Laughter carried her little bundle of fur; there was a silly grin on her face, and giggles escaped her lips every couple of steps. She had wakened earlier than her parents, and the sounds of a wolf pup had called her out of the den. When she’d arrived, the pups had come running to her, but she’d really seen only one. A fur ball if ever there was one, he had almost rolled out of the den, tumbling behind his siblings. She scooped him up among the protests of the others, and the bond was sealed almost immediately. She sent to the pup, and he sent back, then she sent his name back to him, **Scrap.** “Scrap, you’re my first wolf friend!”
Laughter was excited, and she knew what she had to do. The other elves were not yet awake, so she made certain to visit the wolves, showing that she and Scrap had bonded. Finally, she heard someone stirring, and she hurried to meet him or her. She must not have been paying close enough attention, because she ran into Blacksnake before she saw him.
“You should learn to watch where you’re going, cub.” Blacksnake grumbled.
Laughter looked up at him, her eyes shining. Not even a grumpy Blacksnake was going to ruin this moment for her. He wasn’t really paying attention, and Laughter could smell something like one of her mother’s creations. Still, she had a duty to perform, so she held up the small bundle of fur.
Blacksnake saw the movement and looked down. The puppy looked at him, and he could see that it was not very comfortable being held up like that. The scenario reminded him of another, happier time. Riskrunner had just bonded with his first wolf friend, and Blacksnake was just beginning to feel comfortable in his three-mating with Easysinger and Oakhand. The wistful thought brought tears to his eyes as he remembered his, then their pride in their son. The happy memory of Easysinger brought more images to his mind of their lives together—uncounted hands upon hands of years, and still in the end too brief a time—and the pain of the loss was felt once more. His face darkened.
Laughter watched Blacksnake’s face change into a scowl, and she clutched Scrap closer to her, tears welling in her eyes. She turned and walked away from Blacksnake, and the puppy licked her face, washing away the tears.
“But Coyote, if I do that, I’ll get into trouble.”
“Only if you get caught, little sister.”
She looked at him, not quite certain whether she trusted him, but she also wanted to make a good impression on him. ‘If I can do it, then maybe he’ll let me in on more of his pranks!’
“All right, Coyote, but what do I have to do?”
Coyote spent a good portion of the afternoon helping prepare his little sister for her first big prank. He found the right mix of oils and herbs, masking her scent, then helped her climb into a tree near where the elders tended to meet. The goal of this prank was to satisfy his curiosity—he wanted to know what was said in some of those meetings, so he wanted to be able to spy without getting caught. He had considered trying the concoction and hiding himself, but he figured at his age, if he were caught, he would be in some serious trouble. Laughter, on the other hand, was only five years old, so she would be given some leeway. His little sister would just remain in the tree for the day, then come down. If no one scented her, he would try it next time. But if they did, then he would know to keep working.
Laughter woke from her sleep in the tree and stretched a little. She felt herself wobble, and caught herself before falling. She heard voices beneath her, and she wondered what was going on. Remembering her brother’s admonishment to remain quiet and still if anyone was beneath her, she clutched the tree and listened.
She heard Windburn and Blacksnake. It must have been the end of the conversation, because suddenly one of them stomped away. Laughter waited several minutes before moving, then found that her legs had fallen asleep. Nervously, she tried to move them, but found herself slipping. Holding onto the tree until she was dangling from it, she knew she had no choice but to let go—the fall wasn’t that far.
Unfortunately, she fell onto an elf. Hearing an “Oof” followed by a low growl, Laughter began scrambling. A hand reached out and grabbed her ankle, and she turned to see Blacksnake’s scowling face. “What were you doing up in the tree, cub?”
She wanted to give an explanation, but he didn’t look like he was in the mood to hear one, nor did he give her a chance to speak. He growled at her, and let go of her ankle. Instead of growling back, as her father had once told her to do, Laughter scrambled to her feet and ran.
When she arrived at her father’s den, her face was streaming with tears. Cloudfern turned to see his distraught daughter and knelt to enfold her in a hug. “He hates me, papa!”
