A recent barnyard event presented grave implications for a man of a certain age. It began with the introduction of two new hens to our chicken flock. There was the usual daylong mayhem that results when the established order of any social group is thrown out of kilter. The newcomers were chased, squawked at and generally terrorized. They sought refuge behind a discarded window screen. For a day, access to food and water was denied them. By next morning, peace reigned and they went about their chicken business: pecking, clucking and laying eggs. They’d undergone the mandatory hazing and the secret initiation rites and were now accepted members of the family.
But the male hierarchy had undergone a radical upheaval. The dominant male had been ousted overnight. For three or four years, he’d ruled the roost. His clarion crow could be heard all over our neighborhood, greeting the morning. No doubt he thought his cock-a-doodle-do actually caused the sun to rise. Now without permission, honorary ceremony or expression of gratitude for his term of public service, he’d been brutally deposed. His place had been taken by a hitherto timid rooster. Adding indignity was the fact that the new Numero Uno was the offspring of the old one. Overnight, the bashful son had acquired an operatic cock crow, along with the swagger of sovereignty.
Meanwhile, his father paced apart from the flock in ignominious exile. Physically, he was the same bird — a majestic, barrel-chested specimen of the Cornish breed. His black feathers retained their regal sheen. But he looked subdued, abstracted. Though he showed no signs of senility or debilitation, he’d clearly lost his mojo. Now when he approached the feeder, his son chased him off. He made no attempt to force his charms upon the hens — those days were over. What had happened? Is all power so illusory and fragile?
He brought to mind Shakespeare’s Richard the Second brooding on the death of kings. His transformation manifested the ruthlessness of nature. And it was impossible not to see it as a omen. Suddenly, I saw my own two sons in a new light. Were they lying in wait for the first signs of weakness in their “dear, old Pa?” What plots were they hatching? Would one of them seize the knife from me next Thanksgiving, rudely informing me that my carving days are over, that I am no longer the alpha male?
Another version of this sad tale haunts our environs. Every evening at dusk, we hear the mating call of a male pheasant, the survivor of a controlled hunting expedition last autumn. Occasionally I meet him on my walks, decked out in his brilliant courtship colors. A handsomer rake you would never behold, though he’s lost his tail feathers to some predator. In fact, it’s a miracle he’s survived. A pen-raised bird, he has no more sense of the dangers that surround him than the barnyard fowls. When I approach, he shows no signs of fear. Sometimes, he squawks and actually comes at me, as if to drive away a rival.
He roams a vast territory in search of love. His lusty summons can be heard a quarter mile away. Who knows what visions of female beauty inflame his imagination? And yet, I fear he calls in vain. Our neighborhood teems with coyotes, owls, hawks. Pheasants aren’t indigenous to our part of Kansas and it’s unlikely that any local pen-raised hens have survived to answer his call.
Still, he shows up every night to plead his case, to offer his charms. And perhaps his futile mission has its advantages. After all, he’ll never know the contempt that familiarity breeds nor the scourge of being hen-pecked. He’ll never experience the disappointment of clasping the object of his dreams. In paraphrase Keats, forever will he love and she be fair.
I wonder too about the old rooster. Is he actually happier now that he’s lost his throne? Perhaps he was tired of harassing hens and of having to prove himself day after day. Perhaps he’s like our country, its days as the sole superpower over, no longer obliged to discover enemies and put out brush fires all over the globe, poised to enjoy the slow decline to oblivion. He may be discovering that retirement suits him just fine; no responsibilities, no disappointments, just the bittersweet pleasures of the autumn years, a time for relishing memories, a time to brood on the great questions, “What does it all add up to?” “What does it all mean?” “Was anything done?”