Authors: Margaret Atwood
“A striking work.”
“Hilarious, touching, full of wonderfully skewered insights, and very much faster than a speeding bullet.”
“Nervy, mordant, funny and brilliant.”
San Francisco Examiner
“Funny, poignant and briskly energetic.”
“Margaret Atwood’s third novel constitutes a showcase for the abundant and rich talents of this Canadian poet-author.”
“A very funny novel, lightly told with wry detachment and considerable art.”
Washington Post Book World
“A rich, subtle, deep, delicate, nourishing book. It’s all joy, but it stays with you. [Atwood] has things to tell us.”
BY MARGARET ATWOOD
The Edible Woman
Life Before Man
Murder in the Dark
The Handmaid’s Tale
The Robber Bride
Up in the Tree
[with Joyce Barkhouse] (1980)
For the Birds
Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Days of the Rebels 1815-1840
Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature
Two Solicitudes: Conversations
[with Victor-Lévy Beaulieu] (1998)
The Circle Game
The Animals in That Country
The Journals of Susanna Moodie
Procedures for Underground
You Are Happy
Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986
Morning in the Burned House
Copyright © 1976 by O.W. Toad Ltd.
First cloth edition published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart in 1976
Trade paperback edition published in 1998
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
Atwood, Margaret, 1939 –
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and by the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street,
planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance. I wanted my death, by contrast, to be neat and simple, understated, even a little severe, like a Quaker church or the basic black dress with a single strand of pearls much praised by fashion magazines when I was fifteen. No trumpets, no megaphones, no spangles, no loose ends, this time. The trick was to disappear without a trace, leaving behind me the shadow of a corpse, a shadow everyone would mistake for solid reality. At first I thought I’d managed it.
The day after I arrived in Terremoto I was sitting outside on the balcony. I’d been intending to sunbathe, I had visions of myself as a Mediterranean splendor, golden-brown, striding with laughing teeth into an aqua sea, carefree at last, the past discarded; but then I remembered I had no suntan lotion (Maximum Protection: without
it I’d burn and freckle), so I’d covered my shoulders and thighs with several of the landlord’s skimpy bath towels. I hadn’t brought a bathing suit; bra and underpants would do, I thought, since the balcony was invisible from the road.
I’d always been fond of balconies. I felt that if I could only manage to stand on one long enough, the right one, wearing a long white trailing gown, preferably during the first quarter of the moon, something would happen: music would sound, a shape would appear below, sinuous and dark, and climb towards me, while I leaned fearfully, hopefully, gracefully, against the wrought-iron railing and quivered. But this wasn’t a very romantic balcony. It had a geometric railing like those on middle-income apartment buildings of the fifties, and the floor was poured concrete, already beginning to erode. It wasn’t the kind of balcony a man would stand under playing a lute and yearning or clamber up bearing a rose in his teeth or a stiletto in his sleeve. Besides, it was only five feet off the ground. Any mysterious visitor I might have would be more likely to approach by the rough path leading down to the house from the street above, feet crunching on the cinders, roses or knives in his head only.
That at any rate would be Arthur’s style, I thought; he’d rather crunch than climb. If only we could go back to the way it had once been, before he had changed.… I pictured him coming to retrieve me, winding up the hill in a rented Fiat which would have something wrong with it; he would tell me about this defect later, after we’d thrown ourselves into each other’s arms. He would park, as close to the wall as possible. Before getting out he would check his face in the rearview mirror, adjusting the expression: he never liked to make a fool of himself, and he wouldn’t be sure whether or not he was about to. He would unfold himself from the car, lock it so his scanty luggage could not be stolen, place the keys in an inside jacket pocket, peer left and right, and then with that curious ducking
motion of the head, as if he were dodging a thrown stone or a low doorway, he’d sneak past the rusty gate and start cautiously down the path. He was usually stopped at international borders. It was because he looked so furtive; furtive but correct, like a spy.
At the sight of lanky Arthur descending towards me, uncertain, stony-faced, rescue-minded, in his uncomfortable shoes and well-aged cotton underwear, not knowing whether I would really be there or not, I began to cry. I closed my eyes: there in front of me, across an immense stretch of blue which I recognized as the Atlantic Ocean, was everyone I had left on the other side. On a beach, of course; I’d seen a lot of Fellini movies. The wind rippled their hair, they smiled and waved and called to me, though of course I couldn’t hear the words. Arthur was the nearest; behind him was the Royal Porcupine, otherwise known as Chuck Brewer, in his long pretentious cape; then Sam and Marlene and the others. Leda Sprott fluttered like a bedsheet off to one side, and I could see Fraser Buchanan’s leather-patched elbow sticking out from where he lurked behind a seaside bush. Further back, my mother, wearing a navy-blue suit and a white hat, my father indistinct by her side; and my Aunt Lou. Aunt Lou was the only one who wasn’t looking at me. She was marching along the beach, taking deep breaths and admiring the waves and stopping every now and then to empty the sand out of her shoes. Finally she took them off, and continued, in fox fur, feathered hat and stocking feet, towards a distant hot-dog and orangeade stand that beckoned to her from the horizon like a tacky mirage.
But I was wrong about the rest of them. They were smiling and waving at each other, not at me. Could it be that the Spiritualists were wrong and the dead weren’t interested in the living after all? Though some of them were still alive, and I was the one who was supposed to be dead; they should have been mourning but instead they seemed quite cheerful. It wasn’t fair. I tried to will something
ominous onto their beach – a colossal stone head, a collapsing horse – but with no result. In fact it was less like a Fellini movie than that Walt Disney film I saw when I was eight, about a whale who wanted to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. He approached a ship and sang arias, but the sailors harpooned him, and each of his voices left his body in a different-colored soul and floated up towards the sun, still singing.
The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met
, I think it was called. At the time I cried ferociously.
It was this memory that really set me off. I never learned to cry with style, silently, the pearl-shaped tears rolling down my cheeks from wide luminous eyes, as on the covers of
comics, leaving no smears or streaks. I wished I had; then I could have done it in front of people, instead of in bathrooms, darkened movie theaters, shrubberies and empty bedrooms, among the party coats on the bed. If you could cry silently people felt sorry for you. As it was I snorted, my eyes turned the color and shape of cooked tomatoes, my nose ran, I clenched my fists, I moaned, I was embarrassing, finally I was amusing, a figure of fun. The grief was always real but it came out as a burlesque of grief, an overblown imitation like the neon rose on White Rose Gasoline stations, gone forever now.… Decorous weeping was another of those arts I never mastered, like putting on false eyelashes. I should’ve had a governess, I should have gone to finishing school and had a board strapped to my back and learned water-color painting and self-control.