Fiction by J. Reifel
It was a farm of the unconsidered old school, laid out like an Aztec city, not a Roman one, form following tradition, not function, not politics or social class. If it was angry and anachronistic, it could just as easily have been the planned logic of modernity collapsing into the commonplace disaster of urban renewal, suffering the gravity that comes from piling one living space upon another. Cities are necessarily based on the architecture of power, from human sacrifice and commerce, forts and rivers, gates, walls and roads, only recently planes and vectors. From the instant of the last nail or weld, even the first crossing of the threshold, every structure is from then on a ruin, an archeological site, layers of organic matter building up, first microscopic and unnoticed, then simple grime and imperfection, then as an assault in depth, inhuman wave tactics and certain victory.
And on this farm they had some chickens. Specifically, two chickens.
They, the two birds, were love, hate, money, roulette played with casinos and revolvers, ivory balls and pistol cartridges, they were the existential and vulgar thrill of chance. They were, in this, the truest personifications of evil. And further, they were this incarnation of all that that is wrong, not because of their existence as the blood spectacle of murder, not because the pair would die silently against a backdrop of screams and shouts for our viewing pleasure, but because they were chickens and chickens are unforgivably stupid.
Team America was representing the heartland, the self-consciously rural that discounted the sprawl of supermalls that connected it to the raw torrent of industrialization and separated it from the enshrined agricultural past that was its mythology. This was the heartland cultism that celebrated the casual brutality that it conceived of, positively, as Old Fashioned. Santiago represented a knife culture that was honestly much, much closer to the soil and hunger and starvation, and the tiny distance from grief and tragedy, in which all genuinely third tier economies exist. The lower one looks, the more prominent the dominance hierarchy. It is, however, only the romantic private privilege of the sentient to aspire to conditions both above and below one’s station and experience. This is the where and how of Team America and Santiago’s meeting in the dust as representatives of these clans and their wagers, to fight to the death.
I have never cared about cockfighting, but I do despise chickens.
How, you ask, can I look down on these gamefowl, these gladiators? Well, I, not you, have looked into their eyes, into the cavity of their open beaks, and know that one of us creatures, they or I, must be the superior breed. Chickens are not scum, not worthless, but they are lesser than. They are morally and intellectually bankrupt, lacking in the control, guidance and organization that they deny is the civilized world’s burden to inflict upon them. Left to their own devices, they do not ascent or descend into, but simply boil and ebb almost instantly into, chaos, viciousness, rape and internecine cannibalism. If it is wrong of me to voice this in an immoral and not amoral context, this is my heartfelt prejudice.
Chicken, like many imbeciles, can be driven, even hijacked, by dominance hierarchies. They will fight not in spite of, but with no relation to, pain, horror and thus danger understood, and thus without bravery, nobility and all those things some claim humanly to value and see represented in the gameness, the simple refusal to die, of gamefowl. They were alive and life is stubborn. They make no choices. They cut and peck and, yes, bleed and gasp and die for nothing. Certainly not by choice or for glory. They are dumb animals, dumb, speechless, nearly mindless. By the way, even to the quickest and most practiced eye, the fight is invisible beyond the wounds suffered and the niggardly, sputtering failures to succumb. Yet. And thus, the vapor and spectacle that surrounds their combat is simply the held breath of ghastly chance, distorted only by the intoxication of grubby wagers. Seen through this lens of chickens, humans are at their ugliest, the deprivations of culture your only defense.
No one, certainly, was on their side. Those that wished to abolish their sport wished to abolish them, their bloodlines, even more than they for those brief moments wished to destroy one another. Or at least with a relentless and ongoing focus were opposed to their flashover of combat. Had local law enforcement burst in and separated them then, it would have ended up destroying both birds as unsalvageable, and not simply the one destroying the other. There was therefor no good ending, only rehashing and reediting tragedy as tragedy, avoiding comedy and reflection at all costs, black humor lurking in the wings and beneath the flightless feathers, regardless, one or both of their narratives would be extinguished. They would not again mate and scream at the morning.
This is not to say that they were not loved.
Team America’s McCann raised his birds on the same plot of dirt his grandfather had sharecropped on and eventually, triumphantly owned; Reyes’s grandfather had cut a man in a knife fight, through his biceps and down to the bone, right through the artery so the man almost died. Both men were abundantly proud of their lineage. Neither could imagine a man nobler or more perfect than this dead male relative, except in stories and then only in the Bible.
