by Jonathan Arena
Spoon Man. Spoon Man. The words repeated in my head over and over. It had such a whimsical ring to it. The perfect name for such a mysterious man.
The stories from classmates offered pieces of the puzzle, glimpses of the story, but it was all hearsay. All of it except for one thing. The one thing that sprouted every rumor and every tale. Thousands of spoons decorated his lonely property in the nearby forest.
I write this story because I met Spoon Man one afternoon. An afternoon I will never forget, not in a hundred years. It was all because I wanted to win Best Student Journalist at my high school so I would be accepted by my dream college. And this was the story of all stories. Romantic, I know. I lost the award, but the visit remains close to me.
The overgrown foot trail to his home was a long and arduous one. Nearly two miles from the road but worth every step. The weather had cooled the previous week, and the leaves were beginning to change. Autumn rustled and blew, but when I arrived at the cabin, everything seemed still.
All but the wooden spoons.
The spoons hung in rows from the porch ceiling, along the roof and around the chimney, and they swung from the branches of trees. They knocked and clanked together with the shifting breeze, echoing in the empty woods. The entire property was adorned like a festival. But there was no sign of anyone or anything else. The unrehearsed symphony remained the only evidence of habitation.
The closer I walked, the more unmistakable the details of the spoons became. Carved from a variety of wood, they were stunning. Pristine and well-designed, sanded and oiled, some even painted with colors and patterns. Every shape and size you could imagine. The diligence and craftsmanship were obvious. Spoon Man had incredible talent. It must have been from all the practice.
And with each stride forward, my heart raced.
The rotted porch rose three steps, and each one creaked louder than the last. I avoided the protruding nails in the floorboards and arrived at the door. To the left was an empty rocking chair swaying in the same breeze the spoons danced with. Spoons even dangled overhead as I reached for the screen door. It hung on a single hinge, and the screen was so badly ripped its purpose was lost.
It screeched a deafening protest that caused me to hesitate. I took another breath and slipped my hand through and knocked three times. But not until the seventh set of knocks did someone answer.
My stomach sank through the porch as the door crept open. A long gray beard and wrinkled face greeted me. His eyes were heavy and his ears were big. His tattered clothes looked even older than he did.
“How many times do you plan to knock?” he asked in an aggravated yet fragile tone. There was also a European accent in there.
I tried to respond. I wanted to respond. But instead, my legs turned and dashed back the way I came. They ran me down the trail before my mind could catch up and stop.
I stared back down the footpath at Spoon Man’s cabin. I tried to slow my thumping heart, but it was pointless. A droplet of water splashed onto my nose from the sky, and I looked up, only to be struck by another on my forehead. And then another. I ran back toward the cabin as fast as I could as the rain worsened.
It only got heavier, and it all happened so quick. I was soaked before I reached the cabin again. I collapsed onto the hardwood underneath the roof of the porch and enjoyed the dryness. The sound of the rain pinging on the tin roof nearly put me to sleep. It reminded me of my old house in my old town. But the clanking of wooden spoons pulled me away from further reminiscing. And when I looked up, the front door was wide open.
I wiped my boots on the old mat and stepped into the cabin. It was dimly lit, but well organized and clean. A single lantern illuminated the kitchen area, but most of the light came from a burning wood stove with an open hatch.
Two chairs faced the stove. One was occupied.
Unlike the porch, the wood floors on the inside made little to no sound. The heavy rain drilling the tin roof above faded into the background and gave room for two more noises: the carving of wood and the burning of wood.
I stepped with slow feet as burnt wood and tobacco filled my nostrils. Suddenly, he stopped carving and sat back in his chair. He placed the carving knife onto a small table beside him.
“The closer you are to the fire, the faster you’ll dry.” He picked up a smoking pipe next to the knife and puffed. He took a deep drag and held it tightly in his lungs. He blew out three rings that floated across the cabin in the light of the fire before fading away and disappearing.
“May I carve you a spoon?”
“Uh, yes,” I replied. “Please.”
The million questions I had prepared ran through my mind, but I had a few new ones as well. Why would he want to carve one for a total stranger? Why had he let me in and no one else? Have more made it inside? Does he carve spoons for everyone he kills? Is that why there are so many? No one knows where I am.
I realized I was still standing in the middle of the floor. Spoon Man had put the pipe back down on the table and gone back to carving.
