The Loon Totem by Al Rutgers

The thing about having the Loon as your totem is that like the Loon your dreams can soar to lofty heights, and like the Loon you can plunge deep into the murky waters of despair. You are clumsy on solid land.

That is why I found myself prone on the forest floor with pine needles pricking my shirt and the taste of decaying cedar bursting in my mouth. I had stumbled while trying to discover the wood I needed to create my mask. Now in my prone state I spied a naked limb of cedar that was polished and gleaming from the spring shower. It was a delicate reddish hue, I knew it was my mask.

I carried it back to my treehouse and laid it on my rough-hewn table under the shelter of the eave. Then I sat, smoked my pipe, and contemplated.

The bough was shaped like my leg. The bark had been peeled clean by the elements to reveal a veining reminiscent of the finest Italian marble. By the knee of the bough was the most glorious, textured, reddish-brown knot. It was the Spirit’s eye.

I did not start with the eye. I began at the out-stretched toe. Here the beak began to take shape. I whittled it sharp. I leaned back on my bench and spoke to the Spirit.

“You have surprised me,” I said. “You have a scissor beak.” But I was pleased with the deformity.

As each shaving curled away under the steady rap-a-tap-tap of my hammer and chisel I remembered. I remembered a taste, a flavor, a meal.

I remembered my first dinner with her. How we shared that rare tingling, dissolving, sliver of blue tuna. I recalled the pungent taste of the wedding fruit cake wrapped in a doily. And of course that first kiss. Was it salty or sweet? I still cannot tell.

My chisel now fluttered to the head and neck of the bird. Each stroke tracing a feathered pattern into the long taut beam of my mask. I felt the haunting call of the Loon in the throat of the wood and I thought of how the Loon mimics the calls of other creatures, even the cry of wolves to ward off intruders from their nests.

I too was a mimic. To get ahead, to protect my family, I mimicked. I mimicked the talk of business. Words like synergy, bottom-line and consumer rolled from my lips.
I dug the chisel deeper into the wood and the memories of downsizing and severance and telling men they were ‘no longer needed’ cut into me. I cried. I cried mournful words like failure, bankruptcy and sub-prime. Through it all my Loon stayed with me, whispering in my ear.

“Calm now. The only truth of life is how you accept its forms, shapes and possibilities.”

This steadied me in my storm.

Now I carved the eye. With a stroke of my mallet the chisel pierced the camber and the wood glowed red as a honey-colored drop of amber filled the lid of the orb. The sharp scent of cedar triggered memories.

A baby. A twisted umbilical cord. The sleepless nights. The joy of firsts. First steps, first words, first school, first life.

I remembered the losses too. The burying of urns in forest depths and the scattering of ashes into glacial waters, and I understood how there was sustenance at both the soaring heights and the murky depths. I laughed.

Then I stared deep into the eye where the pain swirled in an endless whirlpool. I nearly drowned.

The experts said, “Stress, Depression, Chronic pain.”

The specialists hinted, “Trigeminal Neuralgia—the suicide disease.”

They gave me their rosaries to pray with—Amitriptyline, Xanax, Effexor, Axert, Gabapentin—and like prayer some helped.

Again my Totem spoke to me and willed me to rise from the murky waters. He brought me back. Back to the warmth of the sun. The spectacle of nature. The essence of being.

I learned from the forest. The cedars taught me to stand and stretch my fingertips to the sky and sway in the breeze. The heron to balance on one leg and learn patience. The cormorant to stretch my wings and tend to my body. The salmon to accept my destiny. Slowly I recaptured my being.

All of this I remembered in the days that I formed my mask. Each rap of the chisel was guided by the spirit.

I carved a bowl into the thigh of the bough so the mask would fit my skull. When I wore it, the Loon’s V-shaped scissor beak stretched beyond the reach of my arms.

I practiced balancing my sculpture. I learned to walk with it. At first waddling awkwardly but then finding my stance so I could even dance with it on my head. I was ready.

We came from miles around to the pebbled beach and when the sun set and the trout surfaced for their evening feed we built a fire. We carried logs and heaped them high, the sparks jumped to the stars. We painted each other’s faces. Men staring into the eyes of men. Lives lived.

We had learned that courage was more exhilarating than fear, and that the more we practiced courage the easier it became. Our knowledge was etched into our faces.

Each man hoisted his mask onto his head.

All the birds of the forest were there. Herons, Eagles, Ducks, Ravens, Pheasants and Hawks. Each mask carved long and true. Each telling a story. Some were painted, some were like mine naked in the natural wood. Each balanced precariously on the heads of the men.

We danced and chanted, and whirled around the soaring flames. Our sculptures flickered to life.

And when the Aurora Borealis burst over the mountain tops we removed our masks and tossed them into the fire releasing our Spirit Totems. We had learned to be human.


2 thoughts on “The Loon Totem by Al Rutgers

  1. Wow! Such a powerful story. I absolutely LOVE this line,

    “We had learned that courage was more exhilarating than fear, and that the more we practiced courage the easier it became. Our knowledge was etched into our faces.”

    Beautiful work!


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