Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Saying goodbye

Holding an impromptu funeral for a hamster wasn't exactly something I had in mind for the weekend when I got up on Saturday morning, but alas, poor Hamish, he is no more. He is an ex-hamster. He has shuffled off this mortal coil. Expired. Demised. Gone to meet his maker...

Poor wee Hamish.

As much as my 90-year-old nan has anticipated otherwise for a long while now – she's been saying things like, "Of course, I shall be dead soon," for the last twenty years or so now – up until Hamish's passing the kids hadn't really had to deal with death themselves (beyond a goldfish). It's something we've talked about, as you do with your kids, and it's something that Rosie in particular likes to talk about every now and then because the concept of not existing anymore is fascinating to her. Tom, on the other hand, has something of a shit happens kind of attitude towards death, and if he has any deep thoughts about it then he tends to chew them over himself late at night.

Rosie takes it quite personally that Tom got to meet my granddad (who I called "Poppy") before he died, even though Tom was only a baby at the time and doesn't remember anything. But as far as Rosie's concerned, Tom has had something that she hasn't, and that's not fair. In processing these feelings, spurred on by recent events and Samhainn just gone, Rosie snuck a poppy home on Monday –one she'd made at school as part of their Armistice Day topic for the day. She made it specially, dedicated "To Poppy, From Rosie."

But alas, poor Hamish. Tom was out with a friend at the time of our discovery, and Mr Seren was working so it was just me and Rosie when we found him. We'd taken the dogs out and stopped off at the rope swings in the woods to make up for the fact that she hadn't been invited to the cinema with Tom (something she also took quite personally), and on our way back Rosie asked if we could get the hamster out for a spin in his exercise ball. Upon our return, we went to his cage to get him out and found him tucked up snug but lifeless in his wee house. I'm guessing he died in his sleep, so there are worse ways to go I suppose.

There were tears and denials at first. There were gentle goodbyes and tender scritches behind his lifeless ears. I cleaned out the cage and found a wee box to put him in, and then after Tom got home and Rosie broke the news to her brother, we went into the garden and laid Hamish to rest. It took some persuading to convince Rosie that we needed to do something with him – she didn't want to face saying goodbye at first – but eventually she agreed that we could bury him. While I dug the hole between the rowan tree and the ancestor's cairn in the flower bed (which I built just after we moved here), Rosie hugged the little box protectively and chattered nervously. Tom...basically avoided acknowledging the situation and played with Mungo as if nothing extraordinary was going on. He was a good hamster, and it's sad, said Tom. And that was about the end of it as far as he was concerned. Outwardly, anyway.

Rosie insisted that she should do the honours and lay her little friend to rest, so once the hole was ready she put him gently in it and said goodbye, and talked about what a good hamster he was. He'd always poke his head out of his wee house when we sat down for dinner, and he'd always come out or go in to his house through the window instead of the door for no apparent reason. He preferred climbing everywhere instead of using the tunnels. He liked to terrorise Mungo, who jumped on the sofa every time he saw Hamish's ball heading towards him, and would whimper pathetically until the ball went away. He liked to run through a see-saw, over and over again, when he had a run around in his play pen. He was indeed a Good Hamster.

We covered him over with soil (and a brick, just to make sure the dogs or foxes don't go digging), and I said some words too, and then we went back inside to the warmth for hugs and snuggles and looking at pictures of Hamish. The kids were both a little quiet but seemed to be processing things; Rosie decided she was happy that he was buried in the garden, because now he can make friends with the worms, and they're good for the soil so Hamish must be too, and she can go out and say hello every now and then and check he's OK. He won't be lonely, and that's the main thing.

Late last night, as I was attempting to wrangle some cake decorating, a butterfly began flying around the kitchen. I've no idea where it came from or how it got into the house but there it was, a small tortoiseshell fluttering around the kitchen at gone 11pm on a November Tuesday, hovering around the sideboard where Hamish's cage used to sit. In Irish belief, a butterfly is often said to be the soul of someone who's returned to the place or people they loved. Maybe that applies to hamster souls as well as people...

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Slender Man (duhn duhn DUHN)

People often talk about the "thinning of the veil" at this time of year, along with unseen, intangible dangers being afoot. There's talk of the dead coming back to visit – usually in a good way, not a threatening way – but also those tricksy kinds of spirits being about, which must be protected against. Just as the guisers who knock on your door should be appeased with offerings of sweets and good things to eat, so must the spirits who might not be made of sugar and spice and all things nice. Really, you can't say for sure if you're dealing with kids or Other when there's a knock at the door.

