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MARGARET ATWOOD

BAD NEWS

The red geraniums fluorescing on the terrace, the wind swaying the daisies, the baby's milk-fed eyes focusing for the first time on a double row of beloved teeth-what is there to report? Bloodlessness puts her to sleep. She perches on a rooftop, her brass wings folded, her head with its coiffure of literate serpents tucked beneath the left one, snoozing like a noon pigeon. There's nothing to do but her toenails. The sun oozes across the sky, the breezes undulate over her skin like warm silk stockings, her heart beats with the systole and diastole of waves on the breakwater, boredom creeps over her like vines.

She knows what she wants: an event, by which she means a slip of the knife, a dropped wineglass or bomb, something broken. A little acid, a little gossip, a little hi-tech megadeath: a sharp thing that will wake her up. Run a tank over the geraniums, turn the wind up to hurricane so the daisies' heads tear off and hurtle through the air like bullets, drop the baby from the balcony and watch the mother swan-dive after him, with her snarled Ophelia hair and addled screams.

The melon-burst, the tomato-coloured splatter-now that's a story! She's awake now, she sniffs the air, her wings are spread for flight. She's hungry, she's on the track, she's howling like a siren and she's got your full attention.

No news is good news, everyone knows that. You know it, too, and you like it that way. When you're feeling bad she scratches at your window, and you let her in. Better them than you, she whispers in your ear. You settle back in your chair, folding the rustling paper.

THERE WAS ONCE

"There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest."

"Forest? Forest is passé, I mean, I've had it with all this wilderness stuff. It's not a right image of our society, today. Let's have some urban for a change."

"There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the suburbs."

"That's better. But I have to seriously query this word poor."

"But she was poor!"

"Poor is relative. She lived in a house, didn't she?"

"Yes."

"Then socio-economically speaking, she was not poor."

"But none of the money was hers! The whole point of the story is that the wicked stepmother makes her wear old clothes and sleep in the fireplace-"

"Aha! They had a fireplace! With poor, let me tell you, there's no fireplace. Come down to the park, come to the subway stations after dark, come down to where they sleep in cardboard boxes, and I'll show you poor!"

"There was once a middle-class girl, as beautiful as she was good-"

"Stop right there. I think we can cut the beautiful, don't you? Women these days have to deal with too many intimidating physical role models as it is, what with those bimbos in the ads. Can't you make her, well, more average?"

"There was once a girl who was a little overweight and whose front teeth stuck out, who-"

"I don't think it's nice to make fun of people's appearances. Plus, you're encouraging anorexia."

"I wasn't making fun! I was just describing-"

"Skip the description. Description oppresses. But you can say what colour she was."

"What colour?"

"You know. Black, white, red, brown, yellow. Those are the choices. And I'm telling you right now, I've had enough of white. Dominant culture this, dominant culture that-"

"I don't know what colour."

"Well, it would probably be your colour, wouldn't it?"

"But this isn't about me! It's about this girl-"

"Everything is about you."

"Sounds to me like you don't want to hear this story at all."

"Oh well, go on. You could make her ethnic. That might help."

"There was once a girl of indeterminate descent, as average-looking as she was good, who lived with her wicked-"

"Another thing. Good and wicked. Don't you think you should transcend those puritanical judgmental moralistic epithets? I mean, so much of that is conditioning, isn't it?"

"There was once a girl, as average-looking as she was well-adjusted, who lived with her stepmother, who was not a very open and loving person because she herself had been abused in childhood."

"Better. But I am so tired of negative female images! And stepmothers-they always get it in the neck! Change it to stepfather, why don't you? That would make more sense anyway, considering the bad behaviour you're about to describe. And throw in some whips and chains. We all know what those twisted, repressed, middle-aged men are like-"

"Hey, just a minute! I'm a middle-aged-"

"Stuff it, Mister Nosy Parker. Nobody asked you to stick in your oar, or whatever you want to call that thing. This is between the two of us. Go on."

"There was once a girl-"

"How old was she?"

"I don't know. She was young."

"This ends with a marriage, right?"

"Well, not to blow the plot, but-yes."

"Then you can scratch the condescending paternalistic terminology. It's woman, pal. Woman."

"There was once-"

"What's this was, once? Enough of the dead past. Tell me about now."

