“Some historians speculate that April Fools’ Day dates back to when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. In the Julian Calendar, the new year began around April 1.
People who were slow to get the news or failed to recognize that the start of the new year had moved and continued to celebrate it during the last week of March through April 1 became the butt of jokes and hoaxes and were called ‘April fish.’ These pranks included having paper fish placed on their backs.”
April 1st 1568, Angoulême, France
The woods swallowed Jehanne just like the big whale had devoured Jonah in the Bible, at least according to her know-it-all Huguenot neighbours. After stepping into the thick shadows, she’d count a few steps and turn around to reassure herself with the twinkle of the village lights. Even though the trees seemed to huddle closer and closer together whenever she cast a look back, she pressed on, dismissing it as an anxious illusion. Except this time, the distant glow had suddenly gone out like wet kindling, and no amount of rubbing her eyes could reignite it. Perhaps this was why Jehanne’s mother entertained her children with cautionary tales always culminating in the same ominous statement. ‘Moonlight makes woods mean.’
Jehanne stumbled back and forth in the darkness, trying to locate the lost glimmer again, her eyes open so wide that her eyelids felt sore. It dawned on her that she couldn’t point out the direction she came from anymore and a breathless, guilty merde escaped her lips. She plonked down on the moist, bouncy undergrowth, and an intense, mossy smell filled the night air. Now, she had no other choice but to execute her plan of spending the night and the following day in the woods, only without the heartwarming sight of homely lights winking at her, aiding and abetting her in the mischief. She settled down and tried to make herself invisible, remembering her mother’s words. She certainly didn’t want to fall prey to the woods’ cruel tricks.
For a few years now, Jehanne had been possessed by what her mother graciously dubbed the armpit hair demon, and whenever it dared rear its ugly head, she would try to beat it out of her daughter with a bundle of willow withies. They left ugly wounds on Jehanne’s back, but her mother only tended to them if they’d got infected. ‘Good,’ she’d mutter at her daughter’s hissing as the wet cloth rubbed against the oozing scratches. ‘This is how we drain the evil spirit out of you.’
The demon of puberty wasn’t kind to Jehanne, often leaving her not only bruised, but also ready to boil over. It wasn’t fun having to weave the endless fleece into woolen yarn, her fingers often catching on the sharp reeds of the loom. It wasn’t fun being bullied by her three older brothers who yanked up her tunic and then pranced around with apples held to their chests in a poor imitation of breasts. It wasn’t fun having to ration every meal all year round, now that her itching, expanding skin constantly yearned for food. And it certainly wasn’t fun when one of her favourite holidays, New Year’s Day, was moved from March to January.
When Jehanne’s father brought the news home, she was stumped. ‘Who says, the Huguenots?’ she asked in disbelief and spat over her left shoulder to rid herself of the bad taste the word had left in her mouth. She disliked the Huguenots as much as the next person, those it’s-all-in-the-Bible snobs who refused to pay tithe to the church.
‘No, this is coming straight from the parish,’ her father replied. ‘And stop with the spitting thing. It’s unbecoming.’
Jehanne shrugged in response. ‘Better out than in,’ the naughty demon offered through her lips, and she would have got a slap or two on her defiant cheeks had she not been as quick-footed as she was quick-witted.
In her family, nobody ever celebrated New Year. By March, they’d be running so dangerously low on vegetables that her mother would sometimes cook an entire pot of broth using only two carrots and half a parsnip, and the faint earthy taste would make Jehanne’s tongue ache for more. She’d go outside and beg the frozen ground to awaken again, but there was no response. The earth was fast asleep, indifferent to her hungry pleas.
Some richer peasants, those who had direct links to the monks, celebrated with ale and wine all week, or so she was told. Their merriment only ended on the first of April and she liked to imagine herself as a wife to one of them, being offered wine, which she pictured to be a delicate, translucent liquid, refreshing like water from the nearby stream.
She didn’t care for starting out a new year in the mighty darkness that swept along the village in January and brought frost so hostile it crept underneath doors and squeezed through window frames. So when the bells on the church tower rang out all day to mark the occasion, she sneaked behind the sheepcote, picked up a sharp stone and scratched a short line into the wooden wall.
