Once upon a time there was a beautiful hen, that lived very much at her ease in a farm-yard surrounded by her numerous family of chickens, amongst which was a young cockerel conspicuous for its ugly and crippled form. This was just the one that its mother loved the most—for such is always the way of mothers. The small deformity had sprung from a rickety little egg. It was scarcely more than half a chicken, and looked just as if Solomon's sword had executed upon it the judgment pronounced by that wise king on a certain occasion. It had but one eye, one wing, and one leg, and yet gave itself more airs than its father, who was the finest, bravest, and most gallant cock in all the farm-yards for twenty miles around. The young cockerel believed himself to be the Phoenix of his kind. If the other young cocks made a mock of him, he thought it was from envy; and if the young hens did the same, he said it was because they were enraged that he took so little account of them.
One day he said to his mother, "Hearken, mother, I am sick of the country. I am resolved to go to court; I wish to see the king and queen." The poor mother began to tremble at hearing these words. "My son," she cried, "who has put this extravagant idea into your head? Your father never stirred from his home, and he has been the glory of his race. Where will you find a yard like the one you have? Where will you find a more magnificent dunghill, more nourishing and abundant food, a more sheltered hen-yard to walk about in, or a family that would love you more?"
"Nego" said Medio-pollito in Latin, for he plumed himself on his learning, "my brothers and cousins are ignorant bumpkins." "But, my son," replied the mother, "have you not seen yourself in a glass? Don't you see that you have a foot and an eye too little?" "As far as that goes," answered Medio-pollito, "I must say that you ought to drop down dead with shame to see me in this state. It is entirely your fault. From what sort of an egg was I born into the world? It must have been from an old cock's egg." "No, my child," said his mother, "only basilisks spring from such eggs. You were born from the last egg that I laid, and came into the world weak and imperfect, because it was the last egg in the nest. It certainly was not my fault."
"It may be," said Medio-pollito, while his comb grew red as fire, "it may be perhaps that I shall come across a skilful surgeon, who may supply me with the limbs that are lacking. There is no help here—I'm off."
When the poor mother saw she was not able to dissuade him from his purpose, she said, "At least, listen, my son, to the wise counsels of a good mother. Take care not to pass by those churches on which there is the image of St. Peter. That saint is not well disposed to cocks, and still less to their crowing. Also fly from certain people that there are in the world called 'cooks.' Such are our mortal foes, and will twist our necks before one can cry Amen. And now, my son, may God guide you and the blessed St. Raphael, who is the patron of travellers. Go and ask your father for his blessing."
Medio-pollito approached his father, dropped his head to kiss his foot, and asked his blessing. The worshipful old cock gave it with more dignity than tenderness, for Medio-pollito, by reason of his capricious character, was not a favourite of his. His mother was so moved with pity that she had to wipe away her tears with a dry leaf. Medio-pollito started at a brisk run, flapped his wing, and crowed thrice in token of farewell. On reaching the bank of a river that was almost dry—for it was the hot season—he lighted on a point in its course where the scanty thread of water was blocked by some branches of a tree. The stream on catching sight of the traveller said, "You see, my friend, how weak I am. I can scarcely move an inch. I have not strength enough to push aside these little boughs that obstruct my course. Nor can I make a circuit to avoid them, because it would very greatly fatigue me. You can easily deliver me from these straits by removing the boughs with your beak. In return for this favour you can not only quench your thirst in my stream, but you can count on my help, when the rain from heaven shall repair my strength." The chicken replied, "I can, but I won't. Do I look like a servant to poor dirty streams?" "You will remember me when you least expect it," murmured the stream in a feeble voice. "You will be boasting next of your swollen stream," said Medio-pollito, with a cunning look. "One would suppose you are reckoning on having the waters of the flood."
