The following story is rather sad. But it does tell about an important event that happened way back in the dawn of time. You may remember from other stories that at one time many of the animals could talk. They lived in villages with the humans. The animals had skills just like the humans. For example, wolves were bankers, chickens were scribes, bears were entertainers, dogs were chefs and pigs were plumbers. Humans were usually merchants, farmers or government officials.
Don’t misunderstand; humans and animals were equals, since the animals could talk. They had their skilled jobs, just as the humans did. No self-respecting horse would pull a plow, unless, of course, he was doing it as a kindness for a friend. Almost everyone had a garden. They grew wonderful vegetables in their gardens. Some were better at growing one thing, some another. A bantam cockerel once produced a wonderful crop of corn; it was so sweet that the bees were jealous. I’ve heard of a fox that grew the sweetest and tangiest grapes. And a pig who grew some potatoes that were just smashing. There was a wolf who, even though he was a banker, grew the most marvelous cabbage. Everyone liked to visit their neighbors and sample the wonderful things they had grown. So, on Saturday afternoons, you would find everyone running back and forth, checking out the wonderful produce of their neighbors.
All that running around turned into chaos. One day some turkeys wanted to take some of their pumpkin pies to a neighbor. But the streets were crowded with everyone running back and forth tasting everything and taking samples to their friends. So the turkeys just sat down by the side of the road, totally confused by the fox running this way and the horses trotting that way and the squirrels scrambling back and forth, not to mention the dogs and cats and chickens, cows, goats, ducks, deer, wolves, rabbits, porcupines, badgers and, most especially, the humans. It turned out that one of the humans saw the turkeys and offered to buy a little taste of the pumpkin pies the turkeys had made.
That started what we now call ‘tailgate’ markets; it also started the events we call ‘fairs’. Soon everyone was selling their excess produce by the side of the road and then taking their best items to be judged at the village fair.
One of the villagers was a very smart chicken named Henney Penney. She liked to grow all sorts of things in her garden. In fact, she even had a small millstone that she used to make flour out of the wheat she grew. She always won first prize for her “Penny Loaves”.
Henney Penney had a nephew, a cockerel, that everyone called “Chicken Little” because he was a very small chicken. Chicken Little was one of those rather annoying children who acted first and thought later. The little cockerel frequently made a fool of himself, usually by telling the adult chickens around him some fantastic tale.
Henney Penny and Chicken Little lived in a village on the shore of a large lake. Unfortunately, the shoreline had receded because of a series of terrible droughts. There would frequently be years of no rain. This would be followed by some very wet and rainy years. However, there was never enough rain to refill the lake. So the shoreline moved slowly away from the village.
The villagers eventually dug a canal and several ditches for better access to the water from the lake. That led to some villagers moving their houses closer the the lake. They built new houses on the edge of the canal. Soon, there was a nice street on either side of the canal, with new houses and new gardens. The mayor formed a planning committee and they laid out new streets and a nice village square.
Moving their village did not solve their water problem. It was not long before they had to dig the canal and the ditches deeper in order to get the lake water to flow into the canal. That’s because the droughts were getting worse. The sky would turn odd colors. It might be that the dust from all the dry ground blew up into the sky, or there might have been another reason, but the sky would turn pink or orange or amber or lavender or even olive drab. Each drought was named for the color of the sky.
Chicken Little was born at the very beginning of the Lavender Drought. So he had never seen it rain. He knew about rain, or he would have, if he had listened to Henney Penney, Horace the mule, Petruchio the eagle or Ignatius the wolf. But Chicken Little was too full of himself. He bragged to the pullets that he did not believe in nonsense like ghosts, fairies or water falling from the sky. He strutted through the village with many of the pullets and some of the cockerels following him, listening to his prattle.
The drought was devastating. The grass and wildflowers in the meadows turned brown, as did the leaves on the trees. Many of the animals that lived in the forests began to starve. And it looked like the village would starve next year if a better way to water the crops was not found.
