It’s not only people who put on airs. Sometimes it might be a rooster. But maybe he’s not putting on airs. Maybe he’s for real. But, maybe not.
How Big Red Got His Name was the Third Place Winner in the 2009 Westside Story Contest sponsored by the Berkeley Branch of the California Writer’s Club. It was published in The Cynic Online Magazine, February, 2012.
How Big Red Got His Name
Red was a dandy of a rooster. He strutted around the chicken yard and stopped every so often to strike a pose. He fluffed up the red feathers of his breast and the white feathers of his neck ruff, presenting an imposing picture. The long maroon feathers of his tail arched gracefully, and his glowing red comb and wattles added to the sternness of his eye. When he held his legs just so, his spurs glistened in the sunlight. He spent his days strutting and posing, strutting and posing. Occasionally, he would offer a courteous but commanding “Good day to you, ladies” on his rounds. His job was to give the hens an eyeful of his masterful manliness, and he took his job seriously.
Most of the hens were too shy to talk to him directly, but they did a lot of cluck-clucking about him to each other. The younger ones thought he was a hunk.
“Have you seen how fine Red looks this morning?” said one. “He’s downright buk-buk beautiful, don’t you think?”
“I just love the way he arches only one eyebrow,” said another. “He has such a cluk-cluk classic look.”
“Whenever he struts by, I could almost swoon,” said a third. “My heart just goes pek-pek pitter, pek-pek patter.”
In contrast, the old biddies were not impressed. They’d been around the chicken yard a time or two, and they knew about roosters. They knew from experience that roosters were not as they seemed.
“He walks around like he thinks he’s some kind of buk-buk buckaroo, but he’s just fluff,” said one.
“Yeah. I’ll bet those shiny spurs of his haven’t cuk-cuk cut anything tougher than a wet newspaper,” said another.
“He’s such a youngster. You can still see his chick fuzz around his pek-pek pin feathers,” said a third.
But whether they were young or old, Red walked closer to those hens who were not busy scratching and pecking. He scratched the ground a few times right in front of them. With his manly claws ripping through the soil, more bugs and grain were exposed, and the hens pounced on them. His expression remained firm, but his eyes twinkled. He liked to see hens eating. A full-figured hen was his kind of hen. Besides, hens need to eat if they are to lay eggs, and keeping them laying was also part of his job.
Life in the chicken yard had its routine. There was scratching for bugs, seeds, and grit. The Master always supplied plenty of grain. Red patrolled the yard dutifully and kept a close eye on his charges. He stayed aloof from the gossip, except he really didn’t like that comment about the chick fuzz.
Red also kept an eye open for interlopers trying to steal grain. Occasionally, a field mouse scurried under the fence and collected grain and seeds from the yard. Red would strut over to the little creature and loom over it. His large shadow was enough to send the mouse retreating out of the yard. Red would puff himself up and look around to see if anyone noticed how masterful and commanding he was.
One time a small flock of finches descended into the yard and picked up grain, hopping around, chirping with cheerful excitement. As Red strutted toward them, they hopped away to other pieces of grain, scattering and keeping a safe distance between him and them. Red couldn’t get close enough to loom over any of them. Finally, Red waved his large wings at them with a “whoosh,” while yelling, “Go away! This grain’s not for you!” Startled, they fluttered to the top of the wire fence around the yard, paused there, and then flew away. The last one looked over his shoulder at Red and called back, “Cheap, cheap.”
Most of the time, life in the yard was peaceful. And when the sun slid toward the horizon, the hens’ scratching got slower and slower. There were fewer buks and cluks coming from Red’s charges. When dusk settled in, the hens yawned, stretched, and waddled toward the henhouse. Each hen had her own nest and settled in for the night. Red remained outside but could hear soft sqok-sqoks coming from inside as the hens arranged their feathers just right and got comfortable. Soon it was quiet.
In the chicken yard Red spent the night in a special roost. From there he could see most of the yard. He woke periodically and made his rounds to ensure everything was in order. Then he went back and snoozed a while longer. But the most important thing about his roost was that it let him see the sun as it first peeked over the distant hills.
As the first rays cast their glow into the yard, Red announced the beginning of another day. He stood up as tall as he could make himself, took in a deep breath, and let out a long burst of “It’s morning! The sun is up! The sun is up!”
From inside the hen house there would be soft sqok-sqoks as the hens blinked their eyes and fluffed themselves awake. The sound rose to a clamor of loud sqawk-sqawks as they announced who laid an egg that morning. Then the hens without eggs trooped from the house. The hens with eggs remained behind to keep their eggs warm until collected by the Master. Then those hens joined the others in the yard.
