Cantachiaro is a chicken, a Rhode Island Red rooster, who was born on a poorly kept farm in a little village in Cranberry County, Maine to a large flock destined for the soup pot. One day when Cantachiaro was only a few weeks old, Peter and Anna Wensleydale drove from their home some miles away to the farm where Cantachiaro lived.
“We have a couple of dozen laying hens,” the Wensleydales told the farmer, “which we allow to roam free in the grass and among the trees, and we’re worried about foxes. So, we’re looking for a rooster to provide them protection.”
The farmer walked Peter and Anna from his house over to a pen where far too many chickens were cooped up in much too little space.
“If it’s protection from foxes you’re looking for, the bird you want is that one there with the tall tail feathers,” the farmer said, pointing out a particularly large, mean looking creature. “He’s a tough one, I can tell you from personal experience.”
Inclined to rely on the farmer’s expertise, Peter was about to agree when Anna spoke up.
“There’s the one for us,” Anna said, pointing into the midst of the flock at a small bird that displayed no particularly distinguishing characteristics except considerable evidence of having been beat up on rather badly and that, in addition, was still too young to determine for sure whether it was a male or a female.
“No, you don’t want that one,” the farmer replied, without having made any real effort to notice which bird Anna had indicated. “You’re better off with the one I said.”
“Be that as it may, this is the bird for us,” Anna insisted, following her choice closely with her eyes as it moved or was pushed about the overcrowded enclosure.
“You might as well save us all a lot of time,” Peter said to the farmer, “and go along with her now, because eventually you will anyway.”
“Suit yourselves,” the man grumbled. And then, without enthusiasm, he opened the gate, and waded into the sea of chickens to catch the animal Anna had selected. Several times, he surfaced with a bird only to be sent back under by Anna’s decree that “That’s not him,” until finally she was satisfied he had the right one in hand.
The farmer’s last comment, after Peter and Anna paid him a price that seemed to them too much by twice (“It’s not so much the bird I’m charging you for,” the farmer had said, “as the selection process”), was to reaffirm the likelihood that their choice was probably a hen and not a rooster anyway, so they’d eventually be back for the creature he had recommended in the first instance.
“What if he’s right,” Peter asked Anna in the car as they drove home, the chicken safely captured in a cardboard box they had obtained earlier from the supermarket just for the purpose, “and this one’s not a rooster?”
“He’s a rooster,” Anna said with confidence, “I can tell.” A few moments later, she added, “But if he isn’t, he goes to Sweden for a sex change operation before I go back to that grouch to admit it!” Presently, Anna turned back to Peter, and asked, “What do you suppose his name is?”
“Cantachiaro,” Peter said, with certainty. “The rooster’s name is Cantachiaro.”
“Cantachiaro? That sounds Italian,” Anna said.
“Yes, it is,” Peter replied. “It means ‘sing clear.’ Actually, it’s his family name.”
“It’s his family name,” Anna repeated flatly, without expression. “And have the Cantachiaro’s been in the United States a long time, Peter?” At that she could not hold back her laughter, for she was not, of course, taking Peter the least bit seriously. But he was not to be daunted.
“Yes,” he said, “they have. Fact is, his family came over with Christopher Columbus. The story is that Cantachiaro’s great, great, or whatever it would be, grandfather woke up the crew of the Santa Maria just in time to keep their ship from running aground on Plymouth Rock.”
“Plymouth Rock?” Anna replied, incredulously. “Columbus didn’t run aground at Plymouth Rock. That was the pilgrims, on the Mayflower.”
“Exactly,” Peter affirmed, “and they wouldn’t have either, if they had had Cantachiaro’s grandfather aboard.”
Bouncing around inside the cardboard box on the back seat of the Wensleydale’s car, Cantachiaro considered the morning’s activities, and thought about what he could hear of Peter’s and Anna’s conversation. At first, of course, he had been frightened and confused by having been taken away from home so abruptly, even though he knew that those rundown acres were no fit home for anyone and nowhere he’d be likely to miss. But, bad as it was, it was the only home he knew. Now, he wondered, what lies ahead.
They seem like a nice pair, these two, for humans, the rooster thought to himself. Certainly, she’s the first of any species I’ve ever known to stand up to that old farmer, and get away with it. That alone is a sign of progress. And this fellow with her seems thoughtful and sensitive. That’ll be a refreshing change. Still, however it unfolds, it’s going to be different, and so it’s bound to be a little scary, at least at first. But, considering all things, I believe it’s going to be alright. Shortly, very softly, he prayed, “Thank you, God.” Then, having put his fears to rest, he sat back in the box to enjoy the ride. One question he couldn’t seem to get out of his mind, though: How had Peter Wensleydale come to find out about Nonno Pasquale’s passage on the Santa Maria?
When they got home, Peter and Anna made the mistake of letting Cantachiaro loose among the hens right away. At the time, it had seemed like the right thing to do, but almost immediately, every one of the hens took to pecking at the new arrival, and generally mistreating him in a variety of fierce ways. The situation got so far out of hand that Peter and Anna feared for the bird’s life.
