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Good Bones and Simple Murders


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AN

ANGEL

I know what the angel of suicide looks like. I have seen her several times. She's around.

She's nothing like the pictures of angels you run across here and there, the ones in classical paintings, with their curls and beautiful eyelashes, or the ones on Christmas cards, all cute or white. Much is made, in these pictures, of the feet, which are always bare, I suppose to show that angels do not need shoes: walkers on nails and live coals all of them, aspirin hearts, dandelion-seed heads, air bodies.

Not so the angel of suicide, who is dense, heavy with antimatter, a dark star. But despite the differences, she does have something in common with those others. All angels are messengers, and so is she; which isn't to say that all messages are good. The angels vary according to what they have to say: the angel of blindness, for instance, the angel of lung cancer, the angel of seizures, the destroying angel. The latter is also a mushroom.

(Snow angels, you've seen them: the cold blank shape of yourself, the outline you once filled. They too are messengers, they come from the future. This is what you will be, they say, perhaps what you are: no more than the way light falls across a given space.)

Angels come in two kinds: the others, and those who fell. The angel of suicide is one of those who fell, down through the atmosphere to the earth's surface. Or did she jump? With her you have to ask.

Anyway, it was a long fall. From the friction of the air, her face melted off like the skin of a meteor. That is why the angel of suicide is so smooth. She has no face to speak of. She has the face of a gray egg. Noncommittal; though the shine of the fall still lingers.

They said, the pack of them, I will not serve. The angel of suicide is one of those: a rebellious waitress. Rebellion, that's what she has to offer, to you, when you see her beckoning to you from outside the window, fifty stories up, or the edge of the bridge, or holding something out to you, some emblem of release, soft chemical, quick metal.

Wings, of course. You wouldn't believe a thing she said if it weren't for the wings.

THIRD

HANDED

The third hand is the one stamped in bear's grease and ocher, in charcoal and blood, on the walls of five-thousand-year-old caves; and in blue, on the doorposts, to ward off evil. It hangs in silver on a chain around the neck, signaling with its thumb; or, index finger extended, and with its golden wrist attached to an ebony stick, it strokes its way along the textural footpath, from Aleph to Omega. In churches it lurks in reliquaries, bony and bejeweled, or appears abruptly from fresco clouds, enormous and stern and significant, loud as a shout: Sin! Less elegant, banal even, and stenciled on a metal plate, it bosses us around: WAY OUT, it orders. UP HERE. WAY DOWN.

But these are merely pictures of it: roles, disguises, captured images, that in no way confine it. Do pictures of love confine love?

(The man and the woman walk down the street, hand in passionate hand; but whose hand is it really? It's the third hand each one holds, not the beloved's. It's the third hand that joins them together, the third hand that keeps them apart.)

The third hand is neither left nor right, dexter nor sinister. Consider the man who is caught in the act, red-handed, as they say. He proclaims his innocence, and why not believe him? What ax? he says. I didn't know what I was doing, it wasn't me, and look, my hands are clean! No one notices the third hand creeping away painfully on its fingers, like a stepped-on crab, trailing raw blood from its severed wrist.

But that happens only to those who have disowned it, who have cut it off and nailed it to a board and shut it up in a wall safe or a strongbox. It's light-fingered, the hand of a thief in the night; it will always get out, it will never hold still. It writes, and having written, moves. Moves on, dissolving, dissolving boundaries.

Vacant spaces belong to it, the vowel o, all blank pages, the number zero, the animals wolf and mole, the hour before birth and the minute after death, the loon, the owl, and all white flowers. The third hand opens doors, and closes them thoughtfully behind you. It is the other two that busy themselves with what goes on in the room.

The third hand is the hand the magician holds behind his back, while showing you the other two, candid and empty. The hand is quicker than the eye, he says. Notice that it's hand, singular. Only one. The third.

And when you walk through the snow, in the blizzard, growing cold and then unaccountably warmer, as night descends and sleep numbs you and you know you are lost, it's the third hand that slips confidingly into your own, a small hand, the hand of a child, leading you onward.

DEATH

SCENES

I want to get the rosebushes in first. I like just sitting there. Last night there was a firefly. Can you imagine?

He said I could heal myself. He told me over the phone. He said, I can hear it in your voice. You should meditate on light for three minutes every day, and drink the leaves of cabbages, the leaves right next to the outer ones. Put them in a blender. Some garlic, too. You'll pee green, but you'll heal. You know, it actually worked, for a while.

