Diviners claim the universe created both Paragons, male and female, from the cataclysm of two crashing stars. - Creation of Mortal Earth
Most humans find closure when they visit the graves of family, friends, and lovers. The visitors arrive time and time again with flowers and trinkets to show the spirits they are not forgotten, that they have forever imprinted mortality with their ideas and dreams so their memories might live on forever. Visitors also stay a while and talk and pray with the dead as if they were still alive. Some bring entire families to visit the graves, making it a family reunion as lively and happy as if the deceased had never left at all.
For him, graves mocked his unrecoverable, soul-shredding loss carving him hollow with a dull, rusted blade. To visit a grave is to visit an apothecary and swallow your spoonful of poison: Thank you. I’ll come back next week for my next dose as soon as the sickness passes.
For that, he now approached his first visit unprepared and years behind. Should he bring flowers? Prepare a speech? What would he say? Nothing, probably. Would end up staring stupidly, both hands shoved into the pockets of his tight, high-water pants for an enormous amount of time, question his existence, and leave.
He wouldn’t make it there anyway, so his lack of preparation didn’t matter. Attempts to walk this road in the past had failed and he maintained hope there would be no difference now.
He exited Malandore across the bridge, the mechanical dwarven-made pump house downstream grinding gears with a chungk-chungk-chungk as it pushed river water through the underground city aqueducts.
Except there was a difference. A life-changing difference. He opened his eyes this morning, expecting for manhood, knowing where he wanted to apprentice, and all the answers to have arrived to him during the night and he’d be made whole. Then he expected them to arrive as soon as he opened the schoolroom door. Then he trusted he’d see glimmers of them as he sat in his school chair. He thought he felt them when Thaen’s father slapped him on the back and said in his deep baritone, “With your invisibility, you should be a ranger. You’d be invaluable.” And Thaen himself in less diplomatic tones, “You’re a knuckling sod-head if you don’t go ranger.”
But answers didn’t come to him then either, because Cohthel didn’t want to be a ranger anymore than he wanted to apprentice in government. So now Cohthel had a problem. While his classmates went out to attend their first day in their chosen apprenticeships, Cohthel remained behind, picking his nose, wracking his brain where he could find the answer to where he wanted to apprentice. It didn’t take long. Comparing his life to Thaen’s the answer rammed into him as if his single thought had the power to shatter dams.
Which is why, deep in the marrow of his bones, he knew he wouldn’t turn around on the road this time. Wouldn’t refuse his spoonful of poison anymore.
The trees around him looked foreign and changed since his last attempts to reach the cemetery. Suspicious, too, as if talking behind his back as he passed. Humans visited the cemetery all the time, but Cohthel felt an uninvited stranger walking up to the map nailed to the wood board at the cemetery’s gate, searching for the family name of Faunt.
He was content to stay forever by that map instead of acknowledging the anxious pinging in his gut about seeing Father’s grave for the first time in ten years. He half feared his dead father would claw out of the dirt and accuse him of never visiting. He might have turned around then except for the shade of all his fears drawing ice down the back of his neck, reminding him: you’ll never choose an apprenticeship if you leave without visiting your father. It was the only explanation that made sense. Thaen had a father and knew where he wanted to apprentice. All his classmates had fathers and had chosen their apprenticeships three months ago.
He left the map and trudged along the gravel path.
The failing sunlight bled over the gray headstones and crypts, trees among the rows fluttering crispy leaves, hissing wind adding cadence to the night which followed him to a wooden sign declaring “Faunt” as the family claiming this section. He searched for his resistance to visit Father’s grave once more, but it escaped clear of his mental grasp. With detached numbness, his gaze passed across each headstone: Grandparents Faunt, cousin Lithsinia from stillbirth, Aunt and Uncle Forbecken killed by Dark Elves between Malandore and Yl Elyuon. His maternal Grandmother Tefell.
Cohthel looked over the names again.
One more time.
“I lied. You’d make a terrible ranger.”
Cohthel’s knees buckled in fear at the scare seizing his chest as effective as a heart attack, thinking how appropriate it was that he already stood in the cemetery. But sixteen was too young to die so Cohthel’s subconscious kicked him back to life and he swung an ineffective fist at Thaen who spun out of reach as gracefully as a dance.
