Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Quail Woman

Quail, the lady of bronze and smoke, she died midmorning. Neck snapped, not a mark.
The little sparrowhawk with red eyes must have dropped her in the long grass.

Mother found her. I carried her limp and warm in my hands, stroked her feet and her beak, laid her with yellow tidytips lupine, baby blue eyes, at the uproot of an old pine.
Her eyelids closed, peace on the dust-blue lids, full in elsewhere now.
A male called from the bough.

Once she danced for him, tail feathers swinging, a fan of desire: charcoal copper dun.
The sway of her plump body
in the leafmold
in the amber duff
in the thrushsung dusk
was the sway of all abundance, the promise of worlds.

A man with brown feet and brown hands helped to skin her. One cut at the breast, the rest with fingertips, like taking off a coat. I gave her juniper smoke and roses.
Cicadas clicked their wings in the dry oak hills, and called it summer.

Before Olympus there were the Titans. Big women and men of earth. Asteria, daughter of Phoibe, was mother of falling stars and dreams. She gave birth to Hekate. Her mother was the moon. When Zeus chased after her for sex, she became a quail to escape him.
She fled, leaping into the sea, and became the island Delos in the blue Aegean.
It had no bottom. It floated, and the quail flocked there on their journeys south. Later when Zeus chased after her sister Leto, the island sheltered her.

Asteria was aunt of Artemis who loved the woodbirds and the wood, who loved the ones she hunted, who was the deer she ate. Artemis wore quail feathers at her waist, and helped them birth their spotted eggs.

I placed the quail in the adobe brick kiln we built at dusk to fire earth-made pottery.
Skinless, plump, wet, she smelled of sweet flesh and comfort, an offering
to the clay to the fire to the night and stars, to her mother and her sisters
Asteria, Artemis, Leto: women of the quail, of instinct, wilderness, care

She burned with her tailfeathers still on so she could take them up there with her, dancing
Her fat glazed the pots, her fat popped and sparked, her bones turned to white dust, delicate as crabshells by morning.

Up there in the stars, quail women are dancing.
They are dancing with her spirit they are singing in the smoke
They are shaking their hips and lowering their blue-dusked lids to look upon their lovers

I was so sad at first for her beauty, lost to death. Her body was perfect in my hands.
I could not bear it. I thought of her mate, his loss. I did not want to erase his sorrow, the love that birds know. I felt so sorry for him, for her.
But she was far wiser than I, that quail, little woman.
She showed me her death, she let me see it
How her beautiful feathers were only a skin; no less precious for it, but a skin nonetheless.
That what was underneath was tender, that it could nourish me, a gift.
The body is a gift, but more than that the body is an offering on the fire
Borne on embers above the coiled pots she was transmuted
She became smoke and heat and air
She glowed, her bones molten. She became starmade again, the first sacrament

A woman offers a quail to the goddess, offers flesh to the earth and stars
In the face of what we perceive truly there is nothing else to be done
Learning to be fully human is learning to handle the dead this way
The old hunters say that animals offer themselves to the arrow because they want to come into the human camp to be sung, to be turned to fire, to be danced, to be part of that pathos, that beauty, that blaze.

I did not understand fully how to offer her, but she did. She went to my hands and the fire and taught me that we are not whole without this, without looking into the underworld, into the body of the quail, into the earth's hearth and there giving up what we know for the sweetness of a grief that is feathered, that is wise.

Down there quail woman is carrying an ember in her feathered hands. Through the underworld she is carrying it. Underground the dead are but sparks in the bellies of seeds. The spark does not go out, only leaves our view for a time. Quail woman is dancing there. Quail woman is dancing in the stars. As above, so below, and the kiln in the center where all is transformed.

Back home I buried her bones, half dust, in the bishop pine wood where she was born. With rose petals, red wine and a pot sherd from her fire I buried them. At dawn, two quail called, flapped, sang, right outside our door, nearer than I'd ever heard them. All through the daybreak they carried on. Mating maybe. Mourning, maybe. She lives everywhere now.


  1. I don't have the words to comment on this, but I wanted to let you know I was here and I was moved. There's a lot more, but that is enough for now.

  2. This is so beautiful and piercing. The way the myth weaves in and out of the poem... oh. Lovely.

  3. Oh My Dear Friend.
    I am weeping here at the poetry of your words, of your ability to say what cannot be said.

  4. i have been thinking a lot about how we humans need to rethink our relationship with our animal kin. and especially about how we need to think about feeding ourselves more ethically, more compassionately, more sustainably. reclaiming our kinship and owning death would help. reading this makes me more certain of it.

  5. This is an extraordinarily delicate and powerful piece of writing. It brought tears to my eyes. An act of intuitive reverence of the life and mystery of Quail Woman.