Short Story Eyes in the Wings
The neighbors wanted the bird out. “Do something,” they said. It was all in the eyes, wide and accusatory and wild.
Mambo was the only peacock in the neighborhood. It liked to roost in the oak tree in the front yard. It picked at the touch-me-nots along the driveway but never the magnolias growing in the corner of the yard. Sometimes it strutted up and down the street, a runway model without an audience. Whenever it found something that interested it, it would hop onto a neighbor’s lawn and roam, but it would always return to the oak tree on Carlos and Angel’s lawn. Mambo also liked to yell. At sunset, Mambo’s squawking sounded like an alarm, a cry calling into the dusk.
Carlos didn’t want to name the bird, but Angel did, said it made things official. It was late spring, and the sun seared the air heavy around them. Angel said the bird’s colors added some flair to the neighborhood and that it was about time something lively happened since they found their own place in the neighborhood a year ago. Angel went over too many names: Paco, Mojo, Pepe, Martí. He suggested Mambo, and there was something about the way the bird ruffled its feathers that made Carlos give in, though he’d heard stories of other neighborhoods, how peacocks ravaged gardens and lawns and made a total mess of things.
But the name reminded him of how he met Angel at a bar, when someone who knew someone, who also happened to know both their exes, introduced them on the dance floor—typical Miami. A little bachata got them dancing close, and Carlos liked how Angel could anticipate the turns and dips, swish of hips against thigh. They made dancing a monthly date. They loved to watch others around them bump to the beat.
On their one-year dancing anniversary, two hundred miles away, a man murdered forty-nine people in an Orlando gay bar. Both Carlos and Angel watched the news later that night, the posts on social media from family neither of them spoke to, always watching and making private business theirs. And the questions in their private messages— Why don’t you talk to us? Trust us? —when their families were the first to harm them.
That same night, in the heavy, gray light of a summer dawn with his arms wrapped around Angel, Carlos heard him pray for the first time.
Carlos set the dinner table one night while Angel cooked. They’d often trade off responsibilities, one cooked and the other cleaned, set music to mood. Angel liked to tease Carlos when he cooked, poking Carlos in the butt while he stirred the carne con papas, his specialty. So, this time, Carlos poked Angel in his side, who yelped like a child.
“Got you back for that last time,” said Carlos.
“I’m going to spit in your food,” said Angel, pinching Carlos’s cheek.
All this was still new to Carlos. He moved back to Miami from Chicago as an adult. South Miami was more expensive than he and Angel had wanted, but being closer to work made up for it, and they managed. Though, some nights, Carlos looked at other listings in more affordable areas, something quieter with more privacy. But he knew Angel was happy in South Miami because of how close it was to other neighborhoods yet far enough away from downtown and conveniently near a Metrorail stop, and that mattered more.
Carlos poked Angel again in the side, and Angel laughed and yelled and said enough. A cry came from outside.
The bird , thought Carlos. The cry sounded lonely. It would happen every evening around dinnertime, the sun low and casting the orange glow of tropical dusk. It sounded like the peacock was asking, “Why?” Then again, Carlos thought maybe the bird wasn’t lonely. Maybe the bird knew exactly what it was doing, which was to piss him off.
“He’s so beautiful,” they said.
On weekends, neighbors walking their pets and children stopped to watch the peacock in the tree. From where Mambo sat, its train draped over a branch like a curtain on a stage. In slashes of sunlight, the feathers glimmered and glittered, changed colors with every ruffle and strut. As if it knew it was being watched, Mambo floated down from its roost and picked at the ground, took in the small crowd around it, and transformed its green train into a bronze halo. Everyone on the block watched the shimmering of feathers. At the neighborhood meeting held at the park, the parents all admired Mambo.
“The kids love him,” they said.
Carlos and Angel were encouraged to attend these monthly meetings as part of creating a welcoming environment for all residents, especially new ones. Sometimes Carlos thought he felt something burning into his back when he walked to the park, but he shook it off every time, blamed the sun and the heat, and wondered why they decided to make these meetings outside.
“We love the way he looks here,” they said.
Carlos wanted to get rid of the bird, but the neighbors glared at him and Angel. It reminded him of his awful time in the high school locker room where he’d make himself blend into rust to avoid drifting eyes, the danger of being seen. But with Angel’s hand in his, and the neighbors looking expectantly, waiting for his ultimate decision—and because Angel had already named it—Carlos decided to let the bird stay.