“And you can’t punch,” Thaen said. Spiked shock-blond hair combined with high eyebrows made the sixteen-year-old boy look perpetually surprised instead of the cool I-got-you he imbued into the tone of his voice. “Good thing you have me to teach you. You’ve got a long way to go to become a ranger. Unless you came to the cemetery because you want to be a cleric?”
“Did you follow me just to scare me?”
“I’m not that petty. No. I needed to test my sneaking. You never even suspected. Now, why are you here?”
“I’m just out for a walk.”
“To the cemetery? Specifically to your family’s burial plot?”
“So? You stopped at the map and looked as if you had no knuckling idea where your own family’s burial plot was.”
Cohthel rocked back and forth on his heels, not meeting Thaen’s eyes.
What had Cohthel done to be robbed of his chance of growing up with a father? Didn’t he obey orders without question? Complete chores without Mother needing to ask? Wasn’t he honest and kind and kept his promises? Thaen enjoyed fighting and lied for personal advantage, pawned off chores and laughed when told what to do, so why had the Paragons blessed him with not only a father but brothers and sisters?
“I was looking for my father’s grave,” Cohthel confessed.
“You don’t know where your father’s grave is?”
Mother never talked about Father, either, as if she too suffered the pains of his loss and separated herself from the lingering heartache having replaced him. Got rid of everything he owned. Clothes. The effects of his hobbies. Only left his painted portrait hanging on the wall by the door.
Cohthel squeezed his eyes shut with equal tension as both fists, preparing for Thaen’s nagging to drag out over the next month. When Thaen latched onto a passion, be it apprenticeships, conspiracies, or drama, he didn’t let it go until the opposing party tired of him. “No.”
“Undergod’s knuckles, why not?”
“Look, everyone deals with death their own way. Now you can pound off or help me look.”
Subdued, Thaen stepped forward. His head moved side-to-side as he read off the names. He stepped past Cohthel and squinted at the first headstone despite the daylight. “Nope.” He stepped right. “Nope.”
Cohthel took the left, but the brick line in the dirt ended his family’s plot.
“Wow.” Thaen said after ten minutes of digging in the grass in case it had fallen over. “You sure they buried him here? But he would have been. All humans are buried here. Wasn’t he near Yl Elyuon when he died? I’ll ask Ilthyn if humans are ever buried with elves. They might have buried him there.” Even for Thaen, his tone did not sound like he believed it.
“Well…” Thaen turned, spinning the mystery on its top in favor of one he understood, “what did you plan to do out here, anyway?”
Cohthel shoved both hands in his tight pockets and walked away from his family’s plot.
“What were you going to do?” Thaen nagged, and unless Cohthel tolerated his persistence for the rest of his life, he gave in.
“I was going to…to just…” Nothing obligated him to incriminate himself to his best friend about his undecided apprenticeship. “…Talk to him.”
Thaen burst out laughing. “You what?”
“Don’t mock me.”
“Oh, I’m going to mock you.”
“Easy for you to blow this off. My mother won’t remarry and I want a father. You have a father and you already signed to your apprenticeship—”
“Oh, knuckling stop it. What you need to focus on is why your father’s grave isn’t with the rest of the family. You really should have visited sooner.”
Cohthel shut up, his irritation at Thaen’s mockery of hope chilling into questions.
Thaen’s boots a half size too big plodded next to Cohthel as they walked. “Maybe he’s somewhere else in the cemetery.”
“Ya. Maybe.” A deep seed smoldering in Cohthel’s chest opened a new reality, and he didn’t know how to handle this foreign emptiness. Believing Father’s death even though he had never seen his grave, Cohthel still protested not knowing where his family buried him.
“I know it was ten years ago, but do you remember where you had his funeral when you buried him?”
Cohthel stared at the dirt, trying to picture Mother crying into a handkerchief, her sister and brother nearby, Cohthel himself looking at the casket — unable to remember what it looked like — lowered into Mortal Earth. What was the weather like? The season? Rain, snow, sunshine, wind? Did many kindred come or just a few? Did Mother force me to wear anything special? Did we have a ceremony? Where? Did kindred bring funeral gifts?
