In Search of Lost Peacocks
By Angelique Villeneuve, translated by Christiana Hills
Do you remember what you were doing last Monday around 7:32 a.m.?
Well, I do. Without the slightest idea of what I was getting into (sad doofus that I was), I had just opened my eyes on the first day of the week of the peacock.
And don’t think that if I’d stayed in bed pretending to be sick, with, for example, the start of tuberculosis, it would’ve changed anything. Of course, the first couple of days probably would’ve been laid-back; generally speaking, apart from my mother’s culinary experiments, my life is pretty quiet—more or less normal, in fact. But after a while, even with a legitimate fever of 120° F, it really would’ve been necessary to admit that, compared to what was threatening to fall on my head, a nuclear catastrophe was crab cakes.
Anyway, I should’ve suspected something, because from the start this week has been on the wrong track. The proof? For the first time in my life, I missed lunch, and believe me, it’s not exactly like me to skip a meal. What could have possibly happened to me? . . . Had I stumbled into a spatiotemporal abyss? Had I vanished into thin air at the end of my geography class, while learning that Chisinau is really and truly the capital of Moldova? Maybe a little of both.
But at the same time, if I’d stayed in bed, feeble and quivering, who would’ve solved the astounding peacock mystery? Who would’ve saved several lives, an entire family and a potted leek plant?
I’m still asking myself that question.
Anyhow, around 1:15 p.m., when I presented myself in front of the cafeteria lady, she started laughing and asked if I, Mollux, believed in Santa Claus. This lady was pretty dumb—it had nothing to do with my beliefs, it had to do with my stomach, as empty and miserable as, oh, I don’t know, a shopping cart, for example, at the start of your trip to the grocery store.
A few eighth graders, sitting a little farther away in the middle of the near-empty room, were unenthusiastically finishing off a stunning dessert made of bouncy Jell-O. As for me, according to this sea lion in her striped blouse, if I was hungry at such an hour, the only thing I could do was go nibble on some pieces of chalk in the teacher’s lounge. Yes, that’s exactly what she suggested to me. To eat pieces of chalk. In the teacher’s lounge.
Then and there, I opted for a radical solution: drop my tray (it was empty, so it didn’t make much noise) and discreetly slip out of school to go eat sushi, no sweat, at the inexpensive restaurant I’d discovered a few days earlier with my friend Procopius.
In fact, to tell the truth, the charming cafeteria lady had hardly changed the course of things—when I got to school Monday morning, I’d pretty much already decided to skip class that afternoon. Spending hours stuck in a classroom, that’s OK, I’m used to it, and with training, you can sleep quite easily in a seated position. But playing the recorder with Spermaceti was starting to be more than I could handle.
OK. I’ll have to explain one thing to you right off the bat: in this story, as you’ll see, with one exception, there is not a single real name. To start, mine is tampered with, of course. Does Mollux, in your opinion, sound like an authentic name of origin to you? I’ve had this stupid nickname for years, and go figure, I’ve gotten used to it. Even more than that—I think I really like it.
Spermaceti isn’t the teacher’s real name either. But it really suits him. It designates a white organ weighing several tons located in a whale’s skull, and no joke, this man is paler than vanilla yogurt. As for the whale, if you don’t get it, well unfortunately I don’t think I can do anything for you.
Same thing with my mother. Never in my life would I call her mom (even writing it seems strange), so right away, I renamed her Bustard: a type of large goose, if you will. A hefty wading bird with big feet and a head the size of an olive.
On second thought, if I had a disease, other than tuberculosis, it’d be something along the lines of the PHOBIA OF REAL NAMES.
As I came out of the sushi restaurant one minute after engulfing everything on my tray (their miso soup contained mushroom caps cut so finely that with a single specimen they must be able to make 170 slices, all while staring at the moon), I decided to go straight home. I planned on coming in through the back door and hiding in one corner of the apartment to wait, without making a sound, for the normal time that classes end on a normal Monday.
With this enticing prospect in mind, I headed home leisurely, swinging my arms on either side of my chubby body, my stomach so swollen with rice and sweet cabbage that, if someone had pressed on it with a little force (but who?), a squirt of miso soup—without the mushrooms, though—would have shot out of my ears.
A few moments later, I arrived on the fourth floor of our building, in front of our back door, and there, without thinking, I got ready to open it.
That was, you could say, my last minute of peace.
I’m often told that I’m talkative. It’s not exactly that. I’d rather say I’m loquacious. It’s a word that comes from Latin and means talkative, so why deny the luxury? As for you, perhaps you’re wondering how I know all these clever words. If that’s the case, you haven’t come across them yet: strophantus, for example, is a new one I bet, but it’s nothing too serious, just a creeper plant. If you live more than two miles from a jungle, you won’t need it for a while yet.
