Clara, Antwerp, 1611
As I enter the kitchen through the waning morning dark, I enter a deep silence. When my eyes adjust, I am startled by the variety of beings and feathers heaped on the surface of the narrow table. Here, the intact head of a waterfowl has been dropped like an anchor while its limp neck still droops like a spent rope. Over there, the heavy bulk of a pheasant’s body, slung over other bodies has been piled into a basket.
How careless death makes us.
That cortège of small ortolan buntings, their subtle colours from madder-rose to a pale shade of lemon, has been tightly strung along a whittled willow branch that pierces each throat. And that thrush, thrown like used glove onto a bare spot. Dead center, two plucked birds, have been pressed by broad palm on my favourite platter. Its deep cinnabar colour, toxic, yes, but so alive.
Enough songbirds and fowl for making pâté and roasted ortolans. Cook will know what to do, all I know, it involves Armagnac and a large white dinner napkin…
Night still sticks like pitch to the background of the scene. A death-like finality presses in from the sides. Only the rim of the wicker basket gleams in a familiar way, like the perfect perch for a bird’s claw. Perhaps that of a raptor. A sparrow hawk would work, since his prey is spread out in front of us like a menu, a statement, or a question.
That hawk, the hawk of my soul, I will put him on that perch, slightly off center, his head averted from the carnage, to let his all-knowing eye focus just beyond what he did.
How to prepare and consume “Ortolan Bunting”
- procure songbirds, keep in a dark cage,
fatten with millet and grapes
- drown and marinate in a vat of Armagnac
- remove feet (optional) and feathers
- roast 8 minutes (fat must still be sizzling when served)
- cover your head with a large white dinner napkin to hide
what you are about to do from God’s eyes
- eat, all of it at once,
(take note of the head, the fine bones, the innards, the hint of hazelnut)
“Stepping on the Throat of their Song” first appeared in The Ekphrastic Review, May 2021, as the ‘Winner’ in the Ekphrastic Bird Watching Contest.
IMAGE: Clara Peeters “Still Life with Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells” (1611), Museo Nacional Del Prado, Spain.
Barbara Ponomareff lives in southern Ontario, Canada. By profession a child psychotherapist, she has been delighted to pursue her life-long interest in literature, art and psychology since her retirement.
The first of her two published novellas dealt with a possible life of the painter J.S. Chardin. Her short stories, memoirs and poetry have appeared in Descant, (EX)cite, Precipice and various other literary magazines and anthologies. She is a hitherto unpublished translator of modern German poetry.