“Who hates you?”
Cloudfern groaned. ‘This again?’ Unfortunately, his daughter had never gotten to see the softer, more jovial side of Blacksnake. Easysinger’s death had happened only three turns of the seasons before Laughter’s birth. And then there was the losses of Beesting, Sunlight and Tallow a season before Laughter was born. Though her birth had served as a healing balm for some, the wounds of loss were still too fresh for Blacksnake. Though Cloudfern remembered seeing Blacksnake smile for the first time since Easysinger’s death on that day, he also recalled that his friend would not hold her. Cloudfern knew that Blacksnake harbored no ill will against Laughter, but his daughter had seemed to have nothing but mishaps with Blacksnake, or “The Grumpy Old Bear,” as she had taken to calling him, and the mishaps seemed to be happening more and more often.
Laughter didn’t want to get her brother into trouble, so she simply said, “I fell out of a tree, and landed on the Grumpy Old Bear. It was an accident, Papa!”
Laughter shivered at the sensation of an ominous presence in the doorway of the den. She turned and saw Blacksnake’s silhouette in the entry way. She clutched her father and buried her face in his hair, wishing she were invisible.
“Some accident. Did she tell you which tree she fell from?”
Cloudfern looked at his daughter. She sent to him. His eyes widened, and he looked at Blacksnake, then locksent, **Did you notice she has no scent?**
More passed between Cloudfern and Blacksnake. Laughter only knew that they were sending. When they finished, her father looked at her and asked, “What did you overhear?”
Laughter shook her head. “Nothing, Papa! I was asleep! I’d been in the tree so long, I couldn’t stay awake any longer. When I woke up, I heard people beneath me, but Coyote had said to stay quiet. Chief Windburn walked away, but I don’t know what he and Blacksnake were talking about! Then I couldn’t get my legs to move right because they’d fallen asleep, and when I tried to move, I fell out of the tree and I landed on Blacksnake! I’m sorry, Papa!”
The tears were flowing freely, and the plantshaper felt his daughter was sincere. He could also see that she was upset, and scared. She had confirmed the elders' suspicion of Coyote’s involvement, and he knew that she was not likely to repeat the offense. She did not need any further punishment. Coyote, on the other hand, was going to hear from him, and he guessed, from Blacksnake.
Blacksnake was angry, and he turned to leave, satisfied that the child had not heard the argument. Before stepping out, he said to her, “Don’t ever hide yourself near that spot again!”
When he’d gone, Laughter looked at her father and asked, “Why does he hate me, Papa?”
“Oh, Laughter,” Cloudfern began. “He doesn’t hate you. He’s just having a hard time, I promise.”
Cloudfern knew that his mixtures could wait. It was time that Laughter heard more about the former chieftess and about Blacksnake’s losses and why Blacksnake seemed so “grumpy.”
The summer heat had broken, and the nights were gloriously cooler with each passing day. An impromptu, adult swimming party was going to take place, and Starskimmer wanted to make sure that her daughter kept out of trouble. She and Cloudfern talked for a long while about the possibilities. Willow and Nightstorm were considered, but when Laughter entered the den, crying, once again stating that Blacksnake hated her, the pair looked at one another, their decision made.
Cloudfern left Starskimmer to sort out what had happened this time, and he went in search of the “Grumpy Old Bear.” Once he found him, he intended to end the nonsense once and for all.
Blacksnake was none too cheery at the sight of Cloudfern, and he decided to give him a piece of his mind about Laughter. “Your daughter…” he growled.
Cloudfern tensed at the tone of Blacksnake’s voice, but he interrupted him, deciding to get right to the point, “Is afraid of you!”
Blacksnake faltered, surprised. Cloudfern continued, fatherly anger propelling him onward. “She has had nothing but bad experiences with you for the past year or two, and she is afraid of you! Every time you see her, you growl at her, yell at her, tell her to get away! She thinks you hate her!”
The older elf wasn’t sure how to respond. He didn’t hate the child. She just happened to be in the way whenever he was in a bad mood, which was often. He said as much to Cloudfern.
