THE QUIET OF THE MORNINGwas not sustainable. This gift of silence initially went unobserved by Mr. Adani because not hearing the peacocks while still in bed was like noting the precise moment his medicine eased his stomach cramps. The absence of pain was not significant because that was the way life ought to be; the status quo should be comfort. A man shouldn’t have to mark good days by easy bowel movements. A man shouldn’t have to dread the sight of the sink after combing his hair. A man shouldn’t have to trip over a dead peacock on his way to work.
The bird’s chin was on the ground, his legs flat under his body as if he had fallen while running and skidded to a painful halt. The small fan of plumage on his head stood up with a buoyancy that led Mr. Adani to think the bird was still alive.
He circled the bird slowly, keeping his briefcase close to his midsection. He searched for any signs of movement. Its eyes were open. During his second circle around the bird, Mr. Adani kept his gaze trained on the iridescent stripe down the bird’s back. This close, the feathers looked like small scales. Everything about the bird was still: his neatly folded tail did not twitch, his eyes did not move, and the electric blue tufts atop his head bowed only under Mr. Adani’s heavy sigh.
“Kiran,” he called to his wife as he reentered his house.
She was in the kitchen, still in the clothes she’d slept in, dunking a biscuit in her tea as she read the paper. “I thought you left.”
He dropped his briefcase down on the chair across from her. “I tried to. There’s a peacock out back. It’s dead.”
Clucking her tongue, she set down her biscuit. “Oh God—what will the neighbors think?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe they haven’t seen it yet.” He rubbed his forehead with two fingers. “I have to call the police.”
“Should I cover the bird?”
“I don’t know,” he said again, this time with more impatience. Then he felt badly. “I’ll ask the police.”
“Here, have some more chai.” She walked over to the stove. “I think it needs more milk.”
Two pots were still on the burners. He watched her profile while waiting for someone to pick up the line. Using tongs, she tilted one pot over the other. Hot milk fell into the tea, lightening its rust color. Steam floated above both pots, and Kiran waved it away from her face.
“You’re still boiling the milk? Why bother paying more if you’re just going to boil it anyway?”
She shrugged and answered as she always did when he asked. “Habit. Plus you can never be too careful, you know.”
So long as the neighbors saw that the milk delivered each morning was the same brand as theirs, he supposed he shouldn’t care what she did with it once it was inside. He had just decided to no longer pester Kiran about the matter when a voice greeted him mid-ring. “Hello,” he started and was then stumped. Whatever he said, it needed to absolve him of association. “There—er—there is a peacock in my yard. I think it’s dead.”
“You think it’s dead?”
Mr. Adani felt foolish. He watched his wife strain the tea into two cups before flicking the dregs of loose tea back into the pot. “It’s dead.”
“Okay, sir, come to the station and we’ll collect your statement.”
Kiran walked toward him with a steaming teacup. He shook his head, and she set it down on the table in front of his briefcase.
“But what about the peacock?”
“We’ll send someone for it, sir.”
“But I have to go to work.”
“Sir, it’s protocol to get your statement as soon as the incident occurs.”
“Oh for God’s sake. Fine.” He sighed. “How long will this all take?”
The policeman coughed for a long moment before responding. “Not too long.”
The line went dead before Mr. Adani could point out that that was hardly a helpful answer.
Kiran turned to him, holding the red box of loose tea. “Should I make more chai for the police?”
“They’re not coming here, I’m going there.” His first attempt to replace the phone in its cradle missed loudly, and he tried again.
“Oh.” She opened the pantry. He could see neat rows of biscuits and crackers. “But what about the peacock?”
He repeated the answer he’d been given.
“Oh.” She closed the pantry, Red Label box still in hand. “Maybe they’ll want some chai.”
“Fine, fine,” he muttered. He grabbed his briefcase. The teacup had stopped steaming. A perfect circle of film had formed on top. He poked the thin skin to the side and took one swallow. He grimaced as his throat burned. “And stop boiling the damn milk.”
• • •
AN OFFICER TOLD HIMto wait when he arrived. Men in beige shirts and slacks roamed around the room, clubs resting in their leather holsters as they chatted. The leather, he thought, was the color of Kiran’s tea this morning, before she’d added more milk.
