Kotoola Chook


Erin fiddled with her radio’s dials as she drove through the Mt. Totawka foothills Monday afternoon.   She tried to tell herself that the nervousness she was feeling had everything to do with her car, with the steep, winding roads she was traveling, and nothing at all to do with what waited at her destination.

True, the roads that led to the Regional Park were a caution.   Narrow and full of switchbacks, with a twelve percent grade over parts of the route and a badly maintained surface, Erin was certain they’d pose no problem at all for a jeep or a 4X4.   But for the Volvo she was driving, which pre-dated her birth by twenty years, it was another story.

She had bought the car––for the then grand sum of two hundred dollars––when she was a freshman at the nearby university.   It was solid and reliable, and Lord knows it was economical, but lately, it had really begun to show its age.

Still, if she were honest with herself, she’d have to admit that it wasn’t the fact that she’d just rounded yet another turn in the road, only to find herself still climbing, that was making her sweat.   It was the fact that she was on her way to see Chay.

After Saturday night, she wasn’t altogether sure how she felt about that.

She wasn’t sure how Olivia felt about it, either.  She’d gotten the impression the teacher had planned to come out here herself today, to deliver the permission slips the students had turned in; which would have suited Erin just fine.   But a badly timed teacher’s in-service had interfered with both women’s plans.

After what seemed like an eternity of driving, but which, in reality, was only about three miles, the road began to descend again, into the pretty little valley that was also home to the county fairgrounds.  Eucalyptus and Hemlocks gave way to Madrone and Manzanita, and then to the heavy old Bay Laurels that darkened the hillsides and shaded the roads and filled the air with their spicy-sweet fragrance.

At last, Erin pulled into the Kotoola Chook parking lot.  The building that housed the center, a small, one-story, adobe style structure, was new; yet it blended into its surroundings as though it had always been there, in part because of the tobacco-toned stucco with which it was plastered.

She looked around her curiously as she passed beneath the rustic pergola that shaded the front of the building.  The brochures Chay had left at the school, which described the building’s construction, made it out to be a miracle of eco-friendly engineering; with straw-bale walls, recycled doors and windows, and countertops made up of pressed sunflower seed hulls.

Erin pushed through the front door and caught her breath.   After the bright sunlight outside, it was dark in the center and cool.   The air was thick with sage smoke and cedar.  Display cases ringed the room, some holding baskets and arrow heads and other Native artifacts; others holding roots and nuts and animal pelts––examples of all the flora and fauna the first people relied on for their survival.   A CD was playing, softly, and Erin felt the hairs stand up on her neck as she recognized the sound of Chay’s flute.

"Can I help you?"

She turned toward his voice, surprised not to have seen him sooner.  He was seated at a desk on the far side of the room, gazing at her with a look that was surprisingly impersonal.   "Chay, hi."   She waved the folder she was carrying.  "I, uh, I came by to drop these off."

"What are they?" he asked, sitting rigidly still.

Erin shivered at the chill in his tone.   "They’re the permission slips we collected.   Olivia was going to bring them out to you, but she couldn’t get away, so she asked me to."

Chay nodded. "That explains it. I wasn’t expecting to see you."

"Yeah, I, uh, I think she was kind of disappointed that she couldn’t come out here herself, but, well, we knew you had to have them by today, so…"   God help her, she couldn’t stop babbling.

"Yeah.   I do.  Otherwise I’d have had to cancel the trip."

"Right. And, we didn’t want that. The kids are really excited, you know. They’re really looking forward to it."

Nodding, he turned back to his computer.   "Good.   Glad to hear it."   She watched him type for almost a minute, before he glanced up at her again.   "You can just leave them on the counter."   He motioned toward a shelf that ran along one of the walls.   "There’s no need for you to hang around.   Unless there’s something else I can do for you?"

"No, I–"  She stared at him for a moment, confused by his coldness.   "You know, I don’t think I ever heard you say, what does Kotoola Chook mean, anyway?"

He huffed impatiently.  "Frog Creek.  I named it for the stream that runs through the meadow out back.   And, you’re pronouncing it wrong.   The double O’s are pronounced like one long O.   Like in coat, or so."

"Oh," she replied, ignoring the ironic tilt of his eyebrows and his murmured, "exactly."

©PG Forte 2005
Visions before Midnight

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