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“Ortolan” by Dane Huckelbridge

Ortolan

by Dane Huckelbridge

[This story first appeared in F(r)iction #5]

At first mention of the word, many will recall: a Turin shroud of white linen; alembic fumes of brandied fat; flesh that gives like honeysuckle; ribs crackling between silver fillings; an ejaculation of ambrosia from a minute and bursting heart. Not Albert. What springs most vividly to his mind is the darkness. Or perhaps half-light is more accurate. A flustered half-light, gloomy and rich with decay, punctured at trunk-wide intervals by listing rungs of sunfall. And, of course, by the ortolans. Whits and darts and nothing more, there and gone, lacing the oaks on their unfathomable tracks. He remembers as well the sprinting in short pants, the wild swinging of his gossamer net, and the gentle urging of his father, wading close by through lakes of fern. Higher, Albert, higher, his father would say. He rarely succeeded in this venture—the majority were always caught by Papa, placed wings-still-beating into the burlap sac, which trembled as if a single living thing. When enough birds were plucked from the mossy haze, they would walk back to town together along the woodcutter’s trail, hurrying to catch the last train home, careful not to upset their precious purse of quivering life. His father sometimes bought him old-fashioned sweets of licorice at the Tabac next to the train station, and he would suck on them as the steam whistled and the half-shaded window ushered fields of yellow rapeseed flowers steadily and brilliantly by.

The actual preparation Albert would not learn until significantly older. All of the other dishes his father taught him at an early age, as much a part of his childhood education as spelling or numbers. Ortolan, however, was different, always something of a secret—one that demanded maturity of spirit and solemn discretion. He knew what the bamboo cages in the basement contained, strangely mute by the end and somehow ominous; a morbid aviary hanging in clusters from the ceiling. But the cruel art of it, the suffering that led to the miracle, would not be passed on until Albert was official sous-chef at his father’s restaurant, preparing to take over the business that had sustained his family since they had first moved north from Gascony, more generations ago than anyone could or cared to remember. Albert was not enthusiastic about it, the birthright or the dish, but he accepted both with the begrudging reluctance and unspoken resentment of those locked into lives by blood and tradition. Il y aura des conséquences, his father would warn him, apron spattered with duck grease, fingers raw from peeling turnips, if you do not do things properly. And there are always repercussions if the old ways are ignored—especially with something as sacred as the preparation of Ortolan.

First was the blinding. One by one, each panicked ortolan was clutched firmly in the palm, as to leave only the head in protrusion. They twitched and they squealed, Albert remembers, aware in some instinctive manner of the fastidious doom that awaited them. Then went their eyes, two pokes with a sharpened alder twig held expertly betwixt his father’s fingers. In shrill agony they were put into the bamboo cages and left in the darkened cellar. Back up the stairs after that, leaving the birds in total blackness, crawling with terror, weeping tears of blood.

The fattening followed, weeks of it. Suet made from goose fat, figs, and millet, jammed down their throats until they could take no more. This, after several supervised attempts, Albert was allowed to conduct on his own.  Thumping down the hollow stairs each night, breeching the musk and insect-like chirping—Albert did not care to be in the cellar under any condition, let alone surrounded by an intricate mobile of desperate bamboo. But it was his job, and he did so without complaint, though without noticeable enthusiasm either. It did not take long for the feral songbirds, once so small and fragile, to molt into something grotesque. Their warbling and chatter would eventually fade as their state became less animal and more vegetal—blind, inert, concerned only with consumption. By the end, they made no sound at all.

Then they were ready. When their songs were forgotten, the birds were ripened for the eating. NOUS SERVONS DES ORTOLANS, his father scrawled in his naïve peasant hand across the slate in the window, and customers came all the way from Paris and Reims for a taste of what heaven might be like.

When an order was placed, an ortolan would be taken from its cage, fat and round in the hand, known to be living only by its heat and shuddering heart. They squirmed a bit when plucked of their feathers, but nothing to compare with the fierce revolt of their original capture. Naked and bare, dropped in the snifter to drown, they put up only the weakest of fights.  Their beaks opened and closed feebly in the aged Armagnac, which filled their little lungs, burned their missing eyes, soaked into their raw, bleeding flesh. And when they met their fate in the herbs and browned butter, they went only with a drawn sizzle, the last gasp of a tiny bird’s soul on its way back to the forest.

