rush of its blood, a slimy line of vibrant red dripping from its beak and forming a pool on the shack’s dirt floor.

After a morning sky that seemed to promise rain, the sun was now shining evenly through the fabrics that hung on the clothesline. Yunis placed a sack on the ground, and lifting from his toes, he pinched the plastic pins and tossed the fabrics into the woven sack. Yunis moved across the clothesline with the swiftness of a rooster. Piece by piece, each item of clothing fell into the basket. At the end of the clothesline, hanging off two blue plastic pins, a yellow skirt swayed like a primrose.

Yadira had bought Yunis the skirt during a trip to Macorís a few months prior for his ninth birthday, after the child had begged. As they rode home on the back of a pickup truck, she emphatically warned him that he could wear the skirt only inside. Yet that afternoon, as Yunis looked at the terrain in front of him, he thought he might just get away with a slice of freedom. His mother’s plot was fenced off by barbed wire and uneven slabs of wood, and beyond a small front field, a single dirt road lay empty. So, right there, right in front of his mother’s house, Yunis opened the elastic waist and stepped into the skirt, pulling his basketball shorts from underneath.

The plantain trees seemed to swoon and dissolve into the ground, and the terrain seemed to vanish before him. Yunis felt himself entering a daydream, the same daydream that gripped him in these moments of unencumbered freedom. The feeling that encapsulated Yunis was so elating that his whole body seemed to lift over Yadira’s plot of land.

In the daydream, which by now played for him like a script, Yunis was even younger, a detail that made him feel secure somehow. He walked into the schoolhouse with a yellow skirt on, his hair parted from the side, and his young fighting rooster, Baby Blue, tucked in his left arm.

The girls at school would encircle him and tell him he looked beautiful with his hair parted like that. The older boys would steal a glance at his fighting rooster and congratulate him on winning the latest rooster fight. Yunis would kiss the healing wound on the rooster’s neck and flash a smile, and the boys would like that, too. They would palm his back and keep their hands there.

But just as Yunis settled into the daydream, just as he had allowed his eyes to fully close, the sound of motorbikes roaring through the dirt road snapped the child back to reality. When Yunis opened his eyes, he saw two older boys paused over their motorbikes, wooden crates of empty glass bottles strapped onto the backs of their seats. Malevolent grins stretched across their faces like sinking coffins, their engines roaring under them. One of the boys lifted two fingers into his mouth and let out a loud whistle. But in an instant, the boys were gone, a tail of red dirt roaring behind them, the whistle reverberating across the open field.

Yunis turned swiftly toward the main shack, preparing to sprint into his house. But as he was about to launch, he saw Yadira standing outside the kitchen shack, holding a bag of bloodied chicken feathers. The young mother’s eyes were glossed with worry, her bottom lip quivering as she yelled out, “Yunis! Go put on pants right now! Go inside now, Yunis! Now!”


There was something about Yunis that made the old ladies of Loma Azul tilt their heads. When the kerosene flames went out at night and Yadira tucked her son into bed, she stared up at her mosquito net, thinking about the danger that her child could be in if he turned out to be who he was clearly becoming.

In the dark of the night, Yadira contemplated whether she was doing something wrong by loving him as hard as she did, by coddling him into softness. But then she remembered that Yunis wasn’t soft. Yunis had never been feeble or cowardly, like some of the boys his age. He was aggressive and frolicsome, a playful little boy. A normal little boy. But every now and then, Yadira would see her son, who was just nine years old, engage with young men with an openness that felt dangerous, and she would wonder, was her child aware of the danger of being exactly who he was?

The boy’s father had deserted her before Yunis was even born, hopping on a bus to Santo Domingo and apparently settling there, last she heard. So when Yunis turned seven and began to ask to go to rooster fights, the young mother lifted her crossed thumb up to her lips and praised God.

