The Stone Bird

by C. Kevin Smith

“Where do you get your ideas?” people would inquire. Often they would be holding one of his sculptures as they spoke, the warm skin of their fingers and palms pressed into the cool rough stone shaped and softened by the artist’s patient hands.

“I’m a nature boy,” he would reply, his answer for nearly a century.  In his final years, as he approached ninety, his art had been “discovered”; a documentary about him was shown on public television and now his remote mountain studio saw many visitors, art professionals and collectors and the merely curious, all of them driving up a treacherous switchback dirt road to experience first-hand this man’s strange artistry, which some were calling sacred.  His art was indeed stunning, curving stone sculptures of natural animal forms that were genuinely beautiful and pleasing to look at and touch, in a century when so much art would adopt the jagged, wounding spirit of its people’s worst sorrows.  The visitors would wrap their hands around his work and stare at it and then at him, reluctant to put down the object, as though it might contain the answer to some vital question they did not know how to ask.  And so they would ask him where he got his ideas, holding onto the artwork tenderly, fearfully, as though it were alive, which to the artist, of course, it was.

On occasion, someone would notice in the work an unexpected detail, some element of the design that did not seem to fit, a curve that in a certain light looked like a gash, a protruding shape that felt out of place.  After the artist’s death, critics argued over whether these apparent inconsistencies were simply mistakes or part of some larger artistic vision.  “He was unschooled, after all,” insisted those who did not see his work as part of the ongoing saga of art history, as it was presented in museums and university textbooks.  For these people, the sculpted stones of a reclusive outsider had little to do with the high-stakes world of art.

One hot summer day, near the end of his life, a family drove up the steep dusty road to look at the man’s sculptures.  It was a couple with a young daughter who was so quiet, remote even, her parents had considered consulting a medical professional.  Only in the company of animals did the girl seem truly happy, and when her parents read a magazine article about the artist and his stone menagerie they decided to travel the nearly hundred miles from their home to his distant mountaintop.  The man was used to visitors and was gracious with all, but he especially enjoyed the company of children.  He had never had any children himself, had never married, had never done anything other than be an artist.     

The girl was silent as he showed the family some of his work.  For years he had sold his sculptures to the few who knew to drive up his road.  Now many people wanted to buy his work.  In truth, it was all the same to him.      

As they were about to leave, the girl pointed to a sculpture that was resting on a windowsill near the front door.  He had told the family they were welcome to touch or hold any of the work.  “It’s there to be enjoyed,” he said.  Now the girl picked up gingerly the sculpture in the windowsill.  With many of his works it was the act of picking it up, of holding it, that revealed what it was, and so it was this time when the girl, uncertain, cradled the object and saw that it was a bird.  From a distance, it would not have looked like a bird, perhaps just an oblong stone, polished by wind or water or simply time.  In fact, many of his stone carvings looked quite similar to each other, another aspect of his work that bothered some critics.  Without thoughtful examination it was not always easy to determine what the object was meant to represent.   But as the girl’s parents looked at their daughter and at the stone object in her hands, it was clear to everyone that it was a bird.  For a while no one spoke.  The girl was concentrating all her attention on the sculpture; her mother was noticing that her daughter seemed older than she remembered; the girl’s father wanted to ask how much the bird cost, but he was too nervous; the artist’s feet were very tired, and he wanted to sit down.  But he didn’t want to rush the family.  He smiled at the girl, leaning heavily on his cane, even though she wasn’t looking at him.  Just then, as if in response, she lifted her head up and peered at the artist.      

“Why is he crying?” she asked.  Her thumb was resting just below a curving indentation in the surface of the dark gray stone that was flecked with silver and white, like the sea on a day that is windy and overcast.  She inched the thumb upward until it fit perfectly, as though the artwork were only now complete, with her small thumb pressed into this oddly hollow, sloping space.      

“Why is he crying?” she repeated, looking again at the bird.      

