by Chris Antenen
“Got change for the machine?” Mel Cooper pulled a crumpled bill from his pocket.
Sven jerked his head toward the door.
Mel got his change inside the store, pulled a Dr. Pepper from the dispenser, and stood at the edge of the porch, drink in hand, looking over an array of life-size wooden birds. He chose one of them with his free hand.
“You do these yourself?”
Sven nodded, held up two fingers, and mumbled, “Two dollars.”
He sat cross-legged on a paint-challenged bench next to the porch rail of the store, which was well back from a crossroad between two small towns in the middle of Georgia. Over the porch, the words GLINNVILLE MALL had been painted in large white letters, now chipped and flaking on the brick front of the building. Behind him, propped against the wall, was a large white sign, with freshly painted letters that read DEER COOLER “You Kill ’em, We Chill ’em.” Sprigs of crab grass and a couple of persistent privet bushes encroached between the board steps leading up to the porch. So far, the kudzu had stayed in the woods.
Mel pulled out his billfold and handed Sven two ones. He had chosen a small bird, a wren, perky tail.
“You ever think of painting these?”
Sven frowned, but said nothing.
Mel thought he might have insulted the old man. “They’re great the way they are though, buffed and shined. I mean, they’re good like they are. Nice piece of wood. Look like some I saw in a store once.”
Sven didn’t look up, but a half smile formed as he stood, picked up the rest of the birds one at a time, and wrapped them in much-used scraps of cloth. He packed them carefully into a wrinkled brown grocery sack. Mel guessed maybe the two dollars was enough for the day. He watched the man climb down the stairs like a twenty-first century Daniel Boone, sure footed and tall, an old baseball cap turned brim to the back, not quite as authentic as a coonskin cap would have been. The thick woods behind the store soon hid him from sight.
Mel went back into the store to ask about the old man. The clerk was leaning back in a chair with his hands clasped behind his head and a newspaper folded over his belly. He dropped forward, shrugged, and denied any knowledge of where the guy came from or where he went.
“Just asked if he could sell his little statues out front, and I said, ‘Sure.’ Comes every day or so, prob’ly be back Monday week. Sells one or two I reckon. Have an idea that’s all the money he’s got. Never buys anything but a loaf of bread and a couple slices of baloney sometimes. Not much of a talker. Name’s Sven.”
The clerk went back to his reading. Mel threw his drink can into a trash barrel by the door and walked to his pickup. As he backed out of the graveled lot, he reached in the pocket of the door for a kerchief and wiped his forehead. It was very warm for April in Georgia and he had covered several acres of public land along the Glinn River looking for nesting bird species. He hadn’t seen anything unusual today on his trek through the pines. Or had he? He looked down at the little brown figure.
Back in his office at the university, Mel examined the detailed wings of the bird, doubting that the old man he’d seen outside the store had carved it. He scanned through the pictures on his camera and pulled a small notebook out of his pocket to check the notes he had made that day, but his eyes kept going to the dapper little wren. He half expected it to chirp.
Haunted by the unusual accuracy of the tiny bird replica, Mel went back to the store in Glinnville often, and, on a few occasions over the next weeks, he found the old man selling his carvings at the porch rail. Although Mel did most of the talking, Sven was receptive as long as he sold a bird. Mel showed him Audubon prints, lent him one of his dog-eared copies of Peterson’s field guide, then ventured further into his life by buying him a set of the best oil paints he could find.
Spring moved into late summer, yet even after months the old man revealed little. He was a restive man, probably younger than his rough exterior would present, clean-shaven, hair ragged, clothing homemade except for the dirty jeans. Loose string ties held his work boots together. The baseball cap was a constant, but it wasn’t always backwards on his head.
As nearly as Mel could discern, Sven had never painted anything, not even a barn wall. He nodded a lot or shook his head, listened as Mel told him how to mix colors, dry between coats – basic skills which were all Mel could contribute. Then he watched and waited as Sven became more confident and his skills grew.
Sven’s reticence and visual aspect notwithstanding, the results were remarkable. Mel could still remember the feeling of awe he had experienced when a newly awkward Sven unwrapped the first color creation. It was alive, right down to a flawed tail feather and two random specks of black marring an otherwise perfect beak.
Mel told his friends about the carvings, but they didn’t seem interested, most of them intent on comparing their own photographic representations and their notes. He couldn’t understand why they were not impressed by the remarkable likenesses. Mel was confident that Sven knew the woods and the birds he carved, that years of casual observation had made them part of his daily life and that he had been given a rare ability to reproduce the small creatures in wood. Mel continued to marvel at his good fortune in finding Sven and had begun thinking of him as a backwoods Henry David Thoreau, gifted with a love of nature that manifested itself in these perfect replications.
His friends laughed at the comparison, so the reference made him uneasy until he dug out a scarcely touched copy of Thoreau’s 1951 essay, “Walking”: “[I]n Wildness is the preservation of the world.” The lyrical words touched Mel’s heart and gave him purpose. “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” Here at the low end of the Georgia mountains, he and Sven both walked the fields, the streams and through the forests, thinking of nothing but the birds, “as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires.” Mel never found Sven anywhere but on the porch at the Glinnville Mall.
