Unsurprisingly given the date, this here is my contribution to the Halloween prompt – and just about every other prompt besides (including the 'Australian animals' one I seemingly just invented for myself). Special thanks, as always, is extended to oz diva, who not only helps me get my spelling right but also ensures I keep my animals straight.
For anyone wondering why this story takes place in Geneva: I was tardy so we haven't reached the explanation for that in ToF yet. Basically, Dan was sent to work for the UN offices there for a year in 2007/2008 and Rilla, having just finished school, accompanied him and Joy and the children as a kind of au-pair.
Lastly, a quick programming note regarding 'By a Simple Twist of Fate': This story replaces the weekly ToF update for today. Regular posting will commence next Wednesday. Until then, I hope you enjoy this little story as well!
Why the emus won the war (but didn't get to celebrate Halloween)
"So… I've been thinking."
Always a dangerous thing with Joy.
"What about?" I ask, eyeing her with caution.
"About Halloween," my sister declares cheerfully. "It's in two weeks and we haven't decided on costumes yet."
Do they even do Halloween in Switzerland?
"Do they even do Halloween in Switzerland?"
"Dan!" she calls out. "Do they do Halloween in Switzerland?"
Some shuffling can be heard as Dan apparently pushes his chair back, and moments later, he appears in the doorway linking the living room to his study. Already, he has his head bend over his fancy new phone, trying to get the internet to divulge an answer to my sister's question – or my question, I suppose.
Joy doesn't even last a minute. "Well?" she presses.
"Apparently, in Central Europe it is more common to celebrate Saint Martin's Day," answers Dan, still looking at his phone screen. "It is also called Old Halloween by some."
"Saint who?" asks Joy. She looks towards me for help, but I can only shrug. Never heard of the man.
Thankfully, her husband and his phone are more knowledgeable. "Saint Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier turned Monk," explains Dan as he points at the screen. "From what it says here, he once famously cut his cloak in half and gave one part to a beggar in a snowstorm."
Half a cloak?
"You'd think that a proper monk ought to have given his whole cloak…" I mutter.
Joy nods in agreement. "Obviously," she decides. "I mean, you can't be a true saint without having suffered appropriate hardship, correct? Freezing to death in a snowstorm sounds about right."
"And yet," points out Dan, "half the cloak was enough to get him remembered. To the point that on Saint Martin's Day, which is celebrated on November 11th, children apparently go from house to house carrying lanterns and singing songs about Saint Martin and his famous deed. In return, they are given fruits and sweets."
Exchanging another glance with Joy, I raise an eyebrow. "At least it sounds like a more pedagogically sound concept than 'Give us sweets or else!'," I concede. "I mean, that's proper blackmail, isn't it?"
My sister grins. "Actually, no. It's just a very persuasive way of arguing your point. I do it all the time!"
Now, why doesn't that surprise me?
Dan lowers his phone and looks at us expectantly. "Anything else?"
"No. Dismissed," declares his wife and waves a hand carelessly in his general direction.
Lightly shaking his head, but not succeeding in stifling a smile, Dan pockets his phone and withdraws back into the sanctuary of his study.
Joy, meanwhile, taps her chin thoughtfully. "Now, as to Halloween –" she begins.
"Didn't you listen?" I interrupt. "Saint Martin's Day, not Halloween!" I only just manage to suppress an eye-roll.
My sister just clucks her tongue at me. "We can do both, silly! They're on different days. Didn't you listen?"
Is it very wrong of me that I really, really, really want to stick out my tongue at her?
Either way, Joy has already returned to the topic at hand. "I could be a kangaroo and Izzie my joey. Wouldn't that be cute?"
Now I let me eyes roll freely. "Aren't you supposed to look scary on Halloween?"
"Excuse me?" demands Joy, looking most indignant. "Do you even know how big those things can get? Having a six feet tall kangaroo barrel towards me is plenty scary in my book!"
She has a point, I must admit.
"We could all do an Australian animals' theme," suggests Joy, spinning her idea forward. "Jake would make a cute wombat and what do you think about an armadillo for Dan?"
"Armadillos aren't native to Australia, mum," pipes up Jake from where he has hitherto been hidden behind a book.
His mother eyes him, clearly unconvinced. "Are you quite certain, darling?"
Jake nods eagerly. "Yes. They live in the Americas," he explains.
He does sound pretty sure and, truth to be told, I'm always inclined to believe Jake when it comes to random facts about nature. He's like some kind of human encyclopaedia on the matter.