Well, all that is because of dictionaries.
Unlike quite a few boys my age, I never play video games—I play dictionaries. I have a whole collection of them (common nouns, proper nouns, and synonyms, of course, quotations as well, but mostly the funny ones, like dictionaries of useless things, diseases that are easy to catch, chocolate, or even hair) and I spend a large amount of my time with them. It’s not my fault we don’t have a computer at home. Besides, this isn’t an issue for me—I’ve never wanted to demolish brick walls, even virtual ones, or zap the life out of whatever it may be.
But maybe that’s why, apart from Procopius, I don’t have a friend on earth.
What? You don’t know Procopius? The guy who’s the most…how can I put it? Impressive-brilliant-unbelievable-nutso? Make no mistake—some people will never need a nickname. Now, so that you can form a better idea of the rascal, here are a few bits of information concerning him:
- Procopius and I are almost the same age (12 years and 54% for him, 27% for me), but as the moron managed to super-repeat last year (with a low E average), he’s now a grade below me. But don’t go thinking I feel superior in any way. With a D- for my part, it’s most likely my mother’s aggressive offense against Humpback (another name for the megaptera, a type of whale with long fins, but also the school principal) that accounts for my passage to the next grade, very borderline. So you see, it’d be uncalled-for to get her going on this subject.
- Procopius doesn’t particularly like dictionaries, but I’d say he doesn’t have anything against them either. Unlike most boys our age, Procopius is much more than ajar. I’d even say he’s totally wide-open. Guys like Procopius are like enormous fireplaces—you can stuff all kinds of things in there, and they’ll give you warmth in return.
The other day in the cafeteria, I recited the definition of a Pascal-second to him, and 10 to 1 you would’ve been like us, laughing so hard that your macaroni was coming out of your nose. I don’t have time to explain it to you, but go take a look in your dictionary if you have one—it’s worth it. And if you don’t have one, honestly, you should run to a discount store—I bet at this very moment there’s promos on the 1988 versions. That’ll be more than enough. Words at that time were already pretty funny.
So we had a good laugh. It even gave us the idea, while we were at it, to balance a yogurt on the fine blond hair of the best student in seventh grade English. Procopius got the hiccups, and even some bruises, from rolling on the floor in hysterics. A whole bunch of students who don’t know how to have fun on their own crowded around our table, and the cafeteria supervisor turned up lickedy-split to make her soft dopey voice heard.
With a single look and his two eyebrows, my only friend on earth made the seventh grader, who was starting to bawl over said mistreatment, shut her mouth. Procopius is not, strictly speaking, a guy of imposing stature, but let’s just say he lives at a high altitude and the top of his head is shaped like an anti-tank missile.
I’m sorry to say that, but I really like Procopius.
So, on Monday afternoon, a little after 2 p.m., I was approaching the back door of my apartment.
If, one day, you want to get into my place, no problem, I’ll tell you where the key is—on the third landing of the service stairs (because here, God knows why, we have service stairs, like in swanky buildings. Maybe we’re swanky, after all), you’ll see a little wooden chest with a plant that looks like a big leek sitting on top of it. The key is in this chest, wrapped in a plastic bag, under some rags. Please be sure to put if back afterwards, otherwise 40 to 1 it’ll fall on my shoulders (as a matter of fact, I’m unjustly suspected of all the misdemeanors in the house, even though HotSoup is the originator of at least half of them, but I’ll tell you about that later).
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m coming through the back way? Well, quite simply to avoid crossing paths with my neighbor, Madame MareDam(refers to a female horse who has had a baby) and her Strange Child.
I think Madame MareDam is a creature even more loquacious than I am. About a hundred years old, she’s an extreme enquirer and a passionate tattle-tale. It’s also better to avoid passing her on the stairs at 2:10 p.m. on the day you’ve decided to skip class. Her Strange Child, who follows her everywhere while drooling/stumbling, clinging to her butt with dread (but who wouldn’t dread coming in contact with such a thing, I wonder), always watching you with eyes so bright, enormous, and dazed that his irises, vaguely mauve, look like two marbles floating in two big bowls of milk.
Bustard often says that it’s mediocre to make fun of imbeciles, but hey, I’m not making fun of them, I’m simply describing them.
So I opened the door, wrapped the key back up in its plastic bag, stuffed the bag under the rags, closed the trunk, and put the leek plant back on top of it, in the right order and as the law requires.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always loved the sound a key makes in a lock, as if you were passing from one world to another, as if, finally, there’d be something new. I didn’t know it yet, but this time I was going to get something beyond my wildest dreams.