This is not attractive. I know it isn't, especially the hair. What do I want? I want you to talk about normal things.

I know I look like hell. But it's still me in here. What do I want? I want you to talk about normal things. No I don't. I want you to look me in the eye and say, I know you're dying. But for Christ's sake don't make me console you.

I said, get the fuck out. This has nothing to do with my fucking attitude. Of course I'm bitter! Get out or I'll throw something at you. Where's the bedpan? You know I don't mean it. Christ I'd like a drink. Well, why not, eh?

No, don't. Don't hug me. It hurts.

I want to see what comes up, in the spring. Damn squirrels, they eat the bulbs. Mothballs are supposed to work.

If you want to cry, do it around the corner where she can't see you.

It's time for you to go home.

Something went wrong, we don't know what. We think you should come down at once.

--Can't you do something? It isn't her, it isn't her! She looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy, she's all swollen up, I can't stand it!

--It's not bothering her, she's in a coma.

--I don't believe in comas! She can hear, she can see everything! If you're going to talk about death, let's go down to the coffee shop.

It's cruel, it's cruel, she's never going to wake up! She can't get back into her body, and if she did she'd hate it! Can't somebody pull the plug?

I knew she'd died when the ashtray broke. It cracked right across. It was the one she gave me. I knew she was right there! It was her way of letting me know.

Glorious scenes. Glorious scenes! Nobody made scenes like hers. Vulgar as all get-out. Of course, she would always apologize afterwards. She needn't have done. Not to me.

What I miss is what she'd say. What she would have said. That's the difference: you have to put everything into the past conditional. Bereft, you might call it. Not her word, though--too po-faced. That was her word.

I went over there, did a little weeding. It's fading, though, what she looked like exactly. I can remember her tone of voice, but not her voice. It's funny the way you keep on talking to people. It's as if they could hear.

WE WANT

IT ALL

What we want of course is the same old story. The trees pushing out their leaves, fluttering them, shucking them off, the water thrashing around in the oceans, the tweedling of the birds, the unfurling of the slugs, the worms vacuuming dirt. The zinnias and their pungent slow explosions. We want it all to go on and go on again, the same thing each year, monotonous and amazing, just as if we were still behaving ourselves, living in tents, raising sheep, slitting their throats for God's benefit, refusing to invent plastics. For unbelief and bathrooms you pay a price. If apples were the Devil's only bait we'd still be able to call our souls our own, but then the prick threw indoor plumbing into the bargain and we were doomed. Now we use up a lot of paper telling one another how to conserve paper, and the se

a fills up with killer coffee cups, and we worry about the sun and its ambivalent rays.

When will it all cave in? The sky, I mean; our networks; our intricate pretensions. We were too good at what we did, at being fruitful, at multiplying, and now there's too much breathing. We eat dangerous foods, our shit glows in the dark, the cells of our bodies turn on us like sharks. Every system is self-limiting. Will we solve ourselves as the rats do? With war, with plagues, with mass starvation? These thoughts come with breakfast, like the juice from murdered fruits. Your depression, my friend, is the revenge of the oranges.

But we still find the world astounding, we can't get enough of it; even as it shrivels, even as its many lights flicker and are extinguished (the tigers, the leopard frogs, the plunging dolphin flukes), flicker and are extinguished, by us, by us, we gaze and gaze. Where do you draw the line, between love and greed? We never did know, we always wanted more. We want to take it all in, for one last time, we want to eat the world with our eyes.

Better than the mouth, my darling. Better than the mouth.

DANCE OF

THE

LEPERS

Who knows whether there could be such a thing? Possibly lepers do not dance, or are unable to. On the other hand, possibly they do. Somebody must know.

In the Dance of the Lepers, the lepers were not real. That is, they did not have leprosy. On the contrary. These lepers were healthy, able-bodied, and young. They were dancers. But they were pretending to be lepers, and since I always believe in surfaces, I believed that they were real.

The pretended, real dance of the lepers took place on a stage. It was Christmas up there. The music was quick, with nasal horns and light-fingered drums. People in medieval costumes whirled about. Muscular beggars were there, slender maidens in pointed caps with trailing veils, a stately prince, a voluptuous Gypsy, a witty fool. Everything you might require. Daydream ingredients. Takeout romance.

