STORY Claire Catacouzinos
“Once upon a time,” – and we might well begin in that manner because the story is as fantastic as a fairy tale – animals were held to be liable as men for their criminal acts and torts.
– J. P. McNamara, Curiosities of the Law: Animal Prisoner at the Bar
I’m an innocent rooster you see, who is being burned at the stake. Now you might ask, ‘What abomination is this, burning a rooster?’ You would think they were doing this to eat me. But oh no, not these people. By my beak, I swear, they are burning me because I laid an egg. Yes, a damn egg! Do you think they asked me if I laid it? They just assumed that because it was near me that it was mine – a rooster’s! Such pish posh! I swear, your lot need help – all of you!
‘You know Gerald, I think you’re the best crower out of all the cockerels,’ Margery told Gerald one morning. Ah, to hear her flattery, of course he knew he was the best. He had mounted five hens the other day; they had heard his vociferous crow, the eloquence of it tantalizing them. All the hens called him, Gerald, the Gasconade. And he certainly knew there was no other rooster like him.
‘Why thank you, my dear.’
‘But it seems I have been practising as well.’
Gerald raised his comb in surprise. ‘My dear, hen’s cannot crow, it’s not part of your nature, or for that matter, it’s the cock’s business, not the hens.’
She tilted her head up, her beak facing the sky.
‘Now, now, my dear, you are better at other things, such as laying eggs and clucking.’
She still ignored him.
‘Why would you be upset that you are unable to crow?’
That’s when she fluffed her feathers and went off at Gerald, she did not yell, she did not scratch him, she crowed in his face, a distinct, hoarse crow that was quite unnatural for a hen, and it made her wattle bounce up and down.
He blinked a couple of times, his ears perplexed at the sound he had just heard rise out of her throat.
‘How did you learn to do that?’
‘You know, cockerels aren’t the only ones who can crow and cluck.’
Now, Gerald did not know what overcame him, but a sweet desire that he wanted her. He wanted to hear her crow out his name, how glorious would that be? She could tell he was impressed by her manner and came closer to him.
‘Gerald, if you like, you can enter my coop, and we can –’
She did not need to finish her sentence, let’s get to it, he said, and they scattered to her area like horny rats. When he entered her coop, he noticed her eggs were small and discoloured, but he overlooked this small matter as he was in the mood to mount her. What a gratifying afternoon it was.
There I was, pecking at food scraps, out in the open on a normal weekday, minding my own business. Pecking a few delicious potato peelings over there, a couple over here – oh how Bitsie’s brown feathers looked mighty fine over there. I then went inside my coop for a rest, you see, pecking is a hard job to do. I have to bend my neck backwards and forwards, and backwards and forwards – it helps the muscle in the neck bulge and gets the hens to have a good look at me, and you can’t imagine the attention I get with my glowing red comb. I need to wash it every morning so that it’s shiny and clean. So while I returned to my coop, I was stretching out my neck side to side to release the tension when, would you look at that – a bloody egg was there. Now, this didn’t look like an ordinary coloured pink shelled egg. This one was tiny and white, very, very unappealing to my eye. Who on earth put it there? I nearly pecked the thing away to get it out of my bed – who wants an egg poking their back while they are trying to sleep? Just as I was about to do so, that stupid farmer…what’s his name, Uncle Fred? He came into the coop and went berserk. You think our ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ is bad, have you heard Uncle Fred when he’s furious with something? That man could scare a bunch of building-goers in an instant.
So he starts yelling, ‘Luisa, come out here! Oh in God’s name, my cock laid an egg!’
By this point, he skedaddled out of the barn with his short, skinny legs like a headless chicken, the scared imbecile that he was, and called the whole townspeople of Bale, including the mayor. They all came to see me. Now I don’t know how the egg got there, but it wasn’t mine. Perhaps Bitsie left her egg in my coop so that I could incubate it? And I can tell you this; I did not feel a damn egg come out of my fluffy arse. Do you know how horrid that would be for me? Do I look like a hen to you?
But your kind came and checked me, pointing their grubby fingers at me, swearing on this big B book, calling me, yes me, your dear friend Gerald, a diabolic creature.
