Believe It If You Want
October 5, 2013 § 5 Comments
The wonderful writing of the late Tove Jansson. Sparse, simple, powerful. I make no apologies for emulating her in this piece. Famous as a writer of children‘s books – she also excelled when she wrote for adults. She taught me a lot.
The sun was everywhere. Everything that could move hunted for shade, and Grandma dozed on the veranda with Grandpa’s straw hat. She lifted it off her face like a lid and screwed up her eyes into slits. ‘What are you doing in the flowerbed? Getting sunstroke, I suppose.’
‘Shush,’ whispered Jenny. ‘How do you know where I am? I’m supposed to be hiding.’
‘You’re making too much noise to be doing that. I can hear you rustling. What are you hiding from precisely?’
‘Actually I’m hunting. But before I hunt, I have to hide. I’m on the look out for monitor lizards.’
‘That’s going to be a waste of time then,’ sighed the old lady. ‘I’ve never seen any here. Ever. If you do find one it will puff itself up and hiss while it makes up its mind whether you’re worth eating or not. In any case monitor lizards live near the equator. I expect you’re really looking for newts.’
‘The ones with the orange bellies that hide under stones?’ Jenny asked.
‘You win. I’m looking for newts.’
The rustling continued. The dahlias lurched as Jenny crawled between their stems, and the pea sticks holding up the delphiniums made a crackling sound as she snapped them in two.
‘You’re wrecking the garden,’ complained the old lady between snores.
‘Hunting is more important than taking care of silly flowers. Particularly when you’re after monitor lizards.’
‘Newts,’ said Grandma.
‘OK. Newts. They’re still lizards. In fact they’re just as important as monitor lizards, just smaller.’
‘Newts,’ repeated Grandma crossly.
‘Got one!’ shrieked Jenny. ‘Got four. A whole family with orange bellies. Can I bring them indoors?’
‘No. We’ll tread on them.’
Grandmother began to snore properly like she wasn’t pretending.
‘Help!’ yelped Jenny springing out of the flowerbed.
‘What is it? You’ll wake the dead. I was having a dream about cool sea breezes.’
‘Something’s biting me!’
‘Ahh,’ said the old lady. ‘Must be the midges.’
Jenny scratched herself. ‘Midges don’t live in flower beds.’
‘They do when they’re larvae.’
‘They’re hatching into grown ups and I expect they’re hungry.’
‘Will they suck all my blood out?’
‘Probably not. You’ve got more than you need. But when they hatch it’s a very dangerous time, and you have to be careful you don’t tempt fate.’
‘What do I have to do or not do then?’
‘No walking under ladders or spilling salt, and if it’s Friday the thirteenth you have to keep your fingers and toes crossed all day.’
‘That’s stupid nonsense and where did you get all that from? In any case it’s Saturday!’
‘It’s called superstition,’ Grandma replied. ‘My grandmother knew a lot about that, and taught me some useful tricks on how to live a long and healthy life.’
The old lady said she couldn’t remember most of them, but there were things that her grandmother used to get very upset about because they always brought bad luck – like leaving shoes on the table or seeing two knives crossed.
‘But what is superstition exactly?’
‘It’s about never saying goodbye to a friend on a bridge, because if you do you’ll never see them again. Or if a bee lands on your head you can expect to get very rich, very quick.’
‘That’s not what superstition means, is it? Isn’t that what you think when you believe in it? Tell me properly.’
Grandmother thought for a bit then said it was probably when people believed something was true, but couldn’t find a way of explaining it. Jenny asked if that was what people thought who believed in God. Grandmother went quiet. She picked at her teeth with a stick and said God probably wasn’t a very good example because if someone believed He existed they’d find some evidence to prove to themselves that He definitely did.
‘Like what?’ asked Jenny.
‘Like if you prayed to Him asking that someone would get better after they’d had an accident and then they did.’
‘That isn’t proof, is it?’
‘It is if you believe it is.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense.’
‘I’ve got an example that my grandmother said was true. She said that if you invited someone into your house and they turned nasty, then it was all your own fault because you’d probably done something horrible before they arrived,’ explained Grandmother.
‘Killed a bee. Didn’t matter whether you’d done it on purpose or not.’ Jenny looked at her grandmother and rolled her eyes.
‘But I’ve just remembered the worst thing of all,’ said the old lady. ‘You better come and sit by me while I tell you.’