McCann ‘s father was an autocrat, and a religious man, in the stolid belief that it was far better to hold unreasonable power in a tiny kingdom than share it in a larger world, and wasn’t averse to having an equally ignorant God on his side. If he could have extended his fence post to an imagined heaven, or at least with mile high barbed wire, he certainly would. It was from inside this perimeter that his son had escaped into the larger world of roads and towns. But there were always the birds. To feed and fret over, to walk between their narrow wire enclosures and overlook approvingly. They were better than dogs or horses; they were his minions. To share with his father and the holy mountain of the father’s father.
But any hope of throwback subsistence farming died when his father was a boy, and his father went to work for the son or cousin of the man his own father had sharecropped for. The eternal circle wasn’t life, it was toil. His father managed to grow melons on some of the land, to lay claim to the respect that he was still and always would be a farmer, mostly by browbeating his wife and fighting for every cent and hour with any hands he could hire that not only did not and could not read, but would not have had the temerity to imagine the paper of a contract. He treated his son as he treated these itinerants, except he didn’t swap one for the next on alternate growing seasons. When the melon harvest fell victim to bacteria or microclimate or economic downturn, whichever it had finally been, the father retreated to his kitchen table when on his own land, avoiding the windows and keeping his knuckles dangerously white, until dying just down the road at the end of a workday, driving home. So thus he never got to see his son solve the problem, finally keeping the soil tilled with sod-raising, growing someone else’s grass for someone else’s lawn. He was also denied seeing all of his narrow values deeply instilled and expressed, the boy somehow translating all that he had learned in the last years of staying out of his father’s way into the path to manhood. This was all in a climate where manhood was something earned by the simple act of convincing others that you had achieved it, or daring them to deny it on pain of physical violence. He had done both, but only by transmuting hardship into pedantic and scorekeeping honesty.
McCann was gratingly, scrupulously honest, this honesty being almost exclusively made out of grudging fear. He feared that he would be beholden to anyone, or anything. But he did indeed hold these values, cherished them, held them most especially to hold others to them, and in this way made his living managing those who owned less, for those who owned more. His was the burden of an overseer and a middleman. He marshaled troops of itinerant laborer as they transferred produce from dirt to crate to market. He rented his honesty out to the highest, or usually the physically closest bidder, whosoever owned the most dirt nearest to his own. He was thus hemmed in not by morality so much as by municipal boundaries and county lines. And, without realizing it, McCann internalized, exemplified and was totally at peace with this fundamental relationship between honesty and dirt. Only his birds more perfectly distilled the relationship.
Santiago’s Reyes certainly loved his fowl just as much as McCann, but came to it by a different route. His grandfather had bought the knife all the way from the Phillipines to America where his son has unforgivingly lost it, not in a fight or in a bet but from a move from the port city inland to seek a better life a for a new wife and new child. He mollified his father with alcohol and instilled in his son a sense of the real values of money, every coin in childhood earned or understood as a genuine and meaningful gift, and work as something protracted and manual. Unspoken in this was the understanding that they were who they were socioeconomically through the workings of a just and orderly universe and thus the acceptance of this. In this, almost every aspect of Reyes life exceeded his father’s in material goods.
Having lost his mother before knowing her and his Phillipine identity, mistaken in that era as either Hispanic or Asian (Latin or Oriental at the time), he became rootless without being a traveler, rafting the currents of manual labor and returning periodically to the single room where his father remained ensconced, to see if the man he feared and cared for was still alive. His father was more than happy with threats and drinks and no visible means of support. He felt this was both a genuine achievement and also as much as he had the right to have ever achieved. He was not bitter. And he did, finally die, leaving his son, now with the anchored wife and child with a much smaller range of motion. They moved in diminishing spirals, taking looping paths whose primarily trajectory was away from the urban and towards the rural, but with each circuit having a smaller total circumference until the diminishing progress was obvious to the wife if not the child and he, and with satisfaction of having to strive no further, he took what he could get. He stopped and stalled and stayed and stumbled onto the immigrant’s lesser version of the American dream, tiny house, space for family, rules written and unwritten about what was acceptable and what was not.
Reyes III therefor grew up in a community where school was less important than church and, in truth, junior high had more than prepared him for the happiness that would be equally accessible to him as misery. Apprenticeship takes many forms but the basic idea is to transform brute labor into skills and knowledge. He began by lifting and carrying, mostly to and from the backs of trucks after school. Then, by eliminating school from this circuit, he could lift and carry from one lot to truck bed to another lot with much greater efficiency. Eventually, his bread and butter was poultry feed and this became his passion. Because he carried it, stacked it and unloaded it and, sitting atop it with a paper wrapped meal or cigarette, he read and reread the sacks, he learned which farmers liked what feed and why and found out that his father was right: no one fed that shit to their game birds. But, like a short order cook who knows his customers places at his counter as well as how each likes their eggs and the doneness of their hashbrowns, he got a real sense of how each farm liked the factory product and who might consider moving up and down the payscale. It took him almost a year to point this out to the distributor, and another year to get up the confidence to point it out again and only then because he wanted, some day, a wife of his own. This was how he changed the line of his family and became something new and unexpected: a salesman. This is how he came to be able to afford a place of his own and a chicken hutch in the back, to experiment with his special feeds and his own line, to bring forth its seventh son. Santiago.