The men of Loma Azul hosted weekly rooster fights on a ranch about a mile down the road, and Yadira felt that the rooster fights would teach Yunis not just how to be a boy but how to be a man. He would need to be a man to survive the Tenares terrain. When Yadira would see the boy return with a grin of satisfaction, dirt stuffed under his nails, she felt like he was capable of embodying the brutality of the rooster, something that could save him from what he was becoming.

When Yunis first began to slip into moments of softness, into a delicacy that is unbecoming for a boy, Yadira would check him, correcting him before his tendencies became habits. But when Yadira’s sisters and aunts would come to their house in Loma Azul, the child would feed off the women’s energy and lose himself, twirling across the open field with one hand on his stomach, his hips swaying like palm leaves. “He dances bachata better than you ever did, Yadira!” her great-aunt would tease.

Yadira wanted to get her leather belt and beat the freedom out of him. But she also knew that the tenderness in him that made women tilt their heads was the same tenderness that made her love Yunis as hard as she did.

When Yadira bought him the skirt in Macorís, she believed that it would help Yunis quiet the desire he had to be soft and delicate. It would help him encapsulate that desire in a single moment that could be tucked away in a bedroom, behind closed doors, behind the pernicious gaze of the Tenares terrain.

It didn’t take long for her to realize that the skirt would feed not only Yunis’s desire but also other people’s rumors about him. The day she bought Yunis the skirt, after the child begged and begged, she thought the desire could be tucked away. It could be put to rest. The cashier, who had the nose and eyes of a bull, had been watching a box television mounted up on the wall. Yunis was glued to the screen, a baseball game streaming from Santo Domingo. When the cashier picked up the yellow skirt, he looked at the mother and then at Yunis.

“Good for you,” he said to Yadira. “You have a boy and a girl at home. La parejita. All I’ve gotten is girls, one after the other. Pero yo le sigo dando until we get a boy.”

Yadira laughed unevenly. “The skirt is for my niece.”

“Oh?” He laughed. “That will be three-hundred and fifty pesos,” the man said, grinning and turning again to look at the television.

Yadira remembered how the cashier’s gaze had landed on Yunis as they exited from the store. She remembered how the man had grinned, his upper lip hanging unevenly under his nostrils.

Back in her bedroom, Yadira felt cold wind slip through the metal bars of the open window. It had begun to rain outside. Yadira pulled her blanket in a little tighter, afraid of finding out what she did not know.


Behind Yadira’s back, Yunis had been training their roosters to fight, tending to the roosters’ wounds as soon as they got any. He kept from his mother everything that he had learned he could not desire, but the rules for how boys were supposed to act were confusing. He could desire to be praised, but not for being beautiful. He could watch roosters kill each other, but he could not train them. Yunis wanted to be like the rooster, beautiful and dangerous, and it turned out that boys were not allowed to be either. To be a boy felt like balancing on a tightrope only to be asked to lunge at the end of it.

When Yunis began to go to the rooster fights, he finally felt the danger he sought. A danger that felt comforting. He would walk down the dirt road to the farm where the rooster fights took place, careful to avoid the deep gutters on the sides of the road as he fingered the switchblade his mother had given him to slaughter the house chickens.

The cockfights were held on a ranch in Loma Azul, drawing dozens of men and a smaller number of women. Some women went to the cockfights to compete. Others to prevent their men from betting away their ranch payments. And the young women went because their men expected them to, hanging on to them like a pendant on a chain.

Before the match began, the roosters would clam up their sharpened claws, concentrating their black eyes on their opponent’s wattle and preparing to lunge. The birds would engage in a careful dance around the pit, their necks bobbing forward. When the referee would shoot a pistol into the air and the trainers released the birds, the roosters would aim their sharp steel gaffs at their opponent’s neck, and then—¡khua’ka’ta!

