Doubleday Canada

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Bluebeard's Egg

Bluebeard's Egg

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Worth Repeating

Worth Repeating

A Literary Resurrection
edition:Paperback
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"This is more than an anthology.  It is a resurrection.  The various pieces that follow--essays, articles, bits of history, chapters from out-of-print books, the occasional verse, a stage sketch or two--were written over a period of fifty years.  All have long since been interred in the graveyard of dead manuscripts; gone, yes--but hopefully not forgotten, at least by me."

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Lady Oracle

Lady Oracle

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Cat's Eye
Excerpt

1.  
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once.
 
It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his ravelling maroon sweater to study in and spent a lot of time standing on his head so that the blood would run down into his brain and nourish it. I didn’t understand what he meant, but maybe he didn’t explain it very well. He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
 
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
 
2.
“Stephen says time is not a line,” I say. Cordelia rolls her eyes, as I knew she would.
 
“So?” she says. This answer pleases both of us. It puts the nature of time in its place, and also Stephen, who calls us “the teenagers,” as if he himself is not one.
 
Cordelia and I are riding on the streetcar, going downtown, as we do on winter Saturdays. The streetcar is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool. Cordelia sits with nonchalance, nudging me with her elbow now and then, staring blankly at the other people with her grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal. She can outstare anyone, and I am almost as good. We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen.
 
We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends.
 
On the streetcars there are always old ladies, or we think of them as old. They’re of various kinds. Some are respectably dressed, in tailored Harris tweed coats and matching gloves and tidy no-nonsense hats with small brisk feathers jauntily at one side. Others are poorer and foreign-looking and have dark shawls wound over their heads and around their shoulders. Others are bulgy, dumpy, with clamped self-righteous mouths, their arms festooned with shopping bags; these we associate with sales, with bargain basements. Cordelia can tell cheap cloth at a glance. “Gabardine,” she says. “Ticky-tack.”
 
Then there are the ones who have not resigned themselves, who still try for an effect of glamour. There aren’t many of these, but they stand out. They wear scarlet outfits or purple ones, and dangly earrings, and hats that look like stage props. Their slips show at the bottoms of their skirts, slips of unusual, suggestive colours.
 
Anything other than white is suggestive. They have hair dyed strawblonde or baby-blue, or, even more startling against their papery skins, a lustreless old-fur-coat black. Their lipstick mouths are too big around their mouths, their rouge blotchy, their eyes drawn screw-jiggy around their real eyes. These are the ones most likely to talk to themselves. There’s one who says “mutton, mutton,” over and over again like a song, another who pokes at our legs with her umbrella and says “bare naked.”
 
This is the kind we like best. They have a certain gaiety to them, a power of invention, they don’t care what people think. They have escaped, though what it is they’ve escaped from isn’t clear to us. We think that their bizarre costumes, their verbal tics, are chosen, and that when the time comes we also will be free to choose.
 
“That’s what I’m going to be like,” says Cordelia. “Only I’m going to have a yappy Pekinese, and chase kids off my lawn. I’m going to have a shepherd’s crook.”
 
“I’m going to have a pet iguana,” I say, “and wear nothing but cerise.” It’s a word I have recently learned.
 
Now I think, what if they just couldn’t see what they looked like? Maybe it was as simple as that: eye problems. I’m having that trouble myself now: too close to the mirror and I’m a blur, too far back and I can’t see the details. Who knows what faces I’m making, what kind of modern art I’m drawing onto myself? Even when I’ve got the distance adjusted, I vary. I am transitional; some days I look like a worn-out thirty-five, others like a sprightly fifty. So much depends on the light, and the way you squint.
 
I eat in pink restaurants, which are better for the skin. Yellow ones turn you yellow. I actually spend time thinking about this. Vanity is becoming a nuisance; I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.
 
Lately I’ve caught myself humming out loud, or walking along the street with my mouth slightly open, drooling a little. Only a little; but it may be the thin edge of the wedge, the crack in the wall that will open, later, onto what? What vistas of shining eccentricity, or madness?
 
