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The Bird Artist
By Howard Norman
Picador Copyright © 1994 Howard Norman
All rights reserved.
My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.
I discovered my gift for drawing and painting birds early on. I should better say that my mother saw that someone had filled in the margins of my third-form primer with the sketches of wings, talons, and heads of local birds. "I thought this primer was brand-new," she said. "But it's full of these bird drawings. Well, somebody has talent." After a night's sleep she realized that the pencil work was mine and was what I had been concentrating on during my school lessons. Actually she seemed quite pleased, and at breakfast the following morning said, "Awfully nice to learn something so unmistakable about one's offspring." She tore out a page full of heads of gulls and ospreys, wrote, "October 28, 1900," on it, and nailed it to the kitchen door.
Witless Bay's librarian was Mrs. Paulette Bath, a spirited woman in her late fifties or early sixties when I was a boy. She claimed to have read every one of the hundreds of books in her library, which was her own living room, dining room, and sitting room. She had not claimed that in a bragging way but as if it had been a natural obligation. Her house overlooked the wharf. She gave out hand-printed library cards. "Like in the city," she said. Each card had the silhouette of a woman reading in a bathtub, which I assume was a humorous turn on her own last name. You either remembered your card or had to fetch it. No exceptions were allowed. No book left her library without the date printed in her cramped script on a piece of lined cardboard tucked into a pocket glued to the inside back cover. She kept scrupulous records. She had taught my childhood friend Margaret Handle the fundamentals of bookkeeping. She would reprimand borrowers in public about overdue books. She featherdusted, humming, and was all but constantly alarmed about book lice. Some afternoons I would come in and immediately be aware that she had been spraying book spines with rubbing alcohol, her own remedy. On her mantel was her framed certificate of Library Science, earned in London, where she had been raised. She had left there when she was thirty-four.
In her library I discovered a few books on natural history, including First Book of Zoology, by Edward Morse, which was published in the United States. But it contained only technical illustrations. Whereas the volume that changed my life—I should better say gave me purchase on it—was to be found in Mrs. Bath's private collection, sequestered in a glass case that had five shelves. The book was called Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, 1731-1748. It had been a gift from her Aunt Mina, a patron of libraries in London; Aunt Mina's photograph was next to Mrs. Bath's certificate on the mantel. This book was a true revelation for me. It held 220 hand-colored engravings of North American flowers, weeds, and wild animals. But what I memorized and actually dreamed about were the 109 birds. The naturalist's name was Mark Catesby. He was the first real bird artist I knew about.
I sat every afternoon, I think for two years, in Mrs. Bath's living room, the main reading area, turning the pages of Catesby's work. I can still smell her sofa. At the thick-legged oval table, with its lion's-paw feet, I would set out my scrap paper and copy. Copy, copy, copy. One morning Mrs. Bath stood next to me, looking over my shoulder. "Mr. Catesby, dead so long now," she said. "Yet his birds are so alive in these pages. To you, Fabian, I imagine this art is as important as Leonardo da Vinci's."
"Who's Leonardo da Vinci?"
"A great genius."
"Did he ever paint birds?"
"Truth be told, I don't know. He never painted them in Newfoundland."
She laughed, sharpened a pencil for me, and left me alone until she closed the library, at exactly six o'clock, by the chimes of her clock.
When I finally stopped my formal schooling after fourth grade, having learned to read and write, my mother kept after me to read books. She would make lists of words, set them out on the table after supper, and go over them with me. "I'm not as good as the real dictionary," she said, "but pretty close."
I did keep up with my reading. I struggled to write clearly, too. I took pride in my secret diaries. These were not diaries full of a boy's confessions, though a few of those might have crept in. More, I made up travels to places I had read about, and described birds, landscapes, certain dangerous encounters with the local natives, and there always seemed to be earthquakes, volcanoes, and monsoons as well. Anyway, by age eight I was practically living out in the coves, the wetlands, or at Lambert Charibon's trout camp. Lambert was a friend of my father's. He let me stay around sketching kingfishers, ospreys, and his crippled pet owl. At age eleven, I put a lot of time into a field guide to coastal species, made up of my own drawings, of course. I sewed the pages together and donated it to the library. Now and then I would check to see if anyone had taken it out. "People here know the birds already," Mrs. Bath said. "They don't need a guide. Every book is a curiosity of sorts, I suppose. Yours is a local example of that. But maybe a tourist will pass through and need it. You never can tell."
All through those years her advice, given once, but very firmly, rang in my ears: "Just draw. It's a God-given gift." Before she died, when I was seventeen, she often provided me with money out of her own till for pens, pencils, inks, special paper. Drawing birds was what I most loved. It had been from the beginning.