The police station was one large room with three scuffed desks and three stained doors, each against a different wall. The only clean thing in the room was the Indian flag jutting out of the wall near the ceiling. A row of empty plastic chairs served as the waiting room. He picked the least dirty one. The briefcase bounced in his lap as his knees danced. He reminded himself to sit still, that fidgeting was a habit of guilty people whereas he was a respectable man who lived in a gated community and worked in an air-conditioned cubicle.
He checked his watch though he already knew the time. He was forty-five minutes late to work. He had called the office before climbing the steps to the police station. Sounding curious and amused, his supervisor had told him to come in whenever he was done with the police.
“Yes, sir,” Mr. Adani had said. “Of course.”
“Oh, and Adani?”
“Bring some feathers to the office, we could use some new decor.” His supervisor’s laughter filled Mr. Adani’s ear, which had grown moist next to the cell phone. He tried to join in the laughter, but he ran out of air and a scratchy wheeze came out instead. His supervisor hung up.
A young policeman with a clipboard walked by the row of chairs. Mr. Adani was eye level with the man’s hip. His eyes followed the club’s swaying arc. Mr. Adani’s hand rose to pat the crown of his head. His fingers tried to evenly spread the fine hairs there, but he could still feel the heat radiating from his exposed scalp.
“Excuse me,” Mr. Adani said, tilting his face up to hide his head from view. The policeman said nothing as he pored over his clipboard. Mr. Adani cleared his throat and stood up. “Excuse me,” he repeated, louder this time.
The policeman took a step back, surprised to see him. His forehead was impossibly small, his hairline only a few notches above his thick black brows. “Yes?”
Mr. Adani lifted his chin and tried to stand taller. “I was told I needed to give my statement immediately.”
The officer tucked the clipboard under his arm. “What are you here for?”
Before Mr. Adani could answer, another officer, one sitting behind a desk, called out: “Dead peacock.”
The officer in front of Mr. Adani smiled and pulled out his clipboard again as he turned away from Mr. Adani and the row of plastic chairs. The back of the officer’s head was full and dark, not an iota of scalp to be found.
One hour later, Mr. Adani finally gave his statement to the young officer with the nonexistent forehead. Yes, this was the first time anything like this had happened. No, he had not seen any blood on the peacock. No, he had no idea what killed the bird, how would he? Yes, he had called the police as soon as he had found its body. Which—and here he made sure to establish and maintain eye contact—had been hours ago.
“Okay, you can go,” the officer finally said, letting his pen drop to the desk. When he leaned back in his chair, he folded his hands behind his head. Kidney-shaped sweat stains colored his underarms a dark tan. His nametag read RAVI.
As he stood to leave, Mr. Adani wondered why the station was not air-conditioned. He longed for his cubicle, which was situated perfectly under the rotating air conditioning unit. Every six seconds, he felt a draft ruffle his hair and kiss his neck. It was enough to him to keep cool but not give him a summer cold. With a pang that was akin to homesickness, he thought of his familiar keyboard and headset.
“We’ll call you.”
Mr. Adani turned. The door near the desk opened, and another officer entered the station’s main room, a ring of keys swinging in his hand. The keys and his nightstick swung in opposing arcs, two diametric metronomes reminding Mr. Adani of how long he had been at the station and away from work. His eyes turned back to the officer, who still reclined in his chair. “Call me about what?”
“About the autopsy results.”
“Of the bird?”
“Of the peacock,” Ravi corrected, his arms lowering. He leaned forward in his desk, picking up his pen. “Killing a peacock is punishable by six years, Mr. Adani.”
“I know that!” he said, even though he did not. None of this gravity or reverence to the damn bird had been present when they had kept him waiting for nearly three hours. Mr. Adani began scratching his head and then immediately stopped. Petting his hair down with two soft strokes, as if to appease it, he spoke again, quieter this time. “Of course I know that. I called you, didn’t I? I came here, didn’t I? But why do I need to know the autopsy results? I didn’t own the bi—the peacock.”
“We’ll call you to let you know if the peacock died of natural causes or . . .”
There was no accusation in the officer’s tone, but the words riled Mr. Adani nonetheless. “Fine,” he said. His teeth remained clamped together as he stomped down the stairs to his scooter.
