The ballad of the headless chicken

May 30, 2013 Comments Off on The ballad of the headless chicken by

Introductory text by Jimena Gorráez Belmar

Translation by Jessica Sequeira

Ignacio Padilla (Mexico City, 1968) has had his narrative work translated into more than fifteen languages, and has won many national and international awards, including the prestigious Premio Primavera de Novela for his 2000 Amphytrion. In 2001, he published Las antípodas y el siglo, which began the four-part series Micropaedia, and was followed by the second part El androide y las quimeras in 2008. The French magazine Lire has listed Padilla among the fifty most important narrators of the 21st century.

This text forms part of the volume Los reflejos y la escarcha, which will appear under the editorial label Páginas de Espuma as the last part of the Micropaedia project. Follow Ignacio on Twitter @nachonotuitea


The ballad of the headless chicken

By Ignacio Padilla


At what unhappy moment did the Olsen brothers’ chicken cease to be a chicken, and turn into something else? Stories like theirs only confirm that the spiral of time is governed by the riddle of the chicken and the egg, or, in this case, the chicken and its legend. Rereading my notes now about the tale of Mike, the headless chicken, I understand better than ever why a linear narrative is said to be a contradiction.

I can’t avoid it: every time I ask myself how this story ended, I end up going back to the day they decapitated the chicken. And, each time, I adjust the way it went: it’s possible that that day was, in effect, the day the chicken ‘such as it was’ died, or, to put it another way, its end as a chicken ‘as such’. But that sort of death would have been something else in the order of things, giving rise to no story worth telling: the chicken would have been only another dead and anonymous bird, one chicken more or less edible, just like any other chicken. Viewed properly, the decapitation of the bird that July morning was, strictly speaking, a start. And what a great start, it must be said.

And what about the end? The true end of the headless chicken must lie elsewhere. Perhaps it’s better to look for it in the night the chicken died, I mean, the night it really died. It could start like this: One night, Mike, the famous headless chicken, suffocated in a Phoenix motel, and his owners, who had amassed a tolerable fortune at the expense of the bird, were devastated. Following this act, an addendum could be added, in which the following is said: In the age of Eisenhower, in debt due to their passion for roulette and the death of their mythical good luck charm, Wilbur and Lloyd Olsen requested my services to stuff the body of the chicken, because they were thinking of selling it to the Smithsonian Museum. I refused, of course: at that juncture Mike’s cadaver lacked what was essential for a decent taxidermy. On top of that, the Olsens had always given me a bad feeling. My colleagues in Tucson had told me that in other times, when the chicken was still alive, the brothers had imposed drastically cruel conditions on it, so that science would study its miraculous survival. Now the bird was dead, and only its memory and the bitterness that its miracle had sown in the region remained of it. The Olsens weren’t getting anything from presenting Mike to me in a jar of formaldehyde: all the same, I threw them out of my studio. If I understand it right, that same night the Olsens lost their last few coins gambling and threw Mike’s body into the waters of the Ashuntah Lake.




I note with alarm that this lake-related epilogue will still not be enough to bring the legend of the headless chicken to a close. It occurs to me that the story could end at yet another moment, not with Mike’s expiry, nor with the immersion of his cadaver in Lake Ashuntah, nor with his owners’ taxidermic request. It could end, I think, with the death of the Olsen brothers.

A few months ago, by chance, I visited the town of Fruita, Colorado, where I knew that the Olsens had died twenty years ago, only a few days apart. Even if they had lived in the same town until the final moment, though, Wilbur and Lloyd Olsen had long stopped talking. They blamed each other mutually for the death of Mike, and it’s not completely unlikely that they’d died because of wounds inflicted upon each other one afternoon, when nostalgia for the chicken and an excess of alcohol came to seem so oppressive they were channeled into violent fratricide. The inhabitants of the town say nothing about that quarrel now, not even those who knew the Olsens and are still alive to tell it. When expressly questioned, the witnesses of the fight beat around the bush: they look at the horizon, chew a piece of imaginary tobacco, sigh and respond only that Mike was a big chicken, thiiiis fat. Yes, Mike was a fat chicken who didn’t know he was missing a head, someone else will say to clarify, laughing. Everyone in that town laughs, and endlessly chews imaginary tobacco.

In Fruita, Colorado, the people talk of the headless chicken with a morbidity seasoned by compassion. One might even say that they miss him. The oldest of them shiver visibly when they talk about how, in the two years his glory lasted, Mike fattened up until he was nearly three kilos, fed through a little tube the Olsens had fitted in the stump of his neck. The old folks added that with that same stump, Mike cleaned his feathers and even blindly pecked at the ground.

