Hooray for Rex!
Benjamin McPherson Ficklin
Reading Time: 14 minutes
"Hooray for Rex!" originally appeared in Issue 16 of Tahoma Literary Review. I selected the piece for its character development and its train of thought. The essay drives forward at a rhythmic pace that is easy to follow and that beckons us to do so. Don't be put off by its lack of paragraph breaks. The unbounded block of text supports brave, beautiful Rex, and Ficklin's point. The work was listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2019, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2020.
Of course, Rex would find this all meaningless, Rex is a rooster. It almost seems unfair to use him this way, like maybe we should all pitch in and get Rex a prosthesis as thanks for letting (though we can’t really ask his permission) us utilize him for something that doesn’t do him any good. It’s just that I think his story exemplifies, or more like can be told in such a way to exemplify, something perhaps poignant regarding how we conceive of reality. But I’m putting the chicken before the egg. Rex hatched from a nest tucked into the trunk of an avocado tree that grew beneath a veil of lilikoi vines. One egg from his clutch didn’t hatch, a life too weak to crack its shell, but the seven other chicks chipped their way to existence, and they lived blissfully for a few days, until, one morning, while their mother—a dirty off-white hen—cleaned the nest, the hatchlings investigated some rotting avocados on the boundary of their sanctuary, at least what had seemed a sanctuary because a mongoose darted through the vines and orally decapitated three of the chicks before dragging another into the jungle. Mom came squawking to their protection too late. And as Rex and his two surviving sisters cowered beneath her wings, they felt a massive and immediate fear, an uncomplicated terror. You can imagine their little yellow bodies shaking. You can imagine their frightened peeps. But within a day they recapitulated their existence (now accommodating knowledge of potential horror) and accompanied Mom beyond the vines to the greater world. The chicks were amazed to find Mom was in fact not the only hen, she belonged to a harem of five who followed a huge cantankerous orange rooster. On their second day with the rest of the flock, one of the other hens—a black-and-white-speckled hen—ate one of Rex’s sisters, simply gobbled her up. Also, as an aside, maybe we should note, though perhaps it’s obvious, this entity wasn’t then called Rex, but giving this entity a name makes our participation in this story or essay or whatever this is a little simpler, right? We could just as easily deem it Biological Entity #99100 or Nuada or whatever, it’s just important that we don’t think of this thing as being Rex, instead it’s a thing represented by a combination of three symbols we call letters. Anyway. Days passed in the jungle. The biological-entity-later-to-be-called-Rex and his one surviving sibling followed Mom everywhere. She showed them how to find water in puddles on the gravel road after it rained—good for baths! She tore open ulu to expose its gummy flesh for their little beaks—delicious! She upturned rocks and chased down centipedes—impressive! The rooster paid the chicks no mind, the black-and-white hen showed no further cannibalistic tendencies, the other hens lived preoccupied with their own existences, thus the chicks were free to focus on themselves and Mom. Rex was content, well, except for when the orange rooster would crow. Hearing this entity’s cry, hearing the uproarious responses echoed throughout the jungle, Rex felt a pang of need, some drive, some yearning to define an aspect of himself that felt obscured, until, one morning, after eating some noni, upon hearing the rooster’s call, feeling confident and full of life, Rex flew to a low-hanging branch on the noni bush and cawed his first ever cockadoodledoo. An excellent feeling. Excellent, that is, until he saw the massive orange rooster charging him. Rex leapt from the noni bush. The rooster gripped Rex’s scrawny neck with his talons and stabbed him once with a sharp peck of his beak. Rex thrashed free. Rex ran, and the big rooster chased him out of the little gulley. Twice he tried to return to the flock only to be run off by the rooster again and again, each time looking toward Mom for some assistance, some explanation, but she only stood, watching with his sister, until Rex was too exhausted to try again. He strutted down the gravel road alone. It rained that night. He perched in a pomelo tree and got soaked. He spent the next few months searching the jungle for something he couldn’t define; food was abundant, water was abundant, he learned to avoid the rain by roosting in trees with lush canopies, in the evening he crowed, in the afternoon he crowed, in the morning he crowed, and the other roosters always threatened him with their returning calls, proclaiming their dominance over some portion of the island, so he kept on looking. Unbeknownst to him—three weeks after he was chased from his flock, a one-eyed calico cat killed the orange rooster when the grizzled bird was preoccupied chasing a gecko, this left the rest of the flock (yes, including Mom and Sis) to