When it starts, I’m walking hand-in-hand with my daughters through the kind of glorious, dreamlike day you hope will leave an impression on your children. We were negotiating whether to buy ice cream cones or see the bears when a peacock slipped into the wolf cage.
Valentine’s Day was unusually sunny this year, so John and I wanted to spend time outside with the kids. Holidays seem to warrant more than a local park outing, but February had been a tight month, so we couldn’t go crazy.
We decided to take them to the Folsom Zoo. It’s a change of pace from the Sacramento Zoo, smaller and more intimate. You can walk up within a foot of the animals, the cages are closer together, and kids can run around without much danger of you losing them.
And freedom is exciting for toddlers. They live under a dictatorship: don’t walk out in the street! Stay where we can see you! Put that down!
We adults are so removed from those days of boundless energy with nagging soundtracks that it’s hard to remember the exhilaration of running wild, how once it felt better to run than walk.
Bridget has only been getting around without constant tripping for a few months now and Brontë, our three-year-old, wants to jump, dance, and skip at quadruple the speed of anyone else.
John and I took them to the zoo and told them they could go wherever they wanted and we would follow. Brontë’s eyes grew enormous and Bridget started spinning in circles.
They ran us back and forth in meandering loops, sometimes holding our hands and sometimes stopping to dance on benches. They scattered to the lemur cage, counting them, and peered into the raccoon cage, trying to spot one. Bridget kept fingering the heart-shaped papier-mâché Valentines tacked in front of the cages.
“A heart, mommy.” Brontë explained as she squeezed my hand. “You in my heart.”
Our kids stayed bottlenecked on the left side of the zoo, circling past the same cages over and over again. John and I felt the right side’s pull as we strained against adult impulses to take back control. “Let’s go see the bears,” John suggested. The bears were to the right.
“You can go where you want,” I insisted. “What do you want to do?”
Barely hearing me, Brontë turned and gasped. Walking in front of her, along the sidewalk, was an enormous peacock.
I may have gasped as well. I’ve never seen a peacock only one arm’s length away before. They are much larger birds than I realized (as big as my daughter) and profoundly stunning.
The peacock’s colors were inexplicable, a blue somehow richly deep yet glowing from within. His endless train of a tail dragged behind him, yet seemed weightless: a vibrant green speckled with purple-black ovals. His legs moved so lightly he appeared to glide in front of us, shimmering velvet colors in fine detail across our path.
He was the most beautiful thing Brontë had ever seen. “I want to follow the peacock, mommy!”
“Okay, let’s follow the peacock.”
We raced after the peacock together, Brontë’s tiny legs swimming on concrete toward the floating bird. She giggled as he raced up staircases, trotted past the coyote’s den, and paused near a water fountain.
Trying to keep my distance, I finally couldn’t help reaching out to feel the gossamer tail swooping in front of me. I felt its swish of light softness for a moment before the startled bird jumped up to a handrail to get away.
At least Brontë didn’t seem disappointed. She understood exactly why I needed to touch that magic bird. Grabbing my hand as we backed away, her eyes darted around in search of her dad and baby sister.
Catching up with them, Brontë circled with Bridget before they grabbed my hands and started down a new path. We saw a number of free-ranging peacocks hanging around various cages and were passing a family nursing ice cream cones when the kids decided they were hungry.
It sounded great, but where do you get ice cream? Finding out the family bought ice cream outside the zoo, we were pondering whether to leave and come back or finish out the zoo trip first when we heard a startled fluttering nearby.
About fifty feet away was a wolf cage with a handful of docile-looking white wolves resting inside.
A flash of green and purple, a rustling noise, a growing murmur from the crowds as people started jogging over for a better look…
A peacock had flown into the wolf cage, maybe through an open space in the ceiling. He was frantic, hopping to and fro and smacking against the metal walls.
The crowd grew noisier as John and I froze. I squeezed my kids’ hands harder as my mind raced.
The peacock jumped in the air and fluttered for a while before landing again as one of the wolves stood up. The wolf walked toward the peacock and began jumping and squatting in nearby arcs, like a golden retriever trying to inspire his owner to throw a stick.