Yunis would jump excitedly as he watched the first bird fall on its side—its translucent lids momentarily closing, its top wing fluttering. The crowd would clamor, the loosing men begrudgingly reaching for their wad of bills, when—¡fua!—the fallen rooster would snap back up. When no one was expecting it, and while the winning rooster was carefully planning its next move, the fallen rooster would shoot up and peck his opponent right in the eye, and ¡khua’ka’ta!

Blind him for good.


The first Saturday of May saw a humidity so thick that Yunis had sweated out his jersey by the early afternoon. He ran toward the outside faucet, filled a plastic gallon with water, and poured the cold water over his head. Within an hour, he was dry and overheated again.

He walked over to the coops and stood under the tin rooftop held up by two tall branches, crouching down to look at the roosters up close. Red Rabbit was the oldest. He was a haggard old cock who wanted only to get Yunis off his back, so he pecked at anything that Yunis put in front of him. Baby Blue was the name of Yunis’s favorite rooster, the youngest of the bunch; Baby Blue had blue feathers on the tip of its wings, so when he rose up, he looked like a blue flame roaring through the humid Tenares air.

That hot Saturday, bored and having nothing to do, Yunis picked up Baby Blue and threw him on Red Rabbit, tempting them to fight. The roosters refused to fight, clawing their spurs into the ground, but Yunis kept yanking them out the dirt and lunging them at each other again. Soon enough, the roosters had become so frazzled that they began to lunge at each other without Yunis’s help.

“¡Dale, dale, ahi mi’mo!” Yunis clamored. Baby Blue had already managed to draw blood from Red Rabbit when Yadira came rushing toward the coop.

“What are you doing, muchachito! Pick them up, make them stop now!” Yadira hurled her hand into the coop, picked up Baby Blue, and pushed the center of Yunis’s chest with two fingers. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I just wanted to see if they were good fighters or not,” Yunis said, picking up Red Rabbit and brushing down his feathers to calm him.

“You don’t have to see if they are good fighters or not. These roosters aren’t for fighting. They’re house roosters.” Yadira looked down at Baby Blue, who was frantically running around the coop, looking for his opponent. Her heavy brows knitted into each other as she wiped the sweat beads off her forehead. Appearing to be faint, Yadira leaned her back against one of the wooden slabs on the coop.

“Uuuuf, it’s so hot today,” she said, sliding down the slab and plumping down on the shaded patch of dirt. “Why don’t you sit next to me, son?”

Yunis hesitatingly crouched on the ground next to Yadira, placing Red Rabbit on his other side to conceal him from Baby Blue. Yadira locked her worried gaze over her son and said, “Yunis, you confuse me. Sometimes you act like such a boy and other times . . . other times I just don’t know.

“Mom . . .” Yunis said, digging his index finger into the dirt, his eyes hovering over the soil. “I don’t know why I have to be like the other boys.”

Yadira winced in contempt. “Mira muchachito. Let me tell you something. Look at these roosters and hens. Look at them.” Yunis rose and stood rigidly against the coop, refusing to look. He knew what his mother was about to say. “The roosters can’t become hens,” Yadira said. “And the hens can’t become roosters.”

Yunis’s lips tightened momentarily. And then, straightening his shoulders, he said expressly, “Pó, yo sí quiero ser gallo, porque los gallos matan.” Then, I do want to be a rooster, because roosters can kill.

Yadira’s eyes widened as she tilted her head toward her child, hovering her gaze over his before saying, “You know roosters don’t have to kill to live, Yunis?”

Yunis didn’t know that, but he felt how much his mother wanted it to be true.


It was not just a daydream. Yadira had allowed Yunis to take Red Rabbit to school when he was a small child. That morning, sitting behind her child over his thin mattress, Yadira had parted Yunis’s hair, adding several bobby pins to keep the style intact.

Yunis was five then, and Yadira thought that her son looked graceful and elegant in an ironed blue school shirt and his curly hair smoothed down in the front like that. Yunis beamed as he stood in front of their house, dew catching light on the apples of his cheeks and the oil in his hair glistening.

