Chicken Soup

by Guy Petzall

The world is not kind to its chickens. Non-predatory prey, they strut and preen with an unaccountable pride, plumed and inflated, sovereigns in the impregnable kingdoms of their own egos. They seem to be ignorant of their position as the bottom link in the carnivorous food chain, and also of their own very obvious stupidity. It's quite something, really, to see so much self-respect in the face of such overwhelming and continual degradation.

But here at the Panama City Cockpit, their narcissistic demeanors take on new meaning. For only in places such as this, these chickens, these ridiculous creatures, are finally given a chance to prove themselves, to show that, although they may have been born into a loser among species, against their own kind they can compete, can turn predator themselves against each other, and that all their self-given grandeur would be more than cosmetics and pomp, were only the playing field leveled in their favor, just for a moment. Even from within the stacked crates that line the walls of the building, they assert their dominance, crooning from the bottoms of their desperate souls with more necessary enthusiasm than any human could muster: "Give me a shot! I may be a pawn by category, but I'm royal within my pathetic class! Let me show you! Give me a fair fight against another of my kind, whom I hate, for he reminds me so much of what I am!"

They are granted their wish. Here and only here, these evolutionary losers are elevated to the status of kings, the centers of attention and the deservers of privilege and momentary respect, a promotion born of the will toward promotion for its own sake, unconscious of the risk, uninformed of the cost, the only conceivable way they can compete in the world. And in this light, they do indeed acquire the aspect of something powerful, beautiful, their misplaced nobility elevated to an impressive prowess, at least before the games begin. Each cock has been plucked and shorn of all but wings, neck and tail, revealing streamlined bodies tight against their skin, muscular legs and sharp talons beneath the billowing canopy of feather and fluff, and crowned with a stiff red comb atop fierce yellow eyes. They are groomed and fretted over, stroked and worshipped. This is their glory moment.

Weighing the BirdsThe spectators and owners who fill out the space are a surly collection of working-class Panamanians, and they mill about the place with their own importance, inspecting talons, weighing birds, discussing odds. They too obtain a temporary reprieve from the dolor of daily struggle, for here they are transformed into gods over those whom they transform into kings. As if to solidify their positions as deities, they drink beer and snack on boiled eggs from a stationary vendor, indisputable evidence of their vast superiority as a species, perhaps no small comfort in a tiresome and difficult world. Here is motion, feathers, voices, cackles, the value of somewhere to be, and something to say. All assembled, birds as well as men, are at their peak, a pitch which intensifies until with a sharp clang!, the bell is sounded, summoning them to the ring.

Everyone swirls into place, pressing against and around the low walls which surround the playing floor, standing, sitting, hanging from poles and rafters, fists full of cash and beer bottles. Two owners, birds tucked cleanly under their arms, enter and present their contestants to the seated official who inspects and approves them and then, with noise and cheers all around, the cocks and their trainers head into the ring. The bell tolls again, the frenzied shouts of betting and odds cease, and all eyes focus on the cocks themselves, still clutched tightly by their owners, who approach one another cautiously, holding their birds out in front of them by way of introduction. The first meeting of the gladiators. The cocks strain their necks to peck at each other, the kiss before the fight, and then to arms, the owners retreating ringside, the crowd aroar.

And in that terrible instant, the birds learn their mistake.

In the RingGone is the grace, the beauty, the pretense of grandeur, all supplanted by awkward and desperate struggle, to kill, to live. In a single moment they discover that they are not kings, they are not celebrities, they are merely doomed, condemned by the fate of their birth which they had hoped to escape. And with no recourse available, they fight. Neck feathers flare like cobras' hoods, beaks peck and dodge, wings flap, plumage flies. Blood flows. The theater of death has never been more dramatic. The howls of the spectators, the mortal tension of the cocks themselves, all boosted by the constant electric undercurrent of crooning birds in their cages, conspire toward a passion that only blood sport could produce. The twin tensions of sweat and blood run to new highs as the bewildered and threatened animals feint with their wings and dive with their talons, a frenzied battle between creatures who at this point understand nothing beyond mortality, confusion, and aggression, their careful coifs in disarray, their proud plumes stained red. It continues peck upon scratch until, when one of the combatants can no longer stand to defend himself, the judge rings the bell yet again, and the owners step in to collect their birds.

Money changes hands, the crowd still thrills, but the birds have suffered the final humiliation: deprived of what small dignity they had, deprived even of the kill, they docily acquiesce to their masters' strong hands and are taken exhausted and beaten from the ring as new contenders are brought in, still beautiful and proud, unconscious of their imminent fates.

This is not my first experience with the sport of death. I have also seen numerous bullfights, lavish spectacles in which a lone man pits himself against a tremendous animal. In that event, despite its brutality, there is also something of art. It is a show, a dance, performed with precision, grace and skill. But not here. Here there is no aesthetic, no danger, no ability on display. Here no man fights anyone but himself, his life, his situation, using proxies in the ring who like him know no strategy other than struggle, two animals kindred in their condition of systemic disempowerment. The cocks bloody themselves and are then removed, packed up, and taken home where they await a no doubt less dubious fate, while the humans, inflating their own aggressive power with beer, waving money, the suffering of the weak, swirl and regroup, charged for the next round, until at the end of the day, they too pack themselves up into cars and busses for the trip home, back to the rest of the week and the dangerous arena of daily life in Panama City.