Horace the Mule and Petruchio the Eagle had been working for over a year on a pump system. Their pump would make it much easier for the village to have water. Instead of having to lower buckets into the ditches to get water, the new pump system would provide water. It was a windmill system. As long as there was a little wind, the pump could fill a giant tub with water. The villagers could take their buckets to the water tub.
Well everyone was excited and very happy about the pump system. Then Horace and Petruchio added a most wonderful feature. They raised the tub up above the village and attached a few hoses to it. Then they put meters on the hoses and began to charge villagers for water from their pump system.
The villagers were furious. The claim was that Horace and Petruchio were taking advantage of the drought and charging for what should be free. Horace and Petruchio countered that they had to pay the blacksmith and the carpenter for their work and no one was forced to pay. They could still haul the water to their crops.
It was Chicken Little who led the protesting against Horace and Petruchio. He talked about how everyone had a need for water and it was not right that Horace and Petruchio should make everyone suffer. Henney Penney challenged him to a debate. She said that it was the drought, not Horace and Petruchio, that made everyone suffer. She challenged Chicken Little to provide his service as a scribe for free. After all, she said, Chicken Little was taking advantage of others by making them pay for his skill. Chicken Little said that was different. The person wanting his scribe services could go to another chicken. Horace and Petruchio had a monopoly. They were the only ones who had a pump system. They were asking for payment for water when water was free. Henney Penney countered by saying that they were charging for the pump system. The water was still free. Anyone could go to the ditch and haul it to their crops.
Most everyone agreed with Chicken Little. They were greedy. But Horace and Petruchio refused to give away their pump system. Finally, the mayor decided that the village would buy the pump from Horace and Petruchio and then everyone would have the use of it. Horace and Petruchio, happy to rid themselves of their frustrations, sold the pump system to the village.
That was not the end of the troubles about the pump. First, it had to be decided who was in most need of water. Not a few animals and people got into fights over that. Finally, a schedule was designed so that everyone would know which day they got water. And second, the pump broke down. Horace and Petruchio at first refused to assist the village. Eventually they agreed to standard wages to fix the pump. Third, a big fight broke out over who should get water next. Those who were scheduled said it should be them. Those whose days had been passed over due to the pump being broken said they should have their turn. It took the mayor, Henney Penney and Ignatius to solve that. Fourth, because the pump was free, everyone used as much water as they could, not just what they needed. So the ditch soon ran dry. They had to build more pipes to reach the lake. Then the environmentalists said that the village should levy a tax on water pumped from the lake because there was a great danger of the lake drying up. That started another fight.
This last fight was worst of all. It ended with the mayor, Horace, Petruchio and Ignatius being run out of the village. The villagers proclaimed Chicken Little as mayor.
Chicken Little’s first decree was that the water from the lake would be free. When the village on the other side of the lake heard what was happening, they declared war on Chicken Little’s village. But Chicken Little offered to let them see how to build a pump system. So the war was avoided. But the lake began to dry up. The two villages decided to charge for water. That caused the lake to last a while longer. But everyone could see that they would run out of water soon.
Rumors began to run through the village that it was Chicken Little’s fault. If he had listened to the environmentalists or better yet, if he had just let Horace and Petruchio charge for the use of their pump like was only fair, then there would still be some water in the lake.
It was because of these rumors that Chicken Little was walking around one morning trying to rebuild his support. He did not notice that clouds had gathered to the west and were slowly moving across the sky. He was so busy talking about his wonderful plans for the village that he did not notice how the clouds covered the sky. He did not notice how dark it was getting.
But he did notice the raindrops when they hit him. At first he thought someone had thrown water on him. Then he realized the water was falling from the sky. He panicked. He began to run through the village shouting, “The sky is falling! the sky is falling!”
Everyone began to panic. The young chicks, kids, goslings, puppies, kittens, calves, lambs and all the young animals began to run around screaming. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Take cover! Take cover! No! Not in there. The falling sky will knock your house down.” The panic and screaming went on for some time.
Finally, Henney Penney and a few of the other old hens began to scold the animals. “It’s just rain,” they said, “we should be celebrating.” But no one would listen.
The panic stopped when everyone was exhausted. Then the rain stopped. The older villagers came out of their houses and shook their heads. Thinking they were going to die, Chicken Little and his friends were laying on their backs in the street. Instead of dying they were merely covered in mud and embarrassment.
