Monday Feature: Bird Pong–More Ekphrasis from Michaela Kahn

Bird Pong – More Ekphrasis

I had so much fun working on the ekphrastic prose poem for last week’s blog post that I wanted to try again. I’ve used another of Leonora Carrington’s paintings, “Bird Pong.” It’s oil on canvas, painted in 1949.


Bird Pong

Celia has invented a new game. “You must tie the birds onto the paddles, Annabelle, you see?” she says, showing me her tidy Highwayman’s Hitch around the hummingbird’s leg. “Otherwise they’ll fly away.”

It’s a subtle insult, the sort I’m used to, the kind I’m meant to smile away—like the ugly partridge-shaped feather hats the courtiers have taken to wearing, or the swan consommé served at tea by a witty hostess, or the feather boas the children have taken to using for their games of tug-o-war.

And so I dutifully smile and brush my hand down over my white-feathered body, smoothing the ruffled places. When one of only six marriageable princesses in Reallia is born with feathers, the kingdom takes it as an affront to its honor. They blame me for the feathers. They blame me for never having scoured them off. (Not that I never tried. I’ve used pig-bristle brushes, silver combs, hemp rope, pumice stone and finally my own sharp nails. At thirteen I plucked myself bloody, only to have the quills poke through skin again.) Since they blame me, they take liberties. Jokes, barbs, small jibes … I’m still royal, so they are careful never to say or do anything they can’t explain away as careless oversight or loving jest. But I ask you, are a million small cuts, inflicted daily, really any better than one deep gash?

Celia explains the rules of “Bird Pong” and smacks her hummingbird down into the first wedge of the table, scoring five points. She squeals with laughter. The poor bird hangs limp at the end of her line. The children, who’ve come to see the horror, start to chant, One, two — Hummingbird fly, snap and catch the fine bright eye. Feathers whirl through the air. I gently urge my own hummingbird to fly down to the second wedge. Celia flings her bird so hard it slips the knot and crashes against the wall. Three, four – blood on the floor, chant the children. Celia reaches into the cage for a replacement bird. I pull my own up into my hand and stroke its tiny head. Five, six, Hummingbird die – snap the neck and eat its eye, the children cackle.

Through the window, in the garden, I see my sister Origina flirting with Gregor. He bends down and plucks her a cabbage rose. A giant pink one. Gregor and I were betrothed before we were born. But of course no one felt they could enforce the betrothal, not when my feathers didn’t disappear by the time I was fifteen. My father was indignant about it (he doesn’t want me on his hands the rest of my life) but he needs the goodwill of Gregor’s father Orloff. Origina puts a tiny pink-skinned hand onto Gregor’s chest.

Celia has slapped her new bird down into the next three wedges. It flutters, dazed, trying to get away. I hold my hummingbird up to my mouth and whisper to it, pull the slip on the Highwayman’s knot on its leg. It darts free, a blur of green and red, flying up, down, here, there, then it speeds off, straight at Celia’s face. Her laughter turns into a shriek.

Seven, eight, the children chant, Hummingbird Gate – in, out, over, through, better look out, its coming for you!

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