A parched wind blew dust and sand across the courtyard my house shared with several others. Hens belonging to one of our neighbors clucked and lethargically scratched the dirt in search of insects, as their ancestors had done for centuries in this ancient traditional Mideast city. It was a city known for the huge fort constructed by the Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar in 1596.
There was one rooster, and he zealously guarded the eleven hens that made up his kingdom, suspicious always of foreigners. His proud stride conveyed his confidence in his majestic stature. His feathers were glossy, his chest and tail jet black, and his neck and back a burnished chestnut, shading into the red on the crown of his head. His steps were measured as if he knew all eyes were upon him, but that proud pace would abruptly disappear if the slightest disturbance occurred, and he would descend, wings flapping angrily, determined to restore his world to its customary calm. Strangers were not welcome. This was a strict, religious neighborhood. He, alone, was free to roam among his subjects at will, talking to whomever he pleased. The rules did not apply to him.
I sat alone in a shaded spot, eyes half-closed, unaware of the approach of another rooster. This rooster belonged to one of the wealthier neighborhood families several houses further down and was the responsibility of the son Jay, who was a year older than me. I didn’t like him as he used his family’s wealth to lord it over his friends, but they tolerated it, echoing the respect that adults had for those in good positions. Jay’s father had a business of dry fruits and owned a farm, where he kept goats and sheep. To Jay and his friends, I was all but invisible.
Jay’s rooster guarded its hens in a nearby courtyard. However, today, one of his hens was apparently missing. Alarmed, he had begun frantically hunting for her and when he couldn’t find her, he ventured further afield, fearing perhaps that this King Rooster had appropriated her. I watched as his head darted this way and that, no doubt wanting to avoid the kind of confrontation his appearance would bring should King Rooster spot him trespassing. A hen approached him, clucking in concern. He told her of his missing hen and she clucked again, sympathetically. No, there were no new hens here.
The quiet of the day was broken when King Rooster spotted them. Without waiting for an explanation, he descended on the other rooster, crying out his fury, as his hen scuttled away in fright.
Kaka kaka ka, kaka kaka ka
The other rooster, intent only on finding his missing hen, was caught off-guard. Moments later, injured, he limped away. The King Rooster lifted his chest high and approached his foolish hen, lecturing her soundly on the dangers of approaching a stranger. He opened one wing and encircled her protectively, guiding her back to the others.
I settled back into my shaded spot, where I sat alone and listened as quiet descended once more. Eyes half-closed, I wondered why King Rooster was so quick to attack another rooster. I understood survival of the fittest, but King Rooster had not been in danger; he had not been provoked.
I opened my eyes as wheels crunched across loose stones. A delivery truck pulled up outside Jay’s house and two men got out. They opened the back of the truck, hoisted a brand new, stainless steel washing machine from inside, and set it on the ground. I watched as they walked toward one of the houses, the shiny machine looking distinctly out of place in its dusty surroundings, like a tourist who had disembarked at the wrong station.
Alert to the disruption, King Rooster cautiously approached it, curious as to what manner of beast it was. As he drew in front of it, he froze momentarily and then leaped back.
Kaka kaka ka, kaka kaka ka!
There within the shiny steel stood an equally majestic rooster, displaying none of the hesitancy of the previous interloper.
King Rooster raised his neck, turned his head, and stared hard with his right eye before pivoting his head to stare menacingly with the other. This strange rooster looked and moved altogether too handsomely and confidently for a stranger. Such arrogance! It was not to be tolerated. He was not welcome. He did not belong here. He, too, needed to be banished back to whatever land he had come from.
Seemingly undaunted by King Rooster’s threatening gaze, the other rooster mimicked his movements with disturbing precision, his demeanor equally demanding and haughty.
King Rooster was stunned by the foreigner’s behavior. Was he being mocked? He tilted his head until his neck was horizontal, raising his neck feathers like an open umbrella. Undeterred, his enemy did precisely the same.
It was an outrage! King Rooster rushed forward and attacked his foe but was met not with feathers and flesh but a bruising surface, one hard and unyielding.
He kicked and kicked and kicked. His nemesis did the same. While King Rooster suffered no injuries, the other rooster appeared to be equally unhurt. It was incomprehensible. He fought as hard as he could, pecking and scratching and kicking, and each time the other rooster mimicked his moves and met his gaze, unflinchingly. He attacked again, slamming into the machine, and fell to the ground, momentarily dazed. He stared at the other rooster, who had also fallen to the ground, confused. He rose up, as did the other rooster. He attacked again. The same thing happened.
I looked around. No one else was witnessing this rooster, fighting its reflection. I thought of the words I’d heard countless times, that one must fight with one’s inner self to do right, but I’d never known such a fight to risk damaging a washing machine in the process.
The machine’s shiny sheen was now coated in dust, its flawless finish hopelessly marred and pocked with tiny dents.
Jay’s father appeared with the two men and walked toward the machine where the squawking rooster was flapping its wings madly. The men laughed, but when Jay’s father saw the dents in his new washer, he became as agitated as the rooster. He kicked out with his foot, like a soccer player, but the rooster leaped out of reach. He tried again, kicking repeatedly. King Rooster hastily darted away to safety, all thoughts of the other rooster momentarily forgotten. I followed his lead, slipping back home, lest Jay’s father somehow blame me for what had happened.
It did not take long for news to spread about the damage done to the washing machine and who—or, more accurately, what—was allegedly responsible. King Rooster’s owner refused to discuss the matter, jeering at the preposterous idea that his rooster could have damaged a metal appliance as claimed and saying it was all the fault of Jay’s father, who foolishly left an expensive appliance outside, unattended, for anyone to damage.
When Jay arrived home and saw the injured state of his beloved rooster, he was livid. When he heard the story of the washing machine, he was convinced that King Rooster was equally to blame for his rooster’s wounds and needed to be punished. But he would need to do it secretly, as his father would take his anger out on Jay and blame him for making matters worse. The price Jay would pay would hurt far more than what his rooster had endured.
Vainly, he tried to snatch the rooster when no one was around. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not catch King Rooster. Frustrated, he demanded his friends come up with a solution.
One suggested trapping King Rooster and leaving him somewhere outside of town, where he might not be able to find his way back, but Jay discarded that idea, as the likelihood of someone seeing him leaving town with the rooster was too great. Another advised getting a long stick and luring him away to beat him in private; however, they all agreed the risk of discovery was again too great.
One boy had remained silent throughout the exchange. Perpetually disheveled, he tagged along at the outskirts of Jay’s group and tended to keep his head down. When he spoke, everyone turned, startled.
“Why don’t you get another rooster to do it for you?”
“That’s a stupid idea,” Jay said, as the other boys laughed. “How am I supposed to convince another rooster to beat up this one?”
“If you could get your hands on a ferocious rooster and bring it here, King Rooster will try to attack it when it sets foot on his land, near his hens. Just make sure the rooster’s a tough one. Then no one will know it was you. All the blame will fall on the rooster.”
The boys jeered but Jay looked thoughtful.
“Where would I find such a rooster? Do you know one?”
“You’d want one that nobody will miss. I’d ask the butcher. He knows all the chicken farmers. Tell him you want a fighting rooster, maybe one a farmer would like to get rid of.”
To the astonishment and dismay of the other boys, Jay put his arm around the kid.
“You’re all right,” he said.
The next day, Jay visited the chicken shop and asked the butcher if he knew he could get his hands on a tough rooster for a day or two.
The butcher looked at him suspiciously.
“What are you up to, boy?”
“Nothing,” Jay protested. “I just want a live rooster who’s tough enough to protect our hens.”
The butcher stared at him. “Just for a day or two?”
“Well, um,” Jay stammered, “I have a rooster but he got hurt and I need a rooster just until he gets better.”
“Sounds to me like you should get rid of the other one.”
Jay looked horrified. “No, he’s mine!”
The butcher studied Jay for a long moment. “Fine. Come back tomorrow.”
The next afternoon, Jay concealed the rooster in a blanket and dropped it into King Rooster’s homeland and hid behind a wall where his friends were hiding, giggling and making bets as to how quickly the new rooster would cow the king.
The new rooster looked left and right, savoring the taste of unaccustomed freedom. He moved about, slowly familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. He spotted some hens nearby and began scratching at the ground with his beak and making sounds to attract them.
King Rooster appeared.
Kaka kaka ka, kaka kaka ka
The boys cheered and Jay tried to hush them. He didn’t want to get caught now. Excitement gripped them. They were ready to see blood.
