I have heard this story in different versions, with many kids of illustrations. Sometimes The Little Red Hen is poor, sometimes she has a nice bonnet. TLRH's friends change from time to time. Usually there are just three 'friends', but even their identities are subject to the whims of the current author. Still, regardless of what she looks like or who her friends are, the story of The Little Red Hen has become iconic. It is, as they say, Americana. We subscribe to the lessons learned from this wise and true parable.
But should we?
I was reading a book of fairy tales to Sabra yesterday when I read this one. It made me mad. And so I decided to explore the alternate sides of this story.
I wanted to see if the other characters (this time a dog, cat, and a bird) had a story to tell. Perhaps they were just lazy, perhaps they were as wicked and useless as our society has deemed them to be. But perhaps not.
And thus, we open our story...
The Little Red Hen found a piece of wheat.
"Who will help me plant the wheat?" she asked her friends.
Dog was on his way to a job interview. His last job had fired him because he couldn't control his drooling problem. Every time a bell or ding went off, his salivary glands went wild. Darn that Pavlov...
Anyways, he would have loved to help LRH. She was on the board of all kinds of important societies. She could really help him get a job. But he didn’t want to ask that of her. They were friends, but they certainly weren’t on those kinds of terms. No, he thought it would be best to just go ahead to his interview. He really couldn’t afford to be late.
“Little Red Hen,” Dog began, “I would of course help you with the wheat planting except that…”
And then TLRH cut him off.
“Oh! I see, you are too busy not having a job to help me out! How do you like that? I’m trying to give you something to do so you don’t give yourself to idleness and sloth, and instead you just want to go down a six-pack and watch a tractor pull. I understand. You go right ahead. But you remember what the Bible says about idle hands, young man!”
Dog wanted to correct her, but he had to make it to the interview. He trotted off, with his tail of course tucked down between his legs. He would explain later.
The Little Red Hen then saw Cat walking by and decided to extend the exciting invitation to the female feline.
“Cat! I have this lovely bit of wheat that needs harvested! Will you help me?”
Cat thought for a moment. The Little Red Hen was known for her attention to detail, her love for precision and perfection. LRH might not approve of the job that Cat would be capable of doing today. She did want to help her old friend. Cat and Hen’s families went waaaaay back. They loved each other out of familiarity and almost out of obligation.
Hen looked at Cat. ‘Bless her little heart….” Hen thought. ‘She looks terrible. It must be all those kids she has to take care of. Anyone of good breeding knows that you are only supposed to have as many kids as you can afford. Ugh. She insisted on having four! Imagine the audacity! Now she has to get the leftover milk delivery. How embarrassing for her. I’m being such a good friend by offering to spend time with her. She will glean from my wisdom and gentility.”
Meanwhile, Cat was looking down at her paws. Cat was sick. She knew she should have gone to the doctor months ago, but without health insurance and so many other areas being tight right now…there just weren’t the funds or the time to wait for six hours at the local clinic.
Her paw, weak with whatever was ailing her, would probably not hold up to the digging that Hen needed help with.
‘Hen might be upset, but she is an old friend. I’ll just tell her about my paw and surely she will forgive me’ Cat thought.
“Hen…” she stammered, looking off into the distance.
“Cat, if you please! I haven’t been called ‘Hen’ in ages! I do so prefer Little Red Hen.”
“Little Red Hen, I don’t know that I’m the one to help you with this job. You see, I haven’t been able to get to the doctor to get this checked out.”
She held up her mangled paw for The Little Red Hen to inspect, hoping she would understand how much pain she was in.
“You haven’t been to the doctor?” Little Red Hen repeated, horrified.
“Well, I would have to find someone to watch the kittens, and then I would have to take time off of work….not to mention the added expense of paying the doctors. I’m saving up, should be able to go soon…” Cat trailed off, looking embarrassed.
Little Red Hen looked at her childhood playmate in thinly veiled disgust. “Yes darling, of course. Go right along, then! You take care now! Kiss those lovely kids for me and take care of yourself. I’ll have Cook send over a dinner for you, how’s that?”
Cat limped off towards work, already feeling that the day had been too long. Her pride now hurt almost as much as her paw.
