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Vaya con Dios, Sr. Don Alejandro Roces (1924-2011)

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The Filipino Spanish-speaking community, particularly the Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española, already lost two gems this year. First was Sr. Don Hilario Ziálcita. Two days ago, Sr. Don Alejandro Roces, a National Artist for Literature, followed his colleague and friend. Although he wrote in English throughout most of his journalistic career (he used to write for the Philippine Star under the long-running column Thorns and Roses), he was a champion of the Spanish language in the Philippines.

¡Por eso, una brinda para usted, Don Alejandro!

I met him only once, in an event held at Casino Español de Manila way back in 2001. I was then a part-time photographer for Señor Gómez‘s Nueva Era newspaper. I even took a photo of Don Alejandro (together with Señor Gómez and the late Señora Mita Pardo de Tavera). Too bad I wasn’t able to talk to him. But what did I know back then about Filipinismo? Not much.

To honor him, I publish here Don Alejandro’s famous short story in English:

MY BROTHER’S PECULIAR CHICKEN
Alejandro Roces

My brother Kiko had a very peculiar chicken. It was very peculiar because no one could tell whether it was a rooster or a hen. My brother claimed it was a rooster. I claimed it was a hen. We almost got lynched trying to settle the argument.

The whole question began early one morning, while Kiko and I were driving the chickens from the cornfield. The corn had just been planted and the chickens were scratching the seed out for food. Suddenly we heard the rapid flapping of wings. We turned in the direction of the sound and saw the two chickens fighting the far end of the field. We could not see the birds clearly, as they were lunging at each other in a whirlwind of feathers and dust.

“Look at the rooster fight!|” my brother said pointing excitedly at one of the chickens. “Why, if I had a rooster like that I could get rich in the cockpit.”

“Let us go and catch it,” I suggested. “No, you stay here, I will go and catch it,” Kiko said, my brother slowly approached the battling chickens. They were so busy fighting that they did not notice him as he approached. When he got near them, he dived and caught one of them by the legs. It struggled and squawked. Kiko finally held it by both wings and it stood still. I ran over to where he was and took a good look at the chicken.

“Aba, it is a hen!” I said.

“What is the matter with you?” my brother asked. “Is the heat making you sick?”

“No, look at its head. It has no comb or wattles.”

“No comb or wattles! Who cares about its comb or wattles? Didn’t you see it fight?”

“Sure, I saw it fight, but I still say it is a hen.”

“A hen! Did you ever saw a hen with spurs like this? Or a hen with a tail like this?”

Kiko and I could not agree on what determines the sex of a chicken. If the animal in question had been a carabao it would have been simple. All we would have to do was to look at the carabao. We would have wasted no time at examining its tail, hooves, or horns. We would simply have looked at the animal straight in the face, and if it had a brass on its nose the carabao would undoubtedly be a bull. But chickens are not like carabaos. So the argument went on in the field and the whole morning.

At noon, we left to have our lunch. We argued about it on the way home. When we arrived at our house, Kiko tethered the chicken on a peg. The chicken flapped its wings – and then crowed.

“There! Did you hear that?” my brother exclaimed triumphantly. “I suppose you are going to tell me now that carabaos fly.”

“I do not care if it crows or not,” I said. “That chicken is a hen.”

We went in the house and the discussion continued during lunch.

“It is not a hen,” Kiko said. “It is a rooster.”

“It is a hen,” I said.

“It is not.”

“It is.”

“That’s enough!” Mother interrupted. “How many times must Father tell you boys not to argue during lunch?” What is the argument about this time?”

We told Mother and she went out to look at the chicken,

“The chicken”, she said, “is a binabae. It is a rooster that looks like a hen.”

That should have ended the argument. But Father also went to see the chicken and he said.

“No, Mother, you are wrong. That chicken is a binalake, a hen which looks like a rooster.”

“Have you been drinking again?” Mother asked.

“No,” Father answered.

“Then what makes you say that rooster is a hen? Have you ever seen a hen with feathers like that?”

