The Peacock Feather

On one occasion – I can’t remember exactly which occasion – I visited my aunt in the nursing home where she resided and presented her with a large bunch of flowers. In the bunch as garnish was a single peacock feather. In time the flowers disappeared but my aunt kept the peacock feather, transferring it to each new bunch of flowers that was bestowed upon her. To my aunt, the feather was not just a beautiful object, but a reminder of a special occasion, of the love of family and friends. On one visit, as I admired the latest bouquet, my aunt mentioned – not without some irony and amusement, I might add – that a carer at the home had informed her that peacock feathers brought bad luck.

Now my aunt was only seventy-two years old, a veritable youngster at that aged care facility. She had suffered a stroke that left the right side of her body completely paralysed. She had lost the use of her legs. She had lost her home; her independence. She was no longer able to pursue her great passion – her art. My aunt had lost the life she loved. And now, apparently, she was risking further misfortune by holding onto that beautiful peacock feather with its exquisite eye-shaped markings. My aunt scratched her head, clearly at a loss as to what form that bad luck might take.

I had not heard that peacock feathers brought bad luck. It had never been one of my family’s superstitions. But apparently, while considered good luck in Asia, in the West, particularly during the early part of the twentieth century, peacock feathers were considered very bad luck indeed. You were risking bringing trouble and misfortune upon yourself and your family if you dared keep a peacock feather with its ‘evil eye’ in your home. The ‘evil eye’, the belief that you can be cursed by someone, most often a witch, staring at you in a malevolent fashion may have become associated with peacock feathers through Greek mythology and the story of the monster, Argus. Argus ‘the All-seeing’ had one hundred eyes over the whole of his body. Argus was killed by Hermes but his eyes were taken by Hera and set on the feathers of a peacock, her favourite bird.

Three beautiful and healthy children aside, I do not consider I have been generously endowed with good luck over the course of my adult life. You make your own luck, some would say, but I am not so sure about this. In my case, I am tempted to blame the peacock. Many years ago in Nepal I witnessed a wondrous site. I was astride an elephant, in hot pursuit of a rhinoceros, when a huge flock of peacocks took off from a tree above me, gliding gracefully from one high tree-top to the next. I had never seen a peacock in flight. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I knew peacocks could fly. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle, but also, if the evil-eye theory has any credence to it, quite possibly aharbinger of misfortune. Perhaps my life had been irrevocably paved that day, cobbled together with tiny pieces of bad luck.

It’s a pity I can’t ask that carer what she would make of such an experience, but sadly my aunt passed away just a year after her first stroke and I no longer have need to visit that particular aged care facility. When I say sadly, I am speaking for myself alone, not for my aunt, who iterated on a number of occasions that while the stroke was bad luck, surviving it was even worse luck, and surviving it after lying for forty-eight hours on the floor of her bedroom, even worse luck still. Following the forty-eight (thankfully repressed) hours on her bedroom floor, my aunt spent a number of gruelling months in the stroke unit at the Royal Hobart Hospital followed by a spell in rehab. She made excellent progress, presenting the finest example of persistence and determination in the face of adversity to her nieces and nephews. By the time she succumbed to the second stroke my aunt could manoeuvre an electric wheelchair with confidence and had learnt to write with her left hand. Her artistic endeavours, while not meeting her own high standards, nevertheless matched many of the efforts of her able-bodied relatives.

What was the point of that year of pain and suffering? I don’t know. I don’t. But what I do know is that if a peacock feather had any part in my aunt’s death, my aunt would most definitely have considered that it had brought her good luck rather than bad.

If you suspect I am rather indignant at that carer’s comment to my aunt, you are right. To me it was an unthinking remark, a small uncaring comment that contained a hard core of cruelty. But maybe I am being too harsh, maybe this woman had been offering a heartfelt warning to my aunt, the accrued wisdom of a lifetime of clinging to a superstitious belief system, the essential truth of which had only been reinforced by my aunt’s death…I warned the old girl that keeping that peacock feather in her room would bring her trouble, but she wouldn’t listen to me…not that one…always thought she knew best. Well, my aunt was a strong, independent woman who had lived by herself, supported herself, patched and painted the walls of her own home. She wasn’t about to change her ways just because she had lost the use of her legs.

I have a friend who has a mother with Alzheimer’s disease, another youngish resident of an aged care facility. My friend’s mother had deteriorated rapidly, losing her ability to walk, her ability to control her bladder, and according to the resident medical professionals, requiring strong drugs to control her psychotic episodes. My friend was in need of a wheelchair for her mother and arranged to meet an elderly gentleman at the home where his now very frail wife lived. On the way out the door my friend asked a simple question, ‘So what’s this place like?’ ‘It’s like heaven,’ the gentleman replied. Heaven. After further conversation the gentleman realised he knew my friend’s parents from many years ago and went on to support my friend’s application to get her mother a place in this heavenly home. My friend’s mother has now regained control over her bladder; she can now walk, albeit with assistance. She is no longer drugged to the eye-balls with antidepressants and anti-psychotics. They don’t do that sort of thing in heaven.   

But what if my friend had been in a rush that day, needing to get back for a child’s orthodontic appointment, a sporting match, any number of the often conflicting demands made of a mother? What if in her haste she had not thought to ask that simple question, ‘So what’s this place like?’

At the beginning of the Woody Allen film Match Point, the enigmatic character played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers reflects that ‘people are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck’. I believe this to be true, although I am less than convinced that luck has anything whatsoever to do with that resplendent object – the peacock feather.