Petrichor hung heavy in the air, and the early morning frost sparkled in the blinding sun. The patterns on the leaves would have been mesmerizing, if it weren’t for the tracks in the still soft ground. It was early in the year for the rare white peacock, but the white feather I found earlier- nearly as transparent as a spider’s web- indicated one was close by.
According to legend, a white peacock granted wisdom, insight. It was a quest for those who were lost. The broken compass grew heavy and hot in my pocket. There was no one more in need of wisdom than I. The peacock just might have been my last hope.
I grabbed my bow and arrow, trying to remember all my grandfather taught me about tracking. I wish I paid more attention when I was younger. I wish I had him to ask now. I wish I hadn’t smashed that damn compass, his final gift to me, against the wall. Shaking my head clear of such thoughts, before my mind descended back into the darkening spiral, I set off for the woods.
I followed the tracks in the mud, and the broken twigs. Leaves littered the path, and I was conscious of the crunch echoing with each step. Conscious of each shaky breath swirling around me. If the bird did not hear me, surely it would see my clouds of despair.
It took little to no time for me to lose the trail, to become just as lost once more. I had yet to see the peacock. For all I knew, the feather itself was nothing more than some desperate delusion. My fingers scratched at the pocket that still held the compass before I reminded myself it was useless. I didn’t know why I even bothered to still carry it with me.
Then on the wind, I heard it. A warble. A call. My feet shot off in that direction before I could consider my next move. It felt like a sign to not give up yet. I wonder if, maybe, such creatures only made themselves known when we needed them most.
There in a clearing I caught sight of the majesty. Pure white, like snow, with a crown of frost and eyes a striking blue. The grand plumage in the back was like lace. I froze in awe, feeling the ridiculous need to bow. Its head whipped around toward me and, quickly, I ducked behind a tree.
I fumbled for the arrow, the last one my grandfather and I carved together. Trying to put it out of my mind, trying not to get lost in its beauty, I aimed. Pulling back the string. Holding my breath.
My grandfather always said wisdom came from the heart, and you must aim for what you seek. My finger hesitated and I should have known, right then and there. I should have remembered I already had a heart of my own to listen to.
Another moment, and it would be gone. At the time, I was unwilling to lose my remedy, especially after coming so close. I fired.
My aim proved true, but I did not feel like rejoicing. The beginnings of regret bubbled in my stomach. In a split moment, the arrow whistling through the air, I wished I could take it back. I reached out, as though I had that power. As though regret could fix a broken compass, could unshoot a bow. Could bring back my grandfather.
“Wait,” I whispered to the tree, my arrow, the beautiful bird.
It was too late.
The arrow pierced its heart and it let out a cry that rattled my bones, the trees above, the roots under the very ground I stood.
“What have I done?” I muttered as I rushed over, cradling its body against my chest, stroking its head. “I’m so sorry.”
A life for a life, its eyes seemed to accuse. I squirmed at the judgement. You chose destruction of rare beauty to ease your own pain? My throat ran dry. Tears sprung to my eyes.
I cannot give you what you want, but I have given you what you sought.
Just like that, the life drained from its eyes. It lay limp in my arms. The feather, so white and iridescent in the sun, turned to green and purple and blue, as though it were from just any old peacock.
I did not think it was possible for my heart to break any more than it already had. Devastated, I buried the peacock, but, yet, could not part from the feather still clenched in my fingers.
It took me years to understand.
I carry that feather with me always, along with my broken compass, to remind myself that there are no easy answers, and they certainly don’t come at the end of an arrow.
Wisdom is something that comes from within.