The Greeks dedicated the peacock to the goddess Juno. Early Christians thought the peacock’s blood could dispel evil spirits. Mythology embodies its tail feathers as the evil eye. In dreams, the peacock symbolizes new birth and arrogance.
Flannery O’Connor “knew that the peacock had been the bird of Hera, the wife of Zeus, but since that time it had probably come down in the world” when centuries later she ordered a bevy through the Florida Market Bulletin. She tells us this in her 1961 essay “Living with a Peacock” later titled “King of the Birds.” The peacock became a recurring symbol in her writing, especially in “The Displaced Person.”
O’Connor’s screeching, preening party of peafowl—she stopped counting at 40—is gone. The tradition of Andalusia’s peacocks, arguably literature’s most famous bird, was restored in 2009 by a donation from Col. Charles Ennis of Milledgeville. A public contest named the peacock Manley Pointer after a great O’Connor villain, the wooden leg stealing, faux Bible salesman in “Good Country People.” Bruce Gentry, Georgia College and State University professor and editor of the Flannery O’Connor Review, prefers that the peacock had been named for a more appropriate O’Connor character in “Parker’s Back,” the tattooed Obadiah Elihue Parker, a hard-drinking, woman-chasing heathen who sort of turns into a peacock at the end of the story.
Though Manley Pointer’s heritage is mystical and religious, he was a thoroughly modern bird given to twerking during mating season and ending his life celebrated through 21st century social media. Manley Pointer, 6, died Jan. 8, the victim of overnight 18-degree weather despite extra warming measures taken in his aviary. He died in the arms of his caregiver, April Moon Carlson, while being transported to exotic animal veterinarian Dr. Debbie Gadd. News of his death drew 8,000 views on social media. A coterie of young mourners met through social media, dressed in black, and attended the funeral at Andalusia Farm.
At sunset about 20 mourners proceeded to the gravesite singing “I’ll Fly Away” led by Daniel Wilkinson, a choir director and GCSU O’Connor graduate student. He noted that day was his very first as a church choir director and already he was officiating at a peacock’s funeral.
Manley’s grave is temporarily marked by a cross of cedar branches built by GCSU graduate student and Andalusia volunteer Jim Owens and Spencer Cheek, Andalusia Farm executive director Elizabeth Wylie’s son. It is off the nature trail and across the pond that O’Connor’s mother built.
GCSU theater professor Amy Pinney read from The Habit of Being. Wilkinson read from “King of the Birds.” He selected the passage about an old man who came to Andalusia to buy a calf and had with him five or six white-haired, barefooted children who were stopped dead in their tracks when they saw a peacock.
“Whut is that thang?” one of the boys asked.
“Churren,” the old man said, “that’s the king of the birds!”
Manley Pointer did not disappoint. Frequently photographed by visitors to Andalusia Farm, his majestic tail feathers proudly arched during mating season or created an impressive iridescent train when at rest. Tail feathers shed after his last mating season formed a huge bouquet. A freshly washed feather was presented to each mourner, and one was placed on the grave. Cheek is curing clay from the farm to create a permanent marker.
And how would O’Connor react to Manley’s death and funeral and the ensuing outpouring of mourning and adoration? “She would make a joke about it,” said Professor Gentry, also an Andalusia Farm board member. In her letters, she makes jokes about their problems, he said. “She’s kind of more interested in them after they do something silly or get hurt.”
Manley did not have free range of the farm as O’Connor’s peafowl did. Living in the aviary protected him from predators such as coyotes. He supplemented his regular diet with mulberries and bugs on the aviary’s floor and special treats of baby spinach and blueberries from Carlson’s hand. With his tail on full display and parading around the aviary, Manley was taller than Carlson’s 5’4” frame and pretty much filled the enclosure. His proud and regal veneer belied that he was a softie.
Andalusia’s peahens, Joy/Hulga and Mary Grace, also named for O’Connor characters, reacted to his mating dance with delight or disdain. They laid a dozen or so eggs last season dropping them any where, Wylie said. Carlson carefully collected them into the ersatz nest she fashioned. Alas, all the eggs were eaten by a rat snake.
“Working here for me,” Wylie said, “I’m really infused with all Flannery all the time. On a day when the weather is nice and the sun is starting to set, the sky gets peach colored on one side and on the other side it’s almost like the sky is on fire, like Flannery describes. When I’m sitting here I observe the birds and Manley, especially in the spring. It’s mesmerizing. It makes me think of Flannery, too. She was 25 and had to come home and live with her mother and her career was just beginning. She had to figure out a way to cope. I think the birds were hers.”
-- Kay Powell, dubbed Doyenne of the Death Beat, is the retired news obituary editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her award-winning career is covered in American Afterlife – Encounters in the Custom of Mourning by Kate Sweeney. Kay also gives entertaining talks on the art of the obituary.