The two sat in silence for a while before the old rooster continued. “You have seen Ivan watching me.”
“Yes,” said Sonny. “I don’t like it. I’m sure he’s up to something.” A thought dawned upon him. “Do you think he will… challenge you?”
(When an old chief rooster died, the young roosters would battle it out to see who became the new chief. Sometimes though, a young rooster would become impatient for his shot at glory and challenge a living chief. They would then fight before the other chickens to determine who would be ruler.)
The old rooster sighed. “Yes. Ivan has been waiting a long time to challenge me.”
“But surely Ivan could not beat you, Winston… could he?”
“Not yet, no. I still have some fight left in me. But I am old, and soon enough I will be weak. That is what Ivan is watching for. He is a smart rooster, I will give him that.” Winston could see that this discussion had caught Sonny off guard and shaken him. He gave him a moment to process things, but it wasn’t enough preparation for what was said next. “Sonny, after I am gone, the chickens must be looked after. You are the only rooster who can see to this. When Ivan is chief, you must challenge him.”
Sonny stepped back off his seat. “Me? But Ivan is powerful and I am too small to fight.”
“You are small,” said Winston, “but you are wise, and you look beyond your own ambitions. You have more honour in one feather than Ivan has in his entire body. Besides, he is not invincible.”
“I couldn’t. It’s impossible,” stammered Sonny. He looked as though he would faint.
“It’s not impossible,” assured Winston. “It is necessary. But I can see I have overwhelmed you. Forget, for now, the idea of fighting Ivan. I want you only to think of this: the chickens must be looked after.”
Sonny breathed a little easier and nodded. “Okay,” he said.
“Leave me now, Sonny,” said Winston. “Only remember—the chickens must be looked after. That is the chief rooster’s job.”
“Yes, Winston,” replied Sonny, and he got up to leave. As he walked out of the old rooster’s dark shed, the warm morning light shone upon his face. Sonny looked about at the dew glistening on the grass, and the bees drifting contentedly among the daffodils. Sparrows flew without care overhead, whistling to each other as they went. The worry and heaviness of the previous minutes melted off the little grey rooster, and for the time being he gave no thought to fighting Ivan. Only one thought remained, and it became Sonny’s deep and constant meditation: the chickens must be looked after.
Weeks went by and life on the farm continued as usual. Well, almost. On the chickens’ side of the farm there had been a few strange developments. For one, Alfred the goose had been hanging around behind the henhouse, talking to some of the chickens. For years Alfred had lived alone on the other side of the pond, having almost no interaction with other animals. He was considered by most to be harmless, just a crazy old hermit. Only Esther, the old brown hen, found his presence at the henhouse unsettling. Esther had been around long enough to have known Alfred before his life of seclusion, and seemed to view his return as a bad omen. Another oddity was the mention of a mysterious rooster named Leon. One of the chicks was overheard talking about him. How the chick came to know his name nobody could say, for it had not been spoken in a long time. The chick did not seem to know much about the rooster other than his name, but that was enough to spark a great deal of interest among the adult chickens, as each one tried to guess what this could mean. The most disturbing development though was the owl. Rumours began circulating of an owl having taken up residence on the farm. The rumours varied and grew wildly, but the most reasonable ones had it living in Winston’s shed, and hunting at night for chicks that strayed outside the henhouse. It was unlikely, but still enough to bring a mood of uneasiness to the chicken population. Even Ivan looked nervous at the mention of an owl. Only Winston and Sonny seemed to regard the idea as nonsense.
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