Besides Mrs. Bath, I showed my drawings only to Margaret Handle, beginning when I was fifteen. Margaret was four years older than I. She lived with her father, Enoch, who piloted the mail boat, the Aunt Ivy Barnacle, the first steam-engine vessel I ever saw. Her mother had died when she was seven. She had, I was told, her mother's red hair; colorwise, this contradicted her father's ancestry, which was part Beothuk Indian. There were no longer any Beothuks left in Newfoundland by the time I was born, in 1891. As my own mother once put it, Margaret was on her own earlier than most, because Enoch was away for such long periods of time, collecting and delivering mail north and south along the coast. I might have been merely two or three years old, but I remember a night my father carried me on his shoulders past the lighthouse and all the way into the village to show me Margaret's house lit up by candles. As far as I am concerned, this was my first memory. Lambert Charibon accompanied us that night. We stood about a hundred feet away. There was a candelabrum on the dining-room table, consisting of five candles. There was a candle in each window as well. "She can't sleep, Enoch told me she told him, unless the house is lit up like Christmas," my father said.
"If that's going to be a lifelong habit," Lambert said, "she might want to learn to dip candles herself, to save money."
Lambert carried me back home.
One day when I was thirteen Margaret found me sketching scoter ducks at the wharf. She sat down next to me. She had just cut her hair. It was the shortest I had ever seen it. She looked at my drawing. "You know," she said, "my father taught me to shoot ducks, him being away so much. I've seen scoters close up. I've cleaned them. In my opinion, you've caught its likeness, except for the face. Close up, a scoter's got a more delicate face. You've got yours looking like a decoy. A wooden face. But you're an artist, Fabian, and I've never sat with an artist before." It was a hot summer day. No breeze at all off the sea. She tightened her hand around mine, the one with the pencil in it, and drew my hand to her chest and fluttered her own on top. She moved my hand to her breast for a moment. Then she got up and walked home. Well, for days after, I drew only scoters. I went too far at first, making their faces almost human, and then, after many hours of work, came around to something Margaret approved of. I thought she would put my hand on her breast again, but she did not.
For several years in decent weather we took long walks together. I brought a feeling of nervous mystery to these walks, based mostly on one thing, really: when would Margaret provoke me out of my silence? I desired not to talk. She would get annoyed. "Don't you have an opinion? If you don't have opinions, you're the village idiot." The actual provocation reminded me of a saying that aptly pertained to the unpredictable and sudden shifts in Newfoundland weather: Every breeze may messenger a storm. One time, for instance, Margaret was just talking along about this or that; then, as if interrupting herself, said, "I saw your mother touch Botho August's collar. Well, no doubt she was flicking away a moth—"
"I've seen her do that to one of our window curtains at home," I said.
"Alaric's particularly fussy about that sort of thing, I guess."
"Still, it was an intimate gesture, don't you think?"
"How far away from them were you, to see it?"
"Here's what. I was in Romeo Gillette's store, along a wall aisle."
"Left or right of the counter?"
"Right, facing the counter."
"And I was looking at a pair of fancy stockings."
"I know the store pretty well. I didn't know that Romeo had lady's stockings in there."
"Have you ever seen a pair, let alone on anyone?"
"Anyway, you know the customer bell Romeo has. Well, Botho and Alaric were standing at the counter. And neither of them was tapping the bell. Romeo must've been in the stockroom, maybe."
"My mother's so rarely in the store. Botho's rarely in the store, too, I'm told. What a coincidence!"
"Your mother bought sewing thread."
"This was yesterday?"
"That's right, then, because she brought home black thread."
"Botho told Alaric he was there to pick up gramophone records, which my father had brought from Halifax."
"So, all right. My mother was there for thread. Botho for the gramophone discs."
"Nobody was ringing the bell. They were talking with each other."
"And. With somebody mid-sentence, I think it was Alaric, she reached out and touched his collar. I for one didn't see a moth, though a moth might've been there. I right away stepped out and said, 'Hello, Mrs. Vas!' and she nearly jumped out of her shoes. 'I have stockings,' I said. Botho walks right up to me, takes the stockings out of my hand, holds the pair the length of my legs, impolite as an ill-bred child. Says, 'I don't yet have anyone to buy French stockings for.' At which moment Romeo steps out from the back room. 'They're not French,' Romeo says, 'they're from Montreal, Canada, though a French seamstress might well have made them.' Botho squints and tilts his head and narrows his eyes, like he does."
"I've seen him do that."
"And Alaric—your mother got so flustered, she rang the customer bell! Romeo standing right there! She says, 'I'll come back for this thread,' sets it on the counter, walks to the back of the store, turns around, and pays Romeo for the thread and leaves the store."
"Says, 'Did my gramophone discs come in yet?' Yes, says Romeo. 'Well, then, I'll pick them up tomorrow,' says Botho. He leaves the store."
"Where are we walking to, anyway?"
"Guess what else? I went to the store this morning and found that Botho August had paid for my stockings. I have them in a dresser drawer at home."
"Wherever will you wear them?"
"Maybe only by myself, Fabian. At home. In the privacy of my house."
