This is the story of an orphaned peacock in Washington State. He did not know about his parents and their tragic encounter with a coyote, their dreams for him, the traditional peafowl lullabies, the bedtime stories of great peacock adventurers. And he did not know anything about the world outside the little hobby farm where he lived. But still, Pauly had a lightness in his bones, a happiness in his heart. Although he couldn’t have put a feather on how he knew, Pauly knew that he was destined for great things.
Chapter 1: Something Other Birds Can’t Do
Pauly Peacock was born on a hobby farm on the dim and drizzly Key Peninsula in Washington State, but practically from the day his egg cracked, it was clear his future would be bright, bright, bright.
There were so many things Pauly could do!
“I can fly!” Pauly said one day to Patticake, the old dog who had lived on the farm since long before Pauly’s time. “Watch!” Then Pauly leaped out the door of his treehouse coop, spread his wings, swooped three, four, five feet, and came to a gentle landing in front of Patticake.
“I can catch bugs!” he said, licking up a large black ant crawling past Patticake’s paw.
Patticake yawned. “Show me something other birds can’t do.”
Because Pauly was only two, he hadn’t yet grown the colorful train of feathers peacocks are known for. Because Pauly was the only peacock on the farm, he didn’t even know he would grow a train. Because Pauly was a cheerful peachick, young and naive, he took Patticake’s comment as a challenge, a step toward his dazzling destiny. Show me something other birds can’t do.
“Okay, I will!” Pauly said.
And soon he would! Pauly’s dazzling destiny began later that very afternoon. Patticake had meandered over to the fence by the road and decided once again to bark at the top of her lungs. Pauly was on the other side of the farm, in the compost pile. Pauly liked the compost pile. It was a great place to dig for bugs. It took his mind off the barking. He would drag his toes through the pile and gorge on anything that moved. Imagine an all-you-can-eat restaurant with all the foods you like best.
That day there was a scrap of cardboard, a piece of a box, lying on top of the compost. Pauly was too busy eating to pay attention to it at first. But his eyes kept catching on the box, on the nine red squiggles that were printed on it. Pauly thought they looked like worms. But they weren’t moving. They were merely drawings of worms. Or were they?
The longer Pauly thought about the strange red worms, the more he began to suspect they held meaning beyond his grasp. Otherwise, why print just nine? Why not fill the entire cardboard panel with lovely drawings of delicious red wiggly worms? And why make each worm so twisty and unique? If Pauly was to draw a worm, he would use a stick to make one straight line in the dirt. Or maybe one slightly wiggly line. That was it.
But the details on these worms were fantastic! Some of them were made up of two or three parts and didn’t look much like worms at all. After working that mystery around in his birdy brain for a while, it occurred to Pauly perhaps the particular shape of each worm had meaning. Perhaps the nine of them, lined up in their weird, contorted positions, had meaning when taken altogether.
There was an arrow on the cardboard as well. A big, black, serious-looking arrow. To the right of the arrow were the nine “worms” that Pauly saw.
Pauly thought it must mean something, but he had no idea what.
He walked around it the other side of the panel and stared at it from that direction.
Then he walked around to the side he’d started on and stared at it from the first direction again.
Pauly picked up the cardboard panel in his beak. The arrow was pointed down. The wiggly worms were now to the left of it.
“Hey Patticake.” Pauly spoke clearly but carefully, the sign clamped in his beak. “This mean anything to you?”
Patticake was too busy barking to hear. She barked constantly. When she wasn’t barking, she was lying in the sun, half-asleep and farting. Pauly had absolutely no idea why Patticake lived on the farm. She’d dug up a good portion of the carrots months before they were ready. She’d chewed up the rake handle. She’d eaten a glove. One time, poor Patticake had made the mistake of pooping on the electric fence. Pauly had heard her yelp and glanced up in time to see her dash off, hurt and baffled, the wire still reverberating behind her. That was funny.