A napkin was ceremoniously draped over the diner’s head, an old superstition about hiding one’s face from God in shame for the act about to be committed. Pointless, Albert thought. But it was observed nonetheless. Once draped and blinded by the cloth, the customer lifted the ortolan by the beak, and with a mouth dripping brandy and grease, devoured it whole. Albert never saw their faces; still, no guessing was required as to what occurred beneath the starched white veil. The tremor in the hand, the stilled breath, the slightest of moans. Ecstasy, pure and simple.

Even had the law not ended all of it, his father’s death would have sufficed. Albert detested the tradition of the Ortolan, and when the man who had endeavored to teach him everything he knew about food expired in his bed, Albert banished the dish from his kitchen. The passing of the ordinance establishing Ortolan as cruel and illicit only confirmed his beliefs. The restaurant that bore his family’s name above the door became entirely his, and the chipped slate perched inside the leaded front windows would never advertise the birds again. In a final act of filial rebellion, Albert spelled out in his own more refined and educated hand: NOUS NE SERVONS PLUS D’ORTOLANS. And there it stayed for years and years.

But that is all history. This evening, fragrant and mild in late April, Albert is sitting in the restaurant he now owns, middle-aged and freshly divorced, sipping a coffee and taking regular puffs at a Lucky Strike—much preferred to the Gauloises that his father sucked on stubbornly until his final days, even when hooked up to the oxygen tank. He taps off a brittle cap of ash into an empty can of rillettes (his father made it by hand, but Albert much prefers the convenience of the tin) and says goodnight to the last straggling customers as they leave through the door. The slate in the window catches Albert’s eye, and he chuckles upon noticing the old adage at the top.  NOUS NE SERVONS PLUS D’ORTOLANS.  Which is interesting only in that another set of eyes, one of several passing innocuously by in the night, has noticed it as well. Only these eyes grow wide and desperate with remembrance before moving on.

The bell above the door chimes well before customers usually begin to arrive. An old man enters. Albert pays him no mind and continues with the day’s news and the first of the day’s many Lucky Strikes, politeness and high blood pressure both be damned.

Combien coûte un Ortolan?” the old man asks in horrific French.

Albert’s eyes rise from his paper, curious despite himself. The old man is an American, the very worst type of customer, but he carries himself with a stark, sartorial crispness one sometimes finds in elderly gentlemen comfortable with wealth they were not born into. “I don’t prepare them anymore,” Albert finally answers, granting the old man the rare privilege of hearing him speak the English he acquired during the two years of university he completed in Reims—before his father decided to stop paying the tuition. “It is illegal.”

The old man stiffens up and smoothes his lapels. “Illegal? Why?” This time in English.

“It is a cruel tradition. Do you know what Ortolan is?”

“Yes.” The old man hesitates. “I had one many years ago.”

“Where?”

“Here.”

Albert’s eyebrows arch like the backs of two surprised cats. “Here? In this town?”

The old man nods. “In this restaurant. It was the only one open when the Germans left. The rest had been bombed out or abandoned, but this one stayed open. I’ll never forget. The chef refused to close. He served Ortolan with Armagnac to my entire platoon, free of charge. It was the best meal of my life.”

“That chef was my father.”

“I remember him well.”

Whatever lingers of Albert’s indifference has fled like the Germans. He is fixated, uncharacteristically amazed. He himself wasn’t born until ten years after the invasion, and knows of it only from the rusted shell casings he trapped snails in as a child, and the odd ramblings of stooped pensioners loosened by Pernod. And, from a black and white photograph, creased down the middle, forever framed on the wall of the kitchen in back, of his father, hardly more than a boy himself, posing at a table of ragged, bloodied soldiers, the whole lot of them grinning with smiles as wide as their powder-burned faces. Albert takes the old man to the kitchen and lets him illustrate with a single bony finger what fifty years will do to a man. The skin sags and the hair creeps back beneath the cap, but the eyes, they do not change.

Albert is moved, but still refuses. He would happily cook a first-rate meal for the old man, possibly knock half off the bill. Ortolan, however, is simply out of the question. Cannot be done. At any price? the old man asks. At any price, Albert repeats. The old man removes from a billfold of alligator leather a stack of francs larger than the total cash tally of even the restaurant’s most successful weeks. Albert swallows hard, eyes bulging. Perhaps at that price, yes, and he tells the old man, who is in Europe on an extended holiday, to return in a month for the first Ortolan his family’s kitchen will have had prepared in years.

The cages still hang in the porous darkness of the cellar, and the woods where songbirds hide are still seven miles outside of town. The nets, though, are more difficult to locate. Albert finds them at last, stashed behind a pile of broken mops in a shed by what once had been an herb garden. They are moth-eaten, riddled with holes, but he mends them with fishing line. And the very next Sunday, he takes the train back to the shade and fern for the first time since his father passed away.