“No. I remember nothing about the funeral. I can’t picture any of it. But I was six.” Mother might have sent me to stay with a family or friend since I was too young to understand, but I don’t remember that either.
“You’re mother would know, though.”
“Ya. She will.”
The somber tone of the discovery ceased conversation all the way back to the bridge and river marking Malandore’s border, the city itself settling down with the evening. Pegasi and gryphons were either landing from flight or taking off for one final transport, and the gold R’th rocks affixed atop the lamp posts along the cobbled streets now glowed against the failing sunlight.
Diviners, who can see the gods and translate their actions, credit the gold-glowing, naturally-occurring quartz rock used to light up houses and streets to a sort of gas called R’th found in veins throughout the world. Certain natural elements react to this gas, causing them to glow.
“See you tomorrow.” Thaen touched his shoulder in parting and left.
Cohthel walked into the house. The hearth crackled with fresh explosions of pine wood under the heat; turpentine juices cloying the room in a mild musk. His searching hand lingered on Father’s portrait there for longer than his usual touch of praise, long enough the canvas felt like flesh, gaining warmth, and a steady, quavering tick tick tick from a pulse beating as if inside the paint, ready to claw out, or pull Cohthel in.
“Hiya, Jumpy.” Mother rocked and knitted by the fire, legs crossed and bare feet poking out the bottom of her lavender dress. She had pulled her long blond hair over her shoulder. Mother never called Cohthel by his first name, inventing her own when Cohthel first showed aptitude toward acrobatics at four years old. “How was your first day?”
“Still haven’t decided where I want to apprentice.”
“That’s okay. You still have six months to decide. There’s nothing wrong with general labor, either. That’s what most of my school group chose.” Mother did not support apprenticeships. She thought choosing one limited students: narrowing their skill into a single funnel instead of remaining open to everything else a general laborer learned.
“Ya,” he conceded without enthusiasm. He shoved both hands in his pockets. “I went to the cemetery.” He paused, but she waited for him to continue. “To our family plot, but couldn’t find Father’s grave. I was six when he died and don’t remember his funeral very well, so I can’t remember where we buried him.”
Her gaze lowered back to her knitting and resumed rocking. “Your father died while working for the Trading Cycle Caravan, remember? Fell off the cliff. They never recovered his body. There was nothing to bury. I thought you knew, son. It was a while ago. I’m very sorry. You’ve been going all this time thinking he had a grave in the cemetery. We can erect a symbolic one in the family plot if it will help you feel better.”
“No, no, that’s okay. Ya, I must have forgotten they couldn’t recover his body. I was six. Alright, good night Mother. Do you need me to do any chores before bed?”
She looked at the stack of wood next to the hearth. “We’re getting low on wood, but that can wait for tomorrow.” She paused, warmth pooling into her blue eyes. “Oh son, I’m so grateful for you. You’re growing up. And by all rights, it shouldn’t have happened this fast.”
Sensing Mother getting soft and awkward with him, he responded with a silent nod and shuffled down the hall before she said anything else. Or worse, hugged him.
Having abandoned sleep schedules during the summer, Cohthel still expected to wake up early enough to dress, eat breakfast, and make it to his second day of school early enough to talk with his friends before they parted for their apprenticeships.
But when he opened his eyes the next morning, he noted the brightness of the sunlight through his window, and dressing as he stumbled down the hallway — skipping breakfast — he launched himself out the door and sprinted to the schoolhouse. He burst into the schoolroom, out of breath and sweaty, under the glowering gaze of his mentor alone in the room with him, her tiny glasses anchored to the tip of her nose.
Her silence elaborated her displeasure at him more than any word existing in the Eloshian language, because Cohthel already knew all what she would say: knew that he was late, knew that he still hadn’t chosen an apprenticeship, knew that he lacked manhood, and hygiene, that he knew, yet Cohthel still made no efforts to rectify his faults even being embarrassingly aware of them all.
