PETER FIDEL FRAU CESPEDES

estavidaboricuaARTIST’S STATEMENT – I have always written or thought about writing. Puerto Ricans are in a unique position in the world and we must express ourselves. There are ideas that will never be articulated if not by us. We must find, explicate, and illuminate them.

Peter Fidel Frau Céspedes was born and raised in the Wicker Park and Humboldt Park areas of Chicago. His father is Puerto Rican and his mother was from the Dominican Republic. He has taught English in the public school system of Puerto Rico for over 15 years. He currently lives and teaches in Maricao.

 

He can be contacted at peter_frau@yahoo.com

 

SURVIVOR

My chicken is depressed. She stands dejectedly on the unpainted cement floor in the grated backroom that leads out into the yard. Immobile, she doesn’t go outside and she doesn’t try to go inside the house either. If you had ever met my chicken when she was young, in her prime, you’d know that if she doesn’t try to go inside the house then something is wrong. What it is is that she’s depressed. She stands there looking down at her feet. Her little chicken shoulders fallen forward, her beak pale, the color of fingernails. She is not the chicken that she once was. She won’t even cock her head to look at me in the eye.

She once had a terrible, frightening look; a look that would make anybody who had met her before to be on their guard. How many times have I had to warn guests not to get near her, to walk away briskly without giving her their back if she approached? How many times have I had to scold her, telling her to stay away? But now she droops, the physical manifestation of despondency, a giant chicken sigh, a shade of what she once was. Where is her strength, her courage, her irrepressible will to strive and never to yield?

Her name is Survivor, because that is what she is. We quietly accepted the name that my son gave her because it was the first time that he came up with a name for a pet that wasn’t Kitty, Doggie, Birdie, or Fishy. We had no idea how apt her name would turn out to be. She was found at the base of a thirty foot retaining wall from which she had fallen. She was only one or two days old. We took her in as if she were one of our own. We bought her things; two little bowls, a dangling bell, a mirror which she pecked to death in three days. We cut up newspaper for her to use as litter. We got her a little square cage, the type that country people use to raise chickens and rabbits on a farm. We locked her up when we went out, but when we were at home we’d let her have the run of the apartment. She didn’t like to be alone and loved activity. If someone went to the kitchen to pop some corn while we were watching a movie on TV, you’d be able to hear the pitter – patter of tiny little talons scraping the tile floor following after. She learned not to jump on the dining room table while we were eating, more or less.

Soon my family felt too confined in the apartment so we bought three acres on a hill, with a cement house in the middle of it. And Survivor was in her element. Those were golden, halcyon days. My ex and I would unlock the inner grated door, shoulder open the heavy wooden outer door and our son and chicken would race out into the early morning radiance of the sun rising behind the mango tree. She was clay colored, and had a cow lick. Or whatever it is that birds have when a couple of feathers on their heads would stand straight up and would never preen down. We at first thought it was her comb. We thought that she was a Rooster. We were mistaken. In fact she was a hen that had an avian cowlick. Sometimes, when she was particularly feminine, especially after a molt, she would look at you fixedly with one pre-mammalian eye at a time and bob her cowlick feathers up and down just enough to be uncomfortably beguiling. The tease would act as if she didn’t know how adorable she was with her bobbed light brown feathers. Now, of course, that her alopecia has come to stay we only have recourse to photos and videos to see her in her nubile primacy.

She was so young and gay! She would follow me out to the side of the hill whenever I planted bananas or viands. She was alive and life was full of splendor. She soon learned that picks and shovels meant big-headed grubs and slimy worms. I would separate them for her from the clods of brown earth, letting her peck them up from my maternal hand. She was, at that time, quite docile. She seemed to respond to me. She would swallow and waft her wattles a little bit as if she understood my tender loving intent.

But her life wasn’t all grubs, sunshine and organic corn feed. When she was young she almost died twice. One of our dogs (who didn’t really fit in with our family and had to be removed, and therefore shouldn’t be mentioned by name, because she had a head grotesquely smaller than her neck causing her collar to constantly slip off) twice tried to eat her and left her with horribly ugly gashes. One of those times, Niche (that’s the unmentionable dog’s name) grabbed her, shook her and, tossed her into the air. Survivor returned to earth with a slash from her shoulder down to her belly and up one succulent thigh. Thank God that only the skin that held her feathers was cut and not the underlying membrane that kept her gizzards intact. It was a science lesson to see corn kernels and grubs digesting in the slough of her body. I thought about putting her down. My neighbor, Don Luis, told me it was hopeless. But my son urged me through his tears to try to save her. And I did. Both times. I put her in a cardboard box and sprayed her twice a day with brown medicine (hydrogen peroxide- as opposed to green medicine – aloe vera). The hen lived up to her name. She survived.

Survivor I love. But I have to be honest and state that she wasn’t just a mere victim. She could be a bitch. I never met a more aggressive or ornery farmyard critter. She had these strange hormonal lapses where you could almost hear the testosterone run through her. Apparently she belongs to that small group of hens that suddenly sprout spurs and become aggressive. I don’t know if it is nurture or nature, but it is certainly difficult to deal with. It affected our relationship profoundly. Whenever she was sporting spurs I couldn’t dig up grubs and worms fast enough. And I couldn’t turn my back on her even if I was going out to dig worms for her! Because if I did she would attack me, pecking me ferociously about my pants. I couldn’t even feed her the grubs by hand. If I put my hand near her while she was gorging on the delights that I had just dug up from the earth, she would stare at it with a wild eye as if unsure if she should attack it or not. Me! attack me! Whenever she was in those wild moods we couldn’t go outside without a broom or a shovel. We’d pass out brooms that we kept handy to any visitors who would happen to drop by. Thank God most of them, decently, would find an excuse to leave early to shorten our embarrassment. I can still remember the deaden sound of her beak striking shovel as she mechanically struck and struck and struck. The situation would last about a month and then she would molt her spurs. But when she had them on there was the devil to pay. She would strut through the yard and challenge anyone. Can you blame Niche, or whatever that small headed dog was named? Survivor wouldn’t let her alone. Niche would just be sleeping and Survivor would go and peck her in the ear. No provocation. Just for the fun of it. At first Niche would get up startled and look at Survivor trying to figure out what was wrong, but what reasons could that micro cephalic pooch come up with? So she would just get up, bark and back away from the hen. One day we came home and found Niche playing catch by herself, tossing Survivor into the air, and catching her, tossing her in the air and catching her. I guess Niche just got fed up. I gave Niche one chance and she blew it.

