This morning, while having coffee with my friend Mary at Cafe Stella, I noticed a large tapestry painting hanging on the wall. In it were several peacocks, circled around a few smaller, grayish birds. The inscription at the bottom of the painting was in French (which I should be able to read, but can’t, really); the one word I recognized was “plume,” which translates to feather. I realized this was a depiction of Aesop’s fable, The Peacock and the Crane. And I knew this, deep in my bones, because in second grade, I played the crane.
In my music class, we put on a performance of Aesop’s fables. We were each cast as one of the characters (animals) and our music teacher narrated while we acted out our parts. A girl named April (her last name escapes me) played the part of the peacock. She was taller than me, and built bigger, and she flapped her arms (wings) and strutted around me in a dizzying manner, skipping and squawking, though I’m not convinced we were sure that peacocks actually squawked. (Actually, the sound they make it sometimes characterized as screaming, a reverberating crescendo that builds into a shriek of sorts.)
As April twirled and strutted and flapped her construction paper wings at me, I stood there in white stirrup pants, white Keds, and a white turtleneck (nevermind that cranes are a bit grayish) and lowered my head in shame, the orange construction paper beak fastened over my nose with a rubber band hiding most of my face. When the ending of the fable was read, I climbed a small step ladder, three steps tall, and “flew” away because, as the fable has it, the peacock may be beautiful, but the crane “soars to the heights of heaven and lift up [its] voice to the stars, while [the peacock] walk[s] below, like a cock, among the birds of the dunghill.”
At the top of the step ladder, I spread my white paper wings and directed my gaze to the heavens, the white, speckled, foam board ceiling tiles overhead. Fine feathers do not make a fine bird. And anyone knows that to be a fine bird, one must be able to fly.
Growing up, we used to frequent Zoo Atlanta quite a bit where, among other sights like Willie B (the famous gorilla, now long since gone on to that great zoo in the sky) and a train that circled the park, peacocks roamed the sidewalks. In second grade, we took a field trip to the zoo where we (check it) spent the night and took a nighttime walk around the zoo, eating trail mix and seeing all the exhibits at night, a privilege offered to few. At bedtime, we watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which I have no recollection of as I fell asleep almost as soon as I slid into my Beauty and the Beast sleeping bag.
I always enjoyed seeing the peacocks roam freely instead of watching them from behind the protection of a roped off habitat; the birds truly did strut, raising their magnificent tails to reveal a spread of feathers that was radiant.
I had no idea, at the age of seven, what a crane looked like. I was told it was a white bird, and the illustration in our book of fables showed a bird with long skinny legs, a long beak, and white feathers. And I knew one thing: they could fly.
Lately, as I have buried myself in preparing for my summer course (a composition class themed around food), I have given myself grief for not writing enough, for not being published enough, for not knowing enough about food, or not having been cooking long enough, or with enough confidence, to have assembled my own set of original recipes. I have worried over the fact that I don’t write fiction anymore and that I feel blocked when I even try (which I admit is not often). I’ve become burdened by the vicious cycle that to progress in my career, I need to write, but to make money and support myself, I have to work several jobs to make ends meet, so that one day, I will be able to write, so that my career can progress. It is ever off in the future, intangible and unattainable.
How easy it was, in second grade, to prove the peacock wrong, to step up on a small ladder, to point my orange paper beak to the ceiling and pantomime flight. I would love to point to some external force – my job, relationships, whatever – and say, that! that is my peacock. But it’s not true. The peacock is in me, strutting and twirling, flexing its tail up and down, taunting me about how pretty its feathers are before setting off into a tirade of peacock shrieks.
But if there’s a peacock in me, there’s also a crane. There’s a long-legged bird that knows how to shut the peacock down. The crane is humble; it knows its feathers are not beautiful, that it does not possess the awe-inspiring, colorful plumage that makes the peacock so impressive. But the crane also knows it has an ace in the hole. It can fly, reaching the heavens, on wings made out of stronger stuff than paper.
The crane also knows I have a voice, one that is organically mine and is fit for being lifted to the stars. The crane knows this, even when I don’t.