There is no one I would ever tell this to, except Cordelia. But which Cordelia? The one I have conjured up, the one with the rolltop boots and the turned-up collar, or the one before, or the one after? There is never only one, of anyone.
 
If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good?
 
Probably the latter. I still have that need.
 
I haven’t seen her for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to see her. But now that I’m back here I can hardly walk down a street without a glimpse of her, turning a corner, entering a door. It goes without saying that these fragments of her – a shoulder, beige, camel’s-hair, the side of a face, the back of a leg – belong to women who, seen whole, are not Cordelia.
 
I have no idea what she would look like now. Is she fat, have her breasts sagged, does she have little grey hairs at the corners of her mouth? Unlikely: she would pull them out. Does she wear glasses with fashionable frames, has she had her lids lifted, does she streak or tint? All of these things are possible: we’ve both reached that borderline age, that buffer zone in which it can still be believed such tricks will work if you avoid bright sunlight.
 
I think of Cordelia examining the growing pouches under her eyes, the skin, up close, loosened and crinkled like elbows. She sighs, pats in cream, which is the right kind. Cordelia would know the right kind. She takes stock of her hands, which are shrinking a little, warping a little, as mine are. Gnarling has set in, the withering of the mouth; the outlines of dewlaps are beginning to be visible, down towards the chin, in the dark glass of subway windows. Nobody else notices these things yet, unless they look closely; but Cordelia and I are in the habit of looking closely.
 
She drops the bath towel, which is green, a muted sea-green to match her eyes, looks over her shoulder, sees in the mirror the dog’s-neck folds of skin above the waist, the buttocks drooping like wattles, and, turning, the dried fern of hair. I think of her in a sweatsuit, sea-green as well, working out in some gym or other, sweating like a pig. I know what she would say about this, about all of this. How we giggled, with repugnance and delight, when we found the wax her older sisters used on their legs, congealed in a little pot, stuck full of bristles. The grotesqueries of the body were always of interest to her.
 
I think of encountering her without warning. Perhaps in a worn coat and a knitted hat like a tea cosy, sitting on a curb, with two plastic bags filled with her only possessions, muttering to herself. Cordelia! Don’t you recognize me? I say. And she does, but pretends not to. She gets up and shambles away on swollen feet, old socks poking through the holes in her rubber boots, glancing back over her shoulder.
 
There’s some satisfaction in that, more in worse things. I watch from a window, or a balcony so I can see better, as some man chases Cordelia along the sidewalk below me, catches up with her, punches her in the ribs – I can’t handle the face – throws her down. But I can’t go any farther.
 
Better to switch to an oxygen tent. Cordelia is unconscious. I have been summoned, too late, to her hospital bedside. There are flowers, sickly-smelling, wilting in a vase, tubes going into her arms and nose, the sound of terminal breathing. I hold her hand. Her face is puffy, white, like an unbaked biscuit, with yellowish circles under the closed eyes. Her eyelids don’t flicker but there’s a faint twitching of her fingers, or do I imagine it? I sit there wondering whether to pull the tubes out of her arms, the plug out of the wall. No brain activity, the doctors say. Am I crying? And who would have summoned me?
 
Even better: an iron lung. I’ve never seen an iron lung, but the newspapers had pictures of children in iron lungs, back when people still got polio. These pictures – the iron lung a cylinder, a gigantic sausage roll of metal, with a head sticking out one end of it, always a girl’s head, the hair flowing across the pillow, the eyes large, nocturnal – fascinated me, more than stories about children who went out on thin ice and fell through and were drowned, or children who played on the railroad tracks and had their arms and legs cut off by trains. You could get polio without knowing how or where, end up in an iron lung without knowing why. Something you breathed in or ate, or picked up from the dirty money other people had touched. You never knew.

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Life Before Man
Excerpt

Elizabeth

Friday, October 29, 1976

I don't know how I should live. I don't know how anyone should live. All I know is how I do live. I live like a peeled snail. And that's no way to make money.

