Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

Elf and the Search for Religion
(January/February 2005)

by Shana Ronayne Hickman

It was 7:30 in the morning when I heard Kenzie, my six-year-old son, screaming for me from outside my window – not one of his regular screams (if it’s worth being said, it’s worth being said loudly), but one that pulled me out of bed running. Whatever it was, it was bad. “Burno!” he cried, and I knew. Bruno was a dog from across the street, and for as long as we’d lived there, my son had called him Burno. Yes, Burno had gotten to the kittens and carried one off.

He was always getting out of his owners’ backyard. Several times a week he would roam the neighborhood, dumpster diving in the alleys, frustrating other dogs, and making all the cats on the street bristle with a mix of fear and anger. Kenzie and I chased him across the road to the lot beside his own house. I was surprised at how quickly I could sprint across asphalt with bare feet. But I wasn’t fast enough. The kitten was already dead.

A few weeks before, a mother cat moved her kittens to our porch. She was a stray, obviously. Not feral at all – most likely abandoned. Because she was small, and cute, and black and white, we named her Hep, after Audrey Hepburn, one of Kenzie’s and my favorite actresses. For weeks, we watched her and her five kittens as they nursed and played and learned about their new world on our porch. We fed Hep and gave her and her babies all the love they would let us give. We stayed outside with them as much as possible to fend off any unwanted visitors (such as stray dogs or the boy who sneakily tried to steal away the smallest when it was only a few weeks old). It was Elf, an adventurous white kitten with small black spots, who was killed. In Burno’s strong jaws, she didn’t stand a chance. She was the biggest and strongest of the five, but still tiny and amazingly fragile.

Kenzie was devastated. He both needed my comfort and didn’t want me around, alternately asking me to hold him and then preferring to wail and scream while pacing back and forth on the porch, cursing the dog, calling the name “Elf.” My heart splintered, watching my little boy.

I went inside to search for a box and found an old shirt of Kenzie’s in which to wrap the kitten. “So something of you will always be with her,” I said. He ran off then, only to return a moment later with a penny.

“You have to have an obol for the fare to cross the river Styx,” he explained. “We don’t have an obol, so I got her a penny.” I nodded and smiled at him through my tears. We are not a particularly religious family, though we discuss spiritual matters often. Usually, we talk about what different cultures believe and how those beliefs might help people. We examine examples from our own lives and compare them to religious ideals. For a while, Kenzie declared to the world he was a Thor-worshipping Buddhist, but during the past several months, he had immersed himself in the tales of ancient Greek mythology and had come to think of Zeus and dozens of others as the gods for him.

“Is there anything else she needs?” I asked as he placed the coin in the box.

“Food,” he said, “and water, so she doesn’t have to drink from the river and forget us.” He went to find cat food and a jar for water. We decided to research ancient Greek funeral rites and found that the mourners often covered the body with flowers. Soon, there were many pink flowers in the box with the kitten.

Eventually, we placed a picture of Kenzie, a Beanie Baby kitten, a beanie gnat we had always called Irving the Road Trip Fairy, three Pokémon cards featuring cats, and a small angel bear alongside the other items. Then, he chose a book on Greek mythology and laid it in the box next to Elf so that she would know what was about to happen on her journey.

He told me about Elysian Fields and how those who had been especially kind and good on earth were sometimes allowed to return once or twice. Would Elf be back?

We discussed body versus spirit and wondered aloud at all the ways Elf’s spirit, if one existed, could manifest itself. Perhaps it would return to another body somewhere when a kitten was born. Perhaps it wanted to try out a different kind of being. Or, maybe it stayed around, always being close to Hep. Eventually, we hit on the idea that it might have decided to share a body with Kenzie, since he showed such love for it. Was Kenzie feeling a bit more catlike? Were the kittens following him around more than usual, the way they once followed Elf? It seemed they were.

We chose a place for the (now heavy) box to be buried. Next to a bush in the front yard was a spot that seemed perfect – shady, quiet, and near the porch. His father dug the hole, Kenzie said a few words (that he would always love and remember her and that he hoped she went to Elysian Fields), and then my son threw the first bit of dirt onto the garbage bag-wrapped shoebox. He enjoyed shoveling, so decided to do most of the filling. He decorated the grave with beads and cat toys and a stone marked “ELF.”

The kittens live inside now, stumbling over one another to explore bookcases and toys left on the floor. Kenzie decided to change the name of the smallest kitten to Elf so that he’ll never forget her, just as he promised.

Shana and her family live in central Texas. She enjoys writing poetry, folksinging, and spending long days with her son. She is the publisher and editor of Live Free Learn Free.




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