“Listen. I have handled fighting roosters since I was a boy, and you cannot tell me that thing is a rooster.”

Before Kiko and I realized what had happened to Father and Mother were arguing about the chicken all by themselves. Soon Mother was crying. She always cried when argued with Father.

“You know well that it is a rooster,” she sobbed. “You are just being mean and stubborn.”

“I am sorry,” Father said. But I know a hen when I see one.”

Then he put his arms around Mother and called her corny names like my Reina Elenea, my Madonna and my Maria Clara. He always did that when Mother cried. Kiko and I felt embarrassed. We left the house without finishing our lunch.

“I know who can settle this question,” my brother said.

“Tenienteng Tasio.”

Tenienteng Tasio was the head of the village. I did not think that the chief of the village was the man who could solve a problem. For the chief was the barrio philosopher. By this I mean that he was a man who explained his strange views by even stranger reasons. For example, the chief frowned on cockfighting. Now many people object to rooster fighting, their reason being either that they think cockfighting is cruel or that they think gambling is bad. Neither of these was the chief’s reason. Cockfighting, he said was a waste of time because it has been proven that one gamecock can beat another.

The chief, however, had one merit. He was the oldest man in the barrio, and while this did not make him an ornithologist, still, we have to admit that anything said always carries more weight if it is said by a man with grey hairs. So when Kiko suggested consulting the teniente, I voiced no objection. I acquiesced to let him be the arbiter of our dispute. He untied the chicken and we both took it to the chief.

“Tenienteng Tasio, is this chicken a male or a female?” Kiko asked.

“That is a question that could concern only another chicken,” the chief replied.

Both Kiko and I were taken aback by this replication. But Kiko was obstinate, so he tried another approach.

“Look, teniente,” he said, “my brother and I happen to have a special interest in this particular chicken. Please give us an answer. Just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Is this a rooster?”

“It does not look like any rooster that I have ever seen,” said the teniente.

“It is a hen, then,” I said.

“It does not look like any hen that I have ever seen,” was the reply.

My brother and I were dumbfounded. For a long while we remained speechless. Then Teniente Tasio asked:

“Have you ever seen an animal like this before?”

Kiko and I had to admit that we hadn’t.

“Then how do you both know it is a chicken?”

“Well, what else could it be?” Kiko asked in turn.

“It could be another kind of bird.”

“Oh, God, no!” Kiko said.” Let’s go to town and see Mr. Cruz. He would know.”

Mr. Eduardo Cruz lived in the nearby town of Alcala. He had studied poultry husbandry at Los Baños, and he operated a large egg farm. When we got there Mr. Cruz was taking his siesta, so Kiko released the chicken in his yard.

The other chicken would not associate with ours. Not only did they keep as far away from it as they could, but they did not even seem to care to which sex it belonged. Unembarrassed by this, our chicken chased and disgraced several pullets.

“There!” my brother exclaimed.

“That should prove to you it is a rooster.”

“It proves nothing of the sort,” I said. “It only proves it has rooster instincts – but it could still be a hen.”

As soon as Mr. Cruz was up, we caught the chicken and took it to his office.

“Mr. Cruz,” Kiko said, “is this a hen or a rooster?”

Mr. Cruz looked at the bird curiously and then said:

“Hmmmm, I don’t know. I couldn’t tell at one look. I have never run across a biddy like this before.”

“Well, is there any way you can tell?”

“Why, sure. Look at the feathers on its back. If the ends are round, it’s a she. If they are pointed, then it is a he.”

The three of us examined its feathers closely. It had both!

“Hmm. Very peculiar,” said Mr. Cruz.

“Is there any other way you can tell?”

“I could kill it and examine its insides,”

“No, I don’t want it killed,” my brother said.

I took the plumed creature in my arms and we walked back to the barrio. Kiko was silent most of the way. Then suddenly he snapped his fingers and said:

“I know how I can prove to you that this is a rooster.”

“How?” I asked.

“Would you agree that this is a rooster if it fights in a cockpit – and it wins?”

