Spring 2005

Four short pieces

King Log in exile, Post-colonial, Salome was a dancer & Take charge
Author
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. Her most recent novel, “Oryx and Crake” (2003), was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize in Canada. Her other books include the 2000 Booker Prize–winning “The Blind Assassin” (2000), “Alias Grace” (1996), which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, “The Robber Bride” (1993), “Cat's Eye” (1988), and “The Handmaid's Tale” (1985). Her latest collection of nonfiction, “Writing with Intent,” will be published this spring. She has been a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy since 1988.

King Log in exile

After he had been deposed by the frogs, King Log lay disconsolately among the ferns and dead leaves a short distance from the pond. He’d had only enough energy to roll that far: he’d been King of the Pond for so long that he was heavily waterlogged. In the distance he could hear the jubilant croaking and the joyful trilling that signaled the coronation of his celebrated replacement, the experienced and efficient King Stork; and then –it seemed but a mini-second later–the shrieks of terror and the splashes of panic as King Stork set about spearing and gobbling up his new subjects.

King Log–ex-King Log–sighed. It was a squelchy sigh, the sigh of a damp hunk of wood that has been stepped on. What had he done wrong? Nothing. He himself had not murdered his citizens, as the Stork King was now doing. It was true he had done nothing right, either. He had done–in a word–nothing.

But surely his had been a benevolent inertia. As he’d drifted here and there, borne by the sluggish currents of the pond, tadpoles had sheltered beneath him and nibbled the algae that grew on him, and adult frogs had sunbathed on his back. Why then had he been so ignominiously dumped? In a coup d’état orchestrated by foreign powers, it went without saying; though certain factions among the frogs–stirred up by outside agitators–had been denouncing him for some time. They’d said a strong leader was needed. Well, now they had one.

There’d been that minor trade deal, of course. He’d signed it under duress, though nobody’d held a gun to his head, or what passed for his head. And hadn’t it benefited the pond? There had been a sharp upturn in exports, the chief commodity being frogs’ legs. But he himself had never been directly involved. He’d just been a facilitator. He’d tucked his cut of the profits away in a Swiss bank account, just in case.

Now the frogs were blaming him for the depredations of the Stork King. If King Log had been a better king, they were yelling–if he hadn’t let the rot set in–none of this would have happened.

He knew he couldn’t stay in the vicinity of the pond much longer. He must not give in to anomie. Already there were puffballs growing out of him, and under his bark the grubs were at work. He trundled away through the woods, the cries of amphibian anguish receding behind him. Served them right, he thought, sadly and a little bitterly.

King Log has retired to a villa in the Alps, where he is at present sprouting a fine crop of shitake mushrooms and working on his memoirs, one word at a time. Logs write slowly, and log kings more slowly than most. He has engaged a meditation guru who encourages him to visualize himself as a large pencil, but he can only get as far as the eraser.

He misses the old days. He misses the lapping of the water in the breeze, the rustling of the bulrushes. He misses the choruses of praise sung to him by the frogs in the pink light of evening. Nobody sings to him now.

Meanwhile the Stork King has eaten all the frogs and sold the tadpoles into sexual slavery. Now he is draining the pond. Soon it will be turned into desirable residential estates.

 

Post-colonial

We all have them: the building with the dome, late Victorian, solid masonry, stone lions in front of it; the brick houses, three-story, with or without fretwork, wood or painted iron, which now bear the word Historic on tasteful enameled or bronze plaques and can be visited most days except Monday; the roses, big ones, of a variety that were not here before. Before what? Before the ships landed, we all had ships landing; before the men in beaver hats, sailor hats, top hats, hats anyway, got out of the ships; before the native inhabitants shot the men in hats with arrows or befriended them and saved them from starvation, we all had native inhabitants. Arrows or not, it didn’t stop the men in hats, or not for long, and they had flags too, we all had flags, flags that were not the same flags as the flags we have now. The native inhabitants did not have hats or flags, or not as such, and so something had to be done. There are the pictures of the things being done, the before and after pictures you might say, painted by the painters who turned up right on cue, we all had painters. They painted the native inhabitants in their colorful, hatless attire, they painted the men in hats, they painted the wives and children of the man in hats, once they had wives and children, once they had three-story brick houses to put them in. They painted the brave new animals and birds, plentiful then, they painted the landscapes, before and after, and sometimes during, with axes and fire busily at work, you can see some of these paintings in the Historic houses and some of them in the museums.

We go into the museums, where we muse. We muse about the time before, we muse about the something that was done, we muse about the native inhabitants, who had a bad time of it at our hands despite arrows, or, conversely, despite helpfulness. They were ravaged by disease: nobody painted that. Also hunted down, shot, clubbed over the head, robbed, and so forth. We muse about these things and we feel terrible. We did that, we think, to them. We say the word them, believing we know what we mean by it; we say the word we, even though we were not born at the time, even though our parents were not born, even though the ancestors of our ancestors may have come from somewhere else entirely, some place with dubious hats and with a flag quite different from the one that was wafted ashore here, on the wind, on the ill wind that (we also muse) has blown us quite a lot of good. We eat well, the lights go on most of the time, the roof on the whole does not leak, the wheels turn round.

As for them, our capital cities have names made from their names, and so do our brands of beer, and some but not all of the items we fob off on tourists. We make free with the word authentic. We are enamoured of hyphens as well: our word, their word, joined at the hip. Sometimes they turn up in our museums, without hats, in their colorful clothing from before, singing authentic songs, pretending to be themselves. It’s a paying job. But at moments, from time to time, at dusk perhaps, when the moths and the night-blooming flowers come out, our hands smell of blood. Just the odd whiff. We did that, to them.

But who are we now, apart from the question Who are we now? We all share that question. Who are we, now, inside the we corral, the we palisade, the we fortress, and who are they? Is that them, landing in their illicit boats, at night? Is that them, sneaking in here with outlandish hats, with flags we can’t even imagine? Should we befriend them or shoot them with arrows? What are their plans, immediate, long-term, and will these plans of theirs serve us right? It’s a constant worry, this we, this them.

And there you have it, in one word, or possibly two: post-colonial.

.  .  .

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