The quail flitted around the wire cage, chortling, talons latching to the sides of their home. Their poo covered the newsprint faces of Podunk county commissioners that lined the bottom. They were part bird, part unicorn, and all pet; equally as cute as the mutt dogs whose run lines extended between the trees in our lumpy yard; the cockatiel in a towering birdcage made from an old water heater; even the wild gray bunny that had bitten the hell out of my index finger the past summer.
“I’m going to dress the quail. Do you want to watch?” Daddy had asked earlier that day.
I fantasized about a bird in a suit, and a tiny bowtie, maybe even one that had been rented from one of my Ken dolls. The bird would look better in it, I’d believed. Ken was hard plastic and unanimated; quail were anything but. They dashed about flamboyantly, flapping their exquisitely detailed wings. They should be dressed accordingly; flamboyantly.
Mama looked at Daddy challengingly, as if he asked if I wanted to watch him dress the quail in salacious little Playboy Playmate costumes.
“Amaurys Columbie, you stop that,” she warned.
Ignoring her, he adjusted the military knife sheath that dangled from his denim beltloops. There was always forest green military gear around our home, including those little freeze-dried cracker and meat packets. With faded labels, damned-near identical rectangular shapes and ambiguous contents, opening them felt as thrilling as Christmas. The army green was the color of mystery and adventure.
I followed him outside.
Daddy reached into the chicken wire cage. The tiny plumed birds dispersed in every direction, save for out the door. He snatched up a particularly slow one by wrapping a single hand around the bird’s torso, preventing it from flapping its wings. It struggled in vain. Too bad it doesn’t know that today is its lucky day. Of the fifteen quail, this one will be the best-dressed.
“Are you ready?” He asked, wrapping his palm around the quail’s thumb-sized head.
I was. I nodded, and began digging through my pockets for my Ken doll’s tuxedo. But before I could pull the black trousers out of my back pocket, Daddy twisted his wrist quickly, eliciting a popping sound, like removing the lid from a stubborn jar of Mount Olive relish. The quail’s body continued to squirm and the wings flapped for several minutes in my his hand, despite no longer having a head—that part of the anatomy had fallen to the autumn-browned grass. The beak opened and closed, the bird’s brain making its last stand. Remarkably, there was no blood.
There was also no tuxedo, bowtie, or cummerbund involved in dressing a quail.
The closest thing I’d witnessed was a garden lizard’s tail falling off after too much rough handling. That was not death, though—a tail regenerates as many times as it needs to, and the lizard keeps on truckin’.
Daddy plucked the carcass until nothing remained but a pink thing that looked a lot like a miniature Thanksgiving turkey, naked, unidentifiable, and a little bit vulnerable.
Only when he unsheathed the military knife and dragged it against the quail’s once-feathery belly did I dart back in the house. I could not watch. What was happening was the opposite of dressing. Suits were meant to enhance that which was already living. What my father was doing was destroying that which was already dead. Realizing that I had been lied to, I ran to the sound of quail insides falling to the ground.
Near dinnertime, the Gaither Family played on the radio.
“Sarah, supper!” Mama called.
Repressing my rumbling stomach, I took my time re-dressing my Ken doll before heading to the kitchen.
A plate of familiar, turkey-like carcasses rested on the table. One was tucked between the mashed potatoes and corncob on my plate. Since I’d last seen it, the quail’s skin had turned into a glistening honey brown, sealing off the insides from exposure. It was a suit—not the black tie one that I’d envisioned, but a suit of armor.
I lifted my fork and devoured the well-dressed bird.
Sarah Fonseca is a writer living in south Georgia. A 2012 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has appeared in The Q Review, Lavender Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and in the digital pages of Autostraddle and BtchFlcks. Say hello at flavors.me/sarah.