“We could watch him for hours,” they said.
Things were fine for a while. Mambo kept to itself most of the time, and Carlos got used to having the bird flashing its feathers outside. Mambo never dawdled too long on anyone’s front yard on its regular walkabouts; it pecked at little bits and moved on.
One afternoon, as Carlos and Angel were rearranging the backyard furniture for guests, Mambo hopped onto and rattled the back fence, a snake writhing in his beak until it went limp. Carlos had read that peacocks will eat almost anything, even small reptiles, but the snake was a surprise. Carlos and Angel watched Mambo shred the snake with his beak and eat it in pieces.
Then Mambo ruffled his feathers, and the sound was like wind moving through trees, like sand shifting, sifting.
While Carlos was gardening one morning, Angel called him inside for a snack and to help taste-test a pitcher of sangria for the scorching summer afternoons. The drink was sweet and tart, and Angel dragged a napkin across Carlos’s chin, picking up the stray drops that spilled from the cup. Then, Angel opened a drawer and pulled out a fistful of Mambo’s tail feathers.
“Look how they add to the flowers and centerpieces,” he said.
A drag queen friend of Angel’s once told Carlos that peacock feathers in the house or onstage brought bad luck. Thanks to his grandmother, Carlos was superstitious. The same queen also told him that the feathers frighten away evil spirits: “It’s a story, you know. Their feathers are the lookout.”
“So which one is it?” Carlos had asked the queen: misfortune or protection? But they’d flown off in the direction of the stage lights, reveling in attention. “It’s a story, you know. Their feathers are the lookout.”
Carlos had been diligent with collecting and throwing out the feathers strewn on the lawn every morning before leaving for work, but now they were in his home. They really did look like eyes, great ancient ones, their gaze following Carlos where he dwelled, and the peculiarity that comes with being watched in the space he created, the space that was Angel’s and his, too.
Then more peacocks arrived.
“Oh, how beautiful,” said the neighbors. “Look at their feathers! They look like eyes.”
The next neighborhood meeting was at a resident’s home, where everyone discussed caring for the birds, researching safe foods, which flowers to plant—petunias and primroses and pansies.
“It seems you’re to thank for attracting them,” they said to Carlos and Angel.
Residents left pheasant food for the peacocks, who came prancing into the lawns. Parents were excited to support their local pet store, and their children scattered birdseed like confetti along the sidewalk, in bunches in the park. The birds were ravenous.
Mambo stayed on Carols and Angel’s lawn, made a home of it. He kept to himself, and despite himself, Carlos liked to see Mambo roosting in the tree every morning. Sometimes, when Carlos or Angel watched Mambo while they rested on the lawn chairs after hours of gardening, Mambo fluttered down to the grass and ruffled the train of his feathers until they towered like a great crown.
“God, that bird is so gay,” Angel said, shielding his eyes.
Carlos took a damp towel and wiped Angel’s brow and cheeks. “Look who’s talking,” he said.
Angel wasn’t the only one taking home feathers. Carlos noticed afternoon joggers stop in the street, take feathers from the neighborhood yards, and stuff them into their pockets. Once, he saw someone remove their hair tie and use it to hold together a flimsy bouquet of the feathers collected from Carlos and Angel’s lawn.
“Excuse me,” said Carlos. “There are so many scattered at the park. Please don’t take any from my lawn.”
“You can’t have all of them for yourself,” they said. “You can’t be the only ones with beautiful things.” They looked over their shoulder as they stormed off, stopping every few steps to do it again.
That night over dinner, Carlos told Angel about what happened with the neighbor, how angry they seemed.
“I don’t see the harm in letting them take some feathers,” said Angel. “It’s like they’re cleaning the lawn for you.”
“I just don’t want them on the lawn, you know? Like, they’ll come knocking on the door demanding things.”
“Everything’s okay,” said Angel. He smoothed over Carlos’s shirt and pulled his seat out for him. “Eat your food or I’m not doing the dishes.”
Then mating season came and more birds appeared: peahens. Four gray-and-brown females to every one extravagant male. The neighborhood was filled with metallic eyes gleaming in the sun, iridescent and on the lookout for their partners. Soon, the chicks followed, and with no natural predators, they thrived.