Henney Penney made a short speech suggesting that the village send someone to bring the mayor back. “We need someone with the proper training to be mayor,” was her main point. And for a short while it seemed like the village would take her advice.
Chicken Little’s campaign to save his neck paid off. No one spoke of the panic. Everyone who had panicked was too embarrassed and the older villagers were too polite to mention it. No one went to find the mayor. “Chicken Little is the mayor now,” was what those who were willing to comment on the subject would say.
The drought was slow in ending. The rain made no difference to the level of the lake. The villages imposed water rationing. Some protested, claiming that the fee charged for water was sufficient to regulate water usage. Others claimed that a few villagers were hauling water from the lake and storing it in barrels and cisterns. A guard was posted to make sure that no one took water from the lake. That brought criticism from the few who preferred to haul water rather than pay for it.
Chicken Little dealt with all of this by prescribing his philosophy: give to the ones who are in need. He appointed his friends to decide just who was truly needy. And he settled back and enjoyed the perks of government.
The old villagers left the village. The humans left, too. Most of them moved up past Henney Penney’s little holding. They began to settle around the old fields where the village had raised grain before it moved closer to the lake. These old fields had become meadows. But they were easy to clear and plant crops. The humans dug wells and found little creeks they could use as sources of water.
Henney Penney walked around the village asking if anyone would help her clear some land on the edge of the forest so that they could plant more grain. She moved back to her old home where she lived before the drought began and the village moved. She said that the lake would rise up into the village when the drought ended, Chicken Little laughed at her. “It’s fifty yards from the shore to the village now. And the village is twenty feet above the shore. Do you have any idea how much water that is? You’re getting old and foolish, Henney Penney.”
She looked hard at him and whispered, “The sky is falling, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.” He was so embarrassed that he couldn’t speak for two minutes. But he didn’t change his mind.
Henney Penney went home and cleared her land. More rain came. The level of the lake slowly began to rise. Spring came. She walked around the village and asked if anyone would help her plant the grain. No one would. “We have plenty of grain. And Chicken Little says that all we have to do is tax those who have and give to those who need.”
Henney Penney asked, “What if no one has any?”
“Don’t be silly,” they said, “someone always has grain.”
She shook her head and went back to plant her grain. She had not been able to clear a lot of land, working by herself, but she had cleared a nice field and planted grain. Henney Penny hoped that what she had planted would get her through the winter.
It rained almost every day. “The wettest spring in fifty years,” some would say. But they really didn’t know, not being anywhere near fifty years old. The lake rose too. By the end of March the shore was forty feet from the village. The villagers gave Chicken Little credit for the end of the drought. He said it was really God, but he accepted their accolades.
Unfortunately, the drought was not really over. It did rain in April, but not as much. By the end of April the shore was thirty five feet from the village. At the end of May it was still thirty five feet away. And at the end of June the shore was thirty seven feet from the village. July and August were a bit wetter and the lake maintained its water level.
On her trip into the village Henney Penney asked the villagers if anyone would help her harvest the grain. They politely told her, “No.” Henney Penney harvested a bumper crop in September. She estimated she had enough grain to last three years. And when the sky turned amber and the rain stopped falling she was really grateful to God for the grain.
Her neighbors, the former mayor and his friends, also had bumper crops. But no one in the village knew anything about it. They were afraid that they would be asked to work if they went near the farmers.
It was obvious that this would be a longer drought than the Lavender Sky Drought. The amber sky made it seem even hotter than it was. Henney Penney filled up her cistern and many barrels with water from the springs that trickled down from the hills above her as they flowed into the lake. The former mayor and his friends build huge cisterns to hold water from the springs. But no one knew what they would do when Chicken Little and the villagers found out about the grain and water.
When the villagers came to Chicken Little and asked about water to plant grain he said that each citizen would be given the same amount of water. They could do with it what they wanted. It would rain, soon, he assured them. Just like last time. It would rain in the spring.