“I guess that’s not the way to introduce a rooster to the flock,” Peter observed, after rescuing Cantachiaro.
“I think the farmer may have been partly right,” Anna remarked, “in that Cantachiaro may still be so young that his hormones haven’t started flowing. He doesn’t know he’s a rooster yet. Neither do the hens.”
Peter set up a fenced-in area for Cantachiaro attached to the hens’ enclosure, so that, although they were separated by chicken wire, they were constantly exposed to one another. Of course, most of the day the hens were loose ranging, but they’d come back now and again for feed or to lay an egg, and they had to walk right past Cantachiaro to do so, affording all of them numerous opportunities to make acquaintance a little more gently. Also, this arrangement offered a controlled, protected setting for Cantachiaro to become accustomed to his new environment and to meet some of the other inhabitants of the place.
The first to present themselves were the two cats, Selene and Pilikia. Both are Persians, very long haired Persians. And that is nearly all that they have in common. To hear her tell it, Selene is the Queen Mother of the Wensleydale homestead, and she behaves accordingly. Of course, just then she had good reason to walk particularly tall, having recently won a Blue Ribbon at the Cranberry County Fair for Best Mouser.
The incident for which she had been singled out and applauded by every species at the Fair (except perhaps the mice, although even they had to acknowledge her prowess, if they might have wished that she practiced it on some other planet) took place towards the end of the summer in the Wensleydale home at a space where the floorboards meet the chimney, which a gray field mouse had discovered as a potential access to cozy winter quarters. Having heard him scratching about under the floor, Selene set herself up at the base of the chimney, there to remain absolutely motionless for four hours, even as the mouse peeked into the room over the floorboards numerous times, sniffing this way and that for signs of danger. Clearly, his nose had been reporting unmistakable evidence of Selene’s presence, but as she never moved or made a sound, not even once during the long vigil, neither his huge, shiny black eyes nor his pie-plate ears could confirm what his nose was telling him. Finally, his caution overruled by appetite and appearances, he set about moving his effects into the house, and then, only then, when the mouse’s guard was fully down, Selene had struck, quickly and with lethal accuracy.
“It’s not that I have anything personal against mice, you understand,” she had told Ron Harrigan, a local television news reporter, in an on-air interview following the presentation of her award. “It’s just that I don’t like them in the house. And besides,” she added, in a totally unnecessary afterthought, “I’m a cat.” With that, she had turned right away from the camera, and proceeded to lick her fur, a process she practices day and night indoors and out, to the effect that she is probably the cleanest cat in the county as well as the best mouser. In fact, Peter and Anna had suggested that Selene enter herself in that category at the Fair, too.
“Will the judges expect to touch me?” Selene had asked.
“Probably,” Peter said, noting, “After all, to measure the depth of your cleanliness, they’ll need to run their hands through your fur and perhaps even … ”
“Run their filthy hands through my fur?” Selene scoffed. “Not in this lifetime!” At that, she had flicked her long, blue-cream colored tail several times, turned her back on Peter and Anna and the entire subject, and disappeared.
“Welcome to my home,” were Selene’s first words to Cantachiaro, when she deigned to permit him the honor of her acquaintance. Then, she allowed, “I’m sure you will make a fine addition to the staff.”
This confused Cantachiaro considerably, but just in case he responded, “Thank you, ma’am,” reflecting an attitude toward her which Selene thoroughly approved of, but which Pilikia lost no time in erasing.
“Pay no attention to Selene,” Pilikia told Cantachiaro when he related the encounter to her. “Actually, she’s very nice, only she doesn’t know it, and she won’t let anyone close enough to convince her. Selene’s function here is to catch mice, and she does that very nicely. As for the rest, she’s just one of us.”
“And what is your function?” Cantachiaro asked Pilikia.
Pilikia laughed. “My function? Umm,” she said, scratching the top of her head with a hind paw, “I never thought about it.”
“From what I’ve observed,” Cantachiaro said to her, “I’d guess your function is the jester.” And it was true, he had noticed from his small enclosure that Pilikia seemed to like to play tricks on others, and she never seemed to take anything seriously.
“The jester,” Pilikia repeated, thoughtfully. “I believe you’re right. The one who makes them laugh. Preferably at themselves.” With that, she rolled over onto her back, and laughed heartily.
Truth to tell, Pilikia spends a lot of time on her back. “Do you suppose,” Anna once wondered out loud, “it’s got anything to do with her tortoise shell coloring? Perhaps she’s pretending to be a turtle turned upside down, feet and tail flapping about in the air.”
One fall, a neighbor, who had stopped by the house to share fresh-picked wild blueberries, admired Pilikia lying on the floor, stretched out on her back.
“Nice rug you got there,” he said, indicating the cat.
“Careful stepping on it,” Peter replied, “That rug’s still alive.”
“Still alive, you say? That wouldn’t be some of Old Man d’Wayne’s work, would it?”