Angel would stand outside in the afternoons after work and watch the birds parade up and down the streets. One day, Carlos caught Angel laughing to himself as a group of peachicks scurried to keep up with their mother. Carlos saw how happy Angel was with their home, the garden they spent so much time in, and especially the birds, their color and light, and soon the real estate websites became lost to their browser’s internet history.
Because the park had plenty of food, they congregated there, an ostentation of color, and the neighborhood went ooh and aah and looked on as tail feathers rose up like trees of some distant planet. They quivered and rustled and cried as if hoping they’d make a good impression the more they were noticed.
Carlos looked on from afar and searched for Mambo, but the bird kept his distance, skimming the periphery of the party.
The little gray chicks matured into young fowl and roamed, pecking apart flowerbeds and shitting on driveways. They were loud, their screams relentless. Peacocks pecked at waxed and polished cars, mistaking their own reflections for other males encroaching on their territory.
Eventually, after seasons passed and young fowl became adults and had chicks of their own, the birds took over the neighborhood. Residents cleaned their driveways weekly. They stopped singing the birds’ beauty. They shooed them off their lawns, and the children stopped putting out food. The birds roved and wrecked. Mambo, however, stayed put in Carlos and Angel’s lawn, and when the other peacocks trotted along the street, Mambo remained alone.
The residents sprinkled red pepper flakes around their flowerbeds. They bought dogs to bark away the birds. If any member of the community was caught stealing eggs, they would be fined, as per local commissioners and county officials, and Miami as a whole was a designated bird sanctuary. But the birds were wild, feral. Even the dogs relented. There were reports of males, tails taller than children, chasing kids when they got too close. When Angel heard of this over dinner, he laughed, wine singing his nostrils.
The neighbors stopped singing the birds’ beauty. They shooed them off their lawns, and the children stopped putting out food.
“Those kids could get hurt,” said Carlos.
“They should know better,” said Angel.
Carlos sipped his wine and laughed because he knew Angel was right.
The residents called the local zoo and animal control. There were so many birds that trapping them took weeks. Nesting season was most dangerous, when the birds had eggs to protect. The males became aggressive, puffed their bright blue feathers and scratched the ground like bulls preparing to charge.
Then, with little noise and fanfare, the peacocks disappeared. Except Mambo, who hid in the tree. Some evenings, Mambo cried out, a single lone siren wailing against the setting sun.
Carlos and Angel noticed how neighbors looked at their house whenever they walked by, eyes searching and looking for the foul gem in the tree. Carlos and Angel were relieved that Mambo was camouflaged well in his roost, quiet until the neighbors passed. If anyone stayed put for too long, Mambo cried.
The peacocks arrived again, slowly, like winter rain. They resumed their feast on gardens and fought against cats. Like a train derailed, their tracks were everywhere.
In an emergency neighborhood meeting, the residents discussed strategies to get rid of the birds. There were so many birds that animal control couldn’t handle all their demands. They called local farmers, who rejected the birds because of their destructive reputation. They also blamed Carlos and Angel for attracting the peacocks.
“This is your fault,” said one neighbor.
“If you hadn’t kept that one bird, none of them would have come,” said a parent.
“My kids are scared to play on the sidewalk,” said another.
Cornered and beset by a newly formed neighborhood watch, Carlos looked at Angel. He felt Angel’s hand in his. How quickly they turned on them. How quick they were to deflect blame away from themselves, even when they were the cause of their own concerns. Like a bird at roost, they were the target of righteous fire. Carlos relented to the demands of the neighborhood once more. He agreed on the condition that he remove Mambo himself. That way, at least, he and Angel would walk away whole.
“This happened because you brought those feathers into the house,” said Carlos. With that, he plucked them out of the vases and threw them in the garbage outside.
Despite their promise to the neighborhood, Carlos and Angel felt they couldn’t get rid of Mambo because they were convinced the bird liked them too much. Maybe liked is too strong a word, but Carlos felt it fit. Mambo wouldn’t stray from the lawn no matter how many times they tried to scare him away. Though he destroyed some flowerbeds (“They’re touch-me-nots,” said Angel. “They’re not that pretty anyway.”), the garden was snail-free, and the gardenia had never been fuller with blooms.
