Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote a lot of letters.
In the last letter Mary Flannery O’Connor mailed, she wrote these words to Janet Mc Kane on the 27 July 1964: “The books & the burro came today and I do appreciate them. I’m not up to the books yet but I will be let us hope later on. I’m up to the burro. Equinox inside and out” (HOB 595).
The rest of the letter to Janet Mc Kane suggests O’Connor’s doctor was prone to heart attacks. He’d already had three. Maybe in a time before, the doctor had travelled dirt roads out Georgia Highway 441 to Andalusia for a house call, but his patients had to learn to visit him on account of his heart. As the letter goes on, Mary Flannery O’Connor then insinuates traveling to the doctor has her worn out, which just means tired in Georgia.
A week later on August 3rd, Mary Flannery O’Connor passed away.
One last letter remained on the table beside her bed “in an almost illegible scrawl” (HOB 596). Mary Flannery intended the letter for Maryat Lee. That hand-written letter meant Flannery’s words were done, but her words were far from silenced. Her death left a literary legacy that becomes more pronounced with every passing year. The legacy resounds with, an artificial leg and a statue, rapture and redemption, blinding light and the shining sun, sunglasses and sight, suits, hats, and an over-sized sweat shirt, rivers and fires, priests and pariahs, Baptists, Methodists and occasional Catholics, buses, cars, trucks, and trains, freaks and more monuments, grace and false prophets, God and Jesus, a New Jesus, a mummy and a gorilla suit, a bull and the descending dove, The Holy Spirit in a water stain, cigarettes and fever from raw milk, sons and daughters, a grandmother and a potential son, grandmothers, New York and Georgia, East Tennessee and Florida, sometimes Alabama, black and white, rich and poor, tractors and transients, the simple and the smart, possibly demonic children, innocent ones, disfigured ones, grandfathers and grandchildren, and maps of the universe revealed in patterns of peacock plumage.
Feathers might reveal mysteries of the universe if I could read them, but I cannot read them right. I’ve tried, yet many mysteries remain to me. When I saw Andalusia for the first time in 2013, peacock feathers adorned book covers and filled vases at Andalusia. Long before I knew where Middle Georgia was, I gathered that a peacock was synonymous with Flannery O’Connor, but I wasn’t quite sure why or how. Just as Milledgeville meant crazy in a certain time, a peacock feather means the famous writer known as Flannery O’Connor. It’s symbolic. It’s a simile; I reckon. Old curtain patterns at Andalusia suggest their feathers. In the world of Flannery O’Connor, they’re synonymous with her. In 2013, sometimes, fresh sheds from Manley Pointer’s tail decorated the green grass at Andalusia under the tall cedars behind the house, but he is dead now. He froze to death one winter.
Feathers were available in Andalusia’s gift shop for a small price. Often, feathers, along with pennies and pictures of saints, are offerings or alms left on Flannery’s grave in homage, in remembrance, of her at Memory Hill Cemetery in downtown Milledgeville. But, rarely, if ever, does anyone leave a jackass or mule or a burro, which is another mystery because burros should as synonymous with Flannery O’Connor as peafowl.
Mary Flannery O’Connor spoke of Equinox as if he was far more than an animal because he probably was.
Equinox is expecting the Humpty Dumpty Kindergarten Tuesday morning at nine-thirty. Every year we have the nursery school and first grade and the various kindergartens and one year we had the “exceptional” children, which around here means the defective ones. Some of them asked very intelligent questions. The children go all over the yard and see ponies and the peacocks and the swan and the geese and the ducks and then they come by my window and I stick my head out and the teacher says, “And this is Miss Flannery. Miss Flannery is an author.” So they go home having seen a peacock and a donkey and a duck and a goose and an author…” (HOB 545) 5 November 1963 to Janet Mc Kane
In 1964, I do not know what Janet Mc Kane sent to O’Connor, but she didn’t send Equinox through post; I doubt. I do not know what book along with what token or representation of a mule came through Milledgeville’s post office to Andalusia, but Equinox was on Flannery’s mind in the last week of her life. Flannery did thank Janet Mc Kane for whatever it was, and Equinox inside and out suggests to me that Flannery either thought the token resembled Equinox inside and out or Flannery, herself, had become Equinox inside and out, for she was up to the burro.
