Ever since they were small children, Sontae and Cotae were inseparable. They were always teasing one another, yet they would defend each other when the situation called for it. Sometimes they would go off to their favorite spot in the forest and make great plans for the future or just tell stories to each other. They were daydreamers and often got into trouble for not doing what they were told.
When they were away from everyone in the village, however, life was not a dream. Sontae would love to sit for hours just watching the elk that roamed the hillsides. Cotae would tease her at times for spending so much time watching the elk, but after the teasing they would end up laughing about it.
As the years went by, Sontae grew into a beautiful woman
and Cotae a handsome young man. The teasing still went on, but more than ever it seemed there were not enough hours in the day for one another - that Sontae and Cotae were destined to be with each other forever.
Cotae's friends would tease him about asking Sontae to marry him. Cotae would always reply, ''When the time is right.'' His friends would tease back, ''When will that be? Since Sontae is always following the elk, it's surprising she has any time for you!''
''She always has time for me,'' Cotae would retort. But he knew in his heart Sontae always was drawn to the elk. Maybe it was time to ask her why she was so intrigued by them.
He needed to find just the right moment to ask. After all, Sontae had a mind of her own and was not a bit shy about speaking her piece, and he did not want to make her angry with him. He remembered being scolded by her many times when he was a small boy.
The days went by, and Cotae finally decided it was time to talk to Sontae about the elk. But first he had promised his mother some fish for supper so, he went to his favorite spot and caught four fish. But Sontae was on his mind.
It was springtime, and the banks of the river were filled with flowers, so he picked a handful for the woman who filled his thoughts. He made sure he had all the colors the flowers offered. ''This for sure will make her smile. Then I will ask her about the elk,'' he thought.
But when he got back to the village, she was nowhere to
Cotae went to Sontae's parents, who had thought she was with him. ''I think I know where she is: watching the elk herd beyond the forest,'' Cotae replied. So, flowers still in hand, off he went. On his way he found a bush full of sweet berries. He picked handfuls and wrapped them in leaves. He knew Sontae loved these berries. Surely the flowers and berries would get her attention and she would see how he felt about her.
He ran as fast as his feet could take him, but when he came to the spot where Sontae usually was be she was not there. All he found was the beaded necklace that she always wore lying on the ground. As he picked it up, tears fell down his cheeks. She was gone. He knew where she had gone - with the elk - but where?
He looked desperately for any sign of them, but saw nothing. He put the necklace on and fell to the ground, crying for his sweet Sontae. His sadness was interrupted when he felt a hand upon his shoulder.
As he looked up, he saw a woman unlike any he had ever seen before. She had hair as long as she was tall and the clothing she wore seemed to be of fur. Hooves hung from her everywhere and on her head rose antlers.
Cotae finally found his voice. ''Who are you?''
She smiled sweetly. ''I am Eli, guardian of the elk. I heard your heart crying for Sontae, so I have come to help you.''
''Do you know where Sontae is? Tell me, please!''
Eli replied, ''To find Sontae, you must give up your human life and become as she is now: an elk. She will find you, for I will give you a voice that she will hear and know it is you. But you must know the herd she is with is far away now, so if you use the voice I give you there is hope she will hear you. Will you choose this new life for your love for Sontae?''
''Yes, yes. I will do what I must. My life as a human is nothing without her,'' answered Cotae.
Eli touched Cotae on the head with her antlers, and he was turned into a fine elk with antlers that seemed to reach to the sky.
As he looked down at Eli, he thanked her and asked what direction he should take to find his Sontae. She replied, ''I cannot tell you that. You must follow your new instincts to find her. When I leave, you will no longer speak the language of man.''
Cotea asked, ''Then how will I call to her? You said I would have a voice.''
''And you will,'' replied Eli. ''The voice of the elk. You will have a whistle. She will know yours when you call and she will come to you.'' And as quickly as she had come to him, she was gone.
Cotae let the wind help him and guide him, stopping and throwing his mighty head back and whistling for Sontae. Days turned into weeks and weeks into years, and he still whistled trying to find her. But love is patient and has a way of finding where it belongs. Perhaps when you are walking in the forest you may hear his whistle, calling for Sontae. If you do, smile and wish him well.
Happy Valentine's Day. Lim Lim.
Ken ''Rainbow Cougar'' Edwards, from the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state, is an accomplished painter and storyteller. Edwards is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and a longtime cartoonist for Indian Country Today.