The midday heat bore down on him, and he felt it sear through the thin veil of his hair to his scalp. Each time his scooter stopped at a traffic light, he avoided looking into the windows of the cars on either side of him. After his recent promotion, he had told Kiran that a car was on their shortlist of priorities. But first on that list had been moving out of their apartment and into Rushil Bungalows, where a uniformed guard sat—or slept—near the gate no matter what time of day, no matter what the weather, always ready to salute Mr. Adani when his scooter pulled in, even if the lights woke him up.
By the time he reached his office, Mr. Adani’s underarms resembled the young officer’s. He parked where he always did: far away from the elevator, in a visitor’s spot. It was a long walk at the end of the day, but if he was walking with his coworkers, they always reached their cars before they could see him with his scooter. As he walked to the elevator, he kept his arms locked to his sides. Only when he was alone in the elevator did he reach up to manage his disheveled scooter hair. The loud sweat stain greeted him. He gave it a tentative sniff and groaned.
As he pulled the twin accordion doors aside, Mr. Adani was satisfied that the only proof of his lack of a car was hidden under his arms, which remained glued to his sides until he reached the communal kitchen. Keeping a lookout, he undid the first three buttons of his work shirt. A small stack of napkins stood next to the refrigerator. Mr. Adani grabbed four and looked to his right and left again before quickly tucking two napkins under each armpit. His elbows dug into his abdomen as he anchored the napkins and tried to rebutton his shirt.
A few hours later, Nitin passed by Mr. Adani’s cubicle. Nitin angled his head toward the conference room. The gel in his hair shone under the office lights like a halo. “You coming?”
Mr. Adani looked up from his computer screen. Nitin had recommended him for the promotion. Reflexively, his arms tightened against his sides. “Yes, in a minute.”
“Okay. Hey, where were you this morning anyway?”
Mr. Adani shook his head and pushed his cheeks up in a smile. “It’s a long story. I’ll see you in there.”
“Okay.” Nitin looked around Mr. Adani’s empty cubicle walls. “You should decorate,” he said. “Put up some pictures of Kiran-bhabhi or something.” He pointed at the gold penholder the company had given everyone last month as gifts. “Or at least get a nice pen.”
He nodded his agreement to get rid of Nitin. When he could see Nitin’s glinting head bobbing through the maze of cubicles away from him, Mr. Adani slouched in his chair and dug into his shirt for the crumpled napkins. They had dissolved into shreds, but his shirt was blessedly dry. Pleased, he stood and left the cubicle, the napkins a soggy ball in his tight fist until he passed a waste bin.
• • •
IT WAS DARKby the time he drove past the guard and parked his scooter as far into the driveway as possible. Any neighbor out for a post-dinner stroll would think the driveway empty.
Mr. Adani looped around his house to the backyard. Rising on his toes, he swung his arm up and over to blindly unlatch the door. The yard was devoid of any dead bird. His eyes adjusted further to the dark, and he could make out the second-floor balcony of the Sheth home next door. The balustrade, he knew, was wrought iron and had the same looping cursive as the chains of their front porch swing. The swing’s chains, however, also had miniature elephants within the iron coils. Mr. Adani had shared his admiration when the Sheths had invited them over for tea. Mrs. Sheth had told them that their previous swing chains had been family heirlooms, carved not only with elephants but horses and peacocks as well.
A zoo on chains, Mr. Sheth had joked.
Mr. Adani had had a similar thought, but it went “chained zoo,” which sounded all wrong, so he kept quiet instead and let Kiran make sympathetic clucking noises for them both. He was grateful for his silence moments later when Mrs. Sheth finished her story: the chains had been stolen in the middle of the night, their swing dumped on their porch floor like a carrion-stripped carcass. The guard, of course, had been terminated, the Sheths reassured them; nothing like this had occurred under his replacement’s watch.
Now, as Mr. Adani inspected his grounds for anything amiss, he wished he’d been robbed of something rather than given a dead bird. Victimization was good for socializing.
The smell of jasmine was strong, as it was every night. He could clearly see the white tubes through the dark; they were almost glowing. The day after they had moved in, Kiran had planted a semicircle of raat ki rani bushes. He had told her one was enough, that a little went a long way. She had insisted. That day she’d smelled of jasmine even after her nightly bath. Its perfume was thick and as sticky as the milk that came from its stems. All night, his skull had pressed against the skin of his temples, wanting out, as if there was not enough room inside for him and the cloying scent. These days, he could tell when she’d been working in her garden by her tacky hands and his headache.