Without hurrying, I headed towards the kitchen with the vague idea of unearthing some kind of little dessert. True, I still felt a bit bloated, but I really like finishing a meal with something sweet, like for example a chocolate pudding. If no one had made them disappear at breakfast, there’d still be a few in the fridge.
Normally, during the week at this hour of the day, our apartment is particularly calm. Empty, even. Both of my parents work, and Sweetiepie is obediently at school, two grades below me but just one floor. (I should clarify that, for once, Sweetiepie’s nickname isn’t my doing. Bustard is the one who’s always called her that. Besides, I didn’t really have the time to lose in thinking up names for my little sister.) At worst, I’d run into HotSoup coming out of his enclosed litter box, shaking his paws behind him as though the particles of gravel still stuck on them were sending an electric shock of 5000 volts through his skeleton.
HotSoup is a stupid and relatively wimpy cat, but I have to admit, he’s no collaborator. A detailed report to my parents on how I spent my day (this afternoon, three bananas and seven chocolaty desserts passed into the room of the suspect, who threw the dirty spoon and empty containers on his bed, removed the sum of 11 euros 10 cents from his mother’s wallet, and poured half a bottle of lotion into my litter box) is not at all his style. The advantage with animals isn’t that “they love you without judging you,” as Bustard repeats so often. No. The advantage is that nature, by not granting them language, forever prevents them from ratting you out. Moreover, whether or not I go to music class doesn’t change anything, I suppose, about HotSoup’s opinion of me.
But right then, this cat was heading from the hallway to the living room, where his office is (I’ll explain), walking more and more normally as the litter grains flew off his back paws. And then, suddenly, I saw him freeze, lie down, and flatten himself, making him look like a giant duck-billed platypus facing the opposite direction. In return—and here’s the proof that teenagers are not so far from felines, genetically speaking—I froze and pricked up my ears: something fishy was happening in the living room.
We heard a noise, as though someone (for example, a glistening Bulgarian weightlifter) were pulling a dead mule or a German armoire across the wood floor, which isn’t normal, especially on a Monday at 2:15 p.m.
While HotSoup continued holding his fish fillet position in the middle of the hallway, right in the enemy’s line of fire, a memory rose to the surface of my mind: a few months earlier, a drugged-up burglar came into Procopius’ apartment with the goal of stealing several valuable objects (and, believe me, you’d have to be very, very drugged-up to think you’d find anything valuable in Procopius’ apartment).
It wasn’t that I was afraid, but rather that I’d eaten a little too much—my reflexes for defense and verbal intimidation were clearly not at their best. I therefore had the choice between:
- doing nothing at all, which meant staying as thin as possible against the wall and waiting, in the hope that HotSoup’s presence would disguise mine (but why did my stomach have to stick out so far over my pants?);
- retreating about 3.82 yards back to the unoccupied zone (my room);
- taking refuge in my parent’s room, just to my left, the door of which was ajar (but I’d rather croak);
- or, finally—but I abandoned this one even before clearly thinking it through—propelling myself forward (and risk shooting into HotSoup’s hindquarters) and yelling Police, hands up, license and registration!
At this point, and because, as you might suspect, I ended up choosing the motionless, first option (because it gives us a little time to discuss), I should tell you about my dad.
Have you noticed that up until now, and we’re already on page 27 (I knew you were going to check—OK, it’s not 27, but does that change anything? It’s just to test your reflexes), even though from the start I haven’t been able to stop myself from talking about my mother and even my little sister, I still haven’t told you about my dad?
My dad is a man (that’s already something, I guess) who is:
- middle-aged (it’s true, quite a few dads are);
- slightly bald (let’s say two-thirds of his hair, to this day, still resist the depressing thought of being nothing other than my dad’s hair);
- rather scrawny, but with a round stomach, as if to say sorry, I swallowed the basketball, you can stop looking for it;
- always leaning forward, which gives you the impression that his arms are longer than his legs and makes him look a little like those evil characters you had to cross paths with in caves hundreds of years ago;
- who works, Monday to Friday (as far as I know), in a garage or a rear-view mirror factory or a research lab for used tires. You may not have many friends who don’t know what their dad’s job is, and yet, as incredible as it may seem, that’s absolutely the case for me. I’ve never thought of asking him, as simple as that, and I don’t remember the subject ever being brought up in front of me. What’s funny is that I can really picture him in the automobile industry, even though our car, a busted-up kind of station wagon with a half-melted left fender, gives no indication of it;
- but above all, and this is what I was getting at: my dad has NEVER spoken to me IN MY LIFE, except for two times, and that’s why, on the rare occasions when Procopius and I talk about him, we call him Only2Times.
