Last week the younger and I were walking home from preschool. She was talking about Phineas, as usual.
“Are you friends with anyone else?” I asked. “Are you friends with any of the girls?”
She stopped walking and looked at me, perching herself on a wall thoughtfully and shrugging her shoulders up to her ears.
“Well, it’s like, I’m kind of a serious person?” she stated, her intonation rising with a perfect SoCal inflection while her hands simultaneously rose in a what-can-you-do? shrug.
“The girls aren’t serious,” she continued.
“What about Phineas?”
“Yeah,” she said in a tone that said “duh, Mom.” “Yeah, we are both serious.”
“What do you mean ‘serious’?” I asked.
She looked at me impatiently, “well, you know, like, if someone falls down, we’ll go over and see if they need help … maybe we’ll tell the teachers …” she says, making a spiraling “and so on and so forth” gesture with her hand.
“And what about the girls, wouldn’t they do that too?”
“No,” she declared flatly.
“Well, what would they be doing?”
“Oh, you know—” and here she broke spontaneously into a dialogue by way of explanation, a dialogue she performed in two high-pitched voices:
“‘I wanna be a fairy-princess!’
‘And I wanna be a brave knight!’
‘Well, you can’t be a brave knight because you’re a girl!’
‘Girls can be brave knights too!’
‘No they can’t—’
Here she broke off and shot me a look that said “so unbelievably tedious, right?”
“Don’t you ever play those games too?” I asked. “You like pretending too ….”
“No, because I wanna do serious stuff.” She paused. “She’s right though that girls can be brave knights,” she observed. “That part’s actually true.”
As we were crossing the road she turned to me.
“Mom, what was in the spell apart from the mouse droppings?”
“What was in the what?” I asked.
I was at a loss. “What spell?”
“The spell from last night! To stop things turning into ice!” She looked at me incredulously. “Remember????”
“Oh, right, I remember!” I said finally.
It was from the last story I’d told her in bed last night. I remembered it only vaguely now.
The origins of the current iteration of the bedtime ritual are now lost in the misty sands of spring 2015, but at some point in the last few months it became Established Protocol at Mom’s House that after reading the regulation three bedtime stories, I would then, in addition, make up four stories that I would tell after turning the lights out.
I dread this every night. I don’t know why I ever agreed to it. It’s a kind of mental torture to generate narratives when you’re already knackered. And yet resistance is futile. The prospect of proposing some alteration to the current regime seems infinitely more exhausting than simply submitting to it.
I have a limited range of stories. Most fall into two categories: animal stories and knight stories. The knight stories always center on a quest; I’m not reinventing the wheel here. The animal stories typically involve a peripeteia in which the child-protagonist suddenly discovers that its seemingly ordinary animal companion is in fact a creature with magical powers including the power of human speech. Oh, la! Or else, it’s about an animal with a counter-intuitive learning deficiency. The pigeon who didn’t learn to fly. The giraffe who was afraid of heights. I do a nice line in those.
But last night the younger had had enough.
Not. Another. Fucking. Animal Story. She said. OK, well, she didn’t say it like that, but that was what she meant.
“Fine,” I said. “once upon a time there was a knight.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” she said. She didn’t literally say that either, but that was what she meant.
“All right, all right,” I said.
I dug deep and came up with a story about a princess who has a curse put on her that means everything she touches turns to ice. I didn’t say it wasn’t derivative. In all honesty, I haven’t actually seen “Frozen,” but evidently its cultural saturation is such that I can spin a variation on it without even consciously knowing the plot of the original.
Anyway, in my version, the princess wants rid of the spell, and so she asks her wise mother for help. Her mother isn’t a witch, but she does have a lavish library, and she’s amazing at tracking down obscure books, so she speedily locates the book containing the spell that will break the curse.
So they cast the spell and the curse is broken and they live happily every after.
Towards the end of the final story I typically start nodding off. This sometimes leads to non-sequiturs and surreal particulars. When it came to the casting of the spell, without really knowing what I was saying I found myself declaring that one of the necessary ingredients in the magical potion was “mouse droppings.”
“Mouse droppings!” repeated the younger. “What’s ‘mouse droppings!’”
“Oh, it’s … it’s just mouse poo,” I explained.
“Why did the spell to break the freezing curse need mouse droppings?” the younger asked.
“That’s just what it said in the spell book,” I snapped.
“Well OK,” said the younger doubtfully.
I thought that was that. But then, today, in the clear light of day, the younger confronted me. What else was in the spell, she demanded to know.
I couldn’t remember.
Well how did they do the spell, she pressed me.
I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I’d said the night before, so I improvised.
“Well, they put all the ingredients in a cauldron … and then they stirred it with the magic wand and said the magic words and then ta-da, the curse lifted.”
“Who stirred it?”
“The princess?” I suggested, hopefully.
She shook her head.
“That wouldn’t work.”
“Why not?” I asked, a little testily.
“Because,” she said, “when the princess picked up the wand it would have turned into a brine-icle.”
“A barnacle,” I repeated, completely flummoxed, “why would it turn into a barnacle?”
“No no, not a barnacle,” she said, “a brine-icle.”
I smiled a little condescendingly.
“I think you mean a barnacle,” I said. “There’s no such word as brine-icle. But, in any case, I don’t see why it would have turned into a barnacle. That makes no sense.”
“It is a word,” she said stoutly.
“Fine, what does it mean?” I asked.
“It’s an icicle that grows underwater,” she explained. “And when the princess touched the wand it would have turned to ice in the cauldron. Like a brinicle. Because they hadn’t done the spell yet.”
I considered her hypothesis.
“Well, that’s a good point about the wand turning to ice when she touched it,” I conceded. “I didn’t think of that. I suppose you’re right,” I admitted.
“But,” I continued (and here I contemplated the word “brine-icle”; it was clearly a portmanteau of brine and icicle … clever … too clever for a four year old to come up with, yes? But also … fake sounding, right?), “I still don’t think ‘brinicle’ is a real word, but I’ll look it up later.”
“It IS real,” insisted the younger. “Because it was on Octonauts, and everything on Octonauts is real.”
“OK, that is not true,” I said, feeling on surer ground.
“Yes it is!” she said.
“Not it’s not!” I exclaimed. “The vegimals! The vegimals are not real. That is not a real thing, a ‘vegimal,’ half vegetable, half animal.”
“Vegimal,” indeed! Bloody Octonauts and its cute portmanteaus deceiving preschoolers everywhere into believing in the existence of these hybrid abominations of nature. Like “vegimals.” And “brinicles.”
Later, I typed “brinicle” into Google.
“a long, tapering vertical tube of ice formed in the sea around a plume of very cold seawater produced by a developing ice sheet.”
I have only one more thing to say. Beware the manxome vegimal, my friends. Beware the vegimal.