My Father and the Quail
Our name in Gaelic is beautiful singer. At least
that’s what my father once told me upon
from a business trip in L.A., that he had sat
on a park bench, beside an Englishman, whose first name
was our last, & who, after introductions,
and whispered our meanings
into my father’s ear. For years I believed this, but now?
When I think of my father, I see him kneeling
in white autumn sunlight, on one knee, with a gun
pressed to the head of a snake. It seems preposterous
but it’s true, a day I had lost
until college, an art survey in some darkened auditorium,
when the works of Brueghel clicked past
on the luminous screen. It’s how the
heavy lines around the mouth as he tightens
each muscle in his face, pencil marks of anguish
beneath the wincing eyes. Brueghel, because
my father’s actions call forth the chaos
of memory, motif, conjures all the children we knew
whose deaths meant some greater cruelty: the
tonsillectomy, the boy riding his bike
too fast to the quarry’s edge, the girl swimming
with her mouth full of food, and his other
born too early to bear our name—will be drawn by the veins
of the last clinging leaf above his head.
The snake, swollen with quail, isn’t
for weeks, slow digesting as the air cools with winter.
So dramatic: a father, a gun, a bullet about to pass
through a snake’s flat, black head
and into the forest floor. The name
of the etching will be My Father and the Quail,
and for years scholars will debate the meaning,
ask, Why shoot a snake when a shovel would do?
and, Where are the quail? But I’ve told you,
the baby quail, all four, swell lumps
down the snake’s dark length. Freshly hatched
that morning, my father, early walking through woods
behind our house, came upon them
testing their legs among wet eggshells, autumn leafs,
four ocean-blue puffballs that must have seemed
like a vision at his feet. He woke me
but when we got there: the snake, four lumps.
How long had it watched the nest, waiting? Or the gun
no one knew about, patient in the back of the closet
our whole lives, to utter its single word
and then die again? The mother quail
is in the upper left corner, silent, back turned
to the scene, her black eye so still it seems of stone.
It’s like the story of our name, of beautiful singer—
each time I tell it, it seems less true.
And after years of not knowing, what would it matter
if our name meant something further, meant
a voice raised up beyond speech, a voice
that knows precisely how to send air
from that dark chamber? I don’t live
any differently, but hear it and dream
all the things I carry with me, things I know nothing about—
a song, a gun, some quail, the echo lifting up
into the bare white arms of autumn trees.
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