“What does it mean to die?”
It was a question Chicory had not expected when she offered to take the cub to Badger’s Lake. She had only meant to give Starskimmer and Cloudfern an opportunity to get some things done, and to give little Laughter a change of scenery. Chicory liked being around cubs. Their curiosity about all things usually led to great adventures watching frogs, searching for turtles, or occasionally trying to sit still enough that they might see one of the great water birds or even a marshbeast up close. She didn’t expect to be asked about death.
“Chicory,” Laughter said, leaving her perch on a rock near the water’s edge to stand before her older friend, “what does it mean to die?”
The cubsitter thought quickly. Remembering how her father sometimes answered her questions with a question, she said, “What do you think it means, Laughter?”
Laughter, disregarding the mud, plopped to a seated position and looked intently at Chicory. “Well… Flash died, right?”
Flash had died not even a moon before, so Laughter’s line of questioning made sense. She wondered what Cloudfern and Starskimmer had told Laughter about it. Chicory had seen Laughter in her father’s arms as the tribe sent Flash downriver and howled for her loss, so she knew the child understood that Flash was gone. She answered, “Yes. Flash died.”
“But….” Laughter hesitated, her face scrunching up as if she was trying to sort something out. She swatted at a bug that buzzed by her and sighed.
“But what, little one?” Chicory asked.
“Well… it’s not like hunting. She didn’t die to be food for something. And… well… now she went down the river… but where did she go?”
To Chicory’s knowledge, not that she had asked, no one she knew of had ever thought to follow one of the flimsy rafts, though they all knew the river made its way to the great waters. Most assumed the rafts broke apart before nearing the Great Waters, and that the bodies of the dead would wash up on a bank and become food for scavengers. She tried explaining where the river went, but Laughter interrupted her.
“No. Not where the river went or the raft. Her! Where did Flash go?” Laughter’s tone was imploring.
Chicory was stumped. “Try sending the question.”
Laughter sent, **Storyteller, firehair, smiling, my brother’s sister, her spirit Where did she go?**
“Ohhh…” Chicory said out loud. This question she understood. It was one she had thought about a lot when her mother died, and again when Beesting, Tallow and Sunlight had died. But she had come to her own conclusions. While she knew that the spirit lived on and went to the Palace, she also believed that the spirit of the elf lived on in memory. And while there were those in the tribe who would argue differently, Chicory also believed that a spirit could visit an elf in a vision or dream. She still sometimes felt that her mother was near. But she wasn’t sure about what Laughter had been told.
Although she felt good that the cub trusted her enough to ask, she wished Laughter had asked the question of her parents. Maybe she had. She didn’t want to contradict Starskimmer or Cloudfern, or anyone else for that matter. “Well,” she started, “what did your parents say?”
“Didn’t ask them,” Laughter responded, her shoulders slumping. She poked her fingers at the mud.
“Really?” Chicory responded. She was surprised. Surely Laughter’s parents had told her something about where elf spirits went.
Laughter plunged her hands in the mud and pulled them out, watching as her handprints slowly filled with water from the ground. Finally, she said, “They told me that she went to the Palace, to be with the other elves that have died. And they told me that the Palace should be here but isn’t, which doesn’t make any sense to me, because if it’s here we should see it, but we don’t. So where is she?”
A different approach was needed. Chicory wanted to see what Laughter’s thoughts were. “Where do you think she went?”
“I don’t know. If the Palace is here, even though it’s not, then she should be here somewhere, too. And I want to find her. I need her to finish telling me the story. She didn’t get to finish the story,” Laughter said quietly. A few moments passed, and Chicory saw tears welling up in Laughter’s eyes. “Now I’ll never know how it ended. And she won’t be here to tell me any more stories, either. I’ll miss her!” The tears spilled over.
Chicory reached out and pulled Laughter into her lap, positioning her so that they were both facing the lake. Chicory wrapped her arms around the cub and bent a little so that her cheek was next to Laughter’s. “It’s hard, losing a friend, isn’t it?” she said quietly.
“Mmm-hmmm,” Laughter responded, reaching up to wipe away the tears.
“We all miss her.”
Chicory felt some of Laughter’s sadness lift as the cub straightened a little in her lap. Laughter turned her tear-stained face to peer at Chicory. “Not Honey,” she said in earnest.
The statement was so simple it almost made Chicory laugh. Even as small as she was, Laughter had observed the feud between Honey and Flash. Still, she didn’t want Laughter under the false impression that any member of the tribe reveled in another’s death, no matter how bad the blood between them. “Even Honey misses her,” she explained. “They didn’t get along, maybe they didn’t even like each other, but Flash was a member of the tribe. They were closer than you think. You saw Honey help push Flash’s raft into the river, didn’t you?”
“She got to do that because she cared. Even though they didn’t like each other, they did love one another. They were half-siblings, kind of like you and Coyote.”
“But Coyote and I like each other.”
“Yes, you do. But even if you didn’t like him, you’d be sad if he was gone.”
Laughter must have accepted Chicory’s response, because she changed the subject. “Did Flash ever tell you stories?”
Chicory laughed. She could guess where Laughter was going with this line of questioning, and she figured they would talk all night. It was something they could have done back at the Dentrees, but then again, maybe Laughter wouldn’t have asked there. She decided to enjoy the evening as it was, talking about Flash and her stories. The lake and its animals would be there every night after, but this night at the lake was special.
“Did she?” Laughter asked, interrupting Chicory’s reverie.
“Did Flash ever tell me stories? She told everyone stories.”
In her lap, Laughter giggled. “Did she tell you the one about the High One who became a monster?”
“A monster?” No… Flash had never told her that one! She waited for Laughter to tell her more, hoping that she would be able to finish the end of the story for the child.
“Well, it wasn’t a monster, but some of the others thought it was.”
“Ohhh… that story!” Chicory knew it well. It was the story of their tribe. And of Zerran and his descendents. Flash had always been good at expounding on a tale to make it more interesting, especially for cubs. Thankful that it was one that she knew how to tell, she asked, “Do you want to hear the rest of it?”
Laughter nodded. Before Chicory could start, Laughter said out loud, “Flash, if you’re there, help Chicory with the story!”
Chicory smiled. In addition to what she knew, Laughter had come to her own conclusion after all.