The house smelled of lentils and oil. All the lights were on, and he saw two covered plates on the dining table. Kiran left the kitchen, her hands folded around a dishrag. With her elbows bent, the insides of her arms looked full and soft.
“There you are,” she said. She placed the rag over the chair and sat. “Let’s eat.”
“You didn’t have to wait for me.”
She lifted the lid off his plate first, then her own. Her free hand patted his. Her palm was smooth and cool over his fingers. “It’s no fun eating alone.”
Keeping his left hand under hers, he used the other to eat. His thumb and index finger worked to dissect the roti. Around a mouthful of potato and bread, he asked about the peacock’s body.
She served him another roti. “They were very quick with it. Took the poor thing and left. Didn’t even stop for tea.”
“Could they tell what killed it?”
“They didn’t say.”
“Did the neighbors see?”
“I’m not sure. No one said anything to me about it.”
They chewed in silence. When he finished his rice, he stood as she kept eating. The previous residents had installed a washbasin in the alcove facing the dining table. He rinsed his hands before examining them. Turmeric from the meal had stained his cuticles. He wondered exactly when in his life the pink had leached out.
“I’ll go in early tomorrow to make up for today,” he said to his reflection.
Kiran made a sound with her lips to let him know he’d been heard. It expressed no opinion.
He tugged on the dishrag behind her, and she leaned forward. He dried his hands. The towel smelled in need of washing. He sniffed his fingers, which had absorbed the odor. Kiran’s dark hair shifted across her back as she angled over the plate to eat. Both her parents had enjoyed full heads of hair; her mother had dyed it until her deathbed, her father had let his turn grey.
His own parents’ hair had begun thinning while he was in university, as if they had made the conscious choice to do that, much like everything else, together. In Mr. Adani’s memories of his father, the hair loss seemed swift, like someone had yanked open a door. One day his father’s forehead was contained, the next it yawned open, stretching behind his head. With his mother, however, the thinning had been gradual, the stages apparent under his embarrassed eye. She had once needed two bobby pins and two large clips to restrain her hair. He remembered seeing the clips after she unsnapped them; the thin metal bars bent by her unyielding hair into an open-mouthed smile. Then she’d no longer needed the bobby pins. At some point, she had switched to only one clip because there was only one meager fistful of hair. And then, not even that: just a thin rubber band that slid down and off her hair as easily as water on thread.
Thinking about it now, he hadn’t stood a chance.
“Do you still want coconut oil tonight?” Kiran stood and took both their plates.
“Yes,” he said. “And did you get more olives from the store?”
“Two jars this time. I don’t know how you can eat so many. Don’t they make your stomach hurt?”
They did. Not to mention he hated the salty taste. “I’ll be in the TV room.”
When she joined him, he switched the channel to her favorite serial and lowered himself from the couch onto the floor. The hard tile felt cool through his pants. Kiran sat on the couch, her knees spread so that his back could rest against the sofa. She draped a towel across his shoulders and handed him a small bowl of pitted olives. They were wet from the jar and glinted under the television lights. He prodded them with his finger. They were all identical: one end stamped with a star that reminded him of the head of a screw, the other end gaped like a fish mouth. He nudged the hollow mouth of one olive with his pinky finger.
Above him, Kiran coated her fingers with warm coconut oil. She started at the crown of his head, the pads of her fingers rearranging his scalp over his skull. On the screen, some woman with heavy makeup was abusing her new daughter-in-law. As Kiran massaged the roots of his hair, he closed his eyes. When his temples began to ache, he asked his wife, “A little softer.”
She obliged, her thumbs easing pressure. “This woman is crazy,” she said. “Thank God your mother wasn’t like that.”
He made a humming sound to let her know she’d been heard. The ache persisted despite Kiran’s light touch. When he inhaled, he noticed the oil’s perfume was different.
“Did you work in the garden today?” he asked.
“No, I was going to, but I didn’t have time. Did I tell you? That peacock destroyed one whole jasmine bush! Thank God we have more. Why?”
“The smell,” he said.
“Oh,” Kiran said, pinching her fingertips all together under her nostrils as if she could not bear to waste the scent. “It’s the oil. I bought a new kind: coconut jasmine. Lovely, isn’t it?”
“I think I’ll go bathe. You finish your show.”
“What about your olives?”