He shuffled to the bookshelf and pulled a book at random, not even looking at the title before he trudged to his chair and slumped down. He plopped the book on his table. The Medical Apprentice.
All his classmates out attending their second day in their chosen apprenticeships further convinced Cohthel the Paragons should have timed his birth a generation earlier. Mother’s generation focused less on ambitious futures and more on immediate solutions; comfortable with accepting general laborer in whatever would hire them the fastest. Then Cohthel would be one of many stuck in the classroom instead of singled out in a detested way for his apparent lack.
He flipped through The Medical Apprentice without reading. A medical apprenticeship interested him no more than government or science, but he thumbed through those too, all the way up until he heard noises outside the window. He looked up and witnessed Thaen in lockstep with his ranger father.
The pair stopped. Thaen’s father slapped his son’s back, bearded face beaming with pride. Thaen accepted the adulation with a grin.
That brief father-son connection drove a vicious, hungry spike straight through Cohthel’s gut.
They separated. Thaen’s father walked out of the school courtyard.
The schoolroom door opened. Two heavy stomps from boots a full size too big on the wood floor announced Thaen entering the classroom. He liked big boots because they made him sound older when he walked. He marched in with shoulders straighter, his legs longer than yesterday.
Thaen stomped over to Cohthel. “I will forgive you for being late this morning if you got out and apprenticed somewhere.”
Cohthel lowered his gaze and did not answer. Thaen had trained for the rangers under the suspicious tutelage of his older brother as soon as Thaen could walk, who marched over to the Enforcement representative yesterday and signed his ranger contract swifter than a salute. Thaen obsessing over ranger training since last year proved the result of what happens when a boy grows up with a father everyday next to him.
Thaen’s already too-high eyebrows shot higher. “Evermore…yesterday you said you picked engineer.”
Though named “Cohthel” at birth, Father nicknamed him “Evermore”: Father’s last gift to him before Father left for the caravan and never came home.
Cohthel slumped deeper in his chair, the same chair hundreds of other students had sat, the same chair launching them into vibrant futures of their choosing. Any lower he’d be under the cushion. “I changed my mind.”
“Brother, sit straighter. Stop slouching all the time. We talked about this. At length. You don’t need a father to pick an apprenticeship. You just need to pick!”
A cold sludge of mixed emotions popped goosebumps under Cohthel’s long-sleeved shirt. With hot self consciousness, he sat straighter.
“Nah.” Thaen flapped a hand in his face. “You picked art. Theater.” Thaen put all ten fingers in his mouth and made a face like a dreary festival disguise. “You already have a natural mask. No makeup or training required. Just throw you on stage for their next tragedy. Or, since you’re so knuckling good at climbing, cartwheeling, and flipping, you could be the intermission comic relief.”
“Government, actually,” Cohthel said. “I’m going to become the next torc and decree that you will only patrol my toilet in the castle.”
“I’m going to be a ranger. Not a knightlord. The castle is their jurisdiction.”
Cohthel didn’t know what jurisdiction meant.
Three boys burst open the door, punching each other. Mianda entered behind them, her broad shoulders filling the doorway.
The three boys ahead of her stopped punching and stared. “That thing hasn’t left our class yet?” the darker-haired boy announced to his two sycophants. “That’s it. I’m asking for a transfer.”
“Oh, Burgand,” Cohthel said, “you’re so selfless, removing yourself from this class, but there is no need. Is someone bullying you and making you feel you can’t stay? Tell me and I’ll fix them. Because I, for one, want you here.”
Burgand’s unblinking stare and slack jaw held a moment, then he snapped both and turned his back on Cohthel, mumbling to his two friends.
Mianda looked down at Cohthel, her hair pulled back into a short ponytail and dyed black to conceal her natural dusutri-yellow. “That poor kid, thinking I didn’t want him in our class.” She walked past Cohthel to the chair next to his and sat. Cohthel taught her that he didn’t care how old they got. He would always fight for her.
The sixteenth hour bringing the end of the school day prevented Cohthel from knocking himself unconscious with the ultra heavy Government Apprentice book, so he walked out of there conscious and alive behind his friends.