These chickens, both fighters, were outside of the mainstream: they represented the tiniest, most arcane acme or variant of the layers and fryers, the incarcerated and medicated great unwashed population of their race. They were not sexed, they were not sorted. They were never part of that titanic mill that is postmodern agriculture. No, they were raised with individual devotion and care, if not love, with obsession and something its equal: they were raised within the similarly colossal machine of mythology. But they were, as mentioned, unsexed – not ungendered or inconceivably castrated, but not sexed, never having been made available to the Chicken Sexer artisan. And chicken sexing, so much more so even than combat or the violin, is the very definition of art, albeit a little known one. It takes approximately ten thousand hours to become a verified and accredited Sexer and many, most, who undertake to learn the trade fail. They never achieve the skill of grasping a seemingly homogenous chick from its boiling newly shell-emerged fellows, inverting it and squeezing it gently and in unquestionable avian pederasty, to reveal its cloaca, its all purpose urogenital nether opening– to reveal as if by magic a pigmented pattern, one of thousands that, somehow, post ten thousand hours of practice, somehow reveals the gender of the chick. So far, with all our technology in other fields, this is still the only way to solve the frustrating problem of dividing the egglayers from the menfolk, a process of clear and profitable commercial significance. The eggmachines are obviously cash money, but even fed, fattened and harvested, males and females live entirely apart; the mostly male unwanted are recycled as protein meal. Also, due to other vicissitudes of modernist breeding, the males (far exceeding even humans) are commonly, even mostly, inveterate cannibal rapists. Thus the importance of Sexing. All of which takes place in a flash, an instant. The same instant one bird might find an opening and exploit it in a fight. Somehow. The great Somehow within the interplay of learning, memory, skill, memory, ratiocination, cognition, memory, pattern recognition and forgotten and unconscious memory, happening in a forebrain’s moment. Sexing probably happens in the secondary visual cortex, alongside your mother’s face and the rockstar you had taped to your teenage wall, processed along with the front grills of cars, particularly if you love and admire cars. Unless of course the Sexer squeezes too hard and blasts the intestinal viscera out of the tiny chicken ass. Or unless, even after ten thousand hours, those patterns still don’t mean anything, or enough, or don’t mean enough fast enough. The Japanese dominate the market for chicken Sexers and their education, somehow not surprisingly. Does that make me a racist? No, but I do have my opinions. If you were a slow, sloppy Sexer, you would be out of a job, if you were a warrior, you would be dead. How many hours did the birds have, within their own brand of practice and training, unknown and uncounted? It is especially hard to count as they were, as warriors and as artists, homeschooled.
I said I don’t hate cockfighting, but I’m not sure I get it either. It isn’t what you think or expect. I’m pretty sure it isn’t really what the watchers and betters and breeders think it is really. It is somehow in this a true expression of masculine fantasy. I don’t have to wonder how they think they see it, I have seen their vision in oils and fantasy, cocks poised dramatically in the air, avian pro wrestling in captured in oils and black velvet. They clearly see drama, see grace and beauty. Perhaps their eyes are sharper and infinitely faster than mine, perhaps their internal editing software allows them to discount far more of the experience than I. Here’s what I see, explosive balls of feathers, hopping and tumbleweeding at each other and then – broken by the bemused, distracted silence of two chickens in a squared or round or octagonal space, seeming to have entirely forgotten about each other. Looking up and around, at the spectators, at nothing, occasionally scratching the ground for something to eat. And then, one sees the other and they return to their spastic combat. Feathers do actually fly, torn and dislodged and often sheared away by the wicked razor sharp knives strapped to their heel spurs. I will admit that in these moments, perhaps primed by the art and my own masculinity, by television and film and young adulthood, I do catch glimpses of what they must see and intent to see to have invested all this vast and painstaking effort. I see instants of grace and power and bloodlustful purity that appeal, but that – honestly, do not add up to enough to make it worth my while or theirs. There is even drama, particularly in the fights with the long knives. In Reyes native land, they often fight with a single, up to three in long razored sickle that often, and often out of the nowhere of a come-from-behind victory, pierces, and catches and cuts a major vessel, skewers breast or throat and causes a sudden and rapid death. This, I am certain, is one of the aspects they see as glory and aspire too. Harder to answer is how a bird that will run around with out its head, when losing the evolutionary fight with a human, suddenly flops over in moments after a coup de grace from its own species. Exhaustion and rapid exsanguination play their parts, although ultrarapid kills come even in the opening moments. More probably, this is an illustration while chickens need blood to carry oxygen to muscles, muscles need to connect to bone, heart muscle to push the blood and lungs to provide the initial chemical power… but with all that, they don’t really need their heads nearly as much or as constantly. But they do fight and die and that must be enough: the spectators make the spectacle.
