Article originally appeared in the weekly Standard.
Priscilla M. Jensen pays a visit to Miss Flannery.
In summer 1962, Georgia’s back roads were all the roads there were, and a family of six didn’t undertake a trip lightly. Or ours didn’t, often. But we’d all been invited to spend the day with a friend of my father’s at her farm in middle Georgia, and we set out one morning before it got too hot.
There were lots of places where crews were working on the roads, widening them, I think, because I remember most the scalped expanses of red clay, gory with recent rain, and the bloody streaks across the pavement where the road was at a lower grade. In the stretches where the pines still came right up to the road, no beautification projects had yet been dreamt of. Frequently this meant that someone had tipped considerable garbage over the side, especially where there was a hollow or ravine. Not many bottles though: You could return your “cocola” bottle for the deposit, and entrepreneurs checked the roadsides for the leavings of folks too sorry to take theirs back themselves. Occasionally a wringer washer had been hurled to the mercy of the kudzu.
The signs were the best though. Smallish ones, much smaller than billboards. Some were made by pros: the soft drink signs of course, or Brown’s Mule chewing tobacco or Martha White Flour. Some of the richer churches had invested in storebought Jesus Saves signs, but mostly they’d done them themselves; sometimes a Bible verse ran over onto a second sheet of plywood. The fancier, bigger signs might be nailed to a couple of upright posts, smaller ones to tree trunks. Peaches. Firewood. Scuppernongs. Fresh eggs. John 3:16. And always and everywhere, boiled peanuts, which we were united in despising.
We didn’t feel the same way about crackers. When we were almost where we were going, we stopped at a crossroads grocery for lunch. We may have had some sandwiches with us, but I remember only the package of ToastChee and the delicious coldness of plunging my arm into the ice water of the cooler to find a Dr. Pepper. Cold rivulets ran through the orange dust that had settled on my arm along the way; the car windows were open and we were all powdery by that point.
Before we got back into the car we all washed our hands and faces with cool water and made a reasonable stab at hairbrushing. We put on fresh clothes and set off, turning onto the dirt and gravel drive and scattering guinea hens in all directions. My father parked the Rambler under a crape myrtle, and we trooped politely up the steps to the screened porch.
There was a round of introductions and the lavish experience of being offered cocola for the second time in the same day. And allowed to say yes, thank you, we would like some. It was such a heady experience that when my younger sister spilled hers I indulged in a superior expression, which lasted until I caught my hostess’s eye. Or she caught mine, considering me with the even and unsparing gaze of those Byzantine angels with the eyes on their wings. I lowered mine and joined the other children outside.
I think we dashed around a bit but mostly we strolled among the poultry, who made it clear that they’d been strolling first, and in their own territory. There were the guinea fowl, who make chickens look like intellectuals, and I believe some ducks and a goose or two. But oh, the unexpected splendor of the peacocks. I’d never seen one before and I’ve never seen them like that again, almost a dozen dragging their trains in the dust until something moved them to stop and shake a tailfeather. Then the shudder and the raising and the spreading out of all those eyes, and the beautiful curving inward like a frame or halo.
And then the cry. The peacock screams. It screams; it honks; it whistles; it combines them all in a chaos of aggression and seductiveness. When there are almost a dozen peacocks discussing claim-jumping, the harshness is overwhelming. I took my book and sat on a low limb for a while, away from the pandemonium.
When it was time to go, we all washed our hands and went to say thank you. I had a question to put, as well.
The peacocks, I said, they’re terrible. It’s like they’re broken somehow. How can they be so beautiful and sound so hideous at the same time?
My hostess smiled and looked thoughtful for a moment. Well, Priscilla, said Miss Flannery in that flat voice, that is exactly what I keep trying to figure out myself.