Which question is answered through flashback in "Death by Landscape"?

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kellykflanigan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Death by Landscape," by Margaret Atwood, is a story that takes place in the past and in the present. Lois, the main character, is sitting in her apartment in the present day looking at her extensive framed photograph and art collection, reminiscing about an incident at a summer camp she attended as an adolescent where her friend, Lucy, disappeared. There are several questions posed at the time of the incident; at the conclusion of the story, readers have some answers but not all. The question answered through flashback is, ultimately, "What happened to Lucy?"

One of the activities the girls do at camp is go on a wilderness trek where they spend the night. Lucy and Lois break off from the group and go hiking, ultimately ending up at the cliff's edge. Lucy says she has to go to the bathroom, so Lois walks down the path to give her privacy. A few minutes later, Lois hears Lucy cry out.

"This is when she heard the shout. She has gone over and over it in her mind since, so many times that the first, real shout has been obliterated, like a footprint trampled by other footprints. But she is sure (she is almost positive, she is nearly certain) that it was not a shout of fear. Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon. Short, like a dog's bark." 

Lois looks everywhere for Lucy, and, when she lets the counselors and other campers know, they all look in the water at the base of the cliff, but Lucy is gone. When the group returns to the camp without Lucy, Lois is immediately suspected by Cappie, the head of the camp, of pushing Lucy. 

"Sometimes we're angry when we don't know we're angry," says Cappie, as if to herself. "Sometimes we get really mad and we don't even know it. Sometimes we might do a thing without meaning to, or without knowing what will happen. We lose our tempers." 

As an adult in the present day, Lois understands that Cappie likely didn't actually suspect Lois of killing Lucy; Lois was simply a better scapegoat than admitting a camper committed suicide or fell, both of which would indicate neglect on the part of the camp and would likely get it shut down. 

Throughout the story, it becomes obvious to readers that Lucy is suicidal, though the young characters in the story are unable to see it. She makes a reference to being unhappy at home and to not wanting to go back. 

After a moment she said, "It would be nice not to go back."
"To camp?" said Lois.
"To Chicago," said Lucy. "I hate it there."
"What about your boyfriend?" said Lois.
Lucy didn't answer. She was either asleep or pretending to be.

When Lois and Lucy are at the cliff's edge, Lucy comments directly about jumping:

"It would be quite a dive off here," says Lucy.
"You'd have to be nuts," says Lois.
"Why?" says Lucy. "It's really deep. It goes straight down." She stands up and takes a step nearer the edge.
Lois gets a stab in her midriff, the kind she gets when a car goes too fast over a bump. "Don't," she says.
"Don't what?" says Lucy, glancing around at her mischievously. She knows how Lois feels about heights. But she turns back. "I really have to pee," she says. 

Lucy knew that saying she had to use the bathroom was a way that she would be able to get Lois to walk away from her without suspicion. It was then that she jumped off the cliff. 

The question that is answered through the story, "What happened to Lucy?" is that Lucy committed suicide by jumping off of the cliff. Lois was innocent, though she has clearly suffered lifelong trauma from the incident...not because of being blamed or because the camp was shut down, but because Lucy's body was never found, and because suicide leaves behind more questions than answers. Lois believes that Lucy lives in the artwork of the landscapes she collects, and this is how she keeps Lucy alive.