In front of the chicken coop in a wide barnyard, a rooster preened for the hens. He strutted around the edge of his territory, which was hemmed by a low, picket fence. He fluttered to the tops of fence posts and displayed his brilliant plumage for them.
For the first weeks, the hens liked it. He was a pleasant fellow to look at. He had dark, umber feathers and shiny, forest green ones, and a great red wattle. He thought himself to be most impressive. When the hens grew tired of his constant antics and called him a show-off, he puffed his chest more and cawed to them louder.
In time, he took to cleaning himself every day. He would study his image in a puddle, spread his tailfeathers, and shake his wattle.
The farmwife saw him and laughed.
"What a dandy rooster we've got," she told her husband over dinner.
"As long as he keeps off rats and cats, he's fine," the farmer replied. "And as long as the hens keep laying eggs, of course."
As the seasons passed, the rooster grew more vain. In the spring, he festooned himself with flower petals. In the summer, he wore ferns in his tail. The lead hen, who had always kept her flock virtuous and safe from foxes and cats, felt obligated to speak. It was becoming difficult to live with someone so self-centered.
"When I was young, I thought our house rule against showing off was too strict," she said. "It seemed needlessly joyless. I never understood it until I saw you."
"You're just jealous," said the rooster. For his part, he envied other animals, including the lead hen. He hoped to supplant her as leader one day.
Late in the summer, as the rooster squawked on a stump, the hens noticed a rustle in the underbrush near the fence. Soon the rooster heard it, too. He hopped down from his perch and marched over to the noise. He hoped it was a rat since they were easy for him to scare.
A strange bird's head popped up above the hedge. A moment later, the body pushed through. A peacock revealed itself between the branches. It shook off a leaf.
The peacock may have been confused by seeing a bird displaying itself as if it were mating. He fanned his tail feathers. When the hens gathered closer, curious, he began to dance for them. He put on a competitive display for his audience despite seeing that they were not peafowl. The hens were impressed. They looked from the peacock to the rooster and back. They laughed.
"That's a show you can't match!" they said.
Through the fence, the rooster challenged the wayward peacock. But the wild bird was larger than any rooster and had no fear. He continued to flaunt his azure and emerald feathers. Incensed, the rooster flew to the top of the fence and hopped down on the other side. He chased the peacock which, despite its size, didn't want to fight. When cornered, deep in the woods between co-joined tree trunks, the peacock turned to its familiar ritual of intimidation. He treated the rooster like a rival and spread his feathers. He danced forward. His great neck loomed over the smaller bird.
The rooster sprang forward in fury. He tore at the peacock's throat. In a whirl of blood and claws, the rooster slashed open the peacock. For a while, the peacock ran among the trees, trying to escape, not quite sure what had happened. The rooster followed until his opponent collapsed, fainted, and finally died.
The rooster grabbed feathers as the spoils of his battle. He grew determined that he would wear them in his tail and under his wings. Thus, he would appear more magnificent than ever. He wandered for a day and a night, lost, but he did not abandon the burden of his trophies.
At last, he heard a hen call. Unfortunately for him, it was a peahen. He was still lost.
Feeling lonely, the rooster decided that he should impress other birds. He dressed himself as completely as he could in the feathers of his fallen opponent. Then he presented himself to the peahens.
When they first met him, they were not quite sure what he was supposed to be. Was he a tiny peacock? No. When they saw through his disguise, they shook their heads.
"A rooster in borrowed feathers is a rooster still," they told him.
He followed the trio of peahens for a week. Their answer did not change.
Meanwhile, the farmer went out and bought a younger, hardier rooster. This fellow did not look as nice. His plumage was plain, brown and white. But he was strong and his leg muscles bulged under his coat of feathers.
When the old, vain rooster found his way back to the barnyard, he was thirsty and half-starved. He had not found a puddle. He had not eaten anything except a few beetles. His appearance had declined with his health. He trailed the stolen peacock feathers behind him. They weighed down his tail. He carried others in his wings, tangled and hard to remove. He'd gotten stuck in bushes along the way because of them. With all of his peacock plumage, he was no longer able to fly to the top of the fence. He had to slip into the barnyard through a gap between the fence and gate.
When the old rooster approached the hen houses, other chickens ran away. They woke the younger male. The keen fellow hopped down from his perch and strode forward to meet the invader.
After a few steps, the younger one stopped and smiled. He saw through the disguise of heavy, cumbersome feathers and bluebeard blossoms, but he pretended not to know who it was.
"The last fellow killed a peacock, the hens say," he announced so everyone in the barnyard could hear him. He resumed the advance on his trembling, tired opponent. "Now is my chance to do the same."