If there were a Chicken Style, it might just as well be called Flailing Naked Aggression Kung Fu, and hopefully it would become stylized enough to work better for you than it does for them. Traditionally, many martial arts styles were ostensibly based on animal movements so this is not out of the question. Afficionados often claim to see art and grace in the rush of feathers, but small Chinese men leap infinitely more gracefully than birds who are still fundamentally flightless. They do not joust, the do not box, the do not shift their weight and break each other’s balance. They leap and strike downward with the bony spur on the heel of their feet. Which would be all there was to it, and is in some cultures, but man has stepped in and supplied the fighting birds with knives. These vary, there are spikes and slashers, long knives and short, but they are razor sharp, they are metal and they have evolved from hacksaw blades and the intense desires of obsessional humans, not bones and genetic selection. They are abiological. Not that many animals have not developed even sharper, stronger and deadlier fighting apparatus, just that none have come so far so fast. Humans love to tinker and improve, perhaps as much as they love violence observed. But, even with swords, there is no fencing, there is no slash and parry, there is even little place for strength. Truthfully, the mechanics of a chicken fight come down entirely to timing. Chickens do not fly, thus they leap – and fall. And they strike slightly forward and mostly downward. Which means that the only place to be is above one’s opponent, out of his reach and where your own blows are effective. Thus, tactically, one should dodge and judge the other bird’s leaps and plummets, select one’s own moment, jump and slightly after the other, your own parabola neatly intersecting theirs as they hang in apogee or have just begun to accelerate towards the bloody, shitty dust of the fighting pen. No chicken has ever done this.
This element of timing could certainly buttress the argument for the chess game, the rock, scissors, paper of guessing your opponents move, predicting it, and making your own devastating counter. Except for the monolithic, prideful, almost intentional idiocy of poultry. Chickens, even or especially those bred in and for either this culture of violence, or for consumption, are a study in de-evolution. They are selected for fatness, flightlessness, either docility or blind assaultiveness, bred to have thick, bland useless breasts and resistance to boredom and pestilent conditions. Is this the recipe for a brilliant, wary warrior, who chooses his moment and strikes with knowing precision? Which is why it is, once again, gameness, that is valued: ability to trudge towards agony and oblivion and kill at the same time, to ignore the immediate future in the bludgeoning moment, and to be blind more than anything else to the pitiful shame in such a position.
Let us disregard this truth and play the sportcaster.
“Well, both of our competitors look tough and focused.” They’re chickens. They don’t really blink. Of course they appear tough and focused. They are aware only that they are held tightly and that the air is awash in the smell of other chickens that they want to fight and destroy, overpowering everything, the human tobacco smoke, human sweat, human pheromones, humanness, and even the lingering smell of the chickens gone before them, the ones who have already fought and destroyed one another. But if by tough you mean lean and powerful they are. They are.
