An Excerpt from “The Sparrows in France”

Aja Gabel

The Ortolans
First, they are drowned in Armangac. Then, they are plucked. Their lemon-colored bodies, now featherless and plump, are laid in a white cassoulet dish, side to side. Their wings are folded down and tucked under. Apart, they are each no bigger than a man’s thumb. On the plate, they are just that: a collection of quiet thumbs. The ortolans look as they might have looked just before their eggs hatched—slippery skin, sleepy eyes, translucent beaks. The chef spreads two pinches of sea salt and cracked pepper over the proud pinked chests. The oven is swirling in 450 degrees, and when the chef opens the oven door to slip in the tiny parade of birds, the sweet, clean smell of brandy and thin air lingers long after everyone’s left the kitchen.

France, 2003
When my parents come to England to visit me, my father and I spend the whole time fighting. We fight in an Indian restaurant, when he can’t convert pounds to dollars. We fight in a hotel, after we’ve turned out the lights and he is in one bed with my mother and I am in another, and he threatens to leave the next morning. We fight until we finally make it to Heathrow and board a plane to Paris. On the plane, I sit in a separate row, and my mother fans herself with the in-flight magazine, trying to ignore the fight we’d had on the tube ride there. Normally, my father and I are very close and peaceful, but something about the pressure of seeing everything has activated my desire for independence and his desire for control.

When we land in Paris, we shuttle ourselves to a cheap hotel in the Algerian ghetto. In the morning, everything is different. My father makes friends with the Alergian husband and wife, who give us an extra cot for me to sleep on. He learns some Algerian words—the word for “wine,” the word for “wife,” and the word for “Band-Aid.”

The March daylight is exacting, propelling us forward. He wants to go to Père Lachaise cemetery first. He takes a picture of me next to Jim Morrison’s headstone, and my mother poses by Chopin. We lose my father somewhere around Edith Piaf, and I sit alone on a bench in the round for a long time, with the birds in the trees and the daylight changing over me.

On the way to another museum, we stop at a farmers’ market. We pick up a loaf of warm bread, two green apples, and a stick of soft butter. In our hotel room, we spread the food out on a blanket on the floor and eat lunch. It will be the only meal I remember eating in France. After that, we catch the Rodin Museum just before it closes, as the low sun casts all Rodin’s men and women and hands in an orange sheen.

The only pictures I will have of my father in France are of him in the Rodin Museum, looking lost in the sculpture garden. I take the photo from several yards away, from a secret perch I’ve found. He’s wearing a black jacket and has his camera bag slung over his shoulder. He is hefty and his hair is a mess. The sun glints off his glasses as he looks behind him. He is clearly lost.

Though it is during this trip that the cancerous tumor he’d fought two years ago is returning recklessly, training itself once more around his stomach and esophagus, though it is in Paris that the tumor begins snaking its way through his torso, though he is beginning to die on each day we stuffed ourselves with bread like pillows and butter like lotion, I will forget to take pictures of him in the cemetery.

California, 1988
My father is making a cake, and I want to eat it. We don’t have measuring cups in our house. Instead, my father eyeballs it. We do have cocoa powder, though. We always have cocoa powder. He’s making a cake, mixing the batter, and he’s stepped away for a moment, perhaps to check on the dog or the garden. The kitchen is dark, and I’m sorry, I can’t help myself. There is a ceramic bowl full of silky brown batter and a small spoon on the counter. By the time he returns, I’ve eaten over a third of the bowl, chocolate melting off my lips, the spoon handle hot from my grip. I kept going back for more; I couldn’t stop. Each bite’s pleasure was the anticipation of another, and another. Some explicit indulgence of the particular childhood belief that there will always be more.

When I vomit up the cake batter later that night, it is my father who scrubs the carpet outside the bathroom, where, on my hands and knees, I gave in. All the while I think, it was worth it.

. . .

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