Short Stories

The Peacock and the Wren

In the steaming jungles of Kathmandu, a day doesn’t dawn without the piercing wail of its most splendid inhabitant. Shrieking grikishly to rouse the sun, the peacock steps elegantly, spindle-claw poised in jerking gait, nimbly picking its way over mandrake root and rhododendron branch. It has no equal; its beauty unparalleled, its hauteur unshakable. Seldom will a creature approach it. Though flightless it needs no defences, save the armour of its splendour. In the flick of its tail its helpless victims stand immobilised in its Medusa-like thrall.

Small wonder then, that on this most inauspicious, innocuous day, a day of babblers and orioles, Koles and drongos, egrets and floricans, marshmuggers and gharials; our fearless protagonist should find himself confronted. And not just confronted, but affronted, by the most unlikely foe! Scarcely had he stepped out this fine morning, scarcely had the dense jungle mists yielded to the cauldron heat of a Nepalese dawn than there, on a path strewn with rhino apple and kapok and half hidden in a beautyberry bush, perched a bird so small and drab that the peacock could hardly perceive it.

‘Stand aside!’ he commanded peevishly, barely willing to waste his breath on so insignificant a creature.

‘Shan’t’ came back the impudent reply.

‘I beg your pardon!’ shrieked the outraged peacock. ‘Do you dare to defy me?’ Such effrontery he had never before encountered and he wished to sweep away this diminutive upstart without further time-wasting.

‘Shan’t!’ came the disrespectful retort once more. ‘You can’t make me.’

The peacock, unaccustomed to any defiance from the lesser creatures of the jungle, swivelled his awful eye to peer intently at this unworthy – and hitherto un-encountered – challenger.

‘Stand aside, I say, or take the consequences!’ And with a portentous sweep he flared his fiery tail to unsheathe its full magnificence, fully expecting his opponent to wither or fly off in fear.

‘And if I don’t?’ the small popinjay retorted with a mocking bravado and, instead of retreating into the dense undergrowth, he hopped boldly into the path of his imperious aggressor. Nonplussed, the peacock lowered his crowned head till he was eyeball to eyeball with his tiny foe.

‘I will kill you, of course!’ hissed the peacock, his gimlet eye leaving the little wren in no doubt as to his intentions.

‘I propose a wager, in that case!’ piped up the pipsqueak, fluffing himself up to his fullest size (though in truth no larger than a kumquat) in an attempt to fluster his aggressor.

‘A wager?’ shrieked the peacock. ‘In what possible contest could you ever hope to defeat me?’ His hot breath ruffled the tiny feathers of the drab little bird before him, but the latter moved not a fraction. The wren’s reply so astonished him that for a moment the peacock stood immobilised, uncertain how to respond.

‘A tail-holding contest!’ he scoffed. ‘You mean holding your tail up for as long as possible? How ridiculous!’ But he smiled inwardly, sure that this foolish little bird had no idea who he was taking on.

‘Very well, he declared magnanimously. ‘I accept your challenge. However with one stipulation. We ask the gharial to adjudicate.’

‘Good idea, pipped the little wren. ‘Will you ask him, or will I?’

The peacock agreed to seek out the dreaded crocodile and bid him come, and a time was set for post-noon. At the allotted hour, the clearing was abuzz with lively and colourful creatures of every shape and description. Indian pythons and King cobras hung from the lianas; orioles and madrigals pirouetted in the rosewood branches and among the deep leaf litter ran mongooses, martens and honey badgers. All eyes were on the tiny pathway, which until this morning had been a peaceful thoroughfare for large and small alike.

‘Ahem!’ barked the gharial, and all bodies turned towards him attentively (many trying to avoid staring at his fearsome fangs).

‘Our illustrious friend the peacock has today been challenged by a young upstart to a tail-holding contest, no less!’

The amazed crowd turned their collective gaze to seek out the tiny challenger, who, though puffed up to his mightiest, was still only a colourless dot among the leaf-litter.

‘Our good friend the monitor has kindly agreed to keep time, though it is unlikely to be a long contest.’ He turned his superior glare towards the hapless wren, slavering a little at the tasty afternoon treat in prospect.

‘Right!’ declared the monitor. ‘Let the contest begin! First tail to fall concedes the race.’

The two protagonists stanced purposefully opposite one another. Not beak to beak, as the sheer disparity in their sizes prevented it. But each posed with his tail erect, one in many-splendoured glory, the other in perky and defiant opposition.

By this hour, the heat in the forest was becoming oppressive and the dozens of panting, rasping creatures only added to the steamy atmosphere in the clearing. The peacock, proud, poised and impatient began to wonder why he had allowed himself to be drawn into such a foolish endeavour. The wren, for his part, looked on coolly. His position on among the forest detritus and in the shade of the peacock’s illustrious tail left him comfortable and languid. As the hours ticked by, each announced importantly by the lounging monitor, the peacock’s back and neck became increasingly strained and he struggled to keep the effort from his haughty features.

The wren, on the other hand, appeared to be enjoying the escapade immensely. He hopped gaily from foot to foot, his pert little tail betraying no fatigue, nor any sign of drooping. He called out to his dazzling opponent:

‘Let me know when you’ve had enough, good sir. I would hate to cause you discomfort!’

His cheeky demeanour enraged the struggling peacock, and he marshalled all his strength, determined not to be outdone by this diminutive upstart. The heat, and the hissing, baying crowd however, began to bear down on him inexorably and his breath began to come in short gasps. Each of his elaborate, twinkling feathered eyes began to twitch, and to his horror, one by one they began to droop! No amount of hitching and tensing could prevent the inevitable!

One by one the onlooking throng began chirping and chanting, chuntering and chattering, hissing and harrumphing. The peacock stood shivering in disarray, its bejewelled pinions languishing like a discarded crinoline in the dense, damp foliage, utterly beyond the command of their defeated master.

‘I declare the wren the victor!’ Pronounced the bemused gharial, sizing up the deflated peacock beneath his hooded lids.

All eyes moved to the little wren, whose pert little tail neither fluttered nor faltered (nor in fact could it, being naturally fixed in this permanent perky erectitude!). In a flash, he gallantly hopped aside, bowing as he did to his vanquished rival.

‘You only had to ask nicely,’ he chirped, before flitting harmlessly away.

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