As a rule, the artist did not think deeply about the past, about his reasons for creating what he did, about what his work might mean, but as she stared at the bird, then at him, back and forth, waiting for his reply, he felt his legs tremble as there came into the room, summoned by her words, the rushing remembered presence of something large and strong and sad.  It was his father, as vivid and familiar as the broken bands of sunlight streaming in through the tall, open windows, a fall afternoon, and his father taking him to the dense grove of oak trees near their ranch.  There were dead leaves underfoot and the boy, who did not want to be there, could not help but make loud, cracking sounds as he walked.  From time to time his father would look down at him, his face creased with irritation, not just at the sound but at the attitude of the boy, who for days had been resisting this long-postponed trip to the thick patch of oaks, where he would hold a gun for the first time in his life and shoot something, anything, dead.  His father had explained that it wasn’t a question of wanting to do it or thinking it was right or wrong: it was what one did.     

“Men have always killed animals,” the father said.  “To survive.  It’s a question of survival.”      

But the boy did not want to kill animals, did not want to hold a gun.  For as long as he could remember he had loved to draw pictures of the animals he would see around the ranch.  Once, in a large chunk of granite he could hardly carry, which a heavy rain had revealed in the creek bank near their house, he had seen, as if just underneath its surface, an animal face.  He’d brought home the rock in a wheelbarrow and taken his father’s wood chisels and spent hours carving the rock until the face showed clearly, naturally, as if it had always been there.  Yet it was the boy who had created it.  But his father was furious at his ruined chisels and beat the boy hard, then angrily threw the rock into the creek.      

“You are never to do anything like that again,” he said.     

When the boy read an article in LIFE magazine about an artist whose paintings were being displayed at a big museum in New York, he announced at dinner that he was going to be an artist when he grew up.     

No one spoke for a time, and then his father said that his son would do no such thing.  “You’ve got to stop that art nonsense,” he said.  “You need to learn an honest trade.  Your mother and I won’t be able to support you.”  And it was true, year after year they were barely able to hang onto the ranch, money was always scarce, and they ate only what they could grow or butcher themselves.     

They stopped at the base of the largest oak tree in the grove, and the father removed the gun from its holster and gave it to the boy.  He had already explained many things about the gun, names and numbers, parts and instructions.  The boy’s only thought was that the gun felt heavy and awkward and had a smell he did not like, of cold grease and metal, a smell he would for all his life associate with unhappiness and death.     

“Stand strong,” his father instructed, “on your good leg.”     

The boy looked down and held his breath.  After a moment, he let his club foot, the left one, drift to the side, like a dangling branch just barely attached to its tree.  When he was younger the boy would ask why he had a leg that was useless, a leg that marked him as separate from every other boy he knew.  Why did he have a club foot?  It was a question he no longer asked, for he had never gotten the answer he wanted, which was to be told that he wasn’t a mistake.  That God hadn’t created him by accident.  This was what he feared.    

His father showed him where to aim.  There were blue jays chattering in the high branches of the trees.  “A worthless bird,” his father often said.  The boy didn’t think that jays were worthless, he had tried to mix his watercolor paints to get the exact shade of blue of their feathers, a brilliant, shadowy blue that reminded him of the darkening sky of early evening, when the sun was about to set.  But now he was not thinking of the bird’s color, he was aiming the heavy gun despite himself, positioning all his limbs as his father had explained, squeezing shut one eye and opening wide the other, pressing his finger against the trigger, all his movements following a sequence as deep and worn and inevitable as some ancient path that always seems to have been there.   

The violence of the shot rocked the boy off his balance but his father caught him.  And in the fractured second of the bullet’s aftermath they both heard a bird fall from its perch onto the dry brittle leaves below.    

“Good job, son,” the father said.  “You’re on your way to becoming a man.”   

But the boy felt just the same.  The gun could not make his bad foot go away, nothing would ever change, nothing at all, except that a bird that had just been alive was now dead.  And the boy did not understand the purpose of the bird’s death.  

Silently they returned home.  The father went into the barn and the boy remained in front of the house, miserable and unsure what to do next.  Without knowing why he began to walk back to the oak grove.  When he arrived everything was as it had been when they left, but now the air seemed weighted down, dark gray and low.  The dead bird lay just where it had fallen.  Its body was wrecked by the bullet, but the boy found that by arranging its feathers and by positioning it in a certain way the dead bird could almost be made to look like it was asleep.  Then he looked around the base of the tree and collected dried leaves and broken twigs and with some effort he managed to fashion a coffin for the bird.  He had only ever seen one real coffin, that was when his grandmother died.  He had this coffin in his mind as he worked, and some of his feelings about her death rose up and pressed against the sides of his throat.  She had always smiled whenever he showed her his drawings, had called him her crackerjack.    