Burros live a long time even if Flannery O’Connor wrote that it’d be the peafowl that’d have the last word. She writes in “The King of the Birds,” I intend to stand firm and let the peacocks multiply, for I am sure that, in the end, the last word will be theirs (MM 21); however, some of Flannery’s original peafowl went to Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, Georgia. Others went to other places, but the burros remained. Equinox and Flossie roamed Andalusia’s woods together until Equinox died in 1998. Flossie lived alone until 2010, and, according to Louise Florencourt, often climbed the hill behind the horse barn to the place where Equinox was buried. I have been told that Flossie worshipped Equinox. She would follow him wherever he’d go.
Although the replacements of Flannery’s peafowl, Manley and Hulga/Joy and Mary Grace, once had the last words, often screaming a mysterious language at Andalusia, other voices are heard at Andalusia too. Peafowl are not the only animals speaking the last words. The other voices are more faint, but, in a way, the voices are louder in their animal sounds, and their animal words are clearer. Equinox was more than a mule or a jackass just as Ernest, Marquita and then Flossie were more than animals. Their bloodline lived at Andalusia until 2010, and, though they’re gone, like all things O’Connor, a mystery remains. It’s been reported many times by visitors of Andalusia that they hear the baying of burros, but there are no burros.
Mary Flannery’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, named Equinox because he was sired by Ernest, carried by Marquita and born near, or on, the Autumnal Equinox during the month of September in 1963. That year the Equinox occurred on Sunday, September 23. Five days later, Mary Flannery wrote to Betty Hester on the 28th:
Ernest [the burro] is a father. We’ve been waiting on this arrival since before I went to Smith and the other day I looked out from the chicken pen out into the oat field where Marquita had been waiting out this event and there she was, deep in conversation with a long-legged black creature, about an eighth of her size, who looked as if he were made up for a minstrel–all black with a white mouth. I took off on my own four legs and summoned everybody. Regina named him Equinox, to which I add O’Connor. (HOB 541)
Equinox was less than a year old when Flannery passed away. Equinox was still growing when Flannery was alive, and I imagine watching Equinox grow was, both, joy and comfort to Flannery during the last year of her life when she was in so much pain. Equinox inside and out. Even from her side bedroom window, Mary Flannery could see Equinox graze in the green pasture that’s at its widest at the horse barn near the house until it tapers to a point behind the tool shed. Even at that far distance, Mary Flannery could see Equinox from her bedroom if only a blur on the field of green, for in Flannery’s time, there were fewer trees.
For Mother’s Day in 1962, Flannery gave her mother Ernest who was Equinox’s sire. I have no idea how Flannery arranged the delivery of a donkey to Andalusia, but it’d be fascinating to know the details of the transaction. On 21 May 1962, Flannery wrote to Maryat Lee: “For Mother’s Day I gave Regina a jackass named Ernest. It was what she wanted. We hope to raise little spotted mules (HOB 475).
In December of 1963, after Christmas on December 31st, Flannery wrote to Janet Mc Kane:
Ernest—that is Equinox’s pa—did the honors for the burros this Christmas and went both to the Christian manger and the Methodist pageant. He did very well in the Christian manger—in which there were also a cow a pig a Shetland pony & some sheep and he did all right at the Methodist dress rehearsal but when the big moment came and the church full of Methodists, he wouldn’t put his foot inside the door. Doesn’t care for “fellowship” I suppose. Balaam’s ass. (HOB 555)
It’s clear to me that Flannery O’Connor loved her mules. They’re stubborn, you know? They do not die easily and some say they’ll live as long as fifty years, but they could live forever. Legend has it that near Christmas, animals can talk in a language that humans can understand. At Christmas, animals and humans can understand one another. Look into the legend and listen on Christmas Eve, for it’s an old legend and maybe an old fact. Near Christmas especially, listen for the burros at Andalusia that are not there. Balaam could not see, or refused to see, the angel of God in his path, so God spoke through Balaam’s donkey.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.
—. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1969.