He waved at them. “Tomorrow.”
“Okay.” She took the towel and wiped her hands.
He saw several strands of his hair transfer from her palms to the cloth. He felt a familiar stab of dread.
“Remember not to wash your hair.” She leaned over to pick up the bowl and bit an olive in half, her teeth flashing.
The oil was most effective if left on overnight. If it was effective at all. Kiran had been rubbing oil into his hair four times a week for years now, and the practice had not seemed to curtail anything. Neither had the olives, really, despite what the articles said. There was no way, however, he would ever be able to fall asleep with the scent of jasmine drenching his head and tightening his skull like a vice.
He washed his hair twice. With a black comb, he parted his hair as he had since he was a child: far to the left. The short hairs near his right temple were estranged from their brothers, the river of scalp between the two widening at a steady rate. On a whim, he slicked his wet hair to the right and created a new part. This river was leaner. He looked like a familiar stranger, an impostor with all the right pieces in the wrong order. Mr. Adani was careful to reconstruct his original side part before joining his wife in bed.
• • •
FOR THE NEXT THREE DAYS,Mr. Adani was able to sleep in until his alarm rang. The morning of the fourth day, however, he awoke to rain. Thinking the monsoons had broken early that year, he tried to focus on the sound. He then realized it was merely the air conditioning unit, which often sounded like the tattoo of rain on a roof. His mind was still negotiating what had disturbed him when he heard it again: the call of a peacock, all vowels and high, piercing need. For a terrible moment, as he looked at his wife sleeping, he thought he was imagining a ghost peacock. When the cry came again, he rolled over and pressed his pillow over his head.
The following morning, Mr. Adani found the second dead peacock in his backyard. While not surprised, he was, however, filled with a dread that overheated his body and scrambled the morning tea in his stomach until he felt acid in this throat. His head turned toward the Sheths’ quiet balcony. Mr. Sheth was an early riser; he had likely taken his tea on the balcony long before Mr. Adani had awoken. Mr. Adani wondered how long the bird had been there. Its beak faced the sky, its body twisted to the right in an unbecoming L that revealed its underside. Orange feathers splayed toward him, like an oversized cricket mitt with too many fingers.
Mr. Adani had never seen the belly of a peacock before, and it seemed shameful, vulgar even, to see it now. He turned away and went back inside. He sat down at the dining table.
Kiran found him. “You’re here,” she said.
“There’s another dead peacock.”
“What? It didn’t ruin another bush, did it?” Kiran went outside without waiting for an answer. She returned to him a moment later, her face gloomy. “It did!” she wailed.
“The autopsy results from the first one haven’t even come back yet, and now there’s another.” Mr. Adani moaned, letting his forehead fall into his palm with a clap. He stared at the puffy knuckles of his other hand. They were swollen with water, a sign that he had eaten black olives too late last night. “They’re going to think I’m a poacher!”
“Maybe I need to build a fence,” Kiran said.
“I’ll have to go back to the police station,” he said, staring at the wall. “God knows what they’ll say.”
“Maybe a wire cage.”
“I’ll be late to work again. I’ll have to tell my boss. What’s he going to think?”
A tinkling rendition of “Für Elise” filled the room. The previous owners had programmed the doorbell, and Mr. Adani had not figured out how to rewire it. Mr. Adani found Officer Ravi on his porch as the officer pressed the doorbell again. The song’s first eight bars started up again.
Officer Ravi’s diplomatic smile disappeared when he recognized Mr. Adani. His eyes narrowed, his thick eyebrows pulling together like suspicious magnets.
Mr. Adani swallowed. “I was just about to call you.”
“Were you,” the officer said, taking off his hat as he entered the foyer. The tight hat had pressed a moat into his hair. He greeted Kiran with his palms pressed together. She offered him tea, which he politely refused. He turned back to Mr. Adani. “Your neighbors reported a dead peacock in your lawn. Another one.”
“The Sheths?” Mr. Adani asked immediately. He felt betrayed by the Sheths and their story of the stolen swing chains.
Officer Ravi gave him a disapproving sniff. “I don’t think ‘who’ really matters, and I’m sure whoever it is would appreciate their anonymity to prevent any . . . backlash.”
The way he said it made it clear that Officer Ravi thought Mr. Adani’s neighbors were in danger of winding up dead in his backyard next to some peacocks.
