Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, there was a farm. This farm had animals from all over the land, raised without cages and not much in the way of fences. The chickens scratched in the cow pastures, and the horses enjoyed mudding every bit as much as the pigs. Every animal was free to do as its nature dictated, and all the barnyard creatures coexisted in peaceful harmony. All of the animals were happy, from the lowliest field mice that lived in the barn walls to the mule in his cushy stall.
All of the animals, that is, except for Bernard, the rooster.
Bernard had always felt he was somehow different from his fellow chickens. He grew up watching the peacocks graze in the lawn and felt a strange yearning to be one of them, complete with the colorful feathers and piercing call. He wasn’t content to be a rooster anymore.
After weeks of fretting, he finally worked up the courage to tell his parents.
“Mom, Dad,” he said, sweating slightly under his feathers. “I want to be a peacock.”
He was met with blank, disbelieving stares. He took a deep breath and continued. “My whole life I’ve felt that I was not intended to be a rooster. I know that I was born to have a comb and strut and crow at dawn. But deep down, I believe myself to be a peacock.”
At first his parents resisted. They tried to talk him out of it—they thought he was deluded. When he threatened to run away from home, they relented and came to terms with their son, the peacock.
News of Bernard’s switch began to circulate around the barnyard. The peacocks were insulted; the donkeys guffawed at the very idea; the hens were distressed because there was one less rooster available; the goats protested; the sheepdog thought Bernard must be barking mad; the cat shook her head; the bull was seeing red.
But Bernard was undeterred. He had convinced himself that he was a peacock. He dyed his feathers purple and blue and green with some leftover paint in the back of the barn. He tried to imitate the peacocks’ cry and tried to model their elegant strut. He flirted outrageously with the girl peacocks, but considering he looked more like a poorly done Mardi-Gras float than a genuine peacock, he had little success.
He even hurt himself at times, trying to make himself look more and more like a peacock. Once he accidentally swallowed paint, and almost made himself sick after cutting off his comb himself with a rusty nail. The pins that held his fake long tail feathers in were especially painful and gave him awful sores. But he was bound and determined that he was a peacock, despite the laws of nature that told him otherwise.
Slowly, however, Bernard’s abnormal behavior gained acceptance among his fellow animals. More and more chickens decided that they wanted to become peacocks instead. A small group of hens hosted support groups for chickens in transition, or, as they soon came to be known, “cheacocks.” There were Cheacock rallies, Cheacock parades, and a swiftly growing Cheacock population. Soon the entire barnyard had accepted the presence and activities of the chickens pretending to be something they weren’t.
Animals from neighboring farms got wind of the goings on at the free-range farm. They all thought the idea was preposterous. Dogs from the neighboring farms came at night and terrorized the henhouse where the Cheacocks stayed. Pigs from another farm came and painted hateful things on the sides of the Cheacock henhouse. But for all the abuse the Cheacocks received, the more and more support they got from the animals on the free-range farm.
The mule was the unofficial leader of the animals on the free-range farm. Being by far the cleverest of the animals, as well as the most charismatic, he stepped into the head honcho position with ease. After the henhouse-painting incident, he went around from field to pen to stall, asking different animals their stance on the Cheacock issue.
Every animal he spoke to was willing to support a chicken if he decided that he was something that he wasn’t.
Every animal, that is, except the cow.
The milk cow was not much of a public figure. She kept to herself, chewed her cud, talked freely with anyone who visited her in her stall or in the pasture, and was known for her generosity of spirit. She was the honored mother of many bright and respectable calves, and the farmer always regarded her milk as the finest he had ever sold.
The mule sauntered up to her stall in the barn, smiling benignly down at the cow which knelt in the straw.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent goings-on at our farm, Clotilda,” said the mule. “Those poor, poor Cheacocks. All the persecution they receive.”
Clotilda nodded slowly, smiling a little sadly up at the mule.
“We’re holding a rally in their honor tomorrow at noon. I’m sure we can expect you to show up to support the Cheacocks?” Again, he smiled, his white teeth glistening.
Clotilda regarded him quietly, her face unreadable. After a long pause, she said, “No.”