‘Kill him!’ they screamed.
‘It’s laid a cockatrice egg!’
‘Oh in God’s name, it had intercourse with evil spirits!’
I could have shut them up with my claws scratching at their legs, fluttering like a crazed cock, like they do to the other roosters in their so-called cock-fights. But there was no point; they already thought I was crazy, they had already condemned me. What is it with your kind and judging someone so quickly? Isn’t the nature of going to this pointy building with pretty coloured windows is to stop you fools from doing this, isn’t that what this Je-bus person tried to teach you? One of those morons tried to grab me by my scrawny legs. I tried pecking at him so that he got the hint to back off, but the idiot got a hold of me and wouldn’t you know it – I was turned upside down, fluttering my wings like a lunatic. Wouldn’t that impress the hens? That’s when I saw Margery – she had her beak raised up and she winked at me. The wretch! That egg had been hers! Why had she done this to me? Oh, by the mighty cockerel they were going to kill me!
In court, [animals] would frequently act disrespectfully—grunting, [crowing], [pecking], [scratching], squealing and trying to poke their noses [and beaks] through the bars of the prisoner’s box. Disorderly conduct of this kind often told against them in sentencing. An animal that remained quiet during proceedings would, on the other hand, receive a certain measure of consideration for its demeanour.
– Philip Jamieson, Animal Liability in Early Law
So the trial took place. It went something like this. I was strapped down in ropes, pecking at the villager’s hands, crowing like mad, straining my neck with the amount of stretching I was doing, trying to get myself free. Oh, but it didn’t work. I didn’t even know how to communicate to you fools to plead my innocence. Why on earth would I want to lay an egg in the first place?
‘We the inhabitants of Bale, being fearful of Almighty God and humbly dutiful to his spouse, the Church, do hereby on the 21st Day of September 1474 most pressingly and urgently condemn this evil cock for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.’
The stupid part was that most of the townspeople gasped and some old brute fainted in the courtroom. Was that really necessary? Then they started calling me a heretic, a godforsaken heretic! What is wrong with your kind, how can you execute an almighty cockerel like me? I was innocent I tell you, innocent!
‘Burn this purveyor with his Satanic Majesty, burn, burn, burn…’
‘Henry, you would not believe the morning I’ve had,’ Gerald said, scratching at the dirt beneath his claws.
‘Why, what happened?’
‘It’s true – she found out this morning. Something about feeling sick and her egg movements inside her felt different. Oh good grief, I’m doomed! I’m too young to be a father, Henry. My back cape has finally developed a shine from the sun, and have you seen my spurs? They’re finally growing back, after that moron trimmed them off.’
‘Now, now, Gerald – it could just be one of those rotten days a hen feels every year.’
‘You mean, she thinks she’s pregnant?’
‘Why yes, of course, when was the last time you mounted her?’
‘A couple days ago.’
‘There! You see, it’s too early for her to be showing signs of pregnancy. My dear boy, you are over-thinking the matter.’
Gerald exhaled with relief, his feathers flattening all over his body. It was a false alarm. Thank the almighty flying cockerel for that, he thought.
He then saw that numskull, Uncle Fred, walking by the barn, talking to his wife about one of the hens.
‘She’s crowing you know, like a hoarse cock. It’s unspeakable. It’s the third time this month.’
His wife replied, ‘Darling, what if the neighbours notice? You must get rid of her. She’s been cursed, the devil has entered her. Oh heavens, she might seduce the other animals, they could all be consumed by her.’
‘We would be raising a farm condemned by the Beezlebub.’
‘Oh heavens!’ his wife squealed.
‘Don’t worry my dear; I will put a stop to this nonsense first thing in the morning.’
Gerald overlooked what the couple was babbling about. He knew your people were loony and over superstitious. If he danced in front of them with his shiny new spurs, he would bet they would jump on him because he was acting out of character. Like your kind knew the norms of what it was like to be a rooster. They didn’t even know how to keep themselves clean, or how to take care of one another.