Jay and his friends watched in disbelief as their rooster ran left and right, trying desperately to escape King Rooster, who was attacking with gusto.
Jay got very upset and ran to help his rooster. King Rooster continued to attack. Jay viciously kicked King Rooster and tried to grab him, but he flew away. Jay was livid and his friends disappointed. He swore to his friends that his revenge would not end.
The next week, he brought another rooster and smuggled him into King Rooster’s courtyard. This also ended badly for Jay.
Then Jay heard about a rooster-fighting tournament happening in a village not far away. Without a word to anyone, he took a bus to the village and began observing the competition. These roosters were ferocious. Stunned, he watched as they fearlessly attacked each other, fighting to the death.
“What type of roosters are these?” he asked someone.
“They’re a special breed of chicken, called Aseel. They’re natural fighters.”
Natural fighters! That’s just what Jay was looking for.
“How much?” he demanded. His face fell when he heard the price. For one rooster? Surely he could buy a cow for the price one of these roosters went for.
He went home, deeply disappointed. He had finally found the rooster, but it would take every penny he had to buy it. His father would be furious if he found out, and he was sure to find out soon enough, and he’d never get another cent from him. Still, it stung to know that he had lost face with his friends. He desperately wanted to triumph in this situation and win back the respect he’d lost and teach King Rooster, and his owner a lesson.
He was at his father’s farmhouse when he got an idea. He went back to the village and arranged to secretly trade two of his father’s sheep for one Aseel rooster.
“It had better be a killer,” he warned the seller. The seller shrugged.
“You want him or not?”
Jay took a deep breath and gazed at the rooster. Yes, he wanted it. He arranged to meet the seller at a location near where the sheep were grazing, but where he wouldn’t be seen.
He smuggled the Aseel rooster into King Rooster’s courtyard and concealed himself, watching anxiously. The Aseel rooster was much taller than King Rooster. He was slim and strong, with a long neck.
King Rooster squawked in disbelief and rage when he spotted the stranger.
Kaka kaka ka, kaka kaka ka
They started fighting.
King Rooster suddenly found himself at an unaccustomed disadvantage. This rooster did not try to escape as the others had but instead fought with a bewildering ferocity, using an entirely different technique. Exploiting his height, he attacked from above. After just a few minutes, King Rooster was badly injured. His head dripped blood from where he had been relentlessly pecked. Jay darted into the yard, grabbed his rooster, and ran off.
The next day, the owner of King Rooster was shouting in the street that someone had injured his rooster and blinded him in one eye. He demanded to know who the perpetrator was. No one claimed to know anything about it.
Meanwhile, Jay’s father had been alerted to the missing sheep and was equally livid. It wasn’t long before someone admitted seeing Jay leading two sheep out of his father’s field and away from the farm.
When confronted, Jay reluctantly admitted what he had done and offered to sell the rooster to purchase two more sheep. His father agreed, confiscated the rooster, and proceeded to soundly beat Jay with a stick.
For weeks, Jay avoided everyone, including his best friends.
King Rooster did the same. He was back in the courtyard, the worst of his wounds mended, but he was not the same anymore. His vision was gone on one side and he moved slowly and hesitantly. Sensing his weakness, kids would tease him by throwing stones at him from his blind side. He would jump, forced to turn his whole body in order to see. After a while, he went a little crazy and started attacking anyone who passed by. People started complaining loudly and frequently to the owner.
It was another hot afternoon and I sat in my favorite shaded spot, out of the perpetual parched breeze that relentlessly blew the dust and sand across our courtyard. Hens clucked and scratched the dirt as they always did. But today something was different. There was no sign of King Rooster. Instead, another rooster had taken the throne.
I thought about King Rooster. A part of me felt sorry for him. He had done what he thought he was supposed to in order to protect his kingdom. He hadn’t gone looking for trouble, but his impatience, his intolerance, his determination to protect what he was as his from those he saw as threatening it somehow, had cost him his life. The once majestic rooster had ended up headless and naked in a pot.
I thought about my country, where millions of such neighborhoods existed and in which millions of such roosters could be found. I wondered whether they would ever learn to coexist peacefully, trusting strangers without feeling the need to attack without first waiting for a valid reason. I doubted it.
After all, we haven’t.
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