I was alone, on my knees, in my closet-sized bedroom, dutifully running through the rosary, when my prayers were disrupted by that most sensual of pleasures—the aroma of a well-cooked dinner. I breathed it in deeply, the dusty, hillside fragrance of Grandfather’s famous roasted sparrows dish, like a hike into the Island’s interior. To this day, the scent of that dish stays with me. Melospiza melodia graminea, according to my beloved Peterson’s Guide—the Channel Song Sparrow. Grandfather would cover the little birds’ breasts with wild boar fat and whole leaves of sage. This not only left the meat especially tender and flavorful, but it also provided us with crispy sage leaves that we ate on the side like French fries.

My little brother Piuma also loved this dish. I could hear him clucking away excitedly in the kitchen, telling Grandfather how many sparrows he was going to eat, how Aunt Jean had promised to bake a whole apple pie just for him, how the Island’s former inhabitants, Chumash Indians, had eaten acorn mush, had Grandfather ever made acorn mush? Grandfather would never have tolerated such aimless chatter from the rest of us—my aunts and cousins. “Do not wear out my ears,” he would warn us. “Get to your point.” But he indulged Piuma. We all did. My aunts, redolent of cigarette smoke, inexpensive perfume, and freshly baked-bread; my cousins, all older than us, who ignored me but fussed over Piuma as if he were a toddler, patting his head and pinching his cheek and cooing over him like turtle doves; my father, whenever he was home from the war, bearing gifts from the other side of the Pacific—hula skirts and tiki idols and a tropical shirt festooned with palm tress and parrots that Piuma wore constantly; and even, I must admit, me, though this made him difficult to manage sometimes. Piuma, only eight, was the youngest of us all and the only boy, and no getting around it, he was special, even beyond his odd name, a nickname—“Piuma” translates as “feather”—bestowed upon him by Grandfather, for obvious reasons, shortly after his rather spectacular birth.

[Continued in Confrontation 114]

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