“ Both look well proportioned and straight. If the local bird is giving up a few ounces, I think he makes up for it in chest size. And I’ve seen these birds walk. We’re not talking strutters – I’ve I think we’ve got a couple of deadly competitors out there.” As much as I don’t like to admit it, there is science here and, as always, an art to that science. Well proportioned doesn’t mean breasts and thighs. In a roasting pan a bird is divided at least by a factor of size, usually more, but in a scratch yard the bird is viewed like a yardstick of itself, neatly divisible by three. The logic is that the bird wants to smoothly pivot in the air, extending its legs forward to strike without turning over into some awkward backflip and landing on its head. Not that this doesn’t happen. Frankly, I think this proportionality is a bit overblown when you consider that most of the mass, most of the bird itself, is concentrated in the center, grouped around heart and liver and the various places early cultures believed was the repository for thought, action and the soul. But it is the pivoting and striking that concern us. Because there is a reason that even the stylized images of combat never show the birds truly striking and landing but always in the suspended moments before blows are dealt. Because the actual motion of the chickens strike is a sort of zany bicycle kick, closest perhaps to a cartoon figure running off a cliff and remaining suspended, while their legs wildly spin through the air and their arms try to frantically air-backstroke them to the edge. So it is for chickens. Except for the bony heel spurs that are driven downward by this motion and are their primary mode of attack. Most especially when the gaffs are long and sharp, endlessly honed and whittled out of various tool steels and held in universal superstitious regard by their owners. The gaff owners who are equally the chicken owners. The chickens themselves own nothing. But follow again the logic of how the birds walk, the straightness of their legs, spread of their chest: no bandy-legged old sailors whose attacks would flail even less predictably out to the sides, angles shifting and torqueing, making it especially hard to aim the gaffs to most probably cut into the other bird. Chest size equals wing power equals being almost, almost not totally flightless for those few moments which means being, hopefully, a little bit less flightless than your opponent which means, logic being almost infinitely malleable under the circumstances, more able to fly. Which would theoretically have obvious advantages. And if this is all theory, where there is theory, testable, falsifiable theory, there is science, and I did want to give science its due. Before we are, in the next instant, to be swept up in the… drama.
“Peck! The ref called it and I can see that these are a pair of aggressive birds. They just can’t wait to get it on.” Meaning you can’t tell anything yet, they are just chickens, but an announcer’s job is to keep up a steady patter. Peck. This is the first word that comes from the agreed referee, meaning to hold your birds in proximity, but with your hands clamped down over their wings. Neither bird can reach the other but they drive their beaks forward with the vague hope of causing some wildly lucky injury. They don’t know that it would constitute a foul, a breach of the rules, as they don’t know that rules or bets have any bearing on them, because they do not.
Their eyes meet, and in an instant their tiny, tiny minds contract even further. Functions go dark, eating, mating, smelling anything but blood and honor, they de-evolve, that same blood flushing and oxygenating their powerful thighs and short, stubby, flightless wings. Their skin tightens and contracts, bringing feathers to intimidating and defensive attention, both seeming to increase dramatically in size. They even forgot their handlers, forgot why they were suspended just out of reach, one to the other, out of actual pecking and striking distance, suspended in fact over the dusty ground as if they were levitating, or even soaring, they forgot their flightless tragedy and perhaps, in their idiocy, saw themselves as human artists portray them. Perhaps, like paint on canvass, they were poised, midair, as if they had swooped down like the infinitely better designed predatory birds that they were not, or rushing up from the earth in the silken pajama’d trappings of celluloid Kung-Fu adventure.
“Flush your birds!” The wings are released. “Well, just look at that. Fine, fine looking. It looks like what the one might have in power, the other might have in span. My money is even here folks.” Meaning, the bets aren’t all placed yet and saying something stupid here to effect the odds is the surest way of getting my jaw broke. But everyone would agree on the bird’s aesthetics. The wings open to reveal an iridescent display of plumage, like twelve coats of rubbed and buffed metallic flake paint, each arch of feathers as beautiful to these men as the showline at a car show. As beautiful as blood.
As in painting and imagination, the idea was that time does indeed stop, that a moment was a totality and that purity, of Crane Mantis Essence Absorbing Stance or that the merciful moment before the coup de grace of murder, was somehow outside time itself. This is perhaps an argument for the claim that art is not an illusion, but a shadow, the depiction of something in fewer dimensions, not just spacially but more importantly without the fourth wall of time; that it is a paring down, a stripping to essentials, a reduction to elementary parts and particles. This is thus the unspoken and uncompleted argument that art, like physics, is a search for some essential truth, if only to make us feel better. But while we chase theory, the handlers, the spectators, all of them, are waiting for the even simpler science of the absolutely practical.
At first nothing happens. Unfighting chickens have the odd, bewildered sense of pure animal abstraction, either not knowing why they are there or seeming to be utterly correct and complacent in doing nothing. Then they explode into violence. This transformation may be central to the event’s appeal. The birds move and change faster than human perceptions allow and thus the space between bird and warrior is blurred to indisctinction. They leap, rise, fly – for that instant they are the truest pretenders of flight – and extent themselves with barbaric hacks and slashes. If you could see it, it might actually be thrillingly spectacular. A true accounting would be: he slashes – he slashes back – he cuts, and cuts – and he cuts back – and he slashes – and on and on times three or five or ten until they reach the dirt and ‘fly’ again.