So there's a tension of sorts, throughout the night. Throughout the whole period, really, depending on how long you see it as lasting – three nights, seven nights, up until the Old Style date...However you see it. The season turns, and while it shifts, things are unbalanced. The things we do at this time help us navigate our way through the potential pitfalls and dangers, and see us safely out the other side.

It's something I've been thinking about this year in particular for a number of reasons. Partly because the kids are old enough to be really getting into the spirit of guising and thinking hard about their costumes and making careful choices, and asking what it's all about (and also learning about it at school, prompting more questions). It's also kind of been reinforced by the fact that a neighbourhood dog broke into our house on Wednesday for the express purpose of attacking one of our dogs – nobody was hurt, thankfully – but in the wintry gales that have been hammering these parts, which blew open the gate that allowed the dog to roam in the first place and seek out Mungo...well. Unpredictable forces are very much afoot.

The kids have been thinking about their costumes long and hard in the run up to this year's celebrations, and while Rosie has changed her mind on a near daily basis, Tom hit upon an idea and stuck with it from the off. After considering a meerkat and several other options, Rosie decided she wanted to dress up as Lily Munster (she thinks The Munsters is hilarious "even though it's old"), but coming up with a costume for that was difficult so eventually she decided to go as a vampire bat instead. I say bat, but it ended up more like a butterfly...And less of a vampire because she decided against wearing the vampire teeth in the end. To be honest, all she really cares about is the face-paints, so she ended up more than happy.

Tom, on the other hand, decided that he wanted to dress up as Steve from Minecraft. The kids are both keen on the game and enjoy building their own little worlds in it, which they've populated with all kinds of things, so there's that as a reason. There's also a rumour going round at school that the Slender Man is living in one of the local woods, and as the story has grown and evolved the kids have come up with all sorts of ideas about it; since many of the kids at school are also Minecrafters, the story has had elements of the game added in – you have to make certain potions to kill the Slender Man, or use a certain kind of sword or pick and so on. I'd never heard of the Slender Man before but apparently it's some sort of internet meme crossed with a typical urban legend of the spooky child-kidnapper variety. It's also kind of crossed over into Minecraft anyway, because a type of character in the game – Enderman – was named that because it kind of looks a bit like the Slender Man. So in Tom's world, Steve from Minecraft is the perfect choice of costume, because who better to do battle with the Slender Man? Since everyone's in costume at Hallowe'en, the Slender Man might leave the woods and try and take some kids. Something Must Be Done.  

So that was that; as far as Tom was concerned, this year it's serious business. He wanted the costume to be made entirely out of boxes but we managed to persuade him towards a compromise on just a head and body, seeing as the legs and arms would make the costume unwieldy and I wasn't convinced I had enough paint for that much cardboard. So after several days of gluing and painting, we got Tom's costume sorted, and he was very happy with it. As I was painting the head he came up to me and gave me a hug and said, "Mum, I really appreciate you doing this for me." *Sniff*

Every year they have a parade at school for Hallowe'en so the kids can go in costume for the day, so everything had to be ready by Thursday morning and I had to make sure I was up early enough to do face-painting duty. And lo:

Mr Seren had to drive them to school in the morning because it was so wet and windy, and Tom insisted on wearing his costume on the way. His fellow school-mates cheered him as he walked across the playground (Mr Seren had to hold on to him to make sure he didn't blow away) – Tom was chuffed to pieces – and then disaster struck: one of the "bat cuffs" I made for Rosie's arms blew off, never to be seen again. Rosie was distraught because everything was ruined and Mr Seren ran home and I made an emergency replacement. In her excitement at getting to school and doing Hallowe'en stuff all day, she'd left her school-bag at home so he had to go back in anyway.

A little later on Mr Seren and I went to the parade – they didn't have prizes this year because there were apparently complaints from parents that some kids got upset about not winning last year, which is a shame. And a little silly, I think, but ah well. I spent the rest of the day preparing for the evening, and so ghostly gingerbread and mummified cupcakes were baked, decorated, and divvied up with some more treats for the guisers, pumpkin soup was made with the innards of the pumpkins I'd carved out the day before (kindly donated by my mother-in-law, and waste not want not, right?), and the house was set in order.

