“The bird is dead,” she said from somewhere behind me. I was still in bed, cold, and not surprised.
“They probably let it starve,” she continued. There was no probably about it.
She went to work and I gathered the nerve to get up.
The bird was a white peahen belonging to our neighbors. She lived in a neglected pen that I had mended twice. Her partner, the male that had pranced around and made noise like he was single, had died a few months prior. His death had been a shock — swift and sudden, but her passing was only a matter of time and barely raised an eyebrow. The pen, we all knew, was not the only thing neglected.
Once, shortly after we had moved in to the house pen adjacent, she had produced an egg, and then subsequently abandoned it. I judged them at the time, the pair of peafowl. I questioned their character. What kind of parent walks out on their egg? I did not approve.
The boys and I had tried to save it. We looked up incubators on the Internet, and discussed the responsibility that such things require, but the price was higher than our allowance and instead of investing our money we deposited our time, spending the next few days wrapping a forgotten egg in blankets and light while begging its mother to let it live.
She refused, and the egg lost hope, dying beneath the weight of its shell, heavy like the armor that will trap us all and maybe twice as lonely. I placed it beneath a tree by the side of the dry creek and left before the scent could rise.
I forgave the birds long before the peacock died. After all, the blame was not mine to give, and besides, I began to suspect that theirs was a choice borne of fear and necessity rather than selfish flights of fancy.
The birds were slowly starving.
The neighbors never feed the peafowl, but we did daily. We took out scraps of fruit and bits of vegetable several times each day. The boys named them, which made our bond official, and we all found something between us that blended the corners of fondness and tolerance. It went on that way for a while.
The male died in the night when the dark was still warm. I found him, lifeless, under a giant red umbrella that served as a lean-to home against a wall and the force of trees. He looked peaceful for a peacock, quiet and subtle, and showed no signs of suffering. I made the arrangements to have his body removed after it became clear that the neighbors did not mourn their fallen pet nor care to mark his passing.
She, to her credit, carried on, bravely at times, and when we left town for a week at Christmas I covered the ground in an abundance of food and left rations for her care with instructions for the neighbors, despite the fact that they were, in fact, the bird’s actual owner. They would pass her and the bags of feed countless times daily, and the entire process promised to take less time than a skimming of this sentence.
We came home after days of cold rain, and the food remained just as I had left it, but soaked and growing rotten. The bird called out to us as soon as we appeared and I stood there, damp and angry, and I watched her eat.
“Why didn’t you feed your pet?” I asked the neighbor as she walked to her car, parked less than ten feet from the cage.
“Oh, it’s been a crazy week,” she laughed, and then she drove away.
When we left for vacation a little over a week ago I made sure to leave as much food as I thought necessary, and more water than she needed. I reminded the neighbors, repeatedly, that they had a responsibility, which was always greeted with nods, waves, and the casual actions of the apathetic.
Our goodbye was reserved and cautious.
We got home late last night, and the bird would have been roosting on a tree branch, waiting for another morning in hopes of being seen by the people that looked right at her—the people that had fenced her in and called her pet. I went in our house and prepared her breakfast and the morning plans to greet her.
“She is under the red umbrella,” my wife had said, and it had seemed only fitting.
I found her, lifeless, like her love gone before, and I cursed the sky and the fence between us. Then I left her, lying in the shade; peaceful, waiting, and no longer hungry. She will likely be there come morning when the neighbors never see her, the lesson of a story they never should have told, and an example for my children that they had no right to set.