I decided to keep walking despite my instinct to run and never look back. I moved one foot in front of the other and approached the empty chair beside Spoon Man. The warmth from the fire was inviting and helped pull me in. I dragged my feet to the front of the chair and placed myself on its main cushion.
My eyes lifted to the man’s face, but he was busy with his carving. He moved the blade along the grain and worked on the rough design of a project that clearly resembled a spoon. The careful stroke of a sharpened blade against green wood was crisp and satisfying to the ear. The way he manipulated the knife against the wood fascinated me and appeared so precise that you would not believe he was an old man.
“You must have come here for something.” he asked, never breaking the stroke of his knife against the wood.
I fumbled the words in my head. While they bounced around chaotically, my tongue twisted into a thousand knots. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was a desert. Finally, a single word came free.
Spoon Man turned my way and smiled. And when he did, his teeth were not rotten and crooked like I expected. They were a sparkling white, even better than my own. I tried to relax in the chair, but I couldn’t. I sat there as stiff and nervous as a student next in line to present a project he had not done.
“Where would you like to start?” He went back to carving. “It’s been a long time. I could use the conversation.” Shaping the bottom of the spoon bowl, he worked his way back and forth to create a smooth curve. I watched in awe before remembering I had a question to answer.
“Why?” I stuttered. That was all I had, and Spoon Man chuckled.
“Why what?” he asked.
“Why… spoons? And why me?” I forced myself farther back into the chair.
“Spoons are practical and useful,” he said matter-of-factly. “And no one’s ever knocked before.” He paused and held the spoon up to the light of the stove for a better look. He measured the edges with his eyes and must have noticed something, because he went straight back to carving.
“No one’s knocked before? But all the stories…”
“You don’t believe everything you hear, do you?” He held out the spoon for another inspection. “Especially from children your age.”
“I’m not a child!” I insisted. “I’m seventeen.”
“When you get to be my age, everyone under fifty is a child.” Spoon Man rested the spoon on his lap and the knife on the table. He pressed the pipe against his lips again and lit a match. The tobacco leaves burned and filled the room with their scent. He took a large puff and blew two more smoke rings that traveled past me.
“Having thousands of spoons is not practical or useful,” I said, or wished I said. What I did manage to spill was far less eloquent: “Why all the spoons?”
“Because I feel alive when I carve them. I feel something.” Spoon Man’s eyes pierced my own like a javelin. His gaze shifted back to his pipe as quickly as it arrived. He thumbed the tobacco and lit another match.
I think he wanted me to ask more. I think he needed me to. So I used my new favorite word.
He took another puff from his pipe and exhaled the smoke. But this time no rings. He placed it back on the table and picked up a different knife, one with a hooked blade. The instrument was put to work carving out the inside of the spoon bowl.
“I’m Swedish,” he offered. “Woodcarving is in my blood.” A loud crack from the fire nearly launched me from my seat. I settled back into the cushion and saw that Spoon Man had stopped carving and was staring deep into the wood stove. “And because the love of my life died fifty-seven years ago. That’s why there are so many. I’ve had fifty-seven years to do them all.”
He went back to carving. I closed my mouth and scrambled for another question.
“But why spoons?” I asked. World-class journalist, I was.
“Because I was carving her a spoon.” He paused his knife stroke but only briefly. He continued again, with more force than before. “I was carving her a spoon. She was a cook and specialized in soups. She used many spoons. And it was my first carved spoon. I had finally finished it and rushed to give it to her. But she was dead. Car accident… if you can call it that. Drunk driver striking a Swedish immigrant’s Danish wife in 1947? Forget about justice. I burned the spoon in a fire and have never felt the same. The last time I can say I was happy was when I was carving a spoon. So here I am, two thousand, four hundred and seventy-two… three spoons later, but happiness still avoids me.”
His voice cracked on the last word, and my heart stopped. But he kept carving the spoon, never once breaking concentration on the task. My heartbeat resumed, and I was able to relax in the chair again.
Spoon Man was no lunatic in the woods who shoved spoons down your throat and up your asshole until you agreed to pray to his spoons, as Tommy Fletcher and the others claimed. Instead, he was a heartbroken old man who had spent his life trying to recapture feelings of love.
“That’s beautiful,” I said. What else could I say? It was beautiful. Like a poem written centuries ago.
“No, it is not.” Spoon Man stopped carving and looked at me. His eyes gazed upon mine so intently that I could see the pain in each and every year of those fifty-seven. He then stood from his chair and stepped into the kitchen, where he collected a couple of items.