Basically, it seems that Mike got on as well as any normal chicken would have done. He ignored that they had beheaded him, just as he also ignored the little tube that kept him alive, which would be his perdition as well as that of his owners. The inhabitants of Fruita agree that he was a good creature, that Mike, even if they rarely saw him in town. When the Olsens went away on tour, the people of Fruita started missing the good chicken less, and took advantage of the time to whisper things against the brothers, that pair of cheats who charged up to 25 cents to see ‘our dear Mike’, the Indescribable Headless Chicken.

Mike was insured for the not insignificant sum of $10,000. The Olsens would never get around to collecting it, for at the creature’s death the guarantor argued that he had died due to his owners’ negligence. They killed him, verify the outraged old folks of Fruita, those renowned chewers of imaginary tobacco. When they enter in confidence with one another, carried away by drinks or gossip, the old folks even argue over which one of the two brothers was responsible for Mike’s death. The discussion is pointless now, of course. In the ’70s, though, the polemic reached epic proportions. The town of Fruita split between those who took the side of one brother, and those who took the side of the other, in regards to responsibility for the chicken’s death. Families and entire generations got involved in the fight. The dispute very quickly became about more than the memory of the good chicken, escalating into pitched battles over politics, religion, and even sport. At some point during the crisis, the authorities felt obliged to intervene, and there were no lack of demonstrations and beatings, which only ended when a tank burst onto the main street of Fruita with anti-riot hoses. In memory of those turbulent years, the shopkeeper of the town preserves three cans of tear gas he is disposed to show to visitors, given a donation of 25 cents, which, he assures, will go towards the construction of a Museum of the Headless Chicken: no more, no less.




These days it doesn’t matter who killed poor Mike, or let him die. The town of Fruita shows an equal aversion for both brothers now. They think the chicken belonged to everyone, and that the Olsens are guilty in equal measure, for they were supposed to be his guardians. Destiny had entrusted them to care for Mike, and they hadn’t been up to the distinguished mission. They’d had no right to get rich off the marvellous chicken, let alone kill him. That they’d cared well for him for a time, no one can deny. But they could have done it much better.

The Olsens were blinded by hubris, clamour the know-alls of Fruita. Miracles like Mike are yielded up every few thousand years, they say, and the Olsen brothers didn’t know how to see him. How many towns in history have been blessed with a being of Mike’s characteristics? Few, in truth very few. It’s not for nothing that during Mike’s life there was an authentic epidemic of bird beheadings in Colorado. Clearly this, on its own, is nothing new: there is always, in some part of the world, a chicken with its head being cut off, though Animal Watch statistics scandalously demonstrate that the United States is the only country in which a chicken dies every five seconds. But Mike was different, it is understood, as were his frustrated imitators. Whoever was given to beheading birds in those days did it with the clear intention of reproducing the formidable luck of the headless chicken. And these attempts failed: having been decapitated, the chickens lasted somewhere between the usual ten seconds and, in limited cases, up to two days. A woman from Wichita announced that she had been able to reproduce the miracle of Mike, and proceeded to exhibit her own beheaded chicken on her farm. The woman was jailed months later, when it came to light that, even if she had found out how to keep a headless bird alive for a week, she had kept a supply of chickens in her barn identical to the first, which every Monday waited for the death of their predecessor. The so-called ‘Great Fraud of Wichita’ only served to increase Mike’s fame.

In his prime, the headless chicken managed to earn his owners up to $4500 per month, free of tax. At that time the magazine Scientific American published an extensive study investigating the possible reasons for Mike’s survival, only to conclude that the headless bird could only be a colossal scam. Just as had been the case with the unmasking of his imitators, the biologists’ judgement only made the animal more popular. What had started with a simple, morbid exhibition of the bird in a barn on the outskirts of Fruita quickly became an elaborate ritual. Visitors paid their entrance fee at the barn, then entered in groups of five into an improvised living room, where Wilbur Olsen received them seated on a red sofa. The light was dim at first, increasing in intensity as the show progressed. In the half-light, with the chicken sittting peaceful on his lap, Wilbur gloried in his recently discovered melodramatic gifts. He had learned to imitate the inflections of Billy ‘The Magician’ Jones, the historic baseball radio commentator, and with that voice he told how one day he, or his brother, had decided to have chicken for breakfast. It had been an icy grey morning, remembered Wilbur with the borrowed voice of ‘The Magician’ Jones. Because the executioner on shift had had a bad night, he had been distracted during the execution, such that the axe left enough of the brain trunk to allow the animal to remain alive. Of course, said Wilbur Olsen, their first reaction had been to try and kill the animal again to end its suffering. Then something had happened, Wilbur announced. A fit, an illumination, call it what you like ladies and gentlemen. What’s certain is that it had prevented them from continuing with the annihilation of Mike. There was a hesitation, then: epiphany. The death rattles of the bird had hypnotized them, in a certain way possessed them, he said. Mike stayed alive, he had to stay alive. But why, ladies and gentlemen?, asked Wilbur Olsen, raising his voice. And he roared: Because our Mike is not a chicken from this world. With this, the lights of the barn came on fully, and the ecstatic visitors could see Mike. But they still did not see him in his full magnificence: they saw only an ordinary chicken, a chicken with a head, sitting on the lap of the eloquent Wilbur. The initial deception was huge. Wilbur feigned surprise, then embarrassment, and finally outrage. Then came his masterful twist of the screw: he grabbed the chicken, shook it, squeezed its neck and, with a bite, pulled off its head, to the scandal of all present, who howled when Mike fell to the ground and started to move about the barn as if he were looking for the head that had ended up in his owner’s teeth.

