María Fernanda Ampuero's debut story collection, Cockfight, translated by Frances Riddle and out next week from the Feminist Press, exposes the violence and cruelty underlying domestic life in Latin America and throughout the world. In “Auction,” the first story in the collection, a woman is kidnapped and put up for sale at a black-market auction.
There are roosters around here somewhere.
Kneeling, with my head down and covered by a filthy rag, I concentrate on hearing them: how many there are, if they’re in cages or inside a pen. When I was young, my dad raised gamecocks, and since there wasn’t anyone else to look after me, he’d take me along to the fights. The first few times, I cried when I saw the poor rooster ripped to shreds in the sand, and he laughed and called me a girl.
At night, giant vampire roosters devoured my insides. I would scream and he’d come running to my bed, and again he’d call me a girl.
“Come on, don’t be such a girl. They’re just roosters, dammit.”
Eventually I stopped crying when I saw the hot guts of the losing rooster in the dust. I was the one who had to clean up the ball of feathers and viscera and carry it all to the trash bin. I would say: “Bye-bye, rooster. Be happy in heaven where there are thousands of worms and fields and corn and families that love roosters.” On the way, some cockfighter would give me a piece of candy or a coin to touch me or kiss me, or for me to touch him or kiss him. I was afraid that if I told Dad, he’d call me a girl again.
“Come on, don’t be such a girl. They’re just cockfighters, dammit.”
One night, a rooster’s belly exploded as I was carrying it in my arms like a doll, and I discovered that those macho men who shouted and jeered for one rooster to rip open the other were disgusted by the shit and blood and guts of the dead rooster. So I covered my hands, my knees, and my face with that mixture, and they didn’t bother me with kisses and all that bullshit anymore.
They said to my dad, “Your daughter is a monster.”
And he responded that they were the monsters and they clinked their shot glasses. “You guys are the monsters. Salud.”
The smell inside the cockpit was disgusting. Sometimes when I fell asleep in a corner, under the stands, I’d wake up with one of those men peeking underneath my school uniform at my underwear. So before falling asleep I would stick a rooster head between my legs. One, sometimes more. A whole belt of rooster heads. Those macho guys didn’t like lifting up a skirt to find little severed heads.
Sometimes, Dad would wake me up to clear away a gutted rooster. Sometimes, he did the cleaning himself, and his friends called him a faggot, asked him why the hell he even bothered to bring his daughter. He just gathered up the ruined and bloody rooster. Then from the door he blew them a kiss. His friends laughed.
I know that here, somewhere, there are roosters because I’d recognize that smell from a thousand miles away. The smell of my life, the smell of my father. It smells of blood, of man, of shit, of cheap liquor, of sour sweat and industrial grease. You don’t exactly have to be a genius to gather that this is some abandoned place, hidden away god knows where, and that I’m totally fucked.
A man speaks. He must be around forty. I imagine him fat, bald, and dirty, wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, shorts, and flip-flops; I imagine his pinkie and thumb nails are long. I can tell by the way he’s speaking that there are other people here. There’s someone else here besides me. There are other people on their knees, with their heads bent, covered by dark, disgusting sacks.
“Come on now, let’s all calm down—the first sonofabitch who makes a sound is gonna get a bullet in his head. If you all cooperate, we’ll all make it through the night in one piece.”
I feel his stomach brush against my head and then the barrel of a gun. No, he’s not joking. A girl cries a few feet to my right. I suppose she couldn’t handle the feeling of the gun to her temple. The sound of a slap.
“Look, princess. No crying, you hear me? Or are you in a big hurry to meet your maker?”
Later, the fat man with the gun walks away. He’s gone to talk on the phone. He says a number: “Six, six motherfuckers.” He also says, “It’s a good haul, really good, the best in months.” He says they won’t want to miss it. He makes one call after another. He forgets, for a while, about us.
Beside me I hear a cough muffled by a hood, a man’s cough.
“I’ve heard about this,” he says, very softly. “I thought it was a myth, an urban legend. They’re called auctions. Taxi drivers choose passengers they think they’ll be able to get good money for and they kidnap them. Then buyers come and bid on their favorites. And they take them. They keep their things, they force them to steal, to open up their houses, to give them their credit card numbers. And the women . . . the women.”
“What?” I ask. He hears that I’m a woman. He goes quiet.
The first thing I thought when I got in the taxi that night was finally. I rested my head on the seat and closed my eyes. I’d had several drinks and I was depressed. I’d been at the bar with a man I pretended to be friends with. With him and his wife. I always pretend, I’m good at pretending. But when I got in the taxi, I sighed and said to myself, “What a relief: now I can go home and cry myself to sleep.” I think I dozed off for a minute, and suddenly, when I opened my eyes, I was in an unfamiliar place. An industrial area. Empty. Darkness. Mind-numbing fear: someone was about to fuck up my life forever.
The taxi driver pulled out a gun, looked me in the eye, and said with absurd politeness: “We’ve reached your destination, miss.”
What followed was quick. Someone opened the door before I could lock it and put a sack over my head, they tied my hands, shoved me into this sort of garage that smelled like a rotting cockpit, and made me kneel in a corner.
The sound of conversations. The fat man and someone else and then someone else and someone else. People keep coming. The sound of laughter and beers being opened. The scent of weed and some other shit with a spicy smell. The man next to me finally stops telling me to keep calm. He must be saying it to himself now.