Old Man d’Wayne is so called precisely because he is an old man, a very old man. “The way my mother related it to me,” Peter was told by Ernest Bestford, the fellow whose Jersey cow, Cream ’n Sugar, provides the Wensleydales milk, “was, Old Man d’Wayne came to this town about a hundred and fifty years ago, before it even was a town, and built the house he was later to be born in. Still lives in it, too.”
d’Wayne grew up to become a taxidermist, and over the century or more that he’s been practicing, he has earned a reputation for excellence that is respected by hunters and sportsmen of every variety, locals and tourists alike. Indeed, so skilled are his hands that when he is done it is truly hard to tell the difference between the beast alive and the beast stuffed. Fact is, a while back, for some years no one had observed d’Wayne’s wife Claudia move from the maple rocker by the wood stove in their living room, and folks were beginning to wonder, until, that is, Bernard the Mailman reported she reached out her right arm when he delivered a letter from their son August, whom they hadn’t seen or heard from since he’d gone north to Canada to join the army.
Anyway, Pilikia was the only one of the Wensleydale animals who managed to get into Cantachiaro’s pen with him. She scratched a passage in the dirt next to a tree where Peter hadn’t fastened the fence quite so tightly as elsewhere. Actually, there probably wouldn’t have been any way Peter could have kept Pilikia out of that pen (or, for that matter, anywhere else her curiosity drew her to), for Pilikia loves poking around into things, and she loves dirt, and wherever she can find an opportunity to combine the two, so much the better. If Selene is obsessive, perhaps even compulsive, about grooming herself, Pilikia more than makes up for her the other way around. She seems always to leave a cloud of dust behind her, and not infrequently she can be observed trailing a bit of twig, or perhaps even a small branch, caught in her fur, or the remains of a spider web wrapped about her tail. There is no trick to guessing what Pilikia has been up to, for she invariably drags the telltale evidence behind her.
As for mousing, that traditional feline function is not this cat’s forte. She did catch a small vole some time ago in Anna’s art studio, but then, once she had it in her grip, she didn’t know what to do with it, so she let it go. Besides, just then, a row at the birdfeeder between a chickadee and a nuthatch caught her attention, and she was suddenly far more intrigued by what mischief she could get into there. (“That’s not the way it was,” Pilikia had insisted to Selene at the time. “And I knew very well what to do with it. But it stunk so, I wanted to be rid of the thing. Have you ever put your nose up against a vole? Even I find them offensive smelling! Anyway, he had said he was only on an errand, with no intention of moving in.”)
Within a few short weeks of his arrival from the farm, Cantachiaro showed increasing evidence of reaching into adulthood. His permanent feathers filled out strong and bright, and his body took on the special shape of a rooster –the high, erect neck, and the long, flared tail. In addition, there began growing a spur on the back of each of his legs.
“What’re those?” Pilikia asked him one day, indicating his spurs. “They’re not warts, are they? If so, I can cure them.”
“They may look like warts now, Pilikia,” Cantachiaro replied, stretching out now one leg, now the other, to show off the new growth, “but once they’re fully developed and sharpened, pity the fox who comes across them!”
This fellow was fast becoming a very different bird than had gotten Anna’s attention in that overcrowded pen, and everyone noticed it, including himself, judging from the way he began to strut about his temporary enclosure. But the real evidence of Cantachiaro’s maturity came early one morning while Peter and Anna and nearly everyone else were still asleep.
“What was THAT!” Anna shouted, as she was awakened with a start.
“What was what?” Peter asked, burying his head deeper into his pillow.
“I don’t know, but I just heard the most outrageous noise,” Anna said, sitting up. “It sounded like … well, like a crow swallowing a frog and then bringing it up.”
By now, everyone was awake, and so they all heard the noise when it next occurred. And Anna had been quite right. It did sound like a crow swallowing a frog and then bringing it up.
“I have no idea,” Peter said as, still half asleep, he put on his bathrobe, and groped across the room to look out the window into the dark night outside. But then, in an instant, he knew; just as soon, that is, as he noticed that it was no longer fully dark. If he could see the first rays of dawn creeping through the trees across the clearing, Peter thought to himself, then so could Cantachiaro.
“It’s Cantachiaro!” Peter exclaimed, joyfully. “He’s crowing to the dawn.”
Selene grumbled. “Don’t tell me we’re going to have to listen to that every morning.”
“He’ll get better at it, Selene,” Peter assured her. “This was his first time, and his voice is just coming in.”
“Better and louder,” Anna added. “You know, Peter, Selene may be right. Yesterday may have been the last morning we will ever awaken on our own.”
Seeing her point, Peter said, “Or be able to sleep in.”
“As long as we’re all up,” Pilikia announced gaily, racing across the floor at full gallop from nowhere in particular to nowhere else in particular, “let’s play a game!”
Selene alone answered her, with a threatening hiss followed by a very dirty look.
Peter sat down on the bed beside Anna. “I think this means Cantachiaro’s ready to leave the pen,” he said, “and join the flock.”
“Agreed,” Anna nodded. And so it was.
That day, Cantachiaro and the hens took to each other like bread and butter. In fact, everyone seemed pleased to have Cantachiaro loose. Everyone, that is, except Tancredi.
“The Cranberry Tales” is
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