The Dance of the Proud Peacock

WITH the widespread destruction of forests and human en-croachment into wild places, animals and birds are no longer easily seen in India. So when we first arrived for a stay in the state of Rajasthan, it was sheer magic to see peacocks all around us, casually strolling along the grassy verge of streets, perched on gate posts, and even sitting on the hoods of parked cars.

I was not nearly so pleased, however, to see them in my garden, scratching up the lawn, digging up the flowers with powerful clawed feet, and scattering carnations, petunias, and pansies in every direction.

I ran out and chased them away. The hens, poor little drab things, with not a shining feather among them, scuttled off instantly, squeaking with fright and peering over their shoulders. But the cock held his ground and even advanced to meet me. His tail was furled and trailed a yard or so behind him, but then he opened it, a magnificent sweeping fan that tipped to the ground on either side and shimmered with jeweled lights.

He advanced with a sort of peacock goose-step (if such a thing is possible), his feet lifted high, his crest erect, and his neck stretched intimidatingly. I could almost hear the drumbeats. He stopped within inches of me and began to circle, all the while making a low threatening noise.

Involuntarily, I stepped back. ``Go away,'' I said, ``Go on, beat it, you destructive creature.''

We glared at each other, and there is no knowing which of us would have given way first, but at this precise moment my children came running out of the house. They had never seen a peacock at such close quarters, let alone one that was standing in their own garden.

``Oh, the beautiful creature. You lovely thing,'' they crooned.

They turned to me accusingly. ``What are you doing to him?''

``Chasing him out of the garden. Look what he has done to the flowers.'' They stared back indignantly. ``Who cares about your old flowers? He is much more beautiful and rare.''

The peacock cocked a bright eye and began to dance, circling and twisting, stepping back and forth like a flamenco dancer and shivering his feathers so that the colors shimmered and glowed. If ever a bird knew what he was doing, it was this one.

``I am India's national bird and proud of it,'' he seemed to be saying.

In the winter, the air almost always has a golden crispness to it, and the morning haze makes trees, bushes, and flowers seem to float as though they are just barely attached to the earth. The peacock also seemed to belong to another world.

His audience was enchanted and greeted the performance with enough applause to please the most demanding prima donna.

``Can we feed him? What will he eat?'' they asked eagerly.

I refrained from saying that he seemed to like garden flowers and suggested they ask the cook for some grain from the kitchen. They ran into the house and came back with handfuls of grain. Some they scattered for the timid little peahens, but the peacock came right up and ate out of their cupped hands.

He came every day after that, lordly and arrogant, waiting for his subjects to come and feed him. He didn't dance every day, but the children were content just to see him, and when he danced it was a special bonus.

But soon the holidays were over and the children departed to their respective schools. Only I was left, and I gave instructions to the gardener to stand no nonsense from any bird, however beautiful, and went back to work.

I was sitting typing when a sharp peck on my arm made me turn, startled. There he stood, having climbed the stairs and located me in the house.

He was looking around bewildered, as if he couldn't understand where the children had gone. There was no arrogance in his walk now. He came softly, tentatively, making small inquiring noises. His eyes, when they met mine, were brilliant with light. His head, sinuous on its long feathered neck, turned this way and that, searching.

I did the only thing possible. I went and got handfuls of grain, and taking them out on the lawn, fed him from cupped hands. He comes back every day. The garden has grown wild and untended. The gardener has given notice, and only the bougainvillea is left cascading over the gate, like swathes of glittering silk. And below it, the peacock dances, shimmering with colors as bright as from the brush of a painter, bringing hope to a scarred and sadly denuded world.

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