“Yes, of course.” Mr. Adani ushered the younger man through his home and into the backyard. “There it is. We found it a few moments ago.”
“I see.” As Officer Ravi walked near the bird, the tips of his polished shoes winked under the morning sun. When he stood as close he could without touching the peacock’s body, he bent over as if to look for clues. The copper leather of his shoes matched the bird’s exposed orange feathers. Mr. Adani looked away. His eyes landed on the two plundered jasmine bushes. Robbed of all white, they were merely clusters of green leaves peeled back to reveal nothing, like empty oysters. To Mr. Adani, the perfumed air was tolerable for the first time since they had moved in.
“There don’t seem to be any feathers missing. Of course, I can’t tell with the way the bird has been positioned.”
Mr. Adani stood straighter in his shoes. He tried to imagine his spine extending up like when he did his sun salutations. “The peacock hasn’t been ‘positioned’ any way, this is how I found him. And I didn’t take any of his feathers.”
“That doesn’t mean you weren’t planning on it.”
“I didn’t take any from the last one either.”
“But that one you planned on reporting, obviously.”
Mr. Adani sputtered a few false starts before saying, “Don’t you think you’re being ridiculous? I own a home, I work in a bank. What would I do with peacock corpses?”
“You tell me, Mr. Adani. Maybe you and your wife need some good luck, some feathers around the house?”
Mr. Adani’s arms swung in wild circles, gesturing around the lawn. “If I wanted some goddamn feathers, I’d just pick up the ones they leave all over the place. They’re not that rare, you know! Peacocks are always roaming around here, I can’t sleep past six without them waking me up every damn morning!”
The vertical furrows between Officer Ravi’s eyes disappeared. “Ah, so the peacocks annoy you? You wish they were gone?”
“Oh, for God’s sake!”
“Or perhaps you want the meat.”
Mr. Adani wrinkled his nose. “We’re vegetarians.”
“Peacock meat is fabled to cure a lot of ailments: arthritis, headaches.” Here, his eyes flickered from Mr. Adani’s face to rest on his head. “Hair loss.”
The sound of rage was a large shell pressed tightly against Mr. Adani’s ears. He stood silent, his hands clammy and swollen.
Kiran came outside with a tray, her face cheerful until she saw her husband’s. Her voice was uncertain. “I made tea.”
Mr. Adani’s eyes remained on the officer. “Ravi was just leaving.” He used no formal suffix.
The officer put his hat on, covering his indented hair.
“What about the peacock?” Kiran asked.
“Someone will be by this afternoon.” He addressed Kiran as ‘sister’ and thanked her for the tea. The yard door clicked shut behind him as he left.
“What was that about?”
Mr. Adani stared at the bald shrubs and then their blossoming counterparts. Without looking at his wife and her tray of tea, he asked, “Have you ever heard of peacock meat stopping hair loss?”
• • •
THREE DAYS LATER,when a peacock sang its ugly song, Mr. Adani awoke immediately, sitting up in bed as if on cue. Taking care not to disturb Kiran, he slid out from under the thin bed sheet and left the room. The hum of the air conditioning unit swallowed the sound of the door closing. His house slippers slapped against the tile as he walked across his dining room. When he passed the mirror above the sink, he stopped to meet his reflection’s eyes. His hair was oily and mussed, and his white kurta pyjamas were yellowing near the collar and under the arms. No matter how many different detergents they used, the white never remained for very long. He looked down at his turmeric stained nails.
The peacock’s honk galvanized him, and he crept out in the yard. A third jasmine bush had fallen victim. The blossoms were trampled on the ground, the white petals browning. He watched the peacock as it snapped another bud off and let it drop from its disinterested beak down to the dirt. It made no move to eat the flowers. The bird continued its shearing with the tenacity of a crazed gardener, its blue neck bobbing rapidly.
Mr. Adani crept closer to the bird, careful to stay directly behind him. If he could startle the peacock, just scare it off his property, he could avoid ever having to see Officer Ravi. Maybe he could even get to work on time.
The morning was cool but humid, and Mr. Adani felt the thin cotton of his pyjamas cling to his thighs. Something in front of the peacock piqued its interest, and Mr. Adani watched, his foot frozen in the air mid-step as its feathers stirred. They fanned out, revealing tear-shaped eyes, but remained low, hovering above the grass like Mr. Adani’s foot. When Mr. Adani finished his step, the peacock shivered and its feathers rose. The sound of a deck of cards being shuffled broke the quiet morning. A hundred blue teardrops inclined up and away from Mr. Adani.