“That’s no excuse! She’s a child! And she’s a member of this tribe! She needs to know she is loved and accepted by all of us. And she needs to know that she has nothing to fear from any of us! At this point, I think she’d rather run into a rabid bear than see you again. And it’s time to do something about that!”
Watching Laughter turned out to be a good excuse to avoid the happenings by the river. Blacksnake found that he was relieved not to be surrounded by happy couples. He didn’t want to watch lovers embracing, lovemates teasing, or any of the other events that would surely happen near the river. The wounds of Easysinger’s loss were still painfully fresh, although there were times when he could forget… like when embracing Starskimmer or sharing the furs with Cider and Rhythm; but the memories always returned and brought even more pain after the moments of forgetfulness. One day, the pain would ease, he knew, but he was tired of trying to fight it, and he preferred to avoid certain situations all together.
Still, Blacksnake’s heart was not completely into cubsitting. There were many things he would rather be doing, and watching Laughter was at the bottom of the list. Even so, he had agreed, knowing that he had a responsibility to somehow show Laughter that he was not such a “Grumpy Old Bear” after all.
Laughter had cried herself to sleep when her parents told her who would be watching her that night. When she awoke, they were gone, and when Laughter looked around the den, she didn’t see anyone else there, either. She peeked out of her parents’ den and pulled back quickly when she saw Blacksnake sitting nearby, a frown on his face. ‘He doesn’t want to watch me! He doesn’t like me. I will just stay out of his way.’
Quietly, she crawled out of the den and moved a little ways away from where Blacksnake sat. She paused and looked back to see if he had noticed her. He gave no indication that he had, so she continued moving away. A hand clasped her shoulder, and she gave a little shriek.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Blacksnake growled.
She felt herself trembling and wanted to send for her mother and father. The thought of her father reminded her of what Cloudfern had told her… that Blacksnake had lost someone he loved, Chieftess Easysinger, and that it was hard for him to be happy. ‘Father told me that Blacksnake doesn’t hate me, but that he’s just really sad.' She wasn’t sure she believed her father, but she decided to take a chance and not be afraid for once. She hoped her father was right. Standing a bit taller, she looked at him and said, “I’m going hunting.”
“Hunting?” Blacksnake was almost amused.
‘He’s not mad at me!’ His question gave her hope, and rapidly she responded, “For beetles. Father said they can be found under the bark of old trees. I want to go and find some so I can watch them.”
Blacksnake let go of the child’s shoulder, choosing not to say anything, but motioning for her to keep going. Laughter smiled hesitantly. Then, taking a chance, she reached up and grabbed his hand, pulling him along behind her.
As they headed away from the dentrees, Laughter let out a short howl, and Scrap, a gangly stripling, not large enough to ride but getting bigger each day, came bounding behind them.
‘Why won’t she stop talking?’ Blacksnake wondered to himself. He had allowed Laughter to tow him along from tree to tree as she sought out beetles. Finally, she’d found them, then plopped herself down beside the deadened tree, pulling off piece after piece of rotten bark and watching the revealed bugs in fascination. What he didn’t understand was why the child felt the need to tell him everything she saw.
Laughter and Scrap both sat watching the bugs as they crawled around, looking for a new source of shelter. She laughed at her wolf friend as he tried to pounce on a particularly large beetle. It flew upward, and the wolf backed away, a quizzical expression on his face. She continued talking, telling Blacksnake what she saw.
“There’s a bunch of red ones. They like the white moldy stuff. Father says they help the tree break down. And the green ones are so shiny. I don’t know what they like, but they are pretty. And the brown ones are kind of ugly. They seem to go for the wet stuff, but maybe they just like to eat wood. Hey,” she reached down, grabbing one, “Look at this one!” She held out a beetle that wasn’t quite like the others. The area around its throat was a bit larger, and it looked sort of like a leaf. Blacksnake didn’t look her way, and Laughter didn’t press for an answer. She continued talking to him, however. “This one looks like a leaf, and these other ones are all working together. Oooh… and there are ants, too! They are carrying leaves from the bush down into the dead log. I wonder if their home is in there? How come the beetles and ants can digest trees, and we can’t? How come they have six legs and we have two? Do you know where the beetles come from? What about their eggs? Where do they hide them?”