‘I’m ready,’ announced Jenny scratching herself. ‘But I haven’t got much time if it’s going to be a long, drawn out story.’
‘It isn’t a story. It’s true. The most dangerous night of the year is when the midges take their maiden flight out of the flowerbeds. If it’s a full moon you really have to watch out.’
‘What do you have to watch out for then?’ said the child picking the sand from between her toes.
‘Boats sail away by themselves, millions of tiny red spiders come out of nowhere and weave a web around peoples’ houses so they can’t get out, and children disappear and are never seen again. Anything can happen.
‘I don’t believe a word of it,’ Jenny sniggered. ‘I suppose it’s a full moon tonight then?’
The old lady nodded slowly, lay back in the armchair and closed her eyes. Soon she was snoring again.
Jenny prodded her. ‘I’ve been thinking very seriously. Do you think Dad will be safe in his fishing boat? Maybe we should warn him.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about your father; I don’t think he’s superstitious. After all, superstition is old fashioned, and you should always believe your father.’
‘I think we better go right now and see if he’s safe,’ said Jenny tugging at Grandmother’s skirt.
‘We could, I suppose. At least it’ll be cooler on the shore.’
‘I’ve suddenly turned superstitious,’ said Jenny jumping to her feet. ‘I’m going to get my rabbit’s foot – it might make all the difference.’ A few seconds later she ran out of the kitchen, her face ashen. Dad’s paper knives are crossed on his desk! Now we’re really in trouble and there’s nothing we can do about it!’
‘It’s all right. Remember it’s only superstition.’
‘That’s not what you said!’
‘Don’t make such a racket. What’s done is done.’
‘We’ll all die. I don’t want to die!’
‘Stop it. I have an idea.’ The old lady explained that her grandmother used to collect herbs and make potions. ‘That always put things right.’
‘What herbs? Can you find them?’
‘Be quiet,’ said the old lady. ‘I’m trying to remember.’
‘Be quick then!’
‘I can’t be quick. I’ve forgotten. It was a long time ago.’
‘Forgotten? How can you forget something important like that?’
‘Shut up child. Don’t make a sound. Walk on your tiptoes, don’t sneeze, don’t burp, and don’t say a word until I have finished.’
The moon was rising as they set off for the beach, and Grandmother hobbled faster than usual. She stopped to pick a sprig of heather and a young hazel twig, and stuffed them both in her pocket. Jenny began to feel calmer – maybe she had remembered the magic spell and could save them after all.
When they got to the beach the old lady collected a seagull feather, a shark’s egg case, three round pebbles and six seed heads from a yellow sea poppy. She pointed to a spot near the shoreline. ‘Find a stick and dig a hole here. Then we have to put all the things in the hole. The stones go in last – except for one – which you must keep safe in your pocket; and then we’ll fill the hole in. As soon as the sea covers it we will all be saved.’
They sat and waited as the tide rippled in. The moon had risen behind the old lady’s head and given her a halo. She looked huge and full of magic, and as
they walked back through the wood, the moon made a silvery path for them to follow.
‘I was worried about you,’ said Jenny’s father greeting them at the door. Where have you been?
‘We went for an evening stroll,’ said Grandmother cheerfully.
Jenny raised her eyebrows and fingered the stone in her pocket.
‘I’d better go and see if there are any spiders on the veranda, hadn’t I?’
Grandmother began to whistle.
‘You made it all up, didn’t you?’ spat Jenny.
‘Maybe one or two bits, but then all of it might be true.’
‘You were just trying to frighten me. Well, you succeeded. I’m not speaking to you for a week then maybe you’ll have learnt the difference between truth and lies!’
The old lady hobbled off to bed. The child waited until she heard her snores, then crept up to the bedroom door and turned the horseshoe upside down.
‘Serves you right if your luck runs out,’ she whispered spitefully through the keyhole.
Grandmother dozed on the veranda with Grandpa’s straw hat.
‘What’s wrong with your hand?’ asked Jenny, forgetting she was ignoring her. ‘It’s all red and puffed up.’
‘A bee crawled into my bed and stung me.’
‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’ said Jenny with her hand on her hip.
‘It means I shouldn’t have left my bedroom window open last night.’
Jenny went white and remembered the horseshoe. ‘I’ll get you a dock leaf then.’