She could count alright, especially like she was going to this time — forcing four lines onto the wall and then crossing them out with the fifth. She also understood how months worked, because if she clenched her hands into fists, the months falling on her knuckles had thirty-one days, starting with the wretched January. Only February was different, with twenty-eight days, which she remembered thanks to one of her mother’s nighttime tales, the moral learned but the story itself long forgotten.
She was patient. The day which she calculated to be the last of the traditional celebrations, the first of April, was sunny and inviting. She wished everyone a happy new year and went down to the stream. She crowned her head with some daffodils she’d woven into a garland and sat at the bank, humming a cheery melody.
Her peaceful ritual was rudely interrupted by her brothers arriving with their fishing rods. They mocked her mercilessly, until finally, one of them said, ‘Enough, now. Let her celebrate however she wants to.’
He patted her on the back and they all howled even harder, but now, she felt cheered on, so she joined in and tilted the garland to one side, giving herself a boisterous look in hopes to amuse them.
Only after she’d got home did she realise that their laughter had roared entirely at her expense. As she pulled her thick tunic off, something fell to the floor, and she examined it with a furrowed brow — it was a fish cut out of a dwindled potato peeling. She picked up the tunic and looked at it closely. It had a bunch of burrs stuck to the back, which had to be how the strange figurine was glued on, and she remembered the pat on her back with a fury only known to teenagers.
They were still fishing as she ran towards them with the find stretched out in her arm.
‘What the hell is this?’ she asked them one by one, waving the cutout in their faces, but they only assumed the most annoying, innocent expressions that made her want to stuff the old peeling down their throats.
‘You’re like poisson d’avril,’ the eldest brother finally revealed and kicked the bucket stood by his side, spilling its thrashing contents. Jehanne thought she’d never seen this many fish before, and their eyes looked about ready to pop out of their sockets in the desperate fight for oxygen. ‘April fish. So gullible.’
‘It’s only in April they’re this stupid,’ chimed in the middle brother, and she turned to face him, fuming. ‘You don’t even need bait.’
The youngest brother nodded. ‘New Year’s Day has been moved to January, you dummy.’
Jehanne’s face turned red and she squashed the peeling in her hand. It was nothing, just a silly prank, but in her mind, it felt like the insult of the century. The demon had funny ways to steer Jehanne towards pure wrath that made her vision overcast with red floaters.
‘I know!’ she screamed. ‘I just like celebrating it this way! But you had to come here and ruin it, didn’t you? Putain d’avril.’
Her unapologetic swearing made them gasp, but before they could reply, she spat over her left shoulder and stormed off.
Every year, Jehanne scratched her way through to April on the side of the sheepcote, and every year, her brothers found a way to stick the stupid fish on her back. The more vehemently she protested, explaining she knew full well the official New Year’s Day was now on the first of January, the more perverse was the pleasure they seemed to take in finding cunning ways to make her appear idiotic.
Her wrath was so potent and audible that in the third year, some of the neighbours came running to see who was being murdered, and when she sketched out her unfortunate predicament to them, they chuckled.
‘Sounds like we’ve got some April fools in our families, too! What a great idea,’ they replied, prompting Jehanne’s demon to slam all the imaginary doors and bang on the walls of her mind. People were dimwits, that’s what people were in this village.
It was then that Jehanne decided she wouldn’t be tricked the following year: not by her hooting brothers with eyes as blank as the April fish, not by the nosy neighbours, and not by the demon of the hair now growing in more places than just her armpits. She couldn’t let him dictate her angry reactions, which only ever provoked more laughter and mockery.
When the sharp stone struck the thirty-first of March on the sheepcote wall, she prepared herself by stealing some pickles her mother had served at lunch, with a little cured bacon to complete the inventory. In the evening, she waited patiently, pinching herself on the underarm now and again to keep awake until everyone’s breathing became deep and even.
She grabbed her leather boots and the old, goatskin coat, so worn its lining was completely smooth and much less scratchy than it had used to be. She cast a quick look at the wooden patens stood in the corner of the room and thought about how damp the forest floor might be. Her mother was going to kill her for this stunt anyway, but if she put the patens on, she would at least be dying for her convictions rather than for ruining her only pair of leather boots.