And Team American almost had him, a blade charging downward millimeters from face and breast and vitals. Santiago’s riposte was swift and equally as (almost) effective, missing by a few more merest millimeters. The same could be said of most of their assaults, as the same could be said of boxers or gladiators or virtually any intra species conflict. They swung and missed. They swung and struck and perhaps feathers flew, thick skins were damaged, rutting bucks locked horns and scraped and heads butted. The only truly balletic conflicts are between different species, the predator and prey, the ant lion or wasp or noble lion tearing the living fuck out of some slow sprinting antelope. Desperate struggles are slow and agonizing. Without fantasy and, more importantly, outside intervention, dull and insufficient. Enter man with his blades and gaffs and squared circle, the pit and the handlers and rules. Yes, rules.
“The red cuts and dodges and YES!!! He lands one, he’s got a winger! We’ll just have to wait and see-“ Gentleman, your animals. The handlers swoop in, immobilizing the birds. Santiago is the injured party and Reyes III is working to pluck the razored gaff back and out the path it travelled in to minimize further damage. To leave the birds stuck together, slashing randomly at close quarters would lead to an end that would not be necessarily premature but would dramatically increase the chances that neither bird would survive as damage whether by bullet or blade, works radically faster and in advance of lagging mortality. This was somehow culturally unsporting, although it is easy to image, for example, another cockfighting world where the birds would be left co-impaled, or whether this would be a lyrical and desired outcome or even where this would be the starting point. Themes and variations. The Judge separates them.
Only the Judge can call it, only the Judge can call the dead bird dead and the dirt the scene of defeat and victory. Obviously, he makes any calls of cheating and worst of all, is the sole arbiter of cowardice, calling a match when a chicken runs or fails to fight. But mostly, he states the very obvious. And this is only less obvious when both birds flop and stagger and die and a winner still needs to be decided, honor and money ritually changing hands.
The Judge is a collector, a custodian. His house and yard is filled with ancient farm tools, blades and hoppers from extinct plows and farming engines. For his own reasons, his prize on the mantelpiece is a woman’s iron, the kind that was heated in the fire and pressed a man’s one or two best shirts and pants for a Sunday, or a cockfight when they were legal and out in the open. It was an iron so surprisingly heavy that it was hard to imagine the labor of the woman, as it is almost impossible to imagine the fortitude of using a washboard to clean the shirt in the first place. It held its place of honor precisely because it was a woman’s iron, a placekeeper for a time he felt people no longer dared aspire to.
Also, the Judge was lucky, as most revered and successful people are, discounting the abject liars, manipulators and mountebanks. Or including them. In success, luck almost invariably plays a directorial role, from chicken to dictator. Only the unicellular tyrants manage to meaningfully effect our globe all on their own, Spanish Flu, diarrhea, deficiency syndromes and their promiscuous and stealthy cousins. The Judge and referee was none of these, he was the usual agglomeration of cells and systems and to get even this far had luck on his side. He had been conceived, dodged rare miscarriage ectoposis, chromosomal anomalies, ancephalia – he was born. He was the spitting image of his father, and his father spit within minutes of their acquaintance, tobacco’s intoxication heralding his birth. He lived on the gentle slope of the graph, increasing with the seasons and harvests, accepting tasks as tasks to be accepted. His defining moment was the lack of any, he was who he was by prestigdigitated default. Nothing ever happened to him, by him; he watched, he did not participate. Not when one friend shot another, a boss cheated, a brother stole, another relative sinned in private made public. He merely shifted and replaced his hat after every incident, a show of ostensible thought processes; this was somehow enough and more. He was stoically triumphant, trusted, he was worthy of being the man to judge and separate deathly warring chickenflesh.
Santiago’s head is stuffed in the mouth of his trainer, lord and master. Sacrifice, subjugation, but primarily oxygen passes from one to the other. Every conceivable mysticism could be carried by that breath. The same could be said moments later when the man daubs his pinky up the chicken’s ass. This is a foul in many American states, but certainly not all and is freely acceptable almost everywhere else. The Judge saw it and did nothing, so from the outside, looking in, we can assume that it was within the rules, within the Law, even within the more well understood but less well defined concept of Order. In the end, and this was obvious not just to all of them, the cockers, but to you as well, that if you had to choose only one, for so many good and obvious reasons you would choose Order over Law.
Thus did I mention, should I mention, that this was all furiously, righteously ‘illegal’, and even that this fact may have lent credibility to it in the minds of the (human) participants. Any time the Old is invoked, the Old School, the Old Ways, Old Gods, the Back In The Day and the Forefathers (Cocksmen, most of them) there is the implicit argument against its opposite. As obvious as this is now, it must be stated. It is, perhaps, an unproveable lemma, a first position, a law to be taken on faith, but what is faith but that tautology that harkens back to childhood and negatively beyond: to what happened before your life or your consciousness and is thus unquestioned, unquestionable and therefor wholly, wholly true? The argument is simple, that the unwritten and accepted laws of the past must necessarily supersede any codified or proclaimed law of the present. And thus, on some level the illegality was its strength and appeal.