But the barking. Patticake was simply one of those dogs who liked to hear herself bark. A lot. Patticake rarely had anything to say, and boy could she take a long time not saying it. The moment a twig cracked in the woods, or the distant odor of rabbit wafted by, or sometimes for absolutely no reason at all, Patticake would be on her feet. “Did you smell that Pauly? Did you smell that in the woods? Somebody’s out there! Somebody furry! Raise your beak and sniff! Did you smell that? Did you? Did you? Did you?” Yap-yap-yapping quicker than a housefly can skedaddle.
“Patti!” Pauly tried again. No luck. Then Pauly realized something. It must be four pm. Six days a week, at pretty much exactly four pm, the mailman came rumbling up in his little box-shaped car, dropped a couple of rectangular pieces of paper into a metal box on the other side of the hobby farm, snapped the box shut, and drove away again.
That was all.
However, to hear Patticake tell it, the guy pretty much had a regular appointment to rob the place. Pauly would be half-awake, preening his feathers. To him the sound of the mailman’s engine was indistinguishable from that of any of the other cars on the road, but Patticake’s head would be tilted, her ears perked, ready to let loose with barking. “You hear that, Pauly? You hear what I hear? Do you? Do you hear that? A car! The car! The mailman is here! He’s back! He’s back again! Pauly! Pauly! Pauly! Mailman! Pauly! Pauly! Pauly! Mailman! Pauly! Pauly! Pauly! Mailman! Pauly! Pauly! Pauly! Mailman! Do you hear?” Patticake’s rapid-fire bark could blow the thoughts out of Pauly’s head just as heavy raindrops blow out an anthill.
Pauly strode across the length of the farm–it wasn’t far–and stood next to her with the cardboard panel.
This time, Patticake noticed. She turned away from the fence to look at Pauly and laughed. When Patticake laughed her doggy lips pulled back menacingly from her long, yellow teeth, but then she exhaled again in happy little puffs. Ha! Ha! Ha!
“What’s so funny?”
“You’ve got it upside down.”
“How do you know?”
“They’ve got a box like that inside, and the arrow always points toward the sky.” Patticake’s tail wagged. “You know, up.”
Pauly walked away and set the cardboard back in the compost pile, so the arrow pointed away from him.
Pauly thought and thought. The worms somehow told the humans that the arrow should point up. The word up was a very short word, without many sounds to it… he decided that the last row of worms made the word up. UP.
Pauly found it very difficult to sleep that night. Every time his thoughts began to feather off into dreams, excitement came racing through like garter snakes on a sunny day.
This! Peacock! Could! Read!
It did not matter that he could only read one word, and only a two-letter word at that. He could read! Animals had always been able to talk to one another, that was a dawn-of-time thing, but an animal who could read actual human words…unheard of! Pauly, at least, had never heard of such a thing.
Pauly had always been a proud peacock, that was the nature of his species. But that night, Pauly had proud thoughts rolling around in his birdy brain, picking up prouder and prouder thoughts, until he felt filled to bursting with some of the proudest thoughts any peacock has ever thought.
Thoughts like this: Today, by learning to read, I made one small step. But, at the same time, I achieved a giant leap for animalkind.
* * * * *
Alice Kinerk is a writer living in the woods on the Key Peninsula. She is the proud owner of the world’s greatest dog, a lab named Rudy. She and Rudy walk the trails behind their house every day. Every day, on the same tree, a red squirrel climbs down to squeak at and torment Rudy. This interaction between wild and domesticated animals was the inspiration for her new middle grade novel, Pauly Peacock, about the adventures of a feral peacock in the Key Peninsula woods.
Alice holds an MFA in English from the UW and writes occasionally for the Key Peninsula News. She teaches elementary school in Gig Harbor. The internet is littered with her abandoned blogs, half-baked social media comments, as well a smidgen of humor writing that actually got published. Alice’s first novel, The Octopus Under the Bridge, middle grade fiction set in post-peak oil Tacoma and Key Peninsula, is available on Amazon. You can read the first chapter and find links to her other work at alicekinerk.com.