The Life Changing Magic of Raising Peacocks

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Until the soldier, I had been able to stand outside of other people’s grief. I could study it from a safe distance, close enough to see the details and feel the edges, but still at a remove, as if from behind a sterile membrane. But because I could see my own child in the soldier, the barrier dissolved. Writing that father’s grief, I finally figured out, was more visceral experience than intellectual exercise.

I discussed this at length with Comet and Snowball, the chickens. I worked in the yard with them in the late spring, before the pecans had leafed out, moving my mildewed camp chair every so often to keep the sun off my screen and basal cells from sprouting on my pink Irish skin. The ladies would cock their heads while I read them sentences and paragraphs, staring at me with one orange eye each, not really listening, of course, but putting on a pretty good show of it. They looked like they were paying attention. When I got completely stuck, which was often, I sat in the grass and fed them blueberries. After a few days of this, I taught them to jump for treats. I was astonished that a chicken had a 14-inch vertical.

The peacocks, within a couple of weeks of their arrival, had replaced Comet and Snowball as an audience for my more serious work conversations. They had the advantage of being physical captives, unable to wander away if they grew tired of me droning on, as the chickens occasionally did.

“If we start with the dead lawyer,” I said to the peacocks one afternoon, “that’s kind of backing into it, right?”

Ethel tipped her head to one side but did not betray an opinion.

“The airport scene with the live lawyer makes much more sense, I think. I mean, she’s the one in the middle of all this.”

Carl and Mr. Pickle stood a safe distance behind Ethel, shy slackers in the back of the lecture hall. They were excellent collaborators, never interrupting or criticizing, patiently listening to me sort out my thoughts, which was easier to do if I heard them out loud. Tater was much too excitable for such matters, and I felt less silly talking to a trio of large birds than to myself. Plus, the boys might be close enough to hear me if I were to walk around muttering disjointed fragments about dead lawyers and airports.

All three peacocks watched me intently, as if expecting to hear something profound. They were actually expecting blueberries. Whenever I sat down inside the coop—I’d put a cinder block in there after the first bale of hay was scattered—they understood that I would produce blueberries or tomatoes or blackberries, whatever was abundant in the garden or cheap at the grocery. Yet they were still skittish enough to wait for treats, not cluck and hop and grab at my fingers like the chickens. It was easy enough to reframe their timidity as interest.

There was a limit to their patience, though. I rambled on for five minutes, maybe six, which is a very long time when you’re rambling, but not so long at all when you’re trying to piece together a month of reporting. Carl got bored and looked out at the yard. Ethel took a single step toward me and stopped, a mildly insistent move, a soft demand for a blueberry.

“All right, then,” I said. “We’re all agreed: Start in the airport, then circle back to the dead lawyer in the next section. Good?”

Ethel blinked.

“Yes, good.” I pulled a blueberry out of the carton and balanced it at the tips of my fingers. Ethel watched it carefully, waiting. She knew I’d let it roll off into the straw soon enough.

None of them would eat out of my hand, though, which was slowing down my plan to release them into the yard. I was still hoping Burkett was wrong, that my peacocks were the exception to the fly-away rule. I’d read about peacocks staying on farms and in neighborhoods for generations. Martha Stewart allowed a couple of her big males to wander her property, and they hadn’t escaped. Granted, she was working with 152 more acres than me. But my three supposedly were an established social clique—I was aware that I was being selective in the absurdities I chose to believe—so I thought there was a fair chance they might stick around.

Sean Flynn is a GQ correspondent.

This article was adapted from Why Peacocks?: An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird by Sean Flynn. Copyright © 2021 by Sean Flynn. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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