But still, it would be an injustice to relegate the whole of its primal power to the romanticism. Bootlegging has similar claims and pitfalls, the intoxication being all the more obvious in that case. But I do accept that beyond mild cultural perversions and tropes, there must have been something to this, something that these men who prided themselves through most hours on taciturnity, did truly find enlivening. The arrogance of the farmers was granite, total, matched only by the aggressive surety of the chickens that this was the only way. The slightest chink of doubt was the spidercrack of disaster, of apostasy, of race-treason. Yes, these were believers. But. The danger of religion is embedded in God’s plan. It it almost inextricable from might-making-right, unless, he is a blind imbecile God; He sees, Understands, nods in acceptance. But none of them, save the chickens, would ever with certainty reach that goal: to die on the farm where one was born.
“Round two.” Except for days, weeks, years and picoseconds after the creation of the universe, our time, which is to say the seconds and minutes and moments and work/play/lunch times and clock’s alarms and Sabbaths and lazy Sundays are no different from fighters’ rounds, which is to say totally arbitrary. This round was irritatingly similar to the first but this distinction went totally unnoticed. “These two are giving everything and more!. This could be the fight of the night! There’s no stopping this until we see a victory! These lines could go on and on, in any order and at any time, they were the cupped hand of an uncle’s rudimentary coin drop, empty and intentionally so. They were there to give cadence where there was none and to lend the accepted shapes of cliché to a vacuum of meaning. We are blind and baffled in so many ways, our senses wanting. Speed blinds us, distance, both too far to see and too near to parse. Tastes and smells are both evocative and extraordinarily hard to place without context, the simplicity of pear or pork or ubiquitous starches are opaque with the context of color and texture and plate. The bombast of cinnamons and coffees are the exceptions that demonstrate this rule. Only sounds commonly carry context and emotional weight, the clatter of silverware, the whine of so many instantly identifiable animals, with the only exception too often of this voice or that voice which, like the name attached to it, can hover tauntingly beyond our neuroperceptual grasp, or at the connection of the known, but without the object of that knowledge. This is, of course, not philosophy, but speculation on the blur of chicken feathers and metal gaffs, of blows possibly given or maybe received, wounds that remain potential until the boundaries of Heisenbergian uncertainty lift and we, finally even the chickens themselves realize that one has indeed wounded the other, perhaps mortally.
Did the spectators catch their breath? What did they want? What would be the theoretically ideal fight? A dramatic victory? A come from behind steal? Even a long, grudging match of attrition? No. No. And No. An all out, straight ahead rapacity of mindless and internecine violence? Yes. Precisely. The ideal of chicken’s nobility was built on the premise that they would fight to the death, almost beyond, fight and keep fighting beyond anyone’s expectations and even belief, that they would blindly, almost eagerly, endure the unendurable simply to fight, not to live, certainly not to win, but for the opportunity to fight for just one more instant of fighting. A chicken’s chicken would force it’s heart to keep on beating against all logic and all odds; just one more beat, through pure gameness, through effortless genetic will, that one more beat not of life but of the purity of cutting and slashing at its opponent. This asymptote was every cocker’s dream. And according to them, it happened, even happened often, or came close. Did it today?
No, but it was towards an ending.