He mentioned before that he has an eight-month-old baby and a three-year-old son. He must be thinking about them. And about these junkies getting inside the gated community where they live. That must be what he’s thinking about. About waving to the guard to open the gate while these beasts duck down in the back seat. He’s going to take them home to meet his beautiful wife, his eight-month-old baby, and his three-year-old son. He’s going to take them to his house.
And there’s nothing he can do about it.
Farther away, to the right, murmuring, a girl cries, I don’t know if it’s the same one who was crying before. The fat man fires his gun and we all drop to the floor. He hasn’t shot us, he’s just shot. It doesn’t matter, the terror has ripped us in half. He and his friends laugh. They come over, they move us into the center of the room.
“All right, gentlemen, ladies, tonight’s auction is officially open. They’re all so lovely, so well-behaved. Now, you stand here for me. Closer, princess. Riiiiight there. Don’t be afraid, little lady, I don’t bite. Just like that. So these gentlemen can decide which one of you they’re going to take. The rules are the same as always, gentlemen: the most money gets the best prize. If you could leave your guns over here for me, I’ll keep them safe till the auction’s over. Thank you. Delighted, as always, to have you.”
The fat man presents us like he’s hosting a TV show. We can’t see the audience, but we know the men who are looking at us, sizing us up, are thieves. And rapists. They are definitely rapists. And murderers. They might be murderers. Or something worse.
“Laaaaaaadies and geeeeeeeentlemen!” The fat man doesn’t like the ones who whimper or the ones who say they have kids or the ones who shout desperately, “You don’t know who you’re messing with!” No. He likes even less the ones who say he’s going to rot in jail. All these people, men and women alike, have been punched in the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the roosters. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and roosters. Come on, don’t be such a girl. They’re just cockfighters, dammit.
“This man, what’s our first participant’s name? What? Speak up, friend. Ricardoooooo, welcoooome. He wears a nice watch and some niiiiiice Adidas shoes. Ricardooooo must have moneyyyyyyyy! Let’s take a look at Ricardo’s wallet. Credit cards, ohhhhhh a Visa Goooaaald by Messi.”
The fat man tells bad jokes.
They start to bid on Ricardo. Someone offers three hundred, another person eight hundred. The fat man adds that Ricardo lives in a gated community outside the city: Riverview.
“A view poor folks like us can’t even get a glimpse of. That’s where our friend Richie lives. You don’t mind if we call you Richie, do you? Like Richie Rich.”
A terrifying voice says five thousand. The terrifying voice takes Ricardo away. The others applaud.
“Sold to the man with the mustache for five thousand!”
The fat man fondles Nancy, a girl who speaks with a thread of a voice. I know he’s groping her because he says, “Look at these delicious tits, such perky nipples,” and he sucks up his drool and says things you don’t say without touching and, also, who’s to stop him from touching her? No one. Nancy sounds young. Early twenties. She could be a nurse or a schoolteacher. The fat man starts to undress Nancy. We hear him unbuckle her belt and unbutton her jeans and rip her underwear while she says please so many times and with such fear in her voice that we all stain our filthy hoods with tears. “Look at this fine little ass. What a beauty.” He licks Nancy, Nancy’s ass. We hear the sound. The men jeer, roar, applaud. Then the slap of flesh against flesh. And the howls. The howls.
“Gentlemen, just some quality control for you. I give her a ten. You can clean her up real pretty and our friend Nancy will be a delight.”
She must be beautiful because they bid, immediately, two thousand, three thousand, three thousand five. Nancy goes for three thousand five. Sexy goes for less than wealthy.
“And the lucky man taking this lovely piece of ass home is the gentleman with the gold ring and the cross!”
We’re sold off one by one. The fat man manages to get a lot of information out of the guy next to me, the one with the eight-month-old baby and the three-year-old son, and now he’s the auction’s prized pig: money in different accounts, high-up executive, son of a businessman, art collector, kids, wife. The guy is a winning lottery ticket. They’ll probably ask ransom for him. The bid starts at five thousand. It goes up to ten, fifteen. It stops at twenty. Someone intimidating has offered twenty thousand. A new voice. He’s come just for this. He wasn’t interested in wasting his time on anyone else.
The fat man doesn’t make any jokes.
When it’s my turn I think about the roosters. I close my eyes and open my sphincter. I know that this is the most important thing I will do in my life, so I do it right. I soak my legs, my feet, the floor. I’m in the center of a room, surrounded by criminals, displayed before them like cattle, and like cattle I empty my bowels. As best I can, I rub one leg against the other, I assume the position of a gutted doll. I scream like a madwoman. I shake my head, mutter obscenities, gibberish, the things I used to say to the roosters about a heaven filled with endless corn and worms. I know the fat man is about to shoot me.
But instead, he busts my lip open with his hand. I bite my tongue. The blood drips onto my chest, down my belly, mixes with the shit and piss. I start to laugh, deranged, to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
He doesn’t know what to do.
“How much for this monster?”
No one wants to bid.
The fat man offers up my watch, my cell phone, my purse. They’re all cheap, made in China. He grabs my tits in an attempt to encourage them and I shriek.
But nothing, no one.
They toss me outside. They hose me down and then they put me in a car that leaves me wet, barefoot, dazed, on the side of the highway.
From Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, translated by Frances Riddle. Forthcoming from the Feminist Press. By arrangement with the publisher.