The child would not stop talking. And she didn’t really seem to be looking for an answer, just asking her questions out loud. His irritation grew as he realized that the night was coming to an end, his bones were sore from sitting in the same place for the past few hours, and he had to make water. Laughter seemed oblivious to his discomfort, and she continued prattling on. She must have asked him a question, because suddenly, she was standing before him, holding out a handful of the creatures for him to look at. He blinked at her. She repeated it, “See? They’re all different! There’s six different kinds!”
He nodded, not certain what to say, and she continued yapping away. He was tired. Groaning as he stood, he told her he’d be back. “But where are you going?” she asked.
He sent an excuse, and Laughter responded, “But what am I supposed to do while you’re gone? Who will I talk to?”
He stopped for a moment, checking the growl he had considered responding with. “Talk to your wolf! Talk to the beetles!” he stated. “Talk to every last little one of them. Stuff your mouth full of them, for all I care! That’d give you something to do besides talking.” Then he went to relieve himself.
Laughter thought about what Blacksnake had said, looking at the six beetles crawling over her hand and arm. She'd eaten dead beetles before, but hadn't put live ones in her mouth. Wondering what they would feel like in her mouth, and wanting to listen to Blacksnake so that he wouldn’t be mad at her, she began putting them into her mouth. The sensation was a bit strange. She was careful not to bite down, not wanting to hurt them, but observing the feeling of little legs crawling around inside her mouth. They tickled a little, and she tried hard not to laugh. Once she had those six, she decided to stuff more into her mouth.
When Blacksnake returned, he was shocked to see Laughter with her mouth full of something. She looked at him, her cheeks puffed, and he realized that her cheeks were moving from inside. Her green-brown eyes were wide, and she sent to him, **It feels so strange!** Included in that send was the idea that she had listened to him, and that she had a mouth full of beetles.
He was only partially surprised that the child had done what he asked - the girl had once eaten stink-bugs at her brother's direction. Blacksnake watched for a minute, then saw a beetle crawl out of her mouth, and watched as Laughter tried to catch it to put it back in. He couldn’t help it; he burst out laughing.
It was the first time in her memory Laughter had ever seen Blacksnake laugh, and in that moment, she realized that he was not a “Grumpy Old Bear” and that her parents were right. He didn’t hate her, he just had bad moods. And his laughter was contagious. She began laughing. As she did, beetles fell and crawled out of her mouth. The sight of this caused him to laugh harder, and that caused Laughter to laugh even more.
He hadn’t really laughed in a long time, and it felt good. Plus, the child’s innocence in listening to him, and the sight of the beetles touched something in him, and before he knew it, he was crying and laughing at the same time. Laughter was so delighted at the sight of Blacksnake happy that she laughed even harder. And then, something happened. Her eyes grew wide and her hand flew to her mouth, then her stomach. She started coughing, and a smell came from her mouth, meaning only one thing. She had swallowed a stink bug. Blacksnake realized what happened, and continued laughing.
Finally, the laughter subsided. Seeing the sickly look on the child’s face, he pulled his waterskin from his side and handed it to her. “Drink up. It will help wash the taste away—a little.”
She gratefully took the water skin and drank every drop out of it. Smiling, she handed it back to him and said, “Thank you.”
He stood up, letting her know that it was time to return to the holt. Though her stomach felt a little strange and her mouth had a bad taste in it, Laughter was happy. Swallowing the stink bug was worth it to her because she had gotten to see Blacksnake laugh. She looked up at him and he reached down, ruffling her hair, saying, “C’mon, little Beetle.”
Seeing the smile in his eyes, she tried out the name in her head, deciding she liked it - twice in her life now, beetles had helped her bring others to laughing. She didn’t say anything to him, but she knew she would claim it as her new name, as soon as she told her parents what had happened. Putting her hand in his, the two walked quietly and happily back to the holt.