By Cindy-Lou Dale
When I asked her where her husband was, my elderly neighbor’s face saddened. We had recently moved in next door and I recall only seeing him once. She told that his cremated remains were in an aging urn on her bedroom windowsill.
The dear old lady creaked out of her chair then hobbled through her living room. She introduced me to several ornate urns as she went. Four in her dining room contained her parents and two deceased children; the one in the hallway was a family dog. I felt decidedly uncomfortable being surrounded by death, and had an uncanny feeling that I was being watched. I made my excuses and hurriedly bundled her ancient cat into her arms, joking that if Ming wandered into my kitchen again I shall have to keep him.
As I left her home a thought occurred to me: although Belgium has many graveyards dating back to the Second World War, there were few modern day burial sites; which may go some way to explain why there were so many urns displayed on windowsills. I presumed funeral costs were unaffordable, then purged further thoughts of death from my mind.
My family and I exchanged the British countryside for that which Belgium has to offer some three years ago. We live in a grand old Georgian house in a village about twenty miles outside the capital of Brussels .
The neighborhood could best be described as neat. The homes are ancient and well kept, the gardens manicured, the lawns clipped and the cars in the driveways shiny and relatively new. Walking through such an area makes one feel that all is right with the world.
Our neighbors, who smile and politely wave in greeting, are mostly genteel retired Flemish speaking folk who spend many happy hours tending their immaculate vegetable gardens out back. Most have town council supplied free-range laying hens who assist in garden maintenance by seeking out pests and receive board and lodgings as recompense.
On route to the local deli with my cat Sootika (who insists on following me wherever I walk), I passed an elderly gentleman stooped over a freshly dug mound of earth. He was poking at it with his cane. Numerous clucking hens were at his feet, scratching at the soil, ferreting for worms and grubs. One let out of whooping squawk and attacked something only she could see in the dirt. Her action caused the other hens to rush across in excited anticipation. Standing aside, regally surveying his kingdom from a rock beside an ornamental fish pond was a Rooster; the same Rooster who insisted that sunrise was at 3 a.m. each day. However, his announcement to the world was immediately met with disapproval from what sounded to be 500 baying dogs.
Sootika and I shared an ice cream outside the deli whilst I quietly contemplated the unconventional lives of my neighbours. Then I began mulling over our lives, thinking how transparent we foreigners must appear to them. I wandered back home with Sootika trotting beside me. What an eccentric neighbourhood we lived in, I thought. Not one Halloween decoration displayed anywhere. I then considered the more arduous task of the kids’ costumes and Trick or Treating with them later that night.
Whilst I was fixing and pinning my daughter’s Halloween costume, she enquired after the meaning of Halloween. I told her that long ago, people believed that spirits rose from the grave then walked the earth on Halloween night, but then quickly added that fairies and ghouls played tricks on people by dressing up in costumes.
“Why do people give Trick or Treaters candy?” Penny asked.
“Aaah”, I said, whilst tending to her hat, “that is because many moons ago a group of youngsters, dressed in ghoulish costumes, called on one of their elderly neighbor who, upon opening her door, thought the spirits had come for her. She offered them food and money so they would leave. They were surprised by the gifts and thanked the old lady, then continued onto the next house where the some thing happened. By the end of that evening, they had collected so much they decided to do the same every Halloween.”
I continued, providing a little more background detail, and explained that in Celtic Ireland, five centuries before Christ, the summer officially ended and the Celtic New Year began on 31st October. On this day folk believed that the disembodied spirits of those who had died during the year would return, seeking living bodies to seize for their after-life. As such, when darkness fell on 31st October, all those living would douse fires in their homes, making it cold and uninviting for spirits. They also dressed in frightening costumes and made raucous processions in the hope of startling away the spirits.
“But did you know there were good witches too?” I asked. “People have always thought that only bad witches existed – nasty, ugly old hags dressed in black, with wild hair, and who cast bad spells on people. But kind witches existed too – white witches only make good spells’ and could cast off bad ones.”
“Can Sootika also come?” she asked
“You try and stop him,” I responded. “All witches have a black cat and people are very superstitious of black cats because they think witches can change themselves into cats. Some folk believe that if a black cat crosses your path you need to turn around and go back the way you had come as if you continued bad luck would strike you.”
With the final pin in place I asked Penny to give me a twirl. “Scary stuff! Now step off the table and let me do Ashley.”
Ashley stepped up as a grinning creature from the twilight zone. His cloak, which he wore over his sweat suit, was of black tatters and rags stitched together to resemble something which had risen from a lake of liquid fire.
“Penny, did you know that if you wanted to meet a real witch on Halloween you had to put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards,” Ashley added, “then, at the stroke of midnight, you will see a real witch.”
With the kids now ready and ready to go, I hurriedly shrugged on a grey hooded sweat top, a ghoulish mask and floor length tattered cloak. I flounced down the stairs, announcing to my captive audience that tonight, the only real witch they would be seeing was me.
“Look at Mum,” the kids howled. “Her eyes are blacked out. Oh gross, mum! You look like that bloke who reads the news on telly.”
Moments later we stumbled out the front door onto the sidewalk - me, the giant witch-ghoul, complete with a black cat and a yard broom stick; a medium sized zombie apparition and a frightful looking child-witch with an explosion of grey hair.
The first door we pounded on did not open, although I did see a curtain twitch. The second door also remained firmly shut. I found this Halloween non-compliance somewhat startling, then headed in the opposite direction and came to our elderly neighbor’s door.
Her old cat, Ming, jumped onto the windowsill, between the urns and a few lit candles. We simultaneously feigned an attack by lunging toward the window, waving our arms and snarling. Ming arched his back and hissed, then his eyes glazed and he fell off the ledge. I began beating at my neighbor’s door with the broomstick demanding, in the name of the forefathers that she open the door. I heard a police siren in the distance and quietly wondered why there were lit candles interspersed between the urns on all the windowsills we had passed thus far.
“It’s in memory of our dead relatives,” the police officer said. He moved us away from my neighbor’s door and guided us to the sidewalk. Front porch lights came on in nearby homes and old folk congregated at the ends of their drives, watching us in morbid curiosity.
“In Belgium , Halloween is still a relatively new custom and even then it’s only observed in the big cities,” he added. “Out here we do not know it.” He observed the frightened faces peering at him from behind curtains and doorways. “In one night you have personified all these people’s fears of the dead!”
I began to explain, “But in Great Britain and France hundreds of years ago, the Celts…”, but my sentence was cut short by a waving index finger. “This might explain it Madame,” the police officer announced, “We are Belgian’s, we do not do like the English, and the French, pew!” he spat in the sidewalk, “vermine!”
The next morning the kids and I walked around the neighborhood and apologized to the folks, pleading ignorance. The old dear next door was not in, but I kept an eye out for her and later spied solemnly placing another small urn on the hallway windowsill.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“That can only be Ming,” Ashley added gravely.