In our planning ahead, the kids had asked for a proper good Hallowe'en feast and they both asked for roast chicken, so that settled that. I was going to do a dessert as well but in the end I figured that the kids would have enough sweets after going out and it wasn't really necessary (and how true that turned out to be). One of Tom's friends was dropped off so he could go guising as well, and while Mr Seren took them out, I stayed in to keep an eye on dinner and hand out treats.

I'd carved out the lanterns the day before – two pumpkins and a tumshie:

Rosie was tired and didn't want to draw a face on one of the pumpkins, but Tom was more than happy to do one (the one of the left). I ballsed up carving the tumshie yet again this year – accidentally cutting too far through the left eye – but ah well. I put them up in the window to let the guisers know we were open to visitors, and so our evening began.

Mr Seren said the streets were pretty quiet while they were out (it was raining), but we got quite a good turnout and we'd run out of treats by the time the kids got home. The guisers arrived in a steady trickle and they all did a turn; most of them told a joke – I don't think we had any songs this year – but one lad in a neon pink lycra onesie did some...interpretive dance? I gave him points for trying, anyway. One of the last couple of guisers to arrive before the treats ran out didn't have a joke or a dance, but instead had a riddle. What does the fox say? They decided the answer was that the fox doesn't say anything, but I pointed out that they do make a noise, and this was very conveniently demonstrated later on in the evening with a fox barking loudly for a good long while. It's the first time I've heard them in ages and the timing was very apt; winter really is here. The foxes made themselves known last night, too. For hours.

Anyway, back to the evening. Meanwhile, on their way round the village the kids collected an inordinate amount of sweets and Tom had his chance to do battle with the Slender Man after all: A guy dressed in the costume was lurking in the bushes outside his own house, waiting to ambush guisers as they came up the driveway. Slender Man leapt out at the kids as they walked up the drive...and Tom was totally oblivious. Chatting away to his friend, in the dark, and with the box on his head, he didn't see or hear the guy leap out at first. Once he realised, though, he rose to the challenge and charged, screaming, arms waving wildly, with Rosie and friend in tow, while the Slender Man legged it into the house. They got and extra big bag of treats for bravery and Tom was mightily pleased with himself.

Dinner was ready when they got home, so after the friend was picked up and taken home we tucked into our meal, accompanied by lantern-light. After that the kids went through all of their treats and picked out a few to enjoy then and there, and then it was time for homework. Things had gone on later than anticipated so we didn't have a chance to play many games or tell stories, but the kids didn't mind at all. Guising is where it's at now (though we'll do some dookin' at some point to make up for it), and knowing that things don't always fit in on the evening, we've been spreading things out a lot more than usual. Usually we get the photo albums out and talk about family – the great-grandparents they never had a chance to meet, or don't remember, and so on – but we did all that while we were making decorations in the lead up to things, on wet weekend afternoons. Mr Seren told us stories about his gran, Rosie's namesake, and his myriad aunties, and I told them about my grandparents, and so on. I need to get some photos gathered together – I don't have many of the family members that I don't really remember myself.

The kids are sleeping in separate rooms now – Rosie's moved into the spare room because Tom has a tendency to wake up early and she likes her sleep. She's wanting it decorated for her Christmas present, and while she's yet to decide on the colour scheme, she knows she wants lots of things up on the wall, so she can create a Wall of Wonder. I've given her an old picture she likes, that needs re-framing, and I've made her some decorations to go up as well (and for Tom, too). Rosie mentioned wanting some hearts up on the wall, so while being somewhat incapacitated again (though much better now, thankfully) I decided to have a go at knitting some hearts. I'm not the greatest knitter in the world, but she likes them, wonky as they are, and I've strung three of them together to hang up. On the first heart, I sewed in a rowan charm, and finished it in time to surprise Rosie with it as part of our festivities. Tom has one in his room already, but Rosie's room didn't have one yet. She chose where she wanted to hang it, and I put it up for her:

While they'd been out I'd had the chance to begin my devotions – to the ancestors, gods and spirits – so after they went to bed all I had to do was sain the house. I was about ready for bed myself, but after a rest I got to it and made some final offerings for the evening. I slept like the proverbial dead that night, and dreamt of them, too.