The boy thought the bird looked at peace now.  With his hands he dug a hole in the ground, into the dirt that was dry and pebbly, and for days afterwards his fingernails were densely packed with dark soil that would not wash out.  And each time he looked at his hands he felt a kind of secret strength.

On the mountaintop the girl was still holding the artwork, her thumb still pressed as if inside it, just under the fold of its sculpted wing, which lay tight against its heavy stone body.      

“Is the bird sad?” the girl asked again, almost to herself now, for the artist had said nothing, had only gripped the windowsill shelf and looked away, and she sensed he would not answer.     

For there was too much to tell.  When people asked him to explain his art he never knew what to say.  Should he tell her how he had lay weeping by the place where he had buried the dead jay?  He had lay there until nightfall, calling out to the trees his terrible questions, why did he have to kill the bird and why did he have a club foot and why was his father always so angry with him, why had he called him crippie earlier that day when the boy said he would not touch the gun, and why was his own heart so heavy with feelings he did not understand and could not talk about, for there was no one there to hear his words, only the murmuring trees and the steadiness of the earth and the bird he had killed, and above them all God who, the boy worried, might not hear him, might not even love him, despite what he had been told.      

These were things the artist had never spoken of, things even he did not understand, how the bird would yield its small body to the soil and so become part of its changing seasons, how the land his father had toiled upon for years would one day be paved over for new homes for new families from faraway places.  What was right, what was wrong?  The shape of things was always shifting, what had seemed to the boy to be his father’s hateful spirit he understood later to be the bitter residue of hard work and endless worry.  Why had forgiveness come so late, long after his dead father had been buried in the fertile ground to which he had given so much of his life?  And there were other questions and other answers and sometimes they fit together and sometimes they did not.  His club foot had kept him out of the war, while among the boys he had grown up with, ordinary boys from neighboring farms who might be kindly or mischievous or smart or mean-spirited, many had died in battle in distant, foreign countries, too young to really be anything.  And there were days when he did not understand why they had died, why he was still alive.     

But he had managed to create for himself a powerful life, listening not to the fear or anger that surrounded him in his family, and later, in the noisy, rundown neighborhoods where he first lived and struggled alone, but to some stronger voice within that told him he must never stop making art.  It would become the pulse of his life, he would transform old stones and old wounds into sculptures that could make the heart soar.  “To hold one of his works is to come into contact with some elemental spirit of the earth,” said the narrator of the television documentary.     

Gently the girl set down the bird.  Her parents nudged each other and turned to the artist to thank him.  “I try to make things as beautiful as the world,” he said suddenly, his crippled voice faint with age yet urgent, hoarse still with the memory of his long-vanished father.  “It’s all I know to do.”  The girl nodded.  Later, in her bed that night, she puzzled over what he had said.  For the world did not always seem beautiful to her; it was why she treasured the company of animals, they never told lies or said ugly things.  She wished she could have taken home with her the stone bird, yet she found, as her mind edged closer to the heavy sweetness of sleep, that by bringing her hands together in the darkness of her room she could feel the bird’s mysterious power, its sadness too, and she was not touching it, it was the stone that was touching her.  Then she crossed over into dreams and the bird’s heavy wings slowly opened and it rose from her, bright sunlight reflecting off its stone body in glinting sparks as it flew away.  The artist was in her dream.  “Take me!” he was crying to the bird, for he did not want to be left alone.  “Take me!”  The girl went to the old man, who was too frail and too weak to run after the bird, and she took his hand, and this seemed to comfort him.  And the following year, when her parents told her they were getting a divorce, the girl, without knowing why, went into the yard and found a small stone, just a plain brown rock, not to throw in anger but to hold onto, a stone that one day, with tools she did not yet possess, she might shape into something beautiful, just as it had been shaped by eternities of patterns and designs, violent and mysterious and ceaselessly alive.  For no human life is untouched by any life it encounters, and each of us is forever breaking and building the world in ways more numerous than the stars.

Winner of the 2004 Power of Purpose Award, presented by the John Templeton Foundation