Monday, March 11, 2013

Two girls in Canada's great outdoors—a story by Margaret Atwood

Renowned for the grace notes of her prose, Margaret Atwood plucks myriad resonant chords in Death by Landscape, a tale of a tangled memory resolved near the end of a life. No wonder it was at the summit of Byliner's top 10 stories of the week. Here's an excerpt.
Lucy was from the United States, where comic books came from, and the movies. She wasn’t from New York or Hollywood or Buffalo, the only American cities Lois knew of, but from Chicago. Her house was on the lakeshore and had gates to it, and grounds. They had a maid, all of the time. Lois’s family only had a cleaning lady twice a week.
The only reason Lucy was being sent to this camp (she cast a look of minor scorn around the cabin, diminishing it and also offending Lois, while at the same time daunting her) was that her mother had been a camper here. Her mother had been a Canadian once but had married her father, who had a patch over one eye, like a pirate. She showed Lois the picture of him in her wallet. He got the patch in the war. “Shrapnel," said Lucy, offhandedly. Lois, who was unsure about shrapnel, was so impressed she could only grunt. Her own two-eyed, unwounded father was tame by comparison.
“My father plays golf,” she ventured at last.
“Everyone plays golf,” said Lucy. “My mother plays golf.” ….
During the next winter, and subsequent winters, Lucy and Lois wrote to each other. They were both only children, at a time when this was thought to he a disadvantage, so in their letters they pretended to be sisters or even twins. Lois had to strain a little over this, because Lucy was so blond, with translucent skin and large blue eyes like a doll’s, and Lois was nothing out of the ordinary, just a tallish, thinnish, brownish person with freckles. They signed their letters LL, with the L’s entwined together like the monograms on a towel. (Lois and Lucy, thinks Lois. How our names date us. Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend, enterprising female reporter; I Love Lucy. Now we are obsolete, and it's little Jennifers, little Emilys, little Alexandras and Carolines and Tiffanys.)
They were more effusive in their letters than they ever were in person. They bordered their pages with X’s and O’s, but when they met again in the summers it was always a shock. They had changed so much, or Lucy had. It was like watching someone grow up in jolts. At first it would be hard to think up things to say....
Lucy is apathetic about the canoe trip, so Lois has to disguise her own excitement. The evening before they are to leave, she slouches into the campfire ring as if coerced and sits down with a sigh of endurance, just as Lucy does.
Every canoe trip that went out of camp was given a special send-off by Cappie and the section leader and counselors, with the whole section in attendance. Cappie painted three streaks of red across each of her cheeks with a lipstick. They looked like three-fingered claw marks. She put a blue circle on her forehead with fountain-pen ink, tied a twisted bandanna around her head and stuck a row of frazzle-ended feathers around it, and wrapped herself in a red and black Hudson’s Bay blanket. The counselors, also in blankets but with only two streaks of red, beat on tom»toms made of round wooden cheeseboxes with leather stretched over the top and nailed in place. Cappie was Chief Cappeofsota. They all had to say “How!” when she walked into the circle and stood there with one hand raised.
Looking back on this, Lois finds it disquieting. She knows too much about Indians. She knows, for instance, that they should not even be called Indians, and that they have enough worries without other people taking their names and dressing up as them. It has all been a form of stealing. 
But she remembers too that she was once ignorant of this. Once she loved the campfire, the flickering of light on the ring of faces, the sound of the fake tom-toms, heavy and fast like a scared heartbeat; she loved Cappie in a red blanket and feathers, solemn, as a Chief should be, raising her hand and saying, "Greetings, my Ravens." It was not funny, it was not making fun. She wanted to be an Indian. She wanted to be adventurous and pure, and aboriginal.
She can hardly remember, now, having her two boys in the hospital, nursing them as babies; she can hardly remember getting married, or what Rob looked like. Even at the time she never felt she was paying full attention. She was tired a lot, as if she was living not one life but two: her own, and another, shadowy life that hovered around her and would not let itself be realized, the life of what would have happened if Lucy had not stepped sideways and disappeared from time.
She would never go up north, to Rob’s family cottage or to any place with wild lakes and wild trees and the calls of loons. She would never go anywhere near. Still, it was as if she was always listening for another voice, the voice of a person who should have been there but was not. An echo.


  1. A distant thunderclap that sounded when I was a child involved a neighbor lady who went to the beach with 3 children and came back with 2. She was innocent, but the suspicion poisoned her marriage and her life. This story reminded me of her. I never knew what became of her.

    1. How sad & horrible to live with suspicion, on top of the loss.