be eaten by the other feral felines and mongrel packs of the jungle. But, to the South, blithe and daily growing larger, developing long green teal-feathers and a golden chest and a magnificent red crown, Rex continued existing, continued searching for this undefinable thing, continued calling into the vegetation but always thwarted by the returning cry of other cocks. Maybe this is the right moment to consider what authority I can possibly have on a rooster? I am a human. All the writing you’ve ever read was scribed by humans. All the legends and reports and documentaries that you’ve ever imbibed were the product of one of a multitude of brain types. Am I capable of communicating the life of another species of animal? What about the life of the avocado tree or the noni shrub? Regardless of our proclivities to anthropomorphize and zoomorphize, we have infinitely more in common with the fourteen-year-old human who left a pile of rotten papayas in the middle of a looped rope than we do Rex. We can all partially empathize with the human who pulled this rope that cinched Rex’s feet and yanked him into the air. This Homo sapien was pressured by his peers to find a fighting cock, a child who grew up living with his auntie and uncle, sharing with his five cousins a lanai full of hammocks off a tin-roofed building half-reclaimed by the jungle, a home surrounded by junked cars, pau hana cans, carcasses of boars, dogs, other animals. A kid who never once attended school. Dangling, Rex flailed madly. The boy squeezed Rex’s neck with an oven mitt, used a pair of pruners to sever off his fleshy comb, and stuffed him into the dark maw of a burlap sack. Another fear took Rex, a fear as idiosyncratic as any feeling, some unconscious response to reality that we can only try to approximate and assume: perhaps an amalgamation of helplessness, shock, endangerment, bafflement at the incomprehensible. The sack containing Rex was thrown into a car, and as he flailed, he became wedged beneath the passenger seat, repeatedly smacking his bleeding head as the car bounced along the gravel road. Struggling to see over the steering wheel, the mammalian inhabitant of the car was both obsessing over and trying to ignore the existence of the rooster-yet-to-be-named-Rex; a portion of the boy wondered if he’d captured a strong rooster, a portion of him worried the rooster might die on the drive, but mostly he feared the ridicule of his older cousins, he feared being thought of as weak in a household where masculinity was determined by strength that existed in a hierarchy, a place where one might compensate for being the youngest cousin by owning an undefeatable fighting cock. This child believed Rex was his best hope for feeling strong. He drove onward despite the inkling that he was stealing something that he had no right to steal, taking something that the rooster had as much right to as he did, but, then again, he reminded himself as he rattled up the dirt driveway, it was just a chicken. And the pride on his eldest cousin’s face squashed any further qualms. The boy felt like a man. The next day, after Rex spent the night pacing his cage, crying at the other roosters free and imprisoned, setting off the dogs barking, humans yelling, Rex was released in a dirt patch beneath a banyan tree. Homo sapiens surrounded him. Another cock stood across from him. Rex was baffled, he blinked at his fellow Gallus gallus. What can we know about this moment full of yelling and barking? A moment when the rooster-later-to-be-named-Rex felt both freed and caged, a moment of anticipation and adrenaline, a moment both far and near the inexplicit thing of his desire. But perhaps I’m way off! Maybe this thing felt calm? Maybe the moment smelt of blooming kiele? Maybe it smelt of decomposing noni and spilled beer? Is it up to me? I don’t know. What can we know about a rooster? I struggle to write this for how egotistical it feels to assume an understanding of another species’ experience of reality. When writing about humans I at least share a biology, a DNA sequencing, but even that action, the writing of another human, is bafflingly assumptious. Why would my experience of reality be at all applicable to another experience of reality? He’s real, by the way, there is a rooster called Rex living on The Big Island. We cohabitated on a farm. But in order to write this piece I’ve had to assume a tremendous amount about his existence prior to it coinciding with mine. Is it okay to assume these things? Does it make a difference that Rex is a rooster and not a person? Or is Rex a person? This returns to the thought that Rex can epitomize something for us. There’s a philosophical theory that’s (as far as I can tell) rarely known outside of those who have studied the subject, or I should write rarely known explicitly because Plato’s theory of Forms is foundational to Occidental thought. Plato’s Forms are a you-know-it-but-don’t-know-you-know-it sorta thing. Maybe the theory is best explained with an example, so let’s take a chicken, or more appropriately, let’s take chickenness: you’ve seen myriad varieties of chickenness your whole life, whether that be in person or in photos or a book illustrating barnyard animals. As a child you learn