The antique engine that once rattled so cantankerously down the tracks has been replaced by a sleek, noiseless affair, smooth as obsidian and quiet as a kitten sleeping. Only a dim purr throbbing beneath him as he passes the very same fields of rapeseed flowering in brilliant yellow. The new train is faster; the trip shorter. He arrives at the stop by the green patch of woods in less time than he could have imagined, the warm, yawning journey of his youth reduced to an air-conditioned séance of limited importance. He steps off into the crisp sun and squints his way along the old woodcutter’s path that will take him butterfly-net-bobbing to the forest. Each step marshals him deeper into the remembered mossy twilight, until he at last reaches the spot. He lights a Lucky Strike and feels a tingle of worry that there may be no ortolans left. This anxiety lasts several minutes, at last relieved by a pygmy-arrow-of-a-bird streaking over his head, trailed by a piercingly familiar song. Albert smiles slowly, stamps his butt into the loam and raises his net, far higher than he ever could as a child. There is a whisper and a dampened thump, followed by wild, miniature flapping. Albert pries the songbird from the mesh. He pokes its tiny body into an empty cigarette pack and tucks that into his pocket for the short, purring, train ride back.

And so, like other endeavors quotidian in youth yet neglected in adulthood, Albert must reconstruct from memory the art of the Ortolan. He cleans the bamboo cages of dirt and petrified bird droppings. He pestles a thick, resinous suet of goose fat and figs. He uses a toothpick rather than an alder twig to forever dim the bird’s eyes. Otherwise, the process is executed with few amendments or mistakes. The solitary captive grows plump and sluggish; its song sheds notes by the day. After four long weeks and countless feedings, its call turns to a dirge of silence. The old man arrives at the door wearing a military uniform a half century old, and the ortolan is at last liberated from its cage, only to be plucked, drowned, and cast into the popping butter. A long ago soldier drapes his head in remembrances and white linen, a creature is devoured whole, and a great weeping is heard coming from the dining room, a sound of sorrow, joy, and something ineffable, verging on rapture.

The old man departs visibly shaken, uttering effusive thanks in English and French. Albert humors him all the way to the door, which he locks behind him, theatrically closing shop. With the money he has made from this single dish, he can leave it as such for the remainder of the week. A nice little vacation.  He can’t wait to go home and get some rest. Take a hot bath. Have a glass of scotch in bed. Lights click off; the lone red ember of a cigarette pricks the darkness. Albert’s mouth twists into a grin.

Something awakens Albert in the night. Or perhaps disturbs is a better word, as he is not certain the next morning if he was ever fully awake. It was like a dream, but how strange to dream of lying beneath blankets, groggily opening one’s eyes, and catching from the periphery of one’s vision a miniscule form, fluttering and moth-like, skirting the edges of his consciousness. So subtle, so unobtrusive is the beating of wings in the shadowed corners of the ceiling that it never wakens the sleeper completely, only stirs, confuses, possibly even frightens. But then, the worst part—that same miniscule form landing at last upon him, staring at him with missing eyes…

Albert sits up in his bed in the dawning light, feeling anything but rested, and unusually agitated by what he thinks he saw. His heart won’t stop racing, and the sheets beneath him are soaked in stale sweat. His powers of logic prevail, however; he decides to dismiss it as a dream and pay it no mind. He showers, gets dressed, and takes advantage of his respite from the restaurant by drinking demi-blondes in Reims, at one of the same cafés he frequented years before as a student, before obligation and tradition soured his fate like fresh cream in a hot sun. But as he sips the beer, his mind returns to the vision of last night, and no amount of alcohol can usher it safely away. When a flock of pigeons alights from a nearby tree, Albert jumps from his chair, startled by their wings—his beer glass falls to the cobblestones and smashes at his feet. He apologizes to the waiter and orders a whiskey instead, but even that isn’t strong enough to keep his hands from shaking.

Albert takes a reluctant ride to the nursing home where his mother lives. An attendant escorts him to her room, where she is sitting in a bathrobe watching a religious program on France Trois. She needs a moment to recognize her son, poor as her eyes and memory have become. They embrace and Albert sits beside her. Maman smiles and takes his hand.

“Fanny came to see me last week with the children. She brought me chocolates.”

“That was nice of her.” Albert swallows uncomfortably.

“Are you two still speaking?”

“No,” Albert replies, “I have not spoken with her in some time.”

Maman nods, folding her varicosed hands in her lap. “Well, she came. She wanted to know how you were.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said I did not know.”

“I am fine.”

“You look tired. Have you been drinking? How’s your blood pressure? Are you taking your pills?”

