The peacocks tilted their heads back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night. They snapped their shimmering tails open and shut like fans. Behind each male’s pointy head, a green-bronze arch unfurled, covered with a halo of gazing suns. The females brayed and shook their less-attractive tails in return.
The birds didn’t care that it was the middle of the night, and they didn’t care who they were disturbing. They didn’t care that there was a wedding tomorrow, or that the groom, who had just arrived from New York City, was lying beneath a lace canopy at his in-laws’ house, paralyzed with fear. They didn’t care that his fiancé startled awake in the next room and toppled out of her high bed, and they certainly didn’t care that her face hit a stool on the way down. They didn’t care that the rest of the small Georgia town was also awake, twitching in their beds like beached fish.
The peacocks were not out to make friends. They were out to do what they liked, when they liked. They chose this particular time on this particular night for the same reason they chose to eat the flowers in the side garden the moment they bloomed. They preferred roses and hyacinths, but deigned to eat tulips as well. They had claimed every inch of the farm, which meant the wide expanse of lawn in front of the farmhouse shimmered under a layer of white refuse.
The peacocks chased the peahens across the crunchy grass, short legs thrusting, three-pronged feet grabbing at the dirt. The females stole glances over their shoulders. Fans were unfolded and then gathered back close. White, yellow and green eyes stared out from the feathers, ogling the darkness.
The males covered the ground with improbable speed. They trampled grass and hay and hopped onto the white fence that lined the property. The wooden beams objected, leaning beneath the sudden weight. The birds puffed out their chests. They opened their beaks and screamed. They sustained the noise until a lone flower fell from the magnolia tree. The petals drifted, reluctant and aromatic, to the ground.
In the center of town, Melvin and Cookie huddled together on the floor of her room. They spoke in rushed whispers designed to fit between the bouts of noise.
“I hit my eye,” she said. “I hit it hard.”
Cookie’s window was open. Enough moonlight coated the scene for Melvin to see that her right eye had already puffed up; it looked like a knuckled fist ready to throw a punch. A dark pink stain spread across the skin.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“It’s fine. It’s nothing.”
“I can feel it throbbing. Oh my God, I’ll look terrible tomorrow.”
“You’ll look beautiful. You always do,” Melvin said. He meant this. He had met her on a park bench in the city several months earlier, and since that moment had never seen her look anything less than perfect. He almost didn’t believe that the bruise existed, even as he watched it grow and deepen.
Cookie didn’t hear him. Something occurred to her, and she gazed at him with fresh panic. “Is it after midnight?”
Melvin looked down at his bare wrist. His watch was back in the guest room, lying on the night table. “I think so. It must be.”
“You’re not supposed to see me until the altar. This is bad luck!”
He wanted to reply, but the noise was unrelenting. It plowed through the walls. It crowded the room.
Cookie sobbed and cupped a hand over her eye. She reached out for Melvin with the other. She was glad she wasn’t alone in this dark room, which had become, after an absence of almost three years, strangely unfamiliar. She hoped that returning home had been the right decision. She hoped that asking Melvin to move here had been the right decision. Cookie had never fallen out of bed in her life. Her eye pulsed against her palm. She thought about her wedding dress and she thought about tomorrow, which was also, apparently, today.
The warm air was thick with the smell of magnolia blossoms. Cookie shuddered. A single scream, louder than the others, shot like a firecracker into the sky.
Her body unlatched, like a young girl’s diary sprung open by a pin. She leaned closer to Melvin, and laid her head against his chest.
He could feel her heart racing beneath her thin nightgown. He couldn’t hear anything above the screams. Melvin tried, in vain, to organize his thoughts. Cookie had said that peacocks were making this noise. He believed her, but at the same time he couldn’t. This noise—this incredible din—could surely not be made by beaked, feathered birds. The entire town must be awake around them; only the deaf or the extremely drunk could sleep through this cacophony, and if that was the case, how could it be allowed to carry on? Someone needs to shut this down, he thought. Where are the police? The peacock wranglers? Who’s in charge here?
Cookie’s breath hit Melvin’s bare chest in quick, warm puffs. She tilted her head back. She looked like she had something to say.
The cries perforated the air. The ruthless sound fragmented the darkness and splintered Cookie and Melvin’s thoughts. They lost coherence, and articulacy. They wished they could escape. They wished they knew what to do. They not only wanted the screams to stop, they wanted to make them stop. A force was pushing against them, and their instinct was to push back.
Melvin looked at Cookie and her radiating eye.
“Please,” she said.
He knitted his fingers through her hair and kissed her so hard they both slid a few inches across the floor.
When he pulled away, she tugged him closer.
“You should go back to your room,” she said.
Another lock was picked, this time within Melvin, and he pushed her white nightgown up her thighs. His breath was thick in his throat. He inhaled flowers and Cookie’s skin and the dirt from a farm he had never laid eyes on. The birds seemed to be screaming at him now. They were taunting him, goading him, trying to pick a fight. Come on, they yelled. Do it! What are you made of?
Melvin’s hands swept up and down Cookie’s back. He wanted to leave himself and crawl into her. He wanted to block the screams out. He wanted to hurt Cookie with kisses. He felt dizzy, and somehow, somewhere, wounded. He pulled on Cookie, and she pulled back. They scrambled against each other. It seemed conceivable to both of them, in the darkness, that this noise, and this night, might never end.
“My parents,” she whispered.
“They won’t hear. No one can hear anything.”
Cookie’s fingertip traced a figure eight against his shoulder. “It is technically our wedding day,” she said, as much to herself as anyone.
The skin around her right eye tinted purple, on its way to every color in the rainbow. Melvin tugged her nightgown over her head. She didn’t know where to put her hands. The man and the woman, intertwined, shimmied to their feet and fell onto the bed.
“Why won’t they just be quiet?” Cookie said, and was surprised by how loud and unattractive her voice sounded.
This had not been her plan, and she was a young woman who lived by plans. If she did this—no, as she did this, because it was happening, his lips were pressing her bruise and she was crying out in a confused medley of pain and pleasure—who would that make her be?
Any evidence of her distress was lost on Melvin. He felt dwarfed, in yet another canopied bed, by the size of his own expectations. There was a grit of shame caught beneath his fingernails as he gripped Cookie’s soft, white thigh. He knew he would not sleep again that night; he wouldn’t even try. Melvin batted his fiancée around the bed as if she were a firefly he was trying to catch in a bottle, while the birds roared in the distance.