A little further on the young cock met with the wind, which lay stretched as if dead upon the ground. "Dear Medio-pollito," he said, "in this world we all have need one of another. Come near and look at me. Do you see how the summer heat has laid me low—me, who lifted the waves on high, and levelled the plains—me who found nothing to resist my power? These dog-days have killed me. I fell asleep, intoxicated with the scent of the flowers, with which I sported, and here you find me fainting away. If you would just lift me two inches from the ground with your beak and fan me with your wing, I should be strong enough to take to flight, and to steer my way to the cavern, where my mother and sisters, the storm winds, are occupied in patching some old clouds that I rent asunder. There they will give me something to refresh me, and I shall recover my strength."
"Sir," answered the wicked cock, "often enough have you amused yourself at my expense, pushing me from behind, and making my tail spread out like a fan, so that all that see me jeer at me. No, my friend, to every pig comes St. Martin's day, so fare you well, Sir Jester." With these words he crowed thrice very loudly, and went on his way as proud as a peacock.
In the middle of a field of stubble, where some labourers had made a fire, there rose up a column of smoke. Medio-pollita drew near and saw a tiny spark, which at times was nearly extinguished amidst the ashes. "Dear Medio-pollito," said the spark on seeing him, "you are come just in time to save my life. For want of fuel I am at my last gasp. I don't know where my cousin the wind has betaken himself, for he always comes to my help in cases like this. Bring some straw to revive me." "What business of mine is this?" replied the cock. "You may burst if you like. What need, plague take it, have you of me?" "Who knows whether you won't be in need some day?" replied the spark, "no one can say of this water I won't drink." "Holla," said the mischievous creature, "are you still boasting?—then take this for your pains." And so saying he covered the spark with ashes; after which he began to crow after his manner, as if he had done a very fine thing.
Medio-pollito now reached the capital. As he passed in front of a church that they told him was sacred to St. Peter, he stepped in front of the porch, and crowed till he was tired, not more to put the saint in a rage, than to enjoy the pleasure of disobeying his mother. On approaching the palace, when he would have gone in to see the king and queen, the sentinels cried out "back!" Then he turned about and made his way in by a back door into a big room, where he saw many people going in and out. He asked who they were, and learned that they were his Majesty's cooks. Instead of running away, as his mother had warned him to do, he went in with crest and tail erect. But one of the urchins threw a glove and knocked him over, and then twisted his neck in the twinkling of an eye. "Come," said he, "let us have some water to pluck this poor wretch." "Water, my dear lady Crystal," said the cock, "oblige me by not scalding me, have pity on me." "Had you pity on me, when I sought your help, ill-begotten wretch?" replied the water, boiling with rage, and flooded him from top to toe, while the young boys left him without a feather to help him.
The cook then seized Medio-pollito and put him on a spit. "Fire, blazing fire," said the unhappy creature, you that are so powerful and so brilliant, take pity on my misery. Restrain your ardour, extinguish your flames, do not burn me." "You rascal," replied the fire, "how have you the face to come to me for help, after having smothered me under the pretext of never wanting my aid? Draw near, and you shall see what is for your good." And in fact, not content with browning him, the fire burned him up, till he was like a piece of charcoal. When the cook saw him in this condition, he seized him by the foot and threw him out of the window. Then the wind got possession of him. "O wind," cried Medio-pollito, "my dear and worshipful wind, that reignest over all, and obeyest no man, powerful amongst the powerful, have compassion on me, and leave me at peace on this dunghill." "Leave you!" roared the wind, snatching him up as in a whirlwind, and twisting him in the air like a top, "no, not as long as I live!" The wind then lodged Medio-pollito on the top of a bell-tower. St. Peter stretched forth his hand, and fixed him firmly there. Thenceforth he occupies this position, blackened and shrunken, and without a feather. Lashed by the rain, and buffeted by the wind, from which he ever carefully guards his tail. He is no longer called Medio-pollito, but a weather-cock, and you must all know that he stands there, paying the penalty of his faults and sins, his disobedience, his pride, and his wickedness.
- Translated from the Spanish of Fernan Caballero's La Gaviota by H. T. Francis.
- There is a common popular superstition that old cocks lay an egg from which in seven years comes a basilisk. It is also said that it kills with its look the first person that it sees, but that it dies if the person sees it first (Author's note).