Mr. Rhubarb, our cockerel, listened intently, head to one side. A new noise in the landscape, this bright crisp morning, as the sun rose above the hedge that separated his territory from next door. There it was again! He followed the drift of sound. It definitely came from beyond the hedge! He slowly walked towards the boundary, stopping occasionally to peck nonchalantly at the grass and scratching the earth almost as a way of disguising his intention to solve the mystery of the sound beyond. A few steps were taken, and, as if to summon up courage, he craned his neck fully, and fluffed up his feathers that expanded in size by half as much again. With the gusto of a tenor, in perfect tone and delivery, he crowed loudly, holding on to the last chord more exaggerated than he usually did. There it was again! Almost a perfect rendition of his call, without the finesse and tonal range though.
As he finally neared the hedge, a thought occurred to him; perhaps it was an echo, his own voice, reverberating through the valley down to the river. His train of thought was shattered by the cacophonous noise once again - only this time he hadn't opened his mouth! So, it can't be an echo! He peered through the hedge from a good vantage point on top of a fallen log, mystery solved! There beyond some grassed area in a small makeshift fenced-off area, was a chicken - a cockerel! Although pure white and three times the size of Mr. Rhubarb (Mr. Rhubarb was very proud of his bantam heritage that went back many generations) devoid of colourful plumage, a pure white giant, he was, all the same, definitely a cockerel! And, as if to verify Mr. Rhubarb's thoughtful observation, he crowed to the sky.
Mr. Rhubarb, after reassuring himself that this newcomer posed no threat to himself, and couldn't possibly encroach onto his territory, daily went to visit at the hedge, and conversed with the cockerel-next-door, heralding each new morning with repetitive exchanges of vocal expression. Often it would be coupled with mock strutting and posturing by both, in emphatic challenge and demand to recognise each other's existence and territorial rights.
Throughout the day, interspersed with lapses of silence and other business to be attended to, Mr. Rhubarb, as if summoned to do so by a silent command, would suddenly stop whatever he was engaged in, and strut in a manner of a military guard towards the hedge, there to perform the ritual that he, and the cockerel-next-door, had both come to enjoy.
A fine frosty morning welcomed this day, a day like any other to Mr. Rhubarb, but a special day to humans - Christmas Day. With added zeal he strode again toward the hedge. His footprints registered in the deep ground-frost. As usual, following the same pattern of behaviour that had now become second nature to him, with the neighbour, he outstretched his neck. Once again, fluffed up feathers increased his size by half as much, let out a crow that was definitely his finest in the weeks of competition with his fellow brother. Silence. Mr. Rhubarb's voice hung on the chilled air, unacknowledged - unchallenged. Repeatedly, he tried for an answer, silence - just an eerie silence.
Mr. Rhubarb climbed upon the old tree stump, which afforded him a better view through a gap in the hedge where he could see clearly into the enclosed pen that was home to the cockerel-next-door. Empty. Deathly still, and empty. Just a pile of pure white feathers scattered randomly the only evidence left of his opposition or would-be friend.
Mr. Rhubarb felt a pang of fear; he had witnessed such an array of feathers before. The sudden disappearance of a comrade, taken perhaps, by a predator. His fear drifted into sorrow as he slowly made his way back to the safety of his house. The dawn challenges, the greeting of the Sun will solely be his responsibility from now on.
Wafting on the air this fine morning was a smell that offended the nostrils of the compassionate. A smell of a tortured spirit's remains described - disguised - as a fragrant roasting, the precursor to the sacrificial offering to over-replete stomachs.
Beside the physical differences of Mr. Rhubarb and his neighbour, the only other difference was one of circumstance. Mr. Rhubarb lived at a sanctuary - his neighbour did not.
As the church bells beckoned the village faithful to prayer, to sing and praise Jesus for his love and compassion, slowly, in the time it takes for carols to be sung, declarations of kindness to be promised, an air of anticipation of the "grand feast" known as Christmas dinner, was experienced by the gathering. In that same time span, the wasted remains of Mr. Rhubarb's newfound friend shrivelled in his own fat.
Amid the seasonal carols, a vocal offering is sung - perhaps cynically - by the congregation. The age-old rendition "all creatures great and small" - that reflective line "our lord God loves them all." The song rings out loud in the church, but in the kitchen, in a very expensive Aga oven, the song would hardly be heard above the noise of sizzling flesh. The "cockerel-next-door" - sadly - is no more.
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Cross-reference: Animal Stories
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