of a thing called “chicken,” or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you learn of a pattern called “chicken,” even if it’s a two-dimensional line drawing. You’ll think that’s a chicken as long as the thing qualifies to fit your chicken pattern, but, more accurate to Plato’s theory of Forms, this pattern exists beyond you. This is an inherent and static and perfect pattern, so, according to Plato, it’s more like, that thing is participating in Chickenness. The infinite plurality of these entities fit into the absolute form of Chickenness. And that Chickenness is more real, more accurate than any corporeal chicken; all living chickens are striving toward, but always falling short of, perfect Chickenness. Maybe that seems pretty harmless. But Plato was more concerned with the Forms of almost incomprehensibly complex concepts like Justice, Society, Goodness, Personness. Plato thought that prior to inhabiting this shared reality, we existed in a reality of Forms where we understood these concepts perfectly and entirely, but in this shared reality we are limited to approximate rememberings of the pure Forms. I’m not writing this to denounce abstract ideas—of course not! There’s absolutely a usefulness to recognizing that your society is far from enacting Justice, a criticism that necessitates an abstract conceptualization of Justice. And our whole story about Rex is contingent on you, the reader, sharing with me, the writer, abstract definitions and associations. But this Platonic theory of Forms applies to everything. Like Personness. In having an approximate definition of the Form of Personness, one can discern whether a thing in this shared existence is a person or not. Obviously, living people don’t actively believe in this plane of pure Forms, but the idea that there is an objective and pure version of things is covertly embedded in our interpretation of everything: what a good dog, he’s becoming a real man, she’s a responsible woman, they’re finally acting like an adult, it’s a nicer neighborhood, they’re a more advanced country—we act like and speak like these are objective classifications. But these are human constructs. As humans live and die, we’re constantly renegotiating what we believe are immutable concepts, subjecting these nearly worshipped definitions to potential fuckery by self-serving entities like institutionalized powers. Like being so indoctrinated by a society’s constructed definition of Personness that you could look at a fellow Homo sapien and think not a person. Or look at a complex structure of human interactions and think not a society. Consider the impoverished fourteen-year-old and his cousins in the jungle South of Kona (a place that now shows up on maps as Captain Cook), their ancestors inhabited the archipelago for centuries if not millennia, cultivating that jungle into a biodynamic ulu forest, organizing the kapu system of law and spirituality, living with all the infinities that exist within any society—existing within their relatively personalized parameters of life, until those who descended from Plato's theory of Forms arrived in 1778. These colonizers applied their definition of Personness and Society to the Hawai’ians and found them lacking. This colonialist worldview permitted religious conversion, language erasure, the outlawing of cultural practices like the hula. The British and the Americans couldn’t (or refused to) recognize their definition of society in Hawai’i, so they labeled it barbaric and simple, a dehumanization that permissed the American Navy’s imprisonment of Queen Lili’uokalani and takeover of the island. I wonder how to begin moving toward defining things in the highly subjective instead of the ideal. It’s something maybe we’ve begun to do on an intellectual level, but practically I see us still mired in the limitations of Platonic Forms. What if the relationship between things could be determined by the uniqueness of all things involved? Infinite Plurality > Absolutism. Rex lost the fight by the way. He kept trying to flee, but one of the cousins always kicked him back into the dirt patch, his throat punctured six times by the pecks of his opponent. As the-rooster-yet-to-be-named Rex lay bleeding in the dirt, the other Gallus gallus was raised triumphantly by the second-eldest cousin, and the defeated fourteen-year-old Homo sapien tied his bird’s legs together and lifted him, letting him dangle as the blood ran off his feathers, walking him to the family car. The child tried to withhold his sniffles, but cried outright as his cousins mocked him, calling his rooster a chicken, calling him a girl and not a man. He drove the jungle roads, still crying, until he gathered the courage to park the car and apologize to the limp and bloodied animal, then, standing on the side of the road, holding the rope, he swung Rex around and around, releasing him to crash into the vegetation. Rex lay there unconscious until the crowing of the roosters awoke him the next morning. His legs were tied, he could not fly, he could not walk, he could not stand. So Rex drug himself through a rocky gully full of rotting ulu, pecking at enough to live a little longer. He, if I may assert such a presumption, longed for a formless thing. A