"We're almost to the cliff. Where are we going?" "We can turn either left or right, or go back down the path. There's choices."
"Margaret, this conversation—Botho, my mother in the store. It feels like an insult to my father. That's my opinion."
"Probably it was just a moth."
She took my hand.
"Where are we walking to, anyway?" I said.
"We're just walking along and talking. It's enough not to be chaperoned on such a balmy night."
The eeriest thing about fate, it seems to me, is how you try to deny it even when it's teaching you to kiss. A few weeks after my sixteenth birthday in April, Margaret said, "I'm going to give you a lesson." Just like that. We were standing on a dock. The Aunt Ivy Barnacle was tied up at the end. "Fabian, you kiss like I imagine an old man does. Like you used to know how but can't quite recall. It makes me almost start laughing. And I don't want to laugh when I kiss somebody, Fabian. I want almost the opposite, whatever that is. Maybe to be on the verge of tears every second of it."
She led me from the dock onto the Aunt Ivy Barnacle, the wooden, two-tiered wedding cake of a boat. We climbed down into the bunkroom. Margaret said, "Lie down there. It's all right." I looked around as if there was some place other than the bed she might have meant. "The bed," she said. I got under the one blanket, fully clothed. Watching, Margaret simply shook her head back and forth. Then she took her clothes off entirely and got in next to me.
Now Margaret was at the center of my life. I did not fully recognize this fact at first, did not consider it possible while lying with her that night. Maybe I had come to believe that tenderness was the least practical part of my nature, so what could be the use of it? "It's all right," she said in the middle of the night. She may have been asleep when she said it.
I think it was about five o'clock in the morning when we heard Enoch up on deck. When he started down the stairs, Margaret wrapped her legs tightly around me and said, "Shut your eyes." We heard Enoch go back up the stairs.
"I've never been all night anywhere but my own house," I said.
"Now you have."
"I'm going to have to explain it."
"Not to me."
"My mother, I meant. My father."
"If we walk right up to your house hand in hand, stand right in the kitchen and ask for breakfast together, I bet they'll get the hint."
"Margaret, my mother doesn't like you. You know that."
"She can't bear me. But I can keep you separate from Alaric. I don't know if she can."
"Your father's right up on deck."
"Put on your clothes, Fabian, and walk up there. Say good morning to him, because it's morning. You don't have to add anything. I'm getting more sleep."
I climbed up and said, "Good morning," to Enoch. He was mopping out the steering cabin.
He did not look up. "You know, I've let Margaret steer this boat since she was ten. Why, she could take over my job any minute, if need be! She can take apart and put together this newfangled steam engine. She just learned it with native intelligence, eh? She's always had a talent for mechanical things. That's something she might not have told you, so I thought that I would."
Roughly from 1908 to 1911, I was faithfully apprenticed to a bird artist named Isaac Sprague. I had followed up on his advertisement in the journal Bird Lore, which Mrs. Bath had ordered specially on my behalf. In her will, in fact, she left me all the back issues.
Sprague lived in Halifax. Above my desk I had tacked a reproduction of his painting of a red-throated loon, which I had torn from an issue of Bird Lore. It was so graceful and transcendent that each time I sat down in front of it to work, it made me want to give up. But then after I had stared at it, the loon became an inspiration. It was uncanny how that change overtook me. The pencil seemed to move of its own volition. The brush made a beak, feather, eye. It was as if to hesitate or think too much, to resist in any way, would impede the progress of my calling. I was convinced that birds were kinds of souls. Not the souls of people but of previous birds whose mystery and beauty were so necessary on earth that God would not allow them to be anything in their second life but birds again. This was an idea I had come up with when I was nine or ten, just after Reverend Sillet's sermon on the transformation of souls in heaven. I sometimes went to church with my mother. Witless Bay had the Anglican Church of England. I would sit antsy in the pew, or daydream. Having made my own connections between God and birds, I felt moral enough not to have to listen too closely to Sillet's sermons. Besides, I had already passed my own judgement on Sillet; I had made a few drawings of him taking potshots at a woodpecker on the church belfry.
It went like this. I would send five carefully packed drawings or watercolors to Halifax, and Sprague would comment by return mail; this might take one summer month, if the Aunt Ivy Barnacle was in good repair and if Enoch did not dawdle on his mail stops, and if fair weather prevailed. But when I sent drawings out just before winter, I would not get Sprague's reply until spring, because the Aunt Ivy Barnacle would be in dry dock. Anyway, once I did get a letter from Sprague, I would send him two dollars, a lot of money for me. For anyone in Witless Bay, for that matter. To pay my parents' room and board, which I had done since I was thirteen, I worked at the dry dock, repairing and painting schooners, trawlers, dories. I sometimes worked side by side with my father. Still and all, I was barely able to afford the inks, special paper, and brushes which I ordered through Gillette's store, especially after Mrs. Bath died.
Excerpted from The Bird Artist by Howard Norman. Copyright © 1994 Howard Norman. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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