The neighbors wanted the bird out, convinced Mambo would continue to attract more peacocks. “Do something,” they said. It was all in the eyes, wide and accusatory and wild.
Whenever it was cool enough, Carlos and Angel went for walks around the neighborhood, when the sun was in between skies and there was enough light to keep the window blinds angled to curb the heat.
“Do you think they’re watching us?” Carlos said on a walk one afternoon.
“And what if they are?” said Angel.
“I worry sometimes.” Carlos surveyed the street in front of him, sidewalks caked with the birds’ shit, gardens wrecked with torn flowerbeds, and then a distant wail joined by others.
“I thought you liked being watched.”
“That was one time, papo.”
“But it was fun.”
Angel reached for Carlos’s hand, who took it, and he couldn’t grasp what it was about the way Angel held him except the sense that something long-awaited had arrived when it was supposed to, that fate or destiny or some other word he never believed in became tangible. Even then, Carlos kept watch over his shoulder.
“Do you think they’re watching us?” Carlos said on a walk one afternoon. “And what if they are?” said Angel.
Days passed after the neighborhood meeting, and Angel did nothing. He and Carlos kept seeds in their backyard, fenced off from the street, but Mambo liked sleeping in the tree out front. Carlos planted touch-me-nots in a corner of the backyard, and Mambo would saunter there, peck and eat and go back to his roost. Sometimes when another peacock cruised by the house, Mambo rustled his feathers, shaking himself like a menacing maraca, and he’d hoist his train high. Carlos and Angel settled into a slow routine of feeding and walks and picking up feathers left in the lawn as Mambo began to molt. The neighbors no longer stole his feathers, letting the couple clean up after Mambo.
Anonymous letters arrived in their mailbox and were sometimes attached to their front door. They threatened action if Carlos and Angel did not remove the bird. The letters came at odd times with no pattern or logic—in the mornings when they took out the trash, in the evenings when they’d put out the recycling bins, in the afternoons when they arrived from a walk. A quick knock on the door whenever they were home, and by the time either of them opened the door, no one would be there, save a letter on the doormat.
“You’d think in an area this nice the letterheads wouldn’t be so tacky,” said Angel.
“I’m afraid they’ll do something before we can help him,” said Carlos. “I think we should call to have Mambo taken away. Maybe even a sanctuary.”
“He’s not bothering anyone,” said Angel. “He’s just existing. We can keep him safe here.”
The birds began disappearing again, this time taken away in a fleet of trucks and vans, a conglomerate of pest control hired by the residents of the neighborhood. They came from all over the county and the state. Carlos saw the cages, the wet, dark gloves handlers wore, saw how they inched around nests and collected eggs, storing them in boxes. They wore badges on their uniforms and on lanyards hanging from their necks. They were officials, professionals, here to remove whatever was unwanted. But no matter how desperately they were caged and seized, the birds persisted.
Carlos opened the computer to search for home-security cameras, but the previously opened tabs told him it was too late. Angel had been looking at homes in other neighborhoods, condos in downtown, others by the beach, houses farther north in rapidly gentrified areas with pictures of corresponding realtors with taglines that read “Here for you!” in bold fonts. He knew Angel wouldn’t name his fears out loud. Mentioning them would conjure them real.
But Carlos’s other idea, though difficult and costly in the short term, would be better for them all. He was certain.
Carlos felt eyes behind him. When he turned, there was Angel standing in the doorway, arms crossed, looking back between him and the floor. Carlos took him into an embrace and swayed in place, like the last slow dancers out of the room, as if his arms would brace them against the world.
It’s not that it took Angel much convincing, though he was devastated to leave the home he and Carlos had spent so much time making beautiful. The house had everything they wanted, but Carlos didn’t need to explain the need for a place away from eyes prying at their periphery. Together, they decided on an agent based on her territory, and Angel loved the picture of her and her wife. The house would have a huge backyard for them and Mambo.
They’d be closer to some friends. They’d plant new trees, fresh flowers, grow a garden to complement the iridescent eyes winking and watching over their house, and when they left this place, they’d scatter feathers all over the driveway, the sidewalk, the street, out the gate of the community. A trail of light in their wake, marring their neighbors’ vision with explosions of color.