Folklore: Udowhi Odalv (Beautiful Mountain)

udowhi

llustration by Anne Hamilton

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by MELONIE A. MCCLENDON-KING

Nathalie hurries across the rocks. ” I want to reach the bottom before the sun sets,” she urges. Her hand slides over the guardrail with each step, excited and nervous. She stops in awe as she looks at Desoto Falls. The pure, cool air fills her lungs as she inhales. A single teardrop rolls down her cheek. Adam gently brushes his finger against her skin then looks into her eyes and says, “Don’t cry.” He understands this teardrop. It will be the first to fall from a river of images, a deep canyon of stories told.

She whispers to pay respect to this majestic, symphonic waterfall. By her side, Adam asks, “Is it like he said?” She smiles, almost unable to breathe, “Yes, it is part of an Udowhi odalv, a beautiful mountain.” Nathalie knows her Cherokee heritage, but she never thinks her Pawpaw’s stories have any truth. He loved to tell campfire stories about absurd ways to use a corn cob instead of toilet paper and lightning bugs blanketing the side of Chandler Mountain while The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Fire on the Mountain” played on an old 1950s turn-knob radio.

Along their walk back, Nathalie reaches into her pocket. She touches the only compass she has for their trip. With her fingertips, she feels its flat surface. Her compass is a smooth envelope. Its contents a folded travel note with a butterfly-shaped rubbing on it, a family heirloom from Kamama’s romance.

Kamama, her artist nickname meaning butterfly in Cherokee, was Nathalie’s Aunt Sheila whom she never met. She was a lady of Scottish and Native American heritage; Nathalie looks like her from old pictures. Papaw’s story described her like a heavenly angel on earth. Words on the travel note mention an Indian maiden named Princess Noccalula who dove to an early death. According to the travel note, there is a statue at Noccalula Falls above the Black Creek ravine to honor the Cherokee princess. Next to the statue, there is an inscription on a monument with historical facts and the legend of Noccalula. Nathalie’s aunt once stood near this folklore location with William, her true love. Too soon, a fall marked the end of their journey, a romance lost in time.

WILLIAM BENT DOWN TO PICK UP A COLORFUL AUTUMN leaf; it was Kamama’s keepsake to remember their adventure. She snatched his pocket-knife to leave an artistic carving on the tree that sacrificed the fallen leaf. Her carving was an elegant letter K in the shape of butterfly wings. William tore a piece of paper out of her travel sketch book, grabbed a pencil and quickly made a rubbing of her carving. Then he folded and secured it before a breeze could whisk it away or raindrops start to fall. They left the tree never to return. Later, they were separated by Kamama’s early death.

PAWPAW’S STORY NEVER TOLD HOW KAMAMA DIED. Nathalie mumbles to herself, “Pawpaw and his stories, such a silly journey to chase a butterfly, but if the story really exists, then their love never dies.”

Nathalie, also an artist like her aunt, hopes to authenticate her grandfather’s story. Internet ancestry websites lend no help. This is a journey where she must retrace her aunt’s romantic steps to discover the heartbeat of not only her grandfather’s story, but who she is as a woman. She convinces Adam to join her, get away for a long weekend excursion; leave the laptop and GPS behind. This is Nathalie’s “Trail of Tears,” a trip off the historic highway, an untold story.

“BREATHTAKING!” NATHALIE SAYS AS SHE SIPS HER DARK roast coffee; “I know it sounds archaic, but truly, there is no other word.”

Adam agrees with a nod. Nature greets them with a spectacular morning show. They enjoy an early symphony of harmonious sounds and a colorful glow from the deck at Mentone’s Mountain View Inn. It took years for them to get away from the daily stress of work and the city.
Adam stretches the palm of his right hand over the arm of Nathalie’s chair. Without a word, she places her left palm in his hand. Sunbeams flirt with a misty valley fog below.

“Adam, do you think they saw a sunrise like this?” Nathalie asks while tilting her head. Her long hair drapes over the back of the chair. “I don’t know, but if they did, he would lift Kamama’s soft hand to his cheek like this,” Adam says as he touches Nathalie’s hand to his face.

The autumn sun warms the deck. Nathalie’s scarf falls as Adam curls his hand around her neck, pulling her towards him, closer. Holding her face, sitting on the edge of his seat, he presses his lips to hers. Nathalie is lost in time. A gentle breeze blows her silky hair across their kiss. With Nathalie’s eyes closed, Kamama appears to her. Kamama coaxes Nathalie inside. She whispers, “Guide him; show your spirit, unveil your skin!”

Nathalie tenderly breaks free from their embrace and walks back to their suite. He follows. A bird lands on the window sill. Mother Nature, the maestro, encourages the songbird to serenade the moment. Gravity takes control. Nathalie, in a closed-eye trance, settles on the bed’s surface. As she leans backwards, Adam caresses the only woman in his life who has ever made any sense to him. He has been shy for years. Now, he understands what it means to release, let his inhibitions go, take flight and accept this commitment. Adam wants to join her. He closes his eyes and sees Kamama, too. As he opens his eyes to Nathalie, the only woman he has ever loved, he breathes and thinks: today, I will.

THE EARLY MORNING SLIPS AWAY FROM THEM. WITH THEIR bags packed, they head off the mountain into the valley. “Adam, I think we need a chauffeur,” Nathalie grins. “Who wants to drive and miss the autumn leaves along the steep road off the mountain?”

