by Anna Cooper
Runner-up of the Spring 2021 ORB Short Fiction Competition, judged by Amit Chaudhuri.
No one could quite recall when the peacocks first appeared. It was one of those things that happened like hail in June, or the sky darkening before a spring storm — one day the street was empty and the next there they were. And though no one talks about it now, it was then that time was neatly divided into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’.
It was mid-June, as a matter of fact, when I first remember seeing them properly. Strolling down the road, bold as anything, curved head tilted proudly upward and fanning out a train of cerulean feathers over the neighbour’s front lawn. There were three — that I saw anyway — and they looked almost garish against the clipped, stripped back gardens and tastefully muted colours of the houses. Something like that was bound to draw attention, and sure enough, within a few days it became all anyone could talk about. Our street lies on the nice side of town, its identical, pebble-white house fronts and neat driveways all tucked snugly away behind wrought-iron gates. Safe, my mother likes to say. A lovely little bubble — a community. A place of PTA meetings and book clubs and charity teas, at which, unsurprisingly, our new arrivals were discussed more than any reading or fundraising was done. Plenty of photos began to pepper the neighbourhood Facebook group — some blurred and merely depicting blue blobs, but others breathtakingly, almost disconcertingly, close-up — always accompanied by admiring comments. Such beautiful creatures, aren’t we lucky?!
One night, after we rolled in from a neighbour’s barbecue, warm and loose-limbed and smelling of smoke, my mother stopped us dead in the kitchen, arms out — shush! We listened in the twilit silence, watching the blinking orange eyes of the oven. Can you hear that? she whispered. They’re singing. And so they were. Though perhaps singing was the wrong word — it was a keening, haunting and drawn-out, the eeriest sound I’ve ever heard.
It carried on well into the small hours, and my mother looked significantly less awed than she had in the dim light of the kitchen. Perhaps it was the leftover effects of the wine. Bit of a racket, my father mumbled into his newspaper, and after that no one gave any more thought to our noisy new neighbours. Until the next night, and all those that followed, through which we lay wide-awake and disgruntled in the darkness, listening to those endless, wavering calls.
The unease, rather than mere annoyance, started to take hold one sweltering afternoon — was it July? Perhaps, although this is where the memories start to become blurry. While helping my mother tend to the peonies in the front garden, the mayor’s wife from across the road stopped by. She was a plump, pallid woman, charitable to an aesthetic degree and knew everything about everyone. And, indeed, on this occasion she did not disappoint.
You’ll never guess what old Mr Johnson told me about those birds, she said, gesturing to the end of the road, where two deep-blue silhouettes lounged on the pavement. They looked like curved question-marks against the sun. It’s not singing, what they do at night. Her voice was steeped in hushed theatrics. They’re crying for their dead children.
The day suddenly seemed a little colder. It is only because of her choice of words that I remember it so clearly. Not chicks, not fledglings. Their children. It felt odd, almost intimate, like one should whisper so that the two birds at the end of the road wouldn’t hear.
Though, perhaps they did hear — as ridiculous as that sounds — because things seemed to shift after that. The cries grew ever more incessant, creeping earlier and earlier from night and evening into the day. Until one morning, I looked out of the window at eleven o’clock to the sight of the largest male peacock perched on top of the mayor’s garage, head tilted back and calling up at the clouds as if it expected the sky to shatter.
If they are crying for their children, my mother muttered on night as we watched the news, I wish they would do it somewhere else. We don’t want to hear it. It was the same voice she used when a story flashed up on the TV about a famine somewhere, or the race protests, or kids who couldn’t afford school meals. God, that’s too depressing. Turn it off!
As July drew to a close, the peacocks seemed to be everywhere. Walking down the street, there’d always be a flash of blue out of the corner of your eye. Once, I could have sworn I saw one wink at me from across the street. You and your imagination, my mother laughed when I tried to tell her.
The days grew hotter, blisteringly so, driving all the neighbourhood into their houses and the small respite offered by fans, cooling showers and iced drinks. Only the peacocks seemed unbothered, their feather remaining sleek and ocean-blue as ever. As the tarmac seized and bubbled like an open wound, rumours began to fester. When complaining to a neighbour about that gang of youths down the shop — so common, can’t even speak English, Mrs Goldman turned to see a peacock watching her from the kerb, its tiny eyes glittering. And after forcing the housemaid to her knees in his study, the mayor glanced out of his window to see a blue outline perched on the branch of the magnolia tree, staring right back at him.
Something had changed — and there was nothing more frightening that that.
Whichever way you were to turn, lidded black eyes would be waiting. Why can’t they just leave us alone? The question dripped off everyone’s lips. Why did they come to disturb us like this? The Facebook groups were now brimming with discussions of pest control, animal handlers and the like. Anything to just get us back to normal, back to how it was before.
That last morning, I woke late to someone screaming outside my window. It was not a sound we were used to, and as I stumbled out of the front door, barefoot and half-asleep, neighbours up and down the road were doing the same. And there they were, standing in the garden. Three of them, gleaming azure and muscled in the sun’s glare, beautiful and unnervingly large up close. Their tails were fanned out against a sky that paled in comparison. The rhododendrons were completely crushed. There was something in their eyes, you know. Something hard, unreadable, a lot like fury. And as they took light, almost casual steps towards us, huddled as we were on the threshold, I thought, stupidly, this is our reckoning.
The shots rang out in the humid air like heaving coughs, impossibly close and deafening. There was an explosion of feathers on the garden path, splashes of blue against the parched green, twisted with the sweetest red. A terrible cry strangled the air, before cutting short as suddenly as it had begun, leaving only the sound of drip, drip, on the newly installed flagstones. The mayor, in a sort of calculated frenzy, had heard the screams, grabbed his shotgun and, with a particular relish, had fired two bullets into the largest male peacock, which now lay smattered across out front garden, oozing all over the peonies. The angle it lay at, wings skewed as if hoping still to fly — I thought it looked like a broken toy. The other two, the neighbours told us later, had fled with panicked shrieks at the sound of the first gunshot.
It took three men to move the corpse, and another day to clear away any stray entrails, scrub the blood from the path. I was tasked with picking up all the feathers — everywhere, they had got, but I collected every last one. This I am sure of. After a week or so, when the stains had faded and my mother replanted the flower bed, you never would’ve been able to tell. There was a certain lightness in the way the neighbours greeted one another, a certain half-smile meaning thank goodness we’re back to normal. And a certain sheepishness — why ever did we feel so threatened?
I have never tried to bring it up with my mother, or anyone else for that matter, because I know exactly what they would say. The past it best left alone. And memory does funny things, especially regarding subjects best not spoken about.
This I know. And there is really no other way to live. But sometimes, when I walk down the street, I still find peacock feathers lying inside the gates.
ANNA COOPER is a first year reading German at Jesus College. Her street was in fact inhabited by peacocks a few years ago, but fortunately, they were welcome visitors.
Art by Fred Seddon