I want that shell back, it took me long enough to make. You've got it with you, wherever you are. You were good at removing. I want a shell like a sequined dress, made of silver nickels and dimes and dollars overlapping like the scales of an armadillo. Armored dildo. Impermeable; like a French raincoat.

I wish I didn't have to think about you. You wanted to impress me; well, I'm not impressed, I'm disgusted. That was a disgusting thing to do, childish and stupid. A tantrum, smashing a doll, but what you smashed was your own head, your own body. You wanted to make damn good and sure I'd never be able to turn over in bed again without feeling that body beside me, not there but tangible, like a leg that's been cut off. Gone but the place still hurts. You wanted me to cry, mourn, sit in a rocker with a black-edged handkerchief, bleeding from the eyes. But I'm not crying, I'm angry. I'm so angry I could kill you. If you hadn't already done that for yourself.

Elizabeth is lying on her back, clothes on and unrumpled, shoes placed side by side on the bedside rug, a braided oval bought at Nick Knack's four years ago when she was still interested in home furnishings, guaranteed genuine old lady twisted rags. Arms at her sides, feet together, eyes open. She can see part of the ceiling, that's all. A small crack runs across her field of vision, a smaller crack branching out from it. Nothing will happen, nothing will open, the crack will not widen and split and nothing will come through it. All it means is that the ceiling needs to be repainted, not this year but the next. Elizabeth tries to concentrate on the words "next year," finds she can't.

To the left there is a blur of light; if she turns her head she will see the window, hung with spider plants, the Chinese split-bamboo blind half rolled up. She called the office after lunch and told them she would not be in. She's been doing that too often; she needs her job.

She is not in. She's somewhere between her body, which is lying sedately on the bed, on top of the Indian print spread, tigers and flowers, wearing a black turtleneck pullover, a straight black skirt, a mauve slip, a beige brassiere with a front closing, and a pair of pantyhose, the kind that come in plastic eggs, and the ceiling with its hairline cracks. She can see herself there, a thickening of the air, like albumin. What comes out when you boil an egg and the shell cracks. She knows about the vacuum on the other side of the ceiling, which is not the same as the third floor where the tenants live. Distantly, like tiny thunder, their child is rolling marbles across the floor. Into the black vacuum the air is being sucked with a soft, barely audible whistle. She could be pulled up and into it like smoke.

She can't move her fingers. She thinks about her hands, lying at her sides, rubber gloves: she thinks about forcing the bones and flesh down into those shapes of hands, one finger at a time, like dough.

Through the door, which she's left open an inch out of habit, always on call like the emergency department of a hospital, listening even now for crashes, sounds of breakage, screams, comes the smell of scorching pumpkin. Her children have lighted their jack-o'-lanterns, even though there are still two days before Halloween. And it isn't even dark yet, though the light at the side of her head is fading. They love so much to dress up, to put on masks and costumes and run through the streets, through the dead leaves, to knock on the doors of strangers, holding out their paper bags. What hope. It used to touch her, that excitement, that fierce joy, the planning that would go on for weeks behind the closed door of their room. It used to twist something in her, some key. This year they are remote from her. The soundless glass panel of the hospital nursery where she would stand in her housecoat for each of them in turn, watching the pink mouths open and close, the faces contort.

She can see them, they can see her. They know something is wrong. Their politeness, their evasion, is chilling because it's so perfectly done.

They've been watching me. They've been watching us for years. Why wouldn't they know how to do it? They act as though everything is normal, and maybe for them it is normal. Soon they will want dinner and I will make it. I will lower myself down from this bed and make the dinner, and tomorrow I will see them off to school and then I will go to the office. That is the proper order.

Elizabeth used to cook, very well too. It was at the same time as her interest in rugs. She still cooks, she peels some things and heats others. Some things harden, others become softer; white turns to brown. It goes on. But when she thinks about food she doesn't see the bright colors, red, green, orange, featured in the Gourmet Cookbook. Instead she sees the food as illustrations from those magazine articles that show how much fat there is in your breakfast. Dead white eggs, white strips of bacon, white butter. Chickens, roasts and steaks modeled from bland lard. That's what all food tastes like to her now. Nevertheless she eats, she overeats, weighting herself down.

