by Kim McFarland
It was a cool day at the beginning of spring. Winter had been harsh, as winter always was. The caves grew so cold that the rock below chilled you through the soles of your feet. Water froze, so you either went thirsty or ate ice, which was hardly less dangerous. Most beings had the sense to go to their homes and stay warm among their fellows.
Not Cantus, however. Murray had tried to talk him out of traveling to Fraggle Rock for the Festival of the Bells. He'd led the celebration every year for decades, he had said; they had to have gotten the hang of it by now. Cantus had not argued the matter. He had simply gone. When Murray found he was missing, he had chased after him. It hadn't taken long for him to catch up. Cantus had been moving more slowly of late.
Murray had never been to the Festival of the Bells before because he had always wintered in his home colony. After he saw it, he understood why Cantus had been so determined to be there. Those Fraggles could find joy in anything, even at the most miserably cold time of the year. Even so, he wished he had been able to talk Cantus out of making this trip.
They had both had stayed in Fraggle Rock until spring. Cantus had not given them a reason he was staying much longer than usual, and the Fraggles, excited to have him as an honored guest, had not asked. But even they must have realized that something was not right. Cantus was old, and the long journey through the frigid caverns had sapped his strength.
Now it was time to move on. The Fraggles had bid him farewell with a raucous party. They had left, Cantus playing his Magic Pipe and Murray strumming his guitar as they walked away.
A few minutes later, Cantus had stopped playing and threaded the pipe into his backpack.
They had walked in silence until late evening, when they reached a stopping point. It was not one of their usual campgrounds; they had not made it that far. Cantus took off his pack and sank to the ground with a soft sigh of relief.
Murray took off his pack, which now included Cantus' bedroll, the heaviest part of Cantus' gear. Lightening his pack had not helped much. As he built a campfire Cantus sat still, leaning back against a mossy boulder, gazing at the stream that flowed through the center of the cave. Murray took some food out of his pack—bread baked by the Fraggles they had just left, and some of those radishes that Fraggles were so nuts about—and offered Cantus a portion. Cantus glanced at them and shook his head slightly. Murray shrugged and put them down within reach. "What're you thinking?" he asked.
Cantus spoke for the first time since they had left the rock. "I'm not thinking. I'm listening. Listening to the sound of the water. To the joyous splash as it first rushes down the waterfall, and the softer gurgles as it slows and flows in its channel, and its silence as it disappears into the darkness."
Murray says softly, "Sounds to me like you're thinking."
"I wonder where the water goes."
They both knew the answer to that. Water circulated through the rock, flowing downward through channels and cracks, soaking through soil and stone, disappearing into the air to rise and condense elsewhere to begin the cycle anew. But Murray knew a philosophical question when he heard one, and had no answer.
Cantus closed his eyes. "I'm tired," he said softly.
"I'll set up your tent."
"I want to listen a while longer." He reached over to his pack, took out the Magic Pipe, and held it out to Murray. It trembled in the air, though Cantus' expression was calm.
Murray took the Pipe. He was raising it to play it when Cantus held up his hand. A zigzag glowed softly in his palm. "Touch your hand to mine."
Puzzled, Murray touched Cantus's hand. Cantus gripped it for a moment, pressing their palms together. Then he let go. The mark had disappeared. Murray glanced at his own hand. The zigzag shone back at him.
Murray looked at Cantus, shocked. Calmly Cantus told him, "The Magic Pipe is yours. Let it be your voice as it has been mine."
Murray's eyes widened. Cantus was making him the leader of the Minstrels! Yes, he was getting too old to journey, but making music without him was still unthinkable. He said, "I'll never be half the Minstrel you are, Cantus."
"Then be all the minstrel you are."
Murray held the pipe out to him. "Cantus, this is yours. I don't want it."
Cantus made no move to take it. He said, "My time grows short. Do you want our last words together to be an argument?"
"I'll go back to Fraggle Rock and get someone. We can bring you back-"
"So I can die there and make them grieve? No. I don't know if I would even be alive by the time you returned. I do not want my last minutes to be spent alone in the caves, or among sorrowing Fraggles. I want to listen to something beautiful. And," he said, looking up at Murray with a faint smile, "I want to go where the water goes."
Murray didn't know what he could say to that, so he said nothing. Better not to talk than to fill the air with needless words. He raised the pipe and began to play.
Cantus closed his eyes to listen. Murray listened too, to the sound of the water that connected all life in the caves. He drew it into the music, and, with the magic of the pipe, wove it into a rich tapestry of sound. As he played, the flowers in the cave budded and bloomed. Cantus opened his eyes and, smiling, whispered "Beautiful" so softly that even he could not hear it over the music. Then he closed his eyes again.
Murray played until the music reached its conclusion. He felt a little breathless. He was good, he knew, but the magic of the pipe drew things out of him that he had only suspected were there. Looking around, he saw that he and Cantus were now surrounded by cave blossoms of every color. And Cantus' head had drooped forward.
Murray knelt and put down the pipe, then held a hand in front of his face. He could feel nothing. He pulled out a strand of his featherlike hair and held it up in front of Cantus's nose and mouth. Even the faintest breath would have caused it to tremble. It was still.
He resisted his first impulse, which was to run to the nearby Fraggle colony for help. That would be useless; no Fraggle could revive the dead. Cantus had been ready to die, and he had died the way he wanted: at peace, listening to music. What did Fraggles do with their dead? The Minstrels had never done their act at a Fraggle funeral. But, he realized, Cantus had said he wanted to go where the water went.
He was not ready to do this, but, he knew, he never would be. He was about to put his arms around Cantus to lift him when he noticed the pockets in his robe. They contained other instruments; panpipes and mouth-harps and other things that he would play at whim. Although it seemed fitting to send him on with some sort of instrument, he would not have wanted their voices to be silenced. Murray took them out of their pockets and put them into Cantus' pack.
Carefully he put his arms around Cantus as if to embrace him, and lifted. The Fraggle weighed less then Murray expected, and was thinner; the robe and his thick winter fur had hidden that. He carried him down to the bank, then waded in and lowered Cantus into the water. The cool water soaked into his fur, darkening it and plastering his featherlike hair to his head. Murray walked, the Fraggle floating before him in the gently-flowing water, down to the mouth of the passage that the stream flowed into, and forced himself to let Cantus go.
He watched the body disappear into the darkness. Then he waded back to the campsite. He looked at the pack, and the Magic Pipe, and the blooming flowers.
He sat down, lowered his head onto his knees, and wept.
When the Minstrels met to start their journey that year, he gave them the news. They were as upset as he had been, but not surprised. They had all known that Cantus' age had been catching up with him. When they heard Murray play the pipe and saw the mark that glowed on his palm, they accept his as their new leader without discussion. And without discussion the Minstrels set out on their journey. Cantus was no longer with them, but his mission—to unite all the tribes and colonies in the Rock with the universal language of music—was theirs, and they would carry on as long as they were needed.
Fraggle Rock and all characters are copyright © The Jim Henson Company. All copyrighted properties are used without permission but with much respect and affection. The overall story is copyright © Kim McFarland (negaduck9 at aol dot com). Permission is given by the author to copy it for personal use only.