coconut fell and crushed one of his legs, bent it sideways around some a’a, paining him too much to drag it behind him as he crawled with his mutilated wings. For two days he died, cawing feebly into the jungle. The other roosters called back, decreeing their dominance of some place Rex couldn’t go. Life or the feeling of being alive withdrew from the feathers and flesh lying unmoving in the jungle, though it still periodically produced a faint call. Then another Homo sapien found him, this one a middle-aged Jamaican American woman who knew the sound of a distressed rooster, who knew the practice of the local boys when they wanted to dispose of a beaten fighting cock. Rex saw this Homo sapien and felt no fear, for to fear losing life a thing must desire life, and all he felt was pain and despair: a rooster’s pain, his unique pain, his unique existence. She unwrapped the scarf holding her hair, using it to scoop the blood- and shit-covered animal into her arms. It seemed to weigh nothing. She walked the mile-and-a-half back to her house, made a bed of towels for the creature, locked the cats inside, and laid it down on her lanai. As the sun set, she held the creature’s head to a tray of water. It lapped up some of the liquid. Cradling it, she looked at this Gallus gallus and saw a person struggling to decide whether or not to live, so she thought to ask its name, she thought that might inspire some instinct to survive, so she knelt and asked the life what its name was, and the Gallus gallus gurgled a sound that might have been close enough to Rex to merit the appellation. The next morning she slid the door to her lanai open and asked, Ya dead, Rex? and Rex warbled pathetically. She cleaned the wound on his wings and throat but had no idea how to mend the bent leg. It was festering. She got Rex to peck at some cornmeal and water by holding little porcelain dishes to his wobbly head. At night, after tending to her coffee and citrus farm, she’d sit on her lanai and read the news or bits of Lao-Tzu to the five cat-people, two dog-people, and one rooster-person with whom she lived. Six days after Rex’s arrival, the woman threw a party to commemorate the day she was born, and at one point, as she was inside blending a margarita, one of her guests screamed, she ran outside and saw Rex out of his bed, laying on the old wood of her lanai. His bent leg had fallen off. Two of her guests wanted to kill Rex right then and there, they offered to conk him on the head with a shovel, they said he’d never survive if he couldn’t walk. The savior Homo sapien shushed them, put Rex back in his bed, and took him to her room where she locked the door with a key. The next day she didn’t work her farm and instead spent the afternoon holding Rex in the crook of her arm, hopping on one foot along her driveway, hopping on one foot through the citrus trees, hopping on one foot into the jungle. She kept telling him, Ya gotta learn ta hop. And as she hopped, she’d say, Hop! She knew that if this life didn’t adapt, didn’t change, he would die. For a few hours every day she’d hop with Rex, then she’d carry him to her lanai where he’d sit in his bed and sleep. She began to lose hope. She thought this person would lose the will to live, confined to a bed by immobility. She too knew confinement, once married to an abusive husband, she knew that if she hadn’t fought for her right to define life, she would have died of atrophy. Then, one morning, as she worked in her kitchen jarring her lilikoi jam, a powerful cockadoodledoo rang out behind her. She turned to her window. Rex stood on his one leg atop the lanai’s railing, the sun shining on his gold, green, black feathers, he looked down at the farm, looked down at the jungle, and crowed again toward the distant ocean. The other roosters of the island returned his call. He crowed again and again. How might it have felt to be that crowing rooster? We’ll never know. He hopped down from the railing and began to lap up water from his tray. His savior cried at the joy she felt at her friend’s survival. And by the time I met her in a bar and was invited to work on her farm, Rex lived with the air of a champion. He hops around the property, crowing all day. He’s attracted a hen who roosts beside him above the washer and dryer in the driveway. He’s fed twice a day, always has water. Sometimes, he seems (as much as I can tell) to enjoy being picked up and having his green and golden feathers stroked, though I’m always careful not to touch his stump or mutilated comb. To me, Rex seems happy. Perhaps Rex has found what he’s always been looking for. Perhaps that entity has shown me that one thing can be infinite things. A thing is boundless and always self-defining.
Ficklin had this to say about their piece:
To be a thing in a shared existence is to have other existing things push their definitions upon you, sometimes to horrific ends; what better way (I thought) to explore this idea than by using Rex the Rooster (a friend with whom I lived on a Big Island farm) as an example; the life of Rex (might) suggest we let everything define itself.
Benjamin McPherson Ficklin will never surrender—Benjamin McPherson Ficklin will always love you. Find them at: benmf.com; Twitter: @artsBMF.