The mule’s smile flicked off like a light bulb. “I beg your pardon?”
“You asked me if I wanted to join the rally tomorrow. My answer is ‘no.’”
The sheep in the neighboring pen let out a little gasp.
“Am I to understand, then, that you do not support the Cheacocks?” There was a dangerous edge to the mule’s voice.
“No,” replied Clotilda simply. She turned her face away, clearly wanting to end the conversation.
The mule looked ready to blow a blood vessel. “Are you saying, then, that you would trample on the rights of these chickens to pursue their desires to become peacocks?”
“I don’t think what they’re doing is wise, if that’s what you’re asking,” said the cow. “It goes against the laws of nature.”
“The ‘laws of nature?’ Clotilda, how can you allow such archaic thinking to affect your judgment of your fellow beasts?”
“A chicken is a chicken, my friend. And a peacock is a peacock. Nothing is going to change these animals into something other than what they were born to be. To think otherwise is simply foolishness.” She looked up steadily into the mule’s eyes, which were growing redder and redder as his anger reached the boiling point.
“Perhaps you would like to join those dogs, then, and terrorize innocent Cheacocks from their home,” he snarled, “Or maybe you would like to paint nasty words on the side of the henhouse like those pigs! Would that make you happy, Clotilda, to abuse someone different than you?”
“I would not do any of those things,” she said, her brow furrowed. “That would be unkind and unnecessary. All I have is an opinion. How does my opinion hurt anyone?”
“Clotilda,” growled the mule, “this farm was founded on the ideal of freedom. Free range, open fences, freedom to do as we please. Would you strip that right from your fellow beasts? Would you take their freedom away?”
“I am grateful for this freedom,” said Clotilda. “I am glad to live on a farm where one is free to make one’s own decisions and do what one believes is right.”
“Then I will ask you again, Clotilda,” the mule hissed through gritted teeth, “will you or will you not support the Cheacocks?”
“No,” she said. “No I will not.”
“You hateful beast!” screamed the mule. “You dare rise against the Cheacock’s freedom!”
“You speak of freedom,” said Clotilda quietly. “But it seems I am only free to say ‘yes,’ and not to say ‘no.’”
“I will ruin you for this!” spat the mule as he stormed from the barn.
And he tried. He succeeded, to some degree. Before long, no one would speak to the cow, calling her nasty names behind her back or even to her face. It made her sad. She knew her opinion would make her unpopular. But popularity had never been of much importance to her.
One day, as she rested in her stall, now plastered with rude messages in white paint, she had an unexpected visitor. Bernard, the former rooster, came cautiously to the opening of her stall.
“Good morning, Bernard,” said Clotilda.
“You’re not going to kick me out?” he said. He was clearly very nervous about this encounter.
“Why would I do that?”
“Or sit on my head or trample me with your hooves?” squeaked the colorful rooster, his feathers puffed out defensively. “They tell me that’s what hateful beasts like you will do to me…but I had to talk to you and see for myself.”
“How very brave of you,” said Clotilda gently. “Please, come in.”
Bernard came in cautiously, eyeing her closely, as if he were entering the den of a dragon and not the stall of a milk cow.
“You hate me.”
“I do not hate anyone,” said the cow.
“You disagree with me,” he retorted, as if that clinched the issue.
“The fact I don’t think what you’re doing is right doesn’t mean I hate you.”
“You don’t think I am a peacock.”
“I think you are a very colorful rooster,” said Clotilda. “But you are still very much a rooster. And you always will be.”
“I am a peacock. I know it in my soul.”
“You are free to believe that.”
“You don’t believe I am.”
“I am free to believe you aren’t, and to say so. At least for now.” She glanced over at the trough of water by the wall. “You must be thirsty, Bernard. Help yourself.”
“Why? So you can drown me in the water?” snapped Bernard.
“No, Bernard,” sighed Clotilda. “You are a beast, and all beasts must drink. You thirst as much as I do.”
Bernard looked at Clotilda, uncertain if she was worthy of his trust. But the colorful chicken finally decided to take a drink. The water was cool and clear and felt wonderful on his throat.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Any time,” said the cow.