As a docent at Andalusia, one daily duty is to feed and water our peafowl – Astor and Mrs. Shortley. To be quite frank, birds are not my favorite animals. Framed with hollow bones, their bodies are supported by two thin legs, making them fragile creatures, yet they fear nothing and stride about as though they own everything. These beautiful specimens can fan out their feathers and present onlookers with vibrant colors and a majestic dance. But if they were to attack, they could do so efficiently with just talons and spurs – if that doesn’t psych you out, I’m not sure what will… Here’s my encounter:
Putting my fear aside, I walk out to feed them, breathing consciously so as not to be intimidated. I unlock the gate. The female peahen, Mrs. Shortley, runs to her back corner, clucking and shaking – she must have a fear of creatures without feathers. As I step into the sizeable wooden aviary whose four corners have become the two peafowl’s world, the male peacock, Astor, looks at me. Not just a glance, no, he peers his beady eyes into the depth of my soul and places one foot towards me. I freeze and maintain eye contact, which I instantly regret. He proceeds to shake out his tail feathers, showing me how large and in charge he is. The corner of the pen erupts in lengths of royal blues, forest greens, purples, golden yellows, and deep browns circle together forming the famous peacock eye feathers.
Still frozen and staring I say, “I’m here with food, Astor. Backup!” Again, he shakes his tail at me, and within the brief moment I take to inhale, he glares and screeches with the loudest holler I have ever heard, piercing my ears like a violent cry for life. With haste, I exit the pen, food still in hand, vowing only to return once he lowers his feathers.
After my encounter with Astor, I took it upon myself to find out why Flannery O’Connor, the woman whose house I was working in, loved these “beasts” so much. I read some of Flannery’s letters in The Habit of Beingas well as her essay “King of the Birds.”She talks about their beauty, how their colors would catch her eye, and how she could stare at them for hours on end.
Trying to place yourself into the mind of another is a talent and its one that I struggle to possess. From the small semi-circle of green metal chairs, I sit and observe the birds. They are odd little things. With little care for the length of all of his feathers, Astor struts about the space. Mrs. Shortley, poor thing, seems frightened of the world. They jump from place to place, and my mind drifts to what it must have been like to live at Andalusia with more than forty peafowl roaming the grounds and roosting in the trees. Shuddering at the thought, I realize how much I appreciate the aviary the two live in, not just for their safety, but my own.
After my encounter with the birds, I do feel for Regina, Flannery’s mother. They ate her flowersso much that she had to put up chicken wire to protect them, and their dreadful callswould drive her up the wall – I get it. I also understand the awe they inspire, as well. They are majestic fowl to watch, their colors are radiant, their calls are like the warning of a watchdog, and sometimes they even make me chuckle from their awkward yet intentional existence.
Flannery O’Connor, Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979).
Flannery O’Connor, “King of the Birds,” in The Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 832-842.
The Habit of Being, 57.