Joy, however, frowns slightly. "They look Australian," she insists.
"How can an animal look Australian?" I enquire, my voice just teasing enough for Joy to be unable to miss it.
She waves a hand around vaguely. "Oh, you know. Weird. Weird-looking animals tend to come from Australia, don't they?"
"Not the armadillo," I point out with a fine smile that garners me an annoyed glare in response.
"Fine, then. Not an armadillo," Joy relents anyway – if, obviously, quite reluctantly. "What about those other animals? The swimming ones with duck-bills for snouts?"
"Platypuses!" Jake immediately answers.
Joy nods. "Yes. Those. Dan can be one of those," she decides in a voice that allows no opposition.
"Lovely," I nod, though a bit sarcastically. "And what am I supposed to be? An emu?"
"Emus are very clever, Aunt Rilla," Jake supplies helpfully. "They even won the Emu Wars in 1932."
I can't help staring at him, feeling bewildered. "The… what?"
"The Emu Wars," Jake explains patiently. "In 1932."
I look towards Joy, but she appears as dumbstruck as I feel. "How were emus ever involved in a war?" she wants to know.
"Yes," I add. "And how did they win?"
If it's true, I might just have discovered a new-found respect for emus within me.
"The emus kept appearing on farmland, so the government sent three soldiers with machine guns to drive them off," knows Jake. "But the emus refused to leave. So, the emus won." He is evidently quite pleased by the emus' success.
"Well…" murmurs Joy, for once lost for words. "Well, fancy that…"
Jake, on the other hand, turns to me. "Will you be dressing as an emu then, Aunt Rilla?" he queries, sounding eager.
Err… I'm not sure my new-found respect for the emu actually extends that far…
In the end, I compromise by dressing as a dingo.
Not that Jake didn't spend the better part of a week trying to convince me of the finer points of the emu in general, but let's be honest – nothing he could have said would ever have been enough to make up for the fact that pointed ears and a black dot on your nose look ever so much cuter than dressing yourself as a human mop.
Thus, I am a dingo and the emu is with us in spirit only. Jake does, in fact, make a cuddly-looking wombat and Joy a very pretty kangaroo. She has even managed to get the universe to divulge a convincing platypus costume for Dan, though the fact is somewhat diluted by the fact that he is carrying a squirming Izzie-joey in his arms. But if Jake is willing to allow this travesty against the natural order of things, I certainly won't be the one complaining.
Most especially since Joy is complaining fiercely enough for all of us.
"Even you can't deny that those Europeans are absolutely bat-shit crazy!" she exclaims, pointing an accusatory finger at her husband.
"Joy, darling – please," replies Dan gently, nodding towards Jake, even though his son appears decidedly unmoved. Kid has heard worse.
"Don't you 'darling' me! That woman is plain mad and not even you could argue otherwise," insists Joy, shaking her head with apparent disbelief at the memory of the woman whose house we just left behind.
"She was elderly. You can't expect her to be aware of primarily American customs such as Halloween," placates Dan – or tries to, anyway.
Joy switches to vigorously nodding her head instead. "Yes. Exactly. That's why I explained it to her, didn't I? Bonbons, I said. And sucreries. Loud and clear. Did anyone hear me not say bonbons and sucreries?"
She looks at the rest of us and both Jake and I hurry to shake our heads. Izzie tries to eat her be-gloved hand.
"There you have it," she points out to Dan. "Loud and clear. But no. She can't just give Jake a piece of chocolate, oh no!"
"I'm sure she –" begins Dan but gets no further.
"Eel!" cries Joy. "Eel! We go trick or treating and she gives us eel! To eat!"
It does sound pretty bonkers, put like that.
The kind elderly woman did, in fact, pack some of her own dinner for Jake instead of the customary sweets. And as it turns out, anguille does, in fact, mean eel in French.
"Eels are very interesting animals, Mum," interjects Jake, trying to be helpful. "They live their lives in rivers but go back to the sea where they were born, to spawn."
Joy blinks at him. And for a split second, I am convinced that she wonders if it might at all be possible to exchange the child she has for a less bewildering model.
"And after spawning, they all die," adds Jake after a moment of thought.
Joy blinks again, obviously temporarily struck mute.
"Well, that turned pretty morbid pretty quickly," mutters Dan instead, catching my eye almost by accident.
"It is Halloween," I point out drily, eliciting a smile from him. When I stretch out my arms for Izzie, he yields her willingly. Izzie, unlike her mother, was never what could be called a 'delicate child', not in any sense of the word. At six months old, not even Dan can carry her for any length of time without feeling it in his muscles.
