In “The King of the Birds,” Flannery O’Connor writes, “The Peacock likes to sit on gates or fence posts and allow his tail to hang down. A peacock on a fence post is a superb sight.” That vision may be a gold-flecked, Eastern Rite Crucifixion and Transfiguration all in a single instant.
Fowl-famous at age five, Flannery survived her childhood to walk haltingly but relentlessly forward. At that age, she owned a vacillating buff bantam, capable of striding forward then backward to no linear advantage. The bantam balked before the newsreel camera and died from the pressures of fame soon after his brush with the media. Little Mary Flannery best-loved the freakish even among her fowl.
[She] favored those with one green eye and one orange or with overlong necks and crooked combs…. I wanted one with three legs or three wings but nothing in that line turned up…. I pondered over the picture in Robert Ripley’s book, Believe It or Not, of a rooster that had survived for thirty days without his head; but I did not have a scientific temperament.
I don’t think it is slanderous to speculate that a five-year-old would pray for such a peculiarity. Her God knew it was better that she wait until she could better use an intimacy with freakishness and ignored her request. The girl consoled herself by sewing costumes for her captive chickens. As an adult, the mistress of Andalusia found a way to combine the incongruous, her love for birds, her cultivated appreciation of beauty, and her ability to find the presence of divinity everywhere. The happy intersection occurred when “the Florida Market Bulletin advertised three-year-old peafowl at sixty-five dollars a pair.”
The breeding pair arrived sans magnificence. The cock had shed his tail and would not be ready for Epiphany until after Christmas. The hen’s appeal required cultivation. Peachickens live to about thirty-five. As infants, they are prone to predators (like vixens or Herod). As chicks, they are homely and helpless as are mortal humans. The Peacock’s regal bearing seems unjustifiable in an infant. Soon He preens and prances in magnificence for the edification of mankind and the animal kingdom. Once past infancy, the peachick seems indestructible as if protected by Providence itself. “Impossible to destroy,” comments FO’C. However, as an adult, the Peacock may place Himself in danger against irresistible forces like threshing machines or the Sanhedrin, which may truncate His life. However, one observer quoted says that despite hideously gawky legs and a propensity to caw truth to power, the peacock “could outrun a bus,” thus outdistancing death.
The O’Connor’s peafowls were typically standoffish. They gave the humans “as wide a berth as possible,” in the words of their mistress, who also believed that if you don’t ask the Holy Ghost to tend to you, He won’t. The King of the Birds and The Salvador Mundi expect careful, respectful, and contrite approaches. The supplicant might come bearing an offering that indicates sincerity (in this case, nothing more than a palmful of Startena). For this insignificant offering, the petitioner might be Graced with a glimpse of Glory. O’Connor describes the Transformation this way:
The cock opens his tail by shaking himself violently until it is gradually lifted in an arch around him. Then, before anyone has had a chance to see it, he swings around so that his back faces the spectator…. When the Peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the Peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the Peacock will face you.
All witnesses haven’t the patience or the preparation to wait for Glory. FO’C describes three types of reactions to the difficulties of finding and fostering faith. Disappointed by the demands of worship and unable to accept the miracle of Incarnation, a calloused teamster mocks the Earthbound Peacock, “Get a load of that bastard.” Others, like the telephone lineman, insist on a miracle before they will believe. He orders, “Come on now, bud… get the show on the road, upsy-daisy, come on now, snap it up, snap it up.” The lucky few are like the humble, unlettered old woman who can only swoon, “Amen. Amen.”
Flannery O’Connor began her mission with the hope that she might see her lordly bird “every time I go out the door.” The bird was ubiquitous through her persistent efforts, and the miracle shone everywhere on Andalusia.
Today His appearance is rarely cultivated. Another O’Connor case study tells of a grandfather’s instruction of his nihilist young charges:
“‘Ain’t seen one of them since my grandaddy’s day,’ he said, respectfully removing his hat. ‘Folks used to have ’em, but they don’t no more. Churren,’ the old man said, ‘that’s the king of the birds!’ The children received this information in silence. After a minute, they climbed back into the car and continued from there to stare at the peacock, their expressions annoyed, as if they disliked catching the old man in the truth.”
Finally, there is a certain fencepost Centurian who rather than listen to the Peacock’s warning, resorted to violence. He had twenty consecrated in the freezer, unconsumed. One day he will eat that flesh which may improve his vision.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The King of the Birds,” Mystery and Manners, Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Kindle Edition.