Henry wanted to go and eat, and Gerald felt like squatting in his coop for a while until he was hungry, so he left Henry and returned to his section of the barn. When he got there, he saw a fluffy reddish-brown feather lying in his coop. He picked it up with his beak and smelt Bitsie’s scent – oh that feisty hen, he thought. She wanted some action. He knew lying in his coop wouldn’t do him any good now, so he dashed to find Bitise. If she wanted me, he thought, I am going to give her me. He just had to make sure she didn’t get pregnant somehow…
Oh almighty cockerel, I can smell burning chicken – burning chicken! I’m on fire, my feathers are deteriorating, and my legs are aching. I’m clawing the dirt below my feet; the movement helping me fight the searing pain. Why, why has this torture happened to me? You know, I’ve heard rumours around the farms that animals have been ex-co-moo-nicated from their homes, pigs hanged for killing little hair-less humans, apparently a sow and her six piglets where caught in the act of killing a schoolboy. There have been sayings of dogs possessed by this devil spirit when they were frothing from the mouth and fitting, and they were killed. Termites have even been banished for eating away at some man’s chair, he was a friker, a farmer, or a fringer – I haven’t a clue. Apparently he sits on this chair and peasants give him gifts. Even cabbage worms and caterpillars have been trialled for damaging your folks property – oh my, the list just goes on and on and on and on. I swear, your kind have taken this spirit business a bit over the top and because of you morons… I’m going to die.
The Bible represents Satan as going about as a roaring lion; and according to the highest ecclesiastical authorities he has appeared visibly as a raven, porcupine, a toad and a gnat. Indeed, there is hardly a living creature in which he has not deigned to disport himself from…As all animals were considered embodiments of devils, it was perfectly logical and consistent that the Prince of Darkness should reveal himself to mortal ken as a mongrel epitome of many beasts – snake, cat, dog, pig, ape, buck, horse, [and a cockerel].
– E. P Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals
So here I am. With horrible black feathers, obsidian feet blistering, burning and inhaling smoke. Why has it come to this? I’m young, I have many young chicks to father, do I not have that right as a creator?
I can see Margery amongst the crowd. She’s crowing – that damn hen.
I yell, ‘Why have you done this to me?’
‘Well my love, it is time,’ she says.
‘To learn your place in life?’
‘You see Gerald, my dear. A hen is the maker. She is the most prized possession of any farmer.’
I could not believe what I was hearing. Perhaps this evil spirit your kind babbled on about had entered her.
‘And a rooster, well, a rooster is only the donor. You are worthless, and there is no need for you.’
‘But, why me?’
‘Well, if you mock a hen and take advantage of her, she will burn you back.’
‘What are we going to do Margery?’ Bitsie asked, pecking in the dirt for some worms. The two hens were far away from the barn, avoiding any nosy hens, or roosters for that matter, who would intrude on their important conversation.
Margery turned her long neck, and looked over her wing, making sure they were alone, ‘We frame him tomorrow,’ she said, facing Bitsie now.
‘Have you seen him today, the gloat that he’s become?’
‘He attempted to mount two, four-month-old pullets, the fool! Aunt Edna had to shoo him away before he ruined their chickhood. We cannot live like this anymore. I do not want my little chicks fathered by a cockerel of his nature.’
‘He gloats around the farm like an arrogant cock, and you saw how he acted last week when I told him about my fake pregnancy. The buffoon darted away, scared of the responsibilities of roosterhood. He’s not fit to be the next leader of our brood,’ Bitsie said.
‘I think it’s time for plan, ‘Hen Domination with a Catrice Egg’ – or whatever those stupid peasants are scared of.’
‘You mean, it’s time we killed him?’
‘Bitsie, there’s only Henry who is the eldest rooster left. All the other little cockerels are a couple of days old. Without Gerald in the picture I can – we can finally run our brood the way it’s supposed to. Without the cocky roosters belittling us because all we can do is cluck and lay damn eggs. I think it’s time our dear Gerald, the Gasconade, learns what it feels like to be used without your own will and to lay eggs without your own control. We will become, the Almighty Hellacious Hens!’
The statement made…[said that] the executioner on cutting open the cock found three more eggs in him, [this] is of course absurd; [what] we have to do [deal] in this case [is] not with a freak of nature, but with the freak of an excited imagination tainted with superstition.
– E. P Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals