It only took one step to reach a tiny spot between his bookcase and the closet.
"I know I put that dang thing somewhere.” At last with pages spread about, he said, "Here it is. Here it is. Yeah, look at that. Come on. Sit down.”
I took a seat and leaned in to get a better view. Hardly believing what I saw it was a full-page copy of a colorful mandala. Its power quietened us both as we peered at the holy drawing.
“Yeah, now, ya see, to understand what the Yagnahoulas believed," Don began, "ya gotta look at this image of their Spirit Bird, the Ivory-Bill Woodpecker. Course, they’re extinct now.” My gut told me the giant birds were not gone—just deeper in their woodland habitat. But this wasn't the time to broach the subject.
"Now, this here is what showed the people all they needed to know to live in harmony. Cause they had no written language, they used a picture to teach the people.”
"It's amazing to think of now in 1992…how people lived without reading and writing. But when I meditated on it, I was filled with a sense of a unique connection with them. One that went beyond words.
"Yeah, so they revered this symbol like modern people honor the Bible, Torah, Bhagavad Gita, or any other holy book. Instead of scrolls, the Nahoula women etched this mandala into their pottery. That’s how they preserved their sacred knowledge and passed it on for generations."
I imagined a young girl next to her mother who had come to her with a question.
As her mother prepared a meal, she nods to the engraving on the pot. With her cooking spoon in one hand, she points to a particular image with the other. The girl listens raptly as her mother tells the story about one of the truths portrayed. Stories teach us in a way books can't, so the child gets her question answered in a way she can understand and retain. How earthy and relevant.
"So, Don, the crockery bearing this etching still exists?”
"Yep, and it shows where the people traveled, too. People have found some as far north as the midwest and the northeastern United States."
"I'd love to hold one in my hand someday."
"Well, maybe ya will."
"Hmm...what a thought."
Returning to the drawing, he continued. "Now see how it has two heads?"
My Shawnee teacher turned his blue eyes on me and shook his index finger to emphasize his point. "There's a reason for two heads turned in opposite directions. One is directed downward toward the ground, and the other upward to the Heavens.”
"So," I said, "the double heads teach us about the balance between Father Sky and Mother Earth.”
"Yeah," Don nodded. "That's right. Now there's something else ya need to get. Because the heads face left and right, this means no matter what direction life turns you, you have to be able to keep your bearings. You gotta survive whatever situation you find yourself in, see?.”
I thought of my unhealthy relationship with my married boyfriend and how futile it was. When we met, he was no longer living with his wife and said they were getting divorced. Same old story, right? But, at the time, I was naïve enough to believe him. Now five years later, things had not changed. I had landed in quicksand, smothering me as it sucked me down until I wanted to die.
Wish I could survive, but I don't have the stamina nor the will to try. Life has twisted me like a pretzel. It's too late for me.
Don indicatied the toes of the Ivory-bill and continued. "Now, their toes are dagger-sharp, giving them another advantage for survival. One is pointed downward, the second and third one turned up, and the fourth sticks out to the side."
"So, is that how they held onto trees while pecking at them?"
"Yep, uh-huh. But besides that it could spread out its toes, see." He splayed his fingers to stress his point. "This helped them in two ways. First, it let them hold onto the bark and hitch themselves up or around the tree to feed."
"What's the second way?"
"Well, see, when high winds or hurricanes came along, these tough birds could hang onto the trees.
"Even in hurricanes?"
"Unbelievable how strong they were to withstand those kinds of winds."
"Yeah, but another thing, when the wind direction changed, the great woodpeckers could work their way around to the protected side of the tree."
"Nature is astounding. They were able to live through hurricane force winds that could blow rooftops off a house.
I paused and decided to confide in him. Not knowing how to, I just blurted it out. ”I'm ready to give up on life, Don. I can't keep up. And I'm exhausted."
"Nope," my friend and teacher said, "You got to have a fire in the belly. That's what the Spirit Bird teaches. You just gotta."
Hmm...a fire in the belly. The last thing in my belly was fire."You know, Don, I don't think I'll ever recover that kind of outlook. I'm worn out. Used up. And, I'm only in my forties."
"Nah, ya can't give up. Ya gotta always say: I will live again. I will live again."
"I don't understand how people who live here on the Gulf Coast have the courage to start over again. One board at a time. I guess they have fire in their bellies, right?
Don peered into one the drawers of his bureau and pulled out a book. The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Philip M. Hoose depicts the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. “‘Round about 1810, an ornithologist from Scotland named Alexander Wilson captured an Ivory-bill. He was a nature photographer, see. But when he couldn't manage a photo, he caught the bird, made a sketch, then let it go free.”
I stretched the small of my back. Don noticed and said, "Come on, let's sit on the sofa."
"No, that's okay. What happened next?"
"Well, once he snared the thing, he covered the creature and tucked him under his arm. Before Wilson got to his hotel room, though, it shrieked so loud people wondered what was goin' on." Don broke out into laughter. "Yeah, boy that shore is somethin'. They got a thirty-inch wingspan, ya know? So, when they flew by you could hear a rush of wind. And people would say, “‘Lord God’” That's how it got the name, Lord God Bird."
Don's hand was twitching again as he got invigorated telling the tale. Then, he rubbed his thigh and started tapping his foot. "Anyway, when Wilson got to the hotel, he locked the dang thing in his room and went to feed his horses, see?"
Don grinned and shook his head before going on. "Well, when he got back to his room, the air was filled with dust, and the bed covered in plaster.” He lowered his head and shook it. “Yep, was all over the place. That bird had anchored itself to the top of the window, made a hole in the wall, and was about to escape."
"I will live again. I will live again," I repeated.
A wave of nostalgia washed over me as I remembered having that kind of fire. But, no more. My light has gone out. "So, what happened?"
“When Wilson went to grab the thing to take it down, it snapped its beak and slashed him with its dagger-sharp claws. Somehow he managed to get it down, though, and he tied it to the leg of a heavy table. Thinking the bird might calm down if he fed him, he went looking for food. When he got back, the woodpecker was standing on a pile of mahogany chips––the remnants of the hotel table.
A laugh escaped from me and caught me off-guard, “Lord God.”
“Yeah,” Don confirmed his claim. “I see why they're called the Lord God Bird."
"That old bird decided to live again, and nothing was gonna stop her.
The account saddened and overwhelmed me. To fight seemed so tiring.
Will I ever live again? Will I ever be able to live again?