In the end, in the flutter and flurry of deathblows, one had eluded the others, or outran or outscored, one was one percent or one hundred percent more effective, one had the aleatory power of, say it, victory. So many of those cuts and slashes could have had the same effect, just as so many business plans and pickup lines could have landed riches and pussy, and so many did not. If you do not believe in luck, it is easy: luck is the lord your master. If you do, it is perhaps easier, luck is the devil. Regardless, one blow among many: the heel, encrusted without diamonds but with honed cutting precision, by millimeters bypassed another and continued downward, downward…
“Goal, goal, goal! That’s a deep one, boys!” Or simply: “Yes!” The singular affirmative, meaning all things to all people. Or. “Beautiful!” More, perhaps, of the same. To all people, if not all things. But to whom is he speaking? Our parenthetically theoretical sportcaster? To the spectators, the bettors, the owner/manager/cornermen, to himself, one or all of these? This is not an insignificant, if still parenthetically theoretical, question. This combat was decisive and, if somehow viewed with a high speed camera, had contained all the elements of presupposed drama. One gaff struck downward – with the correct editing and music, we could easily be convinced it was on its way to being mortal. But somewhere between the here and there, it encountered, ricocheted – no – parried and countered the blade of the other game fowl and struck centerline its opponent, edging off the sternum and, body groping in its gorgeous plummet to regain some semblance of balance while the enbreasted leg was wrenched upward, then twisted. And in this twist directed the blade at some crucial apex of the avian heart. It then toyed with, challenged, nicked and so barely opened this powerfully ascending vessel, which was entirely enough. Blood so rapidly filled the grape sized pericardial sac, and this sac being penetrated but not ruptured by the gaff, began to re-exert pressure back upon the pump itself. The physical force of pressure neutralized, and this neutrality is alien and in opposition if the vital condition. Even as oxygen, the very steam of nineteenth century life, leaked away from the unclosed system, force countered force, and nothing, not even the rapidly depleting mercury of oxygenated blood, managed to find motivation. The bird could not know what was happened, could not have appreciated that the langeur, the solace suffusing its limbs, combless wobbling head and flightless wings was the larger concept of defeat. Known that palliance and rest were death, known that the game was over. Forgetting only that it was the single thing they had existed for in the first place,
Team America dies.
The rest of them, all of them, will return to their lives. As if nothing had happened or with the simple certainty that all, excepting the dead would return. This was overwhelmingly reassuring to them, as it had been momentarily ecstatic and heartbreaking. One idea has it that all passions are simply the same positive and negative experiences compressed into varying lengths of time. For example, the pleasant calmness in expectation of the next pit, this casual reassurance that if this thing had not changed, maybe nothing would change or at least that this connectedness they felt through this cruel rite was a bulwark against encroachment and change, was somehow the same as the exultation and glee of the realization that one bird had with some luck and predisposition, destroyed the other, which might mean money in your pocket or bloodlust or just resolution. The first sensation took place over weeks and was interlaced with every other up and down of momentary disappointments or successes, the car starting right up, the bacon burned, the badly driven nail, the price of feed up or down, the damn world going to hell at an incremental pace, the equal notion that knowing this and seeing it that you were one of the righteous, whether you believed you were on the side of the almighty or just understood that, seeing the decline, identifying it, you and your little postage stamp spread were better than all the rest of geography. And thus, the second sensation would be all of that, but compressed into a moment and therefor was experienced as agony or ecstasy. The idea that there was some inherent substance behind each and that emotion was just this ether, concentrated or diluted by time.
That moment had passed. McCann didn’t lose much and found solace in the gameness of his bird, and the subservience of his wife. Reyes III spent his winnings on bar alcohol and even put some away towards yet another coat of paint; each went away satisfied. Team America went on the scrap pile, second from the top, his wounds telling a story only to the cleverest or most patient investigator. His wounds tell this whole story, if one has the eye to look. If he was Greek, and this was war, his tale might last forever. But they are birds and worse, fools, and are best forgotten.
Was it just then death, death and nothing but death that was central and fundamental to all of this. A harder question, would these same man have watched human beings murder each other with such enthusiasm, or dogs, or dogs trained to tear apart bears doing just that. All of these sports have been popular throughout history and do seem to have faded along an axis aligned in some way with the increasing area below the curve of civilization. But if the lost art of gladiatorial combat was closer to modern boxing where, ostensibly, triumph is to be obtained without the necessity of permanent injury to the birds it would still have no place on the squared dirt of that farm. Death was the only proper outcome and the failure to achieve this is equally the failure of the birds, the owners, even traditionally of the fates and onlooking spirits. One wonders if, with the increasing advances in medicine, the same medicine that brings back so many torn and totaled, multiply amputee’d and traumatically brain injured from the modern battlefield, if even more violent sport can be made safe. Gladiatorial combat could return if only with the caveat that hearts could be restarted, limbs regrown, eyes and brains protected with the slightest and toughest polymer protectants. But again, would that then reduce it to mere boxing? Even dancing? And what if the same medical and technical advances could be extended to the fighting birds, what then? As we have, biblically, asked the question three times, we must answer: no, it would be different. The ring’s not the thing, it’s death, death is the thing, not even blood or violence.
So, if what you are really asking is whether I see a meaningful, teachable microcosm in the blunt battling and betting of these two beastly birds, I am forced to return the question: Do you?
J. Reifel is a writer and chef. He studied film and visual arts at the University of California San Diego and worked in Los Angeles in film production and as a screenwriter. He now lives in NYC and runs the underground supper club, The Village Table. He is working on a hard boiled novel, I, Maggot, of which this story is an excerpt.
Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.