When Mr. Adani was a young boy, his parents took him to see a movie rumored to have taken ten years to film. The movie, like all other movies, had been in black and white. But one song sequence on the reel had been in color. It was a first for the audience, and cheers had erupted. Frontbenchers threw money at the screen. Young Adani watched the heroine’s jeweled skirts swirl and swirl, the colored gems glittering in prisms that pained his eyes. He stared, blinking a distant necessity even as his eyes watered, until, with an abruptness that made him feel abandoned, the film returned Adani to its black and grey world.
Now, exposed to the backside of this peacock, with its stiff white spines and its black suns, Mr. Adani felt as he had in that theatre, when the song ended and the movie blanched itself of all color.
He took a step forward. His fingers stretched toward the orange feathers but failed to make contact. He let his arms drop. He looked at the peacock’s back, a flat arc of giant dandelion stems. When the bird began to turn, Mr. Adani instinctively backed away. It moved with the slow precision of someone balancing an object on his head. Finally, Mr. Adani and the bird faced each other in a strange tableau. Mr. Adani had two eyes. The bird had a hundred echoing behind the two on either side of its small head. Mr. Adani felt judged.
He feigned a lunge forward with wild arms. “Shoo!” he demanded. “Shoo!”
The peacock lowered its fan and shimmied its feathers into a pleated train. Mr. Adani took that as a good sign. He tried to shepherd the bird toward the low wall behind the jasmine bushes. It easily sidestepped him, moving deeper into the yard before veering back to the next jasmine bush.
“Oi!” he said, when the peacock ignored him. Then, startled by his own voice in the dawn, his eyes shifted to the Sheths’ balcony. It was vacant, but Mr. Sheth would be up soon enough.
Mr. Adani made clicking noises with his tongue and snapped his fingers. When this proved unsuccessful, he climbed in between two jasmine bushes and rustled the bush the bird was destroying. The peacock looked up at him and cawed loudly, its small beak opening wide to reveal a ten paise-shaped hole behind its tongue. In that moment, Mr. Adani thought it was the ugliest animal he’d ever seen.
“Shhhh!” Mr. Adani said. He resumed the clicking and snapping, ushering the peacock out by waving his arms in the direction of the wall. “Go, get,” he said in a low, stern voice. “Ja ja.” More blossoms fell to the ground. In a rush of movement, Mr. Adani barreled through the bush toward the bird. The peacock inched back while its long blue neck bobbed forward. Then it moved on to another bush. Mr. Adani ran through the second bush to ward off the bird, his arms flailing. His house slipper caught a slick patch of earth, and he slid to the ground. When he stood again, his slipper was in the bush, but he made no move to retrieve it. Dirt streaked down his pyjama leg, and he saw a tear near the ankle.
“Go away, get out,” he said, panting. His hands rested on his thighs as he caught his breath. The oil from last night mingled with his sweat and dripped down the sides of his face and neck. His mouth was sour from sleep, and his bladder swelled painfully. The torn jasmine stems painted him with their sticky sap. “You’ll die if you stay here. Is that what you want? You want to die like the others?” He stood up and lunged toward the peacock, who backed away. It parted its beak but did not cry out.
“Good,” Mr. Adani said, nodding his approval. “Good. I don’t want you to die either.” He paused. “And definitely not here.”
He suddenly remembered the balcony, which he had forgotten to keep an eye on. Dread gave him a temporary chill until he saw that it was still empty. He imagined the door sliding open and Mr. Sheth walking in his own kurta pyjamas. His set would be white, no signs of yellowing—either on his clothes or nails. His set would not be transparent in sweaty patches and torn at the ankle. He would have both his house slippers on. His head of hair would be clean and dry instead of greasy with oil that did not even work. Mr. Sheth would never be found hopping around with a peacock, displaying all manners of indignity. Mr. Sheth would be on his balcony, surrounded by illegible iron cursive spelling out for him what Mr. Adani already knew: that Adani was a fraud. And a bird murderer. That he should not have even been able to buy this house. That he worked at a bank and getting an unmerited loan had been easy enough. That his hair had abandoned him without so much as a goodbye and no amount of black olives would ever tempt it back.