It was the last day of kindergarten and the teachers had asked them to bring something from home that represented them. Yadira almost didn’t believe her son when he said he wanted to bring a rooster to school. But after he cried about it, wailing through the kitchen shack and refusing to eat his plantains, she decided that she would let him take the rooster to school this one time. On most days, Yunis rode to school with other children on the back of a pickup truck. But this time, Yadira decided to go with him so she could take the rooster back home once Yunis had shown him off.

Before walking near the unpaved road to hitch a bola, Yadira handed Red Rabbit to Yunis, saying, “Be careful with what you show. A rooster can take out a man.” And holding on to his hand, she waited with her arm extended, the palm facing the road, until a man on a motorbike stopped in front of them to give them a ride.

Yadira remembered Yunis’s curls flying in the wind, his eyes like teardrops, Red Rabbit hiding in the fold of his arm as Yunis cradled him.

She remembered how beautiful Yunis looked when they stopped at the school, like he had just discovered the key to unlock a door he had always been standing in front of. She remembered him smiling up at her, his baby teeth like ancient stones, buried and unmoving.

The child galloped across the rocky open field toward the school, holding Red Rabbit in his arm, his navy shorts hovering just above his knees. Yadira trailed him like a shadow, waving to two teachers who had been her own. The school had one classroom, serving five grades, and kids of various ages were running around the cement structure. Yunis beamed when he crossed the doorframe of the classroom, scanning the room as though he were waiting for a theater to unfold, for a standing ovation to flood the room.

Some little girls, younger than him, skipped to Yunis, giggling and stroking his hair. Yadira could see that they were giggling at him, but Yunis could not tell. He stood there, smiling impishly when one of the girls told him he looked “elegant,” his face about to break. When Yadira looked at his small hands, she saw that Yunis was clutching Red Rabbit tightly, his fingertips shaking.

Yadira wanted to pull him out, to take him back home and wash the gel out of his hair; to throw Red Rabbit in the coop and keep him there. But she carried on with being the fleshy armor her son didn’t knew he needed. That she didn’t know he needed.

Yadira saw a group of boys wrestling in the courtyard, their interlocked bodies making circles over the open grass. She remembered Yunis’s gaze resting on them, an unrequited affection forming a delicate web between the child’s heavy eyelids and the group of boys. The boys didn’t even come up to Yunis, and Yadira knew he wanted them to. Yunis stared expectantly out into the courtyard, and after a few moments, the child tugged at Yadira’s shirt and asked to go back home.

She had always wondered whether he even remembered that day, but she settled on the idea that he did not. “I should have brought Baby Blue,” Yunis had lamented on the motorbike back to Loma Azul, leaning into the curve of Yadira’s back.


The biggest rooster fights happened on the last Friday of every month on the ranch a mile down the road. Yunis wanted badly to go, but after Yadira found him shoving the roosters on each other, she refused to let him to go the cockfights.

It had already been a few weeks, and Yunis was growing bored of digging holes with twigs and pushing dirt around. He missed the clitter clatter of the journey down the unpaved road. The open rebellion. The men unleashed like horses.

So when a truck drove by with a loudspeaker announcing the cockfight, Yunis ran around looking for his mother. He found her by a faucet near the kitchen shack, pouring water into a plastic bowl filled with grains for the coop.

Yadira squished the grains inside her palms, melting them into the milky water. “What is it, Yunis?” She took a long exhale. “Tu siempre quiere algo nuevo. Tell me. What do you want now?”

Yunis hesitated, and then the wrong words slipped out. “I want to wear the skirt to the rooster fight,” he mumbled.

Yadira clicked her tongue and cocked her head back in disbelief. “What are you saying, Yunis? ¿Que tu te ’ta inventando?” Yunis did not know what to say next because he had not planned to say those words in the first place. But there he was, lunging from the tightrope of boyhood.

“The skirt, Mom, the yellow . . .”

“No, Yunis! ¡Claro que no!”

