Otter flipped over to float on his back and kicked up splashes of water. “Mother says it’s like…” he frowned, fishing for the exact words, “like looking into someone’s eyes, and finding something you didn’t know you were missing.”
“Well, Moss says it’s like choking on a honeycake with your head underwater,” Crackle countered.
She threw a handful of mud at Otter, and crystalline splatters flew everywhere as the older cub dodged artfully, his head disappearing under the glitter-and-spark river surface. When he came back up, he had a few clams in hand, which the two of them happily set to smashing open with sharp rocks, then gulping. Some nights, particularly nights like this one, when the moons were lazy like wolves in summer and berries all but dropped from the bushes into your open mouth, Crackle couldn’t understand why anyone needed to do any work at all. Just in case, she glanced around to make sure no one was looking for them.
But the air was heady, the river a band of undisturbed silver and white. Muddypaws and Splash lounged under the nearest tree. No one was about to disturb two cubs gulping clams. It was a perfect night for debating the greater mysteries of elfin living.
“You’re just making that up,” Otter announced as he swallowed his last clam.
Crackle was, but she wasn’t about to admit it. She licked her fingers dry, though they were a little muddy, then leaned her elbows on her knees, dangling her feet in the water, and thought deeply.
“Recognition has got to be awful,” she said in a sober tone. “Just imagine. You’re splashing along one summer evening and suddenly you’ve got a cub.”
“Cubs don’t just appear,” Otter protested. “It takes time.”
“That’s even worse! You have two turns to think about it. Two turns of going crazy. Would it be a girl-cub or a boy-cub? What if it’s like… like Quick Fang? What are you going to tell your lifemate when the cub bites you as soon as it’s born?”
“Cubs get born without teeth.” Otter was quite sure of that.
Crackle deflated. “Still. Just imagine.”
Otter’s imagination wasn’t up for keeping pace with his playmate’s, so he dived for more clams instead. Crackle took a few sticks and began poking them into the mud – some stayed upright, but a couple dropped over each other. “Now you’re Recognized,” she said to them, “so be nice to each other.”
Otter’s head was like a cap of slick black fur when he emerged, albeit only with one clam. He ignored Crackle’s pleading look at it, flipped on his back and gave it a hard knock between two stones. “Recognition is more than cubs,” he said, then paused to shake his hair out. “It’s… it’s… for once, it’s also knowing someone else’s soul name, Mother said.”
Crackle chewed on a stick. “Is that good?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know my own soul name.” He sounded slightly troubled. Crackle leaped at the chance.
“No you don’t!”
“I do too!”
“Well, what is it?” Otter taunted.
“Slosh,” Crackle said decisively.
Otter rolled his eyes and gulped down his clam.
“Either way,” he said, licking his lips and nodding as though the facts of the matter were all quite clear to someone past his tenth turn of the seasons, “everyone gets along just fine with Recognition. Your mother and father like it. Blacksnake did it three whole times! And Snowfall and True Edge –”
“I don’t think they’re really Recognized,” Crackle confided in the barest whisper.
Crickets chirped. Muddypaws yawned. Otter’s eyes became very, very round. It took him a good few minutes to chew down the notion.
“But…” his mouth worked a little like a fish’s. “But they’re…”
Crackle scoffed. Sometimes Otter took things so annoyingly for granted. “They can’t be Recognized! They don’t fit at all. It’s like eating those clams together with beesweets. And Quick Fang’s nothing like Snowfall at all.”
Otter made a face at the imagined combination of tastes. “But she’s like True Edge!”
“That’s just one. A cub takes two,” the younger cub deadpanned, leaning closer to him as he paddled towards the shore, all ears to her prize theory. His legs worked faintly to keep his head afloat, a clam sliding out of his suddenly careless grasp. Crackle traced arcane shapes in the mud with one of her sticks. “And it can’t be Snowfall. If it was we’d have to call her Hailfall and that would be silly.”
Fond as he was of both Quick Fang and Snowfall, Otter had to admit to the truth of that. He grasped at straws, “they look the same…”
“Lots of elves look the same.” She gave her red hair – shared by neither parent – a shake for emphasis. Otter was stumped.
“So who’s Quick Fang’s mother?” He asked, mystified. When he thought about it, he wasn’t actually there for Quick Fang’s birth, he couldn’t really know. Crackle always did say that the adults never really told you everything… and wasn’t she right, sometimes? A cub had to keep his good sense well in use.
Crackle’s brows were tight together with concentration. By the tree, Muddypaws turned over and accidentally kicked Splash, eliciting a squeak, which the two cubs pointedly did not let disturb their deep pondering.
Crackle raised her bright green eyes from the water, catching Otter’s gaze. “Wolfsister,” she whispered. “Wolfsister was more wolf than elf, too. True Edge must have Recognized her, really, and then when Quick Fang was born…”
Otter stared at her solemn face and was ready to believe anything. “But Wolfsister died turns and turns ago…”
“She must’ve faked it,” Crackle determined, “that’s the only explanation.”
Her friend opened his mouth and closed it a few times, as though chewing an invisible clam. She didn’t budge. Finally, Otter leaped up and made a great splash as he emerged from the water, calling for his wolf-friend. Crackle yelped, now wet from head to toe, turning to look after Otter as he snatched up his leathers and broke into a run, breeches half-laced. “Where are you going??”
“To tell Windburn!” Otter yelled back. “He has to know. If Quick Fang is Wolfsister’s cub, than means she’s supposed to be chieftess!” Whistling to Splash, the two of them disappeared in the thicker forest while Muddypaws blinked in confusion.
Crackle looked down at her sticks, knocked over by what was, for little stick-elves, a terrible flood. Muddypaws padded up to her and stuck his head under her hand, whining a little.
"Don’t worry,” she told the wolf, scratching the good spot between his ears. “You can be my lifemate even if we don’t know our soul names. Recognition’s such a mess, anyway.”