I wish I could remember the year, but I donít really. Surely sometime after 1980, but before I came to work here full time in 1982, because it was Mardi Gras Day and I was not covering a parade like I would for the more than two decades to follow.
The brother of my soul and I were on the lake. I had never heard of Mardi Gras before I was in ninth grade at Franklin Junior High School. I think that if my father had the day off from the carbon black plant, and the weather was reasonable, we were in the boat. Though in later years he mellowed in his resolve, he abhorred crowds and felt oddly out of place among throngs of strangers, thus he avoided them with great zeal. I am still the same way, when I can help it. I am sure someone mentioned to me the words "Mardi Gras" before ninth grade, but I donít remember it at all, and I certainly donít remember a parade until I began my career full-time in the newspaper business.
In those days, the lake was deeper and full of life. By 1987 or so it would experience an intense ecological plunge and has never really recovered, mostly due to silting up. My brother and I would chase fish between cypress and tupelo and red maple stands in a little wooden bateau my grandfather built decades before. My grandfather was a general contractor who built many things for many people, and though the little bateau floated and did not leak, it was evident that my grandfather was not the boat builder my father was. It had a decided twist lengthwise which caused it to pull to one side when under power. "Power" is a precarious term to apply to the 7Ĺ horsepower 1957 Wizard outboard we powered the boat with, its compression so bad it might have actually produced about five horsepower at best. It took us nearly an hour to get to the lake from the Rez.
My brother and I first met at junior high school, and in 1980 or so he arrived unannounced on my doorstep in July. He threw me a pack of chewing tobacco Ė a habit I had indulged back then Ė and said, "Letís go fishing." It would be a friendship that evolved into a brotherhood linked and flowing through water.
That particular Mardi Gras, I had no thought of parades or beads or purple and gold costumes, and apparently, at least then, my brother did not either. We made the long ride to the lake and fished most of the day, filling the livewell of the boat with thrashing, frantic hand-sized bluegill and the occasional bass that would, in the evening, be fried into a delectable supper by my mother, served with French fries cut from whole potatoes, catsup and Ritz crackers.
It was near enough to dusk that we knew we should be pulling the crank rope of the old Wizard and pointing the slightly askew of horizontal bow toward home, but the "one more cast" mentality had firmly imbedded itself within these two fishermen. If I remember correctly, we were somewhere near Peach Coulee, back before that side of the lake got so shallow and the cypress trees submerged off the shoreline still held nests of big bream, before someone dared put up signs and fences, trying to claim the natural world for themselves under the guise of so-called "hunting clubs."
The sun was sinking toward the line of cypress to the west, shadows of old gnarled cypress stretching long and their branches made dark fingers on the waterís surface. I was just about to take my turn saying it was time to head home, we had traded uttering that phrase several times already, when a cry erupted from the darkness of the woodland on the bank.
Thereís no easy way to describe what we heard. It was like surgical steel, razor sharp, slicing not through my flesh but through my heart and mind and soul. If I imagined a woman in the most horrendous agony, that is how I think she would sound in her pain.
We sat there, lines slack in the water, mouths agape Iím sure. I wanted to crank the little Wizard and flee, but was petrified into inaction, awaiting, dreading another screech from the shore.
Then, through a sun-dappled patch between two huge cypress trunks right there on the bank, the big cat stalked.
I donít know what was ahead of him, but he didnít look at us at all, instead moved methodically, softly, toward something in the brush. In all, he might have been in our sight for no more than half a minute. He was a patch of midnight darker than the rest, spotlighted by the sun as he passed, and though he didnít look directly at us I thought I saw the suggestion of yellow in his eyes. He was easily big as, perhaps larger, than a healthy and robust Labrador retriever.
Then he was gone. Gone, like the night passes from one meridian to the next. We made our way home, feeling at once terrified and privileged.
It was not until a week later that I told my grandmother the story. We sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee, and she turned to stare out the window somewhere far, far off that I could not see, for long moments.
When she turned to me at last, she touched my hand and said, "The old folks said we were panther clan, but thereís no way to prove it. Maybe," she said with a lift of her chin and fire in her eyes that reminded me of the yellow I saw on the lakeshore, "you just did."
I donít know. According to the experts, Louisianaís big cats are a variant of the Florida panther and have never held the genetic code for black fur. Nonetheless, reportings of black large cats in Louisiana and much of the south have been recorded for centuries. Maybe what the brother of my soul and I saw that day was not a flesh-and-blood animal at all, but a linkage, a reaching out from a distant past I didnít even suspect. I know that I have never seen another. Yet, I also know that the woods and marshes here are full of black bears, and in my entire life I have only seen one, dead on the highway after being hit by a truck. Whoís to know?
Iíll always remember it, to be sure. Iíll always remember the stealth and mystery of it, the way its cry raked across my bones like a rasp, rattled my spirit. Flesh and blood survivor of a wilderness largely vanished, or spirit guide, in either case it was a small miracle I feel blessed to have received.