When Astrid was a slender five year old, her life was mostly about circles.
In school, her kindergarten teacher asked the class to sit in circles for sharing time, story time and game time. Astrid’s favourite game was duck, duck, goose. After she got over her fear of being tapped on the head and hearing ‘goose’. It took her a while to settle into the trust that she wouldn’t be told to stay out of the circle once she was out.
It wasn’t until her mid-thirties that she learned the term ‘immersion therapy.’
At home, the circles were different. Mostly they were invisible and the terms that needed to be fulfilled in order to be included were murky and they changed at the drop of a hat. During the best times.
The fact that she was running to keep up was the same, so there was that small comfort.
Not all the circles in her youth at home were invisible, though, and these were the circles that she wished more than anything were invisible.
Her father had been the first person to bring cockfighting into Canada from Mexico. First, he got his friends to buy in with roosters or hens of their own. In his version, it didn’t matter if it was a cock or a hen. Both worked equally well, was his theory before it began, and he set out to prove it.
In the beginning, there was really only three other friends with three birds – one cock and two hens. He threw his hen in the circle just to see what would happen.
He didn’t tell anyone, but his plan was to build up a scene in his city, Toronto, so he could make money throwing fights and – most of all – by flying in rich men who were sick of the same old scene in Mexico.
Astrid’s father wanted to be a captain of industry type, but he’d throw it all away if there was no way to do it without it being completely invisible in his every day life.
So, she grew up in dimly lit circles that came together on dirt floors in secret.
Her father’s two friends were a married couple with two kids – a boy and a girl – who Astrid called her cousins. His third friend was his wife. Astrid had a younger sister who was just getting steady on her feet when these fights started.
He made it sound like so much fun. He compared it to the WWF but with animals. And he made sure to impress upon her and her cousins that the wrestling was not real. The men were play fighting. They wore costumes and capes to fit into a role. It was the characters who fought, not the men themselves. And most importantly, nobody ever got hurt, even when it looked like someone got hurt. It was not real. Just like these cock fights.
And looking back, who could blame the man for telling a tiny lie in order to protect the children? Well, only those who knew that he had also lied to protect himself, and in fact, that was his main motivation. But who could expect a man like that to be a good father? Only a young daughter. Nobody but a daughter.
That was why he insisted on keeping the cockfighting separate from his ‘real’ life.
Astrid and her cousin Lucy were both pretty excited to be part of the first fight. It sounded grown up and, yes, somehow glamorous as well. But most grown up things were glamorous to an almost four year old and a six year old.
As their eyes adjusted to the low light, the men set up and the women smoked cigarettes.
When they were all standing in a circle, Astrid’s dad and her uncle, who was really her godfather, made it feel like the WWF by play fighting smack talk with each other just like the wrestlers did and then winking at the girls.
Astrid’s dad counted backward from ten and then fired a starting pistol. But they stood there with their birds in their hands.
Her godfather called over to them. “Why don’t you guys get in the circle and play fight instead? Just this one time! It will be fun!”
The girls were confused. They had never play fought with each other. Astrid’s dad kind of shrugged and said why not? The men put their birds back in their cages.
Lucy’s dad took her hand and pulled her into the circle. Astrid’s dad did the same.
Inside the circle it was like a completely different world. The girls were nervous. Astrid could barely move. So, the dads sat down toe to toe in the circle and pulled the girls onto their laps.
They whispered into the girls’ ears that they didn’t have to be nervous, that it would be more fun if they were relaxed and enjoying the adventure. They told the girls to pretend to push each other, but Astrid and Lucy looked at each other with fear in their eyes.
So the dads said they were going to try something else. Instead of play fighting, why didn’t they get up and pretend to be models together? Maybe pretend to be the girls who walked the ring during wrestling matches. Could they do that, the dads wanted to know?
The girls laughed and stood up. They felt kind of silly at first, walking around pretending to be models like Tyra Banks and whoever was popular then. Astrid was feeling tense. There was a flip flop feeling in her tummy but she didn’t know why. Lucy grabbed her hand and held on tight. Being the older cousin, Lucy was always trying to protect Astrid.
Then the dads told them to dance. No, don’t be shy. It’s just for fun. Hey, you were the one who didn’t want to fight, remember?
So the girls danced. They giggled and moved their feet side to side as Lucy held Astrid’s hand. They spun in circles when the dads told them to spin.
Then the dads told Lucy to put her hands on Astrid’s shoulders. They told Astrid to put her hands on Lucy’s waist. The dads hummed a popular song as the girls danced face to face in circles.
The dads told Astrid to give Lucy her hand like she was a lady being helped down from a carriage back in the olden day’s, just like in the movies.
The dads told Lucy to kiss the back of Astrid’s hand. Her lips felt tickley and soft.
Then the dads clapped their hands together and jumped up from the dirt floor. They said it was time to stop pretending and get the cockfight started.
Lucy and Astrid were told exactly where to stand. When they asked to sit, their request was granted. Lucy pulled Astrid up onto her lap. All of Astrid’s muscles were tense. She couldn’t relax no matter how hard she tried. She wanted to be good. She wanted to be able to follow instruction with no fear and it made her alternately sad and frustrated when her body would not comply.
The dads invited the others to stand in the circle and started to count backward from ten again. This time when the starting pistol was fired, everyone dropped their birds into the circle.
The girls watched. As the reality of the violence began to sink in, both of their bodies went numb.
When Astrid’s dad’s hen was advancing on her godfather’s hen, Lucy held her hand tighter, rubbing circles into the base of Astrid’s thumb with the pad of her own. When Lucy’s dad’s hen was advancing, Lucy tried to comfort Astrid the same way.
There was blood on the dirt floor. The sound of the birds screeching in pain was unbearable. Feathers went flying everywhere.
And then Astrid’s mom’s hen came at her dad’s hen. She had been fitted with razor blades on her feet. The most terrifying feeling came when Astrid’s dad and godfather started screaming at Astrid’s mom while the girls could do nothing but watch as the one bird sliced the other bird right in the face.
More blood on the dirt floor.
The fight was called as the razor blade hen was disqualified.
Astrid’s dad turned that very first cockfight into an empire.