“Honk! Honk!” I call up to the sycamore tree.
Is that branch really twitching? A rustle of leaves, perhaps? My imagination—probably.
With precision, I line up three items, the first a square white china bowl filled with arugula. The frothy leaves spill over its edges. They make me think of a hat made of salad. Beside them, I set a small oxblood lacquer dish with four purple grapes cut into tiny, manageable bits—eighths. Then there’s the worn old dog dish with the mixture of egg pellets, oyster shell, cat food, and chicken scratch.
I rearrange them in a military line, then call again: “Honk, honk. Honk, honk.”
From the heavens I hear the call: “Hee caa, hee caa. Hee caa.” I try to echo the song, but it’s too early in the morning and I am not in good voice—my throat rasps. I default to honking again. She calls to me several more times. I wait, but she does not alight from her perch.
I read that peafowl, although possessing keen sight and hearing, cannot always discern where sounds originate. It’s still dim out, so maybe as the light burns off the dusky dawn, she will be able to spot me. I pause there a little longer and then resign myself and carry on with my morning routine.
While the tea brews, I feed the dogs and prepare fruit and muffins. As I pass the expanse of windows in the living room, there she is. Walleyed, she stares in at me and does that quirky side-to-side, up-and-down, back-and-forth movement with her head and neck. It reminds me of my teacher in India.
“Be right back,” I tell her, a goofy smile stealing my face.
Quickly I deliver the tray to the bedroom where my partner is reading the front page. “Be right back. Pen has arrived,” I explain mid-dash.
With the glass doors slid open, I crouch down on the cold tile and coo. “Good morning, Pen. My beautiful girl. How are you today? Here are your favorites, Pen. Arugula and grapes.”
Shyly she stutters forward. Eyes me from one side of her face, then the other, decides I’m still safe, and tucks into her grapes. So far, grapes come first, then salad, then the mixture of grains.
Pen is a peahen—the female consort to a peacock. She’s about the size of a small rosebush or hefty goose or oblong pumpkin. Brown and sandy feathers with streaks of pearly gray cover her wings and derrière. Her long neck resembles a resplendent fluffy boa, layered with iridescent wispy blue, green, and silver feathers that glow in the sunlight. Her legs and four claw-like toes are positively prehistoric. I absolutely adore her. I am a slave to Pen.
One day, Pen popped out of the sky and took up residence on our upper back deck. We viewed her with amazement. I consulted my friend who keeps peacocks and chickens, and she gave me culinary guidance, even brought over a mainstay assortment of grains. Then I went online and discovered that grapes and blueberries are welcome delicacies, although Pen would be quite happy with grazing and picking while roaming the spacious grounds, replete with green bushes, leaves, grasses, plants, trees, flowers, roots, and bugs. Nourishment is essential, but we all need beauty, magic, and art to satisfy our soul’s taste buds—we need our special treats. Besides, one must be an exemplary host to one’s guests, n’est-ce pas? That is my training, so I couldn’t falter when it came to Pen.
I admit there was an element of bribery in this. I wanted Pen to stay. So much. I needed her and I think she needed me, too. I began to feed her twice a day plus an afternoon snack. Obediently, at first light, she arrived at the den door and waited for me. For two weeks we got to know each other. I would sit nearby—initially her comfort zone was about four feet—and speak to her softly (as instructed by a peafowl website). We were bonding. We were coming to an agreement. We began to trust and recognize each other. She was succor to my sad soul. I was recovering from my second bout of cancer, had published my first novel, and was on the other side of the celebrity and distraction of book events. My muse was on sabbatical. I was floating in a void—lost and passionless. Now here was new inspiration. Nature is the best healer and ally, and she sent me this gift. I would not disappoint. I hoped to make my feathery friend feel secure enough to allow me to stroke her plumes and perhaps hold her on my lap. I am romanticizing a bit here. In case you don’t know, birds are messy beasts, and part of the trade-off of living with them involves many daubs and puddles of poop here and there, on the deck, on the table, on the chaises, on the seat cushions. But what’s a little effluence among friends and family? Pen had become a beloved.
Then one morning, Pen was gone. I searched everywhere. Walked the grounds again and again—about three fenced acres. Peered among the bamboo. Filled with wince waves, I looked up and down the road and in the driveways, fearful I would find her decimated body and feathers strewn, but no Pen.
Two weeks elapsed. I thought of her every day. The arugula wilted. The grapes shriveled. I tucked the grain in the drawer.
I waited. I meditated. I ate chocolate. I called the girls I mentor and listened intently to their dramas and problems and put my energy toward solving these human puzzles of engagement. But there was a hole in my heart that only a bird could fill.
One afternoon, I gazed out to the deck and there sat Pen, luminous in the sunlight, her beak set with impatience, as though no interval of absence had occurred, as though I had kept her waiting for her lunch.
“Don’t move,” I cooed. Then I scurried about gathering food, and arms full of dishes, I joined her on the deck. This time I crouched only one foot away, and she accepted a leaf of arugula from my hand. I remained very still and watched her. When I stood up and took a walk around the grounds, she followed, moving in stops and starts, flapping to keep up and honking at me in her two-syllable language. My ear is good, and I echoed her perfectly. However, take note, too much two-syllable honking makes one hoarse. Still I “hee-cawed hee-cawed” with delight. High-and low-pitched sounds, beautiful music to my ears. Peacock-like but not as shrill or brassy.
I read that peafowl are a flock creature, so why was she alone? Was she a bird who needed her space? Was she a lesbian? Did she prefer a pod of people to flock around her? Was she abused by her compadres? Were they foul fowl? I worried about her being lonely, but when I asked my chicken-whisperer friend for advice, she warned me not to introduce any new birds at this time.
Most afternoons and evenings, Penelope and I stroll together around the grounds speaking in peahen. I am getting pretty good. Really my peahen talk is better than my current French. Pen fits into the family seamlessly.
Although, my husband does roll his eyes when I cut up her grapes and move her breakfast from one deck to another following her lead—Pen’s moveable feast. (We all like room service, don’t we?) I see him sweet-talking her and smiling when he finds her perched on his truck and coaxes her down with the protective tenderness of a parent.
There is one exception to this perfect picture, however—I guess that’s life. It’s my border collie Mumbles. He is terrified of Pen, and she takes glee in intimidating him. When ruffled, she fans out her tail feathers in an aggressive display. Her huffiness could ward off any adversary, and it certainly works on Mumbles. With delight, she waits in the bushes until he trots over to me with a tennis ball in his mouth, keen for a throw, then she rushes him. Poor sweet, shy Mumbles. He stands paralyzed; only his eyes move as he scans the scene for an escape route. Finally, tennis ball still firmly entrenched, he makes a run for the nearest doggie door where he can take refuge in the darkest room of the house.
Our other dog, Flakey—an old, ragged, deaf, and somewhat demented Aussie shepherd mix—ignores Pen and she him. Invisibly, they sidle by each other in a graceful dance.
I guess it all comes down to chemistry. Could there be a love triangle here, I wonder? After all, Mumbles is my boy and Pen is my girl. Could it be they are vying for my affections, or am I guilty of anthropomorphizing again? It applies to hippos*, so why not to Pens?
I love my Penelope bird. I love my Mumbles dog. I love the magic. I love loving. Who needs more? As long as the arugula, grapes, grain, and chocolate hold out, so will the happy endings.
“Honk! Honk! Hee caw!”
*See Out of the Blue Valise
Pen Script: AND I just discovered Pen likes bananas, almost as much as grapes. Alert the media!