“If this hen of yours can beat a gamecock, I would believe anything,” I said.

“All right,” he said, “we will take it to the cockpit this coming Sunday.”

So that Sunday we took the chicken to the cockpit. Kiko looked around for a suitable opponent and finally decided on a red rooster. I recognized the rooster as a veteran of the pit whose picture had once graced the cover of the gamecock magazine Pintakasi. It was also the chanticleer that had once escaped to the forest and lured all the hens away from the surrounding farms. Raising its serpent-liked head, the red rooster eyed the chicken arrogantly and jiggled its sickle feathers. This scared me. For I knew that when the gamecock is in breeding mood it is twice a ferocious.

“Do not pit your hen against the rooster,” I told Kiko. That the rooster is not a native chicken. It was brought over the from Texas.”

“That does not mean anything to me,” my brother said. “”My rooster will kill it.”

“Do not be a fool,” I said. “That red rooster is a killer. It has killed more chickens than the cholera. There is no rooster in this province that can take its gaff. Pick on a less formidable rooster.”

My brother would not listen. The match was made and the birds were headed for the killing. Sharp steel gaffs were tied to their left legs. Kiko bet eight pesos on his chicken. I only bet two. The odds were two to one. Then I said a tacit prayer to Santa Rita de Casia, patroness of the impossible.

Then the fight began. Both birds were released at the center of the arena. The Texan scratched the ground as if it were digging a grave for its opponent. Moments later, the two fighters confronted each other. I expected our rooster to die of fright. Instead, a strange thing happened. A lovesick expression came into the red rooster’s eyes. Then it did a love dance. Naturally, this was a most surprising incident to one and all, but particularly to those who had stakes on the Texas rooster. For it was evident that the Texan was thoroughly infatuated with our chicken and that any attention it had for the moment was strictly amatory. But before anyone could collect his wits our foul rushed at the red stag with its hackle feathers flaring. In one lunge, it buried its spur in its adversary’s breast. The fight was over! The sentencer raised our chicken in token victory.

“Tiope! Tiope! Fixed fight!” the crowed shouted.

Then a riot broke out. People tore the bamboo benches apart and used them as clubs. My brother and I had to leave through the back way. I had the chicken under my arm. We ran towards the coconut groves and we kept running till we lost the mob. As soon as we felt safe, we sat on the ground and rested. We were both panting like dogs.

“Now are you convinced it is a rooster?” Kiko muttered between breaths.

“Yes,” I answered.

I was glad the whole thing was over.

But the chicken had other ideas. It began to quiver. Then something round and warm dropped on to my hand. The chicken cackled with laughter. I looked down and saw – an egg!

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3 responses »

  1. it’s a good story. something that hooks you until the end. =) I sympathize with those he left behind.. i’m sure he will be missed.

    Reply
  2. Alegria Imperial

    Thank you for posting this sad news about Sr. Don Alejandro Roces. Along with Sr. Don Hilario Zialcita, a richly textured era in the Philippines is cetainly passing.

    As a student and lover of literature, I first met Sr. Don Alejandro through his short stories–this inimitable one you so kindly posted here, for one. He towered in my mind then because of his wit and clarity of thought as well as seamlessness of language, something I strived for so long as a writer in English.

    But it is when I met him in person in the late 60′s before those troubled weeks at his office at a building which also housed the Chinese Embassy on Roxas Blvd.–a friend who was then a member of the Bayanihan Dance Company, knowing I’m a ‘pretender’ for literary heights, brought me to him–that my reverence for ‘Tito Anding’ at a distance turned into something short of a hero worship for his genuineness as a person. He regarded me as a friend in an instant and up close I experienced the wit in his lines, his joy over the smallest things that perk life up and his generosity of sharing himself–these had so groved in my spirit that I realized great minds are more human than are most of us. My friend and I visited him a few more times but I hardly had other such chances again. Yet to this day, I could look back to those meetings in as vividly as these were a day ago.

    I join in prayers for the repose of his soul. I’m certain he entered the gates sparring with St. Peter, smiling throughout.

    Reply

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