God himself must pity the ortolan.
They are simple yellow-tan colored birds, not-so distant cousins to the finch, each one small enough to fit comfortably in your palm. They have lived throughout Europe longer than humans, surviving on a strict diet of seeds, grains, and whatever small beetles they can find to feed their young. All in all, they hardly seem worthy of mentioning to you, aside from one minor detail:
You see, many consider the ortolan a delicacy, one of the most succulent meats known to man. The secret to its delectable taste stems neither from the flesh nor the fat of the bird but purely from the manner in which you prepare the animal for human consumption.
You capture ortolan alive. Generally your best course of action is to clip their wings, preventing the birds from escaping, and then store them in smaller, open topped containers. The birds will continue to dwell within the cramped quarters, where you supply them with ample quantities of grains to consume.
In time, the ortolan will lose their appetite, instinctually not eating as much during the day. To counter this effect, you must gouge out the ortolans’ eyes, causing the birds to freely gorge themselves on food without end. In this state, the birds will eat to the brink of death, violently stuffing their guts full. Once the birds have properly filled their gullet, you can cage their container and drown the birds in brandy.
Once the ortolan have perished, you roast their corpses for approximately eight minutes and then pluck their feathers. Then, all you have left to do is enjoy the meal.
Traditionally, you eat the animal whole while shrouding your head under a linen napkin. Some people think that this napkin serves to preserve the aroma of the meal, but that simply is not true. Any diner worth his salt knows that you must wear the napkin to hide your shame from God.
I’ve prepared ortolan before, but I have never partaken in the meal.
The endangered nature of these birds has forced governments to ban capturing and cooking this delicious animal. Oddly enough, laws still allow for the consumption of the ortolan. We smuggle in small numbers of the birds to serve for some of the higher up customers. Our kitchen has a small room burrowed out from a trap door in the wine cellar. In this buried room, I personally ready the ortolan to be eaten.
God himself must pity the ortolan.
A simple light hangs overhead as I drown the birds in alcohol. They struggle with their overfed-bodies and their broken wings, until they float unmoving at the barred surface of the brandy.
Working carefully, I pick out their feathers, one at a time.
Once I’ve cleared their skin, I set them side by side on a simple pan and roast them in a small, rusted oven. I sit down on a cheap lawn chair kept in the hidden kitchen, waiting patiently until the oven lets out a friendly chime.
I place the baked birds onto a tray, covering the meal with a stainless steel lid. Then, I lift open the trapdoor and calmly climb up into the wine cellar.
Holding the tray with a napkin with my right arm, I stroll purposefully out from the wine cellar into the kitchen. My clean white exterior gleams under the kitchen light, and the cooks glance un-interestedly over my façade. None of them know of the lower room or of the cuisines prepared there.
After straightening my back and wiping a nervous sweat from my face, I step into the dining room, where guests occupy every last table.
I carry the ortolan dutifully to the farthest table, where a single diner sits, sipping his wine.
“Will there be anything else for you, sir?” I ask politely, quickly setting the meal out on the spotless table cloth.
“Yes, actually,” the man says after clearing his throat, “Would you be kind enough to keep me company this evening?”
Normally, I would not indulge such a request.
“Yes, of course, sir,” I bow humbly.
“Good to hear,” the man smiles, pulling out the chair next to him and gesturing for me to sit down. I clamber into the chair ungracefully, anxious to eat a meal with such a distinguished guest.
“Would you like me to order anything else for you?” he asks as he pours me a glass of wine.
“No. I’m fine, sir.”
“Please, my name is Marcus,” he says warmly as he hands me the glass.
“Thank you,” I nod, sipping the drink and hoping to calm my nerves.
“Do you know who I am?” Marcus asks sternly.
“Unless I’m mistaken, you’re the chief of police.”
“Yes, that’s correct. I am in indeed the chief of police. I am also a fine cuisine connoisseur and a lonely old man who dines with strangers for company.”
Unsure what to say, I politely try a light smile.
“How often do you serve ortolan?” Marcus asks.
“No need to worry,” he laughs, “I’m not here to arrest you for selling them. Hell, you could pick them up in half the restaurants on the north side. I’m just curious.”
“About once a week,” I answer truthfully.
“And do you personally cook them?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Wretched affair, is it not?”
“It is rather unpleasant,” I answer quietly, looking down. Marcus leans back on his chair, looking over the covered platter but making no motion towards it.
He coughs into his elbow before continuing:
“I’m sorry to change the subject,” he says slowly, choosing his words very deliberately, “But would you perhaps allow me to speak more about myself?”