Then the lights dimmed and the music slowed, and the lepers entered. There were five of them; they held on to one another, to various parts of their various bodies, because they could not see. They were dressed in white strips of cloth wound round and round them, around their bodies and also around their hands and heads. They had no faces, only this blunt cloth.

They looked like animated mummies from an old horror film. They looked like living bedsheets. They looked like war casualties. They looked like cocoons. They looked like people you once knew very well, whose names you've forgotten. They looked like your own face in the steam-covered mirror after a bath, your own face temporarily nameless. They looked like aphasia. They looked like an ad for bandages. They looked like a bondage photo. They looked erotic. They looked obliterated. They looked like a sad early death.

The music they danced to was filled with the ringing of bells. In fact they carried little bells, little iron bells, or so I seem to remember. That was to warn people: stay away from the lepers. Or: stay away from the dance. Dancing can be dangerous.

What about their dance? There is very little I can tell you about that. One thing is certain: it was not a tap dance. Also: no pirouettes.

It was a dance of supplication, a numb dance, a dance of hopelessness and resignation. Also: a dance of continuation, a dance of going on despite everything, a stubborn dance. An awkward, hampered dance. A fluid, graceful dance. A clumsy, left-footed, infinitely skillful dance. A cynical and disgusted dance, a dance of worship, naive and joyful. A dance.

Ah lepers. If you can dance, even you, why not the rest of us?

GOOD

BONES

1.

You have good bones, they used to say, and I paid no attention. What did I care about good bones, then? I was more concerned with what was covering them. I was more concerned with lust, and pimples. The bones were backdrop.

Now they are growing into their own, those bones. Flesh diminishes, giving way to bedrock. Structural principles. What you need is the right light, to blot out the wrinkles, the incidentals. The right shade, the right amount of sun, and see, out come the bones, the good bones, the bones come out like flowers.

2.

Them bones, them bones, them dry bones, them and their good connections; we sang them over once around the campfire, those gleeful strutters to the Word of the Lord, or to our own hands clapping. Behind each face, each lovely body in its plaid shirt, soft bum on hard granite, I could guess the Halloween skeleton, white and one-dimensional, a chalk bonehead drawn on a blackboard; a zombie, a brief memento mori, dragged out for burning, like a heretic, flanked by the torches of the incandescent marshmallows.

Our voices made short work of them, them bones. Tossed on the bonfire they flared up like butter, and went out and were dismissed. You are my sunshine, we sang, though not to them. We nestled closer, jellifying each other, some of us boneless.

So much for death. So much for death, at that time, there.

3.

This is the cemetery. The good bones are in here, the bad bones are out there, beyond the church wall, beyond the pale, unsanctified.

The bad bones behaved badly, perhaps because of bad blood, bad luck, bad childhoods. Anyway, they did not treat their bodies well. Walked them over cliff edges, jumped them off bell towers. Tried to fly. Broke things.

The good bones lie snug under their tidy monuments. They have been given brooches to wear, signet rings, poems carved on stone, marble urns, citations. Circlets of bright hair. They have been worthy and dutiful, they deserve it. That's what it says here: the last word.

The bad bones have been bad, so they are better left unsaid. They are better left unsaying. But they were never happy, they always wanted more, they were always hungry. They can smell the words, the words coming out of your mouth all warm and yeasty. They want some words of their own. They'll be back.

4.

This is my friend, these are her bones, these ashes we pour out under the tulips. When she fell down on the sidewalk her hipbone shattered. It was hollow in there, eaten away, like a tree with ants. Bone meal.

They put her in the hospital and I went to see her. I'm terrified, she said, but it's sort of interesting. My turds are white, like bird turds. It's calcium. I'm dissolving myself, I'm shitting bones. I guess you can do worse than be fertilizer. Other things can grow.

We are both fond of gardens.

5.

Today I speak to my bones as I would speak to a dog. I want to go up the stairs, I tell them. Up, up, up, with one leg dragging. Is the ache deep in the bones, this elusive pain? Does that mean it will rain? Good bones, good bones, I coax, wondering how to reward them; if they will sit up for me, beg, roll over, do one more trick, once more.

There. We're at the top. Good bones! Good bones! Keep on going.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than thirty books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. Among her recent works are the novels The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and, most recently, the Booker Prize winner The Blind Assassin. She lives in Toronto with the novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter, Jess.





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