There's a small knock, a step. Elizabeth moves her eyes down. In the oak-framed oval mirror above the dressing table she can see the door opening, the darkness of the hall behind, Nate's face bobbing like a pale balloon. He comes into the room, breaking the invisible thread she habitually stretches across the threshold to keep him out, and she is able to turn her head. She smiles at him.

"How are you, love?" he says. "I've brought you some tea."

Nate

Friday, October 29, 1976

He doesn't know what "love" means between them any more, though they always say it. For the sake of the children. He can't remember when he started knocking at her door, or when he stopped considering it his door. When they moved the children into one room together and he took the vacant bed. The vacant bed, she called it then. Now she calls it the extra bed.

He sets the cup of tea down on the night table, beside the clock radio that wakes her every morning with cheerful breakfast news. There's an ashtray, no butts; why should there be? She doesn't smoke. Though Chris did.

When Nate slept in this room there were ashes, matches, ringed glasses, pennies from his pockets. They used to save them in a peanut butter jar and buy small gifts with them for each other. Mad money, she called it. Now he still empties the pennies out of his pockets every night; they accumulate like mouse droppings on top of the bureau in his room, his own room. Your own room, she calls it, as if to keep him in there.

She looks up at him, her face leached of color, eyes dark-circled, smile wan. She doesn't have to try; she always tries.

"Thanks, love," she says. "I'll get up in a minute."

"I'll make dinner tonight, if you like," Nate says, wanting to be helpful, and Elizabeth agrees listlessly. Her listlessness, her lack of encouragement, infuriates him, but he says nothing, turns and closes the door softly behind him. He made the gesture and she acts as if it means nothing.

Nate goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and pokes through it. It's like rummaging through a drawer of jumbled clothes. Leftovers in jars, bean sprouts gone bad, spinach in a plastic bag starting to decay, giving off that smell of decomposing lawn. No use expecting Elizabeth to clean it. She used to clean it. She will clean other things these days, but not the refrigerator. He'll tidy it up himself, tomorrow or the next day, when he gets around to it.

Meanwhile he'll have to improvise dinner. It's no large trial, he's often helped with the cooking, but in former times--he thinks of it as the olden days, like a bygone romantic era, like some Disneyland movie about knighthood--there were always supplies. He does most of the grocery shopping himself now, carting a bag or two home in the basket of his bicycle, but he forgets things and gaps are left in the day: no eggs, no toilet paper. Then he has to send the kids to the corner store, where everything is more expensive. Before, before he sold the car, it wasn't such a problem. He took Elizabeth once a week, on Saturdays, and helped her put the cans and frozen packages away when they got home.

Nate picks the dripping spinach out of the vegetable crisper and carries it to the garbage can; it oozes green liquid. He counts the eggs: not enough for omelettes. He'll have to make macaroni and cheese again, which is all right since the kids love it. Elizabeth will not love it but she will eat it, she'll wolf it down absently as if it's the last thing on her mind, smiling like a slowly grilling martyr, staring past him at the wall.

Nate stirs and grates, stirs and grates. An ash drops from his cigarette, missing the pot. It isn't his fault Chris blew his head off with a shotgun. A shotgun: this sums up the kind of extravagance, hysteria, he's always found distasteful in Chris. He himself would have used a pistol. If he were going to do it at all. What gets him is the look she gave him when the call came through: At least he had the guts. At least he was serious. She's never said it of course, but he's sure she compares them, judges him unfavorably because he's still alive. Chickenshit, to be still alive. No balls.

Yet at the same time, still without saying it, he knows she blames him, for the whole thing. If you had only been this or that, done this or that--he doesn't know what--it wouldn't have happened. I wouldn't have been driven, forced, compelled . . . that's her view, that he failed her, and this undefined failure of his turned her into a quivering mass of helpless flesh, ready to attach itself like a suction cup to the first crazy man who ambled along and said, You have nice tits. Or whatever it was Chris did say to get her to open the Love Latch on her brassiere. Probably more like, You have nice ramifications. Chess-players are like that. Nate knows: he used to be one himself. Nate can never figure out why women find chess-playing sexy. Some women.