Balancing a squirming Izzie in my arms, I take a couple of steps so that I am now walking slightly ahead of the others.
Behind me, Joy has re-found her voice. "I'm not saying eels aren't interesting, darling," she concedes. "But we don't want to have to eat them, do we?"
"I don't know," answers Jake thoughtfully and when I quickly glance over my shoulder, I can see him shrug. "I like fish."
"But these are eels!" reminds Joy with a shudder.
A second passes. "But Mum – eels are fish." He says it so carefully, so gently, that it's immediately clear he's attempting not to hurt her feelings. (Any other child might not have said anything at all, but it isn't given to Jake to ignore an inaccuracy once it is out in the world.)
"Of course they are," agrees Joy, her voice immediately having softened. "It's just that – arrrggggh!"
Turning around as quickly as the weight of the child in my arms allows, I just catch a glimpse of three black cars heading around a corner at some speed and disappearing into the approaching darkness. On the pavement stand Joy and Dan, both drenched from head to toe. Next to them, just where street and pavement meet, is a puddle, slowly filling with water again.
Jake, apparently having been mostly sheltered by his father's legs, wipes some droplets of water from his forehead as he eyes his parents curiously. "Did you know that puddles form temporary micro-habitats for insects, Dad? When the insects get their nutrition from the mud on the edges of the puddle, it's called mud-puddling. It's especially common behaviour in butterflies," he explains.
No one answers him. Joy looks like she wants to scream. Dan just looks stunned.
We walk home to Jake regaling us with tales of the butterfly habitat in the Borneo lowland rainforest – or was it highland rainforest? No matter. Whether high or low, it does, apparently, house a great variety of butterflies.
To Joy's credit, she tries her utmost to appear interested in the problems of Borneo's butterfly population even though she's absolutely drenched and clearly quietly seething. Dan, always quicker to find back to his usual unflappable nature, has reclaimed a now cranky Izzie and attempts to juggle her without having his platypus costume get her wet as well. I, meanwhile, am fully occupied by trying not to burst out laughing.
The moment we have entered the house, Joy sheds her own costume, still dripping wet, and stomps over to the fireplace in the living room. The rest of us follow at a slower pace, Jake having moved on from butterflies to monkeys by now. (Macaques are monkeys, aren't they?)
As she starts lighting the fireplace, Joy mutters to herself, clearly no longer able to keep her anger in check. "Bloody idiots! Driving straight through a puddle! Didn't even have the decency to stop and check whether they were drenching unsuspecting pedestrians! I'd like to sue the pants off them!"
Dan relinquishes Izzie back to me and starts cranking up the central heating around the room. "I don't think you'd be very successful at suing them," he points out carefully.
Joy swivels around and just glares at him. Even I take an instinctive step back.
"Not that you wouldn't argue a convincing case," Dan quickly assures, causing The Glare's intensity to lesson a little. "But by the looks of it, those were diplomatic cars. Someone important, if they have an entourage large enough to fill three cars in total. And not even you can do away with the concept of diplomatic immunity single-handedly." He says it with an undertone clearly hinting at his belief that he is otherwise sure she can just about do anything else, and Joy mellows visibly.
"Are there any important people in town right now?" she asks while absent-mindedly ripping pages out of a book and piling them inside the fireplace. Jake actually physically winces at the sight. Izzie drools on her joey costume.
Dan, on the other hand, looks thoughtful. "There are always important people in Geneva," he remarks. "But if I got that right, the most famous one right now would be the Prince of Wales."
Joy visibly perks up. "Lovely. So, I can send him the bill for our costumes, can't I?" she asks, obviously in a brighter mood now that a culprit has been found.
"Do you really want to invoice Buckingham Palace for a life-size kangaroo costume made of 100% polyester?" I wonder, feeling – and probably sounding – decidedly sceptical.
The Glare returns full-force and turns itself towards me. "I'll have you know, Rilla, that –"
But what she wants me to know, I will likely never learn, for Jake takes that exact moment to step towards his mother, still kneeling in front of the fireplace as she is.
"Mum," he says cautiously, "Mum…"
Joy looks at him and swallows her agitation. "What is it, darling?" she asks.
"Mum," he tries again, obviously grappling for words. He raises a hand and shakily points at the book in Joy's hand. And I think we all realise in the very same second that –
"Mum, you're burning the Bible!"
So much for a 'hallowed evening'…