Thaen pulled him aside as they walked, lowering his voice as if he were about to reveal a conspiracy. “Did you ask your mother…?”
“Yes. My father fell off a cliff during his last caravan cycle. They couldn’t recover his body. Since there was nothing to bury, my mother didn’t have…” Cohthel squeezed his eyes shut and clenched both fists. “Please stop laughing.”
“Couldn’t recover his body? You do know that seadwellers would take offended notice if they found a body floating around their ocean realm?”
“Well, it happened. They never recovered his body.”
“Unlikely, but whatever. The question now becomes, why didn’t your mother erect a grave marker ten years ago?”
“Thaen…” Cohthel said the name as if releasing a heavy burden, understanding the moment the nagging young man sparked on a growing subterfuge theory about Father’s lacking grave. “There’s no mystery. No one recovering his body equals no grave.”
“And no funeral, either.”
“We had a funeral.”
“You don’t remember having a funeral for him.”
“I was six.”
“You remembered him giving you your Evermore nickname at six.”
The sharp memory flashed into Cohthel’s thoughts. Father knelt. “I’m going to call you Evermore, after the legend of Evermore and Nevercease who together conquered the world. Do you want to conquer the world with me?”
“Yes!” responded an enthusiastic six-year-old boy not knowing what that meant.
Though Cohthel remembered little else from the growing brain of a six-year-old, he remembered the impact of the bond and prided being his father’s son, would follow him anywhere, trust all his lessons as the secret answers to the universe and where he stood within the chaotic spin.
“Okay, Thaen, you’re right. I don’t remember my father’s funeral because he never died, which explains why he doesn’t have a grave. He’s still alive on Eloshonna avoiding both son and wife because he’s looking for the lost god Astorous and telling me he died is easier for my mother instead of telling me the truth. Happy?”
Thaen rubbed his chin and the starter-beard making an obvious appearance. “Let’s say that story is true.” Thaen lifted both hands — a gesture warning he would next get technical — “Your mother hasn’t done a good job convincing you he is dead. I can understand forgoing the fake funeral because the logistics of that would be too much asking a bunch of family to fake a funeral to convince a six-year-old who would be too young to understand it all anyway. But then she also skimps on a fake grave marker and never takes you along to visit his fake grave and then never fakes taking herself to the cemetery to visit the fake grave.”
“…What?” Cohthel looked down the road, toward his escape from Thaen who would loop and loop through a problem until he figured out either a fake or exaggerated explanation.
“And ten years later and she won’t re-marry and still wears her wedding ring?”
“Like I said. Him walking around Eloshonna searching for the lost god Astorous is far too painful to admit so she’s faking his death to cut the sting a little.” They reached the turn to Coleous’ house. He spun on his heel to head that way.
Thaen caught his sleeve. “I’ll think about it some more.”
“Why wait? Come over right now and ask my mother why she’s been lying to me for ten years.”
“Oh, that’s right. You won’t because she’ll prove it’s not subterfuge.” Thaen spent seven days three months back trying to figure out why Dark Elves came above ground sometimes. He settled with the theory that they were spying and counting how many kindred lived above ground so later they could attack and take control of Eloshonna. “Maybe…maybe my whole life has been a lie and I don’t exist, that I’m the side-effect of Dark Elf R’th erroneously thinking I’m a real human.”
Thaen’s blond, too-high eyebrows shot up. “I mean…”
Cohthel left Thaen with a fresh puzzle and ran along the street. Plumes of smoke curled like whispers out of brick chimneys, infused with burning coal, fresh bread, and memories of Father taking him to the bakery so early they’d cut a slice off the first loaves, hot and soft, out of the oven. Yesterday morning Cohthel salivated over the smell, but now he wondered if the baker had scorched the morning’s first batch. He wrinkled his nose and instead looked toward the high tide breaking gurgling waves below Malandore Castle, sending a burst of seagulls into the air with indignant squawking.
The autumn sunlight shifted through the shadows beneath the trees as he ran the footpath into the forest toward home, his long sleeves cutting the autumn chill. A small bridge arching over a creek cut perpendicular to his trail. Forgoing the bridge, he sprinted at the creek and launched off the bank, sucking both knees into his chest. He exited the successful rotation and landed on the other side, hands once again shoved into the pockets of his tight, high-water pants.