So for a week now, ever since that night, she's spent the afternoons in there lying on the bed that used to be his, half his, and he's been bringing her cups of tea, one each afternoon. She accepts them with that dying swan took of hers, the took he can't stand and can't resist. It's your fault, darling, but you may bring me cups of tea. Scant atonement. And an aspirin out of the bathroom and a glass of water. Thank you. Now go away somewhere and feel guilty. He's a sucker for it. Like a good boy.

And he was the one, not her, not Elizabeth, who had to go and identify the body. As her stricken eyes said, she could hardly be expected to. So dutifully he had gone. Standing in that apartment where he'd been only twice but where she had been at least once every week for the past two years, fighting nausea, nerving himself to look, he'd felt that she was there in the room with them, a curve in space, a watcher. More so than Chris. No head left at all, to speak of. The headless horseman. But recognizable. Chris's expression had never really been in that heavy flat face of his; not like most people's. It had been in his body. The head had been a troublemaker, which was probably why Chris had chosen to shoot at it instead of at some other part of himself. He wouldn't have wanted to mutilate his body.

A floor, a table, a chess set by the bed, a bed with what they called the trunk and limbs lying on it; Nate's other body, joined to him by that tenuous connection, that hole in space controlled by Elizabeth. Chris had put on a suit and tic, and a white shirt. Nate, thinking of that ceremony--the thick hands knotting the tie, straightening it in the mirror, God, his shoes were shined even--wanted to cry. He put his hands in his jacket pockets; his fingers closed on pennies, the house key.

"Any reason why he left your number on the table?" the second policeman said.

"No," Nate said. "We were friends of his, I guess."

"Both of you?" the first policeman said.

"Yes," said Nate.

Janet comes into the kitchen as he's sliding the casserole dish into the oven.

"What's for dinner?" she asks, adding "Dad," as if to remind him who he is.

Nate finds this question suddenly so mournful that for a moment he can't answer. It's a question from former times, the olden days. His eyes blur. He wants to drop the casserole on the floor and pick her up, hug her, but instead he closes the oven door gently.

"Macaroni and cheese," he says.

"Yum," she says, her voice remote, guarded, giving a careful imitation of pleasure. "With tomato sauce?"

"No," he says, "there wasn't any."

Janet runs her thumb across the kitchen table, squeaking it on the wood. She does this twice. "Is Mum resting?" she says.

"Yes," Nate says. Then, fatuously, "I took her a cup of tea." He puts one hand behind him, against the kitchen counter. They both know what to avoid.

"Well," Janet says in the voice of a small adult, "I'll be seeing you soon." She turns and goes back through the kitchen door.

Nate wants to do something, perform something, smash his hand through the kitchen window. But on the other side of the glass there's a screen. That would neutralize him. Whatever he does now will be absurd. What is smashing a window compared with blowing off your head? Cornered. If she'd planned it, she couldn't have done it better.

Lesje

Friday, October 29, 1976

Lesje is wandering in prehistory. Under a sun more orange than her own has ever been, in the middle of a swampy plain lush with thick-stalked plants and oversized ferns, a group of bony-plated stegosaurs is grazing. Around the edges of this group, protected by its presence but unrelated to it, are a few taller, more delicate camptosaurs. Cautious, nervous, they lift their small heads from time to time, raising themselves on their hind legs to sniff at the air. If there is danger they will give the alarm first. Closer to her, a flock of medium-sized pterosaurs glides from one giant tree-fern to another. Lesje crouches in the topmost frond-cluster of one of these trees, watching through binoculars, blissful, uninvolved. None of the dinosaurs takes the slightest interest in her. If they do happen to see or smell her, they will not notice her. She is something so totally alien to them that they will not be able to focus on her. When the aborigines sighted Captain Cook's ships, they ignored them because they knew such things could not exist. It's the next best thing to being invisible.

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Nothing Sacred

Nothing Sacred

The Multiple Lives And Betrayals of Al Walker
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