When the world was new, the Jade Emperor one day gathered the animals. "I have made a calendar," he announced. The creatures murmured among themselves. "What does he mean?" they asked excitedly.
The Emperor went on. "I now will name each of the 12 years in my calendar after one animal."
Now each animal hoped to be chosen. "I need the wisest, the most beautiful, the kindest and the most heroic. I will select those who represent the best of this world."
Every animal preened and prayed and whispered silently, "Please choose me."
"We'll convince him to select us," the monkeys chattered confidently, but others fretted about what might happen. The oxen were proud of their strength, but they weren't beautiful. The rabbits, terribly sensitive, were proud of their peaceful natures, but they were too shy to imagine themselves being chosen.
For days no one talked of anything but the Emperor's choices, and most worried of all was the dragon. He was a fantastic fellow with shimmering scales and fiery breath, but he despised his bare, brown head. "I need a headdress," he moaned. "If I had a fabulous headdress, the Emperor would surely choose me."
Now as the dragon moaned, the centipede slithered by. He was a slimy fellow who had to crawl along the ground on his blubbery tummy, and no one but the dragon could bear his company. The dragon felt sorry for him.
"I'll get you a headdress," the centipede said, "What can you give me in return?"
"I could make you more powerful," the dragon said. "I could give you the strength to protect yourself."
"You would do that for me?" the centipede asked. The thought of power and protection caused him to shiver with delight.
"I will if you find me a headdress."
So the centipede slithered away in search of the rooster, who had an exquisite headdress -- a crown of flaming colors.
Before long the centipede found the rooster outside the Emperor's palace. "Go away," he crowed at the centipede. "What do you want?"
"I'm only here to borrow your crown," the centipede whimpered. "Poor Dragon is afraid that without a crown, the Emperor will never select him."
The rooster laughed. "Ah, poor Dragon. If only he were as handsome as I. Here, he can borrow my crown for as long as he needs it. With or without a crown I'm sure to be chosen." And he lifted the crown from his head and laid it upon the centipede's back.
"Thank you," the centipede said as he crawled away as fast as he could.
"Clever centipede," the dragon said when he saw the crown. "Now I will give you what I promised. Crawl into this egg," and he pointed at a large cracked egg beside him. "That is my magic egg."
The centipede crawled inside the egg, and the dragon, using his magical powers, filled the egg with all the elements of life: earth, wind, fire and air. He closed the shell and chanted the magic words that dragons say whenever they cast spells. Then he set the egg gently upon the ground.
The next morning, at dawn, the dragon called, "You may emerge, Centipede!"
And when Centipede crawled out, he was forever changed, with many legs to carry his body faster than he had ever imagined he might move. No longer was he a weak and slimy fellow. He had powerful stingers in his jaws, and he felt strong. "I'm powerful!" he cried.
"Never boast," the dragon cautioned. "Always be modest. Even with my crown, I know I am not the mightiest creature. Nobody is. We must all behave well and be humble, always."
Later that day the Jade Emperor called to everyone. "I have selected my zodiac. This is what I call my representatives."
The animals held their breath, waiting to hear.
When the rooster saw how handsome the dragon looked in his crown, he felt jealous. "Dragon is far too handsome now. I wish I had my crown again."
"Rat!" the Emperor called. "I have chosen you because you are clever."
Everyone applauded as the rat stepped forward.
"Ox," said the Emperor, "you are strong and steadfast. I choose you. And Rabbit, I choose you for your gentleness. Dragon, I select you for imagination and energy, and Snake for your cunning. Horse, you are friendly and quick. You will be in my zodiac, and so will you, Ram, for you are a stylish fellow. Monkey, you have been smart enough to convince me of your cleverness, and Dog, you have always been loyal. Pig, you have a good heart. And Tiger, you are courageous." The Emperor bowed his head.
"That's only 11," somebody called. The rooster held his breath.
"Rooster," the Emperor concluded. "You are a perfectionist, and so you too will be part of my zodiac."
Everyone cheered as the Emperor explained that these 12 would forever hang in heaven, among the stars.
But the rooster wasn't satisfied. Seeing the crown upon the dragon's head inflamed his envy. "I want my crown now," he crowed. "I should have been chosen before the dragon. Give me my crown."
"No," the dragon said. "Centipede told me I could keep it for as long as I wish," and with those words he flew up to the heavens to take his place.
The rooster's feathers ruffled as he raced to find the centipede. "You tricked me," he squawked, "and you'll have to pay." He charged at the once-little fellow.
The rooster had no idea of the centipede's new powers. The centipede snapped his powerful jaws, and the rooster just laughed.
"Don't laugh at me. I can sting you and tear you apart! I'm powerful now!" But the moment he spoke those words, Centipede remembered Dragon's words. He felt ashamed, and he was terrified, too, for the rooster was charging toward him, and he saw that strong beak coming right for him. He slipped under a rock, just in time.
When night fell at last, the rooster gave up his wait and flew to the heavens to join the others. But every rooster since that time has wished and wished he wore the dragon's crown, and that's why roosters stand upon fences, crowing their deepest wishes to the heavens.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600