Mel’s small group of friends were nature lovers who trudged through the countryside as he did, with their high boots, light backpacks, expensive binoculars, cameras, and their little black books, looking for specimens. Their interests ranged widely. His friends thrilled only in sighting and cataloging some rare, or even not-so-rare, species. Hunters, who covered the same terrain, substituted guns for cameras, and their goals were to kill and preserve their trophies. For them it was always the large species, though Mel had seen them delight in killing small to prove their aim. He had trouble relating to these men who found sport in the random killing of creatures, and, difficult though it was, he tried to avoid hunting season in the woods.
Mel and his colleagues were not just weekend hikers or incidental flora and fauna enthusiasts. They were serious in their studies. The small university paid them, and they taught small classes to enable them to pursue their passions and pass their knowledge on to new enthusiasts. Some kept track of native plants and prolific cultivars. Others counted deer traces or inventoried varied aspects of animal life in the Southeast.
Georgia had an abundance of untouched land, streams and woodlands, planned or unplanned fields of wildflowers – here and there displaying a rare trillium or wild iris in the spring – old shacks and houses with black holes for windows and siding blackened by mildew, huge beds of Virginia creeper or wild strawberries, old wells and fences and lone telephone poles, their guy wires revealed by kudzu. Some of the land was privately owned and some was owned by the State of Georgia. Mel got lost now and then, but somehow he always found his way back to his truck.
The where and when of the birds he sought were most important to Mel, and now with evidence in his photographs to compare with those of the experts, and possession of such perfect replicas, Mel felt fulfillment, his knowledge enhanced by the joy of owning Sven’s creations. He became obsessed as Sven grew in his ability to capture realistic color for each bird he copied. Though he made suggestions, Mel was never allowed to select which birds would be carved and painted, but eventually a wide display of native Georgia birds appeared on the shelf in Mel’s office. Throughout the summer, he continued to marvel at Sven’s extensive knowledge of the local woodland and the life within it.
On an early September day, only a week into the semester, Mel was thinking maybe he would have time for a short walk through the forest if he let his last class out early. He looked out of his office window and saw faint movement in the trees, as if they were beckoning, “Come on, fall will be here soon. The birds are loud and restless.”
He turned his desk chair toward the bookcase and gently lifted his latest acquisition from the shelf, a prairie warbler, its beak at exactly the right tilt for song and its tail at a downward angle, correctly and instinctively suggesting the quickness needed for a swift escape or a wag. Next to the warbler stood another acquisition, a little nuthatch, clinging upside down to a vertical piece of pine bark, its sharp beak true, its beady eyes alert to its next perch. The birds were now not only life-size, but colored as though nature had supplied the palette. Mel’s heart raced. Had he found in Sven the ultimate avian sculptor?
He picked up another small bird and opened his guide book to the plate on page two-hundred-fourteen, the American goldfinch, the male bright and the female pale with a hint of olive. His own color photograph of the female was propped up on his desk, but the replica in his hand revealed vastly more than either print. The reproduction in the book had a glossy finish, which enhanced the image of the female and the counterfeit markings; while his photo, though zoom professional, presented a too-soft matte finish, which played with reality. When Mel looked at the bird in his hand, it was as though he held a real finch, its warmth an eerie pseudo presence. He hoped Sven would one day bring him the beautiful male finch.
In the woods, perched on his bony haunches, Sven watched for a long time, perfectly still, every muscle taut, the only evidence of life a steady tic under his left eye. He had waited patiently while towhees and a few brown thrashers scratched among the underbrush. He was sure his wait would be rewarded, however, because he had been clocking feeding times for several days. At last, the little yellow bird flew from its hiding place to the feeder that Sven had hidden in the thicket. Then it hopped onto a branch where it tore the seed apart. Sven’s keen eye could discern every ripple along its body, observe every tremor as it pecked at the seed’s inner core and flicked the shell aside. The bird sat, tail twitching for a moment, then returned to the feeder – and then again. When Sven finally let the stone go, the bird did not sense it coming. The tiny pellet knocked it up and backward, no time for even a flutter of wing, and it dropped with a faint thud through the growth beneath.
Sven rose stiffly, then stumbled through the underbrush – no need for silence. He couldn’t miss the bright color among the leaves and short grasses. Reaching down, he gently picked up the warm yellow mass, turned it over and over in his hands, colors seeping into his thoughts as swirling circles of paint mixtures, grays fading to yellow, black to a blue brown.
He felt only the slightest hesitancy about his ability to blend the colors and yet allow for light and shading over the texture of the already carved bird. He was thinking, too, that he’d gotten the feathers a little long in the tail. The soft wing under-feathers didn’t show in the carving, but had he allowed for their slight bulk beneath? He was eager to take his temporary prize to the little room at the back of his shed where the light was good and his tools waited.