That, clearly, was an artificial head. The authentic one had been devoured by a cat the same day Mike was beheaded for the first time. Anyway, the performance of Wilbur Olsen was as outrageous as it was memorable. In short, it was a success. With that same script the Olsens travelled across the country from coast to coast. At some point the authorities reprimanded the small travelling circus: the show, they alleged, was macabre and inappropriate for children. The Olsens defended themselves by arguing that the decapitations of chickens were a normal and public thing in the country, but that was not enough to stop Mike from being prohibited in the states of California and Texas. In Arizona, though, the brothers were permitted to continue with their tour, so long as they paid taxes and regulated the age of those attending.




The Olsens continued with their tour and their luck, while luck was permitted to them. They travelled and scandalised, squandered their profits in the innumerable bars, casinos, and whorehouses on American soil, and potentially even took their show to Tijuana. All the while, they lived at the expense of their perpetually decapitated chicken until death arrived to it, I mean to say truedeath.

The anecdote of the extinction of Mike is prone to appear simple and predictable. One night, while the brothers rested in a Phoenix motel, the chicken began to asphyxiate. What happened is that one of the Olsens, which one we will never know, had left the tube that kept the bird alive at the site where the performance had taken place. Wilbur ran in search of the tube while Lloyd despairingly attempted to save Mike. Neither will we ever know what exactly the distressed brother did in those minutes, or if what he did was appropriate. What is certain is that it was neither effective, nor sufficient: that night Mike, the headless chicken, met with the death that had been nearing him for two years. It was too late when the sweating Wilbur returned to the motel with the redemptive tube: Mike lay definitively lifeless on the carpet, while Lloyd raved.

The problem with the blessings of destiny is that we rarely accept them within limits. We don’t understand that nobody deserves his good star forever, and that providence is allied with the devil, only allowing us our glory for a bit, and always in exchange for something. Hardly ever are we prepared to pay the price, which is asked of us by a grace only apparent to those chosen by the fates. That precisely, or something similar, happened with the Olsens: they were not ready for the death of Mike, and they paid for thinking that their bird would live eternally. After the death of the chicken the Olsens refused to have it dissected, keeping it with honours in its jar of formaldehyde where it gave itself over to being slowly eaten away. When they returned to Fruita nobody received them as they felt they should have been received. They found the windows and the doors closed, some adorned with black crepe mourning not Mike but rather the boys that were in those days were being bled to death in Normandy and the Guadalcanal. In those days, young people would return mutilated from the front, and it is possible that their presences accentuated the nostalgia for the mythical chicken, just as did the disagreements between the Olsen brothers. When someone mentioned Mike, the entire town looked at the stumps of their children and longed for the bird as if with it had died the hope of a better world, one that was sweeter and more complete. In their campaigns of vindication, the Korean veterans would adopt the slogan of ‘We are all Mike’, and there was never someone lacking to appear in the courts with a lawsuit against the Olsens for damage to national morale.

In the 80s, a renowned anthropologist of Croatian origin dedicated several pages to the semiotic and collectively fratricidal connotations of this tale. His disquisition is certainly lucid, using the case of Mike as a pretext to make notable contributions to the theory of mimesis and murderer ritual. For all that, the philosopher does not manage to illuminate the anger of the society of Fruita against the owners of Mike, or the mechanisms which conduced those owners towards mutual destruction. It remains strange that less than a year after Mike’s death, the brothers declared themselves bankrupt, and attempted to sell the desiccated body of the illustrious chicken to the Smithsonian Museum. Shortly afterwards, they both went to ruin themselves in a fit of extreme drunkenness, finishing in a mess of recriminations and knife slashes that sent them first to the hospital, then to the tomb. Perhaps the Olsens have now been reunited with their longed-for Mike, whose arrival brought them such good fortune, and whose absence ended up doing them in. Unfortunately, the brothers would never know how time indiscreetly compensated them for their care of the unusual animal, for every May since 1999, the town of Fruita, Colorado, world capital of tobacco chewers, has commemorated with parades and lavish eating competitions the Day of the Headless Chicken.


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