Little Red Hen watched Cat slink away. ‘Imagine! Telling me that she can’t go to the doctor! If she really wanted to get it done; if she truly wanted to find a solution…’
‘Well, no matter. I have other things to think about’ she mused, walking back to the wheat fields. Little Red Hen had long been planning to use the proceeds from all her wheat work to open a hospital for needy children. She was excited about the people she would be able to help, all the good that would come of her hard work. She thought of her plans as she harvested.
She couldn’t wait to call the papers and tell them about this goodwill gesture. She would have her picture taken. She would need to buy a new hat of course. While she was at it, she should buy her son a new suit as well. Little Fauntleroy was getting so big! He looked so distinguished in his powder blue short pants. Yes, off to Bergdorf. She would drop off the wheat on the way….she could pick up the flour with Fauntleroy when his croquet game was finished.
The next day, Little Red Hen was ready for bread baking. The papers had been alerted and would arrive for picture taking any moment now. The kitchen sparkled with new William-Sonoma gadgets. Her hat was in place, and sweet little Fauntleroy was juggling knives to amuse the street urchins at the window.
A familiar face floated past the window. Bird was walking by! He had been going through a nasty separation. He probably needed something to take his mind off of the scandal. And she wouldn’t mind trying to glean a few tidbits about that scandal…
“Oh Bird!” she trilled, waving to her old high school boyfriend.
“Little Red Hen!” he greeted her, genuinely glad for a friendly face.
“Bird, I could really use your help today! You see, I’m baking oodles of bread for the needy, and I need some strong muscles to turn out the dough!”
Bird thought for a quick moment. He did always have a weakness for Little Red Hen. And it wasn’t as if he had anything to do today besides going to couple’s therapy. He would have time to help for a bit and then he would be on his way to meet Fish. Oh, his beautiful wife…at least, his wife for now. His father had always warned him that a fish and a bird might fall in love...but there was no need to dwell on that now. He wanted things to work out between them. He hadn’t meant to have that fling with Flamingo. Something had come over him and all he saw were long pink legs. She had seemed so exotic.
He didn’t relish the idea of rehashing the issue today with Fish. But she insisted that the only way their relationship could be saved was through talking it out. So he would do it. He loved her lovely scales…
“Little Red Hen, I would love to help! I can do whatever you need me to do for about two hours, and then I must be off to an appointment.”
“Delightful! That will be a big help. I have some aprons behind the door. If you’ll just slip one on; I want us all to match when the pictures are taken.”
“The…the what?” said Bird.
“Why, we’re having our picture taken while we slave away at this bread project! All the major papers will be here. Daddy called in a few favors for me, and it looks like we might have front page for some of them!”
“Little Red Hen, on second thought, I don’t know that I can help you. You see, I’m already in a heap of trouble with my lovely wife, and I don’t want to do anything to sabotage what little relationship we have left. If she saw me on the front page with an ex-girlfriend, I don’t think it would go over well.”
Little Red Hen pursed her lips. She was so tired of everyone shirking their duty to society. Who else would help the poor if not her? How else would a hospital be built? Certainly not by running away, as Dog and Cat had done. And now Bird! She had seen enough.
After a sound verbal lashing, Bird went on his way. Better be safe, he thought. Little Red Hen was an old friend, but Fish was his wife. Yes, he had made the right decision.
Dog, Cat, and Bird were in their respective homes when the paper arrived the next day. To their collective surprise, they were listed as having turned away when help was needed. They were recorded in black and white as spurning the opportunity to help the less fortunate. Little Red Hen lamented how she tried to enlist assistance with the planting, the harvesting, the baking. Nobody, it seemed, had a heart for sick children quite like she. Little Red Hen, the champion of the poor, the sick, the down-and-out.
Meanwhile, Little Red Hen sat in her home on Maple Street reading the paper. The pictures were beautiful, and her Bergdorf hat perfectly matched the laces on Fauntleroy’s buckskin shoes. She was happy with her little cause. Perhaps she could land a book deal.
Ok, so it is a bit over the top. At times I was even rude to the Little Red Hen. But I was awfully tired of seeing the sainted hen get all the praise when we don’t really know why the other poor animals didn’t help.
And I will conclude by not pointing out that the Hen is Red. Because Red doesn’t represent any particular leaning or meaning or political understanding.
And thus, I extend my literary finger to the Little Red Hen.