And don’t think he said things that you’d remember for the rest of your life (for example, Follow your dreams, my dear child or Take my chocolate pudding because it makes you happy). No, for him it’s been more like Move over a bit, Mollux, or Do you know if your mom found the kettle, things like that. Even so, from time to time I tell myself that I should be able to remember two sentences, nothing as long as a theorem, and yet, nada.
To summarize, it’s enough to say that my dad isn’t exactly my bosom buddy.
But let’s back up a little in the hallway: HotSoup, ears down for better aerodynamics, succeeded in crawling about 0.6 yards forward. And me, in tilting my head to try and spot what was afoot in the living room (but I didn’t see anything, because it seemed to be happening in one of the alcoves on the left, in the back of the room). The strange noise had stopped (that of the dead mule) and the cat and I had to settle for soft, rather indistinct sounds, like prehistoric grunts. That didn’t reassure us at all.
However, after two minutes, HotSoup straightened back up, suddenly becoming uninterested in the problem. Excuse me, but I didn’t appreciate this attitude very much, because for a moment I’d considered the animal as a kind of ally. Even if his decision to drop everything didn’t surprise me that much, it was rather mean on his part. He sat down, and with a detached look, no longer occupied with anything, began to lick his front paw, followed by a meticulous inspection of the pads on his back feet. Out of spite, I leaned straight to one side, and then, I could see what I saw: my dad, from behind, on one side of the couch, in his usual burgundy sweater (I don’t remember how far back this whim goes, but Only2Times dresses almost entirely in burgundy).
Maybe you’re a bit disappointed. It doesn’t impress you any more than that, huh, my dad in his full wine-colored ensemble? It has its limits, I’ll admit. But hold on. Because in front of him, perched on what I first thought was a never-ending arm but was actually a tree branch, was a monumental peacock, from behind as well, whose tail was overrun with huge eyes that reminded me of Madame MareDam’s Strange Child.
In surprise, I pressed flat against the wall while letting out a little cry, which, by chance, could’ve passed for a meow. Then I crouched down. From there, my view was even better, and I observed that the gigantic fowl, unlike my dad, who was moving all around it, was, as Procopius would say, as cool as a sea cucumber. Which was a good thing, because I pictured the chances of survival for a somewhat old cat or a measly 12-and-27%-year-old teenager were hardly anything compared to the fury of a blue, 6-foot-long animal whose sparkling neck, in order to impale its prey, must wield a beak more formidable than an Albanian dagger.
Finally, I told myself that staying curled up in a ball on the floor would render me moderately invisible, and I found the strength to move backwards right to my room, where I locked myself in, making no more noise than a butterfly fart. Now I had to put my brain to work. What had happened, good God, for HotSoup to assess the zone as peaceful enough that he might calmly lick himself in the middle of the hallway? (And to the extent that I feel the need to use the subjunctive tense?)
I would’ve definitely called Procopius pronto to explain the situation to him, but it’s not like I have a phone in my room and it was almost certain that, at that hour, my only friend was sitting in social studies with Madame Scarus (reef-dwelling fish also known as the parrotfish due to her purple dresses, yellow shoes, and red hair), pondering the mining resources of Paraguay without realizing he could’ve been more useful elsewhere.
As a security measure, I let myself slide noiselessly from the far side of the bed onto the carpet. That way, if a person or even a skillful bird suddenly opened my door, the room would seem perfectly normal with its chocolate pudding containers, its empty chocolate Crunch bar wrappers and its range of underwear (no, not chocolate ones, thank you very much) scattered pretty much everywhere.
Feeling slightly off-color, with the taste of raw sweet cabbage coming back up between my teeth, I laid down in a position that wasn’t really comfortable, with a dirty spoon maliciously digging into my thigh. And yet I remained stoic, for which I deserve some credit.
I was pondering a few questions: at dinner on this particular Monday evening, would the peacock be seated at the table with us, would he really be as proud as the saying suggests, had Only2times decided to adopt him for good (as a replacement for HotSoup, because, in my opinion, those two couldn’t live together without considerable damage)??? How would Bustard react in learning that the peacock must be fed in addition to the four of us (but no longer counting the cat), a creature just as big and surely more difficult than me (who settles for gobbling up all the good food)? And furthermore, I’m asking you, what does a peacock eat? The same boring grains as a pigeon? That would surprise me. Judging by the kaleidoscopic animal’s prideful look, I’d guess something more like live insects from India, Christmas garlands, eyes from A Thousand and One Nights, emeralds, and the precious dye they use for silk curtains. We had none (no need to specify) of these things at our place, at the start of this ordinary week.