“But . . . why?” Yunis groaned.

“Because it’s dangerous.”

Yunis’s gaze shot down to the ground, his eyes focused on an army of red ants marching out of an anthill. And when Yunis flashed his eyes back up at his mother, his pupils were as dark as a rooster’s and as sharp as a switchblade.

“I know how to be even more dangerous . . .” Yunis murmured.

It was a warning, but even he didn’t know what he meant by it. Yadira stood there alarmed, while Yunis’s elbows hovered behind him like the wings of a rooster ready to attack.

“You don’t know what danger is,” Yadira said, her lips sour, but her eyes soft and searching.


Droves of motorbikes sped across the unpaved road, roaring through the terrain like mechanical horses. Yunis moved with the crowd toward the ranch, shuffling behind large men and older boys, their machetes slipped into their belts. Roosters sat in cages, laid on their backs to accommodate the steel gaffs locked on to their claws.

Yunis moved stealthily through the crowd, trying not to be seen, the yellow skirt brushing over his legs. “¡Maricón!” a tiguere jeered from his motorbike, before speeding off with a grin spread across his face. Then the terrain became like a cacophony of voices. “¿Ese no es el hijo de Yadira?” “¿Y que e’ lo que tiene pue’to?” “Como que se ’ta burlando de la mama.” Tst. Miren eso.” Yunis shuffled into another crowd, making himself invisible again behind the shadows of grown men.

The ranch was crowded when Yunis arrived. It was as though all of Loma Azul had gathered for the spectacle of seeing an innocent cock bleed out. Men clamored about the ranch, lifting their golden rings like spears, machetes and guns strapped onto their belts. Yunis walked toward the pit, not stopping when strange men stole glances at him. This was not like the daydream, in which the girls called him beautiful and the boys patted his back and kept their hands there. This was danger. Real fleshed reality as exactly who he was. It scared him. But what else would prevent him from becoming like the men except his own open rebellion?

A loud bell rang throughout the ranch, and the crowd began to form a large circle over the dirt pit, opening up an arena for the roosters. The contestants were announced, and two men stepped up to the pit with their roosters, the birds fattened with hormones, the muscles of their wings bulging out from their bellies.

Yunis squeezed between two tall men, hiding among flesh. As the crowd waited for the sound of guns, Yunis felt like he too was preparing to lunge forward, like he too was prepared to be unleashed. So when the gunshot rang and the two cocks went at each other, Yunis exploded with the wave of the crowd. The crowd whirled across the cockpit like a hurricane roaring through open terrain, becoming thicker near the pit.

Suddenly Yunis saw a shadow moving through the crowd. He maneuvered his way to the edge of the hurricane, bodies crashing against him. Focusing his gaze on the shadow, Yunis squinted his eyes. The approaching figure was someone he recognized, someone he knew, a woman. She was moving like a shadow through the crowd, Baby Blue tucked under her arm. Clutching the bird, Yadira pushed through the crowd, sweating and panting by the time she reached Yunis.

“Yunis!” Yadira cried out. She smiled through the blanket of sweat draped over her face. She was still panting as she bent down in front of him, pulling Baby Blue out from under her arm. “You forgot something,” she said. “You forgot me and Baby Blue.” Yadira lifted the rooster into Yunis’s arms, stealing a glance at the yellow skirt, her eyes settling there like a love note in a sealed envelope. When Yunis looked at his mother and her eyes met his, he saw that she was finally seeing him, that her face was no longer searching.

A collective gasp roared through the crowd like thunder. When Yunis and Yadira turned to look, they saw fuming men storming the pit, colored bills moving between their sweaty fingers, their chests bulging out like fighting cocks. Over the dirt pit on a ranch in Loma Azul, a fallen rooster lay motionless on its side, a bright red pool oozing from its neck.


Margarita Lila Rosa was born in Tenares, Dominican Republic. She received her PhD in comparative literature from Princeton University and is currently a lecturer and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.


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