“I am fine,” he says again.

“And the restaurant?”

“Fine, as well.”

The two of them sit silently together for a minute in the cramped space, the smell of senescence disguised just barely by disinfectant and menthol. Then Albert speaks.

“I had a question I wanted to ask you about Papa.”

“What sort of question?”

“Did you ever notice,” and Albert pauses briefly, deciding how best to configure the awkward words, “anything unusual after he prepared Ortolan?”

“Unusual? No. Not that I recall.”

“Did he ever have problems sleeping?”

“Sleeping?” His mother stares at him with puzzled, clouded eyes.

“Yes. Sleeping.”

“No.” Her fingers pinch the frayed edge of her robe. She answers with a hint of defiant pride. “Never. Your father always slept through the night.”

The televised Mass drones in the background. Albert rises, it is time to go. They bid each other farewell; he with a kiss on the cheek, she with a handful of old-fashioned licorice sweets for the train ride home, which Albert takes but does not eat.  He cannot bring himself to do it. They taste like merde.

The nights that follow are uneventful, however. Sleepless, but uneventful. Albert tosses and turns, and clicks on the light at even the smallest of sounds. But whatever tormented him in the darkness does not return. He reaches the uneasy conclusion that things are back to normal—or that it never even happened at all. The restaurant is grudgingly reopened after a week’s hiatus, and the usual clientele of locals, tourists, and bicyclists from the canal populate its tables. Albert finds himself moving with sluggish reluctance, which is the source of multiple complaints and a rather poor review in a provincial paper. Albert laughs when he reads it, chucks it with deliberate carelessness into a rubbish bin filled with carrot peelings and shallot tops. Fuck the little peasant newspaper, he grumbles to himself, kneading dough for a tarte aux poires. Fuck them all.

Summer arrives, the days lengthen. A letter appears in Albert’s mailbox—typed up, laser-printed, from a vague corporation somewhere in California. Its author claims to be the son of the old man with the alligator billfold. He informs Albert with somber formality that his father recently passed away with pancreatic cancer. On his deathbed spoke of nothing but his last meal of Ortolan. Thank you again. And, he goes on to say, a possible business opportunity in the near future. It seems he shares his father’s interest in the forbidden dish. His company is going public, massive profits are rolling in from stocks already owned, and the board of directors, led by the son himself, would like to celebrate in France with a clandestine dinner; a meal found nowhere else on earth. Would it be possible to arrange a dinner of Ortolan?

Albert chuckles. These ridiculous Americans. He writes out a brief note on the bottom of the stationery, in English nearly flawless, explaining that the meal he prepared for his father was done for sentimental reasons. Duplicating it is simply out of the question. He seals it into a fresh envelope and copies the return address from the stationery. He lights a cigarette on his way to the post office.

The response from America arrives with a rapidity of which Albert did not imagine the French Postal Service capable. No pleading, no argument. No desperate entreaty. Simply a number, an offer, written in strident fountain pen just below the son’s signature. Expensive stationery slaloms daintily down to the floor. Albert is lightheaded. Albert can’t believe what he read.

The dinner for the board of directors is to be in three weeks. Time is of the essence. Albert commits an afternoon entirely to the catching of the songbirds, snatching them greedily from the air, stuffing them into the growing burlap sack quivering with life. The fluttering of wings still makes him uneasy, but the giddy promise of what is to come obliterates that unease. He knows exactly what this meal means. Enough to escape from his debts, enough to move to Paris, enough never to work again, enough to sell this restaurant and purge it from his bloodline for good. He titters maniacally as he runs through the forest, net swinging wildly, until not a single ortolan remains to be caught and the forest falls eerily silent. Commuters on the train back to town stare with disgust at his tumid sac, palpitating like a heart at his dancing feet. He does not care. His deliverance is at hand. Fuck them all.

The preparations take on the flavor of a factory or assembly line. One after another the birds are robbed of their eyes, bird by bird they are crammed full of suet from an industrial-sized blender. Albert plans a complete meal for the wealthy executives, dishes he knows he can prepare quickly to leave time for the Ortolan. He orders from his alcohol supplier vast quantities of good wines and stout ports. He takes down from the kitchen the yellowed portrait of his father with the soldiers, to make room on the wall for his menu notes.

