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BOOKS BY MARGARET ATWOOD
The Edible Woman
Life Before Man
The Handmaid's Tale
The Robber Bride
The Blind Assassin
Murder in the Dark
Good Bones and Simple Murders
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-Levy Beaulieu]
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 (c) 1983, 1992, 1994 by O. W. Toad, Ltd.
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.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data Atwood, Margaret, 1939-
Good bones and simple murders eISBN: 978-1-55199551-9
PS8501.T86G65 2001 C813'.54 C2001-901653-0
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 the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
"Murder in the Dark," "Women's Novels," "The Boys' Own Annual, 1911," "Simmering," "Happy Endings," "The Victory Burlesk," "She," "Liking Men," "Iconography," "Bread," and "The Page" were first collected in Murder in the Dark, published in 1983 by Coach House Press. All the others, with the exception of "Simple Murders," were first collected in Good Bones, published in 1992 by Coach House Press.
Some of these pieces have appeared in Adam, Antaeus, Bread & Roses, Exile, Fireweed, From Ink Lake, Island, Littfass, Liturataz, The Lunatic Gazette, Harper's, The Mississippi Review, Quest, Tamarack Review, This Magazine, Time Out, and Toronto Life; some have been broadcast on the CBC program Anthology.
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
Other Books by This Author
Murder in the Dark
The Little Red Hen Tells All
Gertrude Talks Back
There Was Once
The Boys' Own Annual, 1911
Making a Man
Men at Sea
Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women
The Victory Burlesk
The Female Body
In Love with Raymond Chandler
My Life as a Bat
Poppies: Three Variations
We Want It All
Dance of the Lepers
About the Author
This is a game I've played only twice. The first time I was in grade five, I played it in a cellar, the cellar of a large house belonging to the parents of a girl called Louise. There was a pool table in the cellar but none of us knew anything about pool. There was also a player piano. After a while we got tired of running the punchcard rolls through the player piano and watching the keys go up and down by themselves, like something in a late movie just before you see the dead person. I was in love with a boy called Bill, who was in love with Louise. The other boy, whose name I can't remember, was in love with me. Nobody knew who Louise was in love with.
So we turned out the lights in the cellar and played Murder in the Dark, which gave the boys the pleasure of being able to put their hands around the girls' necks and gave the girls the pleasure of screaming. The excitement was almost more than we could bear, but luckily Louise's parents came home and asked us what we thought we were up to.
The second time I played it was with adults; it was not as much fun, though more intellectually complex.
I heard that this game was once played at a summer cottage by six normal people and a poet, and the poet really tried to kill someone. He was hindered only by the intervention of a dog, which could not tell fantasy from reality. The thing about this game is that you have to know when to stop.
Here is how you play:
You fold up some pieces of paper and put them into a hat, a bowl, or the center of the table. Everyone chooses a piece. The one who gets the x is the detective, the one who gets the black spot is the killer. The detective leaves the room, turning off the lights. Everyone gropes around in the dark until the murderer picks a victim. He can either whisper, "You're dead," or he can slip his hands around a throat and give a playful but decisive squeeze. The victim screams and falls down. Everyone must now stop moving around except the murderer, who of course will not want to be found near the body. The detective counts to ten, turns on the lights, and enters the room. He may now question anyone but the victim, who is not allowed to answer, being dead. Everyone but the murderer must tell the truth. The murderer must lie.
If you like, you can play games with this game. You can say: the murderer is the writer, the detective is the reader, the victim is the book. Or perhaps, the murderer is the writer, the detective is the critic, and the victim is the reader. In that case the book would be the total mise en scene, including the lamp that was accidentally tipped over and broken. But really it's more fun just to play the game.
In any case, that's me in the dark. I have designs on you, I'm plotting my sinister crime, my hands are reaching for your neck or perhaps, by mistake, your thigh. You can hear my footsteps approaching, I wear boots and carry a knife, or maybe it's a pearl-handled revolver, in any case I wear boots with very soft soles, you can see the cinematic glow of my cigarette, waxing and waning in the fog of the room, the street, the room, even though I don't smoke. Just remember this, when the scream at last has ended and you've turned on the lights: by the rules of the game, I must always lie.
