The Poetry Corner

The Quails

By Francis Brett Young

(In the south of Italy the peasants put out the eyes of a captured quail so that its cries may attract the flocks of spring migrants into their nets.) All through the night I have heard the stuttering call of a blind quail, A caged decoy, under a cairn of stones, Crying for light as the quails cry for love. Other wanderers, Northward from Africa winging on numb pinions, dazed With beating winds and the sobbing of the sea, Hear, in a breath of sweet land-herbage, the call Of the blind one, their sister.... Hearing, their fluttered hearts Take courage, and they wheel in their dark flight, Knowing that their toil is over, dreaming to see The white stubbles of Abruzzi smitten with dawn, And spilt grain lying in the furrows, the squandered gold That is the delight of quails in their spring mating. Land-scents grow keener, Penetrating the dank and bitter odour of brine That whitens their feathers; Far below, the voice of their sister calls them To plenty, and sweet water, and fulfilment. Over the pallid margin of dim seas breaking, Over the thickening in the darkness that is land, They fly. Their flight is ended. Wings beat no more. Downward they drift, one by one, like dark petals, Slowly, listlessly falling Into the mouth of horror: The nets.... Where men come trampling and crying with bright lanterns, Plucking their weak, entangled claws from the meshes of net, Clutching the soft brown bodies mottled with olive, Crushing the warm, fluttering flesh, in hands stained with blood, Till their quivering hearts are stilled, and the bright eyes, That are like a polished agate, glaze in death. But the blind one, in her wicker cage, without ceasing Haunts this night of spring with her stuttering call, Knowing nothing of the terror that walks in darkness, Knowing only that some cruelty has stolen the light That is life, and that she must cry until she dies. I, in the darkness, Heard, and my heart grew sick. But I know that to-morrow A smiling peasant will come with a basket of quails Wrapped in vine-leaves, prodding them with blood-stained fingers, Saying, 'Signore, you must cook them thus, and thus, With a sprig of basil inside them.' And I shall thank him, Carrying the piteous carcases into the kitchen Without a pang, without shame. 'Why should I be ashamed? Why should I rail Against the cruelty of men? Why should I pity, Seeing that there is no cruelty which men can imagine To match the subtle dooms that are wrought against them By blind spores of pestilence: seeing that each of us, Lured by dim hopes, flutters in the toils of death On a cold star that is spinning blindly through space Into the nets of time?' So cried I, bitterly thrusting pity aside, Closing my lids to sleep. But sleep came not, And pity, with sad eyes, Crept to my side, and told me That the life of all creatures is brave and pityful Whether they be men, with dark thoughts to vex them, Or birds, wheeling in the swift joys of flight, Or brittle ephemerids, spinning to death in the haze Of gold that quivers on dim evening waters; Nor would she be denied. The harshness died Within me, and my heart Was caught and fluttered like the palpitant heart Of a brown quail, flying To the call of her blind sister, And death, in the spring night.