"There-"

"So?"

"So, what?"

"So, why not here?"

UNPOPULAR GALS

1.

Everyone gets a turn, and now it's mine. Or so they used to tell us in kindergarten. It's not really true. Some get more turns than others, and I've never had a turn, not one! I hardly know how to say I, or mine; I've been she, her, that one, for so long.

I haven't even been given a name; I was just the ugly sister; put the stress on ugly. The one the other mothers looked at, then looked away from and shook their heads gently. Their voices lowered or ceased altogether when I came into the room, in my pretty dresses, my face leaden and scowling. They tried to think of something to say that would redeem the situation-Well, she's certainly strong-but they knew it was useless. So did I.

You think I didn't hate their pity, their forced kindness? And knowing that no matter what I did, how virtuous I was, or hardworking, I would never be beautiful. Not like her, the one who merely had to sit there to be adored. You wonder why I stabbed the blue eyes of my dolls with pins and pulled their hair out until they were bald? Life isn't fair. Why should I be?

As for the prince, you think I didn't love him? I loved him more than she did. I loved him more than anything. Enough to cut off my foot. Enough to murder. Of course I disguised myself in heavy veils, to take her place at the altar. Of course I threw her out the window and pulled the sheets up over my head and pretended to be her. Who wouldn't, in my position?

But all my love ever came to was a bad end. Red-hot shoes, barrels studded with nails. That's what it feels like, unrequited love.

She had a baby, too. I was never allowed.

Everything you've ever wanted, I wanted also.

2.

A libel action, that's what I'm thinking. Put an end to this nonsense. Just because I'm old and live alone and can't see very well, they accuse me of all sorts of things. Cooking and eating children, well, can you imagine? What a fantasy, and even if I did eat just a few, whose fault was it? Those children were left in the forest by their parents, who fully intended them to die. Waste not, want not, has always been my motto.

Anyway, the way I see it, they were an offering. I used to be given grown-ups, men and women both, stuffed full of seasonal goodies and handed over to me at seed-time and harvest. The symbolism was a little crude perhaps, and the events themselves were-some might say-lacking in taste, but folks' hearts were in the right place. In return, I made things germinate and grow and swell and ripen.

Then I got hidden away, stuck into the attic, shrunken and parched and covered up in dusty draperies. Hell, I used to have breasts! Not just two of them. Lots. Ever wonder why a third tit was the crucial test, once, for women like me?

Or why I'm so often shown with a garden? A wonderful garden, in which mouth-watering things grow. Mulberries. Magic cabbages. Rapunzel, whatever that is. And all those pregnant women trying to clamber over the wall, by the light of the moon, to munch up my fecundity, without giving anything in return. Theft, you'd call it, if you were at all open-minded.

That was never the rule in the old days. Life was a gift then, not something to be stolen. It was my gift. By earth and sea I bestowed it, and the people gave me thanks.

3.

It's true, there are never any evil stepfathers. Only a bunch of lily-livered widowers, who let me get away with murder vis-à-vis their daughters. Where are they when I'm making those girls drudge in the kitchen, or sending them out into the blizzard in their paper dresses? Working late at the office. Passing the buck. Men! But if you think they know nothing about it, you're crazy.

The thing about those good daughters is, they're so good. Obedient and passive. Sniveling, I might add. No get-up-and-go. What would become of them if it weren't for me? Nothing, that's what. All they'd ever do is the housework, which seems to feature largely in these stories. They'd marry some peasant, have seventeen kids, and get 'A dutiful wife' engraved on their tombstones, if any. Big deal.

I stir things up, I get things moving. 'Go play in the traffic,' I say to them. 'Put on this paper dress and look for strawberries in the snow.' It's perverse, but it works. All they have to do is smile and say hello and do a little more housework, for some gnomes or nice ladies or whatever, and bingo, they get the king's son and the palace, and no more dishpan hands. Whereas all I get is the blame.

God knows all about it. No Devil, no Fall, no Redemption. Grade Two arithmetic.

You can wipe your feet on me, twist my motives around all you like, you can dump millstones on my head and drown me in the river, but you can't get me out of the story. I'm the plot, babe, and don't ever forget it.

Excerpted from Good Bones. Reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright © 1995 Blip Magazine Archive

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