She dressed outside, not wanting to wake anyone with the fumbling, and walked for a few minutes before stopping to don the clogs. The boots wouldn’t slide into them, so she knocked them into place by kicking a tree, holding onto its trunk for balance. She hated those things, raising her off the ground by at least four inches, which always succeeded in making her feel like a cheap jester. She plodded towards the woods, frustrated at the slow pace, but the muddy ground was giving in so much she was glad to have brought the heels.
And now, she was sat in the moss, trying to cover every inch of naked skin with the old coat. She’d just discovered a thinning in the fabric that surprised her — she always thought she had the most intimate relationship with the old rag. Slightly amused, she ran her fingers all over the fur and felt some more bald spots, suspecting the darkness must have sharpened her sense of touch.
Not many women were awarded a winter garment, keeping dilligently to all the work which needed to be done indoors during the cold months. But Jehanne’s love for the outside could melt even the most frosty paternal heart. ‘Honour it like you do your own mother and me,’ her father said, handing her the coat and wagging his calloused finger as a preliminary warning.
The woods made no sound at night, Jehanne now realised, trembling like a leaf in the wind. It wasn’t anywhere near as cold here as it was on the open plains, but she was still losing feeling in her toes to the chilly inertia. Now and again, a branch would crack, and some hours into her still watch, she heard the most curious squeal she chose to interpret as friendly. The woods weren’t all that mean, although she longed to see the village lights. A feeling like the night would never end nibbled away at her, and the goosebumps it gave her only intensified the shivers.
Finally, she heard a lonely chirrup in the black crowns above her, and she sat up joyfully. Time didn’t stop after all, and the night would end — those were the inherent words embedded in the beautiful, solitary sound. The song soon turned into a choir practicing its harmonies, and in the darkness so profound she could barely see her outstretched hand, the noise gave her an illusion of light and safety.
When the sun finally injected greens and browns back into the inky woods, she didn’t sigh with relief, already lulled into a nap by the symphony of nightingales, robins and woodpeckers.
She spent the whole day drifting in and out of sleep and nibbling on the bacon. She didn’t account for the thirst, but the saltiness of the meat made her mouth water and she swirled the spit around in her mouth before swallowing greedily. She was imagining her brothers’ disappointment and she replayed their reactions over and over in her mind’s eye. No matter she’d suffer death by willow withies a few moments later, for those moments were going to taste of sweet victory.
Only when the light dampened did she trot back out of the woods, the patens still fastened around her boots. Her heart was beating a little faster, but she was only seventeen, which effectively meant she was immortal, or at least invincible.
Her brothers were all back at the yard, gutting the fish they’d caught in the stream and throwing the skeletons to the overjoyed cat. They turned to the sound of the clacking heels she’d taken off in the fields.
‘She’s alive!’ yelled the youngest.
‘Not for long,’ said the eldest and got back to his task. ‘We’ll see you in the next life, sister.’
The middle brother bowed to her deeply as she paraded in front of them, her nose turned up high. ‘Your Royal Deadness.’
Jehanne threw a paten at him and he ducked, squeaking like a mouse.
The youngest stared at her in disbelief. ‘Where were you? Mother’s been worried sick.’
‘Not so funny now, huh?’ she replied, stopping to bask in her triumph. ‘Now that you didn’t manage to trick me into wearing that ridiculous fish thing all day.’
The younger brothers exchanged puzzled looks, until finally, the eldest spoke without raising his eyes off the fish he was now scaling. ‘Yeah, we decided not to do that anymore. Too much steam coming out of your ears last year.’ A smug smile dragged at the corners of his lips. ‘And also, the first was yesterday.’
‘Sure,’ she replied, but the others nodded so eagerly she stopped in her tracks. ‘But… the…’ she pointed inanely towards the sheepcote.
‘What, your secret little calendar?’ asked the youngest brother and shrugged. ‘You must have missed a day.’
She looked at the fish carcass in her brother’s hands, scattered with shimmering scales, and thought she knew exactly how it must have felt to be gutted like that.
The demon had won again, even when she thought she’d outsmarted it just like she did her brothers. She’d be surprised if there was an inch of her back left unharmed this time. ‘Bordel,’ she whispered under her breath, clutching at the remaining paten in her hand and frowning painfully. She really was an April fool.