Another wolf’s ears pricked up and he trotted over. The two wolves began whipping their tails and circling as the peacock flew up again and again.
The peacock reached a hole in the ceiling, his wings slipping out to freedom for an instant before he fell inside again. Maybe the hole wasn’t big enough for him to fit through.
A large crowd had gathered. Some people were steadying camera phones while others were gasping. Some horrified eyes couldn’t look away, while others glowed with the same hot light that must’ve surrounded the gladiator pits in ancient times. Looking around, you could nearly pinpoint which gazes were rooting for the peacock’s escape and which were not.
John and I locked eyes as we talked about ice cream, lemurs, and anything else to trap our children’s attention as we ran mental equations. It looked as though the peacock might escape. Then the crowd sucked in its breath as the wolves leapt in quiet arcs toward their target, green feathers soundlessly splitting the air.
John’s face turned white. I tried to picture what my daughters’ faces would look like were they to swivel around and realize what just happened.
The zoo is an illusion. We have predators and prey living together peacefully and well-fed in secure cages. Take these walls away and all Hell would break loose, even though coyotes and wolves look like robust puppy dogs and the the mountain lion a prettier cat.
And children grow up with illusions. Cartoon animals are friendly and reasonable. Bears have bowties and giant smiles.
Are chilldren as fragile as we assume? In many ways, I’m more sensitive now than I used to be.
When I was very young, my grandparents kept chickens in the backyard. I liked them. I would play with them and talk to them.
Even though I made up names for them, I’d help catch them so my family could slaughter them for fried chicken dinners. Watching their decapitations fascinated me. I was amazed by how their headless bodies kept running around the yard.
I’d watch the adults dip their lifeless bodies into boiling water to make feather removal easier and dig right in to the fresh fried chicken served at the dinner table that night. No judgements, just observation.
It didn’t occur to me to be bothered by any of this as a very young child, though I now keep chickens that I wouldn’t dream of slaughtering. Children simply accept the world around them. The universe is still a fascinating mystery whose truths are revealed in increments.
I think about how much we now sanitize childhood these days, how protected kids are from all forms of suffering and savagery, though they were watching public execution just a century ago.
We will inevitably learn the world is not so fair and innocent… does it make things harder when our expectations are sky-high? Do we feel lied to?
I remember being five years old at my grandfather’s funeral. My father’s father was already suffering from Alzheimer’s when I was tiny, and he used to call me “Michael” or “Mike” when I played.
That’s my father’s name. I would contentedly play with Mickey Mouse train sets at my grandfather’s feet and he would look over at me, smiling, calling me “Mike” no matter how much I reminded him my name is “Erin.”
I loved him, though I don’t know if he ever knew who I was, or always believed he was a young man again whose little boy liked to play with train sets. Even at five, I vaguely grasped that I was helping my grandfather hold onto a moment he wished had never left, a simpler time with his happy baby son playing at his feet.
He died that year and my parents deliberated whether or not to take me to the funeral. My mother, I believe, decided I should go, though many people argued funerals were too traumatic for five-year-olds.
Flashes of that funeral live deep in my memory: seeing my grandfather laid out in a coffin. Walking up to him in the dim light of the church. Looking at him. Wanting to go outside to pick a rose for him.
I went outside and found the nicest rose I could before breaking into sobs. I was in the middle of crying when a distressed-looking woman walked up to me.
“He’s not gone, sweetheart.” She told me. “He’s just asleep.”
“HE IS NOT ASLEEP!” I screamed. “HE IS DEAD AND I’M SAD AND I MISS HIM!”
She ran away and I cried for a while before walking inside and laying the rose on his hands. It was a painful moment, yet far more comforting than if my grandfather had simply disappeared one day without explanation.
I watch the peacock being torn apart and think.
I was five. My daughters are one and three.
I picture Brontë’s eyes watching the glorious bird, as big as she is, being torn apart by glowing white wolves.
And I squeeze her hand tightly while veering to the right…
“Let’s go see the bears.”