Peacocks in the Aisle

IT was twilight when I first saw the King. I was walking up the driveway on the cathedral grounds to the building in which our church is temporarily holding its services, and there he was, seated in majesty on the stone wall, not a feather of his iridescent glory disturbed. He took no notice of me. The cathedral peacocks are tame; they are not alarmed by humans, nor even the cathedral cat - a large, black and white Persian, formidable indeed, but probably more in awe of the peacocks than they are of him. The peacocks are not even afraid of the cars that come up the driveway; they ignore them, expecting them to stop and wait until they have slowly and deliberately picked their way across the road. They even stop to inspect anything that interests them while the car moves slowly toward them.

The King didn't move a fraction of a feather, and I came closer than I've ever been to a peacock. He stared severely ahead of him, his crownlet making him look every inch the monarch of the bird kingdom that he is. His long, multi-eyed tail extended gracefully behind him. I studied him a moment, then proceeded into the building, filled with the beauty of his deep blue satin neck and bosom, his delicate crest, his elaborate train.

I am not sure how many peacocks reside in the cathedral park, but on my way to services I frequently see one or more of them strutting about. The very large one I have just described I call the King; the others are princes. Sometimes during the service we hear the raucous screams of these magnificent fowl. It is a great paradox that a creature of such surpassing beauty should have such an ear-splitting and unbeautiful voice.

One Sunday morning as I came up the driveway I saw the King ahead, crossing the road purposefully, obviously intent on entering the Biblical Garden. A young couple with a tiny boy were watching him. The toddler was fascinated, but afraid. He regarded the King in silence, while the parents seemed torn between watching the gorgeous peacock and watching their son's reaction to his first look at this wonder.

The King, oblivious to all besides his glorious self, proceeded toward his goal, picking his way over the flagstones and then making a right angle turn at the entrance to the garden. The child followed as if in a trance, not uttering a sound, and his parents let him go, keeping a watchful eye. The King entered the garden, after which I could not see him because he was in a part of it not visible through the vine-covered openings of the wall.

I found myself remembering Edith Sitwell's account of her peacock companion on the large estate on which she lived as a lonely little girl. She said she often walked around the gardens with him, her arm affectionately encircling his neck. It was an endearing image that stayed with me.

My next encounter was thrilling. A group of us were coming from the service on a Sunday morning in spring. Noticing a cluster of people looking through the wall opening into the Biblical Garden, we followed suit. And there was the King, in the center of the garden with one of the princes beside him. Both of them had their tails fanned out in full glory - a spectacle I had seen only once before, years ago, in the Philadelphia Zoo.

Even the prince's smaller fan-tail would have been a sight - but to see the King spreading his enormous train was spectacular. The two of them were surrounded by admirers; possibly peahens were also present, hidden from our view. They posed and turned like a pair of fashion models, living up to their reputation for being the proudest creatures on earth.

Then one Sunday morning in late May, while we were listening attentively to the service, I happened to look toward the open door. (During warm weather we have sometimes left the door at the front of the room open; it is pleasant to feel the breeze and glimpse the flowers and trees.) I saw two peacocks approaching ever so slowly, ever so cautiously, ever so curiously. The one in the lead, who was surely the King, stepped up carefully into the doorway; finally he took the fatal step that brought him within the room. The other, close behind, followed his leader. I have never seen creatures move with such indecision and care. Even a cat's uncertainty as to whether it should go through a door or not could not match this.

They didn't seem to know what to make of the whole thing, but apparently couldn't resist investigating. Then the King noticed the glass bookcases lining the front of the room. He found them quite irresistible and painstakingly made his way over and peered in at the dark volumes. The attending prince looked on from the rear, but did not venture to inspect the library for himself.

Then, looking about upon us all with their expressionless visages, the pair seemed simultaneously to reach the conclusion that they did not belong, after all, in this congregation. They slowly turned around, proceeded to the open door, carefully descended the single step, and paraded in dignity across the porch to the steps that led down to the driveway.

We have since kept the door closed. A portion of the sermon went largely unheard during that visitation. The cathedral cat had also previously attended our service, briefly, and we decided it was better to enjoy these creatures on the grounds rather than in our meeting room. After all, we didn't come to church to admire cats and peacocks!

Nevertheless, the peacocks delivered their own little sermon of serene beauty and unparalleled color. We will not forget the morning when pavo cristatus in pair paid us the compliment of attending our service.

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