Bustard loves birds, but I’m not so sure about this specific size. Anyway, she prefers ones made of porcelain, glass, soap, yarn, fake fur. Motionless, in every case. She has dozens of them, but with no cage to clean, no smelly nest, no cooing, no cockadoodle-dooing, none of that. Just gathered sensibly on a table in our living room. Birds for decoration, you see, not a barnyard, not even a princely menagerie.
I was at that point in my thoughts when my dad went to his room, which is next to mine. Just like I would’ve loved to do, he immediately threw himself on his bed. Our walls are so thin that I often wonder why you can’t see straight through them. Every day, every night, I can distinctly hear (above other sounds) the tick-tock of my parents’ alarm clock, and the annoying thing is that it doesn’t tick-tock with exactly the same rhythm as mine, as if my personal seconds are different from theirs (which is quite likely, after all).
What had happened to the peacock? I could picture him right in the act of leaving a phenomenal series of droppings on the couch, and I listened carefully for the clicking of his talons approaching in the hallway. But the sound that took no time in coming to me was very different, more broad and familiar: Only2times had started snoring. That afternoon, for the first time in my life, the noise of his nose and throat filled with phlegm, which made the thin plaster walls shake, filled me with joy—I got up in a single bound and, still without the slightest noise, I pushed the door ajar to risk a peek outside. HotSoup had disappeared and if, with some effort, you ignored the paternal buzzing noises, the house seemed perfectly calm. That was almost troubling.
In my socks, with a single toe poking out, I headed towards the living room. My gait was probably ridiculous, but there was a logical explanation for my hopping. From time to time, I actually carry out secret nocturnal trips to the kitchen, which means I know each place on the floor where it’s better not to step if you want to avoid inopportune creaking noises. I caused just one, and even then only because my father had left his pair of burgundy socks right in a place I needed to go, at the end of the hallway.
In the living room, it was horrendous—everything was just as before. Unchanged were the bluish couch, the stained armchairs, the carpet with its design inspired by the vomit of an alcoholic with kidney disease, the round table where we eat our dinner every night, the pedestal table covered in Bustard’s decorative fowl (of which a crystal owl was broken into 28 pieces by HotSoup last month, and he got away with it).
No trace of the slightest peacock. Not even the smallest woodpecker. Had I been dreaming? Certainly not. I know you believe me. Never in my life would I dream up such a thing. I definitely saw my burgundy dad and the blue back, covered in eyes, of a huge bird.
From the outset, I eliminated the idea that Only2times could’ve simply put the bird outside (Go on, out with you, chick, go peck somewhere else, get lost!) because I hadn’t heard the front door slam. But there’s something you should know about that: unlike the back door, when the front one closes, it makes a BLAAAAAM so jumbo-sized that it should’ve been included in last year’s book of world records. Anyway, Madame MareDam would’ve already discovered the feathery intrusion on the stairs and 10 to 1 she’d have rung our doorbell, phoned, pulled the fire alarm, called the Special Forces and the society for the protection of birds and handicapped children, and started knocking on the door while howling a song in Chinese, just to announce the news.
The peacock had definitely disappeared.
That evening, as all four of us were seated at the table to taste a delicious concoction of slightly burnt endives, flour, water, peanuts, and springy slices of ham, I watched my dad closely (but discreetly, because, mark my words, his eyes can kill an ox in midair) to see if he was acting unusually. Wasn’t he at least going to confess that he hadn’t gone to work that day? Of course not, because here are the only words he mumbled: Geez, what the heck is that junk?
I still don’t know if he was referring to the variation on the traditional French dish of ham and endives, Bustard’s new hairstyle (soft waves on a shrunken head), or the odor that was emanating from Sweetiepie (a mix of vanilla, armpit, and sheep’s cheese. A sweet-smelling pie indeed).
After dinner, he watched a TV program about the Storage of Dead Leaves, then another one about the Constipation of the Elderly, whereas I locked myself up in my room, like the other members of our family, to chew the cud.
I was confused and dying of hunger.
One thing was for certain—on this particular Monday, the first day of the week of the peacock, my idea of my dad (not brilliant, to tell the truth, but one piece, square, solid) had cracked considerably. Within this strange guy, or rather behind him, there were secrets, zones of shadow, lies. Peacocks.
And if you were in my place, would you have soon stopped turning all this over and over in your head because in life (and most of the time, I share your point of view) you simply can’t understand or explain everything?
Maybe. But I couldn’t manage it.
And I was right, eventually, because it wasn’t going to stop there. It had only just begun.