Sampson, our precious, big headed, chocolate Lab, was also victimized by Survivor. But he never hurt Survivor. He would just bark and swing her by the tail tossing her up in the air. And down would swoop Survivor right back at him. She was one tough, fearless, chicken. He would happily bark running circles around her. And she would charge him like a Toro. Eventually Samson would have to back down and walk away because Survivor would not. It was not in her nature to lose and Samson, who is no dummy, didn’t want to become a roadside orphan, big head or not.

Testosterone isn’t the only hormone blindly compelling Survivor’s actions. She was quite a prolific egg layer as well. I remember her first egg. I found it on a bookshelf inside the house. When we first moved to the farm we struggled to reconnect Survivor to her agricultural roots. We set up a nest for her in a red plastic milk carton out in the open walled back room. We placed her cage next to it which she used to sleep on since she had outgrown it. But it took several weeks for her to get used to the idea that she wasn’t an inside chicken anymore. She chaffed against being an outside hen. She would shoot in between our legs whenever we’d open the screen door forcing us to chase her around the house, an occasional feather floating through the air. I could say it was fun, looking back on it now. Everyone enjoyed it. It offered a twisted slant to our domestic familiar bliss.

Then one day, weeks after she had apparently accepted her life outdoors, I turned from my desk and saw an egg sitting on a shelf. The oddity of it was singularly satisfying: we were a family that included a pet chicken that laid eggs on our bookshelves. She laid them in other places as well. Once we found one on the bed, right in the middle of the bed. I still can’t figure out what she was trying to tell us. We would take her eggs and put them and the her in her nest, telling her to “stay!,” but she never did accept those eggs, that nest, or any command. She did however lay lots of eggs all over the place.

Shortly after she laid those eggs inside the house she disappeared. Three weeks later we acclaimed in wonder when she showed up nonchalantly with a pack of chicks following her wake. She was a good mother. But she had the worst luck. She had about two batches of kids a year and we rooted for each one. After recovering from the initial shock of seeing her maternal side we became her family support group. Whenever she would disappear we set out to track her down. We didn’t necessarily find her. Sometimes we only became aware of her nest when we heard the chirping of her chicks. We’d look and find her under patches of banana plants or under those low-growing plants with the big leaves. Often she’d nest among the mess of the shed or even in the grated open walled room with the cement floor and zinc roof where she stands right now, depressed.

She’s despondent right now because she lost another clutch of eggs. Her reproductive life has been a battle against the elements. Sometimes we would count ten or twelve or even more eggs, but only half would survive. Most often it was the ants; the red fire ants. Once the eggs started to hatch the ants would eat them, mostly in the shell. The chick inside would peck an opening and the red ants would come in. We of course tried to save as many as we could, unfortunately we lost most. The ants would sting us, leaving red papules or white pustules over our hands. And then of course, while we were trying to save her chicks, Survivor had to be restrained, if not she would attack us fearlessly. Even if we withdrew the eggs from the nest, most would die if even a small amount of ants entered them. We tried hastening the chicks’ emergence by removing small bits of their shell, but we found, tragically, that certain things can’t be rush. The poor babes didn’t have a chance. Rain was also a great destroyer of clutches, like this time. Sometimes we get three or four inches of rain in an afternoon and that would flood Survivor out, abandoning the nest to the cold wetness. And now I wonder if Nitche (the unmentionable, small headed dog) ever ate any of Survivor’s eggs. I should have taken her for a “ride” much earlier.

Now I look at Survivor, drenched, shoulders fallen, with a thousand yard stare, after losing a bout with Nature. She’s about seven years old. Her alopecia has expanded. Her head resembles more a turkey than a chicken with each passing day. Her hormonal swings are less extreme. Survivor, my survivor.

She has lasted a long time. I spoke with my son about her age, worried how he might react when her inevitable passing strikes our hearts. It was a needless worry. My son is an experienced pet owner. After birdie 1 and 2 had flown away “to be with their families” and after ceremoniously flushing fishy 1, 2 and 4 down the toilet (he had never noticed that fishy 3 was missing until weeks later when we found ourselves at a pet store in the mall buying fishy 4) he was aware that animals have a life span. His attitude regarding Survivor’s inevitable death was mature. He correctly pointed out that we had already eaten several of her children and grandchildren. My son wasn’t a child anymore.

Survivor, my Survivor, made weak by time and fate, has lost her will. I don’t want to imagine her fallen cold and dead and eaten by ants. I prefer to think that she will just disappear. That one day she will go out to lay her eggs and never, ever, come back. I imagine that life will eek out of her body, her body just a shell to be absorbed by the very earth and grubs and worms that she had consumed. I imagine it as a Tibetan sky burial.

Survivor!, my Survivor!, will lie on the deck cold and dead, her lips pale and still.