Nick took the main road out of the village towards the little town. When an uncle had collected him and Somying from the coach stop in a truck, it hadn’t seemed as far as it was on foot. Each time he thought he was nearing the town, another landmark he’d forgotten loomed into view: the paddy field with a hut up on stilts, the rice silo, the lake full of lotus flowers, the temple with the golden Buddha statue.
The road was hard and his flip-flops weren’t suited to the long walk. His shirt stuck to his shoulder blades. People on mopeds and farm trucks shouted as they passed him. He must have met them all at the wedding, but there’d been so many people it was impossible to remember. Either side of him, the rice fields and ponds were filled to the brim. Steam rose off the damp road. When they first arrived, the fields were arid and dusty but the rainy season had started the day after the ceremony and quickly filled them. He’d tried to hide his shock in the first downpour when the walls of Somying’s parents’ house were suddenly flooded with sheltering geckos and giant, winged insects.
He spotted the ticket kiosk that had been built onto the front of a house. A woman behind the counter was sewing up flowers into a lei. She was some relation of Somying’s. Everyone in the town seemed to be her cousin or uncle.
The woman looked up and squinted at Nick.
‘Sà wàt dii krub,’ he said and wâaied.
She nodded and went back to her sewing. A fan made the flower petals twitch on her lap.
‘Um, Pôm ao… I want to buy… ráan? A, um…ticket?’
The woman’s tongue impatiently flicked onto her lip. She shaded her eyes with her hand and asked him something. Husband. Somying.
She slowly, patronisingly asked if he spoke Thai
‘Nid noi.’ A little.
She nodded and asked Nick where he was going and where Somying was. There was a phone on the table behind her.
‘Pôm bpai Phitsanulok.’ I go Phitsanulok.
Her reply was in the mocking formal tone people use on toddlers who say something pretentiously adult. Oh? And why are you going to Phitsanulok?
‘Ráan,’ Nick said. Shop.
The woman nodded like this was a disappointment and filled out a ticket. Nick paid her the hundred and fifty baht and went to wait in the benches in the shade.
When they’d arrived and waited for Somying’s uncle to pick them up, Nick had taken a photo of the miniature pagoda-like structure that sheltered the benches to show to everyone at home. He imagined his parents comparing it to the stained Perspex, urine-stinking bus stop in their village. Nick tapped his pockets. He’d left the camera beside the bed. It wasn’t worth walking all the way back for now.
In a grove of mango trees beside the bench there was cheering and laughter. A group of men were standing around a fence. Between their laughter, there was the cluttered squawking of chickens. There was a cheer. Some of the group punched the air while others turned and kicked stones, counting the money they had left. One of them spotted Nick.
All the other men turned to look at him. He tried to pretend he hadn’t heard but then saw Chard, Somying’s uncle already walking towards him. The uncle’s massive frame twisted one shoulder at a time through the trees whose branches moved in the breeze to self-consciously cover their feeble trunks.
He asked Nick what he was doing.
Nick pretended not to understand and said yes, the weather was very hot.
Chard laughed and grabbed Nick by the shoulder. He said something and pulled him towards the group of men and the plywood ring that they all stood around.
The ground in the centre of the ring was only a couple of metres wide and was littered with feathers. There was what seemed like an argument between three of the men, then two of them were chosen. They each picked up a domed cage with a cockerel in it and brought it to the ring. The birds bopped their heads and pecked at the bars of the cages.
Chard beat his fist against the ring like a drumroll.
‘Somying sabai dee mai?’ Is Somying well?
‘Yes. Thank you.’
As the cages were placed on the dirt the chickens got more excited, their black eyes spun in every direction but without seeming to focus on anything. The men unhooked the doors of the cages and the birds were tossed into the centre of the ring. They jumped and flapped at one another then circled with their necks pushing against each other. It seemed for a moment that it was some sort of dance, a mating ritual, but then Nick noticed the little metal spike were tied to their ankles where the spur talons should be. There were clots of blood drying in the dirt around the ring. The plumper of the cocks, an erect brown bird with a barrel chest, snapped its beak at the smaller, white bird’s shoulder. It came away with a beak full of feathers.
‘Ja bpai niii?’ Chard asked Nick. Where were you going?
‘I don’t understand.’
Chard arched his eyebrows and slapped a giant hand on Nick’s back.
The chickens’ circle became tighter and faster. The brown bird continued to pluck at the shoulders and back of the other. Bare patches of skin were visible where the wings met the body. Nick couldn’t understand why the white bird didn’t just run away. Surely even a chicken could fly well enough to get over the small fence around the ring. Instead, the thinner cockerel just flapped its wings and squawked in pain then pressed its neck back against the other bird’s. A necklace of blood now beaded its plumage. The man who owned it bit at his thumb. A band of stray dogs congregated among the mango trees and began to whine expectantly.
Nick wondered at the birds’ evolutionary, primal urge to put their own life at risk to destroy another male. To risk ending their lives for the chance of having sex. Or was it unnatural; something they’d had trained and bred into them. They’d been pressured from birth that this is what they must do. This was the time to fight, the time to eat, the time to mate. And the birds didn’t realise it until it was too late, until they were in the fight that would kill them.
Chard asked Nick again where he was going. He asked something about the coach.
‘Ráan,’ Nick said.
Chard asked which shop.
Nick didn’t answer.
There was a scream from the white bird as the brown one pulled out a chunk of feathers and took a patch of skin with it. As the white chicken stumbled backwards, the brown one flapped itself off the ground and slashed its spur across the other’s thigh. The white bird collapsed to the ground. It flapped its wings and pulled the muscles in its chest to try and crawl to the edge of the ring. The other bird kept darting between the centre of the ring and the white cock. It plucked more feathers and dropped them back in the middle of the ring like a contestant collecting tokens on some gameshow. The injured bird pulled itself to its feet and ran at the side of the ring. It hit head-first into the wood and bounced back onto the ground. The man who owned it threw some money at his opponent and turned away. The bird on the ground gazed at the top of the ring and vainly flapped a wing.
A shadow fell across the clearing. Nick could hear the rumbling of the coach behind them and taste its burning diesel hanging on the thick air. Chard looked at Nick then at the coach and at the chicken. He leant forward over the plywood and picked the bird up. He put one hand around its neck and the other round its head and twisted. The head drooped down, but the wings still twitched. Chard dropped the bird and kicked it into the scrub. The strays yapped and growled at one another as they pulled apart the still flinching corpse.
Nick screwed up his ticket and pushed it deep into the bottom of his pocket.
Mark Plummer lives in Cornwall, England. He has short stories have been published in UK literary magazines including Prole andRiptide Journal as well as magazines and anthologies in the USA, Canada,Australia and UAE. He has written and performed in plays for UK arts festivalsand is currently writing his first novel. twitter: @MarkRossPlummer