One morning, as the orange light began to form streaks across the sky and Red was getting ready to announce that the sun was up, there was a commotion in the henhouse. There were loud sqaaks and the sounds of hens rushing about and wings beating the air.
Red raised an eyebrow. He stepped close to the henhouse door. He called, “Ladies, can I be of assistance?”
From inside there were screams. And someone shouted, “A rat! A rat! The rat has my egg! Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”
Red cocked his head to one side and raised his other eyebrow. He had never seen a rat before, but he knew that only the Master collected eggs. Something must be wrong. He puffed up his chest feathers and his neck ruff feathers and stepped inside the henhouse.
The air was filled with feathers and with the sounds of beating wings and distressed squaaks and hens bumping into each other and into the furniture. They were trying to protect their eggs while also trying to stay away from the vile egg-eater. In the dim light Red saw a large creature hunched over a nest. It had black, beady eyes and a long snout with pointed teeth. Yolk dripped from its lips.
Red approached the intruder and puffed up his chest feathers even more. His knees shook ever so slightly. In a voice that belied his fears, Red commanded, “Rat, leave this henhouse at once if you know what’s good for you.” He pointed his wing to the door.
The creature looked Red up and down and then hissed, “I’m not a rat. I’m an opossum. That’s Mr. Opossum to you, and I’ll leave when I’m ready.” He crawled down from the nest, dragging his almost hairless tail behind him. He stood before Red and then drew himself up to his full height on his rear legs. He looked down on Red and in a voice of gravel and grit he said, “You leave this henhouse at once if you know what’s good for you.” Then he showed his teeth and hissed.
There was a hush in the henhouse. Feathers in the air silently settled to the floor. No one moved. No one breathed.
Red cocked his head. Then, in a flash, the creature bit down hard on Red’s outstretched wing. Red had never felt this kind of pain before, but worse than the pain was the affront that this stranger dared to muss his feathers. With a loud skraak, Red pecked it on the nose. Surprised, the creature loosened its grip, and Red jerked his wing away. And then, using a move that felt as natural to him as greeting the sun, Red slashed with his spurs. A bleeding wound opened above the creature’s right eye. Undeterred, it lunged at Red, sinking its teeth into his leg. Red slashed with the spur of his other leg, opening a cut over the beast’s shoulder, and pecked at its head. It let go.
Then Red went on the attack. He jumped in the air and sunk his claws into the creature’s back and pecked at its head. The ’possum rolled over, dislodging Red, and bit back with its long rows of teeth. By beating his wings, Red was able to stay above the intruder while he continued clawing and pecking. The ’possum rolled and twisted across the floor. Dust and feathers filled the air. The squawking and screaming of the hens reverberated off the walls in a deafening din. The ’possum’s teeth tore at Red’s feathers and bit off one of his toes, but Red kept at him. His spurs slashed the creature across its ribs, causing a dark stain to appear on its coarse fur.
The fight carried them to the henhouse entrance. The ’possum rolled out the door and scuttled down the walkway. Red stood in the doorway, catching his breath. As the creature limped across the chicken yard, Red puffed up his chest feathers and called after it, “Hey, opossum! When someone asks what happened to you, tell them Red …” He paused as he looked over his shoulder at some of the biddies huddled together, and then he turned back to the retreating ’possum and yelled, “Tell them Big Red did it! Got that? Big Red did it!” Then he crowed the loudest crow he ever crowed in his life.
There was a cheer of “Sqawk!” from behind him. Red, Big Red, turned to comfort the hens and check for damage and losses. A few eggs were lost, but the hens were unhurt.
Outside, in the light, it was easy to see missing patches in Big Red’s feathers. He walked with a limp and his left wing drooped. He was panting. The hens excitedly shared each of their own roles in the drama with the others, but eventually the excitement waned. The morning slid into its normal routine. Big Red, however, carried himself in a tired slouch and didn’t do a lot of scratching for the hens that day.
Nowadays, Big Red’s feathers have grown back and his limp has disappeared. His wing is normal, and he looks like a dandy of a rooster. He still struts around the chicken yard. He still greets the hens with a “Good day to you, ladies.” And when he puffs up his feathers and poses, he holds his feet so that his missing toe is obvious. In addition, the old biddies are now among his admirers. They’ve been around the chicken yard a time or two, and they know about roosters. They know from experience that some roosters are not as they seem.