He walked into the house, touching Father’s portrait inside the door with only a sliver of awareness he had done so, the remembered warmth of Father’s bright eyes, his laugh and ridiculous humor coursing through his fingers. He dumped his school bag on his bed and went back outside where he had been stacking wood all summer and reached for the ax, the wood handle warmed by the sun and smoothed by his hands over the years.
Setting a pine log on his chopping block, he spun it to the angle where the blade would cleave through the grain. He grabbed the ax. He sunk both shoulders, then squeezing the back of his shoulder blades together, he brought the ax up, over, and down with a clean crack. The two halves fell away, resin pores torn open released the wild, un-tamable smell of the earth.
His project filled him with excitement. He thrilled over the thought of Mother’s eyes lighting like they always did when he finished his chores. He would not bear the sight of seeing Mother heft this heavy ax, the hem of her dress catching dirt and slivers of prickly wood as she swept around the woodpile. Father would have been proud that he…
His hands paused. Resumed. Crack. Thought of dinner, the thinning soles in his boots, would need to chop more wood later, and wasn’t the caravan coming to town here in a few days?
Caravan. The one Father worked for.
His falling ax stroke bounced off the flat head of the pine log, shuddering pain into both hands. Jaw clenched, he looked at the side of the house. He painted the walls last summer, now due for a touch-up. He’d climb on the roof and make sure the sealing still held. Mother complained of that squeaky board in the hallway, but nothing a hammer and another nail wouldn’t fix. So, so many chores, and he’d have to do them all as the only man in the house—
“Undergod’s knuckles!” He tossed the ax and spun into the sun gliding west, running a hand through the curly knots of his sweaty hair. Knuckling Mother! I want a father! He was fine and over Father’s absent grave, but a new sore chafed on his young adult heart: because Mother had so far declined to re-marry, Cohthel had grown up and through puberty without a father, forcing him to default asking Thaen those questions. Though a loyal friend, Thaen wasn’t a trustworthy information source because if he didn’t know the answer he made one up and exaggerated the answers he did.
A huge reason Cohthel had yet to allow himself attraction to the opposite sex. He still didn’t know how everything worked and wasn’t about to ask Mother.
Thaen’s father, Bohrim, gathered Cohthel into his fold, allowing Cohthel to at least grow up under that male presence Cohthel craved, but lately Cohthel found himself detaching from his fold as Bohrim became increasingly demanding that Cohthel “take control of your future” and “should become a ranger, like my son,” and “eat, sleep, and breathe hard work to be good at your apprenticeship” and Cohthel simply didn’t share his energy or motivation.
He snapped his composure together and forced a smile at Mother who came out of the house, both eyebrows pinched. Anxiety bubbled in his chest.
“Jumpy, I…” She looked at the house, then back at him. “I’m so sorry. I…your father’s portrait, it…” She didn’t finish. Let his imagination explode.
He ran past her, through the open door of the house. His hurried searching discovered Father’s portrait no longer hung at its shrine by the door, but now rested on the floor, propped against a bucket filled with soapy water. He dropped to his knees on the wet floor and snatched the portrait.
“No no no.” Hot tears blurred his eyes in the same likeness of Father’s paint blurring together. The defined eyes, his smiling teeth, swirled into soapy liquid ruin.
Mother stepped inside. “I was mopping and bumped it off the wall. Undergod’s demons! I’d set my bucket there and it fell in. I pulled it straight out…” Sorrow tore into her tone. Her skirt swept past him as she went down the hall and into her room, closing the door.
Cohthel brushed his thumb over the wet canvas, smearing paint into further chaos. If he laid it flat in the sunshine, the bleeding would stop and the remnants of Father’s last and only image left to his life would freeze again.
He didn’t take it outside. His teary eyes dried. Father lived no more in this painting than he did in the graveyard. Canvas and paint would not join in dance to make flesh and blood, no matter Cohthel’s wish and urgency. No. Flesh and blood belonged to Mother, who fled to her room fearing his wrath. Paint and canvas would never replace Father. Nor would he allow it to replace Mother.
