My stepfather was mormon and my mom was wife number four, the only brown wife. There was Beatrice, Gladys, Darlene and my mom, Carolina and sometimes we’d have Thanksgiving all together. We lived with Darlene for a little while and he ended up going back to Darlene after my mom divorced him. Darlene was made a widow by then. Her husband Bob had shot and killed himself (he was a veteran). He was probably my favorite stepdad. Taught me how to play poker, taught me how to bluff, was a really good guy.
The whole town of Interior, South Dakota (just a mile from the Badlands) found it both jarring and serendipitous when Bob came home with a peacock one day. Now they’re nonnative here, considered an exotic species but he said he found it waddling by the gas station. Snatched it up and carried it home in his pickup.
It was a male, India peacock with a bright blue head and neck and a tail bout yay long. I don’t get ornithology but Bob said when he saw the bird, it made his heart flutter like the peacock was trying to tell him something just by being there. And when I saw it in person, it was the closest thing I’d ever seen to an angel. It’d open its wings into a fan as tall as yourself. Big flashy blue, gold, purple and green wings and eyes darting everywhere. It looked like it understood something we couldn’t.
The thing is, a peacock seems better suited to higher society—not a trailer park in southwest South Dakota. You know in India it’s the national bird, a sacred bird and the spots (they’re called ocellis) on its tail symbolize the eyes of the gods. And in the past, wealthy people brought peacocks to their estates just to strut around and look pretty. Well, Bob’s peacock dressed up Interior, that’s for sure. Dragged its outrageous feather train down dirt roads past the Wagon Wheel Bar and Cowboy Corner, between all other other shanty houses. He had to let it roam, you know, you can’t keep a peacock in a cage. It’s gotta be free.
Bob had such a miserable life it was all Darlene could do to let him keep that bird. His step-children were growing bigger and stronger than him and they picked on him. Terrible kids, they’d learned how to bully from their own dad. Besides, the bird was pretty low maintenance. Peacocks will eat just about anything. Grains, worms, bugs, berries, chicken feed, you name it. They just need protein to grow their feathers.
The people in the town adored the peacock at first. Moms said seeing it was a great experience for the kids. Kids claimed geese were far more terrifying. Teenagers dangled french fries in front of it and when it wasn’t being bothered by the community, it was away, being free. Midday when the sun was high overhead, it’d perch on a horizontal tree limb or drink, preen its feathers and rest in the shade. What I’ve neglected to mention up til now is that male peacocks are loud and have a penchant for getting aggressive.
They sound off at all hours—a fearsome piercing yowl that carries about a mile. Mostly at dawn and dusk and practically all day during mating season (that’s spring and summertime). Legend says that God gave peacocks a horrible voice, lest its beauty make the bird overly conceited. Well that peacock could have gotten away with murder being that beautiful. Bob’s bird made nasally, shrill calls that went on for hours at a time. It sounded like “may-AWE, may-AWE!” Some of the neighbors thought it sounded like a little girl screaming, “help me, help me!” Usually veterans can’t stand loud noises but the peacock’s cry gave Bob comfort. It reminded him something was there for him. It screamed for all he couldn’t scream, I guess.
The first to start complaining was Joe Wickers who claimed the bird had scratched up his brand new pickup and scattered dung all over his yard. Next was Mary Jo Higginbotham who accused the thing of sleeping in her garden, digging up flower bulbs and killing seedlings. Maryanne Dowdy piped in saying it’d come onto her front porch and screamed into her bedroom window at ungodly hours. The community agreed the racket was terrible. Someone’d honk a horn and the bird’d start screaming. Someone’d drop a barrel and it’d start screaming. Joe Wickers suggested they kidnap the creature and throw it in an oven. Annabelle Berwyn, the schoolteacher, said it was invasive species that didn’t belong here anyway. Rick Tilson, the motel owner, contested not all invasives are evil. Bob was aware of all the chatter but didn’t think much of it, didn’t think that anyone’d actually do anything about it.
A year rolled around and the peacock shed its whole tail. Darlene scooped up the feathers from her front yard and fashioned them into earrings, started selling them to tourists but she gave these to me as a birthday gift. In that time, the peacock had accrued a lot of enemies for its intrusive habits. Crapping in people’s pools and gardens, attacking its reflection in the shinier cars. It’d fight and kill snakes which was the best thing. It was a testy thing, real anxious and upset at the world.
Rick Tilson, the motel owner’d been the one to find the poor creature dead in the dirt. Shot three times with its feathers soaked, just soaked in blood already drying and catching dirt like straw in a broom. He told Darlene straightaway (Bob was out at work) and together, they lifted it as gently as they could and ushered it into a large potato sack, kept it in the back yard until Bob got home. Rick said if that thing were an angel, he hope it got sent back to heaven, that’s what he told Darlene. Rick had always been a good friend to Bob and was a good neighbor.
When Bob got home and heard the news, his face got red and warped. He sobbed like Darlene had seen him do on his worst days and one of those punk kids called him a pussy. He got real quiet after that, real quiet and withdrew to his room only coming out for dinner. Darlene was carrying a turkey she’d just roasted in the oven when she heard Bob come in. He said “Look Darlene” and she turned around and he shot his head off. He was a good-natured man who couldn’t stand to live in a world where these bullies were going to win.