When spring came there was no rain. The villagers suspiciously watched each other. No one dared to plant grain when his neighbor was not planting. They knew it would be taken and given to the lazy neighbor. They hoarded what grain they had, pleaded that they had none and begged for more.
Over the summer the lake began to shrink. What had been a huge lake about a mile across had become a small lake about half a mile across. Which meant that most of the water in the lake was gone. Severe water rationing was imposed.
Then a cat named Felix asked about Henney Penney. “Oh, she’s dead,” was Chicken Little’s reply.
“Well, maybe she left some in her house.” And the cat headed up the little road to Henney Penney’s house.
Suspicious, many of the villagers followed the cat. Henney Penney saw them coming and figured out what was happening.
“Well, hello!” I didn’t think any of you villagers were still around. Well, you’re just in time. I need to grind some grain. I sure could use some help.”
The cat turned around and said, “See, she’s still here. Well, don’t trample me to help her.”
“Oh, we can’t help grind grain. We’re too exhausted. We have no grain or water and we’re about to die.
Henney Penney could see that they were still rather fat and far from starving. She told them, “Well, if you won’t help me, then I can’t help you.”
The villagers looked hard at Henney Penney. She was a much thinner chicken than when she lived in the village. They were a rather nosy group, looking here and there. All they found was a barrel half full of grain and a barrel full of water.
“Well, we’re glad to see you are doing alright,” the villagers told Henney Penney. And they returned to the village.
The villagers, all of whom were animals, found food over the summer in the forest and fields near the village. There was dry grass in the fields and seeds and nuts in the meadow and forest. While they were out foraging the villagers found the humans.
When the humans suggested that the villagers come and work with them Chicken Little said, “Well, it’s supposed to be that those who have give to those in need. We shouldn’t have to work.”
All the animals agreed. “Imagine not wanting to share!” was the comment, even though none of them was willing to share their hoarded grain with their neighbors.
In early November the bears said they had had enough. They packed up and went looking for a nice cave for their winter hibernation. The hawks, eagles, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels and many other birds and animals said they would do better in the forest. They left, taking their grain with them.
Chicken Little said that it was good, because now there would be more for the rest of the villagers. But it did not seem so.
A few of them wandered back up to see what Henney Penney was doing. She said she had a little flour left and was going to try to bake a cake. She asked for help gathering firewood. None of the animals was interested in gathering firewood for her. So they wandered over to the former mayor’s place.
There they found a thriving farm. The humans were pulling a plow through their fields to get ready for spring planting. They seemed to have enough water and grain. But the animals were not allowed to snoop around.
“If you want to join us, you have to be willing to work.” That was all they were told.
Sadly, they went back to the village and told Chicken Little and the others. “Let’s go see if Henney Penney has baked her cake,” suggested Chicken Little.
So they hiked back to Henney Penney’s house.
“I asked you to help me clear this land. Not one of you would. I asked you to help me harvest the grain. Not one of you would. I asked you to help me grind some grain. Not one of you would. I asked you to help gather firewood. Not one of you would. And now who do you think is going to eat some of my cake? Not one of you would. I am taking it to the real mayor as a thank you for the help he has given to me!”
In despair, they went back to Chicken Little. He told them he would have to raise taxes again in order to buy grain from another village. One of the roosters, Henry, crowed very loudly and grabbed Chicken Little by the neck. Then the rest of the animals took him and threw him in the mud which used to be the lake.
“The last time you were all muddy like that you told us the sky was falling. It is to our shame that we believed you. It is even more to our shame that we kept on believing you. Well, you have been our ruin. We have no choice but to go to the real mayor and see if he will help us.”
The mayor, who was now a farmer, said that he could use some help. “You’ll have to work hard. The horses and oxen will have to pull plows and wagons. The cows and goats will have to share their milk with me. You all will be my property, my livestock.” Because they were thirsty and beginning to starve, the animals agreed.
You may realize that this is a parable and not a true story. And the meaning of this parable is like the meaning of the original Henney Penney story. In this retelling, the meaning of the story has not changed. I wish it could have a happy ending. However, some stories do not have happy endings. Some characters make wise choices; some make unwise choices. But you know that.