Above the lively chorus of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” my dad expressed excited interest in a dead bird on the side of the dry CA I-5. I asked him if he wanted me to pull the minivan over. He said no, but the single syllable sounded tender with what if feels like. He didn’t know what kind of bird it was, which was not out of the ordinary. On an occasion separate from this day, he said, “I’m not good with birds.” This referred to nothing more than his inability to name most of them, because it’s a fact that nobody sculpts a better dead bird than my dad.
A chicken (placed on top of a man’s head in the final composition). A sparrow (he thinks). A seagull. A duckling.
One that looked like a little hawk.
A couple others. “I don’t know what they were.”
In Dad’s studio, my 17-year-old brother sculpted a crow. Lacking the finesse our dad did in handling the creatures, my brother left the crow at his work station for nights at a time without visiting it. Soon enough it churned with maggots; the oil clay sculpture was barely finished by the time the carcass had to go for good.
When we lived in Connecticut a turkey leapt into my mom’s path on the highway, transforming the entire windshield into a glass web. Inferring that she was safe due to her ability to make a phone call, my dad asked, “Did you get the turkey?”
Dead birds aren’t all my dad sculpts—in the grand scheme of everything he has sculpted they amount to a small fraction. I look at Christoffel van den Berghe to better understand what it does to the body of his art as a whole. Van den Berghe’s work primarily features still lifes of flowers, but in his painting Still Life with Dead Birds, a variety of birds takes the place of a bouquet. The surrounding items in the piece—fruit and tableware—are classically featured in still lifes, and in this case they help to enhance the legitimacy of the dead bird bouquet and make it appear less peculiar in a still-peculiar way. Dead birds have called to my dad time and time again, and now they do the same to my brother. We have to listen to the things that make us want to pull over, because they will enrich the ultimate vision we wish to fulfill.
My dad drove me and my crow-sculpting brother to Monterey in April. We climbed the Fort Ord dunes up and then down to a beach with a large personality—grey sky persisting, waves characteristically angry, and the interior decoration of the ocean spilled onto the sand, crunching underneath each footstep. Fog enclosed us. Not twenty-five feet into our traverse did we come across what looked like a penguin. He had matted feathers and an exposed ribcage. And then we walked by another one, dead too, and another one, dead in a different way. A field day for my dad and brother, they packed the most pristine one in beach trash—a deflated helium balloon, a cadaver in its own right.
Of course, it wasn’t a penguin that they transferred from the beach to a balloon to the back of our minivan—it was a common murre. And a dead common murre is not a blues musician or Renaissance era sculpture. This is to say that when my dad becomes fascinated with something, he devotes time to learning names and identifying characteristics. He is not fascinated with birds; he is fascinated with dead birds—it’s the image, the form, the story behind a mangled found object. The only other characteristic that might matter to him is how the dead bird smells, but that never truly stopped him either. The common murre smelled worse than anything I’d ever smelled, like one would expect out of a rotting corpse found on the beach. It floods my nasal memory as I write this. It is a valuable memory.
On that trip home from Monterey, he spotted another bird. I didn’t see it and my brother didn’t see it, but my dad is on record as saying, “That’s one beautiful dead bird.” He didn’t stop for it; after all, we had one in our trunk, ready to be sculpted, and also beautiful.
No matter how small they may be, my dad will pull over for birds when he feels fit. Last week I found a palm-sized bird on the floor of our minivan, and it was gone the next time I went to drive.
Photo Credit: Daniel Edwards
August Edwards is attending University of New Mexico to pursue a degree in English. She wrote her first story when she was in kindergarten and started her first novel in fourth grade. Before New Mexico, she lived in Indiana, Connecticut, and California, and she’s excited to see where she’ll go next.