What was the painting anyway but pain over and over again? A false hope like unto a grave? Until that moment, he had not realized the painting held him back. He stood with the painting, approached the fire, and threw it in.
He watched its destruction with proper vigilance until the ash broke and scattered. He promised the painting and Father’s spirit that he would strive to choose an apprenticeship before the month ended, with or without a father.
He knocked on Mother’s door. “Mother, are you okay?” He loaded his tone with sincerity to show he wasn’t upset.
She opened the door a crack, eyes red and unsure.
“Mother, it’s just a painting. Father’s nickname of Evermore he gave me is more real than anything paint can conjure.”
“I know how much it meant to you.”
“You matter more to me than paint. That picture doesn’t replace Father any more than it replaces you.”
She opened the door wider. “Sometimes, son, I don’t feel I deserve you.”
Hating hugs, Cohthel loaded warmth into his smile instead.
They cooked dinner together, Cohthel sliding into his role by grabbing the silverware and setting the table big enough for Mother, children…and Father before he left on his last cycle with the caravan.
“Mother,” he said, dishing a heaping, steaming ladle-full of stew into his bowl, “have you chosen not to re-marry because you were afraid I’d feel like you were betraying Father?”
“Oh, jumpy, no no no, I know you’d support me. I’m the one who would feel like I was betraying your father if I re-married.”
“It’s been ten years.”
“I’m not over his death yet.”
Cohthel seethed. He still didn’t have a father because Mother was stuck on a dead one. Then she knuckling better answer every one of his nuanced questions about Father’s funeral.
“Since Father doesn’t have a grave, where did we have a funeral for him? I’m having a hard time remembering.”
“We had a small ceremonial gathering of friends and family here. You probably didn’t realize it was for Father. Probably thought friends and family had come to visit. Don’t eat too much. I made cherry cobbler for dessert.” Her infectious smile slammed the gate to any more talk about Father, and they finished dinner in silence.
She pulled out a game during dessert that she bought from the caravan three months ago. The authentic version injured players as they raced through a pattern on the ground with color-coded rocks the size of a dwarf’s head. Someone would roll a giant block of wood with a different color on each side, matching the color of the rocks.
Pegasi remained the only ones Cohthel knew who loved and played that game. Turns out they made a smaller, home-friendly version to be enjoyed on the kitchen table by humans with polished pebbles, a wood board, and bone dice.
Mother rolled the dice and placed her pebbles.
“Wow,” he began his interrogation, “that’s been bothering me that the seadwellers are that bad at seeing a dead body floating in their realm.”
“Hmm? Oh, you mean when they couldn’t find your father?”
“I mean, they recover lots of other bodies, even the falkons who die while flying over the ocean.”
“Caravan Master Kitannia suspected a shark ate him.”
Cohthel rolled his dice. Thunk, tap tap tap. He moved a blue pebble to the blue pattern on the board.
“Ah.” Mother sat back. “I hate my luck. I’m all spread out on every pattern, but you’ve been able to gather most of yours on blue. You are going to win this round.”
“Sharks must have gotten close to the cliff where Father fell off. I thought they lived further out to sea.”
“Why, yes, what? Jumpy…” She leaned forward, blond hair falling on either side of her face. “Sometimes I forget you’re older now and soon to become a man, and you have a lot of new emotions stirring in your body…”
He curled all ten toes inside his boots, cringing as she dove into an awkward lesson about puberty as if it were a clinging ailment he’d never gotten over.
“…so of course, your father’s death is hanging on.” Her hand snapped forward and covered his knuckles. “I know life is crazy and doesn’t have all the answers for us, but sometimes we have to wait. I’ll get a grave marker and we’ll put it in the family plot. I know that will make you feel better.” She smiled as if in those words she solved the racial conflict between the Kingdom and the Outside Realms as a bonus to Cohthel’s problem, and sat back in her seat. “It’s very late. Tell you what, you win this round.”
Cohthel thought a long time afterward about sharks and puberty and wondered of the correlation to a father with no grave and an at-home ceremony he couldn’t remember.