Several of the ortolans are still singing when the Americans call from Paris to announce that they have landed; their songs have not yet died. What can be done? Three weeks was simply not enough time, but what he has will have to suffice. As a convoy of rented limousines glides sleek and alien along the country roads beside the canal, Albert scurries to be ready. The plumped birds are all brought up together in a paper bag and plucked with great speed and inaccuracy. A mound of raw, pink flesh grows and writhes on the counter top.  Albert checks his watch—time is running out. With a sweep of his arm he expedites the process by scooping all of them at once into a punch bowl of cheap Spanish brandy. The scene is disturbing, ghoulish even, the naked creatures squirming in the spirits like a nest of baby rats. Some have yet to expire when Albert pitches them by the handful into the oven flames, to fry still sentient and roast still breathing. He is tossing in the last of the birds as the Americans make their entrance, honking their horns like victorious conquerors. Albert hurries out from the kitchen to greet them, summoning as much sincerity as possible and paying special attention to the old man’s son, who somewhere on his being has hidden the paper ticket to his salvation.

The entire meal is a fiasco. One long series of rambling toasts and drunken shouting matches. The men, bald and fat, guzzle wine and streak their bespoke suits in foie gras. Albert plies them with deigned smiles as he maneuvers among the tables, serving dishes and refilling glasses, not understanding most of what they say. He even poses with them for a photograph, hiding stiffly his mounting disdain. They are like plump, greedy children, he thinks to himself, the moldering fruit of a generation untried and untested. He says as little as possible, except when giving them the demonstration of the Ortolan ceremony for the grand finale of their meal. And they look so ridiculous, the lot of them, bellies over belts, napkins over heads, that Albert finds himself forced to stifle a laugh. When the lecture is complete, they lift the birds from their plates and gobble them down like hot dogs, small drunken trophies, one more feat to brag about on the golf course back home. And, at last, they go, stumbling into the night. The old man’s son is the last one out, bidding a jubilant Albert farewell with a slurred merci beaucoup and a grease-spotted check for an ungodly sum of money.

The kitchen is a disastrous mess, but Albert decides in his triumphant glee to leave the cleaning until tomorrow. Or maybe never. He kills the lights and leaves the saucepans and colanders to languish in the dark. He swipes one of the best bottles of restaurant champagne from the cellar, stepping quickly past the now-empty cages, and thumps up the stairs. Then he locks the door before going home.

Albert can’t help but reexamine the check as he walks to his house, stopping to squint at each streetlamp, bottle tucked like a baguette under his arm. The night is delicate and dew-dampened, sweet on the skin. Albert hardly notices, so distracted is he by the tart joy of his new fortune. When he arrives at his front door he indulges in one final study of the many digits of his payment before folding it in thirds and tucking it into his wallet. He goes to his salon, uncorks the bottle with a dusty pop, and finishes the whole thing in three swollen glassfuls. No more scrubbing duck fat out of aprons. No more bleary-eyed peeling of turnips. No more vapid tourists mangling his native tongue. His head is swimming with Dom Pérignon and hope as he undresses, dreaming instead of Paris, of fine shirts and shoes, of long afternoons reading books at a café by the Place des Vosges, of day-trips in Italian sports cars and blonde companions as of yet unnamed. The life for which he has always longed is sprouting fresh before him, while the one that has trammeled him is bowing softly away. Albert is happy. Albert is free. Albert will never have cause to worry again. And these thoughts follow him like playful Labradors to sleep.

The commotion that startles Albert awake in the blackest hours of night is nothing like before, and nothing short of a swarm. This time there are too many to count. A flock of frantic, twittering shapes, spectral darts fletched in weak moonlight, filling his bedroom. A cloud of locusts they are, the hurricane of their wings unbearable; a veritable whirlwind in the silver and shadow of midnight. They knock blindly against the windows. They batter hopelessly at the walls. The entire room is rocking from the maelstrom of their fury. Albert shrinks terrified into his blankets as they begin their attack, but it does not stop them—shrieking and flapping, they tear at his skin, they peck at his eyes. A hopeless attempt is made at a scream; no sound can be summoned. He feels as if he is drowning, gagging blindly in the darkness, his eyelids sealed shut with tears of blood. An entirely new class of fear, unlike any Albert has ever known, consumes him—it is white-hot like fire, it scorches him to his soul. He manages to tumble from the bed and scramble into a corner, dragging his twisted bed clothes with him. But there is no escaping this, and he now knows it. Sobbing, surrendering, he curls into a ball on the parquet floor, finally aware of what he has done. He pulls the white linen sheets over his head, hiding in shame, in fear, from his father, from God—

Until it all ends quite suddenly in the failure of a minute and bursting heart.

Dane Huckelbridge hails from the American Middle West, although he currently lives with his wife in New York City. His fiction and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Tin House, The New Republic, and The New Delta Review. His first novel, Castle of Water, is being published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.