“Please,” Mr. Adani begged. “Please just leave.”
The peacock snubbed him, turning its attention back to the bushes, its feathers a heavy broom that swept the dirt.
He thought of Officer Ravi’s arrogant face on the other side of the door, his brows disappearing into his magnificent hairline, demanding to see the latest victim and brandishing his handcuffs. All to the tune of “Für Elise” and while Kiran made tea.
“Damn you!” he said to the peacock’s train. It was conceivable that his intention had been to swat the bird, to irritate it into leaving the yard and its ineluctable death. But when Mr. Adani lunged forward, his arm outstretched, his fingers curled and they sought purchase.
The peacock emitted a squawk of indignant pain. A pair of orange-tipped wings emerged from under the long tail, creating a loose Y. Its ornate train seemed to impede its flight as it beat its wings without achieving takeoff. Mr. Adani was reminded of Kiran on their wedding day; her skirt had weighed more than her, making it impossible for her to move without assistance. A breeze from its wings cooled his damp skin as it continued its efforts with a war cry.
Finally, in a hardly majestic achievement, the peacock flew the paltry meter up to the wall. Once balanced, it turned to look at Mr. Adani and what he had stolen: A single long feather remained in his fist. An accusing turquoise iris and indigo pupil stared up at him. Blood colored the tip of the quill. Mr. Adani lifted his head to look at the bird. He thought of apologizing. He remained silent. Not merely because the peacock would neither understand nor care, but for the simple fact that he was not sorry.
The peacock flew from the wall onto Mr. Sheth’s tree and then disappeared from Mr. Adani’s sight. He examined the feather. With his finger and thumb, he pinched the blood off the quill and rubbed until it disappeared into his sweat. He smoothed the tangled green lashes surrounding the eye with the same fingers. He looked up when he heard Mr. Sheth’s balcony door open.
“Hello, Adani,” Mr. Sheth said, clearly surprised to see him. He set down his teacup and paper and smoothed his wrinkled pyjamas. “Enjoying the morning?”
It would be easy to lie and agree. It would be polite to lie and agree. He could easily hide his torn pant leg and naked foot. Mr. Sheth would politely ignore his torn pant leg and naked foot. But the idea of this game made him weary, so instead he took a moment to ponder the question. “No,” he finally decided. “Nearly broke my damn leg trying to get that peacock off my property.” He shook his shoeless foot, displaying the streak of dirt on his pant leg.
“Stubborn things, aren’t they?” Mr. Sheth laughed. “Still, looks like he left you a souvenir.” He nodded toward the feather and smiled. “Say, you and Kiran should come over for dinner this week.”
Mr. Adani smiled up at his neighbor. “Why don’t you and Swathi come to our place? We haven’t had company over yet, and I know Kiran would love it.”
Once they agreed on Thursday, Mr. Adani walked toward his house, one foot tickled by the grass.
When Mr. Adani arrived late to work that morning, he parked his scooter in the first available spot he found. He regretted this move as he saw his supervisor walking toward him. For a moment, he considered walking to a random car, keys in hand, and pretending to be on the phone until he was alone in the garage. Instead, he made eye contact and nodded a greeting.
“This yours?” His supervisor gestured with his chin.
Mr. Adani nodded.
“Good machine. How long have you had it?”
Mr. Adani cleared his throat. “Twelve years.”
His supervisor nodded. “I still have mine, too.” He looked at the scooter once more. “Shall we?”
They walked toward the elevators together. For the first time, Mr. Adani noticed his supervisor’s widow’s peak, so deep it threatened to overtake the scant island of hair atop his head.
Once upstairs, it was a busy morning. When Mr. Adani’s phone rang, he answered it immediately, truncating the first ring.
Officer Ravi greeted him. Then: “Autopsy results came in. Natural causes.”
“I see,” Mr. Adani said.
Officer Ravi grunted and cut the line.
Mr. Adani took off his headset and looked around his cubicle. He palmed his empty gold penholder. It had one mouth, much like those in the black olives he’d thrown away earlier that morning. He pulled the feather out of his briefcase and carefully balanced it in the holder, his hand ready to steady it in case of failure. He spoke to the unblinking eye: “I see.”
PARINI SHROFF received her JD from Loyola Law School and her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She currently lives and works in the Bay Area, California.