“By all means,” I answer, feeling as though the man has a very particular reason for wanting to talk with me.
“Before I was chief of police, I was a homicide inspector. A damn good one too. Or a damn lucky one, if you were to believe my fellow inspectors.”
I sip my glass of wine.
“I became fairly well known for my ‘intuition’ as they called it. At every crime scene, even those that lacked extensive evidence, I always seemed able to figure out the exact nature of the death. I learned later that my fellow policeman had actually been investigating me at the time, thinking perhaps I was getting information from one of the organized crime families. Of course, they came back empty-handed and never figured out how exactly I always managed to stumble upon exactly what I needed.”
“How did you?” I ask, intrigued.
“Well,” he frowns, “It’s a bit challenging to explain; perhaps I myself don’t fully understand it.”
He sighs, looking over the busy room of diners.
“It all began back when I was just a kid,” he continues, lowering his voice ever so slightly, “I had always been plagued by these unbearable nightmares. Did you ever have nightmares as a child?”
“Of course,” I answer with a slight laugh.
“Do you remember what happened in them?”
“Not really,” I reply, “I mean, I didn’t have them too often and they were usually pretty different.”
“That’s the thing though,” Marcus says, scooting his chair a bit closer, “My dreams were always so similar, and I had them every night without fail.”
“What happened in them?”
“I was always an animal in a pen, scared and trapped,” he breathes, “I would struggle to escape, but would always fail. In the end, someone would kill me, and I would wake up.”
“Kind of an odd thing for a child to dream about.”
“My parents thought the exact same thing,” Marcus shakes his head, “They took me to all kinds of doctors about it. You can’t blame them; I could hardly even sleep at night and would wake up sobbing every morning. The dreams were just so damn vivid. At the time, I had always assumed that that was how everybody dreamed, you know. It took years for me to realize that I was different.”
“Do you still get the dreams?”
“Yes,” he nods sadly, “Always similar but never quite the same.”
He licks his lips, gathering his words to speak more:
“I don’t think I really came to terms with my nightmares until I was twelve.”
“What happened when you were twelve?” I ask, leaning forwards.
“We used to raise chickens, and had kept a single rooster for a few years,” Marcus answers, “When I was twelve, my father decided I was old enough to slaughter the thing. We took it back to the stump, and my dad held it down so I could chop its head off with an axe.”
I say nothing, waiting for him to continue.
“I killed it. Felt sad, but my dad seemed happy with me. We plucked the bird, cooked the bird, and ate it. I had assumed that would be the end of it.”
“Did you have a nightmare about it?” I ask, predicting how his story might end.
“Yes,” he nods, “that night I dreamed I was the rooster and had my head lopped right off. I could see just briefly as my vision faded, my human-self holding the axe.”
He looks off, clearing his throat.
“I understood the dreams after that. I could actually digest the memories from the meat I consumed. For years, I lived as a vegetarian, and the dreams stopped entirely.”
“But not anymore,” I state, looking at the covered tray on the table.
“No, not anymore,” Marcus replies, “I mean, I had been given a gift. Of every creature of Earth, only I could retrieve the memories of the dead. How could I not?”
I frown, not completely understanding.
“I eat meat. I’ve tried every kind I can,” he says sadly, “I’ve died thousands of deaths as every different variety of beasts.”
“But why suffer when you don’t have to?”
“Because ignorance is not bliss, unfortunately. Even if I decline to participate in eating swine, the pigs still die the same. Picture for a moment, if you will, that you were both the predator and the prey. Would you let the prey escape, knowing that the predator would starve? Carnivores choose their own lives over others, but this becomes more challenging once you’ve also inhabited the skin of the victims.”
“Why order ortolan?” I ask, glancing nervously towards the tray, “They must be agonizing to eat.”
“Do you ever feel guilty for preparing them?” he asks, looking intensely towards me, “I imagine you must. Nobody else sees what horror you bring to these helpless birds, but I will. And to answer your question, they are agonizing to eat. It’s nothing short of hell.”
He opens the tray as he speaks, letting the sweet aroma escape from its stainless cage.
“Interesting how diners cover their heads while they eat them,” Marcus laughs, grabbing one of the ortolan, “I hear that the napkin is worn to hide their shame from God.”
I say nothing.
“Well, I thought I’d share with you the truth,” he smiles, contempt gleaming in his eyes, “God sees everything.”
With that, he swallows the bird whole.
Written by Levi Salvos