Adam laughs, “I’ll drive; I get the hint.” At the bottom of the mountain, Nathalie gazes in awe.

“Stop, I love ginkgo trees, stop!” Nathalie pokes his arm.

Adam, deep in nervous thoughts about something else entirely, snaps to, “Where, where?”

Nathalie practically opens the car door as he tries to slow down. She points, “There, on your left, turn!” Barely parked, she jumps out of the car and runs in a child-like twirl, smiling from ear to ear. “Take a picture! Gotta have it for you know,” she says as she stretches her arms to her sides beneath a huge tree.

“God, the color is gorgeous,” she says while sitting on an adjacent picnic table. Adam cannot believe his eyes. She’s right. Surrounded by the golden leaves on the branches, Nathalie looks like an angel, he thinks; she and the tree glow.

Adam says, “It must be 100 years old.” They hold hands beneath the tree as its branches catch an autumn breeze. A few minutes pass as they walk around the park; they are in Fort Payne’s oldest park, City Park on the corner of Gault Avenue and Fifth Street. They can tell the day is slipping away from the sun’s position in the sky. Hours since breakfast, they get in the car to find a quick lunch before the final leg of their journey and destination, Noccalula Falls.

Driving down Gault Avenue, Adam spots a quaint restaurant, Café 100. Nathalie loves local dining and nods with a smile to pull over and park. Once inside, Adam is lost in deep thought. He thinks, “Should I go ahead and do it here? She is so happy.” They order the daily special complete with sweet pecan pie for dessert. Nathalie is smiling from ear to ear and never notices how nervous Adam acts. His hands are covered in perspiration as she leans over to steal a kiss from his cheek. He wipes his hands on his legs under the table where she cannot see. The bill arrives. He misses this opportunity. A family heirloom sits in his pocket, burning a hole in it. She looks out the window as Adam pays the bill and places the tip on the table. Each is lost in the moment, nervous, too, but their nervousness is for different reasons.

BACK IN THE CAR, ADAM DETERMINES, “IF WE TAKE I-59 from Fort Payne to Gadsden, it will only take us 30 to 45 minutes.” Nathalie nods, half listening. She is distant. Adam forgets momentarily the reason for this. His mind starts to play tricks on him. “Does she know and not want it?” he wonders.

Nathalie watches the trees, pastures and cars as they drive. She studies the travel note and rubbing the entire trip. Once atop Lookout Mountain, Adam parks the car, gets out, goes around the car and opens her door before she realizes they are steps away from Kamama’s tree and the carving.

Nathalie’s heart skips a beat. The breeze blows softly. Adam loves when her long, dark hair blows in the wind. He is lost in thoughts about his pocket and where to create the most romantic moment of his life. Without words, they start to walk. Below the falls, the Black Creek runs parallel to an overlook. Nathalie sees several pine trees that could be old enough for Kamama’s signature carving. She reaches the first tree.

“What do you think, Adam? Do you think it is old enough?” She examines the tall pine tree with a thick trunk. Adam shrugs his shoulders. Nathalie goes from one tree to the next. With each one, the same thought and question arise. She becomes irritated as they walk all over the park. “This is silly, Adam,” she says in a frustrated tone. “I knew Pawpaw was pulling my leg as always.” They walk until they are side by side with Noccalula’s statue.

Nathalie grabs Adam’s arm, “Look! It’s a rainbow.” Adam, without thinking, says, “Nathalie, the rainbow is manmade. It’s not real.”
She wrinkles her eyebrows together in disbelief and says, “How?”

He points to the lights near the statue, “Just there – the lights work with nature to create your beautiful rainbow.”

Suddenly, silent tears waterfall down Nathalie’s cheeks. “That’s it! I give up,” she says, exasperated and exhausted. Nathalie stands frozen as she stares at the waterfall. She feels Adam’s hand on her left shoulder.

“Turn around Nathalie. Let me take a picture of you in the late afternoon sun,” he says, trying to encourage her spirit.
She leans back next to the railing that protects Noccalula’s statue and the rocky drop into the ravine. With the gesture of a hand, she says, “All right.”

In a moment, the travel note slips from her fingertips to its spiraling death. She tries to catch it, but Adam takes her hand. She looks at him. He reaches into his pocket. The sun starts to set.

“Nathalie, marry me,” he says as he bows his head to honor her. Nathalie, usually a non-stop talker, takes the palm of her hand and places it on his cheek. They turn around and see the inscription on the monument. Adam notices the date at the bottom, “September 21, 1969.”

He stretches his arms around her. “Nathalie, marry me next year, September 21, 2013.

“Of course,” she says. “If it’s a Saturday.”

The End

Editor’s Note

“Udowhi Odalv” by Melonie A. McClendon-King was one of four finalists in the Lookout Alabama-SELTI Writing Contest, sponsored by this magazine, the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative, DeKalb Tourism and Greater Gadsden Area Tourism. The competition, which challenged writers to compose fictional short stories set in real places in Alabama’s Lookout Mountain region, was the nation’s second tourism-fiction contest and was judged by a panel including New York Times bestselling author Homer Hickam, university representatives and tourism professionals. Special thanks to everyone who entered the contest.