Now: do you believe me?
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-colored 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.
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 always 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.
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 fusty 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.
It's true, there are never any evil stepfathers. Only a bunch of lily-livered widowers, who let me get away with murder vis-a-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 knew 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 dish-pan 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.
Everyone wants in on it. Everyone! Not just the cat, the pig and the dog. The horse too, the cow, the rhinoceros, the orangutang, the horned toad, the wombat, the duck-billed platypus, you name it. There's no peace any more and all because of that goddamn loaf of bread.
It's not easy, being a hen.
You know my story. Probably you had it told to you as a shining example of how you yourself ought to behave. Sobriety and elbow grease. Do it yourself. Then invest your capital. Then collect. I'm supposed to be an illustration of that? Don't make me laugh.
I found the grain of wheat, true. So what? There are lots of grains of wheat lying around. Keep your eyes to the grindstone and you could find a grain of wheat, too. I saw one and picked it up. Nothing wrong with that. Finders keepers. A grain of wheat saved is a grain of wheat earned. Opportunity is bald behind.
Who will help me plant this grain of wheat? I said. Who? Who? I felt like a goddamn owl.
Not me, not me, they replied. Then I'll do it myself, I said, as the nun quipped to the vibrator. Nobody was listening, of course. They'd all gone to the beach.
Don't think it didn't hurt, all that rejection. Brooding in my nest of straw, I cried little red hen tears. Tears of chicken blood. You know what that looks like, you've eaten enough of it. Makes good gravy.
So, what were my options? I could have eaten that grain of wheat right away. Done myself a nutritional favor. But instead I planted it. Watered it. Stood guard over it night and day with my little feathered body.
So it grew. Why not? So it made more grains of wheat. So I planted those. So I watered those. So I ground them into flour. So I finally got enough for a loaf of bread. So I baked it. You've seen the pictures, me in my little red hen apron, holding the loaf with its plume of aroma in between the tips of my wings, smiling away. I smile in all the pictures, as much as you can smile, with a beak. Whenever they said Not me,
I smiled. I never lost my temper.
Who will help me eat this loaf of bread? I said. I will, said the cat, the dog and the pig. I will, said the antelope. I will, said the yak. I will, said the five-lined skink. I will, said the pubic louse. They meant it, too. They held out their paws, hooves, tongues, claws, mandibles, prehensile tails. They drooled at me with their eyes. They whined. They shoved petitions through my mail slot. They became depressed. They accused me of selfishness. They developed symptoms. They threatened suicide. They said it was my fault, for having a loaf of bread when they had none. Every single one of them, it seemed, needed that goddamn loaf of bread more than I did.
You can bake more, they said.
So then what? I know what the story says, what I'm supposed to have said: I'll eat it myself, so kiss off. Don't believe a word of it. As I've pointed out, I'm a hen, not a rooster.
Here, I said. I apologize for having the idea in the first place. I apologize for luck. I apologize for self-denial. I apologize for being a good cook. I apologize for that crack about nuns. I apologize for that crack about roosters. I apologize for smiling, in my smug hen apron, with my smug hen beak. I apologize for being a hen.
Have some more.
I always thought it was a mistake, calling you Hamlet. I mean, what kind of a name is that for a young boy? It was your father's idea. Nothing would do but that you had to be called after him. Selfish. The other kids at school used to tease the life out of you. The nicknames! And those terrible jokes about pork.
I wanted to call you George.
I am not wringing my hands. I'm drying my nails.
Darling, please stop fidgeting with my mirror. That'll be the third one you've broken.
Yes, I've seen those pictures, thank you very much.
I know your father was handsomer than Claudius. High brow, aquiline nose and so on, looked great in uniform. But handsome isn't everything, especially in a man, and far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, but I think it's about time I pointed out to you that your dad just wasn't a whole lot of fun. Noble, sure, I grant you. But Claudius, well, he likes a drink now and then. He appreciates a decent meal. He enjoys a laugh, know what I mean? You don't always have to be tiptoeing around because of some holier-than-thou principle or something.