I turned to watch but remained in my chair. He wetted a rag with grapeseed oil and rubbed the entire spoon methodically several times.
I searched for words, but my mind was useless. Silence prevailed.
Spoon Man studied his creation one last time. A smile sprung onto his face after checking all the angles, curves and sides. He walked back and held the spoon out to me. I accepted the gift and studied it myself.
The smooth design of the bowl and handle were magnificent. But he carved it so quickly and with such ease. A true master craftsman.
“It’s beautiful,” I remarked, and he appeared glad for the compliment.
“Keep it outside in the moisture for a few weeks.” He picked up his pipe and thumbed the tobacco. “The grapeseed oil will hasten the settling process, but it will still crack if it dries out too much.”
Without another word, he strolled to the front door of the cabin. Sunshine poured onto his face, and he seemed to enjoy the warmth on his pale skin. I was so enthralled by the man himself, I had not even noticed the pinging on the tin roof had stopped. He stepped outside and left the door open like an invitation. Soon the rocking chair could be heard swinging back and forth.
I finally stood from the chair and joined him. A soft breeze greeted my cheeks, and the sun shined bright. The dark clouds had passed, and the day appeared heavenly once more. Rainwater dripped from the roof and the trees and splashed into puddles. Birds chirped and a squirrel chased another across a tree branch decorated with spoons.
The smell of the woods after a storm always soothed my senses. I could not help but smile.
He rocked in his chair and loaded more tobacco into his pipe. He puffed calmly on the fresh leaves. A train of smoke rings left his mouth and danced through the humid air before dissipating. He turned to me with a noticeable smile.
“This is beautiful.”
My agreement was obvious and the two of us enjoyed the sounds and smells of the forest. The decorated parcel of land was absolutely delightful and would leave anyone in awe. When I first arrived, my initial impulse was fear. I had never been filled with such despair. But in hindsight… how foolish was I?
Spoon Man appeared to look upon me with more and more gratitude. The wrinkled bags under his eyes seemed less heavy when he gazed into mine.
“I think that’s my last spoon,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I held it out for another look.
“I’m retiring.” He thumbed the tobacco. “Hanging up my knives, if you will.” He finished the contents of the pipe with another puff.
“Why?” I found myself holding the spoon with even more care. It was special.
“I no longer wish to carve spoons. I found what I was seeking.”
Spoon Man laughed. He had a great laugh, which made me laugh. We must have laughed for five minutes. And then I decided to leave. I wanted to stay but I felt like I should leave. I did not want to ruin our perfect afternoon by staying too long. So we said goodbye.
I found what I was seeking.
The words echoed in my head the entire hike back to my car. I had no idea what to make of the whole thing, to be honest. It was beautiful, it was bizarre. So unexpected. I was not even sure it happened. But then I felt the hardwood of the spoon in my hand and held it out for another look.
It did happen.
Darkness swallowed the town before I arrived back home. I was brief with my parents and skipped dinner, to their confusion. I only wanted to be upstairs at my desk with paper and pen.
So I did just that and got to work. I wrote all night. I wrote down everything. Every little detail I could remember. I wrote the last period just before three in the morning. It was finished. I had goosebumps and could not wait to publish it in the school’s newspaper. But would anyone even believe me? I looked to my left and there it was. The only proof I had. Spoon Man’s spoon.
Keep it outside in the moisture for a few weeks.
His soft voice rang through my head, so I leapt from my desk and stepped out onto the back deck. I placed the precious spoon to rest on the ledge of the deck railing. I stayed out there for a moment to appreciate its beauty in the moonlight.
I fell asleep despite my excitement and dreamed of spoons. Of Spoon Man. Of the entire afternoon.
But the next morning, the spoon was gone. I looked everywhere on the deck, under the deck, around the yard, but it had vanished. I cried for hours.
Two days later, I went back to the cabin, and all the spoons were gone too. Not a trace or piece of evidence remained except for the cabin itself. And even that was empty and looked abandoned.
I went home, uncertain if any of it had even happened. Again. But had no spoon to remind me this time. I cried more.
I never published the story and never spoke of Spoon Man again. At least not for the last fourteen years. Not until this publication. And that was why I failed to win the Best Student Journalist award at school, but it never stopped me from going to my dream college.
From Into the Deep Woods